best film: Lost in Translation from Sofia Coppola

With Kill Bill married to the second half of the film, which came out in 2004, it is pretty easy to declare Lost in Translation the best singular film of 2003. The only other film, or part of a film, that is close, is the totality of Peter Jackson’s 10+ hour The Lord of the Rings but not only is it broken out over three years (2001-2003), but 2003 is the weakest entry of the three. Coppola’s work in Lost in Translation is her most perfectly realized – a meditation on celebrity and isolation.

Lost in Translation has a climax fit for annals cinema history with the unheard whisper- and two superb lead performances from Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

 

most underrated:   Both Café Lumiere and Mystic River are omitted by the TSPDT consensus list on their most recent top 1000 so that is a good place to start as far as the most underrated film of 2003 goes. Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s film is slightly superior so would be the ultimate choice here for this category in 2003. Mystic River is Eastwood’s first film in his new visual mode and the start of a renaissance in filmmaking from 2003-08 (at age 73 in 2003) that is already getting unduly forgotten and underappreciated. Eastwood made six archiveable films during this stretch of six years and Mystic River is right there with Million Dollar Baby as the best). The overhead shot of Sean Penn, the silent cues on the street during the parade, and then the dialogue and mirror scene between Laura Linney and Penn at the film’s finale are all reasons it warrants a seat in the top 500…let alone top 1000.

 

Eastwood makes a masterful choice to elevate the camera for a crucial scene in Mystic River

Eastwood’s painting here in Mystic River will pair perfectly with a similar image that will show up on the 2004 page from Million Dollar Baby– pieces in a collection

 

  • Café Lumiere is a staggering achievement of mise-en-scene that serves both as a devoted homage to Ozu and as a major triumph for Hsiao-Hsien Hou.

beautiful compositions that could be from Ozu’s later period– Late Afternoon, The End of Summer

  • Before the film really starts there’s a dedication to Ozu’s centenarian 100 year old celebration
  • Apparently, the film was conceived as an anthology film with three parts- but HHH is the only auteur that remained as the project idea progressed — Hsiao-Hsien Hou is one of the artform’s greatest masters of mise-en-scene this side of Ozu so the project and idea seems like a perfect marriage. Though, at the time in the 1980s he claimed he had never seen an Ozu film, HHH’s phenomenal A Time to Live and a Time to Die also feels like a work (and artist) inspired by Ozu.
  • Shot in Ozu’s Japan (all of HHH’s other work is in Taiwan or China or both), opens and closes with long pillow shots of trains intersecting
  • the second shot is a stunner as well- a fully-engaged and designed mise-en-scene, depth of field brilliance, laundry in the background, fan in the foreground (happens often in Café Lumiere), a door ajar creating a frame within a frame. Long take. One scene and one take—then we get the titles—incredible work
  • After that we get another set mise-en-scene long take, medium distance, no camera movement or edits. There’s a row of books at the bookstore forcing your eyes towards the characters. Small talk and music (they are literally playing a cd) with a pet dog in the background. One take again.
  • Trains again and again in transitions—it’s not quite Ozu’s montage pillow shot poetics—but still
  • The mise-en-scene 17 minutes in is a dazzler— three doors in the frame—another one 28 minutes in with the father sitting silently with drinks in the foreground
  • one of the many standout mise-en-scene set-ups — 8 minutes in with the father sitting silently with drinks in the foreground
  • The two lovers going by each other in passing trains
  • An Ozu-like family drama with generational issues and disconnect (I love the father who just sits and drinks and never says a word)
  • A sublime (and formally sound) final image on the canal with overlapping trains

 

most overrated:   It is a simple choice in 2003- the most overrated film of the year is Lars von Trier’s Dogville. Dogville is near the masterpiece level on the TSPDT consensus list (#348) which makes it the #1 fiction film of the year. The film features an admirable dedication to an aesthetic- there is a certain boldness in the choices von Trier makes (even if that choice is to be ugly and flat)- but there is a substantial gulf between the artistic merits of Dogville and von trier’s Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Melancholia.

