The Year in Film

“It seems like every year for the past few people have been talking about what a weak year for films it has been. I feel more like there are great films being made but the current environment (especially in the States) is not allowing these films to be seen. Half of my top 10 films from 2003 are from festivals and I honestly could have had all 10 from films that didn’t get a proper release in the US. Obviously, commercialism has always been an issue in film distribution and exhibition, but people are taking fewer and fewer chances both in the industry and in the audience. I honestly don’t know what to do about that, but someone or something is going to have to light a fire under the collective ass of the movie-going public or we’ll be dead in the water in a decade.” —Ned Hinkle, Cambridge, MA

“What happened? We finally get our own Vietnam and our own Nixon (or the closest thing we may get for awhile) and instead of channeling this escalating madness into urgent, ground-breaking cinema (i.e. the early Seventies), we tuned in and dropped out to whatever dope they had at the party-there were numbing empty highs, like Kill Bill or Return of the King, for some, and for others, murky lude hazes, like Mystic River or Lost In Translation, (the latter two drunk enough on their own atmosphere to distract us from how graceless, maundering and scrappy they were as films). But still, if this era is truly Vietnam on Benzedrine, and if we consider that The Sound of Music was a big winner back then, how far removed from that is Peter Jackson’s shrill, shallow spectacle? Are we too cynical for another phase of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls?” —Andrew Miller, New York, NY

“2003 was a year in which the French showed great insight (Iraq) as well as great taste (#s 1, 3 and 4 on my list). Anyone for “freedom” films? Meanwhile, the two movies with the hippest street cred (Lost In Translation, Elephant ) were disappointing exercises in style, vacantly hollow at the core and incapable of stimulating conversation beyond the proverbial water cooler.” —Redbeard Simmons, Burbank, CA

“2003 was a year in which we finally discovered what the cinematic reaction would be to 9/11. Through disparate images of unrelenting despair (House of Sand and Fog, 21 Grams ) and optimism-disguised-as-cynicism (American Splendor), the world cinema reflected the uneasy uncertainty of an age where cultural paranoia and American self-righteousness dominate the pop culture landscape.” —Jason Struss

“Where in recent years, I have had a difficult time delineating my favorites, this year my list easily exceeded ten, and could have exceeded even twenty. The most exciting aspect of 2003 filmmaking was its diversity of subject matter, genres and scope. From major studios to independents, from big budget to small, the quality of films this year was excellent and the entertainment, artistic and substantive value high. As an avid filmgoer, I had so many more choices that mirrored my moods and desires at any given time. The panoply of films added to rather than limited the marketplace of ideas, which is, after all, the best use of the freedom of expression that we enjoy in this country.” —Annette Ferstenberg, New York, NY

“It was a terrific year in films. Many of them never come to my neck of the woods in Montana (only the awful Blockbusters) so I have to travel to Seattle to see good films (10 hr drive) I miss so many of the good ones. To fill in the gaps I rent the DVDs and subscribe to Netflix. I subscribe to 4 film mags, too.” —Sandra Carpenter, Whitefish, MT

“The consensus seems to be that this was a weak year for cinema. I would contend that the first three on my list [La Commune, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, Ten] are among the most formally dazzling films I have ever seen. How’s that for inverse hyperbole! Also, a great year for comic performances (Bill Murray, Johnny Depp, Jack Black, Robert McNamara…um, sorry). As someone in the Village Voice pointed out recently, for one strange week in October the top 3 box office films were by Tarantino, Linklater, and the Coen Bros. 2003. Respect.” —Jim May, New York, NY

“This has been one of the weakest years for films in quite sometime. Most critics are beginning to jump on the proverbial bandwagon by acclaiming films that are special effects and gimmick ridden, rather than plot, or character driven. This is unfortunate as it weakens the potential for sharp, stronger movies with a thought in their head.” —Alexis Neapolitan, Jr.

“This year was just like any other year in movies; filled with good and bad. It was nice to see the return of Tarantino. Cronenberg and S. Coppola put out spellbinding films this year. It was also a great year for comedies; with Guest and Linklater’s films leading the pack, and American Splendor being the biggest suprise of them all. I loved seeing Soderbergh moving into new territory (television) and I’m glad that FILM COMMENT was the only place to write intelligently on the series (as I was hooked every week). Listing all these things I loved about the year more than makes up for any of the bad, which I would prefer to just say nothing about.” —Matthew Nader, Tulsa OK

