Tuesday, November 17, 2009

2003: Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)

Released: October 3, 2003

Sofia Coppola; Screenplay: Sofia Coppola; Cinematography: Lance Acord; Studio: American Zoetrope; Producers: Ross Katz and Sofia Coppola

Cast: Bill Murray (Bob Harris), Scarlett Johansson (Charlotte), Giovanni Ribisi (John), Anna Farris (Kelly), Fumihiro Hayashi (Charlie Brown), Akiko Takeshita (Ms. Kawasaki), Francois Du Bois (the Pianist), Takashi Fujii (TV Host), Hiromix (Hiromix)

Ah, how Sofia Coppola has redeemed herself! Until seeing this 2003 release, the key memory I had of Sofia was her role as Mary Corleone, the most glaring weak spot in what was an otherwise outstanding and underrated final chapter in The Godfather trilogy. Maybe she is not the only one who deserves the blame – certainly one has to point the finger at her father for throwing her in _way_ over her head. It was a vitally important role to the film and it was like watching amateur hour. I’ve held a grudge ever since. Fortunately, the writing and directing skills of Francis’s little girl are light years ahead of her acting. After receiving moderate critical acclaim for her adaptation of The Virgin Suicides in 1999, she hit one out of the park with Lost in Translation.

The film can be classified as a romantic-comedy, but it’s different from the usual movie that gets placed in this category. The romance, in fact, never really blossoms into full-fledged romance. But the relationship that develops between Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is so much more affecting than any sort of physical relationship could possibly be.

Set in the chaotic metropolis of Tokyo, both Charlotte and Bob detest their stays in the city. Bob, an aging movie star, is there because of a multimillion dollar endorsement deal to shoot commercials for Suntory whiskey. In his loneliness at the hotel, he begins to reflect on the fact that he is missing time with his children and gradually drifting apart from his longtime wife. Charlotte, a newlywed and recent college graduate, comes to Japan because her husband (Giovanni Ribisi) is a celebrated photographer who is there to do photo shoots with rock bands. With little to do in the city, Charlotte begins to question the direction of both her life and her young marriage. Neither of them is able to sleep at nights and begin to continually bump into each other, usually around the bar in the lobby. Deciding that they might as well spend their boredom and sleepless nights in each other’s company, they strike up a friendship that seems incredibly deep right from the start.

The two are able to talk to each other about their deepest concerns and feelings. Charlotte wonders whether her marriage will get any easier over time, while Bob responds with tales of his deteriorating 25 year marriage. Both of them are unsure of where their lives are going to lead them once they leave Tokyo and they seem to take comfort in knowing that the other understands their dilemma.

But the duo does more than reflect on the weighty questions of life – they also have fun together. In the late night excursions they make into Tokyo, the city truly does come alive. Their bond is further strengthened through these outings. They go drinking with friends of Charlotte in a local bar and are then chased out by bar employees and go running through the bustling streets to escape. The middle aged Bob goes with Charlotte to a house party and proceeds to cut loose drinking, dancing and singing. The highlight is probably the trip to a karaoke bar where a drunken Bob performs Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” These upbeat scenes are filmed at a swift pace, with the feel of handheld cameras running through the streets and arcades of Tokyo.

The friendship grows incredibly intimate, but never crosses the line where the movie turns into a cheesy adultery/fling flick. The fact that the viewer can palpably feel the intensity of the relationship, without any cheap romance, is a testament to Sofia Coppola and the strength of her screenplay (it won the Academy Award in 2003 for Best Original Screenplay). It is almost too hard to put into words how she does it, and I wonder if this article is doing justice to how deftly Coppola pulls it off. The movie just exudes a certain passionate feeling that completely grabbed me. It is absolutely sublime storytelling.

The lead performances were eye-opening for me. I knew that Bill Murray was among cinema’s best comedians. But I have to admit that I was in the dark as to how great an all-around actor he is. I've seen realized that he has other outstanding dramatic performances, but this was one the that sold me. The movie isn’t completely devoid of comedy, allowing Murray to put his well known skills to use. He is still quite funny, but it’s an understated comedy, delivered through simple measures like facial expressions and inflection of words. But for the majority of the film he is just playing a regular person, someone who possesses the usual humor and sarcasm. It is staggering to think that this is same guy who played Carl Spackler in Caddyshack. Rather than such over the top antics, Murray is tranquil as Bob, but is even more impressive. Murray was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award, but lost to Sean Penn’s performance in Mystic River. I love Mystic River and think that Penn was outstanding in a pretty conventional crime drama role. But to me Murray’s was clearly the best performance. Scarlett Johansson, who was just 19 at this time, turns in the best performance I’ve seen from her as well. While she may have been overshadowed by the brilliance of Murray, it’s still impossible to deny that she is a bona fide actress and not just another gorgeous face.

