Top 10 Films Of 2003

Japanese Hotels, French Grannies, Brazilian Gangsters And Humble Hobbits Make Up This Year'S Best

Devin D. O'Leary
8 min read
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Lost in Translation

Who would have thought that bad actress in Godfather III would grow up to be the Sofia Coppola we now know. With her debut writing/directing effort, The Virgin Suicides, and this brilliant comedy/drama/romance on her résumé, it makes you wonder what daddy was thinking, forcing her into the thespian realm. Lost in Translation is a moody masterpiece of subtlety, tracing the delicate, brief relationship between a fading American actor (Bill Murray, who certainly deserves the Oscar) and a dissatisfied young newlywed (the fast-rising Scarlett Johansson) trapped in the unfamiliar environs of modern-day Tokyo. Far more than the May/December romance it looked like in trailers, Lost in Translation is a magnificently loving ode to loneliness, isolation and the simple human need for understanding. Credit Coppola for getting Murray to give the most honest, irony-free portrayal of his career and for writing a script that says so much with so few words.

Whale Rider

This powerful little parable stuck a harpoon in me at last year's Taos Talking Pictures Film Festival and never let go. The lead performance by young Keisha Castle-Hughes as a tough-minded pre-teen girl who believes she can be her Maori tribe's next chief—despite the strenuous objections of her too-traditional, equally stubborn grandfather—is nothing less than astonishing. I defy anyone to hold back the tears when she gives her noble, climactic speech. This genuine heart-sweller put all of this year's manipulative Hollywood tearjerkers to shame. Humor, pride, love and a near-magical belief in the impossible have rarely been so simply and effectively portrayed. Despite its honest look at the troubles of modern-day aboriginals, it makes you deeply sorry that western culture isn't as rich in history and belief.

City of God

Bursting from the streets of Brazil, this near-epic crime story resembles nothing so much as Scarface enacted by the cast of “Rugrats.” Spanning a dozen years and dozens of characters, this based-on-a-true-story saga shows what life was once like on the mean (and I mean mean) streets for the impoverished children of Rio de Janeiro. Directors Kátia Lund and Fernando Mierelles spin back and forth in time, giving us every last detail of their characters and settings, making sure we know everything we need to in order to sympathize with and understand these people. Despite its bloody honesty, the film feels vibrant and exciting. Infused with the pulsing music and colorful life of Brazil, City of God shows us that humanity, love and art thrive in even the most sunless of environments.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Since the beginning, I've been declaring Peter Jackson's Herculean adaptation of Tolkien's famed novels one of the most important trilogies in film history. This final, awe-inspiring climax only proves the point: Jackson, like Tolkien before him, has succeeded in re-introducing epic, mythological storytelling to western audiences. To hell with morally ambiguous heroes, corrupt cops and sadistic terrorists: These movies give us good old-fashioned good versus evil—and it's only when we view good and evil in their most undiluted forms that the moral complexity of the real world snaps into focus. Look at all three movies as one continuous narrative and you'll see just how far Jackson has taken us in these last three years. The first two films gave us the kind of character build-up and interpersonal drama few films have the luxury of providing. The final chapter delivers a spectacular, heart-pumping climax worthy of that massive build-up.

Mystic River

It's rare to find a film that knows the difference between cheap thrills and genuine tension. Clint Eastwood's somber adaptation of Dennis Lehane's bleak novel is built like a piano wire that just keeps winding tighter and tighter. Set in a small, working-class suburb of Boston, the film examines the brutal reverberations of a young girl's murder and its effect on the people around her. Caught up in this tragedy are three former childhood friends (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon), hangdog adults lugging around a lifetime of secrets and regrets. Eastwood's deceptively blunt direction focussed attention right where it needed to be—on the faces of his frighteningly good cast. While the three lead actors pull off incredibly emotional roles, it is the smaller, supporting cast (including a sublime Marcia Gay Harden) that grounds it in everyday reality. The utter inevitability of the film's ending doesn't detract one drop from its icy, gut-level shock.

