Our favorite films of 2003

The Return
of the King

American Splendor


CineScene's Top 10 Films of 2003

1. The Return of the King
(Peter Jackson) [158]
2. Lost In Translation (Sofia Coppola) [156]
3. American Splendor
(Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini) [95]
4. Elephant (Gus Van Sant) [80]
5. Capturing the Friedmans
(Andrew Jarecki) [77]
6. Finding Nemo
(Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich) [70]
7. Pirates of the Caribbean:
The Curse of the Black Pearl
(Gore Verbinski) [60]
8. In America (Jim Sheridan) [59]
9. Peter Pan (P. J. Hogan) [55]
10. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz) [47]

Lost in Translation

This is the first time that submissions to our end-of-year wrap-up issue have been tabulated into the form of a poll. Thanks to Josh Timmermann for the idea. Ranked entries were awarded points on a 5-15 scale for the first ten titles. Unranked entries were awarded 10 points each for the first ten titles.
-- The Editor

Contributors: Kristen Ashley, Mark Ashley, Michael Buck,
Christopher Campbell
, Melissa B. Cummings, Anne Gilbert, Robert S. Jersak, Thor Klippert, Lisa Larkin, Don Larsson, Kevin Lee, Mark Netter, Ed Owens, Pat Padua, Shari L. Rosenblum, Roxy, Myron Santos, Howard Schumann,
Mark Sells
, James Snapko, Greg Sorenson, Sasha Stone, Thea, and
Josh Timmermann
Ed Owens
1. Lost In Translation (Sofia Coppola).
Coppola's bittersweet mood piece is a film you feel more than watch, seamless and near perfect.
2. Capturing the Friedmans
(Andrew Jarecki).
This haunting portrait of a family in crisis is at once moving and infuriating.
3. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz).
A brilliantly edited documentary that manages to convey the very essence of its subjects, eight participants in the national spelling bee, without ever being condescending, and had me reliving some of my own "spelling bee" moments as I ached for and rejoiced with each and every one of those kids.
4. The Man without a Past
(Aki Kaurismäki).
Kaurismäki brings his trademark deadpan style to bear on the story of a man with no memory, blending drama and comedy in a blistering look at the tattered fringes of society.
5. Finding Nemo
(Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich).
Pixar continues its winning streak with their animated film about life down under the sea. Funny and touching without being patronizing.

6. The Lord of the Rings:
The Return of the King
(Peter Jackson).
Though it falters in places, ROTK is still a crowning achievement, an epic end to an epic journey that, even at nearly 12 hours altogether, seems far too short.
7. Lost in La Mancha
(Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe).
The very picture of obsession. If the final film ever sees the light of day, I doubt it will be as intriguing or frustrating as the document of its making.
8. Spider (Daivd Cronenberg).
Cronenberg's direction is occasionally heavy-handed, but the film bleeds atomosphere and drips mood, more than making up for some of its more gimmicky contrivances. Ralph Fiennes' performance is haunting and vastly underappreciated.
9. Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach).
Loach's look at a boy standing at the edge of manhood is unflinching and unforgettable, thanks largely to a pitch-perfect performance by newcomer Martin Compston.

