Although I've previously made two different lists for indieWIRE and the VILLAGE VOICE, this is my final, definitive 2003 top 10 list.

Best advertising slogan Lions Gate should have used for IRREVERSIBLE: “In a world where everything is going backwards, only love is irreversible.”

This year, humanism and nihilism existed side by side on movie screens and, consequently, on my top 10 list. (Granted, that may say more about my taste or personality than the zeitgeist.) Watching DOGVILLE, 21 GRAMS, MYSTIC RIVER and KILL BILL, VOL. 1, I kept thinking back to IRREVERSIBLE.  It was rather depressing to see a critical pileup on a film of such accomplished style and moral urgency. I’m not kidding about the latter point: its deconstruction of macho revenge fantasies held plenty of political relevance on the eve of Gulf War II. But you’d never know that from reading reviews that dwelled upon Gaspar Noe’s silly statements in the press kit or made mistakes about a character’s sexual orientation. Nor would you realize that the final flickering shot holds out the possibility of transcendence before birth or after death.  To think that its haters  could have spent that time serving the gay community by making Carson Kressley dartboards! (For some reason, it was much better received on-line than by professional critics.) The notion that revenge is a dish best not served at all may be a trite “moral,” but Clint Eastwood drew some of the best reviews of his career for saying the same thing. As for the issue of homophobia, the fistfuckers at the Rectum ultimately come off looking better than the straight guys. After all, the director places himself among them, jerking his CGI erection.  They’ve found a way to harmlessly ritualize the violence that Noe sees as integral to masculinity. For some critics, implicating gay men - admittedly, strongly implicating them - in a general critique of machismo equals making the most homophobic film ever made.

Speaking of Topic H, it popped up in some surprising places. JEEPERS CREEPERS 2  turned the generally heterocentric teen pic on its head. Its crew of cheerleaders keep all their clothes on, while the buff, barely legal  boys doff their shirts at their first opportunity - when not discussing gayness during public urination sessions. FATHER AND SON and STUCK ON YOU tied for the gay incest subtext prize, although Alexander Sokurov’s disavowal of any homoerotic undertones to his film’s (extremely hot) scenes of nude cuddling may give him the edge.  DREAMCATCHER may be a symptom of homosexual panic, but its cocktail of Freudian hysteria defied simple categorization. You’ve got to love a film in which a “shit weasel”,  resembling a vagina dentata, bites a guy on the dick while he’s pissing. (At least I do.) Did either director Lawrence Kasdan or screenwriter William Goldman intend any of this immensely entertaining, jaw-droppingly ridiculous trash to be taken seriously?

ELEPHANT  pissed off nearly as many people as IRREVERSIBLE, although not always the same bunch. Admittedly,  the film is shallow. Deliberately so. It doesn’t pretend to know why Columbine happened. The “clues” it offers are red herrings. The violent video game played by one of the killers is an in-joke, based on GERRY. They do watch a Hitler documentary, but it’s essentially background noise, no indication they care about Nazi ideology. Instead, van Sant’s project is more akin to Chantal Akerman’s JEANNE DIELMAN, which also  ends with an inexplicable murder. ELEPHANT tracks life in high school, with its roster of small, livable annoyances and injustices, at the point where the facade of normalcy starts breaking down.

This year’s other major Columbine-inspired film, ZERO DAY offers plenty of character development but even fewer ready answers than ELEPHANT. Instead, it performs the necessary task of humanizing its killers, while  implicating the audience as we get caught up in their charm. (The final shutout, shown from the point of view of security cameras, is even more excruciating to watch than the last third of ELEPHANT.) They’re an articulate duo, so insistent that they weren’t influenced by video games, music, movies or books that they burn most of their possessions. Subtly, the film does suggest a factor that may have contributed to the killings and certainly contributed to the decision to make a video diary: the possibility of posthumous celebrity. Both here and in the real-life hostage saga BUS 174, self-destructive people decide to make a public statement by taking others down with them, inflicting their pain on a whole community which may have caused it.

