It's Movie Time: The Year That Was--2003

We use our little symbolic toys to look at the films of 2003.

In 2003 actors dreamed about being politicians and politicians dreamed about being film stars. Filmmakers had a jolly time playing with reality, but then that is the stuff of which their dreams are made.

As we attempt to pull together significant films from 2003, we needed to decide what form of reality we should take: film critics? historians? or just our plain old grumpy selves?

Typical of "Its-Movie-Time" arrogance, we recapture 2003 in some of the films that year, even though we know Robert Louis Stevenson was right when he said that "the worst historian has a clearer view of the period he studies than the best of us can hope to form of that in which we live." We reviewed real works of art, which often in 2003 were interpreting real events that media had warped into unreal scenarios.

But popular culture, especially film, can capture the gestalt if not the events of any time. John Dewey described what could as well be seen as "It's Movie Time" impressionistic film recollection: "Our historic imagination is at best slightly developed. We generalize and idealize the past egregiously. We set up little toys to stand as symbols for centuries and the complicated lives of countless individuals."

Yes, we use our little symbolic toys to look at the films of 2003.



President Bush deserved an Oscar for his "Top Gun" performance as an air force hero who landed at sea . . .

"About Schmidt"

In the earliest part of the year, Jack Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt in "About Schmidt," a broken down retired old man of sixty-six, who sets out to shuffle, moan, groan, and complain his way through his post-retirement existence.

Nicholson dazzles: He's witty, nasty, audacious, irritating, and funny. As a matter of fact, he's just the kind of character who would have made a great governor of the state of California.

The static images of this retired insurance man are in their own way dynamic as he stares off into the unknown, comprehending little of what life means and failing miserably to deal with the recent loss of his wife of 42 years. Warren Schmidt moves like a patient just out of surgery--dazed and confused by life's indifference to him and his inability to make a difference. Only when he assumes command of his Winnebago does he seem at all relaxed. Yet he cannot escape the existential reality "Easy-Rider" journeys offer, for instance, when an RV camp lady says to him, "I see inside of you a sad man."

No other film in 2003 better shows how being prepared for retirement is a lifetime job, no illusions allowed.

"Talk to Her"

From Nebraska to Madrid, many of the best movies this past year were about the experiences of common people quietly attempting to survive the realities that others ignored.

Pedro Almod?var, best known for such garishly flamboyant films as "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down," presented "Talk to Her," a film exhibiting his previously hidden feelings of deep sensitivity. Visually as warm and full-bodied as a bottle of rioja alta, "Talk to Her" tells the story of two young men and the two young women they love from afar.

One of the men, counter-to-macho type, is slow, a little bit dull, and quite comfortable with the fact that he possesses feminine care giving tendencies. The other is rough, rugged and masculine in appearance, but soft and vulnerable inside, so soft that he was first noticed by his new friend when he was discovered crying in public.

Because the two comatose ladies can't hear the men, the men are left alone to weep at the smallest bits of melancholy. In this case, the two men gently and faithfully await the return of their loves from their comas. These men could represent the new age of sensitivity where men now talk but women can't hear. Listening is a major metaphor, but as for talking back, T. S. Eliot said, "I don't think they will sing for me." For men it's a disturbing reality cloaked in an odd, almost magical story.

A surreal sequence where a miniaturized man fully enters his love is as shocking and funny a sequence as you will ever see. Women are capable of swallowing up men until they are lost in the feminine mystique. No shrews tamed here.

"City of God"

According to the film "City of God," there wasn't much singing or dancing going on in the back streets of Rio this past year.

This Brazilian version of Oliver Twist shows one of Rio's most poverty stricken favellas, ironically known as the "City of God," populated with hundreds of poor families preyed upon by gangs of their own young people, as well as by the city's corrupt police force.

Among these youthful desperadoes are two boys, one a photographer, the other a dealer in drugs, whose stories the movie details. Out of sight of the expensive hotels and nude beaches, this fictional film takes us into a nether world of poverty and violence that's as outrageous as it is obscene.

"City of God," though only a movie, tells a story that is, unfortunately, all too real. The illusions are for the politicians.

Artistically, it is Scorsese on steroids, more like "Goodfellas" than "Gangs of New York, " but the gritty urban swaggering, gratuitous violence, and lost innocence are there. Rio is just New York at its worst. Yet the energy and romance of young people of all ages digging out of poverty through crime is there as it was so long ago in Bu?uel's "Los Olvidados." Latinos just do better than gringos in making poverty and crime a realistic story.