Mark Netter
The usual caveat: these were my favorite theatrical experiences this year, 'cause who can really say "best"?
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson).
This year's juggernaut, with a unique sweep and scope due to the series having been drawn from a pre-existing literary work, and shot as one film rather than three. For the record, each of the pictures was "owned" by a different supporting actor: Ian McKellen/Gandalf in Fellowship, Andy Serkis/Gollum in Two Towers, and Sean Astin/Sam here. Unlike every other movie trilogy in memory, they didn't blow it; they saved best for last. Unforgettable moment: The first disbelieving glimpse of those huge goddamn mastodons.
2. Elephant (Gus Van Sant).
An advance in form that is destined to inspire filmmakers for years to come, it breaks new ground in movie language much like Stanley Kubrick's best work (The Shining being a clear influence) while delivering on the promise Van Sant showed back in 1989 with Drugstore Cowboy. The actor (or figure) as Steadicam target pushed to heights of unbearable tension, gorgeously haunting abstractions, even a brief essay on how many filmmakers get their start (developing their own film). While the shocking violence is never predictable, Van Sant gives the audience fair warning. Unforgettable moment: The first startling pass-by of the killers entering the school.
3. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood).
While generally hailed as a statement on violence as an American way of life, the dramatic effect of this classic is actually broader and more resonant, all about the evil we sweep under the rug in order to live with ourselves, every day, as individuals and community. Eastwood seems to have advanced his typically minimalist camera technique to a new level, utilizing off-putting circular dollies, high angle track-ins and God's-eye shots to relentless effect. Unforgettable moment: Laura Linney reveals her true colors, and seals the deal.
4. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola).
Paced like an Antonioni film, but on the whole a lot funnier, this Brief Encounter features the best Bill Murray performance to date, and launches Scarlett Johansson as a leading lady. Unforgettable moment: Scarlett's surprise upon hearing "Midnight at the Oasis" deep in Bill's hotel room one morning.
5. American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini).
Another leap forward in the appreciation of the comic book as art form, this surprisingly moving character study/documentary of working class hero Harvey Pekar is not only a valentine to his crankily illuminating talent, but to so-called losers everywhere, and the triumph of the patchwork family. Unforgettable moment: Our first encounter with the real Harvey Pekar, seated in the filmmakers' studio.
6. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich).
In the summer screenwriting Sahara, this new "high-water" mark in 3D animation featured the only solid script from Hollywood - great story, funny dialogue, and characters you actually care for, even if they're only computer generated…fish. My three-and-a-half year-old son put his hand over my mouth to muffle my laughing. Twice. Unforgettable moment: Bruce the shark smells blood.
7. Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff).
Maybe the first successful W.C. Fields movie since Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Billy Bob Thornton's morally bankrupt "Santa" hates children and drinks like Leaving Las Vegas, but while the elements point to depressing tragedy, the bizarre uplift emanating from this embarrassingly funny picture is enough to redeem Xmas from all that Hallmark. Unforgettable moment: Unprintable, but it happens in a dressing room.
8. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir).
Rousing, unapologetic adventure, and as fine an example of movie craft as one might ask for (were it not for a few competing hobbits and orcs). Unforgettable moment: A young boy's injured arm is amputated, about half a century before the general use of anesthesia.
9. School of Rock (Richard Linklater).
Giddy fun for any true believer in the liberating spirit of rock 'n' roll, as long as they can handle the family-friendly format. Featuring Jack Black channeling John Belushi's eyebrows, and a number of very talented kids "sticking it to the man." Unforgettable moment: An uptight Joan Cusack sings along to Stevie Nicks.
10. Something's Gotta Give (Nancy Meyers).
In an unexpected triumph, writer/director Meyers puts her Hollywood studio-honed skills to good use by making 55-year-old Diane Keaton the female sex symbol of the year. If one accepts its world of upper middle class and wealthy privilege, what shines through is a classic bourgeois romantic comedy that earns its sentiment through clever dialogue, moments of real pain, and two late career highlight performances by those beloved, resolutely iconoclastic screen professionals, Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Unforgettable moment: Blood pressure measurement as pre-orgasmic foreplay.

Special Documentary Mention:
Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin (Richard Schickel)
The veteran film critic Schickel's best documentary, and that's with a credit list that includes his landmark PBS series, The Men Who Made the Movies. As complete a piece on Chaplin as anyone could ever pray for, from the very first screen appearance of The Little Tramp, through his end-of-life honors, featuring a wealth of brilliantly chosen film clips and illuminating interviews with, among others, Johnny Depp, Sydney Pollack, Norman Lloyd, and daughter Geraldine Chaplin. A don't-miss for Chaplin aficionados, for those who still need to be convinced about his rightful place astride cinema history, and for any true film fan.

Here's to more great movies (and regime change) in 2004.

