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Anthony Minghella

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The Talented Mr. Minghella.

“He was a really beautiful man, a lot of fun to be with. He was a storyteller in a classic British David Lean tradition.” Anthony Minghella, 1954-2008. I can’t say I was a huge fan of his work, although I’ll stand by the first half of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Still, he aimed high, and had a keen eye for the haunting shot. Condolences to his friends and family.

2003 in Film.

Well, it’s that time of year again, New Year’s Eve. So, without further ado…

Top 20 Films of 2003:

1. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. If you didn’t see this pick coming, welcome to GitM. Ever since this blog started four years ago, I and it have been breathlessly awaiting Peter Jackson’s trilogy, and, boy, he delivered in spades. Even in spite of the pacing problems mandated by the TE running time, Return of the King is a marvel, the perfect ending to this epic for the ages and easily the best third-movie in a series ever. There’s so many ways these films could’ve turned out atrociously. (To take just three examples, think Brett Ratner doing the Pullman books, or the Wachowskis faltering on the early promise of The Matrix, or how Chris Columbus has made the magical world of Harry Potter so four-color monotonous.) The fact that they didn’t — that they instead shattered all expectations while staying true to Tolkien’s vision — is a miracle of inestimable value. In the post-Star Wars age, when epics have been replaced by “blockbusters,” and most event movies have been hollowed-out in advance by irony, excessive hype, dumbing-down, and sheer avarice, Peter Jackson has taught us to expect more from the cinema once again. Beyond all imagining, he took the ring all the way to Mordor and destroyed that sucker. So have fun on Kong, PJ, you’ve earned it.

2. Lost in Translation. It was fun for a while, there was no way of knowing. Like a dream in the night, who can say where we’re going? I still think Sofia Coppola cut a little close to the bone here in terms of autobiography, particularly given her recent split with Spike Jonze. Still, I find this tale of chance encounters and foreign vistas has a strange kind of magic to it, and it has stayed with me longer than any other film this year. Bill Murray comes into full bloom in a part he’s been circling around his entire career, and while I suspect he’ll get some stiff competition from the Mystic River boys come award-time, I’d say he deserves the Oscar for this one. Lost in Translation has its problems, sure, but at it’s best it’s haunting, ethereal, and touching like no other film in 2003.

3. Intolerable Cruelty. I expect I’ll be in the minority on this pick – This more-mainstream-than-usual Coen joint only got above-average reviews, and hardly anyone I’ve spoken to enjoyed it as much as I did. Still, I thought Intolerable Cruelty was a pop delight, 99.44% pure Coen confection. George Clooney is used to much better effect here than in O Brother (gotta love the teeth thing), and everyone else seems to be having enormous amounts of fun along the way. Light and breezy, yeah, but I thought it was that rare breed of romantic comedy that actually manages to be both romantic and hilarious. In the post-Tolkien era, it’s good to know we can always rely on the Coens for consistently excellent work, and I for one am greatly looking forward to The Ladykillers.

(3. The Pianist.) A 2002 film that I caught in March of this year, The Pianist is a harrowing and unique survivor’s tale that’s hard to watch and harder to forget (and I can’t have been the only person who thought post-spider-hole Saddam bore a passing resemblance to Brody’s third-act Szpilman.) Speaking of which, I said in my original review of Adrien Brody that “I can’t see the Academy rewarding this kind of understatement over a scenery-chewing performance like that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York.” Glad to see I was wrong.

4. Mystic River.: The waters of the Charles are disturbed, something is rotten in the outskirts of Boston, and it’s safe to say the Fates are wicked pissed. Much like In the Bedroom in 2001 (and Clint Eastwood’s own earlier Unforgiven), Mystic River is inhabited and propelled by a spirit of lumbering, impending, inexorable doom…what Legolas might call a “sleepless malice.” It is that existential malice, rooted so strongly in local color, that gives this River its considerable power. And unlike Cold Mountain, where stars stick out here and there with showy turns, the ensemble cast of Mystic River never overwhelm the strong sense of place at the heart of the film — indeed, they sustain it with consistently excellent and nuanced performances. Big ups for all involved, and particularly Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden.

5. X2: X-Men United. Laugh if you want, but I can’t think of any other movie where I had more fun this year. Arguably the most successful comic film since Superman 2, X2 improved over its rather staid predecessor in every way you can imagine. From Nightcrawler in the White House to the assault on the mansion to Magneto’s escape to Ian McKellen and Brian Cox chewing the scenery in inimitable fashion, X2 was ripe with moments that seemed plucked directly out of the comics, if not straight out of the fanboy id. To me, my X-Men.

6. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. It’s a long title, it’s a long movie. But a good kinda long…in fact, as I said in my initial review, it seemed to move to the langorous rhythms of a long sea voyage, one that I may not take again for awhile, but one that I still thoroughly enjoyed. And I’ll say this for Russell Crowe…somewhere along the way in each of his films, I tend to forget that he’s Russell Crowe. His Capt. Jack Aubrey was no exception.

7. The Matrix Reloaded. If we can, let’s try to forget the resounding thud on which the Matrix trilogy ended. For a time there, five short months, the fanboy nation was abuzz in trying to figure out exactly where the Wachowskis were going after the second chapter. Previous Matrices, previous Ones? How was Neo manipulating the real world? What was Smith up to? It all seems kinda pedestrian now, of course, but at the time Reloaded was a sequel that outdid its predecessor in pizazz while building on the questions that animated the first film. I won’t defend the first forty-five minutes or the ridiculous rave scene. But, right about the time Hugo Weaving showed up to do what he does best, Revolutions found a new gear that it maintained right up until the arc-twisting Architect monologues at the end. And, as far as action sequences go, it’s hard to beat the visceral thrill of the 14-minute highway chase.

(7. The 25th Hour.) Another 2002 hold-over, and the best film yet made about the aftermath of 9/11, (which only seems natural, given that it’s by one of New York’s finest directors.) Haunted by might-have-beens, what-ifs, and what-nows, The 25th Hour feels real and immediate in its attempt to grapple with both 9/11 and the slamming cage in Monty Brogan’s future. Only once, with the Fight Club-like fracas in the park, does the film flounder. Otherwise, it’s a thought-provoking meditation throughout.

8. The Last Samurai: Breathtaking New Zealand landscapes, furious suicide cavalry charges, rustic untainted pre-modern villages…no, it’s not Return of the King, just the warm-up. [And, as I said earlier, I prefer my anti-modern nostalgia hobbit-like (peaceful, environmental, epicurean) rather than samurai-ish (martial, virtuous, stoic)] While I think Cold Mountain got the Civil War right, I ultimately found this film to be the more engaging historical epic of December 2003. So take that, Miramax.

9. Finding Nemo. Oh, my…I almost forgot about Nemo. (Just like Dory sometimes.) Pixar’s films have been so consistently good that there’s a danger of taking them for granted. They hit another one out of the park in this tale under the sea. As with the Toy Stories and Monster’s Inc. before it, just an all-around solid kid’s movie filled to the brim with eye-popping wonders.

10. Dirty Pretty Things. Although it becomes more conventional as it goes along, DPT starts very well, features a star-making turn by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and manages to include a Audrey Tautou performance that isn’t fingernails-on-the-blackboard bothersome. As with Hugh Grant in About a Boy last year, that deserves plaudits if nothing else.

11. L’Auberge Espagnole. Hmm…two Tautous in a row….perhaps I should stop playa-hatin’. At any rate, while Lost in Translation trafficked in existential detachment, L’Auberge Espagnole showed the fun Scarlett Johannson could’ve been having, if she’d just lighten up and get out of the hotel once in awhile. This paean to the pan-Continental culture of the EU captured the excitement and possibilities of youth in a way that was both sexier and funnier than any of the teen shock-schlock emanating from our own side of the pond. Road Trippers, take a gander.

12. The Quiet American. A bit by-the-numbers, perhaps, but Phillip Noyce’s take on Graham Greene’s novel was blessed with timeliness and two great performances by Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, both of whom expertly exemplified their homelands’ diplomatic tendencies without becoming overly tendentious. I’m not sure if giving away the end before the credits was the right way to go, but otherwise the film rarely falters.

13. The Fog of War. From Alden Pyle to one of his real-life counterparts, Robert McNamara, who now only remains quiet when questioned about his own culpability over Vietnam. Despite this central failing, a spry McNamara succeeds in penetrating the fog of time to examine how he himself became lost in the maze-like logic of war. If you can withstand the frequent Phillip Glass-scored barrages, it’s worth a see.

14. Pirates of the Caribbean. My initial upbeat opinion on this one has faded somewhat over the autumn and winter months. Still, at the time PotC was a surprisingly good summer popcorn flick, and rollicking fun for about two of of its two and a half hours. Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush were great fun, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom make for great eye candy, and Sam Lowry was in it. I’m just going to assume it was much, much better than The Haunted Mansion.

