You can tell a so-so year at the movies by the growing desperation with which critics have slapped “masterpiece,” “stunning” and “magnificent” on films that are merely capable (Mystic River, Master and Commander) or, worse, frankly pandering (Something’s Gotta Give). No wonder the studios didn’t want to send us screeners.
My picks for the best movies of 2003 boast no masterpieces, though Peter Pan is undoubtedly a classic. Still, it’s worth noting that the movies of 2003 signaled a modest triumph for women on both sides of the camera, as well as a wave of terrific films about children that make you tremble for the prime casualties of our quarrelsome, broken world. In no particular order, here’s the list.
1 Blue Car. You’re probably sick of pious stories about sexual abuse, but Karen Moncrieff’s vibrantly specific first feature about a teacher who crosses the line with a troubled high school student is the anti-TV-movie — an empathic, merciful examination of how vulnerability on one side, plus a lethal brew of good intentions and self-deception on the other, plus loneliness all around, can sour into disaster all around.
2 Finding Nemo. Funny how an animated movie about neurotic fish can be so elegantly mounted and wittily scripted (by Andrew Stanton) that you feel as though you’re watching one of those bantering romantic comedies from the ’30s and ’40s. Ellen DeGeneres for Best Dory! Albert Brooks for Being Himself!
3 Lost in Translation. Without Bill Murray, this might just be a weird re-imagining of Brief Encounter enlivened by Sofia Coppola’s goofily affectionate take on Tokyo. With him (crisply abetted by Scarlett Johansson), it’s a wonderfully droll and tender portrayal of a chaste love affair conducted through the fog of jet lag — and, it turns out, Coppola’s wistful swan song for her ill-starred marriage to Spike Jonze.
4 Japón. Carlos Reygadas’ meditative film about a Mexican painter who retreats to the mountains to kill himself and finds reasons to live is so fractured, so willfully experimental and enigmatic, it all but collapses in on itself, but it’s so beautiful and so wholly unexpected at every turn, it stays with you for days.
5 The Triplets of Belleville. A clubfooted Portuguese granny and a has-been sister act play handmade music and save the world from the French Mafia. Great things come from the free play of the wild and woolly imagination of animator Sylvain Chomet, who can make you see everything you need to know about people — to say nothing of dogs — just by watching how they move.
6 Lilya 4-Ever. Though far from perfect, this loaded dice of a film by Lukas Moodysson gives a devastatingly persuasive account of how young girls from the dregs of the former Soviet Union find themselves lured into prostitution — and delivers a stinging rebuke to the West, where “free markets” include trafficking in unprotected human flesh.
7 The Son (Le Fils). The Dardennes brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, keepers of the flame of proletarian anguish, triumph yet again with this unsparing study of a Herculean emotional struggle undertaken in near-total silence. Olivier Gourmet gives a masterful performance as a taciturn worker trying to mediate his pain over the loss of a child with his desire to become a father again.
8 Carnages. In which we learn that a pile of organs harvested from a dead bull and sent as care packages to a bunch of lost souls is worth a thousand therapy sessions. Novice writer-director Delphine Gleize has the visual style of a joyous drama queen, an ear for bizarre speech, and an entirely proper attitude to violence as the means by which we slay our internal devils. In my review I called it “protein to the alfalfa of most American moviemaking about transformed lives.”
9 Peter Pan. Practically perfect in every way. Not since the neglected A Little Princess have special effects been put to such traditional, enchanting uses, and without pandering to the (presumed) shrinking attention span of the modern child. Jason Isaacs is terrific as Mr. Darling/Captain Hook, Ludivine Sagnier is the liveliest Tink ever (she farts, but in a good way), and the rest is pure magic. If this little gem doesn’t make it at the box office, I might shoot myself.
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10 Capturing the Friedmans. Easily the year’s most disturbing film, Andrew Jarecki’s open-minded documentary about a model Long Island family going to pieces over accusations of the sexual abuse of children also draws a painful picture of a whole society of unreliable narrators. I can’t think of a movie that describes so well the impossibility of truly knowing anything in a world crippled by information overload.
Honorable mention: To Be and To Have; Freaky Friday; Monster; Elephant; Barbarian Invasions; The Station Agent; Ten; Chaos; Chi Hwa-Seon: Painted Fire; AKA; American Splendor; La Belle Époque on Film at LACMA; The Good Thief; Stone Reader; Spellbound; The Cuckoo; The Holy Land; Demonlover; Yossi & Jagger; Elf; Rana’s Wedding; Girl With a Pearl Earring; Quai des Orfèvres; Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary.
Great performances: Naomi Watts, luminously inconsolable as a mother who’s lost her whole family, in the otherwise hopelessly worked-over 21 Grams; Agnes Bruckner and David Strathairn in Blue Car; Bruce Dern in Monster; Nick Nolte in The Good Thief; Sarah Polley in My Life Without Me; Campbell Scott in The Secret Lives of Dentists; Oksana Akinshina in Lily 4-Ever; Cate Blanchett in Veronica Guerin; Zooey Deschanel in All the Real Girls; Shohreh Aghdashloo in House of Sand and Fog.
And finally, a big thank-you to all the dedicated artists whose naked butts made our season merrier: Nicole Kidman and Jude Law in Cold Mountain; Jack Nicholson (trust me, his teeth are prettier) in the aptly named Something’s Gotta Give; Maria Bello and W.H. Macy in The Cooler. Extra thanks to Diane Keaton for a flash full frontal that, if nothing else, will get her a bravery award from Women in Film — if the Calendar Girls don’t get it first.