We'd love to tell you that we locked Bill Gallo, Melissa Levine, Jean Oppenheimer, Luke Y. Thompson, Gregory Weinkauf, and Robert Wilonsky in a padded room, fed them nothing but whiskey, and forced them to arm-wrestle one another for supremacy, but logistics and legalities prevented the full implementation of that plan. Instead, everyone voted for their favorites, point values were assigned, and when movies tied, there were tie-breaker votes. What you see below is the result, and keep in mind that each individual critic is probably tremendously pissed off at the inclusion of at least one of the titles on the list. Why a top 12, instead of the standard 10? Because there are six critics, so each got to fire two shots.
1. In America -- Sorrow sprouts wings and flies in Irish director Jim Sheridan's radiant film, which pits the pain and grief of unimaginable loss against the resilience of the human heart. Co-written by the director and his two daughters, the semi-autobiographical tale concerns an Irish family that immigrates to New York City in an impossible attempt to put the death of its four-year-old son behind it. Told from the perspective of the family's 10-year-old daughter, the story contains a deep well of sadness, but also an irrepressible sense of wonder and delight. Nowhere is that dichotomy more evident than in the grim Hell's Kitchen setting, which takes on the air of a fairy tale when seen through the eyes of sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger, who play the young siblings. The adult actors -- Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, and Djimon Hounsou -- are also superb, while cinematographer Declan Quinn's effortless camera work misses nothing, yet seems to be capturing everything spontaneously. A rare gem of a film, In America touches one's emotions in countless ways. -- Jean Oppenheimer
2. Lost in Translation -- Who would have thought that a movie about an American movie star visiting Japan to shoot a liquor commercial could feel so universal? That the film has struck so many different nerves in viewers more than likely comes from writer-director Sofia Coppola's emphasis on her lead characters' inner lives, rather than the plot circumstances in which they find themselves -- the story could be set in downtown Los Angeles and still ring as true for all those people out there who find themselves in a strange part of the city at some late hour, amid a crowd of folks never encountered before. The film's setting, contemporary Tokyo, adds to the dreamlike feel of the proceedings, however -- it's as if someone in Blade Runner decided to take a left turn, away from the part of town where all those robots are killing people, and took time out to be alone, never quite knowing whether that loneliness might become a permanent condition. Also, let's be honest: Bill Murray's karaoke version of "More Than This" is a heartbreaker, and Scarlet Johansson has possibly the finest ass crack I've ever seen on the big screen. -- Luke Y. Thompson
3. Spellbound -- In this year of the documentary (there were several others worthy of contention, among them Stevie and Love and Diane), Jeffrey Blitz proved as much as any great moviemaker has why real life is more compelling than fiction. No film released in 2003 was more exhilarating and affecting than Spellbound, a doc about eight students preparing for and making it to the 1999 National Spelling Bee. The kids, of varying ethnicities and economic situations, came from all over the country and possessed different reasons for entering such an unforgiving contest, where one letter is the difference between first place and the single, heartbreaking ping of the judge's unforgiving bell. Some wanted to please their parents, who demanded only perfection; some wanted to experience the adventure; some wanted just to get it over with. Well before we reach the competition, which takes place during the film's final half, Blitz introduces us to each of the kids and their families, so that by the time we're onstage with them, we're cheering them on as though they were our own flesh and blood. When they struggle, we sweat; when they lose, we cry; when they win, we cheer . . . and then want to watch Spellbound all over again. -- Robert Wilonsky
4. Capturing the Friedmans -- Six viewings in, and still it's not clear whether Arnold and then-18-year-old son Jesse committed multiple acts of sexual abuse on children taking computer classes in the Friedmans' Great Neck, New York home in 1987. You will have your suspicions, but also your doubts -- as does director Andrew Jarecki, whose documentary neither judges nor absolves, but only suggests. Yet the mystery, be it the result of a witch hunt or a quest for deserved justice, withers next to the larger tale of a family obsessed with chronicling its devastation and ultimate decimation; that ultimate American tragedy is the heart of this masterpiece. Jarecki's documentary started as a light film about David Friedman, beloved kiddie-party entertainer in Manhattan, but changed course when the bitter clown hinted at long-buried family secrets. Jarecki, given access to more than 50 hours of videotapes and audio recordings the Friedmans made, shows us Arnold and Elaine Friedman as optimistic newlyweds, as young parents to three beautiful little boys, then finally as strangers who loathe each other in plain view of their sons, one of whom, Jesse, will ultimately serve time in prison. Capturing the Friedmans is harrowing and haunting, and the most unforgettable film of 2003. -- Robert Wilonsky
5. American Splendor -- With hard-luck humor, downtrodden honesty, an achingly real leading man, and stunning yet low-key formal innovation, American Splendor may be the most humble work of genius to grace screens this year. Playing alongside the real article, Paul Giamatti is irresistible as Clevelander Harvey Pekar, the disheveled file clerk who gained a cult following by documenting his sometimes excruciating, sometimes merely banal life in the comic-book series that shares the movie's title. As Pekar's pasty, unimpressed wife, Joyce Brabner, who also appears in the film, Hope Davis is deadpan and hilarious. The couple's winningly abbreviated courtship leads to a marriage that somehow, despite mutual contempt and neurotic pathology, emerges as loving and kind. When the kid enters the picture, the family flirts with happiness. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini build the story frame by frame and brick by brick, using animation and a partial set against a white screen to evoke both the creation of a comic book and the creation of a life. When the actors and the real-life subjects appear in the same frame, the result is breathtaking. Ultimately, the film is sheer elegance, flitting lightly among multiple narrative forms with an utter lack of pretense. -- Melissa Levine