The Triplets of Belleville

Though a great many audiences have not yet had the pleasure of seeing this witty, wonderful Gallic treasure, it is certainly one of the most charming pieces of animation in years. Yes, Finding Nemo is beautiful, funny and entertaining, but this quirky little gem only serves to point out how Hollywood formulaic Nemo really is. Triplets—about a tenacious French granny and her fat dog engaging in a trans-oceanic quest to rescue her grandson, kidnapped during the Tour de France—is an unending source of visual wonders and delights. Despite the simple, near-silent story, there is no guessing what might appear around any colorful corner: exploding frogs, singing seniors, beret-wearing gangsters. Tres magnifique!

21 Grams

It's tough to say which has the better ensemble cast: 21 Grams or Mystic River. Both feature unimpeachable performances by Sean Penn.

21 Grams may have the advantage, if only for Penn's astounding physical transformation from Mystic's buff, gruff ex-con to 21's sickly mathematician in need of a heart transplant. Mexican writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu, chose the perfect performers (American Penn, Aussie Naomi Watts and Puerto Rican Benicio Del Toro) to bring his tricky rumination on death to life. While some may mistake the film's fractured narrative as little more than a mixed-up box of puzzle pieces, astute viewers will realize the method to Iñárritu's madness. Even more than the cleverly interlinked story lines of Pulp Fiction or the backward plot of Memento, the screenplay for 21 Grams is a meticulously crafted house of mirrors. We're not sure if its three characters are heading toward redemption or away from it, but—when everything eventually falls into place—the emotional hit is like a wrecking ball.

American Splendor

Based on Harvey Pekar's autobiographical comic book, this nervy, multi-genre film introduces us to a real-life superhero. Pekar, a dyspeptic, anti-social misfit working as a file clerk in Cleveland is perhaps the most brilliant antidote to such Hollywooden pulp heroes as Daredevil and The Hulk. Filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini mix documentary interviews, artistic animation and off-kilter love story to create a unique portrait of Mr. Pekar. Actor Paul Giamatti perfectly embodies Harvey Pekar, quirks and all, to create a hilarious, strange but ultimately admirable antihero. (Plus, he does it all opposite the real-life Pekar!) Actress Hope Davis matches Giamatti's gloomy charm as his dysfunctional soulmate. Watching Pekar's real-life struggles and tiny day-to-day triumphs makes a powerful argument that every man is Superman.

House of Sand and Fog

Admittedly, this shattering domestic drama goes too far over the top toward the end, compounding the film's depressive atmosphere with bloody tragedy. But, then, that is the point of this “dark side of the American dream” story. First-time filmmaker Vadim Perelmen crafts an exquisitely atmospheric character clash from Andre Dubus III's literate best-seller. The story pits a depressed young divorcee (Jennifer Connelly) against a stoic but impoverished Iranian immigrant (Sir Ben Kingsley) who has just purchased her wrongly repossessed house. True, neither character is particularly sympathetic, but the film presents us with two damaged people at the ends of their respective ropes. While neither of their actions is particularly admirable, they are painfully understandable. The last shred of her independence and the first crumb of his redemption are wrapped up in that humble abode. Two generations of actors (Connelly and Kingsley, both Oscar-worthy) square off with shattering results.

Capturing the Friedmans

OK, so 2003 was not the year for “cheerful” films. So what. The point of art is to affect us. Mystic River, 21 Grams, The House of Sand and Fog and this shattering documentary could all be deemed “depressing”—but they stuck under viewers' skins like emotional splinters. The sure-thing winner for Best Documentary at this year's Academy Awards started out in intriguing territory: The nice, middle-class Friedman family of Long Island spent years videotaping themselves. Assembled for us are snippets from their everyday lives. Then comes the kicker: Patriarch Arnold Friedman was eventually arrested for a horrible crime—and still the cameras kept rolling. What emerges is a Rashomon-like question. Was Arnold guilty? Was it actually his son Jesse who was responsible? Or was it all just one big witch-hunt? Despite its unprecedented fly-on-the-wall access, this exercise in video voyeurism provides no easy answers, giving us instead a devastating lesson in ambiguity, uncertainty and the nuclear meltdown of the American family.

The Next 10: The Station Agent, Lost in La Mancha, Thirteen, Lilya 4-Ever, Sweet Sixteen, Shattered Glass, Cold Mountain, The Magdalene Sisters, The Man Who Wasn't There, 28 Days Later.

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