2003's Top Ten Films

My favorite films from 2003 featured some unconventional and unlikely heroes -- a file clerk, a hapless casino flunkie, a dying college professor, an illegal immigrant, a juvenile delinquent, a reclusive dwarf, an overprotective clownfish, a tall tale teller, a vengeful hitwoman, and an embezzling bank executive. These protagonists exemplify how the year's best films emphasized strong characters, in some cases even more than the story. This also holds true with my Honorable Mention list (in alphabetical order):

  • Bad Santa
  • Casa de los Babys
  • Capturing the Friedmans
  • In America
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  • Lost in Translation
  • Pieces of April
  • School of Rock
  • Shattered Glass
  • Swimming Pool

True, 2003 had more than its share of mindless blockbusters and sequels. But many of these, such as The Matrix Revolutions, and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, fell flat. My top ten are what Quentin Tarantino calls "hang out movies." In other words, we watch them repeatedly because we want to hang out with the characters. They might not all be likable and some may be downright frightening, but they're all interesting:

10. Owning Mahowny (dir. Richard Kwietnowski)

Owning Mahowny effectively demythologizes gambling by depicting it as a devastating addiction. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Dan Mahowny, a man closed off to every part of life except gambling, his only thrill. As his habit worsens, he embezzles money from his bank to play in the casinos. Kwietnowski unfolds his film simply, letting Hoffman's acting demonstrate how Mahowny got away with his crime for so long. Mahowny, to any passerby is dull, conservative, boring; and the last person you'd expect to see in a casino. Hoffman is best known for his more demonstrative turns, but here subtlety is his key. He conveys Mahowny's banality but also his growing desperation. Hoffman's restraint and small touches make his performance, and the film, all the more powerful.

9. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Tarantino wins "Comeback of the Year" with his loving homage to spaghetti westerns and 70's martial arts flicks. He even throws in his own brand of animé (a distinct type of Japanese animation). Unlike some of Tarantino's other films, Kill Bill has a straightforward plot. The Bride, a former hitwoman, is shot and left for dead at her wedding by her former boss and colleagues, who already killed the rest of the wedding party. She wakes up four year later and vows revenge. Tarantino also provides less dialogue and much more action than his earlier work. And what action it is -- beautifully choreographed, and absurdly over the top -- just right for the genre. But make no mistake, Kill Bill has the Tarantino style and panache his fans love. Uma Thurman, in her best role in years, shines as the unstoppable avenging angel. Vivica A. Fox, Darryl Hannah, and especially Lucy Liu bring to life wonderfully distinctive villains. Of course, the best part is there's more to come -- Vol. 2 arrives in April.

8. Big Fish (dir. Tim Burton)

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." So goes the famous quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but that line equally applies to Big Fish. Edward Bloom always told outrageous exaggerated stories about his life, amusing everyone but his son William. As Edward lays dying William attempts to determine the truth, while his father tells his tales one last time. Slowly William discovers that Edward's stories are who the man is, whether they're true or not. Ewan McGregor as the younger Edward and Albert Finney as the older man give smooth performances that blend together seamlessly. Burton lends his customary visual flair to a much more personal film than his ususal work. His dazzling visuals bring to life Edward's stories and captivate the audience. But he never loses sight of the emotions at the film's center. Burton's skills touch the heart as well as the eyes.

7. Finding Nemo (dir. Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich)

The Pixar team has always known how to tell a good story with warmth and humor. With Finding Nemo, they also create a work of stunning beauty. The breathtaking color and detail grab you before the story even begins. The film has fun with the complexity of the underwater setting, playing tricks on the characters with size and distance. And how the hell do you animate fish? The Pixar folks found a way, giving their fish faces more expression than many human actors have. At the same time, they did not forget the wit, charm and feeling that made their Toy Story films such a success. The stories and characters, while set in a different world, are human at their very core. Finding Nemo will demonstrate the staying power to become a true animated classic.

6. The Station Agent (dir. Thomas McCarthy)

There are not usually many strong roles for dwarves, but 2003 had two -- one in Bad Santa, and the other in The Station Agent, the big hit from last year's Sundance Film Festival. Peter Dinklage plays a man so tired of being ridiculed and gawked at for his short stature that he shuts himself off from the world. He moves to rural New Jersey after inheriting a train depot. There he meets Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a gregarious coffee vendor, and Olivia, (Patricia Clarkson) a lonely soul recovering from the death of her young son. Together, the three make up a pseudo-family. Clarkson gives one of her finest performances as a woman desperately trying to keep herself together. When she finally breaks down, her grief and intensity make it a truly heartbreaking scene. Dinklage accomplishes much, even though he has little dialogue until later into the film. His measured, layered acting are prefect in portraying a man who keeps his feelings to himself. McCarthy takes his time with the story, letting his intelligent script and his actors' skill carry the film.

