Because of the time involved in making a motion picture, studios are forced to cool their heels as they wait for their own spin-offs of popular films to go through the production process. For example, it took a couple of years after Star Wars' release for theaters to become packed with a slew of sci-fi rip-offs, just as it took time for the impact of Saving Private Ryan to be felt through a rash of new war flicks.
In analyzing 2003, therefore, you have to look back to 2000, when a sword'n'sandals epic named Gladiator was slicing through box office receipts on its way to a Best Picture Oscar. That the sword replaced the gun as the weapon of choice for this past year's movie heroes (and villains) should have surprised no one who understands Hollywood's pack mentality -- and its ability to sniff out what it deems a sure thing. It's hard to lump The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King into this group since that particular project has been invading multiplexes for three years straight, but good cases can be made for Gladiator's influence on Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; The Last Samurai; Peter Pan and, with a modern twist, Kill Bill Vol. 1.
One must also look back at Y2K to understand the current boom in superhero flicks. That was the year Hollywood finally realized, thanks to X-Men, that comic book adaptations could rake in huge bucks when done properly. Spider-Man beat the curve by premiering in 2002, but 2003's superhero sagas included Daredevil, Hulk, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the inevitable X2.
The legacy of 9/11 is more sobering, of course, but also more problematic. Every movie year sees its share of downbeat dramas grappling with the subject of death, but 2003 saw an unusually large number of intimate pieces in which ordinary citizens had to deal with the loss of one or more family members, usually children: 21 Grams, In America, The Station Agent, Mystic River and The Human Stain were just some of the titles to go that route. Were the near-simultaneous releases of all these films merely a coincidence, or were they created (subconsciously or otherwise) as a way to help a nation work out its grief? Yet for all the attention to decimated family units, the tragedy itself is still too monumental to be tackled head-on by most filmmakers: Aside from the Canadian import The Barbarian Invasions (which has yet to play Charlotte), I can't think of another film from this past year that specifically referred to 9/11 (2002 had two: 25th Hour and The Guys).
Of course, not every trend is really a trend -- sometimes, it's just coincidence. As far as I can tell, there was nothing in the films of 2000 or 2001 to launch a renaissance of movies in which older women would get butt-naked in front of rolling cameras. It began with Kathy Bates in About Schmidt (a 2002 release that didn't open nationally until 2003) and continued with Frances McDormand in Laurel Canyon, Charlotte Rampling in Swimming Pool, Holly Hunter in Thirteen, Meg Ryan in In the Cut, Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give and Helen Mirren in Calendar Girls. On the other end of the gender line, women were treated to the bare derrieres of Jack Nicholson in Something's Gotta Give, Danny DeVito in Big Fish, Albert Brooks in The In-Laws and William H. Macy in The Cooler. Whether this was a fair trade-off, I couldn't say.
At any rate, the naked truth about 2003 is that it was a year that saw plenty of doubles and even triples, but not that many homeruns. Still, out of the 170 pictures I screened during the past 12 months, I easily saw enough to fill up a Top 20 -- and, alas, more than enough to clog a 10 Worst.
THE 10 BEST
1. LOST IN TRANSLATION (Sofia Coppola). The best picture of 2003. While other Saturday Night Live vets have seen their careers flame out (or, in the case of Eddie Murphy, get neutered), Bill Murray has quietly been building an impressive resume full of quirky character parts. Finally, he's been handed a complex leading role that taps more than just his comedic instincts, and he responds by turning in his best performance to date. Yet writer-director Sofia Coppola's lovely film can't simply be categorized as a star vehicle. This picture about two American strangers (Murray and Scarlett Johansson) in Tokyo (presented as a garish wonderland on a permanent psychedelic high) is a deeply moving and insightful study of two "old souls" making a meaningful connection that temporarily tames their inner angst. As an added bonus, the movie also does a better job than any other film in memory of conveying the "walking dead" sensation that plagues travelers forced to spend too much time roaming hotel corridors.
2. THE STATION AGENT (Thomas McCarthy). A perfect bookend piece to Lost In Translation, writer-director Thomas McCarthy's debut feature also centers on people forced to cut through a miasma of complacency in order to forge nourishing bonds. In this case, the isolated party is a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) whose insistence on being left alone is ignored by, among others, a tortured artist (Patricia Clarkson) and a cheerful hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale). McCarthy's deftness at mixing humor with heartbreak keeps his story operating on a high-wire level that other filmmakers wouldn't even attempt.
