Before I present the second annual Dubious Honors movie awards, I’ve decided to come out of the closet. Every year at awards time I launch into long tirades about the hypocrisies of Hollywood and other film institutions, but the truth is that I’m as biased as the next person. It’s time I owned up to my own potential dealbreaker.
For me, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was a better soporific than Ambient. It’s not that I hated these films. It’s that I literally could not stay awake through a blasted one of them, no matter how many cappuccinos I swilled, and no matter how many dear friends lauded them with stars in their eyes and a certain catch in their throat. Some say that conservatives tend to enjoy fantasy while progressives prefer science-fiction, but the truth is my reaction to LOTR doesn’t consciously have to do with my political leanings. It doesn’t even have to do with the fact that, because puberty came early for this reporter, I was forced to portray Gandalf in a junior high school production of The Hobbit (though that was scarring, let me tell you). All I know is the theater darkens, the hobbits stride into view, and I begin to snore.
With that off my chest, I present My Own Two Cents. I’ve reprised some awards categories, eliminated others, and created some new ones.
Best Genre: Documentary. Some claim they should now be categorized as nonfiction films, but whatever you call them, the sheer number of strong docs released this year staggers, especially in contrast to the reality TV onslaught. Even a partial list must include Winged Migration, Spellbound, Capturing the Friedmans, To Be and To Have, My Architect, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Sister Helen, Love and Diane, The Weather Underground, and Bus 174.
Best Importer: Iran. This year’s Deep Breath, Tehran, 7:00 A.M. and Crimson Gold (which may still be in theaters as this issue hits the stand) are all wonderful examples of how Iranian cinema, unlike that in the U.S., continues to improve despite the country’s oppressive regime. Runner-up: Brazil, whose City of God, Madame Sata, and documentary Bus 174 poke at the country’s underbelly in both vivid, broad strokes and painstakingly fine detail.
Worst Assumption that Americans Will Eat Anything British with a Spoon: Love Actually. There’s a reason treacle is a British dessert. And along those lines…
Worst Casting Trend: Pond-Jumping. It seemed every English speaker under the sun swapped national accents this year except Miss Faux Brit herself, Gwynnie Paltrow (who married a Brit instead). Edgy director Lisa Cholodenko’s sophomore effort, Laurel Canyon, might have been better had Brits Kate Beckinsale and Christian Bale not droned on in mid-Atlantic American accents while Boston boy Alessandro Nivola fumbled in an indeterminate Britspeak. In Big Fish, Scot Ewan McGregor and Brit Albert Finney manfully tried on Southern accents to no avail. Aussie Nicole Kidman and Brit Jude Law depicted quintessentially American characters to a strangely chilling effect in Cold Mountain, the Civil War epic actually filmed in Romania, and Kidman did it again in The Human Stain, with Sir Anthony Hopkins taking on no less than an African American passing for a Jew. The word, apparently, isn’t hebe; it’s hubris. Who knew that Hollywood could spur me to any kind of nationalism, let alone Semitic pride, this year of all years?
Worst Importer: France. In My Skin, Irreversible, The Housekeeper, Friday Night: Bad, bad, bad. Certainly I have no beef with a country that begs to differ with our Evil Empire, but it must be said that French cinema has become mostly intolerable. With the exceptions of the year’s best animated feature, Triplets of Belleville, and the doc To Be and To Have, the country’s films has become as formulaic as American fare—and even more smug. The formula goes like this: couple is in love, trouble ensues, and the film ends. The unhappy endings may be intended to assert the films’ moral superiority to American tripe, but I say it’s just different tripe. Too often, lethargy and often-trivialized violence substitute for French cinema’s once-patented arch bemusement.
Pathology of the Year: Auto-cannibalism. In this year’s most dreadful French import, In My Skin, Marina de Van writes, directs, stars in, cuts and eats parts of her body with horrid suckling noises that comprise the film’s only sounds for minutes at a time. No lofty exposition about how women are socialized to dissociate from their bodies could compel me to sit through such a film again. To get through it, I had to, well, dissociate from my body.
Worst Woody Allen Imitator Award: Woody Allen. I’ll stop making fun of Woody Allen when he stops phoning in bad movies. As evidenced by this year’s travesty Anything Else, just because Allen shares his bed with a youngster doesn’t mean he can write dialogue for one. The word is oy.
