Best of 2003

2003 was the year that Lord of the Rings received its due as Return of the King cleaned house at the Oscars.  However, Sophia Coppolla’s Lost in Translation won the hearts of critics, earning it the number one spot on our list.  514 lists were included in 2003.

50. Pieces of April (24 lists)

The ending of Pieces of April is conventional, but satisfying, and there’s enough delightful weirdness up to the final moments that it’s hard to fault Hedges for taking the easy way out.” — James Berardinelli, ReelViews

49. Bend It Like Beckham (26 lists)

“Made with a craftsmanship and pizzazz that restores your appreciation for honest commercial moviemaking, Bend It Like Beckham puts a new definition of femininity on screen, casual and cool and in your face.” — Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

48. Ten (26 lists; 2 top spots)

“These 10 sequences are moments frozen in time, which reveal a surprising amount about the emotional lives of the movie’s characters.” — Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter

47. Gerry (27 lists; 2 top spots)

“The results are part biblical allegory, part existential crucible, and remind one that anytime the meaning of life is questioned, it’s positive — because it presumes the possibility of meaning.” — John Anderson, Newsday

46. Man on the Train (28 lists)

“While the set-up … is as old as the grade-B western, we’re willing to forgive many of the contrivances because Rochefort and Hallyday are such wonderful personalities.” — Glen Lovell, San Jose Mercury News

45. The Last Samurai (32 lists; 2 top spots)

“The Last Samurai is an idyll in which the savageries of existence are transcended by spiritual devotion. That’s a beautiful dream, and it gives the film a deep pleasingness, but the fullness of life and its blackest ambiguities are sacrificed.” — Peter Rainer, New York Magazine

43. To Be And To Have (33 lists)

“So superb, so graceful, so strong — another beauty in this year of good documentaries — that I do believe it will influence career choices, sending inspired viewers to study pedagogy, or cinematography.” — Lisa Scwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly

43. Winged Migration (33 lists)

“Nature films are assumed to be plotless, but Winged Migration is full of major and minor narratives, from the basic struggle of a snow goose making its migratory trek from the Gulf to the Yukon, to sequences of decidedly high drama.” — John Anderson, Newsday

42. All the Real Girls (33 lists; 1 top spot)

“It’s about people who have no idea what to say, how to say it, what it means, where it leads: They just blunder through, clumsy and hopeful and tongue-tied and so human it breaks your heart.” — Stephen Hunter, Washington Post

41. The Secret Lives of Dentists (33 lists; 2 top spots)

“Unlike the majority of movies in which a thousand digital extras are sacrificed upon the altar of commercial catharsis, The Secret Lives of Dentists gives the impression of acknowledging the existence of garden-variety human suffering.” — J. Doberman, Village Voice

40. demonlover (33 lists; 6 top spots)

“It’s an exasperating, irresistible, must-see mess of a movie about life in the modern world and so very good that even when its story finally crashes and burns the filmmaking remains unscathed.” — Manohla Dargis, Los Angeles Times

39. Irreversible (34 lists; 3 top spots)

“I hope people who go to see this don’t walk out in the first ten minutes or after that scene, because I think you have to experience the entire film. And then you can decide whether or not you’re offended by it.” — Richard Roeper, Ebert & Roeper

38. X2: X-Men United (35 lists)

“There’s much to applaud in a superhero movie that takes aim at mortal problems — from hate, prejudice and intolerance to hyper-surveillance and the corrupting influence of power — and hits most of its targets.” — Chris Vognar, Dallas Morning News

37. Love Actually (36 lists; 1 top spot)

“There are times when all of this goodwill feels a tad forced and artificial, but, on balance, Love Actually is appealing and genial with plenty of solid laughs, and worthy of a recommendation for those who appreciate this kind of thing.” — James Berardinelli, ReelViews

36. Raising Victor Vargas (36 lists; 2 top spots)

“For those sick of the tired conventions of ‘rom-coms’ (as Hollywood wags call romantic comedies), Vargas is a refreshing cure, frank about healthy teenage curiosity and sexuality in ways that don’t make them punchlines to smutty jokes.” — Carey Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

35. Bus 174 (37 lists; 2 top spots)

“What starts off as a documentary about a hostage crisis in Rio de Janeiro deepens with every passing minute. By the end, you realize you’ve seen an extraordinary movie, easily one of the best of the year.” — Desson Thomson, Washington Post

