The 34 Best Movies of 2003

Child spellers, hobbits, and the year in cinema.

This is actually the prelude to Slate’s annual “Movie Club,” which will formally commence Monday when we return in our new and improved 2004 incarnations (and our hangovers have cleared). Roger Ebert can’t participate this year, and we’ll miss him a lot, but I’ll be happy to welcome, for the first time, the Los Angeles Times critic and columnist Manohla Dargis, who is far more entertaining on the greatness of In the Cut than anything in that grating movie. I’m also excited to welcome back Sarah Kerr (of Vogue), A.O. Scott (of the New York Times), and J. Hoberman (of the Village Voice)—who has an important book out called The Dream Life, which A.O. and I will be discussing in a future Slate “Book Club.” (I mention this in advance to explain why J. will probably be more patient with us this year.) He’ll have one more constraint: filing while on jury duty. (Note to defense attorneys: Don’t impose too artificial a narrative. The more intriguingly nonlinear your explanations, the more he’s likely to argue for acquittal.)

Meanwhile: Is there any activity more onanistic for a critic than compiling the year-end 10-best list? True, it’s a service to readers who want a handy checklist. But the number 10 means nothing: As the late Stephen Jay Gould pointed out at the turn of the millennium, it has no correlative in nature. And a critic’s naked opinion (thumbs up or thumbs down) is the least interesting thing about him or her. You’ll learn much more from a lively writer you think is nuts (c.f., Manohla on In the Cut or Elvis Mitchell on the execrable 21 Grams) than from the 10-best list of someone with whom you agree.

But my colleagues and I do this every year because it’s fun and makes us feel important. We play high-schoolish games with each other: “You guess my list, and I’ll guess yours.” We catch up on movies we should have seen nine months earlier. We give our lists to publicists and to columnists—there are more and more of them, it seems—who care less about individual critical voices than about statistics and consensus. We vote for our little awards and hold our breath for the Oscar nominations, which we’ll invariably find dumb.

There were too many good movies this year for me to do a proper 10-best list—and not enough great ones. What I mean is, there isn’t that much difference between my ninth-favorite movie and my 20th, and any numerical distinction is pretty much whimsical. That’s why I’ve done four 10-best lists for sundry newspaper, Internet, and radio outlets, and no two are the same. And it’s why I’m adding a second 10-best list here, because it somehow seems sexier in this context to give movies numbers than to bunch them together on a runners-up list. (I also have a runners-up list, bringing the total to 34.)

  1. Spellbound
  2. Bus 174
  3. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  4. In America
  5. The Triplets of Belleville
  6. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
  7. The Son
  8. The Company
  9. Kill Bill, Vol. 1
  10. The Dancer Upstairs

That’s my list as of Dec. 31, 2003. But any of the movies below could have been there (and, at times, have been):

  1. School of Rock
  2. Lost in Translation
  3. Finding Nemo
  4. Capturing the Friedmans
  5. The Station Agent
  6. Bad Santa
  7. The Magdalene Sisters
  8. American Splendor
  9. The Man Without a Past
  10. Lawless Heart

Mystic River
Mystic River

Let me also mention The Secret Lives of Dentists, Winged Migration, Mystic River, Balseros, The Fog of War, Stuck on You, Elephant, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Duplex, What Alice Found, Holes, Thirteen, Raising Victor Vargas, and X2. I regret that I haven’t yet seen the documentary To Be and To Have, but I’ll try to before next week. Also, had it been released this year, my 10-best list might have included Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, directed by Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill. It opens the second week in January and should be seen in conjunction with its inferior fictional counterpart, Monster.

It’s interesting that my favorite films were documentaries. They had more complex drama, more comedy, more tragedy. But mostly they had more entertainment value.


I didn’t enjoy a movie this year more than Jeff Blitz’s Spellbound. It has everything you want in a movie except sex: killer suspense, heartbreak, history, sociology, and a series of indelible portraits of kids and their parents. On its most basic level, it documents the 1999 nerd Olympics: 9 million nationwide spelling-bee contestants reduced to 249 finalists reduced to one winner. But the contest turns out to have a deeper resonance than if the sport had been merely physical: Among other things, mastery of the English language becomes a means of affirming one’s Americanness. The first half introduces the eight protagonists singly in their hometowns. The second half is the bee itself, in Washington, D.C., where Blitz shows them devastatingly knocked off, one by one. There is enormous skill here, but also accidents that seem blessed. I haven’t seen anything this year as astonishing as the moment when the Indian-American Neil, his head overstuffed with Latin, French, Spanish, and German (thanks to tutors hired by his fiercely ambitious businessman father), registers nothing but bewilderment when asked to spell “Darjeeling.”

