Sunday, February 1, 2004

The Best and Worst Films of 2003

If there's one thing more rigorous for a movie critic than sifting through piles of films trying to figure out which ones to review, it's composing lists of those select few achievements of a given year that either move us with their brilliance or scar us with their awfulness. The concept itself is restricting because there are usually far too many candidates for both sides of the quality divide for either list to be truly comprehensive. Several journalists (including myself) purposely restrict these lists to ten specific selections (with an occasional mention of those films that barely fell out of the bracket) because it allows some flexibility without stretching the selection too thin; however, particularly in the recent years, it is not uncommon for colleagues to do top 20 or even 30 best and worst lists. Whether there are even 20 or 30 movies worthy of either group in any given year is always up to speculation.

Which brings us to the task at hand—making the selections for the best and worst films of the last year. 2003 was one of the most bizarre of our recent cinema, a year that was so floored with middle-ground releases that it seemed barely worth the effort to even try making these lists. Ah, but then came October, November and December, three months stacked with such a plethora of instantly noteworthy works (both positive and negative, respectively) that the desire to highlight the year's achievements was very much renewed. This doesn't necessarily mean that 2003 was a better year for movies than, say, 2002, but it is one of the more consistent periods of time at the multiplex of the recent past. When movies were great, they were great enough to make the ranking system all the more difficult; when they were bad, few of them were obviously worse than others. Call it whatever you want, but don't call the year a stagnant one for the motion picture.

In 2003, there were five films so incredible in their conviction and delivery that trying to rank them from best to least was easily one of the most agonizing times I have ever had in composing these kinds of articles. The order they sit in now is the result of long hard hours of weighing them against each other, but I suspect that the true order will never be final (there might be times, for instance, when the film sitting at #2 could easily slip right into the #1 slot, or times when the #3 selection could drop to #5 because the endeavors below seem more significant at a specific time). Whatever the case, this current presentation satisfies the requirement and is the most satisfactory version of the final rankings. Films 6-10, meanwhile, are more than worthy choices for the latter half of the list and deserve the honor of their respective slots.

If there were awards given to directors simply based on their level of energy, then Quentin Tarrantino deserves hordes of them simply for his flashy, vibrant and infectious sense of ambition with this little endeavor. "Kill Bill, Volume 1" is easily one of the most enjoyable times I can ever recall having at the cinema, two hours of nonstop technical and artistic brilliance that didn't so much pay homage to specific 70s film genres as much as it recreated them. Starring Uma Thurman as a former member of the "Deadly Viper Assassination Squad," the film chronicles her setting off to seek revenge against her former comrades, all of whom, under title character "Bill," killed everyone in her wedding party and left her and her unborn baby for dead. We, of course, have to wait four more months until the story concludes in "Kill Bill, Volume 2," but the sheer volume of spirit in this introductory chapter makes it worth all the wait. Forget the fact that this is only half of a bigger picture; this is the kind of work that you could pay to see over and over again.

Better than "The Two Towers" and almost as equally spirited as "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Return of the King," the final installment in Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," is one of those event movies that will be remembered forever. Crafted in a sense that encompasses all the narrative and technical values of its two predecessors, the movie takes us into the last days of the war of the Great Ring, an artifact that has caused so much death and chaos amongst the societies of Middle Earth that destroying it has become the only feasible solution. The carrier, Frodo Baggins, is feeling the weight of his task even more than before, and as his spirit weakens, it provides great opportunity for his guide, the twisted Gollum, to poison his thoughts and separate him from the only source of foundation remaining in his life—his best friend Samwise Gamgee. The movie takes our breath away with its awesome sense of perspective, especially on the busy battlefields of Minas Tirith, but it is the intimacy between the two leads that add the emotional charge to this vibrant epic. This is a worthy chapter to an unforgettable trilogy, and an endeavor that will no doubt leave a lasting impression in the minds of all those who see it.

3 - 21 GRAMS
Dubbed by some circles as the crowning achievement of the puzzle movie genre (something that had been at its most commercial with the consecutive releases of "Memento" and "Mulholland Drive" in 2001), "21 Grams" didn't just live up to its hype, it totally surpassed it. The story deals with three specific individuals, each of them compromised on a personal level by decisions and/or tragedies in their lives, who are each brought together by circumstance and aligned motives as they try to cope and seek closure from the past. The performance by Naomi Watts alone is a tour de force, one of the finest female acting jobs of 2003. Some argue that the staggered pacing of the film's plotline lacked enough rhythm to be plausible, but that's irrelevant here; the movie is only as complex as the viewer insists on making it.

If Edward Zwick was trying to recall the great days of Akira Kurosawa with his ambitious look at the ancient Japanese art form of the Samurai, then his result is as faithful as one could hope. "The Last Samurai" is beautiful and engrossing on both visual and narrative scales, guided by a story that understands characters and their deep yearning for internal stability and provokes thought about possible negatives of western influence on Asian nations in the 19th century. Tom Cruise works well as a former Civil War soldier who has seen enough bloodshed in his life to scar the fabric of reality around him, but it is Ken Watanabe as the title character that provides the most insight and knowledge in his enemy's eventual evolution.

