January 12, 2004 The Year in Review: 2003's Best and Worst
On their annual "Best of the Year" show, Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper enthusiastically praised 2003 as a banner year for the cinema, so good that it had reclaimed their hope for the future of film. Not only do I strongly disagree with such a statement, I would go so far as to say that 2003 was the worst year the cinema has seen for the better part of a decade. For proof, take these statistics into account: gazing at my roundup of great motion pictures (those that rate four and three-and-a-half stars), there were 13 in 2003, versus the 19 from 2002 and 16 in 2001. Furthermore, out of the five films that I awarded four stars, only two of them are fully at the same level as my seven 4-star picks for 2002. The increase in terrible movies (one star and lower) also refuses to be overlooked. There were 9 in 2001, 13 in 2002, and 14 in 2003. Because the amount of films I saw this year is roughly the same as the previous two (just over 150), there can only be one conclusion drawn: movies are, indeed, getting dumber.
Generally speaking, if 2001 was the year of visionary filmmaking and creative ideas (i.e. "Donnie Darko," "Moulin Rouge," "Mulholland Drive," "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence") and 2002 was the year of more richly drawn, character-based triumphs (i.e. "The Good Girl," "Moonlight Mile," "Signs," "About Schmidt," "The Hours"), then 2003 was the year of a lack of fresh ideas and smart storytelling, altogether. Indeed, there were some (check out my "Best" list below), but by and large studios were at a loss to come up with stories that were worth telling. In their place were a seemingly never-ending slew of sequels that were about nothing more than cashing in on their predecessors. During the summer, especially, an estimated one sequel was released per week. By the time August rolled aroundand more sequels were yet to comethis fad had become simultaneously laughable, tedious, and depressing. Out of the 15 sequels I saw in 2003 (and this does not count the final chapter of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy), not a single one received higher than two-and-a-half stars. You do the math.
As disconcerting as major studio releases often are, it can unfailingly be counted on that the independent arena will offer enough that is good to even the score. Again, not this year. While there were certainly some very good art-house flicks to be weeded out, the majority seemed to lack somethingan unexplainable and intangible quality that was more often absent than not. If this commentary sounds oddly negative, let it be known that I do not want to be, but the year of film called for it. Any way you shake it, the cinema of 2003 was ho-hum and discouraging, a virtual dead zone of originality where inspiration took a back-seat to pure, shameless studio greed. Hopefully things can be mended in 2004. We can only hope.
Per tradition, I will begin by giving deserved notice to the best performances of the year, and will commentate on my "Worst of 2003" and "Best of 2003" lists. Premiering this year are my choices for the most overrated and underrated picture of the year, brought about as a personal response to one certain fine film that received a mindbogglingly brutal bashing for really no reason other than that close-minded critics believed the negative pre-hype and decided on their review before they even walked into the theater. So much for being objective in criticism.
The Best Performances of 2003 (my pick for the absolute best is indicated in red)
Most Overrated Film of 2003: "Mystic River" is not necessarily a bad film, but the amount of wide acclaim it has received is unwarranted, brought about, I suspect, from the public's love affair with director Clint Eastwood and star Sean Penn. In many's eyes, these two talents can do no wrong, but this messily written and edited, over-the-top display of egotism proves otherwise. And Penn gives arguably his weakest performance, to date (he did far more challenging work in "21 Grams"), as a blue-collar father whose daughter is murdered and suspects his childhood best friend of the crime. The film's portrayal of the untimely loss of a child holds no real insights or power (instead, see 2002's "Moonlight Mile"), and its revenge plot is unsatisfying and exploitive (instead, try 1996's underappreciated "Eye for an Eye" or 2001's "In the Bedroom").
Most Underrated Film of 2003: "Gigli." The butt of many jokes in the entertainment industry. A punching bag toward its stars, real-life couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. A film that has actually been called one of the worst motion pictures ever made, even by someuntil nowrespected critics. And why? Opinions are like assholes and everyone's got one, but to make such a far-reaching claim as this is frankly absurd. In actuality, "Gigli" is an entertaining romantic comedy with a fresh, wicked edge. At its center is a relationship between two charactersand two actorsthat ignites more steamy chemistry than any movie romance this year. The dialogue sparkles more often than not, the characters are intelligent beings, and the movie as a whole has a sweetness and sincerity that is infectious. Watching it a second time on DVD (just to make sure I hadn't had a lapse in judgment), I liked it just as much, if not more. Although far from perfection, "Gigli" is a small, lyrical gem, with moments bordering on brilliance. Give it a chance without any preconceived notions, and it may just surprise you.
