Brian Abrams's Favorite Movies of 2003

By Brian Abrams

2003 was undoubtedly a year for the little people. (Yes, Peter Dinklageís and Tony Coxís careers ascended, but Iím talking about the independents here.) A couple of the commercial studios put out some incredible fare with relatively incredible resources (Warner Bros's Mystic River, Miramaxís Cold Mountain) but for the most part the Hollywood studios dug with their claws in pay dirt and instead ended up with handfuls of dreck. Thus it was the smaller films (with the relatively smaller resources) that saved the soul of cinema.

And, unlike the eye-scorching corporate line up, the 10 films listed below don't ridicule themselves with a lifeless thoroughbred (Seabiscuit), a black Anthony Hopkins fronting a Jewish heritage (The Human Stain), or Tom Cruise impersonating Chuck Norris (The Last Samurai). The cost for all of these movies barely sails by the budget for Pirates of the Caribbean. The big studios were either lost at sea or off to see the elves, and the outsiders washed ashore with champion films: films you may have never seen or, for that matter, may have never heard of.

The 10 below are brilliant, and not even Oscar-posing Russell Crowe barking orders at 50 men dressed like Captain Crunch can take that distinction away from them.

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1. Mystic River

It's the most poignant storytelling of neighbourhood mayhem to come in years, with an ensemble that will stir arguments until Oscar-time. The most-talked-about lead performance this millennium (Sean Penn) versus the most outstanding supporting cast since 25th Hour (Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney)--which is the better treasure? It's ideal enough just to have that dispute within the same movie. In the oppressive times of Jerry Bruckheimer and Big Studio domination, a path has been waywardly cleared for the return of the real king, Clint Eastwood. Right inside the black gates of Warner Bros., he's made a film that flexes the studio muscles but with total virtue. Is it slightly predictable? Yes. Your run-of-the-mill plot-holed crime thriller? Possibly. But Eastwood's allegory of vampires and werewolves is so grim, so unforgiving that it bears a stake of helplessness and fury--driving itself clean into the center of your heart.

2. The Secret Lives of Dentists

David (Campbell Scott) watches a production of Nabucco in a dark auditorium. He's suffering from the worst kind of anxiety, the discovery of his wife's (Hope Davis) infidelity. With Verdi's octaves booming on stage, David flashes back to the good life: flirting with her in a college classroom to lab partnering in Med school, from the wedding day to homemaking during pregnancy, unfolding to the present as his three children sit beside him in the theater. It's the most captivating moment in 2003 movies. His performance here--alongside his work in last year's Roger Dodger--sustains Scott as arguably the most emotive and underscored talent in the business. He once again transforms the entire film from mid-level okay to flat out greatness. It all looks so easy for him, too. While he's all subtle on screen, the rest of us are breathless in our seats.

3. Irreversible

Director Gaspar Noe realizes the ultimate gothic nightmare for the modern man and woman (told backward--and with no script). After fleeing from a lover's quarrel that leaves her dismayed and vulnerable, Alex (Monica Bellucci) suffers a brutal rape and battery in a foreboding subway tunnel. Her boyfriend, Marcus (Vincent Cassel), perseveres stomach-flipping torment in an underground gay club (revealing the most vicious murder scene ever contrived on film) in a savage attempt to avenge Alex's violator. Audiences walked out nauseous at last year's Sundance premiere. So softies, beware, because this one's two steps away from snuff. But for those tolerant of the film's hateful and graphic violence, there's a sublime resolution that delivers nothing but bliss.

4. Bad Santa

Billy Bob Thornton accomplishes what W.C. Fields wouldn't (or couldn't) during his career. Thornton's a drunken child hater, all right, but he's also a suicidal chauvinist, a self-loathing belligerent and a safe-cracking felon. How he maintained that sour mug during shooting without breaking out in seizures of hysteria is beyond me. There hasn't been a more riotous, off-putting comedy since South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999). The kid (Brett Kelly) is charming in every pudgy step he takes; Marcus (Tony Cox) and Gin (Bernie Mac) resonate the Russell Simmons glory days, and TV's unforgettable Cloris Leachman and John Ritter aim for low ball performances that--amidst all the boozing, hollering and cursing--manage to choke you up.

5. Cold Mountain

A southern belle (Nicole Kidman) longs for her handsome soldier-boy (Jude Law) to come home from the Civil War. Of course, there's drama and adventure filled to the brim in between. It's a supreme hybrid of the macho western and girl-loses-boy love story, filled with every element of everlasting cinema. John Seale's cinematography is unchallenged for the Oscar, but the acclaim goes to Anthony Minghella. The writer/director passionately conveys that luxurious movie-watching addiction, a rush we all yearn for. And when the credits roll after 150 minutes, you still need more of the fix.

6. The Fog of War

He sits in a sterilized room and narrates his brief history of time: working for the stockholders of Ford Motors, sweating bullets with John Kennedy during the Red Scare, and advising Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam. Most frighteningly of all, McNamara explores his thankless job as a civil servant. Director Errol Morris takes the stone-cold approach to his anti-war documentary. He discloses an explicit interview with a man who, in the parlance of his times, was accused of being a monster, a warmonger, and a tyrant. Maybe he was, maybe not. Morris won't sell you on McNamara either way. He won't have to. All we see through the lens is a man both guilty and proud of his actions as he makes his pleas on a would-be deathbed.

7. House of Sand and Fog

On the surface, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) and the colonel (Ben Kingsley) fight for a house that faces the ocean, but beneath they're tearing at each other to avoid facing their own fear: failing their families' pride, whether it be parents across the states in New York or royalty across the world in Iran. Kingsley gives his best performance in years, even Connelly deserves a nod, but Shoreh Aghdashloo steals the show. As the once complacent wife to the colonel, she broods upon the conflict that eventually escalates to tragedy. You feel her every sulk.

8. Stone Reader

Mark Moskowitz turns the camera on himself and documents his search for a reclusive novelist (Dow Mossman) who wrote a triumph (Stones of Summer) 30 years ago and was never heard from again. Moskowitz journeys deep into the reader world. He earnestly picks the brains of some of the industry's finest bookworms (Leslie Fiedler, R.I.P.) while integrating his own essay on literary America's one-hit wonders. Unfortunately, when he finds the long-lost writer, he discovers a filthy boozehound instead. So what if I just spoiled the ending? You'll have just as hard a time scoring the video as he did tracking down the old bumbling drunk.

9. In the Cut

The movie's plain ugly, but it's not really a movie. It's Meg Ryan's Tropic of Cancer: one long, filthy, sweaty, turned-upside-down vacation that neither Tom Hanks nor Nora Ephron will ever receive invites to. Because America's Sweetheart could never be found in her real-time career cradling Jennifer Jason Leigh's decapitated skull in a trash bag or lying face down on a mattress for Mark Ruffalo. But in this surrealist underworld, Ryan owns up to all the dirty deeds repressed in her comatose career since Flesh and Bone (1993). And no other pair of surrealists could have induced these guilty pleasures better than Susanna Moore (based on her novel) and Jane Campion.

10. City of God

The third film from Katia Lund and Fernando Meirelles transforms the exotic Rio de Janeiro backdrop into a bona fide Americana crime saga, trailblazing the history of a Brazilian drug cartel back some 30 years. The same spark of vigorous filmmaking was spotted long ago in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. The latter's success led to a prolific career with immortalized films, a troupe of character actors made famous, and some deep, deep pockets. The writing may already be on the wall for Lund and Meirelles with their third film to date. Let's just pray they don't land in middle-aged careers with bloated period pieces and regurgitated wise guy flicks like you-know-who.