“Whether it be Harvey Pekar escaping geekdom by allowing two women into his life or Kiarostami’s examination of a society forcing women into mobile imprisonment, 2003 was a prominent year for women, if anyone bothered to observe closely. The sanity of Eastwood’s Boston thugs were dependant upon their wives, while Little Women held a family together in Sheridan’s America, and destoyed a family in Scott’s Matchstick house. Then leave it all to Tarantino to fashion a cinematic feminist statement about sexuality using a bloodbath inter-cultural orgy in Japan. And I’m not even mentioning demonlover’s corporate ice-queens.” —Chiranjit Goswami, Winnipeg, Canada

“Despite the surplus of summer sequels, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality family fare released in 2004. Films like Finding Nemo, Freaky Friday, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Bend it Like Beckham left me hoping and praying that their box office success could put an end to the Daddy Day Cares of the world.” —Erin Miskey, New York, NY

“I continue to be grateful and impressed for/by the ever-increasing accessibility of undistributed and neglected films on DVD. With a region-free player, people who live in cities without major festivals can catch up with major films a lot faster than they were able to before. Rightly or wrongly, DVD is changing cinephilia in a major way.” —John Powers, Grand Rapids, MI

“The U.S. is continuing to lower its standard (except for those masterpieces that are Mystic River , the best Eastwood film to date, Elephant, a cold, Bresson-like film by Gus Van Sant and The Fog of War by Errol Morris) but films around the world continue to perpetuate, despite American domination and cultural control, cinematic art. Films from Belgium (Dardenne Bros.), Austria (Haneke), Iran (Kiarostami), France (Dumont, Rivette), Mexico (Reygadas), Finland (Kaurismaki) appear on my list, proof that you have to take a worldwide approach when searching for great movies. For 2004, I wish that more people will take interest in those “foreign” films rather than spend their time (and money!) on American corporative-fuelled garbage. One can always dream. Thank you.” —Eric Lacombe, Quebec, Canada

“The year of water movies! Finding Nemo … Big Fish… Mystic River… Pirates of the Caribbean… Swimming Pool… Master and Commander… The Sea…“—Dan Smith, Nashville TN

“It is a miracle that films even exist, so why would anyone complain at something as arbitrary and meaningless as how many great films accidentally did or did not debut in the same year? It’s not as though 1939 was planned well ahead of time to be one of the landmark years in cinema history. Enjoy the wonderful movies, shrug off the bad ones, and look forward to the next films by P.T. and Wes.” —Gabriel Bowles, Columbia, SC

“There were great movies. There were awful movies. It’s like that every year.” —Michael Kwolek, Cedar Grove, NJ

Going to the Movies

“Not even Lost In Translation was as offensive to moviegoers in ’03 as were those officious anti-piracy commercials featuring Hollywood artisans. With predictable Tinseltown pomposity, these “technicians”—including a wild-eyed set painter who to all appearances accidentally dunked his chin-whiskers in purple paint while genuflecting to some showbiz pasha—rattled off lists of the pabulum they helped to create, strongly implying that internet parasites must be stopped before their antics prevent the creation of another masterpiece such as Enemy of the State or Dick Tracy. If online pirates really possess such power, all the more reason to download, say, Along Came Polly or The Punisher rather than suffer through them in the multiplex at painfully inflated cost. To the purveyors of commercial tripe (which includes so-called “indie” travesties like Lost In Translation and The Secret Lives of Dentists), the American moviegoing audience’s ignorance and gullibility are bottomless, so H’wood perpetrates, with each new fatuous release, a bottomless insult. Most moviegoers, while desirous of distraction, prefer to be insulted in the privacy of their own homes, and so more and more of them download movies and burn illegal DVDs. Let the Tupperware parties continue, I say, until that set painter’s neck is drenched with dye-tinged sweat. To address that tagline, yes, movies are “worth it,” but their worth can’t be measured solely in money. Whatever threat pirates pose to Hollywood coffers pales in comparison to the offenses to basic human values that the film industry perpetrates on an almost weekly basis.” —Benjamin Kessler, Brooklyn, NY

Memorable Moments from the New York Film Festival

  1. Hearing a packed audience of Americans cheer the bloody massacre at the end of Dogville.
  2. Seeing a security guard push aside Naomi Watts to make way for Susan Sarandon at the screening of Mystic River.
  3. Tsai Ming Liang’s awkward post-screening exhortation for people to buy shares or sell tickets for Goodbye Dragon Inn. With his shaved head and characteristically charismatic, tranquil demeanor, was he parodying a Buddhist sage stumping for temple donations? I sure hope it was just that…—Kevin Lee, Astoria, NY

