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JASON'S BEST: The Ten Best Films of 2003 (Return to Jason's Best Main Page)


THE TEN BEST FILMS
OF 2003

Unlike 2002, 2003 was not an overwhelmingly complete year of truly amazing movies. There were far fewer film achievements worthy of remembering this year than last, but the good thing was that those that were memorable were truly stunning achievements. So that's why you're likely to see many of the same films on a lot of year end ten best lists, because the lot of truly great films was pretty small this year. But there were certainly ten films that moved me this year, and as I often like to do, I like to analyze the ten films to see what common themes I can find amongst them. The biggest theme I found amongst the films that most touched, moved, or astounded me this year were films that dealt with tragic human drama, and the unique way in which each of the films portrayed them. This was a year to explore some deep tragedies, from the horrific car accident that ties three lives together in 21 Grams, to the childhood trauma that plays into tragic murders many years later in Mystic River, to the tragedy of AIDS and the drama of people just trying to survive life in all its forms in the stunning HBO miniseries Angels in America, and even to the semi-autobiographical story of an immigrant family trying to begin life again after the loss of a child in In America. And then if it wasn't human tragedy, I was also moved by many portraits of characters that really rang with so much honesty ... whether it was a married man in his 50's connecting with a newly married woman in her 20's, or the stories of eight different couples all going through different variations of love, or a misunderstood file clerk trying to make sense of life through his comics. And of course, 2003 was again proof that the epic film was still alive and well, from an old-fashioned war romance, to a rousing adventure on the high seas, and even to one more foray into the world of Middle Earth to finally wrap up what has become one of the greatest film trilogies of all time. These were the films that made up my ten best films of the year 2003.


1. LOST IN TRANSLATION

Every so often, a motion picture comes along which thankfully affirms that intelligent and thoughtful moviemaking can still occur in a world where we have so many films simply trying to top one another with their action sequences and visual effects. 2003 seemed to have way too many films like that, especially during the summer, so what a refreshing surprise it was to experience a film like Lost in Translation, which was easily my choice for the best film of the year. It's a film which manages to make us laugh while at the same time making us cry. This bold and honest film came from the mind of a young female director who is really proving she is a new force to be reckoned with in independent film, Sofia Coppola, who wrote and directed the film. Of course, maybe great filmmaking just runs in that family! The film stars Bill Murray in what I feel is his greatest and most nuanced performance ever as Bob Harris, an aging American movie star who finds himself in Tokyo, Japan to make some extra money starring in commercials. The film's opening sequence is brilliant in establishing the mood, as Bob rides through the city streets of Tokyo in a cab, looking around at all the sights, feeling that sense of displacement that most people do when they arrive in a foreign land for the first time. It is clear from the outset that Bob is a man who has become rather disenchanted with life, and he soon meets Charlotte, a young twentysomething beauty played by Scarlett Johannson. Charlotte is also an American finding herself "lost" in Tokyo, and lost in her new marriage to an aspiring photographer who is more fascinated by his career than his new bride.

Any lesser movie would have had these two fall in love and be in bed before you know it, and have a typical plot about infidelity, heartache, etc. But Sofia Coppola is more intelligent than that, instead giving us an amazingly honest and thoughtful portrayal of two souls connecting rather than two physical bodies. Both Bob and Charlotte find themselves being able to truly "talk" to each other, about virtually anything, more so than they can with their respective spouses. While Charlotte's new husband can only concentrate on his career, Bob's wife calls him in Tokyo with nothing but complaints and demands, and we sense how the love they must have once had has been completely drained from the relationship. Sofia Coppola brilliantly manages the mix of comedy and drama in the film, ranging from the hilarity of the culture clashes that Bob keeps finding himself in (especially his conversation with a Japanese lady, and we have no idea what she is saying, and neither does Bob or his singing one night doing karaoke), to the drama of two people who don't seem to have any answers about their lives, but know they find something special in each other. But they never act upon it, in a kind of restraint and honesty we haven't seen in too many recent movies. I could tell that many audience members were desperate for the moment when these two would finally give in to their mutual attraction to each other. I don't quite understand this mentality ... by not giving in to the simple desire to become physical with each other, they have a relationship that exists on a far more deeper plane than if they had. Isn't it more interesting and at the same time tragic to long for someone who you never were physical with? There's always that wonder, that longing, that can sometimes be agonizing and last a lifetime.

