Rewinding 2003 - The Year in Film

Commentary by James Berardinelli
December 28, 2003

Go Directly to the Top 10


SARS may have been the most fatal epidemic of the year, but it wasn't the only one. For those of us who spend a lot of our time in darkened theaters and screening rooms, exposure to sequelitis was impossible to avoid. Hollywood has always had a fascination with revisiting familiar characters and settings, but this year, spurred on by a fanatical desire to make money without expending creative energy, studios pushed the volume of sequels to unbearable levels (more than 20 of them). In fact, the situation became so excessive that the public stopped caring. Most sequels underperformed, a few disastrously so. And, viewed from a creative standpoint, things were even worse. I can only recommend a few of them: The Return of the King (of course), Barbarian Invasions(technically, a sequel), The Matrix Reloaded (weakly), Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Terminator 3, and X2. Only one sequel made its way onto my Top 10 list. By comparison, six were on my Bottom 10 (and, if you stretch it to a Bottom 15, there were eight).

Two sequels were triumphs, albeit in different ways. The Return of the King proved that it is possible for a trilogy to end on a high note. Peter Jackson has succeeded where such luminaries as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola have failed. He has crafted a tale of such magic and majesty that filmmakers will be trying to repeat this achievement for decades to come. I do not believe that it's hyperbole to place Jackson's The Lord of the Rings alongside the likes of Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, Citizen Kane, and Star Wars, whose lasting impacts to the industry are seismic. The business and creative aftershocks will still be rocking Hollywood long after The Lord of the Rings has been retired into the back shelves of video stores.

The other sequel to merit the label of "unqualified success" is the solidly entertaining X2, which at least equals the original X-Men in terms of superhero enjoyability. More importantly, it cements the franchise in a position to be a potential long-term big money maker. Of course, a lot depends on what happens with future installments. Both Superman and Batman looked to be headed for long, profitable runs until movie #3. One hopes that the creative team behind the "X-Men" films is aware of the missteps of those who went before them and will endeavor not to repeat those mistakes.

Most of the worst sequels were those that could claim no legitimate creative reason for existence. They came about solely because of box office potential. There's an unwritten rule in Hollywood that if a movie makes a lot of money, it must be followed by a sequel, no matter how unwarranted. (There were once rumors that studio bigwigs were trying to figure out how they could make a followup to Titanic.) So this year we were saddled with Scary Movie 3, Dumb and Dumberer, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Legally Blonde 2, Charlie's Angels 2 and Bad Boys II (amongst others). All except one of those failed to meet box office expectations (at least as far as studio projections went). There will be a Scary Movie 4 and possibly a Legally Blonde 3, but those movies are relatively cheap to make, a factor that virtually assures profitability.

Of course, no discussion of sequels would be complete without an autopsy of the Matrix debacle. On May 1, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions were regarded as two of the most anticipated movies of the year (alongside The Return of the King). By December 1, they were dead and buried, and no one really cared. So what went wrong? The most obvious answer is a lack of clear direction or a well-conceived story. The two Matrix sequels existed because the first one made money and was insanely popular. From a business standpoint, sequels made sense. From a creative standpoint, they did not. In the end, Warner Brothers made lots of money, but The Matrix brand name was sullied beyond reclamation.

I found The Matrix Reloaded to be somewhat disappointing, but I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt by hoping that what we were seeing was mostly setup for a grand finale. In retrospect, that wasn't the case, and the ultimate failure of the finale degrades the second film into a bunch of mindless action sequences with no larger purpose. The Matrix Revolutions was eye candy - watchable, but extremely discouraging. Many fans of the series felt more strongly than I did, and when a series' core constituency turns against the product, it's a death knell. The Matrix movies represent a case history of Hollywood's lust for lucre gone awry. The irony is, of course, that the suits got what they wanted out of the films (although they had been hoping for a bigger payday).

