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Critic: Shawn Stone

Best of 2003

1. Kill Bill Vol. 1

Quentin Tarantino returns with a blood-splattered, pure cinematic rush. Uma Thurman is heroic; Lucy Liu is cool; Vivica A. Fox is poignant; Darryl Hannah is pure evil; and the unseen (but heard) David Carradine is the devil himself. I can’t wait for part two.

2. Spider

David Cronenberg does it again. This bleak story of a schizophrenic trying to make sense of his life is compelling and tragic. Ralph Fiennes’ performance in the title role is the year’s best.

Are we there yet? (l-r) Elijah Wood and Sean Astin in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

3. Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola not only gave Bill Murray a career role, she made a romantic comedy that can best be described as courtly. What is it, 1903?

4. Down With Love

Peyton Reed’s candy-colored deconstruction of Doris Day sex comedies has a joy notably absent from most films this year. This is more proof that going against the public mood gets you nowhere.

5. American Splendor

Paul Giammati is Harvey Pekar, and Harvey Pekar is Harvey Pekar. (Plus, there’s the Harvey Pekar drawn by R. Crumb.) Message? Be yourself (if you can figure out who that is).

6. Winged Migration

In this documentary about migratory birds, nature isn’t pretty, heartwarming or sexy. It’s majestic.

7. A Mighty Wind

Probably the most insanely detailed of the Christopher Guest-Eugene Levy mockumentaries, with a great soundtrack and surprising heart.

8. Bad Santa

Sometimes you have to be bad to be good. There’s never been a more grotesque screen Santa than Billy Bob Thornton, God bless him.

9. Divine Intervention

Ingenious (and depressing) Palestinian film about the Israeli occupation. The story is constructed like a puzzle, and figuring out what the hell is going on is grim but rewarding work.

10. The Magdalene Sisters

Legalized female slavery, courtesy of Ireland’s Roman Catholic Church. And yes, it happened in our lifetime.

Worst of 2003

1. Masked & Anonymous

Can we all, finally, admit that Bob Dylan is through? He’s been shitting us (more often than not) beginning with Blood on the Tracks, and this smug, egocentric junk is only the latest con job.

2. All the Real Girls

Lovely to look at, but pretentious and dull. (This film even made train yards boring.)

3. Gigli

Martin Brest isn’t an auteur. Ben Affleck isn’t an actor. Jennifer Lopez isn’t a lesbian. Al Pacino is insane.

4. View From the Top

Stewardess—er, flight attendant—comedy devoid of laughs.

5. Bad Boys II

For five minutes, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are allowed to be as funny and dynamic as Hope and Crosby. The other two hours consists of idiot director Michael Bay blowing things up.

Critic: Ann Morrow

Once more with feeling: Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.

Best of 2003

1. Russian Ark

Shot as a single, fluidly uninterrupted 96-minute whirl through the fabled interiors of Russia’s Hermitage museum, this surreal travelogue comments on 300 years of art, culture and history under the guise of a dream as revealed to a ghost. Infinitely more than a breathtaking stunt (more than 2,000 actors perform in perfect choreography throughout six buildings), Alexsander Sokurov’s delirious filmmaking illumines the turbulent soul of Russia in a way no standard narrative ever could.

2. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

More so than in the first two installments, director Peter Jackson takes liberties with Tolkien’s hallowed text—and for the first time, some of those liberties do not ring true. But unwarranted concessions to popular (i.e., violent) taste aside, Jackson’s fantastical realization of the Great War for Middle Earth fulfills the nearly impossible quest of bringing the books to big-screen life, creating in the process an unprecedented epic of the imagination.

3. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Watching this film directed by the inventive Peter Weir, even landlubbers will find themselves mesmerized by life aboard a man-of-war during the Napoleonic Wars. The stunning historical authenticity, bravura battle scenes, and forceful acting merge into an intelligent and charming literary adaptation that doubles as a rousing action spectacular.

4. Finding Nemo

This wildly enchanting yet heart-tugging family adventure about an overprotective clown fish and his rebellious son, Nemo, has it all: groundbreaking fantasias of light and color, witty repartee, hilarious scenarios, memorable characters (Ellen Degeneris’ absent-minded blue tang and Willem Dafoe’s scarred angelfish among them) and a meaningful story. Pure delight for all ages.

5. Whale Rider

In this transfixing New Zealand film, an ancient Maori myth comes to life through the extraordinary determination of a 12-year-old Maori girl who is barred from assuming the hereditary leadership of her village because she was born the wrong gender. An unpredictable and insightful coming-of-age story steeped in the beautiful traditions of Maori culture, the film is elevated by the radiant naturalism of Keisha Castle-Hughes, who makes the most memorable debut of the year.

6. Mystic River

A motivational short-circuit in the screen adaptation by Brian Helgeland is the only reason Clint Eastwood’s unnerving crime drama does not rank as a truly great film. Even still, its ambiguous morality, elegiac direction, and harrowing ensemble acting (notably Tim Robbins as a defeated victim on the brink) reverberate far longer than the virtues of other, better-written films.

