The annual debate arguing if human stories take precedence over epic fantasies like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King returns with the ranking of 2003 films by CityBeat film critics Rodger Pille, TT Clinkscales and I. The titles vary among the three lists, hinting at the internal struggles between realistic human dramas, elaborate special effects and commercial entertainments. Many high-profile, year-end films appear on our lists. Other titles from earlier in the year have also earned high marks. The common thread among our lists is the belief that the key 2003 films — the ones that will last — are stories that qualify as heartfelt, substantial and rich. After that qualification, it’s anybody’s guess over what ranks as a “rich” film. — Steve Ramos
Maverick filmmaker Gus Van Sant’s realistic drama based on the Columbine High School shootings is a work of stunning beauty and narrative simplicity. Van Sant builds suspense steadily through a documentary-like series of character introductions and nondescript events. He passes no judgment on the kids and offers no explanations, which makes the film more powerful.
2. THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST
Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki puts his trademark witty dialogue and believable working class characters to good use in the soulful comedy The Man Without a Past. Markku Peltola is engaging as the Helsinki stranger who loses his memory after a brutal attack. Kati Outinen is the Salvation Army officer who helps him. Together, they make every moment of Kaurismäki’s brilliant romance count.
3. 21 GRAMS
With his edgy follow-up to Amores Perros, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu claims master status by creating a drama about three strangers — a math professor (Sean Penn), a former criminal (Benicio Del Toro) and a reformed drug addict (Naomi Watts) who are united by tragic loss. Iñárritu confidently uses surreal imagery, saturated colors and a fast-moving camera to bring the crisscrossing story to life.
The theatrical release of Lars von Trier’s stunning 1987 made-for-TV film, an update of the classic Greek drama about the embittered sorceress Medea (Kirsten Olesen) and her lover, Jason (Udo Kier), confirms cinema as a modern art form. Von Trier shifts the myth to Denmark’s Nordic past and North Sea marshes. He strips the color from the stark setting for eerie, transcendent effect.
5. LOST IN TRANSLATION
Director Sofia Coppola makes perfect use of sad-sack clown Bill Murray, casting him as unhappy actor Bob Harris, who befriends a young woman, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), in Tokyo. Murray dazzles with a childlike, funny and heart-wrenching performance. In a nod to her thirtysomething youth, Coppola boosts the film’s heartfelt climax with the ’80s alternative Pop song “Just Like Honey” from The Jesus and Mary Chain.
6. THE GOOD THIEF
Neil Jordan and Nick Nolte team up brilliantly for an update on Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1955 caper film, Bob le Flambeur. Nolte makes perfect use of his heavy shoulders and sad-sack face as the down-on-his-luck thief, Bob Mantagnet. Newcomer Nutsa Kukhianidze dazzles as his young girlfriend. Everything comes together perfectly in Jordan’s moody and witty heist drama.
7. MYSTIC RIVER
Evil lurks in dark doorways in Clint Eastwood’s extraordinary drama about three Boston boys and the tragedy that continues to haunt them. The director has a confident hand with a violent climax and a soulful coda. Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins excel as the trio in adulthood.
8. ALL THE REAL GIRLS
Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel’s natural performances as a pair of young small town lovers are the heart and soul of writer/director David Gordon Green’s stylish young love drama. Extended scenes of silence and long takes of the rural North Carolina landscape give the film its artful, distinct style, confirming Green’s status as a true film artist.
9. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS
Documentary filmmaker Andrew Jarecki tells a gripping story about a middle-class Long Island family ripped apart by the shocking child sex crimes charged against the father, Arnold Friedman, and his youngest son, Jesse. Capturing the Friedmans is a challenging film, one people can’t stop discussing.
10. CREMASTER III
Avant-garde artist Matthew Barney fills the last entry in his film cycle with mystical creatures, iconic Manhattan landmarks like the Chrysler Building and the Guggenheim Museum and faraway lands like a rocky island in the Irish Sea. Void of any clear narrative story, Barney’s three-hour epic is content to dazzle one’s eyes with incredible visions, both beautiful and shocking.
RUNNERS UP: City of God (Cidade de Deus), Cold Mountain, Dirty Pretty Things, House of Sand and Fog, Looney Tunes: Back In Action, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Missing, The School of Rock, Señorita Extraviada
HIGHLIGHTS: Veteran actress PATRICIA CLARKSON, 44, a Yale-educated stage veteran, is enjoying a career renaissance in an industry that pays more attention to starlets thanks to stellar performances in The Station Agent, All the Real Girls and Pieces of April. CATE BLANCHETT appears in almost every scene of Veronica Guerin, as the titular Dublin journalist as well as director Ron Howard’s western, The Missing. SCARLETT JOHANSSON plays it straight opposite Bill Murray’s lovable man-in-crisis in Lost in Translation. She is also the titular character in the period drama, The Girl with a Pearl Earring.
1. KILL BILL: VOL. 1
It was absolutely worth the wait. Hermit-director Quentin Tarantino came out of hiding and produced the slickest, most fun film of 2003. Star Uma Thurman dazzles and the fight scenes are jaw-dropping. Mix in Tarantino’s kitsch references, a brutal Lucy Liu and a super-cool anime sequence and you have the makings of a classic.
2. MYSTIC RIVER
Like its eponymous waterway, director Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is a murky, mysterious place. Who do you believe? Who do you trust? Eastwood plays with expectations, using his top-of-their-game talent in all the right ways. Sean Penn is superb, making his character’s transformation a subtle, human experience.
3. LOST IN TRANSLATION
Most will recall Bill Murray’s trademark quirky routines, like when he scats with a Japanese local in the hospital waiting room. But the lasting image is that perfect scene when Murray and Scarlett Johansson, as two lonely expatriates, softly talk as they fall asleep, barely touching each other. Director Sofia Coppola expertly shows how two people connect when they need to most.
