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The Year in Pictures

Documentaries bloomed and DVDs brought more options than ever to the small screen. These were the top ten movies of 2003.

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Last month while finishing a list of my 1,000 favorite films for a forthcoming collection, I was shocked to discover I'd forgotten to include Alain Resnais' Night and Fog. If I'd been working on the list a few days later, when I attended a press show of the soon to be rereleased The Battle of Algiers (1965), which I hadn't seen in decades, I probably would have included that as well. In my 20s I thought the film was important for its radicalism; today I find it impressive for its evenhandedness. Some films continue deepening long after we first see them, partly because shifting contexts enlarge our understanding of them, partly because our perceptions are altered by those of other viewers: over the past couple of months a few people have persuaded me that I underestimated Clint Eastwood's capacity to criticize his own characters in Mystic River (though that didn't plant the film on my ten-best list). Some movies are diminished by time or by comparison. I'm a big fan of Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary and Cowards Bend the Knee, but neither one made my list because I like his The Saddest Music in the World (which hasn't shown here yet) even better.

Ten-best lists allow critics and other moviegoers to reflect on what they've seen in a given year, though lists often seem intended to help market a limited number of already overadvertised films. "Best" usually stands for the best of those everyone's already heard about. (I should note that I didn't consider, among others, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, or Something's Gotta Give for my list because I haven't seen them.)

Lots of industry hype doesn't guarantee a movie will be included on ten-best lists. The Cat in the Hat's cat is being used in advertisements found everywhere from Borders to the post office--a sinister omnipresence that almost feels like official state art--and the film has made tons of money. But everyone I know who's seen it despises it, so I don't expect to find it on many lists. When I spoke to Theodor Geisel about The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953) a quarter of a century ago he told me he was so unhappy working on it that he would never again write for film, though he would write for television, where he had more creative control. Now he's dead, and the executors of his estate obviously don't share his compunctions.

21 Grams, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's hyperbolically grim art movie, has been receiving an inordinate amount of mainstream exposure, apparently because of its cast--Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro--and because of its huge advertising budget. In an offscreen speech at the end of the film Penn says, "They say we all lose 21 grams at the exact moment of our death . . . everyone. The weight of a stack of nickels. The weight of a chocolate bar. The weight of a hummingbird." Many critics have pointed out that this pseudopoetic claptrap isn't true. But that didn't prevent Focus Features from sending journalists, on consecutive days, express packages containing a stack of five nickels, a chocolate bar inside a wrapper advertising 21 Grams, and a made-in-China hummingbird. I doubt many critics were persuaded to have a better opinion of this difficult and unpleasant film by this obscenely stupid advertising scheme. The Jesus freak played by Del Toro gave me a few things to ponder, but I was much more spooked by those three packages--what they must have cost and what they were trying to do to my head.

There doesn't seem to be any limit to what promotions departments will try or any evidence that they care whether they succeed. Dreamworks hawked Peter Ho-Sun Chan's 1999 The Love Letter by sending anonymous love letters to critics. Each appeared to be written on an old-fashioned typewriter with a faded ribbon, and I'm ashamed to confess that I was fooled into thinking it was a real letter until I saw the same letter on-screen. I'm sure Dreamworks' publicity department wouldn't have cared that I was furious at being manipulated, especially because I wound up liking the film anyway.

