Movies Of The Year: 2003

Wow, this was a dreadful year for movies. I only saw 26 of them, and only 20 are any good, with only one great movie in the bunch. I hope there are a bunch of gems I haven’t seen.

26. American Wedding
25. Matrix Revolutions
24. Daredevil
23. Intolerable Cruelty
22. A Mighty Wind
21. Underworld
20. Angels In America
19. Shattered Glass
18. Old School
17. Matrix Reloaded
16. A Decade Under The Influence

15. Masked And Anonymous – Bob Dylan stars in this weird film he co-wrote along with Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage) as a singer who gets released from prison to perform at a benefit concert. The movie doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, there’s a bunch of famous actors giving mostly interesting little performances in bit parts: Jeff bridges, Val Kilmer, Mickey Rourke, Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, John Goodman, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Ed Harris, Cheech Marin, Chris Penn (RIP), Giovanni Ribisi, Christian Slater, Fred Ward, and Jessica Lange. The whole film plays as one of dylan’s old weird character-filled songs, like Desolation Row or Stuck Inside of Mobile. It’s isn’t nearly as good as those songs, of course, but it’s generally fun to watch. The musical parts of the movie are the best part, the soundtracks mostly made up of Dylan covers from around the world, though he gets the band together to do a few numbers himself, including a great version of Dixie. For Dylan fans only, most likely.

14. The Animatrix – A series of short films that take place in-between thee Matrix and it’s two sequels. Much like the animated shorts that accompanied the Star Wars prequels, they end up being better than the very expensive films they’re supposed to supplement. Not all of the shorts are great, but most of them are pretty good.

13. Pirates Of The Carribean – Very overrated, yet still pretty fun movie based on a theme park ride. Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush have a lot of fun hamming it up as the Pirates, Keira Knightley does a good job of looking pretty and Orlando Bloom. . .well, he’s pretty too I guess, not much of an actor though. This movie was a huge hit, largely because everything else that summer was even worse. Director Gore Verbinski is also responsible for The Ring, The Mexican and the classic Mousehunt.

12. X-Men 2 – Much the same as the first one, and the two Spider-Man movies, it’s a good action movie that is nonetheless lacking in soul, or anything particularly memorable. Perhaps the whole anti-mutant frenzy as an analogy for racism or whatever would be more interesting if i hadn’t already read it in the comic book 20 years ago. Still, it’s a well-done and competent film, maybe a little better than the first one, though they tend to run together in my memory.

11. Gods And Generals – The second film of the big Civil War Trilogy that’s actually the first third of the story, with Gettysburg (#22, 1993) being the middle part. It’s not as good as Gettysburg, largely because it spends too much tme of the God part: trying to demonstrate who religious the Southern generals were, attempting to make the case that they really were good people, something I could almost believe if these same people hadn’t done everything they could to kill thousands of people in the name of preserving their right to enslave black people. The film depicts Lee and Jackson and the other Generals as essentially good people who made a decision based on loyalty to their home state over their own sense of morality (Lee and Jackson both have black friends, IIRC), but it doesn’t condemn them for it, the film seems to think that they made a reasonably moral decision, which is false. Aside from that, the historical recreations and battle scenes are all outstanding.

10. Lost In Translation – Seriously overrated movie, presumably by people who’ve never seen a movie about alienation before. Bill Murray continues his late career run of disaffected middle-aged man roles, except Sofia Coppola’s nowhere near as interesting a director as Wes Anderson or Jim Jarmusch. The movie’s actually pretty good until the last 20 minutes or so, when Coppola cops out and turns the movie into some kind of tragic romance. It’s not so much that the romance is lame, as that it’s the cheap way out of the movie. And there’s the annoying “Sofia Coppola hates Cameron Diaz” character that’s more axe-grinding than trying to make a good movie.