“I am appalled at the current trend to show commercials at theatres. It’s bad enough to see trailers that reveal practically the entire film, but 10 minutes of loud commercials at theatres charging $9 is obscene. Anyway, it has been a great year in film, and thanks again.” —Ross Nickow, Highland Park, IL

The “Year of the Documentary”

“2003 was remarkable for the prominence of documentary films among the best work of the year. Five of the titles in my top twenty list are non-fiction films, and my favorite film of the year used documentary methods to explore an urgent contemporary reality in fictional form. I can only hope that this signals a trend towards relevancy—to more movies, fictional or not, that deal with the actual issues and events of our lives. There will always be a place for escapist entertainment in film, but a complete dominance of sensation over sense, market research over personal vision, and formula over thought, impoverishes the cinematic art, and leads to a spiritual dead end.” —Chris Dashiell

“It was the year of the documentary. Even Battle of Algiers, not a documentary, but rereleased, restored, reevaluated and documenting our current horror, underscored this. So did Elephant . Documentary filmmakers captured the complexity of the human condition: how can we still hate Robert McNamara? a father who may have been a pedophile? an architect who wasn’t there enough for his son but who profoundly influenced him? —Margaret Bates, New York, NY

“For the first time that I can remember I saw more than 1 documentary that was in the running for my year-end top ten list, and not because there weren’t 10 other films that were not worthy of being on my top 10, but because i saw 3 documentaries that were not only well made, but were a source of not only entertainment, but also challenged me as a viewer. Hopefully I will be seeing more documentaries of such high quality in the future.” —Daniel J. Pilger, Philadelphia PA

“Even if there weren’t any films that I outright loved in quite the same way that I loved Spirited Away or Far From Heaven last year, 2003 at least offered quite a few films that really merit discussions of where the medium is headed. The spate of high-profile documentaries, to choose just one example, is nearly impossible to separate, in a broad social context, from the successes of “reality TV” programming. And was it really a weak year for foreign titles, or is that perception just a function of America’s continuing self-involvement and xenophobia after Gulf War Part Deux?” —Jonathan Keefe, Lexington KY

“Documentaries (and mockumentaries) were a lot more attractive than any major studio effort that didn’t have a hobbit. But excellent work by Coppola, Frears and Eastwood offer hope for a bright future long after we’ve left the shire.” —Frank Diller, Chapel Hill NC

Lost In Translation (#1)

“Every once in a while there comes a filmmaker whose sensuality as expressed on screen matches his or her intelligence. Sofia Coppola emerged as such a filmmaker when Virgin Suicides first came out. Lost In Translation proves it.” —Michael Niemcewicz, Jersey City, NJ

Lost In Translation made the list simply for the way it made me feel. It had a near-perfect blend of melancholy and humor that I tried not to analyze too closely for fear that the feeling would go away.” —Jeff Jewell, Ann Arbor MI

Lost In Translation makes a strong case for cinematic talent being genetic. An impossible romance that is equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious. A smart, funny, and romantic crowd-pleaser and the best movie of 2003.” —Rob Morton, New York, NY

Lost In Translation is essentially just Wong Kar-wai lite; the Coldplay to Wong’s Radiohead, if you will. It’s easily the year’s most wildly overpraised film, yet I can’t say it’s popularity and acclaim surprise me in the least: It’s an ooey-gooey love-letter to priviliged hipsters and jaded boomers; the hyperbole it inspired is the squishy sound of its target market making out with itself.” —Josh Timmerman

“Sublime, light as Air filmmaking with a catharsis that just kills. The best film by a Coppola in 25 years.” —Daniel Wible, Glen Mills PA

Has there been a sweeter, sexier movie moment this year than Bill Murray tentatively reaching over to touch Scarlett Johansson’s bare foot? Sofia Coppola’s exquisite second feature is filled with these kinds of small, beautifully acted scenes that, when taken together, paint a rich portrait of two like-minded souls who take solace in each other when the rest of their lives seem to be spinning out of control. I still don’t understand the people who accuse the film of being demeaning or racist in its depiction of Japan. For one thing, Coppola isn’t depicting the entire country—her focus is solely on Tokyo, which is a very different environment than the rest of Japan.” —Ethan Alter, Brooklyn, NY

“When critics began falling over themselves to praise the mediocre mood piece Lost In Translation this fall, I momentarily wondered if somehow the rest of the world forgot about Claire Denis’s doubly impressive Friday Night. Twice as insular yet twice as warm as Coppola’s feature-length posturing session, Denis’s film mines genuine suspense from its serendipitous intimate encounter. Like Translation, Friday Night creates an astringent atmosphere where the creation of its characters’ bond becomes an attempt to reclaim human connection for themselves. Denis doesn’t need to douse her protagonists in apathy to do that, however, and as a result, she creates an intensely subjective experience that is capable of appealing to more than the most cynical of moviegoers.” —Jeremy Heilman

