THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


It was not easy being a film critic in 2003. For one thing, there were more bad movies this year than in just about any other year I can remember (with the possible exception of 1994). Until December – when Hollywood releases the best of the best – the ratio of bad movies to good ones was nearly 1:1. Fortunately, some superb end-of-the-year films tipped that scale a little bit. Even so, there are more films competing for my 10 Worst list this year than ever before.

The other major hurdle in 2003 was a little thing called the screener ban, which you may have heard about. MPAA president Jack Valenti, in a misguided attempt to curb piracy, forbid studios to send screeners out to critics and other groups during this awards season. (For those who may not know, a screener is a copy of a movie on VHS or DVD intended for personal viewing by a critic or an industry professional.) Why are screeners so important? Well, I cover the area in and around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It is only a mid-sized market. Movies opening in limited release late in the year will not open here until January or February. In the past, screeners allowed me to consider these films prior to their wide release. Not having them means that late entries could not be considered for this list as of press time. In other words, I can’t do my job as effectively as I would like this year. A judge eventually overturned the screener ban, and a few studios did come through with screeners. Many did not. Therefore, a few end-of-year titles such as Monster, House of Sand and Fog, and Big Fish have no chance of being on this list. However, I will see them all when they are given wide release; if any of them qualifies for my list, I will modify it on the archive portion of this site.

Finally, one last bit of business before the list itself. Every year, there are films that painfully don’t make the final cut. The following films were under serious consideration this year but didn’t quite make it: Cold Mountain, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, The Station Agent, and a trio of brilliant documentaries, Winged Migration, Lost in La Mancha, and Spellbound. I also offer a final tip of the hat to the following movies that were of high quality and/or entertainment value: Bad Santa, Bruce Almighty, Daredevil, Elf, Ghosts of the Abyss, Holes, Master & Commander, Matchstick Men, May, Phone Booth, The Rundown, The School of Rock, Terminator 3, and X2: X-Men United. Good films all, but only ten can make the list.

My picks for the ten best films of 2003 are:

10. City of God - I admit that it didn’t strike me just how good this movie was until a few hours after I saw it. Director Fernando Meirelles tells the story of a government-created Brazilian slum where poverty and desperation drive local teenagers to drug dealing and murder. He introduces us to a handful of characters – some likeable despite their criminal tendencies, others downright loathsome – and details the escalating battle for control of drug activity within the slum. More than that, Meirelles shows us the insidiousness of crime, the way it perpetrates itself by appearing glamorous so that new generations of children grow up seduced by it. The film’s images of young people committing horrific acts of violence are shocking, but the tone ultimately condemns their behavior while mourning the death of innocence. City of God is based on a true story, and it’s a harrowing depiction of a world in which poverty and mistrust of the government have warped morality. I liked the movie as I was watching it, but couldn’t stop thinking about it afterward. That’s when I knew it deserved a spot on this list.

9. Shattered Glass - Hayden Christiansen previously played Anakin Skywalker, but he really shined in this docudrama about Stephen Glass, a prominent New Republic reporter who forged the majority of his stories. Christiansen effectively gives Glass a passive-aggressive way of weaseling out of trouble. Peter Saarsgard costars as Glass’s editor, who is determined to find the truth of the matter. Director Billy Ray focuses on the ethical issues of the story while still giving it all the tension of a thriller. Other critics have called Shattered Glass the best movie about journalism since All the President’s Men, and I am inclined to agree.

8.Capturing the Friedmans - A seemingly respectable Long Island family is rocked by allegations that the father and oldest son committed serial child molestation. Amazingly, one of the now-grown Friedman children had an obsession with video cameras and taped all kinds of private family moments related to the accusations. Director Andrew Jarecki uses this footage – and recent interviews with most of the subjects - to illuminate dysfunction and denial at their most severe. Aside from being a riveting portrait of a family in turmoil, the movie will also have you debating what really went on in that home.

7. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - The first two films in this series did not make my ten best list in their respective years, although I enjoyed them a great deal. The third and final chapter of Peter Jackson’s epic earns a place here because it made me realize just what an extraordinary achievement this trilogy is. I had never read the J.R.R. Tolkein books, so the story was 100% new to me. Now that we’ve reached the end, I find myself very impressed by how fun and entertaining the movies are. They are intelligent and complex in a time when too many movies are watered down. When you stop and think about it, this has been as much a journey for audiences as it has for the film’s characters…a three-year journey, in fact. And boy, was it ever worth it!