If my job consisted of seeing only films like The Cat in the Hat, 21 Grams, and The Love Letter I would, in effect, be working for the studios, and my ten-best list would be something like the Oscars--basically high-priced items and a few independents thrown in for appearances. Relatively few American film "journalists" are paid directly by the studios, in the form of junkets and free airfare, hotel rooms, and meals in exchange for carefully monitored promo pieces (which are then delivered to us as "news" by reputable as well as disreputable publications). But traditionally nearly all critics have been sent end-of-the-year bonuses in the form of "screeners"--videos or DVDs of ten-best-list contenders that arrive in the mail in November and December. Some of us have regarded these perks as status symbols; some see them as closer to tips than payoffs, a demonstration of the industry's respect for us as honest shills, as members of a hardworking community of publicists. But a few months ago the MPAA outlawed screeners for the press, arguing that they contributed to piracy. Small studios successfully challenged the decision in court, saying it discriminated against them because they depend on screeners to make their films better known. The MPAA's decision had set off a frenetic debate among film critics, who fired off e-mail protests, held meetings, and circulated petitions; some of them seemed to be waking from a protracted reverie, as if they'd never quite recognized the studios' contempt for them. While studios seem to be spending more and more on promotional gimmicks, they seem less and less interested in imparting basic information about the films to reviewers. It may only be a matter of time before they start charging critics for detailed production information, just as they already charge audiences for some of their promotional posters and T-shirts.

I suspect that the most meaningful film watching in this country in 2003 was done at home, by viewers who went out of their way to select videos and DVDs from a much wider pool than the latest releases. Only people who made a comparable effort saw some of the lower-profile items on my ten-best list. Of course many people were still expected to show up at the official trough, where they were fed whatever the industry had selected for them. There is one sign that the studios are a little worried that audiences aren't being as docile as they would like: Miramax and its parent company Disney are now just as aggressive about preventing our seeing some movies as in pushing others. It's estimated that Miramax owns the North American rights to at least 56 contemporary Asian films, only 21 of which it's bothered to release in any form, usually after recutting or otherwise altering them. When a Web site that doesn't sell movies, Kung Fu Cinema, recently provided links to sites where Americans and Canadians could order Zhang Yimou's Hero from overseas, Miramax slapped it with a cease and desist order. Apparently one shouldn't even think of seeing movies the company doesn't want to release. Fans of Asian films--like the extremely popular Shaolin Soccer, which Miramax bought the rights to a couple of years ago and has sat on ever since--are understandably livid.

Despite the cultural commissars' bullying, 2003 was an exciting year for movies. Two trends stand out: documentaries were increasingly recognized as legitimate mainstream entertainment, and increasing numbers of film-history treasures finally became available on DVD. The U.S. seems to be ahead of other countries in both areas, though following the unprecedented worldwide success of Bowling for Columbine documentaries received a lot of press attention everywhere. The DVD releases were most often taken for granted; nevertheless, these film classics are now available to enterprising consumers.

1. Let me start with a tie. The best 2003 movies about the radical disparity in the world between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, are Spike Lee's 25th Hour and Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold. Lee's film, adapted by David Benioff from his own novel, opened here last January; it concerns how a former Manhattan drug dealer spends his last 24 hours before beginning a seven-year prison term. Panahi's story--proposed and written by Abbas Kiarostami, who was inspired by a newspaper story--is almost equally compressed and circumscribed; it follows a middle-aged pizza deliveryman in Tehran, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, who eventually holds up a jewelry store and shoots both the owner and himself. The film premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival in October and is likely to open here commercially later this year.

Both films have stayed with me because of the worlds they open up. Panahi's neorealist film, the less show-offy of the two, benefits hugely from the singular presence and deadpan delivery of Hossain Emadeddin in the lead role; he's a nonprofessional, very much like the character he plays, though it's disquieting to learn that, unlike his character, he's a paranoid schizophrenic. There's also Kiarostami's brilliantly suggestive script, which is quite unlike anything else he's written and is marred only slightly by one of his obligatory sages turning up gratuitously near the beginning. This script makes the film richer, as a portrait of contemporary Tehran and in its dramatic structure, than Kiarostami's own most recent feature, 10. And there's Panahi's highly purposeful, no-frills direction, which keeps the story firmly in focus without making it unduly didactic or psychological.

Lee's direction of his film certainly has its frills, but they're all purposeful and personal, helping to make this his best work since Do the Right Thing. He's especially good with his actors, including Edward Norton, Rosario Dawson, Barry Pepper, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Brian Cox, and Anna Paquin, but what makes this film truly powerful is the way its gets us to think about what going to prison means for anyone, even a convicted drug dealer.

