The Best Films of 2003 

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

Page 2 of 3

At once outrageously unpleasant and shockingly sensitive, this belly flop into hipster drug culture proves an auspicious feature debut for Jonas kerlund, who previously helmed music videos for Madonna, Moby, and U2 (and apparently met their agents). A three-day odyssey through Southern Hell-afornia, the seemingly familiar story by fledgling screenwriters Will De Los Santos and Creighton Vero charts the paths of addicts who've ... um ... basically graduated from Red Bull. These speed freaks include Brittany Murphy as a stripper and Mickey Rourke as the macho-pathetic meth man known as the Cook, delivering genuinely moving performances at the heart of absolute madness. Our "hero" is Jason Schwartzman channeling Dustin Hoffman by way of a zip demon -- demented, cruel, and unlikable (he leaves his "date" tied up in his fleapit for the whole movie), thus he fits in perfectly. In addition, we get Judas Priest's Rob Halford as a porn-store clerk, Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit as a walking pimple-farm, Deborah Harry as a nosy dyke, and Mena Suvari grunting on the toilet (thanks, honey). Yes, Billy Corgan's score and the wistful driving montages grow a little tiresome, but the conclusion is a blast, and the overall impact feels almost true enough to qualify as documentary. -- Gregory Weinkauf

7. Whale Rider

This wonderful film contains the year's finest scene, and it's deceptively simple: no bombast, no special effects, just one young girl (brilliant Keisha Castle-Hughes) in traditional Maori attire, singing in a pageant, aching for the approval of her stubborn chieftain grandpa (Rawiri Paratene, aces) who doesn't show up. Volumes are spoken. In adapting Witi Ihimaera's poetic novel, writer-director Niki Caro delivers a gem, sans pretense (she doesn't fear entertaining us) and sans melodrama (the heartstrings are honestly strummed). If The Lord of the Rings concerns the dawn of the "Age of Men," Whale Rider essays its dreamy twilight, offering a sneak preview of this new millennium. Without resorting to "feminism," it illustrates how stupid men look when they're fighting anything but Orcs, neutralizing manly madness with a shot of natural wisdom as big as a whale. Part family drama, part fable, part parable, it's a portrait of Girl Power that doesn't make its heroine into another female dickhead, but rather allows her to falter and eventually, humbly, claim her birthright as a leader. Call it bathetic if it makes you feel superior, but this film shares the top of my list for having the guts to be gentle and intelligent. -- Gregory Weinkauf

8. The Fog of War

At the opening of The Fog of War, the brilliant documentary from director Errol Morris, we see a composed, sharply groomed, and middle-aged Robert McNamara, preparing to brief the press on the Vietnam war. Before he speaks, he wants to know one thing: Are the cameras rolling? Now, forty years later, the media-savvy, media-weary McNamara is face-to-face with one of our country's most accomplished documentarians in a feature-length interview -- once again, answering questions about his role in Vietnam. Morris comes neither to praise McNamara nor to bury him; instead, he invites the former secretary of defense (whose remarkable life placed him in positions of power during much of the 20th century) to show us how things looked to him then, and how they appear now. It is a film, essentially, about the lessons of a single life, albeit a life that influenced the lives of many others. Whatever else you can say about him, McNamara is a grappler, determined to learn from his mistakes. As a result, The Fog of War never falls neatly into any single or obvious camp of opinion; instead, it courts complexity, engaging the difficulties of potentially unanswerable questions with honesty, bravery, and intellectual rigor. -- Melissa Levine

9. 21 Grams

An open wound of a film, this tale of loss, grief, guilt, and redemption contains brilliant work by a trio of superb actors: Sean Penn (outdoing even his performance in Mystic River), Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro. The film marks the second collaboration between Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and Mexican-born director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who helped to usher in a renaissance of Latin-American cinema three years ago with their extraordinary movie Amores Perros. Like that earlier picture, the English-language 21 Grams concerns the aftermath of a fatal car accident and the three individuals whose fates become intertwined as a result of the tragedy. While the nonlinear storytelling takes some getting used to -- and will be considered an unnecessary intrusion by some viewers -- nothing can detract from the powerful emotions and anguished themes that lie at the film's center. Brutal, painful, honest, brilliant. -- Jean Oppenheimer

10. The Matrix Reloaded

You carped year after year about blockbuster movies having no plot, then when one finally comes out that's full to the brim with story, you complain that it's too confusing? Geez. Look, it may be hard to recall in hindsight, but back in 1980 people said the same things about The Empire Strikes Back that they're saying about Reloaded: It has an annoying cliffhanger ending that leaves a lead character in a coma; there's an irritating guru who speaks cryptically; it's unclear exactly what our hero's new "powers" are; it has big overblown action sequences; it undermines what we thought we knew about the story from the last film. Time, and DVD, will vindicate Reloaded, even though, like Empire, it was followed by an overly pat part three. Never predictable, and boasting one of the all-time great cinematic villains in Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith, Reloaded was one hell of an ambitious sequel, and even the naysayers need to give it that. -- Luke Y. Thompson

11. Cold Mountain

Anthony Minghella's magnificent film version of Charles Frazier's Civil War best-seller has much more going for it than Hollywood grandeur. Along with gruesome battle scenes populated with thousands of extras, and Hollywood glamour -- Jude Law and Nicole Kidman are like beautiful pieces of china about to fall from a high shelf -- this grand-scale epic has the kind of moral force and intimate focus great movies about love and war demand. Based on nothing less than Homer's Odyssey (and the war experiences of the author's great-great-uncle), it's the tale of a wounded soldier trying to get home to his roots despite huge obstacles, and in that it's fluent, frightening, and beautiful all at once -- a gorgeous piece of filmmaking you can feel in your heart and in your gut. Thanks to cinematographer John Seale, production designer Dante Ferretti, and costume designer Ann Roth, every bayonet thrust and jacket button look like the real thing (a must for hardcore Civil War re-enactors), and the period-authentic folk songs (selected by producer T-Bone Burnett) have just the right plaintive yearning. After all these decades, Gone with the Wind seems to be just that -- gone. Herewith, the new standard for Civil War drama onscreen. -- Bill Gallo

12. Mystic River

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