Strong contenders for best films of 2003

A mystical tale of a spiritual journey shot in New Zealand tops my list of best films for 2003, but it’s not the film you think. Yes, the third and final chapter of director Peter Jackson’s "Lord of the Rings" trilogy made the list, but there was one film, released early last summer, that I just couldn’t shake.


That would be Niki Caro’s "Whale Rider," a coming of age story about a young Maori girl seeking acceptance from her family and tribe. I’ve always been a sucker for father-son stories (previous picks have included "Field of Dreams" and "Road to Perdition"), and was sucker- punched by this little film with a big heart.

I was also blind-sided by two pitch perfect performances by Sean Penn, both dealing with affairs of the heart. Penn was devastating as a father dealing with the murder of his daughter in "Mystic River," a heartbreaking performance that took us through every stage of grief. Penn was also memorable in "21 Grams," playing a forty-something teacher desperately in need of a heart transplant.

"Mystic River" is more than a great film, it’s a powerful reminder of how potent Clint Eastwood can be as a director. Likewise, "21 Grams" establishes Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Perros") as a force to be reckoned with.

2003 may be remembered as the year that brought us "Gigli" and "The Real World: Cancun," but it also produced more than enough mind candy to easily fill a top ten list. Some films that just missed the cut: Dirty Pretty Things, Big Fish, American Splendor, Lost in Translation and Swimming Pool.

1. WHALE RIDER 

(New Market) 

While the rest of New Zealand was celebrating "The Return of the King," writer-director Niki Caro’s little movie about love and redemption quietly slipped out and charmed the world. It’s not often that a small, independent, character-driven film breaks free from the art house and festival circuit, but word of mouth on "Whale Rider" was so positive it ended up grossing more than a lot of studio films. It’s impossible to resist the charm of "Whale Rider," spearheaded by the breakthrough performance of Keisha Castle-Hughes as the irrepressible Paikea, who goes the distance to prove her worth to the tribe. From the first frame to the last, "Whale Rider" will touch your heart.

2. LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING

(New Line) 

That other film from New Zealand, a small tale of courage and heroism, is also one of the best films of the year, a perfect and fitting conclusion to one of the most amazing, breathtaking and visceral cinematic experiences I have had the pleasure of sitting through the last three years. Director Peter Jackson succeeds where the Wachowski Brothers ("The Matrix") failed, creating a trilogy of stories that got better and more engaging as they went along. "Return of the King" is filled with intense story arcs, amazing sights, wondrous creatures, epics battles, and satisfying resolutions. It’s no wonder each successive chapter out-performed the last.

3. MYSTIC RIVER 

(Warner Bros.) 

Author Dennis Lehane was hesitant to let Hollywood take a crack at his best-selling novel about three lifelong friends and how a murder turns their lives upside down. Filled with intense highs and lows, "Mystic River" needed a director, writer and actors who would be able to share the novel’s vivid sense of loss and betrayal. Lehane’s words are in good hands with screenwriter Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential") and director Clint Eastwood, who treat each and every word with respect. Sean Penn breaks your heart as a father looking for answers. "Mystic River" isn’t exactly entertainment, but it is life affirming, a jolt to the senses that every moment we live is precious.

4. MASTER & COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD

(20th Century Fox) 

Director Peter Weir brings Patrick O’ Brian’s historical novels to life, with a strong and sturdy Russell Crowe at the helm as Captain Jack Aubrey, whose small British frigate is in hot pursuit of a much larger and heavily armed French warship. Set mostly on the high seas during some of the most awesome storm footage ever caught on film, "Master & Commander" does exactly what grand entertainment is supposed to do. Weir manages to capture the horrors of battle without exploiting its carnage, focusing instead on its effects on the characters. Reaction shots are much more challenging (and interesting), and Crowe and the rest of the cast always rise to the challenge.