I only recently saw the Brazilian documentary Bus 174 and apologize to Slate readers for not having reviewed it in this space. (Fortunately, others, among them A.O., have thumped the tub loud and hard.) There is no more devastating tragedy on our screens right now than this story of a stoned former street kid (whose pregnant mother was murdered before his eyes when he was 5) who takes hostages on a city bus—for no other reason, it seems, than to say, “I exist!” What he does to the people on that bus is horrifying, but what has been (and will be) done to him is much crueler. Bus 174 and Aileen are not bleeding-heart-liberal works: They don’t seek to exonerate their protagonists entirely. But they do diagram and illuminate the ways in which inhumanity breeds more inhumanity. (Bus 174 also drives home the emptiness of City of God, another Brazilian movie about poverty and crime: this year’s exercise in Trainspotting flash.)

The third hugely impressive documentary this year was Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, which is tantalizing in its ambiguities and in the way—not fully explored, admittedly—that the filmmaker implicates the audience: Do we even have the right to watch this persecuted family’s private videos and pass judgment on these people? The DVD, which comes out next month, contains more interviews, as well as a shouting match between the family and local prosecutors at the movie’s Great Neck, N.Y., premiere.

Moving on to fictional works: All hail Peter Jackson! I don’t know much about Tolkien, but I know great filmmaking. Return of the King begins with a tiny worm being scrutinized by Smeagol (Andy Serkis), who will de-evolve into Gollum. It then goes on to show us hundreds of thousands of Orcs and giant trolls and winged dragons and eight-story elephants. And it has everything in between: From little worms to colossal battlefields, you never lose the human scale, the human pulse. Even with 50 special effects in a shot, the movie feels as alive as any hand-held documentary.

My movie event of the year was watching all three Rings films (the first two in extended cuts) back to back to back at the Loews 42nd Street E-walk on Dec. 16. I was lucky to be there, beside people who’d stood in line for as long as 16 hours to buy tickets and then again for six hours to get good seats. The atmosphere was electric, and the movies looked better this way, flowing easily into one another. Before the third movie started, three hobbits and Gollum showed up to pay tribute to these fans: Frodo kept saying “F—in’ A!” and was very sweet in his enthusiasm, and Gollum sang a verse of “My Way” (“And now, the end is near …”). Somewhere in the last hour of our 14-hour marathon (including intermissions), two outsiders wandered into the theater, looked for seats, and sat down on the stairs next to me. They weren’t being obnoxious, but I wanted to kill them anyway: They hadn’t been on this odyssey with us and were violating a sacred space. When it was all over, many people were crying, and even though it was 1:30 a.m., a lot of my fellow geeks lingered in the theater and on the sidewalk outside.

I was writing a story on all this for the New York Times and was lucky enough to talk to a young woman named Miriam Kriss, who put down her Tolkien book long enough to explain that she was here in tribute to Jackson, “a fan who understood.” Then she delivered a rather stunning testament to the fan aesthetic. “The problem with the last George Lucas Star Wars movies is that he’s not a fan of his own work,” she told me. “You can’t be if it’s your work. He doesn’t understand anymore why we loved Star Wars; he just sits and stares at special effects on his computers. I’d rather see Star Wars movies by people who grew up with Star Wars. A fan would get it.”

Kill Bill, Vol. 1
Kill Bill, Vol. 1

I’m not sure I buy as a general rule the idea that fans have more insight than artists who create the work in the first place. But in the case of Star Wars, who can contradict her? And the fan aesthetic has another remarkable testimonial in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. The movie elicited tut-tut reviews from squeamish moralists like David Denby; and, as someone with a hypersensitivity to the romanticizing of vigilantism, I’d have been happy to join in if I hadn’t had so great a time. Kill Bill is about nothing except Quentin Tarantino’s worship of the violent ‘60s and ‘70s films that got him through puberty, but it’s too playful in form, too artfully scrambled in syntax, too visually resourceful, too beautiful to resemble the grind-house movies that inspired it. It made me feel the way I sometimes do at a Mark Morris dance piece that reshuffles familiar moves into something new and funny and unexpectedly lyrical. And it literally becomes a dance movie in the final battle, when the lights go out and Uma Thurman and a horde of assassins are suddenly blue silhouettes gyrating against a grid: like An American in Paris with arterial spray.

