Kevin O'Reilly's Review Of 2003
It wasn't such a bad year. 2003 had its turkeys and its disappointments but they were outnumbered by the great, the good and the watchable. Even the dumber blockbusters were more fun than they could have been. There were no Godzillas or Men In Black IIs this year. Hulk and Terminator 3 weren't good but they were painless. Mainstream Hollywood cinema produced some pretty fine entertainments. Catch Me If You Can, 8 Mile, Anger Management, X2, Pirates of The Caribbean, Master And Commander and Lord Of The Rings all gave you your money's worth. The independent sector continued to compensate for the dumber studio product by turning out intelligent features like Ripley's Game, Tadpole, Whale Rider, Animal Factory, Cypher, XX/XY and Intermission. If there wasn't anything I'd call an out-and-out masterpiece (a Big Lebowski, a Grosse Pointe Blank, a Pulp Fiction), those are thin on the ground at the best of times.
Below you'll find my ten favourite films of 2003, interspersed with various other lists - like John Cusack in High Fidelity, move reviewers love to make lists! I've included my ten worst, ten most disappointing, ten most annoying things about going to the movies and enough other top tens to surely guarantee a lawsuit from David Letterman. Your comments and your own lists are more than welcome.
Finally I'd like to wish everyone who's supported the DVD Times, read our reviews and joined in the discussions a very happy 2004.
Ten Best Films - No. 1 - Kill Bill Vol. 1
UK cinema release: October 10th. R1 & R2 DVD release: Spring 2004.
For once, the hype was justified. After years of rumours, Uma Thurman's pregnancy, Warren Beatty's exit and the contraversial splitting into two parts, Quentin Tarantino delivered a blood-soaked homage to exploitation cinema that worked just as brilliantly whether or not you shared the director's obsession with 1970s B-movies.
It may have been only half a movie but for entertainment value, breathtaking cinematic style and more depth than it's been given credit for, it was still the best film of the year. Vol. 2 (due in late February) can't come quickly enough.
Best bit: The exquisite build-up to the big samurai showdown.
As I write this, the final figures aren't in but the chart below looks like a fairly safe bet. Return Of The King has only been in release for 2 weeks and is already well on its way to repeating, even topping the £60 million business of its predecessors.
|1. Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King
2. Love Actually
3. Finding Nemo
4. The Matrix Reloaded
5. Pirates Of The Caribbean
6. Bruce Almighty
8. Calendar Girls
9. Johnny English
10. Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines
Lord Of The Rings was always going to be number one. Indeed, most of the hits making up the top ten were foregone conclusions, as they were last year. Even "sleeper hit" Calendar Girls was being touted as this year's Full Monty weeks before it opened. The only real surprises are Pirates Of The Caribbean, which broke the curse on pirate movies in spectacular style and Rowan Atkinson's spy comedy Johnny English, which quietly made a packet over Easter and outgrossed many a Hollywood behemoth. Predicted blockbusters that underperformed included Hulk and The Matrix Revolutions.
It's encouraging to see three British films in the chart and three others (Return Of The King, Pirates & X2) with British stars. For all the grief they get, Working Title proved once again they can consistently turn out British films that make money here and abroad.
Ten Best Films - No. 2 - Punch-Drunk Love
UK cinema release: February 7th. Available on R1 & R2 DVD.
Between November 2002 and June 2003, Adam Sandler appeared in or voiced characters for 5 movies released in the UK, including this extraordinary love story from Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson. It wasn't stunt casting either - Sandler's first dramatic performance was startlingly good.
Anderson's fourth film is his best to date, keeping his unique, offbeat style but swapping the lengthy excesses of Boogie Nights and Magnolia for a simple, tightly constructed love story.
Best bit: Sandler turning the tables on Philip Seymour Hoffman's blackmailing phone sex operator.