“The Far From Heaven award for most overrated film of the year goes to Lost In Translation. If this were a satire on ignorant, narcissistic Americans abroad who are too wrapped up in themselves to appreciate a foreign culture it might have worked, but it’s far too obvious that Coppola is no more clued in than her characters. If ex-hubby Spike Jonze taught her one thing, it’s how to rip off the ending to a Wong Kar Wai film to, unfortunately, much lesser effect.” —Rob Ruzic, Toronto, ON

“Bill Murray had the greaest role of the best screen comedian of the last 40 years.” —Jesse Trussell, Austin TX

“Is it just me or was Lost In Translation not a comedy? Between the way it has been advertised, the Golden Globes, and the amount of people laughing in the theater I am beginning to believe that I don’t have a sense of humor.” —Travis Jay Hill, Bellingham WA

“I find it interesting that both Sofia and Roman Coppola are now making the films that Francis Coppola and George Lucas once said they would be making many years ago.” —Robert Merk, Fair Oaks, CA

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (#2)

“My choice for number one has to be Return of the King, the mightiest, meatiest epic ever filmed. Despite an overabundance of CG images, it represents everything I started loving movies for in the first place. A film this exciting and moving and that doesn’t treat the audience like they’re idiots cannot be ignored.” —Jeff Jewell, Ann Arbor MI

“An Overrated ‘epic’ and the most insipid, mind-numbingly pompous movie I’ve seen in years.” —Mitch Metcalf, Stamford CT

“Who knew “hobbit” meant “gay”? Sauron’s angry, red vagina can’t stop the soft-focus nuzzlings of J.R.R. Tolkien’s horny hobbits. The world can’t wait for the extended cut DVD with its X-rated reunion scene in Frodo’s boudoir at Elrond’s House. All those hobbits bouncing on the bed with Viggo Mortensen! Gimli licking his lips and quipping, ‘Dwarves excel at exploring dark tunnels!’” —Grady Hendrix

“I don’t know what agressive love scene made me more uneasy, beautiful doe eyed Audrey Tautou in Dirty Pretty Things or sweaty Sam and Flushed Frodo climbing the mountain to the big one eye, but never saying what they really mean.” —Jason Quinton

Mystic River (#3)

“Praise JC that Blood Work has been quietly swept under a rug somewhere and Mr. Eastwood has made a film that reminds us why a good script, good cast, and good director can make a damn fine dramatic movie without trying to be a show off, or emotionally manipulative. This is classic filmmaking, and should be noticed.” —Bossi Baker, Fayetteville AR

“The one film that critics desperately wanted to be a classic (Mystic River) was one of the most overrated films of the past decade. It’s a shame that Sean Penn will probably win an Oscar this year for a performance that he practically dialed-in (Penn, an Irish gangster…I’d of never thunk it!) instead of winning for any of his fine performances in his previous films (Dead Man Walking, Hurlyburly, etc.). The slight of the year: Ralph Fiennes getting just a murmur of praise for his monumental turn as a schitzophrenic in Spider.” —Chris Quay, Arlington, VA

Lost In America

“Once again, it’s difficult being a flim buff when you don’t live in a major metropolitan area. It’s hard to believe that the sixth-week revenues from Dumb and Dumber or Haunted Mansion couldn’t be bested by one or two weeks of not-too-out-there movies like Thirteen or Secret Lives of Dentists. When you don’t live in a big city, timing is everything—we just couldn’t get to Philly when Elephant was playing. demonlover and Guy Maddin’s Dracula had just left when we vacationed in Chicago. It’s hard to make up lost viewings on DVD when you’re trying to build The Catalog –Yi Yi or Band of Outsiders? The Wind Will Carry Us or Singin’ in the Rain? So here in the boondocks it was a piss-poor year even by megaplex standards. But, in the end of course, years don’t mean anything. If you look at 1953 alone, it might look like the early 50s were pretty medicore-subpar Hitchcock, Kurosawa, and Ford [ok, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but . . .]–but look at 1954, a great “year.” It may not have been the best year (although Ten was truly great), but I think it’s part of a larger, gradual upswing in international movies—why last year I saw a Godard movie without having to drive to NYC and I saw it in a commercial theater! Now, it only played two weeks and didn’t do too well critically or financially (although I’m sure it will seem better in retrospect)—but then again it didn’t have nude inserts of Bardot either. Last year we also saw Kandahar in Harrisburg PA, again at a (packed) commercial theater!” —John Svatek, Lancaster, PA

