The Best Films of 2003 

In a year of big-screen sadness, our critics comfort those who triumphed.
The third of four articles.

As a reader, it can be easy to assume that all the writers at a particular publication are more or less of the same mind, but usually that isn't the case. The six writers who review films for the Express are just too independent-minded to take their colleagues' views into consideration, which is why, when coming up with a collective cinematic best-of-year list, there was plenty of potential for chaos. How do you achieve consensus when one person's best may well be another's worst? Bill Gallo, Melissa Levine, Jean Oppenheimer, Luke Y. Thompson, Gregory Weinkauf, and Robert Wilonsky voted for their favorites. What you see below is the result. Keep in mind that each writer is probably tremendously annoyed by the inclusion of at least one of the titles on the list. Why a top twelve, instead of the standard ten? Because there are six critics, and they each deserve second helpings.

1. In America

Sorrow sprouts wings and flies in Irish director Jim Sheridan's radiant new film, which pits the pain and grief of unimaginable loss against the resilience of the human heart. Co-written by the director and his two daughters, the semiautobiographical tale concerns an Irish family that emigrates to New York City in an impossible attempt to get past the death of a four-year-old son. Told from the perspective of the family's ten-year-old daughter, the story contains a deep well of sadness but also an irrepressible sense of wonder and delight. Nowhere is that dichotomy more evident than in the grim Hell's Kitchen setting, which takes on the air of a fairy tale through the eyes of sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger, who play the young siblings in the movie. The adult actors, Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, and Djimon Hounsou, are also superb, while cinematographer Declan Quinn's effortless camerawork misses nothing yet seems to be capturing everything spontaneously. A rare gem of a film, In America touches one's emotions in countless ways. -- Jean Oppenheimer

2. Lost in Translation

Who would have thought that a movie about an American movie star visiting Japan to shoot a liquor commercial could feel so universal? That the film has struck so many different nerves in viewers more than likely comes from writer-director Sofia Coppola's emphasis on her lead characters' inner lives rather than the plot circumstances in which they find themselves -- the story could be set in downtown Los Angeles and still ring as true for all those people out there who find themselves in a strange part of the city at some late hour, amid a crowd of folks one has never before encountered. Contemporary Tokyo as a setting adds to the dreamlike feel of the proceedings, however -- it's as if someone in Blade Runner decided to take a left turn away from the part of town where all those robots are killing people, and took time out to be alone, never quite knowing whether that loneliness might become a permanent condition. Also, let's be honest: Bill Murray's karaoke version of "More Than This" is a heartbreaker, and Scarlet Johansson has possibly the finest ass crack I've ever seen on the big screen. -- Luke Y. Thompson

3. Spellbound

In this year of the documentary (there were several more worthy of contention, among them Stevie and Love and Diane), Jeffrey Blitz' Spellbound proved as much as any great moviemaker why real life is more compelling than any fiction. No film released in 2003 was more exhilarating and affecting than this doc about eight students preparing for and making it to the 1999 National Spelling Bee. The kids, of varying ethnicities and economic situations, came from all over the country and possessed different reasons for entering such an unforgiving contest, where one letter is the difference between first place and the single, heartbreaking ping of the judge's unforgiving bell. Some wanted to please their parents, who demand only perfection; some wanted to experience the adventure; some wanted just to get it over with. Well before we get to the competition, which takes place during the film's final half, Blitz introduces us to each of the kids and their families, so that by the time we're on stage with them, we're cheering them on as though they were our own flesh and blood. When they struggle, we sweat; when they lose, we cry; when they win, we cheer ... and then want to watch Spellbound all over again. -- Robert Wilonsky

4. Capturing the Friedmans

Six viewings in, and still it's not clear whether Arnold and his then-eighteen-year-old son Jesse committed multiple acts of sexual abuse on children taking computer classes in the Friedmans' Great Neck, New York, home in 1987. You will have your suspicions but also your doubts, as does director Andrew Jarecki, whose documentary neither judges nor absolves but only suggests. Yet the mystery, be it the result of a witch hunt or a quest for deserved justice, withers next to the larger tale of a family obsessed with chronicling its devastation and ultimate decimation; that ultimate American tragedy is the heart of this masterpiece. Jarecki's documentary started as a light film about David Friedman, beloved kiddie-party entertainer in Manhattan, but changed course when the bitter clown hinted at long-buried family secrets. Jarecki, given access to more than fifty hours of videotapes and audio recordings made by the Friedmans, shows us Arnold and Elaine Friedman as optimistic newlyweds, as young parents to three beautiful little boys, then finally as strangers who loathe each other in plain view of their sons, one of whom, Jesse, will ultimately serve time in prison. Capturing the Friedmans is harrowing and haunting and the most unforgettable film of 2003. -- Robert Wilonsky

5. American Splendor

With hard-luck humor, downtrodden honesty, an achingly real leading man, and stunning yet low-key formal innovation, American Splendor may be the most humble work of genius to grace screens this year. Playing alongside the real article, Paul Giamatti is irresistible as Harvey Pekar, the disheveled Cleveland file clerk who gained a cult following by documenting his sometimes excruciating, sometimes merely banal life in the comic book series that shares the movie's title. As Pekar's pasty, unimpressed wife Joyce Brabner, who also appears in the film, Hope Davis is hilarious and deadpan. The couple's winningly abbreviated courtship leads to a marriage that somehow, despite mutual contempt and neurotic pathology, emerges as loving and kind. When the kid enters the picture, the family flirts with happiness. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini build the story frame by frame and brick by brick, using animation and a partial set against a white screen to evoke both the creation of a comic book and the creation of a life. When the actors and the real-life people appear in the same frame, the result is breathtaking. Ultimately, the film is sheer elegance, flitting lightly among multiple narrative forms with an utter lack of pretense. -- Melissa Levine

6. Spun


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