NOW PLAYING: Best & Worst of 2003

Posted: Monday, January 05, 2004

This happens every year, so you'd think I'd be used it by now. Movies are released in an orderly fashion all year long until December when, suddenly, it's every man for himself. The studios toss as many films as they can into the competitive holiday mix, tripping over each other to rush into awards season. Often, movies you want to see are only released in "select cities" (read: "other cities than yours), whereas other, less appealing choices are plastered over every marquee in the land. You want to see these movies, but with so many choices and so little time, you can't afford to spend two and half hours at a dud. So, as a service to you, I spent my holiday watching as many movies as I could. ("Yeah, big sacrifice," I can hear my wife remarking even as I type.)

2003 was simply an OK year for movies; not crummy, though certainly not stellar, either. While I saw more good movies than bad, most of the movies put out this year are distinguishing only for their mediocrity. The holiday season, with it's glut of films was simply a mirror for the rest of the year. This year may well be remembered for the battles off-screen rather than those on it. Big studios and little independents waged war on each other over the issue of screeners - videos of potential award winning films distributed to MPAA members. Big studios saw pirates on the horizon, and little studios saw their profits dry up and blow away. Without screeners, they cried, voters will never see our movies! To my mind, movies should be experienced on a big screen anyway, but I guess I can see the little guy's point. I missed three of the heavy hitters for this awards season (House of Sand and Fog, The Station Agent, and Big Fish) and I saw eight movies in ten days.

2003, sadly, will also be remembered as the year we lost so many legends. Katherine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Bob Hope, and a dozen others. There are a myriad of fine actors and actresses working today, but every year Hollywood slips a little farther from its roots, a little farther from the glory that it once was and never will be again. That said, there were at least ten films this year that did their best to exemplify the art of filmmaking, and ten films that, well, didn't. Here, in no particular order are . . .

The Best

Cold Mountain

Anthony Minghella's sweeping Civil War romance may be too talky for some, but Jude Law's epic journey from the front lines of the most tragic conflict in our country's history, across a ruined south, for a woman he can only hope is waiting for him is what big screens are made for. Renee Zellwegger and Nicole Kidman complement each other beautifully. Brilliant acting, writing, and direction make this film a shoo-in for a mountain of awards.

Finding Nemo

It's somehow satisfying when the most financially successful film of the year is also one of the best. It renews my faith in our ability to judge quality. Nemo is, simply put, the sweetest, funniest, and least cloying children's film in a decade - yet another instant classic from Pixar, a brilliant computer animation company that has deftly avoided being swallowed whole by the giant mouse it works for. This movie is one you'll want to find over and over again.

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not

Likely as not, this movie will not ring a bell, but is definitely worth seeking out. Audrey Tatou, putting a wicked spin on her lovely Amelie character, is a dangerously lovesick woman in this clever French import. The surprise ending is so perfect and subtly revealed that you'll find yourself wanting to start over again from the beginning,

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King


Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn and Ian McKellen as Gandalf in New Line's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of The King - 2003

Rated: PG-13

Photo Copyright New Line Cinema

It may seem a bit premature to say, but Lord of the Rings may well come to be regarded as the greatest series ever made. Packed full with every element necessary to an epic story, Return of the King is the finale that everyone wanted. It is,at once, both sweeping and small, intense and sweet. Director Peter Jackson, a relative rookie, has achieved what many thought would be impossible. He brought Tolkein's incredible imagination to life without diminishing his beautiful novels, books that will now be read more than ever before.

Lost in Translation

Think of the movie you'd expect to see where Bill Murray goes to Japan to shoot a series of whiskey commercials. Now throw that expectation out the window. Translation is funny, sad, and ultimately a reflection of an entire culture. In trying to please the West, traditionalism in Japan is being lost, and at the same time, Westerners color any experience they may have in Japan with their expectations. This examination of culture clash is elegantly woven around the doomed friendship of two Americans adrift in a sea of unfamiliarity and dissatisfaction by brilliant emerging director Sofia Coppola.

Matchstick Men

As if to prove that last year's Adaptation wasn't a fluke, Nicholas Cage went on to show us that he is still one of America's most versatile actors. The story of an obsessive/compulsive con artist, Matchstick Men never panders or diminishes it's source material, though never wallows in it either. At turns touching, hilarious, and surprising, this father/daughter drama far exceeds expectations and rises to the top of the heap.

A Mighty Wind

Christopher Guest's brilliant series of mockumentaries is perfectly accented by this razor sharp send-up of the folk music scene. Guest seems to have a genuine affection for those he skewers and it is this element that elevates his work above most satire. Guest follows three hit folk groups from the sixties as the reunite for a tribute concert to the man who helped start all their careers. His usual stable of actors return and having you rolling in the aisles even as you sing along.

