It hasn't been easy to whittle down my favorite films of 2003 into a neat and tidy Top Ten list, but I've finally scratched out a tentative version. (OK, I cheated too since I've gone with one tie, giving me eleven films in the Top Ten.) Honorable mentions to come tomorrow, hopefully.
1. GERRY (Gus Van Sant)
GERRY is the sort of pick that plays right into the snobby film critic stereotype, but this existential masterpiece boasts pure filmmaking at its finest. I didn't have issues with the more commercial projects that Van Sant made before this, but as works of art, none compare to GERRY.
2. HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (Vadim Perelman)
Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley are in peak acting form as the recovering alcoholic and Iranian immigrant battling over ownership of a northern California home. The county incorrectly insists she owes business taxes and takes the property from her. That she ignored the county's correspondence for months has led to this drastic measure. The house is auctioned at less than market price and purchased by Kingsley's character.
HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG views this slippery dilemma through the perspective of both characters. Neither are to blame and both are to blame for the situation that develops. Perelman is very perceptive in letting us understand what happens when both sides believe they are morally right in a dispute.
3. ALL THE REAL GIRLS (David Gordon Green)
Here's one of the year's most romantic and funny movies, yet it's not a romantic comedy according to the genre's conventional perception. As he demonstrated in GEORGE WASHINGTON, Green again shows that one of his strengths is establishing place and mood. It's all about the small moments. ALL THE REAL GIRLS also features Zooey Deschanel's breakout performance.
4. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (Andrew Jarecki)
Divining the thorny truth from the real-life child molestation case is even more difficult after seeing this amazing documentary. Jarecki reveals one surprise after another, and in the end, we're not quite sure what to think.
Whether Arnold and Jesse Friedman are guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted is almost secondary. It is obvious that the family members are in denial and compartmentalizing the actions of the accused to astonishing degrees. This is a fascinating portrait of a dysfunctional family, complete with their home videos as it all falls apart.
5. KILL BILL VOLUME 1 (Quentin Tarantino)
Tarantino loves watching and making movies. He compresses this passion into KILL BILL VOLUME 1, a dizzying melange of his fetishes and favorite movies and music. It's proto-feminist subtext aside, this is all about style, which Tarantino has in spades. If you're looking for the best action scenes of 2003, this is the place to look. The House of Blue Leaves sequence is as bloody and brilliant as any setpiece from last year. Uma Thurman delivers a fierce, focused performance as the unnamed Bride wreaking revenge on those who murdered her wedding party and left her and her unborn child for dead.
6. MATCHSTICK MEN (Ridley Scott)
As mainstream films go, they don't get much better. Nicolas Cage is a con man who gets his heart stolen by the teenage daughter he knew he never had. Consistently funny and surprisingly touching, MATCHSTICK MEN also keeps us on our toes in the tradition of other con men movies.
Alison Lohman was awfully good in 2002's WHITE OLEANDER, and she's even better here as Cage's daughter. Her note-perfect portrayal of a teen ranks among the year's best performances, lead or supporting. She should have been a lock for an Oscar, not to mention on the fast track to stardom. Cage isn't bad either.
7. CITY OF GOD (CIDADE DE DEUS) (Katia Lund/Fernando Meirelles) and BUS 174 (ONIBUS 174) (Jose Padilha) (tie)
These startling films about the children living in Brazil's slums are opposite sides of the same coin. CITY OF GOD is a fact-based drama that uses the whiz-bang energy of Scorsese films like GOODFELLAS to pry our eyes open to the depraved conditions there. It is hard to shock audiences, but I can't imagine anyone watching this film not to be jarred by the violence children perpetuate in the streets. To be sure, this is tough stuff, but it calls to attention a situation in desperate need of repair.
The documentary BUS 174 tells the story of a young man who grew up in the slums and ends up hijacking a bus. The reporting digs deep, putting the incident into a context that doesn't excuse the hijacker's actions but understands how it reached the boiling point. Expertly edited, it's as tense as the best Hollywood thrillers.
8. WHALE RIDER (Niki Caro)
This heartwarming coming-of-age tale follows a Maori girl who wants to participate in her tribe's traditions but faces opposition from an unlikely source--her rigid grandfather. Keisha Castle-Hughes is remarkably assured as the twelve-year-old Pai. Free of too over politicizing and sentimentalizing, Caro's smooth storytelling communicates the need for a bridge between the ways of the past and the necessary evolution to reach the future. WHALE RIDER is a joy that can adults and children can equally enjoy.
9. IN AMERICA (Jim Sheridan)
This immigrant family's fable is another triumphant feel-good film. IN AMERICA speaks to the promise that this country offers those looking to make new lives here. Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton emote beautifully as the parents still deep in grief from the death of their son. Sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger are so precious as their daughters Christy and Ariel. Sheridan builds this family you want to see succeed, and you're there with them through the minor and major events as they try to rebuild a home in a foreign land.
10. DIRTY PRETTY THINGS (Stephen Frears)
It's a thriller, a romance, a social drama, and one terrific film. Chiwetel Ejiofor is compelling as the illegal Nigerian immigrant plugging away at various jobs in London, and as a Turkish maid, Audrey Tautou proves she can play more than the winsome pixie. Frears immerses us in the underground world to show how those on society's fringes keep things moving but are exploited much to our obliviousness; however, Steve Knight's DIRTY PRETTY THINGS screenplay invests us in the characters and the scenarios they face so that the polemicizing serves as flavoring instead of the flavor.