Top Ten 2003 Films

  • 1) Mystic River - I admit I never really expected Clint Eastwood to develop into the incredible director he is. Unforgiven was a slow, measured tour de force, a masterpiece that cleared any doubt about Eastwood’s skill behind the camera. Even as the decade progressed and weaker films arrived bearing Eastwood’s name, his skill was still evident. Some of the films were under-rated (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), and many more were done in by weak scripts, but Clint always directed with a sure hand and managed incredible performances for his casts. Mystic River, however, is the first Eastwood film since Unforgiven with a fantastic screenplay, and the resulting film is a masterpiece. It helps that the script is good, but Brian Helgeland has not just delivered excellent work. Mystic River is Helgeland’s best work yet, even surpassing L.A. Confidential, and it could go head to head with almost any screenplay from this decade. Every character is a living creation, complete with interesting back-story and realistic motivations, and the symbolism and depth of the writing is both subtle and strong. Embodying these characters is what might well be the best ensemble cast of the decade so far. These are complex creatures, but there simply is not a weak link among the actors giving them life. Tim Robbins is especially impressive, losing himself in a lost character with no strings showing. Sean Penn is excellent as usual, and I love watching Marcia Gay Harden, who first knocked my socks off in Miller’s Crossing, continue her excellent career in an increasingly bright spotlight. Every actor, not just the ones I mentioned, delivers, and Clint continues to show incredible control and restraint, understanding his material and working to maximize its impact. He never underestimates his audience’s ability to follow the story or understand the people inside it, and he never shows off his own cinematic ability. The film is the goal, and every element selflessly contributes to it without grandstanding. In the end, Mystic River unfolds in the mind days after the lights come up, heavy, emotional, and thought provoking. It is not just a worthy descendent of Unforgiven. It is a masterpiece in its own right.

  • 2) Lost in Translation - Somehow managing to convey a sense of ennui while remaining consistently engrossing, Lost in Translation may seem as Sofia Coppola's
    Spoiler: Highlight to view
    Brief La Dolce Vita Encounter During Tokyo Holiday
    , but it doesn't play as a copy of any film. This is a fresh, beautiful vision, one that is wide and perceptive enough to linger on details and catch the uniqueness in the mundane, the precious in the ordinary. The story is a quiet one that is hardly spectacular, but the characters are very real, desperate and lonely, and their interactions delight even as they refuse to drift into the fantastical. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson deserve the kudos they are receiving. They bring to round life characters that might seem flat on the page, delivering natural nuances that never seem showy. Coppola's vision is all her own and dead-on, highlighting what others might miss and bringing beauty to boredom. Even the look of the film dazzles with bland pastels and muted neons. A fascinating film, Lost in Translation exerts a subtle but adamantine grip on one's memory days after the credits roll. It refuses to be a fantasy, but it is fantastic in a way few films are.

  • 3) The Barbarian Invasions - I watched Denys Arcand’s excellent The Decline of the American Empire while I was still in high school, so one can understand my mixed emotions and expectations at hearing of a sequel of sorts rolling out seventeen years later. Luckily, this film is a complete delight. One does not have to have seen the first film to understand and to enjoy The Barbarian Invasions, but since I had, the reunion of the cast of freewheelin’, intellectual friends emits special warmth towards me. One of the group is dying, and as he muses on his deathbed on what he is convinced is the collapse of American civilization, a new, younger acquaintance notes that he may very well not be experiencing the crumbling decay of the world so much as the loss of his own fond youth. Arcand, bless his heart, is wise enough to know that this film really does not need to judge between its various hypotheses. Several characters chime in on what is going wrong with the world, and the director seldom seems to side definitively with any of the opinions. More telling, however, in the discussion I recalled above is the film’s refusal not only to decide between various political views, but also to choose whether it is a film focused on politics or relationships. Perhaps it knows enough to see the lack of any ultimate sure line between the two. In the end, the film sparkles with the sort of sharp intelligence and vivid drama between ordinary people Hollywood just can’t seem to give a rip about lately. This makes it unique. The incredible script, great acting, and delicate directing make it wonderful.

