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The Independent peanut gallery compares 2003 favorites

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Andy Smetanka

Space Is the Place
“Are you ready to alter your destiny?” Prepare for the next big diaspora with this mind-warping 1974 collision of blaxploitation and B-movie sci-fi with a free-jazz soundtrack, just re-released on DVD. You remember the African-fantasia artwork from fusion-era Miles Davis albums like Bitches Brew and Pangaea? This is the movie version. Bop eccentric Sun Ra (né Herman Blount) stars as himself, the “black musician and thinker” who comes back to Earth in a blazing-eyeball-shaped spaceship to recruit volunteers for his colony on the other side of Jupiter. Weirder than you can even imagine. Directed by John Coney.

Muhammad Ali, the Greatest
It’s not the most solicitous documentary ever, but this portrait of Ali in two acts, 1964 and 1974, is striking to look at and fascinating, like a whirlwind of newsreel images presented with no external narration. French photographer/filmmaker William Klein was granted an extraordinary amount of access to Ali’s inner circle, including the power brokers of Southern boxing who would later turn on him. Includes a great scene with the champ horsing around in the ring with four very young-looking Beatles. Forget Will Smith’s admittedly convincing Ali impression and When We Were Kings—Muhammad Ali, the Greatest is lean and hungry and rippling with nervous energy.

The Man Who Laughs
Universal Pictures didn’t dare try and spring Lon Chaney from his contract with rival MGM after he starred in a string of box-office busters, so they did the next best thing for this extravagant adaptation of a Victor Hugo novel about a man disfigured and sold into sideshow slavery by wandering Gypsies. They hired the German version of Lon Chaney, Conrad Veidt (best known as the somnabulist in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari), paired him with countryman Paul Leni, who had previously directed Veidt in the Expressionist classic Waxworks, and made one of the most beautiful (and expensive!) pictures of the late silent era. Also stars Mary Philbin. Another welcome re-release for 2003—and just in time for the movie’s 75th birthday!

City of God
From the land of bossa nova and bird-eating spiders comes this kaleidoscopic Portuguese-language variation on an old theme: close friends who chart decidedly different courses out of ghetto poverty, in this case in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Gritty, earthy and surprisingly life-affirming, this movie (a little late in coming to Missoula, but what isn’t?) is part Goodfellas, part Menace II Society, and all stylish, confidant, exuberant filmmaking. Amazing.

Battle Royale
If you’re sick of Survivor-type reality TV shows (although the trend these days seems to be more toward pre-fab marriage and instant celebrity), this just might be the antidote. Battle Royale can be read on one level as a vicious mockery of survivalist playacting, as it forces a class of 40-odd Japanese adolescents onto a tropical island and into one immutable equation: The last living combatant is the only one who gets to go home. Released in Japan in 2000, this fatalistic bloodbath is finally available stateside on DVD—for those who dare.

Spellbound
The process of winnowing 249 regional champions down to one winner in the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee lends high-wire drama and a compelling rhythm to this expertly-edited documentary by Jeffery Blitz. You almost want the finalists to agree on a draw, but, as with Hands on a Hard Body, there can only be one winner. Will it be the freakish human spell-check pressured to excel by his pushy father? The shy small-town kid? The poster-boy for Ritalin?

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
George Clooney’s directorial debut is so suspiciously tidy and self-assured, after about 15 minutes you’ll want to keep him after class and ask him, “Now, George, did little Stevie Soderbergh help you finish your movie?” Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is all filters, jump-cuts, Dutch tilts and funky lens choices—a deluxe bag of film gimmicks that distracts from but cannot hide the fact that Clooney has absorbed enough teaching from mentor Soderbergh to actually cobble together something approximating his own personal style. Get used to the self-conscious artiness and you’ve got a pretty respectable first movie from this former E.R. star. Who’d have thunk?

The Man Without a Past
To a certain extent, if you’ve seen one Aki Kaurismäki movie you’ve seen, if not all, than at least most of them. At the same time, you don’t know deadpan humor unless you’ve seen at least one of them. The director is obsessed with American noir, and the genre makes an odd but appealing fit with his native Finland. A Kaurismäki movie usually centers on characters living at the fringes of society, in an imaginary but timeless Helsinki that exists only in his movies. The Man without a Past is probably his most accessible movie to date, but it’s still so Finnish it hurts.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The triumphant conclusion to the most monumental movie trilogy ever. Sorry, George Lucas—you had it but you blew it with the awful prequels, for which the original trilogy is still being retroactively devalued. Take a long rest now, Peter Jackson. You’ve earned it.

