December 31, 2003

GreenCine's Best of 2003

By Craig Phillips, GreenCine Associate Editor

A disproportionate number of directors from Down Under dominate my list of best movies from this past year - Peters Jackson and Weir, and Niki Caro. Not sure what that means, just thought I'd point it out. Going back over the films released in 2003, I started thinking that this was a fairly weak year, and yet had little trouble finding a group of films to be excited about. They all pass my essential criteria: Do I want to see them again? Did I think about them afterwards? Were they special in some way? Also, one confession: although these are in ranked order, the rankings themselves are fairly arbitrary; but because people usually like things to be ranked, they each have a number next to them. Also, this list (with apologies to Spinal Tap) goes up to 11. With that in mind, here we go:


  1. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King: Full of jaw-dropping sequences, that come one after the other like Orcs, this epic manages to do the damn near impossible, top the first two films in terms of sheer awe. Satisfying in the way that few (if any) third films have ever been, with very few missteps (okay, I could have done without yet another slow-mo "Oh Frodo you're alive!" hugging-Frodo-in-bed scene, but I forgave). Nice to see Miranda Otto kick some ass, too, since women are mostly decorative in Tolkien-land. It's epic-scale entertainment of the best variety, and if you think Peter Jackson's role as director was merely digital puppetry, you're sadly mistaken, preeecious.
  2. Capturing the Friedmans: And from the huge to the small-scale. I found Andrew Jarecki's incredible documentary equal parts distressing and compulsively fascinating; in fact, of all the movies I saw this year, this is the one that stayed with me the longest. It's more fair-minded than anyone could have expected, with as many twists and turns as a good suspense novel. Makes you pine for the functionality of R. Crumb's family. An in-your-face to any TV series calling itself a "reality show."
  3. Master and Commander: Far Side of the World: Another long-titled, epic adventure that benefited greatly from director Peter Weir's interest in things other than action (though that is not to say it isn't often rousing and exciting) - in nature, in ethics. He's not afraid to embrace the quiet moments. Paul Bettany shines as the biologist/doctor (every ship should have one!) Some fans of Patrick O'Brien's books have carped about Russell Crowe's casting, but, you know what? Shut up. Whatever you think about Crowe off-screen, he is undeniably one of our most charismatic actors. A rousing adventure, great to see Weir back at the top of his game.

  4. American Splendor: One of the year's most creative films, it was also one of the more memorable and pitch-perfect. Underrated character actor Paul Giamatti shines as Harvey Pekar. Weaving documentary with the fictionalized feature requires a magic balancing act to pull off, but it does. Hysterically funny, but also gentle and moving.
  5. Lost in Translation: Sofia Coppola's film makes up for what it lacks in plot with atmosphere, intelligence, and performance - particularly Bill Murray's sad-faced actor in an existential crisis. He seems to have found a new calling, less the wild man of his youth, and more Monsieur Hulot-with-an-edge. Beautiful to look at and often hilariously funny, my only caveat with Translation was the uneasy feeling that it may have been looking at a foreign culture with an American's slightly patronizing eyes. Still, who can't relate to the feeling of being homesick and sick of home at the same time?
  6. Dirty Pretty Things: Stephen Frears' film looks effortless, so easy does it unfold, but in lesser hands the unseemly subject matter (immigrants struggling in the UK, the organ trade) and juggling of genres (mystery, suspense, romance) could very well never have meshed so well. Audrey Tatou is lovely as always but it's Chiwetel Ejiofor who really steals the show in an incredibly assured performance as the struggling African immigrant. The film is as entertaining as it is dark.
  7. Whale Rider: The one movie that made me blubber (sorry) more than any other, particularly so in a chokingly emotional scene towards the end, delivered with great poise and realism by young actress Keisha Castle-Hughes. She just may have given the best performance of the year. Director Niki Caro takes what could have been a simple-minded fable and grounds it in an real and vividly imagined coming of age story, drives what could have been predictable in unexpected directions. A crowd-pleaser, yes, but a great film, too.
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  9. Raising Victor Vargas: Peter Sollett's film, an expansion of the story he explored in the indie short Five Feet High and Rising, is a beautifully rendered slice of New York life. Authentic, gritty but sweet, the detailed way Sollett captures these kids' lives really elevates the film. Tim Orr, who also did the cinematography for David Gordon Green's films, did a nice job catching both the beauty and the harshness of the urban landscape, and the delicate nature of these relationships. Raising Victor Vargas is a nuanced and ultimately uplifting little film that is everything Larry Clark's Kids was not.
  10. The Station Agent: Like a little building situated between bloated Hollywood skyscrapers, Tom McCarthy's understated gem is a gentle reminder that a good screenplay towers over all. Wonderful performances throughout; it's particularly nice for once to see a dwarf (Peter Dinklage, perfect) depicted as a three-dimensional person.
  11. Mystic River: Seems like a lot of fuss has been made about this one already, critics slobbering all over it, awards being lined up left and right. Well, you know what? Add me to the list of slobberers (albeit less slobbering now that I've had a second helping -- viewing -- of it). An overpowering, noirish drama, Mystic River does show Eastwood firmly in command of his craft -- particularly in his work with actors. It's no Bird, but rewarding, still.
  12. Cold Mountain: Old fashioned love story set amidst the tragic sweep of war, using flashbacks, multiple characters intertwined, adapted from a highly regarded book, directed by Anthony Minghella... wait, this isn't The English Patient? No, and if you can manage to set aside, as I did, the cynicism our generation is famous for, you might find yourself swept into this story's beauty and passion. Undeniably gorgeous-looking and surprisingly suspenseful, even moving. I even forgave its occasional geographic missteps (sorry, but Romania's snow-capped peaks just don't wash as a Carolina stand-in).