  • 4) Kill Bill Vol. 1 - Kill Bill Vol. 1 is Quentin Tarantino's worst film and, no doubt, one of the best of 2003. The anticipated film proves to be loads of fun, presenting an action film while sporting all the stylish personality everybody said Spider-Man displayed. Who can resist a delicious, jazzed-up jumble of Bruce Lee, Kurosawa, John Woo (the opening scene has a segment largely lifted from The Killer), and my man Sergio Leone? Alright, so it, like most revenge films, lacks emotional depth or subtlety, and, less forgivable, at times the humor is a bit forced. And I'll grant you that the opening scene is not entirely successful, but really, if this didn't have Tarantino's name on it, half the world would be wetting themselves over this film. Any fears that the film split would be harmful are completely unfounded, especially since the film really get rolling towards the end and then bows with a twist that guarantees the audience will be back for the second installment. Uma fits QT's vision like a leather glove, and hardly anybody can match music to vision like Quentin. Let's see, four for four, then, I reckon...

  • 5) Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ...And Spring - Comments coming soon...

  • 6) Intolerable Cruelty - I'm not sure really how this works; I'm still working on the math. Somehow, two beloved film figures in (IMHO) an artistic nosedive, an actress I usually cannot stand, and a great actor bounding with charisma tumble together and leave me giddy. Sure, the Coen didn't write this one, but the results are so hilarious, so laugh out loud funny, I am thinking that borrowed screenplay is a very good thing. Quite possibly this is the funniest, best comedy from a decade that desperately needs a great cinematic laugh.

  • 7) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - The final chapter of this incredible epic, one where a great art-house director wonderfully merges his own vision while staying true to the original work of perhaps the best fantasy author we've yet seen, arrives, and the story ends in grand fashion. Jackson has taken great pains to keep the sweeping action centered on characters, and that effort pays off in spades here, as while the war scenes are vast, it is the drama here that really elevates this work. They could have called this one Return of Samwise, so thoroughly does Sean Astin rivet our attention. Truthfully, every actor does very well, holding to Jackson's decision to play the epic as the serious story it is. I admit that for the first time, I found some of the build-up early on to be a bit extraneous, and I also didn't find the battle scenes quite as rapturous as some reviewers. In fact, I'll break with the critical mainstream and confess I still find the first film to be the best in the series. This is still great, though, and Jackson can rest assured that he has created the most consistent film trilogy I'm aware of. It is rather thrilling and rare to see such a great work win the public over. We most likely shan't see the likes of that again any time soon.

  • 8) Finding Nemo - If John Lasseter and Pixar are remembered primarly for destroying hand-drawn animation, it will be an incredible distortion of history. This delightful, inventive, funny film proves that this studio has proved a goldmine due to warm, thrilling, fun scripts populated by creative characters well-drawn (in all senses of the word) and mated with excellent voice work as much as to excellent computer animation. Finding Nemo is a delight, with an inventive plot that packs a few real chills with its thrills and some very warm comedy. I suspect small, independent studios will sieze upon hand animation, transforming it into an edgy, more inventive medium than the last few clunker Disney features were, but with a studio like Pixar dedicating to releasing such incredibly delightful family entertainment as Finding Nemo, that may be a very nice arrangement for all.

  • 9) Open Range - The theatrical Western is dead. Long live the Western! Since the genre has dived into the current underground B-movie studios (AKA cable networks), it has struggled to find breath. Often, it has emerged from the low budget wash alive and squirming. Kevin Costner, seemingly unphased by several big-budget bombs, puts the oater back on the large screen, and if it is a return home of sorts for the director, let us hope he rarely feels the need to wonder so far afield again. His cast is that wonderful and rare contemporary crew that seems realistic moving about the time-worn settings of the frontier, with Duvall even managing to lift his flesh and blood cowboy into that blurry realm between dirty of the world and the rarified Fordian air of the mythic. The opening might bore a few away, and the ending dwells on a romance the rest of the film too often ignores, but when that gun fight blows its way through your chest, you'll know those character blazing guns down the dusty main street are more than simple cardboard cutouts, and you'll also remember why the idea of Costner behind camera once set the world of filmgoers aquiver. Kudos for blowing up a towering genre to silver screen size once more, and even more cheers for doing it so well.

  • 10) X2: X-Men United - The first stab at filming the heroic team only got it half right; this one nails it. Combining enough in-jokes for fans with explanations for newbies, Singer has blown past his previous effort to pile on superior suspense, characterizations, effects (though Pyro's flames are oddly horrible), and plain ol' storytelling. This is easily the best in the X-series thus far, the best Marvel adaptation yet to see the light of day, and, frankly, the best damn super-hero film I've ever seen (and I'm pretty sure I've seen all the decent ones). I expected to be disappointed. Man, some times I love it when I'm wrong.