Anne Gilbert
Favorite films of 2003 (in no particular order):
In America (Jim Sheridan).
This semi-autobiographical tale of an Irish immigrant family dealing with death and assimilation in New York City's Hell's Kitchen is at once mystical and banal. Written by consummate director Sheridan with his two daughters, In America exists outside of time, reveling in its anachronisms and capturing the basic beauty and wrenching pain that life can bring. The acting is stellar across the board, the film was made from the heart, and its subtle charm and quiet truths are enough to touch even the most jaded of filmgoers.
The Lord of the Rings:
The Return of the King
(Peter Jackson).
There is nothing to say about this film, or the trilogy in general, that has not been repeated again and again. Simply put, taken on its own or as the culmination of one of the most ambitious epics undertaken, Return of the King lives up to all of its own hype, and that is meant as the highest of compliments.
Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki). Jarecki's engrossing, controversial documentary on the brutal crumbling of an American family in the face of widespread public allegations of sexual misconduct is difficult to watch and impossible to ignore. The film's bravest feat is that it offers no comfort or any illusion that there is an absolute truth in the Freidman family quagmire, but no matter how troubling or distasteful it may be, it is impossible not to watch.
Thirteen (Catherine Hardwicke).
Evan Rachel Wood turns in a wrenching performance, compelling enough to even top Holly Hunter's brilliant turn, as an out-of-control preteen and her increasingly helpless mother, respectively. Thirteen is scary for anyone naive enough to believe that childhood could never be like this -- full of sex and drugs and consuming, desperate friendships -- but the film captures the roller coaster of adolescence, where every moment is the most important one ever, and a girl struggling to find her identity can live and die a hundred times in a single day.
28 Days Later...(Danny Boyle).
A zombie film for people who don't like zombie films, 28 Days Later... offers the chills and scares of a horror film and the far chillier complexities of the horrors of survival. It is too prescient to be dismissed as simply a genre film, too grounded in reality not to carry with it a disconcerting sense of possibility. The dizzying climax combines light, color, music and editing in a way that is pure cinema, and sheer perfection.
Lost in Translation
(Sofia Coppola).
The critical darling about two disenchanted souls who manage to find on another, and perhaps themselves, in the neon blitz of Tokyo, is a study in the art of understatement. The script is subtle and lyrical, and writer-director Coppola matches her words with long, silent takes and an adept hand at eking out performances that mark the high point of Bill Murray's career and provide an astounding launch to Scarlett Johansson's.
Bus 174
(Felipe Lacerda & José Padilha).
A horrifying, virtuoso documentary that uses the 2000 hijacking of a public bus in Rio to look at the vast socio-cultural inequalities of Brazilian society. The filmmakers interweave conceptions of identity, the responsibility of media, and the atrocities and incompetence of law enforcement, and their role in both contributing to the crisis and to its violent climax. The result is disturbing, wonderful and thought-provoking, a bold film that manages to legitimately indict an entire national culture for the violence it fosters.
Other noteworthy film moments:
The films may not be of the same caliber, but there is something in each of them that is a credit to the year in film:
Johnny Depp in The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl: He's fey, outlandish and utterly brilliant. It may not get the attention it deserves, coming as it does in a Bruckheimer-blockbuster package, but Depp makes the entire film worth seeing.
Charlize Theron in Monster: With added pounds and false teeth, Theron, never one before to tackle particularly, uh...challenging roles (I'm looking at you, Sweet November) utterly transforms herself, and her performance is brave and unforgettable, even in a forgettable film.
The art direction in Big Fish: The film has its drawbacks, but its storybook beauty is not among them. The tall tales come to life on screen with all the imagination of childhood imaginings and all the vividness of poignant heartbreak.
Reality and fiction in American Splendor: Neither documentary nor invention, Splendor incorporates reality into its fiction and the surreality of comics into its reality, and still finds room for four incarnations of comic book artist Harvey Pekar. The mix is splendid and visionary, and truly unlike anything else.
Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Saignier in Swimming Pool: One is staid and frumpy, the other is petulant and unstable. Together, these two are a marvel, searing and engaging and fully capable of carrying François Ozon's twisty, subtle film all on their own.
Elephant: Full of flaws, to be sure, but also full of audacity and featuring flashes of brilliance. Gus Van Sant dares to offer the most unsettling explanation of school violence - -that here is no explanation at all -- and he does so with a haunting calmness that is not easily dismissed.
Pat Padua
1. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar).
This should have been on last year's list, really. The trademark Almodóvar zaniness is mostly relegated to a film-within-the-film; what's left is a sombre tone poem of communication and the body.
2. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino).
It starts in recognizable Tarantino-land, then takes off for "Japan," a gorgeous and thoroughly enchanting alternate realm ruled by the gorgeous, enchanting, and deadly "Uma." Ridiculous? Sure. Empty? Nah - revenge is Primal.
3. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola).
4. Bus 174 (Felipe Lacerda & José Padilha).
Real life and death and real media in the real City of God.
5. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Gore Verbinski)
6. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz).
7. Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff).