The ending of the film is the clincher. It is ridiculously simple, yet so incredibly moving. In a cab to the airport shortly after an emotional goodbye to Charlotte at the hotel, Bob sees Charlotte wandering the streets. Telling his driver to pull over, he manages to chase her down. Momentarily facing each other, the two tearfully embrace as Bob whispers something into Charlotte’s ear. A subdued smile then spreads across her face. What does he say? Your guess is as good as mine, but I know what I like to think was said.

This is not only my favorite for 2003, but it’s among a handful of my favorite films of the entire decade. It was shocking how much this movie resonated with me, because I normally am not a fan of this kind of film. This is the type of movie I was expecting when I finally got around to watching 1994’s Chungking Express (which I am on record as not caring for). Perhaps that was a misunderstanding of what that movie was intended to be, but I can’t help comparing the two and reflecting on how much better Lost in Translation worked for me. There is no greater feeling than expecting to dislike a film and then completely falling in love with it. Sofia Coppola has completely vindicated herself for her performance in The Godfather III, and I would even go so far to declare that she has crafted a film that remains better than anything that her father has made in 30 years.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 2003: This is another solid year, with at least two other films that I think can qualify as truly great films. My first runner-up has to be Clint Eastwood's Mystic River. Adapting Dennis Lehane's excellent novel, Eastwood makes the darkest movie of his career and assembles a great ensemble cast to keep things movie. Then there is Peter Jackson's final installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I think that I slightly favor the first time, but The Return of the King is very close. Other favorites from 2003: The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci), Seabiscuit (Gary Ross), Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich), and The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana)


  1. Ah Dave, there is perhaps no film in the 2000's I dislike more than this, at least amongst th eones that received almost universal praise. But my disdain has been well vocalized, as I saw it five times in the theatre to try and makes sense out of what I always felt was an alienation experience. I won't call it pretentious, and that would be ridiculing your selection (and I know I am in an extreme minority) but th ecultural essence for me is fraudulent and off-putting, and the film (for me) was not remotely moving. But again, your review clarifies your love for the film (it is noted that this kind of film is usually not your cup of tea) and I know in the end it simply must be me here. But there you have it.

    As DOGVILLE made my #1 position for 2004 during my decade lists, I'm going to leave that Von Trier film for next year, and not for 2003, when technically it opened in Denmark. Also, I am unable to decide between two films for the top spot (both so different) that rather than enduring grief I will leave them be at the top. Perhaps when we get to the Wonders poll months of now I'll break this tie. This was a very great year, and your review on LIT is another one of exceeding greatness.

    My Own #1 Film of 2003:

    The Return of the King (Jackson; USA/NZ)
    Son Frere (Chareau; France)


    Elephant (Van Sant; USA)
    Since Otar Left (Bertucelli; France; Georgia)
    Time of the Wolf (Haneke; France)
    Spellbound (Blitz; USA)
    Triplets of Bellville (Chomet; France)
    Winged Migration (Perrin; France)
    Finding Nemo (Stanton; USA)
    Master and Commander (Weir; USA)
    Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Ming-Liang; Taiwan)
    Crimson Gold (Panahi; Iran)
    Mystic River (Eastwood; USA)
    Cafe Lumiere (Hsiao-Hsien; Taiwan)
    Teresia (Bondello; Italy)
    Friday Night (Denis; France)
    Girl With the Pearl Earring (Webber; UK)
    Swimming Pool (Ozon; France)
    American Splendor (Pulcini; USA)
    Saraband (Bergman; Sweden)
    A Mighty Wind (Guest; USA)
    School of Rock (Linklater; USA)
    Shattered Glass (Ray; USA)

  2. Argh, missed this one. But yes, Godfather 3 is UNDERRATED.

    Sam, 5 Times?! Gosh, some resilience. For me Elephant was like that. It seemed to contradict itself. I just could not comprehend what was so great about it.

    My favs:

    Anything Else (Allen)
    Finding Nemo (Stanton, Unkrich)
    Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Tarantino)
    Master and Commander (Weir)
    Matchstick Men (Scott)
    Mystic River (Eastwood)
    Secondhand Lions (McCanlies)
    The Italian Job (Gray)
    The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Jackson)
    The School of Rock (Linklater)
    Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... And Spring (Ki Duk)
    Coffee and Cigarettes (Jarmusch)
    Five (Kiarostami)
    Goodbye, Lenin! (Becker)
    Old Boy (Chan Wook)
    Osama (Barmak)
    Wheel of Time (Herzog)
    Crimson Gold (Panahi)
    The Return (Zvyaginstev)

  3. Dave - While I do not rate this as high as you do I certainly think this is one of the better films of the year and you review does it justice. Murray gives an unexpected low key performance. Another fine job.
    For me, I am going to go with Mystic River.
    ....and the rest

    A Mighty Wind
    Mystic River
    21 Grams
    School of Rock
    Cold Mountain
    In America
    Winged Migration
    Lost in Translation
    Swimming Pool
    Secondhand Lions
    Finding Nemo
    Cinemanina (which actually came out in 2002 but I left it off my list)

  4. Lost in Translation is a fine mood piece, one of Murray's most brilliant minimalist performances and an interesting choice for top film. Personally, I'm torn between The Best of Youth and Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold. I dig the intimate epic quality of Giordana's chronicle and I also admire the singularity of Crimson Gold as an Iranian crime film of domestically unreleasable grimness. At the same time, I have a copy of Marco Bellochio's Good Morning, Night to watch this week, and that may throw my 2003 list into a tumult. But for now I think I'll go for concision over sprawl and rank things this way.