Put simply, I don’t know what I’d do without FILM COMMENT. As both a cineaste and a filmmaker, I anxiously await the coming of FC in the mail, and I’m never disappointed. Moreover, I know I’m in for a treat with whatever’s in store—even if this includes some hearty content I know I’m going to have to wait a long time to experience for myself. (Elephant still hasn’t come to town). It might sound silly, but i’m guessing that there’s more out there like me, who get off on everything in the mag, even though we’re hard pressed to catch a great deal of the films mentioned until some time later, if at all. On a specific note, all praise to Vidi Vidi Vidi; if there’s one thing I look forward to most, it’s getting a glimpse at what films I can see, and what to put on this year’s Xmas list.” —Ward Howarth, Richmond, VA

Kill Bill Vol. 1 (#4)

“As for my top choice, I picked Kill Bill, Vol. 1 because it’s the one film to which I’ve had the most prolonged emotional response. A lot of people will question that statement; I realize that it’s the kind of film that will be most thoroughly enjoyed by those who have a long-standing joy of genre films. I also know that it has some harsh violence and situations that will put off many who haven’t already been exposed to director Quentin Tarantino’s style and substance. I’m not sure what gives me the greater chills: the blistering, should-but-probably-won’t-win-an-Oscar performance by Uma Thurman, the camerawork and color schemes, or the soundtrack, filled with unique and inspiring musical choices that help to distill and lovingly accent the images on screen. To say I’m excited about Volume 2 is like saying I had something brief to say about Volume 1.” —Steve Norwood, Lewisville TX

“Everything old is new again in Quentin Tarantino’s blood-soaked pastiche to blaxploitation, kung fu, and revenge B movies. Uma Thurman’s badass heroine is both delirious and invigorating while mixed with a good measure of Peckinpah-esque morality. Bring on Volume 2!” —Mitch Metcalf, Stamford CT

“Yes! Tarantino was released from the carbonite! Then he waited like three more years, ate a bunch of frozen pizza’s, had one more box of ding dongs, and then made one of the best Friday Night movies of all time! Tarantino’s ode to Chinese Kung Fu flicks and California grind house theaters was better than I ever expected it could possibly be. Uma was not to be fucked with, and neither was the soundtrack. Once again, Quentin has stolen a hundred different ideas from other great filmmakers and somehow ended up owning them.” —Bossi Baker, Fayetteville, AR

Kill Bill will only grow in estimation—with each film, Tarantino expands his references vastly to include elements of world cinema/culture so diverse that he may need to release an ‘annotated’ version of his films.” —Scot West, Iowa City, IA

“It’s fascinating to compare the mindless violence of Kill Bill, which didn’t leave a scratch on this viewer, to the horrors in Elephant , City of God , and Mystic River . The characters in those films become real for me; they hurt, they bleed. Van Sant, Eastwood, Katia Lund & Fernando Meirelles—they understand violence. Tarantino doesn’t. Not yet.” —Greg Machlin, New York, NY

“2003 saw two films that: (1) featured female lead(s), (2) valued action, atmosphere, and attitude over plot, (3) replaced character depth with exhaustive references to pop culture and/or cult films. That Kill Bill is so critically valued where Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle is reviled speaks only to the fact that the critical establishment places more importance on the reference points of Tarantino’s film then they do on McG’s. Suffice to say that neither bothers to critique or examine their forebears; both settle for simulation and homage. Charlie’s Angels at least has the presence of mind to spoof its excesses and those of the summer tentpole genre, such excesses proving dead weight in the latter Matrixes and Kill Bill.” —John Strelow, Los Angeles, CA

“Perhaps the worst thing you could say about Kill Bill is that it isn’t even lousy enough to be interesting; nor are his “ideas” in rearranging narrative time structures for effect. (It’s film—that’s what it’s always been useful for). Kill Bill is merely average; remarkable only in the way you might take a moment to stop and watch a pie-eating contest. I guess that in our relativistic and gluttonous culture, the fact that someone out there would be so willing to gorge himself on junk (for Tarantino, it’s junky movies) way more than anyone else would is what we are now calling “talent,” “pure cinema,” “the director as DJ” and other such empty, schlocky terms. Perhaps, but it definitely does not produce art.” —Tariq Tapa, Houston TX

American Splendor (#5)

American Splendor was such a thrill because of its seamless mixing of elements which simply aimed to describe Harvey Pekar the way he would on film. The filmmakers succeed in transmitting Pekar’s weird, cranky yet somehow comforting persona.”—Betty Teng, Brooklyn, NY

