By Dave Luhrssen
20 Favorites From 2003
January 1, 2004
It was 2003 throughout the Western world, but in Hollywood, the calendar turned back to the 19th century. The period evidently caught the fancy of those responsible for greenlighting movies: There were a pair of westerns (The Missing, Open Range), a handsomely mounted if vacuous epic of Japan’s embrace of the West (The Last Samurai), a rollicking naval adventure pitched during the Napoleonic Wars (Master and Commander), a Civil War drama (Cold Mountain) and even a failed adaptation of an intriguing graphic novel set in Victorian London (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Little wonder The Alamo’s release was postponed until spring. Between all the grapeshot and cannon fire, it may have been hard for moviegoers to see the screen through the smoke of battle.
It’s encouraging (and appropriate) that most of these films (except the unextraordinary Gentlemen) were made the old-fashioned way, with carpenters and painters building sets rather than computer programmers generating backdrops. After all, these are movies that revisited genres that were more prevalent in the age preceeding personal computers.
What’s more interesting, of course, is why Hollywood chose to explore the 19th century. Could it be a seismic indicator of some post-9/11 shift? It’s often easier to sort out thoughts and feelings about cultural clashes and armed conflict when the battlefield is set at a safe remove in the past and the fighting involved issues whose passions have long since cooled. Except perhaps for Master and Commander (and maybe we should leave the Gentlemen out of this discussion entirely), Hollywood’s seismograph is registering ambivalence — often handwringingly so (The Mission, Samurai) but also an ambivalence born of the realization that hard decisions are often colored gray, not black or white (Open Range, Cold Mountain).
Surprises of 2003? That a movie based on a theme-park ride (Pirates of the Caribbean) should pack so much panache (thank you, Johnny Depp); that so many fans were so disappointed by The Matrix Reloaded and that, indeed, Matrix Revolution was such a tiresome dud; and that a comedy made partly in Milwaukee got picked up by a major (Chump Change). Given the lack of standards, the cringing fear of losing money and the pack mentality of Hollywood, it’s surprising that compelling, well-crafted movies occasionally continue to be made by the big studios.
Twenty picks from 2003: