The Year in Film

Love and death and the whole damn thing

Thank goodness there's no longer any one Year in Film, regardless of what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (a.k.a. the major studios) will try to tell us on Oscar night. There's not even a consensus among contrapuntists: Four City Pages film critics have assembled year-end Top 10s, and there isn't a single movie we can all agree on.

In my Year in Film, family members are stuck with one another--literally or figuratively, for better and worse. Strangers meet in Transylvania and suck each other dry. And an off-putting man by the name of Friend wonders why a living legend by the name of Fate can't account for the beauty of "The Star Spangled Banner" as performed at Woodstock by Jimi Hendrix--who, unfortunately, is not a living legend.

My Year in Film is a matter of love and death, in other words. But yours may be slightly different. Go ahead and substitute The Matrix Reloaded for demonlover if the fashion plate in your own fantasy looks more like Carrie-Anne Moss than Connie Nielsen. Take To Be and to Have as your very own if The School of Rock's curriculum is either too hardcore or not hardcore enough for your taste. City of God works well in place of Bus 174 if you like your Brazilian gangsters to be glamorously underage. And Elephant can be easily swapped in for Gerry if you prefer to imagine your horrible death occurring in fluorescent rather than natural light.

But don't try to replace Love & Diane, my movie of the year. There's simply no substitute for it--at least not one that can be put on a platter or a reel.


1. Love & Diane. A vital work of both journalism and activism, director Jennifer Dworkin's landmark documentary follows an African American family in Brooklyn through its endless battles with poverty, unemployment, disease, drug addiction, and the alternately inattentive and controlling influence of the welfare establishment. Watching the collision of forces that cause a young boy to be taken from his HIV-positive mother makes the viewer desperate to redirect the flow of events. Which, of course, is entirely the point. PBS will broadcast a truncated version of Dworkin's masterpiece in April (better than nothing, I suppose), but anyone interested in the film and its mission should consider purchasing a videotape copy of the 155-minute edition at


2. The School of Rock. Not a moment too soon: a philosophy of education that includes the serious (and playful) study of popular culture; a Hollywood movie that's genuinely funny and forward-thinking.


3. Unknown Pleasures. Did you know that they make low-budget indies in China now, too? Or that this one, Jia Zhangke's digital-video drama of young love in Datong, is actually the third part of a trilogy more sprawling than Peter Jackson's? If not, it wouldn't be your fault. Unknown Pleasures is well named not only for borrowing from Jia's kindred new-romanticists in Joy Division, but for the fact that it hasn't yet opened in these parts. (Its predecessor, the monumental Platform, had only one screening at the Walker--and that was almost three years ago.) Albeit dusty in appearance, the movie is abloom with the fresh influence of imported pop (the downside of which is Jia's subject). One only wishes New Yorker Films could have an easier time bringing its own import to market.


4. Gerry. Matt Damon and his best friend's baby brother are the ostensible stars of this L'Avventura for the Era of Whatever. But the infinitely stronger impression in Gus Van Sant's film is made by the supporting cast: blinding sunlight, waves of intense heat, endless rock and sand, the sky, the wind.


5. demonlover. The cruel world refreshed in the image of its spiffy new internet, now crueler than ever as a merciless international businesswoman endeavors to acquire an anime porn site. Downloaded at high speed by critic-turned-director Olivier Assayas, with aptly back-slashing audio by Sonic Youth. Three screenings and, to my delight, it still doesn't sit right with me.


6. Bus 174. "This ain't no action movie," warns the hijacker of the titular coach in José Padilha's riveting documentary. Or maybe, in a way, it is. Extracting the maximum drama from extraordinary video footage of a Rio de Janeiro bus hijacking in the summer of 2000, the film is nevertheless most remarkable for doing what action movies and TV news reports do not: delivering the details as part of a larger investigation of how terror is bred by neglect. (Opens January 23 at Bell Auditorium.)


7. Stuck on You. It's all here: familial attachment, separation anxiety, narcissistic injury, stage fright, body-image issues, masculinity in crisis, the American obsession with celebrity, even Lacan's theory of the Other(!). And love, sweet love. Won't someone please hurry and publish that belated scholarly treatise of the brothers Farrelly? In the meantime, we have the most flamboyantly surreal, metaphorically rich, and infectiously joyful studio film since Face/Off.  


8. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary. Source material by Bram Stoker, music by Gustav Mahler, choreography by Mark Godden, acting by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, financing by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, celluloid by Kodak (which still manufactures black-and-white Super 8, by God!), and cinema--outrageously sexy, poignant, visionary cinema--by Guy Maddin. The Walker screened this sucker once around Halloween, and will exhume it again next month as part of a Maddin retro--the perfect pas de deux before the film/video program crawls into a coffin for a year to await reconstruction of the castle.


