MSN Entertainment's Top 10 Movies Of 2003 :
Here's a look back at the best of 2003:
10. "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
The strongest compliment you can give to Peter Jackson and what he achieved is that his final installment of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is the weakest ... and yet, it's still one of the best films of the year. That is how high Jackson has set the bar. Yes, there are too many endings and perhaps too many battle scenes, but "King" contains a dozen or so moments that literally make you gasp for air (the chain of fire beacons, Frodo's battle with the spider). We've never seen anything like this trilogy in cinema, and most likely never will again.
9. "In America"/ "Raising Victor Vargas"
Two beautiful dramas about the immigrant experience in America, achieved something that seemed virtually impossible. Both Jim Sheridan's extremely personal "In America" and Peter Sollett's natural debut "Raising Victor Vargas" show us New York City through children's eyes, and take a city that has been filmed thousands of times and somehow manage to make it look new again. Both films dodge clichés that come with the territory and boast incredible performances: "In America" uses professionals like Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine to explore one family redemption after the death of their son, while "Vargas" uses an entire cast of unprofessionals -- lead by Victor Rasuk -- to explore teenage crushes and gender dynamics on the Lower East Side.
A Hollywood screenwriter didn't pen the most tense, nerve-wracking thriller of the year. That honor belongs to documentarian Jeff Blitz, who followed eight teenagers on the quest to become 1999 National Spelling Bee champion. After sucking you into these kid's lives through interviews with them and their families, Blitz zips you off to Washington D.C. where they take the stage to spell words most of us haven't heard, let alone spell. And the suspense is a surprisingly white-knuckled thrill ride.
7. "The Station Agent"
Writer/director Thomas McCarthy's subtle debut, "The Station Agent" is a perfect gem. The story -- about a dwarf (Peter Dinklage in a breakout performance) who moves into an abandoned train station to cut himself off from the rest of the world, only to meet two equally lonely souls (the extraordinary Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale) -- may sound dull on paper, but it's pitch-perfect. It's a poignant take on the need for loneliness at times, but also the redemptive powers of friendship, yet it manages to be deadpan hilarious and touching without being syrupy and sentimental.
6. "Big Fish"
For years, Tim Burton haters have contended that the visually gifted filmmaker simply could not tell a straight story. How wonderfully ironic it is, then, that he went and made his masterpiece about a storyteller and the essentialness of narrative. Burton's wild imagination melds perfectly with the film's tall-tale spinning protagonist Ed Bloom (Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor) and both create a magical world that you never want to leave. Back in reality, however, Ed is dying of cancer and his realist son (Billy Crudup) wants to hear truth, not fiction before his dad passes. The final 15 minutes of "Big Fish" -- especially if you are a father or a son, or both -- is four-hankie time. That said, you don't feel manipulated or used; the gallon of tears are well earned.
5. "Bad Santa"
Finally, finally a film for those of us who feel like Scrooges around the holidays and think Christmas movies are the worst genre ever conceived. I could go on about how Terry Zwigoff's film skewers gross American holiday consumerism with the soul-sucking images of fluorescent mall lights and drunken Santa Clauses ... yeah, I could praise that. But really, this movie rules because it's wonderfully offensive, mean, relentless, vulgar (profanity hasn't sounded this poetic since Mamet) and wet-your-pants hysterical. Oh, and they should give Billy Bob Thornton, looking like a Santa's lost, strung-out reindeer, a special Oscar for depravity.
4. "Lost in Translation"
Filmmaker Sofia Coppola's heartbreaker of a film feels like a fragmented, surreal dream. There is basically no plot, just a couple of American strangers -- one a middle-aged actor (Bill Murray, in the role of his life), the other a bored wife (Scarlett Johansson, who may be even more impressive) of a self-absorbed photographer -- isolated in a Tokyo hotel who wander around the city, drink at the bar, and stew in their rooms. Eventually, they find each other, share their dreams, problems and ice their loneliness for a time. Films like this are so rare; it is the type that Wim Wenders used to make in the '70s. It works because of sustained mood and atmosphere; individual scenes (like Murray singing Roxy Music at a karaoke bar) that would be throwaways in other films here lift your heart to the heavens. The two actors do their little dance, dodging our expectations just when we think we've figured them out. Coppola skirts past the dangerous May/December romance traps, and yet still manages to create the most beautiful, tender love story of the year.
3. "Elephant" / "Gerry"
Director Gus Van Sant made the comeback of the year, even though he really never went anywhere. Van Sant has been making movies in Hollywood; this year, he came back to his indie roots and created two of his most heartfelt and challenging works. The first was "Gerry," which tested audiences like no other film this year. In it, Casey Affleck and Matt Damon go for a walk in the desert and get lost. So, they keep walking ... and walking ... and walking. Watching it is like meditation, and you eventually slip into a dream state. Eventually, the film reveals itself as a Darwinian play, with the two men locked in a subtle power struggle. Van Sant's other achievement was "Elephant," a film that while stronger than "Gerry," borrows its style to capture a day in the life of a high school. The camera glides around capturing the dreamy feeling of being a teenager, floating place to place. A tragic event takes place towards the end of the film (thus the Columbine comparisons), but Van Sant smartly doesn't try to offer excuses. He doesn't give audiences a cathartic way out of the conclusion; he instead shows life and then lets the tragedy linger. It's a shocker of film, one that never leaves you.
2. "Capturing the Friedmans"
Andrew Jarecki's documentary is unlike anything you've ever seen. It's an investigation of a Long Island family in which the father (an admitted pedophile) and his youngest son are accused of child molestation in the mid-'80s. Whether the father or son are innocent or guilty is never made clear in the film (there is no tidy summary of the events) because that's really not what Jarecki's film is about. Instead, he is more interested with the Long Island community that condemns these two men before trying them. "Friedmans" becomes a study of American hysteria, where society succumbs to witch hunts over and over again. In this case, it destroys a very close-knit family and because the Friedmans videotaped themselves unraveling during the course of the case, we get to see first-hand the frightening effects of a community governing itself. Unbelievable stuff, but it's all real.
1. "All the Real Girls"
28-year-old writer/director David Gordon Green is fearless. In a time where it's chic to be ironic, he's happy making quiet, natural films about real people and their problems. He shouldn't be so perceptive at his age, so intuitively sensitive to human anxiety ... but thank heaven he is. His second feature (after "George Washington") returns again to the small town populated by characters who will never leave and love to speak their minds ... and Green loves to listen them talk. In the gorgeous, lyrical "All the Real Girls," the talk revolves around love, and much of it is done by womanizer Paul (co-writer Paul Schneider) and his best friend's sister Noel (Zooey Deschanel). Green captures the initial dopey pleasure of falling love, that often gives over to fear and regret in such an organic way that it often never feels written (how do you write giddy, lovelorn lines like, "I had a dream that you grew a garden on a trampoline and I was so happy I invented peanut butter"?). This is genuine, honest emotion explored without gimmicks or condescension. Green has only made two features, but his earnest voice is one of the most fascinating in American cinema.
"The Secret Lives of Dentists"
"School of Rock"
"Dirty Pretty Things"
Foreign Six Pack: "Ten"
"City of God"
"Man on the Train"
"The Good Thief"
"In the Cut"
"The Shape of Things"
"Kill Bill, Vol. 1"
"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"
"28 Days Later"
"House of Sand and Fog"
"Stuck on You"
"The Human Stain"
"Masked and Anonymous"
"The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions"
Best Film of 2003 Not in a Theater: "Angels in America"