I'd like to thank the Academy

by Helene Wong / 27 December, 2003
In which our two film critics rank the top 10 films of 2003.

BY PHILIP MATTHEWS

1. SPIDER, by David Cronenberg

In David Cronenberg's long and distinguished career as the poet laureate of clammy discomfort, such sci-fi films as eXistenZ, The Dead Zone and Naked Lunch turned on seamless shifts between reality and fantasy, dramatising radical and paranoid points of view (a trick borrowed by The Matrix, to diminishing returns). But what seemed safe, or at least palatable, as sci-fi is much more unsettling in the postwar, kitchen-sink, halfway-house realism of Spider. In his finest film acting to date, Ralph Fiennes is Dennis "Spider" Cleg, the schizophrenic outpatient who obsesses over his childhood as he walks the grey East End streets where time stands still and the canals, the pubs, the gasworks and allotments seem hallucinated and threatening.

2. IRREVERSIBLE, Gaspar Noe

"There are no bad deeds. Only deeds." Like the liberal-inflaming novels of Michel Houellebecq, this French shocker pushed sex, race and violence buttons, but underneath that is a grim mortal dread, a terror about the worst things that life can dish out. Running a rape-revenge story in reverse, Gaspar Noe, French cinema's punkish antagonist, denies his viewers even the most basic catharsis - it's the year's most pessimistic and physically assaulting film, with seasick cameras and stomach-assaulting sound design.

3. MORVERN CALLAR, Lynne Ramsay

The best movie about Brits in Spain since Sexy Beast. What else? Lyrical, ominous, enigmatic, a work of subtle and affecting artistry. As Morvern, Samantha Morton communicates almost wordlessly; with her debut, Ratcatcher, and now this, Lynne Ramsay has established herself as the most exciting new British director since Michael Winterbottom.

4. NOI ALBINOI, Dagur Kari

Icelandic black humour is very dark indeed, but this wildly unpredictable outing - the debut of director Dagur Kari, who also wrote much of the slow, eerie music - is driven by an impish performance from Tomas Lemarquis as Noi the albino (the title is a translation of that phrase) who wags school, robs vending machines and tries to court a local girl. He's impossible to dislike.

5. IN THIS WORLD, Michael Winterbottom

Raw and immediate, Michael Winterbottom's film re-enacts the journey of refugees who smuggle themselves into the UK - it's the story behind every tragic news clip about the human cargo discovered in trucks and ships at British Customs. Beginning in Pakistan, and going overland through Iran and Turkey, while shooting on digital video, Winterbottom gets the terror and claustrophobic hardship so completely that you would swear it was a doco - only, no doco crew could have managed this logistical feat.

6. SWEET SIXTEEN, Ken Loach

Ken Loach's methods - shooting politically infused melodrama with untrained actors in real locations, and often not revealing plot to the actors - seldom fail and this is his best film in years, thanks to the remarkable performance that he gets from Martin Compston, a teenage soccer player in his acting debut. Compston's character, Liam, deals heroin on the Scottish mean streets in the hope of buying a better life for his imprisoned mother - now, how badly do you think that plan will go and how sarcastic do you think that title is?

7. WHALE RIDER, Niki Caro

The New Zealand story as a precocious child trying to embrace both honoured tradition and the wider, changing world - no wonder this instant classic made such perfect sense to us in 2003.

8. FAR FROM HEAVEN, Todd Haynes

This gorgeous replica of the 50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk was designed for the ever-subversive Todd Haynes to bring buried lives to the surface, especially the lives of gay men in repressive times. Dennis Quaid plays the closeted husband of Julianne Moore, and both are exceptional. The artifice might seem too clever, too cerebral at first, but it soon cracks to reveal oceans of emotion beneath.

9. AMERICAN SPLENDOR, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

I preferred the first half - in which our anti-hero, Harvey Pekar, was more of a sadsack and in which the film-makers got the seductively downbeat spirit of American cities in the 1970s - to the more uplifting second, but either way, American Splendor was a conceptual gamble that came off. Those who pointed out the similarities to Annie Hall were on the money - and it does have some of the flavour of when Woody was still good - but it's more heartening to know that this is already running in double bills with Revenge of the Nerds.

10. THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND, Sam Green and Bill Siegel

This fascinating festival documentary tracks the secret history of a notorious anti-war protest group that operated beneath US law enforcement radar in the early 1970s, bombing government buildings to bring the Vietnam war home - America is described as "the most violent society that has ever existed". Although comparisons between then and now are inescapable, the wider context is the general shift from 60s radicalism to the new conservatism of the 80s - a shift adroitly summarised in contrasting images of Jane Fonda, from the "Hanoi Jane" who supported the Vietnamese communists to the Fonda who hawked aerobics videos.

