Phil Dellio's Top Ten Movies of 2003 (Plus All the Rest)

By Phil Dellio

1. Spellbound (9.0)

Spellbound's Harry

For me, the one unassailably great film of the past two years. The biggest obstacle in advocating for it (something I've been doing all year) is that anyone who hasn't seen it probably assumes it's good, but good in the most earnest, studied kind of way--good for you. To be honest, that's how I felt about Hoop Dreams. I dutifully sat through it when it came out, aware that I was seeing something important and ambitious and observant, and I have never once felt the urge to revisit it. Spellbound I've seen four times, most recently with my grade 6 class, and the initial thrill hasn't waned a bit. For a film about something as staid as a spelling bee, where requests for a word origin count as major plot twists, it's as sly and disarming as can be--even, thanks to iconic wingnut Harry Altman, anarchic at times.

It's also the first film I can think of since Nashville to throw an American flag up there in huge close-up (done twice) and make it count--audacious, imposing, an austere blank, it registers in all kinds of contradictory ways. That's one of the things I most love about Spellbound: either of the two political parties could lay claim to it in order to beat the other one over the head, and they'd both be right. (Or, if you'd rather, they'd both be wrong.) Arguing from the left, you might see vindication for the public school system, which, for all of its shortcomings, still manages to produce its share of minor miracles like the eight kids under scrutiny here. (Or at least they appear to be publically educated--there's no direct mention of it either way, and although Neil and Emily might possibly attend private schools, with the other six of more modest means, anything but the public system seems out of the question.) From the right, you'd zero in on the musings of Neil's father, an Indian immigrant who comes across like a Republican shill for the superfluousness of affirmative action: "If there's one thing I've learned about this country, it's that it's impossible to fail if you work hard." Those are words that should feel empty and false, but they don't. As he stands there inside the palatial Orange County home that he and his brother built from scratch, it's hard to argue with him.

Class and race are integral to Spellbound (self-consciously so: the kids seem as carefully handpicked as a test-marketed sitcom), but if that's all there were, there'd be a ceiling on how much I could like it. The eight participants are so indelible and alive above and beyond all that, though, you'll probably find yourself doing as I did, projecting where their personalities and quirks will take each one of them down the road. (In that respect, Spellbound's very much like an American 21 Up.) Nupur, Angela, and Emily are funny and well-adjusted and will never have a neurotic thought in their lives, while April and Ted will have nothing but. Ashley's cheery disposition and strong sense of self will take her far away from her neighbourhood, unless they're not enough and they don't. Neil's head will explode one day, at which point he'll pick up the pieces and start over. And Harry, he's a force of nature--he's Joseph Wiseman in Detective Story, he's Michael Richards in "Seinfeld," he's Mark Fidrych stalking around the mound and lecturing the baseball in 1976. There are always two or three Harrys bouncing off the walls in my own school at any given time, and you're always reminding them of one thing: that just because you have a thought, you're not obligated to speak it aloud. I haven't a clue what will become of Harry, but the strategic placement of the last shot we get of him is Spellbound's most sublime joke. (I love how Georgie, a ninth character, is suddenly introduced three-quarters of the way through as some phantom Godzilla waiting in the wings.)

When Bowling for Columbine won the Academy Award for best documentary last year, I didn't think it was a bad choice. I even wanted it to win, notwithstanding its preciousness and other obvious faults--I wanted to, you know, see what kind of a spectacle Michael Moore would make of himself. I hadn't seen Spellbound at the time, wasn't even aware of any of the other four nominees. It absolutely floors me in hindsight that anyone who'd seen both films could choose Columbine as the best documentary of the year. For an institution with no shortage of monumentally stupid gaffes, that has to rank near the top.

2. Lost in Translation (8.0)

I may have done a more pronounced about-face on this than anything since King of Comedy--if not a full 180, than at least a 165. First time, I was very disappointed--enough that I did not expect to see it again. If it felt like a much less clumsy letdown than Magnolia or The Royal Tennenbaums, that was because there was nothing to it at all, and the fact that Murray and Johansson never sleep together seemed falsely high-minded. (My friend Peter refers to films like American Beauty, Trees Lounge, and Ghost World as "OMF"s, Old Man's Fantasies. As I've explained to him, he says that as if it's a bad thing.) But I took another look for lack of anything else to do one night, and I was I glad I did. Murray doesn't go quite as deep as the look on his face when he meets Max's father in Rushmore, but he's pretty great anyway, especially alluding to Joey Bishop in his second commercial shoot. I've seen reviewers single out his karaoke "More Than This" as definitively world-weary; I thought he was even more evocative doing "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love & Understanding." (Or maybe it's just a better song.) First time, I experienced a disconnect between how funny Johannson found Murray, and my own sense that Murray's lines weren't nearly as sharp as they usually are; looking at the film again, I realized that it would be contrived if their byplay weren't a half-step off, that the important thing is that he's trying hard and she's ready to laugh at whatever he says. Not surprisingly, there have been lots of complaints about Coppola getting laughs out of Japanese people speaking fractured English, but that didn't much bother me (it was a little bothersome, and probably could have been cut back by about a third). There's no meanness, and to me it's more a case of genuinely bemused curiosity than actual condescension--I found the saintly black character in Far From Heaven much more backwards than anything here. Overall, then, I think Lost in Translation achieves a kind of greatness, the easier kind that has more to do with what you leave out than what you put in. (I like David Denby's assessment: "It takes a great deal of courage for a young director to make a movie without action; it takes even greater courage to allow something momentous to happen.") Sometimes leaving-out is the way to go: having Murray whisper the film's final line off-mike is the perfect ending. You more or less know exactly what he says anyway.

