What Happened to Me in the Dark
Choosing 2003's Best films
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
While Hollywood bludgeoned us with more sequels than ever before,
along with carnival rides, video games, and ideas borrowed from ideas,
the year's best films centered around the truly lost, lonely and damaged
souls of our time.
The best film I saw in 2003 was a 50 year-old masterpiece, Yasujiru
Ozu's Tokyo Story, which played in a new print at the Castro Theater
as part of the 100th anniversary of the great Japanese director's birth.
The film's beautiful artistry and absolute, timeless connection with the
human condition literally has the power to change lives.
And the best new film of 2003 could reasonably be called Tokyo Story
2. It does not try to copy Ozu's quiet style, but it does have a
focused, undiluted stranglehold on modern day sadness, disconnect and
If you've missed any of the films below, check them out soon. They
are the best of 2003.
1) Lost in Translation
With only her second feature film director
Sofia Coppola has created a masterpiece for our time, which is not
entirely unreasonable or unexpected. Her father turned out The
Godfather when he was her age. Stuck in Tokyo, two jet-lagged,
sleep-deprived souls from two different worlds find solace in each
other. But what to do when the trip ends and reality sets in? Scarlett
Johansson projects a kind of Brigitte Bardot presence for the new
century and Bill Murray gives unquestionably one of the all-time finest
performances by any comic actor. Certainly the film's perfect, sublime
ending echoes the final moments of Chaplin's City Lights. Bravo to
everyone involved in this miracle achievement, the year's only truly
2) Russian Ark
This is another masterpiece, but one belonging to last
year. Sadly, it was not screened for San Francisco critics until
February of this year. Director Alexander Sokurov begins with a gimmick:
an unbroken 90-minute shot that takes us through the Hermitage Museum
and back through time. But his gimmick quickly turns into the genuine
deal. The film's emotional power rends us so completely that when we
exit the museum at the end, we feel we've left something beautiful
David Cronenberg's strongest film since Dead Ringers also
counts as an official 2002 release, even though it opened here in March.
Cronenberg creates a strange space around his lead character, a mumbling
miscreant with a confused past, brilliantly played by Ralph Fiennes.
Not since Jack Nicholson appeared in Antonioni's The
Passenger has a major Hollywood star worked in such a brave,
experimental work. Matt Damon justifies his entire existence with his
role as one of two hikers -- the other played by Casey Affleck -- who
find themselves lost in the desert. Director Gus Van Sant eschews
survival film cliches and concentrates on meditation and the feel of the
desert. While the two Gerrys walk and walk and walk, we contemplate
nothing less than the mystery of the universe.
5) Friday Night
After a misfire, Trouble Every Day, French director
Claire Denis returns to the subtle ground-level atmosphere that made her
1999 film Beau Travail a masterpiece. During an all-night Paris
traffic jam, two lonely souls find each other for a brief time. Denis
concentrates on the sounds and smells of the street; in this film the
rustle of a coat means more than any line of dialogue.
6) Bad Santa
Even though he's something of an introverted misfit, San
Francisco's own Terry Zwigoff has always put himself completely and
emotionally on the line. While not as profound as Crumb or Ghost
World, Bad Santa was so shockingly funny and attacked so far below
the belt that Zwigoff gets credit once again for sheer unalloyed
7) Kill Bill - Vol 1
Perhaps Quentin Tarantino's least interesting film --
partially due to its frustrating and needless splitting in half -- pulls
away from the delicate humanity he showed in Jackie Brown and into a
more purely artificial movie-movie world. But what a world! This film's
unique rhythms and gut-level storytelling still put it miles above most
of everything else.
8) Mystic River
Perhaps a bit over-praised by now, this imperfect
Clint Eastwood film very nearly does for thrillers what Unforgiven did
for Westerns. Eastwood's meat-and-potatoes directing slyly reveals a
bigger agenda, a kind of tribute to human frailty and how quickly and
easily it can turn to tragedy. Kudos to a magnificent cast, but
especially to Marcia Gay Harden.
9) Unknown Pleasures
With his uncanny use of space and time, the
young Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke (Platform) creates a masterful portrait of two
disaffected youths, bludgeoned into submission by a cruel world. Here,
advertising, war and money are indistinguishable from that fragile
fabric known as life.
10) In the Cut
Perhaps the year's most tragically misunderstood film,
director Jane Campion disguised her unflinching look at the dangers of
women's sexual desire in New York City as a routine thriller. Most
reviewers only saw the "thriller" part, while Meg Ryan and Jennifer
Jason Leigh so valiantly struggled with strangled desire and the danger
that comes with release.
These second ten were also notable: Denys Arcand's The Barbarian
Invasions, Tim Burton's Big Fish, George Clooney's Confessions of a
Dangerous Mind, Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of
the King, Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters, Aki Kaurismaki's The
Man Without a Past, Gore Verbanski's Pirates of the Caribbean: The
Curse of the Black Pearl, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Son,
Diego Lerman's Suddenly and Abbas Kiarostami's Ten.
I must also give kudos to three unheralded "B" films: Bubba Ho-Tep,
Phone Booth and Willard, as well as to two outstanding 2003 films
that will go unreleased in the Bay Area until 2004: Robert Altman's The
Company and Errol Morris' The Fog of War, bringing the total to 25.
Even one of the worst years in movie history has a silver lining.
This story also appeared in The San Francisco Examiner.