There is, of course, a real dance picture on my list, and a fabulous one: Robert Altman’s The Company. To be honest, I found the non-narrative narrative frustrating in spots and the non-ending ending downright annoying: This is a weird hybrid between an Altman film and a Fred Wiseman vérité documentary. But I liked the atmosphere and loved the ballet. I loved watching Altman, who seems to have the loosest frame in cinema (everything’s off-center and in flux and babbling and indirect), triumphantly shoot a form in which every muscle is choreographed. His framing feels just as uninsistent, and yet his camera is always in just the right place to show off these dancers’ bodies. Altman was a gun-for-hire on The Company (it’s Neve Campbell’s project, and she’s exciting to watch), but my colleague Charles Taylor of Salon has pointed out that the movie is held together by the director’s connection to these dancers through his sense of his own mortality. Their bodies are powerful yet fragile: Every time they land, something could snap—and end their careers. We should cherish Altman, my favorite living director, while we have him.

Two of my other favorites are drawn, not staged. The makers of Finding Nemo must have become intoxicated by their undersea (and aquarium) settings and immersed themselves (so to speak) in the minutiae: You can sense that every frame contains hundreds of decisions about light and color and movement—and, more to the point, they’re all inspired decisions! But the great feat of animation is Sylvain Chomet’s Triplets of Belleville. It’s the story of a grandma whose boy is kidnapped from the Tour de France by French-wine swilling gangsters and taken to a distant metropolis across the ocean, and how she and her train-loving dog fall in with three ancient frog-slurping sisters who used to be nightclub chanteuses—and still are, in a bizarre way. Why is this oddity so powerful? Chomet makes you see the solidity and ephemerality of world at the same instant: the huge, squared calves on the skeletal bicyclists; the sloping shoulders and bony digits—and the life force—of the triplets; the tiny whiskers above the lip of the unflappable grandma. The movie is a Deco hallucination of ‘20s nightclubs and gangsters and ocean liners—and so peculiarly visceral in its Surrealism that it has the impact of David Lynch at the top of his form.

My choice for directorial debut of the year is John Malkovich, for The Dancer Upstairs, the story of a Central American policeman (the magnificent Javier Bardem) who has to navigate between the brutal left and right wings of his ungovernable country—and his own simmering attraction to his daughter’s enigmatic dance instructor. There are times when Malkovich doesn’t seem to be telling the story so much as brooding on it; but just when you’ve resigned yourself to the deliberate pacing, there’s an act of brutality so fast and so shocking that you can barely take it in. Malkovich is also brilliant at capturing the feel of a city that’s outwardly functioning but palpably on the brink of breaking down. Malkovich is a real movie director: There’s more in that weird head than even Charlie Kaufman could have dreamed.

I don’t have space (or, rather, Slate doesn’t have the bandwidth) to go into depth on the rest of my picks: the happily domesticated gonzo of School of Rock and its hard-R-rated counterpart, Bad Santa (which Sarah Kerr probably hated, as she seems to hate all my more scatological fancies); the gorgeous storytelling of Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World—a great popcorn adventure, inexplicably (and alarmingly) described as some kind of grown-up art movie by Hollywood executives; Jim Sheridan’s celebration of family In America, a fairy tale astride an abyss; and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Son, an exercise in sensory deprivation that heightens the senses we have left—and especially heightens our sense of empathy.

The Son is something of an anti-vigilante picture, and—Kill Bill notwithstanding—I’m heartened by the trend: by Clint Eastwood’s melancholy (but maybe overinflated) MysticRiver, which ends with an act of misplaced revenge, and by House of Sand and Fog, which shows the tragic consequences of vengeance when the people are neither entirely good nor entirely bad, and when the vigilante is (as any vigilante in the real world will be) unstable and non-omniscient.

Cold Mountain
Cold Mountain

I was also heartened by another only-half-successful work, Cold Mountain, which departs from the recent spate of films in which war is ennobling. The film would have been better if it had stayed truer to Charles Frazier’s novel, which my wife, Rachel, points out has a theme not dissimilar from last year’s The Pianist: the human cost of survival. The novel’s Inman is more resigned to killing than the protagonist of the movie, who is something of a chivalric bystander. That’s more palatable to mainstream audiences, I guess, but it dilutes the power of the original vision.