 

gems I want to spotlight:  I am going to throw out four gems for 2003- all slide off the top 10 of the year. The Triplets of Belleville is animation like you’ve never seen before- worth seeking out. American Splendor is a film I come back to often – the story of curmudgeon cartoonist Harvey Pekar played by Paul Giamatti. I watch Bad Santa every year during the holidays and Matrix Reloaded is a film that deserves a better reputation than it has- more on that film and Bad Santa here.

The Matrix Reloaded:

  • There are two films here really broken up by about the first hour of the movie vs. the second hour– one is an uninteresting slog (the first half), the other is spectacular.
  • Starts with the emerald-infused Warners logo— the color scheme production design dedication even in the logo- love it!
  • The schlocky “oh—upgrades” sequel language that often happens in bad comedies or action sequels
  • It isn’t the rip-roaring creativity-infused narrative juggernaut the first film is—this sprawls out, more characters, building out the universe—fatty—mostly not good additions
  • Gratuitous scenes like the orgy dance, the fighting of the 1000 Agent Smith Hugo Weavings’. It’s showing off some size and special effects but it doesn’t impress
  • The opening with the 2-minute flashback of Trinity (which is a foreshadowed dream from Reeve’s Neo) is strong, as is the half-circle shot during love-making, there’s a triple ellipsis edit move here by the Wachowskis that is really nice as they move that set back farther and farther each time—but by and large the first hour is forgettable

The artistic aspects of the film start with the Merovingian scenes 63 minutes in (I’m pretty convinced it is unarchiveable up until now)- green flooding that restaurant—a dogmatic dedication to color in the design. Here- frankly this is a composition for the ages- easily one of the best of 2003 if not beyond.

  • This sets the tone for the chateau action set piece (at 70 minutes) sequence- the green tapestry and weapons on the wall.
  • And then leads to the jaw-on-the-floor phenomenal freeway scene at 85 minutes—these combine to make like a green-coated Zhang Yimou film (if the 1999 original is like Star Wars in many ways, this pivots and is like Zhang Yimou’s 2002 film Hero or House of Flying Daggers in 2004) and in a short film format the freeway scene really predicts Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Fishburne is commanding once again—a speechmaker- “isn’t that worth dying for?”
  • The Wachowskis are as interested in background as they are in the foreground in this half of the movie which was simply not the case in the first sixty minutes
  • The green doors in the white hall sequence, the skyline with green lights when Neo
  • the skyline with green lights when Neo looks out — strong
  • The meeting with the architect is a stunner as well. Strong world-building in the mise-en-scene. It’s 2001’s ending encounter in the bedroom meets The Man Who Fell to Earth
  • Like the first film Rage Against the Machine smacks you in the face before you hit the end credits- perfect
  • I love Ebert- what a writer– but he has 1000 words on the 1999 film original and 1000 words on this and never uses the word “green”. Does he not notice the color design? Or isn’t important to him? Has to be one, right?
  • tough to evaluate with the flat first half and the remarkable second half

 

Bad Santa

  • Though not a formal consistency (the opening is just a Billy Bob setting the scene and the ending is a letter to Thurman) Billy Bob’s sardonic voice over is so well written and performed- harkens to his work in 2001 in the Coen brother’s The Man Who Wasn’t There and film noir
  • The screenplay (and ensuring laughs) is/are layered. I laugh at different parts every time.

absolutely gorgeous cinematic painting of Billy Bob throwing up in the snow in the alley just before (and as) the “Bad Santa” title comes in in the beginning of the firm-

  • Writing brilliance a plenty “are you off your meds?” and “queer as a $10 bill”- even the Bob Chipeska name for the John Ritter character is inspired- no detailed spared here in top notch script
  • Repetition in the dialogue- again something used by the Coens- “sandwiches”
  • I adore the “I beat some kids up today” speech- wonderful writing

 

 

trends and notables:

  • 2003 drops off a bit from the recent run of splendid years to start the decade/century
  • 2003 marks the end of The Lord of the Rings trilogy—it also marks the start of Kill Bill (volume two to come in 2004). – two major events for cinephiles for sure.

