2003 Ten Best Movies

We have to order lives somehow, and the 365-day timespan is a useful way of doing that. It’s absurd to line ’em up this way as though there were some logic to it, but we do: the Chinese Year of the Tiger, the weirdly wonderful idea of International Geophysical Year (it was a year and a half, 1957-58), The Year of Magical Thinking, Sinatra singing “It was a very good year for city girls who lived up the stairs,” those old Time magazine book-form digests on certain tumultuous years (Jesus! What about 1939! Or 1968, right?), the royal family’s annus horribilis, A Journal of the Plague Year, memoirs that cover a single season like Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Crowning events lock certain years in your own unwritten memoir: 1985 was my first trip to Europe, 2008 I got married. 2001 once belonged to a movie title, now it’s a disaster year.

2003? Not a pleasant year. No Sinatra songs about it. I hope you had a good one. As for the movies, they lack a single definitive Number One for me – some nice offerings, a few thunderclaps (Japon and Oldboy, for instance), but I’m not really feeling it. At the top I settled on a film that seems to me smart, richly acted, and impeccably made; it also fulfills certain movie-movie standards in a year that falls short on that score, even in movies I admire and esteem. And so it’s Master and Commander, a very gratifying picture that serves like the candidate who comes out of a political convention, a compromise choice, the one that will do until the next year comes along.

Neat movie, though, and a great vehicle for Peter Weir’s sensual, tactile talent for summoning up pictures and sounds and bodies in locations. In 2003, Russell Crowe could justifiably be considered a hope for the future of movie acting, with his ability to think on camera and his quick humor; hope he returns. Of the other good movies from that annum, Carlos Reygadas’ Japon is a visionary, startling work, looming larger in retrospect than the self-contained pleasures from Tarantino and Sofia Coppola. Ten best movies of 2003:

1. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir)

2. Japon (Carlos Reygadas)

3. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)

4. All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green)

5. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino) and Oldboy (Park Chan-wook)

6. XX/XY (Austin Chick)

7. Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (Lone Scherfig)

8. Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears) and The Good Thief (Neil Jordan)

9. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton)

10. School of Rock (Richard Linklater)

11. The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana) and The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci)

Wow, I haven’t cheated with the ties like this in a long time. But Finding Nemo and School of Rock were on my original 10 at the time, and I wanted to keep them on there, so other stuff got shuffled around. Dirty Pretty Things and The Good Thief are both neatly-assembled pieces of atmosphere, though with very different styles (a charismatic lead performance in each case: Chiwetel Ejiofor in the first, Nick Nolte in the latter). Wilbur is a completely delightful film from a director who hasn’t messed up yet, and it should be better known. XX/XY is a tough, penetrating look at the man-woman thing, and also deserves a reputation.

Bunch of interesting movies aren’t there: Mystic River could stand another visit from me, especially for the way the final few minutes turned the story around in a remarkable way, and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Berman and Pulcini’s American Splendor, and Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold are all list-worthy. Bent Hamer’s Kitchen Stories is effing hilarious, and I love Schultze Gets the Blues, which now that I look at its release dates, ought to be in my 2004 accounting, even though it showed at festivals in 2003. (Years will drive you crazy.) Bad Santa and Something’s Gotta Give were oddly satisfying holiday movies, and you may also have heard of a little number called The Return of the King, which rounded off Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy in an epic way. Pet movies would include Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me, an intriguing look at how one’s own death might be artfully managed, Jane Campion’s hallucinatory In the Cut, and Ong-bak, which is trashy and lunkheaded but is true to the spirit of the long take in an especially delirious fashion.

The all-Italian #11 slot features two flawed films that nevertheless have staying power. The Best of Youth has a TV-movie flatness and sloppy edges, but man, there is something about sticking with characters for six hours that makes the whole thing bloom in a rich, sad way. The Dreamers gets silly, although Bertolucci’s unapologetic randiness is also a sign of life. And both projects reel in the years: the signpost years that mark the progress of lives. So, of course, I’m a sucker for them.

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