In LOST IN TRANSLATION, something really did get lost. Formally, the film is engaged with world cinema: Sofia Coppola’s direction owes a great deal to Claire Denis and Wong Kar-wai. It’s practically a sister to FRIDAY NIGHT. However, Denis describes a city she knows and loves. Coppola chooses one she doesn’t know very well, finds amusingly weird and inscrutable and uses it as a backdrop. I wouldn’t call her snark racist, since it settles on both American and Japanese targets. (I can only imagine the Jerry Lewis jokes in a Parisian version.) All the same, it’s a hip version of Ugly American bluster. Please lip Coppola’s stockings.

Turning away from such xenophobia, New York rep programs like “FILM COMMENT selects” and Subway Cinema’s Asian festival  filled in the holes left by distributors. If Kazakh director Darizhan Omirbaev was Iranian or Chinese, one of his films would probably have been released here by now, but on the map of world cinema, he may as well be working in a black hole. THE ROAD, a witty depiction of a filmmaker and his active fantasy life, suggested 8 1/2 reimagined by Elia Suleiman or Abbas Kiarostami. RESURRECTION OF THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL, a Korean would-be blockbuster turned film maudit, beat THE MATRIX REBLOATED at its own game, offering an optimistic alternative to techno-dystopias. Typically brutal but atypically sober, Takashi Miike’s GRAVEYARD OF HONOR depicted a one-man dystopia. Skin diseases aside, BLISSFULLY YOURS, which will supposedly get released this year, offered a tender glimpse of fleeting pleasure.  The late John Frankenheimer’s made-for-HBO PATH FOR WAR showcased excellent work  by Michael Gambon (as LBJ) and Alec Baldwin (as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara), serving as a fictional counterpoint to Errol Morris’ THE FOG OF WAR.  You can decide for yourself whether Baldwin or the real  McNamara gives a better performance.

Following dozens of think pieces about the documentary’s rise in popularity written this year,  I may as well chime in. If RIVERS AND TIDES and WINGED MIGRATION are the kind of films that benefited from this new interest, it’s a Pyrrhic victory. (SPELLBOUND, which deals with  immigration as much as spelling bees, underwhelmed me as well.) They offered a deluxe version of the kind of middlebrow nature-porn and art appreciation you can get for free on PBS. Such docs pander to the audience that thinks the Discovery Channel is automatically superior to WILD BOYZ.. 

Meanwhile, the year’s best documentaries  acknowledged the media as an inescapable part of our reality. BUS 174 and CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS’s derivations from fictional storytelling didn’t always work in their favor - the belated revelation that Arnold Friedman’s brother is gay feels like a particularly cheap shot - but their stories were more  gripping and complex than all but the best screenplays. Even more to the point, they describe the world we live in - the same one that produced the cyber-fantasias of demonlover, RESURRECTION OF THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL and THE MATRIX trilogy - rather than one we can (or would like to) escape to.
Top 10 list:

1. THE SON (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium)

3. BLISSFULLY YOURS (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
4. IRREVERSIBLE (Gaspar Noe, France)
5. GRAVEYARD OF HONOR (Takashi Miike, Japan)
6. BUS 174 (Jose Padilha, Brazil)
8. ZERO DAY (Ben Coccio)
9. BAD SANTA (Terry Zwigoff)
10. ELEPHANT (Gus van Sant)
Runners-up: DIVINE INTERVENTION (Elia Suleiman, Palestine), FRIDAY NIGHT (Claire Denis, France), GUARDIAN OF THE FRONTIER (Maja Weiss, Slovenia), AN INJURY TO ONE (Travis Wilkerson), PATH TO WAR (John Frankenheimer), PISTOL OPERA (Suzuki Seijun, Japan),  THE ROAD (Darizhan Omirbaev, Kazakhstan), SCHOOL OF ROCK (Richard Linklater), TEN (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran), THEY SAY (Michele Smith)
Shorts: THE GALILLEAN SATELLITES (Courtney Hoskins), GUEST ROOM (Skander Halim, Canada), HURT (Mark Romanek), LIKE ALL BAD MEN HE LOOKS ATTRACTIVE (Michele Smith)