2003: The year in reviews


It was a rough year at the movies for the Catholic Church.

Still in theaters as the year opened was The Crime of Fr. Amaro, Carlos Carrera’s scurrilous depiction of corruption and abuse in the Mexican hierarchy. Soon afterward, Costa-Gravas’s Amen. opened in the U.S., revisiting tired, one-sided charges of Church complicity in the Holocaust. As if that weren’t enough, the same theme was revived yet again by Norman Jewison’s The Statement, now playing, starring Michael Caine as a French Nazi collaborator shielded from postwar prosecution by high-ranking churchmen.

Anti-Catholicism was also in evidence in Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, which squandered the opportunity for a balanced indictment of social sin and abuse of women in Ireland’s notorious Magdalene asylums in favor of one-dimensional prejudicial stereotyping of every single nun and priest, none of whom was permitted the slightest shred of human decency, compassion, or moral conflict over routine sadism and abuse.

Not in the same league as any of the above, but still prejudicial against the Catholic Church, was Eric Till’s Luther, which went out of its way to make Luther’s Catholic opponents as unreasonable and imperious as possible, along the way distorting Church teachings on a number of points. And then there were the typical horror-movie conspiracy-theory shenanigans of Brian Hegeland’s The Order.

More positive depictions of Catholic representatives and culture could be found, though you had to look hard to find them. The war thriller Tears of the Sun introduced sympathetic nuns and priests on the mission field, only to martyr them to the cause of establishing the bad guys’ brutality. A pair of Marvel comic-book movies offered positive depictions of Catholic faith amid some problematic content, with superheroes praying the rosary (X2’s Nightcrawler) and going to confession (Daredevil, which also featured a sympathetic priest who rightly upbraided the hero for his moral faults).

Then there was the indie documentary Sister Helen, about a foul-mouthed but dedicated third-order Benedictine running a South Bronx shelter for drug addicts and alcoholics — but you had to be living in New York to catch its very limited theatrical run.

Worthwhile family films

There were some positive cinematic trends in 2003 — including a spike in decent family entertainment. Though the previous year, 2002, had been a relatively good year for family-friendly movies, 2003 was even better.

At the top of the heap — in more ways than one — was Pixar’s fifth computer-animated masterpiece, Finding Nemo. Not only was the father-son fish story one of the best films of the year, it was also the top earner at the U.S. box office for 2003 (though The Return of the King is closing fast).

Aimed at older kids was another Disney-distributed film, Andrew Davis’s successful adaptation of Holes, a popular novel for intermediate readers that combined wry humor and bizarre detail in a twisty morality tale about justice and redemption.

A more recent release still scoring at the box office is the 2003 Cheaper by the Dozen, starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt. Remarkably, this new Cheaper not only takes a positive, affectionate view of large families — and all the chaos that can imply — it also satirically debunks cynically negative attitudes toward large families, depicting characters who display such attitudes as emotionally or morally stunted by inadequate human contact.

Cheaper also favorably contrasts the loving, generous relationship of its older married couple with that of a young, cohabitating couple, who are depicted as selfish and shallow. Despite some moral issues, Cheaper is on balance remarkably pro-family for a mainstream Hollywood comedy. (It also looks on target to become Steve Martin’s biggest box-office draw, eclipsing his other big hit this year, the far less enjoyable Bringing Down the House.)

Another decent family film still in theaters, though not making waves at the box office, is P. J. Hogan’s live-action fantasy Peter Pan, an interesting variation on the classic nursery tale. While not my favorite version of that story (that would be either the 2000 stage production starring Cathy Rigby or else the 1924 silent version), Hogan’s film is an enjoyable take with a number of worthwhile elements, and may do well in home release.

Other decent 2003 family films include the stellar nature documentary Winged Migration, pleasant comedy-drama Secondhand Lions, the good-natured Christmas comedy hit Elf, and the DreamWorks animated swashbuckler Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. And a number of basically harmless efforts (Jungle Book 2, Radio, What a Girl Wants, Rugrats Go Wild!, Good Boy!) had their fans.

But not all films targeted to family audiences were so harmless. Borrowing a page from the marketing for Snow Dogs, Kangaroo Jack sold itself to parents and kids as a whimsical comedy about a talking kangaroo — despite the fact that the "talking" was restricted to a brief dream sequence and the "comedy" was actually warmed-over adult caper comedy involving mobsters, hit men, jokes alluding to homosexuality and self-abuse, frank sensuality, and shameless wet T-shirt footage of its female lead.

And, of course, there was The Cat in the Hat, with throwaway gags featuring Mike Myers’s Cat dancing at an underground rave with a slinkily attired Paris Hilton (yes, Paris Hilton; I would have mentioned it in my review, but it didn’t fit the meter), ogling a centerfold picture of the kids’ mom while his hat pops erect like something in a Tex Avery cartoon, and addressing a garden hoe as "You dirty hoe" (followed by "I’m just playin’, baby, you know I love you"). Is anybody looking forward to the next live-action Dr. Seuss debacle?

The Year’s Best

Last year, with some reservations and caveats, I published my first-ever Top 10 list, leaving the entries unranked and the door open to future revisions. This year, I’ve decided to rank my list of the year’s top ten films. Some of the films don’t yet have full reviews, but I’ll seek to rectify that as soon as possible.

