To set things in context, here's a summary of 2003:
-2003 was the Year of the Epic, in my opinion. Last Samurai, Master and Commander, Cold Mountain, Lord of the Rings were among the 10 most successful films of the year. Also, admirable failures like The Missing and the Alamo was originally scheduled for this year.
-This was Scarlett Johannson's breakout year. Before 2003, she was best known as Thora Birch's best friend in Ghost World
-Also, a good year for comic actor Bill Murray and offbeat actor Jonny Depp. When Jonny Depp's Pirates of the Caribbean broke the $300 million barrier, in a kid's movie nonetheless, it signaled an arrival of sorts for the reclusive artist, followed up with another acclaimed performance in Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Depp was awarded a Screen Actor's Guild win, and Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. Bill Murray's Lost in Translation was considered the best performance of his career and was the 1st Saturday Night Live alumni to get an oscar nomination for lead actor (not counting Rob Downey Jr.)
-Pure comedic actors Jack Black and Will Ferrell also cemented their status as go-to guys for bankable screen comedies with Black's School of Rock, a perfect part for his hard-rocking persona. Will Ferrell's Elf grossed over $150 million domestically and cemented his status as a movie star.
-There was a lot of diversity that was recognized in that year's Oscar nominations: Djimon Hotsou (In America) of West Africa, Shoreh Aghdoshloo (House of Sand and Fog) from Iran, Benicio Del Toro (21 Grams) of Mexico, Ken Watanabe (Last Samurai) of Japan, Ben Kinglsey (House of Sand and Fog) who is half-Indian, Jude Law (Cold Mountain, from England), and from down under, Kiesha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) of New Zealand, and Naomi Watts (21 Grams) of Australia
-It was also the summer of the sequel: X-Men 2, Dumb and Dumberer, Charlie's Angels 2, Spy Kids 3-D, Legally Blond 2, Tomb Raider 2, and the Matrix Reloaded. Although today, that sounds about average, it was about 2003 when sequels and blockbusters were really saturating the summer market. Only 2 of these did halfway decently at the box office (Matrix and X-Men) or by any other measure.
There was a lot of diversity in
Top 10 Films of 2003
1. Cold Mountain, Anthony Mingellia
An extraordinary epic, Cold Mountain is more of an “odyssey”/”oh brother where art thou” type of picture, than a civil war picture. Jude Law, in a performance that exceeded my expectations of what I thought was possible of him, plays a confederate soldier who deserts and heads home to Cold Mountian, North Carolina at the request of a girl (Kidman) with whom he shared just a single kiss before leaving. The people that Inman (Law) encounter along his trek, shed light onto the cruelty of man when times get tough and the fragility of life. As the film switches back and forth between Imman, and the difficulty back home on the farm for Kidman and her helping hand Ruby, played memorably by Rene Zellwenger, you’re taken on an gut-wrenching ride that will have both very bright and dark parts. The score, which combines elements of bluegrass and stirring classical, is exceptional as well.
2. Last Samurai, Ed Zwick
Being released alongside so many other great war epics, The Last Samurai probably won't get the recognition it deserves, but that should not detract from its achievements. Set in 1870s Japan, this is an epic set around a washed-up Civil War veteran played by Tom Cruise. Whether you think he's too much of a pretty-boy or not, Cruise can still create magic on screen, even if he plays the same kind of guy over and over. To refresh your memory, Cruise starts his films (Rain Man, Jerry MaGuire, etc) as an arrogant jerk before meeting an inspirational figure, that leads him to a journey of self-discovery where he changes himself and turns into a true hero. This movie is the same, but within the context of a war epic, Cruise is just what the doctor ordered, and just as Hoffman and Cuba Gooding Jr did exemplary work alongside him, Cruise brings out the best in costar Ken Wattanbe, who had an extroadinary presence, in an already emotionally stirring relationship. The story is beautifully told and visually the set design is stunning.
3. Seabiscuit, Gary Ross (also Movie of the Summer)
Just like the horse and it’s partially blind jockey, the movie was kind of an underdog in itself. It's hype made it vulnerable to critic's blows in a blockbuster-heavy summer, and it’s plot about a race horse story didn’t sound appealing to attract more than 21 million dollars worth of viewers on opening weekend. The movie however, is the real deal: an entrenching story that moves viewers past the Disnefied-type underdog-triumphs-above-all plot. Set against a period backdrop intertwined with historic footage, autumn-hued cinematography and Thomas Newman's heavy score, the movie feels well-crafted on every end. The underrated Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper fill out character roles alongside Tobey Macguire who brings to his character more ferocity and toughness than even his superhero persona Spiderman had. Small casting editions like Elizabeth Banks as an industrial magnet’s young new wife and William H. Macy providing some comedic relief are a plus.