It's easy enough to condemn the Wachowskis for becoming co-conspirators, but could anyone refuse the kind of money and promises of control/power being offered? (Ask Quentin Tarantino, the latest sell-out.) In a sense, the sequels were doomed by expectations from the beginning. Like George Lucas' unfairly bashed Star Wars prequels, The Matrix movies would have to be beyond brilliant in order to be accepted. And, given the tight constraints of the box into which the Wachowskis had painted themselves, that wasn't possible.

Ben's Affleck-sion

If there's an actor who deserves the title of "2003 Whipping Boy," it's Ben Affleck. Less than 12 months ago, Affleck was a successful star, having two potential franchises under his belt (as Jack Ryan in the Tom Clancy movies and as the then-upcoming Daredevil) and being romantically linked with the multitalented Jennifer Lopez. Then it all started to unravel, and very publicly. I will not rehash the Affleck/Lopez trials and tribulations here. Anyone unaware of them hasn't been reading the gossip columns. (Although I'm still not sure why anyone should or would care about whether Affleck and Lopez get married. What difference is it going to make to anyone who doesn't know them personally or professionally?) From a cinematic standpoint, this has been as disastrous a year for Affleck as it has from a personal perspective.

Daredevil disappointed after a strong opening. It made money, but not as much as it "should" have, so plans for a sequel are up in the air. Then came Gigli, a movie that was unfairly compared to Ishtar by pundits who (a) hadn't seen the film, or (b) were hopelessly biased from the start by negative publicity. Don't misunderstand: Gigli is not a good movie, but it's not an unmitigated catastrophe, either. I can think of several dozen 2003 titles that are less watchable, but, based exclusively on reputation, Gigli is a shoo-in for the Golden Raspberry. Affleck proceeded to wrap up 2003 with the wretched John Woo science fiction thriller Paycheck, which is less entertaining, less coherent, and more boring than Gigli.

Eventually, someone will probably notice that Affleck is not an action hero. Offered the right role, he can give an effective performance. Put him in a comedy or a light drama, and he's within his comfort zone. Remember how good he was in Chasing Amy and Bounce (for example)? In films that are loaded with special effects and action sequences, he is hopelessly out of his depth. Stop trying to compete with Matt, Ben, and get back to doing what you're best at. Despite being tainted by the aftereffects of Gigli,next year's Jersey Girl has some promise because that's exactly the direction in which Affleck is going.

Superheroes and Pirates

Superheroes were again at the fore of the 2003 movie crop. The X-Men were back for a second go-around, making Ian McKellan one of the most forceful screen presences of the year. Affleck's Daredevil seemed underwritten and underproduced - a "throw away" impression that was emphasized by its February release date. As all dedicated movie-goers know, virtually nothing of worth arrives in theaters between January 15 and March 15 (or during the month of August). The most anticipated superhero flick of the year was Ang Lee's Hulk, which debuted to decidedly mixed reaction.

I loved the film, primarily because Lee attemped something amazingly unconventional with the story and its characters. Hulk is one part mythology, one part Shakespearean tragedy, and one part King Kong. The heady mix, however, didn't play as well for 13-year old comic book geeks as it did for 36-year old critics. Apparently, there may be a Hulk sequel, but it's a sure bet that someone with a more traditional vision than Ang Lee will be at the helm.

The most unconventional superhero of the year stepped out of a Disney ride and into one of the year's least expected blockbusters. Pirates of the Caribbean earned Johnny Depp praise from all quarters for his swishy, swashbuckling performance. It's tempting to call his character an "anti-hero," but there's really nothing "anti" about Cap'n Jack Sparrow, whose heart is as gold as a few of his teeth. The movie proved that it's possible to develop a decent motion picture from a theme park ride, although Disney failed to repeat this feat with their most popular attraction, The Haunted Mansion. Now, I suppose we can look forward to Space Mountain: The Movie.

The most poorly publicized superhero movie of the year was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. An uninspired, but not awful, yarn featuring a cadre of popular 19th century literary figures battling evil, this movie seemed to have a lot going for it, not the least of which was the presence of Sean Connery. But there never was much buzz and the movie died a fairly quick death, reaching video store shelves a scant five months after making its theatrical debut. Perhaps superheroes, or at least some of them, aren't in as much demand as Hollywood bigwigs assume. We'll know soon enough, since the cinematic pipeline is clogged with them, both in terms of sequels and original editions.