2. Down With Love. I found this romantic comedy (out on DVD) the most immediately pleasurable and interesting Hollywood movie of the year, though so many colleagues had warned me off it that I caught up with it only when it was on the verge of closing. A cheerful, loving satire of 50s and 60s Hollywood glitz--the two decades squeezed together into a surreal blend by people born too late to have experienced either one--it's also a touching and revealing portrait of the present, insofar as it reflects a yearning for what it falsely perceives as a more hopeful and less jaundiced time.

Strangely, most reviews described this era only as the 60s. But this movie exults in the mannerist decor and clothes of 50s movies--the garish splashes of pink used in the satirical ad campaigns in Funny Face and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and the gargantuan Manhattan penthouses of The Tender Trap and How to Marry a Millionaire. It also paraphrases several hypocritical and repressed 60s comedies with Doris Day, Rock Hudson, and Tony Randall, though, oddly, it perceives them as innocent and optimistic. And the closing musical number with Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger is an object lesson alongside the glib, unreflective cynicism and clunky set pieces of last year's Oscar-winning Chicago, which collapsed the 20s and the present only because it didn't care about either.

3. In the Mirror of Maya Deren. I'm not sure why it took an Austrian filmmaker, Marta Kudlacek, to give us a definitive portrait of the mother and primary muse of American experimental film. But this documentary feature is superior even to substantial American books about Deren (1917-'61) in telling us who she was and what she was like. Kudlacek judiciously selected from Deren's films and audio recordings and from the testimony of those who knew and worked with her to make one of this year's key documentaries. It was given a dozen screenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center last fall yet--like The Same River Twice and Joy of Madness, found farther down this list--never made it to New York.

4. Pistol Opera. Seijun Suzuki's gorgeous and insane 2001 tribute to three generations of female assassins, made in his late 70s, had a limited run at the Music Box in late August and is now out on DVD. It has a star performance by an exceptionally beautiful actress, newcomer Makiko Esumi, and offers as many pure movie pleasures as Down With Love, beginning with its dazzling color and its use of music. But the abstraction and hermetic personal cosmology that inflect many of these pleasures make it substantially more esoteric: the plot is hard to synopsize, the characters difficult to explain. I suspect Maya Deren would have adored it, but Suzuki's ritualistic reliance on personal obsessions overshadows both the Deren-esque evocations of myth and poetry and the satisfactions of an ordinary thriller. As with Down With Love, viewing it on DVD is in some ways as satisfying as watching it in a theater: what one loses in size and visual definition is made up for by one's freedom to zero in on favorite bits. The opening credits sequence is as exquisite as the closing musical number in Down With Love and similarly rewards instant replay.

5. The School of Rock. Richard Linklater took on this Jack Black vehicle, scripted by costar Mike White, as a commission, and we're all the richer for it; this comedy about a failed rock musician achieving his apotheosis by training effete prep-school 12-year-olds to play hard rock is a joyful experience. A critic I know who admires Linklater even more than I do dismisses this effort as trivial, perhaps because he dismisses rock. I'm not exactly an aficionado, but Black's portrait of a lumpen-prole loser overcoming his limitations through sheer will and effort reminds me a little of Linklater's own transformation from Texas oil-rig hard hat to self-taught filmmaker. So maybe the issue isn't so much what you do as how and with whom you do it. The kids are also wonderful, and Linklater's keen appreciation of their quirks--not to mention Black's and Joan Cusack's--makes this movie shine. (There's no sign yet of a DVD, but this is better seen with a crowd anyway.)

6. A tie between two American documentaries, Robb Moss's The Same River Twice and Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect: A Son's Journey, both highly personal and autobiographical testaments. The Same River Twice, shown at Ray Privett's indispensable new Chicago International Doc Film Festival in early spring, juxtaposes footage of a river trip near the Grand Canyon taken by Moss and other hippies in 1978 with footage of the same people 20-odd years later--exploring who they were then, who they are now, and how their lives still intersect. My Architect, shown at the Chicago International Film Festival, follows the complex emotional and intellectual path of the unacknowledged illegitimate son of architect Louis Kahn as he explores his father's life and legacy, including an evolution in his understanding of how to film architecture that's fully apparent without being signaled. Both films are slated for commercial release in 2004.