In the very first sequence, narrator Rocket slowly morphs into his younger self to tell his story from lonely child to wary photographer amidst carnage unmatched recently except for "Amores Perros." The combination of dazzling cinematography and urban blight mixes well the illusion/reality motif.

In counter-point to the gritty reality of "City of God," the movie's intoxicating music was composed and written by Antonio Pinto and Ed C?rtes, who sprinkled into their soundtrack just the right amounts of jazz and samba. And just a little bit of funk.

The new president of Brazil exclaimed that this film showed a need for change now. The ironic title, "City of God," says it better.



The Pentagon still didn't get it after looking for answers in "The Battle of Algiers," where the Algerians got rid of the occupying French . . .

"A Mighty Wind"

A mighty wind was blowing last year, but whether or not it was blowing in peace and freedom not everyone could agree, because the reality of it all kept shifting in the sands.

So what a perfect time for director/writer Christopher Guest, the beloved cinematic spoofer, to give reality one more turn in "A Mighty Wind." He is as good a representative of the unreal world of 2003 as we could ask for in a satirist: His "mocumentaries" like "Spinal Tap" (as writer) and "Best of Show" skewer reality, mostly the kind involving vanity and pretension, that is, mostly show biz. In an age of dangerous spinning, Guest's satire seems closer to reality than the real itself.

His "A Mighty Wind" is about 3 groups from the 1960s folk craze reuniting for a show in honor of a deceased promoter. What results is more reminiscent of "Hootenanny" than "Woodstock." But the music is so good that by the time
you reach the final concert, you forget the film is a satire.

"A Mighty Wind" works because folk music is easy to imitate. And there was a great deal of imitation folk music in the sixties. From Hootenanny to the New Christy Minstrels everybody wanted to get into the act.

Mostly forgotten were the protest balladeers of the '30s and '40s, but by the time the '60s rolled around even the protesters had eased their way into our living rooms. Joan Baez; Peter, Paul & Mary; Judy Collins; and even Pete Seeger, all found themselves singing, right up there on TV.

"A Mighty Wind" is an affectionate spoof of those wonderful talents who must have been more than a little bit embarrassed that they had managed to become so mainstream.

"Swimming Pool"

"Bend it like Beckham's" Parminder Nagra was spunky enough to take our attention away from our folk roots to root us in unreal post-modern feminism. From her and Keira Knightly in "Beckham" to Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier in "Swimming Pool," it was a great year for leading ladies especially Rampling.

Not since "Adaptation" has the art and craft of writing been so carefully and dramatically depicted as in Francois Ozon's "Swimming Pool." Although the central character, Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling), is a Ms. Marpole or Jessica Fletcher crime fiction maven, the film tries to weave her middle-aged, repressed artist into a mystery plot as psychologically energetic as any psychoanalysis.

Most of the film is planted on Rampling's admirable body and in her mind, where her real and imaginative lives contend for prominence. Ozon takes us on a personal journey of discovery fusing personal anxieties and longings with the tyranny of a profession that, as in "Barton Fink," requires trauma to test the limits of expression.

The story moves from inside Morton to the reality of random sex, female aggression, and family loss. Ozon is a master of Rampling's subtle expression--few mature actresses are as expressively understated and indisputably attractive as she. She is proof that still waters run deep.

However, Ozon's "Swimming Pool" is slow moving,
pretentious, and sometimes even a bit boring. Hardly subtle are the provocative shot of Charlotte Rampling lying on her bed quite nude and the numerous close-ups of Julie's naked chest. There were, however, many believable images in the film such as the seductive French chalet in the country setting and the scenes of the frustrated mystery writer trying to get her words on a page.

"Man on the Train"

Also from France, Patrice Laconte's "Man on the Train" was a favorite film of these critics last June, connecting the lyrical and unreal romance of rural France with the reality of crime and death. It has characteristic French sensibility (friendship of 2 middle-aged men) and ironic world-weariness (a bank robbery is just a job).

