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    (Andrea, David, Joshua, Leslie)
  • Top 10 films of 2003
    (Andrea, David, Joshua, Leslie)
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  •  TOP10: TOP 10 FILMS OF 2003

    Top 10 films of 2003


    Whether MPAA President Jack "Boom Boom" Valenti's year-end critics screener ban precipitated a reverse backlash or not, 2003 was nevertheless the year in which the independents won big over the majors. With the exception of Pixar's delightful "Finding Nemo", virtually every movie on my Ten Best list was one that eschewed big budgets, major stars, and/or predictable storylines ("Nemo" was a familiar fantasy but beautifully told). Four of the ten films were documentaries and that, in and of itself, is telling (and who knows how my list might have looked had I also seen "Spellbound", "My Architect", and Errol Morris's excellently received "The Fog of War").

    Here, therefore, in alphabetical order are those films I considered to be the Best of the Year, along with a few you should definitely cross the street to avoid.

    Best: 21 Grams

    Proving that 2000's blistering "Amores Perros" was no fluke, "21 Grams" continues Mexican director Alejandro Gonz‡lez I–‡rritu's obsession with fate and intricately woven storylines told via a forever shifting chronology. Sean Penn is a critically ill mathematics professor awaiting a heart transplant, Benicio Del Toro is a born-again ex-con who's involved in a freak accident, and Naomi Watts is a drug-addicted housewife whose family life is suddenly and violently shattered (all three are Oscar-worthy). At once powerful, challenging, and tragic, "21 Grams" is, like its formidable director, a force to be reckoned with.

    Bus 174

    "Bus 174", JosŽ Padilha and Felipe Lacerda's critically captivating documentary, expertly melds live news footage with interviews with family members, social workers, former street kids, and officials involved in a June 12, 2000 incident in Rio de Janeiro's Jardim Bot‰nico. And it brilliantly explains why junked-up street kid Sandro do Nascimento's illicit bus stop turned into a tragic four-hour standoff broadcast live in all its ingloriousness on primetime Brazilian television.

    Capturing the Friedmans

    Great Neck, New York, 1987. Arnold "Arnie" Friedman, a respected high school science teacher along with his 18-year-old son Jesse are accused of — and subsequently plead guilty to — more than 40 counts of child molestation. Andrew Jarecki's engrossing yet disturbing documentary "Capturing the Friedmans" exposes that elusive divide between truth and lies and does so harrowingly, balancing the damaging "facts" with the Friedman's initial proclamation of innocence. This is a film that's as difficult to watch as it is to dismiss, or discuss.

    Dirty Pretty Things

    Stephen Frears's gripping, gruesome "Dirty Pretty Things" features Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou ("AmŽlie") as a couple of illegal immigrants caught up in London's sleazy underworld of black market organ donations. The principals, who also include Sophie Okonedo as a hooker, Benedict Wong as a morgue attendant, and Sergi L—pez as a particularly nasty hotel manager, are all excellent, as is the director's ability to craft a clandestine environment populated by genuinely compassionate people.

    Finding Nemo

    Pixar's latest computer animated entry pits a worrywart clownfish (voice of Albert Brooks) against a forgetful regal blue tang (voice of Ellen DeGeneres) searching for the former's son Nemo, who's wound up in some dentist's aquarium a Great Barrier Reef away. Continuing the studio's tradition of hip irreverence this one's as much fun for adults as it is for kids, primarily due to the Brooks/DeGeneres undersea chemistry. But it's also lovely to look at in that demanding-of-multiple-viewings way.

    The Heart of Me

    Cinematographer turned director Thaddeus O'Sullivan's elegant, beautifully turned melodrama unfolds slowly, perceptively, lingering on the details and delaying gratification of its secrets. Starring Olivia Williams ("Peter Pan"), Helena Bonham Carter ("Big Fish"), and Paul Bettany ("Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"), "The Heart of Me — "based on Rosamond Lehmann's 1953 novel "The Echoing Grove — "is a powerful, authentic, and deeply emotional period piece that effectively communicates that very special affinity between sisters.

    Laurel Canyon

    In anyone else's hands "Laurel Canyon" could so easily have been a disaster, a cringe-worthy amalgam of familial dysfunction, sexual exploits, and big, predictable moments that hang around like three-day-old helium balloons. Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko ("High Art"), on the other hand, infuses her L.A. story with insight, freshness, and a certain peculiarity, smartly casting actors who get deep inside their characters and walk around them for days. None the least of these is the wonderful Frances McDormand ("Something's Gotta Give"), who offers up a superlative performance as a carefree, career-minded record producer who, at 40-something, hasn't quite figured out what it means to be a mother.

    Lost in La Mancha

    Terry Gilliam, the Monty Python animator turned rogue director ("Brazil", "Twelve Monkeys", "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas") tried for two years to get Hollywood backing for a vision that had percolated for ten. Not known for doing anything the easy way he wound up with three quarters of the $40 million budget needed from European backers, so from the very beginning he was already stretched. And then the problems started. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's riveting documentary "Lost in La Mancha" chronicles Gilliam's disastrous attempts to make "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote", a 2000 shoot on which everything that could go wrong went wrong. As fascinating as it is heartbreaking, "Lost in La Mancha" remains a must-see for anyone the slightest bit interested in the process of making films.

    Lost in Translation

    When culture shock looms large, two unlikely Americans in Tokyo find mutual comfort and companionship in Sofia Coppola's sensational follow-up to "The Virgin Suicides." Deftly turning the generation gap on its head, "Lost in Translation" is a funny, intelligent, achingly poignant, and beautifully rendered film that provides no easy answers, either for its characters or the viewer. Featuring the lovely and talented Scarlett Johansson ("Girl with a Pearl Earring") and Bill Murray in what is undoubtedly his finest-ever screen performance.

    Winged Migration

    Four years in the making, this majestic film (written and directed by Jacques Cluzaud and Michel Debats with narration by Jacques Perrin) documents the flight patterns of migratory birds as they fly south (or, for some species, north!) for the winter. That's pretty much it but the film is never less than spellbinding because of the startling cinematography and the filmmakers up close and personal approach to their subjects. "Winged Migration" is an intimate, uplifting tribute to our fine-feathered friends who weather incredible odds in their quest for survival. I, for one, will never look skyward at a big honking V in quite the same way again.

    Late additions:
    City of God, The Station Agent.

    American Splendor, Elephant, Mystic River, Thirteen.

    Most overrated:
    28 Days Later, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Swimming Pool, Matchstick Men, Bend It Like Beckham.

    Nicest surprises:
    Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003).

    DECEMBER 29, 2003

    Reader comments on Top 10 films of 2003:

  • Camp   from PAIGE ALEXANDER, Feb 28, 2005
  • Re: Camp   from Charnese McPherson, Nov 12, 2005

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