The big, the bad and the just-plain plotless

Looking back over last year’s reviews, I see that I watched about 160 movies in 2003 — that is, not counting special titles for the Asheville Film Festival, the Cinema in the Park series, and library screenings. Now, that’s a lot of time sitting in the dark by anyone’s standards.

As usual, I spent the first few months of 2003 thinking that the movies coming out were so bad, it wasn’t going to be possible at year’s end to come up with a list of the 10 best.

However, also as usual, I ended up with more top contenders than could actually be accommodated. The latter part of 2003 more than made up for the rubbish foisted upon us during last year’s first few months.

All told, I came up with 47 films of more than passing interest. If you add that to the moderately enjoyable movies and the ones that were “good for what they were,” you get 72 out of 160 that were at least entertaining, if not exceptional.

By comparison, I only came up with 32 films that serve as a concrete testament to the decline of civilization. (The remaining 56 titles come under the heading “harmless, but not good.”)

With that in mind, 2003 looks like a pretty darn good year for movies.

And indeed it was.

A kingly lot: the 10 best

1) Big Fish. After the debacle of Planet of the Apes in 2001, Tim Burton does more than just return to form with this enchanting, brilliantly made film — he’s actually made one of the best movies of his already impressive career. With an outstanding cast (stars Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney on down through supporting players Robert Guillame and Helena Bonham Carter), Big Fish is, for my money, far and away the film of 2003. You’ll want to see it more than once to catch all its cleverness and subtlety. Myself, I’ve seen it three times … so far.

2) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The final chapter in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is every bit as good as you’ve heard. It’s the perfect marriage of state-of-the-art special effects and old-fashioned filmmaking skill — and it wields almost unbelievable emotional power. See it once for the sheer grandeur of Jackson’s vision. See it again for the brilliance of the film’s humanity. Then see it a third time to appreciate how these two very different aspects intersect.

3) Dirty Pretty Things. Combining rich character study, a socially conscious narrative about illegal immigrants in London, and a strongly developed thriller plot, director Stephen Frears’ best film since Sammy and Rosie Get Laid is also among the finest movies of last year. Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves — but probably won’t get — an Oscar for his performance as a Nigerian doctor working illegally as a cab driver and a night clerk at a dubious hotel. This one ought to be out on video soon, and it’s a must-see!

4) Peter Pan. P.J. Hogan’s film version of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is one of the most singularly gorgeous films I’ve seen in years. It’s also the first attempt at Barrie’s story that dares to touch on the subtexts in this classic children’s tale. But don’t let that keep you from taking the kids; the undercurrents are such that they won’t trouble a child. There’s also more honest — and deeply felt — magic here than in any movie currently out there. Jeremy Sumpter is the perfect Peter Pan, and he’s matched every step of the way by Jason Isaacs’ Captain Hook. Plus, there are delightful performances by Rachel Hurd-Wood, Lynn Redgrave and, best of all, Richard Briers.

5) Love Actually. Richard Curtis made the move from writer (Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary) to writer/director with this amazing ensemble film. As both romantic comedy and human drama, Love Actually is a brilliant debut, and it captures some of the best performances imaginable from a large and impressive cast that includes Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Bill Nighy and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

6) Swimming Pool. This stylish and clever thriller from French director Francois Ozon (8 Women) boasts an Oscar-worthy central performance from the underrated — and often underused — Charlotte Rampling. Swimming Pool, Ozon’s first movie in English (well, mostly in English), ought to garner him a larger following than his foreign-language films. If its classically developed mystery plot — genre fans should think Seven Keys to Baldpate — slightly baffles you on a single viewing, then look a second time. All the clues for what will happen are in the film’s opening scenes.

7) Cold Mountain. Anthony Minghella has taken a novel that I, for one, found indigestible and crafted from it a large-scale, beautifully filmed, emotionally involving epic. Though Cold Mountain was mostly shot in Romania, the feel of North Carolina is perfectly captured. Though there’s scarcely a false step in the entire film, the real delight is Renee Zellweger’s supporting performance as Ruby.

8) Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Director Gore Verbinski proves here that The Ring was no mere fluke. It’s rare to find a movie that’s just this much pure fun — and even rarer when the film is this long! And while Johnny Depp playing Capt. Jack Sparrow as a sort of fey Keith Richards would make Pirates worth seeing all on its own, his performance is housed in a fine blend of moviemaking and special effects.

