(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2004)
Not a bad year at all, and one that finds an unprecedented degree of overlap between my own best ten list and the mainstream consensus. The year was short on unheralded discoveries, but maybe that just means everyone did a better job than usual of finding the good stuff. Here they are, in no particular order.
25th Hour (Spike Lee)
Lee’s film studies a convicted drug dealer (Edward Norton) on the day before he turns himself in for a lengthy prison sentence, spending time with his oldest friends, the girlfriend he suspects turned him in and – in perhaps the film’s dominant image – the dog he found dying at the side of the road and then saved. It’s a distinctly post-traumatic New York; the film often refers to September 11, and frequently feels as though that event had knocked Lee’s stuffing out of him. But it’s a fascinating aesthetic construction, like all Lee’s films, and sustains a remarkably comprehensive study of attitudes (aided by an excellent cast). The film’s final passage was much criticized, but I thought it was beautifully rendered, dreamily summing up the film’s equilibrium between resignation and escape.
A ma soeur (Catherine Breillat)
Breillat’s controversial film (also known as Fat Girl) finally opened here this year after being banned in Ontario for over a year. More cunning and insinuating than her best known film Romance, it revolves around two teenage sisters (one lithe and attractive, the other not) whose relationship regularly swings between hostility and extreme closeness. The film has several sequences that perfectly fulfil Breillat’s clinical interest in the mechanics of sexual politics, but its major impact comes in the startling finale. The destruction of a family marks, in the crudest sense, the fat girl’s ascension as a woman, but that instantly brings compromise and evasion. It’s a moment brilliantly gripped in ambiguity and contradiction, a microcosm of Breillat’s cinema.
Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki)
Jarecki’s film, my favourite of several heralded documentaries this year, chronicles a family’s tortured history (the father and youngest son were both imprisoned for child sex abuse), using videotapes taken by another family member. The director was incredibly lucky to stumble on this material, and to some extent you might find yourself admiring his work more as assemblage and research than as art. But that would be unfair, for Capturing the Friedmans is extremely subtle and ambiguous, raising issues about truth, fairness, sexuality, social norms, and the nature of cinema, among many others. And it’s one film in which you categorically feel relief for the happy ending (or as happy an ending as the circumstances make possible).
Mystic River (Clint Eastwood)
Whether or not this is a great film (I think it’s at least pretty close), it’s certainly fascinating viewed in the context of Eastwood’s oeuvre. The cold moral certainty of his classic persona is translated here into a complex examination of guilt and innocence, which the film presents as relative rather than absolute states. Sean Penn is memorable as a grieving father whose search for his daughter’s killer coexists uneasily with the police investigation led by his childhood friend; a plot summary would sound schematic, but the film has an intensity and sense of purpose that are at times transcendent.
American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini)
I’m putting this in my top ten even though I think it was a little overrated in some quarters. It’s the chronicle of blue-collar cartoonist Harvey Pekar, who appears as himself in some scenes and is played by Paul Giamatti in others. It has all the allusiveness of something like Adaptation while seeming much more laid back and crafty – the fact that it leaves you feeling slightly underwhelmed is actually a mark of its success in that it elevates normal life without romanticizing it.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Jonathan Mostow)
No, I don’t really think this is one of the year’s best ten. But as I look back over 2003, it stands out as almost the only blockbuster that wasn’t a severe disappointment. Admittedly I didn’t see most of them, but most of those I did see were either offputtingly pretentious (The Hulk, Matrix Reloaded) or else dumb even by the genre’s normal standards (Charlie’s Angels). This one was concentrated and focused, with straight-down-the-line action, leading to a remarkable ending, and generally avoided the fake digital look that proliferated elsewhere. I might even watch it again, eventually.
Spider (David Cronenberg)
A chronicle of a man who’s released from a mental asylum after many years – we first follow the sparse rituals of his new life, then a memory of his childhood, although we’re never quite sure until the end exactly what we’re watching: the film troublingly foregrounds the process of image creation. It’s more self-effacing than most other Cronenberg films and as such does perfect service to Spider’s inner world, although I rather missed those Cronenbergian extremes (which manifest themselves very subtly here).
9-11-01 (Youssef Chahine, Amos Gitai, Sean Penn, Mira Nair, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Shohei Imamura, Danis Tanovic, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Samira Makhmalbaf)
This somewhat controversial film was finally released here in November after showing at last year’s festival. It’s eleven short films by eleven directors from eleven countries, taking vastly different approaches towards the basic mandate of commemorating/commenting on September 11. Under the circumstances, it’s remarkable how subtly balanced it feels as a whole. Among the highlights: Loach cogently contrasts 9-11-01 with 9-11-73, on which the Chilean army (with American backing) rose against the elected Allende government. All in all, the film places 9-11 in context without diminishing it; only the most supremely self-righteous could seriously object.
21 Grams (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
The title of Inarritu’s English-language debut refers to the body weight that’s supposedly lost at the moment of death, and the film – intertwining three separate stories that gradually come together – is largely a meditation on how normal life, placed in proximity to death, breaks down. It’s told in a highly fragmented style, switching rapidly (but artfully) between plot lines and points in time. It’s a big film with big gestures, and with acting (by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro) of transformational power that’s central to the film’s fabric. 21 Grams is easy to criticize in various ways, but few films this year matched it for sheer power.
Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson hang out together in Tokyo – creating, for a few days, a private world where they share a mysterious, unspoken agreement about the rules. The much-noted opening shot, of Johansson’s behind lounging on the bed in a pair of pink panties, is a symbol of sorts for what follows. It evokes an oblique kind of eroticism, a highly evocative sense of colour and texture and composition, and most significantly, an evasive sense of character and motivation (is Johansson being objectified here, or is the shot in some sense defining the film as hers?) This film too was overrated in some quarters, but has strengths galore.