One can excuse the overabundance of underdog speeches — and there are far too many in the film — for the sheer joy that stems from watching a boy, a man and his horse rise above their lots in life. The triumph of the human spirit is difficult to capture on film without coming across overly sentimental and cheesy. Director Gary Ross nails it.
5. 21 GRAMS
Life goes on, or so says a character from each of the three intersecting storylines in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s masterpiece. It is the gut-wrenching way that life does go on that makes this powerful film so good. Benicio Del Toro and Sean Penn are terrific but Naomi Watts steals the thunder with a breakthrough performance.
6. MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD
In a year of great directorial achievements, it might be Peter Weir’s adaptation of the popular Patrick O’Brian book series that demonstrates the most skill. Weir delicately balances the bigness of the open sea (and the spectacular naval battles) with the intricacies of morality, duty and loyalty. The scenes between Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany sparkle.
7. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
A fitting end for a remarkable series. Director Peter Jackson packs enough drama and fantastic combat scenes (plus a few light moments) into the last chapter of this story to please everyone. Until the last slow fade, you just don’t want to see these characters go.
8. FINDING NEMO
The wizards over at Pixar Animation studios have these family films down to a science. But just when they could phone it in and still make a mint, they manage to raise their own bar another notch. Nemo is singularly the cleverest film of the year. And the animation is breathtaking.
9. A MIGHTY WIND
On first viewing, this mockumentary from the brilliant Christopher Guest is not unlike his earlier comedies, Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman. But on second and third glance, the film’s rather touching core love story (and truly impressive musicianship) actually gives this one more heart than anything Guest has done before.
10. X2: X-MEN UNITED
Director Bryan Singer did the unthinkable: He made a comic book film sequel that is better than the first. Better still, with X2, he set up the X-Men franchise for a long and healthy life. There isn’t a single dumbed-down moment in the film, and in a summer blockbuster, that’s saying something.
RUNNERS UP: 28 Days Later, Bruce Almighty, Elf, Matchstick Men, Wonderland, Old School, Owning Mahoney, Pirates of Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The School of Rock, Spellbound
HIGHLIGHTS: Sean Penn will get props for his double-duty in Mystic River and 21 Grams, but it was Will Ferrell’s supporting turn in Old School and his leading man debut in Elf that will put this comedian on the acting A-list for years to come. His sincere humor is a godsend right about now.
1. IN AMERICA
Chocolate Genius sings about the “high hopes and strange fruits” of the American experience. Jim Sheridan, along with his daughters, translates his family’s contemporary American narrative and finds In America a mythic land of magic and redemption.
2. LOST IN TRANSLATION
Sofia Coppola might be the best filmmaker in the family. That seems like an absurd thing to say, considering how much I love The Conversation and The Godfather films. But she gets the internal mood of her characters to a degree that, dare I say it, places her a step ahead of Francis. He rules the epic narratives and the struggles that threaten to overwhelm us, but Sofia mines the heart.
3. HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG
Vadim Perelman’s adaptation of the Andre Dubus III novel is haunted by the tragedy of errors its characters commit against one another and themselves. Fully realized without emotional sensationalism, thanks to an efficient narrative, simple visual poetry and pitch-perfect performances.
4. COLD MOUNTAIN
The first real surprise of the holiday/awards season. But it shouldn’t have been. Anthony Minghella is a fantastic filmmaker who reminds us that love is always an intimate experience, no matter how grand the scale or exacting the level of detail he creates on his moving visual canvas.
5. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
Return of the King is a brilliant accomplishment, both on its own and as part of one of the most beautifully conceived epic fantasy trilogies we may ever see. But after all was said and done, I felt a little empty. Sadly, it was too easy to move on.
6. THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS
The inevitability of death breaching our defenses doesn’t mean we should surrender without a fight. The Barbarian Invasions is a relentlessly talky film that documents the final moments of one man’s struggle against the grim barbarian with such conviction that the narrative slips free of its script and takes on a life of its own.
7. 21 GRAMS
It should be noted that the fractured structure of this film is decidedly intentional and heralds the arrival of a complex visionary. The rare combination of precise directorial execution and searing emotional honesty from a talented cast creates alchemy that not many filmmakers would even dare attempt.
8. DIRTY PRETTY THINGS
A noirish thriller with heart that feels real, not simply like the figment of some crime writer’s imagination or a director’s romantically shaded view of the dark side. The film will also be remembered for the emergence of leading man, Chiwetel Ejiofor.
9. AMERICAN SPLENDOR
For all the movies based on comic book characters that emerged this year, not a one had a hero as inspired as Harvey Pekar — or a performance as spot-on as Paul Giamatti. Or the narrative balls to blend the real, the reel and the comic panel to create a moving picture like this one.
10. THE STATION AGENT
A film about the instinctual need for human interaction that comes together based on one character’s love of trains. That sentence is not supposed to be a synopsis: There is no way to sum up a quiet revolution like The Station Agent or to sing the praises of Patricia Clarkson in a single line of text.
RUNNERS UP: The Good Thief, The Dancer Upstairs, Whale Rider, Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Irreversible, 28 Days Later, The Magdalene Sisters, City of God, The Matrix Reloaded & Revolutions, Swimming Pool
HIGHLIGHTS: Love Actually haphazardly jumbles half-told stories of love that run from sickly sweet to mere infatuation, but there was something like the feeling of love at first sight, that sense that just can’t be explained away. I can always use a little more of that in my life. … Bad Santa with Love Actually would make one helluva double feature. But sometimes you need to curse the world as loudly and for as long as possible for being the absolute pisspot it sometimes is. Billy Bob Thornton shows us the way. Are you taking fucking notes? You should.