  • Honorable Mention

  • Touching the Void - Taking his cue and fearlessness in the face of recreations from Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, Kevin MacDonald creates a documentary harrowing enough to cream most of this decade's adventure films with its heart-pounding suspense. For most of the film, the craft is virtually invisible, but scooting an audience to the edge of its seat takes quite a bit of skill, and the fact that this transparency of manipulation is incredibly impressive. Luckily, the story is up to the task of doing the heavy lifting here, and the narratives are intercut seamlessly. In an age when the over-rated documentary is the rule rather than the exception, this one earns its praise.

  • Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World - This film puts the viewer on a British ship deep in the heart of the Napoleanic War. The perfect special effects, the subtle, dead-on art direction, and the incredible sound design all work miracles to pull this neat effect off. The cast, from Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany to the minor actors, also impress with honest performances that never betray the stranded, confined settings, and Peter Weir does a admirable job balancing pace and dramatic thrust. While the feel of this film is impressively effective, the story is a bit less so, hinging a bit too much on coincidence and, despite some great acting, losing a bit of the human element needed for an adventure epic of this magnitude and type to soar. When the excellent action scenes arrive, the viewer is most likely just not quite as invested in the main movers as needed to make this a truly classic film. Still, it is a very impressive one, one that probably deserved more technical recognition at the Academy Awards than it earned, especially for its stellar effects that never once take the viewers out of its very isolated world (showing what true masters can do blending traditional models and CGI instead of using CGI alone as a weak panacea).

Great review on A Mighty Wind! You almost make me feel bad for liking Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. Almost. :-)

While I have been looking forward to The Matrix Reloaded, my wife has been looking forward to A Mighty Wind. It looks like her money is on the right horse, but I'm still going to have to see both to be sure.


One certainly shouldn't feel guilty about liking a film I didn't. For me, cliches kill comedy; if I can anticipate every punchline, it often kills every joke. Some people aren't nearly as bothered by this. Some viewers may not have my nearly psychic ability to see every joke approaching miles away (definitely more of a curse than blessing)!

I confess, my interest in seeing The Matrix Reloaded has hit rock bottom. I love the first one, but I hate horrible sequels, and I have yet to meet a friend with praise for it. So, network TV is the format for Matrix II and me! ;)

If you like Guffman and Show, you really should run to Wind. It is the best of the three by far, and I suspect few would argue too much with that statement!

Plus, a good Fred Willard scene is worth so much...

Again, thank you!

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

You said that you're pretty sure that A Mighty Wind isn't gonna stay on the list, but I must say that O'Hara's performance will almost certainly be one of the best of the year. She so beautifully crafted her character, and invested so much into her that I could barely see that she was acting. It may be one of the best performances of this fledgling decade, let alone year.

O'Hara is terrific, and I also was a bit taken aback by Levy's unusual (for him) role and performance. The temptation to overplay that role had to be great, but he hit the nail in a terrific, understated manner. Those two characters were the heart of the film, and oddly enough, the satirical film benefited from having a heart. Who'd a thunk it?

The Folksmen were also terrific. The only REALLY weak spot of the film was the Main Street Singers, and even then, Jane Lynch and (especially) John Michael Higgins' acting carried off some material that really shouldn't have worked. (Higgins' reactions to Lynch's speeches made a few poorly-scripted areas soar).

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

"For me, cliches kill comedy; if I can anticipate every punchline, it often kills every joke. Some people aren't nearly as bothered by this."

I'm not nearly as psychic as you, but sometimes I've noticed that when I predict the end of a joke inside my head, and it turns out to be just what I suspected, sometimes I laugh harder than I would have if I did not predict the joke. Maybe this isn't really to the merit of the movie, but I think that that familiarity is kinda funny if you think about it.

I'm trying to think of a good example of this but can't. I wanna say that it happened a few times when I was watching "Friends" but I couldn't name a specific example.

Well, I'm not sure if this is what you are talking about, but at times, seeing the joke ahead can build delicious tension. It is a different type of humor than many films employ, and Chaplin utilizes this wonderfully. This probably isn't what you're thinking of, however, since this brand seldom relies on punchlines, which I referenced.

Humor, however, that relies largely on surprise or shock falls flat if it doesn't surprise or shock. Which humor is which is, of course, is open to endless interpretation and debate.

