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Best Movies of 2003

By Rob Vaux

Pirates loomed large over the movie industry in 2003, and most of them had nothing to do with Disney rides. Online downloads and illegal copies became ominous warning signs, threatening chaos and disarray in the not-too-distant future. Big studios watched the recording industry flail helplessly over the issue, and resolved not to let cinema go the same way. Having identified the problem, however, they proved utterly incapable of doing anything about it. Instead, they launched inane ads featuring stunt men and set decorators whining about how much it's all costing them; subjected preview screenings to X-ray searches and invasive pat-downs; and, in the final blow, instigated an ill-conceived screener ban which alienated everyone they hoped to rally to their cause. A federal judge struck down the ban in December, leaving the MPAA with egg all over its face and the larger piracy problem all but untouched.

And it doesn't look to improve anytime soon. Our society's "me first" philosophy has no problems with downloading illegal product (justify it however you like, it's still theft). Couple that with an increasingly miserable atmosphere in the theaters -- obnoxious audience members, skyrocketing ticket prices, and affronts like The Twenty (a barrage of on-screen commercials packaged as "preshow entertainment") -- and bandwidth and storage capacity increasing towards infinity, and it's not hard to see which way the wind is blowing. Time will tell if the studios have what it takes to really confront the issue... or if last year was just the tip of the iceberg.

Amid the offscreen fireworks, cinema quietly assembled an impressive crop for 2003. Good blockbusters like Finding Nemo stuck around for months while bad ones vanished with merciful speed. Indie films continued to provide grown-up alternatives to the car chase du jour, and if they sometimes struggled, you'd never know it for the number on display. A bumper crop of great documentaries appeared, along with foreign gems like City of God and The Triplets of Belleville. And a long-dead genre flared to surprising life again, thanks to one Jonathan Christopher Depp. Regardless of your tastes, 2003 produced quite a bit for you to like.

Below are 10 movies which matched my tastes -- personal preferences, as always, united in their unfailing ability to make me forget the noisy teenagers, stale popcorn, and surly security guards field-stripping my colon.

10. 21 Grams. Alejandro González Iñárritu proves as adept with English language films as he is with Spanish in this haunting, complex drama about the price of pain and the nature of spirituality. Sean Penn has received a great deal of attention for his turn in Mystic River, but his performance here may be even better.

9. Whale Rider. Simple does not mean simplistic, as Niki Caro's uplifting adventure proves. A marvelous journey of growth and acceptance (as well as a showcase for New Zealand that doesn't involve furry feet), it also makes a quiet point about the loss of indigenous culture.

8. American Splendor. In a year of good comic book adaptations, the best didn't feature a single zap or pow. Paul Giamatti deserves the Oscar for his portrayal of everyman curmudgeon Harvey Pekar, and directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini earn full marks for conveying the underground essence of his story on the screen.

7. Lost in Translation. We always suspected Bill Murray was this good; the surprise is that it took Sofia Coppola to show it to us.

6. Finding Nemo. Pixar is the undisputed king of animation these days, and Nemo brings a new visual magnificence to its already potent storytelling skills. The film is as funny and charming as anything they've done... and oh look, it made more money than God. Sometimes the most popular movies really deserve all that attention.

5. Bubba Ho-tep. Hail to the king, baby. Bruce Campbell gives the performance of his career and Don Coscarelli adds pathos and poignancy to -- yes -- an Elvis vs. The Mummy picture. By far the most original movie of 2003, and a testament to quirky and offbeat filmmaking.

4. The Fog of War. The best documentary in a year of great documentaries, Errol Morris' portrait of former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara is an invaluable look at the 20th century's most important events. Augmented by an always innovative filming style, McNamara's unflinching look at his own legacy is as illuminating as it is chilling.

3. Dirty Pretty Things. "We are the people you never see," says Chiwetel Ejiofor's hotel clerk, aptly summarizing the hidden life he and his colleagues are forced to lead. Stephen Frears' irresistible thriller reveals the darkest side of immigration, while developing a world that everyone knows about, but few truly notice.

2. City of God. Technically a 2002 release, City of God didn't see American theaters until last January. This verité gangster saga unveils the slums of Brazil as a Darwinian jungle, overwhelmed by poverty and ruled by those ruthless enough to kill for what they need. As plausible as it is unforgettable, we'll not see its like again soon.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Yes, the fans are psychotic (this one included). Yes, their demand for the Oscar is shrill. But after two years of having its predecessors ignored in favor of empty musicals and disease-of-the-week movies, the final (and greatest) leg of Peter Jackson's trilogy has an air of the undeniable to it. The number of directors -- living or dead -- who could have pulled this off are in the single digits, and the results have exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. Passions may fade and new blockbusters will arise, but the achievement on display here looks set for the long haul. Fifty years from now, when people gaze back on this era of moviemaking, one name will invariably come to their lips. How many disease-of-the-week movies can say that?

Honorable mention goes to Daredevil, Holes, House of Sand and Fog, Lost in La Mancha, Master and Commander, A Mighty Wind, Monster, Mystic River, Seabiscuit, and Shattered Glass. I could add about a dozen others without breaking a sweat.

"But why is the rum gone?"
--Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), Pirates of the Caribbean

Article published 01.14.2004.

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