The London Film Festival always screws up my attempts to compile a Movies of the Year list. Just as I’m writing 2003 off as a cinematic no-hoper, along it comes and screens some of the best films I’ve seen in the past eleven months. This year was no exception, but because most aren’t on general release until next year, they don’t qualify for inclusion here. Still, although I saw it first in 2002, I have no qualms about including Far From Heaven in my Top Three: Todd Haynes’ second collaboration with Julianne Moore is a sumptuous, heartbreaking ode to the classic melodramas of Douglas Sirk, which rises above Scream-style jokes at the expense of movie convention and smug juxtapositions, in the manner of Pleasantville, of the conservative 50s with the supposedly enlightened 90s, to make powerful comment on prejudice past and present.
Elsewhere it was encouraging to see further evidence of what is shaping up as a golden age for the documentary in the cinema, albeit one which dovetails with a comparative decline on television. Spellbound, Touching the Void and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer all drew audiences and would have featured in a longer list of mine, but it is Être et Avoir that left the most lasting impression. Its strength came in the simplicity of its project, a year in the life of a primary school teacher in a French village, and the emotional richness of the community life it captured.
Finishing on a high, Belleville Rendez-vous confounded those declaring the death of hand-drawn animation. With its surreal sense of humour and finger-clicking soundtrack it was just as much fun as Finding Nemo. But whereas the latter felt like another example of the Pixar formula (and a perfectly good one, at that), Sylvain Chomet’s film took a host of reference points (early Disney, Jeunet and Caro) and came up with something that dazzled because it looked and felt new.
Such virtues were nowhere to be seen in Alan Parker’s The Life of David Gale, my least favourite film of 2003. Aside from squandering the talents of a strong cast including Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet and Laura Linney (who having also appeared in nearly-as-dreadful Love Actually must now be considering a change in agents), Parker managed to reduce the moral complexities of the death penalty debate to a series of trite plot twists – and then had the gall to suggest that the film was an impassioned attack on capital punishment.
Edward Lamberti 1. Le Fils / The Son
1. Le Fils / The Son
Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) teaches carpentry to troubled teens. One day, a new boy, Francis (Morgan Marinne), arrives. The first stretch of the film depicts Olivier’s anxiety at the boy’s presence. Once we have found out the reason for his turmoil, the film heads for a breathtaking climax. Writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (La Promesse, Rosetta) here pare down filmmaking to the bare essentials, revealing feelings through behaviour. Now out on DVD from Artificial Eye after its brief cinema release, Le Fils contains outstanding performances from Gourmet and Marinne, and fine support from Isabella Soupart as Olivier’s ex.
2. The Pianist
Roman Polanski directs an adaptation of the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Polish Jewish pianist who was living in Warsaw at the outbreak of World War II, and spent the war hiding out in the city. Polanski had long wanted to make a film about this period, which he lived through; what makes The Pianist so special is his controlled direction. Ronald Harwood’s lucid screenplay and Pavel Edelman’s cinematography also deserve special mentions.
3. Honogurai Mizu No Soro Kara / Dark Water
After Ring, director Hideo Nakata had a tough act to follow – and he didn’t manage it with Ring 2. Dark Water, though, is superb. It’s the story of a mother (Hitomi Kuroki) and daughter (Rio Kanno) who move into a dilapidated apartment block. The mother is embroiled in a custody battle for the girl, and so her state of mind is rather heightened and paranoid. But that doesn’t quite explain the patches of water that appear on the ceiling, or the glimpses of a little girl in a yellow raincoat… Dark Water is a model of atmosphere, suspense and, in the final reel, outright horror – and Nakata rounds it off with a coda that articulates the film’s poignant undercurrent.
Worst film of the year – Phone Booth
I’ve chosen Phone Booth (or, rather, Phone Booth chose me) because it was the most ostentatiously awful film of the year. This is a film with essentially one set and one situation – and director Joel Schumacher still couldn’t keep it all together. Colin Farrell can act, but here he’s irritating as hell. And this film had the most woeful villain in quite some time.
Jason Wood 1. El Bonaerense
1. El Bonaerense
A stunning follow-up to 1999’s Mundo grua (Crane World), Pablo Trapero’s El Bonaerense is one of the year’s most sorely neglected works. The tale of an unworldly provincial locksmith coerced into joining a brutal police force in a Buenos Aires province, it’s a scintillating and frequently unforgiving mediation on bribery and corruption.
2. All the Real Girls
Building impressively on the promise of George Washington, All the Real Girls confirms David Gordon Green as one of the most interesting and distinctive voices in contemporary American cinema. A lyrical, exquisitely composed (Tim Orr again handles cinematography) and bewitchingly naturalistic look at the travails of love in a small North Carolina town, it ensures that Green’s next project – Undertow- is awaited with fevered anticipation.
3. Russian Ark
Sokurov’s technical tour de force – a digitally short, single take steadicam journey through Russian history – was perhaps the most momentous cinematic event of the year. A living, breathing document in which history comes to life before our very eyes, it’s achievements are likely to remain unparalleled.
Worst film of the year – Kill Bill Vol. 1
Adolescent and boorish, the film I personally disliked most in 2003 was Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Though admittedly executed with flair, as a whole this was a tiresome exercise in homage. Avoid and go for Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi instead.