Is it the mark of a good year or a bad year when consensus about the year's best films comes easy? Is the pool of contenders too shallow, or are 2003's great films so apparent that most right-minded people can agree on them? Whatever the case, the four Top 10 lists below include only 23 different films, barely enough to fill a few weekend binges at Netflix.com or the local gigantiplex. But within consensus comes diversity: Everyone compiling this list agrees on Andrew Jarecki's harrowing documentary Capturing The Friedmans and the sweet, convulsively funny Jack Black comedy School Of Rock, but short of Gerry and Boat Trip (now, there's a double feature), it's hard to imagine two movies with less in common. And people declaring 2003 "the year of the documentary" will find no disagreement here. Last year's lists yielded one doc (The Kid Stays In The Picture), while this year's offers four, including Friedmans and The Fog Of War, which roughly tabulate as the staff's two collective favorites. Those and other highlights (and lowlights) follow below.
1. American Splendor
It's hard to choose the more impressive achievement of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's big-screen adaptation of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor comics: the assured, casually experimental blend of documentary, animation, and naturalist comedy, or the way Berman and Pulcini assemble 30 years of Pekar stories into one thematically consistent piece, incisively capturing his guiding principle that commoners have as much to say as kings.
2. The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King
3. Capturing The Friedmans
4. Kill Bill: Volume 1
5. Mystic River
6. Shattered Glass
7. Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World
8. The Company
Robert Altman's lightly fictionalized (with the help of producer/star Neve Campbell) backstage glance at Chicago's Joffrey Ballet company may make some viewers impatient, what with its lengthy dance sequences and sketchy, elliptical plot. But Altman's relaxed, unobtrusive approach conveys magnitudes about the mysteries and fascination of the collaborative arts, perhaps even summing up his career's democratic ideals.
9. The Hunted
In addition to being a trim, beautifully photographed chase picture with more action than chitchat, William Friedkin's urban-wilderness adventure The Hunted has an elemental melancholy, and a chillingly allegorical story about how tacit support for institutional murder leads to evil taking on a life of its own–and forging weapons.
10. School Of Rock
Distinctive visions large and small filled out 2003. Anthony Minghella continued to balance big-budget scope and human desire in his adaptation of Charles Frazier's novel Cold Mountain, another in a string of Minghella films about how the rigid barriers of nationalism and class become liquid the moment love enters the picture. Gary Ross took on Laura Hillenbrand's non-fiction bestseller Seabiscuit and came up with a rarity: a beautiful, highly personal crowd-pleaser that examines the deeper meaning of crowd-pleasers. The world of animation served up two new classics: Pixar's resonant, richly plotted Finding Nemo and Sylvain Chomet's whimsically grotesque The Triplets Of Belleville. And while some critics complained that Swedish wunderkind Lukas Moodysson abandoned the warmth of Show Me Love and Together for the miserablism of Lilya 4-Ever, his harsh tale of contemporary slavery is actually another profound illustration of how people need people.
Peter Sarsgaard, Shattered Glass
Peter Sarsgaard's performance as New Republic editor Chuck Lane mirrors an office environment that feeds on dull routine and petty beefing. He maintains an affectless, businesslike demeanor while dealing with the accusations that one of his staffers–the amusingly needy Hayden Christensen, as disgraced writer Stephen Glass–is a liar, and when his righteous anger finally bubbles up, Sarsgaard's face and voice register the intoxication of forbidden emotion.
The Matrix Reloaded
Even geeks were dismayed by how utterly geeky the second part of the Wachowski brothers' Matrix saga turned out, but The Matrix Reloaded is actually in the tradition of trilogy fulcrums: It extends the mythology while hinting that the audience's presumptions about the series are totally wrong. It's also the Matrix film with the most heart, the most stunning setpieces, and the best ending.
House Of Sand And Fog
Boy, people sure do like their stuff, huh? That's the sum total of the wisdom in Vadim Perelman's adaptation of Andre Dubus III's novel House Of Sand And Fog, which wastes game performances by Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly, as well as a prime opportunity to comment on the subtleties of human pride. Instead, the clash of wills between two would-be homeowners seems forced and heavy-handed, as Perelman seems more interested in aestheticizing pain than illuminating it.