10.) House of the Dead - The most amateurish genre pic of the year, "House of the Dead" exhibits all of the things one should avoid when making a horror movie. It's cheesy, lame, embarrassingly acted, inanely written, and totally unscary. Did I mention the characters are as dumb as a box of hair? Movies like this one give horror a bad name.
9.) Bad Boys II - The first of two Martin Lawrence-starrers on this list, "Bad Boys II" starts off innocently mediocre enough, but then as the minutesno, make that hourstick by, the picture digs itself a grave big enough to bury every last one of the victims of the Titanic. Mean-spirited and brain-dead in the extreme, the film patronizingly tries to pass itself off as an action-packed popcorn entertainment when, in fact, every last bone in its body is hateful, offensive, and sickening.
8.) National Security - The second Martin Lawrence bomb of 2003, "National Security" is just as offensive as "Bad Boys II," and then some. The film may at first glance look like nothing more than another harmless formula buddy action-comedy, but it isn't. Within the first ten minutes, it becomes readily apparent that it has a none-too-subtle racist agenda that is thoroughly unfunny and repellent. A sickening 90-minute diatribe against white people, and one, big hypocritical "fuck you" to basically everyone.
7.) The Rundown - Action movies are a tricky genre. When they manage to be creative, fast-paced, and pulse-pounding, there is nothing quite like the experience of watching them. When they are sluggish, brainless, and unexciting, they can be a very bad thing, indeed. "The Rundown" falls into the latter camp with a thud. It is a black hole of nothingness that is not only hackneyed, but also mindnumbingly boring. The Rock may be the next major action star, but he's going to have to make some smarter career choices if he ever plans on appearing in a watchable motion picture. And take note of co-star Seann William Scott, who will be appearing very soon in an even worse action film.
6.) Basic - This pompous joke of a military thriller, starring John Travolta, has been compared in some circles to Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon," which is like comparing "Pokemon 2000" to "The Wizard of Oz" as equal family entertainment. "Basic" seemingly exists for only one solid reason: to cruelly play with, and jerk the chain of, every possible audience member, culminating in one of the most infuriating twist endings in recent memory. Look up the word, "bamboozled," in the dictionary, and for years to come one is likely to find a picture of viewers angrily exiting a theater showing "Basic."
5.) Cheaper by the Dozen - Syrupy, dumb, and desperately unfunny, "Cheaper by the Dozen" is the worst family film of the year, a sub-sitcom-level failure as abhorrent as it is half-baked. With no character worth liking, no story development even remotely surprising, and no comedy or drama creating any true emotion within the viewer, the film is simply interminable. A chaotic, horridly conceived, inconceivably one-dimensional turkey, "Cheaper by the Dozen" holds not a single believable or genuine moment in all of its 95 minutes.
4.) Love Don't Cost a Thing - Meanspirited, tasteless, and stereotypical, "Love Don't Cost a Thing"an urban remake of the cheesy but tolerable 1987 comedy "Can't Buy Me Love"makes its source material look like a veritable masterpiece in comparison. This updated version is rotten to the core and misogynistic in the extreme, exempt of any signs of real human beings or actions. The dialogue is also laughably idiotic. "You're off the hizzle," one character says, only for another to ask, "What kind of car do you drizzle?" Yep, that's about the height of intelligence that "Love Don't Cost a Thing" manages to ever reach.
3.) From Justin to Kelly - Clearly nothing more than a chintzy attempt to cash in on the success of "American Idol," "From Justin to Kelly" is so wretched it may pull the rising musical genre into an early retirement. The song and dance numbers are embarrassing to the point of wanting to shield your eyes from the screen, and the plot's conflict is stupid and condescending, the type that could be solved in five minutes if the characters were written with any sort of sense. They aren't, and so unlucky viewers are forced to endure almost 90 minutes of asinine, turgid hogwash. Even the title makes zero sense. "From Justin to Kelly?" "From Big-Screen Bust to the Fiery Depths of Hell" would have been more fitting.
2.) Bulletproof Monk - The second awful Seann William Scott action film of 2003, let "Bulletproof Monk" be proof for him that he fits the genre about as well as a person belongs in a woodchipper. Vacuous and insulting, the movie contains the cheapest special effects of the year and a volcanic plot hole that renders the whole of the proceedings a more monumental waste than it already would have been. Notice should also go to the cinematography and production design, with every shot appearing as if it was filmed either in front of a matte screen, with failing lighting equipment, or in someone's basement. The best said about the snooze-inducing fight scenes, the better. "Bulletproof Monk" is the scummiest-looking movie of 2003, bar none.