When Johnny Hallyday's craggy-faced tough guy comes to a small French town, he is hospitably housed by Jean Rochefort's eccentric retired teacher in his cluttered but warm family estate. Each man faces a defining Saturday:
Rochefort a triple bypass and Hallyday a heist. Before the day is over, the two become friends, each longing to be like the other: teacher wants to be a cowboy gunslinger and outlaw wants to be a pipe-smoking professor--each dream is an illusion.

Both men exit still dreaming the other's life but content to accept the fate already decreed. The film is filled with reality and illusion: the click-clack sounds of the steel wheels on the tracks, the rumble and roar of the train passing through pitch-dark tunnels, the brown leather coach seats, the old weathered trench coat and black leather jacket worn by a third-rate hood who's heading for a showdown in a small out-of-the way French town.

No four-letter words from the thief in this film. No laser warning systems to foil his intentions. Just a two-bit loner who falls in love with pianos, smoking pipes, and the newly discovered world of poetry. A lyrical mix of illusion and reality.

"The Dancer Upstairs"

Now living in France, robust, roguish, devilish-eyed, manic John Malkovich directed his first feature, "The Dancer Upstairs," possibly the best slow movie all year but not the most realistic. Javier Bardem is Augustin, a former Latin American lawyer turned investigator trying to find Ezequiel, a revolutionary leader causing mayhem with symbolic atrocities meant to destabilize the new government. "Dancer in the Dark" shows the disquieting effects of martial law, forcing an American audience to think about the long-term effects of Ashcroft/Rumsfeld terrorist detentions.

Augustin none-too-late discovers that "the fourth stage of communism is just a big fat man in a cardigan." Now that's reality!

Just as real is the violence in Latin America that continues even to this day. Based on the real-life struggles between the Shining Path guerillas and the authoritarian government of Peru, "The Dancer Upstairs" returns us to the political-thriller traditions of Costa-Gavras. Malkovich's "Dancer" shows sympathy for the idealistic youth, who were willing to die for their cause, just as he shows sympathy for the police officer caught between his love for one of the young rebels and his obligations to the establishment.

"Pirates of the Caribbean"

On the more definitely illusory side, the coolest pirate film of the hot summer is "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Jade." The coolest pirate of all time may be Johnny Depp's captain Jack Sparrow, a fey swashbuckler with androgynous mannerisms.

Depp steals the booty and the film, which is inspired by the Disney theme park ride of the same name. Most of this is parody of all the other pirate films ever made including a post-modern pirate's code interpreted as just "guidelines."

Shakespeare as always catches the cavalier spirit:
"Pirates may make cheap pennyworths of their pillage,
And purchase friends, and give to courtezans,
Still revelling like lords till all be gone . . . ."

"The Pirates of the Caribbean" features an ugly band of cutthroats and bloodthirsty brigands. The metallic sounds of clashing sabers, the roars of the ocean against the ships as they slice through its rolling waves, the movie's majestic soundtrack, stunning cinematography, and ghoulish danse macabre--It's all over-the-top fun.

And nothing is more over-the-top than Johnny Depp, who plays a swishy pirate-in-exile swinging his way from yardarm to yardarm with comical aplomb. If high seas romance is your bottle of rum, you'll not see another like this one for decades to come.

"Dirty Pretty Things"

On the side of reality, Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things" is a thriller interrupted by a sublime romance. A Nigerian doctor hides in London behind 2 jobs as cabbie and night porter. After he finds a human heart in a hotel room, his own heart is changed forever. He becomes aware of low-life trafficking in organs and aware that as a doctor he could relieve many pains, his own included, by helping the transplant operations. Frears lets us suffer with Okwe while he decides if his conventional morality can adjust to the underworld's impossible demands.

However, in "Dirty Pretty Things," it is the love story between the doctor and a Turkish chambermaid (Audrey Tautou) that entrances. Though they both hide from immigration officials, they cannot hide from their love. The power of mutual respect turning into love and impossibility is a reality worth witnessing.

Unlike Brit director Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears comes from a middle-class home. But quite like Mike Leigh, Frears' most moving films detail the plight of the underclass in Great Britain. Such is the case in "Dirty Pretty Things."

To set the mood for the film Chris Menges brilliantly depicts the visual disparity between those who are served and those who do the serving in today's London. Using rich warm tones of brown, red, and yellow to enhance the elegance of the hotel lobby where the main story is set, Menges also chooses to emphasize the garish fluorescent lights that illuminate the hotel's kitchen, the back hallways, and parking garages where the immigrants spend their time cleaning toilets, carrying suitcases, and slaving in garment shops.