7. Cold Mountain. The most pleasant movie surprise of the Christmas season was an Anthony Minghella blockbuster I actually liked (in contrast to The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley). I loved the lead performances of Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, and Renee Zellweger--because they sounded authentically southern (a sensitive point for an Alabama native, especially given that the movie was shot mainly in Romania), and because their characters were so rich I forgot who was playing them. (The same applies, to a lesser extent, to Kathy Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Donald Sutherland in secondary roles.)

I was also moved by the film's treatment of war as something that ultimately brutalizes everyone, ignoring such issues as slavery and even the results of the only major battle we see. Some critics have argued that ignoring such things is a questionable choice, but I would counter that it's easy to take all sorts of positions about just wars and noble causes when one isn't fighting in them (something the current Bush administration excels at). I was also impressed by the film's highly romantic effort to approximate certain literary effects: stretching time with a courtly patience that recalls medieval romances (the hero's long journey home suggests some of the adventures of Lancelot, down to the witchlike crone who tends his wounds); examining rascality, avarice, and cruelty in a way that recalls Huckleberry Finn; and even developing characters as Gone With the Wind does but with more thought and nuance.

8. Another tie, between films that distinguished themselves for their negativity, which they managed to make refreshing by being both truthful and original: Masked and Anonymous and The Shape of Things (the DVD of the first will be out in mid-February; the DVD of the second is already available). Masked and Anonymous--a curious brainchild of Bob Dylan (the pseudonymous cowriter and star) and sitcom veteran Larry Charles (the pseudonymous cowriter and director)--was slammed by some critics for relying on Dylan mythology. They ignored its unblinking look at American greed, corruption, and self-absorption--only slightly disguised as dystopian fantasy--and I suspect that's what really bothered them. Very few movies today follow the premise of Depression crime pictures like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface that our country is being run by gangsters, and this movie's unrelenting seediness has the uncommon merit of taking this premise for granted rather than making any particular point about it. It also refuses to sugarcoat the pill by making its nongangster characters any less odious: Jeff Bridges as a glib journalist stuck in the 60s is every bit as objectionable as John Goodman's bullshitting concert organizer.

Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things was widely knocked as well, mainly for its rather vicious look at art and feminism through the character of its scheming lead--a grad student and conceptual artist played by Rachel Weisz who sets out to remake a smitten undergraduate played by Paul Rudd. Many of the skeptics overlooked the degree to which LaBute, in his most provocative and best-shaped script so far, was interrogating his own practice and philosophy as an artist.

9. Another tie between personal documentaries--two foreign pictures, roughly an hour long, that made little-heralded appearances in Chicago and are equally unlikely ever to appear on DVD or video: Manoel de Oliveira's Oporto of My Childhood (screened at the Gene Siskel Film Center) and Hana Makhmalbaf's Joy of Madness (Chicago International Film Festival). Oliveira, who turned 95 last month, was 93 when he made this beautiful and multifaceted essay about his Portuguese birthplace, noting that "to recall moments from a distant past is to travel out of time. Only each person's memory can do this. It is what I will try to do." It's too bad he dropped some of this modesty seven months later when he made A Talking Picture, shown at the Chicago International Film Festival--a lightly comic boat journey across the Mediterranean in which the leading character lectures her little girl about the roots of civilization; this acerbic look at western Europe in a post-9/11 context isn't very flattering to the American captain of the boat (John Malkovich), but it implicitly excludes North Africa and the Middle East from the civilized world. Oliveira seems a lot wiser when he sticks to his hometown and the 20th century.

