Location: St. Vincent & Grenadines

You were driving home in the dark on one glass-slippered heel, window sliced open and bathing in the snowliquor of the night air. We heard you singing, and couldn't bear to wake you.

02 January 1990

Theater Roundup 2003

2003 Movie Roundup: In Theaters

Herewith, my Top “Ten” Movies of 2003. This list is far from authoritative. Its most obvious flaw is the series of gaping holes left by all the movies I didn’t see last year. Further widening the holes is my very subjective policy of considering only what I saw in theaters, as opposed to the many new films I saw on video. I’ll cover those another day.

None of the new movies I saw in 2003 were outright horrible, but several were decidedly mediocre. The greatest expectation-to-payoff deficits were racked up by Intolerable Cruelty (***), which should serve as a warning to the Coen brothers never to work with someone else’s script, and The Matrix Reloaded (***), in which the Wachowski brothers took everything that was exciting about the first film and bludgeoned it.

Honorable Mention: Chicago; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Matchstick Men; and X2: X-Men United.

10. Holes
One of the best young adult novels of the last ten years is faithfully adapted for the screen by its author, Louis Sachar. Fans of the book will find nothing to disappoint them, and kids and grown-ups alike will enjoy the strong performances of Shia LaBoeuf as Stanley Yelnats, Khleo Thomas as Zero, and Sigourney Weaver, Tim Blake Nelson and Jon Voight as the dastardly counselors at Camp Green Lake.

9. Down With Love
An underrated homage to the Doris Day/Rock Hudson school of screwball comedies featuring the indefatigable teeth of Ewan McGregor and the rosy cheeks of Renée Zellweger, this is everything Intolerable Cruelty tried and failed to be. Full of genuine wit, quick on its feet, suitably self-aware without being sarcastic, light as meringue and thoroughly entertaining.

8. Identity
This clever conflation of Ten Little Indians and Psycho has one twist too many, but aside from the last two minutes, it’s a very satisfying thriller. Some will be able to see the revelations coming; I didn’t, but as a moviegoer who enjoys being surprised, I tend not to try very hard to make predictions.

7. The Return of the King
Although there is plenty to find fault with throughout Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, particularly if you had the good fortune to discover J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterpiece prior to 2001, even diehard purists know in their heart of hearts how magnificent these films are; how miraculous, even, that they carry as much of the spirit of the book as they do. The Return of the King is far more awe-inspiring than it is disappointing, and if that sounds like damnation via faint praise, it isn’t meant to. Jackson’s troupe of passionate actors, writers, animators, designers, technicians and artists have made what is likely to stand for the rest of our lifetimes as the greatest fantasy epic ever filmed.

6. Winged Migration
There’s the awe that comes from witnessing an impossible phantasmagorical spectacle like The Return of the King, and then there’s the awe that comes from witnessing something that you know is real, but that you’ve never been able to see before. Watching a human being walk on the moon back in 1969 produced that second kind of awe. So does seeing birds in flight in the film Winged Migration. It is one thing to stand on the ground and watch a group of specks moving through the sky hundreds of feet above you; it is quite another to find yourself right in the midst of a flock of ducks, mere inches away from the nearest wingtip. I felt not only exhilaration but also a deep respect for birds that I’d never had before; flying is hard work!

5. Adaptation
It’s not as purely original as Being John Malkovich, but it is more or less the logical next step; you can’t pull off a stunt like that twice, and writer Charlie Kaufman knows it. What’s left is the curse of self-consciousness that plagues all of postmodern art, for better and worse, and with Adaptation Kaufman exploits it in a way that leaves even less room for the rest of us to do anything new. Asshole.

4. The Quiet American
A very timely film, this adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel cuts to the heart of what is wrong with American foreign policy in the post-World War II era. Several outstanding films have been made about the Vietnam War, but this is the first I know of to examine the period leading up to the war and the escalation of American involvement. Michael Caine turns in one of the finest performances of his long and storied career — better, certainly, than his Oscar-winning contribution to the mediocre Cider House Rules. And Brendan Fraser demonstrates again that despite his willingness to play off his hunky, not-too-bright appearance in stuff like Blast From The Past, Monkeybone and The Mummy, he’s a much sharper card than many take him for.

3. Lost in Translation
This film swims in romance. Not one of the endless variations on the Cinderella theme that pass for romance in mainstream cinema, but a deeper, subtler, more ultimately satisfying variety. There are no narrative tricks here, no obvious manipulations on the part of director Sofia Coppola (who has demonstrated that the brilliance of her first film, The Virgin Suicides, was no fluke); just the simple magic of human attraction glowing all by itself.