6. In America - Director Jim Sheridan teamed up with daughters Kirsten and Naomi to pen the semi-autobiographical screenplay for this deeply touching drama. Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton play Irish parents who move to New York with their two young daughters following the death of their little boy. The experience provides trials and tribulations that eventually cause the family to bond closer. Watching In America is truly an emotional experience because it is so clearly heartfelt. Sheridan’s themes of grief, healing, adaptation, and unity are presented in a way that nearly everyone can relate to. It might sound corny to say, but I really fell in love with this movie. Just thinking about it brings a smile to my face.

5. Finding Nemo - It’s a Pixar feature, so you know it’s good. Actually, it’s better than good. The computer animation is breathtakingly real, with vibrant colors and motion. The story of a nervous fish father seeking his lost son takes a somewhat traditional Disney formula and injects it with some clever twists. The voice acting is superb, with Ellen DeGeneres stealing the show as a fish with short-term memory loss. (Imagine an underwater Memento.) Forget the expression “family film”; Finding Nemo is just a great film, period.

4. Kill Bill Vol. I - A lot of moviegoers think Quentin Tarantino is The Man. I am one of those moviegoers. QT has a rare ability to blend all these movie genres that have influenced him and still come up with something original. His tribute to martial arts and samurai flicks was intentionally light on story and heavy on energetic style. But what made it Ten Best material was the level of depth that star Uma Thurman brought to the role of “the Bride” – a woman left for dead after her entire family was murdered and she herself was left for dead on her wedding day. Thurman makes you feel not only the pain of the tragedy, but also the burning desire to make some mother@#$%ers pay (as Tarantino himself might have put it). My sole complaint was that Kill Bill got split into two pieces at all. I am impatiently awaiting the release of Vol. II this February.

3. Lost in Translation - Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson played lost souls in Japan who forge an unlikely friendship in Sofia Coppola’s beautifully lonely masterpiece. The movie captures something very subtle and intimate that sometimes happens between people and magnifies it for closer examination. Sometimes friendships are situational; we become friends with someone because we have a certain time or place in common. Take away that time or place and the friendship would probably never come into being. Under the right circumstances, however, it can be life-changing. Coppola understands this, and her film is magnificent in the way it so softy speaks volumes about human nature. Incidentally, Bill Murray has never been better, but you probably already know that.

2. Seabiscuit - I was not alive during the Great Depression. I know nothing about horse racing, nor do I care about it. So why is Seabiscuit the #2 film on my list? Because it inspired me, that’s why. This true story was so uplifting that I became obsessed with it. Director Gary Ross conveys what the world’s greatest racehorse meant to an owner, a trainer, and a jockey, but also what it meant to America. Seabiscuit proved to everyone that no matter how “down” you appear to be, there’s always a chance to come up a winner. That “it ain’t over til it’s over” message still rings true today. I loved every single second of this movie, which inspired me to devour the amazing Laura Hillenbrand book on which it is based and seek out footage of the real Seabiscuit. Hollywood is known for making uplifting dramas; Seabiscuit is in some ways traditional, but that’s part of the appeal. It made me feel good all over.

And my choice for the best film of 2003 is:

Hope Davis and Paul Giamatti star in American Splendor, the year's best film
1. American Splendor - I remember watching Harvey Pekar’s bizarre Letterman appearances when I was a college student. Who’d have thought he’d one day be the subject of my pick for the year’s best film? Paul Giamatti is astonishing as the Ohio medical records clerk who created a comic book about his own life. It became a sensation, yet Pekar never saw enough money from it to quit his day job. When cancer struck, he got through by detaching himself from the medical procedures and using them as fodder for one of his comics. In that way, American Splendor is one of the best pictures ever made about an artist and his work. But it’s also much more than that. The film works as a study of humanity; its characters are basically unhappy people in unhappy situations who somehow fail to give up or give in. I also have great admiration for the artistic groundbreaking. Directors Sherry Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini mix live action and animation. They occasionally make the film look like one of Pekar’s comics. And – most audaciously – they have little interludes in which the cast members mingle with their real-life counterparts. The end result is breathtaking as a piece of cinema, but it’s also a very emotional tribute to the human spirit. I got totally wrapped up in American Splendor on several different levels, which is why it is easily the best film I saw this year.

Looking back, I realize that, all things considered, it wasn’t a bad year at the movies. Any year that can produce ten films this good has to be viewed positively. Some of these titles you have probably seen; others may be less familiar to you. My hope is that you will seek them out and that they will enrich your moviegoing lives as much as they have enriched mine.

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