“That American Splendor took Best Picture honors with both the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assocation leaves me somewhat suspicious that maybe critics are a little over-eager to heap kudos on any American indie that doesn’t totally suck.” —Josh Timmerman

Elephant (#6)

“Where the hell did the new Gus Van Sant come from? I can’t wait to see what he does next.” —Jonathan Hoagland, Mountaintop, PA

“Van Sant may be stealing pages from lesser known masters, but he manages to bring them into his own in America. Why aren’t more filmmakers on these shores going this route, and to such tremendous effect? I guess we all know the answer to that one.” —Ivan Zeile, Denver CO

City of God (#7)

“This astonishingly powerful debut feature from Fernando Meirelles really deserved a wider audience. City of God is vibrant, raw and explosive. The slums of Rio De Janeiro circa 1960-1980 are vividly recreated as boyhood friends Benny and Lil Ze rise from petty vandals to become powerful ganglords. Right from the start, City of God pounds with a furious visual energy and a killer soundtrack.” —Rob Morton, New York, NY

“While I thought nothing would top the movie event of the year, Kill Bill: Volume 1, City of God came out of nowhere. This Scorsesean gangster operatic epic not only hits you on the gut level with its intense display of violent realism, but it’s one that also displays its true story through artistic storytelling techniques that seem influenced by Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.” —Judd Taylor, New York, NY

“An explosive dose of MTV-inspired hysteria that transcends its visual gloss to achieve great beauty and truth. Director Meirelles’s raw and devastating vision of urban hell is, by far, the year’s most impressive debut.” —Daniel Wible, Glen Mills, PA

“Oh, how I loathed the City of God’s hypocrisy, its reliance on whizzbang visuals to thrill all the while insisting—quite obviously, mind you—that guns and gangsta-life are bad, that violence begets violence. Now, were the film to glamorize the violence et al. in such a way as to woo us spectators into this life, were it to show us this life’s allure rather than simply blitzing our senses with flashy, impersonal imagery, perhaps then I wouldn’t find the film’s pretty well-intentioned ethics so dishonest and offensive. What too many filmmakers keep refusing to acknowledge nowadays is that the individualization and Humanization of all things morally abhorrent makes for a much more recognizable and truthful and SCARY reality than presenting some tautological reality in which hoods are just hoods because they’re hoods.” —Ryan Tracy, Owings Mills, MD

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (#11)

“In this day and age when the planet seems so small, it’s difficult to remember an era when there were still lands that hadn’t yet been explored. In its best moments, Master and Commander makes you feel as if you are seeing the world for the first time.” —Ethan Alter, Brooklyn NY

Spider (#12)

“One of David Cronenberg’s best films. Could it be because he didn’t write the book or screenplay? The art direction and cinematography help to convey the sense of harrowing sadness and hopelessness. This is so much better than A Beautiful Mind.” —Mario DiMaio

“Reality? No clearer case for the cognitive dissonance implicit in searching for it in film has been made. Obsession helps.” —Steve Jones

The Fog of War (#13)

“Errol Morris’s brilliant documentary will be relevant whenever there is a war being waged in the world. Therefore, it will (sadly) always be relevant. I actually found myself admiring Robert McNamara’s candor and remorse, while at the same time asking myself ‘why the hell didn’t your conscience surface during Vietnam?’” —Mitch Metcalf, Stamford CT

All the Real Girls (#15)

“David Gordon Green is my favorite contemporary film director. He has consistently found new ways to tell stories so far, and made it far more interesting than anything else out there. Yes, he owes a lot to Terrence Malick, but at least he doesn’t look like he’s going to take a 25 year break in between each film. I don’t feel like this film has got the attention that it deserved, and will hopefully be looked at more as time goes on. The best movie of the year.” —Bossi Baker, Fayetteville, AR

28 Days Later (#18)

“This is hands down the best straightforward horror movie of the last ten years. It served to remind audiences that horror can and should be played straight. This little gem from Britain managed to get under my skin and stay there throughout the entire 90 minute run time. And best of all, there was none of that winking-at-the-camera bullshit that’s plagued nearly every American horror movie released in the wake of Scream.” —Chris Olson

Pirates of the Carribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (#19)

Pirates of the Carribbean was first and foremost a triumph of screenwriting. Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio are truly the unsung heroes of this film, as they were for Mask of Zorro.” —Greg Machlin, New York, NY

“Had you told me a year ago that I would love a movie based on a Disney theme park ride, much less one produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, I wouldn’t have just laughed in your face, I would probably have spit in it as well.” —Chris Olson

