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Best of 2002: Movies, Books, Music.
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Saturday, April 19, 2003

Some Movies I've Seen in 2003, But Haven't Mentioned in YST
The 25th Hour: I can’t stand Ed Norton (no particular reason—except maybe the unforgivably smarmy commentary track on the Fight Club DVD), and I didn’t think the WTC bits worked exactly, but as is so often the case with me and Spike Lee movies, this one just got me on an emotional level. It doesn’t really matter what your head tells you, the heart is engaged. Terence Blanchard always does magnificent music for his buddy’s movies, but this time around the elegiac requiem of a score was as crucial as the actors (or the dog).

Quai des Orfèvres: I agree entirely with Anita that the detective from this 1947 noir was the prototype for Columbo—a smart, tic-ridden policeman whose unprepossessing appearance and stumbling manner causes suspects to treat him rather less seriously than they should. The scenes of Paris life just after the war, and the depiction of the burlesque theater of the time, were fascinating. The kind of film you could watch over and over, each time focusing on one background strand.

The Pianist: Absolutely brilliant. The fact that every person in the packed cinema stayed locked in their seats until the very end of the closing credits says more than I ever could. Deserved Oscars—is there anything more unusual?

Morvern Callar: Samantha Morton is unprecedentedly good at playing characters whose inner lives are far more important than their outward existence. The scenes of her stomping around, apparently acting on pure impulse, sometimes driven by the sounds provided by her dead boyfriend, were fabulous. The best case for the transformative powers of mix tapes ever made!

The Quiet American: An old-fashioned movie that proved Michael Caine’s still got the movie-acting juju, that Brendan Foster is losing his looks (though perhaps less than perfect-looking actors actually get to use their skills more than pretty faces), that war-corresponding ain’t what it used to be, and that the expatriate life is damned romantic.

Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary: A film that consists of a camera pointing, pretty uncertainly at times, at an 80-year-old woman as she recalls the events of almost 60 years before. Sometimes the camera watches her watching the playback, smoking nervously and mouthing along with the lines she spoke earlier. Mesmerizing.

Nowhere in Africa: A bit rambling at times (since it seemed to stick to the actual contours of the life of Stefanie Zweig, whose memoir was the basis for the film,* rather than to the kind of tight structure an original screenplay would no doubt have provided), this year’s Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar-winner is about leaving one home and finding another when a family of German Jews escape to rural Kenya shortly before Kristallnacht. A lot of unanswered questions (even though the Masai cook is undoubtedly a good and trustworthy man, is it really good parenting to let your pubescent daughter join him in bed whenever she feels like it?) and some clichéd characterizations (this isn’t the first or most obvious one that comes to mind, but am I crazy in thinking that the “Hey, the English hate me too—I’m a Scot” trope has been used in another biggish film this year?), but a thought-provoking movie, nevertheless. I was very surprised to read in the closing credits that the part of Walter, Regina’s father, was dubbed. I’m still not sure exactly why you’d hire someone for such a pivotal part if they were going to have trouble with the words—extra-important for a film with dialogue in German, Swahili, and English—but I now see that the actor, Merab Ninidze, is from Georgia (the former Soviet republic, not the Southern state) rather than Germany.

*Some reviews refer to the original book as a novel rather than a memoir—my response to the film changes a little if it’s fiction. The film’s “bagginess” seems excusable if it’s in the service of telling a story as it really happened; it’s just lack of discipline if it’s a matter of adaptation.