The Year in Film

Four critics pick 40 or so favorites--and fail to agree on a single one


10. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Epic in its concerns (as Master and Commander is not), and at times startlingly beautiful. Plus, it understands both the bright spectacle of war and its price.


She's Real

Let us reconsider women.

Jennifer Lopez says this while doing "ironically" sexy yoga swoops and twists, sticking her toes next to her ears in a way that puts the world's most famous rump on display. Then she proceeds to hector numb-nuts gangster Gigli (Ben Affleck) about the aesthetic superiority of the vulva--exalting the power of the pussy for its resemblance to a kissable mouth, "embracing and gently crushing." It's the faux-hippest and most sleazily staged of all Vagina Monologues. But with her baby-doll voice and cool-eyed gaze (one eyebrow up), Ms. Lopez not only makes it work; she makes it soar.

There were better performances in 2003, but this is the one I love the most. In every scene of Gigli, Lopez turned her attention to the other actors, and her generosity and openness made her a genuine movie star. Watch this terrible movie to see a great old-school Hollywood performance. (Below are 10 other films I recommend, in order of preference.)


1. Kill Bill Vol. 1. Critics on the left and the right recoiled from Quentin Tarantino's implacable equation: violence = sex = cinema. Me, I feel the way Martin Scorsese felt about a much-drubbed Sam Fuller film: If you don't like this movie, you just don't like movies!


2. 21 Grams. "The plotting is overwrought," the critics carped. But had they listened to a Verdi opera lately? Seen an Aeschylus play? Director Alejandro González " Iñárritu trains his microscopic lens on the fragility and individual value of a human soul; the results carry an emotional force that is nearly unique. Iñárritu is not quite a master yet, but he will be.


3. Japón. Another young Mexican director helped rescue us from the blockbuster era by making "the kind of film they don't make any more": that is, a wholly original one. Following a suicidal painter who bonds with an old farm woman, the 31-year-old Carlos Reygadas found rhythms, emotional textures, and jolting images that will stay with me for the rest of my life.


4. Waiting for Happiness. Writer-director Abderahmane Sissako deserves to be seated at the table where Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami dine. This great and little-known artist from Mali makes features that are shaped less like three-act plays than high-tech switchboards; the subject matter is Sissako's joyous celebration of the people of Mali, and of the sensuous exuberance of life itself.


5. Phone Booth. Larry Cohen, '70s grindhouse Marxist extraordinaire, wrote the first and essential draft of this almost impossibly swift 80-minute shocker: a beautiful catch-all for every viral variant of American anxiety. (Is it my fault that those towers fell? Or maybe it's all in my head? And why do they hate us, anyway? And who am I speaking to?) Director Joel Schumacher, in a career high (by far!), captures Colin Ferrell's sleazoid magnetism like a kid with a firefly in his fist.


6. Irreversible. In this dazzlingly contradictory, even incoherent work, writer-director Gaspar Noé delivers a 10-minute slice of pure Jules and Jim charm, a surprisingly appealing (and squeaky clean) sex scene between Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel, and...a nine-minute anal rape? And you say that's not interesting?


7. Stuck on You. For people who make theater, there could be no more harrowing a sight than that of an actor performing the entirety of Jay Presson Allen's Tru at a community theater in Cape Cod...stitched to a loved one. The Farrelly Brothers are working in the spirit of Blake Edwards, making real movies that are also laugh-out-loud comedies.


8. Gerry. Don't let anyone convince you that there's a single boring minute in this movie, because there isn't. Gerry ponders time, loss, pleasure, and the true meaning of guyness with the stoic rigor of a Schumann piano concerto. Put yourself in its custody.


9. Le Divorce. James Ivory's adaptation of Diane Johnson's Jamesian comic romance is composed of caresses, tickles, soft abrasions, and the occasional full-on embrace; its physical beauty recalls the Hollywood of yesteryear. Ivory, once an insufferable middlebrow pedant, has officially become a walking anachronism--and I, for one, am damn grateful.


10. Cremaster 3. Combining pure sculpture, Richard Serra-style monumentalism, Sam Raimi splatter, and the PIN code of its maker's own unconscious, Matthew Barney's "Cremaster Cycle" represents a new way of thinking about motion pictures. Despite its execrable finale (Barney literally scaling the Guggenheim), Cremaster 3 is the artist's yeastiest and most engaging work to date.


Stepping Out

This was the year I realized I was sick of emo-cinema. The twerpy spawn of Sundance in 2003 were films inordinately proud of their puniness, of their morosely strummed shoegazer scores, of eyesore DV camerawork that wrapped TV-movie scripts in a cloak of the Emperor's New Cred.

The movies that moved me most this year sought not to conquer the larger world, but to connect with it. Sometimes the effort required constructing an entire civilization from scratch; sometimes it required nothing more than opening a car door and venturing outside.

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