Susanna Sonnenberg

Freaky Friday
An unlikely candidate for a Ten Best list, but a perfect example of what happens when the right actor finds the role of her life. Jamie Lee Curtis is the over-extended mother who inadvertently switches roles with her disgruntled teenaged daughter. Curtis shows off brilliant timing and true empathy. Her physical comedy is as rich and satisfying as Steve Martin’s in such movies as All of Me. Freaky Friday is delectable fun, a wonderful spin on a timeless fantasy.

Mystic River
Moody, somber and passionate, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River creates a world that is inescapable, a morality play hinged on Shakespearean allegiances and revenge. Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins and Sean Penn swelter with brooding power, each a man who knows the importance of unhappiness. Boston collapses under the weight of industrial hardship. A social reinvention of Romeo and Juliet, Mystic River must be forgiven its easy resolution and the misunderstanding of women. Much remains to admire.

Secret Lives of Dentists
Another Campbell Scott revelation, The Secret Lives of Dentists traces the arc of marriage in its most hopeless stage—the mundane middle, the absence of intimacy, the habitual drudgery of children, and the rapid destruction of suspicion. Scott and Hope Davis, as his wife, pull off performances that are almost unwatchable in their wounded, hollow, routine sadness. Yes, it’s bleak, yes, it’s depressing, but this movie is kindled by an exciting bravery: the courage to be about grief and inertia, and the skill to make those seem like narrative.

The Italian Job
C’mon, you know you loved it. What’s not to love in a movie stuffed with cars, clothes, cash and international sophistication? F. Gary Gray’s remake of the 1969 heist movie improvises on Bond themes and raises the car-chase sequence to new heights of excellence. Gray doesn’t waste a frame, his telling as well-plotted and economical as the heist needs to be. The cast, headed by Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron and Ed Norton, crackles with the comebacks that come only from a perfect script.

Whale Rider
Eerie and beautiful. Whale Rider is a coming-of-age story combined with fantasy and magic realism, and while the former category may be dime-a-dozen, you’ve never seen it quite like this before. As young Pai tries to earn her grandfather’s impossible love, she seeks to prove herself in male terms, which only makes him angrier with her. Keisha Castle-Hughes, as Pai, is possessed of a searing sobriety that wrenches at the viewer’s heart without manipulation. Her invitation into the soul of her Maori tribe is irresistible.

Finding Nemo
But would you watch it again? While this question has to be part of the consideration for any movie on a list of notables, it is especially important in the genre of animated kids’ fare, because if your child likes it even a little you’ll have to see it a lot. In order for it to be commendable, you have to like it a lot. Finding Nemo, with its snappy lines, comic casting and eternal theme of parent-child identity struggle is elevated to gourmet watchability by the superbly realized animation (even if Nigel isn’t the sort of pelican indigenous to Australia).

Rabbit-Proof Fence
Philip Noyce’s strange (but true) story of a resilient girl caught up in a scheme of ethnic madness in ’30s Australia. Torn from her Aborigine family, Molly goes with her sister and cousin to a boarding school designed to beat the native out of her. Instead of acquiescing, she escapes the school with both family members and sets off toward home—an impossible journey of more than a thousand miles. She evades a seasoned tracker and survives on her wits and her understanding of the Australian land, filmed with relentless, grim understanding. This is a bleak, grave tale that throws into painful relief our suspicion of all peoples not our own, and simultaneously a feminist tale that strikes at the heart of oppression.

Lost in Translation
Sofia Coppola creates a visual language of loneliness and isolation by setting her little story in a deluxe Japanese hotel. The two main characters, played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson, stumble upon each other and are united by their inability to interact with the rest of the world. This is not a love story, though Coppola gives their relationship passion and pain. The movie is a marvel of restraint, a terrific depiction of homesickness and yet another moment of triumph for Murray, who seems incapable of failure.

Talk to Her
Pedro Almodovar matures into the rare artist who is surprising at every turn, loyal to his themes and able to reinvent himself constantly. Talk to Her is heavy with tragedy and melancholy humor as the companion stories of two couples parallel each other. Almodovar explores with new vigor his favorite theme of performance, and each character in this movie plays role layered upon role. With his genius for casting, Almodovar has filled Talk to Her with incredible and weird actors who seem pulled from the darkest of Picasso’s paintings.

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