Seeing Scarlett

Two of the best films I saw at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival featured Scarlett Johansson. Despite having appeared in a handful of art house films and one big budget endeavor (The Horse Whisperer), Johansson has largely flown under the radar until this year. Now, as a result of Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring, her career is about to go into overdrive. Whether or not she is anointed with a deserved Oscar nomination, people now recognize her. Her days of toiling in relative obscurity are past.

Of the two films, Lost in Translation has been better received (and with good reason - it's the superior movie), but it's possible to make a convincing argument that Johansson's acting skills are more effectively showcased in Girl with a Pearl Earring. The reason is simple: in Girl, Johansson doesn't have much dialogue to fall back on. She must convey a three-dimensional character through facial expressions and body language, a task at which she proves adept. And she's more of a central figure in Girl with a Pearl Earring than in Lost in Translation, where she occasionally fills the part of second fiddle to Bill Murray.

Quality & Quantity

So I come to the annual question of how well 2003 stacks up to recent years. Despite my having handed out more four-star designations than in any year since 1997, this did not seem to be a standout 12 months. Subjectively, I would rank it about even with the last two years - plenty of good films out there for those who put in the time and effort to look, but a lot of high profile disappointments. Potential blockbusters have become formulaic, assembly line productions, with true creativity now extraneous. Few have the potential to dazzle (The Lord of the Rings being the most obvious exception). Jaws drop not because of story twists or well-developed characters, but because the special effects are impressive or the action sequences are breathtaking. The latent 13-year old boy within me still appreciates a few of those movies each year, but there are too many of them. Once the saturation point is reached (typically around Memorial Day), it's a short journey into tedium.

Quantifying quality is a difficult, if not impossible, task. It requires measuring the subjective, which isn't really possible. However, I will admit that 2003 had few movies that I was genuinely interested in seeing. Or, to put it another way, if I was not a critic, I probably would have seen only 10 to 20 productions this year. Although the movies of 2003 may not have been substantially different in terms of quality from those of 2001 and 2002, the "have to see it" factor was lower. Sequels are supposed to energize audiences, but there were so many of them this year that, after the first few, the effect was the opposite.

Performances Worth Mentioning (Female)

If I was in charge of populating the five nomination slots for Best Actress, my choices would be Charlize Theron (Monster), Naomi Watts (21 Grams), Oksana Akinshina (Lilya 4-Ever), Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen), and Scarlett Johansson (Girl with a Pearl Earring). Three of those options - Theron, Watts, and Johansson - have a legitimate shot at being recognized. Wood is a dark horse at best. Akinshina stands about as much of a chance as the Milwaukee Brewers signing Vladimir Guererro. All of these are great performances, but Theron stands above them all with her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos. What she does here has to be seen to be believed, and those who don't know it's Theron from the outset will not make the connection until the end credits roll.

Johannson's name shows up again in my Best Support Actress list (for Lost in Translation). Joining her are Ludivine Sagnier (Swimming Pool), Monica Bellucci (Irreversible),Alison Lohman (Matchstick Men), and Kate Bosworth (Wonderland). Aside from Johansson, I don't give any of these names much chance in the Oscar race, despite their being deserving. The bravest performance belongs to Bellucci, who participates in one of the most shocking and disturbing rape scenes ever committed to film. Sagnier's work in Swimming Pool is impressive, although I'm sure the copious nudity didn't hurt. Bosworth's work in Wonderland will probably go unnoticed because the film was not well received.

Performances Worth Mentioning (Male)

For Best Actor: Sean Penn times two (21 Grams, Mystic River), Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog), and Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean). All four of these actors are likely to be recognized by the Academy. Penn will get the nod for the better known Mystic River, although one could argue that his performance is better in 21 Grams. Regardless, if there was any doubt that he is the best living American actor, his 2003 efforts should dispel it. De Niro, Pacino, and Brando have become living caricatures, feeding off their past reputations, thus leaving the crown available to Penn. Meanwhile, Depp's work in Pirates of the Caribbean is so wildly entertaining that it deserves mention. Murray has never been better. And Kingsley is as mesmerizing as ever. Not a weak name in this group.