Writer-director Wayne Kramer doesn't just center The Cooler on a weirdly simplistic conception of Las Vegas–one where luck is tangible and traditionalists fight off modernists in open warfare–he also applies these shallow ideas to grim drama rather than light comedy, where they might have fit more comfortably. The Cooler is the cornerstone example of how independent films misfired in 2003, knocked askew by their own preciousness.
The wince-inducing dialogue and nutzoid genre-smashing of Stephen King's fever-dream novel Dreamcatcher were translated to the screen with exaggerated literalness by director Lawrence Kasdan and his co-writer William Goldman, who generated more laughs (some intentional, most probably not) than any comedy released in 2003.
The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring The Beatles
Music on DVD has become as much a pleasant byproduct of the technology as TV on DVD, and never more so than this year, with marvels like Led Zeppelin's double-disc DVD and the BBC-produced The Old Grey Whistle Test. On the most revelatory music DVD of the year, The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring The Beatles, the cultural impact of Beatlemania finally gets placed in its original context: alongside sleight-of-hand comedian Fred Kaps, the wrung-dry impressions and show tunes of Gordon & Sheila MacRae, the hideous music-hall moves of Tessie O'Shea, some bombastic Broadway from the cast of Oliver! (with future Monkee Davy Jones playing the Artful Dodger), and Sullivan's clumsy introductions for pizza and tea commercials.
1. Lost In Translation
Adrift in an unfamiliar place, two lonely people find each other. It's an old story, but Sofia Coppola's stunning second feature makes the developing relationship between stars Bill Murray (as a past-his-prime movie star scoring a quick buck shilling for Japanese whiskey) and Scarlett Johansson (as a young woman trying to find out how she fits in the world) feel as unpredictable as the sights and sounds of its bustling Tokyo streets. Their encounter is brief, but has any film better captured how a few in-between days can put life in focus?
2. Down With Love
3. The Fog Of War
4. American Splendor
5. Kill Bill: Volume 1
One reel is a tribute to '70s kung fu. The next one's anime. Here's an eyepatch-clad Daryl Hannah dressed as a nurse and whistling an insane stretch of Bernard Herrmann's score for Twisted Nerve. There's Uma Thurman, dressed like an alien biker and racing through Japanese streets to Al Hirt's rendition of the Green Hornet theme. Quentin Tarantino explodes with pop-culture love, but there's little time to play spot-the-reference when the material is this visceral and exciting. The hints of heartbreak keep suggesting that, once finished, this could be his best film.
6. Capturing The Friedmans
7. School Of Rock
9. The Man Without A Past
In Kill Bill, Uma Thurman wakes from a coma with one thought on her mind: revenge. When Markku Peltola, the badly beaten amnesiac hero of Aki Kaurismäki's The Man Without A Past, wakes from his coma, he can't quite manage the focus. Shot in the spare equivalent to the deadpan acting styles he demands of his actors, Kaurismäki's warm, funny film follows Peltola as he discovers the freedom, fear, and possibility of making a better life after the universe has pressed "reset."
10. Mystic River
Violence erupted, myths were made, and one generation assumed power as another lost control in The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, Peter Jackson's just-short-of-perfect finale to his remarkable J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation. But Jackson had a rival in creating fantastical, self-contained worlds: French animator Sylvain Chomet, whose dialogue-light The Triplets Of Belleville crafted a universe from aging cabaret stars, single-minded bicyclists, and traumatized dogs. Violence erupted and myths were made in another forbidding land: the Rio de Janeiro of City Of God, Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund's wrenching look at Brazil's mean streets, and those who prosper, fall, and escape seemingly at those streets' whims. Meanwhile, David Cronenberg looked inside with the ineffably sad schizophrenic's tale Spider. And, for a look at how collaborative art happens (specifically ballet, but by implication movies, theater, and more), Robert Altman closed out the year with the sweetly tense The Company.
Ralph Fiennes, Spider
For total disappearance into character, even Charlize Theron's transformation for Monster couldn't rival Fiennes' immersion into the sad, scary mind of Spider's mentally ill protagonist. Only Fiennes' familiar appearance suggests an actor hiding behind the haunted eyes.