3. SPELLBOUND (Jeffrey Blitz). For pure cinematic excitement, what could possibly surpass Pirates of the Caribbean and The Return of the King? Would you believe the sight of ordinary kids taking part in spelling bees? This magnificent documentary unexpectedly succeeds as a thriller (one misspelling and they're outta there!), yet it's also strong enough to wield a number of notable themes, including the burden of both parental and peer pressure, the importance of the bees as socioeconomic cross-sections, and, especially significant in these pseudo-patriotic times, the real meaning of what it takes to reach for that treasured piece of idealism called the American Dream.
4. CITY OF GOD (Fernando Meirelles & Katia Lund). Based on actual events, this Brazilian import takes a hard look at a Rio de Janeiro slum and dissects the lifestyle of the youthful thugs who rule with a bloody fist. Make no mistake: As depicted here, the "City of God" (the ironic name given to the area) is nothing less than a war zone, with some of the kids in charge presented as killing machines every bit as ruthless as the thugs populating Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas. With a major assist from Lund, Meirelles has revealed himself as a skilled director able to employ dazzling stylistics to complement his storytelling prowess rather than overwhelm it.
5. HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (Vadim Perelman). A major turn-off for most in my preview audience -- the studio rep revealed that many exiting patrons were labeling the movie "depressing and terrible," as if those words were automatically synonymous -- this picture is a definite no-no for viewers who can't handle anything darker than, say, Elf. But for those who don't mind "feel-bad" beauties, this absorbing melodrama about a former addict (Jennifer Connelly) and an Iranian refugee (Ben Kingsley) who both lay claim to the same house features a complex ambiguity (as in, "real life") that's notably absent from all but the most uncompromising of American movies.
6. SHATTERED GLASS (Billy Ray). During the 1990s, writer Stephen Glass completely fabricated 27 of the 41 stories he had penned for The New Republic before finally getting caught. It would be logical to assume that this movie would rake the fourth estate over the coals, illustrating how it had continued to shift from a venerable source of reliable information into a circus act of celebrity reporters riding unicycles of distortion and deceit. Yet the surprise behind this fascinating film is that it's ultimately a celebration of journalistic integrity, focusing not only on Glass (Hayden Christensen) but also on the honest editor (Peter Sarsgaard) who helped bring him down.
7. THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS (Alan Rudolph). "Erratic" doesn't even begin to describe Alan Rudolph's output, yet by shucking aside the pretense and pomposity of his most recent efforts, the unpredictable director has come up with one of the finest works of his career. Feeding off Craig Lucas' knowing screenplay, Dentists offers an honest study of a marriage on the rocks, with Hope Davis and especially Campbell Scott excellent as the harried couple who must contend with their shared practice, issues of infidelity, and a household in which everyone (kids and adults alike) comes down with the flu.
8. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (Peter Jackson). The Fellowship of the Rings provided the exposition while The Two Towers provided the action. Yet it's this third and final installment in Jackson's Tolkien adaptation that arguably finds the proper balance to propel the faithful over the moon, building toward a climax that in one bold stroke captures everything that's right about this titanic trilogy. Years ago, New Line took a gargantuan gamble by bankrolling three films at once, yet the risk has paid off not only for the studio coffers but for fantasy lovers everywhere.
9. MONSTER (Patty Jenkins). Anyone who's been paying attention the past few years already knows that Charlize Theron is more than just a pretty face, yet her mesmerizing turn in this fact-based drama will finally allow the rest of the world to catch up. It isn't simply that Theron gained weight and thoroughly deglamorized herself to play the part of Aileen Wournos, the prostitute who killed several men in Florida before finally being caught and executed. It's that she so completely buries herself in this woman's impetuousness, rage and vulnerability that she simply ceases to exist; it's a galvanizing performance in a difficult yet important film.
10. PETER PAN (P.J. Hogan). With apologies to the wildly popular Finding Nemo, this exquisite adaptation of the J.M. Barrie chestnut was the year's best family film, a beautifully rendered retelling that works on a different level for adults than it does for kids. Incidentally, this comes courtesy of the same studio that foisted The Cat In the Hat onto an unsuspecting public; talk about instant atonement.
