10 Best Movies of 2003


Two thousand three was a peculiar year for film. There was noindie film that crossed over into the mainstream and raked it in. Aside fromthe last The Lord of the Rings, no mainstream blockbuster took off and stolecollective attention. Instead, like the bloated and spoiled siblings they were,sequels fizzled (Matrix 3, Tomb Raider 2, Charlie’s Angels 2), prestigefilms bored (The Human Stain, The Last Samurai), and foreign film receded intothe hard twilight of pointed obscurity (The Man on theTrain) or Eurocentricshock value (Irreversible).

But—some amazing things happened. One hundred thirty-five milliondollars were spent on an artfully paced nautical movie with no women init, the Coppola legacy was woken with an elegiac and haunting meditationon displacement, a slew of glittering documentaries made narrative filmseem nakedly what it is—fake. So, not a bad year, simply one thataffirmed the ever-growing multiplicity of our culture.

#1: Mystic River

It takes a salty, grizzled dog to create profound meditations on violence.Melville, Peckinpah, McCarthy, all these fellas had their time with meniallabor, the bottle, and the brutal machinations of life. Clint Eastwood, onthe other hand, has simply played such characters for nearly half century.It must be through osmosis and Eastwood’s unique and fiery talent thathe is able to craft such remarkable pieces of violence and retribution as TheOutlaw Josey Wales, Play Misty For Me, Unforgiven, and, most recently, MysticRiver.

Perhaps his finest film yet, and the most bracing and bleak mainstream Americanfilm in years, Mystic River is a fully eloquent and realized Greek tragedyin an undeniably local landscape. Adapted from the hard-boiled Dennis Lehanenovel, Mystic River follows the scarred and guilty lives of three working-classBoston guys after a cataclysmic tragedy. It is a tale of misguided revenge,destiny, and the potent, irreversible nature of violence, but it is so muchmore than that. It’s a film about friendship, family, loyalty, community,and their poignant fragility.

The film’s sweeping and universal themes almost go unnoticed due toEastwood’s noble subtlety. He assembles a staggering cast that act theirhearts out. Sean Penn inhabits his role with a conviction and ferocity equaledonly by prime Kinski and DeNiro. The other main actors—Tim Robbins, KevinBacon, Laura Linney, Laurence Fishburne, and Marcia Gay Harden—are equallyunselfish and nuanced. The end result is shocking as much for its blisteringdaring as for its silence. Mystic River respects its various themes with amonastic piety.

The American narrative convention is that of the hero overcoming his obstacles;the European one is that of the hero being pulled down by the past. MysticRiver flips these archetypes while remaining quintessentially American. Inour current landscape of lies, arrogance, and morally justified violence, Ican’t think of a more vital or crucial film.

#2: Lilya 4-Ever

Lukas Moodyson is my favorite director under 35. He has a naturalistic graspof humanity far beyond his years. His last film, Together, was one of the warmestfilms I’ve ever seen. Lilya 4-Ever is one of the most wrenching and emotionallydifficult. The story of an abandoned girl’s fall into prostitution inone of the many destitute post-Soviet republics, Lilya4-Ever could be tellingthe true story of any unknown number of Eastern European girls. The beautyof Moodyson’s film is that it refuses any generalizations. Lilya is aliving, breathing figure, as is her sweet, equally abandoned friend Volodya.The hardships and violations they endure are almost too much to bear, but theirlove and loyalty to each other are as palpable as any transgression. Pain andbeauty exist messily together in Moodyson’s world and his vision is ascompelling and affecting as they come.

#3: Capturing the Friedmans

Like Crumb, the documentary Capturing the Friedmans deals with a damaged andto some eyes strange family with such compassion and grace that its subjectsfeel like relatives. Capturing the Friedmans chronicles the arrest and subsequenttrial of Arnold and his youngest son, Jesse Friedman. In the late 80s theyare arrested for almost unspeakably heinous charges of child molestation andsexual assault. In current footage and past home videos their innocence iscompelling, despite Arnold’s definite problems with pedophilia. However,as the film progresses, the ambiguity of the case and the humanity of the familybecome richer and more complex. This is one of the film’s many triumphs.Capturing the Friedmans penetrates both the decline of a seemingly loving familyand the breakdown of a respectable community, and the result is nothing shortof a grand tragedy.

#4: Lost in Translation

Heartfelt and unpretentious, yet decidedly restrained, Lostin Translation is an eerily haunting and romantic mood-piece of American global alienation.But it is a milestone beyond its topicality or chillily affecting romance.It is the film that gives Bill Murray his defining role, the perfect crux betweenresigned cynicism and sparkling warmth, the film that announced Scarlett Johanssonas a major screen presence, and was the long coming and welcomed comeback ofseminal noise pop genius Kevin Shields (of My Bloody Valentine and providinga significant part of the film’s score). Quite something for 32-year-oldSofia Coppola’s second feature.