Kill Bill starts with the sublime black and white opening to Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” with David Carradine’s baritone soon following ringing in with “Do you find me sadistic?”  Here, perhaps the most beautiful shot in the film (and there are so many) could be the view of the backyard garden with the snow as Uma Thurman opens the shoji door in the restaurant. It is a Leone moment with again the sound design focusing on that water sprout into the pond.

It is Tarantino so there are influences galore—too many to count but one to note is Lady Snowblood (1973)

through 2003- Tarantino has made four films- and all four land on the top 10 films of the year– including Kill Bill of course in 2003.

  • The Coen brothers have had such a storied career (both before and after 2003)- so I find it noteworthy to mention this brief lull- Intolerable Cruelty does land in the archives – but it may be the 40th best film of the year (not the norm for them). The next year, they’ll release The Ladykillers (2004) and hit their low (and so far only unarchiveable film).
  • 2003 is a big year for the Korean New Wave- Bong Joon Ho’s’ Memories of Murder and Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy land in the top 10 of the year. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring from Kim Ki-duk would be the very next film (so #11) if I expanded the top 10 to included more films.

Park Chan-wook impresses in back to back years in 2002 and 2003 (Oldboy here) with the first two legs of The Vengeance trilogy

staging in Bong’s Memories of Murder– an artistic triumph that would be worthy of Kurosawa

Bong’s Memories of Murder leads the way for the most impressive single year in Korean cinema history to date in 2003

the enthralling narrative may keep you from appreciating Bong’s artistry upon first blush- it is a film that rewards/demands repeat viewings

 

  • My ranking below for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King has to do with some of my problems with that film specifically. I think the first, Fellowship in 2001, is the strongest of the three however, like Kill Bill, I evaluate and rate this film as one film (a 10+ hour film in this case) and not three separate film. So the top 10, which takes up three separate years, does not really equate-I am trying to doing my best. This is a 10-hour masterpiece that warrants a spot amongst the very greatest of films from the 00s decade. Jackson’s world has been so beautifully built. The narrative is nearly peerless, the establishing shots astonish.

The Return of the King and Two Towers with the focus on the battles may not luxuriate in the cinematic paintings as much as Fellowship (as Jackson introduces us to the world)—but one of the best shots in the entire running time is a shot of staggered faces blocking each other- foreground right Viggo, and, also in profile, is Orlando Bloom’s Legolas next to him—at night

  • Finding Nemo from Pixar is the box office champ for 2003- Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl would be next.
  • As mentioned above in the underrated, 2003 marks the sort of Eastwood renaissance with Mystic River. His body of work from this point forward (he’s 73) would be superior to many great auteurs’ entire careers.
  • Sofia Coppola and Alejandro González Iñárritu prove their promising debuts were just the start- they both leave 2003 two for two making top 10 of the year films

Iñárritu’s 21 Grams- the third time in four years that the top 10 of the year has featured a film from the Nuevo Cine Mexicano

  • Unfortunately, Saraband would be the last archiveable film for the masterful Ingmar Bergman. The Dreamers would be the final one for Bernardo Bertolucci.
  • For firsts, it is an undeniably light year, but it is great to have Michelle Williams in the archives for the first time. It is clear from the very beginning (here with The Station Agent) that she is an unbelievably talented actor. Keira Knightley (only 18) starts her promising career with Pirates of the Caribbean.

