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I'm the Wiz: Gandalf takes a righteous stand in 'The Return of the King.'

Kicking Ass

2003 was really the year to lose it at the movies

By Richard von Busack

THE SALVATION of the movie business, according to Will Rogers, was to try running the films backward: it wouldn't cost anything extra, and it might improve them. As seen in the French rape-revenge film Irreversible, Rogers' solution has been officially tried. And the audience still stayed away in droves.

In the coming year, let's hope the avant-garde finds a new path past the rejiggered time frame. In 2004, such avant-garde as is left will have its work cut out for it, opposing continuing sequelization and relentless comic-book adaptations. In 2004, we're slated for Alien vs. Predator, currently advertised with the slogan "Whoever wins, we lose." On the same hall of posters at the Cineplex hangs the advance notice for The Punisher: "The Punishment Begins April 16." Making too many broken promises is beginning to tell on the advertising copywriters. The truth seems to be leaking out.

We'll be ready for the punishment. We were prepped by 2003, a year with an unusually small share of both well-reviewed and well-liked films: Finding Nemo, Pirates of the Caribbean, Seabiscuit, Bend It Like Beckham, Whale Rider and Mystic River. Out of 16 sequels released in the summer, only eight broke the desired $100 million mark: X2, Terminator 3, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Scary Movie 3, Bad Boys II and both Matrix movies. The even odds against megasuccess may discourage the flood of sequels that has helped render the movies into chimp fodder.

Against a background of persistent dumbness, the dual Matrix offering looked positively scholarly. If both halves of The Matrix were folded into one film, it would have been the most popular and talked-about event of '03. And yet anyone talking about it had to start apologizing first.

Floating in The Matrix's toad-colored murk lurks a text about the difference between street-level reality and imposed reality. During 2003, Americans lived through an overseas war. It was a war different from what we saw on television, as different as noon is from 3am.

The Matrix films resonated because they alluded to the credibility gap, the difference between "to be" and "to seem." We hear about a well-fed, well-armed nation, with a rising economy and a limitless future. What's really going on isn't so pretty: stuffed prisons, decaying schools, cities full of no-go zones, overmortgaged houses, debt, unemployment and the dawning realization that the next generation will have it worse.

As critic David Thomson put it, we're in the process of seeing America changed from a nation into a show. The process began with Ronald Reagan, whose biopic was considered too hot to handle on network TV. Instead America tuned into the yearlong TV spectacular "W Stands for Vengeance"--complete with such coming-attractions-worthy scenes as the landing of our Top Gun on the USS Abraham Lincoln and the pulling down of the Saddam statue.

This yearlong war movie even boasted quips. Scoffing at the Iraqi insurgency, Bush cried, "Bring it on." Did this mean that President Bush was ready to personally face the struggle for Iraqi freedom? No, what the president meant was that he, too, had seen that cute Kirsten Dunst movie about the cheerleader competition.

The war was managed so much like a movie, that any film buff felt at home watching it. We could even keep an eye on the box office: after any Bush speech, the numbers were run to see who favored it.

Mean and Green

To generalize, a film takes about 11/2 to two years from conception to screen. As the second anniversary after Sept. 11 approached, the film September 11 was the one movie specifically about the emotional reaction to the attacks.

It was a flop. A flop, despite the fact that the anthology included a short film directed by this year's most toasted actor Sean Penn, as well as a short by his 21 Grams director, Alejandro González Iñárritu. Iñárritu created a short film about Sept. 11 that surpassed 21 Grams by a country mile.

Audiences seemed to prefer the subject of Sept. 11 veiled; it was referred to, veiled, in movie after movie about family reunions. I think it is Pieces of April that actually includes a montage of shots of the World Trade Center site, before and after, to shadow a movie about cancer. It was there as flavorizer--a way of saying, "Families have to hold each other tighter than ever these days."

Right at the same time that The Hulk was unleashed in the theaters, our own mean and green military was jumping around in the middle of the desert, being shot at with missiles. Maybe The Hulk was too much like the Iraq war to be a megahit. The Hulk--with its story of a toxic father (Nick Nolte) who needed to be destroyed--may have been a lukewarm success because it went against the pro-family spirit of the year.

The ideal 2003 film kicked some ass in the service of bringing us all together. Penn gets a gun to avenge his sundered family in Mystic River, and he's not quite a criminal but an anti-hero--"a king," says his wife. Does director Clint Eastwood criticize this vigilante attitude? His partisans will say no. But after you've been Dirty Harry for so long, do you ever throw away the badge?

The raveling of unknit families continued in films as different as Pieces of April (parents reunite with colorful daughter), The Missing (family reunites by killing colorful Apaches), Big Fish (father reunites with son over colorful fish stories), Finding Nemo (father reunites with colorful fish) and In America (person of color reunites father with family).

