Washington City Paper

Dec. 26, 2003 –
Jan. 8, 2004



Arts in Review 2003

The Bigger Picture Show

By Mark Jenkins

It’s December, time to talk about the best films of the year. Before addressing quality, however, something must be said about quantity: Wow. With the opening of the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, the rebirth of the Avalon Theatre, and the continuing efforts of Visions Bar Noir, the commercial megaplexes, and the city’s nonprofit repertory programs, as well as a plethora of local festivals, 2003 brought more movies than a professional viewer—let alone a mere amateur cinephile—could possibly see.


The local exhibition landscape is still changing. Lately, the Avalon and Visions have experimented with second-run bookings, and the Silver has emphasized such mainstream programming as Bill Murray and Nicole Kidman retrospectives. With so much going on, finding an audience for a worthy but underpublicized foreign or indie movie seems harder than ever. After all, D.C.’s 2003 foreign-flick hit was Cédric Klapisch’s L’Auberge Espagnole, the most cosmopolitan of sitcoms, but a sitcom nonetheless. Still, with Landmark opening eight art-film screens at 11th and E Streets NW on Jan. 9, and such major repertory attractions as a three-venue Yasujiro Ozu retrospective due in the spring, next year should offer plenty of alternatives to Hollywood.

That’s encouraging, because mainstream American movies have seldom been less interesting than they are these days. Indeed, Hollywood seems to have barely roused itself for the Christmas prestige-film season, producing only a few likely contenders for the Best Picture Oscar. As always, films that open in New York and L.A. in December but won’t arrive in D.C. until January are not eligible for my top-10 list. But this year there aren’t even many of those: A few foreign films aside, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Monster, The Statement, and The Company constitute the entire list.

Such shallow year-closers as Something’s Gotta Give and Mona Lisa Smile—or even the self-consciously “magical” Big Fish—demonstrate Hollywood’s continuing reliance on shopworn formulas. Yet the studios looked far and wide in 2003, and not just for the directors and locations of such above-average semi-Hollywood films as In America (set in New York but shot mostly in Dublin by an Irish director), The Pianist (directed by a Polish-bred, Paris-based fugitive from American justice), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (shot in Mexico by an Australian), and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (an all–New Zealand production, save for some of the stars and much of the money).

2003 was also the year that a few American movies—Lost in Translation, Kill Bill—Vol. 1, and The Last Samurai—turned Japanese, with both Uma Thurman and Tom Cruise delivering more than just a perfunctory arigato or konichiwa. Only one mainstream flick, The Guru, borrowed heavily from Bollywood, but American distributors peddled both Bend It Like Beckham and Bollywood/Hollywood, which also drew on the style and energy of Indian movie musicals.

Other phenomena that arrived in threes this year: films in which a character’s depth is immediately established by the loss of her or his young children (The Human Stain, 21 Grams, and In America); more celebrations of the Great North American Loser (Love Liza, Owning Mahowny, and The Cooler); and—most hilariously—movies in which glamorous A-list actresses impersonated cleaning ladies (My Life Without Me, House of Sand and Fog, and The Human Stain again).

The most exciting alternatives to Hollywood hokum came from the revitalized cinemas of France and Britain, as well as the emerging film cultures of Iran and Brazil. (We didn’t see many Asian films on commercial screens this year, alas.) The big story of 2003, though, is the triumph of the documentary. Nonfiction films, usually relegated to festivals and noncommercial venues, boldly countered the simplistic myths of megaplex fare, often drawing decent crowds in the process. Ultimately, I put only two documentaries on the following (alphabetical) top 10, but that was a close call.

Bus 174. This documentary starts as an analysis of a single Rio de Janeiro busjacking—and the TV coverage of the bungled standoff—but as director Jose Padilha fills in the backstory, the film expands into a critique of all Brazilian urban society.