Some critics like to pretend their favourite part of the job is championing a little seen film and getting it an audience but take it from me, they're lying. As you've always suspected, what we reviewers really enjoy most is giving a bad film a good kicking. While 2003 wasn't a terrible year by recent standards, there were some choice turkeys nevertheless.
|1. The Master Of Disguise
2. The Sin Eater
3. The Medallion
5. Moonlight Mile
6. Analyze That
7. The Truth About Charlie
8. Darkness Falls
9. Jackass: The Movie
10. S Club Seeing Double
There's nothing worse than a comedy that isn't funny and The Master Of Disguise is one of the most miserable examples I've ever seen. Brian Helgeland's The Sin Eater was much funnier, albeit unintentionally. Helgeland redeemed himself by scripting Mystic River and Jackie Chan made up for The Medallion (and The Tuxedo which nearly made the list) with the delightful Shanghai Knights. Elsewhere on the chart, good directors made bad films - Gus Van Sant tried to do something bold and experimental with Gerry and failed while Jonathan Demme's The Truth About Charlie tried to be a simple, light-hearted caper movie and also failed.
Moonlight Mile felt like a weepy, two-hour Oprah show, Analyze That felt like rightly discarded out-takes from Analyze This and Darkness Falls just felt like yet another dumb teen horror flick - I mean, an evil Tooth Fairy for Christ's sake! OK, I admit I'm probably too old to enjoy Jackass. I laughed once, when they tried to make a woman say the F-word by putting an alligator in her house but that was the only trace of humour in 90 minutes of pointless stunts. I feel mean picking on S Club - please keep this a secret but I quite liked the group! I can imagine a fun S Club movie but Seeing Double was an amateurish mess by any standards. They were wise to break up before it was released.
Ten Best Films - No. 3 - Adaptation
UK cinema release: February 28th. Available on R1 & R2 DVD.
When Charlie Kaufman, the writer of Being John Malkovich, was hired to adapt journalist Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief and found himself unable to translate it into a film, he instead wrote this fresh, outrageous, delightful comedy about his own writer's block, intertwining it with the (fictional!) story of Susan Orlean's relationship with enterprising botanist John Laroche.
Nicolas Cage does his best work in years as Charlie and his (imaginary) twin brother while Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper provide able support as Orlean and Laroche. This wasn't the only 2003 film inspired by Orlean's journalism - the surf chick movie Blue Crush was based on an article of hers - and she proved herself the good sport of the year by not only failing to sue Kaufman and director Spike Jonze but endorsing Adaptation. You have to see it to understand.
Best bit: Charlie's encounter with screenwriting guru Robert McKee (a real life author and lecturer played here by the ubiquitous Brian Cox).
Not since 1989 have so many sequels been released in one year. There are mercifully less on the slate for 2004 but expect only a brief respite. 2005 looks like it will set an all time record for further installments.
|1. Star Trek: Nemesis
2. Final Destination 2
3. Analyze That
4. Shanghai Knights
6. The Matrix Reloaded
7. Dumb And Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd
8. 2 Fast 2 Furious
9. Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle
10. Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines
11. Legally Blonde 2
|12. Spy Kids 3D: Game Over
13. Rugrats Go Wild
14. American Pie: The Wedding
15. Freddy Vs Jason
16. Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life
17. Jeepers Creepers 2
18. Once Upon A Time In Mexico
19. Bad Boys II
20. The Matrix Revolutions
21. The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King
They weren't all bad. X2, Return Of The King and Shanghai Knights are good movies by any standard, Bad Boys II and Freddy Vs Jason were disreputable fun and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and 2 Fast 2 Furious even managed the rare feat of being watchable follow-ups to dreadful originals. After the first atrocity, I never thought I'd find myself enjoying a Charlie's Angels film but this time McG eased up on the editing and it was actually quite good fun in places.
