The 10 Best Films of 2003

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Article by Mark Dujsik

Better late than never is what I always say. Or at least I say it in circumstances like this. Yes, almost an entire year has passed since 2003 ended, yet I find myself compelled to post this list, not only because it's a tradition but also—and more importantly—it marks a return of sorts. And not only is it a return to the writing I love but also—and more importantly—it is a return to myself. Hopefully, I will look back on my hiatus from reviewing as a very temporary, very minor roadblock, but presently, I look back a year ago. Now, my list of the ten best films of 2003:

10. Seabiscuit
Gary Ross' real-life fable is the kind of charming and endearing pieces of entertainment that Hollywood always thinks it makes but rarely does. The story of three men and a horse, Seabiscuit is about second chances—the way the characters take advantage of them, and the way the results of their endeavors help give the people of the nation hope for their own. The Great Depression is the backdrop, and it's a time ordinary, working people needed an underdog hero. Ross keeps the symbolic connection of Seabiscuit's rise to fame and victory in the background, concentrating his tale on its three central characters. Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and Tobey Maguire play the horse's owner, trainer, and jockey respectively, fitting into their roles with natural ease. It's their trials and tribulations that make the film as affecting as it is; the racing just keeps it exciting.

9. Lost in Translation
Finishing Lost in Translation is like awakening from dream, and then we realize just how in tune with the feeling of jetlag of its central characters the film is. Everything's a bit hazy. Did we really just sit through a photo shoot where the photographer said something about looking more like James Bond? What exactly was that person in the hospital trying to say? How did we end up at karaoke? And what was with that talk show? The answers to those questions are insignificant, but the fact that all of that did happen and the way it happened points us in the direction of finding something deeper in writer/director Sofia Coppola's fish-out-of-water comedy. As Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson talk about life and love, they begin to realize just how out of touch they are with themselves, let alone the culture that surrounds them.

8. House of Sand and Fog
One house means the world to two very different people. For one, it's a haven—a familial reminder to keep her company at a time in her life when she's completely alone. For the other, it's an opportunity—a chance to give his family the life to which they've become accustomed without lowering himself to fit society's view of him. It becomes the object of a legal battle, but moreover, it's the stage for a sad human drama about these two people. Jennifer Connelly plays Kathy, a recovering alcoholic, who loses the house because of a government mistake, and Ben Kingsley plays Behrani, a former Iranian colonel, who buys it at an auction and plans to remodel it and sell it for a profit. Director Vadim Perelman (who wrote the script with Shawn Otto, based on the book by Andre Dubus III) doesn't take sides in the battle and allows us to sympathize with both parties, making the tragic events that unfold all the more heartbreaking.

7. Spider
David Cronenberg's cinematic study of insanity is an unsettling nightmare that traps us in the world of its titular character. Spider recounts the troubled life of Spider Cleg as he wanders through his own memories, helplessly looking on as his past plays out in his head. But how much of it can we believe? The film has one goal, and that is to represent the experience Spider's illness. Cronenberg's singular vision does just that. The world of the film is claustrophobic and disconnected, just like Spider's. Ralph Fiennes gives us the empty shell of a man in his physically driven performance, and Miranda Richardson plays a variety of roles that occupy Spider's memories with utter believability. Mysteries reveal themselves, but nothing is resolved, as we realize that what makes Spider tick cannot be summed up by one defining event. This is his nightmare that he must live out every day of his life; we have the fortune of only getting a glimpse.

6. Spellbound
Jeffrey Blitz lifts the veil on the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee and gives us a compelling portrait of modern America. Following eight bright kids as they prepare and participate in the competition, Blitz gives us a snapshot of American diversity and determination and the sad state of its educational system. Yes, these kids can spell, but no one around them seems to be able to. And their teachers act like it's a small miracle that a student has goals and a work ethic. Still, Blitz trusts his subjects, and they trust him, allowing him and, consequently, us a look into their lives as intelligent kids when being smart doesn't win popularity contests. The showdown itself is suspenseful and affecting, and the looks on the kids' faces as they miss one letter is real. There's also this kid named Harry in it, who's an absolute hoot.

