Elf - The early 2000's had a handful of films that would go on to become Christmas Classics. Two of them would be released in 2003 just weeks apart and I really struggled with which film to include; Elf or Love Actually. Both films are exceptional and I would have included either film on my list regardless of seasonal impact, but I selected Elf because--gun to my head--I have to admit that this is the last genuine Christmas Classic we have been given. Elf is a wonderful film that encapsulates the spirit of the holiday, from the bitering of maturity to the youthful innocence of childhood as embodied by Buddy. Every character fits into a role that we experience at holiday times. You get the commercialism from the publishing house and the department store manager, the low level clerk who is forced to endure constant Christmas cheer, the adults who are all about family like Mary Steenburgen's character. You see the holiday through all of these prisms and how, if you engage with your inner child, you can be fully swept away with the holiday yourself.
Jon Favreau directs this film with complete sincerity, allowing only Will Ferrell to play with the role as if he were in a comedy. Everyone else performs their role as if they were acting in an indie film and they take the roles seriously. As a result, you get some really strong reactionary comedy. Faizon Love has some of the biggest laughs and it is done purely with looks; no words. Will Ferrell was made a movie star with this film and earns his place as an offbeat leading man. Bob Newhart offers a lot of heart in his few scenes, and I adore Ed Asner's portrayal of the street-wise Santa. Zooey Deschanel is charming as can be. The set direction and general aesthetic warmly embrace the Christmas films of our youth, tickling our nostalgia. Elf really captures some youthful magic and is a movie you really have to work hard not to love.
He Loves Me... He Loves Me Not - This French film tackles a romance from two incredibly interesting perspectives; first from the woman's point of view and then from the man's. Audrey Tautou delivers a stellar performance as Angelique, who is hopelessly in love with a married man, whom plans to leave his wife and run away with her. Her friends are concerned that he may not be the right person for her as cheating on his wife shows how little care he has for the people around them. The film plays with the dramatic dynamics of this situation for half the run time before rewinding and then retelling the story from his perspective and the picture painted is quite stunning. I love how this film plays with narrative and finds unique ways at delivering on audience expectation. Laetitia Colombani wrote and directed this film and I had fully expected her to become an upcoming talent on the same level of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but was saddened to learn that she hasn't really done much behind the camera afterwards that were not short subject films. It is a shame, I would like to see what else she can bring to the table as this was such a unique spin on the romance formula.
Identity - James Mangold directed this powerful thriller about ten strangers all finding themselves at a motel on a stormy night. None of them know each other, but one of them is on the loose killing people and they all share one thing in common...the same birthday. The film weaves together this strange story that offers many twists and turns before funneling into a--you'll never see this coming--conclusion. The cast is bomb, with John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Jake Busey and Ray Liotta giving particularly strong performances. The film is incredibly moody and atmospheric. A few years prior to this, Mangold directed another thriller called Cop Land. Cop Land was a very strong film, but my biggest problem with it was that it offered no atmosphere in places where it very easily could have. Mangold strengthened his craft with this outting and mad one hell of a tense suspense film.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 - Quentin Tarantino offers up his most cinematically creative work with the first volume of the Kill Bill story. This film is pumped with dynamic photography, visceral action, powerhouse sound work, a killer soundtrack and more homages and creative lifts than anything he had done before. The narrative is simple...or so it seems. It follows a young woman on a road to revenge who is hunting the people who stole the life of her unborn child. The film lives or dies with how The Bride is played, and Uma Thurman gives an exceptional performance. She doesn't say much, in this film in particular, but she fully realizes the character through physical performance, and strong eye acting. This is a love letter to eastern filmmaking and you walk away from the film feeling as if you have seen the definitive Kung Fu/Samurai Sword play film. Lucy Liu owns her segment, and the way the audience is informed of her backstory is genius. It is some of the finest animation I had seen to that point. This film also has the most gripping final line of dialogue and rivals the ending of Empire Strikes Back for greatest cliffhanger because of it.
I do want to stress that I think this is the inferior half of the story. Creativity aside, the film makes a dramatic choice that I really dislike and that is the sexual assault of The Bride. Though left off screen, it was still largely unnecessary and has not aged well. I did not like that segment then, and find it particularly egregious now in the post-Weinstein era. The reason for that scene was to further establish motivation, but her motivation was already strong and that ultimately adds nothing to the narrative. That said, it is a small section of the film and much of the rest of the film is inescapably fantastic and offers some incredible action.
Shattered Glass - This film was robbed of the accolades it deserved. It was easily one of the best films of 2003 and, I would argue, the decade. If follows the real life story of Stephen Glass, a reporter for The New Republic, who is accused of fabricating a story and the film really explore the depths an allegation like that can do to a reporter and a news publisher. The film was written and directed by Billy Ray who knocks it out of the park. This was his directorial debut and he really shows how he can create palpable drama. It is the silence that lingers in the air that makes the film really effective. It is the kind of film that, though it as all talk and no action, is far more gripping than any sensationalized action film could ever be. Hayden Christiansen is fantastic Stephen Glass. That dude gets a lot of flack for his flat performance as Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, but this film showcases that the dude can really act. And, Peter Sarsgaard gives the strongest performance of the year as the Editor of the publication. His performance is nuanced and stunningly real. He is really the mouthpiece of the audience. That man was robbed of an Oscar. The fact that this film was overlooked by the Academy is a damn shame. It is an exceptional film.
Best Picture & Biggest Box Office : The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - Peter Jackson concluded cinema's most epic trilogy since Star Wars with a film that is incredibly satisfying and rich in emotion. Return of the King is among my 5 favorite movies of all time. There is not a frame wasted in this film. I even love the ending that some complain lingers twenty minutes past the point of conclusion. To those people I say; it wasn't just ending this film (if that were the case, then--yes, the bedroom scene would be the natural end point), it was ending three films (or 6 if you now count The Hobbit films). I love how unafraid the film was to stoke the fires of melodrama, and it is a credit to the performances that the film never felt schmaltzy. The drama was earned and powerful in it's emotional impact. Every character gets a moment to shine. Some of the greatest scenes, for me, were the Lighting of the Beacon, the "I am no man!" moment, the Mouth of Sauron in the extended cut, Sam carrying Frodo, the "For Frodo" scene, and the moment Gimli and Legolas share before the final battle. None has more impact than the finale at the Grey Havens, though. The scene of departure is rich in visual analogy and offers up some of the strongest release of raw emotion on screen. It is almost like catharsis for the audience who have been on this journey for years at the point of release. As stated before, the performances are key and particularly strong ones are given by Viggo Mortensen, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan (both of whom really grew into their performances over the three films), Miranda Otto, Andy Serkis and Elijah Wood. It is Sean Astin who steals the film though. I still can not believe he went unrecognized by the Academy for all three films, but this one in particular. The film did win 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens really did some exquisite work on these three scripts and deserve their names mentioned alongside Jackson's for their heavy feat of adapting a near-unadaptable book. I will leave you with a few of the best moments.