Some films, such as Airplane or Naked Gun, shortwire this fault by throwing so many jokes at you at once that you have no time to anticipate, only react. I certainly respect this approach.

Another way out of the cliche problem is the second, unforeseen punchline or gag, following closely on the heels of the cliche. You see it coming, you are disappointed to see exactly what you expected, but then, you are hit upside the head with something else, and you love it.

I'll also point out that nearly every cliche is great the first time you see it. As a result, very often, the more comedies you watch, the more picky you are (although I certainly know a few exceptions to this rule).

I generally am not a *huge* fan of formula. I bore easily with the over-familiar. Heck, even most of my favorite Bond films are ones that ignore or play with the formula.

I, no doubt, have thought way too much about this 'comedy' thing... :)

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Another way out of the cliche problem is the second, unforeseen punchline or gag, following closely on the heels of the cliche. You see it coming, you are disappointed to see exactly what you expected, but then, you are hit upside the head with something else, and you love it.

I just rewatched the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers and I'd forgotten how slapsticky (and delightful) it is. I think the moment I laughed hardest at was when the injured Athos sits on the edge of a well, leans back to take a drink, keeps leaning, and silently falls in backwards. Not very funny in itself, but after he has disappeared over the edge he doesn't start screaming until a couple seconds into his (unseen) plunge, leaving me with the hysterical image of him wondering what the hell is going on as he plummets, or perhaps continuing to drink, or... A great and subtle twist on the cliched pratfall.

Yes! That's a great example, and I'm laughing just remembering it.

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Your comment on Chaplin reminds me of the scene in "Modern Times" when he is roller-skating blind. He keeps getting closer to the edge... and closer... and closer...

As for surprising humor - obviously the kind of humor that comes from being unexpected won't work if you can predict the punchline. While the Guest films are often reliant on surprise, I think a good deal also comes from the eccentricities of the characters and how they interact with each other.

I know just what you're talking about for the "second punchline" after the cliche. The writers of "The Simpsons" love doing this.

"I know just what you're talking about for the "second punchline" after the cliche. The writers of "The Simpsons" love doing this."

Yes! The Simpsons are usually great at this, as were many 90s comic strips, I noticed (Bloom County, Doonsberry, Calvin & Hobbes).

Chaplin was a master of the suspensful humor. You nearly squirm and laugh at once.

As for Guest and company, I think they certainly work better when their humor is truly character-driven rather than lean on surprises. I'm not really sure I think they do this all too often, though, although they certainly (thankfully) did this more in A Mighty Wind.

Great comments! Thanks!

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

What I was mostly thinking of was, IMHO, the funniest scene in "Best in Show" (with the possible exception of Fred Willard's moments), when one character (I forget which one) needs that stuffed bee for her dog but has to make do with what she can find at the gift shop. That's not really reliant on shock or surprise, but plays with her eccentricity in a hilarious way.

Good point. That is a good example of character humor.

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Hey, have you see All the Real Girls yet? I was fortunate to see it just this last weekend, and I loved it. I think it is a step forward from George Washington.

Johnny Waco

You know, I'm 99% sure that hasn't even opened here yet! Heck, I'm 99% sure that 99% of all screens are running Matrix 2 or Nemo, or that new 2 Fast @ Furious, which I can only assume is another Prince film...

Actually, Nowhere in Africa did just open, but I doubt I'll get the chance this weekend to scope it out.

I'll keep an open for All the Real Girls. Thanks!

BTW, that Floyd issue of Uncut? Yeah, it just showed up on the newstands here.

Chicago, Tulsa ain't.... :(

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Mmm, Kill Bill...I have also seen it, and the report is good. I have yet to see Jackie Brown, but I would place Kill Bill between Pulp Fiction (as the best) and Reservoir Dogs (as the slightly less brilliant).

Good stuff. I am somewhat amused by some of the wild critical reactions Bill is drawing.

You must check out Jackie at some point.

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

I also just saw Kill Bill recently, and found it delightfully good. I agree it is not one of his best but I would say that it is one of the most beautiful movies I've seen in a while. I liked the anime section and the final battle most of all. However I think that it is a little better than Jackie Brown which would put it at a solid 3 spot.

I'm glad you enjoyed it.

I love Jackie Brown and find it criminally misunderstood and / or under-rated, but hey, I can certainly live with your ranking. The amazing fact is that QT is still rolling.

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

I can't remember if the opening scene of Kill Bill was the Vivica Fox fight, or the black-and-white closeup of The Bride's battered face as she listens to Bill talk. Which scene are you referring to as not entirely successful?

