The Top Five for 2003
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Lost in Translation
Kill Bill volume 1
Honorable Mention: Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle
This is the first year that I haven’t had eight or nine favorite movies that had to be whittled down to a Top Five and Honorable Mention. It was a stinker year for movies, but four of the six movies listed above are as good as any Top Fives from a previous year.
*Confessions of a Dangerous Mind*
This movie was relegated to Honorable Mention status until today, when the Top Five was a Top Four, waiting for that one last movie. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it a lot - - but it didn’t have that “got to see it again” drive that the other movies have. But then again, I think I will buy it on DVD. I only saw it once, but it’s aged well in my brain.
It’s the movie version of Chuck Barris’s “unauthorized autobiography”. Yes, THAT Chuck Barrris, the man who created *The Dating Game* *The Newlywed Game*, and *The Gong Show*. According to him, he was recruited by the CIA as a covert assassin. He engineered vacations for *The Dating Game*’s winners to lush, exciting locales in Eastern Europe, so he could work in a kill here and there.
The screenplay is by Charlie Kaufman, who did *Being John Malkovich* and *Adaptation*, and it’s directed by George Clooney, his first film. He did a marvelous job, and I don’t think it’s any surprise that it looks like a Steven Soderbergh movie - - they’re producing partners (they produced *Far From Heaven* and *Insomnia*) and he’s acted in three movies that Soderbergh directed (*Out of Sight*, *Ocean’s 11*, and *Solaris*).
Barris is played by Sam Rockwell, who’s played quirky villains in *The Green Mile* and *Charlie’s Angels*, and does a great job in what I think is his first leading role in a major film. Clooney has a small part as the CIA operative who recruits Barris, and his performance is brave. The NY Times reviewer said that he plays the role “in a know-it-all deadpan that borders on cadaverous.” Drew Barrymoore plays Barris’s hippie girlfriend, and she’s as lovable as ever. And Julia Roberts has a small and deadly role as another CIA operative who seeks Barris out now and then. The NY Times reviewer said something about her hats “being selected by Diana Vreeland”, and you know how well that goes over with me.
The quotes from the NY Times review above are courtesy of a marvelous website, Movie Review Query Engine (www.mrqe.com), which Derek Bacharach turned me onto a few years ago. You type in a movie title and it brings up all the reviews they have. They have 215 reviews of *Confessions of a Dangerous Mind*. Best of all, they always have the NY Times reviews and Roger Ebert’s for the Chicago Sun-Times.
I’ll quote my Oscar email about *Chicago* versus *The Hours*: “I was wild for *Chicago*, but I’m not sure it would gain much on repeated viewings. I’ll pick *The Hours* for that reason - - I think it’ll stand the Test of Time pretty well. My friend Jere has seen it four times.”
The funny thing is that even though I was eager to see *The Hours* again, I never got around to it. And I saw *Chicago* three times! It was, in a word, delicious. The most brilliant thing about the movie, for me, is how the fantasy sequences, as lavish as they are, take place on a stage, NOT in a movie. The high point was Renee Zellwegger’s song “Roxie Hart”, and especially her spoken prologue to the song, with her on that huge stage in that tiny silver spangled dress. When you watch it again, notice how in the middle of this number, when they do a close-up on her, her hands are stained with blood.
This is the first documentary to make my Top Five list. I feel a twinge of guilt about that, because I love documentaries, but my Top Five list (as I’ve said again and again) isn’t a list of the Top Five BEST movies of the year, they’re my Top Five FAVE movies of the year. So even though *Into the arms of strangers: Stories of the Kinderstransport* may have been a better movie than *Shaft*, it didn’t make the list. *Spellbound* didn’t have a twinge of “I should see this” attached to it - - I was definitely a “I gotta see this” kind of movie. I saw it twice! I think it’s the only documentary I’ve seen twice in the theater.
It follows eight middle schoolers who end up in the National Spelling Bee. The first hour of the movie has a segment with each kid, showing them in their hometown, with their parents, doing their thing. It’s amazing how different these kids and their home environments are - - from rural Texas with a father who only speaks Spanish to the suburbs with an au pair and a horse to the inner city of DC to scary parents who have their kid working on spelling with a private tutor for up to six hours a day.
It shares the status of The Most Suspenseful Movie I’ve Ever Seen with *The Manchurian Candidate*. You grow to really care about these kids and then see them all competing against each other (and a hundred other kids) at the national bee. It’s an extraordinary movie. Even if you don’t like documentaries, I guarantee you’ll enjoy it. Heck, if you rent it and think it’s crap, I’ll personally give you your money back!
*Lost in Translation*
This was written and directed by Sofia Coppola, who wrote and directed *The virgin suicides*, which made my first Top Five list, back in 2000. *Lost in translation* is even more haunting and assured.
