It’s been the year of The Geezer. Which geezer, exactly? Why, Gorgeous George Clooney, of course. He’s either appeared in or been behind the scenes of the most notable US films of the year and has wowed every ‘middle youth’ guy on both sides of the Atlantic with his easy charm and off-the-cuff political pronouncements. Apparently the ladies like him too.
Clooney’s latest venture with Steven Soderbergh, Solaris, is my film of 2003. Its measured pacing is in contrast to what we have come to expect of US cinema, as is the elliptical narrative. But give yourself up to it, as all too few people were willing to do, and it’s a hugely rewarding and – yes, damn it – moving experience. And I write as someone not necessarily automatically pre-disposed to the sort of European ‘art cinema’ Soderbergh was mocked for attempting to emulate. The climax (if such a resolutely measured film can be said to have such a thing) had me in tears. And – no mean achievement, this – it’s short; about 90 minutes and you’re on your way. Of course, the marketers couldn’t handle it and the campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic were pathetically misjudged. In the US, the emphasis was on Clooney’s naked rear; in the UK, the posters bore the strap line ‘What is Solaris?’ (i.e. ‘We don’t know how to sell this film’). At the time of writing, Fox seems to have given up on it completely and you can pick it up on some DVD web sites for under £7.00. Treat yourself.
I also loved Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Admittedly uneven, it nonetheless explores the sort of experimentation, intellectual curiosity and narrative ambiguity that places it alongside the films from the Sixties and Seventies that Clooney and Soderbergh’s Section Eight production company aspire to emulate. On a visceral level, it features two sensational performances in Sam Rockwell’s Chuck Barris – demented game show inventor or hapless CIA agent, or, er, both? – and Rutger Hauer’s rehabilitation from straight-to-video hell as an aging field agent who can see the end coming. His pose for the picture that Barris takes of him while strangling an opponent was both the funniest and most disturbing thing I saw at the pictures this year. After Donnie Darko (2001), Drew Barrymore’s involvement here is further proof that she is becoming an important figure amongst Hollywood actresses, and we can forgive her the Charlie’s Angels franchise if she continues to use it to subsidise her work elsewhere.
Reluctantly withdrawing from out-and-out Clooney toadying by electing not to make Far from Heaven (also produced by Section Eight) my third choice, I’m instead going to pick one of several documentaries which encouragingly found a successful UK theatrical release – Être et Avoir. Nicolas Philibert’s record of a year in a classroom with twelve children in the remote French region of Auvergne was a massive hit in France, and did so well in the UK that it was still in cinemas when it was screened on BBC4. While it is not hard to see why those who saw it loved it – the lack of self-consciousness of the children, many of whom emerge as complex personalities in their own right; the benign patrician charm of dedicated teacher M. Lopez (the film covers his final, twentieth, year at the school); the unfussy, resolutely non-verité approach of Philibert – the truly heart-warming story is the number of people who went out and saw it. Perhaps they were persuaded to leave the comfort of their homes and pay to see a documentary as a palate-cleanser from the increasingly egregious cobblers filling up 95% of multiplex screens. Which leads me to…
Matrix Revolutions is my Turkey of the Year, a boring, gratuitously violent (and I like movie violence) and unintelligible two-hour trailer for a video game that made Return of the Jedi (1983) look like Citizen Kane (1942). Whoever thought this excuse for a movie would satisfy fans of the original should be locked in a room with DVDs of the films mentioned above in order to ponder the total worthlessness of their lives.
As clichéd and backwards looking as it sounds, 2003 for me was all about cinema’s response to the 11th of September 2001.
