The Top Ten
1) Capturing the Friedmans
My favorite move of the year tends to be one that challenges my notions of what a particular genre, form–or the medium itself–can accomplish. Last year, for example, my number one film was Spirited Away, which used animation to tell a story of startling power and depth. The year before that, I picked Mulholland Drive, a brilliant masterwork that injected dazzling dream imagery into a traditional film noir tale. And way back in 2000 I fell in love with Yi Yi: A One and a Two, a simple story about a Taiwanese family that remains the most profound film I’ve seen in the past three years. In 2003, no film has wowed me more than Andrew Jarecki’s extraordinary documentary, Capturing the Friedmans. Building on Errol Morris’ groundbreaking style, Jarecki crafts a movie that’s filled with more thrills and heartbreak than any fiction film released last year. The heart of the movie lies in the home movie footage shot by the Friedman family themselves. Jarecki’s use of this incendiary material is masterful, sometimes employing it to reinforce our perceptions and other times to make us question what we thought we knew. The filmmaker clearly has his own opinions as to the Friedmans? guilt or innocence, but he wisely keeps them buried in the film, allowing viewers to make up their own minds. Capturing the Friedmans is a wholly unique experience that takes the documentary form to new heights.

2) Lost in Translation
Has there been a sweeter, sexier movie moment this year than Bill Murray tentatively reaching over to touch Scarlett Johansson’s bare foot? Sofia Coppola’s exquisite second feature is filled with these kinds of small, beautifully acted scenes that, when taken together, paint a rich portrait of two like-minded souls who take solace in each other during a tension-fraught stay in Tokyo. I’ll never understand the people who accuse the film of being demeaning or, even worse, racist in its treatment of Japan. For one thing, Coppola isn’t depicting an entire country or culture–her focus is solely on Tokyo, which is very much its own animal. Beyond that, the movie is quite clearly told through the eyes of its characters, who are bewildered and confused by the city. Coppola isn’t passing judgement on Tokyo she’s simply presenting it to us as these two specific people see it. Anyone who has ever felt adrift in a foreign country (or even in America) will identify with this movie. If I had to pick a favorite film image of 2003, it would be the shot of Johansson seated in front of her hotel window gazing out over Tokyo as dusk approaches. That one moment perfectly encapsulates Lost in Translation?s melancholy beauty.

3) Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
There have been a number of historical pageants released this year, but none of them possess the scope or the intelligence of Peter Weir’s bracing high- seas epic. Russell Crowe delivers his best movie-star performance to date as Jack Aubery, a larger-than-life sea captain who may have at last met his match. The action sequences are incredible and the recreation of life aboard a 19th century ship feels entirely authentic. But what really makes this movie special is Weir’s ability to tap into the sense of discovery that drove the sailors of old. In this day and age when the planet seems so small, it’s difficult to remember an era when there were still lands that hadn’t yet been explored. In its best moments, Master and Commander makes you feel as if you’re seeing the world for the first time.

4) Finding Nemo and The Triplets of Belleville (Tie)
It’s impossible to decide which of these two animated features is “better” because both of them are brilliant in such vastly different ways. On the one hand, Pixar’s Finding Nemo is a triumph of traditional Hollywood storytelling and represents the pinnacle of what 3-D animation can achieve. Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville, meanwhile, is a sparkling reminder of the freedoms allowed by traditional 2-D animation. It also proves that a great animated comedy doesn’t have to be dialogue-driven. Together Nemo and Belleville demonstrate the unlimited potential of animation as an art form.

6) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
While the final chapter in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy isn’t quite as cohesive as the previous two installments, it’s still a thrilling fantasy adventure and a triumph of big-budget filmmaking. Everyone who worked on these movies deserves the highest praise, not just for undertaking such a mammoth project, but for putting their heart and souls into it every step of the way. I feel as if I’ve already said everything I can about the Rings cycle, so I’ll close by mentioning that I look forward to being able to revisit Middle Earth whenever I need an escape from the real world.

7) A Mighty Wind
Christopher Guest’s third mockumentary may not be as laugh-out loud funny as Waiting for Guffman, but it’s easily the warmest and most mature movie he’s made to date. Much of the credit must go to Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara as a pair of folk singers/former lovers who reunite for one last concert. Their relationship is every bit as complex as the one Murray and Johansson share in Lost in Translation. Of course, there’s lots more to love about A Mighty Wind: The cast of the New Main Street Singers, the three Folksmen (particularly Harry Shearer), Fred Willard (as always), Bob Balaban and lots of fantastic folk music.

