Wednesday, January 14, 2004

2003 Honorable Mentions in Film, Version 1.0

OK, I admit that the unveiling of my honorable mentions is anticlimactic since I revealed my Top Ten yesterday, but ten days ago I spoiled much of the surprise in listing what films were in the pool. I still have a few major contenders to see before I can let the proverbial ink dry on the 2003 list.

I've limited my honorable mentions to ten, an arbitrary number to be sure, but I'll acknowledge those that couldn't push their way into the top twenty (or twenty-one, as it turns out).

(EDITORIAL NOTE 1/15/04: Make that eleven honorable mentions and the top twenty-two. I forgot BIG FISH. 1/3/05: Make that thirteen honorable mentions and the top twenty-four. I forgot SHATTERED GLASS, which made my "official" list on the TV show, and saw THE COMPANY after making this list. Yes, it's almost a year later, but I have now fixed it.)

28 DAYS LATER (Danny Boyle)

Easily the best zombie movie in who knows how long, 28 DAYS LATER examines how humans behave when thrust into one of the worst situations imaginable. The virus Rage infects much of England's population--and who knows how much of the world--and turns the hosts into bloodthirsty monsters. Society has broken down, leaving the uninfected to fend for themselves. Boyle brings a group of people together and follows how they interact now that their focus is on satisfying the most basic of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It's scary too, a quality missing from most modern horror movies.

BIG FISH (Tim Burton)

Burton's most mature film to date also ranks among his best. As the film's weaver of fantastic yarns Edward Bloom (Albert Finney as the character in his older year) demonstrates, no matter what life deals us, we write our own stories. BIG FISH transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, something we can see if we let ourselves. The contentious father-son relationship is at the film's core and is movingly resolved. Less notice has been given to the grand love story, but it's the other key component in BIG FISH. Edward Bloom is so in love with life and the woman he wants to marry that he is capable of doing anything.

THE COMPANY (Robert Altman)

I’m basically illiterate when it comes to understanding ballet, but I found THE COMPANY fascinating. Aside from a few familiar actors and the characters’ dramatic arcs, this could almost be a documentary look at what takes place in a ballet company. In essence, THE COMPANY is plotless, which allows us to focus on the grace and strength of the dancers. Naturally performance pieces dominate. Altman’s excellent camera placement, Andrew Dunn’s silky DV cinematography, and Geraldine Peroni’s judicious editing beautifully construct the dance sequences. Star Neve Campbell pushed to get this film made as a labor of love. Her passion shines through. Malcolm McDowell injects THE COMPANY with his hilarious turn as the company’s director.

DOWN WITH LOVE (Peyton Reed)

Renee Zellweger and Ewan MacGregor have a ball as Doris Day and Rock Hudson types in this imitation of early Sixties sex comedies. Eva Ahlert and Dennis Drake's witty screenplay and the delightful period sets and costumes transport us to another era when the actors engaged in intercourse of the verbal kind.

FINDING NEMO (Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich)

The Pixar crew continue their track record of making beautiful, imaginative films for everyone. Terrific voice casting--Ellen Degeneres steals the film as a fish with no short term memory--lots of humor, a resonant story about parental anxiety, and splendid computer animation add up to one of the studio's best.


As strangers who meet in a Japanese hotel, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson expertly walk the fine line in their May-December relationship. Coppola's second feature mixes comedy and pathos, often concurrently. Murray's sadsack movie star singing Roxy Music's "More Than This" in a karaoke bar is not only a great song interpretation but also the condensed feeling of this wistful film.

MYSTIC RIVER (Clint Eastwood)

An actor's showcase within a director's showcase. Eastwood helms his best film in years in winding together the stories of three boyhood friends now adults whose lives have gone in drastically different directions following an incident many years ago. Sean Penn scorches the screen with his rage. As the childhood victim, a haunted Tim Robbins seems to evaporate before our eyes.


Marriages decay like teeth if they do not receive the proper care. In this case, Campbell Scott thinks he saw wife Hope Davis kissing another man. (As the scene is shot, her behavior is inconclusive, a wise strategy for this film.) Rather than talk about what's happening between them, he lets his suspicions get the worst of him, which only harms the relationship more. THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS is a painful and truthful film about marriage.


How much are you willing to change for the person you love? Adam (Paul Rudd) lets himself be remade into whatever girlfriend Evelyn (a sharp-tongued Rachel Weisz) desires. What he loses in the process is more than a few pounds and some uncool clothes. LaBute is unsparing in judging his characters, and none get off easy in this very funny, very pointed satire of modern love.


Although the film's conclusion is never in doubt, it’s an effective thriller made all the stronger by the desire to see the fabricating reporter Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) get his comeuppance. Glass stands as one of the year’s best movie villains. Christensen plays him as the golden boy who parlayed his affability into a cover for his journalistic misdeeds. His puppy dog charm and sympathy deflect more stringent questioning of his actions. Complicit in the scandal is a media culture that now values entertainment and celebrity over a rigid search for facts. In part, Glass was able to pull the wool over the eyes of his co-workers because his stories grabbed attention. As The New Republic editor Chuck Lane, Peter Sarsgaard serves as the film’s moral center. He delivers a nuanced performance that conveys a quiet rage as it becomes evident that they’ve all been duped. Billy Ray’s terse direction strips the incident to its basics. He depicts what Glass did and how it rattled the industry. The film is also spot on in its newsroom detail and performances.


Sort of a Hong Kong answer to the CHARLIE'S ANGELS movies, and that's not a bad thing. Two sisters (Qi Shu and Zhao Wei) working as hired assassins have a female police detective (Karen Mok) hot on their track. Yuen shoots the action sequences well, favoring longer takes and wider shots to showcase the fantastic setpieces.

TAKING SIDES (Istvan Szabo)

In the aftermath of World War II Harvey Keitel is a U.S. Army major trying to dig up dirt on Stellan Skarsgard's German conductor in TAKING SIDES. It's a gripping depiction of what happens when the zeal to crush the enemy trumps an open search for the truth.