erasing clouds

My Favorite Movies of 2003

by dave heaton

In an age when it's easy to read about films released all over the world (and read in depth about them, in print magazines like Film Comment and web sites like Senses of Cinema), the distribution system for films here in the U.S. has become more and more of a frustration. So often I read about films that sound fantastic, but the chances of me ever seeing them on the big screen (or sometimes even on DVD or video) are slim. Moving to a smaller city has made this especially evident to me, as this year I feel less comfortable than ever saying that I've seen enough of the 2003 films to put forth a "best of" list with any confidence. That said, this year I still saw at least 10 films that I flat-out loved - though a few of them I caught up with on video (#s 1, 6, 7), one I saw at a university showing while I was traveling (#3), and one was an unofficial (but good-quality) VHS copy of a film that has only made a few festival appearances in North America so far (#2). In an ideal world I would have seen all of these films on the big screen, always the best place to watch a movie, but we can't always get what we want.

1.All the Real Girls (dir. David Gordon Green)

A heartfelt story of young people in love, realistic in feeling if not actually realistic. A truer portrait of how human beings relate is hard to find, yet the film also has a casual tone and dreamy, transitory visual and conversational style that give it a unique personality and style.

2. Bright Future (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's unusual suspense films project a sense of impending apocalypse that doubles as a sense of impending freedom, especially in Bright Future, a complicated and rich film about everything from juvenile delinquency and social conformity to how beautiful a killer jellyfish looks right before it stings you.

3. Unknown Pleasures (dir. Jia Zhangke)

Aimless youth (half-)looking for something to do form the plot of so many movies, and so many good ones. Unknown Pleasures tells the story of a few Chinese teenagers in a way that's simultaneously funny and sad (and, through Jia Zhangke's amazing visual sense, quite beautiful), and slyly weaves in social commentary in the most non-preachy of ways.

4. Lost in Translation (dir. Sofia Coppola)

Like her first film The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation is as much about dreamy textures, images and music as it is a portrait of isolation. Take a laidback kaleidoscope of feeling and mood, add a note-perfect funny/sad performance from Bill Murray, and you have a film that deserves its accolades, even as the inevitable backlash continues to swell.

5. Swimming Pool (dir. Francois Ozon)

An intriguing exploration of the creative process, via the story of a mystery writer taking a vacation to work on her latest book. Swimming Pool captures the mood of the sort of suspenseful tale its main character might write, while providing a look at the ways in which writers work through their own sublimated desires and hopes through their creations.

6. Morvern Callar (dir. Lynne Ramsey)

The dreamy, colorful Morvern Callar brings viewers along on its title character's journey (one that leads from loss but is mostly a form of self-realization), while leaving us in the dark on much of the backstory and emotional particulars. That choice could have been disastrous but in director Lynne Ramsey's hands it's somehow perfect; the film's blank spaces make it even more evocative, though the images, the deft use of music, and Samantha Morton's riveting lead performance play a large role in its greatness too.

7. The Shape of Things (dir. Neil LaBute)

With The Shape of Things, Neil LaBute returned to his own original material with a biting comedy about the battles between the sexes (of course) that was also a complicated essay on the purpose of art.

8. A Mighty Wind (dir. Christopher Guest)

Guest's satire on the world of folk music is a very funny film, given an extra dose of melancholy through an extraordinary pair of performances by Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara as unrequited lovers whose legendary stage act was based around their mythic (but actually unrealized) love relationship.

9. Anything Else (dir. Woody Allen)

Confusion, fear, loneliness…don't dwell on them too much, they're just like anything else. So goes the message of Anything Else…sort of. The movie is at once a typical Woody Allen romantic comedy about nervous New Yorkers and a complicated alternate version of one, where the character whose message is that hardship's just a natural part of life also happens to be paranoid and crazy, the embodiment of post-9/11 fears.

10. Kill Bill vol. 1 (dir. Quentin Tarentino)

Tarentino's hyper projection of all of the wild and trashy movies he loves is an exhilarating ride, despite being cut in half. Funny, harsh, colorful, and in a few places oddly beautiful and moving for such a goofy and somewhat purposeless amalgamation of styles.

Note: To read the "What We Loved Most in 2003" feature straight through, click here to go directly to the next article.

Issue 19, January 2004

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