8. City of God (Fernando Meirelles).
Howard Schumann
1. Elephant (Gus Van Sant).
Elephant does not attempt to explain Columbine or uncover its underlying causes, and there is no revealing epiphany. Rather, it is a highly stylized, dreamlike tone poem that defies linear conventions and is almost surreal in its approach. Using flashbacks and recurring images from different points of view, the film captures the mood and tone of its adolescent world: its perceptions, its self-absorption, and ultimately its darkest instincts. The pacing is superb, slowly building up the tension. When it is released, it comes at you with a frightening energy that is as unforgettable as it is chilling.
2. Nowhere in Africa (Caroline Link).
This is the story of a Jewish family that emigrates from Germany to Kenya in East Africa, immediately prior to World War II. Brilliantly brought to life by Link, the film has the look of a sprawling Hollywood epic, but its natural performances allow it to avoid the pitfalls of cliché. This film touched me in many ways: in the ability of its characters to grow as people, to connect with and love the land, and to be empowered by the growing harmony between cultures.
3. The Cuckoo (Aleksandre Rogozhkin).
The Cuckoo is a comedy that mixes earthy humor, anti-war sentiment, and Lapp shamanism. Set in the closing days of World War II, three people are brought together in a tiny settlement in Northern Europe attempting to survive the war. Unable to communicate verbally because of the mixture of languages, they can only reach each other through tone of voice, hand gestures, and body language -- marvelously conveyed by the three amazing actors. Though there is an inherent distrust, they gradually form a bond based on their common humanity. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually, it is a film of rare beauty.
4. Shattered Glass (Billy Ray).
The rise and fall of Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), a young journalist found to have fabricated 27 of 41 articles written for the prestigious New Republic magazine in the late 1990s. Peter Sarsgaard turns in a compelling performance as Chuck Lane, the editor who discovers the strength to stand up to Glass and his cronies and come to grips with what needs to be done. Though we don't really get underneath Glass' motivations, it is apparent that people such as Glass thrive in a journalistic culture in which the credibility of "star" reporters is determined only by their ability to maximize the entertainment value of the news.
5. The Barbarian Invasions
(Denys Arcand).
A lovely and touching film about family healing. In Montreal and southern Quebec, a group of seven friends and lovers gather to say goodbye to history professor and unabashed womanizer, Rémy (Rémy Girard) who is slowly dying of cancer. The film reprises the characters first introduced in Arcand's The Decline of the American Empire seventeen years ago, and they come across as people honestly searching for meaning and reconciliation. Though the film is about death and dying, it is filled with intelligence, humor, high energy, and commitment to life.
6. (tie)
The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne).
The latest film from the directors of La Promesse and Rosetta reveals its power only gradually. The film challenges us to look at our capacity for forgiveness and, in the process, articulates what it means to be human. According to the directors, the film is about "The moral imagination, or the capacity to put oneself in the place of another." Every detail in this wonderful film leads, with a power that seems inevitable, to a startling conclusion of profound beauty.
7. (tie)
Ram Dass, Fierce Grace (Mickey Lemle). A documentary on the life of Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), author, 60s guru, spiritual teacher, cohort of Timothy Leary, and author of the best selling book Be Here Now. The film shows Ram Dass dealing with the effects of a massive stroke he suffered in February 1997 that left him physically incapacitated and with impaired memory and speech. It is more than just a biopic or a meditation on the process of aging, it is an inspiring portrait of a teacher and a celebration of love.
8. Capturing the Friedmans
(Andrew Jarecki).
In 1987, a respected high school teacher and his 18-year old son were arrested on charges of molestation, rape, and sodomy against young boys who had taken computer classes in their basement. This documentary is a dark and disturbing look at the Friedman family that compels us to sift through the ambiguous evidence and determine for ourselves the question of their guilt or innocence. Jarecki took different versions of different stories, video footage by eldest son David, news accounts, still photos, and his own original material, and turned it into one of the most powerful films of the year.
9. (tie)
Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz)
Follows eight children ages 12 to 14 from their preparation for the 1999 National Spelling Bee competitions through to the finals. We know that out of 249 children, 248 will eventually be forced out, but this does not prevent us from picking our favorites and rooting for them as we watch the nail-biting drama unfold. Spellbound is a humorous and genuinely touching film and the children display courage and determination beyond their years.
10. (tie)
Moonlight Whispers (Akihiko Shiota).
A young Japanese student Hidaka Takuya (Kenji Mizuhashi) will do anything to prove his love for Kendo partner Kitihara Satsuki (Tsugumi). The film is not about kinky sex, but about adolescents involved in a love so deep it completely distorts their sense of perspective. Moonlight Whispers touched me as deeply as any film I saw last year. Even when I was repulsed by the behavior of the characters, I felt sympathy for their pain. Shiota makes no judgments, showing only the lengths people with low self-esteem will go to feel wanted and needed.
1. The Secret Lives of Dentists
(Alan Rudolph).
A terrific script and top-notch performances by Campbell Scott and Hope Davis anchor this story of married dentists whose lives and marriage are drifting apart.
2. The Guys (Jim Simpson).
