Best of 2003

Happy New Year, everyone!

Back from the holidays, I thought I’d list my requisite end of the year top ten lists, although I hasten to add that there are plenty of films I’ve yet to see. (For example, I’m still looking forward to seeing Tsai Ling-miang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant, both of which I’ll get to see at the impressive Palm Springs International Film Festival in about a week.) In addition, release and exhibition dates for one’s hometown vary wildly and virtually any argument for restricting a list to one or the other category will inevitably involve compromises. (For example, Springtime in a Small Town is a 2002 film I saw in 2003 that won’t get its official Los Angeles release until 2004.)

Having said that, here are some titles which highlighted my viewing year:

New Releases

1. The Son (Le fils) (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

The Dardennes’ followup to their formidable La Promesse (1996) and Rosetta (1999) is equally rooted in working class Belgian life, recreating the sights and sounds of carpentry and physical labor as it sneakily unearths a story of forgiveness. Bressonian in more ways than one, the film suggests the mysterious inner life of its characters by rigorously adhering to its surfaces–wood beams and tools, blank faces and backs, action and movement–creating a never-ending paradox of materialism and meaning. “Hide the ideas, but so that people find them,” Bresson once wrote, “The most important will be the most hidden.” The Dardennes understand this.

2. Drifters (Wang Xiaoshuai)

I’ve only seen one of Wang’s previous features, Beijing Bicycle (2001), which I found engaging if a bit superficial, but this film lingers in my mind with its mixture of painterly cinematography, a slowly unveiling narrative, and its detailed depiction of a desperate youth culture in contemporary China on the eve of its entry into the World Trade Organization. Like several notable films this year, the movie humanizes immigration issues and foregrounds the realities of “globalization”–a term governments selectively apply to the exchange of goods across borders while they simultaneously prevent people from going anywhere.

3. Bright Leaves (Ross McElwee)

I’m a passionate devotee of the essay film, and McElwee’s latest is a marvelously entertaining and reflective one. Starting with his innocuous encounter with a cousin who suggests their great grandfather, a North Carolina tobacco entrepreneur, might have been the inspiration for the Michael Curtiz film Bright Leaf (1950), the film develops into a humorous and thoughtful commentary on history and legacy, culture and commercialism. Far from an easy attack on the tobacco industry, the film expresses a complex array of feelings over the “bright leaf”–an economic bedrock which is a source of pride as well as cancer that’s deeply and problematically enmeshed within Southern life today.

4. Bus 174 (JosÈ Padilha)

This brilliant Brazilian documentary concerns itself with a national tragedy that occurred in the streets of Rio de Janeiro on June 12, 2000: a city bus was hijacked by a 16-year-old homeless child and the ordeal was broadcast live, moment-to-moment, by the national media. The portrait that initially emerged seemed to merely reinforce popular notions about social divisions. In contrast, Padilha’s film debut systematically reconstructs the incident using the network footage augmented with his own investigations into the hijacker’s personal life (which the media never covered). He interviews police officers, reporters, street kids, and even gangsters and provides a challenging and compassionate portrait of Rio’s complex social organization and systemic cycles of violence.

5. To Be and To Have ( tre et avoir) (Nicolas Philibert)

I managed to see this film at the Palm Springs fest a year ago and I’ve been raving about it ever since. Recently released in Canada on DVD for those who missed it, the film depicts the teaching methods of a one-room schoolteacher in rural France and the charming, diverse personalities of his young students (all less than 12 years of age) are conveyed through well-observed moments, piecemeal fashion. Philibert previously succeeded in creating a similarly fascinating and illuminating study of another “closed system,” the culture and codes of deaf people in 1992’s In the Land of the Deaf, and here the faces and idiosyncratic behaviors of the children develop a great deal of cumulative empathy–by the film’s end, the viewer can share the sadness of those graduating and moving on.

