The Best Films of 2003
by Craig J. Clark

Well, then. Having spent the last year as a wage slave at Tower Records, I haven't been able to see as many movies as I did last year, but I still racked up an impressive total, so let's get started.

Over the last year I saw 49 films in the theaters. Five of them were originally released in 2002, twelve were festival or repertory screenings (seven of which were part of a terrific Akira Kurosawa-Toshiro Mifune retrospective), and there was one re-release (the uncut version of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1970 caper film Le Cercle Rouge). That leaves 31 films released in 2003, three of which I saw twice. That's only one less than last year. Not bad. Here's how they shake out:

Gerry  [Gus Van Sant] -- Very few films have captured my imagination and held onto it as long as Gerry. The story's simple as can be: Two guys drive out to the desert to go to a "thing" and start walking. On the way to "the thing" they decide to turn back and get hopelessly, irrevocably lost. Much more walking ensues, most of it in complete silence, save for the sound of shoes crunching on sand and Arvo Part's spare, mesmerizing music. Stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck wrote the scenario with Van Sant and they came up with some hilariously sublime dialogue to talk around their ever-worsening situation. It's a beautifully-shot film (it would have to be) and parts of it verge on visual poetry. Probably the greatest shock is this isn't the best film Van Sant had out this year. (See below.)

A Mighty Wind  [Christopher Guest] -- Whenever the world is at its darkest and film comedy seems to be in need of a quick and painless death, a Christopher Guest pseudo-documentary comes along to remind people that it's possible -- maybe even preferable -- to laugh at things other than dick and fart jokes. In April, A Mighty Wind blew in and made everything all better again. Starring just about everybody who's ever appeared in a Christopher Guest film, one of its greatest joys was the Spinal Tap reunion of sorts, with Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer teaming up to portray the Folksmen. Co-writer Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara captured the heart of the film, though, as estranged duo Mitch & Mickey. We've played this film a lot at work and I never get tired of it.

Spellbound  [Jeff Blitz] -- As I wrote in my Half-Time Report, 2003 very quickly became the Year of the Documentary. I could easily fill up half of my list with them, but if I had to pick one to be the standard-bearer, it would have to be Spellbound. For one thing, it was the most suspenseful film of the year -- and the events in the film took place in 1999! For another, it exorcized some demons I've been tormented by ever since I was disqualified from a grade-school spelling bee in what I've long considered to be a unjust manner. If I only knew what awaited me if I ever made it to the state level -- or even beyond -- I would have been happy that the moron reading my disqualifying word couldn't pronounce "chorus" in a recognizable fashion.

Finding Nemo  [Andrew Stanton with Lee Unkrich] -- Every couple of years, Pixar puts out another triumph of animation and storytelling. 2003 was no exception, as Finding Nemo brought the aquatic world to life in all its variety and visual splendor. It also featured the usual caliber of voice talent to match the magic onscreen. Disney could learn a thing or twenty from its junior partner, and I don't mean they should do away with hand-drawn animation as they're on the verge of doing. The reason why Pixar films work so well is because they're all about story and character. It's a little something called writing. The Phil Collins songs just aren't cutting it.

American Splendor  [Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini] -- Harvey Pekar is a cantankerous fellow. He's short, ugly, balding, and -- until recently -- he worked in a dead-end government job in Cleveland, hustling records and writing reviews and articles for peanuts. He's also the author of a pioneering series of autobiographical comics called American Splendor, which spawned this marriage of fact and fiction, documentary and narrative. In it, Pekar is played by the ever-reliable Paul Giamatti, expect when he's being played by himself or one of his cartoon incarnations. It's a stylistic gamble that pays off in many ways, particularly when the actors interact with their real-life counterparts. In a year when Hulk went overboard trying to cram as many frames-within-frames into its transitions, this was the purest representation of a comic book in movie form.

Lost in Translation  [Sofia Coppola] -- A film that perfectly captures the feeling of being alone in an alien culture. And what culture could be more alien to past-his-prime movie star Bill Murray than modern-day Tokyo, where he's making a cool $2 million to endorse a brand of whiskey? Also adrift and feeling abandoned is recent philosophy graduate Scarlett Johansson, who has lots of time to lounge around her hotel room in her underwear while her photographer husband is out on assignment. That the two of them become fast friends is pretty predictable; what they do about it is not. Contemplative and expressionistic, Lost in Translation is a film that lets you put the pieces together, not because it's a puzzle that needs to be worked out, but because it knows that life is all about making connections.