Sure, the ending is a disaster, and on a certain level, Hulk was doomed to satisfy no one: There's not enough art for the arthouse, and not enough action for the multiplex. But Ang Lee's attempt to bring the Green Goliath to the screen is too fascinating to dismiss, if only for the lyric, near-wordless (and nearly endless) desert chase, and the way it cycles through one take on the main character after another: Hulk as childhood trauma, Hulk as id, Hulk as monster, Hulk as the problem that only gets stronger as it's met with more military force. It's almost as if Lee were trying to make a bunch of Hulk movies at once–none of them entirely successful, but each one impossible to forget.
The Last Samurai
Star: Tom Cruise. Co-star: a centuries-old way of life struggling for survival. Guess which gets treated with more complexity? If director Edward Zwick had fussed over the significance of the samurai the way he fussed over costumes, this might have been a formidable film.
The world is filled with humanitarian crises, and isn't it awful how that keeps getting in the way of Angelina Jolie landing her man? Beyond Borders also features a Jar Jar Binks-like CGI stand-in for a starving Ethiopian child. Worst PSA ever.
The fate of the world, perhaps even the fabric of the universe itself, depends on whether Hollywood cipher-for-hire Paul Walker can travel to the past to rescue inexplicably Scottish dad Billy Connolly from medieval Frenchmen. "None of you archeologists look to the future," Walker says at one point. True enough, but in years to come, masochistic film scholars will find a telling artifact in Timeline's cheap special effects, Lord Of The Rings-riding swordplay and siege sequences, and general crappiness.
The Alien Quadrilogy
Following the lead of the groundbreaking multi-disc Lord Of The Rings sets, this mammoth undertaking gets at the nuts and bolts of a series whose monsters have become a part of the collective nightmare. Warning: Could make viewers spend more time thinking about Alien: Resurrection than they would like.
1. The Fog Of War
Riveting as cinema and invaluable as history, Errol Morris' The Fog Of War unflinchingly explores the Shakespearean contradictions and troubled conscience of Robert McNamara, the brilliant primary architect of the Vietnam War. In the hands of a lesser documentarian, an extended interview with McNamara might play like a bone-dry history lesson, but Morris turns it into a cinematic and personal tour de force, both visually compelling and breathtakingly cinematic.
2. Lost In Translation
3. School Of Rock
4. Big Fish
5. Capturing The Friedmans
It may take a village to raise a child, but it also sometimes takes an entire community to fail one. That seems to be the case with Stephen Fielding. Director Steve James was his "Big Brother," before a hard, rudderless life sent Fielding spiraling toward tragedy. Stevie lets the director reconnect with a grown Fielding who's awaiting a jail sentence for molesting a cousin; that reunion turns Stevie into personal filmmaking of the most powerful and painful sort.
7. All The Real Girls
8. American Splendor
9. Owning Mahowny
For his follow-up to Love And Death On Long Island, director Richard Kwietniowski produced another psychologically penetrating look at a man whose private obsession threatens to overtake his carefully crafted public façade. In a beautifully measured performance, Philip Seymour Hoffman finds the pathos and humanity in a real-life Canadian schlub who inconspicuously embezzled a fortune from his employers to finance his gambling addiction. Love And Death's John Hurt is chilling as the oily, pragmatic casino boss who nurtures Hoffman's addiction, but he's not quite as chilling as a heartbreaking scene in which Hoffman contemplates life without his chosen obsession.
10. Shattered Glass
Epics don't get much more ambitious than Peter Jackson's masterful, massive The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, which provided all the heart and emotional resonance missing from the Matrix sequels. Succeeding on a much more modest scale, the warmly humanistic crowd-pleasers Raising Victor Vargas and Spellbound introduced audiences to lovable kids far removed from the hormone- and drug-addled monsters occupying the sensational worlds of Larry Clark and his ilk. Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino's blood-soaked Kill Bill: Volume 1 told a simple story of revenge in a characteristically complicated, conspicuously stylish fashion, while Alan Rudolph rebounded from a prolonged career rut with The Secret Lives Of Dentists, a literate, brilliantly acted examination of the joys and pain of modern marriage, enlivened with goofy comic flourishes and the most inspired use of Denis Leary's angry-hipster persona to date.
