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The Year in Film – 2003

Last year we predicted 2003 would be an awful year for cinema… and we were right! Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing bright spots to be found (after all, we reviewed 297 theatrical releases from 2003, not including a few hundred more leftovers from 2002 and earlier, so by sheer numbers something had to not suck). But on the whole, 2003 was an utter dung heap that included endless unwanted sequels (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), video games-cum-movies (House of the Dead), horror remakes galore (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and two of the worst attempts at creating a super-hero franchise ever (The Hulk and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). And that doesn’t even begin to consider the Boat Trips, the Beyond Borderses, and the Giglis.

In a year where The Real Cancun passes for a feature film, we’re looking to put aside such things and focus on the good – and in a few cases, the great. For the ninth consecutive year, we offer our Year in Film (again abridged for space considerations). Lord knows you’d probably rather be watching one of these movies instead of merely reading about them. –Christopher Null, Editor in Chief, filmcritic.com


Christopher Null

1. Buffalo Soldiers – What a tragedy that the best film of the year was seen by virtually no one (not even critics) and promoted dismally by its distributor. But this biting satire stands as the greatest anti-war film since Dr. Strangelove, a brilliant and hilarious look at corruption and incompetence in the armed forces, a kind of peacetime version of Catch-22. Joaquin Phoenix gives a career-making performance, and Ed Harris’s against-type role is unforgettable. It took years to get Soldiers into theaters (its ‘anti-Americanism’ actually provoked a physical attack at Sundance) and it’ll take further years before it’s properly respected. I predict Buffalo Soldiers will be a major cult film… in 2013.

2. The Shape of ThingsThe Shape of Things provoked a viscerally negative response from many viewers and critics because they saw themselves a little too clearly in the absurdity within. The far-fetched story has Rachel Weisz physically and emotionally transforming Paul Rudd into a ‘better man’ over the course of a few months (and I won’t reveal why). Anyone who’s ever been forced to give up a friend due to a jealous significant other will see with all-too-vivid clarity the terminus of such compromise. It’ll make you squirm in your seat, but your mind will be the better for it.

3. 21 Grams – The time-bending editing of 21 Grams melds perfectly with its themes of loss, vengeance, redemption, and severe depression. It took a genius behind the camera and in the editing room to pull this off, and sure enough Alejandro González Iñárritu proved himself to be one. Perhaps even more masterful: casting three actors who turn in what may be the three best performances of the year: alas Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, and Benecio Del Toro will all probably be forgotten for their work here come Oscar time.

4. Lost in Translation

5. The Cooler – You should see it, if for no other reason than the fact that William H. Macy romps around bare-assed for half the film. As the titular ‘cooler,’ Macy’s down-and-out loser spends his days in the employ of a Vegas casino boss (Alec Baldwin in his best work since Glengarry Glen Ross), ‘cooling’ off tables when the players are on a lucky streak. His love affair with an equally apt Maria Bello rounds out a truly excellent and under-seen film.

6. American Splendor

7. Better Luck Tomorrow – This indie could have been number one if it hadn’t croaked in the last half hour. It’s a study of the high pressures put on Asian teens – and how that can push these mild mannered high-schoolers toward the worst elements, culminating in events that would make gangsters blush.

8. Seabiscuit – Damn, I love that little horse.

9. Old School – At last, a worthy heir to Animal House emerges. Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, and Luke Wilson star as the greatest trio of college ‘kids’ to hit screens in a long while. It’s harmless comedy, but lines like ‘We’re goin’ streaking!’ and ‘Might not have enough tiiiiiime‘ have entered the pop culture lexicon with amazing rapidity.

10. Shattered Glass – By day I work as editor of a national magazine, and I’ve seen countless Stephen Glass types over the years – ambitious writers who’ll stretch the truth as required, as long as it makes a good story. For that reason, Glass probably resonated with me more than most, but I can’t forget Hayden Christensen’s dead-on leading role here, which makes us forget all about that Anakin Skywalker business.

