OFC title

    The Best and the Worst Movies of 2003

Compared to 2002, the quality of film in 2003 was down somewhat but 2003 was still a good year for animation, dark humor, and, in a throwback to the days of silent film, performance using little or no dialog. Three animated movies made my top ten – a trend, I hope? Another possible trend -- minimal use of dialog – helped four films make the top ten: Triplets (#2, practically a silent film with music, to great effect), T3 (#8, Kristanna Loken's TX character seemed to leap out of the screen at times – I'm so glad that the writers and producers resisted the temptation to give her more lines), Cold Mountain (#6, Again, the decision to give Jude Law fewer lines made his Inman character a quiet, smoldering feel that reminded me of classic silent film), and Seabiscuit (#3, Minimal dialog helped all of the characters but Chris Cooper's horse trainer in particular.)

    The Top Ten

10. Finding Nemo (directed by Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich) – Pixar's 3-D animation combined with imaginative graphic design and superb voice work (notably Ellen DeGeneres) – ok, the story is a bit corny – made a great family/ deep-sea adventure. The sea creatures possess both a clever variety of shapes and colors as well as a wide variety of human personality types.

9. Tokyo Godfathers (directed by Satoshi Kon) – This anime-style movie from Japan tells a heart-warming story of three homeless people who find an abandoned infant and go on a mission to find the baby's parents. The story careens around in unpredictable ways as the three find out how to repair their broken lives as they help the baby. Overall, the artwork is great and the backgrounds are such impressively detailed paintings that I can't imagine the hours that must have gone into creating them.

8. Terminator 3: the Rise of the Machines (directed by Jonathan Mostow) – The Governator's big summer hit before the recall election, T3 is the best of the Terminator series if you appreciate the dark humor. The scene when Arnold deadpans to his cohorts (Nick Stahl and the frantic Claire Danes) that he has a plan of action for after the nuclear war –it works for me because the "straight guy" characters (Stall and Danes) go bonkers as the Terminator says the most the outrageous things. Kristanna Loken gave a standout performance as the more- advanced evil robot from the future, TX (aka FemmeBot, Terminatrix, and, my favorite, RoboBabe.) The movie, for the most part, has TX chasing the three good guys (including the best car chase ever put onto film), blowing stuff up, and, of course, starting a nuclear war – and it works so well as comedy -- if you liked Dr. Strangelove (my all-time favorite movie) you should be able to laugh at the craziness in T3. I also give the writer, director, and studio credit for having the courage to put an atypical ending on a big-budget Hollywood movie.

7. American Splendor (directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini) – Without a doubt the hippest biography film ever made. Harvey Pekar is a legendary alternative comic book writer from Cleveland who never achieved commercial success but has consistently cranked out stories based on his life experiences that seem simple and plain yet resonant. He comes up with hilarious anecdotes concerning the frustrations the everyday life of a brilliant but nilistic hipster. Paul Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar in such a way that he seems to walk out of Robert Crumb's illustrations. Crumb illustrated many of Pekar's books and those illustrations are also used in the movie.

6. Cold Mountain (directed by Anthony Minghella) – In this love story set in the South during the Civil War, Ava (Nichole Kidman) struggles to survive on her farm while Inman (Jude Law) walks hundreds of miles after deserting following a wound in battle. This film might have been a long hard slog were it not for the uniformly great acting and a script laced with humor. In particular, Renee Zellwegger gave an outstanding performance as a can-do hillbilly with a penchant for making lists – it is easily the best performance by an actor among 2003 releases. The part is well written but Ms. Zellwegger not only sounded genuine but added a physicality that made me laugh before she could say a word. The music and cinematography also stand out.

5. The Statement (directed by Norman Jewison) – Based on the true story of Paul Touvier (played by Michael Caine – but they called the character Pierre Brossard in the movie), a Frenchman who had collaborated with the Germans during WWII, was scandalously protected by a group of Catholic priests for decades and is now (actually the early 1990s) being hunted by the authorities (a judge, Tilda Swinton and an army intel officer, Jeremy Northam) who want to arrest him and a mysterious group who want to kill him. The film was fascinating for two reasons: (a) trying to figure out what is going on, and, out of more than a dozen shady characters, which ones are good guys and which are bad guys, (b) the complexity of the Michael Caine character: he is clearly did some very bad things during the war but now (the 1990s) he comes across as a terrified old man but one still capable of doing anything necessary to stay one step ahead. If you buy DVDs, this one could be a good investment – it seems to get better on repeat viewings -- you pick up a lot the second or third time around. This fine film didn't do too well with critics -- I think many of them would have appreciated it if they had gone back for a second (or even a third) viewing. The problem is that there are a number of minor characters that are thrown at you in rapid succession making it hard to follow the first time through. The three lead actors are superb.

4. X2: X-Men United (directed by Bryan Singer) – Greatest super-hero movie of all time! The story involves a three-way battle: the good mutants, the bad mutants, and "the really bad guys" (as Magneto, so well played by Ian McKellen, would say.) I used to read many comics on which movies are based and X2 captures the spirit of the X-Men comic as no other comic adaptation ever has. Though the acting ranged from passable to outstanding, the ensemble was able to capture the theme of teamwork among mutants with conflicting personalities and widely differing talents. They were able come together in a time of crisis and "save the world." The movie also used special effects and costumes very well and had some funny moments.