Brilliant performances by Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia, helped along by Anne Nelson's moving script, make this a riveting, even cathartic comment on the aftermath of 9/11.
3. American Splendor
(Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini).
This wins for originality, cleverness and seamless integration of interviews, acting and animation. And for Paul Giamatti's great performance as the very strange Harvey Pekar.
4. The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan).
Taut, horrifying, with the best opening scene in recent cinematic history, this based-on-fact story of child abuse by nuns is a must-see.
5. Shattered Glass (Billy Ray).
Riveting story of the rise and fall of "New Republic" journalist Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), anchored by Peter Sarsgaard's fabulous performance as Blair's editor.
6. The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet).
This story of a boy and his bike has more imagination than all the other films I saw this year put together. Chomet's Giacometti-look characters and parodies of the famous will leave you smiling. You will never look at bicycles or calf muscles the same way again.
7. Girl with a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber).
Here's an art film that is itself a piece of art. Scarlett Johansson shines as the maid who may or may not have served as Vermeer's model for the title painting. Brilliantly and moodily shot by Eduardo Serra, every frame looks like it was painted by a Dutch master. A visual feast.
8. Thirteen (Catherine Hardwicke).
Growing up female has never seemed so real nor so dangerous as it does here. Nikki Reed, Evan Rachel Wood and Holly Hunter make this story come alive.
9. Rivers and Tides (Thomas Riedelsheimer).
The creative process has never been better documented than in this fascinating film about environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, who creates art from things he finds in nature -- rocks, leaves, branches. Most of his works are temporary, washed away by rain and tides or blown by the wind. One of the best films about art ever made.
10. Whale Rider (Niki Caro).
Girls rule as Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), daughter of a Maori chief, overcomes male obstacles (including her grandfather) to become the next leader. Features Oscar-worthy performances by Castle-Hughes, Vicky Haughton and Rawiri Paratene.
Robert S. Jersak
1. Rivers and Tides (Thomas Riedelsheimer). Andrew Goldsworthy makes art with his hands and the natural elements that lie around him. No pattern is ever pre-planned, no work is ever quite the same. Thanks to the deft work of documentarian Riedelsheimer, after 15 minutes we understand all this and more about the artist. And yet, standing in his kitchen, preparing to go out into the fields and create, Goldsworthy is questioned, on camera, by his wife, "What are you going to make today, dear?" It's a deceptively sharp moment in an otherwise serene film, and it seems to speak to the constant desire of an audience, no matter how versed in the ways of the auteur, to desperately try and get some control over the creative process. Of course, if it's really going to be a work of art, that can't happen. In the film, in that fine moment, Goldsworthy lifts his arms and stares at his wife in disbelief.
2. Stevie (Steve James).
Have you ever supported a social cause, one that required hours of your time as a volunteer? Did it make you feel good about yourself? Have you ever taken the time to look back, years later, to see what sort of an impact your efforts had made? In 1995, documentary filmmaker Steve James did just that, returning to his "little brother" in rural southern Illinois. What he finds there shakes not only his confidence in his efforts, but our confidence in our own as well. The wrenching story of Stevie Fielding calls into question our commitment to our causes, and aggressively blurs the lines between privacy and exposure, intimacy and documentary. Steve James goes much further and achieves much more than most of us would, both with his film and its complex and troubled main character.
3. House of Sand and Fog
(Vadim Perelman).
Tell me: how do Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, or Seabiscuit offer more to the legacy of American film than The House of Sand and Fog? True, I don't think that Vadim Perelman's film will stand the tests of time, but it does present a powerfully compelling story, and does absolutely nothing to destroy the building tension or damage your emotional investment in the characters from second one to second last. How many Academy Award nominees can say that? And, if that weren't enough, The House of Sand and Fog literally begs you take a group of your foreign-film-snob friends to see it, and play a rousing game of "What Would Majid Majidi Do?" with the film's last half-hour.
4. Iranian Animation Festival
Throughout the fall and early winter, a series of Iranian animated short films made their way across North American college campuses. Not all of the films requested by the university theater had passed through customs, but those that did gave a small Friday night audience a glimpse into the heart of Iran. Several works bemoaned the futility of conflict, war and retaliation. Others detailed the heroism of a fight against gluttonous giants. One portrayed a world nearly devastated by a gigantic black bird. In that film, the bird, at last, succumbs, but it's sole surviving egg is found on a hillside nearby. One of the villagers protects it, keeps it safe, and when it hatches into a gigantic black chick, he rears it with care until it is ready to fly on its own. It's the most powerful message of love and forgiveness I've seen in all my life. We don't need more smart bombs, Mr. President -- we need more Iranian and Arabic animation.
5. Hero (Zhang Yimou).
I'm still not sure why China's famed fifth generation filmmakers have decided to go commercial, but if they truly have, it'll be hard to top Zhang Yimou's ode to the martial arts epic. Not only is it a beautiful and nuanced film, Hero is also a genuine American blockbusting crowd-pleaser in almost every way except one: it still has yet to be released in America!

