Breakthroughs of the Year; The Films, People, and Trends That Defined 2003
by Eugene Hernandez and Wendy Mitchell
As we look back on the year in independent film, we thought it was an ideal time to look at the people, films, and companies that represented the breakthroughs of 2003. These selections might not all compete for Oscars, but they helped define the year in indie film for us. There’s no scientific criteria for determining our breakthroughs — some had huge years at the box office, some didn’t — but these were the people, trends, companies, and films that rose to a new level in 2003.
Twenty-eight-year-old director Coccio isn’t a household name yet, but given the strength of his debut feature, “Zero Day,” he will be someday. “Zero Day,” which was a hit at regional festivals and had a very brief theatrical stint, tackles a difficult subject (high school violence) in a chillingly unconventional manner (video diaries of fictional killers). Coccio is now working on something completely different, a suburban comedy entitled “Round Robin.”
With her famous pedigree, many folks were skeptical that 1999’s “The Virgin Suicides” was just a fluke with a lot of input from her famous friends and relatives (and a killer story by novelist Jeffrey Eugenides). Then came “Lost in Translation,” which quickly silenced the naysayers. This subdued character study is the most atypical romance of the year, showing Bill Murray at his comedic and dramatic best. Even if Coppola is helped by pros like DP (Lance Acord) and music supervisor (Brian Reitzell), let’s not forget she’s the one in charge.
Standing ovations greeted actor Peter Dinklage during his on-stage Q&As with “The Station Agent” co-stars Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale at Sundance this year. The striking leading man had been relegated to bit parts in independent films until he embraced the role of Finbar McBride in the film from first-time director Tom McCarthy. The toast of the town this fall, Dinklage hit the New York scene, as well as the gossip columns, and nabbed a notable cameo in the hit holiday film, “Elf.”
The stories of young women were in the spotlight in 2003. “Bend It Like Beckham” saw a young woman buck cultural expectations to score a spot on an all-girl soccer team, and in “Whale Rider” a young woman battles her family’s traditional views of masculine leadership. Finally, in the provocative “Thirteen,” two young women recklessly mature in suburban America.
First-time director Andrew Jarecki set out to make a simple documentary about an innocuous subject: birthday party clowns. But one of those entertainers, David Friedman, turned out to have skeletons in his clown car: his close-knit family was wrecked by a child molestation scandal. Jarecki took a risk and scrapped his clown flick for a much more ambitious project — “Capturing the Friedmans” — which turned out to be the most talked-about documentary of the year.
As the soul-searching Charlotte in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” and the demure Griet in the Vermeer biopic “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” young Scarlet Johansson was the hot young actress of 2003. Whether laughing with Bill Murray over culture shock in Tokyo or conveying a world of emotion with her eyes as the very quiet Griet, Johansson showed a range beyond her years (she’s still in her teens). Next, she’s costarring with John Travolta in “A Love Song for Bobby Long” and with Helen Hunt in “A Good Woman.”
After a successful debut release of “Real Women Have Curves” with HBO, the upstart indie distribution company, headed by Bob Berney, stuck gold with “Whale Rider,” a small film that Berney wisely nabbed last year in Toronto. After winning audience awards at festivals around the world, the film made more than $20 million during its theatrical release. While Newmarket hasn’t found as much success with some of its other releases (“Spun,” “Open Hearts”), the ability to turn “Whale Rider” into one of the biggest independent films of the year proves that this is a company to watch. Next up, Newmarket will release the Charlize Theron-starrer “Monster” followed by Mel Gibson’s controversial “The Passion of Christ.”
Raising Victor Vargas
The definitive indie film success story of 2003 was a small movie made, on film, in New York’s Lower East Side. After a Cannes debut in 2003, “Raising Victor Vargas” had its U.S. premiere at Sundance in January and was released by Samuel Goldwyn Films in March (it made more than $2 million in theaters) and is now available on DVD. Discoveries abound in this story of young love, from stars Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte, to director/co-writer Peter Sollett and co-writer Eva Vives.
This is That
The same deal that created Focus Features led former Good Machine producers Ted Hope, Anthony Bregman, and Anne Carey to create This Is That, a new independent production company that hit the ground running with its first feature this fall, the acclaimed “21 Grams” by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Hope also produced the highly regarded Harvey Pekar biopic “American Splendor.” Next up for the new company is the anticipated “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Michel Gondry’s take on a Charlie Kaufman script, starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.
The Turkish Invasion
Largely thanks to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s festival hit “Uzak” (Distant), the world is starting to pay more attention to Turkish film. This story of two cousins in Istanbul was named the FIPRESCI film of the year and also won several awards in Cannes, where it was the first Turkish film to play in competition in 21 years. And in 2004, the Istanbul Film Festival will add a market to its event, hopefully bringing more attention to Turkish film.