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Films and DVDs of the Year 2003
A personal choice by Camus and Slarek

In a year in which Hollywood has completely failed to deliver (again), most of the bigger blockbusters being sub-standard sequels (the Matrix double, Terminator 3) and the only really quality big-budgeter being the work of a New Zealand director working on his home turf (Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), it's the independents that have delivered the goods once again. As the new year kicks off, Slarek and Camus take a look at what for them were the high points of the year. Slarek had the easier job, having reveled in independent and foreign language cinema all year – Camus is the one charged with looking for bright spots in the mainstream, though just had to include one key independent film. Both present their finding below.

Five Best Films/DVDs of the Year by Camus

First a disclaimer. I'm not the one to judge. I have not been to the cinema half as much as I would have liked and even on my regular trips the chosen movie would probably have been a children's effort for reasons of fatherhood and family sanity (see Camus's Disney essay). That said, there were no 'best films' this year, merely those that didn't crushingly disappoint as much as Matrix Ramblings. Hollywood seems to be stuck on a Möebius Strip of predictability and CG excess. Given this...

In no order of any preference.

A nod to Gollum here. Jackson's Lord of the Rings has had enough exposure so I'll just acknowledge the whole trilogy with a suitably awed hush.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which had a rough ride with the press, actually stimulated the brain once or twice. To have so many great characters from classic books – oooh, books, nay, literature – was a blast of fresh air. Despite knowing that 'it'll all end in explosions', the parts were well played and a lot of knowing literary references (which if they were movie references would have bored me to my core) actually made me chuckle. In the end, the absurdities were piled so high it was impossible to get around them, but as faintly intelligent spectacles go, it went with some aplomb.

The Hulk : fans of Ang Lee (and who couldn't be after Crouching Tiger, The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility?) probably scratched their heads at his next choice. Somehow he managed to impress his own 'Ang-Leesness' on to Stan Lee's permanently pissed-off green giant. ILM's work was surprisingly good but any Hollywood mega-movie that ends with a battle in which one of the combatants is pure energy... Ho hum.

Buffy Season Six: Forget the wealth of extras, forget the cool packaging, forget the leap to 16x9. Of all things a single gun-shot rips Tara and Sunnydale apart. More superlative TV from the inexhaustibly brilliant Joss Whedon.

Bowling for Columbine: If, as the backlash courting press would have us believe, Michael Moore has his facts wrong or distorted why isn't he being sued from here to Timbuckthree? Why has his literary ode to the common American (Dude, Where's My Country) not brought forth naysayers and rich suers? In short, perhaps he's touched a truthful nerve? Despite the mawkish 'let's blame Charlton Heston for everything' denouement, Columbine is startling cinema, more so as it's documentary. I cannot wait – no really, I have no nails nor quicks left – for his next... Fahrenheit 9/11...

Finding Nemo : for the temerity of its first scene, the wholesale slaughter of the hero's wife and his 780 kids to be...

Slarek's Films of the Year

It has been another exciting year for independent films, with plenty of quality works and a few genuine delights. Nailing it down to ten (after expanding it from five) has been a task and a half, as each of the twenty or so films I initially chose have unique qualities that make it hard to select one over the other. British films have done particularly well this year, with even partial successes such as The Last Great Wilderness still the sort of film you want to recommend wholeheartedly just for what it does get right. The two stalwarts of UK independent cinema, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, both delivered first-rate works with All or Nothing and Sweet Sixteen respectively, and if they didn't make the list then it's no reflection on the films themselves, which were excellent, but more because their regularly high quality output has led us almost to expect works of this caliber.

Films that just missed the list that were still terrific cinema included Philip Noyce's compelling if sometimes formulaic Rabbit Proof Fence, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's fascinating and tragic Lost in La Mancha, Abbas Kairostami's minimalist Ten, Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters, François Ozon's exuberant 8 Femmes, Álex de la Iglesia's hilarious La Communidad, Nakata Hideo's intelligent, creepy Dark Water, Dai Sijie's touching adaptation of his own novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Stephanie Black's passionate documentary on the plight of the Jamaican economy, Life and Debt, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's ingenious Intacto, and Kitano Takeshi's Dolls.

I've selected my top 5 DVDs separately. A great film may receive mediocre treatment on DVD, and plastering a disk with thousands of extras isn't going to persuade me that The Matrix Reloaded is worth buying. Some obvious candidates haven't made my list for various reasons. The Indiana Jones trilogy suffers from the same problem as the upcoming Star Wars one – over-exposure. That and I really hated Temple of Doom. The Alien Quadrilogy is a genuinely extraordinary must-have, but without the participation of David Fincher and without his much fabled director's cut (adding footage without the involvement of the director is frankly not on) then this box set remains incomplete and becomes a candidate for a further, definitive release later on. We know the Lord of the Rings special editions are really something, but the whole concept of producing two versions of the same film at the same time, the most complete of which you cannot see in the place it should be seen – the cinema – is annoying and seems to have a marketing sensibility built in from the outset.

The Films (in no particular order)

Talk to Her – Pedro Almodovar scored again with this beautifully made study of two men in love with two women – nothing unusual here, but the women are both in comas, and the friendship that develops between the two men because of this sees the director for the first time concentrating wholeheartedly on male emotions and relationships. Not all of it is emotionally safe, either – in the later stages, Almodovar really tests our loyality to a character we have come to sympathise and identify with in one of the most difficult moral trips for an audience since Todd Haynes' Happiness.

Lawless Heart – A low budget British treat from directors Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter, this smartly written, wonderfully performed and intricately constructed film looks at the same series of events from three very different perspectives, tantalisingly revealing key character detail as it progresses. A moving, intelligent and exquisitely made work that deserves to be more widely seen. Check out our DVD review.