34. Spider (37 lists; 8 top spots)


“More poetic than clinical in its approach to schizophrenia, suffused with existential dread, this evocation of psychological torment is both sensationally grim and exquisitely realized.” — J. Hoberman, Village Voice

33. The Son (40 lists; 2 top spots)

“It needs no insight or explanation.  It sees everything and explains all. It is as assured and flawless a telling of sadness and joy as I have ever seen.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

32. The Man Without a Past (41 lists; 2 top spots)

“[Kaurismaki’s] a humanist bearing witness to the human parade. To be part of that parade is to be touched by his perspective, and to have your world altered — magically, fleetingly, memorably.” — Rick Groen, Globe and Mail

31. 28 Days Later (42 lists; 1 top spot)

“It’s a zombie movie to make you forget how boring and simple-minded monster movies have become or, better yet, to make you remember how good monster movies can be.” — Eric Harrison, Houston Chronicle

30. Pirates of the Caribbean (46 lists; 1 top spot)


“While the plot and action are all deliberately familiar, director Gore Verbinski steers a continual course for sheer, mindless, rope-swinging, crow’s-nest-hollering summer fun.” — Jami Bernard, New York Daily News

29. The Magdalene Sisters (49 lists; 1 top spot)

“A story like this one could easily succumb to outraged melodrama, but not only does Mullan keep the drama human-sized, he even leavens it with the humor that one can easily believe had to be summoned to endure such misguided and malicious treatment.” — Terry Lawson, Detroit Free Press

28. The Barbarian Invasions (50 lists; 5 top spots)

“While it would seem like an unlikely candidate for a sequel, The Barbarian Invasions at least revives its talky debates over the things that matter: politics, literature, love, friendship and, of course, sex.” — Terry Lawson, Detroit Free Press

27. A Mighty Wind (51 lists; 2 top spots)

“Genuine appreciation of the movie comes in recognizing the careful evocation of the sights, sounds and emotions of the early ’60s — sans the politics, which are curiously MIA — and not from hooting at the hicks.” — Peter Howell, Toronto Star

26. The Triplets of Belleville (52 lists; 2 top spots)

“It’s impossible to watch this movie without gasping at its graphics, and yet we’re so drawn into Chomet’s way of seeing that, after a while, his genius erases the distinction between animation and live action.” — Peter Rainer, New York Magazine

25. Thirteen (54 lists; 2 top spots)

“Wood is superb at delineating Tracy’s slide into desperate incoherence, but equally impressive is Reed, who has to conceal her writer’s intelligence in playing a character who’s entirely instinctive and unreflective.” — Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

24. Bad Santa (55 lists; 1 top spot)

“This is a superb stink bomb of an entertainment, generously larded with jokes about alcoholics, short people, dim children and the kind of sexual congress that until recently was illegal in nine states.” — Manohla Dargis, Los Angeles Times

23. Shattered Glass (56 lists; 1 top spot)

“Hayden Christensen strikes all the right notes as the talented, charming and very cloying Stephen Glass, who made a huge splash at the New Republic magazine in the late 1990s with colorful stories.” — Richard Roeper, Ebert & Roeper

22. Big Fish (58 lists; 3 top spots)

“Not only is Mr. Burton at the top of his form in endowing his tallest stories and wildest magical conceits with emotional conviction, but he is aided by a superb acting ensemble that never loses its footing in the treacherous swamps of make-believe.” — Andrew Sarris, New York Observer

21. Dirty Pretty Things (61 lists; 4 top spots)

“It offers as its hero an extraordinary fellow: He’s an authentic moral being who, though the universe has gone all twisty-crazy into greed, mendacity and manipulation, nevertheless clings to his own code.” — Stephen Hunter, Washington Post

20. The Fog of War (65 lists; 3 top spots)

“[Morris] gave him a stage — and Mr. McNamara took it — to chart the tragedy of Vietnam and prove that war is too complex, too dangerous for fallible human beings in power to know what they’re doing.” — Jane Sumner, Dallas Morning News

19. House of Sand and Fog (70 lists; 2 top spots)

“It’s a story that haunts long after it’s seen, not just because we’re overpowered by what happens to its characters but because, if we’re honest, we see how all of it, even the worst of it, could happen to us.” — Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

18. School of Rock (73 lists; 2 top spots)

“Black is still a happy geek in perpetual overdrive, only now he draws on his musical skill, and his hipster shamelessness, to deliver the acting equivalent of a perfect power chord crunched with a demon smile.” — Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