6. Distant Lights (Lichter) (Hans-Christian Schmid)

A number of strong pictures this year dealt with international refugees, a theme that seems increasingly pronounced given reasons stated in my Drifters comments above, as well as wars creating situations like those of In This World, below. Distant Lights, which has won a variety of German film awards, is a passionate and intricate depiction of the clash of political cultures (past and present as well as international) set on the Oder river between Germany and Poland. The film depicts critical moments during 48 hours in the lives of a generous ensemble of characters and never loses its sense of urgency. Ukrainian refugees seeking asylum in Germany, smugglers, interpreters, struggling entrepreneurs, and taxi drivers all desparately attempt to navigate a tricky cutthroat environment which necessitates constant decision making and moral judgments.

7. In This World (Michael Winterbottom)

British filmmaker Winterbottom seems intent on reinventing himself with each new project, and this film offers his most assured work to date. Telling the story of two Afghan refugees who attempt to make their way to London, the film was shot with handheld digital cameras in cinemascope in actual refugee camps and bazaars and checkpoints along the way, utilizing nonprofessional actors for the leads and developing the script en route. It’s a timely recontextualization of neorealist techniques that provides a heart-rending portrait of souls in flight. A DVD has been released in the UK.

8. Springtime in a Small Town (Tian Zhuangzhuang)

Blacklisted Zhuangzhuang’s first film in ten years (after his brilliant but banned The Blue Kite) is a remake of Mu Fei’s celebrated 1948 film of the same name, but this time lensed in color by Mark Li Ping-bing, one of the world’s great cinematographers, in his sensuous The Flowers of Shanghai and In the Mood for Love shades of blue and gold. A sickly man and his distant wife are visited by an old friend, and the film becomes a chamber piece addressing their complex relationships, visually manifested in the crumbling architecture around them. A subtle and beautiful film, also available on DVD in the UK.

9. The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy)

My friend Darren Hughes recommended this movie as a film “completely in love with its characters,” and in a time when movies of the hip, Sundance variety seem intent on demonstrating just how ironically detached they can be, it’s like a miracle. After being disappointed by other critical favs like Lost in Translation and Mystic River, I was glad to catch up with this in its last legs of L.A. distribution. Indeed, the film seems to enjoy the company of its characters so much that its enforced narrative discipline near the end seems a bit artificial. But we can forgive its rare excesses in light of its abiding, generous heart.

10. The Triplettes of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet)

As enjoyable to listen to as it is to watch, this nearly dialogue-less animated epic involving a grandmother-child relationship, an aging dog, a bicycle race, gangsters, gypsy jazz, and many other odd and eclectic details is as much a tribute to Jacques Tati as anything else. Wonderfully detailed, each “shot” is strikingly composed and executed, so that only by the time the film erupts in a bizarre shoot-out through the dark streets of a fantastical town does it begin to lose steam. Thankfully it ends there, leaving viewers with a wide assortment of visual memories, foot-taping rhythms, and silly grins on their faces.

Theatrical Revivals

1. Au hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)

2. The Grin Without a Cat (Chris Marker, 1977 & 1993)

3. Sankofa (Haile Gerima, 1993)

4. Le Bonheur (AgnËs Varda, 1965)

5. Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (Hong Sang Soo, 2000)

6. Jacquot de Nantes (AgnËs Varda, 1991)

7. The Milky Way (Luis BuÒuel, 1969)

8. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)

9. Under the Skin of the City (Rakhshan Bani Eternad, 2001)

10. Alien: The Director’s Cut (Ridley Scott, 1979 & 2003)

Region 1 DVDs

1. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
An unbelievably gorgeous restoration, with copious extras. It must have come out too early in the year for many critics to remember in their year-end awards, but I can’t think of a more historically valuable release for cinephiles.

2. Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
Murnau has fared well in the last couple of years on DVD–check out Kino’s collected box set, recently released. Unfortunately, this beautiful disc (with a detailed shot-by-shot commentary by cinematography John Bailey) can only be ordered via Fox’s buy-three special offer.