The Next 10 (Honorable Mentions): All the Real Girls; The Last Samurai; A Decade Under the Influence; A Mighty Wind; Stevie; 21 Grams; The Magdalene Sisters; Nowhere In Africa; The Triplets of Belleville; The Human Stain
Best Actor: Bill Murray (Lost In Translation); Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent); Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl); Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog); Campbell Scott (The Secret Lives of Dentists)
Best Actress: Charlize Theron (Monster); Diane Keaton (Something's Gotta Give); Naomi Watts (21 Grams); Jennifer Connelly (House of Sand and Fog); Zooey Deschanel (All the Real Girls)
Best Supporting Actor: Eugene Levy (A Mighty Wind & Bringing Down the House); Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai); Alec Baldwin (The Cooler); Benicio Del Toro (21 Grams); Ed Harris (The Human Stain)
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent & Pieces of April); Holly Hunter (Thirteen & Levity); Renee Zellweger (Cold Mountain); Maria Bello (The Cooler); Hope Davis (The Secret Lives of Dentists & American Splendor)
Overrated: Elephant; The Italian Job; Kill Bill Vol. I; Love Actually; Once Upon a Time In Mexico
Underrated: Beyond Borders; Duplex; The Human Stain; Johnny English; Looney Tunes: Back In Action
Disappointments: Big Fish; Hulk; The Matrix Revolutions; Mona Lisa Smile; The Statement
THE 10 WORST
1. BAD BOYS II Sure, Jerry Bruckheimer may have produced one of 2003's top blockbusters (Pirates of the Caribbean), but let's not forget he was also the man behind the year's worst film. This mercenary motion picture displays nothing but contempt for everyone and everything -- for its audience, for its characters, even for the medium itself. The result is a soulless endeavor by which all future exercises in cynical cinema should be measured.
2. THE CAT IN THE HAT What's left to say about this atrocity that hasn't already been voiced by any number of anguished critics? It's hard to imagine a more crass and clueless adaptation of a Dr. Seuss story; even Green Eggs and Ham remodeled as a shrill Robin Williams vehicle would hold more promise.
3. HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE Harrison Ford has long been a personal favorite, but it's grown impossible to defend the way he's allowed his career to peter out with a string of safe and sorry formula flicks. This endless buddy-cop romp, which pairs him with lifeless Flavor-of-the-Month Josh Hartnett, finds the actor simply looking tired and bored -- a condition shared by the few audience members who endured this flop.
4. THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE The sort of sanctimonious, holier-than-thou claptrap that gives liberalism a bad name, this anti-death penalty screed was initially positioned as a 2002 year-end Oscar contender until its studio realized its awfulness and held it until the dead zone month of February. Even now, it's still easy to recall how this film repeatedly shot itself in the foot via its muddled storytelling and half-baked proselytizing.
5. THE IN-LAWS The only -- I repeat, only -- good thing about this deadening action-comedy is that it might lead a few people to seek out the 1979 original (with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin in the roles bungled here by Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks), an engaging effort that's as funny as this one is witless.
6. CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN Steve Martin's critically drubbed Bringing Down the House was my reigning guilty pleasure of the year; certainly, it's more enjoyable to watch than the actor's current holiday release, the sort of prefabricated, predigested pabulum that's awash in desperate humor and cheap sentiment.
7. DARKNESS FALLS This inept terror tale about a murderous spirit known as the Tooth Fairy (what's next, a vengeful demon named the Easter Bunny?) edges out Freddy vs. Jason and the pointless Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake as the year's worst slasher flick. And that's doing something.
8. GIGLI Obviously relishing the opportunity to bash the Jennifer Lopez-Ben Affleck media machine, far too many scribes labeled this ersatz romantic comedy one of the very worst movies ever made when, truth be told, it wouldn't even crack the Bottom 100. Having said that, it's still pretty rotten, dogged by (oh, the irony!) a complete lack of chemistry between its stars.
9. SPY KIDS 3-D: GAME OVER A case study of how things too often work in Hollywood: Create a charming movie that's both a critical and commercial hit, and then keep churning out increasingly inferior sequels until the original idea has been completely run into the ground.
10. UNDERWORLD This exercise in "Gothic grunge" takes a juicy premise (a centuries-spanning battle between vampires and werewolves) and places it at the center of a derivative yarn that's so joyless, it almost makes one long for the tawdry likes of Zoltan, Hound of Dracula and Werewolf In a Girl's Dormitory.