Mystic River

Mystic River is, without question, the finest Clint Eastwood movie since Unforgiven, even though it is one of the few he has directed that he doesn't appear in. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon are an acting powerhouse in this heartbreaking tale of lost youth and revenge. Eastwood keeps you guessing, all the while revealing how far one will go to come to terms with his past, and the ultimate futility of vengeance. Easily the best film of the year.

The School of Rock

I know, this movie doesn't have pedigree. There's no Oscar cache. It's about a fifth-grade rock band, for God's sake. That said, School of Rock was the most satisfyingly fun movie I saw all year. Jack Black and Richard Linklater have infused this film with a joyous and honest love of rock and roll - a feeling that comes through in every hilarious frame. And who knows? With writing as sharp as this, maybe Oscar will come calling after all.

Whale Rider

I was agonizing about whether to include this movie or Tom Cruise's Japanese epic, The Last Samurai. In the end, though Samurai was good, it didn't have half the humanity of this small New Zealand tale of a modern girl trying to make a place for herself in the ancient male-centered traditions of the Maori. The relationship between grand-daughter and grand-father is at once heartbreaking and life affirming.

The Worst

2 Fast 2 Furious

That there would be a sequel to The Fast and the Furious was without question, but did it have to be this bad? Not only was it incredibly irresponsible in it's portrayal of cause and effect, it was just dumb. Vin Diesel is no Marlon Brando, but at least he's interesting. Perhaps the producers should have tried a little harder to get him back, and a little less time wooing waste of space Tyrese.

Bad Boys II

In direct opposition to eighth grade boys everywhere, I include this film in the ten worst. All the fun and chemistry of the original is squandered on loud flashy effects and cruel humor. I may be behind the times, but using corpses as speedbumps goes beyond the limits of good taste. Will Smith, do something good soon, please!

Bulletproof Monk

Who greenlit this trainwreck? Bulletproof Monk? I mean, c'mon, they had to know this would flop. It's about a pacifist who beats people up! Advertised as an action comedy, Monk boasts the talents of Sean William Scott and Chow Yun Fat, though getting these actors must have completely used up the writing budget. Oh it's funny alright, just not in the way intended.

The Cat in the Hat


Spencer Breslin and Mike Myers in Universal's Dr. Seuss' The Cat In The Hat - 2003

Rated: PG

Photo Copyright Universal Pictures

I should have known not to even attempt this movie, but nostalgia and curiosity got the better of me. If only my curiosity had killed the cat instead of punishing me. This travesty is only a little over an hour long, and yet I felt as though I'd spent a week with Mike Myers doing his whole repertoire of characters while dressed as a psychotic sock-monkey in a top hat. When the four-year olds you are marketed towards are crying instead of cheering, you know there's a problem. Thank god Dr. Seuss didn't live to see this.

Cradle 2 the Grave

Is there really anything to say about this ridiculous DMX/Jet Li kung-fu shoot-em-up that hasn't been said about a thousand other movies just like it? Probably not. Suffice it to say that Li's amazing martial arts ability still needs an actual story to wrap itself around.

Darkness Falls

I'd forgotten this movie came out in 2003 until I saw it in a list on the internet. I guess I'd blocked it out. Darkness Falls is the story of a killer tooth fairy who battles a group of intrepid twenty-somethings armed only with flashlights. Somehow, however, the movie is unable to fulfill the promise of that setup. Horror movies are often dumb, but usually they are at least kinda scary. I guess Darkness Falls at least succeeds in being different.


This was really an odd book for Lawrence Kasdan to try to adapt, so it's no wonder it turned out so badly. Stephen King's tale of rectum bursting aliens and mentally retarded clairvoyants didn't make a very good book either, but the bigger question is why was so much talent attracted to such a weird story? Morgan Freeman, Tom Sizemore, Jason Lee, and Donnie Wahlberg can do nothing to save this convoluted and unwatchable mess.

The Haunted Mansion

Disney's attempt to trump the incredibly successful Pirates of the Caribbean fell with a resounding thud loud enough to wake the dead. All effects and no soul, Mansion was actually a much better representation of an amusement park ride than Caribbean, including the feeling of waiting in line for hours, hoping anything remotely exciting will happen, and then discovering that the good part only lasts two minutes long.

The Medallion

I feel a little bad including this movie because, as my wife says, it isn't trying to be anything but what it is. It's poorly acted, written, and directed, but it knows it. I mention it more as a comment on the sad state of affairs we are in when Jackie Chan quits doing his own stunts. That's why I watch his movies. I can watch anyone fly around on wires, I want to watch Chan do it for real.

Scary Movie 3

I really hoped that, after the horror that was Scary Movie 2, getting a Zucker (Airplane) on board would solve some of the problems. Apparently, however, there's no help for this rapidly flatlining series. Granted, this is better than part 2, but for every funny joke, there are three long unfunny sequences trying desperately to get me to laugh. No such luck.

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