As the Reader's senior staff writer covering movies, Jonathan Rosenbaum gets first pick of the city's offerings, and as any sane man would, he tends to choose titles that promise to be good or at least interesting. But there are too many good movies showing in Chicago for even two people to cover--last year alone the Reader reviewed 1,122 features and shorts programs, employing the talents of 28 writers (including longtime contributor Ted Shen, a perceptive and enthusiastic critic who passed away in October). I reviewed 285 programs in 2003 and saw at least another 40 movies on my own time; following are my ten favorites.
1. Marion Bridge. Molly Parker is bewitching as an alienated young Irish Catholic woman in Nova Scotia who reunites with her two sisters to care for their alcoholic and cancer-ridden mother. Daniel MacIvor, adapting his own play, scripted this Canadian feature, and under Wiebke von Carolsfeld's able direction the cast creates a genuine family rich with history. This played only a week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, but it can be found on DVD at www.filmmovement.com.
2. Owning Mahowny. A quiet, focused performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman (reminiscent of Gene Hackman's in The Conversation) anchors this drama about a young assistant manager at a Toronto bank whose gambling addiction sweeps him into a vortex of lies, embezzlement, and high-stakes casino betting in the U.S. Directed by Richard Kwietniowski (Love and Death on Long Island), this is most fascinating when it tracks the competition between two casino managers--one in Las Vegas and another in Atlantic City (a crusty John Hurt)--to cultivate Hoffman as a profitable client.
3. The Weather Underground. The best thing I've seen about the 2001 terror attacks was Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's short segment from the controversial September 11, which finally opened here in September at the Music Box. But the year's best documentary about terrorism was Sam Green and Bill Siegel's troubling history of the dissident antiwar group of the late 60s and 70s--troubling not only for its interviews with former political bombers expressing various degrees of pride and remorse but also for its silent reminder that an international movement to stop another ill-considered war had just reached the limits of legal protest and failed.
4. Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary. I've always been a horror fan, but I was disappointed by most of the big scare flicks this year (Willard, May, Cabin Fever, House of 1,000 Corpses). Much stranger and more arresting is this Canadian feature by Guy Maddin, adapting the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's production of Dracula. Maddin has spent his career exploring the visual vocabulary of silent film, which enhances the story's epistolary form and sense of sexual nightmare; he joins a distinguished list of directors (F.W. Murnau, Tod Browning, Francis Ford Coppola) moved to florid personal expression by one of the great tales of the supernatural.
5. 25th Hour. Spike Lee's aching drama about a drug dealer facing a long prison term (Edward Norton in a razor-sharp performance) was one of those movies released in New York in late December 2002 to qualify for the Oscars, though we didn't see it here until January. (A parallel this year is Patty Jenkins's harrowing Monster, which opens in Chicago next week; Charlize Theron gives an impressive performance as the emotionally gutted and lethally stupid serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was executed in October 2002 for murdering seven of her johns.)
6. American Splendor. The critical lockstep on this one doesn't bother me: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's hilarious biopic of Cleveland comic-book author Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) and his wife, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), introduced one of the best screen couples since Nick and Nora Charles and paid cockeyed tribute to the healing power of art and family.
7. Martin & Orloff. Comedies are never in short supply, but good ones always are. This year brought a few gems: Chris Rock's Head of State, Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind, Richard Linklater's School of Rock, Bob Odenkirk's Melvin Goes to Dinner, and this warped farce about a suicidal corporate nebbish (Ian Roberts) dragged through a series of unlikely adventures by his cigar-chomping psychiatrist (Matt Walsh). Lawrence Blume directed a cast that includes Andy Richter and David Cross. This played briefly at the Film Center in June and opens again at the Music Box later this month.
8. Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator. The biggest surprise of the year for me was Helen Stickler's digital-video documentary about Mark "Gator" Rogowski, a mid-80s skateboarding icon and flamboyant teenage pitchman who fell from grace as the sport changed and ultimately confessed to the rape and murder of a young woman. Accompanied by Rogowski's pensive comments on a prison phone line and a blistering selection of west-coast 80s punk, this makes the Reagan-era marketing of youth culture seem like the seventh circle of hell.
9. Manic. Thirteen got all the press with its tale of a young girl's corruption, but I was more convinced by this DV drama about a handful of teens committed to a private mental hospital (it kicked around the festival circuit for two years before getting a limited release last June). Jordan Melamed, making his feature debut, carefully rehearsed a fine ensemble cast that includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Elden Henson, and Don Cheadle, and their work pays off in a brutally honest look at adolescent rage and despair.
10. Boxed. I loved Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things, Thaddeus O'Sullivan's The Heart of Me, David Cronenberg's Spider, and Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen, but my favorite British import last year was this low-budget morality play by writer-director Marion Comer, about a young priest in Northern Ireland (Tom Jordan Murphy) who's kidnapped by an IRA cell and ordered to hear the last confession of an informer before the man is executed. This screened only twice last year as part of the Film Center's European Union Film Festival and isn't yet available on video, but the likely outlet is www.poptwist.com.
It must have been a good year for movies--I could as easily have chosen Morgan Jon Fox's Blue Citrus Hearts, Israel Adrian Caetano's Bolivia, Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans, Bill Morrison's Decasia, Andrew Davis's Holes, Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, Mark and Michael Polish's Northfork, Roman Polanski's The Pianist, Peter Sollett's Raising Victor Vargas, Alan Rudolph's The Secret Lives of Dentists, Billy Ray's Shattered Glass, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 21 Grams, or Niki Caro's Whale Rider.
But we all wind up dragging the river from time to time. The worst movies I saw last year, in descending order, were MTV's cheesy reality feature The Real Cancun, Mike Figgis's celebrity Dogma romp Hotel, Jonas Akerlund's stomach-turning indie drug escapade Spun, the Cuba Gooding Jr. homosexual-panic comedy Boat Trip, and Alan Parker's risible death-penalty thriller The Life of David Gale, which could itself be considered cruel and unusual punishment.