Best short film of 2003: Poor Bogo. Though the picture seems sweet and simple, watch how independent artist Thelvin Cabezas plays with the concept of frame and layer in this CGI short. Regardless if you notice the subtext, the interpretation of a young girl's imaginary "monster" is beautifully realized and brilliantly animated.
Sasha Stone
The three films that defined and punctuated 2003 are Sofia Coppola’s brilliant Lost in Translation, Clint Eastwood’s haunting Mystic River, and Peter Jackson’s magnificent final installment of his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. These films stand out from the rest. Because of that, and because it’s impossible to say any of them is best, they all come in at number 1.

Mystic River is not only one of Eastwood’s best films, it is easily among the decade’s best offerings. With pivotal performances all hitting their marks, especially Sean Penn’s as the grieving, complex and powerful father, and the women who stand in the background but drive the action: Laura Linney as the power-grubbing wife and Marcia Gay Harden as the doubting, non-believing one; this film just got better as it went along. It is alarming in its final five minutes.

Also making its true mark in its last five minutes is Lost in Translation, which has managed to charm both critics and public alike. Written by Coppola and starring Bill Murray as an aging film star who makes a connection with a wayward young wife played by Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation is a meditation on the choices we make about who we are, how we let ourselves be defined by others, and who we will ultimately become. Bill Murray is particularly moving as a sad-eyed comic who breathes vital air into a young woman’s life at a most crucial moment.

Finally, it’s going to be impossible, in the coming years, to look back at 2003 as anything but the Year of the King. Usually sequels get worse as they go along. Look at what happened to Star Wars and Jaws, Alien and The Matrix. But with The Return of the King, Jackson managed the opposite: he saved the best for last, and slam-dunked his series into the record books, both for the amount of money the three films will make, and for just how good they are. The trio will remain a treasured collection, something film history can be proud of.