3. Three Colours, The Decalogue (Krzyztof Kieslowski)
Although the first release is in many ways simply a repackaging of the MK2 set released for Region 2 years ago, the transfers are better and it’s good to have the series readily available on disc in North America now. (Although it’s too bad Miramax opted not to subtitle the Greek chorale in Blue, unlike the European editions.) The Decalogue is also a refurbished release, back in print from Facets, and it offers some intriguing extras, including the chance to watch Kieslowski profoundly irritate a group of journalists.

4. Tokyo Story, By Brakhage, Umberto D, Hiroshima mon amour, Throne of Blood (Various)
I’ve decided to clump my favorite Criterion releases into one entry so they don’t take over my list. We already know they make great DVDs, but the above are stellar films, previously hard to find on video, and loaded with informative extras.

5. Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)
Tourneur’s classic horror film was recut and released in America as Curse of the Demon, and this has been the only version available on VHS for years. Columbia saved the day by releasing both films on one DVD this year, and in very good prints. We’re still waiting for Tourneur-Lewton films like I Walked With a Zombie, but until then this valuable release will suffice.

6. Legend (Ridley Scott, 1985)
All right it’s not high art, but Scott’s lovely fantasy, envisioned both as a (pre-CGI) live-action Disney film and a tribute to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, is lavishly photographed and much stronger a genre entry than the critical establishment has suggested over the years. The director’s cut is the original pre-release version, and its pacing and thematic development is much more fluid than the choppy Universal cut. It also boasts the original, rarely-heard Jerry Goldsmith score and bountiful extras. Most fans didn’t actually think this print existed anymore, so it’s a treat to finally have it as a two-disc set.

7. Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki, 1986, 1989)
Two of Miyazaki’s most entertaining films finally get a polished subtitle/dubbing/distribution job by Disney. Too bad John Lasseter drools all over the introductions.

8. L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934)
It’s a bare-bones release, but it’s such an amazing film by 29-year-old Vigo (who died the year it debuted) and a stellar transfer (direct from Gaumont) that New Yorker Video deserves kudos for it. Drop whatever you’re doing and watch it immediately.

9. Man of Aran, Louisiana Story (Robert J. Flaherty, 1934, 1948)
Why the Criterion Collection decided to “demote” these releases to their Home Vision label is beyond me: stunningly filmed documents about people in their time and place, landmarks of the documentary genre, and loaded with extras. Although they may lack the journalistic rigor of modern non-fiction films, few movies are as lyrical or moving.

10. Christ in Concrete (Edward Dmytryk, 1948)
All Day Entertainment pulled-out all the stops for this fine release of a film never available on video and essentially banned by McCarthy-era witchhunting. The film is a curious mixture of social realism and film noir and recreates Brooklyn alleys, skyrises, and dilapidated apartments with great skill and feeling, telling the story of a bricklayer who can’t quite make ends meet no matter how hard he tries.

Non-Region 1 DVDs (with English options)

1. M (Fritz Lang, 1931) (Eureka, UK)

2. Coffret Alain Resnais 5 DVD: L’Amour ‡ mort, I Want to go Home, MÈlo, Mon oncle d’AmÈrique, La Vie est un roman (MK2, France)

3. La Belle Noiseuse (Jacques Rivette, 1991) (Artificial Eye, UK)

4. Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973) (Optimum Releasing, UK)

5. Der var Engang (Once Upon a Time) (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1922) (Danish Film Institute, Denmark)

6. La JetÈe/Sans soleil (Chris Marker, 1962, 1982) (Arte Video, France)

7. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Classics: From 1983-1986 (Sino Movie, Taiwan)

8. Journey to Italy (Voyage to Italy) (Roberto Rossellini, 1957) (British Film Institute, UK)

9. An Actor’s Revenge (Kon Ichikawa, 1963) (British Film Institute, UK)

10. Repentance (Tengiz Abuladze, 1984) (RusCiCo, Russia)