 

best performance male:   Bill Murray gives the best performance of the year in Lost in Translation. It is tough to call this his career-defining work because he is so damn good in Groundhog’s Day, and you have the work with Wes Anderson, but there is no single performance that surpasses Murray’s work here. It would be easy to call Murray the best performer of the year if it was not for Sean Penn standing on his head in two of the best eight films of the year (Mystic River and 21 Grams). Their accomplishment here in 2003 is just about equal. Behind them,  Min-sik Choi for his work in Oldboy, Russell Crowe for his work in Master and Commander and, finally, Viggo Mortensen for his collective work in the LOTR trilogy, all deserve mentions. There is also room enough for Kang-ho Song in Memories of Murder as well.

 

best performance female: Quality over quantity is the name of the game for this category in 2003. Scarlett Johansson stands at the top (again, especially when Uma gets divided over 2003 and 2004 in Kill Bill). Has there ever been a more mature performance from someone under 20 years of age than Johansson’s work here? Murray’s performance is the louder one- but Scarlett is the center of the film and she gives a wonderful, internalized performance- a performance that would stand up with the performances in Antonioni’s films in the early 1960s. Uma Thurman’s achievement in Tarantino’s 2003/2004 masterpiece needs to be recognized of course. It is Uma, Sigourney Weaver in Aliens and Charlize Theron in Fury Road when talking about all-time great performances by women in action films- and these three stand toe to toe with any male vying for that honor. Uma’s performance showcases moments of pain (at points if feels like we’re in a von Trier misogyny/torture/abuse situation) —along with moments of action star cool and charm. Naomi Watts proves that Mulholland Drive in 2001 was no fluke here with her second mention here in three years with her work in 21 Grams.

 

 

top 10

  1. Lost in Translation
  2. Kill Bill: Vol. 1
  3. Café Lumiere
  4. Mystic River
  5. Elephant
  6. Memories of Murder
  7. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  8. 21 Grams
  9. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
  10. Oldboy

 

there is some competition- but 2003’s Elephant remains the high water mark for Gus Van Sant

a grand example of style and form- the ever-present tracking shots from behind his characters. Last Days (2005) and Paranoid Park (2007) would soon follow to make up Van Sant’s Death trilogy.

from Peter Weir’s Master and Commander– breathtaking JMW-Turner-like cinematic paintings

a shot worthy of Vermeer from Girl with a Pearl Earring

 

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

21 Grams – Iñárritu HR/MS
All the Real Girls- Gordon Green R
American Splendor- Berman, Pulcini R/HR
Angels in America- M. Nichols R
Bad Santa– Zwigoff R
Best of Youth – Giordana R
Café Lumiere – Hsiao-Hsien Hou MS/MP
Coffee and Cigarettes – Jarmusch R
Cold Mountain- Minghella R
Crimson Gold- Panahi HR
Dogville- von Trier R
Elephant- Van Sant MS
Finding Nemo- Unkrich, Stanton R/HR
Girl With a Pearl Earring- Webber R
Goodbye, Dragon Inn– Ming-liang Tsai HR
House of Sand and Fog- Perelman R
Intolerable Cruelty- Coen R
Kill Bill – Tarantino MP
Lost in Translation- S. Coppola MP
Maria Full of Grace – Marston R
Master and Commander: Far Side of the World- Weir HR/MS
Matchstick Men – R. Scott R
Memories of Murder- Bong MS
Monster- Jenkins R
Mystic River- Eastwood MS/MP
Old Boy- Chan-wook Park HR/MS
Owning Mahowny -Kwietniowski R
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl- Verbinski R
Saraband- Bergman R
School of Rock- Linklater R
Seabiscuit- Ross R
Shattered Glass – B. Ray R
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring- Kim Ki-duk HR
The Barbarian Invasions – Arcand
The Cooler- W. Kramer R
The Dreamers- Bertolucci R
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King– Jackson MP
The Matrix Reloaded – Wachowski HR
The Return- Zvyagintsev HR
The Secret Lives of Dentists- Rudolph R
The Station Agent-McCarthy HR
The Triplets of Bellville – Chomet R
Thirteen- Hardwicke R
Time of the Wolf- Haneke R
Tokyo Godfathers- Kon R

 

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives