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.

03 January 1990

Video Roundup 2003

2003 Movie Roundup: On Video

These are the best films I saw on VHS/DVD in 2003. Not all of them were released in 2003, so this is an especially subjective list.

Honorable Mention (all rated four stars): The Business of Strangers, Changing Lanes, The Devil’s Backbone, The Fast Runner, Ghost Story, The Isle, The Lion in Winter, Narc, Nowhere in Africa, Paper Moon, Scandal, Sophie’s Choice, Spun, Tuck Everlasting, Walking and Talking

10. Gangs of New York ****

Critics mostly panned this one, calling it overblown, excessively violent, poorly acted, ugly and depressing. I think that it’s nowhere near as violent as most of Scorsese’s oeuvre, that it’s appropriately expansive for its subject matter, that Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing and Cameron Diaz not at all bad but Leonardo DiCaprio needs to go back to playing retarded teenagers STAT, and that the ugly and depressing (yet somehow gorgeous) feel of the movie is essential to Scorsese’s theme. It’s also brave of him. Not many people want to confront the essential ugliness of American history, particularly not in New York so soon after 9/11, particularly not on the palette of a big-budget movie. But there are important lessons to be learned from this film, the most essential of which is the lesson of class warfare. Sureños and Norteños in my own backyard would benefit from pondering how easy it is for the rich to stay rich while the poor slaughter each other.

9. Ordinary Decent Criminal ****

This mostly unnoticed small-scale film would make it onto my top ten list if for no other reason than it stars Kevin Spacey, not sucking. I’ll say it again: Kevin Spacey is in this movie, and he doesn’t suck. At all. After winning us over with his bravura turns in Seven and The Usual Suspects lo these many years ago, Kevin’s gone the Nicolas Cage route with his forays into schlock (K-PAX, Pay it Forward), and it hurts. Well, relax: he hasn’t lost his touch. He sports a flawless Irish accent in this charming, entertaining tale of a thief who always stays one step ahead of the law and the IRA.

8. Secretary ****

Call me kinky, but I loved this movie. I was expecting a nudge-nudge wink-wink comedy, which would have been fine, but Secretary isn’t. It has moments of humor, but it’s not a comedy. Neither is it the dark semi-tragedy of Mary Gaitskill’s original story, on which it is loosely based. Not until the film is over does it become clear that what it really is, oddly enough, is a romance. It’s one of the very few movies I’ve ever seen about BDSM that doesn’t treat its subject as a joke or an excuse for brainless porn. Maggie Gyllenhall and James Spader are remarkably brave actors.

7. Ma Vie en Rose (My Life in Pink) ****

Not a new film, but well worth seeking out (and easy to spot because of its bright pink box). You’ll find it in the foreign section. Ludovic is a young person who was born with a penis, but has known from the beginning that she is a girl. Her family responds with varying degrees of horror, understanding and exasperation as Ludovic grows up and discovers how difficult it is to stay true to yourself in a world that isn’t built to accept you. Funny and sad and heartwarming.

6. Raising Victor Vargas ****

This low-budget charmer is the story of a young playa, his family, and the girl he likes. It’s refreshingly authentic, free of Hollywood conventions and stereotypes. An excellent movie to see with your teenage kids, if you happen to have any.

5. He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not ****

Audrey Tautou plays off her Amélie cuteness to great effect in this romantic thriller. If you’ve heard anything about it, you probably have a fairly good idea of what to expect, and even if you haven’t, you’ll sense early on that things are not what they appear. Still, it’s surprising. I don’t want to say anything else about it, other than that it’s twisty enough not to need the bonus twist ending.

4. Interview with the Assassin ****

Another movie most people didn’t see. In the faux-documentary genre of The Blair Witch Project. (Side note: whether you loved, hated or were indifferent to The Blair Witch Project, you owe it to yourself to track down The Last Broadcast, a similarly-themed movie that was made before Blair Witch and is a thousand times better.) I’m not a conspiracy theory junkie, and I’m not especially interested in the circumstances of JFK’s death — there’s more than enough modern-day corruption to keep it low on my list of priorities — but this movie had me hooked. Very creepy. Very believable.

3. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind **** 1/2

Charlie Kaufman. Sam Rockwell. George Clooney. Chuck Barris. Not as funny as you might expect. Not as entertaining as you might expect. Unexpected, in short: oddly disturbing, strangely deep, weirdly effective, and unusually memorable.

