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Best Films of 2003

2003 saw the ending of a fantasy saga as well as some great indie films and big-budget animation giants. It was an eclectic year that saw a return to form for directors like Clint Eastwood and the emergence of new greats like Sofia Coppola.

Best Film – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Capping off the greatest film trilogy of all-time, director Peter Jackson delivered his most grandiose and dramatic Lord of the Rings film in The Return of the King.

The quest has taken a toll on Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). On the last leg of the journey, the evil forces opposing him and his shattered fellowship push forward with devastating effect. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) must ascend to the throne he has hidden from and Gollum (Andy Serkis) continues to plot his own nefarious deeds that could spell doom for the world.

Relieved of the pressures of needing to introduce realms and species to an audience, all of the building storylines are brought to a close that is heartfelt, intimate and epic, creating a sensation few films have ever been able to achieve. In due time of course, Jackson would return to Middle-earth to complete another trilogy in The Hobbit series, but he needn’t have bothered. With The Return of the King, Jackson delivered an emotional epic that may never be topped.

Finding Nemo

Pixar delivered one of their greatest hits and most memorable films in Finding Nemo.

The tale of a father clownfish, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), searching for his young son, Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould), Marlin is forced to swim across half the ocean, aided by his bumbling sidekick, Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres). They come across sharks and jellyfish and all sorts of dangerous creatures, pushing forward to find young Nemo, who must confront his own mortality in a dentist’s fish tank.

Featuring great comedic moments, mesmerizing animation and a heartwarming message, the film still stands today as one of Pixar’s finest achievements.

Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece of finding simple connections between people regardless of gender, age or status, Lost in Translation features two of the best performances of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s careers.

Bob Harris is a past-his-prime film star scraping work together in Japan, where he is completely out of his element. He meets Charlotte, similarly lost, her husband a photographer on assignment. Finding each other and trying to find themselves on the crazy streets of Tokyo, they learn about the nature of connection and what their futures entail, whether it is what they want or not.

Understated in its approach, strong in its emotional power, Lost in Translation succeeds by using Bill Murray’s brilliant sense of comic timing to punctuate the laughs and bring meaning to the story.

Mystic River

Clint Eastwood had been a touch out of step after his instant classic film Unforgiven (1992) won him two Academy Awards in 1993. Making rather average movies such as The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and Blood Work (1992), it was natural to wonder whether the movie icon would ever reclaim his past success. With Mystic River (2003), those fears were laid to rest.

Dave (Tim Robbins), Jimmy (Sean Penn) and Sean (Kevin Bacon) are three friends growing up together in Boston in 1975. When Dave is kidnapped by two mysterious men and sexually abused for days, their friendship wanes. Now adults, they are drawn together once again as Jimmy’s daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), is found murdered with Dave the prime suspect and Sean the police detective working the case. Fate has brought them together again and their destinies are all intertwined, for better or worse.

The film is about childhood loss of innocence and how that loss impacts us for the rest of our lives. Dave, Jimmy and Sean are all tied together through their past, present and future, helpless against the pain of time and regret. Mystic River is a haunting, beautiful film that truly explores the connections between people and the past.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring

Ki-duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) is a story of rebirth. The soul, the body and the world are reborn over the course of its telling, set in the Korean countryside.

A young boy (Jae-kyeong Seo) is raised by an elderly Buddhist master (Yeong-su Oh), who yearns to teach him the ways of peace and solitude. But the young boy, as all boys are, is impatient and gives in to his emotions, torturing animals and acting destructively. Once he gains sexual lust, he abandons the master and ventures off into the world. Only after he commits a heinous crime does he return to try and find the peace that the monk had tried to teach him. But both wonder whether it is too late; too late for the boy to find the inner peace he desires and too late for the master to overcome his previous failure and purpose in life.

Featuring beautiful cinematography and a deliberate pace, the film is a touching examination of the essential forces at work in the world: love, nature, mentorship, anger, desire and the continual rebirth of those forces over and over again.

 

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Best Movies of 2002

2002 was a seminal year for film in a variety of genres. The musical and fantasy adventure film were given some of their strongest entries in decades and classic films with themes of love, poverty and desire were produced. As the world settled into a post-9/11 mentality, filmmaking reflected both a need to escape current worries and to reflect on recent events.

Best Film – City of God by Fernando Meirelles

Fernando Meirelles’ City of God was hailed as an instant classic at its release over ten years ago. Its glow has not diminished since.