As with Supporting Actress, my choices for Supporting Actor are a little eclectic. Two Return of the King participants deserve recognition: Ian McKellan, whose Gandalf finally gets some real screen time, and Andy Serkis, whose behind-the-CGI work as Gollum is about 75% of the reason why the creature is so memorable. Ken Watanabe is a revelation in The Last Samurai. Alec Baldwin may have given the best performance of his career in The Cooler. And, as another Casino honcho, John Hurt is unforgettable by the three people who saw him in Owning Mahowny. Of those, McKellan, Watanabe, and Baldwin have some chance (I expect to see one or two of them nominated). Serkis is a dark horse, depending on how deeply the Academy feels compelled to lavish praise on The Lord of the Rings. And Hurt won't get a mention.

The Lowest Level of Critics' Hell (The Bottom Ten)

Let me start with a caveat: I intentionally avoided a fair number of films that might have found their way onto this list. Consequently, this is really just a ranking of the Bottom 10 from 2003 that I saw. There are probably plenty of other candidates out there (like Boat Trip) that I avoided due to a lack of time and/or good advice from others who advised me to stay away.

These are presented in descending order - least bad to most bad.

Dishonorable mention: Daddy Day Care, Jeepers Creepers 2, Final Destination 2, The Real Cancun, Timeline

10. Love Don't Cost a Thing: You would think that if someone was going to re-make a bad '80s film, they would attempt to improve it. Instead, the filmmakers took a silly premise and made it worse. After seeing this movie, I immediately went home and watched Can't Buy Me Love. While this might be considered an act of self-torture under some circumstances, in this case it was necessary to cleanse the palate.

9. Scary Movie 3: Scary things about this movie: Leslie Nielsen is still making movies and there will be a Scary Movie 4.

8. A Guy Thing: Proof that lobotomized characters exist outside of horror movies. Then again, anyone forced to endure this film might protest that it qualifies as a horror movie.

7. Tomb Raider II: The Cradle of Life: This movie makes the computer game look like a masterpiece of plotting and character development.

6. The Guru: This failed attempt at Bollywood/Hollywood fusion lasted about a week in a few theaters. That was too long, in too many locales.

5. Legally Blonde 2: By the end of this movie, I wanted very badly to shave every hair off of Reese Witherspoon's head so they could never make another of these movies.

4. My Boss' Daughter: My fiancÚ decided to go shopping rather than see this movie. I should have joined her.

3. 2 Fast 2 Furious: Has car racing ever been so boring? Then again, seen in a different light, this could be one of the most intriguing homoerotic movies of the year. All that handling of the stick shift.

2. Bad Boys II: Well, the title does advertise the fact that it's going to be "bad."

1. Dumb and Dumberer: An easy pick. Looking back, I am somewhat amazed that I didn't walk out of this movie. The worst thing since Freddy Got Fingered. (No movie wants to be mentioned in the same sentence as that one.) The title assumes too much intelligence.

The Elite (The Top Ten)

Honorable mention: The Fog of War, Thirteen, Capturing the Friedmans, Dirty Pretty Things, Identity

10. Finding Nemo: Pixar has re-discovered the true meaning of the term "family film." It's great to be able to recommend a motion picture to viewers of all ages, and to give parents an option that they will enjoy as much as their kids. Finding Nemo isn't a rarity when you consider the source. Pixar hasn't had a dud yet, and this is one of their finest efforts, both in terms of vocal acting, animation, and storyline. Put this alongside Toy Story and Shrek (not from Pixar) as shining examples of what this kind of "new animation" can produce when it's done right.