The biggest surprise on this list is a film that I had initially missed during its theatrical run (the movie opened in May of 2003, in fact). "Identity," like 2002's unforgettable "Frailty," is a horror film with ideas that twist and bend the standards of its genre and practically reinvents it in the process. As seemingly-unrelated characters become isolated together in a run-down motel out in the Nevada desert, strange and disturbing events begin playing out at a pace that is too quick for comfort on those who witness them. Just as the movie seems to be heading into a conventional final act, it makes such jolting revelations that our perceptions are altered and stunned all at the same time. This is expertly written and directed work, a true testament to the lasting power of psychological thrillers.

Danny Boyle's popular overseas thriller about a blood virus that turns mankind into a slew of flesh-eating zombies is much better than initial plot descriptions would have indicated. Filmed in a style that adds a great deal of realism to its visual presence, the movie sneaks up on you and attacks the very subconscious in a way that few horror films have in the recent years. Adding further poignancy to the premise, the script blurs the lines of protagonism and antagonism by unleashing a group of uninfected humans on the main characters whose ideals are almost more despicable than those of the mindless meat-eaters. Thoughtful, genuine and cunning down to the very last frame, "28 Days Later" is something that will be remembered for years to come.

Though both highly-anticipated sequels to "The Matrix" were met with significant disappointment by the critics and the masses, yours truly was still very much awed by the wealth of new ideas brought to the table in both endeavors. "The Matrix Reloaded," the first of these sequels, was the most satisfying of the two—not only did it add new layers onto the now-familiar back story of the Matrix itself, it was seeped in so much astonishing visual energy that the eyes remained dazzled from beginning to end. In top form as always, the Wachowski brothers gave us a product that was both visually attractive and intellectually stimulating, and contrary to popular theory, several of the film's scenes that were set in Zion, the last human establishment on Earth, gave great dimension to the humanity that was set up in the first film. This was a worthy successor to the original picture in nearly every regard. Perhaps the general consensus will be the same after the hype finally dies down.

Joel Schumacher's 80-minute rush of adrenaline, set almost entirely in the last phone booth on a busy Manhattan street, was the year's biggest surprise, a film that didn't have much back story or much character development, but worked on every level regardless. The movie doesn't even bother wasting time with setups or explanations; it simply tosses the viewer into the fray without a moment's notice, attacking them with so much tension that they are leaning forward in their seats the whole time. With its short running time, the film also refuses to overstate its welcome as well, a factor that gives the endeavor significant repeat viewings value.

Ridley Scott had been teetering on the brink of mediocrity in recent years with the releases of "Hannibal" and "Gladiator," but he made a triumphant return to the cinema in 2003 with this sweet and affectionate piece, a character study in which an expert con artist must get over his phobias before he meets the daughter he never knew existed. The lead performance by Nicholas Cage gives the story a touch of sweetness when the material is far too heavy-handed to seem sympathetic, and Scott's thrust is so honest, so true and so plausible that it almost always manages to strike the right chord.

You probably don't have to be a writer to realize how invigorating and satisfying "Swimming Pool" is as a character vehicle, but it probably helps. This is the kind of movie that loves its subjects almost as much as it loves surrounding its characters in novel-like situations, and in terms of providing specifics, director Fran├žois Ozon doesn't disappoint in the delivery. His actors, notably Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier, do great jobs in establishing groundwork for their isolated personas, but it's the chemistry and strength in the relationships that give the story even more weight, particularly when the plot absorbs them in a conflict that involves the death of a man and their obligation to cover it up. A surprising twist, of course, alters several of the initial ideas the audience might have about the material, but one thing that never changes is their admiration for the film's liberating tone. Watching this movie gives you the sense that you have been restored.

Honorable Mentions:
Capturing the Friedmans, City of God, Dark Blue, Finding Nemo, Holes, Mystic River, Runaway Jury, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Underworld.

As inevitable as the arrival of great movies seemed to be in the last half of 2003, there were always clunkers waiting for us around every corner as well. Unlike recent years past, however, the crop of flops was never quite bad enough to make the choices for this list difficult—in fact, only one entry on this top ten was insulting enough to warrant a zero star score (and beyond that, only four films wound up with the next step up). The biggest surprise, perhaps, is that "Gigli," no doubt the most panned release of the year, only ranks in here at #4. Why? I suppose when it comes to trash, watching J-Lo yelp "gobble gobble" is slightly less annoying than watching Cuba Gooding, Jr. dress up as a woman and sing disco.

Yep, poor Cuba Gooding Jr. just can't help but unintentionally ruin his career as of late. If "Boat Trip" doesn't completely wipe this Oscar-winning thespian off the map, however, then nothing will; not only is the movie his most unpleasant work to date, it is also demeaning, insulting, unfunny, agonizing and downright pathetic for every single frame it wastes on screen. Think about how the same man who starred in "Jerry Maguire" must have felt when the final cut of this turkey was screened for the actors—no doubt he left the theater looking like he had just sucked on a lemon for 90 minutes.

