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2003 Reloaded
by David Newbert

The structure of this list is very simple: it begins with my choice for the five best films of the year, followed by the two most disappointing and the two worst (a film that breaks your heart isn't the same as a film that assaults your sense of taste). Then there is the best DVD of the year, with runners up. These are strictly my choices, and if you have your own, drop me a line.

Editor's Note: Links lead to SF Site reviews of the movies.

The Best Films of 2003
The cream of what was, in the latter half, a pretty good crop.
   No. 1
The Return of the King The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The books are Tolkien's, but the films belong to Peter Jackson. His The Return of the King begins with a worm struggling on a hook, then it unfolds to end in glory, honor, sacrifice and beauty, effects that Jackson never forgets are just as "special" as the large-scale, adrenaline-fueled set pieces. The core of the story is the journey of intrepid hobbits Frodo and Sam -- followed by their treacherous shadow, Gollum -- into the heart of Mordor to destroy the Ring, while epic grandeur comes during the spectacular battle scenes. If one has followed this saga from the first theatrical showings of The Fellowship of the Ring four years ago, one cannot help but be enormously satisfied. The ensemble cast deserves its own award, while Andrew Lesnie's bold cinematography is worthy of another Oscar. Heroic filmmaking, in more ways than one.

   No. 2
The Matrix Reloaded The Matrix Reloaded
Actually a clever remake of the original (which explains, among other things, the raison d'etre of the "rave scene" -- Trinity and Neo first meet in The Matrix at a rave club), the Wachowski Bros. lay out another philosophical puzzle amongst such story elements as foreboding dialogue, a visit to the rebel city of Zion, Neo facing off against a hundred Smiths, an incredibly frenetic freeway chase, lots of surrealist set changes, plenty of symbols and metaphors, dreams of the future, and programs of the past. The brothers speak out of a whirlwind, as it were. The overall structure of a journey for the Truth against an oppressive, unyielding regime is reminiscent of the groovy vibe one gets from many 70s SF films -- hell, Reloaded even has Anthony Zerbe. Neo's conversation with the Architect both confirms and undermines every Neo-as-Messiah theory the fans had in the interim between releases. The accumulated effect of the movie is of gathering energy, as of a whip drawing back to strike -- an effect kept in suspension by the abrupt, cliff-hanger ending. This is the most stylish SF film in about twenty years.

   No. 3
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
As Keanu might say, Whoa. This one came up from behind and surprised everyone, much like Leatherface himself. This retread borrows the story of Tobe Hooper's original: in the 70s, five young meat puppets encounter a gruesome suicide on a dusty Texas highway. Trying to do the right thing only lands them in heaps of gory trouble. Most horror films feast on brutality alone, but here German director Marcus Nispel has actually fashioned an uncompromising horror film that seems animated by something close to the spirit of art. The use of resplendent, almost surreal visuals and hairpin turns in the plot give it a dream-like -- make that "nightmare" -- ambience. But that didn't stop Roger Ebert from labeling it "contemptible" and doing his best to warn people away. This Massacre is hardcore horror made with -- dare I say? -- aplomb. Extra plaudits go to cinematographer Daniel Pearl, who shot the original film, and the capable cast, especially Jessica Biel, who endure things beyond polite description.

   No. 4
28 Days Later 28 Days Later
Shot with handheld cameras and digital video, this one looks as raw as its subject: the end of civilization as we know it, with the survivors of a viral plague left to fight for their lives in the ruined city of London. Ever since Richard Matheson penned I Am Legend, thereby inspiring a legion of filmic clones such as The Omega Man and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead series, this end-of-the-world scenario has been a horror movie staple. This time, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland have explicitly made their "rage virus" a metaphor of moral turpitude, and their rampaging hordes of mindless "zombies" become stand-ins for the democratic imagination's fear of conformity, the xenophobic masscult -- you name it. The implied message is that it is highly improbable we can ever "just get along." Whether you choose to accept their view, there is no denying how compelling it is. You half expect to see this story on CNN. Surprisingly mature for what was, after all, a low-budget horror flick. Check out the alternate endings on the DVD.

   No. 5
The Triplets of Belleville The Triplets of Belleville
This French animated film from Sylvain Chomet is only now going into wide release in the States, while it has been available for a while as a Region 2 DVD, under its original title Belleville Rendez-vous. The story is a fantasy about a short elderly lady searching for her grandson, kidnapped during the Tour de France by French mobsters. She enlists the help of the Triplets, a vaudeville trio, now in their declining years, who good-humouredly subsist on an exclusive diet of frogs. Along with a very fat dog that barks at trains, they attempt a rescue. Every frame is a remarkably deep well of artistic detail, delineated character, touching humanity, and imaginative, fantastic humour. And it is all done with nary a word of dialogue -- but at least two great songs. It is all very strange, but never alienating. Chomet used several teams of animators to bring his vision to life, and the care they took is evident in the way every sequence feels of a piece. The whole thing culminates in what -- no kidding -- must be one of the cinema's great car chases. Here's hoping it sinks Finding Nemo for Best Animated Film at this year's Academy Awards.