Lantana – Ray Lawrence returns to cinema after a 16 year absence and hits gold with this terrific drama of chance, loss and failing relationships. Impressively shot in natural light, it features a superb ensemble cast, Anthony LaPaglia in particular shining as the world-weary cop Zak. DVD review.

Movern Callar – The second of four British films that made the list, this second feature from Ratcatcher director Lynn Ramsay confirms her as one of the most exciting film-makers of recent years. Samantha Morton again proved her worth as the title character, who escapes to Spain with her workmate on money advanced on a novel written by her dead boyfriend. Ramsay's direction is bold, unconventional and at times electrifying, not least in the extraordinary, Lynch-like opening sequence in which Morvern lies almost lovingly beside the body of her boyfriend, accompanied by the flash and hum of Christmas lights.

Bowling for Columbine – In a year of ropey US mainstream films and a worrying drift towards the idolisation of covert security forces, Michael Moore's provocative, entertaining and frightening documentary was a lung-clearing blast of fresh air. The film infuriated the American Right, who repeatedly attacked it for supposed factual inaccuracies and bias, in the process often getting their own facts wrong and displaying a bias far more insipid and intransigent. Sure, Moore's approach is at times a little scattershot, but in post Patriot Act America his refusal to toe the government line and stand with George Dubya against the rest of the world is to be treasured. On top of that the film achieved three key things: it re-invigorated the documentary as a cinematic form; it made a lot of excellent points and made them bloody well; and it did what the very best documentaries should always do – it provoked debate.

City of God – From the brilliant opening scene, in which a chase to retrieve a runaway chicken leads to a stand-off between a heavily armed gang and the police with the terrified lead character caught in the middle, this electrifying Brazilian drama blew just about everything else out of the water and should be essential viewing for anyone who really cares about cinema. With Scorsese tripping up with The Gangs of New York, this immaculately made tale of the gangs of Rio de Janeiro stole its thunder in every respect.

Russian Ark – Aleksandr Sokurov's extraordinary film proved to be so much more than just a bold cinematic experiment. A hypnotic, intelligent trip through 300 years of Russian history, set in the magnificent St. Petersberg Heritage Museum and presented in a single stedicam shot with a cast of over two thousand, this left me with my jaw on the floor at times, though admittedly alienated as many as it seduced. But it filled the cinema – at least people came out to see the film before making a judgment. And sorry, DVD viewers, but the cinema really was the place to see this one.

Revenger's Tragedy – After years of intriguing but sometimes hugely disappointing works, Alex Cox finally lived up to his Repo Man potential and how with this wonderful adaptation of Thomas Middleton's play, updating it to a futuristic, decaying Liverpool. A terrific central performance from Christopher Eccleston is well supported by the likes of Derek Jacobi and, in one of his best roles to date, Eddie Izzard. DVD review.

In This World – Michael Winterbottom's DV-shot, based-on-true-story look at the plight of two young asylum seekers as they make the difficult, sometimes nightmarish journey from Afghanistan to the UK. At a time when the tabloids are still using the very term 'asylum seeker' to whip up prejudice, this should be essential viewing for all UK citizens, if only to show them what the words hardship and fear really mean. Another film whose overpowering effect is inevitably diminished on the small screen.

Spirited Away – Hayao Miyazaki has been making great animated features for years, but reached his biggest international audience yet with this beautifully realised take on Alice Through the Looking Glass. There is more imagination in five minutes of this film than most movies this year have demonstrated in their entire, weary length, and after six viewings I still feel I'm watching something new every time. Do yourself a favour, avoid the American dubbed version and hunt out the original Japanese language one – it's sheer perfection. DVD review.

The DVDs (again in no particular order)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Criterion region 1) – Criterion took a genuine modern cult classic and gave it supreme treatment, with a terrific transfer and a ton of excellent extras. Time after time this company delivers, though at a price, especially to us UK residents. Time for a Criterion UK?

The Happiness of the Katakuris (Tartan region 2) – OK this release seems to have been sourced from the Ventura region 1 disk, but it shows how Tartan are just getting better and better, no longer settling for a ropey cinema print (Ringu, Audition) and really putting care into their releases. Fine picture, 5.1 sound, a very funny commentary, and great making-of documentary and more, all for a Japanese black comedy of family values with musical numbers. Wonderful. DVD Review.

Avalon: Special Edition (Enter One region 3) – Mamoru Oshii's compelling live-action manga is given a first rate anamorphic transfer and boasts both 5.1 EX and DTS 6.1 ES soundtracks, plus a fine collection of extras that are actually subtitled in English. Joy.

The Hills Have Eyes (Anchor Bay UK region 2) – Anchor Bay could fill this section alone with the excellent work they are doing with cult films both here and in the US, and it was great to see this early work from Wes Craven – which blew me away when I first saw it at the cinema (and pissed of one of my film tutors when I gave it a good review in the campus magazine) – given such handsome treatment, with an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, DTS sound remix, a commentary by Craven and Peter Locke plus a whole lot more.

Homicide: Life on the Street (A&E Home Video region 1) – For my money the best US cop series ever was not something I ever expected to see on DVD, so poorly had it been treated by schedulers in its native land and over here, effectively forcing the cancellation of the show. I was resigned to having to watch my scratchy VHS copies for ever until A&E answered my dreams and delivered series 1 and 2 in a box set, then followed it up with series 3. Just one thing guys – keep 'em coming! DVD Review.

Review of the Year 2003

article posted
1 January 2004