Paul Giamatti, American Splendor
Playing a real person who's a relatively known quantity is a formidable challenge, especially when acting alongside that person, as serial scene-stealer Paul Giamatti does opposite the cantankerous real-life Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. Giamatti doesn't just capture the soul and substance of a working-class drone/creative revolutionary; he also manages to feel more authentic than his real-life counterpart.
Lisa Cholodenko's acutely observed character study Laurel Canyon doesn't exactly proceed with unstoppable forward momentum, but its languid pace seems fitting for a film so deeply tuned into the unhurried, stoned rhythms of its rock-world milieu. Frances McDormand carries the film with authority as a legendary record producer whose uptight son (Christian Bale, in a 180-degree turn from his role in American Psycho) resents her freewheeling ways. Kate Beckinsale lends expert support as Bale's responsible but curious girlfriend, who can't resist the hedonistic lifestyle of McDormand and her sexy young boyfriend.
The almost universally hailed bookumentary Stone Reader is such a relentlessly nice, sweet-natured film that criticizing it feels like slamming Santa Claus. Mark Moskowitz's exploration into the fate of disappeared writer Dow Mossman has a riveting final half-hour, but getting to it requires enduring Moskowitz's sluggishly paced look at his own infinitely less interesting existence. Audiences end up learning much more about the director than they do about Mossman, and that knowledge consists mainly of how exceedingly dull Moskowitz is.
The Cat In The Hat
Following closely in the repellent footsteps of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, The Cat In The Hat turns one of Dr. Seuss' best-loved tomes into a noxious love letter to star Mike Myers, who mugs up an embarrassing storm. The Cat In The Hat's toxic combination of crass scatological humor, oppressive production design, and half-hearted "heart" was intended to appeal equally to kids and adults, but ended up turning off just about everyone.
Cuba Gooding Jr.–American cinema's reigning king of misguided high-concept dreck–outdid himself with Boat Trip, a Chill Factor-level exercise in formula gone awry. Gooding stars as one of two buffoonish would-be womanizers who accidentally end up on a gay cruise. Combing the sensitive Neanderthal sensibility of the mid-'70s Redd Foxx-accepts-homosexuality comedy Norman… Is That You? with the subtlety of Mama's Family, Boat Trip propagates the most shopworn stereotypes under the guise of subverting them.
Plexifilm's features-loaded double-disc DVD for the seminal early-'80s graffiti documentary Style Wars pulls a Michael Apted and catches up with its youthful cast roughly 20 years after they first pop-locked and tagged their way into hip-hop history.
In an independent scene often stymied by a lack of vision, even detractors can agree that Gus Van Sant's minimalist landscape picture stands out as a startling anomaly, one that forces arthouse regulars to recalibrate their expectations. Fusing such disparate influences as Samuel Beckett, Hungarian director Béla Tarr (Sátántangó), and Laurel & Hardy, Van Sant turns the simple premise of two guys lost in the desert into a profound and frequently hilarious meditation on humanity's disconnection from the natural world.
2. The Fog Of War
3. Friday Night
After Beau Travail and the underrated Trouble Every Day, French sensualist Claire Denis continued working toward a purely cinematic style with the enchanting romance Friday Night, which plays out mainly through sound and image rather than dialogue. Like Before Sunrise minus the chatter (or emotional baggage), Friday Night entertains the idea that middle-aged people could have an affair without complications or consequences, a fantasy that's all the more enticing for its impossibility.
4. Capturing The Friedmans
5. Bad Santa
6. Bus 174
In a banner year for documentaries, José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda's stirring investigation of a bus hijacking gone awry proves once again that real life contains dimensions and intricacies that can rarely be imagined by fiction. Bus 174 tells three riveting narratives at once: one from outside the bus, a horrifying standoff aired widely on Brazilian television; another from inside the bus, where hijacker Sandro do Nascimento was orchestrating a tricky form of street theater; and a deeply sympathetic portrait of do Nascimento's tragic life as one of Rio's "invisible" urchins.