    1.Crimson Gold
    2.The Best of Youth
    4.LOTR: The Return of the King
    5.Cold Mountain (Anthony Minghella)
    6.I'm Not Scared (Gabriele Salvatores)
    7.Lost in Translation
    8.Swimming Pool
    9.Kill Bill Vol. 1
    10.Master and Commander

    Mystic River just misses my cut because I think Sean Penn goes overboard a bit, but you haven't heard the last from me about Eastwood.

  5. Great pick, Dave - this was the film I had in mind when I said one other American movie besides Mulholland Dr. struck me as great or close to it. I'm especially glad you chose this, as your two runners-up happen to be films I find vastly overrated - I'm pretty much the reverse of Sam on 2003.

    The atmosphere of the movie is sublime, and I think Sofia Coppola may be the best director of her generation, though there's some strong competition as the X'ers produced some extremely talented filmmakers (though few to none of them have produced masterpieces, sadly).

  6. Sam - I'll echo the sentiments of JAFB... 5 times on a film you hated?! You're a resilient man, Sam Juliano! :) In all seriousness, though, it is interesting how you and MovieMan are the exact opposites in this year. I have similar negative feelings toward another film you mention: Dogville. Like you, I hate to ever use the word "pretentious," but if I ever would use it it would probably be in this case. Then again, I've never responded well to von Trier, so no shock there. I think it's incredibly interesting though when we diverge so greatly, whereas usually we have fairly similar tastes. It's what makes these things fun for me.

    JAFB - You bring up one that I should have had in my nearlies: Matchstick Men. A fun little mystery. Definitely give Lost in Translation a shot. As this thread shows, it's clearly not for everyone, but it's definitely one you should at least see.

    John - Can't go wrong with Mystic River, in my opinion. It might be my second favorite Eastwood, behind only Unforgiven.

    Samuel - I haven't seen Crimson Gold, but I think it'll go toward the top of my post-countdown Netflix queue as it sounds quite interesting.

    MovieMan - I'll give a slight hint: I have two more American films that I think are masterpieces that challenge Mulholland Dr. for my tops for the entire decade.

  7. Dave, yet again, a great review of a great film. I hope Sofia can find a way to make more films like this in the future. I think she has so much potential...and Marie Antoinette was the type of beautiful folly that I could imagine being celebrated one day if her career fulfills the promise of Lost in Translation.

    Oh, yeah, and I, naturally, fell in love with Scarlett Johansson while watching this.

    Though mood could cause a flip-flop one of these days, very narrowly, 21 Grams tops this in my best of 2003 list.

    I guess my list would look something like this:

    21 Grams
    Lost in Translation
    Master and Commander
    Mystic River
    I'm Not Scared
    Finding Nemo
    Cold Mountain
    Kill Bill Vol 1
    Winged Migration

  8. Oh, and Anna Farris was great in this! Her send-up of Cameron Diaz was a minor comedic coup. She gets regulated to so much lowbrow stuff, but Farris is a great little comedienne when given good material.

    Sofia really knows how to bring out the best from her actresses...Dunst was equally above par in Marie Antoinette...and this was by far the best Johannson has ever been, though I did enjoy her very much in Match Point.

  9. Glad to see that you appreciated 'Lost in Translation' so much, Dave - this seems to have been a film people either loved or hated, and I loved it, but several of my friends and colleagues fell into the other camp. I'd say nobody does deadpan roles better than Bill Murray, and, however much he seems to disappear, he just gets better.

    My favourite from this year, though, is probably 21 Grams, because it is such a magnificent performance by Sean Penn, who, I'm suddenly realising as I try to think of my favourite movies from recent years, must be one of my favourite living actors. I liked Mystic River but for me 21 Grams was a better movie and I was fascinated by the way it unfolded in flashback.

    My other favourites...

    Girl with a Pearl Earring
    Shattered Glass
    Master and Commander
    Good Bye Lenin!
    Cold Mountain
    Lost in Translation
    Something's Gotta Give
    Open Range
    The Station Agent
    Le Divorce

  10. Judy - Glad to hear that you enjoy this one. I have to admit that I haven't seen 21 Grams, but I will see what I can do as far as fixing that.

  11. I will find this movies to see. it's interesting

    Cheap things

  12. Brilliant movie seen so far. Its having a very simple story yet I was amused to see this one. I will recommend to all that give a try to this movie you will surely like it.