8) The Barbarian Invasions
I find most films about death to be either annoying or pretentious and by all rights Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions should have been a double-whammy. But from the first five minutes, I connected with these characters and remained caught up in their lives until the very last frame. The movie is far from perfect–Arcand’s dialogue is occasionally too glib and the references to 9/11 grow more forced with each viewing–but it touched me in ways I frankly didn’t expect. Invasions offers a refreshingly honest depiction of one man’s last days; it makes you care for him while recognizing his flaws at the same time. Arcand finds the proper balance between cynicism and sentiment in almost every scene and he’s aided immeasurably by an excellent ensemble. Not everyone will respond to The Barbarian Invasions, but more than a few viewers will probably see themselves reflected in these characters.

9) Dirty Pretty Things
This is a film I’m surprised to be including in my Top Ten. I liked Stephen Frears’ drama when I saw it in September, but I didn’t realize how much it resonated with me until I sat down to make this list. Set in the back-alleyways and sweatshops where London?s illegal immigrant population struggles to survive, Dirty Pretty Things is both an excellent thriller and a compelling piece of social commentary. It?s anchored by a terrific performance from English stage actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has sadly gone overlooked in all of the awards hoopla. I have a feeling that the movie will only grow richer with repeat viewings; it also acts as a welcome reality check to the sickeningly sweet depiction of London offered by the horrendous Love Actually (see below).

10) The Matrix Reloaded
You heard me. Despite what the rest of the world seems to have decided, The Matrix Reloaded is a superior sequel and a fascinating film in its own right. Instead of just repeating the first movie on a bigger budget (as Bryan Singer did in the hugely overrated X2) the Wachowski Brothers dared to open up their universe and call into question everything they established in the original film. True, the action and philosophy aren’t integrated quite as smoothly as there in the first Matrix, but I think Reloaded asks harder questions than its predecessor did (so difficult in fact, that the Wachowskis aren’t even able to answer them satisfactorily in the third film). The climactic encounter between Neo and The Architect is one of my very favorite scenes of the year and proves (to me at any rate) that the brothers may be the most visionary sci-fi filmmakers working today.

The Next Ten:
Big Fish
Tim Burton grows up with this enchanting film about a natural born storyteller looking to reconnect with his estranged son. As always with Burton the fantasy elements are beautifully handled, but what really sets Big Fish apart from his previous work (with the possible exception of Ed Wood) is its emotional maturity. Sweet and sentimental without being cloying, this is an important turning point for Burton and hints at even better movies to come.

Once you get over the fact that Gus Van Sant is deliberately refusing to offer any explanations for Columbine, Elephant emerges as a fascinating–if occasionally maddening–experience. This is a movie that’s unabashedly about style rather than substance, which would be highly annoying if the style weren’t so compelling. Van Sant?s long tracking shots are particularly stellar, giving us a God’s eye view of an entirely average school that suddenly erupts in violence.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
An incredible you-are-there document of the attempted coup of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. The film loses some points for being so clearly pro-Chavez, but the directors’ skillful telling of this story can not be denied. Revolution is also a scary (and very timely) look at the extent to which a supposedly democratic country’s media can be manipulated by big corporations.

The Fog of War
Errol Morris’ latest documentary isn’t one of his best, but its still an involving portrait of another controversial figure, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. As always, Morris digs up lots of unique B-roll footage and skillfully intercuts that with McNamara’s talking head. Ultimately the film is hampered by the fact that its subject is too savvy to reveal too much of himself on camera, but the little glimpses we catch of his true personality speak volumes.

28 Days Later
Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s take on the zombie genre is perhaps the most compulsively watchable movie of the year. I’ve seen the film three times now and haven?t gotten tired of it yet. Chalk that up to Garland’s smart script, the great ensemble cast (particularly Brendan Gleeson and Cillian Murphy) and Boyle’s imaginative use of digital cameras. Plus, no film had a better opening sequence than Murphy’s march through a deserted London.

Swimming Pool
Francois Ozon doesn’t make movies, he makes provocations. His latest film baffled some art-house audiences who were expecting a straightforward murder mystery. Instead, Ozon produced a mystery about mysteries that paid homage to the genre’s conventions while parodying them at the same time. I found the movie to be a hugely enjoyable (not to mention hugely cheeky) comedy of manners. Others were just left scratching their heads.

The Good Thief
Overlooked or ignored by many (including myself) when it came out last spring, Neil Jordon’s remake of Bob Le Falambeur turns out to be his best movie since The Butcher Boy. It’s not a deep film, but it is incredibly entertaining one, full of stylish flourishes and featuring a wonderfully hangdog turn by Nick Nolte. If you love con movies (and not pseudo con-movies like Matchstick Men) seek this one out; I promise you won’t be disappointed.

American Splendor
While it doesn’t really live up to the extraordinary hype, American Splendor is still a well-made and well-acted drama that?s a welcome departure from the traditional indie formula. I love the way first-time feature filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have conceived the film and it would be wrong for Paul Giamatti to go overlooked at Oscar time. Even when it overreaches, it never sinks under the weight of its pretensions.