3. Etre et Avoir (7.0)

I didn't think this was a great film, but anyone who teaches elementary school will be absorbed by it the whole way. It's most effective getting at the ordinary everydayness of the job (maybe a given if you keep the camera in any grade-school classroom long enough), and the kids are an interesting mix. In the young guy who gets kept in at recess to finish his work, the film even has a milder version of Harry Altman. What bothered me, though, was the way the director practically hangs a halo on Georges Lopez, the teacher. He's shown to be a man of infinite patience and grace, never handling any situation with anything less than textbook decorum, never letting slip an ill-chosen word. Big surprise: it ain't like that. They left out all the parts where you snap invective at some kid much more sharply than you really should; the times when you're up there making it up off the top of your head, meanwhile stepping outside yourself and hearing how preposterous you sound while doing so; or where three unrelated problems jump up out of nowhere and create chaos in eight seconds flat, and instead of patiently trying to sort out what's what, you take a deep breath and let loose--"SIT DOWN!" I was also aware throughout of some of the everydayness that was absent: curriculum, the ludicrous whims of educational reform, the scrounging around for resources that never ends. It's there in a way: on the last day of school (and therefore the last day of Lopez's career), you can catch Lopez give a little shrug of resignation just after everyone files out, and that rings very, very true.

4. Capturing the Friedmans (6.5)

If only for the way it triggers such a visceral reaction, a success--you will instinctively find yourself siding with either the mother or the rest of the Friedmans. Finding the father and his henchmen sons truly maddening--"Yes, it's true, I've been secretly going around town setting fires for years; it wasn't me who was burning leaves out in the yard last night, though, and it's an outrage that you'd even think it was me"--I was with the mother all the way, which, to my surprise, ran counter to the three or four friends I compared notes with.

5. The Station Agent (6.0)

For the first half, a credible minor-key mood piece in the spirit of Kings of the Road or Stroszek. I can't remember specifics, but it kind of lost its way after that.

6. Elephant (6.0)

I'm not sure what the best way would be to tell a story about the Columbine killings, but a couple of the worst are obvious--Natural Born Killers shock therapy at one end of the spectrum, weepy movie-of-the-week social work at the other--and Gus Van Sant is smart enough to avoid both. (An avoidance underscored by the awkwardness of his one egregious lapse in that direction, the scene where the killers sit around the house watching Nazi footage.) So instead of plunging into the moment, there's a tricky house-of-mirrors structure, lots of dreamy tracking shots, and teenage small-talk, guileless and pure. When the killings start to happen, you feel the wrong kind of numb--numb not in the sense of feeling overwhelmed, but the numbness of "Oh." One great moment: the split-second when that tricked-up narrative has you realize for the first time that a girl walking down the hall to her library job will soon be in the worst possible place at the worst possible moment. I wasn't the biggest fan of Drugstore Cowboy or My Own Private Idaho, but I remember how they had some road-movie spontaneity about them. Elephant is afflicted with the Two-Todds Virus that's been creeping into American movies.

7. Shattered Glass (6.0)

I didn't know a whole lot about the Stephen Glass case going into this, but enough that I was anticipating a lot of hokum about the sanctity of "real journalism" and whatnot. Happily, there's not too much of that until the very end. Glass reminded me of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman, a pathological there-without-a-there. Steve Zahn is very good as his nemesis.

8. The Fog of War (6.0)

I wish I liked this more; there just wasn't any of it that surprised me or turned me around, although every last snippet of Lyndon Johnson totally commands your attention.

9. XX/XY (6.0)

Umm...I remember thinking it was better than I expected, and that it sometimes seemed smart about Mark Ruffalo's arrested adolescence.

10. School of Rock (6.0)

Teachers: we've replaced amoral but sharply dressed gangsters as the new glamour profession of contemporary cinema. It'd be silly to start nitpicking about this like I do with Etre et Avoir, right? Right. Jack Black does pretty well, but the kids couldn't be blander. (Take their equivalent from Spellbound or Etre et Avoir and drop them in here, and then you'd really have something.) I think they're supposed to be bland, though--Richard Linklater is making some kind of generational comment. The Ramones' "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" chimes regally for almost its entirety, and there's some other good music scattered throughout.

NOT BAD: All the Real Girls (5.5), Spider (5.5), The Weather Underground (5.5), Mighty Wind (5.5), Tupac: Resurrection (5.5)

BAD: Kill Bill Vol. 1 (4.5), 21 Grams (4.0)

JET LAG: Winged Migration (5.5)

OMFs: Blue Car (5.0), Swimming Pool (4.5)

RABID: 28 Days Later (5.5)

THE DESERT INN HAS HEART: The Cooler (5.5), Owning Mahoney (5.0)

GENRE: Matchstick Men (5.5), Confidence (5.5), Hollywood Homicide (5.0), The Good Thief (4.5), Identity (3.5)

WHITE ELEPHANTS: Hulk (5.0), Seabiscuit (5.0), The Matrix Reloaded (4.5), T3: Rise of the Machines (4.5), Big Fish (4.0)

PUNISHMENT PARK: Father and Son (3.5)

CRACK: Party Monster (3.0)

See Phil Dellio's 2002 Movie Roundup.