City of God. The style of this pyrotechnic Brazilian slumland epic is brash and unapologetically intrusive, but the film is grounded by director Fernando Meirelles’ naturalistic use of nonprofessional actors and improvised dialogue.

Demonlover. The spirit of Irma Vep returns with a darker, more sweeping mission in Olivier Assayas’ brilliantly choreographed (if excessively Lynchian) world tour of today’s high-finance, mass-media multiverse.

In America. Very sweet even when it’s sad, director and co-writer Jim Sheridan’s semiautobiographical comedy-drama uses a kid’s-eye view of life and death to banish irony and tap into primal emotion.

In Praise of Love. The first two-thirds of Jean-Luc Godard’s cinematic return to Paris is the most beautiful film released in Washington in 2003—even if the last third is visually interesting but intellectually tiresome.

In This World. Mixing docudrama and guerrilla cinema, director Michael Winterbottom follows two young Afghans from Pakistan toward London, focusing tightly on these real refugees to exemplify all the people currently on the move from the Third World to the First.

Irreversible. Gaspar Noé’s startling breakthrough film, which turns on a brutal rape scene whose reputation kept audiences away, has a schema as rigorous as its nihilistic viewpoint. It’s confrontational, self-conscious, and utterly absorbing.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Irish documentarians Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain’s account of the failed 2002 coup against Venezuela’s democratically elected leftist president is unapologetically polemical, but notable foremost as a gripping you-are-there account of events underreported by the U.S. media.

Sweet Sixteen. Defeated-working-class Scotland is familiar ground for director Ken Loach, yet this tale of a 15-year-old boy’s battle for normality is fresh, smart, and funny, in large part because of first-time actor Martin Compston’s ferocious performance.

Ten. Set entirely in the car of an upper-middle-class Tehran woman, this series of vignettes is Abbas Kiarostami’s latest ingenious answer to the question of how to tell the truth about contemporary Iran within the confines of official censorship.

The films that almost made this list are Matt Dillon’s City of Ghosts, Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, Claire Denis’ Friday Night, Karim Ainouz’s Madame Satà, Patrice Leconte’s Man on the Train, Bahman Ghobadi’s Marooned in Iraq, Fernando León de Aranoa’s Mondays in the Sun, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Mortal Transfer, Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, Jeff Blitz’s Spellbound, Christine Jeffs’ Sylvia, and Nicolas Philibert’s To Be and to Have.

Among the movies that were great fun to watch but didn’t add up to much of anything were Delphine Gleize’s Carnage, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s Intacto, Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams. Jane Campion’s In the Cut is fundamentally a dumb slasher flick but is thrillingly photographed; Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things brilliantly evokes immigrant London’s underworld but is yoked to a contrived plot; Stephen Daldry’s The Hours features two evocative chapters (Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore) and one unendurable one (Meryl Streep and Ed Harris); Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever starts powerfully but turns unpersuasively transcendent; Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters is upstaged by its own harrowing real-life material; Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation has a charming delicacy that’s undermined by its shallow condescension toward the Japanese. Of those 2003 films that weren’t proudly pitched to junior-high-school boys, the worst was Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon, an excruciating tease.

Traditionally, I’ve listed some of the year’s repertory and film-fest highlights that were unlikely ever to be seen again (except in the hipper video-rental shops). And no doubt some of the more interesting rep and fest titles to screen locally in 2003 will remain elusive—don’t expect another shot, for example, at the films in the National Museum of Women in the Art’s brave but sadly underpublicized Anne-Marie Miéville series. Yet it’s worth noting that such outstanding films as Pearl Gluck’s Divan, Hany Abu-Assad’s Ford Transit, Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s Fulltime Killer, Jia Zhange-ke’s Unknown Pleasures, and Abderrahmane Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness—to name but a few of the year’s highlights—have American distributors and might very well enjoy local commercial runs. For the first time in years, D.C. has enough screens to accommodate all the hobbits, serial killers, and flick chicks Hollywood sends our way, with room left over for films designed to do more than sell nachos. CP

back to the top