The subject matter in "Dirty Pretty Things" may be brutal, but its conclusion is tender and wise.

"Open Range"

Far from London, in the Wild West of America, the opening sequences of director/star Kevin Costner's "Open Range" feel like Cinemascopic reveries, or maybe replicas of his vistas in "Dances with Wolves." Not revisionist reality.

Costner evokes the visual images and conventions of the Western so perfectly it seems there are half a dozen classics in the film. The moralizing about respect and duty, the need to start over, the fight with greedy landowners, the difficult question of free grazing over land rights, the need to face down evil ("W" should love this film) are present. Like Clint Eastwood, Costner knows how to revise the genre where the issues are not always clear and the good guys not always good. Like the delightful "Sea Biscuit," "Open Range" represents what American filmmakers of classical cinema do best: big photography, big themes, big stars, and big emotions.

It features impressive landscapes, impressive acting, impressive cinematography, and most of all, impressive music. Robert Duvall is someone you'd like to sit down and have a chaw with. Annette Bening is the kind of stately woman that an old cowpoke like John Wayne would come off the range for. But instead of trying to emulate John Ford and Howard Hawks, "Open Range" would have been more enjoyable if the cowboys had sung and Smiley Burnett had been Costner's side-kick.



The Los Angeles Times called the capture of Saddam Hussein a Hollywood ending, but movie fans know it isn't over till it's over.

"Once Upon a Time in Mexico"

Robert Rodriquez's "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" does a surrealistic Sergio-Leone turn on revolution, heroes, violence, revenge, and redemption. Rodriguez's third part of his Mariachi trilogy, when Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek rappel from a tall apartment while chained together, there is no more exciting or more unrealistic escape this year.

The plot is too convoluted; the body count is high and unrealistically void of blood, as if the multitasking director couldn't make up his mind between realism and symbolism.

"Lost in Translation"

Much more balanced in reality is Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" with the Oscar-worthy performance of Bill Murray as a married, middle-aged movie star making a whiskey commercial in Tokyo. His connection to Scarlett Johansson, playing a brainy recent college grad in a losing marriage, is platonic with an undercurrent of non-fatal attraction. Sounds very un-Hollywood but realistic by almost anyone else's standards. Also intriguing two years ago was "My First Mister" with Albert Brooks and Leelee Sobieski as a middle-aged haberdasher and a 17-year old Goth girl. "Translation" goes even further in building realistic cross-generational friendships beyond sex.

Sophia Coppola has her father's gift of objectifying the heart in the landscape, in this case a Times Square/Piccadilly Circus neon warmth, and adds her original talent for finding graceful moments in silence. Bored, lonely, and embedded in the belly of a sleek and gaudy landscape, the lonely twosome are trapped in a culture where they're humming along but don't know the words. And to make matters worse, they've arrived at one of those times in life when they no longer know who they are.

Serendipity is the author of our many haunting and romantic moments. Being in the right place, at the right time, with the right person, and motivated by just the right amount of boredom, makes for a classic once-in-a-lifetime connection. "Lost in Translation" is one of the most realistic movies
this year.

"The Cooler"

Arguably realistic, "The Cooler" has unlucky William H. Macy hired by a casino to "cool" the lucky streaks of high rollers by just standing near them. Martin Scorsese's "Casino" is a more complicated version of this simple treatment of realistic highs and lows in glitzy gambling.

Macy has his own lucky streak when he finds love but is threatened by mean old casino owner, Alec Baldwin. The weightiness of William Macy's sad-sack persona is sometimes so heavy that it fills even the audience with despair.
But there are some lovely scenes of Maria Bello and Macy's bare butts bouncing up and down, side by side, as they pound on the wall to get back at the love making couple next door. But the real scene-stealer is Baldwin, who gives one of the best performances of the year.

"Mystic River"

Less sexy than that scene or Vegas itself is director Clint Eastwood's classic "Mystic River," a piece of tragic Americana more real and poignant than the expressionism of "American Beauty" and the grimness of "Deer Hunter."

The characters played by Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, and Tim Robbins were all forever changed when as kids Robbins was abducted and abused for several days. Decades later Penn's
daughter is murdered and the abused Robbins emerges a suspect.

