Best Films of 2003

Living in Knoxville, Tennessee, with its two or three screens devoted to interesting fare, leaves me grossly ill-equipped to make sweeping generalizations about the year in film. The following, instead, is an odd mix of movies (or, more often, groups of movies) that I will probably forever associate with 2003. With only one or two exceptions, I saw each of these for the first time this year.

1. Tarkovsky Retrospective — Seeing Mirror (1975), my all-time favorite film, with a large and enthusiastic audience at the National Gallery in May was, without question, the highlight of my film-watching year. I can’t imagine that anything in 2004 will top it.

2. Angels in America (Nichols, 2003) — Last year I predicted that Angels would be the best film I would see in 2003, and it came awfully close. By paring Tony Kushner’s plays down to a more purely human drama, Nichols accomplished what several other talented directors, including Altman, thought impossible: he actually filmed the damn things, and, small quibbles aside, he made a fine film in the process.

3. Hal Ashby — I have watched and rewatched and rewatched Hal Ashby’s films this year. He is, to me, the personification of the Hollywood Film Renaissance of the 1970s — its vitality and decadence, its fearlessness and political rage, and, most of all, its profoundly intimate voice. I so wish that Ashby had lived to see the rebirth of American independent cinema in the early-90s. Imagine what he might have done had he been given an opportunity to make a comeback like Altman’s.

4. John Cassavetes — Before 2003 I had never seen a Cassavetes film. In a way, I think that 30 was just about the right age for the experience. His films are painful to watch — they break your heart while making you self-conscious about the very act of spectatorship. Maybe by the time I’m 40 I’ll finally be able to write about Cassavetes.

5. Russian Ark (Sokurov, 2001) — My favorite film image of 2003 was that expression on Sergei Dreiden’s face at the end of the ballroom sequence. So much nostalghia and regret and tragedy in a single look.

6. Lost in Translation (Coppola, 2003) and The Station Agent (McCarthy, 2003) — Two American films that show a genuine fondness for their characters. And sometimes that’s enough.

7. After Life (Kore-eda, 1998) — About 70 minutes into After Life, we see an old woman sitting on a bench in the middle of a large sound stage. She’s smiling, as crew members drop autumn leaves around her. It got me. I cried. The whole film got me, actually.

8. Close-Up (Kiarostami, 1990) and Calendar (Egoyan, 1993) — Two brilliant films that investigate the power of images to shape memory and understanding. What I love about them, though, is that they’re self-reflexive and intelligent without being caked in irony and cynicism.

9. Documentaries — Along with some fine new releases, including Capturing the Friedmans (Jarecki, 2003) and Spellbound (Blitz, 2003), I was stunned by my first encounters with Mark Rappaport. From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1996) is the only film that I watched three nights in a row.

10. Six Feet Under and The Office — Yeah, I know they’re TV shows, but they’re also better than 99% of the films that came to Knoxville. The first seasons of both series were released in fine DVD collections this year, and I’m grateful for it.