Worst of the Year: The Hulk

Best Way to End a Series: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Worst Way to End a Series: The Matrix Revolutions

Worst Way to Begin a Series: Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Overrated: Finding Nemo, Whale Rider, Raising Victor Vargas, All the Real Girls, Gerry, City of God, Cold Mountain

Most Ambitious Misfire: Dogville

Least Explicable Collaboration: Woody Allen and Jason Biggs in Anything Else

Worst Villains: MPAA, RIAA (tie)

Missed: Mystic River, Master and Commander, In
America


Jeremiah Kipp

1. The Company Was there a sexier movie in 2003? No way. Robert Altman’s film about a dance company’s season intercuts the rigorous rehearsal process, bureaucratic tussles, private lives, and poetic performances of the ensemble. The dance sequences are elating and awe-inspiring, and the work that goes into them is all the more inspiring considering the body struggles involved. And the budding relationship between a dancer (Neve Campbell) and a sweet natured master chef (James Franco), told largely without dialogue, makes for a lovely parallel – young love feels just like a wondrous dance.

2. In America Told from a child’s eye view, this bit of Irish magic realism follows an immigrant family adjusting to their new life in New York City. It’s the Big Apple of our mind, from the lowest urban squalor to the lights and magic of Broadway. With drag queens, junkies, panhandlers, and an artist dying of AIDS (the remarkable Djimon Hounsou), it’s a full landscape. The children are effortlessly believable, adorable because they’re insightful and charming – and as the parents, Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine summon up depths of adoration and pain. Scenes to remember: daddy striving to win a carnival prize for his daughter with all the fates set against him; an E.T. moon referenced as the place loved ones go when they leave us; a love scene during a thunderstorm contrasted with the screams of a lost soul living below. In America is pure cinema, pure sentiment, and pure joy to watch.

3. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

4. The Secret Lives of Dentists

5. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary – Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin makes an expressionistic silent film out of the Winnipeg Ballet Company’s version of Bram Stoker’s novel. Though the dance is pretty much cropped out of the picture, the bodies of the performers feel like the greatest silent movie stars. Maddin also doesn’t shy away from the novel’s dread of foreigners and of sex, with an Asian Dracula who bleeds gold coins and the heroes as a bunch of prigs who can only achieve sensual pleasure when pumping the dying Mina Harker with their blood transfusions. Dracula is livelier and more imaginative than the Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman versions… and the violent climax is appropriately heart-rending.

6. Lost in Translation

7. The Good Thief Once you’ve finished Coppola’s Tokyo, take a trip to Neil Jordan’s neon tinged vision of Nice. Though the plot is just another heist film, Nick Nolte is astonishing as the man with the plan. A shambling drug addict done good, a poetic racounteur, a gentleman and a rogue, Nolte fills out his role with dignity. His craggy features and cigarette stained voice feel like a life lived, and The Good Thief places him into a beautifully photographed night town surrounded by a host of multi-culti character actors. Accompanied by a vibrant score, The Good Thief is a cinematic feast for the senses.

8. Sweet Sixteen British realism made poetic, Ken Loach tells a tale of the dispossessed highlighted by young Martin Compston’s remarkable performance as a 16-year-old criminal in the making. What makes the film poignant are his approachable hopes and dreams, held onto with pluck and moxie worthy of the great James Cagney.

9. The Fog of War Even though documentarian Errol Morris never really cracks the hard politican’s shell of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, it’s a timely parable of war as an incomprehensible nightmare. For all McNamara’s nuggets of wisdom, he offers the frightening thought that being wise and being human form a brutal paradox, and the path to war is thorny and, often, unavoidable. It’s a chilling philosophical treatise told through clinical, surreal imagery and an ominous Philip Glass score.

10. Holes The rare adaptation of a novel that translates beautifully to cinematic storytelling, Holes is a children’s film that treats children like they’re smart. Piling story atop story, the narratives weave together as prison yard kids digging for buried treasure become knotted with an old legend about a western heroine, desert creatures, and secret millionaires. It delights in flights of fancy and in its jocular yarn-spinning, which is smart but never smug. That’s a rarity in kids’ films and comedies these days.