BY HELENE WONG

1. IN THIS WORLD, Michael Winterbottom

Compulsive and compulsory to watch, an act of docudrama daring with Winterbottom taking mini-DV cameras and two young Afghans along the refugee route from Pakistan to London, sharing with us first-hand every bump on the road and outbreak of fear as they gamble with real fixers, real soldiers and the very real possibility of death. A heartstopping, heartbreaking insight into the refugee experience, and it knocks you around for days. Powerful cinema that deserves a wider release.

2. TALK TO HER, Pedro Almodovar

Almodovar's past explorations into the mystery of the happy collision of strangers and their fates finds full expression here. Siting the emotional centre around male characters for the first time, he creates indelible feelings and images of loneliness and connection that range from the sublime beauty of a woman bullfighter dressing for the fight to the ridiculousness of a silent film fantasy that is both shocking and strangely sweet.

3. FINDING NEMO, Andrew Stanton

The Pixar formula of strong story, comedy for all ages, great voice talent and high-end animation goes underwater Downunder, journeying from the Great Barrier Reef to Sydney Harbour with a weird mob of marine life on a hazardous rescue mission. The technical achievement laces verisimilitude with humour, and Ellen DeGeneres's sidekick persona is a riot.

4. DOGVILLE, Lars von Trier

A slyly titled fable about the nature of goodness, and the capacity for human nature to abuse and betray it. Stylistically bold and alienating - actors perform in a space with lines painted on the floor, fake walls and a few props - yet completely involving. The Brechtian minimalism focuses attention on the moral themes, and the cast rises magnificently to the challenge of the staging. Nicole Kidman is a worthy successor to Breaking the Wave's Emily Watson and Dancer in the Dark's Bjork as von Trier's exploited female innocent.

5. WHALE RIDER, Niki Caro

More than just an international crowd-pleaser, this is one New Zealanders can feel deeply connected to and embrace as distinctively ours. Its mythic themes, easy flow between the spiritual and the mundane, and the sense of a culture in flux is simultaneously unique and universal. Lisa Gerrard's otherworldly music is finely matched, and Keisha Castle-Hughes is simply outstanding.

6. FAR FROM HEAVEN, Todd Haynes

Luminous Julianne Moore frocks up wonderfully in this gorgeous evocation of 50s middle America, a homage to the Douglas Sirk chick flicks of the day by someone who wasn't even born then. Haynes employs this distance to comment, like Sirk, on the paralysingly repressive attitudes towards race, gender and sexuality lurking under the Technicolor sheen of affluence then, while challenging today's audience to consider where those attitudes sit now.

7. THE MAGDALENE SISTERS, Peter Mullan

Mullan's foray into the laundries of Ireland's Magdalene Asylums, where some 30,000 "fallen" girls washed away their sins watched over by the so-called Sisters of Mercy. A compassionate study of character as well as an angry indictment of the church, every aspect of the non-verbal storytelling armoury - looks, body language, harshly austere design and brutally amplified sound - expresses the horror of what was tantamount to institutionalised revenge.

8. LAWLESS HEART, Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger

Small, quiet and deftly crafted in a Rashomon-style narrative, this study of three men whose lives converge at a funeral - the dead man's lover, best friend and brother-in-law - is an emotionally truthful revealing of how death can throw life into sometimes comical disarray, exposing dilemmas and frailties as a new balance is sought. Its largely unknown cast is a testament to improvisation and ensemble work.

9. AMERICAN SPLENDOR, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

An inspired amalgam of documentary, drama and animation that energises the otherwise bleak life and worldview of comics writer Harvey Pekar. Paul Giamatti as Harvey, and Hope Davis as his wife Joyce have a lot to do with this accessibility, but the real couple, who appear as interview subjects, are no less endearing for their dry, idiosyncratic observations. They might whine a lot, but they speak the truth.

10. CHICAGO, Rob Marshall

Devotees of the stage version may grump about liberties taken, but this freight train of a musical about women done wrong loses nothing in high-kicking exuberance and great lyrics and music. Edited to within an inch of its life, it sashays and elbows its way around the screen, simultaneously delighting and assaulting eyes and ears. Gutsy work from Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah ... and Richard Gere as the Clayton's dancer.

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