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Favourite Films of 2003

Chris Campbell

Last year when I made up my list of films I said that I had a hard time thinking of a list of the best films since there didn't seem to be a lot of great films that year. I think that this year was a better year for films and my track record was certainly better. Here is my list of my seven favourite films of 2003 in no particular order (since it was a better year than last year):

  • American Splendor - Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini tell the story of Harvey Pekar in an entertaining and independent way that blurs the line between documentary and drama, much in the way that Pekar's own work does.

  • Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself - Lone Sherfig directs the odd story of a Glasgow man who wants to kill himself, but it's really a carefully crafted character study of brothers and the woman they love.

  • Lost in Translation - Sofia Coppola's beautiful, subtle exploration of the possibilities and intimacy that can exist in transitory, foreign places stays with me as one of my all-time favourites.

  • Whale Rider - Niki Caro's New Zealand film features Keisha Castle-Hughes as a Maori girl who struggles to fit in with her family in an amazing performance that is very moving.

  • 28 Days Later - Danny Boyle's zombie disaster movie follows many horror conventions, but the DV-shot film is far more than that and explores questions about humanity and morality in a smart, character-driven fashion that is amazing to watch.

  • L'Homme du Train (Man on the Train) - Patrice Leconte's simple story of two men who meet by chance in provincial French town and wish they had lived different lives.

  • The Saddest Music in the World - Guy Madden's completely unique story of a contest to find the saddest music in the world looks and sounds amazing and what can you say about a film that has Isabella Rossellini with beer-filled glass prosthetic legs.

Films that were very close to making my list (in no particular order) would be Bad Santa, Love That Boy, The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, Comedian, Proteus, and The Barbarian Invasions.

Bad Santa

Chris Campbell

Willie and MarcusSome films are not what they seem or are hard to market or easily fit into a category. Some very good films that I would put in that category would be Monkeybone, The Guru, The Big Lebowski, Ghost World, and Bad Santa. The interesting thing is that the final three are all connected with The Big Lebowski written, directed and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen, Ghost World directed by Terry Zwigoff and Bad Santa executive produced with a premise from the Coen's and directed by Zwigoff.

The challenge of the films that I have mentioned is that they are fairly unique in their approach, tone and subject matter and don't lend themselves very well to a brief summary. Here's my shot at a summary for Bad Santa -- sort of like It's a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart never sobering up. Bad Santa is a profane and intentionally offensive film that actually has a semi-sweet centre. Billy Bob Thorton is a misanthropic alcoholic Santa (who really is a safecracker) who is teamed up with Tony Cox as an elf (who is really the brains behind the operation) who travel from town to town every Christmas robbing department stores on Christmas Eve. Thorton throws himself into the role and wallows in the filth with complications added by a misfit kid played by Brett Kelly and a bartender (who is really a Santa fetishist) played by Lauren Graham. The cast is amazing and Zwigoff stays true to the very dark tone throughout.

I laughed out loud a lot and in thinking about the film and the balance between comedy and pathos I still laugh about parts of the film. There is an odd and twisted moral message in the film that makes you smile, but it's not a Hollywood ending. While the Bad Santa trailer is in Apple's trailer section, the link to the official site goes to Miramax's site because Dimension Films is a subsidiary of Miramax which is a subsidiary of Disney and there isn't an official site for Bad Santa at all. Films like Bad Santa, The Guru, Ghost World and Monkeybone are completed, then marketed in a perfunctory fashion and then are released to video. What's fascinating about Bad Santa is that after 2 weeks in release it is doing better than the latest Ron Howard film, The Missing, which had more publicity.

Zwigoff burst (well, maybe emerged is more appropriate) onto the scene with the documentary Crumb, about cartoonist R. Crumb. He moved into drama with the adaptation of Daniel Clowes's comic book Ghost World. The final odd element in the whole equation of Bad Santa is the script written by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra who are the team who wrote the family comedy Cats & Dogs. It seems as if Bad Santa is the very dark comedic balance to the family comedy. Maybe the lack of promotion of the film is due to possible confusion and the potentially horrific accident of someone mistaking the film for a family comedy. But really, I think that it's because the film takes a off-kilter point of view without condescending to the audience and it sticks with it all the way to the end of the line. I loved it!