Worst of the Year: Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Honorable Mention: 28 Days Later, Friday Night, The Son, Elephant, In This World, A Mighty Wind, Stuck On You, The Station Agent

Badass of the Year: Russell Crowe, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Overrated: Mystic River, Dirty Pretty Things, Gerry

Best Re-Release: Scarface

Missed: Finding Nemo, Cold Mountain, Together


Sean O’Connell

1. Spellbound – How do I spell electrifying? S-P-E-L-L-B-O-U-N-D. Jeffrey Blitz’s winning documentary follows eight accomplished spellers and their supportive family members as they descend on Washington D.C. for the Scripps Howard 1999 National Spelling Bee. The ingenious scenario creates real dramatic tension, gives insight into our nation’s youth, and will have you cheering loud and long for the last speller standing.

2. Big Fish – Tim Burton’s whimsical tall tale explores the damaged relationship between a dying father (Albert Finney) and his skeptical son (Billy Crudup). It’s as creative as you’d expect from Burton, with an unexpectedly sentimental heart. It’s also a film written specifically for me. Whether he knows it or not, Finney plays my dad, grandiose storytelling methods and all. He, too, died of cancer, though we didn’t have the dramatic farewell Finney and Crudup are afforded. That connection alone is enough, but the similarities continue. Crudup, also a writer, has a pregnant wife. Not just pregnant, but seven months pregnant, just like my Michele. It was like Burton decided, ‘This is your movie, Sean, so enjoy it.’ And enjoy it I did. A great deal.

3. A Mighty Wind

4. Finding Nemo

5. The Station Agent – Three quirky individuals find companionship in southern New Jersey, of all places. Strangely moving turns by Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale are anchored by Peter Dinklage, the diminutive yet dominant agent of the title.

6. < a href="http://www.filmcritic.com/misc/emporium.nsf/reviews/American-Splendor">American Splendor – Comic book author Harvey Pekar’s life and times awaken with vivid detail in this smart and cynical blend of reality and cinematic fantasy. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini dive into their subject with enthusiasm and affection, and their fearless product surges with creative juices as a result. Kudos to Paul Giamatti, who slides into Harvey’s uncomfortable skin with ease.

7. In America

8. 21 Grams

9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Peter Jackson saved the best for last. King wraps together the epic storytelling threads laid out in the previous two Rings films, and places a glorious cap on this unparalleled cinematic achievement.

10. The Secret Lives of Dentists – Alan Rudolph creates a unique and deeply disturbing glimpse into the suspicious mind of a jealous husband. Hope Davis and the wonderful Campbell Scott play the couple in jeopardy, while Denis Leary perfects the role of Scott’s free-wheeling and brutally honest conscience.

Worst of the Year: In the Cut

Honorable Mention (alphabetically): All the Real Girls, Bad Santa, The Barbarian Invasions, Casa de Los Babys, Capturing the Friedmans, Confidence, Dirty Pretty Things, Elf, Freaky Friday, Intolerable Cruelty, Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Open Range, Peter Pan, Pieces of April, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Shape of Things, Shattered Glass

Glad I Missed: Boat Trip, From Justin to Kelly

Highly Overrated: Mystic River, Cold Mountain

Biggest Disappointment: Love Actually

Bad Things Come In Threes: Ashton Kutcher (Just Married, My Boss’s Daughter, Cheaper by the Dozen)

Missed: Bubba Ho-Tep, Buffalo Soldiers, Bus 174, The Company, The Fog of War, The Gospel of John, Monster, Northfork, Party Monster, The Statement, To Be and To Have


Norm Schrager

1. Lost in Translation Writer/director Sofia Coppola creates the sharpest, most beautifully paced film of the year. With three shining stars – Bill Murray as a bruised middle-aged actor, Scarlett Johansson as an unhappy newlywed, and the overwhelming city of Tokyo – Coppola gets everything right, creating a pair of misplaced souls doing awkward imitations of themselves. Murray and Johansson are masterful in their subtlety, delivering performances that combine confusion, cool and a hidden dread. This could have been too wacky, too maudlin, too much. Instead, Coppola’s guidance is perfect; with just two films, she has established herself as a premier creative force in the independent world.

