The film industry belonged to Peter Jackson and his Lord of The Rings trilogy this year, which absorbed most of the publicity. Otherwise, there’s a new Tarantino, a contemplative, psychologically unsettling superhero movie, and an epic that would have dominated in any other year highlighting an uneven 2003.
10. Hulk – Ang Lee’s esoteric take on the Marvel character is more like an object that belongs in a museum – remnants of another time – than an actual movie that a studio funded. It’s been an interesting journey with Hulk over the years, with personal swings from confusion, to frustration to, ultimately, acceptance.
Lee is pushing the envelope for what a superhero movie can be, especially in the wilderness of a pre-MCU world where everyone was still trying to figure out how to make these consistently good. Is Hulk good? It’s tough to say, it’s certainly a fascinating relic. That being said… the other big superhero movie this year, X2, grabbed the critical and box-office praise for which Lee was reaching; given the choice between these two movies in 2019, there’s no doubt I’m picking Hulk.
9. Identity – Ten strangers find themselves trapped in a roadside motel on a dark and stormy night, and before long they begin to find out they have certain things in common… and they begin to die. It’s a high-concept, albeit familiarTen Little Indians riff for James Mangold, but in Identity he collects a compelling cast to carry us through the thriller beats.
The group of ten weren’t necessarily the biggest stars of the time, but they were a collection of the unlikely (John Cusack, pre-tax shelter career), the predictable (John Hawkes and Ray Liotta), the offbeat (Jake Busey), and the mysterious in a trio of femme fatales played by Rebecca DeMornay, Clea DuVall, and Amanda Peet. Everyone bounces off each other perfectly, and the twist is still pretty clever, even after so many years.
8. Open Range – Kevin Costner’s patient throwback to mid-century westerns is probably the biggest outlier of 2003, a staunchly classic homage to a western filmmaker like Anthony Mann. Until it isn’t.
The final gun battle in Open Range is an all timer of the genre; up to this point we have lived with Costner’s reluctant hero, Charley, his jovial older partner, Boss, and the town nurse, Sue, played by Annette Bening, and the payoff has real stakes. When the bullets begin to fly, we are fully invested in these characters and their victory over the evil land barron, whose dastardly plan is mere plot fluff, secondary to Costner’s melodic direction and his strong world building.
7. Mystic River – In 2003, Clint Eastwood’s morose adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Boston murder mystery would have been tops on my list. But time has aged Mystic River in curious ways. Some of it still holds up, some of it falls apart under scrutiny. Nevertheless, the power remains mostly in tact.
Sean Penn is still giving a good performance; Tim Robbins’ Oscar-winning performance, on the other hand, has been ripped to pieces in recent years. Some of that is just collateral damage from an Oscar win, and some of it might be true, but like the movie itself, Robbins is never dull, always engrossing as a wounded animal trying to hold on to too many secrets. Often overlooked are the desperate turn from Marcia Gay Harden as Robbins’ flummoxed, suspicious wife, and Laura Linney as a terrific Lady Macbeth to Penn’s vengeful father.
6. Matchstick Men – There once was a time when Ridley Scott did not have to direct Alien movies to keep his career moving forward. On occasion he could fit a small, quaint film like Matchstick Men in between his epics; none of his smaller films, however, work on the efficient level of this story of grifters and the teenage girl (Alison Lohman) who upends their most recent plans.
Nicolas Cage is all tics as the neurotic one of the conmen duo, but the twitches and sweaty moments of freak out aren’t nearly as Cage-esque as they could have been, or would be today. He holds on to just enough restraint to make Roy Waller work as a character, and Sam Rockwell is the perfect cool foil.
5. House of Sand and Fog – The middle of the 21st century, in the years following 9/11, saw an uptick in bleak, emotionally devastating indie dramas, and none more upsetting than the events of Vadim Perelman’s adaptation of a short story from the notoriously lachrymose Andre Dubus III.
The story revolves around Behrani, an Iranian immigrant played by Ben Kingsley as a man of strict pride and rigid values, and Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a young lady whose life is unraveling at every corner. The two battle over possession of a home, a battle that gradually escalates into surprising and deeply upsetting places. Ron Eldard is especially effective as Lester, Kathy’s foolish boyfriend who is one of the more incompetent and maddening characters in the history of cinema.
4. Cold Mountain – Anthony Minghella’s Civil War opus is an oddly unique movie, surprisingly idiosyncratic even in 2003. That sentiment has only grown over the years, as what appears to be a rather straightforward romantic drama in the vein of Legends of The Fall takes some surprising and artful turns along the way. These vignettes all work to give the film an identity all its own.
The split narrative follows, on one side, Jude Law’s Inman as he fights to return to his love, Ada Monroe, played by Nicole Kidman; on the other side is Kidman’s struggle to hold onto her farm after her father dies, which she is only able to accomplish with some much-needed help from Renee Zelwegger’s tomboy Ruby Thewes. But Law’s odyssey is the focus of the majority of the picture. His journey takes him through a number of strange episodes and introduces fascinating characters along the way, none more than Philip Seymour Hoffman’s guilt-ridden rapist preacher. Cold Mountain is a magical experience in some ways, dreamlike in its desire to tell its own tale.
3. Lost in Translation – Sofia Coppola’s debut feature, The Virgin Suicides, caught my attention. Lost in Translation, the semi-autobiographical tale of a young photographer and her offbeat romance with a fading movie star, hypnotized me. It’s one of the strongest sophomore efforts I can think of.
It’s fascinating to see Scarlett Johansson in such a muted, modest role, where she can show off her talents. She showed it off, albeit in another way, in Match Point, and that’s another outstanding performance. But this is a film that belongs to Bill Murray, first and foremost. This was Murray’s coming out party as a dramatic presence, something that feels natural at this point.
2. Kill Bill: Volume 1 – Every Quentin Tarantino film is an event release, for better or worse (most of the time, it’s for the better). The release of Kill Bill, a two part revenge epic tapping into QT’s encyclopedic movie brain in deliriously stylized wonder, was no exception.
Uma Thurman deserved an Oscar nomination for her turn as The Bride, and she would have gotten said nomination if it were 2019. Alas, she will have to settle for being one of the most iconic female action heroes in the history of cinema, a woman so singularly focused on her mission of revenge that her icy stare propels the entire picture. And, of course, plenty of those QT exchanges and brilliant homages made this film instantly iconic at the time.
1. Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World – In another year, perhaps, away from Peter Jackson and the culmination of his Rings trilogy, Peter Weir’s breathtaking masterpiece might have swept the Academy Awards. Not only is it built for such dominance, it deserved it.
This is the Russell Crowe transition from chiseled leading man to more interesting character actor in leading men roles. His Captain Jack Aubrey is a little mad, and a lot adventurous, and he and Paul Bettany light up the screen as they take their crew on a dangerous mission to capture a French war ship. Peter Weir, always the bridesmaid for so many years, crafted a film that’s nearly perfect and, somehow, endlessly watchable despite the epic scope.