9. Masked and Anonymous. No thanks to would-be piracy-buster Jack Valenti, I managed to score a basement tape of Bob Dylan's thoroughly hilarious, pseudonymously issued self-portrait (co-written by "Sergei Petrov"). Played at full volume while I work, it sounds a hell of a lot like "Desolation Row." ("Everybody's doing the killing now/Everybody's doing the dying.") Would you believe it got slaughtered at Sundance?


10. My Architect. Dad, too busy spreading his seed, wasn't around when Nathaniel Kahn was growing up. Does it matter that what sprouted, in addition to two other children by different mothers, was the Salk Institute, the Exeter Library, the Bangladeshi capitol? Kahn's documentary search for architect Louis I. Kahn, the father he hardly knew, is another brilliant product of deficiency, another lovingly constructed monument. Landmark, appropriately enough, will open it in April.


In the Cut

First-year parenthood curtailed my movie intake in 2003. I confess I did not see The Hulk, The Matrix Reloaded, or Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. If you believe any of those worthy of a Top 10, feel free to argue your case. I did see Mystic River, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and The School of Rock, which left me respectively bemused, amused, and wishing Mike White had heard of Sleater-Kinney. Even in a year when I didn't have much time to input media, I felt blistered by hype. (An exception was the buzz around Capt. Jack Sparrow: Johnny Depp's ambidextrous floozy slayed even my 10-year-old niece, sending her off into the dusty Deppfiles. Someday she'll get to Dead Man.)

The films I love cut through, per Errol Morris's new documentary, the fogs of war and commerce. Mostly they are violent--though not Bad Boys-violent. Violence is not their vehicle, but their subject. If almost half of them are documentaries, it's perhaps because more than ever I want to know what I'm not seeing, but am responsible for anyway. Even if seeing doesn't explain something like 10,500 deaths and counting.


1. Love & Diane. A documentary for everyone who believes that we come into this world equal. Director Jennifer Dworkin allows mother and daughter "welfare moms" to describe generations of poverty, self-hatred, child neglect, rage, and injured potential. And the first-time filmmaker finds a way to show these media stereotypes as people: multi-faceted, striving individuals who may never be healed or "solved" as a middle-class white lefty like myself might prefer.


2. thirteen. A barebones film like Lilya 4-Ever (Soviet pre-adolescent is abandoned, driven to prostitution and suicide) kind of leaves this Los Angelean coming-of-age struggle looking like a privileged tantrum. For one thing, Catherine Hardwicke's debut is gorgeous, all smeared neon and glistening spray; for another, Evan Rachel Wood's troubled teen never has to worry about procuring food. But it's our privileged tantrum, and Hardwicke, working with co-screenwriter/costar Nikki Reed, plumbs the ugliness of white American girlhood with rotor-rooter candor.


3. Elephant. Cut loose from empathy via Harris Savides's cool Steadicam, my mind was left free to wander, questioning shots, mood, motivation (the director's, that is). I thought questioning was the point. Gus Van Sant's film won't tell you why Columbine happened. But it does ask why we believe in the trademarked lives that this movie and others depict, even when believing diminishes our dreams of what life could be.


4. The Weather Underground. The former American revolutionaries interviewed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel are much less cocksure than their younger selves, who bombed draft offices, businesses, the Capitol. But they are no less consumed with the question of how citizens can or should object to the violence of their nation--a topic that, unfortunately, is once again topical. And still unanswered.  


5. The Fog of War. Errol Morris lets Robert McNamara talk and talk and talk. What the former defense secretary says about modern warfare is by turns self-protective and self-damning. And always matter-of-factly horrifying. (Opens February 6.)


6. Capturing the Friedmans. This movie makes me sick. And not only because it focuses on a pederast and his family, who may or may not have been complicit in his acts. Director Andrew Jarecki's carnival ride of guilt and anger is ultimately about justice--an essence steady as a weathervane.


7. Whale Rider. Niki Caro's movie--about a Maori girl who believes that she is her people's next shaman--sinks deeper and deeper until we understand what leadership will cost: a small figure on an underwater whale, run through with the sea.


8. Lost in Translation. Sofia Coppola's film is xenophobic and reflects the obsessions of a wealthy young person who's too used to hanging out in expensive hotels. It also made me laugh more than all of the year's other movies combined. Something about Bill Murray crooning "More Than This" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding." Something about being older than I was when I first loved those songs, about being really sad and at the same time still having some hope left for more than this world as it is.