"The Guru" may have only narrowly avoided the top spot (it at least has one redeeming scene towards the end), but that doesn't make it any less a noteworthy presence on this list. That's because the movie (called a "comedy" by some) is just plain amateur trash, a series of ethnic jokes and stupid characters strung together for 90 minutes without so much as a hint of plot guiding them towards anything. Oh yeah, and then there's the occasional discussion about sex, too. Pardon me while I roll my eyes for the millionth time.

It must be a blessing in disguise that this "thriller" never went very wide in release in U.S. theaters. Described by its own press materials as a cross between reality TV's "Big Brother" and the movies' "The Blair Witch Project," this stagnant and miserable little movie hopelessly attempts to build tension for a good portion of its running time, only to discredit it all in the end by enlisting a plot twist that is both dumb and implausible from nearly every angle. The fact that we couldn't care less as to who dies and who lives right from the beginning should have been our first hint.

They say that couples together and movies can spell great success, but whoever said that obviously never saw the movies Madonna did with her husbands, either. That prospect was never so apparent last year than with "Gigli," a film so blatantly bad and insulting that the negative buzz surrounding it was almost more sizable than the egos of its two popular stars. Starring real-life romancers Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck as assassins assigned to watch over a kidnapped retarded kid, the movie lacks every fundamental trait that would make it merely tolerable; it's so blatant about its awfulness that the audience is seldom interested in anything that is being said or done. Points also get subtracted from the fact that great stars like Al Pacino are in the movie, too. Who in the world conned them into being associated with this mess, anyway?

Three dumb women get together, show off their hot bodies, occasionally engage in martial arts that allow them to suspend all sense of gravity, and then take brief rests to make sure they haven't smudged their makeup. Sound fun? Not in the least. "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," the second film inspired by the television series of the same name, wouldn't know how to have fun if the definition was written at the top of every frame; it is ridiculous, flamboyant and detestable dreck, and the fact that it stars likable actresses like Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu and Cameron Diaz makes it all the more shameful.

As pleasant as the title is, it's amazing how UNpleasant the film itself turned out to be. And we're not just talking general unpleasantness here, either; "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" was, on many levels, a mess of gargantuan proportions. Cheap dialogue, lousy writing and unforgivably overblown characterizations were the film's three most noticeable qualities, and the fact that the exteriors looked good only added fuel to the fire. Sean Connery was reportedly unhappy with the product during filming, and why shouldn't he be? This is a man who even at the very worst point of his career at least managed to pop up in only semi-bad pictures. This mess brought the bar down even further than it had been before (and yes, that counts "The Avengers," too).

Whoever decided it would be a good idea to do a prequel to "Dumb and Dumber" and not include any of the original cast members should be exiled from the studio; not only did such a decision eliminate the possibility of being comfortable with the setup, it also destroyed any hope of laughter to begin with (the first movie worked because of its stars and their energy). The result here is a horrible mess of a comedy that doesn't deserve to be associated with its own genre. It has no laughs, warrants no smiles, and inspires absolutely no admiration whatsoever.

Those who were familiar with the film that this remake was inspired from no doubt had a lot to look forward to from seeing Crispin Glover assume the role of the rat-loving title character, but as for those of us outside the bubble? The experience was like having our hands smashed in a vice. This was easily the most mean-spirited, underhanded and detestable film of its kind last year, seeped in so much cruelty that it left me feeling creepy and infuriated. There is no doubt Glover is a walking eccentricity with a clever knack for choosing unconventional material, but where was his mind when he made this thing? One wonders if the rats ate it out before production even began.

There was a time, believe it or not, when Freddy Krueger was actually scary, back in the days when he genuinely wanted to terrify screaming teenagers instead of trying to scare everyone with laughably-bad one-liners. This movie, which pits him up against the most uninteresting killing machine in the slasher genre, emphasizes that notion until the whole idea becomes drained by it. This isn't a war movie between two popular horror franchise acts, it is an episode in pointless exercise that exists simply to stretch their careers for a few extra hours on the big screen. Someone should have told the filmmakers that our interest ran dry for these kinds of antagonists years ago.

What a horrible mess of a movie this is! Stephen King's novel of the same name never initially inspired much positive buzz to begin with, but not even the worst reviews of his literary career could have prepared anyone for enduring this 2-hour genre-breaking nightmare. The problem is that the movie has no identity in its big empty head; it exists simply as a collection of scenes and/or ideas that have been ripped off from much better films (including, even, William Friedkin's "The Exorcist"). The movie looks good, but who cares? The source material is so nauseatingly droll that I applaud anyone who had the guts to endure it for the full running time.

Honorable (or Dishonorable) Mentions
Anger Management, Darkness Falls, The In-Laws, Jeepers Creepers 2, The Jungle Book 2, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Recruit and Tears of the Sun.

Written by DAVID KEYES

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