This is actually the prelude to Slate's annual "Movie Club," which will formally commence Monday when we return in our new and improved 2004 incarnations (and our hangovers have cleared). Roger Ebert can't participate this year, and we'll miss him a lot, but I'll be happy to welcome, for the first time, the Los Angeles Times critic and columnist Manohla Dargis, who is far more entertaining on the greatness of In the Cut than anything in that grating movie. I'm also excited to welcome back Sarah Kerr (of Vogue), A.O. Scott (of the New York Times), and J. Hoberman (of the Village Voice)—who has an important book out called The Dream Life, which A.O. and I will be discussing in a future Slate "Book Club." (I mention this in advance to explain why J. will probably be more patient with us this year.) He'll have one more constraint: filing while on jury duty. (Note to defense attorneys: Don't impose too artificial a narrative. The more intriguingly nonlinear your explanations, the more he's likely to argue for acquittal.)
Meanwhile: Is there any activity more onanistic for a critic than compiling the year-end 10-best list? True, it's a service to readers who want a handy checklist. But the number 10 means nothing: As the late Stephen Jay Gould pointed out at the turn of the millennium, it has no correlative in nature. And a critic's naked opinion (thumbs up or thumbs down) is the least interesting thing about him or her. You'll learn much more from a lively writer you think is nuts (c.f., Manohla on In the Cut or Elvis Mitchell on the execrable 21 Grams) than from the 10-best list of someone with whom you agree.
But my colleagues and I do this every year because it's fun and makes us feel important. We play high-schoolish games with each other: "You guess my list, and I'll guess yours." We catch up on movies we should have seen nine months earlier. We give our lists to publicists and to columnists—there are more and more of them, it seems—who care less about individual critical voices than about statistics and consensus. We vote for our little awards and hold our breath for the Oscar nominations, which we'll invariably find dumb.
There were too many good movies this year for me to do a proper 10-best list—and not enough great ones. What I mean is, there isn't that much difference between my ninth-favorite movie and my 20th, and any numerical distinction is pretty much whimsical. That's why I've done four 10-best lists for sundry newspaper, Internet, and radio outlets, and no two are the same. And it's why I'm adding a second 10-best list here, because it somehow seems sexier in this context to give movies numbers than to bunch them together on a runners-up list. (I also have a runners-up list, bringing the total to 34.)
That's my list as of Dec. 31, 2003. But any of the movies below could have been there (and, at times, have been):
Let me also mention The Secret Lives of Dentists, Winged Migration, Mystic River, Balseros, The Fog of War, Stuck on You, Elephant, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Duplex, What Alice Found, Holes, Thirteen, Raising Victor Vargas, and X2. I regret that I haven't yet seen the documentary To Be and To Have, but I'll try to before next week. Also, had it been released this year, my 10-best list might have included Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, directed by Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill. It opens the second week in January and should be seen in conjunction with its inferior fictional counterpart, Monster.
It's interesting that my favorite films were documentaries. They had more complex drama, more comedy, more tragedy. But mostly they had more entertainment value.
I didn't enjoy a movie this year more than Jeff Blitz's Spellbound. It has everything you want in a movie except sex: killer suspense, heartbreak, history, sociology, and a series of indelible portraits of kids and their parents. On its most basic level, it documents the 1999 nerd Olympics: 9 million nationwide spelling-bee contestants reduced to 249 finalists reduced to one winner. But the contest turns out to have a deeper resonance than if the sport had been merely physical: Among other things, mastery of the English language becomes a means of affirming one's Americanness. The first half introduces the eight protagonists singly in their hometowns. The second half is the bee itself, in Washington, D.C., where Blitz shows them devastatingly knocked off, one by one. There is enormous skill here, but also accidents that seem blessed. I haven't seen anything this year as astonishing as the moment when the Indian-American Neil, his head overstuffed with Latin, French, Spanish, and German (thanks to tutors hired by his fiercely ambitious businessman father), registers nothing but bewilderment when asked to spell "Darjeeling."