Although Eastwood may have a more enduring classic in "Unforgiven," "Mystic River" is far superior to his recent "Blood Work" and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." If for nothing else "Mystic" reminds how much childhood still affects life and how much great acting can transform a standard plot into the almost sublime.

"Mystic River" also reminds us how much our lives are shaped by place. Eastwood captures the gloom in the air over the stacks of walk-up apartments that huddle against the backdrop of Boston Harbor. The boys play stickball hockey in the streets, the men smoke on their little back porches and down their drinks in seedy waterfront bars.

Sean Penn plays Jimmy, a loving father, loving husband, and a you-don't-want-to-cross-him guy. It's no surprise then, when grief overtakes him, that he's driven by the desire to seek revenge. It is a surprise, however, that in "Mystic River," Clint Eastwood, doesn't allow his characters to openly indulge that rage. It's pretty realistic stuff; no Hollywood illusions in sight. Subtlety reigns in a quietly credible tragedy.

"American Splendor"

The human comedy does not get better than the depiction of real-life comic-book storyteller and file clerk Harvey Pekar in "American Splendor." The dramatization of this authentic nerd's life is part documentary because real life people like Pekar and his wife, Joyce, and their eccentric friends appear now and then as themselves. (Harvey Pekar achieved
fame in the '80's with his "American Splendor" comics and his several appearances on Letterman, until he became too acerbic exploited, and real.)

Like his comic books, Pekar tells his life the way it is, flaws, flakes, and all, so true and funny that the audience must nod in agreement about life when he says, ''I don't understand it, Baby, it's so strange, sometimes.'' Harvey lectures in a voiceover, "If you're the kind of person looking for romance or fantasy or escapism, you've got the wrong movie." This is the right movie for anyone who loves comic books, real-life eccentrics, and the splendor of American diversity.

"The Singing Detective"

Pop-culture scholars would call "The Singing Detective" a post-modern parody. Movie fans who prize great performances would call Robert Downey, Jr.'s portrayal of "Dan Dark," the fantasizing rock 'n roll mystery-writer, one of this year's most impressive on-screen performances. If you can manage to get by the sight of Dan's raw and scaly skin, you're in for some exciting parodies of Hollywood's most memorable moments:

Think the bizarre hospital scenes from Fosse's "All that Jazz." Think the childhood abuse scenes from "Mommie Dearest." Think the rock 'n roll scenes from "Grease" and "Bye Bye Birdie." And finally, think about all
those movies where psychiatrists try to outwit their patients. "The Singing Detective's" not about life-- it's about the movies, and that's why die-hard movie fans are going love this one, a well-executed illusion with no pretense about its fantasy.

"Bubba Ho-tep"

Even more wildly illusory is "Bubba Ho-tep," the most imaginatively accessible film of 2003, realism easily forsaken for imagination. Elvis living in a nursing home with JFK (transformed into an elderly black rebel) is the embodiment of cultural clutter, a king in exile stripped of his fame and fortune. These two icons of the twentieth century literally battle an Egyptian soul-sucking mummy for the souls of humanity.

Bruce Campbell as Elvis gives one of the year's best performances. But the real star is the subtext, the nagging feeling that pop culture devours kings and presidents. This film is weird and intellectually challenging because it demands we look at fame and identity in a jaundiced but humane way, with flourishes of hilarity to soften the inevitable disappointments of after-celebrity life.

As Theodor Haecker said, "A man must acquire and possess this fame and then recognize that it is nothing and leaves his soul empty." It's the ring of truth in the imaginative narration that makes this film the most unrealistic realistic film this year.

"Kill Bill"

Just as imaginative is "Kill Bill," Quentin Tarantino's heap of cinematic styles and genres aiming at one target: the broken line of revenge. While it is highly stylized and unrealistic, it is easy to like because of its excessive creativity on one side and its consistent theme of lust for revenge on the other.

Its dazzling soundtrack, exquisite pacing, and masterfully choreographed, sharp-as-a-razor sword-swinging scenes make it the perfect film to remind us that violence always begets more violence.

It also reminds us, as did the Greek dramas "Electra" and "Medea," that hell hath no fury like a woman wronged. As it was said of Electra so too could it be said of Uma Thurman's revenge-driven "Bride": "Pity the victim of her vengeance, whatever raging wrongs possessed her, like a lioness from the mountains running through meadows and orchards, she carried out her purpose."