#5: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Honestly, I went into Master and Commander expecting to hate it. Crowe onthe high seas? In a billowing pirate shirt barking orders? The possibilityfor disaster loomed large, but Master and Commander was effervescently entertainingand almost entirely without cheese. Crowe is absolutely grand, as is Paul Bettanyas his first mate. Weir directs Master and Commander with aplomb and timing.Master and Commander harkens back to the days of the intelligent epic of Lean,and reminds one how beautifully a whole lot of money can be spent.

#6: Spellbound

The other great documentary of the year, this one is much gentler and warmer.Following the characters and lives of several national spelling bee contestants,Spellbound is a great American catalogue of experience. There is a girl fromTexas whose father is a decent farmhand and basically illiterate, another girlfrom a hard-knock area of Pennsylvania whose parents are working class, andan Indian boy whose father is self-made and both pushes and adores his son.Spellbound, which destroys so many stereotypes, is a beautiful movie for thesetimes. It celebrates eccentricity, diversity, family, hard work, and the acceptanceof failure and triumph. A lovely, truly patriotic film.

#7: House of Sand and Fog

This one came from nowhere. The previews were shrill at best. However, first-timedirector Vadim Perelman renders Andre Dubus III’s novel in vivid andbracing immediacy. The story of an escalating fight over a mediocre bungalowbetween a down-and-out recovering alcoholic (a slightly too beautiful JenniferConnelly) and an exiled Iranian colonel (Ben Kingsley, in one of his most passionateand intense performances ever) is made riveting by its compassion for bothsides and sense of pace. Here is one side of the American Dream most prefernot to see.

#8: Cold Mountain

Based on the best-selling Charles Frazier novel, ColdMountain is AnthonyMinghella’s Odyssey-like journey of a southern Civil War soldier’sclandestine departure from ranks and back to his passionate love Ada (NicoleKidman). Sound corny and weighty? It is, but also rapturous, fierce, and deeplyaffecting. Jude Law fulfills his long-dodged destiny as a highly magnetic leadingman. Nicole Kidman—despite her clumsy accent and too shiny features—isradiant, and Rene Zellweger delivers an astonishing performance of wit andgravitas. Cold Mountain is hardly a Civil War film. It is a piece of love,violence, redemption, and romance rendered with exceptional feeling and distance.

#9. Kill Bill – Vol. 1

Kill Bill is an idiosyncratic film that is more a Quentin Tarantino playgroundthan a regular narrative. Nevertheless, it is dazzling. Who else could useanimé so intensely? Who else could give Sonny Chiba such a comeback?We may hate him, but he rules.

#10. School of Rock

School of Rock finds Richard Linklater in his least goatee-stroking, mostmainstream mode yet. The result is entirely carefree and hilarious: a SomeLike It Hot/Bad News Bears comedy with the flaming nucleus of Jack Blackforging rock history in its appropriately reverent and dorky place.

#1. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle

There is lots of dredge. I estimate at least nine out of ten movies we seerange from mediocre to downright awful. Then there are those that coldly drivehome the ruthless business of Hollywood filmmaking. There is no art, only green.The second Charlie’s Angels film is a prime example. Lavishly directedby the undoubtedly wankish McG, CA:FT is the ultimate $140 million nothing.No plot, no excitement, no sexiness. Nothing. The vacancy of American culturehas ground zero here.

#2. The Last Samurai

Guess who the last samurai is? It’s not Ken Watanabe, the distinguishedJapanese actor who plays the Samurai chief Katsumoto. It’s Tom Cruise!This overwrought, exhaustive piece of a disillusioned American soldier’sself-actualization with the Samurai is many terrible things. It is veritablecarbon copy of Dances With Wolves. It pulls any veneer off star Tom Cruiseand director Edward Zwick. After Glory and now TheLast Samurai, Zwick revealshimself as a white power figure of sorts—no ethnic people or tribe arevalidated until a white saint swoops down. I saw this film after learning Ihad failed a crucial college course. It properly numbed.

#3. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

I like weird, big-budgeted movies that bomb. MysteryMen, The Island of Doctor Moreau, AI—all highly financed films that bombed in spectacular plumbsof hype and aplomb. TLOEG, however, is an exception. Terrible narrative, cornyeffects, and the worst dialogue in recent memory, it’s the nadir of nerdcreativity.

#4. The Cooler

Why has this movie gotten such good reviews? It’s clichéd, ponderous,and absurd. Bill Macy has been much better (Fargo); so have Alec Baldwin (GlengarryGlen Ross) and Maria Bello (Auto Focus). Why? Aren’t there enough Vegasmovies? This one is nothing new. It simply highlights the fact that indie moviescan be as bad as anything else.

#5. You Choose

Sorry, didn’t see enough movies to deem a legitimate fifth worst. Irecommend trying Daredevil, Gigli, Tomb Raider: The Cradleof Life, Gothika. Or not. We all know what really bites. When in doubt, rent any Douglas Sirkmovie. He’s melodrama, but he’s got the spine to back it up.