Reel thrills: 2003

Bob Grimm takes a look back at the sublime and the sorry of last year’s movies

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

Any year that contains the conclusion of perhaps the greatest film series of all time (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) is a good movie year. On the other hand, 2003 had a large share of mediocrity, producing the final two chapters of a promising franchise that creatively imploded (The Matrix) and too many horror movies. I love horror, but studios should slow down before the genre gets burned out. By the time I saw Jeepers Creepers 2, I could smell the smoke and hear the gears grinding.

America didn’t release an excellent movie until deep into August. As usual, the year was back-loaded with excellent films, but France’s He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not was the only movie to get my highest rating in the first half of the year. Please, film distributors, spread the wealth to January through March. People like to see good movies when it’s cold outside. I’d bet on that.

The following is the Top 10 for 2003, regardless of whether the movies were released in Reno. If it came out in 2003 and I managed to see it, it qualified. So put little check marks next to the unfamiliar ones and go harass the folks at your local video store in the next couple of months.

Johnny Depp: Once Upon a Time in Mexico

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: I was so eager to see this film, I drove through the Sierra in a blizzard for a press preview. I had about 10 brushes with death on the way back from Sacramento. While no movie is worth the very real possibility of hitting an ice patch and driving into Donner Lake whilst screaming a criminal cocktail of obscenities and pleas to Jesus Christ, our Personal Lord and Savior, this one comes close.

With the final installment of the LOTR trilogy, Peter Jackson completed one of the finest film achievements in cinematic history. The series doesn’t have a weak link, and the third chapter proved to be the best. I hadn’t been this mesmerized at the movies since I saw the first Star Wars, and I was a little 7-year-old jerkweed when that came out.

2. 21 Grams: While most of this year’s Sean Penn acting hype hovers around Clint Eastwood’s mediocre Mystic River, his best performance came in this remarkable film. In this harrowing story, Penn plays a heart patient who seeks out the widow of the man who gave him his transplanted heart. Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro will tear you to pieces. After this, I’m strongly considering a public pardon of Penn for the cruel torture of I Am Sam. On second thought, nope, I’m still pretty pissed at him for that one.

3. Lost in Translation: Writer-director Sofia Coppola claims to have penned the script for this beautiful film with Bill Murray in mind. I believe her. Murray is perfect in his best dramatic performance yet as a washed-up American actor traveling to Tokyo to make big money endorsing whiskey. He falls in love with a young newlywed (Scarlett Johansson), and they proceed to have one of the more romantic platonic relationships ever put to screen. The film’s use of Jesus and Mary Chain music is brilliant.

Jack Black: School of Rock

4. Kill Bill: Vol. 1: When it was discovered that Quentin Tarantino’s bloody epic was clocking in at more than three hours, Miramax decided to chop it into two pieces. I could take 10 straight hours of Uma Thurman slicing and dicing, so one big film would’ve been fine by me. Still, it will be fun to catch the second chapter (supposed to be released in February but could be delayed till April), which Tarantino claims will be more brutal than the first. If that’s the case, the entire population of the state of Ohio must get their heads chopped off by Uma in Vol. 2.

5. American Splendor: In this film based on the comic books by Harvey Pekar, Paul Giamatti comes into his own as the famed author. Featuring funny reenactments of Pekar’s books, including his tightrope-walking appearances on The David Letterman Show, the film aptly captures the spirit of the cantankerous social commentator.

6. The Triplets of Belleville: While last year’s Spirited Away won the Best Animated Film Oscar, this French masterpiece outdoes it on every level. Inventive, funny, engrossing and just plain weird, this one qualifies as the year’s most unique film. It tells the story of a granny, her morose grandson and three former singing stars banding together to defeat a slave driver. If that sounds strange, it is, and it’s bloody brilliant.

7. Elephant: Based on the Columbine tragedy, Gus Van Sant’s depiction of a normal high-school day devastated by a violent act is remarkable in what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t ask us why two teenagers would decide to murder their classmates, and it provides no explanations for their acts. Van Sant cast amateur actors (real students at a Portland high school) and set out to recreate the typical high-school day, strolling down hallways and conversing in the bathrooms. The reality and peacefulness of the setting make it all the more unbearable when the violence strikes.

ludivine Sagnier: Swimming Pool

8. In America: Writer-director Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father) based this movie on his own struggles moving to the United States, and actor Paddy Considine is remarkable as Sheridan’s unofficial onscreen incarnation. It’s set in a Manhattan tenement building, and Djimoun Hounsou should garner Oscar attention for his raw performance as a dying man and downstairs neighbor.