The film has no easy answers ... we don't know what kinds of lives these two will leave when they finally part ways. Has each of them helped the other in their respective marriages, or will they return to the sadness of their lives always thinking about that experience in Tokyo? Films that leave us pondering such questions are the movies truly worth seeing and experiencing, and Coppola makes one of the boldest and most memorable choices at the film's end. When Bob approaches Charlotte on a busy Tokyo street to say goodbye, Coppola does not allow us to hear Bob's final words to Charlotte that he whispers in her ear. And you know what, we don't deserve to hear those final words. Who knows what he said ... maybe saying they should try to hook up in America one day, maybe thanking her for coming into his life, maybe some advice for her marriage since he's already experienced so much and he wants her to try to find the happiness that eluded him. It's a brilliant choice for ending the film, and by the end, we have seen a film that dares to show us that sometimes there are relationships so meaningful and powerful and haunting to us that we can never make sense of them. We're not supposed to make sense and draw conclusions about Bob and Charlotte, we simply watch in awe at a film that manages to give us the portrayal of two real human beings.



2. 21 GRAMS

Few films have managed to fascinate and involve me both technically and emotionally as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's amazing film experience, 21 Grams. I say technically because the film takes a different approach in its narrative style, as Inarritu decided to edit the film together completely out of sequence to make for a much more enriching and thoughtful film experience. And it's not just out of sequence in a way like the brilliant Memento or Irreversible were, which were just stories told in reverse. This entire film has sequences completely out of order, beginning at the story's end, but constantly jumping back and forth from events that happened in the past before a terrible tragedy to events that happened afterward. At first, this jarring editing style takes some getting used to, but in a way, it helps contribute to the main ideas that Inarritu is trying to make in this film. This is a rare film that really examines tragedy, death, and consequences in an honest and true way. Sean Penn is amazing in one of two great performances he gave this year, playing a man who is saved from death when he finally receives a heart transplant from a man who has died tragically and suddenly. This accident that saves Sean Penn's life comes at the expense of the tragedy of two other people, played brilliantly by Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts, the latter being my personal choice as the best performance by an actress this year. Penn's character becomes obsessed with finding out whose heart he has, and his journey intertwines his life with these three characters. By watching the film as a jumbled puzzle, we must put the connections between these characters and the events they find themselves in together constantly, trying to make sense of what is going on. The point is ultimately made that it is truly amazing what ends up bringing people together, as in this film, one mistake that leads to a horrible tragedy ultimately leads to three tragic roads for these three amazingly well drawn and performed characters.

And through the film's structure, it becomes clear to us that maybe life sends us on these paths, and we have no choice in their outcome. By knowing certain things before the characters and sometimes not knowing things that the characters already know, we have that same feeling of loss of control that is really true about life in general. We wish so many times in life that we had made better decisions that could have perhaps avoided tragedy, but ultimately some events are not choices at all, they are simply out of our control. This is a thoughtful and sometimes tough film to experience, as we endure the pain and tragedy of loss of life, not just in the physical sense, but in the loss of a life that individuals were leading until tragedy came their way. And how do you deal with the fact that your life was saved only because another life had to die? Amazing ideas, a truly memorable film.



3. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING

In 2001, Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema took a huge $300 million gamble to shoot a trilogy of films all at once, bringing the amazing fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings to cinematic life. Not only did the gamble pay off in that this series will become one of the all time most successful film series at the boxoffice, but also have managed to become one of the most amazing and satisfying film trilogy classics of all time. Very rarely does an entire trilogy of films all manage to deliver satisfying film experiences. Even the magnificence of the first two Godfather films could not be capped with Godfather III. But Peter Jackson's achievement stands amazingly tall, and the final chapter of the trilogy is an astonishing combination of ground breaking and truly breathtaking visual effects, and the emotion of a long journey reaching its end and a final battle between good and evil. For me, the first film was an amazing film full of wonder and mystery which set these characters on their journey. The second film for me fell off the track a bit, not quite maintaining that sense of wonder and excitement, even though still it was a great film. Thankfully, this third chapter reminds me of the excitement I had watching the first film (which ranked 7th on my ten best list that year), and even reminded me of the excitement I had in my youth for the final Star Wars film. Having never read the books I admit that when this series began in 2001, I wasn't that excited to see some tale of hobbits and a mystical ring. But this series has managed to capture imaginations worldwide, and when a fantasy film can move me to tears by the film's conclusion, you know this is something truly amazing. I was struck with how far our advances in visual effects have come, as so many things in this film, from the digital creation of Gollum to the amazing and realistic battle scenes at Pelennor Fields with staggering numbers of orcs and humans fighting, are indistinguishable as computer creations. My fellow web site contributor, Arkaan Semere, can always speak much more eloquently on the meaning and the affect that this film series has had, and I must say, I finally see his points. I found myself truly becoming engrossed in these characters over the past three holiday seasons, especially with Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn, all embodied by Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, and Viggo Mortensen in performances bound to become legendary. When taken together as one long film, this trilogy will no doubt stand the test of time and be one of the classics of cinema, re-affirming that the larger than life epic that still manages to remain based in the stories of its characters is still alive. An overwhelming bravo to Peter Jackson, he deserves to finally win the Oscar this year, and who knows, maybe the Academy is finally ready to honor a fantasy film as Best Picture of the year. If any fantasy film ever deserved it, this one is it.



