best and worst movies of 2003 (and good riddance to a lousy year)

It hasn’t been a great year for film — I’m not the first critic you’ve heard say this. I had some very powerful and very entertaining experiences at the movies this year, but not as many as in other years, and few of those experiences coincided with the films that Hollywood wants us to think of as the “great films of 2003,” the prestige pictures they saved till December (not that they usually are anyway). There’s no Tom or Julia, no Jude-and-Nicole, no Jack-and-Diane here: I’ve got a summer blockbuster on my list… and a would-be summer blockbuster that flopped. I’ve got a little Irish movie that could… but only after a long battle to get released at all. I’ve got an animated French film and a scatalogical Kris Kringle. And then there’s the one about the hobbit…

My full ranking of the 211 new theatrical releases I saw in 2003 remains up here. And now all that’s left of the year in movies is the chance to oooo and ahhh and make fun of the clothes and speeches at the awards shows.

The 10 Best Films of 2003
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
One can’t help but feel in the presence of cinematic history in the vastness of Peter Jackson’s achievement, but it’s the small moments, of acts of selfless love amidst fading hope, that astonish. Here, at the end of all things, it is the most profoundly touching film I imagine I’ll ever experience.

2. Lost in Translation
Sofia Coppola’s beautifully honest and delicately realized postcard from Japan captures the indefinable ennui of the traveler for whom the journey is an internal one, and in the process she creates an enrapturing intimacy that seduces the viewer into becoming a third corner in a triangle of platonic romance that extends beyond the screen.

3. American Splendor
Prosaic mundanity has never been so thrilling brought to life as in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s biopic of underground comic-book writer Harvey Pekar, for whom just surviving the everyday is a trial and an adventure. Prickly, chronically depressed Pekar would probably scoff at how entertaining it is to ride along with him.

4. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Peter Weir’s obsession with historical detail and his willingness to let the camera tell the story results in a soaring, daring adventure, one that awakens a living, breathing past and introduces us to people and places now lost to us, ones we’re sorry we’ll never have the chance to know.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
This might only have been the best, funnest popcorn flick since Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Johnny Depp’s cheeky performance, as the world’s feyest sea dog, sends it into a more rarefied realm. I’m still reeling with stunned delight at Depp’s brilliant insanity, and from the shock that he was able to get away with such unconventionality in a big-budget studio film, where safety is usually paramount.

6. In America
Harsh and gentle, funny and full of sorrow, Jim Sheridan’s semiautobiographical story of emigrating from Ireland, written with his daughters, sifts hardship through the rosy lenses of love and tragedy through the haze of childhood memory.

7. The Triplets of Belleville
Impossible to describe, full of a magic impossible to resist. Sylvain Chomet’s delightful tale, a waking dream of a film, proves that traditional hand-drawn animation isn’t dead, as some have claimed, and that what’s required to save the artform isn’t computer assistance but an imagination given free reign.

8. Big Fish
In Tim Burton’s most mature film yet, he lends real heart to his off-kilter eye, and now, winsomely modulated, his sense of unreality reminds us that the simple pursuit of a good life full of love and warmth is a grand quest.

9. Bad Santa
Nothing startled me more than Bad Santa this year, the most audaciously outrageous film of 2003, and the funniest. I hardly ever laugh out loud at the movies, and I hardly stopped with this one. Extra bonus point for eschewing sweetness, sentimentality, and political correctness.

10. Hulk
If American Splendor is an arthouse-graphic-novel film, then Ang Lee’s Hulk is the first arthouse-comic-book film. It confounded teen multiplex audiences and was bypassed by the older, more sophisticated moviegoers who would have appreciated it, but it remains a formidable film about male rage and the science of self-destruction.

The 10 Worst Films of 2003

10. Kill Bill: Volume 1
If there was any doubt that Quentin Tarantino has been carrying on a mad, passionate affair with himself, this bloated and embarrassing example of masturbatory filmmaking put that misconception to rest. It gets so that you feel like you shouldn’t be watching. Get a room, Quent, and get over yourself.

9. Bad Boys II
Michael Bay is at his Michael Bay-iest in this celebration of the awful, reactionary state of the world today. This is almost the anti-Hulk, wherein uncontrolled male rage is a thing to be embraced as good and manly and all-American.

8. Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over
I want some of whatever drugs Robert Rodriguez was on during the entire preproduction, production, and postproduction periods of this utterly insane film.

7. From Justin to Kelly [not reviewed]
Cheaply made, poorly written, badly acted, but that applies to many films. It’s the special sauce of corporate malice disguised as hip coolness that elevates this into the Hall of Shame: a more obvious attempt to cash in on a pop-culture lightning strike is rarely seen. And dear god, what’s with that skirt made entirely of neckties?

6. House of Sand and Fog
Even Kill Bill wasn’t as full of itself as this exercise in inducing suicide in the audience. And I sooo do not get the whole Jennifer Connelly thing — since when does “pretty moping” constitute “acting”?

5. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle
Thoroughly incoherent and incomprehensible, this crass film — which doesn’t even pretend to exist for any reason beyond taking your money — fails even as exploitation. When Hollywood can’t even ogle beautiful women effectively, the end of the world surely is nigh.

4. Kangaroo Jack
Quite possibly the dumbest movie ever made. As an American, I feel besmirched just to be associated by nationality with the makers of this film, and I prostrate myself to all Australians — lovely, lovely people all — in abject apology for this atrocity.

3. Marci X
I feel in need of a shower just thinking about this mind-bogglingly clueless display of every kind of bigotry and small-mindedness you can imagine, and a few you probably can’t.

2. Gigli
It’s as bad as you’ve heard, and then some, classic awfulness destined to become legendary.

1. The Cat in the Hat
You know how, in The Princess Bride, Count Rugen puts Westley in his Machine, takes away a year of Westley’s life, and then asks how Westley feels? And Westley just gives that abject whimper? That’s how The Cat in the Hat makes me feel.

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