Combustible Celluloid

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 longing.

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 great film.

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 behind forever.

3) Spider
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.

4) Gerry
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 bravery.

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.

Movies Unlimtied