These three are examples of filmmaking at its best: one from a traditional Hollywood studio, one by a stunningly talented young woman, and one that is as unique as it is impossible to ignore.

However, the three number ones have some close runners-up, beginning with another film about the agony of grief, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, which comes in at number 4. It’s a gracefully mounted, poetic film about human loss and all the extraordinary things we do to fill that loss. It is also about life in all of its unbearable lightness; what do we cling to when we are about to die? This film asks us questions and doesn’t dare answer them.

Number 5 is Gary Ross’s lovely interpretation of Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller, Seabiscuit. In truth, the story of the scrappy racehorse that just needs a little faith from three broken men is a no-brainer. You couldn’t do much to screw it up. But using the format of a Ken Burns-style documentary to tell Seabiscuit’s tale was a gamble that paid off. This is a movie that takes its time telling its story -- it never rushes to conclusions; it never goes straight for the money shot. The characters find their own ways through their arcs and contradictions -- chief among them, Jeff Bridges in yet another brilliantly understated role as the horse’s owner, but also Chris Cooper as the anti-social trainer and Tobey Maguire as the jockey. They are imperfect men, each with a special gift, who found a horse that would help them believe in themselves again.
6. American Splendor. The team of Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini took an oddly realized life (that of comic book writer Harvey Pekar, played by the brilliant Paul Giamatti) and the strangest coupling imaginable, and turned out one of the sweetest love stories of the year. We don’t ever sit in judgment of Pekar -- rather, we are enchanted by him; it is an awfully, terribly lonely world, and it’s a miracle when two people who seemed doomed to isolation find each other and some sort of salvation in doing so. Hope Davis is sublime as Pekar’s soul mate.
7. Whale Rider -- Niki Caro’s mythical story of a young girl destined to be a tribal chief, but prevented from her chosen path by a stifling tradition that says it’s a job meant only for a boy. However, the little girl perseveres and eventually the chosen one takes her rightful place atop the whales. Keisha Castle-Hughes carries the entire film on her tiny shoulders like a seasoned professional. The film is at once a three-hankie tear-jerker, a love letter to a dying culture, and a girl power inspiration.
8. Finding Nemo, written and directed by Andrew Stanton -- the story of a disabled fish with a stunted fin who accidentally gets captured and put in a dentists’ fish tank is as funny and moving as Pixar’s Toy Story movies. Here, Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres voice Nemo’s dad, and his buddy afflicted with short-term memory loss, who meet up with all sorts of hilarity along the way to finding Nemo.
9. Dirty Pretty Things. Stephen Frears’ immigration thriller, which outed the criminal practice of selling organs for passports, is so much more than that. Most of the characters are simply looking for a better way of life -- and trying to forget their own sordid pasts. The film features a standout performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, with supporting help from the lovely Audrey Tautou. It’s a beautiful film about an ugly subject.
10. In America. Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical tearjerker follows an Irish immigrant family that moves to New York City so the father can begin a professional acting career. At least that’s the story on the surface. Looking closer, we find a grieving father who has shut down to the degree that now he’s unable to act, because to act is to feel. It features a standout supporting performance by Djimon Hounsou as an artist dying of AIDS, but he has some stiff competition from the Bolger sisters, Sarah and Emma.

Themes of grief, abandonment, displacement all haunt the people of the best films of 2003 -- whether it’s an overprotective father fish who lost his entire family in a freak accident, or a human father so wrapped up in grief when his daughter is senselessly murdered that he takes matters into his own hands, or the two displaced Americans who find find comfort in each other on the alienating streets of Tokyo. Others struggle to make it in a rough-and-tumble new world like London or New York City. Some are running from a deadly virus, some are running from evil, or the restrictive confines of their own cultures. What they all have in common is, for better or worse: in the end, they are found.

Best Performance of the Year: Charlize Theron in Monster -- certainly the best male or female performance I've seen in a long time -- perhaps since Robert De Niro played Jake La Motta.
Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins in Mystic River, Paul Giamatti in American Splendor, Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider, Will Ferrell in Elf.
Best screenplay of the year: Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola) -- lovely, lyrical.
Best looking movie: Seabiscuit
Best direction: Peter Jackson, The Return of the King; Clint Eastwood, Mystic River; Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

©2004 CineScene