As I have stated previously on areas of this site, I only began to write serious, full-length reviews in January of 2004.  However, that is not to say that I did not watch fewer films in 2003 because I was not writing about them in any discernable length or detail.  I have several fond memories of my many trips to the theatre in 2003, a year that was populated by many great works that involved fascinating documentaries, stirring family dramas, historical naval epics, and fantasies about hobbits and rings of power.  Yes, 2003, like any other recent year, had its share of cinematic dogs, but there still was a wealth of great films that many people flocked to the theatre to see and some that got passed by people altogether.  I guess that is why I have tried to make this list (as I have any of my other BEST OF lists) to be as broad and eclectic as possible.

 

My site currently occupies films for which I have seen and have written full-length reviews for.  I did begin writing film related reviews and articles for my work's bi-weekly newsletter at the beginning of 2004 and my first write-up was my ramblings on the best films of 2004.  I did not write any in-depth reviews of these films (which would explain there omission in my ARCHIVES), but I still felt it necessary to include the list primarily for interest (and nostalgic) purposes.

 

So, for your reading pleasure, here is that article, word for word, as it appeared in the newsletter:

 

1.    MYSTIC RIVER

 
 

This gritty and atmospheric film, Clint Eastwood's 24th as a director, is a milestone work, a masterpiece, and is easily the best film of 2003.  In a year populated by bloated and paint-by-numbers blockbusters, Mr. Eastwood has demonstrated with this film that the best special effects are terrific performances and a tense and involving screenplay.  The story is compelling and drips with emotional resonance, the actors reach the top of their game, and above all is Eastwood whom, like a fine wine, keeps getting better with age.  MYSTIC RIVER represents the best film of Eastwood's 30 year directorial career.

 
 

2.    LOVE ACTUALLY

 
 

What?!  A warmed-over and meticulously feel-good film with nine endings in which everyone lives happily ever after - making the top of my list?  No matter how cynical and nihilistic I am in my increasing years,  I found it absolutely impossible not to be completely won over and charmed by Richard Curtis' overly sentimental, happy-go-lucky, Magnolia-esque romantic comedy.  Cutis tells and interweaves the stories of nine characters and their own individual stories of...well...love!  The performances are wonderfully droll, the writing was funny and witty...this film is the ultimate pleasure food for the year, and especially gratifying to see that its an R-rated Christmas movie for ADULTS!  (warning...DON'T TAKE YOUNG ONES TO THIS).  It was pure, unadulterated joy and sentimentality and one of the most satisfying comedies in years.  With a series of class acts like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bridget Jones' Diary, writer/director Curtis finally can claim to own this market.  After a year of "chosen one" superheroes fighting post-apocalyptic robots, of gross out comedies and action films, and of films that made me depressed, LOVE ACTUALLY was the sweetest and freshest breath of air all year, and it pulled everything off so winningly. 

 
 

3.    LOST IN TRANSLATION

 
 

This is a story about love as well, but on a vastly different plane of existence.  Bill Murray rightfully deserves an Oscar nomination for this wonderfully low-key romantic drama about a down-on-his-luck actor trying to find his way making commercials in Japan.  Bittersweet, funny, poignant, and with enough dashes of sadness and melancholy to make this a classic, with direction from Sophia Coppola at her most confident and assured

 
 

4.    MASTER AND COMMANDER

 
 

Okay, Gladiator 2 this is not!  But what we get is something more, a rare introspective epic about people and not special effects, body counts, or battles every 10 minutes.  Director Peter Weir lovingly films this high seas adventure with grandeur and spectacle, and manages to also humanize the characters and make them believable.  The battle scenes are breathtaking and well paced and Russell Crowe shows why he dominates in these types of roles.  Surprisingly introspective and completely invigorating at the same time.

 
 

5.    THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE

 
 

This was actually a 2002 release, but it was nowhere to be seen here and I was introduced to this gem on DVD this year...hence...it's inclusion here.  Nevertheless, this is a terrific gem that fell well below anyone's radar.  What we have is a spirited, enormously clever, and hypnotically watchable documentary about producer Robert Evans (narrated by himself) which is told simply and boldly with still images.  A must see for any serious student of the backstage politics of film producing.  In an age of sophisticated CGI trickery and budgets that could fill ozone holes...this minimalist film was a terrific (and much needed) change of pace.

 
 

6.    THE LAST SAMURAI

 
 

This is another bold and evocative historical epic.  This is a fascinating war film about an American Civil War veteran who becomes immersed in the world of late 1800's Japanese/samurai life.  Tom Cruise is at his confident and charismatic best, and Ken Watanabe gives an Oscar caliber performance as the leader of the samurai that is always inquisitive about the strange American who becomes a part of his life.  Spot-on pacing, boldly told, and with lush cinematography and kinetic visuals...THE LAST SAMURAI is not so much a film about war as it is about why  some cultures go to war.  Zen philosophy meets BRAVEHEART.

 
 

7.    GERRY

 
 

This is director Gus Van Sant's glorious slap in the face to the Hollywood establishment that would make Jean-Luc Goddard proud.  What is it about?  Two guys go into the desert and get lost...that's it.  Nevertheless, the film is a textbook exercise and thesis on mood and atmosphere that reaches a pinnacle of some sort of weird, perverse, existentialist madness that stretches the limits of modern audience patience.  For these reasons, I thought it was kind of brilliant.  Think WAITING FOR GODOT in reverse meets the most eerie, Kubrickian visuals.

 
 

8.     OWNING MAHOWNY

 
 

Based on the true story of a Toronto banker who embezzled money to fund his obsessive compulsive gambling habits.  OWNING MAHOWNY is a visual essay on the narrow-minded tunnel vision of the addict, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives yet another layered, complex, and fascinating performance.  A sad and frustrating portrait of a man who fails to understand his own troubling mental state and how he is destructive to himself and those around him.

 
 

9.     THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING

 
 

FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING was a fairly good and fiercely ambitious film.  THE TWO TOWERS was a good film marred by its own inadequacies in its  meandering editing and messy narrative.  RETURN OF THE KING is the type of wondrous escapist film that the previous two should have been.  It too is ambitious, but in a much more focused and confident way.  Gone is the overly long exposition of the first film and the story that lacked cohesion in the second.  What director Peter Jackson has done is craft one of the most wonderfully sustained set of action set pieces ever committed to film, which combines the latest breakthroughs in computer animation as effortless as the pioneering efforts of Lucas and Spielberg before him.  The film also seems much more emotionally invested in its characters ...their concerns, fate, and lives are given more attention this time around.  It's far from flawless (an opening expository scene was needless, as was the character played by Liv Tyler, and the film needed to end ten minutes earlier than it did), but RETURN OF THE KING is a proud achievement in the realm of the epic fantasy spectacle.  This is the best film in the trilogy.

 
 

10.    OPEN RANGE

 
 

Kevin Costner's new western plays like old westerns, and it's a nostalgic throwback to the simple and mythic virtues of the genre.  It's about simple men with simple goals and how violence was often a way of life.  Fantastic cinematography, a great supporting performance by Robert Duvall, and writing that's both wonderfully sparse and evocative at the same time.  This is the best western of the last ten years, and a fresh reminder to us on how stories can be powerful in broad ways when painted with even the most minimal strokes.

 
 

 

 

 
     
 

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