Hollywood's holiday season, which came upon us in the midst of the war in Iraq and our war against terror, brought some powerful 19th century lessons of history to the screen.

The Japanese learn how to use guns to conquer the swords in "The Last Samurai." In "Master and Commander" the tenacity of the British and their clever use of firepower defeats the French. And in "The Lord of the Rings" the Hobbits are able to return to their rural paradise only after they have destroyed the ring that was a symbol of aggression and power.

"The Missing"

Less acclaimed than those popular entries, "The Missing" has a dark opening set in a crude ranch that hunkers down in the middle of the wind-swept plains of America's post-Civil War southwest. It's not the kind of a film you'd expect to be a big hit despite the box-office appeal of director Ron Howard because it lacks his usual positive spin on reality.

The low, thick accent of Maggie Gilkeson, the homesteader's woman, will remind Robert Altman fans of a similar mumbled opening in his "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." Played by the regal Cate Blanchett, Maggie, however, is not the usual homespun wife. Because she's studied medicine, she's handy to have around with the violence and bloodshed that's about to descend on her, her husband, and their two young daughters.

Add the return of Maggie's errant father (Tommy Lee Jones) to the mix of the plot. Throw in a handful of renegade Indians, former Civil War soldiers, and other carpetbaggers, who traffic in young women, and you've got yourself a good, old-fashioned barnburner.

Blanchett should be nominated for an Academy Award and her youngest daughter, played by Jenna Boyd, who holds her own with her on-screen mom, should be nominated for the year's best supporting actress.

"The Last Samurai"

"The Last Samurai" is a familiar epic: exotic location, a historical shift in the culture of an entire people (Japan on the brink of modernism), a hero tested to the max, and warfare on a grand scale. Add sweeping cinematography with almost three hours of screen time, and you have a Hollywood epic.

What you do not have is a realistic performance by Tom Cruise in the titular role. He's not mature enough to play a Civil-War-weary Captain facing combat with what may be the last natural fighting machine in Japan, the Samurai.

There is enough sword fighting to make you long for the wide-open spaces of "Tora! Tora! Tora!" enough silly glances between Cruise and a Japanese widow to make you long for the mirth in "Teahouse of the August Moon," and enough trite dialogue to make you long for the wit of "Bridge on the River Kwai." Those three films seem more realistic in global and cinematic terms than "Last Samurai."

It features magnificent scenery and devastating battle scenes, but it also features a script whose spoken words fail to match the horrible grandeur of those images on the screen.
A cinematic master of movies about war, "The Last Samurai's" director, Edward Zwick, focuses in on disillusioned heroes who have experienced, first hand, the bloody horrors of modern day combat.

Tom Cruise, an Indian killing hero in post-Civil War America, has been hired as a U.S. military advisor to help the Japanese army put down the rebellious Samurai warriors, who, like the Indians, are attempting to preserve their older ways of living. Cruise's character has a change of heart and ends up leading the mounted Samurai's sword-swinging charge into the jaws of the military's bloody Gatling gun and booming canons.

In reality, God may favor the just, but the devil favors those who have the deadliest weapons.

"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"

In Australia Peter Weir usually has a penchant for the weird: "A Picnic at Hanging Rock," dripping with symbolism and sex, is unrealistic as hell; his "Truman Story" leans heavily on allegory about media control and surpasses "Picnic" for surrealism. His new "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," starring Russell Crowe is an entertaining Napoleonic-era sea yarn and the most realistic of the three.

Yet, as Weir is wont to do, he layers allegorical strands over his realism, one of them a visit to the Galapagos Islands, where the study of survival is new and exciting and parallels the shipboard dangers. Courage, determination, loyalty, and leadership are the key thematic elements. Weir does not shy away from suggesting that power compromises one's command or that ends may not justify the means, giving his yarn a contemporary truth for 2003 global conflicts.

As he did in "Gladiator," Russell Crowe convincingly plays the hero, more willing to play games as if they were war and war as if it were a game.

"Pieces of April"

No one turns games into war any better than the families who gather together to give thanks that Thanksgiving comes but once a year. In "Pieces of April," Katie Holmes plays April, a wholesome looking punk rebel who decides that she and her boyfriend (Derek Luke) should have her suburban family over for Thanksgiving dinner.