4. Mystic River, Clint Eastwood
Like Unforgiven, Bridges with Madison County and Bird, Eastwood might frame his movies within the realm of certain genres, but his stories are all about human emotions. The movie does reek a little bit with stars Tim Robbins and Sean Penn crying out for Oscar nominations, but the movie is a display of good acting more than anything else, the performances are too powerful to brush aside. One of the underpraised performances is by Laura Linney as Penn's wife who gives a speech that's subtly diabolical.
5. Master and Commander, Peter Weir
This film brings history to life in a way few movies do. Set in 1805, the movie follows a British ship led by Captain Jack Aubry (Russell Crowe) in pursuit of one of Napoleon’s fleet. Whether it was the accuracy of Patrick O’Brien’s novels or Director Peter Weir’s devotion to detail in his recreation of life at sea, I felt as if I were on the ship myself. I might have also felt this way because of the film’s unwavering vision to its subjects rather than conventional Hollywood storytelling. For example, in a story set at sea, we would naturally be looking forward to seeing exciting naval battles. While we do get our share of exciting naval action, we mostly experience the HMS Surprise, where every minute of the movie takes place, spending their time waiting and trying to maintain their sanity so that when a battle actually does come, you realize the magnitude of it. The human element of the movie, of course, is the multi-layered relationship between Crowe and Bettany, a duo seen before in Beautiful Mind that does not disappoint.
6. Finding Nemo, Andrew Staunton
With a sense of imagination that only a child could have, Pixar has finally struck gold. The highest grossing animated movie in history, and deservedly so, Finding Nemo is a real gem for both kids and their parents. Its first move in the right direction is setting the picture underwater. Amid a previously unseen and pleasantly quirky world of spaced-out sea turtles and 12-step program sharks, the movie presents a heartwarming story about a father’s search for his son. Add in witty dialogue and extraordinary performances by Ellen DeGeneres and Albert Brooks and you got a movie that’s too good to miss.
7. X-Men 2: X-Men United, Bryan Singer
With much of the exposition out of the way, the second installment of the X-Men is much freer to develop its characters and engage in some summer fun along the way. The film benefits from its large and talented ensemble, which includes a number of new heroes and villains entering the scene. New characters include a vanishing monk named Night crawler (Alan Cumming) and a conflicted teenager with firepower named Pyro (Shawn Ashmore). Of course, we’re treated to a brand new villain (Bryan Cox), which adds a new dimension to the battle of good vs. evil as the good guys and bad guys are forced to enter into a temporary alliance and some riveting complications result thereafter. Overall, Bryan Singer has the challenging task of navigating the complexities of this comic and showing the appealing side of this band of misfits, and he comes through in flying colors.
8. House of Sand and Fog, Vladim Perelman
A tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, House of Sand and Fog is a profound and moving study of what often gets lost in the pursuit of the American dream. Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley would easily be deserving of oscars in any given year for their work here as two opposing foes in a battle for rights to a house. To Kingsley, an Iranian immigrant who was once an Iranian general, the house represents having finally attained the status of being a real American family. For Connelly, a recovering drug addict, the house represents all that she has to hold onto from a privileged life she grew up in.
9. Pirates of the Carribean, Gore Verbinski
Pirate lovers have been waiting for a movie like this since the days of “Waterworld” and “Cutthroat Island.” Set in Port Royal, an island historically associated with pirates, and based on a Disney world ride, the movie follows Orlando Bloom as a sword smith with a dark past, who enlists the help of famed pirate (Depp) to rescue the object of his affections (Knightly). To go in more detail would take hours because, unfortunately the plot’s long-winded and has more twists and turns than one can keep up with in one sitting. Nevertheless, while Pirates veers into the basic formulas and clichés of any other pirate movie, it does so with purpose and style to make a quality ride out of a familiar outing. The movie also has some truly original elements, most notably Depp’s performance as Jack Sparrow, a name you’ll remember long after you see this movie.
10. Lost in Translation, Sophia Copolla
The meaning of the film's title is double: Not only is the film set in Japan where the main characters can’t speak the language, let alone grasp the culture, but they are lost in their own lives as well and don't have anyone to express it too until they find each other. Bill Murray plays an actor who goes through a midlife crisis, realizing how low he has sunk by having to do Japanese television commercials. At the hotel bar, he meets Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johannson, who’s having a quarter life crisis and they end up bonding through their mutual alienation to the world. Murray, who needed over 100 consecutive February 2nds to finally start caring about people in Groundhog Day, and Johannson, a non-conforming teenager in Ghost World, were both great candidates for portraying apathy. The film’s weakness is that it moves too slowly at times, but I think that’s because director Sofia Copolla’s portrayal of a meaningful relationship is so much more real than anything else I’ve seen. Just like watching this film, to have a relationship in real life takes time and patience and Copolla’s brilliance is her unwavering vision here.