7. Kill Bill: Volume 1
8. Lost In Translation
9. The Son
More than any other contemporary filmmakers, Belgium's Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta) view the world from the prism of the workplace, which, after all, is where most people spend the majority of their waking hours. In The Son, the rigors of carpentry factor into a searing Christian allegory about sin, redemption, and forgiveness. As a father who unwittingly apprentices the boy who murdered his son five years earlier, Olivier Gourmet gives a fiercely internalized performance that sets the film on edge, especially in the heart-stopping third act.
10. School Of Rock
Making an invigorating creative comeback after a decade in Hollywood purgatory, Gus Van Sant eulogized Columbine with Elephant, a day-in-the-life movie that's a dream and a nightmare rolled into one. The poignant, touching French documentary To Be And To Have presented a contrary vision of the classroom, detailing a teacher's final year in an elementary schoolhouse. Robert Altman's The Company and Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary proved that cinema and ballet are a natural pas de deux, as well as a great way to defy the conventions of backstage musicals and vampire lore, respectively. Similarly, American Splendor thumbed its nose at the moribund biopic genre by presenting the many faces of naturalist comic-book author Harvey Pekar.
Billy Bob Thornton, Bad Santa
Perhaps more than any other genre, comedies must rely on consistency of tone; otherwise they're only worth their weight in gags. Few actors would take a role as irredeemable as the title louse in Bad Santa, and fewer still would play it with Billy Bob Thornton's slumping, stone-faced understatement. His performance remains the standard-bearer for a rare deadpan comedy that's sophisticated in its immaturity.
Down With Love
No one seemed to know what to do with the candy-colored oddity Down With Love, particularly 20th Century Fox, which couldn't figure out how to market a throwback to Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies that were made long before its target audience was even born. As precise in its splashy references as 2002's Far From Heaven, Down With Love hearkens to a time when romantic comedies were about gender equality, not about the guy winning over the girl with his stand-up routine.
Filled with politically charged vignettes, the episodic comedy Divine Intervention caused many to hail Palestinian writer-director-actor Elia Suleiman as heir apparent to Jacques Tati. But too often, his provocations dropped like lead. In a film unashamed to depict Israeli-Palestinian relations as a pressure cooker waiting to blow, Suleiman's worst offense is a Hong Kong-inspired sequence that imagines a heroic superwoman gunning down a flank of Israeli guards. It's a sick, dispiriting fantasy, played right to its audience's worst instincts.
Among many worthy candidates for the worst-of slot, from reality-TV castaways (The Real Cancun, From Justin To Kelly) to the most unsavory death-penalty drama ever conceived (The Life Of David Gale), Bruce Almighty stands out for its appalling vanity, which exceeds even its cynicism and laziness. Cast literally as God's gift to comedy, Jim Carrey returns to his roots as a rubber-faced jackass, apparently bitter that his transparent earnestness in slogs like The Majestic didn't win him Oscar glory. To give an idea of this film's puny comic vision, Carrey's first act as God is to win back his job as a "lighter side of the news" reporter for a local network affiliate in Buffalo.
My Boss's Daughter
When Ashton Kutcher's 15 minutes are over (tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock), few will remember Just Married, Dude, Where's My Car?, and the other comedies that led to his brief and inglorious box-office ascendancy. So where does that leave My Boss's Daughter, a long-shelved dud from which Kutcher actually distanced himself? Among the timeless gags in this house-sitting comedy: Kutcher, in full Lou Costello mode, trying to explain why he's groping Carmen Electra and Molly Shannon simultaneously. (Checking for breast cancer, of course.)
Ernest Hemingway's The Killers
If the best DVDs enhance and deepen a movie-lover's appreciation for film, then few can rival Criterion's ingeniously packaged The Killers, which combines Robert Siodmak's 1946 noir staple and Don Siegel's sadistic 1964 version into a sum greater than its flawed parts. Taken together, the films are a lesson in adaptation: Both use the same Hemingway short story as a jumping-off point into radically different visions.