Wow a mainstream Christmas comedy that doesn’t suck; quick, someone better call the Movie Police! Jon Favreau’s confident direction and Will Ferrell’s fearless lead performance resulted in the birth of a new holiday classic.

Winged Migration/Bus 174/Spellbound
2003 was a banner year for documentaries and it wouldn’t be right to leave out three more that made a splash in the mainstream world. Winged Migration deserves inclusion for its groundbreaking camerawork alone, while Spellbound reminded audiences that documentaries could be fun. Finally, Bus 174 depicted the mean streets of Rio with a depth and focus than the more celebrated (and more glib) City of God noticeably lacks.

Best Movie You Didn?t See in Theaters This Year
One of these days Miramax will finally get around to releasing Zhang Yimou?s beautifully made martial arts epic, but until then you’ll have to make do with the bootleg copies that should be readily available in your local Chinatown. While the history is more than a little suspect (Emperor Qin was really not this nice a guy), it’s still an impassioned and dazzling visual feast. Made in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero eschews that film’s strong narrative drive for a more elliptical story that’s driven by the characters’ emotional states rather than plot mechanics (not to dis Crouching Tiger, which remains a fantastic movie). Yimou is a master at composition and lighting and here he’s able to employ those gifts on a grander scale than ever before. One could write an entire paper on the film’s use of color alone. Then there are the action sequences, which, simply put, blew me away. I would never have guessed that Yimou would be able to devise such incredible set-pieces. It’s a crime that this movie hasn’t been released yet, especially since it was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year. Had it actually appeared in cinemas as the studio promised, it easily would have found a place on my Top Ten. As it is, I’m keeping a space reserved for 2004.

Honor Roll
The Company: A minor entry in the Altman canon, but a good film nonetheless. Bonus points for some beautiful dancing, Altman’s fly-on-the-wall direction, and getting an actual performance out of that block of wood known as Neve Campbell.

The Man Without a Past: A sweet Finnish comedy that deftly parodies life in an excessively bureaucratic society.

The Matrix Revolutions: Compared to Reloaded, Revolutions is something of a let down. Still the attack on Zion and the climactic battle between Smith and Neo remain two of the best action sequences ever captured on film.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl: It’s far too long, but whenever Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush are onscreen, this blockbuster is as giddily entertaining as the theme park ride it’s based on.

School of Rock: Indie gurus Richard Linklater and Mike White teach Hollywood how to make a great mainstream comedy. Too bad the studios probably weren’t paying attention.

Shattered Glass: Billy Ray’s debut feature possesses such a great story and cast, even some classic first-time filmmaker blunders can’t ruin it.

The Station Agent: A small (pun not intended), but touching story about a trio of strangers who become fast friends. Between this and his cameo in Elf, Peter Dinklage deserves the Scene-Stealer of the Year award.

Spider: David Cronenberg’s latest shocker isn’t easy to like, but that doesn’t mean its not exceedingly well made. Ralph Fiennes finally wakes up from his decade-long slumber and delivers the kind of rich performance we haven’t seen from him since Schindler’s List.

Near Misses
Bad Santa: Once you get past Billy Bob Thornton’s great star turn, there’s really not much to this poison-pen Christmas carol. And I’m as cynical about the holidays as they come.

Cold Mountain: Problematic casting plagues Anthony Minghella’s otherwise strong Civil War drama.

Hulk: Ang Lee’s take on the classic Marvel superhero doesn’t lack for ambition or technical skill. Sadly it is sorely lacking in the logic department.

In America: Much of Jim Sheridan?s semi-autobiographical film is truly heartwarming, but I can’t give him a pass on the Djimon Hounsou character. Hounsou is too powerful an actor to waste in such a cliched, boderline insulting role.

Kill Bill: Volume 1: I might have been more forgiving of Tarantino’s ode to himself if he had just gone ahead and released it as one three hour movie. As it is, this first part is just too slight to be very memorable, although Uma Thurman gives a remarkably focused performance. I’ll see Volume Two but I can’t say that I’m anticipating it.

Mystic River: A solid drama filled with good performances and nicely understated direction. Sadly it’s hampered by a plodding screenplay that captures the letter, but not the soul, of the source material.

21 Grams: As much as I admire the film’s style and the performances, all the editing tricks in the world can’t hide the ludicrous melodrama at its center.

Guilty Pleasures
Bend it Like Beckham: Completely predictable, but also completely enjoyable.

The Core: I have a soft spot for ridiculous disaster movies and this one was as wonderfully cheesy as they come.

Holes: Much better than any movie with the improbable cast of Jon Voigt, Sigourney Weaver, Tim Blake Nelson, Patricia Arquette and a kid named Shia LaBeouf has the right to be.

The Italian Job: I have few specific memories of this high-concept action flick, but I do remember being completely entertained while I was watching it.

