2003: Cinematic Hits and Misses

In which we finally found the
answer to the question,
“What Is The Matrix?”

“Who cares?”

Saw six of the top ten grossing movies in 2003 – as is traditional, the success of most of the rest left me shaking my head at the interests and desires of the average American cinema-goer: Bruce Almighty, Chicago, Bad Boys II, though I might catch Elf eventually. At least Bruce and Elf were original ideas, something hugely lacking this year. If we look at the top twenty films, three-quarters were sequels, remakes or adaptations. Perhaps we should let Return of the King off with a caution, even if it falls into two of those categories. 😉

Perhaps the biggest news was the way the Matrix franchise crashed and burned, from a position at the start of the year as the most-bankable thing in Hollywood. Truth be told, Revolutions isn’t that bad, but was largely scorched by the huge disappointment which was Reloaded. Despite the success of Lord of the Rings, studios might well go back to making most movies one at a time, then waiting to see whether the audience actually wants more.

There were several other cases this year where the audience stayed away: the Charlie’s Angels, Tomb Raider (left) and Fast and the Furious sequels all underperformed. But X2, Spy Kids 3-D and Scary Movie 3 did well, so sadly, we can’t proclaim the quick cash-in dead. Save X2, it was a poor year for comic-book movies: Daredevil disappointed, The Hulk collapsed after a strong opening, while LXG ranks amongst the year’s top turkeys. 2004 brings Spiderman 2, which looks a good bet, but the prospects for Hellboy are much less certain.

Outside of Hollywood, the usually-reliable Phoenix Film Festival, which produced two top ten entries in 2002, didn’t manage anything of especial note – we hope for a return to form in 2004. The main source of interest this year was Korea: while Guns & Talks was the best, My Wife is Gangster and Attack the Gas Station! are also worth watching, and animated feature Wonderful Days currently lurks in the unwatched pile. Hong Kong had a bit of a return to form, Infernal Affairs just beating Double Vision in our view, and making a worthy Oscar contender.

Here’s our top ten choices for 2003:

#10 – Infernal Affairs. The most solidly-acted movie to come out of Hong Kong in a while, thanks to Andy Lau, Anthony Wong and Tony Leung. A lot of effort is put into building tension, and it really pays off with the end result likely to leave you with a good working knowledge about the edge of your seat.

#9 – Pirates of the Caribbean. Bloated, excessive, mammoth. In other words, a perfect popcorn vehicle, whose appeal rests largely on Johnny Depp’s wonderful performance (he can collect the TC 2004 Best Actor, should he ever be in Arizona). He resurrected the previously-dead swashbuckler genre single-handed.

#8 – Synthetic Truth. Okay, I’m (heavily) biased. And Lord of the Rings it isn’t. But for $3,000, you won’t see a better hundred minutes of cinema this year – despite my performance! An early prediction: the 2018 Oscar for Best Director goes to… Zachary Yoshioka.

#7 – The Princess Blade. Possessing swordfights almost the equal of Kill Bill, courtesy of Donnie Yen’s fight choreography, this also had an excellent scenario, its futuristic setting contrasting nicely with the samurai characters. Undeniably Japanese in style, yet easily accessible to a Western audience.

#6 – Guns & Talks. Okay, this was technically released in November 2002, but is simply too good to leave off. Never has the life of a hitman been so appealing – assassins are people too, y’know. An inferior Hollywood remake is probably inevitable.

#5 – Kill Bill, Volume One. If you’d told me a Quentin Tarantino film would be in my Top 10, I’d have laughed. But this one fully deserved it, even if, in truth, it was only half a movie, with the most arterial mayhem seen on screen for a long time. Roll on Volume 2!

#4 – The Returner. Proof that the best wine comes in old bottles, this offered some lovely twists on The Terminator and The Fifth Element, with better characters than either. Add plenty of style, and a great villain too; the end product was simply highly entertaining.