The Decent Films Guide Top 10 Films of 2003

Runners-up: Holes, In This World, The Station Agent, X2

  1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
    The triumphant finale to Jackson and company’s historic three-part adaptation is perhaps the most awesome spectacle ever filmed, and the most ambitious and emotionally affecting of the trilogy. From the rugged beauty of Minas Tririth to the thrilling sequence with the mountaintop beacons, from Eowyn’s showdown with the Witch-King to Samwise’s final act of devotion on the slopes of Mt. Doom, the film’s tribute to Tolkien’s world exceeds all reasonable hope. Tolkien’s Catholic themes, including echoes of the harrowing of hell and purgatorial atoning for sins, are at their most overt here.
    Some depictions of intense and sometimes bloody battle violence; scenes of menace and grotesquerie involving orcs and other "fell creatures."
  1. The Son [Le Fils]
    Morally and spiritually the year’s most richly challenging and inspiring film, The Son’s documentary-like restraint makes for comparatively demanding viewing at first, but the difficulty of the first viewing becomes irrelevant in light of its rewards. The Dardenne brothers’ handheld camera closely follows a middle-aged carpenter working with troubled teens as he focuses on one particular boy. A nearly religious parable of humanity, fallenness, and grace, The Son’s achievement is one of showing, not telling; telling much more would diminish the showing (though many reviews will rob you by doing just that).
    A few objectionable phrases; references to remarriage after divorce and extramarital pregnancy. French with subtitles.
  1. Finding Nemo
    The hallmarks of Pixar’s virtually perfect craftsmanship - narrative tightness, witty dialogue, satirical humor, note-perfect emotions, eye-popping graphics — are all here, but there’s also a magic that defies analysis. A coming-of-age fish story that has as much sympathy and compassion for parental anxieties and tribulations as for childhood frustrations and fears, Nemo is both about an overprotective father learning to give his child room to grow and face his own challenges and about a disillusioned child again seeing his dad as a hero. Note the pro-life resonances of an early scene depicting the parents’ loving concern for their embryonic unhatched offspring.
    Animated high excitement and menace; parental separation theme.
  1. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
    Eschewing the anachronistic modern-day attitudes and dumbed-down moral conflicts Hollywood usually brings to period pieces, Peter Weir’s thrilling first film from the popular historical novels of Patrick O’Brian allows its heroes to talk and argue like intelligent adults of their own time and place. Set on a British frigate in the Napoleonic wars, the film is breathtakingly authentic, from the creak of the timbers to the matter-of-fact Christian milieu of its protagonists.
    Bloody scenes of battle violence and field surgery; a suicide; somewhat profane language; a couple of rude jokes and brief obscenity.
  1. Shattered Glass
    Among stories of journalistic corruption, first-time director Billy Ray’s intelligent, riveting fact-based drama of the rise and fall of Beltway hotshot Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) stands out for its strongly ethical stance and for its riveting depiction of Glass’s ability to insinuate himself to his coworkers while ingeniously covering his tracks. Peter Sarsgaard is brilliant as the editor forced to confront Glass’s fraud while beleaguered by office politics. Some may wish Ray had focused more on Glass’s motivation, but the film doesn’t need Catch Me If You Can psychoanalyzing: It knows that what finally matters isn’t why Glass lied, but simply that he did.
    Some obscene and profane language; a few crude references; a depiction of drug abuse.
  1. Winged Migration
    One of cinema’s most valuable functions is to show us things we would never otherwise see. If you want a narrator to tell you all about the diet and mating habits of birds, watch Animal Planet; if you want to see birds as you’ve never seen them before, here’s the film for you. The filmmakers insinuate the camera’s eye so intimately into the midst of airborne birds that one can almost count the hairlike barbs on the feathers; other shots are staggering for the sheer number of birds on the screen. It’s a mesmerizing meditation on the wonder of creation.
    A few images of birds in distress; a fleeting image of a dead bird.
  1. (Tie) Spellbound / OT: our town
    A pair of uplifting documentaries about young students working and studying for an hour of onstage stress and glory, Spellbound and OT: our town have different styles and different rewards. Spellbound is an endearing, heartbreaking, satisfying look at eight young spellers from various socioeconomic backgrounds competing with over 200 other kids at the Washington, D.C. National Spelling Bee. OT: our town is an inspiring account of inner-city youth at a demoralized high school known only for basketball and race riots, who — despite no money or existing program — take on the challenge of staging Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Both films celebrate achievement, grace under pressure, and self-respect; OT is also about community and culture, while Spellbound honors family and parents in a story of competition and personal achievement.
    Spellbound — Nothing problematic. OT: our town - Harsh social milieu includes recurring obscene language, references to suicide, teen pregnancy, etc. Mature viewing.
  1. The Gospel of John
    It’s not "based on" the Gospel of John, it is the Gospel of John — visualized and enacted, and to that extent interpreted and glossed, but not "adapted" in the usual sense. Combining the visual engagement of a biblical epic with the textual fidelity of the Bible on CD or audiocassette, The Gospel of John is a unique hybrid of the literary and dramatic — an approach that offers unique benefits as well as inevitable tradeoffs. It’s not perfect, but the gist of the biblical message comes to life in a unique way, with special credit to solid production values, strong acting, and engaging narration by Christopher Plummer.
    Passion narrative violence.
  1. The Guys
    A small, intimate meditation on grief and loss in the days after 9/11, The Guys is clearly a product of the period it documents. Based on a stage play by a New York writer drawing on her own experiences helping a fire captain compose eulogies for fallen comrades, the film’s lack of artifice makes it a quietly moving experience. The Guys captures how the horror of evil strips away our spiritual complacency: We want to bargain with God, yet we have nothing to offer and can settle for nothing less than everything. Slow and somber, The Guys is rewarding to viewers not put off by its austerity.
    A few crass expressions; reflections on death and grief.
Year in Reviews