9. Down With Love – Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor star in this homage to/parody of the Doris Day sex comedies of the early 60s. McGregor plays the womanizing jouranlist trying to woo the author Zellweger in an attempt to disprove the thesis of her hit feminist abti-love advice book. Schemes and antics abound. It’s shot with a lot of style, pastel technicolors, witty split screens and so on, and the cast (which also includes David Hyde Pierce and Rachel Dratch) is great at the screwball comedy dialogue.

8. The Fog Of War – Errol Morris is by far the best documentarian working today, even if he has only the smallest fraction of the hype Michael Moore gets. This isn’t my favorite of his films, I prefer The Thin Blue Line (#16, 1988), A Brief History Of Time (#19, 1991), and Fast, Cheap And Out Of Control (#18, 1997), but it’s that kind of year. The film essentially a long interview with Robert McNamera, as Morris pretty much lets him talk and talk in an attempt to justify himself and his actions throughout World War 2, the Cold War and Vietnam. It’s the moments when Morris interrupts him and starts questioning him, and sounding pretty angry that are so striking. Morris usually just lets his subjects speak for themselves, so when he does speak up, you know it must be important. Still, the degree Morris allows McNamera to make his own case is what makes this a much better documentary than Eugene Jarecki’s The Trials Of Henry Kissinger (#23, 2002), which exists only to indict its subject.

7. School Of Rock – One of the benefits of not paying attention to contemporary music for most of the late 90s and early 2000s was that I managed to not get burnt out on Jack Black before this movie came out. Black’s terrifically funny, and his obvious love for classic rock music is infectious as he plays a very annoying, but very enthusiastic wannabe rock star who ends up teaching a class of prep school kids to appreciate the wonders of Led Zeppelin, Rush and AC/DC. The moviee also stars Joan Cusak, Mike White and the great Sarah Silverman. Director Richard Linklater’s building an odd career for himself, much like Robert Rodriguez, he seems to be alternating art movies and family films, only with less success on both sides of the spectrum.

6. Hulk – Halfway between a regular Ang Lee movie (dysfunctional families, lots of slow drama) and a modern comic book movie (the Spider-Man and X-Men movies), most people hated this film. The Ang Lee fans hated the comic book elements, the comic book fans hated the complexity of character and slow pace. Few of us, though, like both Ang Lee and comic books. It’s easily the best of the recent comic adaptations, and is potentially surpassed only by this year’s Sin City in the inventiveness of it’s translation of comic to film. Eric Bana is very good in the lead role, and Jennifer Connelly is, well, Jennifer Connelly. Nick Nolte’s a bit too over the top as the evil father, though.

5. Once Upon A Time In Mexico – The third part of Robert Rodriguez’s Mariachi Trilogy is a lot more Once Upon A Time In China than Once Upon A Time In America (or The West) in that is purely an action movie and not a Leone-esque epic statement about, well, anything. On that level, it works extremely well, though not as much as some of the great action movies of the decade or so, but again, this is a pretty bad year. This is easily the biggest of the Mariachi films (El Mariachi, #17, 1992; Desperado, #18, 1995) and is probably the best, though that’s a real tough call. It’s got a great, very funny supporting performance by Johnny Depp and good performances by Mickey Rourke and Ruben Blades, among others. There’s far too little Salma Hayek though.

4. Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior – Now here’s a great action movie. An homage/return/copy of the old, lower budget Hong Kong action movie of the late 80s and early 90s, Tony Jaa stars as the small town kid sent to the big city to recover his villages Buddha, which has been stolen by evil bad guys. Fortunately, Jaa also happens to be a badass Muay Thai expert (this appears to be a martial art that relies a lot on hitting people very hard with your elbows). he meets up with some exvillagers who help things out by functioning as comic relief and bystanders for Jaa to rescue, he takes on an increasingly large segment of the Thai underworld, and performs some spectacular stunts. One of the cool things about the movie (though not necessarily original) is that after he does something really cool, the film will instant replay it in slow motion and from various camera angles. Since spectacle is what these types of films are all about, from Buster Keaton to Jacques Tati to Jackie Chan, it’s cool to see these stunts treated as the athletic feats they truly are.