15. The Station Agent. Ok, it’s got Sunday afternoon bored in front of the IFC Channel written all over it. And not much happens for the last forty minutes or so. Still, The Station Agent proves that if you write a few interesting, well-rounded, complicated characters and throw them in a situation together, the story almost writes itself.

16. American Splendor. The first of a couple of movies that I seemed to like less than most people. Sure, I thought Splendor was well-done, but it never really grabbed me, and I’d be more impressed by its breaking-the-fourth-wall daring if it hadn’t already been done twenty-five years ago in Annie Hall. (Similarly, I thought this kooky underground comic world was captured better in Crumb.)

17. Spellbound. Could you use it in a sentence? Again, people seemed to love this flick, and I was definitely entertained by it. But, when you get right down to it, what we have here is kids spelling for two hours…I couldn’t imagine ever sitting through this one again. And, as I said in my original post, I thought Spellbound was more manipulative than it lets on. Less kids and more complexity would’ve made the film more satisfying. S-A-T-I…

18. Cold Mountain. I’ve already written about this one at length today, so I’ll just refer you to the review. To sum up, occasionally beautiful but curiously uninvolving and way too top-heavy with star power distractions.

19. 28 Days Later. Great first third, ok second third, lousy finish. The film was much more interesting before our team makes it to Christopher Eccleston’s countryside version of Apocalypse Now. And I can’t stand horror movies where the protagonists make idiot decisions, like driving into tunnels for no reason or taking downers when surrounded by flesh-eating, spastic zombies. But the cast — particularly Brendan Gleeson — do yeoman’s work, and the opening moments in an empty London are legitimately creepy.

20. T3: Rise of the Machines. Before he was the Governator, he was the T-1000 one (last?) time. Let’s face it, this movie is mainly here by virtue of not being bad. I mean, c’mon, it was better than you thought, right? Well, me too. Claire Danes was insufferable, but Nick Stahl and Kristanna Loken give it the ole college try, and the story takes a few jags that weren’t immediately apparent. Bully to Jonathan Mostow for not running James Cameron’s franchise into the ground.

As Yet Unseen: 21 Grams, Bad Santa, The Cooler, House of Sand and Fog, In America, Love, Actually, Something’s Gotta Give.

Best Actor: Bill Murray, Lost in Translation. Sean Penn, Mystic River. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dirty Pretty Things. Michael Caine, The Quiet American.

Best Actress: Scarlett Johannson, Lost in Translation (who’s sort of here by default…I expect competition from Diane “Something’s Gotta Give” Keaton, Samantha “In America” Morton, Jennifer “House of Sand and Fog” Connolly, and Naomi “21 Grams” Watts.)

Best Supporting Actor: Tim Robbins, Mystic River, Sean Astin, Return of the King, Billy Boyd, Return of the King, Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai.

Best Supporting Actress: Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain, Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River, Patricia Clarkson, The Station Agent.

Worst Films: 1. Gods and Generals, 2. Dreamcatcher, 3. Scary Movie 3. 4. Underworld.

Worst Disappointments: 1. The Hulk, 2. The Matrix: Revolutions, 3. Kill Bill, Vol. 1.

Ho-Hum: 1. LXG, 2. Bubba Ho-Tep, 3. Big Fish, 4. Masked and Anonymous. 5. Tears of the Sun. 6. Veronica Guerin, 7. The Core.

A Frigid, Starry Peak.

Well, I haven’t read the Charles Frazier novel, but I’d say “Cold Mountain” is an apt and colorful metaphor to sum up this film, its stars, and even its director’s entire body of work. For like Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, and as with The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain is beautiful but distant, occasionally breathtaking but often chilly, and not so much high as just plain stilted. In fact, the hike up and down this Cold Mountain includes definite moments of grandeur, but more often than not it feels like a bit of a slog. At times, it’s even glacial.

I should say up front that this is a far better Confederate-centered Civil War film than the vile Gods and Generals. The chaos and carnage of the Battle of the Crater that opens the film seems much more real and visceral than anything in the godawful G&G. Whatsmore, the historical aspects of Mountain generally feel right (In fact, much of the film seems like a fictionalization of Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers of Invention, which vividly describes how the lives of Southern women were transformed by the war experience and the collapse of the Confederate patriarchy.)

