When I compiled my year-end survey in 2002, I bemoaned what I considered to be an off-year. Now that I’m looking over 2003, I think I might have been unfair to 2002. My problem last year was that there were so many heavily hyped, adventuresome films that turned out to be disappointing to me: Gangs of New York, Adaptation, Far From Heaven, Solaris, and Talk to Her–to name just a few. But despite my disappointment at the relative shortcomings of those films, last year also produced such films as The Pianist, The Piano Teacher, Spirited Away and Fast Runner, which all seem strong compared to this year’s crop. (Consequently, I’m starting to think I’m afflicted by perpetual nostalgia.) However, 2003 did see a very welcome development: the much noted explosion of popular documentary filmmaking. Appropriately enough, I’m going with one of them for my favorite film of the year.

Ten Best of the Year
1. Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, USA). An endlessly fascinating and appalling documentary, this story of the downfall of an ordinary suburban family was the best documentary in a year that had many suberb ones. There’s a certain strategic withholding of information–like Michael Moore, director Jarecki is unafraid to take liberties in the service of entertainment–but the result is something like a documentary counterpart to Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s imperishable foray into the relativity of truth.

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, USA). After a summer spent watching old David Lean movies (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai) I was ready for a well-made epic film in which I could lose myself for three hours. This film was it.

3. Winged Migration (Jacques Cluzaud, France). Not everyone was blown away by this head-trip of a documentary, but I sure was. Birds flying, birds landing, birds being born and birds dying. No other movie this year made me marvel so much at the miracles of life on this planet, nor mourn so much at its arbitrary cruelties.

4. The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, France). This Dardennes brothers film was, for those of us with a fondness for old-school European filmmaking, the kind produced by the likes of Dreyer, Bresson and a whole generation of Italian neo-realists. These films were set among the working classes and offered grueling excursions into extreme, even excruciating meditations on sin and forgiveness, crime and punishment. The Son was claustrophobic, to be sure, but it was stunning in its sublimity.

5. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, USA). Van Sant’s latest, scheduled for a January release locally, is a gorgeous, yet dreadfully foreboding excursion in an ordinary high school lunch hour. The effect is hypnotic, even though we’re bracing for the two kids who will come to school armed to the teeth. As an aesthetic enterprise, this film is sensational; however, some viewers will be troubled by a slight whiff of exploitation, not to mention Van Sant’s lack of interest in explicating the horror.

6. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitzer, USA). Cute, charming, inspiring and utterly gripping, this spelling bee documentary was an enormous crowd-pleaser. However, the filmmakers engaged in a little sleight of hand with the audience–although it appears that the filmmakers were lucky in their choices of subjects, much of the background footage was in fact shot after the spelling bee. Still, the bright and articulate children–many of whom are immigrants and perpetual underdogs–are the stars of the show.

7. American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, USA). A bookish guy who collects records and spends 40 years working as a file clerk? In the hands of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the life story of comic book artist Harvey Pekar becomes a testament to perserverance and the valuable asset called friends. Although it’s a little pat and sentimental by the end, this film also suggests possibilities for merging the thus far-segregated forms of documentary and feature filmmaking.

8. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, USA). I’ve had trouble eating fish since I caught this world-wide smash on video recently. The eye-popping art direction is the work of loving, dedicated and inventive artists, thus making this my second favorite commercial release of the year.

9. The Girl from Paris (Christian Carion, France). A story about an ordinary young Frenchwoman who becomes a farmer, this was one of the most surprising sleeper hits of the year. I’m not sure I know anyone who’s seen it, but it played in the Triangle for two months, so this low-key, John Sayles-style drama obviously found a well-deserved audience.

10. Chaos (Coline Serreau, France). I wish more people had caught this French digital video comedy-drama. Like the slicker Dirty Pretty Things, Chaos explores the ways in which the lives of the wealthy and the poor, the natives and the immigrants, are intertwined. It was cheaply made and sometimes the worse for it, but there was an audacity to the genre-hopping storytelling that recalled the early work of Almodovar.

Honorable Mentions: Dirty Pretty Things, Shattered Glass, Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, Holy Land, Sylvia, Master and Commander, Big Fish, Cold Mountain, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, All the Real Girls, The School of Rock, Seabiscuit, Swimming Pool, Owning Mahowney, Dark Blue, Stone Reader, Open Hearts, Willard, Lilya 4-ever, A Mighty Wind, L’Auberge Espagnole, 28 Days Later, Tupac: Resurrection, Masked and Anonymous, Lost in Translation, The Man on the Train, The Housekeeper, Divine Intervention, The Magdalene Sisters.

The 10 Worst Films of the Year

As always, this sort of list is a little arbitrary since I made a point last year of missing at least 50 movies that could well be worse than anything I’ve got on offer below. Hence, I didn’t see either Matrix film, nor did I see Bad Boys II or Terminator 3, or even the most ridiculed movie of the year, Gigli. Anyway, here goes:

1. Secondhand Lions (Tim McCanlies, USA). No movie this year made me angrier at the waste of celluloid and my time than this noxious turd in which Robert Duvall and Michael Caine play a couple of crusty, shotgun-wielding geezers who must learn to love Haley Joel Osment.

2. In the Cut (Jane Campion, USA). This femme-centric thriller was a major misfire from Jane Campion and a failed comeback bid for Meg Ryan. The genre format just couldn’t accomodate a serious treatment of psychosexual pathology, and the key device of the cop who shares the sexual tastes of the serial killer is the oldest one in the book. And besides, visually the film was ugly, ugly, ugly.

3. Uptown Girls (Boaz Yakin, USA). Two years ago, I discovered Brittanny Murphy and wrote a column praising her performance in two mediocre movies. Although she went on to a strong performance in 8 Mile last year, 2003 saw her in such dreck as Uptown Girls, Spun (see below) and the scarcely better Just Married. It’s time for her to change agents, and to start eating again while she’s at it.

4. Wonderland (James Cox,USA). Val Kilmer plays a disoriented, disheveled and uninteresting drug addict who gets involved with a gang of murderous thugs. Oh, and his name is John Holmes, former porn star. Where’s the beef?

5. The Life of David Gale (Alan Parker, USA). Kevin Spacey plays Jesus C– oops, David Gale, disgraced law professor and anti-death penalty activist, whose bid for martyrdom is as novel as it is ridiculous. Perhaps the most thoroughly inane “issue” movie of all time.

6. Bringing Down the House (Adam Shankman, USA). If this fish-out-of-water comedy had starred semi-talented Saturday Night Live alums, it would have been merely stupid and forgettable. But, certain people by the names of Steve Martin, Eugene Levy, Joan Plowright and Queen Latifah contributed their talents to this crude, stereotype-perpetuating dud–which is why I’ve remembered it for this list.

7. Spun (Jonas Akerlund, USA). Akerlund’s tale of young American junkies was a spastic and revoltingly smug knock-off of Trainspotting. Only saving grace: Billy Corgan’s aching, lovely score–performed for a losing cause.

8. Love the Hard Way (Peter Sehr, USA). This Adrien Brody vehicle was made before The Pianist, and Brody’s presence is the only reason this tepid and fatuous indie dickswinger saw the light of day.

9. Love, Liza (Todd Louiso, USA). Phillip Seymour Hoffman does a cheerful bellyflop as a shlump who takes to gas-huffing and model airplanes after his wife’s suicide.

10. Something’s Gotta Give (Nancy Meyers, USA). Critics split on this comedy of middle-aged romance and I’m among those that found it flatfooted and unfunny. One big problem is Jack Nicholson who, in addition to being repulsive, also seems bogged down by drink, Qaaludes, or something stronger. EndBlock