This has been the worst year at the movies since I became a film critic eight years ago. Until last week, I'd given only one movie a four-star rating: "Lost in Translation," the sublimely personal, exceptionally fine-tuned second feature from writer-director Sofia Coppola ("The Virgin Suicides"), who paints an esoteric yet emotionally intimate portrait of a bond blossoming between two reluctant tourists who are spiritually adrift in the buzzing, capricious chaos of Tokyo.
But then last week, as if by design, the star of that film -- incredibly gifted and radiantly melancholy Scarlett Johannson -- arrived in theaters again in a remarkably different guise to help renew my sense of cinematic wonder in "Girl With a Pearl Earring," a masterpiece film that imagines the story behind Johannes Vermeer's masterpiece painting of the same name.
Other than the technically-from-2002 "Russian Ark" -- a groundbreakingly experimental and utterly surreal historical epic that was shot in one uninterrupted, mind-boggling 93-minute take as it passes dreamlike through three centuries of Russia's royal past -- there were barely a handful of movies memorable and unimpeachable enough of being called the Best of 2003. So along with those seven titles described below, I gladly pay homage, by way of honorable mention, to another batch of movies that may be slightly less magnificent, but will certainly stand the test of time with their endearing and enduring entertainment value.
So without further ado...
|THE BEST OF 2003|
1) "LOST IN TRANSLATION"
Extraordinary in its lovely lyrical simplicity, Coppola's seemingly effortless, flawlessly fluid command of this unforgettable film's moods and unspoken emotions is pure cinematic bliss. Driven by evocative connections and captured moments between an unhappy young newlywed (pensive, sadly beautiful Johansson) and a weary, fading Hollywood star (the unexpectedly vulnerable, empathetic middle-aged Bill Murray) -- two spiritually adrift souls drawn together by mutual ennui and incongruity within their own lives and the culture around them -- "Translation" is a platonic romance of wonderfully, strangely life-affirming melancholy. Coppola and her stars tap into these characters so deeply that at times it feels as if they're whispering their most intimate feelings in our ears.
2) "GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING"
Director Peter Webber has such a mesmerizing command over the emotional resonance of this transporting period piece that there are moments in the picture so evocative, so stunning that they literally make you hold your breath. Johansson is even more enthralling here as the tentative, spellbound young housemaid who becomes muse and artistic confidant to the 17th century Dutch master (the solemnly magnetic Colin Firth), much to the lascivious pleasure of his Machiavellian patron (Tom Wilkinson) and to the jealousy of his vulnerable, volatile wife (Essie Davis). Full of imaginative Vermeer-inspired imagery, Webber's fluid command of the film's unspoken passions is heady and potent as Johansson and Firth build a halting but inescapable yearning between them that is tested by the thorny circumstances that lead to his painting of her portrait and the acquisition of the famous earring at its focal point. "Girl With a Pearl Earring" is so vivid in its depth and breadth that it's hard to imagine ever looking at the painting again without being influenced by the film.
3) "PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL"
The idea of a movie based on a Disneyland ride -- let alone one produced by imbecilic summer blockbuster king Jerry "Kaboom" Bruckheimer -- had me dreading this movie. But last summer I happily ate every bad word I said in anticipation of this matinee marvel. Exhilarating from beginning to end, thick with atmosphere, cleverly cliché-mocking, and blessed with two top-notch, over-the-top performances by Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush (I should have trusted these two intrepid actors), this may well be one of the most enjoyable pirate escapades of all time.
4) "THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE"
A beautifully, brilliantly bizarre, near-silent cartoon from France with a surreal storyline about a Tour de France biker kidnapped by the morphed-together henchmen of a midget mafioso to be part of a weird criminal carnival attraction. A rescue attempt mounted by his diminutive grandmother with one short leg, his overweight childhood dog, and a trio of aged Vaudeville singers only makes things weirder. Darkly whimsical, wildly imaginative and wholly unpredictable, I've never seen anything like it.
