It was the year that the skies above L.A. became choked with brushfire exhaust, bus service ground to a halt, grocery workers went out on strike (and stayed out), and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association first canceled, then reinstated its annual awards in light of the MPAA’s now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t screener ban. It was also a damn fine year for the movies, even if the movies that were fine weren’t always the ones easiest for L.A. moviegoers to access. At my editor’s behest, I have limited this list to those films that played commercially in L.A. in 2003, even if to do so is to ignore the increasingly viable system of what might be called film-festival distribution, whereby a movie plays only at film festivals but ends up being seen by more people than it would over the course of a regular engagement. Which is to say nothing of those deserving films that
did manage to secure such engagements in New York and other cities over the past 12 months, but not in ours. But more on
that later.

1 The Son (Le Fils). The life of an unassuming carpentry instructor (the brilliant Olivier Gourmet) is conveyed via unexplained fragments of grief, suffering and solitude — until those fragments begin to coalesce into an extraordinary drama of vengeful impulses at odds with fatherly benevolence. Of the Belgian filmmaking brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes’ three films, this proletariat masterpiece is the one least overtly indebted to the influence of Robert Bresson and, in turn, the one that comes the closest to Bresson’s economy, lack of sentimentality and transformative use of actors.

Yet, who among our readers has seen The Son, or even heard of it? The film opened in early April at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills, accompanied by enthusiastic reviews in this paper and the Los Angeles Times. A week later, it was gone, relegated to weekend-morning shows at the Monica 4-Plex. Is it any wonder that the film’s distributor, New Yorker Films, hardly bothers to open its releases here anymore?

2 In This World. Michael Winterbottom’s largely improvised road movie, following two Afghan refugees as they attempt to immigrate into the U.K., crisscrosses Pakistan, Iran, France and England, all the while plowing new ground in the ongoing debates about globalization and illegal immigration. The film’s unforgettable climax alone — in which a young boy and his traveling companion are sealed inside a shipping container for the duration of a harrowing, Middle Passage–like journey — is requisite viewing for any who deemed Stephen Frears’ opportunistic Dirty Pretty
a thoughtful meditation on the subject of illicit human trafficking.

3 The Fog of War. A movie of this moment, and of the one yet to come, consisting of 11 “lessons” from the life of former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, as told to that intrepid chronicler of our national identity, Errol Morris. Morris responds by conjuring McNamara’s expressive words into some of the most potent images of war and remembrance in the modern cinema. The moral of the story being that history has a funny way of repeating itself, and how we have a funny way of forgetting that.

4 Japón. The year’s most impressive debut feature, Carlos Reygadas’ cryptic fable tells of an unnamed man brought back from the brink of a suicidal abyss by his odd romance with an elderly widow named Ascen (as in Ascension). What follows is a sometimes impenetrable, often overreaching, but always beguiling succession of abstract, nearly wordless scenes — including a disturbingly beautiful bit of lovemaking — about the search for meaning and spirituality in a world of disappointments.

5 Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. A great naturalist epic masquerading as a seafaring adventure, courtesy of Peter Weir, who has spent his career delving into landscapes both savage and domestic to explore the rifts between classes, cultures and differing systems of belief. Here, detailing with unparalleled verisimilitude the daily life on a British man-of-war during the Napoleonic Wars, the camaraderie of brothers-in-arms and the rituals by which apprentices become masters, Weir produces that rarest of films: a humanist Hollywood spectacle, worth every penny of the three studios’ investments it took to make it.

6 The Man on the Train (L’homme du Train). Director Patrice Leconte makes movies that possess a clockmaker’s precision and a pickpocket’s efficiency. This one marks the crowning achievement in his careerlong fascination with voyeuristic obsession, yearning for the road not taken and the films of Alfred Hitchcock — all filtered through two sublime performances: Jean Rochefort’s as the retired schoolteacher who dreams of being a bank robber, and pop star Johnny Hallyday’s as the bank robber who dreams of being a retired schoolteacher.

7 American Splendor. The life and work of Harvey Pekar — poet laureate of the depressed, unfulfilled existence — rendered, well, splendidly by the husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, and by the chameleonic actors Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis.

8 Friday Night (Vendredi Soir). Perhaps the less said is the better when it comes to Claire Denis’ intoxicating tone poem of loneliness and chance encounters. Like Sofia Coppola’s fine Lost in Translation, it’s a film that threatens to shatter under the weight of too much hype or undue expectations. Its effervescent delicacy must simply be experienced for oneself.

9 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. All good things must come to an end, but few things Hollywood has ever done have managed to do so on such a graceful, richly satisfying note as this final installment in Peter Jackson’s magnificent fantasy trilogy.

10 Ten. Where else to place Abbas Kiarostami’s ultraminimalist taxicab ride, shot exclusively from two small video cameras mounted on the dashboard of a car? As always in Kiarostami’s work, appearances here are deceiving, and so what begins as an inquiry into women’s rights in contemporary Iran evolves into a profound accounting of the enormous amount of time we devote to trying to relive and/or rewrite our pasts.

There would be no more to say, were it not for the fact that my two favorite films of 2003 — Unknown Pleasures and Platform, both by underground mainland Chinese director Jia ZhangKe — failed to open in L.A. (and, according to their respective distributors, show no signs of doing so in 2004), even though they did run in New York and elsewhere across the country. Taken together, these are the two greatest films to emerge from China in recent memory, establishing Jia as a major figure of the contemporary international cinema and its most exquisite ruminator on the yearning despair of adolescence and the empty promises of pop music. But in 2003, the year in which Jia’s work finally conquered — or, at least, arrived in — America, the pleasures of his films remained nearly as unknown in the world’s supposed movie capital (where they have had only festival showings) as on his own heavily censored home turf.

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