Connections to other people begin at our birth and last a lifetime. We are born or adopted into a family. Our links to family members cast far-reaching influences on our lives. We know other members of our larger family or learn about ancestors who have died. Later, we may form a family of our own through marriage and children and discover that connecting to a child requires a strong, secure commitment, while maintaining a marriage over the long haul requires good humor and forgiveness.
We may find a relationship with one other person meets our need for family, or we may embrace a family-like relationship with friends that lasts years and provides our primary support network. We form allegiances that include the people we work with, those who share our vocation, avocation or belief. We seek relationships among our peers, with our community. Other tribal-like connections may include national or geographic identifications.
One of the deepest personal liaisons we make is to the relatedness we create with a lover. Being in love is an experience that may become long-lasting, mature love or may be only a brief interlude. But the bond between two people in love reverberates at many levels of relationship. And the yearning between two people who do not become lovers resonates uniquely in their hearts.
In the 12 films I’ve selected as the best of 2003, the characters’ dilemmas arise when duty to family, kin, tribe or lover conflicts with other strongly held obligations or desires. Most of the profound, central issues individuals grapple with come out of such conflicts. The New York Times film critics call the present a golden age of acting, and the strong performances in the dozen films here bolsters that idea. Actors who excel in their roles find their characters in a particular situation where personal allegiances are tested by another equally persuasive relationship. In the best screenplays, this conflict leads to the characters’ emotional transformations and/or an expression of universal significance.
1. ANGELS IN AMERICA: 2003 Golden Globes: Best Miniseries (HBO). Best Actress, Meryl Streep. Best Actor, Al Pacino. Best Supporting Actress, Mary-Louise Parker. Best Supporing Actor, Jeffrey Wright.
Set in the mid-1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was raging in the U.S. and before wide-scale use of protease inhibitors and AZT, Tony Kushner’s 1993 play involves 14 characters played by eight superlative actors.
A long-term gay relationship buckles under the burden of AIDS, and the healthy partner leaves, breaking his chosen community’s unwritten code. A notorious historical character, dying of AIDS, denies his gay identity with his last breath. A married Mormon man takes a male lover, breaking the ties to his wife, his religion and his family. A lonely woman finds solace in drug-induced hallucinations in a desperate attempt to make sense of her failed marriage. A practical older woman finds herself accepted by unlikely but welcome companions. A demanding angel visits an ill man, calls him a prophet and bears the news that God seems to have disappeared. Celestial visitors and supernatural spectacle challenge the film’s otherwise naturalistic treatment of characters and story but add grace, terror, humor and holiness to a subject bound up with loss and grief.
Kudos to the genii behind this outstanding work of art, director Mike Nichols, writer Tony Kushner and actors so good they break your heart. Al Pacino is the notorious, unrepentant Roy Cohn. Meryl Streep is a chipper Ethel Rosenberg, complete with gallows humor. The excellent Jeffrey Wright is Belize, nurse and humanizer. Justin Kirk is Prior Walter, a courageous man, who loves life and wants to live it as fully as possible. Mary-Louise Parker is Harper Pitt, a plucky young woman who will find herself. Ben Shenkman is Louis, whose guilt overwhelms him until he takes a stand against his lover. Patrick Wilson is Joe Pitt, the most conflicted and culpable among them. And fiery, verbose, demanding Emma Thompson is the unforgettable Angel. Bless them all.
2. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING: 2003 Acadmy Award Nominations: Best Picture; Director, Peter Jackson; Adapted Screenplay, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson; Art Direction; Sound Mixing; Original Score, James Horner; Original Song; Costumes; Film Editing; Makeup; Visual Effects.
The genius of Peter Jackson’s three-film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythic tale of good and evil reveals itself in this perfectly imagined finale. Here the last battles take place between monstrous, killer armies amassed in the name of the dark Lord Sauron and the combined forces of the peoples of Middle-Earth — men, dwarves, elves and hobbits — who overcome their differences to stand united with the wizard Gandalf and win the day. The exquisite beauty of the lands to be saved complements the epic scope of the story.
Dwarves and elves, ancient enemies, find common cause fighting an enemy that would destroy them both. Among men, the difficulty lies in acknowledging the power of one leader, for generations of distrust have bred indifference and hostility. But if the nations of men stand beside Aragorn, the king who returns, they will at least die fighting for their shared values.