However, most of them were at best redundant. The much heralded Year Of The Matrix produced a spectacular, if slightly ponderous second episode and then blew it all with a damp squib of a climax. Star Trek: Nemesis made even a long-time fan of the series like myself wonder if it was time to mothball the Enterprise and while American Pie: The Wedding had its moments, without Seann William Scott's magnificent Stifler it would have been nothing. Next time, give him his own film. In the column marked "Why did they bother?" can be found Final Destination 2, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life and the appalling Analyze That.
Ten Best Films - No. 4 - Finding Nemo
UK cinema release: October 3rd. Available on R1 DVD. R2 release: Spring 2004
Pixar's fifth computer-animated feature film and its best to date, Finding Nemo was a family movie with more intelligence, wit, imagination, emotion, thrills and eye-popping visuals than just about any "grown-up" movie released this year.
This is a movie that could have got by on its looks alone but instead used them as a backdrop to a touching story filled with colourful characters. Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres were absolutely perfect as the mismatched fish searching for Brooks' lost son.
Best bit: The spectactular aerial chase across Sydney Harbour.
I can't defend any of these films as art or even great entertainment but they're somehow more watchable than many a cinematic masterpiece. On a wet Monday night after a hard day at work, would you sooner watch a three-hour journey into the darkest depths of the human soul or Rome being blown to pieces by an electrical storm?
|1. The Core
2. Cradle 2 The Grave
3. Freddy Vs Jason
4. Ghost Ship
5. The Hot Chick
6. Kangaroo Jack
7. The Transporter
9. 2 Fast 2 Furious
10. Undercover Brother
For pure cheese factor, nothing could beat The Core, a deranged disaster film which sent a team of bickering scientists into the centre of the Earth in a rocketship shaped like a giant penis. If it was eighties-style horror you were after, Freddy Vs Jason was about a hundred times better than it ought to have been. Ghost Ship got a bad rep undeservedly - it's a decent enough slice of gory hokum. Speaking of slices, its truly gruesome opening scene won it one of the few 18 ratings this year that weren't given for the C-word. As for downmarket comedy, it doesn't get much more downmarket than a sexy cheerleader inhabiting the body of Rob Schneider in The Hot Chick. Undercover Brother had enough racial jokes to offend people of all colours who don't have a sense of humour. It made me laugh long and loud, as did Kangaroo Jack in which Anthony Anderson and Jerry O'Connell made Crocodile Dundee look like the height of Australian sophistication.
For trashy action, we were spoilt for choice in 2003. Hong Kong legend Jet Li and hip hop star DMX kicked ass in the quintessential Joel Silver action romp Cradle 2 The Grave while Britain's own Jason Statham beefed up and crossed the Channel to star in the Luc Besson-produced The Transporter. In the memorably sleazy pyschological thriller Trapped, sadistic kidnapper Kevin Bacon toyed with Charlize Theron and it all somehow ended with a seaplane crashing on a highway. The under-rated sequel to an over-rated original, 2 Fast 2 Furious ditched glowering muscleman Vin Diesel and concentrated on the fast cars and glamourous, scantily clad babes. Smart move too.
Ten Best Films - No. 5 - Mystic River
UK cinema release: October 17th. R1 & R2 DVD release: Spring 2004.
Revenge was the subject of more than one great movie this year and Clint Eastwood's riveting crime thriller showed the tragic aftermath of a senseless murder and its effect on three boyhood friends. Sean Penn is the grieving father, Kevin Bacon the cop on the case and Tim Robbins their slightly slow buddy whose tragic history makes him emerge as the prime suspect.
It's a devastating drama and possibly Eastwood's best directing work to date, at the very least a worthy rival to The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven. Sean Penn gave, for my money, the best performance of 2003.
Best bit: The inevitable, tragic, haunting climax.
All these films, some of them acclaimed, some of them high profile, have spent at least the whole of 2003 gathering dust on a film distributor's shelf and at time of writing, no release date is in sight.