I’m going to come right out and say it: Bill Murray is going to win the Oscar for Best Actor. He gives such an extraordinary, surprising performance. There are plenty of vintage Bill Murray moments (like a hysterical scene with him struggling to stay on a treadmill that’s running too fast), but also moments of great tenderness and lyric beauty. And what other performances have there been this year that can rival it? I’m afraid of Sean Penn in *Mystic River* - - I appreciated that movie, but didn’t really care for it. It had a couple of huge holes in the logic of movie, and that drives me batty. The performances were very good, especially Tim Robbins, but everyone goes crazy for Sean Penn, in anything. He’s the Judi Dench of American male actors.
Scarlett Johansson was also marvelous, and deserving of a Best Supporting Actress nom. I had admired her look and especially her throaty, Bacall-esque voice in *The Man who Wasn’t There* and *Ghost World*, and it was great to see her using her chops in a real role.
Maybe the most impressive thing about the movie is its melancholy mood. Even when Murray is on a manic, high-energy Japanese talk show, you feel his angst and awkwardness.
*Kill Bill Volume 1*
My favorite movie of the year, no contest. You know what a big Tarantino fan I am. I didn’t see his first film, *Reservoir Dogs*, until after I’d seen his second, *Pulp Fiction*. My brothers (Howard and Patrick) are so cool that they saw *Reservoir Dogs* before anybody knew anything about Tarantino - - I’m not quite that cool, but I did see *Pulp fiction* three times in the theater, and probably another five or six times on tape.
I had a funny experience with his third film, *Jackie Brown*. I was totally pumped to see it, went opening weekend, and liked it, but wasn’t crazy about it, like I thought I would be. It was too slow, it didn’t have the tightness of *Pulp Fiction* - - I admired it, but I wasn’t crazy about it. I taped it off of cable a year later and I was totally crazy for it the second time, and the third time, and remain crazy about it even after about fifteen viewings. It’s an extraordinary movie. Pam Grier gives a comeback performance that doesn’t quite rival Gloria Swanson’s in *Sunset Blvd*, but it’s not too far away from that. And Samuel L. Jackson has one of my favorite lines in any movie: “My ass might be dumb, but I ain’t no dumbass.”
I read about *Kill Bill* in the NY Times in September 2002. They said the movie was Tarantino’s tribute to action movies of all kinds (martial arts, westerns, American blockbusters, etc) and starred Uma Thurman as The Bride, a woman who was nearly killed by her former assassin comrades, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS) and their leader, her former lover, Bill.
I read a few months before the release that the studio decided to release it as two films, with Tarantino’s blessing. I got even more excited. I marked the opening date, bought three tickets that week (for my roommate and his girlfriend), and showed up an hour early to get a good seat.
The theater was packed with rabid Tarantino fans. The opening credits scrolled onto the screen with the song “Bang bang, my baby shot me down” playing on the soundtrack, an amazing song. I bought the soundtrack the next day and saw that it was a song written by Sonny Bono for Cher, but Tarantino used the Nancy Sinatra recording, with just her and an electric guitar player. It’s marvelously atmospheric, and perfectly sets the tone for the movie.
The Village Voice saw the movie at its press preview and famously called it “the most violent American film ever made.” I mentioned this quote to my mom after I saw the movie:
MOM: More violent than *Scarface*?
ME: This movie makes *Scarface* look like *When Harry met Sally…*.
Yes, it does have sequences that are relentlessly violent - - people getting heads and/or limbs chopped off, their blood spraying out like a lawn sprinkler, stuff like that. But the violence is so cartoonish that (to me) it’s fun. In one scene, she’s surrounded by 88 people there to kill her, wielding knives, swords, axes, etc., and of course, she makes it out of the room alive! The best scene in the movie is her fight with Go-Go, the bodyguard for O-Ren Ishii, the Lucy Liu character. This fight scene is a directorial tour de force, with no music on the soundtrack, and was so well received by the audience that when it was done, we let out a collective groan and then applauded.
I’ve now seen it five times in the theater, which is a personal record. The record was previously held by *A Room with a View* and *Titanic*, both of which I saw four times in the theater. I’ll probably see it again before it leaves the first-run theaters, and will definitely see it two or more times at the second-run theater in Times Square. Howard was clever enough to point out that *Kill Bill Volume 1* just might hit the second-run theaters in February, just as *Volume 2* is being released. If that does happen, I’ll be sure to do a two-theater double feature, a first for me. I’m eager to see it as many times as I can in the theater because I don’t think it’ll have the same power on the small screen.
