The BEST Films of 2003

By Garth Franklin Saturday January 3rd 2004 11:30AM

One of the most difficult things about writing a Top Ten list of films released in 2003 for someone like me is of course geography. As this site's audience is 90% US based - movie coverage is organised by those dates. However being based myself in Australia, films get delayed anywhere from days to months behind. Sure its a lot better than it used to be, especially in regards to big 'event' films which are now worldwide day & date releases it seems, but some of the real small gems and non-Summer/Holiday films take forever to make their way down here.

Thus my week by week life of reviewing movies is nowhere near as simple as you might expect - combining a real jumble of local press screenings, catching films whilst overseas, screeners of varying quality galore and 'other methods' which one or two distributors might frown upon. Even then I'm constantly lagging as I'm still running all the other sections of the site. Thus I see films in all sorts of quality on all sorts of formats so the first time around how a film is 'presented' means little to me, its the content that's important (those people who can each week take off a Friday or weekend night and do a movie marathon of all that week's new releases at a big cinema like the Arclight in LA - I SO envy you). Thus today comes my Top Ten list for films which opened States-side in 2003.

First up lets get the non-qualifiers out of the way, the acclaimed movies I haven't seen. There's a good two dozen or so films that I would love to have seen before I drew up this list but due to time or access have been unable to - if it was a simple matter of popping down to the local cineplex I'd have done it, but sadly that option isn't available. No doubt once they're all on DVD I'll be able to get through them, and at least one or more will probably make it into my Top Ten list here but that's a few months off yet by which time it won't matter too much.

Those out of the running (for now) include: 21 Grams, American Splendor, Capturing the Friedmans, City of God, Elf, Gettin' Square, Ghosts of the Abyss, In America, Japanese Story, Lost in La Mancha, Marooned in Iraq, Mystic River, School of Rock, Spellbound, To Be & To Have, The Cooler, The Fog of War, The Magdalene Sisters, The Man Without a Past, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, The Station Agent, The Triplets of Belleville, Whale Rider, Winged Migration.

Some Big Highlights: There were several films that I really enjoyed and can definitely watch again with ease but didn't make my Top Ten. They include "28 Days Later", "Alien: Director's Cut", "Big Fish", "Calendar Girls", "Cold Mountain", "Freaky Friday", "Love Actually", "Runaway Jury", "Seabiscuit" and "Swimming Pool". All are superbly made films - some very mainstream, others quite arthouse but all skillfully done and would make a worthy night out or in.

So now we come to the big one. Some may find this way too mainstream for their taste, some will agree with certain choices but not others. Everyone has a different perspective, taste & background and desire different things from their films. I'll let you in on a little secret - you see if films were to be judged purely on how well they're made then this whole reviewing business would be far easier because right now, no critic uses the same set of criteria for how they judge a film.

To me how well a film is made is important, but not as much as how much it entertained you - after all that's what films are about. It can be as dumb as a bag of hammers or wittier than Oscar Wilde, it doesn't matter - what matters is that for its running time it ensnared you and took you to places that stirred something inside you whether it be joy, sorrow, love, etc. and simply helped you forget or understand better the real world for a while.

The trouble with something like that is that its completely subjective and will vary greatly from individual to individual, which is why critics tend to avoid that stuff. For me, I try to include a mix of both but how much it enthralled me (and whether it could do it again each time I watch it) is more important:

The Top Ten of 2003:

  1. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
    "When things come together so perfectly for a film its astonishing. There is absolutely no doubt that not only is this the film of the year, but one of the greatest 'epic' films of all time. A truly cinematic experience that you'll find practically impossible to forget and a more than fitting end to one of the greatest film franchises ever made."

  2. "Finding Nemo"
    "This is simply a perfect family film designed to appeal just as much to adults as to kids and pretty much exceeds even "Shrek" for the crown of best CG animated film ever. Dare I say this is a film in the league of "The Lion King" - a cinematic classic which live-action movies this year will have to struggle to grab the 'best film of the year' title. Simply the most entertaining movie you'll see all year."

  3. "Shattered Glass"
    "'Glass' can be best summed up as a modern day "All the President's Men", a well-constructed piece about how trust can be so easily misplaced, how the illusion of a good story can be so much more compelling even to journos whose job it is to get it right before making it sound good. Truth may be stranger than fiction, in this case its far more interesting."

  4. "Lost in Translation"
    "Simply incredible. A quite beautiful, quiet and yet subtley wacky movie about two lost souls who form a believable and unique friendship in one of the few remaining cultures on Earth that Westernisation hasn't yet torn apart. I rarely get emotional in any film but I was both smiling and in tears at the end."

  5. "Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World"
    "A smart adult character drama which mixes equal amounts of realistically clever strategic action sequences, quiet moments of contemplation, and a meticulous attention to detail. Weir has proven one of the great filmmakers and this is amongst his best efforts since the likes of his early Australian work."

  6. "The Last Samurai"
    "Its been a while since we've had a great old fashioned epic involving warfare and one man's redemption. Ed Zwick's 'Samurai' delivers just that, its not the "Braveheart" that it wants to be, but what you have here is a superbly shot and reflective film with solid performances and stunning scenery."

  7. "X2: X-Men United"
    "This is a sequel which lives up to and in a few ways exceeds its predecessor. Without the necessity of character introduction exposition and with a much bigger budget on hand, the filmmakers have still taken great care and produced a shining example of blockbuster entertainment at its best - certainly its most rewarding and entertaining since "LOTR: The Two Towers" almost half a year ago".

  8. "Phone Booth"
    "A superbly taut and tight little thriller, "Phone Booth" is a high concept project which is executed with precision and for the most part works perfectly, one of those films which is so simple and yet so compelling that even those who've little desire to make film will be slapping their heads thinking "now why didn't I come up with this?".

  9. "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl"
    "'Pirates' is a great Summer adventure movie but not for the reasons you may think. Like all of Bruckheimer's movies its quite fast paced, full of massive action sequences, contains a solid (if slightly juvenile) sense of humour, and has some picturesque locales. However one man mames this movie and his name is Johnn Depp who camps it up to a volume of 11.

  10. "Kill Bill: Volume I"
    "Tarantino is back with his most polished and yet slightly empty effort yet. 'Bill' is a kinetic and quite often stunning homage to those 70's kung fu flicks but combines many a genre and inspiration to deliver one of the more breathtaking B-movies in a long time.