Costume dramas, offbeat smaller films among 2003's best films

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Old-fashioned swashbuckling costume films, smaller offbeat films coming from unique sources, and sequels that didn't live up to expectations were some of the trends in 2003 movies, says a University of North Texas film historian.

Dr. Don Staples, professor of radio, television and film and a member of the Screen Actors Guild, called 2003 a year of many "pretty good, but not great" films, adding that only a few are truly worthy of Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.

"There isn't going to be much controversy at the Oscars this year.Every year, you hear about films and actors and actresses who should have beennominated, but were left out. This year, the worthy ones are a small enough groupto all be nominated, or at least all be on the top 10 film lists for the year," Staplessays.

The critics' choice for best film of 2003, he says, should be Mystic River, a murder mystery directed by Clint Eastwood. The people's choice for best film, however, will be Seabiscuit, the true story of the Depression-era racehorse, he says.

"Seabiscuit is a film that people of all ages loved," Staples says.

November and December typically bring a crop of Oscar-worthy epic films. Of the ones released so far in 2003, Staples expects Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and The Last Samurai to both be nominated for awards. In addition, the stars of the two films, Russell Crowe in Master and Commander and Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, should receive acting nominations, he says.

"Both are swashbuckling, historical films like the ones with Errol Flynnin the 1930s. We have Russell Crowe with a sword in his hand and Tom Cruise witha sword in his hand," he says. "Both are long films, but if you likethat type of film, you're on the edge of your seat most of the time whileyou're watching them."

In addition, both of these costume dramas use natural elements to have exotic backgrounds — the sea for Master and Commander, which is set on a British warship during the Napoleonic Wars, and 19th-century Japan for The Last Samurai.

These films should be joined in the nominations by two others released in late December: Cold Mountain and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. And Cruise and Crowe, Staples says, will be joined in the nominations for Best Actor by Sean Penn for Mystic River.

He adds Johnny Depp should also be nominated for his role in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl — another swashbuckling film, but a comedy instead of a drama.

"Pirates of the Caribbean came out in the middle of the summer as a throwawayfilm, but I thought it was one of the best films of the year," Staplessays. "It had intelligent use of plot and story and great performances.Johnny Depp was magnificent in a role that could have been a disastrous performance."

Pirates of the Caribbean, which is based on a theme park at Walt Disney World, was also the biggest surprise of the year, he says. The film made more than $300 million at the box office, making it the second top-grossing movie in the United States for 2003 behind Finding Nemo.

"Who would have guessed that a movie based on a theme park, that came outas a throwaway film in the middle of the summer, would be so good?" Staplessays.

Smaller films from other offbeat sources, such as the comic book-based American Splendor, were also surprisingly good, he says. He picks American Splendor, The Swimming Pool and Lost in Translation as his choices among the smaller films that should receive award nominations.

"Bill Murray should be nominated for Lost in Translation, which was thesleeper film of the year, and Charlotte Rampling should be nominated for TheSwimming Pool," he says. "These films appeal to a narrower groupof the audience — adults rather than families — in their considerationof ideas and their aesthetic values."

But it was summer movies appealing to teenagers and children that made the most money in the U.S. in 2003. So far, two films have grossed more than $300, while three grossed more than $200 million and 15 grossed more than $100 million.

"The business people in the movie industry are happier than the critics," Staplessays. "Many films did not live up to critical expectations. In some cases,sequels did not live up to the hype."

The Return of the King, the third film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is expected to be "as good as, if not better" than its predecessors, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, Staples says. But it's the exception.

"Matrix: Revolutions was definitely not as good as the first two Matrix movies," he says. "It is really hard when you have a great originalto have an equally great sequel."

Some films starring award-winning stars also were not as great as expected, including Intentional Cruelty, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney; Matchstick Men, starring Nicholas Cage; and Assassination Tango, starring Robert Duvall, he says.

And aside from Charlotte Rampling, Staples says he can't select any Best Actress nominees among the films that have been released so far.

"Nothing jumped out in terms of the female performances. Last year wasthe year of strong actresses. This year was the year of strong actors," hesays.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108