3. The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys
4. Death To Smoochy
5. Deuces Wild
7. The Emperor's Club
8. The Grey Zone
9. Hollywood Ending
10. 13 Conversations About One Thing
First the commercial ones - Abandon is a psychological thriller starring Katie Holmes, which gives this writer an excuse to post a picture of her. Death To Smoochy is a Danny DeVito-directed black comedy starring Robin Williams and Edward Norton that predated Williams' 2002 career revival. Deuces Wild is a street gang drama set in the 50s. Drumline, a box office smash in America, is an upmarket teen movie about the US marching band phenomenon. The Emperor's Club is a Dead Poets-style drama starring Kevin Kline as an inspirational teacher.
Now the smaller, critically admired stuff. Jerry Seinfeld's Comedian is a combination documentary and concert movie featuring the stand-up comic and sitcom star. The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys (please, no jokes that might upset the Vatican!) is a coming of age drama in which a group of schoolboys start their own underground comic book. The Grey Zone is a very dark Holocaust drama focusing on those concentration camp inmates who survived by helping the Nazis liquidate their fellow Jews. Hollywood Ending is the last-but-one Woody Allen movie (Anything Else has already been and gone in the US). Once upon a time, you could find half a dozen different Woody Allen films playing in London but now he seems a hair's breadth from going straight to video here. Finally 13 Conversations About One Thing is an ensemble drama starring Matthew McConaughey.
Ten Best Films - No. 6 - Gangs Of New York
UK cinema release: January 10th. Available on R1 & R2 DVD.
It wasn't the period gangster film that everyone was expecting. Instead of Goodfellas in top hats, Martin Scorsese made an epic revenge melodrama that felt more like a Sergio Leone film than his usual work. If it wasn't his best received movie at the time, it's one that deserves to be re-appraised in the future.
Shot with all Scorsese's technical excellence and gusto, it's a rich and surprisingly political movie. The central story is the complex relationship between an orphaned immigrant's son (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his father's killer, Bill the Butcher, a vicious but strangely honourable gang leader played brilliantly by Daniel Day Lewis. However Scorsese leaves plenty of room to explore life in 1860s New York and to offer a jaded, almost Marxist take on the politics of the time.
Best bit: Bill the Butcher's knife-throwing act.
Not necessarily complete turkeys or even bad films in all cases, these were the movies I was looking forward to at the beginning of last year and which didn't come anywhere near expectations.
2. The Hours
4. The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen
5. The Matrix Revolutions
6. Once Upon A Time In Mexico
7. The Ring
9. Star Trek: Nemesis
10. Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines
Some of these movies will have made many peoples' 10 best lists. The Hours for example was this year's critically over-rated bore. Beautifully made and acted though it may be, the morose saga of three self-made martyrs inspired in me only a gigantic "So what?". Another prestigious snoozer, Steven Soderbergh's Solaris is little more than a ghost story with pretentions while Ang Lee went to enormous lengths and great expense to take all the fun out of Hulk. The Ring scared some people but for me the most frightening thing in it was Brian Cox's hamming.
Few people will be listing The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Dreamcatcher among their favourites. The Sean Connery comic adaptation is an object lesson in how to dumb down your source material and how Stephen King, Lawrence Kasdan, William Goldman could pool their talents and come up with the daftest alien invasion movie ever made is anyone's guess. Vying for top honours as the year's most disappointing sequel were Star Trek: Nemesis, a poor swan song for the Next Generation cast, The Matrix Revolutions, a filmed computer game which failed to end the trilogy in anything like a satisfying way and Once Upon A Time In Mexico, a ragbag collection of scenes and ideas which added up to very little. However none could surpass the by-the-numbers, made-for-the-money Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines.
Ten Best Films - No. 7 - Daredevil
UK cinema release: February 14th. Available on R1 & R2 DVD. More violent, R-rated cut due in 2004.
A controversial choice, I know, but for me this was the year's best action blockbuster. It avoided unnecessary length, self-importance or over-reliance on special effects to deliver a lean, exciting old-school action movie.
