Top Ten Films of 2003

Contribution to the 2003 World Poll

I have limited myself to films released theatrically in Australia between 1 January and 31 December 2003. Therefore films that were only shown at festivals or went direct to video, DVD or television are not included in this Top Ten.

Nevertheless the following films that were screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival would have all been contenders for my Top Ten had they been given a general release:

Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (Jang Sun-Woo, 2002)
Interstella 5555 (Kazuhisa Takenôchi, 2003)
Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002)
The Other Final (Johan Kramer, 2003)

I have also not included re-released films such as Director’s Cuts or Special Editions. This is mainly due to the fact that the following four films would have dominated too easily which would have been unfair to recent films:

The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)
The Red Circle (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970)
 (Ridley Scott, 1979)

The Top Ten

1. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)

A masterpiece of pure cinematic pleasure where style triumphs over substance to such an extraordinary degree that it rams home the argument that cinema is primarily a visual art form. It is not that Tarantino gave up on story and characterisation altogether either – it is just that like the kung-fu and samurai films that he so lovingly pays homage to, character motivation and narrative are simple, allowing for the violent story of revenge to resonate on a powerful emotional level. The lack of extravagant special effects is also a welcome return to what makes action and spectacle cinema great – the joy of seeing bodies in motion where the breathtaking wire stunts and fight choreography are left untouched without being ruined by the cold and passionless gloss of computer generated imagery.  

2. Lost In Translation (Sophia Coppola, 2003)

A film that will most likely go down in cinematic history as one of the greatest love films of all time. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson give touching and restrained performances as two people who have little in common except for a sense of loneliness, alienation and frustration that is accentuated by them being placed in a culture that they struggle to understand or identify with. Transcending sexual desire, their friendship is one of true affection and an almost masochistic attraction towards each other since their circumstances not only makes their love unspoken and unfulfilled but something that is not even a possibility. Sophia Coppola’s masterful direction allows the camera to linger on small facial gestures and movements such as Murray placing his hand on Johansson’s foot as she sleeps. Such moments resonate in ways that explanatory dialogue could not.

3. Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)

A film that was in great danger of simply becoming a novelty due to the fact that it was made in one continuous take without edits. However it proved to be a film that had to have been done in one take in order for it to be effective. Editing would have spoilt the first person perspective and dream like atmosphere that was created by having the camera seemingly float around the Russian State Hermitage Museum. With a cynical French aristocrat as our guide the audience encounters important historical figures from Russia’s troubled past, hears three live orchestras and is allowed to gaze on the artwork contained in the magnificent building. This is a film to be experienced not in terms of straightforward story or statement but as a work of haunting beauty, which evokes feelings that could not be expressed in any other way.

4. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)

A simultaneously touching and nerve-racking film where the power of love fights the chaos and oppression of modern life. Adam Sandler delivers an endearing and sympathetic portrayal of a man whose ordinary and depressing life is gradually sending him over the edge. After scenes, underscored by frantic and manic music, of Sandler calmly dealing with his overbearing sisters, hectic workplace and threatening phone sex operators it is almost a relief when he smashes up a restaurant bathroom or confronts his attackers with a crowbar. However love does triumph in magical moments of music swells, colored filled screens and illuminant bursts of light. When so many other romance films are filled with saccharine dialogue, Paul Thomas Anderson gives Sandler the most romantic and best lines from any film this year, “I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You’re so pretty.”

5. 28 Days Later… (Danny Boyle, 2002)

All the critics who derided the lack of social commentary in recent horror films must have either missed this film or ignored it due to the fact that it did not fit in with their generalisations. Not only is Danny Boyle’s film a damning attack on humanity’s cruelty toward each other but it is also a savage attack on masculinity. In the first part of the film the deserted streets of London evoke a powerful sense of sadness that is not often associated with horror films. However this mourning for what appears to be the end of humanity is soon replaced with true terror. First comes the zombie-like infected virus victims but then, as in the case of all superior horror films, the true source of the horror comes from human characters – in this case a platoon of Darwinist soldiers who plot to rape the female characters in order to continue the human species. By the end of the film is difficult not to think that the tragedy that has almost ended the human race is completely deserved.

6. Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003)

A completely unexpected moving story of love and loss that also reflects the dangerous beauty of the Australian landscape and how alien Australia must seem to outsiders. The cinematography, music and editing allows scenes to linger just that little bit too long, creating a cinematic experience that is emotionally overwhelming and artistically mature.

7. The Spanish Apartment (Cédric Klapisch, 2002)

A feel good film that does not leave you feeling cheated or empty. A funny and affectionate look at friendship and culture clashes with authentic mid-20s characters whose flaws and genuine attempts to understand their place in the world make them all the more likeable.

8. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003)

Clint Eastwood continues to show his flair for directing powerful stories that slowly unravel without resorting to heavy-handed shock techniques. This almost cold portrayal of extreme grief transforms into a deeply upsetting examination of revenge that speaks volumes about the horror of America’s eye-for-an-eye mentality.

9. The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002)

Although this has suffered from the same type of backlash as American Beauty where initially favorable critics have turned against it once it achieved popular appeal, this is still a compelling and well crafted film where three stories about women whose silent frustrations and suffering are hidden by the social demands for keeping up appearances.

10. Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002)

One of the most insightful films about mental illness ever made. The audience experiences the melancholic, paranoid and confused mind of a schizophrenic who is haunted by his childhood. Cronenberg’s steady, slow camera and Ralph Fiennes’ understated performance creates a world of dereliction, sorrow and repressed trauma.

Naturally it is extremely difficult to narrow down all the films from this year into a Top Ten so I have given myself the indulgence of giving ten honourable mentions to films that reflected diversity, boldness and challenged narrative, genre and film style.

The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
Far From Heaven
(Todd Haynes, 2002)
Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself
(Lone Scherfig, 2002)
24 Hour Party People
 (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002)
Undead (Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, 2003)
Tape (Richard Linklater, 2001)
The Rules of Attraction (Roger Avary, 2002)
In the Cut (Jane Campion, 2003)
 (Lars von Trier, 2003)

Originally appeared here on Senses of Cinema Issue No. 30, January – March 2004

© Thomas Caldwell, 2003