9. The Last Samurai: Edward Zwick scores another hit with this story of a broken man whose soul finds healing in a distant land. (This is not, as some have erroneously argued, about a white man saving the Japanese. Those who make that statement didn't take the time to figure out what the movie is about.) Borrowing themes and ideas from Braveheart, Dances with Wolves, and Glory (to name a few), Zwick fashions a compelling and emotionally stirring tale that pays homage to Akira Kurosawa. It's not a flawless motion picture, but its strengths vastly outweigh its weaknesses. Tom Cruise is solid as the protagonist, but supporting actor Ken Watanabe steals his scenes.

8. Irreversible: This is a tough movie to sit through. However, to appreciate it, it needs to be watched twice. The first time, the experience is so visceral that much is missed. Consider it Memento on heroin. It's daring and violent, and will be too much for many potential viewers to endure. But there's tremendous power in the story and the images, and even a moral about violence begetting violence. Irreversible also illustrates how fragile happiness can be. When we have it, we should savor it to the fullest, as well as guard it jealously.

7. Mystic River: Not as dark as Irreversible, but dark enough. Aside from the final two scenes, which might fit in the book but don't work on the screen, this is a nearly perfect meditation on grief, crime & punishment, guilt, and how the events of childhood shape our lives. It's Clint Eastwood's finest movie in years, and makes a compelling case that the actor-turned-director should concentrate all of his efforts on making movies rather than appearing in them.

6. House of Sand and Fog: Make that three dark films in a row. House of Sand and Fog really got to me, primarily because it is so evenhanded in its portrayal of both sides of a struggle. What's particularly poignant in this case is that neither position is morally wrong and that some kind of tragedy is inevitable. House of Sand and Fog features some of the best top-to-bottom acting of the year. It may also stimulate the most interesting post-viewing conversations.

5. He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: Never heard of it? You're in the majority. This small release, starring Audrey Tautou, slipped in and out of theaters early in the year, and is currently available on DVD and VHS. The film, which features a premise not often touched upon by feature films, is sort of an extreme Rashomon. To say any more would ruin one of He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not's many surprises. This is a real hidden gem, one of 2003's best little-seen treasures.

4. Lilya 4-Ever: Darker than Irreversible, Lilya 4-Ever takes the most possible bleak view of human nature. The film left me shaken and numb. (Yes, I have a propensity for grim films - made well, they often leave an indelible mark on the psyche.) There's an inevitability to the ending that is painful. Nevertheless, it's impossible to deny Lilya 4-Ever's power, and for those who want movies that offer more than light entertainment, this is not to be missed. I saw the film in late 2002 and almost made this #1 on last year's list. However, once I learned that a limited theatrical release was planned in early 2003, I deferred ranking it. (That means that four of this year's Top 10 would have been placed higher than last year's #1, Minority Report.)

3. 21 Grams: Some have criticized 21 Grams' structure for diminishing the emotional impact of its tragic storyline. In my opinion, the jigsaw puzzle editing enhances the movie. The film's non-chronological approach will confound the inattentive viewer. We pay more attention that we ordinarily would, and this results in a clearer, deeper understanding of the characters. Distraction, even if it's momentary, will result in confusion and frustration. There are some people who don't like seeing subtitled movies because of the "effort" involved in reading. Even though 21 Grams is in English, those people should avoid it. The mental work required to assemble this movie into a coherent whole will be unmanageable for them.

2. Lost in Translation: Had it been released in any recent year other than 2003, Lost in Translation would have been an easy #1. As love stories go, it's as beautiful and intelligent as it is unconventional. The characters are remarkably real. Their interaction never feels forced. And the acting is perfect (or nearly so). This movie is moving without being tragic, and powerful without inflicting pain. It is sublime and cerebral, the best "small" movie of 2003.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: An achievement to dwarf all others, The Return of the King isn't just a movie, it's an experience. Distilling the essence of this film into a few sentences is a fruitless effort. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is capped off by this, the best movie of the three, will echo through the decades as a remarkable cinematic milestone. Directors will emulate Peter Jackson for years to come, seeking to capture the same kind of singular magic with which he infused this motion picture. Tolkien purists be damned! Combined with its predecessors, The Return of the King represents the best movie to reach multiplex screens in about ten years.

© 2003 James Berardinelli

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