Colin Farrell's outstanding performance as Bullseye was an added bonus. The Irish actor appeared in 6 movies released in 2003, including 3 major starring roles, yet it was his comic supporting turns in Intermission and Daredevil and his cameo in Veronica Guerin that best justified all the hype he's received.
Best bit: The main event - Daredevil versus Bullseye.
Some were independent releases that barely played outside the capital. Others were smaller studio pictures that just got lost amongst all the blockbusters. All deserved more attention than they received.
1. Animal Factory
3. Dark Blue
5. I Capture The Castle
8. 25th Hour
9. Veronica Guerin
Several of these weren't far off my overall top 10 list. Intermission is an electrifying Irish ensemble piece which calls to mind the work of Robert Altman and Quentin Tarantino and wouldn't shame either of them. Dark Blue, the first of Ron Shelton's 2003 police "trilogy" (he also directed Hollywood Homicide and co-wrote Bad Boys II) is a fine James Ellroy adaptation with a superb performance from Kurt Russell. Spike Lee's 25th Hour was a crime story from an unusual angle - a criminal's last day before starting a prison sentence - and made a fascinating drama. Cypher looks sure to be a cult hit. It's a unique and brain-bending cocktail of science fiction, black comedy and caper flick. Frida traces the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo with much humour and sumptuous visual style. Some were put off Veronica Guerin by its producer and director, Jerry Bruckheimer and Joel Schumacher, who are best known for their big budget actionfests. This however was a shocking and heartfelt biopic of a murdered Dublin journalist.
Also worth seeing was the tough but humane prison drama Animal Factory, which spent three years on a shelf before its summer release. The charming British family drama I Capture The Castle was ignored by all those who complain that such films don't get made anymore while the low budget comedy Tadpole was released at the same time as the similarly themed Igby Goes Down and suffered, though it's the superior film. XX/XY was another strong independent drama from the States distinguished by a psychologically complex script and great performances.
Ten Best Films - No. 8 - Identity
UK cinema release: June 13th. Available on R1 DVD. R2 DVD release: January 2004.
Director James Mangold (Cop Land, Girl Interrupted) proved that going to see a mainstream Hollywood film needn't necessarily require lowering your expectations and switching off your brain. This was a clever, tense thriller that was all the more enjoyable for keeping you mentally on your toes. It also looked the business.
In a time of ever more predictable twists and films that unwisely hang on them (as every young horror film-maker tries to be M Night Shyamalan), Identity managed to come up with one that was original and satisfying.
Best bit: When you finally realise exactly what's going on.
'Tis no longer the season to be jolly, in fact 'tis time for a satisfying rant about those annoying little things which take some of the fun out of the movies.
1. Mobile phones in cinemas. This may come as news to teenagers but they have off buttons. Give it a try, just for two hours. You won't miss a call from Charlie out of Busted, I promise you.
2. The BBFC rating films 18 because they contain the C-word. It used to be chain sticks that upset them, then it was head butts, now it's a crude term for vagina. Veronica Guerin, Intermission and Thirteen were among intelligent films denied to under-18s lest they should hear the dreaded word.
3. Incompetent projection. In years of cinemagoing, I only remember a few instances of films breaking, playing without sound or being shown in the wrong ratio. In the last few years it seems to have become a more and more regular occurrence.
4. Trailers that spoil the plot. The Recruit and Out Of Time are just two films that you needn't bother going to see if you've watched the trailer as the big twists are helpfully ruined for you.
5. Lack of choice during the summer and Chrismas blockbuster seasons. OK, a lot of people are going to want to see Lord Of The Rings and Love Actually but do they really need to be on three screens each?
6. Too many Hollywood films neutered to get a PG-13 rating in the States. Jim Sheridan's In America was edited after its uncut British release and some US films such as the Rollerball remake are distributed abroad in harder versions but most films are trimmed first and then released worldwide in their cut form. Out Of Time is a recent example. The success of Bad Boys II, American Pie: The Wedding and The Matrix Reloaded have proved R-rated films can still make blockbuster money so why bother?