1.) The In-Laws - The only motion picture of 2003 to receive zero stars from me, "The In-Laws" is an action-comedy starring Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks that is so deadening in its absence of charm, humor, and even the basic skills of filmmaking that it has to be seen to be believed. But heed my very serious warning: do not, under any circumstances, subject yourself to this monumental waste of time and celluloid. Ever-so-slightly turning on a faucet and watching the water drip would be time much better spent than suffering through "The In-Laws." Unfunny, egotistical, and woefully idiotic, it is that rarest of cinematic disasters that stands out from the crowd of bad seeds. Adding insult to injury, even Albert Brooks isn't amusinga surefire sign that trouble is afoot. How "The In-Laws" got greenlit is 2003's most confounding film-related mystery.
11.) House of 1000 Corpses - Rob Zombie's ballsy, freakishly stylish, highly auspicious writing-directing debut, "House of 1000 Corpses" was the most classic example of how to do a horror movie correctly in a year filled with other '70s splatter throwbacks (i.e. "Wrong Turn," "Cabin Fever," and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"). A dazzling, spooky visual masterpiece, "House of 1000 Corpses" is both beautiful and horrific in equal measures, a gritty, grimy, thoroughly unpredictable, always unnerving feast for anyone who has ever heard of Fangoria magazine.
10.) Kill Bill: Volume One - While the jury is still out on whether it was a good idea to split "Kill Bill" into two separate features, "Kill Bill: Volume One" proves that writer-director Quentin Tarantino still has a magic of filmmaking that only a select few could ascribe to. A sumptuous, poetic, graphically violent, startlingly innovative, balls-to-the-wall ode to the martial arts/spaghetti western/revenge genres, the film may get inspiration from other B-movies that have come before it, but it is guaranteed no one has ever seen a motion picture quite like this one. With Tarantino's signature pitch-perfect dialogue, action setpieces that are vibrantly alive, and a career-revitalizing performance from Uma Thurman, "Kill Bill: Volume One" is the real deal. So is Quentin Tarantino.
9.) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - The only chapter of the trilogy to place on one of my "Best of the Year" lists, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is so majestic, so magical, so awe-inspiring, so behemoth in scale, and so extraordinarily brought to life that it stands as director Peter Jackson's paramount achievement of his career, thus far. Yes, "The Return of the King" is one of the most astounding visual spectacles ever made, and the visual effects stake a new watermark in the evolution of technical artistry, but what makes the filmand the trilogy as a wholeso special is in its concentration on characters and their friendships over merely stringing a line of mindless battle scenes together. Humanity is never lost sight of, even amid its epic scale, and that is the most notable accomplishment of all.
8.) The School of Rock - A love letter to rock music and the driving force to never give up your dreams, "The School of Rock" is the biggest breath of fresh air that has happened to mainstream comedies in years. Directed by Richard Linklater and starring the irreplaceably quirky, funny, and talented Jack Black (with a crackerjack supporting turn by Joan Cusack), it is a joyfully simple and exceedingly entertaining motion picture that is about as much unadulterated fun as any movie in what seems like ages. "The School of Rock" is alive, both in its razor-sharp comedy and in its incendiary rock music. It doesn't seem to have any right to be so darn charming, but that's what it is. A modern classic is born.
7.) Identity - It doesn't happen often, but once or twice every decade a motion picture comes along that redefines its genre. "Identity," stunningly crafted by director James Mangold may just invigorate to life slasher movies the same way that 1999's "The Sixth Sense" jump-started psychological thrillers. Similarities between M. Night Shyamalan's monster hit and this film are superficial, at best, but they do share a willingness to offer up something startlingly fresh, thoroughly unpredictable, genuinely creepy, and unshakably thought-provoking. By the time "Identity" reaches its heart-stopping final twist of a scene (nevermind the corkscrew zinger that comes fifteen minutes earlier), it is safe to say not a single audience member will be able to pinpoint another movie quite like the one that have just encountered.