2. Finding Nemo – With this glorious fantasy, Pixar has surpassed Disney (and even itself) as the finest storytellers in family film. To create a grand odyssey for two lovable underdogs, the Pixar team mixes playfulness, a deep love of film, and a visual beauty that is unmatched in the industry. This is not just a great animated movie – it is a superior film, period.

3. Whale Rider Writer/director Niki Caro gets the most out of the lovely, heartbreaking Keisha Castle-Hughes as Paikea, a teenage Maori who may be the future of her village and townspeople. The most graceful film this year.

4. 28 Days Later

5. Bad Santa Director Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World) continues to impress and surprise, with this sick, lewd, and giddy holiday comedy. Despite all of the deplorable, disgusting stuff, Zwigoff delivers some real (albeit twisted) emotional depth, with none of it feeling forced.

6. Spellbound

7. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 Quentin Tarantino fills his chopsocky opus with a careful, detailed ebullient energy that’s nearly impossible not to dig. Although more hollow than his previous work, Kill Bill has a party-hearty mock-gravity that keeps your eyes on the screen and the popcorn in your face.

8. Runaway Jury – This fast-paced thriller about jury-rigging in the Age of Technology is the best Hollywood feature of the year. The anticipated showdown between Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman doesn’t disappoint, and even the occasional plot holes add to the fun. Director Gary Fleder, with screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien, nails this one.

9. Off the Map – Although it didn’t gain distribution, this 2003 festival favorite is an offbeat, often beautiful labor of love from director Campbell Scott, about a troubled family living in the New Mexico desert in the 1960s. Joan Allen, Sam Elliott, and newcomer Valentina de Angelis offer honest, on-the-mark performances.

10. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Worst of the Year: Dreamcatcher

Honorable Mention: Phone Booth, Better Luck Tomorrow, Cabin Fever, Bend It Like Beckham, Freaky Friday
Best Performances: Keisha-Castle Hughes, Whale Rider; Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Most Promising New Director: Justin Lin, Better Luck Tomorrow

Most Welcome Newcomer: Keira Knightley

Most Overrated Performance: Tim Robbins, Mystic River

Most Ridiculous Impersonation of an Action Figure: Orlando Bloom, The Return of the King


Pete Croatto

1. Love Actually – Director/writer Richard Curtis has done something amazing. He has written and directed a film of epic scope that somehow feels as intimate as a coffee shop conversation. Sure, there are two-dozen characters, enough plotlines to fill a long-running TV series, and lots of sweeping romantic gestures, but no movie I saw in 2003 made me feel happier.

2. I Capture the Castle – You rarely see the realistic side of love in movies, but here’s one that manages to balance the dreamy possibilities of romance and the awkward compromises in one magnificent, memorable swoop. This should be required viewing for teenagers weaned on Nora Ephron movies and Britney Spears singles.

3. The Cooler

4. Finding Nemo

5. 21 Grams

6. A Mighty Wind – As much as I enjoyed Best in Show, Christopher Guest and company turned it into a broad farce, with characters serving as easy punchlines. In their latest effort, which focuses on several 1960s folk bands reuniting, director and co-writer Guest shows the humanity behind the humor, especially with estranged husband and wife performers Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara (never better).

7. Spellbound

8. American Splendor

9. The Secret Lives of Dentists

10. Cold Mountain – A tired Confederate soldier (Jude Law) escapes the battlefield to restart his fledgling romance with his soulmate (Nicole Kidman). It’s not a war movie per se, but a look at how we all need comfort in times of trouble, a message that applies as much today as it did in 1865.

Worst of the Year: House of the Dead

Honorable Mention (in no order): Raising Victor Vargas, Elf, Tupac: Resurrection, Alien: The Director’s Cut, House of Sand and Fog, Stuck on You, The Concert for George

Overrated: Lost in Translation, Kill Bill: Vol. 1, The School of Rock, Washington Heights, A Housekeeper, Mystic River, Bend It Like Beckham, The Human Stain, Whale Rider

New Face to Launch 1,000 Ships: Keira Knightley

Goofball Who Can Carry a Movie: Will Ferrell in Elf

Goofball Who’s Not Quite There Yet: Jack Black in The School of Rock

Best Villain: Alec Baldwin in The Cooler

Best Comeback: The Farrelly Brothers (Stuck on You)

Worst Waste of Great Talent: Laura Linney in Mystic River, Frances McDormand in Something’s Gotta Give, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise in The Human Stain

Missed: In America, Seabiscuit, 28 Days Later, Winged Migration, The Triplets of Belleville


Rachel Gordon

1. Bright LeavesBright Leaves is a beautiful culmination of Ross McElwee as a filmmaker. Often a one-man crew who simply shoots film wherever he goes so that he can pick and choose from a wide range of material once he’s found a subject, this time McElwee’s journey is based on compiling a family history. McElwee explores his North Carolinian tobacco routes to possibly connect them with a film from the 1940s (Bright Leaf) while documenting ancestral culture to pass on to his own children, featured as a reminder of personal evolution. His mixture of heartfelt determination and humor is impeccable. Though only having screened at this year’s New York Film Festival thus far, hopefully Bright Leaves will get a real release.

2. 28 Days Later It’s been too long since I’ve been able to look at a thriller and truly have an adrenaline rush. 28 Days Later not only delivers on energy but human interaction in dire circumstances without the necessity of insanely overpriced special effects. From the stark, wide angles of a desolate London to the claustrophobia of a military compound, the escape from rage remains totally unpredictable throughout and makes each payoff worthwhile.

3. The Secret Lives of Dentists

4. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

5. Friday Night

6. To Be and To Have – A wonderful portrait of the connectedness that education should strive for, To Be and To Have is an engaging look at a small school for working class children. Truly endearing through the simple moments of encouragement, To Be brilliantly displays the possibility of preparing students for a larger world without the need for churning out young minds through a stereotypically factory system whose only function is achieving high standardized results.

7. Gerry – Who ever thought two men lost in the desert for 90 minutes could be so thought-provoking and cathartic? Matt Damon and Casey Affleck make Gerry a frustrating yet poignant buddy trip to follow, subtly exchanging character traits while grasping for each other to survive.

8. Stuck on You The Farrelly brothers best affectionately masculine story yet, Stuck on You is as charming as it is entertaining satire. Combining a refreshing variety of humor, from slapstick body work to one-liners, with a heartfelt twist of brotherly love, Stuck is a moving but also simply fun time at the movies

9. 21 Grams

10. Capturing the Friedmans – While most go to the movies to escape real life, and especially avoid uncomfortable dysfunctional family issues, watching Capturing the Friedmans is actually a cathartic experience. What began as a portrait of a clown stretches to an unusual upbringing that brings out the best and worst of any family, as one member was convicted of child molestation. Bold in content while respecting its subject, Capturing is a powerful study of forgiveness, and of the strength it takes to slowly understand a parent as a flawed, three-dimensional human being.

Worst of t
he Year: Underworld

Honorable Mention: The Company, The Fog of War, Lost in Translation

Most Original: Camp. Who would have thought a story based on melodramatic musical theater kids would be so amusing? Though awkward in pacing and sometimes feeling as if plot points were jettisoned from nowhere, it’s an affectionate look at a talented cast that gets an unusually respectful focus.

