Brent Bozman

Hayden Childs

McChesney Duntz

William Ham

Gary Mairs

Leonard Pierce

Michael Tomczyszyn

Scott Von Doviak

George Wu

The Algonquin Kids’ Table: 2003 Top Ten Lists


Top 10 of 2003

1. “The Office.” You know you’re in love when three little notes from a theme song can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up while your face goes flush, your eyes well with tears and your lips drift into an utterly reflexive smile. “The Office” makes me swoon. Like a heartrending sunset or Jude Law shot from just the right angle, it’s so breathtakingly perfect that I’m almost inclined to look away. And yet … looking away is impossible, not to mention ill-advised, because the beauty and power of “The Office” resides in its exquisite patience and its careful eye for detail. It is no exaggeration to claim that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have managed to redefine “sitcom,” because they’ve created a show whose “com” is non-existent unless you sit the fuck down and watch it.

Employing a host of dangerously creaky tropes (workplace comedy, mockumentary, the-boss-from-hell), Merchant and Gervais breathe life and surprise into what should be painfully well-trodden ground. Rather than settle for a stream of comfy chuckles from one-liners or self-satisfied po-mo pop-culture references, they zero-in on tragicomic elements of human nature through invention and exploration. The ensemble cast is a miracle stew of delectable oddity and blandness; at once utterly distinct as brand-new characters and agonizingly familiar as echoes of people we know and love, or know and hate, or know and love and hate … including the one in the mirror. At the center of this universe is Gervais’ love-starved, delusional, talent-impaired David Brent, a character so fully realized in concept and performance that he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the greats of screens both large and small.

How do you say enough about a show that weaves so many different aspects of the dreadful, dreary and sublime into a seamless whole? How to even begin to define it? Is it scathing social commentary? A quick-witted rage against the machine? A meditation on longing, ambition and love? An unsparingly vicious deconstruction of self-loathing expressed as narcissism? An unbelievably hilarious showcase for brilliant comedy writing and performance? An achingly poignant portrait of an ordinary community of unremarkable people? Sheer fucking genius? Yes to all, and a whole lot more, though that’s not nearly saying enough. Perhaps it is only enough to say this: watch it.

2. Body Language & Visual Narrative: The New “Silent” Cinema. In a cinematic year that had a fair amount of stuff to like but not so much to love, it eventually became clear to me that whatever their individual lapses or flaws, I was most enamored with the handful of films I saw that embraced a predominantly visual means of storytelling: Elephant, Gerry, The Company, Lost in Translation, Friday Night. Even my one putatively mainstream favorite — Master and Commander — was at its best when its characters shut up and let the cameraman and sound editors do the talking. Not that this is really anything “new” per se but this flurry of expressive filmmaking came to feel like a welcome minitrend amidst the mishmash of uninspired stories and tired conventions on display in standard fare. I know I’m not alone, because conventional-narrative fatigue is the only logical explanation for the widespread critical awe that’s wrapped itself around the somewhat-inventive-and-somewhat-dull American Splendor (the magnificent Hope Davis excluded, of course … she alone kept me in my seat to the end), not to mention the embrace of that ungainly web of Interconnectedness-Writ-LARGE, Mystic River. Normally, I’m the shame-faced film-snob with a weak spot for middlebrow “movies,” but I ended 2003 in abject fear that I’ve possibly morphed into one of those assholes who only likes the “difficult” stuff.

The majority of my favorite viewing experiences came from films that might be derisively labeled “arty” by most people’s standards. They’re movies that seemed to play as boring or pointless to many, often eliciting cries of “but there’s no story!” sometimes even from critics. The “stories” were there in abundance, expressed through carefully observant framing and lighting (editing, scoring, etc., etc., etc.) of gesture and posture; action and reaction. Whatever seems missing in terms of plotlines, there’s a genuine “story” told about the longing at the heart of isolated disconnect in Lost in Translation, just as there’s a “story” in the terrifying way that tragedy stalks banality in Elephant. Nothing much happens in Friday Night, except the full-circle complexity of an unanticipated encounter between a man and a woman. Gerry is apparently nothing but two guys walking, except that it aches with menace and mystery in ways that all the plot twists and psychological blather in Mystic River never comes close to conjuring, let alone sustaining. And while plot points may be few and exceedingly oblique in The Company, they’re there the way plot points are there in dance: expressed via form and movement, articulated through arrangement and choreography, and emphasized via light and shadow.

I’ll remember 2003 as the year when body language and visual evocations were far more captivating than the spoken word. Less was more, and the more “less” there was, the better. It’s no accident that my beloved “The Office” fits quite neatly into the same general category with its emphasis on body language. It may well have set the tone (and the bar) once it lodged in my consciousness.