Looney Tunes: Back in Action: Yes, it’s a huge mess that turns Daffy Duck into a whiny brat. Still, there were a number of moments that recalled the great Loony Tunes shorts of yesteryear. And I definitely can’t say that I was ever bored.

Paycheck: It’s no Face/Off or Hard Boiled (hell, it’s not even Hard Target) but John Woo’s latest is the most entertaining action-fest he’s made in awhile.

SWAT/Phone Booth : By all rights I should loath Colin Farrell for his smug attitude. Yet I have to admit that he makes a great screen presence precisely because he doesn’t take himself too seriously. His “Fuck It–let’s Party” attitude enlivens both of these otherwise forgettable action flicks.

The Bottom Ten
Girl With a Pearl Earring and House of Sand and Fog(Tie)
Two perfect examples of the sub-genre known as art-house porn (Peter Greenway is a founding member). These movies give film snobs everything they think they want to see–beautiful people suffering, lots of pretty shots of nature–in the guise of “art.” But strip away the nice lighting and the beautiful locations and you’re left with a pair of boring, pretentious, and badly written films that don’t actually deliver the dramatic goods. I can’t decide which of them is worse–the acting in House is much better than in Girl, but at least the latter contains some recognizable human behavior. Ultimately, both movies deserve to disappear into obscurity.

Bringing Down the House
Further proof that the audience isn’t always right. This alleged comedy grossed over $100 million at the box office despite the fact that it contains zero laughs and appears to have been directed by a blind man who was trapped in a closet throughout the shoot. I’d feel sorry for Steve Martin, but he probably got paid millions of bucks to make this crap. Maybe he could donate some of that money to us for sitting through it?

Love Actually
Watching Richard Curtis’ epic romantic comedy is like drinking an entire bottle of syrup while snorting a dozen Pixie sticks up your nose. And at least the latter experience only lasts a few moments before you pass out. Love Actually goes on for over two hours! The only person who walks away from this astonishingly bad ordeal with their dignity intact is Hugh Grant, mainly because he was clearly doesn’t give a shit about it in the first place.

Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle
Finally someone in Hollywood has done it. They’ve managed to make a movie that’s so disposable, it actually vanishes onscreen as you watch it. Too bad it couldn’t have disappeared before you entered the theater.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Along with Daredevil, this big-budget misfire was so terrible, it gave comic-book movies a bad name. And at least that other movie had Colin Farrell strutting around in a silly costume. This one just has lots of bad one-liners (“Rule Britannia!”), ugly costumes and a climactic battle that’s so badly edited, I still have no idea what actually happened.

Dumb and Dumberer
I can understand Eugene Levy agreeing to do Bringing Down the House (his gangsta speak was the only reason anybody went to see that movie in the first place), but why the hell did he ever sign on for this pointless prequel to a movie nobody remembers? He looks like he’s in horrible pain every single moment he appears onscreen. The director must have been training a gun on him off-camera.

This movie wins the 2003 award for Stupidest Plot Twist Ever. What makes it even worse is that the story is actually pretty intriguing up until the moment of the big reveal. But after that it instantly turns to garbage. It’s times like this that I really hate the fact that The Usual Suspects was ever made.

Cabin Fever
Somehow, first-time hack Eli Roth managed to fool the world into thinking he had made the next Evil Dead. I suppose that might be true if you subtracted that film’s scares and inventive camerawork and replaced them with the world’s worst actors and a script that’s decidedly less than horrific. Cabin Fever is one of the most boring horror films I’ve seen in quite some time.

A Decade Under the Influence
I have no doubt that co-directors Ted Demme and Richard LaGravenese entered into this documentary about ’70s filmmakers with the very best of intentions. And perhaps if I didn’t already know so much about this era I’d have gotten more out of the film. As it is though, I found myself nodding off after about five minutes of this far too conventional documentary that alternates dull talking heads with film clips that have been shown dozens of times before. A big disappointment.

Most Interesting Bad Movies
The Singing Detective

Least Interesting Good Movies
Open Range
Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines

Box Office Hits that Deserved to Flop
American Wedding
Anger Management
Bruce Almighty
Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Box Office Flops that Deserved to be Hits
Intolerable Cruelty
Man on the Train
Millennium Actress
Peter Pan
Raising Victor Vargas

Most Overrated Films
Better Luck Tomorrow
Blue Car
Whale Rider
X2: X-Men United

And In a Category All Its Own
Angels in America
Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking play has its problems, but I can’t deny that it’s one of the most ambitious and, in the end, emotionally affecting, films of the year. Nichols has assembled a great cast (particularly Justin Kirk as the AIDS-afflicted Prior and Jeffrey Wright in a series of roles) and directs with a confidence he hasn’t displayed in years. Hopefully HBO will be putting this six-hour movie on DVD in the near future. Be sure to watch it at the first opportunity.