My Favorite Films of 2003

01. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
Sofia Coppola's devastating Lost in Translation strands two characters in a cultural and spiritual malaise and watches as they turn to each other for comfort and happiness. Less a May-December romance than a meeting of kindred spirits, the relationship between Bob (Bill Murray, in the performance of his career) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is handled with delicate restraint, resulting in the two most realistic characters to grace a movie screen this year. At once uplifting and heartbreaking, and filled with more transcendent sequences than any other recent film I can think of, Lost in Translation is a beautiful, sublime achievement, and the next person who demands to know what Bob really whispers to Charlotte gets a punch to the throat.

02. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson)
With this film, Peter Jackson, against all odds, delivered the finest cinematic trilogy of all time. What's more, it went out on its strongest note, mixing the epic fantasy of the first two installments with an undeniable emotional resonance. It isn't Jackson's technical craftsmanship that has made the films so successful, it's his firm grasp on his characters and their emotions; and if he never makes another film that compares to the Lord of the Rings trilogy - well, he doesn't have to. The door may have shut on this series, but its accomplishments will live on.

03. Gerry (Gus Van Sant)

04. The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo)
Vincent Gallo's poignant deconstruction of damaged masculinity and grieving in America is certainly not for everyone, but for those on the right wavelength it offers many rewards, from the surpassingly lovely driving sequences to Gallo's scarily sensitive and ego-free performance. Although I never saw the longer - and much-maligned - Cannes cut, it's hard for me to imagine that such a small, personal film would work as well at that length, but no matter; in its final state, it's one of the best films of the year.

05. 21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Despite the claims of some critics, 21 Grams' fractured structure actually helps the film. The jumps in place and time are carefully considered and placed, so as to enhance its ultimate emotional impact. As each of its characters tackle guilt and search for redemption, the fractured remains of their lives are positioned side-by-side with moments of true happiness. It is a bleak film, but it is also a powerful one, and it features the best ensemble acting of any movie this year - Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro all deserve Oscar nods.

06. Irreversible (Gaspar Noé)
is best known for the rape scene that serves as its dramatic crux - an almost unwatchable nine-minute take - and perhaps rightfully so. But focusing just on the film's visceral brutality is to ignore the its artistic and intellectual achievements. From the spinning journey through the gay club to its nauseating, seizure-inducing finale, no film last year was more visually stunning, and yet it all serves a thematic purpose; Noé examines the animalistic side of humanity and its impact on different segments of society, and the vitriolic hatred that some have expressed toward this film just shows how difficult his brutal truths are to handle. Hands down the most challenging film of the year; if not for the ham-fisted repetition of its main theme - "Time destroys everything" - Irreversible would have finished several places higher on this list.

07. All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green)
I think it's time to admit it: I'm a hopeless romantic. If a film can create an accurate romance and let it play out realistically, with no idiotic contrivances or Brady Bunch misunderstandings, then I'm pretty much willing to forgive any other problems it might have. Such is the case with All the Real Girls, David Gordon Green's latest work of naturalistic expressionism; it so accurately captures the feelings that come with falling in love that I couldn't care less that it comes a little too close to preciousness for comfort. Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel - who I think I'm in love with - give the film its emotional backing, and never once do their performances ring false.

08. Monster (Patty Jenkins)
Probably the most flawed film on this list, I treasure Monster not for its filmmaking mastery but for my emotional and intellectual reaction to it. The film is often quite clunky, as far as its direction is concerned, but its approach to its protagonist, how it understands and empathizes with her without ever forgiving her actions, is quite simply crushing. Charlize Theron is just as astonishing as you've heard, and the makeup is only there for verisimilitude; Theron would be just as heartbreaking without it.

09. Big Fish (Tim Burton)
Burton's latest film is also one of his most magical, at once a paeon to storytelling and an honest examination of a strained father/son relationship. Burton's directorial talents are on full display here; it seems like every shot holds some wonderful detail, no matter how minor. Such visual virtuosity could become tiresome without an emotional core, so thank God Burton provides one; the film's climax is an incredible piece of filmmaking, at once joyous and devastating.

10. He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (Laetitia Colombani)
A terrific French film unfortunately ignored by most, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not is one of the finest thrillers since Memento. For the first half, it seems to be an intriguing film about romantic rejection, but then it takes a tonal one-eighty and becomes a creepy, unsettling meditation on obsession. Audrey Tautou plays off of her Amélie image to great effect, turning in one of the finest performances of the year. If you missed this one at the theater, and I know you did, catch up with it now. You won't regret it.

The next ten
Kill Bill: Volume 1, House of Sand and Fog, School of Rock, Capturing the Friedmans, Bubba Ho-Tep, Mystic River, Master and Commander, Cold Mountain, City of God

© 2004 Matt Noller, not that anyone would ever want to steal this