The power of three

Film 2003 - Mark Kermode looks back on a year in which there were reasons to be both proud and asham

For many multiplex punters, 2003 was the year when good things came in threes, with Peter Jackson's The Return of the King providing an Oscar-contending conclusion to his mighty Lord of the Rings trilogy; the third instalment of The Matrix scoring a record-breaking opening despite a less-than-dazzling second instalment; and American Pie: the wedding proving that doped youths shagging and eating dog poo could still be funny, even on a third sitting. For art-house devotees, too, three was a magic number in the form of Lucas Belvaux's Trilogy, which offered three films in different genres (thriller, comedy and melodrama) linked by common characters and time-frames.

For me, however, the three most remarkable openings of the year were: Gaspar Noe's back-to-front rape-revenge drama Irreversible, which our censors bravely passed uncut despite claims that it would hasten the demise of civilisation (it didn't); Jane Campion's ambitious erotic thriller In the Cut, which presented the previously unimaginable spectacle of a Meg Ryan movie featuring gruelling violence and graphic depictions of oral sex; and (most shockingly) Punch-Drunk Love, the beautifully deranged romance from Paul Thomas Anderson which proved that it was possible to love the usually heinous Adam Sandler after all.

Yes, there were times when 2003 seemed to offer nothing more than dreary sequels to moribund pre-packaged products. Did we really need a second instalment in the already tiresome saga of Lara Croft Tomb Raider, based on a computer-game character whose flesh-and-blood incarnation in the form of Angelina Jolie was far less convincing than her digitally generated predecessor? Or how about 2 Fast 2 Furious? Or X2? Did anyone ever expect these movies to be anything other than dreary tosh? No, but nor did we expect the uber-hack Steven Spielberg to make a more interesting Leonardo DiCaprio film than the one directed by Martin Scorsese, former screen genius.

Spielberg has gone downhill since Jaws, degenerating into self-important indulgence with the likes of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. Yet against all the odds, his fluffy-but-fun Leo vehicle, Catch Me If You Can, was ten times more entertaining than Scorsese's weighty but wearisome DiCaprio-starrer, Gangs of New York, which left Marty to be passed over once again for that ever-elusive Oscar. On the subject of which: how come Nicole Kidman got a Best Actress gong for her rubbish Virginia Woolf impression in The Hours, when the second-billed Julianne Moore clearly stole the movie from under Kidman's laughable false nose? Indeed, this year Ms Moore continued to prove that she is simply the greatest actress of her generation with a barnstorming central turn in Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes's passionate homage to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, which remains one of the unbridled delights of 2003.

It was a good year, too, for George Clooney, who headed up Hollywood's most expensive folly, Steven Soderbergh's cerebral sci-fi adventure Solaris (way better - and shorter - than Andrei Tar-kovsky's ponderous original), and then proved his directorial mettle with the comic thriller Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, from the "true" revelations of a former US TV star-cum-CIA hit man. And although Coen Brothers purists may have complained that Intolerable Cruelty is far from vintage fare, I laughed like mad at Clooney's impersonation of a money-grubbing divorce lawyer in this deliciously bitter romantic comedy.

On the home front, there were reasons to be both proud and ashamed to be British this year. While Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things saw in the new year on a high note with its engrossing and entertaining look at the lives of London's dispossessed (aided by a star-making turn from Chiwetel Ejiofor), Stephen Fry's Bright Young Things dragged us back down by spending dreary, unimaginative time in the company of the capital's glitterati, offering the year's best advertisement for all-out class war. If this didn't have you wanting to eat the rich, then nothing would.

Worse still, the comedian Mel Smith attempted to take us all back to the dark days of Carry On with Blackball, an unfunny fiasco which proved only that there is nothing remotely amusing about crown green bowls. One can only imagine that the leading man, Paul Kaye (formerly television's Dennis Pennis), sorely regrets ever having called Hugh Grant "wooden" - particularly as Blackball sank like a stone at UK cinemas, while Grant helped break box-office records with the ramshackle but unstoppably saleable Love Actually.

Meanwhile, for those interested in life's more exotic pleasures, the year provided numerous kinky highlights, not least being the American indie features Secretary, in which James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal explored the tender side of S&M, and Paul Schrader's Auto Focus, a grimly comic tale of the birth of home-made porn which offered a timely antidote to the optimism of Boogie Nights. French wunderkind Francois Ozon gave Charlotte Rampling the chance to shine as a crime writer wrest-ling with her own passionate demons in the sexy psychological thriller Swimming Pool, while "Korea's largest ever production", Chihwaseon (Drunk on Women and Poetry), brought us the wonderfully lusty tale of the 19th-century artist Jang Seung-up, who (according to legend) couldn't pick up a paintbrush without a drink or an erection. And over in Japan, Shinya Tsukamoto, the creator of Tetsuo, tested the boundaries of outlandish master-slave relationships with A Snake of June, a twisted fable that boasted a scene in which the heroine used a remote-controlled sex toy while shopping for vegetables at a market. And no, I'm not making this up . . .

Japan was also responsible for the most spectacular animated feature of the year, Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, distributed in the west by the Disney organisation, which also scored another Pixar- generated success with the fish-friendly Finding Nemo. Brazilian cinema made international waves, too, with the majestic City of God, an awe-inspiring crime epic that combined the earthy realism of Hector Babenco's Pixote with the kinetic camera-work of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (whose British director, Guy Ritchie, came a cropper this year with the Madonna stinker Swept Away). And closer to home, the edgy Irish comedy Intermission gained rave reviews in the UK after becoming a home-grown hit in Eire, providing a cast-iron case for the vigorous defence of those now endangered Irish film tax breaks.

Big-screen documentaries continued to flourish in the wake of Bowling for Columbine after its director, Michael Moore, memorably bad-mouthed America's "fictitious president" from the Oscars stage in March. But despite the headline-grabbing antics of Moore and his British counterpart Nick Broomfield (director of this year's Aileen: life and death of a serial killer), the real documentary treats of 2003 were the enchanting Etre et Avoir, which provided a rare insight into the workings of a single-class rural French school; and Spellbound, an account of the US National Spelling Bee competition, which generated nail-biting entertainment as kids bravely spelled words I had never even heard of. Both go to the top of the class.

As for the big disappointments, Quen-tin Tarantino's eagerly waited Kill Bill: volume one turned out to be a lacklustre bore, just another masturbatory ramble through QT's well-thumbed video and comic-book collection. On this evidence, I have little enthusiasm for Volume Two, which follows next year. Ang Lee's multimillion-dollar Hulk was equally depressing, spending an hour pontificating about genetic engineering and childhood trauma before turning into an episode of Scooby-Doo, complete with sub-Shrek monster in purple Lycra pants. And am I really the only person to have seen through the hype surrounding Pirates of the Caribbean, an ill- disciplined, laugh-free debauch (based on a fairground ride, no less) from Gore Verbinski, a talentless hack whose previous crimes against cinema include desecrating the sublime Japanese shocker Ringu with a brainless US remake?

Luckily Hideo Nakata, the director of Ringu, got his own back with the spine- tingling Dark Water, an eerie, intelligent, ghost story for grown-ups which stimulated the adrenalin and intellect alike, and which provided my own personal highlight of 2003. Although Verbinski may have his hand on the wallets of Britain and America, Nakata gets my vote as the true future of cinema, both east and west.

Mark Kermode is the NS's new film critic

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Blessed are the peacemakers (and probably Norwegians)