5. The Last Samurai
At once a sprawling epic, an intimate character study, and a critique on American imperialism, Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai is the director's crowning achievement. His lush film brings to life the ideals of honor and heroism as a man at the end of his spiritual rope comes to terms with his demons. Tom Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a bitter, alcoholic Civil War veteran who comes to Japan to fight against an uprising Samurai faction trying to reclaim the glory of the empire. In the process, he discovers their way of battle, life, and inner peace through the teachings of his captor-turned-sensei. Cruise's performance overpowers his anachronistic casting, and as his mentor, Ken Watanabe is both fierce and enlightened. The film takes the time to develop its themes, and by the time the final, spectacular battle is fought, we realize the ultimate weight of the confrontation—for its participants, its strategy, and its impact on the culture at stake.

4. Whale Rider
Effortlessly weaving between legend and reality, Niki Caro's Whale Rider is a specific and simple story that brings out the universal themes in its fiber. Caro takes a reverential tone in showing the development of the future leader of the Maori who will ultimately unite her people in a way they never before thought possible. The film centers on the dilemma of trying to maintain an honorable tradition in the face of a state of modern apathy and the way two people on the opposite sides of a generational gap try to return the culture to its old ways. One is the young Pai, the rightful chief in terms of family but blockaded by her gender, and the other is her grandfather Koro, an adamant supporter of the traditional ways. Their relationship is the crux of the film, as Pai challenges her grandfather's way of thinking. Thirteen-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes gives a dynamic debut performance that ranks high among the year's best, carrying the film and involving us completely in her character's progress.

3. Kill Bill: Vol. 1
An absolutely enthralling piece of cinematic merriment—a veritable orgy of directorial high-wire acts—Quentin Tarantino's first segment of his marital arts revenge film is easily the most entertaining film of the year. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is filled to the brim with referential in-jokes and goes all out in its depiction of over-the-top violence—bright red blood and all. Tarantino simultaneously defies and embraces genre expectations throughout and finds an outlet for his dark sense of humor in gags involving dismemberment and decapitation. The centerpiece is a huge battle as Uma Thurman's nameless heroine takes on henchman after henchman in an action sequence of incredible craftsmanship and rhythm. There are also more subdued moments, like an extended animated sequence that sheds light on one of her foes' sorrowful past. The powers-that-be decided to split the bigger picture in half, a decision that ultimately lessens the potential impact of the overall film, but still this is pulp fiction at its finest and most jubilant.

2. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Unfolding like a great novel, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a comprehensive study of the lives of men at sea. Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany give two great performances as a man controlled by his heart and a man driven by his mind respectively. Their friendship is tried by the tensions onboard and a battle of wills ensues amidst the pursuit of an enemy French vessel and the growing unrest of the crew. Director Peter Weir and John Collee have written a thoughtful, expansive screenplay in which a single moment of questioning orders implies worlds about the crew's state of mind. The script also basks in sequences that exist simply to flesh out its characters (a visit to the Galapagos Islands) or the horrors of war (a wrenching amputation scene). The film has two, bookend battle sequences that manage to rouse loyalty for the crew and to communicate the hell of the situation. And the film finds the perfect resolution in an open-ended shot that establishes the absurd and cyclical nature of war and one final reiteration of the determined character of Crowe's Capt. Jack Aubrey.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The final installment of The Lord of the Rings is far and away the best film of the year. The Return of the King brings us back to Middle-Earth one last time to become reacquainted with old friends only to have to say good bye to them. That is probably director Peter Jackson's greatest accomplishment in a trilogy (or extended film) of great accomplishment. For as many awe-inspiring sights that The Lord of the Rings has brought us, it always manages to bring us right back to its human or elf or dwarf or hobbit levels. The last, of course, is at the center of this installment, as Frodo and Sam make their way to the heart of Mt. Doom and give us a beautiful story of overcoming one man's burden. Other characters take on dimensions we didn't expect of them at first, while others expand to new heights or depths. And Jackson (along with fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philipa Boyens) treats us to an extended denouement, where everyone is left asking what do you do when all is said and done? For us, the answer is to revisit this magnificent spectacle throughout the years to come.

Honorable Mention:

Finding Nemo, Matchstick Men, 28 Days Later, 21 Grams, Winged Migration

Copyright © 2004 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.