The story of two boys, Rocket and Li’l Zé, growing up in the 1960s in Rio de Janeiro, the film illustrates life in a crime-ridden world where violence is everywhere and moral corruption begins at a young age. Rocket is trying to figure out his life and just wants to be a photographer. Li’l Zé is hell-bent on power and will do anything to get it. By showing these two alternate roads, the film illustrates how difficult it is for youth to rise above their environment and the great temptation that environment has to corrupt.

Terrifying in its visual style and deeply moving, City of God is an incredibly visceral film that presents a history of violence. For those wondering how violence and poverty correlate in a world that is seemingly spinning out of control, this film explains it all.

Adaptation by Spike Jonze

Strange, funny, dramatic and at times disturbing, Adaptation focuses on not just the problem of writing, but the problem of finding meaning in something you create, a task far more daunting.

Written by the great Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, once the film starts, it never pulls back. Putting himself in his own screenplay, Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) has been given the task of adapting Susan Orleans’ (Meryl Streep) novel, “The Orchid Thief”, a tale starring orchid hunter John Laroche (Chris Coopet), into a film. Bewildered and suffering a crisis of confidence, Kaufman struggles as his own idiot twin brother (also played by Cage) develops his own ridiculous projects.

Strongly acted, stylishly directed and wonderfully written, the film embraces a number of genres to illustrate the difficulty of any act of creation, even the one presented to you now.

Chicago by Rob Marshall

With Moulin Rouge reviving the musical genre the year before, Rob Marshall and company took Bob Fosse’s classic Broadway show “Chicago” and brought it to cinemas. The result may be the greatest movie musical of all-time.

Starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, Richard Gere and John C. Reilly, Chicago tells the story of a young wannabe star who ends up murdering her lover and gaining infamy in prison through a desperate appeal to the press as her case comes to trial.

By presenting the musical numbers through the mind of Zellweger’s character, the film avoids the awkward intercut between music and dialogue. In addition, the editing allowed the filmmakers to move the story along with the songs, keeping a vibrant pace that smooths out the narrative. Wonderfully designed and endlessly watchable, the film is not only the most fun of the year, but also one of the best made.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson continued his foray into Middle-Earth with the second installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers.

With the fellowship broken, Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf and the rest of the free peoples of Middle-Earth must fend off a growing horde of evil as the forces of darkness march against them. Culminating with one of the greatest cinematic battles of the modern era at Helm’s Deep, the film also finally introduced audiences to Gollum, a CGI creature that forever changed the way movies were made.

Not just a breathtaking war story, the film also goes deeper into each of the characters, their struggles and themes of sacrifice and companionship. Perhaps the most beloved of the now decade-old trilogy, the film firmly established The Lord of the Rings franchise as a pop culture phenomenon.

Talk to Her by Pedro Almodóvar

Pedro Almodóvar delivered one of his best films in Talk to Her, the story of two men joined together by difficult circumstances and struggling to make sense of love and fate.

Benigno (Javier Cámara) and Marco (Darío Grandinetti), after a chance meeting at a movie theater, meet again at a private clinic where they discover that they are each caring for a woman in a coma, Benigno caring for a Alicia (Leonor Watling), a ballet student, and Marco caring for Lydia (Rosario Flores), a matador. As they are encouraged to talk to the women despite their unresponsiveness, they learn intimate details about love and unrelenting desire.

Flashing back and forth from past to present, the films delves into fantasies and produces images that are thought-provoking, grotesque and beautiful all at the same time.

 

Best Movies of 2001

There are always top movies lists that come out every year.

On the one hand, it’s condescending to rank different emotional experiences on a subjective level. Artistic quality is hard to judge across different genres and there are hundreds of films released every year, and no one could possibly view them all (a reason why you find so many similar titles on best film lists is critics simply copy from one another).

On the other hand, lists are helpful to the viewer and enable them to get a grasp of the supposed best films.

As will all lists, it is important to remember that personal liking plays a huge role (despite what other critics may state). So here are my top films from the year 2001, presented with the top film and then alphabetical order for the other four, the first year of my true vested interest in film.

Best Film: Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki

It may be a bit much to call Hayao Miyazaki a national treasure, but his films, some of the most imaginative ever made, will endure as not only great works of animation, but cultural milestones for Japan.

Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi), a young girl moving to a small town. When her father takes a wrong turn on the road, they end up driving into an old amusement park (never a good idea) where she wanders away, befriending a boy named Haku (Miyu Irino) who tells her that her parents are in great danger. She returns to discover that her mother and father have been transformed into pigs, and she must work through a mystical maze of creatures, demons and spectres to save her them all.