9) 28 Days Later … . Though there were a lot of bad horror movies last year, this film from Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) is a corker. Unrelentingly grim and violent, it’s not really a zombie flick (the term “turbo zombies” for Boyle’s hyper-kinetic horrors was apparently just too appealing to forego) even if it owes much to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead series (not to mention to The Day of the Triffids). Ultimately, 28 Days is a horrific examination of humankind at its worst under the worst possible circumstances. This is a horror film and something more — and it’s utterly chilling.

10) Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Robert Rodriguez’s final entry in his El Mariachi series is the best one yet. Mexico plays like a bizarre fever dream, throwing at audiences more cinematic creativity than seems humanly possible. The film’s not deep, and it has no great point to make. But as sheer brilliant moviemaking — and as a showcase for Antonio Banderas and Johnny Depp — it would be hard to beat.

Bad and bad-er-er: the 10 worst

1) Bad Boys II. There are bad movies, and then there are cosmically awful ones that are also morally loathsome. Bad Boys II, with its cavalier attitude toward human life, its mean-spirited macho posturing and its mindless violence, is possibly the most repellent piece of garbage it’s ever been my displeasure to sit through. Director Michael Bay — and his trained rats that copulate on command — ought to be ashamed. And to think that Bay already had enough to be ashamed of!

2) Gods and Generals. At the risk of incurring further wrath from Civil War hobbyists, I have to award second place for worst movie of the year to this butt-numbing, 229-minute exercise in tedium, sloppy direction, and bad wigs and beards. I very often am not in agreement with Roger Ebert, but I think he may have been onto something when he said this was the type of movie for people who aren’t interested in movies, but rather in a specific subject (i.e., the War Between the States). Honestly, though, there’s more satisfaction to be had in the single opening battle of Cold Mountain than in the entirety of this slow-moving mess.

3) Gigli. This thing is as bad as its reputation suggests: Gigli is exactly the sort of film that kills careers. The only thing keeping it from topping this list is that it’s not as nasty as Bad Boys II, and it’s shorter than Gods and Generals.

4) The Real Cancun. Not only is this film just plain bad, it’s also pretty shy in the morals department. But if your idea of a good time is watching a bunch of non-actors drink to excess and indulge in boring mating rituals, this one’s for you. Happily, Cancun proved that what people will watch for free on MTV, they won’t pay good money to see in a theater — even when bare breasts have been added.

5) From Justin to Kelly. You know it was a year of stinkers when this underwritten mess only clocks in at No. 5. The idea of crafting a movie around the stars of TV’s American Idol must have appealed to somebody, but the jury’s still out on who. Kelly Clarkson isn’t horrible, but as for Justin Guarini — looking, as I said at the time, like the love child of Richard Simmons and Leo Sayer — well, he is. And so, too, is this almost-plotless fiasco of bad acting and worse musical numbers.

6) Wrong Turn. At the top of the list of bad horror movies for 2003 is this thing. And while it’s no easy feat to achieve the accolade of Worst Inbred Hillbilly Horror Movie of All Time, Wrong Turn manages that dubious honor quite nicely.

7) House of the Dead. Sweet Merciful King of Glory! If Wrong Turn managed to be the Worst Inbred Hillbilly Horror Movie of All Time, then House of the Dead pulled off the equally improbable task of being the Worst Movie Ever Adapted From a Video Game. I’m a seasoned horror fan who can sit through just about anything in the genre, and yet I fell asleep three times during the course of this — and at a matinee, no less.

8) The Jungle Book 2. Corporate greed is the only reason this lamer-than-lame Disney cartoon didn’t go straight to video. The original 1967 film was certainly no classic, but it sure looks like one next to this. The only lucky party here is Rudyard Kipling (on whose book the original was based), because his name got left off the credits. Even in death, Kipling has a savvier agent than those whose names did get listed in association with this dud.

9) In the Cut. The much-discussed — but little seen — movie in which Meg Ryan takes her shirt off is one murky, muddled, botched thriller. Viewing part of it a second time, I marveled at how unintentionally funny it was: You can easily imagine the bad guy saying, “Welcome to my secret lair!” as he stands there in a famous lighthouse (complete with wet bar, sound system and mummified human hand) in the heart of New York City. Alas, the film’s not funny enough to be enjoyably bad. And that’s a pity, since In the Cut is the boldest movie of 2003 in terms of sexual frankness. Yet that alone couldn’t save it.

10) Cheaper by the Dozen. A witless, unfunny and sloppily made sitcom for the big screen that gives us Steve Martin at his worst. Look, when the funniest thing in the movie is Ashton Kutcher … well, need I say more?

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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