The Bride's closeup was first, though I suppose I think of that more as a teaser or pre-credit sequence. Regardless, I meant to reference the Fox scene.

I see on my left that you've updated your 'Seen' lists, so I'm guessing Kill Bill is somewhere in there. I can't wait to check it out!

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Gotcha. I thought the closeup was fabulous (I jumped!), but agree that the Fox scene was a bit weak. The fight choreography was excellent, but the humor felt slightly forced and the only Uma Thurman moment that didn't work for me in the whole movie was the "if you feel raw about it" line.

I'm not sure it was a good way to open the story. It wasn't a strong scene, the flaws you mentioned hurt, and the self-referential 'square' mention was forced and lame (the advertisement for Red Apple cigarettes was a much better throw back to his earlier work).

I was a little worried after this scene, but then, luckily, the film started humming again.

I agree - the close up opening was terrific and startling.

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Flip Kill Bill and Return of the King, and you've got my ordering of these films too. I'm glad to see that both X2 and RotK tickled your fancy.

Just for the record, I was holding out hope, but I honestly think that 2003 is one of the worst movies years I've ever experienced.

I'm glad you loved "Mystic River", lbangs! To be honest, I had my doubts as to what you'd think of it. I thought you would hate the resolution of the mystery element, where the mute kid turns out to have been just pretending and killed the girl by accident. I think it was easily the weakest part of the film, like they were just trying to find some way to direct guilt away from Tim Robbins. Still, it does very little to blemish the fantastic "Mystic River", which is obviously more about character relationships than the mystery anyway.

So, now that you've seen them both, who do think SHOULD win and who do you think WILL win the Best Actor Oscar: Murray or Penn?

I'm holding off on my predictions for actor until we get a bit closer to the awards.

Who should win? My honest opinion?

I strongly suspect there is a performance out there I've yet to see which is better than either.

If forced to choose between the two named, I am slightly leaning towards Murray, but my, that is a tough one!

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Wow, too bad for Lost in Translation! I thought it was going to enjoy your top spot for quite awhile, but it was only in the limelight for a week or two. Mystic River must by *very* good (as your review conveys).

I got a wonderful surprise in the mail last week: I was having an IM conversation with an old friend of mine and he was positively raving about LiT. Then, a few days later, an unexpected package arrived from Amazon with the newly-released DVD! Old friends rock. I can't wait to give it a whirl, but my wife wants to see it too, and since she just watched Spellbound (the documentary - not the Hitchcock film) with me last night it might be a bit before she frees up more time in her studying schedule.

Brian Helgeland did a nice job with the script for Mystic River but if you ever read the book by Dennis Lehane you would see the job was much easier than the translation of LA Confidential. Lehane's book is pretty damn close to what you get in the script. It is a wonderful book and the movie was also very good.

I can not totally agree with your conclusions ,though, that it is the same league as Unforgiven. I also think Lost in Transaltion is the superior (though obviously very different) movie.

But there is a lot to love about Mystic River; Sean Penn, Robbins, Harden, Laura Linney.

I also think Bill Murray deserves the oscar over Sean Penn.

Am I the only one who found Robbins to be distracting and unsubtle? With Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, and Sean Penn's gangbuster performances, I just felt that Robbins wasn't in the same league.

Probably not, but it is safe to say that you are certainly not in the majority, you rebel you! :)

I personally thought Robbins was incredible, even better than Penn, but that's just me...

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

I've read neither the source material for Mystic River or L.A. Confidential, but I still think the script for the former is much stronger.

As to Lost in Translation... Wow, this year reminds me of last year. Two great films sit at the top of my list, and each film is so radically different from the other that I have a heck of a time trying to decide between the two. Bloody Sunday, Talk to Her, Lost in Translation, and Mystic River are all four incredible films, and I really hate weighing them against each other. Walking out of the theater, I slightly favored Mystic River. Several days away from it, I feel even better about my decision.

Mystic River and Lost in Translation are the only 2003 films I have seen to date that I would give four stars.

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

I watched Seabiscuit with the expectation that I would hate it. Strangely enough I didn't hate the film, the feeling was something more like extreme guilt. I thought the movie was stupendously ingratiating and made me feel embarassed and uncomfortable, kinda like wearing thong underwear. I have no idea whether that was intentional or just the happenstance of cheese-like film-making. Hmmmmmmm.