Sunday, October 9, 2016

My Top Ten Films of 2003

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring - The cycle of human life is juxtaposed with spiritual lessons tied to the natural world. Buddhist teachings are at the heart of the film, but prove to be no guard against the fallibility of our main characters, an elderly monk and his impetuous novice. It's the pace of the film that makes it so memorable, its patience and its matter-of-factness in relaying each step of the multi-decade journey as it unfolds.

The Triplets of Belleville - Nobody else makes films that look like Sylvain Chomet's, with their wildly exaggerated characters and darkly humorous stories. "Triplets" feels the most reflective of his personal style, with its many sight gags, silly plot, and the appealing oddity of its heroes. Best of all, it's absolutely uncompromising in its use of painstaking traditional animation, almost totally visual storytelling, and rejection of political correctness.

Whale Rider - A coming-of-age story that pits a young girl against her stubborn, traditionalist Maori grandfather. The performances of Keisha Castle-Hughes and Rawiri Paratene are excellent, keeping both sides sympathetic, and the portrayal of the fading Maori community is careful and considered. This is the kind of wistful, hopeful, and ever-so-slightly magical film I wish I had seen when I was young enough to really take its messages to heart.

American Splendor - The eventful life of writer Harvey Pekar is brought to the screen through appropriately meta dramatic recreations, with regular fourth wall breaking and commentary from the actual Harvey Pekar and his wife. Paul Giamatti handily embodies the schlubby American everyman, and the directing team of Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman have no difficulty capturing both the mundanity and the beauty of his world.

Lost in Translation - It's the tone of the film that makes it work, the strangeness of being stuck thousands of miles from home in an alien place, disconnected from everyone and everything around you. Eventually, though, the jet lag wears off, and tentative connections are made. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson turn in humorous, touching performances as they wander their hotel, and eventually the dreamlike Tokyo cityscape together.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World - Meticulously recreates the Napoleonic era of and maritime warfare to an astonishing degree, resulting in an unusually immersive cinematic experience. The action and battle sequences are especially strong, full of grand scale spectacle achieved with almost entirely practical effects and stunts. Russell Crowe also delivers what may be his best performance to date as Captain Aubrey.

Oldboy - I had a very difficult time getting me head around this one, but I have to admit that the movie brilliant in its own demented, misanthropic way. It hums with energy, as Oh Dae-su struggles to unravel the mystery of his imprisonment, resorting to devastating violence when he must. What initially threw me was how little sense the plot made, especially the villain's scheme, but to the lunatic characters caught in the web, that may be exactly the point.

Dogville - My first encounter with Lars Von Trier, which I still find fascinating to this day. Presented as a critique of the American way of life, the highly stylized film reveals the savagery of a small town hidden under its veneer of civility. It's extremely difficult to watch, due to its length, subject matter, and unblinking portrayal of all the abuse heaped upon the heroine. Ultimately the film says more about its director than the troubled society it's criticizing.

Capturing the Friedmans - One of the most memorable "true crime" documentaries ever made offers plenty of facts and insights, but few answers about the actual culpability of the accused. The home video POV allows us not only an intense view of a witch hunt as it unfolds, but also to examine the Friedman family's dynamics up close. It has lost some impact over time, largely because of how many other subsequent documentaries have been influenced by it.

The Station Agent - Tom McCarthy's directing debut was also the major breakthrough for Peter Dinklage. Like most of McCarthy's films, it's about a small group of strangers who become friends through chance encounters and form a makeshift family. It's the quiet, low key atmosphere and the chemistry of the cast that give this so much charm. Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, and Bobby Cannavale all do great work humanizing their trio of lonely souls.

Honorable Mentions

Love Actually
Tokyo Godfathers
The Five Obstructions
Kill Bill Vol: 1
A Mighty Wind
Good Bye Lenin!
Touching the Void


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