Angels in America (Mike Nichols, 2003)
The best movie of 2003 wasn’t a movie, by some standards. It was closer to a television “event”, a two-part drama directed by Mike Nichols and staring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson among many others. Adapted from Tony Kushner’s play, and Broadway event in its own right, Angels in America successfully conveyed much of the grandeur, visual and non-visual poetry, and emotional impact of the original theatrical production. In fact, it is this theatricality that gave it a seductive freedom of form and no doubt attracted the high caliber acting troupe. Something to sink one’s teeth into! In all, it was a fine package, with all the trappings of success: the high-brow patina of HBO programming, strong source material, and amazing talent. Pacino, rarely a personal favorite, stepped up for a great performance depicting Roy Cohn, and Jeffrey Wright was riveting in his reprise of the role of Belize.
Lost in Translation (Sophia Coppola, 2003)
By contrast, the critical darling of the year, Lost in Translation was refreshing in its simplicity. Though derivative at times, Sophia Coppola’s latest effort emerged with a distinct auteur sensibility firmly intact. Even if we didn’t necessarily connect with the characters on screen, we sensed the quiet life of the writer and filmmaker behind the lens. Though having never been to Tokyo, I must add that the juxtaposition of East and West seemed to slouch too often toward stereotype and convenient narrative device. I wanted more tolerance but I’m not sure why . . . except for all the convenient, stereotypical reasons.
Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, 2003), Winged Migration (Jacques Cluzaud et al., 2001/2002) (tie)
In less heady realms, animals reigned this year. Winged Migration, Finding Nemo, Whale Rider, and Seabiscuit all focused on creatures great and small in one way or another, and all contained some of my favorite filmed moments of the year. With Seabiscuit, I admit it was hard to swallow the sepia-toned documentary sleights of hand, but in the end, its grace, energy, and dignity was noteworthy.
Les Triplettes de Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)
Breaking with tradition, I’ve also decided to include Les Triplettes de Belleville, which I didn’t see until early this year. As with 2002’s Spirited Away, I’m duly impressed by the state of today’s animation. It’s hard to categorize Triplettes. A surreal cartoon? An inventive dream sequence? A musical celebration of the life of machines? All or none of the above, it was a joy to watch and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Demonlover (Olivier Assayas, 2002)
But wait. Before you start thinking I’ve gone completely sentimental, quaking at the flap flop of gull wings and pulling for life’s underdogs, my final “Top 5” entrant is far from heart-warming. A cautionary narrative of exploitation, corporate greed, and the cultural and physical mutations spun by hyper-stimulation and virtual reality, Demonlover refuses to be forgotten easily. Having seen Assayas’s earlier meditation on violence and the collision of East and West, Irma Vep, I tend to place Demonlover on the other side of the looking glass he hints at at that film’s end.
Assayas is channeling much of contemporary culture here — mixing Lynch-inspired horror and Godardian anarchy with his own fetishistic take on adult manga animation and S&M tropes. The effect is difficult to bear and immediately begs the oft-asked question: how best to critique sexual exploitation and violence? And in depicting such violations without a corresponding moral indignation is the artist that much guiltier of committing the very crimes he seeks to condemn? Many have dismissed Demonlover on these grounds, claiming it to be nothing more than sensationalist trash, an irresponsible exercise in self-indulgence. For my part, I didn’t sense any joy in these images, no pleasure. A claim I can’t make so readily for a movie such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which covers some similar ground and could be thought of as a kindred spirit on the surface. My recommendation for Demonlover is qualified though. Prepare to be sickened, confused, and insulted. Imagine for a moment that film can still assault one’s senses and challenge one’s sensibilities rather than fulfill fantasies in spite of itself.