#3 – The Animatrix. 2003 will not go down as a banner year for the Wachowskis; they should probably have stopped with Animatrix, which had far more depth and imagination than Reloaded and Revolutions combined. Beautifully animated, with every part leaving you wanting more, unlike the live-action films.

#2 – Finding Nemo. Walt who? If there was any doubt over who’s the #1 American animation studio, this dispels it, thanks largely to Ellen De Generes giving the best female performance of the year as Dory, the short-memoried fish with a heart of gold. Perfect animation, great characters, wonderful writing.

#1 – Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sit with jaw agape. Countless man-years and $300m in the making, with every minute and penny fully justified by this climax to the trilogy. This raises the technical bar for every other movie, while not forgetting that it’s the people (and elves, dwarves and hobbits) that count.

What are we looking forward to in 2004? Nothing pre-dominates in the way that Matrix and LotR did for 2003. Looks like more sequels are in order, but some might actually be worth our time. In no particular order: Kill Bill, Vol. 2, The Chronicles of Riddick, Van Helsing, Alien vs. Predator, Resident Evil 2, Ultraviolet (about vamps, but nothing to do with the C4 series), Constantine, The Day After Tomorrow, Blade: Trinity and The Incredibles. Some of these will suck. 🙂 And speaking of “suck”, file under “wild horses”: Shrek 2 and Scooby-Doo 2

  1. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
  2. Finding Nemo
  3. The Animatrix
  4. The Returner
  5. Kill Bill, Volume One
  6. Guns & Talks
  7. The Princess Blade
  8. Synthetic Truth
  9. Pirates of the Caribbean
  10. Infernal Affairs

2002: Cinematic Hits and Misses

The bigger they come, the harder they fail…

The last palindromic year for over a century is in the books, and it only remains for me to chuck my two cents in and announce the TC top ten. Hollywood executives are holding their breath – will Snow Dogs make the cut? I think it’s safe to say the answer is not quite going to shake the foundations of the studio system.

I saw seven of the year’s top ten grossing movies, down one from 2001 – the missed ones were Star Wars II (which I still might catch up with now it’s playing at the IMAX), My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Goldmember. Last year, two of the top ten made this list, this year’s it’s just one – slightly less than one, actually, for reasons which I’ll get into shortly, and making this more of a Top 9.9 than a Top 10, I suppose. The #1 at the box-office, Spiderman, cracked $400m in the US alone, marking Sam Raimi’s arrival in the super-mainstream. With him and Peter Jackson helming 2002 box-office behemoths, any bets on which former ‘video nasty’ director will be next? Dario Argento? Jorg Buttgereit? Guess we can rule out Lucio Fulci, at least…

It was, it seemed, a disappointing year, particularly for action movies. The more a film was anticipated, the less it actually seemed to deliver; two of the best trailers of the year, XXX and Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, turned out to be leaden lumps of tedium with few redeeming features. Things didn’t get better with the new 007 flick, the third consecutive disappointing entry in that series, and even The Two Towers failed to live up to the standards of its predecessor.

Fortunately, peeping under the wire were a couple of pleasant surprises, not least the arrival of Jason Statham as a legitimate British action here in The Transporter. However, to avoid disappointment, I am consciously trying not to get over-excited for any of 2003’s releases, most notably Terminator 3 and The Matrix Reloaded. I figure if I expect less of them, it reduces the chance of unpleasant surprises.

A couple of words to Disney: you suck. You lobby to get the copyright law changed to protect Mickey, while shamelessly raping the public domain for the likes of Treasure Planet, and even pillage your own back catalog, whoring any beloved cartoon you can into straight-to-video sequels. Then, when you get your hands on the best animated film of the year (Spirited Away), you hide it in 151 theatres nationwide, with hardly any publicity – compare TP, which opened in over 3,200 with a marketing blitz, and still tanked.

