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Thursday, January 15, 2004

My Top 10 Movies of 2003
The end of December is a swell time to be a movie lover. The new Oscar-bait movies come out in a big belch of stars and epicry, cool roundtables like the SlateMovie Club” take place, and all the Top 10 lists come spewing forth.

I love these lists, so here’s mine.

As a person who doesn’t make my living from the movies, my list is different from the pros’ for reasons beyond aesthetic considerations: For one thing, I can choose not to see movies I know I won’t like (for example, I can’t stand to watch knife or sword play, and after suffering through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Gangs of New York, both of which I liked but was traumatized by, I gave Kill Bill a pass). I missed some films, too. (I saw 97 films at the cinema—well, 96, because I saw Rivers and Tides twice, but there are still some gaping holes—I missed three of the most raved about documentaries of the year: Bus 174, Capturing the Friedmans, and Spellbound, though I TiVo’d the last, so I can rectify that very soon.) Also, some of the films I saw in 2003 are what the critics would dismiss as “2002 films,” but if I saw them in 2003, they’re 2003 movies as far as I’m concerned. OK, this is bravado—I cut films that very clearly belonged in 2002, last year’s Oscar winners and losers, for example—but I’m holding firm on the foreign films. When you don’t live in New York or Los Angeles, a foreign film (or most documentaries for that matter) is of the year it makes it into your city’s movie theaters as far as I’m concerned; Oscar be damned. (The Fog of War hasn’t made it to cinephilic Seattle yet, for example.)

In the order I saw them, my favorite films of the year were:

The Good Thief
The Magdalene Sisters
The Sea
Whale Rider
Hard Goodbyes: My Father
The Girl From Paris
Lost in Translation
Master & Commander
The Triplets of Belleville

To be honest, I’m embarrassed by some of these—there’s no denying that Whale Rider is sentimental and hokey. Discussing the movie with a colleague, I couldn’t offer a single argument to his cogent dismissal of all its tricks, but it still “got” me (in part, I think, because three of the stars—including Keisha Castle-Hughes and the actors who played her father and grandfather—were present at the screening I attended; they even led the audience in an impromptu haka). Movies, well, move me more than any other medium, and I can’t let my rational self deny Whale Rider’s emotional effectiveness. Ditto The Magdalene Sisters—how can I leave it off my list when it filled me with so much righteous anger? (On the other hand, its merging of fact and fiction made me very queasy, and that’s a visceral reaction I wasn’t so happy about.)

The Good Thief took me by surprise—smart genre films, especially heist pictures, are so rare. Like Master & Commander, it proved that great directors can make great films in any style. Also, after my immense disappointment at The Dancer Upstairs (Javier Bardem is probably my favorite actor, but that movie was literally incomprehensible—it was unconscionable of John Malkovich to make it in English; it seems cruel to recruit some of the finest Spanish-speaking actors in the world—and at least one lovely Italian—and then force them to use a language several of them were noticeably uncomfortable with), it was fabulous to watch a film acted mostly by non-native-English speakers and then have Nick Nolte be the one I had trouble understanding.

Huckle is a visually stunning, almost silent Hungarian puzzle movie.

The Sea is a haunting Icelandic movie by Baltasar Kormakur, an Icelandic-Catalan co-production himself. It’s a sort of grown-up family version of his first movie, 101 Reykjavik, over the top and a little predictable, but emotionally devastating. There’s something tragic and doomed about just hearing Icelandic.

Because I don’t do this for a living, I can give extra points to movies that I have a weird personal connection with. The Greek film Hard Goodbyes: My Father (I know it’s the year of “colon-ated” titles, but that one really is dreadful) is about a solitary European kid who looks forward to the moon landing, which happens on his birthday—since I too was a solitary European kid obsessed with the moon landing, which happened on my birthday …

The Girl From Paris (Une Hirondelle a Fait le Printemps, from 2001) reminded me a lot of Lost in Translation—a fish out of water movie that skipped the genre’s clichés. Lost in Translation wasn’t alla that, but it was as close as I can remember to a film that felt like a shared experience—everyone who saw it was in on gentle the “you had to be there” jokes.

Master & Commander makes the list because it had perfect pitch. Epics are judged on a different scale from most movies—I was wowed by The Return of the King, but the thrill wore off pretty quickly; as soon as I thought about Aragorn’s ridiculous dialogue or all the business on Mount Doom toward the end—but my regard for Master & Commander hasn’t wavered.

The Triplets of Belleville has also stuck with me. I can’t but be wowed by animation that can have me reaching for a hankie in the cinema and then haunts my dreams afterward. Weirdly, the character I’ve thought about most is Bruno the dog.

But in this year of movie trinities, my favorite film experience was probably seeing two-thirds of Lucas Belvaux’s “Trilogy” (and how I wished I’d stayed at the cinema past my bedtime to see the missing piece), a series of three movies that present the characters’ lives in parallel. It sounds hokey, but even when the movies are just slightly better than average (the two I saw were Cavale, a thriller about a political revolutionary’s prison break and his attempt to make up for lost time, in which the trilogy’s writer/director also played the male lead, and Un Couple Épatant, a relationship comedy), experiencing events from different perspectives, literally, was viscerally thrilling. And that, after all, is why I love the movies.