The film industry's insistence, post-Sept. 11, that what we wanted to see was families hanging tight created a monster: the year's most warty, multiwattled gobbler, Gigli. Critics possessed by what Poe called "the Imp of the Perverse" defended this atrocity: well, at least it's about people, for God's sake, instead of mutants or hobbits. And so it was: a surrogate family of Affleck, Lopez and their surrogate Tourette's-ridden kid, brought together--ready to use the gun against those who threatened their ménage.

That's why this year's Top 10 list endorses movies in which distrust got as much of a hearing as familial trust.

Spider: David Cronenberg's masterpiece, in a league with Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. Except for a few shivery moments in The Eye, 28 Days Later, Cabin Fever and Gothika, this was the only truly scary movie of the year. Moreover, it was all about the danger of not being able to separate reality from illusion. Sound familiar?

The Magdalene Sisters: What could have been errant tear-jerking about the Irish atrocity was made stunning with the help of the hard-edged storytelling by director Peter Mullan and the acting of Nora-Jane Noone (a short-lister for Best Actress if I was boss).

Seabiscuit: Suggesting that the nag was an unportfolioed member of FDR's brain trust was a bit too thick. Still, Jeff Bridges and Tobey Maguire's classic underplaying was some of the most honorable work in the cinema this year.

Russian Ark: The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, 300 years in 90 minutes. This film reminded a viewer that as history flows on, that there are islands where it can be briefly escaped.

American Splendor: The presence of the word "American" in a movie's title is a warning sign that gobs of patriotism may be used to spackle the holes in a plot (example: In America). Not in this case. If our nation is to survive, it needs more of the American Spleen of Harvey Pekar--his mulishness and his informed pessimism.

Friday Night: In Flaubert's Madame Bovary, a reluctant wife is at last seduced when her lover explains to her, "It's done in Paris!" This year, we were all supposed to be pissed at France. Nevertheless, Paris meant what it always means in the movies (and always will mean): Disneyland with sex.

In 2003 alone, Parisian snobbery was fetishized (Le Divorce); the city was used as an auto racetrack (The Bourne Identity) and as a happy hunting ground for Bugs, Daffy and Elmer (Looney Tunes: Back in Action). It was a place where adults can find their lost youth (Something's Gotta Give). Animators fawned over the Paris that was Paris, complete with the accordions, berets and bicycles (The Triplets of Belleville). Oh, we moviegoers have a lot of silly ideas about this city. Yet Friday Night, Claire Denis' cozy, sexy, easy, warmblooded film about a tryst, shows that there must be some gold under the glitter.

Lost in Translation: This film has divinity. Scarlett Johansson's sweet confusion was used so much better here than in the snoozer Girl With a Pearl Earring. Bill Murray's rueful, much-nuanced performance was, ultimately, the best of the year. There are exceptions that prove the rule, but mostly, great acting is fun to watch. That's why Sean Penn and Charlize Theron (in Monster) fail greatness in their much-lauded performances.

Capturing the Friedmans: Speaking of families--here was the spectacular meltdown of a suburban family under the pressure of community hysteria. It was better than a year of reality TV--better even than Paris Hilton nickel and diming it outside the Sonic Drive-in as if she were Barbara Ehrenreich.

The Son: Didn't make it south of Geneva Avenue, which is sad, if understandable from a business standpoint in this cash-strapped year. The Dardennes brothers (La Promise) were smarter on the tricky subject of revenge than Gaspar Noe was in Irreversible; they were far sharper in the use of the walk-camera than Gus Van Sant was in the meandering Gerry and Elephant (the two art-house movies this year that people were really willing to inflict upon themselves, much to their credit). Seek out this obscure Belgian film, you serious Christians. It turns out that an atheist-socialist determination not to waste a human being looks identical to a good Christian's willingness to turn the other cheek.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: Spectacle, but not empty spectacle. It's spectacle that ponders the agony of misrule and the willingness to rally and fight again. In some ways, it's not the movie it could have been, but when will we see something as grand as Jackson's trilogy again?

Runners up: Spellbound, the thinking-man's policier Dark Blue, Man on the Train, Stone Reader, Big Fish, Winged Migration and the English slice-of-life romance Lawless Heart (its innovative storytelling--the same story thrice from three different angles--went sadly unnoticed).

Magnificent rereleases included J.-P. Melville's bracing cop movie Le Circle Rouge, Ozu's Tokyo Story, the Satyajit Ray festival at the Stanford Theater and, one afternoon, Nicholas Ray's hair-raising Bigger than Life at the Pacific Film Archives, in CinemaScope: James Mason countering the family-reunion wave by starring in pretty much the best bad-dad movie ever made.

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From the January 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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