“No, not a work of art, perhaps, but this gloriously kitsch family film was wittier, sexier, better acted and more entertaining than any of the year’s other commercial epics. And yes, that includes Lord of the Rings…” —Guy Lodge, South Africa

School of Rock (#20)

“The absolute funniest movie I saw in 2003 School of Rock’s plot is by-the-numbers but the execution is where it’s at. Director Richard Linklater strikes just the right balance between indie sensibility and mainstream appeal, never letting things get too cutesie or cloying. You haven’t met a group of kids as talented and funny as these since…well, since Spellbound. (What a great double feature that would make!)” —Rob Morton, New York, NY

Irreversible (#22)

“By far the most misunderstood film of the year, by critics and audiences alike. A thoroughly unique creation that expertly deals out craft, experimentation, and a complete symbolic thread to relationships that its hard to imagine not liking it. That is, if one can manage to get through the first five minutes, the next fifteen, that nine minute scene, etc…..Memorable? How can one possibly forget this masterpiece?” —Ivan Zeile, Denver CO

“Pretentious, manipulative, and excessive. I loved it, if love is the right word. The camera work is all thrashing savagery, the music apocalyptic dread, the setting the bowels of hell, and the sanity long excreted.” —Daniel Wible, Glen Mills, PA

In America (#25)

“Jim Sheridan’s In America extended Kaige’s Together revelation. He applies, across a canvas of immediate post-9/11, AIDS-era concerns, the truths exposed in Steven Spielberg’s films, referencing Saving Private Ryan, E.T., A.I, Amistad, and Minority Report. It represents a new vision of myth and country, faith and democracy.” —John Demetry, Erie, PA

A Mighty Wind (#27)

“The only time I cried at the movies this year, and it was a Christopher Guest movie starring Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara… which has a fart joke IN THE TITLE!” —Eric Johnson

The Son (#31)

“When I first saw the Dardenne Brothers’ technique of putting a camera behind their main character’s head and showing us only what their world and perspectives contain (in Rosetta), I thought it seemed limited and artificial. But I changed my mind (by the end of Rosetta) and consequently, I was overwhelmed by the net-like discipline and spareness of The Son. Stripped of everything not essential to his story, the essence (a version of the Buddhist idea that the path to enlightenment involves showing friendliness to one’s enemies) comes through like a clarion call.” —Jim Faller, E. Elmhurst, NY

“My favorite film of 2003, The Son, is another reason why I feel the Dardenne brothers are the greatest brother filmmaking team ever. No other film (besides Godard’s In Praise of Love) moved me to the point that I watched it twice in a row). The immeasurable amount of satisfaction that film gave to me more than makes up for what I believe was a lackluster year in American cinema.” —Vince Henriquez

Lilya 4-Ever (#35)

“Practically hidden from the public, but exceptional to most of those who saw it, Lilya 4-Ever creates a buoyant and hopeful feeling from the most dismal and depressing story. Wringing Christian redemption from a sad true story, Moodysson convinces us that innocence is protected by God, evil becoming the meaningless decoration of the gnostic demiurge.” —Jim Faller, E. Elmhurst, NY

The Secret Lives of Dentists (#47)

“Never before have I seen a film so knowingly capture the dégringolade of a marriage as The Secret Lives of Dentists. Every action and reaction, every look and every feeling is so firsthandedly lived-through, and so exact is its presentment of how the shit goes down when one from a couple strays that even the source material’s heavy-handed, over-stretched Teeth is to Marriage analogy (thankfully only present in the pro-/epilogues) is excusable.” —Ryan Tracy, Owings Mills, MD

Fits of Passion

“Claude Chabrol’s criminally underrated The Flower of Evil was easily the best film of the year. It showed a classical rigor and control worthy of Fritz Lang, and was as underrated as Lang’s late films were when they were released. The ending was enormously moving and it proves once again that by stripping away all but the most essential elements of his visual style, Chabrol’s “classicism” has proved itself far more modern than the strenuous attempts at “modernism” or “postmodernism” we have seen from other filmmakers.” —Richard Menello, Matawan, NJ

“If future generations want a snapshot of the bubbling, boiling psyche of the American people as they invaded Iraq please refer them to Dreamcatcher. Aliens sodomize hard-drinking super-powered folksy folks and get their butts kicked by a retard whose name sounds a lot like “Dubya”. Morgan Freeman grows his eyebrows like Lo Lieh and intones Department of Homeland Security palaver before he chases Tom Sizemore with a helicopter. So much noise, so much anal fear, so much paranoia. What the hell: Lawrence Kasdan had to make a good movie eventually.” —Grady Hendrix