And while we’re at it, can someone please give Christopher Walken some money? That way, we wouldn’t have to suffer the trauma of seeing one of the finest actors of our generation in stuff like Kangaroo Jack and The Country Bears Movie. Walken wins the Klaus Kinski “Fuck the script, send me the check” Memorial Award for 2002.

#10 – Equilbrium. Sliding in so low under the wire, I’d not even heard of it until the day we saw it, Christian Bale delivers a great performance in a setting that combines the best of Orwell, Huxley and Bradbury.

#9 – Signs. Would have been several notches higher, if not for an ending that would have got a failing grade in your Primary 3 English class. That this disastrous finale doesn’t flush the movie out of here entirely speaks volumes for the quality of the rest of it.

#8 – Jane White is Sick and Twisted. As previously, 2003 had its share of festival hits that, sadly, in all probability we’ll never see again. This maniacal riff on pop culture took homage to undreamt-of depths, in a wild ride through the TV landscape which is the third millenium. A career programming reality shows for the FOX network beckons those responsible.

#7 – Blade II. The year’s most unexpectedly-decent sequel was Del Toro’s gory-as-hell take on what is possibly the coolest comic character to hit the screen thus far. Face-splitting, autopsies, and more exploding vamps than you can shake an ultraviolet hand-grenade at, plus Donnie Yen (right) and Wesley himself. Woo-hoo!

#6 – Sum of all Fears. Never having read the book, I had no idea what to expect here, and the Ben Affleck/Harrison Ford thing passed me over entirely. What the makers delivered was the tensest movie of the year; once Baltimore was sacrificed, you got the feeling anything could happen, at any time.

#5 – Minority Report. It’d been a long while since Spielberg had made anything in the pure entertainment line, which is where his fame began, but this delivers the goods. Chalk up another Dick adaptation which bears little resemblance to the book but is still great on its own terms.

#4 – Spirited Away. Hayao Miyazaki is another film-maker who returned to form in 2002. After a few mediocre entries, he got back to what he does best: imaginative story-telling. He creates a wonderful parallel world of amazing characters and visual style.

#3 – Dead Dogs Lie. The best film of 2002 which you won’t have heard of (except here) sends three hitmen on a road trip. Less plot- than incident-driven, it had the sharpest dialogue of the year; here’s hoping someone picks it up for distribution soon. Or else we might have to. 🙂

#2 – The Ring. Just another crappy Hollywood rema…No, hang on, what’s this? It kicks the original’s turgid butt in just about every way, keeping the good and cranking the Creep Factor up to 11. Our son came home from seeing it and started asking if we had any covered wells on the property…

#1 – Nine Queens. Proving that there’s life in David Mamet’s style yet…if not perhaps in David Mamet… A script to treasure, unfolding with precise grace right up until the end. Bordering on a shaggy-dog story, I almost don’t want to see it again, in case it proves less fabulous second time around.

2001: Cinematic Hits and Misses – The Year We Didn’t Make Contact…

Another year draws to a close, and so while there may be no obelisks on the Moon, that does mean it’s time to inflict another top 10 list on you. I make no claim to have seen every film released during the year, so this is obviously not going to be comprehensive…but I strongly suspect that few of those I didn’t see, would have a snowball’s chance of making it onto here. This is the major benefit of being a non-professional critic – I don’t need to sit through the dreck.

Mind you, even allowing for an informed selection, there were still a number of films which were endured rather than enjoyed. This was particularly true of the multiplex where, especially in the first half of the year, it seemed that the wider the release, the suckier the movie. Comparing it to last year, where even the Oscars showed more taste than usual, it was pretty depressing, and I make no apologies for the fact that you probably haven’t heard of half the films in the list, never mind seeing them.

The sad fact is, the odds are that I probably won’t get to see a number of them again either. Five of the ten were seen at film festivals, and only one has actually managed to acquire any kind of distribution since. The advent of digital video has only added weight to the argument which says that anyone can make a movie – but getting it seen by the rest of the population remains a nightmare. It’s possible that with the Internet, distribution will become possible, but the slow growth of broadband, and the problems of getting paid, remain tricky curves on that road. However, for one film on the list, the Internet is the main source of income and sales, pending a general distribution agreement, and this might point the way forward.