7. Matchstick Men

An unexpectedly entertaining and stylish crime caper from Ridley Scott that’s similar to, and more cleverly realized, than both Catch Me if You Can and Adaptation. As a phobic but brilliantly improvisational con artist, Nicolas Cage outdoes his Oscar-nominated turn in Adaptation while the hijinx build up to a you-won’t-see-it-coming whammy of an ending.

8. Lost in Translation

Often wan when it means to be reflective, and not nearly as funny as it should’ve been, Sofia Coppola’s semi-autobiographical tone poem makes the grade for sheer originality and technical assurance—as well as for Bill Murray’s transcendently wry performance. As a jet-lagged, has-been movie star adrift in go-go Tokyo, Murray proves himself to be more than a comic genius: He’s the Zen master of parody.

9. Pieces of April

This acerbic family drama occurs on Thanksgiving Day, but passes on the feel-good flavorings in favor of bleak humor as a bratty punk living in tenement reluctantly prepares dinner for her parents and siblings. Although her stove doesn’t work, the biggest obstacle to the family’s reunion is the animosity between daughter and terminally ill mother, which is movingly delineated. Patricia Clarkson deserves an Oscar nod for her caustic but heartbreaking performance.

10. Marci X

Both exasperatingly silly and subversively hilarious, this cross-cultural comedy (Jewish-princess socialite gets down with gangsta-rapper mogul) is nowhere near being one of the best films of the year. But it is one of the funniest, and is included on this list to counteract the year’s most overrated comedy, The School of Rock. Get back, Jack Black: you’re just not in the same class as Marci’s Lisa Kudrow, especially when it comes to musical spoofery.

Worst of 2003

1. The Order

Do we really need a movie about a papal candidate who moonlights as the major domo of a hardcore S&M club? Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, this sickly occult thriller isn’t just sleazy and sloppy, it’s also brainless and boring.

2. Beyond Borders

Genocide, disease, and famine (complete with CGI starving children) are used as tear-jerking backdrops for the ludicrously star-crossed romance between socialite Angelina Jolie and boneheaded relief-camp doctor Clive Owen in this politically idiotic weepie.

3. Cold Creek Manor

Although directed by astute British auteur Mike Figgis, this is just another stupid and derivative thriller that relies on silly backwoods-gothic trickery. Figgis isn’t just slumming here—he’s plummeting to B-movie depths.

4. Boat Trip

A pathetic attempt at gay-themed slapstick that sends a recently dumped homophobe (Cuba Gooding Jr.) on a gay cruise. Gooding in a G-string and feathered headdress puts the gag in sight gag.

5. I Capture the Castle

A sincere and picturesque misfire. Not the most egregiously cloying Brit dramedy of the year, but perhaps the most disappointing, especially to readers of the beloved novel it’s adapted from.

Critic: Ralph Hammann

Best of 2003

1. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The masterwork against which all others should bow in respect. Is Peter Jackson heir to Lean and Kurosawa?

2. Lost in Translation

Demonstrating the extraordinary sensitivity she first displayed as an underappreciated actress in The Godfather III, Sofia Coppola has made a worthy successor to her deft The Virgin Suicides.

3. Dark Blue

A cop film elevated to near epic heights with a tragic-hero-caliber performance by Kurt Russell.

4. Pieces of April

All of the small pieces of this unique film grow in impact as the film quietly progresses to its unexpectedly touching and powerful climax.

5. The Quiet American

Featuring a stellar performance by Michael Caine, this is a reminder of those great old films based on or written by Graham Greene (in this case, based on Greene’s novel).

6. Dirty Pretty Things

Audrey Tatou in a black comedy that tickles the funny bone for poetic justice.

7. The School of Rock

Whatever music one listens to, this is pure fun and an excellent fantasia on the importance of passion in education and art.

8. Kill Bill Vol. 1

We need our popcorn, and this keeps popping for its entire running time.

9. The Magdalene Sisters

Everything an ex-Catholic wants from a film about abusive nuns and repressive religion.

10. Seabiscuit

It has some serious flaws, but, hey, I need something to make me feel good after The Magdalene Sisters.

Worst of 2003

1. The Hulk

The sudden and ugly decline of a great filmmaker (Ang Lee), this complete bore features numbingly bad special effects, an awful central performance, turgid direction and plodding instead of plotting.

2. Gods and Generals

A stupefying, dull, D.O.A. follow-up to the bracing Gettysburg.

3. Dreamcatcher

To come down to its own level, the film is a stew of vomit and diarrhea in which a search for discernable morsels of substance is ill-advised.

4. Love Actually

Despite winning performances from Colin Firth and a couple of others, this is an insipidly written pabulum that is as insufferable as Emma Thompson’s performance. Or is that Hillary Clinton?

5. Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat

Even worse than the travesty they made of the Grinch; this time they raped and embalmed Seuss’ most beloved and loopy creation.

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