A frank, unnerving depiction of the peer-pressure slippery slope scaled by kids hungry for cool cache in the callous caste system of teenage social politics, "Thirteen" rings startlingly true, thanks in no small part to co-star Nikki Reed -- currently 15 years of age -- who co-wrote the script (with director Catherine Hardwicke) based loosely on her own experiences in a Los Angeles junior high. Told largely from the amorphous perspective of 7th grader Tracy (the compellingly natural, pubescently lovely Evan Rachel Wood), the film is a grippingly reckless joyride through impetuous shoplifting, impulsive piercings, improvised inebriation and rushed sexuality by a promising, once-ingenuous young girl who has yet to form a real sense of self. The result is easy to believe yet painful to accept -- and impossible to turn away from. Co-starring Holly Hunter in another flawless performance as Tracy's emotionally roughed-up mom.
I'm willing to predict that Charlize Theron will win the Oscar for her astonishing physical and quintessential transformation in playing leather-hearted truck-stop prostitute and serial killer Aileen Wuornos in this riviting, bleak, unforgiving but empathetic, and exceptionally intuitive biopic. She gained 30 pounds of cottage-cheesy cellulite, let her hair turn soap-washed stringy and her skin become uninviting splotchy for the role -- but that's all cosmetic. Her real makeover comes from the inside out, and you can see every hard mile of Wuornos' onerous drifter existence in Theron's crotch-scratching trucker carriage, in her sour, defensive, jowly, curled-lip, snaggle-toothed frown and especially in her unconsciously despairing black eyes as she simultaneously discovers her own vulnerability (in an affair with a naive, beleaguered young woman played by Christina Ricci) and begins systematically killing her road-side johns after being violently raped. There's much more to the film than Theron's disquieting submergence in her role, but she's the reason to see it.
7) "THE ITALIAN JOB"
Coincidentally co-starring Theron in her more familiar drop-dead-gorgeous form, this slick, sexy car-chase flick and stimulating heist picture rolled into one is smarter, more tense and less predictable than its big-budget style and car-product-placement plot would lead you to expect. An enjoyably escapist remake of a 1969 action-caper comedy packed with snappy twists and complications, its elaborate crook-vs.-crook climactic heist (involving an armored-car shell game and new BMW Mini Coopers in the L.A. subways) helps make the crisp, sharp-edged popcorn flick intelligent enough to satisfy moviegoers who want something more from a summer movie than hackneyed video-game heroics.
"THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING"
This culminating chapter in the most ambitious movie trilogy in history is a grand, engrossing, unprecedented and cinematically spectacular finale to "The Lord of the Rings" that represents every ounce of J.R.R. Tolkien's antediluvian spirit. Thrilling and even emotionally powerful, Peter Jackson's staggering vision and his capacity for bringing it to life are unquestionably worthy of the highest praise. But a minor litany of frustrating imperfections (not the least of which is that parts of the story are hard to follow for those not devoted to the books) hold these films back just enough that while I absolutely enjoyed all three, I'm still no more a fan than I was before their release -- and that's what I'd hoped for when the trilogy was complete.
Breaking the fourth wall in an extraordinarily innovative way, this wonderfully weird movie stars perennial second-banana Paul Giamatti as cantankerous file clerk Harvey Pekar -- the anti-hero of his own autobiographical underground comic book for the last 20 years -- and also features the real Harvey Pekar as meta-narrator ("OK, here's me, or the guy playing me, even though he doesn't look anything like me.") and commentator in sardonic interview segments that compliment the action. Peeling cartoon thought bubbles and other elements straight from the pages of "American Splendor," and incorporating them into the film, co-writers/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini capture brilliantly both the inner grumblings of charismatically prickly Pekar and his dark and uniquely unironic sense of self-parody. An absolute one-of-a-kind.
Further proving the animators at Pixar are ceaselessly, unflaggingly more clever and imaginative than anyone else working feature animation, this visually astounding underwater CGI cartoon is smarter, funnier and more entertaining than any other all-ages movie this year.
"THE GOOD THIEF"
There's a sad, compulsive, edge-of-the-abyss desperation to Nick Nolte's intuitive and informed performance as the title crook in this remake of Jean Pierre Melville's "Bob Le Flambeur" -- an innovative 1955 noir film that was also a precursor of the French New Wave movement. Writer-director Neil Jordan adds a palpable contemporary complexity to the stylish yet drug-hazed thriller with a decoy-packed heist as its centerpiece, but it's occassionally hard to follow, in part because while the dialogue has a rapidly rhythmic dry wit, absolutely everybody speaks in a Nolte-like half-awake mumble.