Bubba Ho-Tep  [Don Coscarelli] -- There were bigger and more important films released in 2003, but no film worked its idiosyncratic groove more than Bubba Ho-Tep. As high-concept as a B-movie can get -- what if an aged Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy teamed up to defend their rest home from a soul-sucking Egyptian mummy -- it managed to incorporate three heavily-mined mythologies into its own twisted vision. Written for the screen and directed by Coscarelli -- taking a break between Phantasm sequels -- it starred the incomparable Bruce Campbell as Elvis, who switched places with an impersonator who turned out to have a bad ticker, and Ossie Davis as a black Kennedy, whose claims are a little harder to believe. Of course, the whole thing is a little ludicrous, but that doesn't make it any less entertaining.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1  [Quentin Tarantino] -- A stylistic tour de force that heralds the return of a major talent to the silver screen. In the months leading up to the film's release, I had major reservations about it. In the six years since Jackie Brown, had I outgrown Tarantino's brand of ultraviolence? Had Quentin himself lost his touch? And what the hell was Miramax doing with all this Vol. 1 crap? Well, it turns out I needn't have worried. Tarantino was still very much on form, his dialogue was as sharp as ever, and his loving tribute to the martial arts films of the '70s was entertaining as all get out. Not much plot to get in the way of the story, but I imagine we'll find out more -- much, much more -- when Vol. 2 comes our way in a couple months. I know I'll be first in line when it does.

The Station Agent  [Tom McCarthy] -- Ever since I heard that there was a film starring Peter Dinklage, best known to me as the dwarf who played the irritable Tito in Living in Oblivion, I knew I had to see it. And Tom McCarthy's quiet little film was quite the revelation. Dinklage plays a train enthusiast who inherits an abandoned train station in a backwater New Jersey town and slowly gets drawn into the orbit of a garrulous truck vendor, played by Bobby Canavale, and a grieving artist, played by Patricia Clarkson. The three of them form a lasting bond, but -- as in Lost in Translation -- the road to friendship is a bumpy and difficult one.

Elephant  [Gus Van Sant] -- A fragmented portrait of a typical American high school on the day that two misfits decide to die -- but only after they've taken out as many of their peers as possible first -- Elephant is a chilling companion piece to Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. Over the course of the film, Van Sant's wandering camera has a way of catching his mostly amateur cast at their most vulnerable and honest. The film unfolds slowly, so we don't know who the killers are going to be until they arrive on campus with their bags full of guns and ammunition. We also see certain scenes multiple times from different points of view, which increases the tension as we realize how close some of the characters are to their ultimate fates. It's a bleak portrait, but an unflinching one, and another film that will stay with me for years to come. I hereby nominate Gus Van Sant for Bravest American Filmmaker of the Year.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King  [Peter Jackson] -- Hands up all those who are surprised by this film's inclusion here. No hands? I didn't think so. Peter Jackson wraps up his massive undertaking in a supremely satisfying fashion, despite the fact that he had to sacrifice Christopher Lee's scenes in order to bring it in until three and a quarter hours (not counting the nine minutes of credits). I've seen this twice -- on opening day and again two weeks later -- and it only gets richer with each viewing. Now give it Best Picture and let Jackson get on with his King Kong remake already.

And there you have it -- eleven films that I'd like to think will stand the test of time, or at least bring a smile to my face whenever I think about them. Now for the honorable mentions: the bevy of wonderful documentaries, including Lost in La Mancha, Winged Migration, Capturing the Friendmans, Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) and Cinemania, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (a gritty zombie flick with genuine scares and likeable heroes), Richard Kwietniowski's Owning Mahowny (a gambling film that gets inside the gambler for once), Alan Rudolph's The Secret Lives of Dentists (a stinging depiction of a disintegrating marriage), Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (adventure on the high seas with brains to match the brawn), Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa (quite possibly the only film that made me laugh more than A Mighty Wind) and Tim Burton's Big Fish (a winning fable that shows it isn't the story that matters, it's in the telling).

And now, for the one you've all been waiting for. The award for The Most Unnecessary and Downright Repugant Remake and/or Sequel goes to... The Texas Chainsaw Massacre! Congratulations! Now, don't do it again.

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