For most of the hobbits, leaving the Shire and comforts of home are the big obstacles, but once on the road, these small folk are game for what adventures come their way. However, Frodo, who bears the ring Sauron seeks to complete his hold on power, and Frodo’s companion, Samwise Gangee, face fear, exhaustion and hopelessness as their journey draws to an end. The sacrifice they make to complete their mission and fling the ring of power to the fires of Mount. Doom is great, and the role played by Gollum in Frodo’s fate remains mysterious to the end.
The bond between Frodo and Sam weathers the ordeals they encounter because it was shaped in their bucolic childhood and youth in the Shire. Likewise, the disparate tribes of men eventually recognize Aragorn’s leadership because of their shared history as kinsmen. Aragorn reconciles his inner conflicts about becoming king through vital emotional ties to his lover, Arwen, who gives up immortality to remain with him. Gandalf satisfies his allegiance to the commonwealth of all and leaves the stage of earthly endeavors.
3. LOST IN TRANSLATION: 2003 Academy Award Nominations: Best Picture; Director, Sofia Coppola; Actor, Bill Murray; Original Screenplay, Sofia Coppola.
Sofia Coppola’s personal film set in a Tokyo high-rise hotel is a love story that defies film convention by being about friendship, not sex.
Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray) fill the many deliriously fine scenes sprinkled throughout the film with spontaneous delight and deadpan humor. Coppola’s respect for Murray’s gifts as an actor makes the film his best as well as her best. Likewise, Coppola invests Johannson’s awesome abilities in a thoughtful portrayal of a neglected young wife in a large, foreign city.
Charlotte’s photographer husband, John (Giavanni Ribisi), leaves her alone in the hotel while he goes on lengthy shoots out of town. She has too much time to think about their marriage. Bob is a washed-up American film star in Japan for a week, making lucrative television spots promoting Suntory whiskey. Bob’s stardom and his marriage have both worn thin, and he doesn’t know how to jump-start either. Bob can’t sleep, and neither can Charlotte, which is how they meet in the hotel bar in the wee hours of the morning. Over the next few nights and days, each finds the other a worthy companion on impromptu explorations of Japanese nightlife. Their relationship deepens.
My favorite scene takes place late in the week at a restaurant where the customers cook their meal at the table. Charlotte and Bob are out of sorts with each other. Charlotte is jealous, because she saw Bob with an unworthy companion. Bob is sad, because he hurt Charlotte. If Bob and Charlotte were lovers, this would be their first spat. But they are not lovers, and they cannot speak to each other of these feelings. They must simply endure. In this subtle piece of work, they sit through awkward moments in silence, while each understands that their mutual bond is more profound than either had been willing to admit.
The film also has its over-the-top scenes, such as Bob’s guest appearance on Matthew Minami’s television show, and the scenes where Bob and Charlotte sing karaoke and allow us to see into their hearts. But the film works because the characters’ yearning is carried by facial expression and tenderness, which allows it to resonate with the viewer long after the images have faded.
4. COLD MOUNTAIN: 2003 Academy Award nominations: Best Actor, Jude Law; Supporting Actress, Renee Zellweger; Cinematography; Original Score, Gabriel Yared; 2 Original Songs; Film Editing.
Anthony Minghella’s excellent adaptation of Charles Frazier’s Civil War epic follows the separate lives of would-be lovers over the course of the war’s bloody four years, as each clings steadfastly to the brief, bright memory of the other that dims with time. Unlike the yearning between the not-lovers in Lost in Translation, Inman (Jude Law) and Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) see each other very little before the sword of war severs their bond.
Their separation creates a situation no contemporary film could support: Ada and Inman must survive during desperate times without the touch, support or encouragement of the other. They must hold on to their love even after it has become no more real than the ghosts of the thousands lost to the war at home and on the battlefield. The last letter from Ada that reaches Inman says — If you are marching, stop marching. If you are fighting, stop fighting. Come to me. — and when wounded Inman hears those words, he forsakes his military duty to walk back to Cold Mountain so that Ada might survive. But it’s a very long, dangerous walk.
Ada is a Southern woman who does not believe in slavery, who feels the Southern cause is wrong. Inman goes to fight out of loyalty to the South, but he comes to the same conclusion as the war sears its futility and inhumanity into his brain, bone, blood and soul.
