if there exists a group of people who make lists even more obsessively than music nerds (a dubious proposition), it is film nerds. And as 2003 rapidly approaches its terminus, it is time to cast those critical eyes backward over the movie landscape of the past year. Stepping up to do its duty is the faithful staff of Stylus at the Movies, which this week will examine the Top Fifteen Films of the Year. Consider this the definitive Non-Definitive Guide to the best movies of 2003, as it were.

The timing here is a little dicey, since Hollywood tends to save its "prestige" films for the end of the year in hopes of catching the ever-wandering eyes of the Oscar voters, who consistently display a collective inability to recall the existence of quality films released before mid-September. This list was compiled at the beginning of December, so award bait like The Return of the King, Big Fish, and Cold Mountain doesn't show up anywhere in the rundown below. More the better; those movies will be fawned over enough in the leadup to the Academy Awards, so it is up to us at Stylus to remind readers of the quality work released between February and December. As it provides an opportunity for pontification, we accept this task with pleasure.

We will count down five films per day until Thursday, culminating in a feature located in the movie reviews on Monday with the writer's individual lists and the worst films of the year. Ebert and Roeper, eat your hearts out...

15) The Man Without a Past

This quietly wonderful film charts the progress of an amnesiac left for dead in the slums on the outskirts of Helsinki, who finds kinship amongst its shipyard workers, posturingly macho security guards, and Salvation Army volunteers; with their help, he builds a new life, overcoming those obstacles dehumanising bureaucracy places in his way. Aki Kaurismaki taps a characteristically Finnish vein of droll, deadpan stoicism, combined with a light surrealism, thus imbuing most scenes with quiet humour. More than this, though, The Man Without A Past is a cheering, uplifting affirmation and celebration of charity, community and compassion, constantly affectionate towards its characters, and unceasingly displaying a low-key humanity, without ever feeling the need to shout about it. I guarantee it'll make you feel better about everything.

[Dan Emerson]

14) Hulk

With Ang Lee at the helm, there was always the hope that the film story of everyone's favorite green-skinned schizoid would be something more substantial than the typical vapid summer blockbuster. But who knew Hulk would end up being one of the best movies of the year? Rich in character development, and with Lee laying on his usual exploration of twisted family dynamics, this film is more existential art drama than mainstream action film, which may explain why such a large percentage of its audience left the theater nonplussed and didn't return for repeat viewings.

Nonetheless, the relatively poor box office performance and mixed critical reception Hulk received shouldn't obscure the fact that it is the most satisfying mix of emotional pathos (with Nick Nolte's scene-chewing histrionics a particular highlight) and action spectacle released in 2003. As for the latter, a special favorite of mine is the scene in which Hulk catches a missile in his teeth and spits it back at the helicopter that fired it at him. Oscars all around!

[Jay Millikan]

13) To Be and To Have

Reasons why Nicholas Philibert's documentary To Be and To Have is the greatest movie ever made about a teacher:

1. No rousing speeches.

2. No poetry, unless you count the snowy French countryside.

3. No stereotypes, unless you count "the cute one," a category every one of Lopez's young students falls into.

This movie is the reason that I will take a hefty salary cut by leaving the Stylus staff to teach kindergarten.

[Akiva Gottlieb]

12) Northfork

A strange and haunting masterpiece, this effort by the Polish brothers (following up their critically hailed debut Twin Falls Idaho) boasts both a heartbreaking beauty and unexpected flashes of oddball, quirky humor. Somehow, in the tale of a 1950s Montana town that is being evacuated by a company determined to dam the local river, the Polishes tell a universal story of human loss, grief and compassion. Juxtaposed against a parallel plot about a dying little boy and his visions of angels come to bring him to heaven, Northfork had me near tears by the end of the film, and had earned every drop of emotion it could wring free.

This movie is also noteworthy for displaying some of the finest ensemble acting you will ever hope to see. James Woods and the aforementioned Mr. Nolte are particular standouts, both of them reining in their characteristically over-the-top personas and intimating profound emotional turmoil rather than flaunting it. The result is a career highlight for the both of them, and yet a further reason to appreciate an already great American film.

[Jay Millikan]

11) American Splendor

This long-awaited cinematic rendering of Harvey Pekar's comic interpretation of his own mundane midwestern life delivers all one could hope and more through a surreal mixture of reality and celluloid that goes just about over the top. Paul Giamatti plays Pekar—as does Pekar—in loosely assembled series of vignettes that chart Pekar's banal and yet sparkling life from a burgeoning cartoonist who can't draw to the blacklist of the Letterman show.

While there are doubtless some American Splendor comic fans the film will disappoint, on a purely cinematic level the movie takes Adaptation-like twists and turns in and out of Pekar's psyche and onto the white splash of screen that make this one of the most innovative and rewarding movies of 2003.