17. Spellbound (77 lists; 3 top spots)

“These determined, sometimes-obsessed kids stick with you, presenting a portrait of America as a melting pot unified in determination and a hefty serving of alphabet soup.” — Michael Caro, Chicago Tribune

16. Seabiscuit (86 lists; 5 top spots)

“Seabiscuit the movie gets it right — not only providing exciting, saddle’s-eye-view racing scenes, but also recalling the Depression era when ‘the Biscuit’ came from behind and gave the suffering nation hope.” — Jami Bernard, New York Daily News

15. Whale Rider (87 lists; 5 top spots)

“When the words ‘Dedicated to those who came before’ appear on screen at the close, you can almost feel all those ancestors joining modern audiences in applauding what has been accomplished here.” — Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

14. Cold Mountain (101 lists; 6 top spots)

“That the film Cold Mountain is so much better than the best-selling Charles Frazier novel makes it quite the rare thing — only The Godfather comes immediately to mind as an example of a major movie that so surpasses its source material.” — John Anderson, Newsday

13. The Station Agent (102 lists; 5 top spots)

“For 88 all-too-brief minutes, we get to hang out with very companionable people, eavesdrop on their small talk and come to know them intimately, perhaps more intimately than we can get to know our own family members.” — Joe Baltake, Sacramento Bee

12. City of God (103 lists; 9 top spots)

“As the movie’s frenetic visual rhythms and mood swings synchronize with the zany, adrenaline-fueled impulsiveness of its lost youth on the rampage, you may find yourself getting lost in this teeming netherworld.” — Stephen Holden, New York Times

11. Elephant (104 lists; 12 top spots)

“The most fluid of films, it glides through its 81 minutes with a mesmerizing ease, skating on smooth tracking shots down the corridors of an American high school and into the heart of an American malaise.” — Rick Groen, Globe and Mail

10. 21 Grams (106 lists; 6 top spots)

“Watts, Penn and Del Toro have all been brilliant before, and if we’re lucky, they will all be brilliant again. But to watch these three — working alone and in tandem — is to experience the strange, at times frightening alchemy of screen acting.” — Manohla Dargis, Los Angeles Times

9. In America (106 lists; 6 top spots)

“A big little movie, a fictionalized memoir that transcends the personal to become universal — its grubby verve touched with a sense of wonder and magic, its mundane actions given an all-too-rare spiritual resonance.” — Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post

8. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (138 lists; 11 top spots)

“Beautifully directed and acted, sumptuously costumed and rigged, with no less a man than Russell Crowe filling out the Captain’s britches, this is mythmaking all dressed up and demanding a snappy salute — heck, it’s a Boy’s Own adventure to die for.” — Rick Groen, Globe and Mail

7. Capturing the Friedmans (146 lists; 15 top spots)

“In the end, while Jarecki may not be able to answer our most basic questions about the guilt or innocence of the Friedmans, he makes a profound statement that, in situations like this, no one can be completely innocent and everyone is a victim.” — James Berardinelli, ReelViews

6. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (148 lists; 11 top spots)

“Kill Bill: Volume 1 shows Quentin Tarantino so effortlessly and brilliantly in command of his technique that he reminds me of a virtuoso violinist racing through Flight of the Bumble Bee …” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

5. Finding Nemo (201 lists; 11 top spots)

“Finding Nemo will engross kids with its absorbing story, brightly drawn characters and lively action, and grown-ups will be equally entertained by the film’s subtle humor and the sophistication of its visuals.” — Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

4. American Splendor (216 lists; 20 top spots)

“There’s a tremendous amount of cultural vitality out there in the land of the losers; American Splendor is one of the first and best films to capitalize fully on this phenomenon.” — Andrew Sarris, New York Observer

3. Mystic River (220 lists; 42 top spots)

“The experience of being so absorbed in a movie and the lives of the people in it, of trusting a director and a writer and actors to take me places completely unexpected, is so rare that I savored every unexpected turn and twist.” — Terry Lawson, Detroit Free Press

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (278 lists; 92 top spots)

“Insanely spectacular and never less than absorbing, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King not only fully celebrates J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic literary work but fully explains Jackson’s outsized obsession with bringing it to the screen.” — Joe Baltake Sacramento Bee

1. Lost in Translation (321 lists; 53 top spots)

“The joys of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation come from watching Murray modify his trademark passive- aggressive style into played-straight comic bewilderment — and to marvel at his slim new picture- of-health appearance.” — Mike Clark, USA Today

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