7. Those FACT copyright warnings now shown before every film. They probably put the idea of bringing a camcorder into more people's heads than they deter. Worse, they give morons in the audience an extra excuse to start laughing and whistling at the screen.
8. Films shot on digital video. With the solitary exception of Star Wars Episode II, they all look awful.
9. Movies that undeservedly go straight to video. Was there really no audience for Femme Fatale or Below or May, even in limited release?
10. Gigli voted the worst film of all time. The nastiest thing you can say about it is that it's an eccentric little flick that tried to do something different and failed. Call me crazy, I thought it mostly succeeded.
Ten Best Films - No. 9 - Secretary
UK cinema release: May 16th. Available on R1 DVD. R2 DVD release: January 2004.
It was a year of formulaic romantic comedies, some of which were pleasant enough (Love Actually, Two Weeks Notice) and some of which weren't (Hope Springs). The two funniest and most affecting romances were the most unusual - Punch-Drunk Love and this little gem, which was marketed as a kinky sex comedy but in fact turned out to be a sweet love story.
Maggie Gyllenhaal (sister of Donnie Darko actor Jake) was remarkable as a shy secretary who went to work for a lawyer with his own ideas about office discipline (James Spader) and found she enjoyed the spankings as much as he did. In real life it would all have led to a big lawsuit.
Best bit: Gyllenaal learns what the penalty is for typing errors in Spader's office. Heaven forbid she should steal a bottle of tippex.
I can only guess how many of these will end up in my top ten list next year and how many will be in the disappointments section. Time will tell.
|1. Kill Bill Vol. 2
2. Lost In Translation
4. The Big Bounce
5. Broken Lizard's Club Dread
6. Starsky And Hutch
7. Jersey Girl
9. The Village
10. A Mighty Wind
Kill Bill Vol. 2 is a no-brainer and Lost In Translation has received the best word of mouth of any film in ages. Troy could be a modern epic like Gladiator or a camp classic but who can resist seeing Hollywood's finest dressed up as Greek heroes? If it sucks, there's always Oliver Stone's Alexander next winter. The Big Bounce is an Elmore Leonard adaptation directed by the brilliant if less than prolific George Armitage, whose last film was Grosse Pointe Blank. Broken Lizard is the comedy troupe behind Super Troopers, one of the freshest comedies of recent years. Their second film, Club Dread is a must.
Starsky And Hutch has already made me laugh, just seeing a picture of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson looking like Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul. Stiller has at least half a dozen films coming out in 2004 so let's hope he's on good form. Kevin Smith's latest is Jersey Girl and he's not let us down yet while Will Ferrell follows Old School and Elf with the promising TV news satire Anchorman. M Night Shyamalan returns to his unique, spooky territory for The Village while Christopher Guest does his mockumentary thing once more with A Mighty Wind.
Ten Best Films - No. 10 - The Rules Of Attraction
UK cinema release: March 28th. Available on R1 & R2 DVD but both are censored. The Australian R4 disc is uncut.
Until very recently Roger Avary has been best known to film buffs for being Tarantino's old video store buddy and the creator of the Bruce Willis segment of Pulp Fiction. The Rules Of Attraction forces him to be re-evaluated as a highly gifted film-maker in his own right. His adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's novel about amoral American university students delivers all the smart satire and sick humour of American Psycho but with far more coherence and sympathy for its characters and without resorting to a cop-out ending.
An excellent cast is headed by James Van Der Beek, who puts Dawson's Creek far behind him to play the loathesome Sean Bateman, younger brother of American Psycho's Patrick. Also impressive are Ian Somerhalder as Van Der Beek's gay friend and admirer and Jessica Biel as the campus bike. If you enjoyed the film, you'll be pleased to learn Roger Avary and Bret Easton Ellis will soon be collaborating again on a satire of the modelling world, Glamorama.
Best bit: Kip Pardue's hysterically funny monologue about his experiences backpacking around Europe.