Best Movies of 2003

1)  The Return Of The King (Peter Jackson)

Here it is. Every decade an epic comes out that you know will stand the test of time. Gone With The Wind in the 30's, Lawrence Of Arabia in the 60's, Titanic in the 90's and etc. It's only 2003 but I'm pretty sure there will be no grandeur big daddy epic than Peter Jackson's capping of his much beloved The Lord Of The Rings series. Clocking in at an astounding 201 minutes, The Return Of The King ties everything up together and then some by schooling every other wannabe epic of the decade. The story of Frodo and Sam is finally over but Jackson -just like he did in the first three films- brings an intimacy to character and detail that is astounding for a film of such maximal size. The special effects are the background to a story of good vs. evil, black vs. white, spiritual vs. demonic. Talk about a triumph, here it is. The best picture of the year.

2) Mystic River (Clint Eastwood)

Clint Eastwood's adaptation of Dennis Lehane's ferocious novel is the legend's best film since Unforgiven. Yes, it's that good. Depicting a story of abuse, violence and haunted memories -amongst other things-  Eastwood relies on a talented to cast to hit a home run. Sean Penn deserves the Oscar for his intensely dramatic performance as a father who's daughter is murdered and Tim Robbins, as his old time friend, ex-abuse victim and main suspect of the case, gives a tremendously layered portrayal of haunted grief. Eastwood films it all with dimly lit scenes that will haunt your dreams and a self composed soundtrack that will give you the chills. If there ever was counter programming to The Lord Of The Rings, this is it. With a surprise ending you won't even see coming. A masterpiece through and through.

3) Lost In Translation (Sofia Coppola)

Sofia Coppola's best movie as a director is such sensitive, slight stuff - and I do mean that as a compliment. Every frame is beautifully photographed by Lance Acord, the film is a portal to a brightly colored, anything-can-happen Japan. And the performances by the two leads -Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanssen- just sublime. In showing unrequited, unforgivable love between these two strangers lost in a place far far away, Coppola infuses every frame of her magically romantic film with a sense of purpose and free will. It's as if every convention known to Hollywood is thrown out of the window and replaced by a freshness you usually see in -yes- Japenese films made by such auteurs as Wong Kar Wai or Ozu. Most surprisingly, it's American.

4) City Of God (Fernando Mereilles)

City Of God reinvents the Gangster film. Of  course, the style is inspired by vintage Scorsese but the setting is foreign - the slums of Rio De Janeiro- and the direction twirlingly ambitious. Much kudos must given to director Fernando Mereilles who proves to be a true talent. His film gives you a peek inside a world you have never seen before, where children have guns and are forced to do things adult would ever think of doing in a lifetime. It's scary, thrilling stuff that justifiably got lauded worldwide for its technical and narrative ambition. Mereilles should be given full credit, he hired real kids from the slums -hoodlums some of them- to portray a declining society that has no rules. The Best foreign film of the year.

5) Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton)

The magical wizards over at Pixar offered us another colorful treat in 2003. This time the coral reefs of Australia are used as a setting in an animated movie with dazzling colors -maybe the most dazzling of any animated film since Dumbo- that set the bar way high for any other in animation this year. If there ever was an Oscar category for Best voice in an Animated movie, Ellen Degeneres would win it this year by a landslide. Degeneres' Dori is both a comical and voiced-over masterpiece and her chemistry with Albert Brooks, outstanding. Kudos must be given to director Andrew Stanton and his assistant director Lee Unkrich, they bring their A game here in a blockbuster that actually deserved every cent it made.

6) Elephant (Gus Van Sant)

Gus Van Sant's Elephant is a tough watch. In his artful depiction of a high school shooting, Van Sant uses maddening camera trickery to only enhance the inevitable. Loosely based on the Columbine shooting massacre, you know how this is going to end yet you can't look away as every fragmented scene builds up after another and the overall powerful effect is like whiplash. Hiring no name actors was a wise decision as it brings a realness that lacks in many movies these days. This justifiably won the Palme D'or at Cannes earlier in the year and is easily Van San't best film since 1991's My Own Private Idaho.

7) 21 Grams (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)

Mexican director Inarritu's followup to his much praised Amorres Perros is a demonically depressing film -and I mean that as a compliment. Its brilliance lies in the way stars Sean Penn and -more specifically- Naomi Watts act the hell out of their roles and how Inarritu's restless camera tries uncover the depths of deep human despair through a tragedy that no mother would ever want happen. The result is dark and often furiously despairing, which can only lead one to think about where Inarritu might go next. I, for one, am looking forward to his next artfully dark character study.

8) The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mulan)

The most underrated movie of the year comes from Ireland. Director Peter Mulan crafts a story like no other, plunging us deep into the world of the catholic church in Ireland. We watch in agony at scenes of severe punishment towards women that have commited what the church deems as "sex crimes". These "crimes" would clearly not be considered such in our times but -surprisingly enough- the abuse and punishment continued on in Ireland well up until the 90's. Infuriating stuff that needed to be told and something of a miracle movie that cannot be shaken when it is done.

9) Kill Bill:Volume One (Quentin Tarantino)

And so it happens that while we were all wondering where the hell Quentin Taraninto was, the director comes back and surprises us with a film unlike any he's made before - an homage to grindhouse Japanese b-movies starring his ultimate muse Uma Thurman. Kill Bill doesn't reach the fever pitch brilliance of Pulp Fiction nor does the director actually want it to. Instead this is exactly as you'd expect; Tremendous entertainment by a movie buff that knows he can do way better than this but refuses to repeat himself.

10) Capturing The Friedman's (Andrew Jarecki)

The year's best documentary is one for the ages. Andrew Jarecki's troubling account of the Friedman's -an average looking American family caught up to the neck in pedophilia charges- is the anti-Michael Moore doc, a film that refuses to take sides and just shows you the evidence. You decide if the Friedman clan is really guilty or if they were set up. It helps that Jarecki found a hell of a story with too many twists and turns to count on both hands. Like many of the films on my list Capturing The Friedman's is not an easy watch but its rewards are plentiful and its knack to make you think outside the box invigorating. Here's to more films like these in the years to come.

11) Les Invasions Barbares, Denys Arcand

12) The Station Agent, Tom Mccarthy

13) Les Triplettes De Belleville, Sylvain Chomet

14) Swimming Pool, Francois Ozon

15) The School Of Rock, Richard Linklater

16) Irreversible, Gaspar Noe

17) Dirty Pretty Things, Stephen Frears

18) Bad Santa, Terry Zwigoff

19) Rabbit-Proof Fence, Phillip Noyce

20) Phone Booth, Joel Schumacher

21) House Of Sand And Fog, Vadim Perlman

22) Cabin Fever, Eli Roth

23) A Mighty Wind, Christopher Guest

24) The Matchstick Men, Ridley Scott

25) Hulk, Ang Lee

26) Shattered Glass, Billy Ray

27) The Matrix Reloaded, Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski

28) The Italian Job, F. Gary Gray

29) Dogville, Lars Von Trier

30) Better luck Tomorrow, Justin Lin