3. Gus Van Sant, Harris Savides and Leslie Shatz. The guiding eyes/ears/voices behind Elephant and Gerry, these three combined their talents to produce the two most haunting, disturbing and poignant films I saw all year. I understand why these films have frustrated viewers by refusing to be direct or conclusive, but it’s that withholding in favor of the richness of what they suggest that affords them their power. Of the two, Gerry is perhaps the purer experience, unsullied as it is by any attempt at all to explain its purpose or meaning. Allegory? Horror movie? Existential angst-o-rama? Anti-hubris-man-against-nature cautionary tale? Oblique murder mystery? All of the above? None? I’ve got my own ideas, but they might well shift with each new viewing … and that’s exactly why I treasure it so fondly.

As for Elephant, it’s even better, though it falters slightly when it strays momentarily into suggesting specific influences that might explain its killers. What it does exquisitely well is in its evocative style and structure: the stalking camera that methodically captures moments of normalcy so bland that the weight of our anticipatory dread becomes unbearable; and the restaging of each scene to reflect a different point of focus, turning leads into extras and extras into leads. The latter is, I think, Van Sant’s most remarkable stroke of genius, because the one thing that’s universally true about “random acts of violence” is that those who are seen as (or, more pointedly, those who see themselves as) extras in a community’s story have forcibly seized the spotlight, reducing former stars to extras in their story. Brilliantly (and with no small measure of heartbreaking terror), Van Sant (writer, director, editor), Savides (cinematographer) and Shatz (sound designer) convey this essential dynamic without robbing the victims of their individuality or humanity, however mundane their roles may seem in comparison to the killers’. What’s more, without building them into heroes or inherently “worthy” avatars of nobility or humanity, he makes you feel their loss.

4. HBO. If I’d put together a straightforward list of “10 Best” for the year, three of my slots would have gone to HBO productions: “The Wire,” “Angels in America” and “Six Feet Under.” (They’d have had four slots if “The Sopranos” had aired new episodes in 2003.) Like everybody else, I roll my eyes at those promos that trumpet, “It’s not TV … it’s HBO!” but I can’t deny that they’re essentially right. The best of HBO’s original programming is not TV and it’s not movies, either … it’s a thing unto itself, and it’s a godsend. Considering the vast array of creative talent given a showcase through their series and specials, it’s a pity there’s no catch-all prize given for Cultural Valor in Mediocre Times, because HBO would own it. And though they stumbled a bit with the too-portentous-and-pokey “Carnivàle” and the dreadful “K Street,” there was no dearth of imagination or chutzpah to be blamed. I’m far more excited about what HBO’s cooked up for 2004 than about most of what’s scheduled to land in theaters. The odds that I’ll be disappointed by the former are practically non-existent; a leap of faith made even more remarkable by its grounding in logical expectation. Around my house, HBO is not TV, it’s a religious experience.

5. The Amazing Flying Ensembles. Now that Awards Season is under way, there’s a sense that it’s a thin year for great performances both male and female. While that may be true when picking through the usual suspects for Oscar-bait roles, it’s been a fantastic year for ensembles … especially if you include television. Regardless of the mixed or negative feelings I had about a few of these as a whole, each and every one of the following boasted terrific, perfectly-suited-to-the-intent ensemble performances from either its entire cast or the vast majority:

“The Wire” (placed first because it’s been criminally, inexplicably ignored!)
“The Office”
Angels in America
“Six Feet Under”
21 Grams
Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Lost in Translation
City of God
Finding Nemo
Pirates of the Caribbean
The Good Thief
All the Real Girls
The Safety of Objects
American Splendor
Blue Car
The Girl with a Pearl Earring
Matchstick Men
The Man on the Train
The Company
Mystic River
Raising Victor Vargas
Laurel Canyon
Shanghai Knights

Heck, I’ll even toss in the disturbingly enigmatic family from Capturing the Friedmans, the captivating youngsters in Spellbound, and the stellar-if-ill-served assemblages from Cold Mountain and Identity.

6. Johnny Depp and Bill Murray. In a year shaped mostly by terrific ensembles (and Sean Penn), it was these two clowns (and the aforementioned Gervais) who really knocked me out. Whatever else can be said for or against Murray’s melancholy portrait of fading celebrity and Depp’s loony pirate, there’s zero doubt as to whether these performances could have come from anybody other than the men who gave them. Each defines the movie it anchors. Murray’s delicately wry world-weariness is absolutely essential to Lost in Translation: play him just a few degrees more bitter or less hopeful, and the film would unravel at Sofia Coppola’s feet. As for Depp’s tone-setting romp through Pirates of the Caribbean, is there any question that the director and the other actors took their cues from Depp’s unwavering commitment to foolish fun? Trophies crowd the mantles of actors “brave” enough to strap themselves into wheelchairs or pork up or weep and drool … but woe be to anybody who can’t recognize how brave it is to commit so fully to unadorned humanity or a flesh-and-blood cartoon.

