The further back I go in time, the less secure I am in my Top Ten choices. That’s largely because I haven’t seen all these movies again since, and I have no idea how, say, House Of Sand And Fog measures up to The Last Samurai.
On the other hand, there are a few of these films I know very well, which always makes me feel they belong higher on the list. On some level, isn’t the movie I’ve watched the most times probably my favorite?
That’s what makes ranking films fun in the first place. There’s no need for a list that changes as you do — it wouldn’t tell us anything. Instead, we look back on where we were, where the movies were, and think about what’s changed in both cases. Sometimes, the path a filmmaker took after a given year makes me look upon his film less favorably. Other times, I see more of a director’s work and then appreciate a film they made more than when I first saw it. It goes without saying that creating a Top Ten list is not a perfect science.
Few of these films from 2003 are ones that I’ve revisited often or count amongst my favorites. But in 2003, I thought they were damn good, apparently — or at least better than everything else I saw — and so did many others. If I were to re-rank them now, I know exactly which one would be my favorite, and it’s not my #1 or #2 choice. But as much as it may pain me, I am keeping the list intact for historic accuracy. You’re welcome, Mystic River.
TOP TEN FILMS OF 2003 10. KILL BILL VOL. 1
Quentin Tarantino proves he’s still the king of violent, edgy, ain’t-it-cool postmodern entertainment. Over-the-top and in your face every step of the way, the film packs a mean punch despite its showiness. The B-movie plot is given grade-A Hollywood production value, making it a fun ride from start to finish. A blood-spattered action pic is the perfect forum to showcase Tarantino’s talents (and disguise his shortcomings).
(I probably appreciate Kill Bill now more than I did after viewing just this first half. I like but do not love most of Tarantino’s films, as there’s always a cool post-modern detachment that keeps me from fully investing in the story. That’s certainly true in Kill Bill. I found this one to be the better of the volumes by far, given that it has the most epic action sequences. The “two volume” gimmick might have worked better if they’d been rearranged a bit, but both the visuals and the storytelling work better for me in this first film.)
A genuinely heartfelt piece of filmmaking, made all the more poignant due to its close ties to the true story of writer/director Jim Sheridan. It’s increasingly rare to see a movie that so openly and straightforwardly deals with familial love, free of the usual contrivances. In America is sometimes melodramatic, but never manipulative. Solid performances all-around (especially from the kids) support a charming, funny script. A rare entry in a dying, oft-clichéd genre: the feel-good film.
(I haven’t seen this since and remember, mostly, the warm and loving tone of the film, as well as a surprisingly tense sequence set at some fairgrounds. Plus Samantha Morton’s short haircut. I would happily watch this again sometime.)
A complex character realized on screen with astonishing results. Charlize Theron goes beyond physical transformation to play serial killer Aileen Wurnos — she channels her. Theron doesn’t hold back, but unfortunately, the script does, at times — going too far for us to sympathize with her but not far enough to take us inside her head. Some aspects of her lesbian love affair with Christina Ricci’s Selby feel underexplored. Regardless, Aileen is always compelling to watch, even when we want to look away from her ugly misdeeds.
(A dozen years later, Theron’s performance is still just as riveting as ever. These “transformative” acting stunts don’t always age well, but Theron really went for it, and it shows. Her Oscar win came relatively early in her career, but all these years later I think she’s one of the most respectable leading ladies we’ve got. That’s pretty good, especially for someone who’s been starring primarily in big budget sci-fi/fantasy endeavors lately.)
One of the best ensemble casts of the year comes together for the involving story about two crimes — one in the past, the other in the present, but both equally pervasive in the lives of the characters. The script is solid, in spite of a few awkward moments (typical of Eastwood), keeping up the suspense with some nifty twists and turns. But the top-notch performances are what really drive the story — it’s solid work all around from Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Thomas Guiry, and Sean Penn. If only Clint Eastwood hadn’t done the music.