That her family has never met her boyfriend and that they don't know she lives in a graffiti-covered slum on New York City's lower East Side adds to the movie's pleasures. That she's never before baked a turkey adds to the list of the movie's delightful disasters.

A low-budget treasure, "Pieces of April" features Oliver Platt as the especially sensitive father and Patricia Clarkson as the long suffering Mom, who ends up revealing that beneath her cutting, outspoken exterior is a caring heart. No illusions here, just Thanksgiving combat played all over America every year in November.

"Love Actually"

In England, Hugh Grant can charmingly do a double take in any situation and make you believe he is an unwitting and innocent victim of unbearable cultural demands. In "Love Actually," Grant plays a young British prime minister, a combination of Tony Blair and Jimmy Carter, with lust in his boyish heart but a value system in tact and ready to defy his urges and the president of the US, played by a randy Billy Bob Thornton, a combination of Bill Clinton and "W" Bush.

This funny, fluffy Christmas story about the pervasiveness of love in a cynical age deftly and imaginatively cuts among nine separate stories of people looking for love. The most delightful segment is Bill Nighy as aging rocker Billy Mack, pulling out all the stops for his cynical Christmas record.

But it is Grant's minister who finally proves to the world that "love actually is all around." The sentiment and the film are illusion borne of a universal need for peace and love.

"Lord of the Rings: Return of the King"

In a related world, New Zealand director Peter Jackson presented "Lord of the Rings," the best film epic/fantasy ever with its three installments, of which the recent "Return of the King" is itself the best. The trilogy rejoins our Western culture to its myths and legends from over two thousand years, crowning the illusion side of our theme for 2003.

In the promotion for "The Return of the King," it appeared the trilogy was going to end up being an apologist's defense of war, for here on the screen were the words, bigger than a pro lineman: "There can be no triumph without loss, No victory without suffering, No freedom without sacrifice." It looked like the script was more likely to have been written by George Bush than by Howard Dean.

But not a George Bush war because the good guys here are reluctant warriors for peace, not politics. Gandalph is more George Sr. than W! There are even mass destruction weapons like giant elephants, a gorgon-fired battering ram, and grotesque living dead. "Return of the King" returns the little people like Hobbits and us to the civilizing warmth of home and love, an authentic American passion translated to the unreal world of the Tolkein trilogy.

"In America"

Back home, "In America" may be the best immigrant movie ever made in the English language: It realistically catches the fortune's wheel of triumphs and defeats that all underprivileged aliens must experience before being legitimized in America.

"My Left Foot" director Jim Sheridan depicts an Irish family of four slipping in to Manhattan through Canada. The children's obsession with "E.T." underscores their need for a home and acceptance from the other aliens inhabiting the scummy tenement, including drug dealers and beggars.

Think of Bergman's "Seventh Seal," where the Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus type of family ultimately triumphs over adversity. Both directors seem drawn to the magic of survival: "In America," the dad, Johnny, tells an artist neighbor, "I need a miracle." By the time he experiences several visions in a full moon, he gets his miracle. The other one is this film itself with a realism and magic that can be found only in America as the lights in New York City twinkle like the stars in a never-never land that exists only in the interior spaces of the filmmaker's mind.

"Something's Gotta Give"

We began this year with Jack Nicholson retiring and heading down the road in an oversized Winnebago. In "Something's Gotta Give" we return to Nicholson still raising his eyebrows and still barely able to conceal that ever present twinkle in his mischievous eyes.

No longer is he widower Warren R. Schmidt. He is now Harry Langer, a 63-year-old music industry executive with a fondness for younger women. Not to worry about his heart attacks. Not to worry about his reliance on a steady supply of Viagra. And not to worry that the real world has increasingly found itself caught up in terror and violence. Jack Nicholson is the consummate clown and Hollywood offers him up to us, still nurturing the belief that laughter is the universal cure for what ails the world.

In this review of 2003 films, we have tried to see reality seen through the lens of film and found distortion both unsettling and splendid.

Though politicians often had difficulty distinguishing between the real and the imaginary, our film artists played with both provocatively and joyfully. Rarely could the real be missed when it came disguised as the unreal in a movie.

No doubt we will find world peace and true love in the years to come. Meanwhile, we will continue to seek them out with the help of our filmmakers and maybe enjoy ourselves along the way.

In the time-honored tradition of lightening it up just when things start getting heavy, here's an end-of-the-year quote from Woody Allen:

"At more than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."