It’s also useful that this year of war ended with a documentary—Erroll Morris’ The Fog of War—that explores the loss of rationalism and moral clarity when humans use weapons of mass destruction on one another.

Let me also put in a word for A. Dean Bell’s What Alice Found, a micro-budget indie about a fugitive young woman (Emily Grace) who hitches a ride with an older couple (Judith Ivey and Bill Raymond) in an RV when her car breaks down. The film is patchy and has one perplexing twist, but it has a powerfully humanist vision of people we might normally regard as sordid, and it has haunted me since I saw it. Also, Judith Ivey gives one of my favorite female performances of the year.

Which brings me to my other favorites, in no particular order: Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon in Mystic River, Bill Murray expanding (and deepening) his comic persona in Lost in Translation, and Jack Black grandstanding gloriously in School of Rock. I wrote in Slate that Alec Baldwin’s desperate turn in The Cat in the Hat suggested that, as an actor, he was all washed up; then I saw his best performance ever in The Cooler: a transfixing and unpredictable blend of warm and cold, soft and hard, romantic and sadistic. I loved Hope Davis as the bottled-up wife in The Secret Lives of Dentists and as the goddess of all geeks in American Splendor, as well as Patricia Clarkson (could she be in every movie?) in The Station Agent (along with wonderful turns by Peter Dinklage and Bobby Cannavale) and the overrated Pieces of April.

Shattered Glass
Shattered Glass

More wonders: the Bolger sisters in In America, Peter Sarsgaard in Shattered Glass, Nick Nolte in The Good Thief, Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give, Frances McDormand in Laurel Canyon, Catherine O’Hara in A Mighty Wind, Charlize Theron in Monster, Steve Martin in the perplexingly rejected Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Miranda Richardson in Spider, Holly Hunter and Evan Rachel Wood in Thirteen, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Dirty Pretty Things. A special bouquet to Bill Nighy for his sepulchral charm in the English comedies Lawless Heart and Love Actually and as a convincing lord of the undead in Underworld.

The movies I loathed most: The Cat in the Hat, whose makers should be paraded nude down the street and spat on, and 21 Grams, with its pretentious pretzeled syntax and use of the death of children like an art-house striptease. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle was not just horrendous, it made me ashamed for having praised the campy charm of the first and encouraging those idiots. If you had told me a year ago that the bummer of 2003 would be the two Matrix sequels, I’d have wanted to kill you. People wanted to kill me for panning them.

My Field of Dead Poets Award is given in honor of two movies released within weeks of each other in 1989. In Field of Dreams, audiences were moved by the guilt of a man who’d rejected his baseball-playing dad along with all the other patriarchal values demonized by the counterculture, and they were touched when he created a field for ghosts to come and play ball. A couple of weeks later, Dead Poets Society made the same mass audience weep for boys driven to despair and suicide by unyielding ‘50s patriarchs—the very ones that Field of Dreams had tearily welcomed back. One could argue that anyone who applauded both movies in the space of those few days was embracing a sophisticated, dialectical view of the world. Maybe. I would argue that the fans were by and large unconscious of that dialectic and liked both movies because they made them cry.

The Last Samurai
The Last Samurai

In that spirit, I give this year’s award to The Last Samurai, in which remorseful Native American killer Tom Cruise joins forces with another mystical tribe, the samurai, against the genocidal American capitalist conglomerate that wants to violate a pristine religious culture. The movie celebrates a warlord who would rather die (and sacrifice thousands of his followers) than remove his sword at a conference. What I find interesting is that the hero was cheered by people who in the real world would want to see him executed for treason—just like the poor Marin County sap who got caught with the Taliban. (I also didn’t understand Ed Zwick’s liberalism in Glory, in which African-Americans celebrated their right to die on the battlefield—not so long after a war in Vietnam in which they got stuck on the front lines while the privileged stayed home.)

Folks, movies can whip you up to root for anything.

To my readers: Let me know if there’s anything you want the Movie Club to address.

To my Movie Clubbers: I showed you mine; you show me yours.

To everyone: Have a safe New Year. See you Jan. 5, 2004, in the Movie Club.