5. Thirteen (dir. Catherine Hardwicke)

A sweet thirteen year-old girl falls into sex, petty theft and drugs. Sounds like an afterschool special, and in lesser hands it could have been. But Thirteen avoids platitudes and easy answers. The film simply feels authentic, perhaps in part because Hardwicke co-wrote the script with Nikki Reed (also one of the film's co-stars) based on the latter's real-life experiences. Hardwicke ably shows the slippery slope where one mistake can quickly lead to many more. Terrific performances all around, especially by Evan Rachel Wood in the lead role of Tracy and Holly Hunter as Tracy's mother. Hunter lets you see the conflict in her character, who is torn between trying to be the "cool parent" and her growing concern over her Tracy's behavior. Hunter simply throws herself into the part without any vanity or pretense. As for Hardwicke, Thirteen marks her directing debut after years as a production designer. She has a promising new career ahead of her.

4. Dirty Pretty Things (dir. Stephen Frears)

While Dirty Pretty Things excels as a thriller, it's first an eye opening portrait of London's illegal immigrant underworld. The denizens work menial jobs, scrounging to make a living while shadowed by the fear of discovery and deportation. One of these immigrants is Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a former doctor working as a cab driver and a hotel clerk. Okwe discovers an underground "business" that provides his fellow illegals with fake immigration papers in exchange for one of their kidneys. He could come forward with this information, but that would risk his own exposure. Frears skillfully sets a creepy, tense atmosphere, and gets the most from his actors. Ejiofor conveys much through simple glaces and the tone of his voice. Sergi López is delightfully sleazy as Sneaky, ringleader of the organ trade. Sneaky's comeuppance provides one of the most satisfying payoffs of any film in recent years.

3. The Barbarian Invasions (dir. Denys Arcand)

Like Big Fish, The Barbarian Invasions depicts a dying man and his conflict with his son. Here the rift is due to politics and career issues: Rémy (Rémy Girard), the socialist father's disapproval of his financier son, the uber-capitalist. Remy's friends join him reflect on their life and their choices. Such a film could have easily become maudlin and sappy. But Arcand has a light touch, injecting the film with warmth and wit. When The Barbarian Invasions does grow emotional you feel like it's earned that right instead of it just being forced on the audience. The film is ostensibly a sequel to Arcand's The Decline of the American Empire, but even without seeing the first film you can still enjoy and be moved by The Barbarian Invasions.

2. The Cooler (dir. Wayne Kramer)

William H. Macy has always played luckless schmoes well, but he outdoes himself with The Cooler. He stars as Bernie Lootz, whose bad luck is so severe and contagious that casino owner Shelly Kaplow has him "cool off" any hot player. This arrangement works perfectly until Bernie finds love with a casino waitress. His luck begins to improve, so he can no longer do his job. The Cooler blends the magical realism of Bernie's character -- his love life improves, so does his luck -- and folds it into a Vegas noir tale. Writer-director Kramer evokes the atmosphere of seedy old-time Vegas. He also includes an intriguing subplot with Kaplow's traditional ways threatened by a hip young assistant who wants to turn his casino into a family fun center. This old-school/new-school battle does not distract from the main plotline, but somehow enhances it. It provides a dimension of integrity to Kaplow, who could have otherwise been merely a sleazy creep. As Kaplow, Alec Baldwin gives his best performance since Glengarry Glen Ross, letting you see the humanity beneath the viciousness. Macy shows a romantic quality that usually stays hidden. Even if you don't believe in luck, you might just change your mind after seeing The Cooler.

1. American Splendor (dir. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini)

Other films claim to celebrate ordinary Americans, but American Splendor actually follows through. Our hero Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) starts off as a slobbish balding, cranky file clerk at the end is still a slobbish, balding file clerk. We know this because Berman and Pulcini intersperse the real Pekar into the film, blending a documentary with a feature. Seeing the genuine article also demonstrates just how impeccable Giamatti's performance is. He captures Pekar so perfectly in the dramatized scenes that the transition to and from the real Pekar is seamless. Pekar is a hero just through living his life, with all its trials and tribulations. Berman and Pulcini deftly illustrate how Pekar captured moments from his existence in his "American Splendor" comic book series, a cult favorite. Giamatti is supported by strong turns by Hope Davis as Pekar's wife and Judah Friedlander as his best friend. Berman and Pulcini also show the real counterparts to these portrayals. Many directors would be afraid to take this leap. By doing so the filmmakers show an uncommon faith in their story and their subjects. And that's what's truly refreshing.

Adam Spector
January 23, 2004

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