(Though it displays several of Eastwood’s recurring sins as a director, I found this held up well when I watched it again a couple years ago. Eastwood’s last seven films have not been stellar, but he had a good run with this, Million Dollar Baby, and Letters From Iwo Jima.)
6. AMERICAN SPLENDOR
It’s not a film for everyone, but it is a film about everyone — the average joe who tirelessly survives the mundanity of everyday life. It mirrors the attitude of its protagonist — content to be imperfect, irregular, and unremarkable — and in doing so, becomes something remarkable after all: a love letter to weird people. Harvey Pekar’s life is drab, in essence, but colorfully and richly portrayed by the film. American Splendor goes beyond truth by placing the real Harvey Pekar in it, defying genre and formula for a strikingly original approach.
(American Splendor is one of those movies I kind of forget about, but I feel like I would probably appreciate even more now than I did as a film student. It was pretty much the first signal of Giamatti as a serious leading man for a certain kind of movie… usually an offbeat movie about someone grumpy. Plus, it has Hope Davis, from back when Hope Davis was in a lot of things. Maybe she still is, but I don’t see her enough.)
5. FINDING NEMO
It can be hard to review Pixar movies without overusing the word “delightful.” Arguably the most purely enjoyable film of the year, there’s nothing not to like: beautiful animation, a clever script, hilarious voice work (especially from Ellen DeGeneres), and a charming story. It is certainly the best major animated film in years, but it also transcends the genre to become not only something that an entire family can enjoy together, but something that even the most sophisticated adult viewer can admit to loving without shame.
(Finding Nemo intentionally brought back happy flashbacks to Disney’s The Little Mermaid, one of their very best. Animated films can do “under the sea” like no one else, and in a lot of ways this is the quintessential Pixar movie… though it certainly has competition. It’s surprising that the sequel has been such a long time coming. I watch this when I’m in the mood for nothing but unadulterated joy, though they do make room for some brief, melancholy echoes of Bambi early on.)
4. LOST IN TRANSLATION
A delightful and distinct film with two solid leads playing superbly-written characters. Sophia Coppola proves that she has a unique, fresh point of view in both her writing and direction, and Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are not only completely convincing as foreigners in a strange land, they also look like they’re having a hell of a lot of fun. Watching the film leaves the viewer with an indefinite emotion that is neither happy nor sad, a tell-tale sign of a talented filmmaker. A pleasure to watch.
(Well, this takes us back to a time when neither Sofia Coppola nor Scarlett Johansson was a proven commodity. Coppola was known only for The Virgin Suicides, while Johansson was still a rising starlet with her biggest roles ahead of her. Coppola is a polarizing auteur — people tend to either love her or hate her, and this film achieves similar results. I tend to like what she does more often than I don’t, and I still appreciate this movie, even if it does somewhat overdo it on ScarJo staring vacantly out of windows.)
A wartime epic told the old-fashioned way, which is not easy to do these days. The love story between Ada (Nicole Kidman) and Inman (Jude Law) is well-crafted without inducing any eye-rolls. What makes it fresh, however, is not the romance, but the separate journey each character makes — he tries to make his way back home, she struggles to take ownership of hers. They must find themselves before they find each other, encountering violence, horror, and hardship galore along the way, as well as a robust supporting cast featuring Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kathy Baker, Renee Zellweger, and plenty more. It’s a well-crafted, well-executed film in every way, thanks to Anthony Minghella’s superb talents as writer/director.
(I have a special fondness for this movie, since I met Minghella around its release and he died a few years later. This was, unfortunately, his last major release… if you don’t count the little-seen Breaking And Entering, an odd little romance starring Jude Law and Juliette Binoche. Cold Mountain was largely snubbed come Oscar time, which I find particularly unfortunate in a year where Seabiscuit was nominated for Best Picture. I think it has held up remarkably well and is one of my favorite romantic epics. It would probably be my #1 movie from 2003 if I was doing it over again, though I don’t know many who like it as much as I do.)