[Liz Clayton]

10) Spellbound

Like dominos cascading down the line, the ripple effect of mass failure is epic and at times tragically funny—in fact often tragically funny—in Jeffrey Blitz' Spellbound. Tracking the successes and failures of eight tournament spellers, Blitz's lucky camera hits upon the frightening and absurd, pinpointing the weaknesses and pipe dreams shared by parents, children and teachers alike.

Spellbound can't help but be a comedy, but it's also a pointed commentary on overachievement, parental pressure, the American dream, and the obvious (yet always underplayed) stresses of simply trying to be a kid.

[Liz Clayton]

09) Spider

Despite period recreation akin to Terence Davies and a disturbing exploration of the "life of the mind" stylistically reminiscent of the Coen brothers' Barton Fink, the movie that David Cronenberg's Spider most vividly called to mind for me was David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Both films center on emotionally devastated characters whom, having been—or believed to have been—betrayed in their closest relationships, strike back at those who've hurt them. Rather than coping with the reality of what they've done, they instead internally reimagine their pasts, displacing identities and concocting feverish scenarios in an attempt to absolve themselves of their crimes. In place of Lynch's signature dream logic, Cronenberg, working from a first-person novel by Patrick McGrath (while boldly and effectively abstaining from any voice-over narration), elliptically plumbs the psychological depths of mental instability, fashioning Ralph Fiennes' title character into a brilliantly realized, multi-layered metaphor for artistic incomprehensibility. Spider is deliberate in its pacing, building up to its revealing final moments, which, like those of fellow Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan's Exotica, break your heart precisely because of the ever-winding route you've been taken down to arrive at them.

[Josh Timmermann]

08) Finding Nemo

Like Shrek, this one will make you forget how evil you think Disney is for awhile (Pixar is still Disney, lest we forget). Then you walk into any retail outlet, see all the Nemo merchandise and you're like; "Oh. Oh yeah. Evil corporate empire. Right." But let's forget about that for awhile, as you surely will when you dive into Finding Nemo. While it lacks the slyly hidden adult humor of Shrek that kept us grown-ups coming back, Finding Nemo is still such a sweet story and a fun, amusing CGI masterpiece that it stands up to quite a few viewings, which anyone with kids should be grateful for. The undersea environments are beautifully rendered and the overall detail is as lush and colorful as we've come to expect from the Pixar team. Also, just because the humor isn't slightly naughty doesn't mean it isn't funny. The school of fish (voiced by John Ratzenberger) and the vegetarian sharks alone are chuckle-worthy, but it's Ellen DeGeneres as Dory that really rocks the house. I even got a bit weepy and choked-up, which is totally against my policy in situations like this. I'm not into G-Rated movies as a rule, but damn, this one is good. It's impossible not to like Finding Nemo. So much so that I even liked Disney again for a minute.

Then I saw some news story about all these kids clamoring for clown-fish of their very own, and the damn things were dying left and right because nobody bothered to look into setting up proper aquariums for them, and I was like; "Friggin' Disney. Evil!"

[Jen Cameron]

07) Mystic River

Apparently, Shakespeare is alive and well and uses "Brian Helgeland" as a pen name. Mystic River has enough metaphorical swordplay, skullduggery and treason to please any devotee of the Bard. Director Clint Eastwood has made a career from displays of casual violence, but every death in Mystic River hits like a ton of bricks. Characters have objectives and actions have consequences. Sean Penn's fury burns like a smoldering cigarette dropped in the woods. In a Hollywood that shies away from depictions of true tragedy, Mystic River is a fearless standout.

[Akiva Gottlieb]

06) Unknown Pleasures

Set in Datong, China, Jia Zhangke's film is, after Ten, the year's most ingeniously constructed movie microcosm. It could easily be misread as a mere "youth film," and even as such, it would be a penetrating study of perpetual fecklessness and urban ennui. But Bin Bin and Xiao Ji, Jia's disaffected protagonists, don't drift aimlessly and hopelessly about in the world the way they do just because they happen to be young. Rather, they seem instinctively aware of the near-impossibility of upward mobility in a global economic climate that results in the numbing stagnancy of cities as dispiritingly drab as Datong. The "unknown pleasures" of the film's English-language title refer to the wonders of the outside world, tantalizingly osmosed into Chinese society through increasing westernization. The film is ultimately about the sad resolution in giving up trying to grasp for those things that are just beyond our reach, whether they're a pretty girl or simply a life less ordinary.

[Josh Timmermann]

5) Bend It Like Beckham

Is this like, the first teen movie about girls that never once mentions the prom, doesn't include a gratuitous makeover, and doesn't completely revolve around "getting the guy"? If it isn't, it certainly feels like it is. Bend it Like Beckham plants its soccer-cleated foot squarely on what was previously boy's territory with a comfortable authority, proving that little girls are more than sugar and spice and everything nice. They're also ass-kicking athletes and strong personalities that are too busy doing things to worry about what they look like doing it. Feel-good movies don't all have to be fluffy treacle; sometimes they are as spirited and soulful as this one, though not nearly often enough. And female leads don't always have to be giggling plastic arm-candy; sometimes they are strong and talented entities like these, though not nearly often enough. You'd be a fool to miss it.

