Next week, I'll continue the My Year of Flops marathon by checking out Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in 2003's Gigli. Following a different route today, I'm going to list my favorite movies from that same year. This was the grand time when The Lord of the Rings received the top prize at the Oscars for its final installment. We also saw a surprisingly fun movie adapted from a classic theme park ride with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Unfortunately, that success led to three increasingly dull sequels that got overly complicated and lost the enjoyment of the original. Speaking of convoluted, the Wachowski brothers disappointed nearly everyone with The Matrix Reloaded, and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines failed to match expectations. We also saw the first of several cases where Charlize Theron wore make-up to look less attractive in Monster. This move actually won her a Best Actress Oscar. None of these films made my primary list, though a few came pretty close. Let's check it out and see how badly I missed the boat with my picks!
Honorable Mentions: X2, Elephant
My two picks for honorable mentions are very different yet both left a strong impression. Bryan Singer's sequel to X-Men expanded on the success of the original and delivered one of the best superhero movies. It's a sprawling movie with lots of characters, yet it still feels like a personal story. Alan Cumming is a great addition as Nightcrawler, and Brian Cox does his thing as a conniving villain. Gus Van Zant's penchant for understated drama and unknown actors doesn't always work (see Last Days), but it meshes perfectly in Elephant with a Columbine-like shooting. He follows the students around the school and presents the story from multiple perspectives to enhance the tragic events that follow. We only see hints about what's about to happen, so Van Zant avoids getting too heavy-handed with the material.
5. Finding Nemo
It's difficult to choose my favorite Pixar film because there are many great options. Standing near the top is Finding Nemo, which is one of their best for pure entertainment. I've felt the overkill of this movie and its characters on my Disney World visits, so it's easy to forget the fun of the source material. Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) directs this sweet look at a single father (Albert Brooks) trying to find his lost son. It's basically a road movie where he meets colorful characters like Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) and Crush along the way. Meanwhile, Nemo enjoys his own adventures with new friends as they try to escape a dentist's office. It's a classic family film that works for both adults and kids, which is no easy feat.
4. The Station Agent
Writer/Director Thomas McCarthy provides a wonderful character study about three people who form an unlikely connection. This was my first introduction to Peter Dinklage, who plays a guy who inherits an abandoned train depot and decides to live there. He's trying to stay isolated but ends up meeting the overly talkative Joe (Bobby Cannavale) and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), who's dealing with her own tragedy. It's a laid-back story that works because all three actors inhabit their characters. They feel like real people who we'd want to spend time with and don't feel like movie creations. In his first feature, McCarthy shows his abilities that have continued to shine with The Visitor and Win Win in recent years.
3. Big Fish
I've lost interest in the work of Tim Burton and didn't bother to see Dark Shadows earlier this year. In the past decade, the one exception for me is Big Fish, which takes us on a magical journey that never feels manipulative. It's such a bright and original work that it brings a smile to my face just thinking about it. Ewan McGregor is perfectly cast as the bright-eyed Ed Bloom as he encounters all types of unique characters during his journey. The screenplay from Daniel Wallace and John August is sentimental but never crosses into groan-inducing territory. That's achievement isn't easy. It's one of Burton's best movies and reminds us why he became such a popular artist in the '80s and '90s.
2. Kill Bill, Volume 1
This may be obvious given all the love for Tarantino, but this homage to a wide range of films and genres deserves the spot. It doesn't feel like an imitator because there's so much life to the characters and the dialogue. Uma Thurman is perfectly cast as The Bride and plays a surprisingly believable killer. David Carradine has limited screen time but makes the most of it as the title character. Joining the fun are Michael Madsen, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, and Daryl Hannah as the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Although I think the second part is slightly better, its slow-burn approach needs this high-flying opener to succeed.
1. Lost in Translation
There are plenty of naysayers about Sofia Coppola's second feature film, but it remains one of my favorite movies of that decade. Bill Murray has rarely been better as a middle-aged actor struggling to enjoy life, and this was Scarlett Johansson before she tried to be a bombshell. It's a beautiful and subtle look at characters drifting through life in a strange place. While it sounds pretentious, Lost in Translation is actually a warm story with plenty of light moments. Its impact only grows stronger on repeated viewings, and the unlikely connection between the two characters never strikes a false note.
These five choices are also great films that deserve a mention:
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Raising Victor Vargas
The Triplets of Belleville
I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list. What are your favorite movies from 2003? You should also check out past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.