Would it be unfair of me to say that 2003 sucked movie-wise? Yes, of course it would. Not even going into how I’ve only seen a small percentage of all films released all over the world during the year, just looking at what I have seen tells me that there were plenty of good movies out there and no disproportionately large number of stinkers. I’m sure the average 2003 movie I’ve seen isn’t much worse than the average of most other years.
But this list is still… weak? No, not weak. These are all very good films. That might be the problem, though. Most of these are indeed very good. It’s just that there are few truly great ones on here. Movies I love. Compared to most other years from the decade, 2003 was a bit lacking at the upper section. Some of these films would have a hard time finding spots on previous top 10 lists I’ve made.
It’s all good, though. I’ll gladly take more years like 2003 as long as I get one film as good as what’s at #1 here.
As usual, to avoid international confusion, I go by years listed on IMDB to determine what is and isn’t “a 2003 movie”.
10 – AMERICAN SPLENDOR (Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini)
“Why does everything in my life have to be such a complicated disaster?”
Two things are key if you want to make a good biopic. 1: Find an interesting character to make a film about. 2: Find the right actor for said character. American Splendor accomplishes these two steps with gusto. Paul Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar, notorious underground comic book writer. A complicated character with plenty of odd quirks and a vitriolic personality, Giamatti nevertheless finds the human being within and offers a nuanced and believable performance. A lot of the film’s success is due to the actor. Without him, the movie might have been just as interesting, but probably not as good.
9 – MATCHSTICK MEN (Ridley Scott)
“She said you were a bad guy. You don’t seem like a bad guy.”
Of course Roy (Nicolas Cage) doesn’t seem like a bad guy. He’s a conman. It’s his job to appear trustworthy. And he’s doing good for himself, despite having to combat his OCD and other mental hang-ups. But then his daughter (Alison Lohman) whom he has never met before enters his life, and things get complicated. Matchstick Men tells an entertaining story with twists and turns a-plenty and features one of Cage’s better performances of the decade. Also: Pygmies!
8 – KILL BILL: VOL. 1 (Quentin Tarantino)
“It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack. Not rationality.”
Volume 2 made my 2004 list, and while I do prefer that one, the first half of the story is certainly nothing to sneeze at. It’s easy to say that this one has less plot and dialogue, but that might be somewhat misleading. There’s still plenty of that in here. It is Quentin Tarantino, after all. He loves his dialogue. It’s just that the action scenes in this film are so memorable that everything else sort of fades out of focus. There is a whole bunch of neat referencing, as usual for Tarantino, and inspired stylistic choices made and it all comes together in the chapter-closing mayheam that is the Crazy 88 fight. An exercise in style, flare and blood.
7 – CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (Andrew Jarecki)
“It’s like when your parents take pictures of you. Do you remember being there, or do you remember just the photograph hanging on the wall?”
A very interesting documentary for many reasons. In the 1980s, Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse were charged with sexual abuse of minors. This film, made up of interviews and home video footage, shows how the allegations and the whole trial process tear the family apart. But did they actually commit the crimes? Doubt is found in the witch hunt-like investigation at the time, and even when confessions are made, we can’t be sure whether they are truthful or merely pragmatic. The movie itself doesn’t take a stand either way, leaving it up to the viewer to form his or her own opinion. One thing’s for sure: I won’t forget the Friedmans anytime soon.
6 – LOVE ACTUALLY (Richard Curtis)
“Let’s go get the shit kicked out of us by love.”
Richard Curtis is certainly no stranger to the romcom genre, having already written and/or produced films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary. So what do you do when it feels like all the typical plots for romcoms have been done to death? Do all of them in the same film and focus on only the good bits! By splitting up the narratives between a big group of characters, there’s enough energy created by hopping back and forth between plot threads that things never get dull. Having one of the most star-studded casts in recent memory doesn’t hurt either, featuring among others Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Jude Law, Alan Rickman, Billy Bob Thornton, Keira Knightley, Laura Linney, Rowan Atkinson, Liam Neeson, Hugh Grant, and a totally show-stealing Bill Nighy as a foul-mouthed aging rock star.
5 – OLDBOY (OLDEUBOI, Chan-wook Park)
“You can’t find the right answer if you ask the wrong questions.”
The second film in Chan-wook Park‘s thematical trilogy on vengeance (preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) is also the best one. A thriller that isn’t afraid to enter dark and violent territories as one man (Choi Min-sik) tries to find out who has held him prisoner for 15 years and why. More than just a mystery to unravel, the film focuses just as much on the mechanics of revenge, the kind of people it springs from and the ways it affects them. Oldboy is not always easy to watch, but very much worth it.
4 – HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (Vadim Perelman)
“I want them out of my house. They’re already more at home there than I ever was.”
House of Sand and Fog features, as many films do, a conflict. In this one it’s over a house, which two parties (Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley) feel they have the the rightful claim to. The impressive thing here is how effortlessly the struggle evolves through the course of the movie. Neither side of the conflict are bad people; they would like to do good, but pride, stubborness and surrounding circumstances put pressure on them. It feels genuine and natural, organically developing rather than as though designed by a screenwriter. Perhaps it goes a little overboard towards the end, but then things often spiral out of control when emotions run amok. We can only hope cooler heads prevail before it’s too late.
3 – THIRTEEN (Catherine Hardwicke)
“I can’t feel anything, this is so awesome!”
Before achieveing big box office success with Twilight, Catherine Hardwicke made this powerful drama in which 13 year-old good girl Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) gets lured into the wrong crowd by the school’s Miss Popular Evie (Nikki Reed, who co-wrote the script based on her own real-life experiences). Even if I haven’t experienced anything nearly as drastic as what transpires here, the feelings are familiar: 13 is that awkward age where childhood ends and you’re confused and trying to fit in and don’t know what to do. The glue that holds the film together is Holly Hunter in the role of Tracy’s mom, desperately wanting to help her daughter but helpless to figure out how. What the movie might lack in production value, it makes up for in emotional impact.
2 – EVIL (ONDSKAN, Mikael Håfström)
“Evil in its purest form. There’s no other explanation.”
Speaking of teens, emotional impact and based on a true story, here’s a Swedish example for you. Set in the 1950s, Evil focuses on the rebellious Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson in a great performance) as he’s sent off to a private boarding school as a last-ditch effort to get him on the right track. Once at the school he encounters systematic bullying and punishments that he cannot abide by. Neither can we, as we see just how unfair and malicious the institution has become. The movie turns into one young man’s battle against oppressive forces, where brief moments of triumph are countered by ever harsher methods of discipline. It’s a classic type of story, but when it’s told so effectively, it takes on a new life of its own.
1 – LOST IN TRANSLATION (Sofia Coppola)
“The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.”
A comedy of cultures clashing, a meditation on mid-life and quarter-life crises, and a look at what it’s like to feel lost in a foreign location. Lost in Translation is all these things and more, but I find myself at a loss for what to write here as I know my words can’t do the film justice. It’s brilliant. So is Bill Murray, with co-star Scarlett Johansson not far behind. I’d call it a modern masterpiece, had I felt qualified to make such statements. Though things like this should never be set in stone, if you ask me today what my favorite film of all time is, Lost in Translation would be my reply. There you have it.