Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

" This is a situation that needs to get un-fucked right now "
— Colm Meaney, Con Air

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For movies, 2003 was a bad year. Movie Habit only handed out a few four-star reviews, and they were often given hesitantly. This year, instead of debating which beloved movie deserve to be on the top of the list we talked about whether we’d find ten movies that deserve a spot on the list at all.

Some of the best films from 2003 were “officially” released in 2002. City of God, for example, was Roger Ebert’s best film of 2002, but it never played in Denver — not even at a press screening — until February or March.

As usual, the best films were often the independents. Only a few Mainstream movies were noteworthy, among them the capper to (arguably) the best filmed trilogy ever made, The Lord of the Rings.

As always, we hope this list does more for you than just rehash the year in movies. Hopefully you’ll re-evaluate some films you didn’t appreciate the first time around. Maybe you’ll even learn about some good movies that you missed. We hope you are surprised with at least one film on this list, and we hope there’s at least one you haven’t seen yet.

Here they are:

10. Mystic River, Clint Eastwood

Because its script doesn’t wrap things up too neatly, and some seasoned actors give terrific performances

Mystic River is a solid crime drama from director Clint Eastwood and adapted by Oscar-winner Brian Helgeland.Mystic River is refreshingly adult. That’s not to say college kids can’t enjoy it, only that Eastwood doesn’t pander to a younger crowd in search of larger audiences.

Mystic River follows three friends who grew up together in Boston. They grow apart, as childhood friends do. Now adults, and all leading their own lives, the three reunite over a tragedy. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is the cop called to investigate the murder of the daughter of Jimmy (Sean Penn); Dave (Tim Robbins) is an undiscovered prime suspect, known only to his wife and the audience.

The plot is standard police fare. One clue leads to another, each one justifying a new scene. The scenes, instead of revealing only more leads, reveal the rich backgrounds behind the three lead characters and their friendships. By the time we feel like we know the characters, the plot has been established enough to take over the movie’s momentum. By then, we care what the outcome is, not to satisfy our curiosity, but because we care how it will affect the characters.

Helgeland includes frayed edges that don’t get too neatly tied up. Of course the main plot thread has a resolution, but it is these fringes that are left out of place that make you think that the characters in the film will continue to live on after the movie, because they still have too much to work out. When it ends, you know that it doesn’t really end. Talk about getting your money’s worth.

9. Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola

Because it surprises us with grace, its humor, and its maturity.

Lost in Translation is a rarity: a film about a purely emotional love affair.

Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a former movie actor in a stale marriage who finds himself in another world, where he is getting $2 million to endorse a Japanese whiskey. Adrift in Tokyo alongside him is another American, dewy Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), married for four years to a hip photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who has lots of interests that don’t include her. The two lost souls find each other at their hotel bar on one sleepless night, and soon they are spending all of their evenings together.

The film is equal parts travelogue and chaste romance. The pair have a handful of nighttime outings with shadowy family members and Japanese hippies. Meanwhile, they rediscover themselves through each other. Director Sofia Coppola captures the experience of traveling in an unfamiliar place with no destination. The novelty of the place brings out the novelty in the characters: free of their usual context, they discover themselves anew.

Bob and Charlotte’s world of constant jet lag and room-filling beds makes us dread the pair’s inevitable grope toward intimacy. Instead the film is an eternal first date. They share confessions, advice, and sit sweetly side by side after a big night of karaoke. They finally fall asleep at last, not in each other’s arms but in the back of a taxicab, each sprawled in their own corner.

If you could enjoy a 100-minute movie about two people who never consummate their love affair, without much of a plot but with lots of atmosphere and wry humor, you could fall in love with Lost in Translation as I have. With grace and humor, writer-director Coppola succeeds at something difficult in fiction: telling an affecting story that allows its characters to be decent people.

8. American Splendor, Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

Because the mix of real and cinematic, the elevation of the mundane, and the quirky personalities of its heroes makes American Splendor gives everyone something to enjoy.

American Splendor is a biography of a nobody. The fact that a nobody would have a comic book, a play, and now a movie written about his life, makes him a somebody and makes his life interesting. If you don’t buy that, you’re probably right to be a little skeptical. Harvey Pekar was a file clerk at a Veterans Affairs hospital, and his life really is mundane. But maybe the point is that any of our lives might be interesting if they were written as comic books or a movie. A soup can is just a soup can until you hang it on a wall in an art gallery.