Samira Makhmalbaf, the young Iranian director of The Apple and Blackboards, also lacks sensitivity when it comes to her neighbors in the Middle East as she treks through Kabul and aggressively tries to drum up a cast for her first made-in-Afghanistan feature, At Five in the Afternoon. That picture was shown at the Chicago International Film Festival, but far more interesting and revealing was a film by her 14-year-old kid sister Hana, Joy of Madness--a comic documentary about the Afghans' indifference to Samira's effort to make a fiction feature about their suffering. I have no idea whether the comedy was deliberate, but as a portrait of blundering and uncomprehending good intentions it's so devastating that Hana almost could have been filming the American invaders.

10. Two independent heartbreakers about working-class youths: David Gordon Green's lyrical All the Real Girls, set in a North Carolina mill town, and Ken Loach's tragic Sweet Sixteen, set in a seaside town in western Scotland. (They opened here about a month apart in February and March and are both out on DVD.) The two main characters in Green's film are somewhat older and less hopeless than the title hero of Loach's film, who keeps trying to be a good person and keeps discovering that his world won't allow it.

(Gus Van Sant's Elephant also has some powerful things to say about teenagers in addition to its formal interest, though it has less narrative focus.)

I want to mention a few uncategorizable items that didn't quite make my final cut, only two of which are still playing in Chicago--Sylvain Chomet's Belgian surrealist cartoon feature for grown-ups, The Triplets of Belleville, which is worth seeing for its weirdness and originality, and Joe Dante's Looney Tunes: Back in Action, a noble act of piety toward Warners cartoons, even if it lacks the bite of his trilogy of war satires (Matinee, The Second Civil War, and Small Soldiers). The Dardenne brothers' The Son, David Cronenberg's Spider, Roman Polanski's The Pianist, and Olivier Assayas's Demonlover were powerful and masterful features that I admired more than loved (also true of Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans). I was charmed or beguiled by Peter Sollett's Raising Victor Vargas, Lisa Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon, Pat O'Neill's The Decay of Fiction, James Ivory's Le Divorce, Eitan Gorlin's The Holy Land, Alexander Rogozhkin's The Cuckoo, Idrissa Ouedraogo's episode in September 11, and even Matt Dillon's City of Ghosts, Kevin Costner's Open Range, and Gary Fleder's Runaway Jury, three relatively conventional genre exercises. All these seemed preferable to the rich-kid's view of Tokyo in the good but overrated Lost in Translation. (OK, it has Bill Murray, but he was better in both Rushmore and Michael Almereyda's Hamlet.)

Among the other documentaries I especially liked were From the Other Side; Nina Simone, Love Sorceress; Stone Reader; The Last Conversation; Echelon: The Secret Power; Stevie; and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. I should also mention Darezhan Omirbaev's remarkable first feature, Kairat, which premiered in Chicago a dozen years after it was made, and Rolf de Heer's aboriginal "western" The Tracker, a kind of Australian counterpart to Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, that played briefly at Facets Cinematheque, where it returns for a week at the end of this month. (I haven't come across either of these gems on DVD, but if you have a tristandard VCR you can get Kairat with French subtitles and The Tracker dubbed into Italian, though the aboriginal pop songs are mercifully intact--assuming, that is, that Miramax hasn't yet purchased the rights to them and isn't waiting to have you arrested for being capitalistically incorrect.)

My annual F.W. Murnau award for the film or film event that did the most to affect my sense of film history goes to "Chills From the East: Czech Horror and Fantasy on Film," a series curated by Steven Jay Schneider that played at the Gene Siskel Film Center last month. I saw only a third of the nine programs--I'd already seen Zbynek Brynych's The Fifth Horseman Is Fear--but they helped confirm my sense that the most politically and aesthetically radical European films of the 60s were made in communist Eastern Europe, something that apparently no Western critics were prepared to see at the time. Miklos Jancso in Hungary, Dusan Makavejev in Yugoslavia, and Vera Chytilova in Czechoslovakia were at the forefront of this explosion of energy, and Schneider's series added a few more names to the list, among them Jaromil Jires (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) and Vaclav Vorlicek (Who Killed Jessie?).

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