5. 21 GRAMS

(Focus Features) 

It’s not about drugs, but the three lead characters all share addictions. Sean Penn’s character needs a new heart, but that doesn’t stop him from smoking. Naomi Watts’s character is a former addict now enjoying the good life. Benicio Del Toro’s character has found Jesus and is trying to put a life of crime behind him. What makes "21 Grams" so powerful is that none of the characters know each other, but before director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s English language debut is over, their lives will be inexplicably intertwined. Quentin Tarantino’s "Pulp Fiction" popularized fractured time line storytelling, but Inarritu and co-writer Guillermo Arriaga refine it, creating a complex puzzle where each piece is carefully revealed until we see the final picture.

6. FINDING NEMO

(Walt Disney/Pixar) 

Scoring five out of five home runs at the box office (including Toy Story 1 and 2, A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc.) Pixar has built a reputation for developing and creating exceptional family entertainment. Pixar’s ability to make child-friendly films that also appeal to adults distinguishes itself from the pack. "Finding Nemo" is no exception, a wonderful blend of fanciful storytelling, engaging characters, and jaw-dropping computer generated animation that instantly transports us into the liquid world of a father fish in search of his son, who has been abducted from the Great Barrier Reef and deposited in a dentist’s office aquarium. Once again, the father-son bond hooks us, but it’s the colorful characters (especially Dory, the forgetful blue fish voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) the father encounters on his journey to rescue his son that makes "Finding Nemo" such a delight.

7. SEABISCUIT

(Universal) 

History comes alive in writer-director Gary Ross’s stirring recreation of the life of the underdog racehorse. Using folksy narration, Ross manages to cover a lot of territory, introducing us to the three men who will share his glory in the winner’s circle. Jeff Bridges as the industrialist owner, Tobey McGuire as the unlikely jockey and Chris Cooper as the last of the real cowboys stand tall against the film’s larger than life epic story. Good storytelling takes you along for the ride. Great storytelling makes you a participant, and even though we know the outcome of the big race, we find ourselves rooting and cheering. That’s great storytelling.

8. A MIGHTY WIND

(Warner Bros.) 

An old actor’s adage claims dying  is easy, comedy is hard. Likewise, making a documentary is easy, but making a believable mock-u-mentary is hard. No one, and I mean no one does it better than Christopher Guest, actor, voice talent, musician, husband of Jamie Lee Curtis. Some people get all the breaks, but Guest also has the talent to turn mundane, ordinary situations into comic gems. Like "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best of Show" before it, "A Mighty Wind" is a nearly flawless fake documentary filled with honestly amusing observations and performances. The reunion of several fringe folk groups is the perfect showcase for Guest’s repertory players to do some of their finest work, including a hilarious Eugene Levy as the medicated half of a folk duo, and Catherine O’Hara as his former partner desperate to hold on to her past. Their trademark kiss, will they or won’t they, remains one of the most magical moments on film this year.

9. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL

(Walt Disney) 

Who would have thought that a movie based on an amusement park ride would equate into one of the year’s biggest grossing films? Not me, but after sitting through "Pirates of the Caribbean," I knew the film was going to be huge. Here’s a film that has everything: Both randy and dashing heroes (two for the price of one, perfectly embodied by Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom), a feisty heroine (Keira Knightley), a vile villain (Geoffrey Rush), dastardly pirates, high seas adventure, cursed treasure, a grand sense of fun and adventure, spirited direction, and the feeling that you haven’t seen it all before.

10. KILL BILL: VOLUME 1 

(Miramax) How can you deny a film that begins with a vintage Shaw Brothers logo, a 70’s Feature Presentation trailer, and a classic Klingon proverb? "Kill Bill" wasn’t even a consideration when it originally came out. I had no interest in seeing half a movie (writer-director Quentin Tarantino chopped his three-hour-plus epic into two films), but as a member of a film society, I received a screener from Miramax (thank you Harvey Weinstein for not believing Jack Valenti’s claim that film critics can’t be trusted) and I was instantly hooked. Less than two hours later and I was ready to commit Tarantino’s audacious revenge fantasy to my top ten list. Uma Thurman kicks ass as a woman in hot pursuit of those who left her for dead on her wedding day. Tarantino incorporates various styles into his non-linear story, constantly surprising us. "Kill Bill" is more than a great film, it’s a great teaser. I can’t wait for "Volume Two."

By John Larsen



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