Why am I so rabid for this movie? The Village Voice is correct, it probably is the most violent American movie ever made (and they know better than I do), but beyond that, I call it the cockiest movie ever made anywhere. All of Tarantino’s movies have a cocky, look-what-I-can-do quality to them, but none more so than this one. Every single shot is perfectly wrought, every moment perfectly articulated, every line perfectly phrased and perfectly delivered. I’m a huge movie buff (news flash, I know), and Tarantino is the most talented, most movie-ish director of his generation.
* * *
And now for my standing categories:
Best Cameo, Female
Jaclyn Smith, for her short scene in *Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle* - - again, the highlight of the movie (brought a tear to my eye).
Best Cameo, Male
This year I have two Males, and I won’t spoil it by telling you who they are. They’re two big stars with less than two seconds of screen time in *Confessions of a Dangerous Mind*, and it’s the highlight of the movie.
Remembrance of Movies Past
This year’s choice is a strange one, because it’s both a movie I had seen before and a movie I had never seen. Allow me to explain. I saw Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film *Beauty and the Beast* way back in the late 80s and liked it - - I was crazy about his *Orpheus*, but *Beauty and the Beast* didn’t really do it for me, it didn’t really come together as well as *Orpheus*. Flash forward to the fall of this past year. Jere and Dale hosted a movie trilogy at their Brooklyn flat - - the theme was Musicals Stood on Their Heads (my own phrase), and they showed *Beauty and the Beast*, *The Umbrellas of Cherbourg*, and *Dancer in the Dark*. The version of *Orpheus* that they showed was the 1995 Philip Glass version. Glass took the film, which he had loved for years, and made it into a sort of opera. He set all of the dialogue to music and wrote music to accompany the rest of the film. Basically, he took every single sound you hear in the original version (including the lovely score by Georges Auric) and re-imagined it into a totally new form. It’s a fascinating mixture of adaptation and creation from scratch. The DVD that Dale bought has both versions, and after we watched the movie, he showed us two scenes, first in the original version, with dialogue and the Auric score, then in the Glass version. Invariably, the Glass version was more effective - - it supported the dream-like atmosphere of the film much better.
Movie That Needs To Be Made
Do you remember Candice Bergen’s talk show on Oxygen, *Exhale*? It was on when the network first went live, and Jodie Foster was her first guest. *Hannibal* was just starting shooting, so Candice had to ask why she wasn’t in it - - she said she was busy doing a film about Leni Riefenstahl, and I was so excited I jumped out of my chair. We knew all along that she didn’t do the movie because she didn’t want to be served brains, but now we know for sure, because what happened with this Riefenstahl project? She was a German actress and filmmaker notorious for directing *Triumph of the Will*, a film of Hitler giving a speech at a big pageant in Nuremberg, and Jodie is perfect for the part. I imagine the bulk of the movie would be about the young Leni, when she was acting in films and then when she was first directing. But then I think they should have either an epilogue with the old Leni, or maybe they could intercut a flash-forward here and there. And I have a brilliant idea for the old Leni: Celeste Holm. She’s 85, she’s still alive (unlike Riefenstahl, who died this year at 102), and I bet she’d love to have a gig. Now the question is - - who would play Hitler?
New Category: Eagerly Anticipated
Every year I add a new feature to these emails. Last year it was Movie That Needs to Be Made. This year it’s Eagerly Anticipated. Here are a few coming out in 2004:
*Kill Bill, Volume 2*
Of course. It’s opening Friday 2/20, and I’ll be there that night, just as I was for Volume 1.
This is Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ movie that’s been heating up the news for years. It opens on Wednesday (Ash Wednesday, no less) February 25th, and I’m going to be there. I’m sure the violence in this movie will have a much different impact than the *Kill Bill*s.
*The Stepford Wives*
Did you read this book? It’s a pulp horror classic from 1972 by Ira Levin, the same man who brought us *Rosemary’s Baby*. It was turned into a mediocre movie starring Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss in 1975. A new version is coming out in ’04, starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken, Glenn Close, Jon Lovitz, and Faith Hill (!), directed by Frank Oz (aka the voice of Miss Piggy and Yoda, also the director of *Little Shop of Horrors*), with a screenplay by Paul Rudnick (who brought us *Jeffrey*, *Addams Family Values*, and *In and Out*). What could be bettah?
Scorsese is directing a movie about the young Howard Hughes, with Leonardo di Tasty-o as Hughes, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn (great choice, no?), also with Alan Alda (glad to see he’s getting work), Alec Baldwin, Kate Beckinsdale (as Ava Gardner), Frances Conroy (the mom on *Six feet under*, playing Hepburn’s mother.), Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, John C. Reilly, and many others.
It might turn out to be crap, but the teaser preview was pretty promising. And you know how much I loved the first movie.