[Jen Cameron]

4) Ten

With just a car, two digital video cameras mounted on its dashboard, seven nonprofessional actors (a female driver and six passengers, all female as well, save her son), and Tehran as the world passing by outside the car's windows, Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami has achieved the veritable apotheosis of his essentialist aesthetic.

It's the most formally radical film to open in the U.S. this year, but that alone is not why it's a masterpiece. Like last year's best and most formally radical film, Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark (a film that also innovatively employs DV, but to a very different effect), Ten uses its singular, much-discussed technical approach to speak implicitly on its subject, which, if you prefer to think small, would be contemporary Iranian society and a woman's place within it; if you allow yourself to look at the bigger picture, however, Ten is a profound portrait of the state of the world right now.

[Josh Timmermann]

3) Capturing the Friedmans

Andrew Jarecki's tattling tale of a seemingly docile suburban family ripped apart by scandal pushes the envelope of documentary to a teetering edge. The Friedmans, who actually did most of the work for Jarecki by logging mind-boggling hours of home tape of their arguments, parties, and misadventures, reveal themselves to be an archetypal broken family, yet the strangest part of all is that it's hard to tell whether any of them actually knows this. Capturing the Friedmans' stark reality makes for one of the most disturbing and yet tenderly executed documentaries of recent years.

[Liz Clayton]

2) Lost in Translation

In the cinema this year, one question plagued me more than any other: what exactly did Bill Murray whisper in Scarlett Johansson's ear in the sublime final scene of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation? I went to the press junket, and begged each of them to tell me. They all kept their vow of silence. Fuck. Wait, I get it. He didn't say anything to her. After all, this is a relationship in which the most erotic moment involves a hand on a foot. Three lessons learned: Taking it slow is hot. Minimalism is hot. Silence is just like honey.

[Akiva Gottlieb]

1) All the Real Girls

After All the Real Girls, no discussion of the best young filmmakers working today can possibly leave out 27-year old North Carolinian David Gordon Green. This simple yet devastatingly powerful tale of young love and heartbreak refuses to condescend to its characters or its audience by sugar-coating its message, which is that love hurts, facing the world is hard, and growing up is a painful but necessary process. By rooting his characters in a specific place (a working-class Southern mill town), giving them real problems (lack of money, the sense of a better world beyond their reach), and treating them with profound respect, Green creates a powerful sense of universality that ensures that even those viewers who have never been to North Carolina or worked in a mill will find themselves nodding in recognition as Paul, Noel, Tip, and the rest struggle through their difficult life choices. But it's Zooey Deschanel (William's stewardess sister in Almost Famous) who emerges positively luminescent as Noel. When she eventually emerges as a big star or indie favorite, we will all point to this film as the breakthrough. No other film gets the agony and ecstasy of young romance so right, which is why All the Real Girls gets love from Stylus as the best film of the year.

[Jay Millikan]

Individual Favorite Movies of 2003 Lists

Jen Cameron

1. Bend It Like Beckham
2. The Eye
3. The Station Agent
4. 28 Days Later
5. Dummy
6. Winged Migration
7. Finding Nemo
8. Lost in Translation
9. Bubba Ho-Tep
10. Better Luck Tomorrow

Liz Clayton

1. All the Real Girls
2. Spellbound
3. American Splendor
4. Dogville
5. Capturing the Friedmans
6. The Yes Men
7. Casa de los Babys

Dan Emerson (based on UK release dates)

1. Rain
2. The Pianist
3. Matrix: Reloaded
4. 8 Mile
5. Swimming Pool
6. Spirited Away
7. Punch-drunk Love
8. Good Bye Lenin
9. The Man Without a Past
10. Solaris

Akiva Gottlieb

1. Capturing the Friedmans
2. To Be and To Have
3. Lost in Translation
4. All the Real Girls
5. Lilya 4-Ever
6. Mystic River
7. Lawless Heart
8. Shattered Glass
9. Dirty Pretty Things
10. In This World

Jay Millikan

1. All the Real Girls
2. Lost in Translation
3. Northfork
4. Hulk
5. Bad Santa
6. Matchstick Men
7. Finding Nemo
8. Intolerable Cruelty
9. Mystic River
10. Bend It Like Beckham

Josh Timmermann

1. Ten
2. Unknown Pleasures
3. Spider
4. The Son
5. Mystic River
6. Friday Night
7. The Man Without a Past
8. The Shape of Things
9. Down With Love
10. Paris Hilton Sex Tape

By: Stylus at the Movies
Published on: 2003-12-23
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