Stone Reader has become one of my favorite films. For many I know that would rather read a book than do anything else, this film was their Woodstock. It also did what no other film did this year, brought back into print a long lost novel. While said novel, The Stones of Summer may not be quite the masterpiece the documentary would have one believe, the fact that it came back in print at all is a testimony to the power of film. Stone Reader is also the most enjoyment I had watching a film the last few years. After four viewings, it still speaks to me. I have showed it to several friends and will continue until everyone I know has seen it.” —John Dodd, New York, NY

“Altman’s The Company should not be overlooked. It acheived the ‘voyeuristic’ look and feel that (while still amazing) Van Sant’s Elephant failed. There was no spiking (even extras) of the camera or anything that would allow the audience to think ‘hey these people are acting.’ It was pure natural reality, something I wish we as artists would strive for. Altman has reinvented himself again and the film is beautiful.” —Stephen Gillis, Vancouver, British Columbia

Masked and Anonymous was highly underrated, and while it had its flaws, it provided an unabashed look at an imperial, facist pseudo-America and had some of the best music of the year, thanks to the ever-fresh Bob Dylan.” —Sam Heaton, Gibsons, British Columbia

“The knee jerk negative response to Masked and Anonymous was as if Dylan went electric all over again. The reaction to this flawed little film was the most ridiculous critical pile on of the year.” —Jay Herzog, Arcata, CA

The Shape of Things is this year’s Storytelling. Both are audaciously provocative and unapologetically vitriolic; both were transparently savaged by, well, just about everyone. Personally, I’d take Solondz or LaBute’s genuine bite any day over Lost In Translation‘s designer brooding or American Splendor’s Woody Allen wanna-be crankiness.” —Josh Timmerman

“After the undue hype heaped on Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man two years ago, it was not surprising to see a whole new market to finally open up for adaptations of some of the most respected comic book creations. The two best evocations of the comic book aesthetic were created out of this, though they both were despised by those who turned a blind eye to the narrative and visual compromises of Bryan Singer’s X2. Daredevil, a dark yet sexy Hell’s Kitchen kung-fu incarnation of the blind justice seeker Matt Murdock, and Ang Lee’s Jekyll-and-Hyde Hulk, were the most faithful and exciting “comic-book” films created since Tim Burton left the Batman series (though something could be said for Wesley Snipes’s hammy yet fun Blade films). Both exemplified the ideal mainstream marriage of digitally-glistened effects and raw, pulp melodrama.” —Patrick Kennelly, Northridge, CA

“Assembling a Top 10 was a tough call. But I’ll always remember this as the year that gave us In The Cut, which in turn gave us an actual great performance from Meg Ryan and a flawless performance from Mark Ruffalo.” —Matthew Bridges, Australia

“My favorite film of the year—Peter Pan—wasn’t perfect, but it had truer emotional depth than some of the adult dramas I was supposed to go mad about: Mystic River and House of Sand and Fog—two films which, by God, were going to be bleak as hell no matter what plot contrivances were necessary to make it happen.” —David Dwyer

Down with Love was fun, colorful, and consistently surprising. And Renee Zellweger is only a little annoying. Seriously, does she have to make that face?” —Eric Johnson

The Missing is the one anomaly in my top five, but I can’t understand why no one liked this movie. I love Westerns, and this is easily the best since Unforgiven. The locations were suitably rugged and mean, the tone was dark, especially for Ron Howard, and the movie pulled no punches, at least until the end. And Cate Blanchett has got to be among the top three living, working actresses. So why was it not received better?” —Jeff Jewell, Ann Arbor, MI

Divine Intervention was the only film I managed to see twice, during a year in which my film viewing was severally limited. A unique voice, and a unique vantage upon which to view a world situation that couldn’t possibly make sense to a country hell-bent on “Homeland Security” —Ivan Zeile, Denver, CO

“Peter Watkins emerged this year with La Commune (Paris 1871), one of the most important films I have seen in my life. It’s a terrible shame how few will ever see it again.” —Valeria Mogilevich, New York, NY

“I picked Crimson Gold as the best film of the year (following its appearance at the New York Film Festival) because it was precisely the type of film that Hollywood would never make—a film that charts the slow humiliation and decline of its protagonist and delineates the economic strata of a divided nation without hyperbole or sentimentality. The film portrays this world with a removed, dispassionate gaze—as seemingly dispassionate and unmotivated as the protagonist himself—that merely observes the progress of the action.” —Leo Goldsmith, New York, NY