4. MYSTIC RIVER

Sean Penn happened to be in two amazing films this year, both of which revolved around human tragedies and frailties. This one contained some of the best performances of the year, and continue to affirm that Clint Eastwood is one of our most accomplished and gifted filmmakers. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon all deliver some of their greatest performances ever as three men who as children all endured a horrible tragedy. Tim Robbins's character was abducted and sexually molested as a boy, and his life since has never been the same. Penn and Bacon's characters witnessed the abduction, and in a way, their lives never fully recovered either. In the present, another tragedy is about to happen, as Penn's daughter ends up brutally murdered, and amazingly, it is Robbins's character who may be guilty of the crime. It's amazing to watch how Eastwood transcends the material of what would typically be a police mystery procedural, and instead manages to tell a heart-wrenching story of trauma, guilt, and sadness, and the consequences of all of it. If Penn deserves the Oscar this year, it should be for this performance, just for the sequence where he discusses the loss of his daughter with Tim Robbins, admitting through tears that he can't cry for his daughter. As Eastwood has done before, especially in Unforgiven, he delivers another thoughtful film about violence, and the eternal cycle of violence which most times can only cause more tragedy. In the way the film is shot, performed, and directed ... this is indeed classic Hollywood filmmaking.



5. ANGELS IN AMERICA

Now I know what you're saying ... how can I compare a miniseries made for television with feature films? But every so often, a film comes along on pay cable that is so amazing that it outranks several of the feature films made that year. As happened once before with the production of And The Band Played On ... in 1993, I simply had to consider this made-for-cable feature as one of the year's best films, because it truly is. I honestly wish Mike Nichols had made the bold choice to make a six hour feature film and release this in theaters ... it is truly that astonishing. Originally released on HBO in 2 three hour parts, words cannot even describe how magnificent this classic is. This is one of those experiences that just truly blow you away. Adapted from Tony Kushner's landmark 1980's stage production, it tells a variety of stories, all portrayed by actors working at the top of their game. It even paired legends Al Pacino and Meryl Streep for the first time on screen. Obstensibly a story about the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980's and its effects on a unique group of characters, it is really a story on life and death, all shot in a hyper-realized style making it a grand epic larger than life. Very rarely have we seen characters so lived in instead of just acted, very rarely have we seen tragedy portrayed this movingly ... very rarely will you experience something that is so life-affirming and honest as you will in this amazing miniseries.



6. LOVE ACTUALLY

Richard Curtis may very well be the contemporary cinema's most gifted film director when it comes to romantic comedies. This year, he managed to create what I felt was one of the greatest and most accomplished romantic comedies of all time with Love Actually. The film is unique in the genre of romantic comedy, as it uses the Altman/Magnolia style of storytelling to try to tell a variety of different stories all in one film. We cut back and forth between a variety of different characters and their relationships, all portraying a broad canvas of experiences with love which range from some truly heartwarming stories to some truly tragic stories. Since love tends to be more tragic than truly happy, the stories of tragic love resonate more in this film, particularly the Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson story arc, where Thompson discovers her husband's possible infidelity while opening Christmas presents, and has a scene in her bedroom alone listening to Joni Mitchell's music that is truly moving. Another story arc has a young man secretly in love with Keira Knightley, who has just recently married his friend. The scene where he reveals his true love to her via cue cards and finally saying to himself "enough" as he walks away, is one of the most tragic and honest portrayals of love we've seen. But all of these stories are amazing ... from a young boy in love and the father who is trying to recover from the tragic loss of his wife, to the British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) and the woman in his staff he pines after, even to the comic duo of the two body doubles who simulate sex for movies, this is a new holiday classic. Curtis captures a lot of truth about love in this film, it's a pinnacle amongst romantic comedies.