The Internet also allowed us to see films I didn’t want to actually pay to see, and it was refreshing to discover that my critical faculties were as sharp as ever. The worst movie of the year goes to Rush Hour 2, for being not just dull, but actively aggravating, with Chris Tucker a fabulous poster child for the KKK. The most over-rated film of the year also reached us down the cable modem: Shrek, a painfully obvious and startlingly unoriginal (oh, look – a Matrix parody) mish-mash of fairy tales and political correctness. Can anyone explain its appeal?

Disappointments came in the form of the two computer game films, Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy. Spots for both were being polished up in the top 10, but neither of them remembered that no matter how good you look, you still need a storyline to hang your imagery off. I still like both films, but neither came up to my expectations and hopes.

Onto the brighter side. It was a delight to see both Iron Monkey and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust on the big screen – if the former was really a 2001 movie, it would have been in the top 10, and we can only hope for more of the same in 2002. The re-release of Holy Grail was just what was needed after the events of Sept.11, while Ben Kingsley (or Sir Ben as we must now call him) provided perhaps the most memorable performance of the year in Sexy Beast.

Things also perked up considerably towards the end of the year, with a couple of reasons to make you want to go back to the cinema and eat popcorn. Say what you like, Harry Potter proved you don’t need big American stars to make an engaging film, when you’ve got a good source…and the author hovering over you a hawk! And so, without further ado, here are the top 10 in reverse order, based on the ratings given at the time (more or less!):

#10 – Ginger Snaps. This one just scraped in, displacing Snatch after a watch-off determined it to be the best lycanthrope film since American Werewolf, combining black humour and a good old-fashioned monster movie to great effect.

#9 – 90 Miles. A genuinely touching documentary depicting the life of one man, and his return to his native land. We liked it so much, Chris subsequently worked tirelessly to bring the film and its director to Phoenix – and its impact on me was not much less.

#8 – Revolution #9. An excellent recreation of one man’s descent into paranoia and madness, highlighted by an amazing performance from Michael Risley. He manages to make you feel both sympathetic for, and scared of him, at the same time.

#7 – Cradle of Fear. You’ll be hearing more about this one shortly, but in a year when the peak of horror was Anthony Hopkins eating brains, this was a fabulous breath of foul, blood-spattered and morally upstanding air which made me proud to be British. Pass the six-pack!

#6 – Memento. Undoubted winner of any best script award, this demanded more attention when watching it than any other movie. Beautifully precise, this demands immediate repeat viewing, and will hopefully be just as solid next time.

#5 – Boys From Madrid. A road-movie that gradually slides into a quest for redemption, before an ultimate revelation that makes for the most disturbing viewing of the year. I need a shower just remembering it.

#4 – Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (left). Who’d have thought that the man would go from splatter movies to the most beloved book of the century? And do so almost faultlessly, too, recreating Middle Earth and all its inhabitants to perfection. $300m well spent.

#3 – Versus. Possessing more raw energy and invention than any other movie, this one kept a smile on our faces for two solid hours. We laughed, we cheered, we said, “Fuck me! Rewind that!” A tiny budget, yet full of vim and vigour; this is what cinema is about.

#2 – Monsters Inc.. Call me a softie. Call me a sap. But you know what – I don’t care. This was the only film we paid to see twice at the cinema, and we loved every minute of it on both occasions. Fabulous story, fabulous characters, flawless execution, and perfect timing, both comedic and dramatic.

#1 – Ever Since the World Ended. You know a film is obscure when a Google search for the title has the TC review as the first entry. Regardless, it’s a great twist on the pseudo-documentary entry, and is both spooky and eerily plausible. If ever a movie deserved broader circulation, this is it – ‘cos if nothing else, I want to see it for a second time…