Though the jumbled plot is a unique, bold choice, the film is really a showcase for some of the most talented actors of our time. A phenomenal Sean Penn (who made another big splash in Mystic River this year) gives the film its heart (no pun intended), while the fearless Naomi Watts gives it some bite. The film is wrenching and emotionally exhausting, but the performances put us right there every minute, unable to look away.
(Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu got a bad rap after this for essentially making the same movie again and again, and I have a particular grudge against him for robbing Richard Linklater and Boyhood with his Oscar wins for Birdman, which I will never not think is ridiculously overrated. This is the kind of story that feels overdone now, but was reasonably fresh at the time, and a good showcase for its actors.)
1. LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING
A fitting finish to a truly remarkable achievement in filmmaking. Peter Jackson has literally brought magic to the screen with a masterful gift for fantasy storytelling unseen since Spielberg’s heyday. A true epic, filled with heroism and honor, mercifully free of postmodern cynicism. Though it could not be made without today’s technology, the film itself is a timeless story that will be beloved for years to come.
(I basically never have the time required to rewatch these movies — that’s what I get for buying the Extended Editions on DVD. I really appreciated several of these performances and the genuinely moving story at the time. For whatever reason, my feelings about Peter Jackson are less pure these days, as I’ve had no interest in any of his Hobbit movies, which may have retroactively turned me off of Middle Earth completely. Aside for the laughably bloated ending to this installment, I will go ahead and stand behind this choice as my #1 film, even though it seems highly unlikely I’d place it here if I were evaluating these films today. I can’t really imagine finding this more powerful than Cold Mountain, but maybe that’s only because I’ve had time to get over what a massive technical achievement this trilogy was, in addition to some solid storytelling.)
Sean Penn, 21 Grams
Paul Giamatti, American Splendor
Ben Kingsley, House Of Sand And Fog
Tim Robbins, Mystic River
Bill Murray, Lost In Translation
Honorable Mention: Johnny Depp, Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl; Jude Law, Cold Mountain
Charlize Theron, Monster
Naomi Watts, 21 Grams
Scarlett Johansson, Lost In Translation
Hope Davis, American Splendor
Jennifer Connelly, House Of Sand And Fog
Honorable Mention: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider; Nicole Kidman, Cold Mountain
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Dominic Monaghan, Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King
Tom Guiry, Mystic River
Judah Friedlander, American Splendor
Albert Finney, Big Fish
Billy Boyd, Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King
Honorable Mention: Djimon Hounsou, In America; Sean Astin, Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Shohreh Aghdashloo, House Of Sand And Fog
Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain
Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River
Samantha Morton, In America
Christina Ricci, Monster
Honorable Mention: Miranda Otto, Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King; Patricia Clarkson, The Station Agent
BEST ENSEMBLE CAST
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Hans Zimmer, The Last Samurai
Gabriel Yared, Cold Mountain
Howard Shore, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Danny Elfman, Big Fish
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Lost In Translation
Peter Jackson, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Anthony Minghella, Cold Mountain
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 21 Grams
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation
Edward Zwick, The Last Samurai
2003 MOVIE RANKINGS
1. Lord of the Rings: The Return Of The King
2. 21 Grams
3. Cold Mountain
4. Lost In Translation
5. Finding Nemo
6. American Splendor
7. Mystic River
9. In America
10. Kill Bill—Vol. 1
11. The Station Agent
12. The Last Samurai
13. Big Fish
14. School Of Rock
15. Master & Commander: The Far Side Of The World
16. A Mighty Wind
17. Whale Rider
18. House of Sand and Fog
19. Calendar Girls
20. Shattered Glass
21. Down With Love
22. The Matrix Reloaded
23. Love Actually
24. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
25. Bend It Like Beckham
26. X2: X-Men United
27. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
28. Something’s Gotta Give
30. The Triplets of Belleville
31. How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days
32. The Matrix Revolutions
33. The Shape of Things
36. The Hunted
37. Bruce Almighty
38. Hollywood Homicide
39. Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, & Blonde
40. The Hulk
41. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle
43. View From The Top