"MASTER & COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD
Two tremendous early-19th century sea battles comprise the bookends of this British maritime epic that is accurate down to the bloody palm prints of injured sailors steadying themselves on five-and-a-half-foot ceilings below decks. The film has no story arc to speak of -- it's just a Napoleonic-War cat-and-mouse game between an English frigate commanded by iron-willed Russell Crowe and a faster, heavier, better-armed French privateer. But even as a linear tale of battle strategy and personality that lacks a first act, the film is so well-acted and well-crafted that it engulfs you in a time and place where "the oceans have become the battlefields."
"DOWN WITH LOVE"
For anyone who's ever enjoyed the corny fluff of Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies -- or even gotten a good laugh out of their outdated sexual mores -- Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor will earn ear-to-ear grins for their deliciously tongue-in-cheek performances in this affectionate spoof of the pastel giddiness of late '50s/early '60s battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedies. Super-saturated with soundstagey Technicolor style and thick with whimsically ironic sexual inuendo, its only shortcoming is an elongated epilogue that falls back on the same clichés the movie is meant to mock.
Hitting the nail on the head of mother-daughter relationships -- and doing so with amusing savvy and imaginative good humor -- this Disney remake is smarter and more creative than the 1976 original, and the performances more than make up for the flick's few shortcomings. Worth seeing just for Jamie Lee Curtis, ideally cast as an exasperated teenager trapped in the body of her harried, head-shrinker mom.
Making a genuinely stirring, unabashedly all-American feel-good movie has to be one of the most difficult, precision tasks in modern cinema. But writer-director Gary Ross ("Pleasantville") beautifully sidesteps contemporary cynicism in this high-minded, stand-up-and-cheer crowd-pleaser about the underdog racehorse that captured the imagination of Great Depression-era sports fans. "Seabiscuit" may take place in a romanticized, simplified world (jocky Red Pollard's drinking and the fact that horseracing revolves around gambling have been whitewashed), but that's just because as a spiritual homage to old-fashioned Hollywood, that kind of modern biopic nitty-gritty isn't needed -- or welcome.
Nobody plays a rube as well as William H. Macy, and Bernie Lootz is a rube of epic proportions -- a guy with such an aura of ill fortune that he makes his living at a declining Las Vegas casino, bringing bad luck to hot-streak gamblers. But when Bernie falls in love, his luck changes, and that doesn't sit well with the mafioso casino bosses. Clever, funny, melancholy and blessed with outstanding performances, especially from Macy.
This is one hilariously crass Christmas comedy (and most certainly not for kids) about a sneering, bitter, broken-down, booze-hound mall-Santa con man (Billy Bob Thornton) whose antagonism is somewhat eroded by a friendship he strikes up with an overweight, none-too-bright, literally snot-faced kid (Brett Kelly) while plotting to rob a department store safe with his grumpy elf sidekick (Tony Cox). The most side-splitting, balls-to-the-wall politically incorrect crack-up since "There's Something About Mary." But if you're looking for warm-fuzzy holiday fare, look elsewhere.
A buoyant and evocative, hard-to-believe but easy-to-embrace collection of truth-stretching tales from a modern-day Munchausen, "Big Fish" couldn't be more perfectly matched to the appealingly off-kilter sensibilities of director Tim Burton, who directs Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney to a tandem performance as the young and old Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman whose fanciful yarns have always frustrated his paradoxally practical son Will (Billy Crudup) -- and never more so than now, as the old man is dying.
An inexplicably compelling, far-outside-the-box excursion from director Gus Van Sant, this modestly sweeping experimental movie -- one of very long takes and very little dialogue -- is about little more than two buddies (Van Sant's co-writers Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) getting lost in the desert. A meditative, metaphorical, metaphysical exploration of friendship and personal tribulation, it certainly isn't for everybody. But it certainly is a cunning stroke of transfixing simplicity, capturing the isolation, desolation, and paradoxical beauty of an portentously fateful journey.
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The film looks to be getting a reboot in a straight-to-TV Disney movie.