3. Return Of The King – But for those lame hobbits bouncing on the bed in slow motion, this would be a great movie. Once again, I’m split between loving everything about the Aragorn storyline (the ghost army, the huge final battle scene, the resolution of the Liv Tyler issues) and getting really annoyed with the Frodo story (more Sean Astin speechifying, leaving the Shire untouched, the interminable ending). This is my least favorite of the three movie, though there’s a whole lot to like about it. The trilogy taken as a whole is certainly the most significant work this decade thus far, as popular entertainment goes, it doesn’t get a whole lot better.

2. Master And Commander – It was always going to be hard for me to like this film, since long before it was announced, I’d read all twenty of Patrick O’Brien’s Master And Commander books and really loved them. Russelll Crowe is certainy not the Jack Aubrey I’d imagined, but nevertheless, he does a very good job. Paul Bettany makes a pretty good Stephen Maturin, though they made some annoying changes to his character: in the books, Maturin’s a former Irish Revolutionary and works as a spy against Napoleon for the British government and for the Catalan Independence movement. He’s certainly not the anti-violence audience surrogate the film makes him out to be. Sure, I understand the necessity of having someone the audience can identify with around to explain the alien world of the British Navy, but Maturin manages to perform that function quite well in the books without being a pacifist. I also would have preferred it if they had just made a film of the first book, instead of mixing up a whole bunch of them into something with such a ridiculously long title. My favorite Russell Crowe movie, and my favorite Peter Weir movie.

1. Kill Bill Vol. 1 – There’s not a single year thus far that has a bigger gap between my #1 and #2 movies of the year. That’s a reflection of both how good Kill Bill is and how bad a year 2003 was (and maybe of how few movies I’ve seen from this year). I wrote a long post about this movie early in the life of this blog, back when I occasionally got comments. You can read it here. My opinion hasn’t changed in the last few months. Here’s most of it “it’s the economy of the script that really stands out to me. The way Tarantino can create wholly unique, interesting and memorable characters with just a few lines of dialogue is amazing. For a film with so little dialogue, there are a remarkable number of fascinating characters in Kill Bill: Hattori Hanzo, GoGo Yubari, O-Ren Ishii, Buck, The Sherriff, not to mention The Bride herself.
“And there’s more: terrific acting by Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, and, especially, Sonny Chiba, the best use of music of any Tarantino film, and any film at all since Boogie Nights, the great, long steadycam tracking shot setting the scene for the House of The Blue Leaves sequence, the absurd, yet beautiful, snowscape for the final battle between The Bride and O-Ren, the audacity of putting a long (violent) anime sequence right in the middle of the film, and on and on.
“There isn’t a filmmaker alive who loves movies more than Quentin Tarantino, and that shows in every frame of this movie. It’s a movie for people who love movies by people who love movies. It isn’t surprising, then, that film geeks tend to like it a lot more than normal people.”

Like I’ve been saying, there’s a lot of movies that’d make this list that I just haven’t seen from this year. Oldboy’s near the top of my Netflix queue, and someday I intend to watch some Hou Hsao-hsien movies (like Café Lumière) (Jonathon Rosenbaum digs him, and he is my favorite film critic) and Coffee and Cigarettes is the only available Jarmusch movie I haven’t seen.

Cafe Lumiere
The Dreamers
Festival Express
Coffee And Cigarettes
Open Water
American Splendor
The Triplets Of Belleville
The Cooler
The Corporation
The Last Samurai
Finding Nemo
Terminator 3
Mystic River
21 Grams
Cold Mountain
Bad Boys 2
Bad Santa
Open Range
Capturing The Friedmans
The Station Agent
The Italian Job
Anything Else
The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill
The Missing
The Company

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