This is a dazzling film experience, and much of its pleasure comes from the actors: Kidman, Law and Renee Zellwegger carry the principal roles with accomplished performances. Stellar among the smaller roles are: Natalie Portman, as a needy, young war widow; Philip Seymour Hoffman as an opportunistic preacher; Brendan Gleeson as an itinerant musician; Kathy Baker as Ada and Ruby’s neighbor and friend; Eileen Atkins, the goat lady, who saves Inman’s life; Giovanni Ribisi as a drunk, who betrays him; and Ray Winstone as the corrupt Teague, who wages war on the homefront.
5. IN AMERICA: 2003 Academy Award nominations: Best Actress, Samantha Morton; Supporting Actor, Djimon Hounsou; Original Screenplay, Jim Seridan, Naomi Sheridan, Kirsten Sheridan.
Jim Sheridan’s immigrant drama follows an Irish family making a new home in New York, and almost the entire film is anchored in the complicated relationships between father, mother and children. The parents, Sarah (Samantha Morton) and Johnny (Paddy Considine), have two young daughters, 11-year-old Christy (Sarah Bolger) and 7-year-old Ariel (Emma Bolger). But back in Ireland, they lost a child, Frankie, and the whole family grieves for the dead boy, especially Johnny, who seems to have lost his feeling for life.
Tender love and raucous good times show the parents’ concerns for the girls, but the facts are that Christy and Ariel are self-reliant to an extent that overprotected American children would envy. They live in a tenement in a bad part of the city, yet neither parent seems overtly worried about them. And the girls are very responsible, a possible source of envy for American parents.
When Halloween comes and the girls are eager to trick or treat, Sarah and Johnny allow them to knock on all the doors in their building. But only one neighbor comes to his door, which contains a bold KEEP AWAY painted on it. Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), sick and estranged from his family, discovers how lonely he has been only when the girls accept him as he is and show him affection. Sarah and the girls welcome Mateo into their fellowship, but Johnny, his feelings locked away, holds back longer.
A deeply humanist film experience, In America features incredible performances from all, especially Hounsou and the Bolger girls, who are actual sisters. But Sarah (Morton) is the heart of the family, and Morton’s performance is profound and real.
6. MYSTIC RIVER: 2003 Academy Award nominations: Best Picture; Director, Clint Eastwood; Actor, Sean Penn; Supporting Actor, Tim Robbins; Supporting Acress, Marcia Gay Harden; Adapted Screenplay, Brian Helgeland.
Clint Eastwood’s memorable film is so grounded in ties to community, church, kin, family and childhood friends that its many layers of conflict are difficult for viewers to sort out, because their roots are planted deeply in these sometimes unconscious connections.
Three boys grew up together in this rough part of blue-collar Boston: Jimmy Markham (Sean Penn), Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) and Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon). Jimmy and Dave have stayed in the old neighborhood, but Sean, a detective, lives elsewhere. The murder of Jimmy’s grown daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), brings the three men together again and calls up the terrible secret that binds them together — Dave’s kidnapping and molestation when they were kids. But the investigation into Katie’s death also brings in Sean’s partner, Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne), the outsider who sees things Sean can’t or won’t.
The men’s bonds extend to their wives, since Jimmy and Dave married cousins: Celeste Boyle (Marcia Gay Harden) and Annabeth Markum (Laura Linney). But there’s a world of difference between the two women. Annabeth is loyal to the core to her husband, her children, her church, her community. Celeste is troubled. She and Dave and their boy live in more fragile circumstances. Dave takes long walks, doesn’t express his emotions, won’t let Celeste in on what he’s feeling. Celeste’s hold on reality is shattered after Katie is killed, and she begins to suspect her husband of the murder.
Like a Greek tragedy, all the connecting lines are drawn, the drama that was set in motion 20 or more years earlier plays out, and the characters bound together by fate face demands more terrible than anyone can meet.
7. THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS
Alan Rudolph directs one of the year’s finest domestic comedies about two dentists, Dave Hurst (Campbell Scott) and his wife, Dana (Hope Davis), who share their practice. Parents of three little girls, Dave and Dana, like the parents in Mystic River and In America, are devoted to the their children. But they may have reached the point in their marriage where things left untended are breaking down. We never learn if the problem is a sexual one, but we can infer from Dave and Dana’s behavior that intimacy of some kind is lacking in the relationship.