Honorable Mention:

  • Thirteen: Like Victor Vargas, what could have been an exercise in kiddie exploitation a la Kids turned out so much better, thanks to the spot on performances and the dead-on accurate portrayal of early teenage confusion and alienation.
  • 21 Grams: If anything, Innaritu's follow-up to his brilliant Amores Perros was a very slight step back, and the fractured narrative-in-lieu-of-a-great-script thing seems oh-so-'01, but the incredible acting and undeniably striking filmmaking hold attention throughout.
  • Finding Nemo: Pixar films may seem to have a bit of a formula by now, but let's face it, it works -- solid storytelling, great set pieces, irresistable humor, the best voice talent, and few if any cloying songs. Another winner.
  • 28 Days Later: If it weren't for a bit of a letdown Act 3, this would easily make my top list. As it stands, Danny Boyle's zombie apocalypse film is undeniably unnerving, even more so by the immediacy of digital video.
  • School of Rock: Give me some of whatever Jack Black is on please. Pure delight from start to finish. Rock on!

  • The Man Without a Past: And on the other end of the energy spectrum...Ah Aki Kurisimaki, my favorite Finn, no one does deadpan like Aki.

  • Man on the Train

  • Secret Life of Dentists

  • Millennium Actress

Guilty Pleasures
Pirates of the Caribbean: I enjoyed this more than the ride (it's certainly less musty.) What a pleasant surprise.
Also: Bad Santa; Elf; Bubba Ho Tep; The Hebrew Hammer on Comedy Central

Might Make the List if I'd Actually Seen Them:

  • Bus 174

  • Elephant

  • House of Sand and Fog

  • Fog of War (put those two together and make an even more interesting film!)

  • City of God

  • My Architect

  • Triplets of Belleville

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Posted by cphillips at December 31, 2003 5:15 PM

I'm surprised that All the Real Girls and Northfork have evaded so many top ten lists for the year. I suppose if their stories had been transplanted to Japan, Middle Earth, New York or LA they'd find a warmer reception on those lists.

The modern day South in All the Real Girls doesn't embrace the old stereotypes audiences have come to cherish in movies like Cold Mountain. Angels on the high plains of Montana aren't as "important" as angels in New York City.

Posted by: d. saint at January 3, 2004 2:30 AM

I actually liked All the Real Girls quite a bit, more so after I thought about it afterwards; you could say it just evaded my Honorable Mention list, for what that's worth (not much). But it didn't impact me as much as some of these other films, or stay with me for long and perhaps that's why I neglected it. But I agree, I hope people see it and appreciate it. Northfork, sad to say, I neglected because I haven't seen it. D'oh, he says Homerically. I do have it in my DVD queue, for what that's worth (again, not much). I'm eager to see a film that has divided critics and moviegoers to such a degree as Northfork seems to.

Posted by: Craig P at January 5, 2004 10:28 AM

You'll notice, too, perhaps, that keeping in spirit with the idea of "moveable type," I moved Mystic River down on my list after thinking more about it. Still good, just... Well, of course, as I stated earlier, I'm not a big fan of ranking films numerically, and yet ranking looks better's fun! But now I'm putting a freeze on the list, second thoughts be damned.

talking to himself,

Posted by: Craig P at January 5, 2004 11:51 AM