The episodes in this movie aren’t interesting in and of themselves. What makes them interesting is that they are real. There is a real Harvey Pekar, whose triumphs and foibles are being acted on a 20-foot high screen. Is he really like that? What would he think of this movie?

Luckily, the film answers each of these questions, exactly when they spring to mind. Intercut with the fictional retelling of Harvey’s life are on-camera interviews with Pekar, his wife Joyce, and other friends and family. We learn enough about the real man that we can tell Giamatti’s performance isn’t exact, but that it’s an inspired impression.

The juxtaposition of the real and the cinematic really makes American Splendor into something great. Seeing both Harveys together gives us a more insightful portrait of the man. One is a photograph, the other is a caricature. The photograph is realistic, but the caricature captures his essence. Which is more “real”? Which is more “true”? That’s a philosophical question you’ll have to answer yourself.

7. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Peter Jackson

Because Return of the King caps (possibly) the best movie trilogy ever.

If The Return of the King wins Best Picture or if Peter Jackson wins Best Director at this year’s Oscars, the award will ostensibly be for The Return of the King. But the statuettes would actually be well-deserved rewards for seven years of hard work on three epic films by one talented nerd and his crew.

While The Return of the King will be praised for its big battle scenes, they are balanced by the smaller, more intimate human stories. As Frodo collapses under the weight of his burden, ever-loyal Sam picks up the slack. Serkis continues his standout performance as Gollum, driven by a patient, insatiable desire for his “preciousss.”

But not all of the characters get their due. Aragorn, who is the title character after all, doesn’t get as much screen time as I had hoped. Legolas and Gimli have so little to do they are relegated to sidekick status.

On its own, The Return of the King may not deserve all the Oscars it will win. But as the final chapter in a 10-hour, three-film epic, it does. Along with Best Picture and Best Director, special consideration ought to go to McKellen, who gives Gandalf a knowledge beyond what is written in the script, and Serkis, who was nominated last year for Gollum.

6. 21 Grams, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu

Because the nonlinear storytelling grabs your attention until the well-developed characters engross you.

21 Grams is a wonderful movie in which casting, acting, editing, and direction all come together to tell an interesting story in a very interesting way. Iñarritu cuts between different threads and different times like a four-dimensional Star Trek alien. Finding out how the threads come together is what keeps you glued to your seat.

But the technique is only the first thing that grabs your attention. As we get to know the characters, they begin to demand our attention and the storytelling technique becomes less exotic and more linear. The characters are written with grit and honesty, and each of the leading actors (Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts, and Sean Penn) is outstanding.

5. The Man on the Train, Patrice Leconte

Because the unexpected, bittersweet friendship between two complementary old men is moving and sincere.

Man on the Train is a simple, bittersweet tale about two men, both loners, thrust together into a week-long friendship.

The title character is in town for a bank robbery on Saturday and is disinclined to converse with anyone. His host (the town’s hotel is closed) is a lonely old man who will be going in for surgery on Saturday, looking for a friend to talk to.

Eventually Manesquier cracks through the visitor’s hard exterior and finds common ground. Both are alone, and both are lonely. Both brood about their dates with destiny on Saturday and worry about the things they can’t control. They come to see in each other the qualities that are missing from their own lives. At one point, Manesquier says of his tame and boring life, “I stopped living before I got old.” Those same words might well be the Milan’s epitaph if he doesn’t slow down.

The film becomes heavyhanded in one scene at the end, but tolerably so. The best thing about the movie is the friendship between the two men, played by two very good actors. Director Patrice Leconte gives them time to sit quietly and let them soak into the screen.

4. A Mighty Wind, Christopher Guest

Because Christopher Guest keeps a straight face, even as he tells joke after joke about his fictional folk singers.