BONUS: 17 Top Tens — “clip ‘n’ save”

Christopher Null
1. Buffalo Soldiers
2. The Shape of Things
3. 21 Grams
4. Lost in Translation
5. The Cooler
6. American Splendor
7. Better Luck Tomorrow
8. Seabiscuit
9. Old School
10. Shattered Glass
Jeremiah Kipp
1. The Company
2. In America
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
4. The Secret Lives of Dentists
5. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
6. Lost in Translation
7. The Good Thief
8. Sweet Sixteen
9. The Fog of War
10. Holes
Sean O’Connell
1. Spellbound
2. Big Fish
3. A Mighty Wind
4. Finding Nemo
5. The Station Agent
6. American Splendor
7. In America
8. 21 Grams
9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
10. The Secret Lives of Dentists
Norm Schrager
1. Lost in Translation 2. Finding Nemo
3. Whale Rider
4. 28 Days Later
5. Bad Santa
6. Spellbound
7. Kill Bill: Vol. 1
8. Runaway Jury
9. Off the Map
10. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Pete Croatto
1. Love Actually
2. I Capture the Castle
3. The Cooler
4. Finding Nemo
5. 21 Grams
6. A Mighty Wind
7. Spellbound
8. American Splendor
9. The Secret Lives of Dentists
10. Cold Mountain
Eric Meyerson
1. American Splendor
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
3. 21 Grams
4. Lost in Translation
5. Finding Nemo
6. Spellbound
7. A Mighty Wind
8. Master & Commander
9. Bad Santa
10. Kill Bill: Volume 1
Don Willmott
1. Lost in Translation
2. Spellbound
3. Capturing the Friedmans
4. Mystic River
5. Finding Nemo
6. 28 Days Later
7. Bend It Like Beckham
8. Winged Migration
9. A Mighty Wind
10. Down with Love
Chris Barsanti
1. Bus 174
2. Mystic River
3. Finding Nemo
4. Elephant
5. Cold Mountain
6. Lost in Translation
7. Big Fish
8. The School of Rock
9. Master and Commander
10. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Nicholas Schager
1. Capturing the Friedmans
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
3. All the Real Girls
4. Lost in Translation
5. Love and Diane
6. Big Fish
7. Raising Victor Vargas
8. Bad Santa
9. The School of Rock
10. Friday Night
Mark Athitakis
1. The Man Without a Past
2. Lost in Translation
3. The Secret Lives of Dentists
4. Man on the Train
5. Spellbound
6. Down with Love
7. Winged Migration
8. Finding Nemo
9. To Be and To Have
10. Cowards Bend the Knee
Jake Euker
1. S.W.A.T.
2. Bus 174
3. Out of Time
4. Finding Nemo
5. The Matrix Reloaded
6. Pirates of the Caribbean
7. Johnny English
8. The Embalmer
9. Terminal Bar
10. Cabin Fever
David Levine
1. Lost in Translation
2. 21 Grams
3. Master and Commander
4. In America
5. Seabiscuit
6. Swimming Pool
7. Finding Nemo
8. Thirteen
9. Winged Migration
10. House of Sand and Fog
Matt Langdon
1. The Man Without A Past
2. Fog of War
3. Man on the Train
4. American Splendor
5. The Son
6. Japon
7. demonlover
8. Unknown Pleasures
9. Lilya 4-ever
10. The Same River Twice
Doug Hennessey
1. Mystic River
2. Master and Commander
3. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
4. Fog of War
5. Finding Nemo
6. The Company
7. Cold Mountain
8. Triplets of Belleville
9. Open Range
10. In America
Blake French
1. Kill Bill: Vol. 1
2. 21 Grams
3. Lost in Translation
4. The Human Stain
5. Confidence
6. Runaway Jury
7. The Last Samurai
8. The Matrix Reloaded
9. X2: X-Men United
10. Shattered Glass
Rachel Gordon
1. Bright Leaves
2. 28 Days Later
3. The Secret Lives of Dentists
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
5. Friday Night
6. To Be and To Have
7. Gerry
8. Stuck on You
9. 21 Grams
10. Capturing the Friedmans
Jesse Hassenger
1. Kill Bill: Vol. 1
2. Once Upon a Time in Mexico
3. Big Fish
4. Lost in Translation
5. American Splendor
6. X2: X-Men United
7. Matchstick Men
8. Elephant
9. The Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions
10. Finding Nemo
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