The year in film

Summer dross gives way to somber, ambitious works

By the end of summer 2003, it appeared that sequelitis had reached such epidemic proportions that the year might never recover. Up to then, the year had offered second and third helpings of “X-Men,” “The Matrix,” “The Terminator,” “Spy Kids,” “Legally Blonde,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Lara Croft” and “American Pie.” Oh, yes, there had been “Gigli.”

But just when it seemed that imagination, ambition and fresh subject matter had been written off as factors that might frighten away audiences, the sequels all but vanished and fine films made most of the summer dross seem like thankfully distant memories.

Coming from the majors and independents alike, these pictures show veteran filmmakers working at or near the top of their form — sometimes on serious works that came in enormous packages — as well as relative newcomers speaking with distinctive, unusual voices.

Not only that, but the latter part of the year was marked by works of surpassing grimness. The unrelieved rawness and agony in such films as “Mystic River,” “21 Grams,” “The Missing” and “House of Sand and Fog” are so pronounced that their collective arrival suggests that only now, perhaps, are we seeing the first true post-9/11 films out of Hollywood.

Even given a summer that had been dominated by a fish named Nemo and a horse named the Biscuit, a year that climaxes with “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” “Cold Mountain” and “Mystic River,” with the likes of “Bad Santa,” “The Fog of War,” “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and “House of Sand and Fog” backing them up for good measure, can scarcely be written off for lack of stimulation and seriousness. Paving the way for this had been a late summer/early fall season graced by such felicitously diverse pictures as “American Splendor,” “Open Range,” “Lost in Translation” and “Kill Bill Vol. 1.”

The fact that last year offered something for everyone, from mainstream popcorn-chomping kids to buffs, was represented in the reaction to a single film, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” Widely regarded as the best conclusion to a filmed trilogy anyone can remember (especially after the debacle of the last “Matrix”), “Return” not only packed in the faithful — who stood in line for the first show and stayed up most of the night to watch it — but also earned top marks from critics, some of whom had merely endured the first two installments.

No matter that this, like so many of the summer films, was part of a series. Peter Jackson offers up sights and sensations on a scale never before seen, plus a strong charge of emotion not present in its predecessors. The combination will make it the second most successful film of all time, after “Titanic.”

Not quite so spectacular, perhaps, but an impressive illustration of how the epic format can be approached in an intelligent, personal way, is “Master and Commander.” The size and cost of the picture notwithstanding, Peter Weir approached the story as he has all his previous projects: with a deeply probing mind and the ambition to know much more about his subject than he can ever put on the screen. This sort of detail work pays off in the finished picture, which is as convincing a trip back into the world of 200 years ago as audiences have seen.

“Cold Mountain” may not create as intricate a picture of what the South was like on the verge of the Confederacy’s collapse, but it is extremely nuanced in its view of the ripple effect of war on an entire country, from the front to people on the periphery. And it manages to do fluently what “Gangs of New York” struggled at: presents a long-reach, episodic story at a smooth and proper pace, with colorful subsidiary characters sliding memorably in and out, while never leaving the audience feeling shortchanged.

Facing the foregoing works by a New Zealander, an Aussie and an Englishman, the best that established American directors could do was seen in two resolute genre pieces, “Mystic River” and “Open Range.” Although Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner have won Oscars, both for directing Westerns, doubts about them remain in some quarters, particularly about Costner, whose career has stumbled of late and whose directorial efforts have been marked at times by windy pretension.

So who could have predicted that these two guys, who started out as actors not exactly known for the breadth of their range, would emerge at the beginning of the 21st century as arguably the last two classical directors in Hollywood? But so it is.

Beginning with “Unforgiven,” Eastwood became willing to pay to cast an array of good actors in his films, and he’s been cashing in the dividends ever since. Actors like working with him, and “Mystic River” features a terrific ensemble cast enacting a tough story filmed in a rigorous, plain, objective manner that betrays a commitment to extract all the values inherent in the material. What draws a man over 70, who has enjoyed one of the most phenomenally successful careers anyone ever had in the cinema, to such despairing themes and such a bleak view of life remains a mystery. But he’s done his best work with such stories.

As for Costner, he’s lightened up a bit. took a back saddle to Robert Duvall and shows a feel for the traditional Western that is natural, satisfying and often moving. There’s nothing new about the picture, which aside from the bloodshed could have played comfortably as a solid, above-average mainstream Western in the mid-1950s. Nowadays, however, this sort of thing is a rarity, and to be appreciated as such. On the other end of the spectrum, politically and generically, is Ken Loach’s “Sweet Sixteen,” one of the veteran director’s best and, by any standard, a potent look at a teenager teetering at a crucial fork in the road that could lead him in very different directions. Youth fulfilling — nay, surpassing — expectations is one of the many appealing elements of Niki Caro’s “Whale Rider,” one of the beguiling indie success stories of the year (though nothing approached the “Greek Wedding” phenomenon in 2003).

The big “Sundance picture” was “American Splendor,” Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s uncommonly adroit merging of dramatic and real-life docu strands. Among the other notable directorial debuts of the year were Vadim Perelman with “House of Sand and Fog,” Peter Webber with “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and John Malkovich with “The Dancer Upstairs.”

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