The Year in Film, 2003
Half-Time Report

by Craig J. Clark

Well, here we are, halfway through 2003, and here I am, ready to talk about the films I've seen so far this year. I realize that I usually wait until the end of the year -- when all of the mainstream critics weigh in with their top ten lists and such -- but I am not a mainstream critic and I can do whatever the hell I want. So there.

So far I have seen 26 films, only nine of which were actually released this year. This in itself is not unusual, but the fact that four of them are documentaries -- and that they rank among the best films I've seen in recent years -- is. But before I get to them...


2002 RELEASES

I started the year the way I normally do, catching up on releases from the previous year just making it to my area. In quick succession I saw Roman Polanski's The Pianist, Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can and George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I exclude such films from my year-end tally, but it's always good to have something to root for at Oscar time. (The Pianist's three big wins in this regard were more gratifying.)

I saw all of these films in January, as is my custom, but there's almost always a straggler that the studios hold back for some reason or another. This year's straggler was David Cronenberg's Spider, which didn't show up in my locality until March. I'm a big Cronenberg fan, but this film left me a little cold. Maybe I'll warm up to it on DVD (due out at the end of this month, a mere two weeks before my birthday, hint hint).


FESTIVAL AND REPERTORY SCREENINGS

The repertory season started off with a bang with a ten-film Akira Kurosawa-Toshiro Mifune festival at the Prince Music Theater. That took up the rest of my January and a good portion of my February. Films like Seven Samurai [1954], Sanjuro [1962], High and Low [1963], Drunken Angel [1948], Red Beard [1965], Stray Dog [1949] and Rashomon [1950] were made to be seen on the big screen. Sure, not all of them are perfect (the earlier ones are a little rough around the edges), but I jump at any chance to see a Kurosawa film. (And yes, I'm aware that that's only seven. The three that I skipped were Yojimbo, Throne of Blood and The Hidden Fortress -- all of which I had seen before. Not a great excuse, but it's the one I'm sticking with.)

The end of March brought a pair of foreign films courtesy of the Chestnut Hill Film Group, both of them made in 1963. The first was Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive, a mesmerizing Spanish film that was recommended to me way back in November. The second was Ingmar Bergman's The Silence, which Woody Allen must have adored when it was first out.

April brought the rechristened Philadelphia Film Festival and a pair of horror films -- one outrageously gory, the other atmospheric and creepy. Brian Yunza's Beyond Re-Animator, which was made in Spain but otherwise has nothing else in common with The Spirit of the Beehive, was a grisly delight, with Jeffrey Combs once again throwing himself headlong into the role of Dr. Herbert West. I've never seen 1990's Bride of Re-Animator, but surprisingly this was no impediment to my enjoyment of this film.

My other festival find was 2002's Dark Water, directed by Hideo Nakata, who also did Ringu, the original Japanese version of The Ring. Thanks to those two films and Chaos, which I recently caught on DVD, Nakata is now one of my favourite suspense/horror film directors. He tells complex, interesting stories with fully-realized characters and knows how to create images that creep under your skin and stay there. Definitely a talent to watch.

Most recently (that is, just last week), I caught the re-release of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1970 film Le Cercle Rouge. Now I've got to see more Jean-Pierre Melville films.


AND THE REST

Not to make the current year's crop of films seem like an afterthought, but the first half of any given year is usually underwhelming -- and that trend looks to continue through the summer, and possibly into the fall. Frankly, very few studio films have even piqued my interest, and the glut of downright unnecessary sequels of late hasn't helped matters.

There were some, mostly low-budget, offerings that enticed me out of my apartment, though, and the first was February's Lost in La Mancha, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's heartbreaking documentary about the collapse of Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote during the first week of filming in Spain. The few shots that Gilliam managed to get in the can are so enticing, though, that one can only hope he's able to refinance the project and get the damn thing made.

Next up in March was Gus Van Sant's Gerry, a kind of endurance test of a film, but one that I was more than up to. The only other film that is as likely to alienate and divide audiences this year is Van Sant's own Elephant, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Can't wait for that one.

The end of April brought A Mighty Wind, which blew in and made me laugh longer and harder than any other film in recent memory. Christopher Guest and company have the pseudo-documentary form down and I, for one, can't wait to see the deleted scenes when it comes to DVD. Nifty soundtrack, too.

Remarkably, the only film I saw in May was Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, which took the premise of his debut In the Company of Men and turned it on its head...sort of. After last year's Possession, which will probably always look out of place in his filmography, it was good to see LaBute return to more familiar territory, but one wishes he had had more to say than just, "Hey, women can be manipulative and nasty, too, you know."

At last we come to June, which brought a trio of brilliant documentaries. First was Jeff Blitz's Oscar-nominated Spellbound, which made a spelling bee into the most suspenseful and nerve-wracking event of the summer. It was also extremely funny, which helps.

In front of Spellbound I saw the trailer for Winged Migration, which became an immediate must-see. Directed by Jacques Perrin, this film was also up for the Best Documentary Oscar which went to Bowling for Columbine. (I didn't see the other two films in competition, but it must have been fierce.)

The last documentary was Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans, which combined contemporary interviews with home movies to tell the story of one family's implosion after the father and youngest son are brought up on charges of child molestation in the late '80s. It won't renew your faith in the American legal system, but it will show you how elusive the truth can sometimes be.

In between these films I caught my first blockbuster -- Pixar's latest marvel, Finding Nemo, which continued their trend of constantly one-upping themselves. And I still have to go back and see it again so I can catch all the dialogue I missed because I was laughing so hard (usually at Dory's dotty non sequiturs).

The other big budget film I consented to see was Ang Lee's much-anticipated Hulk, which kept me entertained, if not enthralled. The main thing I got out of the screening was noting during the 20 minutes of trailers which films I was most definitely not going to be seeing in the second half of the year.

It's still a toss-up whether Pirates of the Caribbean or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is going to be biggest train wreck of the summer. I may still see the latter because I've read the graphic novel, but the commercials are looking more and more desperate now that they're no longer identifying Sean Connery as Allan Quatermain. And an undead pirate movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and based on a Disney ride? Methinks I shall pass, matey.

I'm also passing on pretty much all of the sequels being thrown at us over the next couple of months, starting with T3 and Legally Blonde 2, both out tomorrow. It's going to be a long, hot summer, people.

Of course, also arriving tomorrow -- for a one-week engagement at the Prince Music Theater -- is Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), a film about They Might Be Giants. Yes, it's a documentary to the rescue! I knew all was not lost.



Also available for your reading pleasure: The Best Films of 2001 and 2002.