Full of imagination, heart and some of the best anime ever put to screen, Spirited Away is a fairy tale for adults and children, a sometimes haunting journey that Aesop himself wished he had written, and it stands as the best film of 2001.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by Peter Jackson

It is important to remember that The Lord of the Rings films were quite a gamble at the time. Now regarded as one of the most successful franchises ever, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were considered unfilmable and making three films at once was an unprecedented risk. Should the first one fail, all subsequent films would fail as well. It must have been a great relief for the filmmakers and studio when their first foray into Middle-earth not only met expectations, but surpassed them.

The story of a hobbit, Frodo (Elijah Woods), given a quest to destroy the evil ring of power, the film deals with a multitude of races, Men, Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs, as well as a great many languages and dozens of characters, including the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), king-in-waiting Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Elven queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett).

What could have been a train wreck of too many things happening at once is treated with the utmost respect and the adventure is brought thrillingly to life. Clocking in at almost three hours, the film evokes memories of grand epics such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Seven Samurai (1954), but always stays focused on the tale of a small hobbit and the struggle to find his courage.

Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann’s films have always been a mishmash of technical wizardry, simple themes and erratic characters. Loved by some, reviled by others, he finally found a film that achieved both success and critical acclaim with Moulin Rouge.

The story of a penniless writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), who falls for the seductive courtesan, Satine (Nicole Kidman), the film combined current songs into a medley that may have restored the musical to the movie world. Without Moulin Rouge, there probably would not have been Chicago (2002) or Les Miserables (2012) or Dreamgirls (2006) or La La Land (2016).

Dabbling into themes of jealousy and lust and displaying the kind of swervy camerawork and illustrious sets that Luhrmann is known for, the film succeeds mainly because of the strong acting of Kidman and McGregor and a timeless story both romantic and heartbreaking. Overdone at times, decidedly one-tone at moments, the film is a beautiful tribute to everything we go to the movies for: entertainment, allure, fun, dramatics and passion.

The Others by Alejandro Amenábar

Another Nicole Kidman film, where Moulin Rouge celebrated Hollywood spectacle, The Others gave a new spin on the modern ghost story.

Nicole Kidman is Grace Stewart, a mom with two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), each of whom suffers from photosensitivity, meaning they literally have to stay in a big, creepy house as they are allergic to light. This sets the stage for a natural proclivity towards darkened interiors and suspenseful camerawork as Grace must look after the safety of her children as seemingly supernatural demons haunt their post-WW2 home. Rather than being a boring one-scare-at-a-time thriller, the film develops interesting characters and builds towards a terrifying conclusion that makes the entire story relevant and intensely interesting.

The twist at the end provides a vital “ah-ha” moment that makes audiences crave repeat viewings. Beautifully shot, masterfully rendered, The Others proves that ghost stories still have a lot to offer and that they needn’t be cheaply made gimmicks as they too often are, but moving tales of macabre.

Y Tu Mama También by Alfonso Cuarón

Before Alfonso Cuarón was making blockbuster films such as Gravity (2013) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), he gained fame as one of Mexico’s most intriguing new filmmakers with this film about a pair of teenagers trying to woo an older woman on a road trip to a beach that does not exist.

Starring Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna and Maribel Verdú, the film is an exploration into sexuality and what it means at different stages of our lives. Whether we are dying or angry or young or old, it means different things at different times to different people. Secrets are revealed and revelations made about love, loss and friendship along the way.

What could have been a very cheese sexploitation film (and the sex scenes are very intense) is portrayed as a film about reawakening in the most immediate sense. Melancholic and evocative, Y Tu Mama También is a haunting examination of youth.

‘Captain Fantastic’ a solid if unspectacular film

Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic” tells the story of Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a dad who raises his 6 kids in the woods of the Pacific Northwest away from civilization, which he believes to be tainted. When the kid’s mother dies, he is forced to begin a trek with his family out into the “normal” world to attend her funeral.

Viggo Mortensen is terrific in the lead role, displaying a great balance of acceptance, anger and humility over the situation. Each of the child actors performs very well, and they all have great chemistry together.

The film starts off very promising, posing questions about the affects of consumerism on the family, the value of connecting with nature and the role of fatherhood. It is a prototypical road-trip movie and follows the formula well.

However it peters out near the film’s conclusion as the theme becomes a bit muddy. Is Ben crazy to try and raise his family without outside interference? Is he admirable? Was the kid’s mother’s final wish a reflection of her personality or an effect of her mental instability? What is the film trying to say? The movie has trouble making its final say.

But in the end, the film is enjoyable, brisk and interesting. It won’t stick with you for long, but it’s not a waste of your time either.