The Biggest Disappointments of 2003

I had high hopes for these, and they let me down big-time.

   No. 1
The Matrix Revolutions The Matrix Revolutions
What the hell happened? The Wachowskis seem to have written Revolutions as a transitional piece, when it should have been the finish. This was the time when we were supposed to find out What It All Meant, not be spoon-fed more inscrutable mysteries. The action scenes are impressive but stuffed with false heroics; while watching the attack on Zion, I was struck by how much I wasn't giving a damn. The climatic showdown between Neo and Agent Smith is great fun, but is soon revealed to be absolutely meaningless. I mean, why spend ten minutes smacking each other around if Neo only has to... oh, just forget it. This is what happens when action epics are confused with sporting events.

   No. 2
Hulk The Hulk
Considering there are about 40 years of storylines to choose from, Ang Lee has no excuse for basing his screen adaptation of one of Marvel's most popular characters on something as trite and dishwater dull as a storyline about Banner's traumatized inner child. When superheroes bitch and moan, they become tedious; when name directors make $130 million movies about them, their careers crash and burn. The next time Lee sees a Hollywood blockbuster production, he'll have to pay full ticket price.

The Worst Flicks of 2003

I want my money back.

   No. 1
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Speaking of screwball adaptations of comic books, this League (or LXG, as they were hoping we would learn to use) is anything but extraordinary; it's half-baked and dumb. Characters are forced to introduce themselves with thudding lines such as "My name is Mina Harker. My husband Jonathan and I once fought a great evil. It's name was Dracula." The Nautilus, introduced as being roughly the size of a cruise liner, has no problem sliding through the narrow canals of Venice. And so on. Even Sean Connery's strong screen presence couldn't save this one. The final scene hints at the possibility of a sequel. Sure, and pandas might fly out of my ass, too.

   No. 2
Dreamcatcher Dreamcatcher
This one is about a slimy space eel that bursts out of your anus and then takes an enthusiastic chomp out of the next set of genitals it finds. As crazy as that is, the moment that finally did it for me was when a character grabs a .45 automatic and talks into it like a telephone in order to establish a miles-long psychic connection with his buddy who has been possessed by the aliens. And I haven't even mentioned the fart jokes. Stephen King's novel may be brilliant, but this film, after starting out as fairly gripping, slides off the road into a ditch. It's a combination of The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alien -- and bizarrely, another King book-into-movie, Stand by Me. There is one good reason to watch this thing: ILM's special effects are among the best they have ever done. What a waste.

The Best DVD of 2003
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Special Extended Edition The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Special Extended Edition
Without a doubt, this one goes to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Special Extended Edition. This is the luxury class of DVD presentations, not only the best of the year but one of the best ever. Besides a slew of extras that are actually entertaining as well as informative, this package contains a superior cut of the film that is 43 minutes longer than what originally appeared in theaters. It's more interesting and more detailed in both character and plot. I also got to see this version in theaters, and was amazed at how much better the picture quality was on the DVD. This is a great example of why digital is the way Hollywood is going.

Runners up:
The Alien Quadrilogy The Alien Quadrilogy
All four films, in both theatrical and extended cuts -- including the recent Director's cut of Alien, James Cameron's "special edition" of Aliens, and thirty more minutes added onto Alien 3 -- packaged in one box with a bonus disc of the screenplays. Plus seemingly every minute of available documentary footage. This one is just a squeak behind The Two Towers above. Awesome, simply awesome.

John Carpenter's Escape from New York: Special Edition John Carpenter's Escape from New York: Special Edition
This is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. If Sergio Leone made a science fiction film, it would probably look like this. Kurt Russell plays über-criminal and skuzzy-looking rogue Snake Plissken, who is given the mission of rescuing the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance) after Air Force One has crashed inside the walls of the island of Manhattan, which has been turned into a prison colony. The commentary is from the previous laserdisc edition, featuring Russell, Carpenter, and producer Debra Hill. If you ever had a crush on Adrienne Barbeau, you'll want this one.

Underworld just missed out of being in my top five. Compelling and stylish, it was too bombastic to be really enjoyable, and didn't fulfill the promise of its story idea. I look forward to the sequel, though. And Kate Beckinsale in black leather was one of the year's best special effects. Till next time.

Copyright © 2004 David Newbert

David Newbert worked for public and university libraries for several years before joining the college book trade. He lives in New Mexico, where the aliens landed.

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