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Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Best Films of 2003

By Kevin John

10. "In The Cut": A film as abstruse as Jane Campion's stupidly underpraised curiosity cabinet deserves an abstruse analogy (courtesy of Chuck Eddy) so here goes: "In the Cut" is to David Gordon Green's "All the Real Girls" (my number 11 film) as Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica is to Amon Düül II's Dance of the Lemmings. Now off you go.   

9. "From Justin to Kelly"
8. "Open Range": The revisionist Western has been around for at least four decades now, and the film musical has suffered anxieties almost as long. What's so fascinating about these two genre films, then, is, well, how generic they are. So don't look here for any formalist or auteurist analysis of "From Justin to Kelly" (I don't even know who directed it). I love this doomed "American Idol" project because it is an unapologetic integrated musical in a time when the very notion of genre is supposedly dying and the integrated musical number keeps popping up in films as if it were (largely English-speaking) cinema's repressed consciousness. (The integrated musical is one where characters sing and/or dance with no "realistic" narrative cop-outs like performing on a stage to impel them; they just start singin' and dancin'). And before you reply "so what?", ask yourself this: Why do we accept Spiderman whizzing around buildings, but not Kelly Clarkson revving into song on the beach? Most likely because the former offers us a fantasy of transgressing our bodily limitations while the latter reminds us how easily our bodies can disintegrate in a digital mediascape. Nevertheless, "From Justin to Kelly"'s ill-advised dive into such vexed cultural waters shows up "Chicago" for the chickenshit stage-bound compromise it is. A precious and fleeting thing, it honestly made me choke up a little bit. As for "Open Range," how revisionist does it have to be with a bandit currently in the White House? This tale of tin stars bought with money and position played more like the evening news than a glimpse into 1880s USA soil practices. But does the fact that it was shot in Alberta make the film a critique of American colonialism or an example thereof?

7. "Down With Love": Peyton Reed proves the estrogen-fueled hyperdrive of "Bring It On" was no fluke. Here, he channels it into a "Pillow Talk" pastiche of split screens and Lubitschian rhyming cuts that delineates a world where the real and the fake are hopelessly enmeshed and people get what they want by exploiting movie conventions. If you want to get ahead in this world yourself, take the shot that kicks off the title song as a lesson and strive to distinguish between the Judy Garland on the TV screen and the, um, real Judy Garland out of focus at the right edge of the film frame.

6. "10": Directing by indirection, Abbas Kiarostami casts his camera as a front seat passenger in a car that wanders all over Tehran. A woman (Mania Akbari) is behind the wheel and her son (played by Akbari's real son) grows increasingly hostile towards her, ostensibly due to the fact that she's encroaching on the in-between spaces of modernity (and patriarchy) with her vehicle. But because the camera never strays from its dashboard confessional, structuring the film as a countdown of just ten shots-cum-sequences, we share her perceptual situation. We're contemplating via distraction just as much as the driver, catching only fleeting glances along the way. Her "sin" becomes ours. A brilliant, utterly accessible portrait of gender in the public sphere that redefines (or defines more accurately) the word unblinking.

5. "11'09"01": If you're buyin', I'd be more than happy to grab a cocktail with you and bullshit about which episodes are best.. But the whole exceeds the parts here because the compilation film seems the appropriate moral response to 9/11/01. So if you're looking for a genius/auteur here, pick Alain Brigand, who compiled this one.

4. "The School of Rock": Jack Black oozes cultural capital. But since his stock is rock, he has difficulty transforming it into financial capital. Somehow writer/director Mike White transformed this very real cultural war into the most joyous musical comedy in years. And props to whoever got disco on the chalkboard and a gay boy in the classroom.

3. "Elephant": And speaking of gay boys in the classroom...Gus Van Sant runs amok in a Columbine-like scenario and paradoxically uses this touchy opportunity to focus himself beyond the pathologies of "Pink" and "Gerry" (and maybe even "Finding Forrester"). This is a film very much informed by an articulate homosexual rage, as if the gay, high-school Van Sant were finally let out of the closet. You can feel it in ways both obvious (the interaction between the Klebold-Harris counterparts) and not-so (the ending where a heterosexual couple is most definitely not formed). Unlike a similar project such as "Zero Day," "Elephant" carves into the barbarities of adolescence from a deeply personal angle, a distinction that puts even the hateful, "Heathers"-esque portrait of teenage girls into perspective rather than a nihilistic tailspin.

2. "From the Other Side": Anyone who's ever crossed a border, which isn't many Americans, can't fail to be moved by the great Chantal Akerman's meditation on the line that divides Mexico from the United States. Her most immediate achievement is to uncover border politics as not only an opportunity for the willful annihilation of non-English speakers but also as an infrequently acknowledged contribution to America's formidable economic power. But it's her trademark tracking shots that offer the hope of transcendence, often making it difficult to tell which side you're on without ever once slipping into facile one-worldisms.

1. "Masked and Anonymous": Bob Dylan and Larry Charles' characterization of Dubya-era America as a Third World nation in constant turmoil is certainly welcome. But I don't find the grotesquely super-sized ego Dylan flexes here so objectionable that I need socially responsible content to absorb it. Quite to the contrary, grotesquely super-sized egos from Hugo Haas to Jerry Lewis have long vaulted over the limits of democracy. At a time when the Dubya regime has increased those limits to the point of disfiguring democracy, Dylan's star-hemorrhaging vision is a fantasia for our times. The only thing more fantastic would be to see a woman flex just as super-sized an ego. Jenny McCarthy? Joni Mitchell?

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