Unfortunately, the respectable versimilitude of the film keeps getting undermined by the wattage of its star power. From Stalingrad to Petersburg, nobody in the business does starving-but-handsome-and-resolute-warrior as well as Jude Law these days, and he’s quite good here despite the frequent accent-slippage. But, frankly, Nicole Kidman feels all wrong here. It’s not that she’s bad per se, it’s just that, like her ex-husband in 19th-century Japan three weeks ago, she never seems like she fits this milieu at all. (It doesn’t help that she spends most of the end of the film in an outdoor outfit that looks Banana Republic-coordinated.) Finally, others have noted the lack of chemistry between Law and Kidman, and I too thought the central romance here was rather uninvolving.

But, even if the two leads’ remarkable frigidity wasn’t distracting enough, Law and Kidman are just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, in the spirit of the film, I’ll go ahead and torture this metaphor even further…Perhap sensing that the romantic low burn here might be too dim a fire to heat the screen for 150 minutes, Anthony Minghella has packed Cold Mountain so full of stars and cameos that it starts to feel like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. From Lucas Black getting bayonetted in the opening minutes to Jack White procuring cider at the very end (in yet another of Minghella’s quintessentially ham-handed symbolic moments, but I’ll get to that later), famous faces keep appearing around every corner of the poor, white backcountry South, and it took me out of the movie almost every time. Basically, I found it hard to become engrossed in the film when I kept thinking things like “So, that’s what Kathy Baker‘s been up to…she got married to the manager from Major League,” “James Rebhorn‘s his doctor? He’s toast,” “Well, Jena Malone didn’t last very long,” “and “Hey, that’s Cillian Murphy. Between him and Brendan Gleeson, this is like a sequel to 28 Days Later…um, except it has no zombies and it’s set in the Civil War South.”

Ok, perhaps that’s an unfair criticism, but I’d think even people who don’t go to the movies much are going to be distracted by all the Hollywood faces flitting about. I should say while I’m on the subject that Brendan Gleeson is very good (as always) here – Not only does he handle the accent like a champ, but he conveys more emotion in one winsome smile or knowing grimace than many of the central characters do the entire film. As for other good performances…Despite lugging around a baby that’s as big as she is, Natalie Portman proves here that she can still act when not forced in front of a bluescreen. (By the way, after the Portman episode, why didn’t Inman take one of the Union horses?) Giovanni Ribisi moves into the frontrunning for the Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel biopic. And, Renee Zellweger…well, she moons and mugs through this film like a Best Supporting Actress award was her birthright, but she still gives Cold Mountain a very-much-needed jolt in the arm every time she shows up. (She’s particularly energetic when compared to the staid Kidman.)

On the flip side of the coin, somebody should’ve told Donald Sutherland that different parts of the South call for different accents…he sounds miles away from a Charlestonian. And Phillip Seymour Hoffman, perhaps the best thing about Minghella’s Ripley, is perhaps the worst thing about Cold Mountain. Completely unconvincing in his role here, he’s a walking, talking anachronism.

All the unnecessary star voltage aside, of course, this movie eventually rises and falls on its director, and all of Anthony Minghella’s strengths and weaknesses are present here. (I should say that I loathed The English Patient and enjoyed Ripley until Jude Law was killed, after which the film meandered to its conclusion.) Both Patient and Ripley have some very beautiful and striking moments, but more often than not the imagery is so “artfully” composed as to become hamhanded. The same goes here for Mountain…we’ve got a lamb running around in wolf’s clothing, we’ve got a dove trapped in a church until Jude Law sets it free (you do the math)…in fact, we have enough fluttering, portentous birds on a wing here to make John Woo blush. Perhaps these capital-S Symbols are in Frazier’s novel too, but I’d still think a subtler director could have mined them more dexterously. And, while I didn’t know the ending coming in, Minghella foreshadows the conclusion so laboriously (even having Kidman break it down step-by-step to Zellweger) that I spent the last twenty-five minutes just waiting for the other shoe to drop, which killed any real emotion I might’ve felt about the denouement.

Looking back, I’ve been pretty harsh here, so I should repeat that Cold Mountain is not a bad film at all. In many ways, it’s quite good. But, Oscar buzz notwithstanding, it’s definitely not great…in fact, I even found it less involving than The Last Samurai. In the future, were I looking to recommend a film that captures the despair and devastation afflicting the Confederate homefront in the waning days of the war, I just might pick Cold Mountain. But, as for attempts to give The Odyssey a Faulknerian palmetto-and-spanish-moss recasting, give me O Brother Where Art Thou? any day of the week.

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