I love the children in this film, because they know something is off-kilter between the parents, as real children always do. The toddler, especially, responds to the emotional balance in the household like a Richter scale that measures marital felicity. When tension between Dave and Dana increases, she becomes correspondingly needier and rejecting of Dana. By the time the whole family is leveled by a five-day bout of flu, this small one will not permit Dave to put her down. He wears her around his neck for days. She is the only person in the family getting what all the others need — security and comfort — and she isn’t about to give it up.
Dave’s conflict centers on a real or imagined affair he thinks Dana is having. His domestic distress triggers the hallucinatory presence of Slater (Dennis Leary), a former patient who has issues with Dave’s dental work. Slater verbalizes all the nasty things Dave thinks but doesn’t say. At least, up to a point. Performances by Scott and Davis are faultless and pitch-perfect. When Leary invokes the presence of Scott’s alter ego (or is it alter id?) right at the dinner table, the prescient tiny toddler picks up on him as well.
8. AMERICAN SPLENDOR: 2003 Academy Award nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Robert Pulcini, Shari Springer Berman.
Looking at this film a second time, I saw the artistry the writer, director team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini brought to bear on their story of Harvey Pekar, author of autobiographical comics titled American Splendor. I recognize the film’s post-modern artistic concerns. Berman and Pulcini understand Pekar’s humanity that’s hidden behind the depressed everyman persona he shows the world. They find his poetic side the same way Pekar expresses it in his work, by turning to a comic-book style. Some scenes have a comic-strip look, while the rest of the film looks relatively realistic.
But it’s the relationship between Pekar and Joyce, his wife, that I love. I’m talking about the roles played by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis as well as the real couple, who are included in the film. The interconnections between the film characters and the actual Pekars is a form of self-reference the film investigates in a documentary manner.
The value of human connections and the isolation that comes from a lack of communication with others underlies the entire film. Pekar is a prickly man, who makes it difficult for others to be close to him. But he shows his good heart in the way he relates to his co-workers at the Cleveland VA Hospital, where he works as a clerk until his retirement.
Joyce, however, cannot live without relationship, and she finds her commitment in the bond with a child they foster-parent. Harvey comes to love the girl as well, and the Pekars adopt her. By the end of the film, they are family.
9. GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING: 2003 Academy Award nominations: Best Art Direction; Cinematography; Costumes.
Peter Webber’s film, based on Tracy Chevalier’s novel, is a work of fiction about the unknown young woman who modeled for Vermeer’s famous portrait. Set in the Dutch city of Delft in the mid-1600s, the movie chronicles the experiences of the daughter of a craftsman, who must earn a living as a servant in the household of the painter. The girl comes from a Protestant family for whom respectability and order are important values. She moves into the undisciplined Catholic household of the painter, his wife, her mother and a band of children. The girl hears shocking stories about the licentious behavior of the painter and his patron with the painter’s models.
But when it comes to Vermeer (Colin Firth) and Griet (Scarlett Johansson), their relationship is based on mutual respect for the work. Griet helps Vermeer mix paints. Griet takes a great risk when she moves a chair the artist has set up for a scene he is painting. But apparently he agrees with her decision, because he removes the chair from the painting. But when the mother-in-law, who owns the house, orders Griet to model for Vermeer, the sexual tension between the painter and the girl charges the atmosphere.
Like the lovers in Lost in Translation, Griet and Vermeer express their longing through facial expression, which is the story’s conceit and the film’s vibrant centerpiece. The face of the Girl with the Pearl Earring has drawn viewers to her over for centuries. What is she saying? we ask. At whom is she looking? In one of the most erotic scenes in recent films, Vermeer first pierces Griet’s ears and then hangs the exquisite pearl earrings in the vulnerable lobes.
10. 21 GRAMS: 2003 Academy Award nominations: Best Actress, Naomi Watts; Supporting Actor, Benicio Del Toro.
In Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s haunting, fragmented film, several characters are brought together through tragedy. Their relationships are colored by the accident that kills Cristina’s (Naomi Watts) husband and two daughters. The husband’s heart saves the life of Paul (Sean Penn), but the driver of the car that hits the family, Jack (Benicio Del Toro), loses his faith in God and his confidence as a husband and father after the accident.