2. Better Luck Tomorrow **** 1/2

One of those movies you just know is going to be excellent, right from the opening scene. In some ways it’s nothing you haven’t seen before — the classic theme of Youth Gone Wrong, updated every couple of years to shock parents afresh and remind them how little control they really have over their pubescent babies — but the script and the acting are so crisp that it seems new all over again. This time the kids are Asian honors students, bored by the ease of their success, waylaid by the glamorous world of sex, drugs and cheating on papers. Movies starring Asian-Americans who play themselves in a realistic context are hard to come by, and it’s even rarer to find one as vigorous and smart as this.

1. High Noon *****

I know, I know: how could I not have already seen this a dozen times? Westerns, in general, are not my thing. I guess I kept writing this off as one of those classics you don’t really need to bother with. Oh children, don’t do as I have done. If you have any kind of passion for the cinema, if you can appreciate the artistry of a well-made film as well as take in its surface entertainment value, then you’ve got to see High Noon, one of the most flawless movies I’ve ever seen. There is something about the simplicity of it, the perfect balance of all its elements, that transcends the usual forms of criticism. Gary Cooper plays a good sheriff, recently retired, who returns to town to face down a bad man he helped put away years ago. The movie takes place in real time, the clock ticking closer to the moment when the train will pull into the station and the showdown will begin. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Put away your cynicism. Watch.

And the worst films I saw on VHS/DVD in 2003:

10. All the King’s Men ** 1/2

It won Best Picture the year it came out, but this movie is a shameless rip-off of the infinitely better Citizen Kane. Loosely based on the tumultuous career of Louisiana senator Huey Long, All the King’s Men suffers from a chronic lack of subtlety. Unless you enjoy having an obvious moral lesson shoved down your throat, skip it.

9. Dream for an Insomniac **

Rented it because it had a great preview, which turned out to contain all the parts of the movie that didn’t suck. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

8. Sidewalks of New York **

Ed Burns is an egotistical hack who can’t write, act, or direct worth a damn. He thinks he’s a cross between Brad Pitt and Woody Allen, but he’s more like a cross between Chris O’Donnell and Gilbert Gottfried. This movie makes me want to punch him.

7. The Man From Elysian Fields **

Olivia Williams is one of the most gorgeous women I’ve ever seen who isn’t my wife. She’s in this, and looking at her is most enjoyable. Mick Jagger is also in this, and it’s amusing to watch him vamp. James Coburn is in this, gruff as always, and Andy Garcia is in this, stiff and sad-eyed and in love with his own good looks as always. The acting is fine. The dialogue is terrible. The story is pathetic. It’s a turkey.

6. XXX **

Vin Diesel. Nuff said.

5. Desperado **

Antonio Banderas. Nuff said.

4. Mau Mau Sex Sex **

This should (and could) have been an entertaining documentary of two pioneers of exploitation film. Perhaps it would have been, had it focused more on the films themselves and less on endless rambling interviews with the codgers who made them.

3. Dude, Where’s My Car? * 1/2

My own damn fault. Something in me wanted to see the stupidest movie I could possibly find, so I rented this, and boy did it deliver. Aside from one gag (“And then?”) that inexplicably had me and Marla sobbing with laughter for days, it was a void into which no humor dared enter. Ashton Kutcher has the acting ability of a steaming turd.

2. Audrey Rose *

Oh so crappy, oh oh so crap-py. One of those ’70s flicks based on a cheesy paperback bestseller. Anthony Hopkins should be ashamed for appearing in this. It’s the story of a little girl who one day starts freaking out, and no one knows why, and it turns out that she’s the reincarnation of another little girl who died in a car accident. Features some of the most overwrought acting I’ve ever seen in my life. Simply awful.

1. Erik the Viking *

OH MY GOD THIS MOVIE SUCKS SO HARD IT MAKES ME WANT TO CUT OFF THE TONGUE AND HANDS OF TERRY JONES SO HE CAN NEVER EVER MAKE ANOTHER MOVIE EVER AGAIN. I’m crying as I write this. It hurts to remember this movie. This is a comedy that begins with Tim Robbins in a Viking costume trying to rape a woman, being unable to go through with it, and engaging in a philosophical debate with her instead. It gets progressively less funny from there. It’s the sort of thing you might expect a 12-year-old Dungeons & Dragons nerd to write and perform with his friends, and you’d say “Wow, that was really good” when it was over, because you don’t want to crush the creative spirit of a socially challenged pre-teen. Terry Jones is a grown man who has no excuse. JESUS CHRIST THIS MOVIE, IT JUST . . . GRRRRAAAAAGGGGH!!!


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