In a year where much of US cinema has focused on recovery (Seabiscuit to American Splendor), trust two of the country’s most reactionary yet disparate directors to make roaring rampages of revenge. As much as the Shaw Brothers, Sonny Chiba flicks and Leone have influenced Tarantino’s eyebrow-raised, hack and slash-fest, there is a real life, 21st century event that has left its mark on his movie-movie, Kill Bill Vol. 1. The more you think about his simple revenge saga, the more ambiguous the whole thing seems. Why has Bill attempted to take the life of The Bride? A swift flashback towards the end suggests that The Bride knew of Bill’s presence at the chapel, yet still went ahead with the wedding anyway, putting her congregation and child at risk. Suddenly a war of revenge has unclear motives, shifting targets, an incongruous culpability. The Bride’s charge against her deadly former colleagues seems to mirror another recent conflict with murky, untrustworthy purposes behind it. And at least we get to see the carnage and waste in this crusade, albeit in cartoonish, exaggerated terms.
Similarly, the parade sequence that puzzlingly closes Eastwood’s masterful Mystic River left my imagination reeling. It’s a troubling resurrection of Golden Age Hollywood storytelling values combined with a European sense of meaning and politics – Clint’s best since Outlaw Josey Wales and my most cerebral viewing experience in years. We’ve already come a long way since the year kicked off with the misfire of Gangs of New York. Scorsese’s troubled epic had even more fat tacked on with that ridiculous time-lapse to the Twin Towers at the close of his overblown and erratic pet project, leaving it up to Spike to actively voice the emotions behind the disaster from a Big Apple perspective.
25th Hour was full of anger, blame, self-loathing and despair. You could say that the references to 9/11 seemed just as bolted on as in Gangs of New York, but at least the event inspired Spike to get back to what he was doing best; making cinema that has something to say, articulately and with passion. In a muddled year for world cinema and blockbuster products, it was a strange triumvirate of US auteurs who made sure the big screen deserved my ongoing admiration.
Worst Film of 2003 – The Matrix Revolutions
The Matrix Revolutions failed to capitalise on the goodwill its first half had generated in me and yet still managed to disappoint even the faithful with its strange focus on new protagonists, creaky cyberpunk imagery and Hasbro cartoon style action sequences. The Matrix Revolutions is the worst 80s syndicated cartoon series never made. It says a huge amount that the most enjoyable moments of what was hyped as the most radical action / sci-fi trilogy ever were the dull, philosophical conversations between wooden actors. Thank the Architect it is all over!
Thessa Mooij 1. Lost in Translation
1. Lost in Translation
Jealous media types in the US have tried to slag Sofia off as a talentless trust fund baby. They are even gloating over her imminent break-up with hubby Spike Jonze. True, American film schools are full of rich kids whose parents can afford the $30.000 a year tuition – but they can’t pull off a film like this. She may have invented a new genre: the langorous comedy. Main ingredient: Bill Murray. Add Antonioni-style pacing and you have that rare breed: an accomplished American indie film. Sofia’s dad tried to get her to shoot digitally, but she even shot the exteriors in the subway on celluloid. American audiences like to be told how they should feel about the story and the characters. Sofia doesn’t care. She just lets us watch – and enjoy.
2. Uzak (Distant)
Won the Grand Prize of the Jury in Cannes and the Best Actor award for Muzaffer Özdemir and Emin Toprak, who play a jaded industrial photographer and his lazy country cousin respectively. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan gets compared to Kiarostami, Tarkovsky and even Anton Chekhov, bless him. Even though the two men are holed up in the photographer’s classy Istanbul flat, Ceylan makes the distance between them palpable. The yokel is young, but not full of energy. The photographer is looking back on all the wrong turns he made in life (this is where Chekhov comes in). Not even a trip to photogenic Anatolia can cheer him up. The melancholy is strangely soothing. Few filmmakers can make semi-emptiness seem so entrancing.
3. Raising Victor Vargas
Sollett is a graduate from NYU film school (see above). He was lucky and talented enough to get picked up by Cannes’ training programme Cinefondation, where he turned his short Five Feet High and Rising into this feature. Improvising with the same Lower East Side latino teens that starred in the short, Sollett has made a very sweet film about first love. He has let the actors breathe humour and depth into their roles. The bouncy kids are in your face, but the camera is not. A balanced and confident debut.
Worst Film – 21 Grams / Big Fish
Both films which are a pretentious waste of acting talent (Benicio del Toro, Sean Penn, Albert Finney).