Like the role of fate in Mystic River, these characters are bonded by time and circumstance to one another. Paul leaves his wife, who wants to have his child, for Cristina, who has lost her family. Cristina is unaware that Paul knows he owes his life to her late husband, and he does not tell her immediately. After they become lovers, Paul and Cristina bond in vengeance as well as love.
The fractured, non-chronological narrative of Inarrritu’s film challenges the desire to understand the connections between characters, but the result of the director’s choice is a textured, layered film that echoes in the viewer’s mind.
11. THE STATION AGENT
Actor Tom McCarthy makes his feature film debut with this quirky, intelligent ensemble piece about three individuals with independent lives, who have an unacknowledged, great thirst for real companionship. By the end of the movie, Fin (Peter Drinklage), Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) and Joe (Bobby Cannavale) have reached a place where they can be themselves together, the best of all possible arrangements. And they get to this place by dealing with each setback that comes along.
As a dwarf, Fin has learned to protect himself from obnoxious comments. Now he has to let go of his projections about Joe and Olivia. An artist, Olivia has recently lost her son, and she doesn’t actually trust anyone. Snack-truck vendor Joe is just plain lonely, and he sees the possibilities of shared, simple pleasures with both Fin and Olivia, although he fantasizes sex with her.
The film rambles along at its own pace, giving viewers the strong sense of place that grounds the story and the characters. As their familiarity with one another grows, they come to fill the role of family for each other. But not before pain, drunkeness and sorrow put in an appearance. Throughout, Drinklage brings a serious dignity to his character, while the always luminous Clarkson reveals new depths, and Cannavale shows us yet another side of his attractive screen persona.
12. IN THE CUT
I can’t ignore this interesting work by director Jane Campion (The Piano, Holy Smoke!), based on Susanna Moore’s thriller, despite the film’s lackluster reviews. Campion turns New York’s East Village into a neighborhood where a woman feels threatened if she is sexy or dressed provocatively, unlike the Manhattan where fashionistas from “Sex and the City” stroll.
Frannie (Meg Ryan) is a college teacher whose life has fallen into a rut. She talks to her half-sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) about feeling stuck, and Pauline suggests meeting a man and having sex. Frannie and Pauline go to a bar, where later Frannie sees a prostitute servicing a man in the basement. Frannie knows the man saw her, but she doesn’t see his face, only his hand. The woman turns up dead the next morning.
Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) comes to Frannie’s apartment to question her about what she saw. The sexual current between Malloy and Frannie is hot. Malloy is very upfront and unashamed about sex when he speaks to Frannie. She agrees to go out with him and borrows one of Pauline’s slutty outfits. A second victim is found, and police know a serial killer may strike again in these steamy neighborhood streets.
The camraderie between Frannie and Pauline is wonderful. They are very sister-like without the judgemental baggage actual sisters carry. And Malloy’s clear expression of desire is refreshing. He isn’t an intellectual like Frannie, but he is very keen about human nature, and he nails her loneliness perfectly. Frannie is sick of her ex-boyfriend (Kevin Bacon), not interested in her horny student, Cornelieus (Sharrieff Pugh), and not turned on by Malloy’s arrogant partner, Detective Rodriguez (Nick Damici). She’s ready for some action, and Malloy’s the guy.
Trouble is, he could be the serial killer, or so Frannie (and the audience) start thinking. Tension builds as Frannie and Malloy get to know each other more intimately. Would a serial killer be so devoted to giving a woman pleasure? I don’t think so.
The film is controversial. It contains explicit sex scenes as well as frank sex talk, and grisly images of bodies and body parts, although the killing takes place offstage. Fabulous performances by Ryan, Ruffalo and Leigh make it all work.
VERY GOOD FILMS 2003
- Big Fish
- City of God
- Dirty Pretty Things
- Master and Commander
- Veronica Guerin
- Whale Rider
- Winged Migration
- Fog of War
- Rivers and Tides
- Capturing the Friedmans
TO CATCH ON VIDEO
- Barbarian Invasions
- House of Sand and Fog
- In This World
- Pieces of April
- The Triplets of Belleville
- Finding Nemo