The Office

Chris Campbell

Gareth and DavidI've watched the first season of the BBC series, The Office and I love it. I'd read about it and saw most of an episode and took the plunge and bought the 2 DVD set. It's a 6 episode series set in the offices of Wernham-Hogg paper and it is shot in the style of a single-camera reality tv documentary. Cowritten and directed by Ricky Gervais (who plays David Brent, the boss from Hell) and Stephen Merchant it walks a fine line between comedy and pathos. The style works very well with the content and the actors. While on the surface it's a very dark comedy, there is a fascinating and touching level of identification that I feel with the characters. I actually work in a great office now, but what is fascinating about the show is the recognition of the absurdity of office life combined with the reality effect of the documentary camera. When I first watched it I felt uneasy as the show was so delicately balanced that some things were creepy...but that was the point and after watching more the sensibility of the show clicked in and it worked. Kind of like unfocusing your eyes to see one of those 3-D images...

L'Homme du Train (The Man on the Train)

Chris Campbell

L'Homme du TrainLast week I saw Patrice Leconte's L'Homme du Train (Man on the Train). I've wanted to see it for a while and the Fundy Film Society brought it in and I was able to thoroughly enjoy the tale of two men and roads not taken. I love a well-structured film and L'Homme du Train has a relatively elaborate construction, but the amazing thing about the film is that for the most part it is two men in rooms talking or thinking. Jean Rochefort and Johnny Hallyday are the two men, a retired teacher and a bank robber, and they wonder how things would have been had they not lead the lives that they had lived. It's wonderful to watch the story unfold and the characters develop in an understated, economical fashion. Rochefort is a pleasure to watch and Hallyday has the most incredible eyes that make you wonder what is going on behind them. The film exemplifies that less is more with a melancholy tone that I found beautiful.

Remembering the Web That Was

Chris Campbell

About a week ago my son asked me for some help with redoing his Web site. He's seven years old and he likes to do things that everyone else in the family does and since most of us make Web sites that's what he wants to do. He already has some locally hosted stuff. He wanted to blog so I set him up with Movable Type which he used a bit and then he saw me working on this site and he wanted to use what I used, which is Blosxom, so I set him up with Blosxom which kept him for a while longer. Then he wanted to change the look of the site and he asked me how I did it. He wanted to use HTML, like me, but I didn't have time to teach him so I started thinking about the books in the computer bookcase and thought of Jennifer Niederst's Learning Web Design. I gave it to my son and he started reading and coding with BBEdit. Then he wanted more control over the look and layout of the site and asked me how I did that. I told him about CSS and then he wanted to learn about that and I discovered the CSS palette in BBEdit that makes things a bit simpler.

This got me thinking about how things were when I started making Web pages and how wonderful it was when I found out how to do things. The first book that made things easy and understandable was the now out-of-print Designing for the Web. I still have the book and it actually holds up pretty well. It was my constant companion when I first started teaching Web design to people. Then I moved on to Web Design in a Nutshell which is still my favourite printed reference.

Now I don't read a lot of books about basic stuff since I'm trying to do more with CSS and focussing on the content and less on the presentation since sometimes working on the look is a great way to delay writing. It was neat in the old days because there weren't as many Web sites and many of the questions weren't "how" to do something, but "if" something was possible to do. It was fun because everyone was learning and trying things out. There was the constant push to cut things down and to wrap your head around a different way of thinking to code stuff. Now I code stuff by hand with BBEdit's help and I really like it. I'm closer to the code and by trying to code stuff cleanly and to standards it isn't as big a deal to do a redesign in terms of needing to redo lots of pages.

I'm also realizing how many design and coding principles that I've assimilated into my own practice. I don't look a lot of stuff up and firmly separate out the content from the presentation. In a funny way I think that many of the practices that I follow are all aligning... the same for thinking about teaching, editing, writing and creating almost anything. I think about what to say, how to say it and then playing around with the presentation. The simple version is "think, plan, make it work, and make it pretty." When I don't follow that process is when I get off topic and spend more time exploring a technique and less time exploring ideas.

Seeing my son build his pages made me remember how wonderful it is to see something appear in a browser after you code it. The sense of wonder that made the Web so special. The amazing feeling of seeing a new page and figuring out how it was done and checking out the code to confirm what you thought. In some ways it is a bit of magic - seeing behind the curtain at the machinery inside. I'd forgotten about a lot of that and now I've got a little bit of it back thanks to my son asking a few questions.