7. IN AMERICA

Very rarely do filmmakers get the opportunity to portray a part of their own lives on screen, and to do it well. Jim Sheridan got that chance in 2003, directing a screenplay that he wrote with his two daughters. Dedicated to the memory of the child they once lost, Frankie, Sheridan tells the semi- autobiographical story as an Irish couple moves to America to try to live life anew with their two daughters. What I loved about this film was that it didn't make any attempt to really force a story, but simply let these characters live and breathe, to let us just experience the emotional ups-and-downs of their lives, from the difficulties of trying to get an air conditioning unit installed, to the difficulties of trying to pay medical bills, to the joys of new life, to the tragedies of lives passing. Djimon Hounsou gives a very memorable performance as a neighbor who at first is intimidating because of his constant yelling and large go away notices written on his door. But when the two young girls force him to open the door on Halloween to give them some candy, we see a man of immense warmth and struggle, a struggling artist who is also suffering with a horrible disease. The film is tender and quiet, told by the oldest daughter, and it is really through their eyes that we view this film.



8. MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD

One of the most rousing action spectacles of the year was this old-fashioned seafaring epic directed with flair and subtlety by that gifted director Peter Wier. Adapted from the popular Patrick O'Brien novels, Russell Crowe plays Capt. Jack Aubrey, who leads the British ship, the HMS Surprise, into battle on the seas. What's brilliant about this film is how it brings us into this world on the ship, as we say the day-to-day experiences of this crew on this ship, as Aubrey makes the bold choice to go further into battle after being damaged in an attack instead of going home. It's also fascinating to watch the relationship between Aubrey and Stephen, the doctor on board, played exceptionally well by Paul Bettany. Often at odds with each other, but still respectful of each other, but still respectful of each other, it's a fascinating relationship to watch. After a summer of mindless action spectacle, it was refreshing to see an action film with an emphasis on character instead of just action.



9. AMERICAN SPLENDOR

How does one even classify American Splendor? One thing's for sure, it's a film unlike any other. It's a fictionalized biopic on one hand, but it also has the real man himself, Harvey Pekar, appearing in segments, making it a partial documentary as well. It also contains animation, based on Pekar's comics, that sometimes tell the story. All of this combines to make one of the most unique biopics you're likely to ever see about a person who was indeed truly unique. One wouldn't think that a file clerk turned comic artist would achieve a story interesting enough for a feature film, but then you have to consider the one-of-a-kind personality of Harvey Pekar. Paul Giamatti delivers one of his best performances as the cranky and often times hilarious Pekar, detailing his life from the tender relationship he develops with his eventual wife, played by Hope Davis, to his hilarious appearances on the David Letterman show, where he became a regular. Pekar always surprised during his life, and this film surprises on so many levels. It's an amazing human story.



10. COLD MOUNTAIN

Anthony Minghella has become the director who loves to adapt complex novels to the screen it appears. In Cold Mountain, he tells a moving and old-fashioned war story about a man who deserts the Civil War to make his way back home to the woman he loves. Jude Law, in a performance bound to make him a new leading man in Hollywood, portrays Inman, and Nicole Kidman, who seems to do no wrong lately in choosing her roles, plays his love Ada. I was struck so many times while watching this film how much it reminded me of an old-fashioned romance amongst the specter of war, and it was refreshing to see something like that again. While Inman is making his way across country back to Cold Mountain, an even more interesting story is set up in the relationship between Ada and Ruby, played by Renee Zellweger. Although Zellweger's performance tends to go over the top, it's their relationship on the farm as she changes Ada and keeps her strong that is the real backbone of this film. From the gorgeous visuals of the countryside to the first rate performances of this cast, Minghella has once again crafted a competent and beautiful adaptation of a popular novel.