Best Coming-of-Age Story: Raising Victor Vargas. I admired Thirteen, albeit with the same shudder that I did last year’s Lilja 4eva, but it was Raising Victor Vargas, set in New York’s very own Loisida, that I loved with both my head and my heart. The mostly amateur cast did director Peter Sollett’s first feature right, painting the usual adolescent authority struggles against a potentially grim backdrop with heat, humor, and cultural specificity rather than melodrama.
Rolling Stones Enough-Already Award: It was a bad year for what passes for auteurs these days. Jane Campion, Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, Alan Parker, the Coen Brothers, and John Sayles all stumbled badly, for example. But Gus Van Sant, who fashioned 90s boytoy flicks arty enough to legitimatize repeated, drool-laden viewings, took the cake in terms of losing his way. Presumably to earn back his artistic license after such mainstream debacles as 2000’s Finding Forrester, he helmed last year’s long-winded if strangely silent Gerry and this year’s queasy take on Columbine, Elephant. Aside from being nice to look at it, there’s strangely little to recommend about his recent self-indulgent fare.
Worst Gimmick: Nonlinear Editing. It started, as many gimmicks do, with Tarantino. But the out-of-sequence storytelling trend has spiraled out of control. Such films as 2001’s Memento, and this year’s Irreversible and Kill Bill deployed the technique as a half-hearted attempt to legitimize a lack of real plot and senseless violence. Only in 21 Grams did it serve a purpose greater than shock value.
Hottie Olympics Gold Medallists: The girls were clear-eyed, deadpan, and fulsome—Zooey Deschanel in both Elf and All the Real Girls, and Scarlett Johansson in Girl with a Pearl Earring and Lost in Translation. And a newly rugged, tumor-free Mark Ruffalo rendered this year’s otherwise unmemorable My Life Without Me and In the Cut the new movies to rent, uh, alone for girls (and boys) who visit Babes in Toyland.
Julianne Moore Award (formerly known as Ms. Indie Movie USA): Patricia Clarkson. Rivaling Moore herself in terms of indie ubiquity, Clarkson specializes in women whittled by disappointment into sharp-toothed, sharp-minded surprises. In this year alone, she has appeared in no less than three noteworthy films: The Station Agent, All the Real Girls, and the oddly affecting Pieces of April. (See Galen Williams’s article in this issue.)
Guilty Pleasure Award: Actually, my worst dirty secret may be how much I loved Elf. Since the golden age of the 70s, rare is the year that produces even one funny U.S. movie, mostly because true humor requires both intelligence and subversion, scarce commodities these days. But this year not only produced Richard Linklater’s School of Rock but the strangely unmalicious Elf, featuring the likes of veterans Bob Newhart, James Caan, and Ed Asner, not to mention the ever-endearing, always-sincere Will Ferrell. Someone should tell Ferrell he’s my new boyfriend.
Good Old Boy Award: Sean Penn. His movie direction and off-camera behavior may be uneven, but as an actor Penn has transformed into a flinty craftsman whose powerful economy transcends Method acting by stripping away any residual bombast.
2003 Movie I’m Still Dying to See: Vincent Gallo’s Brown Bunny was deemed such an abject failure on the festival circuit that it didn’t even achieve distribution. My inner rubbernecker can’t wait to view the film that wrecked not only Gallo’s career but Chloe Sevigny’s to boot.
Best of the Year: This wasn’t a year that produced one clearly breathtaking movie. Instead, a bevy of beautifully flawed films steadily churned through local cinemas, perhaps just as well in a cultural moment offering few other innocent pleasures. Most notably, the genre-inventing biopic-doc-animation American Splendor not only redeemed metamovies but Cleveland of all places, even if it occasionally groused too much about its own meaninglessness. Lovely Lost in Translation boasted an almost unbearable comedic grace, though director Sofia Coppola’s treatment of the Japanese was described fairly by one friend as “racist tripe.” And 21 Grams may have bogged under the weight of its big questions about mortality and morality, but it also boggled with some of the 2003’s finest cinematography, editing, and acting. Yes, U.S. cinema produced its usual proliferation of big-budgeted, bogus garbage. But from the proliferation of excellent documentaries to the features chipping away at the loneliness bred by our disposable culture, many films tackled American identity with more honesty than could be found in any other current public forum. Really, what marked the best of 2003 cinema, both in the U.S. and abroad, was its dogged, uncynical pursuit of meaning.