Sunday, November 29, 2009

My (and only my) best movies of the decade: The 2003 edition

Compared with the year that preceded it (and please feel free to look back at the first three installments of this series), 2003 was indeed a down year for movies, but that certainly didn't mean it still didn't have some real winners.

It was, in fact, a particularly strong year for documentaries. Two made the final cut you'll find below, and two just missed out: Jeffrey Blitz's "Spellbound" and Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's "Lost in La Mancha." Blitz, who also made one of my favorite movies of 2007 with the autobiographical and thoroughly charming "Rocket Science," is getting back in the documentary game next year with a movie about the lottery business, so keep your eyes out for it.

And, before we get to the main course, the other honorable mention movies for 2003 are: "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Chicago," "Swimming Pool," "Lost in Translation," "Pieces of April" and "The Station Agent."

OK, here goes, and as usual, please feel free to add any you think I might have wrongfully overlooked.

"Man on the Train"
I'll never understand why the French actor/singer Johnny Hallyday never became a big international star, because he's certainly got the charisma for it (although I suppose he's probably a bit too old now.) The best movie I've seen him in was this Patrice Leconte gem in which he plays a gangster who crosses paths with a retired school teacher played by the great Jean Rochefort, and then their lives start to merge. See it if you never have, and I guarantee you'll like it.

"Capturing the Friedmans"
A truly disturbing documentary, but filmmaker Andrew Jarecki was as fair as he could possibly be (many would say too fair) with the titular father and then son, who are accused and then convicted of truly heinous sexual acts involving children. As Jarecki delves into the case, interviewing the accusers as well as the family members themselves at length, the one fact that becomes clear is that "facts" and "truth" can indeed be elusive things.

"Dirty Pretty Things"
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou make an extremely unlikely but engaging pairing in this taut thriller from director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Steven Knight. It deals deftly with the complexities of immigration as it paints a perfectly seedy portrait of London's underbelly, and it and the comedy "The Snapper" (which certainly would have made this list somewhere if it hadn't come out way back in 1993) are my favorite Frears flicks.

"Bend It Like Beckham"
I suppose this is the "yes, really" entry on this list, but there really wasn't a more infectiously fun movie in 2003 than this one from director Gurinder Chadha. Besides, I just like movies about soccer ("The Damned United" will almost certainly make this year's list), and when you throw in a still fairly well-fed Keira Knightley and the real star, Parminder Nagra (who went on to have long run on "ER"), this makes for one I go back to once a year or so and still really enjoy.

"American Splendor"
By a fairly wide margin, this is my favorite movie of 2003, and still the only movie I've seen from directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (I really can't see myself watching "The Nanny Diaries" any time soon.) Harvey Pekar is probably the most unlikely pop culture figure ever, and Paul Giamatti just captures all his quirks perfectly. Fiction and reality blend seamlessly as we find out how Harvey's life as a VA file clerk was transformed by a meeting with R. Crumb that led him to create the titular cult comic book series and then by his endearing relationship with a Delaware comic book store owner, played by Hope Davis. And Judah Friedlander is just a hoot as his oddball buddy Toby.

"Fog of War"
In its own way, this Errol Morris documentary was even more creepy than "Capturing the Friedmans," mostly due to the candidness and stunning lack of remorse of its subject, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. A similar approach was taken with one of my favorite films of this year, James Toback's "Tyson" (which is out on DVD now.) You'll feel extremely frustrated as you see McNamara's evident genius laid out but then see how it still left him with either a blindness or simply a lack of conscience as to what was really going on in Vietnam.

"School of Rock"
Another "yes, really" entry I suppose, but this flick from Richard Linklater and screenwriter (and very unlikely reality TV star) Mike White was the funniest movie of 2003 in my book, and really, what more can you ask for? Jack Black was far from the grating presence he often is now, and is instead just impish enough as the teacher who teaches his young band of followers to rock out. Just a great "comfort" movie.

"Shattered Glass"
It's really a shame that Billy Ray doesn't direct movies more often, because though he's certainly better known as a screenwriter, the two flicks he's helmed - this one and "Breach" - are real winners. What they share is a claustrophobic feel that perfectly fits this story about disgraced "New Republic" "journalist" Stephen Glass. And though it's a thoroughly depressing case for anyone in my profession, Peter Sarsgaard is particularly good as "New Republic" editor Charles Lane, as is Hayden Christensen (again, yes, really) as the titular shyster.

"The Triplets of Belleville"
Can an animated movie with no discernible dialogue (and not named "Wall-E") really be considered one of the best movies of the last 10 years? I'd certainly say yes in this case, because writer/director Sylvain Chomet's story about a Tour de France champion (named, of course, Champion) who is kidnapped by the French mafia and the grandmother who comes to his rescue is as equally abstract as the animation itself, which renders its characters as oddly shaped and sometimes indeed grotesque. It's a whole lot more charming than I'm making it sound here, believe me.

"Big Fish"
Though he's made some other great ones - and some real duds too - this has stood up through the years as my favorite Tim Burton movie. It's based on the equally good novel by Daniel Wallace, a Southerner with a genuine gift for storytelling, and it's mostly about exactly that - a son who has to sort through the various stories (and perhaps lies) his dying father has told throughout his life. In Burton's hands, and with a dynamite cast that included Ewan McGregor, Billy Crudup, Albert Finney, Jessice Lange, Helena Bonham Carter (of course) and even a young Marion Cotillard, this is a fantastic tribute to the power of the imagination.

And there you have it. Please feel free to add any you may wish to, and to check back Tuesday for a look at 2004. Peace out.


The Mad Hatter said...

I'm catching up today, but I'll bet you're enjoying the influx of comments.

'03, you might remember was one of those years the studios felt hellbent to bombard us with in a way, the onus fell to the indie divisions to pick up the slack. (And in a lot of ways they did!).

Kudos for AMERICAN SPLENDOR btw - one of the very best graphic novel adaptations ever done! No love for KILL BILL though?

You know the drill by now...

Reel Fanatic said...

I certainly never mind any influx of comments, Mad Hatter, and now that I'm on my lunch break, you'll be getting one from me in return ... I thought the first "Kill Bill" movie was OK, but more than a little too silly (I mean really, a "Pussy Wagon"?) ... If you don't know already, though, I'll spoil it for you ... QT gets my vote for the top movie so far in 2009 for "Inglourious Basterds"

The Mad Hatter said...

Comment trading is fun that way, ain't it.

I'm curious though RF...what would you think of KILL BILL if it was one big movie the way QT had originally intended?

Reel Fanatic said...

I think it would have been a whole lot better that way, assuming he did a little editing to each part to condense it a bit ... I liked part two a whole lot better than I did part one

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