DISCOVERY OF THE YEAR - BEST INDEPENDENT FEATURE FILM:
MELVIN GOES TO DINNER

Back in 1981, Louis Malle proved that an entire film that just involved two men talking at dinner could be fascinating with My Dinner with Andre. This year, director Bob Odenkirk proved that theory again, this time with four people talking over dinner, with my favorite independent production of the year, Melvin Goes To Dinner. If the characters and conversation are fascinating enough, an entire film can be successful with people just talking at dinner. One of the things that works in this film's favor is that Odenkirk decided to keep the four original cast members who used to act these roles on stage in the play that this film was adapted from. In that way, the dialogue flows so smoothly from them, providing a stronger sense of realism to all of them. Fleshed out further from the play with flashbacks, we learn even more about these characters, and it makes some of the later revelations even more stunning. You find yourself sucked into this conversation, as if we're eavesdropping from another table. From moments funny to moments serious, all topics are covered ... from religion to ghosts to infidelity to sex, you name it ... this dinner will be one night none of them will forget. It's intelligent conversation they're having, and all of these performances ... Michael Blieden, Stephanie Courtney, Matt Price, and Annabelle Gurwitch ... all so lived in, it never feels like anyone is acting.


DISCOVERY OF THE YEAR - BEST INDEPENDENT SHORT FILM:
EL ELEGANTE

One of the most beautiful and downright bizarre short films I've seen in recent years, this film tells a simple story with very little dialogue. It's a great looking film, with some wonderful production design, and an amazingly surreal story. A woman named Annabelle, played brilliantly by Darla Gordon, wanders into a colorful room where a man named Roberto, played by James Rasmussen, sits idly on a bed. He never talks to her, as much as she tries to get him to say something. At once about nothing, filled with a wonderful sense of humor, it manages to become something extraordinary about the human condition, with its quirky characters, especially the two leads. Ultimately, to me, it becomes a film that maintains my theme of many of the films this year, how two people even come together ... how we move in and out of each other's lives. It's certainly a short film you'll remember.


Honorable Mentions
(In no particular order)

ELEPHANT: Gus Van Sant's powerful portrait of a high school murder rampage and the quiet reality of daily life that leads up to it

SEABISCUIT: An old fashioned, uplifting true story about a race horse, and the three men who worked together and achieved the American dream ... three amazing performances by Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Cooper

FINDING NEMO: One of the most enjoyable animated films of recent times, proving once again that Disney and Pixar together can do no wrong, and perhaps proving that computer animation may be ready to finally take over for traditional animation

KILL BILL - VOL 1.: Quentin Tarantino, finally back with his fourth film ... an orgy of stylized violence ... and hey, it works

PHONE BOOTH: A forgotten little gem from early in the year, actually works as a great suspense thriller even if the main character is stuck in a phone booth the whole movie

THE GUYS: Sooner or later, we'll be getting more films about the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks, but this is a moving adaptation of the stage play detailing the aftermath and how one fireman tries to eulogize so many of his fellow firefighters who lost their lives that day

THE MATRIX RELOADED: Too bad the final film of the trilogy went way too far off the track ... Reloaded actually contained some interesting ideas, some spectacular visuals, and even a mind boggling conclusion ... come to think of it, maybe they should have never made the sequels

DOWN WITH LOVE: Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger are endearing and hilarious in this spoof of 1950's/1960's sex comedies, captures that era and that film style perfectly

TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES: Of all the action films this summer, this one delivered the best ... I once thought that there should be no other sequel after Terminator 2, when I felt it ended perfectly ... but I give director Jonathan Mostow credit for making an interesting film, and especially for being bold enough to end the film like he did

IRREVERSIBLE: One of those films whose shocking images stay with you ... the whole style of this amazing foreign film, telling a shocking story backwards, going from such horrific scenes of murder and rape, to the beauty of new love, makes the story all the more tragic as we know what ultimately happens to everyone involved

OPEN RANGE: Yes, the Western is still alive, as Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall headline this gorgeously shot film, another directorial effort by Costner ... only problem, it should have ended about 10 minutes sooner than it does

BIG FISH: Tim Burton's most mature film to date, a quirky yet uplifting story of a son trying to finally discover the truth amongst his father's tall tales ... an amazing cast

SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE: An enjoyable romantic comedy headlined by Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton ... Keaton has never been more luminous and funny, and her scenes with Jack go from truly humorous to deeply moving

MATCHSTICK MEN: Ridley Scott directs Nicolas Cage in an enjoyable story about a con man and his daughter

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL: Johnny Depp is the sole reason this adventure film works, for his hilarious portrayal of the main pirate in this film

THE FOG OF WAR: An astonishing documentary just for the sheer insight into history it represents, as the former Defense Secretary Robert McManara talks in depth about histories of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War we never knew before