9. The Station Agent: A dwarf inherits an abandoned train depot in New Jersey, and local townspeople try to befriend him. Peter Dinklage stars as Finbar, a man so fed up with public ridicule that all trust in humanity has been lost, his spirit decimated. Bobby Cannavale is a hoot as a coffee vendor inexplicably located next to the abandoned train station, earnestly trying to get Finbar to go for walks and do some drinking. Patricia Clarkson delivers yet another fine performance as a woman dealing with severe hardship, trying to remain amicable to those around her while her world falls apart.

10. School of Rock: After a small detour into crap films (Shallow Hal, Saving Silverman), Jack Black comes roaring back with this funny, rousing movie from director Richard Linklater. As Dewey, a bar-band reject impersonating an elementary-school substitute teacher, Black has found his best role since High Fidelity, a character perfectly tailored to his bizarre being. The success of this film has paved the way for a Tenacious D movie, so Black fans rejoice!

Simply doing a Top 10 would be boring, boring. The following 10 films are also of great merit, each containing a concentrated helping of movie power goodness, which is better than broccoli.

Katie Holmes: Pieces of April

11. Shattered Glass: Hayden Christensen makes up for that inconsistent Anakin Skywalker performance with this portrayal of Stephen Glass, the real-life reporter for The New Republic magazine who made up his stories as he went along. Peter Sarsgaard turns in one of the year’s best performances as Glass’s suspicious editor.

12. He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: The ultimate in stalker movies. Audrey Tautou (Amelie) plays a seemingly together woman having an affair with a married physician. Or so it seems, until the movie starts over again and reveals the real story. A funny, wicked bonbon underneath the psycho tree.

13. Monster: Not since De Niro’s turn in Raging Bull has a performer completed such a remarkable physical transformation. Charlize Theron, the beautiful star of The Cider House Rules and The Italian Job, is unrecognizable and chilling as Aileen Wuornos, the Florida prostitute and serial killer executed for murdering six men. This actually manages to be a love story; it costars Christina Ricci as Wuornos’ naive girlfriend.

14. Finding Nemo: Traditional Disney animated films have been stinking up the place lately, but their computer animation division, Pixar, has a perfect record. This underwater adventure is savvy enough to get you all misty-eyed over computer-animated sea creatures. Ellen DeGeneres deserves special mention for her endearing work as the voice of Dory the fish, so here it comes: Ellen DeGeneres is really good in this movie.

Cillian Murphy: 28 Days Later

15. 28 Days Later: Touted as a zombie movie but more of a “sick people running around due to a funky virus” film, Danny Boyle’s horrific tale scored big scares. Shot guerrilla movie style and full of sickening imagery, its only fault is that it cops out with a happy ending. I checked out the new ending on the DVD, and it’s still too happy. Everybody must die in these films. Everybody!

16. Pieces of April: Thanksgiving has never been this funny and heartbreaking at the movies. Katie Holmes makes a giant screen actress leap as April, a young woman who has taken on the task of preparing what could be her dying mother’s (Patricia Clarkson) last Thanksgiving meal.

17. Seabiscuit: OK, the mechanical horses look like crap, but the actors (especially Jeff Bridges) are great in this rousing true story about a horse that beat all odds and won tons of money for relentless gamblers.

18. Cold Mountain: Considering its epic scope and big cast, this Civil War drama is the film that stands the best chance of raining on Peter Jackson’s Oscar party. It’s a very good movie featuring some incredible performances (especially Natalie Portman as a widowed mother), but it is not the year’s best. Don’t give this movie the Best Picture Oscar!

Bill Moseley: House of 1000 Corpses

19. A Mighty Wind: For me, the year’s biggest movie laugh came when Eugene Levy’s burnt-out former folk music star spoke of his desire to see the toy train set of Crabville in the autumn. Christopher Guest’s “mockumentary” on folk music used all of his usual cast mates, as well as the Folksmen, his and Michael McKean’s decades-old flipside to their heavy metal satire, Spinal Tap.

20. Once Upon a Time in Mexico: While Robert Rodriguez blew it major with the quite lousy Spy Kids 3D, he also delivered the best movie of his career with this second sequel to El Mariachi, a tribute to Sergio Leone. Much was said about Johnny Depp’s goofy character in Pirates of the Caribbean, but I think the dirty CIA agent he portrayed here was a much better part.

In years past, my picks for worst films usually consisted of those that earned the crushed popcorn carton. As you will see below, two disappointing film experiences make the worst list, even though they weren’t crushed in the original reviews. That the potential for greatness was botched so severely qualifies them, in my mind, to get one last blast from the critic cannon.

1. Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat: Back in my hometown of Smithtown, N.Y., there were these big, black furry spiders that used to live in my dad’s station wagon. Their lot in life seemed to be waiting for that particular moment when I sat in the passenger seat for a nice long drive to the city dump, wherein they would propel downward from their homes behind the window visor, causing my adolescent, seat-belted self to commence monster avoidance spasms. I hated these creatures, for they intruded upon my peaceful world with a presence so vile that they affected me both chemically and psychologically. At the precise moment when Mike Myers’ monstrous, boorish representation of the beloved Dr. Seuss icon hit the screen in screaming fashion, the spasms recommenced.

Tobey Maguire: Seabiscuit

2. Gods and Generals: Ted Turner and friends set out to prove that the Civil War was the most non-filmable, tedious war in the history of man, and that Stonewall Jackson had a raging case of verbal diarrhea. A torturous four hours of Civil War enthusiasts running around in fields with their replica rifles, drunk on Keystone Light and annoying their wives. Ted Turner is a dick!

3. House of 1000 Corpses: There were some good horror movies this year. Cabin Fever, 28 Days Later, hell, I even liked Freddy vs. Jason. This mess by Rob Zombie, a supposed homage to ‘70s horror like Texas Chainsaw and Last House on the Left, stands as one of the worst horror films ever made. It’s not scary, it’s not funny, and it’s not even worthy of being called a movie. It’s just crazy Zombie’s cinematic spank sock.

4. Dumb and Dumberer: Director Troy Miller’s Run, Ronnie, Run (the funny Mr. Show movie) never made it to the big screen, but his steaming prequel to the Jim Carrey flick got a major release. The unfunniest intended comedy released this year, and it had some pretty stiff competition. Look at the next film.

5. Anything Else: The latest in a long string of terrible Woody Allen movies. Jason Biggs does his worst Woody Allen impersonation in this sad attempt by a fading genius to prove he’s still “with it.” This is a film where Allen fantasizes himself as a mentor to a 20-something male, waxing philosophic on the evils of young women and the conspiracy against Jewish people. He’s just losing it.

Helen Mirren: Calendar Girls

6. The Matrix sequels: While neither Reloaded nor Revolutions got the crushed popcorn carton, their combined mediocrity makes for one of the greater cinematic disappointments of recent memory. The Wachowski brothers followed up their brilliant first chapter by essentially giving moviegoers a meandering, mega-budgeted Sunday-school lesson.

7. Brother Bear: For years, I’ve waited for the return of SCTV’s McKenzie Brothers after the cult classic Strange Brew. This year I got my wish, but that wish was run through a crappy cartoon nightmare machine, resulting in this lousy traditional animation film from Disney. Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas do return as the beloved Canadian drunken brothers, but they are trapped in the bodies of cartoon moose. Since the film was G-rated, the chance for a good fart joke was nil.

8. Calendar Girls: Who in the hell thought anybody in the world would want to see a bunch of naked old women getting all hot for a stupid calendar? Granted, Helen Mirren is still gorgeous, but everybody else in this film should’ve remained under wraps. With films like Superman, Home Brew (the sequel to Strange Brew, see above paragraph) and Good Omens stuck in turnaround, somebody actually greenlit this movie.

9. Masked and Anonymous: Bob Dylan is a man with a mission. He’s a man determined to show the world that he is capable of not only being incomprehensible on his albums, but at movie theaters as well. A good cast signs on for a putrid film with no script, just for the chance to hang around with Dylan. Dylan tours like a motherfucker! They’re movie stars! They could’ve scored some backstage passes to one of Dylan’s casino gigs, then hit the buffets afterwards. Why do this awful movie?

10. Bringin’ Down the House: First off, screw the Academy for not bringing back Steve Martin, the all-time greatest host of the Oscars, and returning the gig to the overrated Billy Crystal. Secondly, screw Steve Martin for belittling himself in this racist, pandering, insulting movie.

Unless he decides to do The Hobbit, the time for awaiting the next Peter Jackson take on Tolkien has come to an end. I’ll miss that sense of anticipation but will take solace in the mega DVDs he’s produced for the series and his intended remake of King Kong due in 2005.

As for this coming year, there’ll be more Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Starsky and Hutch, Catwoman, a Garfield movie, and a remake of Dawn of the Dead. I reiterate: I’m going to miss that sense of Tolkien anticipation.

Cover story sidebars
Grimmy Awards
Bob Grimm’s offers his annual awards to artists who will never pick up their statuettes or give horrible acceptance speeches. What would a Grimmy look like anyway?

Las Vegas Film Critics Society 2003 Winners
The Las Vegas Film Society’s picks for the top movies of 2003