6.) Monster - Based on the true story of serial killer Aileen Wournos, "Monster" heartbreakingly yearns for us to consider the circumstances that lead to her downfall. We do not have to like Aileen Wournos, director Patty Jenkins seems to be saying, but we should at least consider her life's path as a tragedy in and of itself in a world that refused to give her a break. "Monster" is a fair, thought-provoking, unshakable masterpiece, one of 2003's most unforgettable in a decidedly lackluster year for the world of film. And in a performance deserved for the record books, Charlize Theron is a fearless powerhouse. She does not simply mimic her real-life counterpart, but somehow has cosmically burrowed herself into Wournos' own skin, becoming her. It is a sight to behold, as is this wrenching beauty of a film.
5.) In the Cut - A fascinating, sexually charged psychological character study wrapped in a murder mystery where the identity of the villain hardly seems to be the point, "In the Cut" is multilayered, auspiciously innovative, and projects a crystal-clear vision of what its intentions are. What writer-director Jane Campion has done, aided by a sorely overlooked and complex performance by Meg Ryan, is crafted a challenging masterwork that falls somewhere between art and entertainment, and earns the right to be both. One of the most haunting films of the year, a picture that burrows under your skin and refuses to leave, "In the Cut" is simultaneously heartbreaking, frightening, unpredictable, sexy, grim, provocative, and eerily plausible. Hopefullyvery soonit will garner the exposure and appreciation it so very much deserves.
4.) The Safety of Objects - The story of four dysfunctional families living in close proximity within the same suburban neighborhood, "The Safety of Objects" takes a topic that isn't particularly new (think "American Beauty") and the unforced form of a Robert Altman picture (think "Short Cuts") to seamlessly interweave its complicated characters and their even more complicated lives into a wholly original and vibrant tapestry. The result is genuinely hypnotic, a passionate and deeply poignant motion picture that wholeheartedly stands out among the crop of 2003 releases. Directed by Rose Troche and faultlessly acted by its superlative ensemble (headed by Glenn Close), it is rare that a movie is released as honest, perceptive, enthralling, and emotionally rewarding as "The Safety of Objects" is. You won't regret seeking it out.
3.) Elephant - Winner of the Palme D'Or and Best Director prizes at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, "Elephant" is an unshakably disturbing, nerve-rattling masterpiece from writer-director Gus Van Sant. A fictional, but eerily reminiscent telling of the 1999 Columbine tragedythe worst school shooting in American history"Elephant" manages the difficult feat of finding the profound in the seemingly mundane, beauty in the most unlikely of places, and human complexity in its most naked and raw of forms. It is a film that says so very muchabout the frailty and unpredictability of life, the unintentional ignorance of people for what is right under their noses, the impact a single small event or decision can have on another's or their own's futurewith the unrushed, unblemished, exquisite simplicity that only a master filmmaker can achieve. A motion picture that deserves multiple viewings, its unforgettable, frightening, heartbreaking cumulative effect will have you spellbound even after the end credits have long since rolled.
2.) Lost in Translation - The most intimate, humane, and heartfelt love story of the year, "Lost in Translation" also holds two of 2003's most marvelous performances by Bill Murray (a career-best) and Scarlett Johansson. It also stands as an insanely gorgeous travelogue of Tokyo. In her sophomore effort, writer-director Sofia Coppola has proven she has the very same filmmaking talent as her father, Francis Ford Coppola, if not more so. She has a way of getting to the heart of her characters and really, truly trying to understand them and their place in the world. "Lost in Translation" is a fascinating and highly original achievement. When its closing moments arrive, simple and pure, it may just blindside you with its sheer cumulative power.
1.) May - Haphazardly treated like an ugly stepchild by Lions Gate Films, if a film was more poorly handled by its distributor last year, I haven't seen it. After gaining acclaim at film festivals, this gemone of the most original and unforgettably touching independent features in yearswas given a brief, negligent limited theatrical release before being shipped off to home video and DVD. So good was it, and so passionate was I by it, that it inspired me to write my first review for a film already available on video in over two years. Directed by Lucky McKee (his debut) and with an eye-opening, talent-defining title performance by Angela Bettis, "May" has what it takes to become a cult phenomenon, much like 2001's initially overlooked but finally found "Donnie Darko." As a stirring drama, a marvelously developed character piece, a sly black comedy, a taut psychological thriller, and a gory, scary, no-holds-barred horror film, "May" is a new cinematic masterpiece, a film with the ability to do all five things at once, or apart, with note-perfect grace. Topping everything off is a devastatingly tragic, bone-chilling final sequence with the power to leave you floored. Don't let this one-of-a-kind experience pass you by. "May" is the best motion picture of 2003.