7. Young Female Actors. Maybe it really was as lousy a year for women’s roles as many critics have claimed, but it was a heartening year for people who yearn to see some breadth and depth afforded to young women as both characters and actors. Much of the best work to be found on movie and TV screens in 2003 was provided by “girls,” some of whom don’t exactly fit Hollywood’s narrow ideals of beauty. Much deserved praise has been heaped on Scarlett Johannson for her excellent work in Lost in Translation and Girl With a Pearl Earring, but she’s hardly the only one out there raising the standard for her peers. Among the notables:

Agnes Bruckner in Blue Car
Alison Lohman in Matchstick Men
Zooey Deschanel in All the Real Girls
Judy Marte, Melodie Diaz, and Krystal Rodriguez in Raising Victor Vargas
Jessica Campbell in The Safety of Objects
Evan Rachel Wood in Thirteen (loved her way back on “Once & Again”)
Kiera Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean
Lindsay Lohan in Freaky Friday
Amber Tamblyn in “Joan of Arcadia”

… and last, but maybe my sentimental favorite: Lauren Ambrose, who continues to shine in “Six Feet Under.”

8. Geezers With Legs. Just when I feared they couldn’t possibly have anything left to give, two of my favorites brought me great delight in 2003.

The respectable favorite: Robert Altman, whose inventive eye and expansive heart were on full display in The Company, despite the fact that directors half his age are routinely expected to be running out of steam. Like most of his memorable work from each of the previous three decades, this latest isn’t exactly mainstream or easily quantifiable, but it’s a beauty and a keeper, nonetheless, and an amazingly vibrant follow-up to the also amazingly vibrant Gosford Park. Wow.

The disreputable favorite: “Survivor,” which should have squeezed the last bit of life out of its concept three or four seasons ago, but knocked it out of the ballpark with back-to-back gems in the Amazon and the Pearl Islands. With apologies to Mr. Altman for speaking of game-stager Mark Burnett in the same breath as a true master of genuine Art, I’m awestruck by the latter’s ability to keep me coming back for more and making me happy I did. “Survivor” may be schlock, but it’s the tastiest, most compelling schlock in the known universe, and I’ll mourn the day it’s laid to rest. Bring on the All-Stars!

9. Exquisite Trash. Okay, so maybe I should have saved Burnett’s brilliant schlock for this slot, but I didn’t want to blur the line between his artfulness and the craptacularity of the stuff I want to laud as out-and-out trash. You know … the shows you simply cannot defend your affection for, except to explain that they were standard-bearers for showcasing fame-whoredom in a way that was delicious or endearing or both. There were several uneven efforts out there that were fun enough to stick with once they started (“Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica” and “The Simple Life” spring immediately to mind), but the crème de la crème of televised trash was “Paradise Hotel,” a show so calculatedly vapid and mean-spirited that even its own contestants had no idea what the game was, let alone how it worked, or what the hell prize they were playing for. Featuring an alarmingly vain and shallow assemblage of dim-witted party kids in their early 20s, its narrative thrust was a bizarre amalgam of Where the Boys Are, Heathers, and No Exit. I’d describe the situation and results, but I’m not sure I could remember the labyrinthine twists with accuracy, let alone whether I could do them justice. Simply put: if you’ve ever longed to see a bunch of self-appointed “cool kids” suffer the tortures of the damned while being hoisted on the petard of instant karma, “Paradise Hotel” was the show for you. And, yes, the fact that it was the show for me almost certainly assures that I’ll burn in hell for all eternity … right alongside the deplorable Zack and Amy.

10. Happy Surprises!

External Division: Oscar wins for Adrien Brody and Roman Polanski brought me the rare pleasure of leaping to my feet with delight during an Oscar telecast. They seemed like hopeless underdogs, and my affection for their non-touchy-feely Holocaust movie made me yearn for what I assumed was impossible in a way that edged right up to painful. I’ve seldom been happier about being totally, completely wrong.

Internal Division: Time and again, I was almost certain about whether I was going to like or dislike a given movie and time and again I was flat-out wrong. There were unpleasant surprises, such as Minghella’s Cold Mountain (the first of his films I’ve disliked), but they were far outweighed by the pleasant ones: Gus Van Sant’s two films (I’ve disliked everything he’s ever done ’til now); Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers & Return of the King (don’t much like fantasy, and didn’t much care for Fellowship); Master and Commander (I was sure I was sick of Russell Crowe and boats, but ended up loving both him and the boat); 28 Days Later (not a horror film buff at all!); Pirates of the Caribbean (I’m not even fond of the ride it’s based on … and again with the boats!); Spellbound (precocious kids? … spelling bees? … please!); The Company (yeah, I love several Altman movies, but certainly not them all, and … um … ballet? … ugh. Why would I want to sit through a movie about ballet?!). Against all logic and reason and my overweening narcissism, I loved how humbling it was to be reminded that I don’t know shit about what I want to see until I see it. Dunno why my appalling ignorance and lack of self-knowledge is such a comfort these days, but it is.