3. Seabiscuit (directed by Gary Ross) – Talk about movies with heart – this movie really has heart! Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit is about three men with personal problems who get together on a project involving a race horse and, in the process, regain their grounding in life. That theme is basically the same as that in Tokyo Godfathers except that these guys are training a race horse instead of rescuing a baby. The three lead actors (Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and Toby Maguire) are all flat out great in their parts. The camera work, particularly horse racing footage, is fantastic – it made me feel like I was up on the horse beside Seabiscuit.

2. The Triplets of Belleville (directed by Sylvain Chomet) – Wow! There have been so many great animated movies recently: 2002's instant classic, Spirited Away, then Finding Nemo, Tokyo Godfathers, and now Triplets! I can't help but think that we may be in the middle of some kind of global animation renaissance. This quirky French comedy succeeds on many levels: 1950s-style graphic design which fits in with the film's humor, unconventional musical score (lots of percussion, old-style vocal harmony, and unidentifiable wind instruments), and a bizarre but touching story. A little boy who lost his parents is adopted by his grandmother who discovers that all her melancholy grandson (he rarely speaks; there is only a few of lines of dialog in the entire film) really wants is to ride a bike. So not only does she buy the little boy a tricycle but she goes on to develop him into a world-class racer in the Tour de France. When he is kidnapped by some sinister mafia-types, she and their neurotic dog chase them across the Atlantic in a paddle boat. This goes on and on as she tracks down the bad guys to find her beloved grandson. The humor never seems strained while the attachment between grandmother and grandson is reinforced as the plot chugs along. That attachment is the strongest hook – it is touching in a sweet way but still a little weird since you might expect that a healthy young man might have interests other that riding a bike and hanging out with his grandmother. This is a must-see if you like animation or if you are a cyclist (any cyclist will appreciate their house/bikeshop and how she trains him for the Tour.)

The Best Movie of 2003: Kill Bill, Volume 1 (directed by Quentin Tarantino)– I was scared when there were delays and talk of cuts (including the decision to divide Kill Bill into two volumes) – it has been so long since Pulp Fiction and I'm such a hard-core fan of Quinten Tarantino – I worried that something wasn't quite right. The main things that I love about all of his movies (off-beat, morally ambiguous characters, great integration of sound track and action, dialog that I could hear 100 times and laugh every time) are all present in Kill Bill. But now he has gone major league in the visual style category – there are several scenes that are flat-out stunning visually: (1) The fight in the kitchen between the Black Mamba (Uma Thurman) and Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox) – did you notice the cereal box with the brand name "KaBoom"? (2) The fight between Black Mamba and GoGo Yubati (Chiaki Kiriyama) -- what a character! , (3) The anime sequence, (4) The confrontation in the snow-covered garden between Black Mamba and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). The Kill Bill soundtrack does so much more than reinforce the emotion that the viewer should be feeling – that is what most film makers try for – Tarantino's use of music not only fits the feel of the scene but it slings you out on a tangent at high velocity. I saw this movie quite a few times and on each occasion, most of the people in the audience didn't laugh at most of the dark humor. Based on those observations and many conversations with people who saw the film, I strongly suspect that most people take Kill Bill as a straight-up action movie – they enjoyed it at one level but didn't love it because the didn't get the dark humor.

    Honorable Mention

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King – Best Technical Achievement

The Cooler

Luther – Most Underrated -- Historical/Religious Drama

Love Actually

The Last Samurai

Bad Santa


The Human Stain

Secondhand Lions

Big Fish

Lost in Translation

The Magdalene Sisters


Step Into Liquid – Best Surfing Movie in Years

Whale Rider

The Italian Job – Best Product Placement (Mini Cooper)

Swimming Pool

Fog of War – Best Documentary

Open Range

Hulk – Best Genre-Buster – Serious Drama Cloaked as a Superhero Movie

Bend It Like Beckham

Lilya 4 Ever

Owning Mahoney

Matchstick Men

Assassination Tango – Best Dance/Musical Film

    The Worst

The Worst Movie of 2003: Darkness Falls – The teen-slasher genre produces many lousy movies with predictable plot-driven action and melodramatic acting but I can't think of one worse than this. The story concerns a mean-spirited tooth fairy – that sounds like the movie could be funny -- trust me, it is tedious and predictable. When I walked out I really tried to think of any redeeming quality. It wasn't funny – even in a campy sense. It had neither special effects nor costumes to give the audience something to look at.

The Planet Naboo Citation for the Worst Cinematic Moment of the Year: In The Matrix Reloaded (which wasn't a bad movie overall – the chase sequence was impressive) when Neo confronted the Architect, they had a discussion that was supposed to tie together some of the themes of the three Matrix movies but instead it came across as an embarrassing string of pseudo-intellectual gibberish. I was impressed at the ability of the actors to get through it all with straight faces – I wonder how many takes were necessary.

Worst Big-Budget Blockbuster: The Matrix Revolutions

Most Overrated by Critics: Something's Gotta Give

So-Bad-That-It's-Good Award: Gigli – I was warned – this movie had a terrible rep well in advance of the release date – but I still couldn't believe what I saw on the big screen. In practically every scene, the two leads, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez embarrassed themselves with tone-deaf performances. The script didn't help either. It seems incredible that neither the director, Martin Brest, nor the producers could see just how laughably bad things were going in scene after scene. Couldn't they done something to fix it? I heard that the CEO of Columbia (the studio that released it) said something like: The first time I saw it I wanted to kill myself. The generally good production values helped me to sit through it and enjoy the unintended humor. Most of the audience seemed to appreciate the humor as I did – I believe that Gigli will endure as a camp classic.

    Other Notable Baddies

Beyond Borders

My Boss's Daughter

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