This clever “mockumentary,” by Christopher Guest is centered around a tribute concert for renowned folk music producer Irving Steinbloom. The Folksmen were just one of his discoveries. There was also a 9-tet called The Main Street Singers, and the guitar-and-autoharp duet known as Mitch and Mickey. The movie introduces us to each of these groups, and gives us a “behind the music” look at their early days and their modern faces. The characters have talent, but so do the actors who play them. The songs (some of which were written by the cast) sound passably good. They’re written to sound genuine, but like the movie’s title, they also have another layer of subtle humor.

3. Dirty Pretty Things, Stephen Frears

Because the gritty portrait of immigrants keeps it real, even as its story descends into the surreal.

The main characters are all immigrants, illegal or otherwise, from Nigeria, Turkey, India, Spain, Russia and elsewhere. Starting with a disturbing discovery in a London hotel room, Dirty Pretty Things is a thriller that takes full advantage of its setting.

The story revolves around Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amistad), who doesn’t like to sleep. Instead he works two jobs, at a hotel at night, and in a cab during the day. He’s an illegal alien from Nigeria living in London and he lives his life constantly on the run from immigration officers. Okwe takes occasional breaks on the couch in the apartment of Senay (Audrey Tautou, L’ Auberge Espagnole). She’s an illegal alien from Turkey, naively on her way to her dream life in New York.

Matters get more complicated for them when Okwe finds the cause of a plugged up toilet in a room frequented by a prostitute — evidence of a murder. It becomes his mission to uncover what happened, which is not easy for a man trying to avoid attention from immigration officers and from his sleazy coworkers.

There’s something Hitchcockian about what Frears accomplishes. He creates a smart thriller that stays true to itself without telegraphing its next move. The film becomes more involving as it progresses, right up to its honest and heartbreaking conclusion.

2. Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time, Thomas Riedelsheimer

Because Goldsworthy’s beautiful masterpieces look great under the gorgeous, fluid cinematography.

Rivers and Tides is a portrait of the life and work of Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy. His artwork is magical. Working outdoors, and with only what he finds at hand, Goldsworthy creates ephemeral masterpieces. He makes swooping oxbows from icicles or vines. He makes path markers out of stone or ice. He concentrates nature’s color.

His art is ephemeral. He builds one of his trademark “seeds” out of blocks of ice on a thawing river. He builds one on a beach below the high tide mark and watches the sea swallow it up. He builds a driftwood igloo over a swirling eddy at the mouth of a river and waits for the tide to carry it out to sea.

But Goldsworthy says the point is not to make them ephemeral. He says “I haven’t simply made the piece to be destroyed by the sea. It is given to the sea as a gift. The sea makes more of the piece than I ever could. [...] It doesn’t feel at all like destruction.”

The cinematography is outstanding. Riedelsheimer shoots on film, not video. The rich, lush look proves that it was the right decision. In addition, he uses a crane in a half dozen key shots throughout the movie, and the effect is breathtaking. As the crane moves the art piece gains a new dimension and it seems to come alive.

Fred Frith provides the music for the movie, which is often good, but sometimes distracting. The most unfortunate failure of the filmmaking is in Riedelsheimer’s lack of narrative structure. It makes the movie feel overlong, even though I wanted always wanted to see more of Goldsworthy’s work.

1. City of God, Fernando Meirelles

Because it’s a smart, thought-provoking movie with an unfrogettable visceral impact.

City of God is told in the hip style of Trainspotting. Our narrator uses the tricks of Pulp Fiction to tell his story in flashback, in flash-forward, and from many different angles. But as in the better works of Martin Scorsese, any stylistic trick first and foremost serves the story, which, like the better works of Scorsese, is about gangsters.

City of God is based on a true story. It’s told from the point of view of Rocket (Alexandre Rodriguez), who narrates from the present. He grew up around hoods. His brother was part of “The Tender Trio,” a gang that robbed the occasional gas truck or motel. The Tender Trio look like choirboys compared to Li’l Dice, a sociopathic seven-year-old who enjoys murder and desires power and respect. Li’l Dice grows up to become Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora), the most ruthless, most powerful drug dealer in The City of God, the poorest slum in Rio de Janeiro.

The style and the story both make City of God far above average. What makes it great is that it treats its subject seriously and honestly. It looks closely at the details of crime and poverty without turning away in revulsion or dismissing the hoods as evil non-human beings. Because the film keeps its eyes open, you can bring anything you like to the film and get something in return.