THE BEST FILMS OF 2003

 1.  Lost in Translation (directed by Sophia Coppola).  Having agreed to sell his name and image for money by doing a whiskey commercial, Bill Murray finds himself having a hellish time in Tokyo, until he meets a young recently married American (Scarlet Johansson) who is equally disoriented.  Together they explore the nether regions of friendship and love in beautifully nuanced Oscar-worthy performances.  Coppola allows her characters space to wait and wander and fall in love without feeling the need to resolve the questions their relationship raise.  
 2.  American Splendor (directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini).  We haven’t seen anything quite like American Splendor before, a zany concoction of actors playing real people, those same people playing themselves, and comic book drawings of these people.  What’s so exhilarating for me is the wonderful and unexpected symbiosis of these three elements:  the drawings segueing into the live action and vice-versa with each illuminating the other.  Harvey Pekar (played by Paul Giamatti and Harvey Pekar), a feckless file clerk in Cleveland, decides that writing graphic novels is something he can do; he creates a graphic comic book series called “American Splendor” which became a cult phenomenon in the 70s and 80s.  In these comic books Pekar does battle with all kinds of villains who are really just ordinary people like himself but who do vile things.  Pekar is an eccentric, but with a keen insight into the verities of daily life.  Giamatti and Hope Davis as his girlfriend/wife give dead-on performances in the most inventive American film in a long while.  
 3.  The Station Agent (directed by Thomas McCarthy).  Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) inherits a deserted train station in rural New Jersey.  All he want is to be left alone.  But it's not to be.  Fin occupies the center of this movie, and like a black hole he absorbs the sounds around him, forcing two neighbors, Joe (Bobby Cannavale) and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), to fill in the silence.  Both are content to take Fin as he is, even to join him as he walks the rails, going nowhere; just being together seems enough.  But not for long.  Companionship can be comforting, but true friendship is a dicey proposition that can lead to either heartache or serenity--usually both.  
 4.  Man on the Train "L'Homme du train" (directed by Patrice Leconte).  A quiet, intense examination of the relationship of polar opposites, a literature teacher and a criminal, brought together by chance, each with his own hidden life and improbable yearnings.  The powerfully poetic ending catches the viewer by surprise.  Jean Rochefort wears his character as though he'd been teaching literature for decades.  Johnny Halliday's weary and craggy face masks the soul of a disillusioned warrior-poet.  
 
5.  Holes (directed by Andrew Davis).  Old West and Old World myths reach out and grab luckless teenagers in a morality tale that will appeal to the adults lucky enough to accompany their children to the local movie theater.  Wonderfully written and acted, all the apparent holes in the storyline are satisfyingly filled in in this exuberant and poignant rendering of Louis Sachar's 1988 novel..  
 6.  Raising Victor Vargas (directed by Peter Sollett).  The Vargas family lives on the lower east side of Manhattan in an enclave of people predominately from the Dominican Republic.  There’s the grandmother who must raise three teenage children, Victor, Nino and Vicki.  She proves a strict disciplinarian, not wanting her grandchildren to give up the old-world moral code she has lived by.  A lovingly observed movie, it shows Dominicans who are not into drugs or gang violence or kinky sex.  Nothing dramatic happens, no killing, no fights.  Rather the process of growing up, of one’s first love—and of having the responsibility of raising teenagers—is so genuinely told that I was totally absorbed.  I felt for these people, for the old grandmother and the teenagers.  I wanted only good for them.
 7.  Master and Commander:  The Far Side of the World (directed by Peter Weir).  Not your typical seafaring period piece, just as Patrick OBrian's Aubrey-Maturin novels defy the rules of historical novel writing.  This story is as much about friendships and complex relationships as it is about naval warfare and the intricacies of sailing a 19th century man-of-war.  Russell Crowe is Jack Aubrey.
 8.  Whale Rider (directed by Niki Caro).  Pai, a Maori eleven year old, is spurned by her grandfather because she’s a girl and thus not eligible to be a chief in her people's tradition, her twin brother having died at birth.  Keisha Castle-Hughes, in her first movie, keeps this mystical tale of humans able to communicate with the whales that inhabit the waters east of New Zealand firmly anchored in the gritty everyday life of the native Maori.  
 9.  Dirty Pretty Things (directed by Stephen Frears).  The seeming contradiction of the title reflects this movie's sobering (one might substitute "sordid") yet ultimately uplifting story of contemporary immigrant London where human misery is exploited.  The ending flows satisfyingly from this sometimes grisly tale of human survival.  
10. Mystic River (directed by Clint Eastwood).  Among other things, this is a murder mystery which Eastwood tells with beautiful brutality, blending the stories of three childhood friends who lose touch, reunite after the lose of a child, only to discover that their haunted pasts pull them apart as it throws them together.  There are missteps, especially the last two scenes, yet Eastwood's unfussy, direct approach makes for some harrowing and rending viewing.

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