9. Carnage. A bull dies in the ring, and parts of it end up in restaurants, dog bones, and laboratories across Europe; the recipients are transformed in absurdly funny and tragic ways. In French director Delphine Gleize's debut feature, chickens come home to roost--and that's a good thing. (Opens Friday at Lagoon Cinema.)


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.


1. Kill Bill Vol. 1. Would that every movie this year had imagined its make-believe world so fully, believed in it so fiercely, and realized it with such an exhilarating, infectious, damn-the-torpedoes passion for cinema.


2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. In an alternate universe, the Star Wars saga ends not with the ditzy Return of the Jedi, but with the thrilling, emotionally complicated Empire Strikes Back. No alternative needed here--not with one of the great screen fantasies hardwiring itself into your brain pixel by pixel, accumulating moral force, visual grandeur, and psychological depth at every step. Arriving as it does on the heels of Saddam Hussein's capture, this pop-mythology exorcism of global unrest could easily be co-opted into election-year pageantry, and I'll spit my juice the instant some op-ed nimrod compares Dubya to Aragorn. But that's what happens when a movie writes itself into the lexicon, and into legend.


3. Friday Night. A film by France's marvelous Claire Denis offers the exact opposite of sensory deprivation. Her magical evocation of a woman's overnight fling in gridlocked Paris is as tactile as a hotel bedspread covering a naked body, as intensely immediate as the moment before you first made love.


4. City of God. By daring to portray poverty in terms other than finger-wagging despair, by acknowledging a taboo cross-cultural debt to Tarantino and Boogie Nights, and, worst of all, by connecting with a sizable mainstream audience, this feverish, fact-based Brazilian crime epic pissed off the culture cops who determine how authentically "foreign" a movie has to be to meet snob approval. Too bad: It's an object lesson in the enduring sociopolitical potency of the gangster film, as pinpointed by Robert Warshow a half-century ago.


5. Mystic River. As a tapestry of themes that Clint Eastwood has spent an entire career exploring, from imperiled innocence to the lawman's blurry role as defender or dispenser of justice, this sober, wounding, ferociously acted adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel would have the ring of finality if it didn't end with such seething anger. After sampling almost every kind, depth, and texture of screen darkness for more than two hours, the former Dirty Harry saves the darkest void of all for the sunglasses over a vigilante's untroubled eyes.  

6. Finding Nemo. The fifth film in Pixar's unbroken string of gems is even darker than the abandonment-anxiety nightmare of Toy Story 2: a clear-eyed acknowledgement of the world's terrors, based on the truism that the inevitable gaining of experience for kids is often trauma for parents. And yet no movie this year has a more generous or less isolationist spirit, takes such delight in each precisely detailed locale, or rewards more repeat viewings with dazzled children.


7. Down with Love. Dismissed last summer as a mere curio--the Far from Heaven of saucy '60s sex romps--Peyton Reed's pastel pastiche of Camelot chic revives the illusion of breezy, brainy effortlessness that was once American comedy's gift to the world. Beautiful to look at, touching in its subtly wistful embrace of doomed early '60s optimism, it's a pleasure even when pitch-perfect cad Ewan McGregor isn't swiveling his hips to the swanky score.


8. The Good Thief. What The Big Sleep did for the private-eye procedural, Neil Jordan's delirious late-show fantasia does for the caper movie: It tucks away the genre's creakier tropes with fond expedience, then feasts on its incidental pleasures. As befits a cheeky "homage" to Jean-Pierre Melville's casino-heist classic Bob le flambeur, it's as much about the art of theft as the theft of art. Unlike the movie's cache of bogus masterworks, however, Nick Nolte's performance as a chivalrous, Chet Baker-like junkie prince is inimitable and irreplaceable.


9. Bad Santa. Set in the same shop-till-you-drop ghost world as Terry Zwigoff's previous film (it could be another issue of the same underground comic), this side-splitting act of Yuletide vandalism looks at first like an attack on everything holy. But what it's really (and I mean really) pissing on is the commercial desecration of the season, the indoctrination of tykes into a lifelong swirl down the consumer drain. Think of this as Elf's incontinent, syphilitic militant cousin--and of Billy Bob Thornton as the virtuoso of comic misery that he is.


10. Ichi the Killer and Irreversible (tie). How to defend the indefensible...twice? I'm not sure, and that's part of the vise grip that these two brilliantly made, deliberately reprehensible films still have on me. I'm grateful to know that in bloody, bellicose, benumbed 2003 there is still such a thing as going too far, and I'm neither kidding nor exaggerating when I say that I fear what comes next. (People said the same thing in 1971 after seeing Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange.) And I still regret not socking that bastard Gaspar Noé back when I had the chance.

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