2. Finding Nemo
Pixar Studios outdoes itself again, marrying dazzling animation to a wonderfully funny script. The story arc is pure Disney, but it honestly doesn’t matter; the visual and verbal inventiveness overcomes whatever formulae of market-tested sanctimony John Lasseter and company were required to apply, not to mention the irritation of yet another leading-gerund title (Finding Forrester, Educating Rita, Eating Raoul, Doing Dallas With Debbie, etc.) It is so refreshing to see an all-ages movie that doesn’t pander to the conventional wisdom that children are stupid, crass little creatures who need to be hit over the head with loud noises, blaring colors and fart jokes all the time.

In 2003, the two best movies I saw in theaters were so utterly different that to choose one over the other would be an insult to both of them. I’m going to have to go the Golden Globe route here and do a “Best Picture - Drama” and “Best Picture - Comedy” split — which is fine with me, because I get to squeeze 11 movies into my Top Ten that way.

1. Drama: The Pianist
Roman Polanski’s hit-and-miss career has turned out masterpieces like Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and Repulsion, harmless schlock like The Ninth Gate, and crap-that-makes-you-want-to-sear-your-eyeballs-with-glowing-charcoal-briquets-so-you’ll-never-have-to-risk-seeing-it-again like Bitter Moon. The Pianist falls squarely into the first category, and the fact that it’s neither horror nor film noir nor psychodrama underscores one of the qualities that make Polanski one of the world’s most important directors: he never repeats himself. Like Kubrick, he visits genres only long enough to subvert them in his own inimitable way before moving on to fresh ground.

With The Pianist, Polanski’s subversion is subtlety. We’ve all seen the Holocaust portrayed on film, and there isn’t much new that anyone can say about it; it has been dramatized, melodramatized, satirized, documentarized, and it’s still just as banal and ugly and hard to fully comprehend as ever. Indeed, attempts to make the story of this particular attempt at genocide fresh and exciting are almost as inappropriate as they are doomed to failure. It’s hard to make this stuff entertaining, and it should be; our task is to bear witness to the suffering, to keep remembering what happened. Polanski manages to honor this responsibility without exploiting it, and at the same time to make unforgettably potent art. No mean feat.

Unlike Schindler’s List, which, though powerful, couldn’t keep itself from leavening the grimness with telltale Spielbergian schmaltz, The Pianist never blinks. Its historical accuracy is faultless, but this is no documentary; it has a deeply moving story to tell, but tells it without nudging us toward this or that emotion. Polanski is not the sort of auteur who delights in demonstrating his own cleverness. He vanishes into the film, just as Adrien Brody vanishes into the titular role. Fascism, that ultimate disease of the ego, is presented without ego. There are no heroes here, only survivors.

1. Comedy: Bad Santa
Probably not suitable for your grandmother, definitely not suitable for children, and very, very unsuitable as a double-bill with The Pianist, the other best movie of 2003 is one of the most splenetic comedies ever produced by a major studio. Even if your stomach is strong enough to handle the mug of hot, steaming vitriol that is Bad Santa, it’ll be in pain from laughing so hard. Be warned.

Let’s start with a couple of benchmarks: Crumb and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. The former is director Terry Zwigoff’s first effort, a mightily disturbing, funny, and fascinating documentary about the “underground” artist Robert Crumb. The latter is, of course, the feature film spinoff of the profanity-laced animated TV series South Park. If you dislike either of those films, or would rather not get close enough to find out if you dislike them or not, then Bad Santa is definitely not for you. On the other hand, if (like me) you’d rather swallow bile than saccharine and find insincerity more offensive than impropriety, then by all means check this shit out.

Billy Bob Thornton stars in what may be the most delicious role of his career as an unbelievably foul-mouthed department-store Santa Claus, a sneering, unshaven alcoholic who beats up plastic reindeer, yells obscenities at children, chain-smokes, screws women in the plus-size dressing rooms, and pisses himself on a regular basis. The holiday gig is a cover for his real job, which is cracking the safe of the department store. His handler (Tony Cox) is an ill-tempered black dwarf who dresses as an elf and does his best to keep Santa from falling over in his chair. Ho ho ho.

Why is this funny? It’s a concept that could easily go wrong in less confident hands, and at first it seems merely pathetic. The nervous titters and head-shaking, the “Oh my God, why am I watching this” reaction, gradually accelerates into honest chuckling and then helpless laughter as you realize that it is in fact deliberately pathetic, intensely pathetic, and it’s only getting more so, and it’s not going to stop. In fact, Thornton — as howlingly funny as he is — is more or less upstaged by an expressionless fat kid (Brett Kelly) who comes into his life, seemingly immune to the string of insults hurled his way, and takes the pathos to another level. When you find yourself weeping, you can’t tell whether it’s from laughter or pity. Strangely enough, Bad Santa manages to be not only the funniest and filthiest holiday movie ever made, but also one of the most heartwarming.


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