6. Spun -- At once outrageously unpleasant and shockingly sensitive, this belly-flop into hipster drug culture proves an auspicious feature debut for Jonas Åkerlund, who previously helmed music videos for Madonna, Moby, and U2 (and apparently met their agents). A three-day odyssey through Southern Hell-ifornia, the seemingly familiar story by fledgling screenwriters Will de los Santos and Creighton Vero charts the paths of addicts who've . . . um . . . basically graduated from Red Bull. These speed-freaks include Brittany Murphy as a stripper and Mickey Rourke as the macho-pathetic meth man known as the Cook, delivering genuinely moving performances at the heart of absolute madness. Our "hero" is Jason Schwartzman channeling Dustin Hoffman by way of a zip demon -- demented, cruel, and unlikable (he leaves his "date" tied up in his fleapit for the whole movie); he fits in perfectly. In addition, we get Judas Priest's Rob Halford as a porn-store clerk, Almost Famous's Patrick Fugit as a walking pimple farm, Deborah Harry as a nosy dyke, and Mena Suvari grunting on the toilet (thanks, honey). Yes, Billy Corgan's score and the wistful driving montages grow a little tiresome, but the conclusion is a blast, and the overall impact feels almost true enough to qualify as documentary. -- Gregory Weinkauf
7. Whale Rider -- This wonderful film contains the year's finest scene, and it's deceptively simple: no bombast, no special effects, just one young girl (brilliant Keisha Castle-Hughes) in traditional Maori attire, singing in a pageant, aching for the approval of her stubborn chieftain grandpa (Rawiri Paratene, aces), who doesn't show up. Volumes are spoken. In adapting Witi Ihimaera's poetic novel, writer-director Niki Caro delivers a gem, sans pretense (she doesn't fear entertaining us) and melodrama (the heartstrings are honestly strummed). If The Lord of the Rings concerns the dawn of the "Age of Men," Whale Rider essays its dreamy twilight, offering a sneak preview of this new millennium. Without resorting to "feminism," it illustrates how stupid men look when they're fighting anything but Orcs, neutralizing manly madness with a shot of natural wisdom as big as a whale. Part family drama, part fable, part parable, it's a portrait of Girl Power that doesn't make its heroine into another female dickhead, but rather allows her to falter and eventually, humbly, claim her birthright as a leader. Call it bathetic if you need to feel superior, but this film shares the top of my list for having the guts to be gentle and intelligent. -- Gregory Weinkauf
8. The Fog of War -- At the opening of The Fog of War, the brilliant documentary from director Errol Morris, we see a composed, sharply groomed, and middle-aged Robert McNamara, preparing to brief the press on the Vietnam War. Before he speaks, he wants to know one thing: Are the cameras rolling? Now, 40 years later, the media-savvy, media-weary McNamara is face-to-face with one of our country's most accomplished documentarians in a feature-length interview -- once again, answering questions about his role in Vietnam. Morris comes neither to praise McNamara nor to bury him; instead, he invites the former secretary of defense (whose remarkable life placed him in positions of power during much of the 20th century) to show us how things looked to him then and how they appear now. It is a film, essentially, about the lessons of a single life, albeit one that influenced the lives of many others. Whatever else you can say about him, McNamara is a grappler, determined to learn from his mistakes. As a result, The Fog of War never falls neatly into any single or obvious camp of opinion; instead, it courts complexity, engaging the difficulties of potentially unanswerable questions with honesty, bravery, and intellectual rigor. -- Melissa Levine
9. 21 Grams -- An open wound of a film, this tale of loss, grief, guilt, and redemption contains brilliant work by a trio of superb actors: Sean Penn (outdoing even his performance in Mystic River), Naomi Watts, and Benicio del Toro. The film marks the second collaboration between Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and Mexican-born director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who helped to usher in a renaissance of Latin American cinema three years ago with their extraordinary movie Amores Perros. Like that earlier picture, the English-language 21 Grams concerns the aftermath of a fatal car accident and the three individuals whose fates become intertwined as a result of the tragedy. While the nonlinear storytelling takes some getting used to -- and will be considered an unnecessary intrusion by some viewers -- nothing can detract from the powerful emotions and anguished themes that lie at the film's center. Brutal, painful, honest, brilliant. -- Jean Oppenheimer
10. The Matrix Reloaded -- You carped year after year about blockbuster movies having no plot, and then, when one finally comes out that's full to the brim with story, you complain that it's too confusing? Geez. Look, it may be hard to recall in hindsight, but back in 1980 people said the same things about The Empire Strikes Back that they're saying about Reloaded: It has an annoying cliffhanger-ending that leaves a lead character in a coma; there's an irritating guru who speaks cryptically; it's unclear exactly what our hero's new "powers" are; it has big, overblown action sequences; it undermines what we thought we knew about the story from the last film. Time, and DVD, will vindicate Reloaded, even though, as with Empire, it was followed by an overly pat part three. Never predictable, and boasting one of the all-time-great cinematic villains in Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith, Reloaded was one hell of an ambitious sequel, and even the naysayers need to give it that. I must also note that if anyone were ever trying to tailor a movie directly to my interests, they couldn't do much better than a flick that combines theology, kung fu, giant robots, multiple realities, and black leather. -- Luke Y. Thompson
11. Cold Mountain -- Anthony Minghella's magnificent film version of Charles Frazier's Civil War best-seller has much more going for it than Hollywood grandeur. Along with gruesome battle scenes populated with thousands of extras, and Hollywood glamour -- Jude Law and Nicole Kidman are like beautiful pieces of china about to fall from a high shelf -- this grand-scale epic has the kind of moral force and intimate focus that great movies about love and war demand. Based on nothing less than Homer's Odyssey (and the war experiences of the author's great-great-uncle), it's the tale of a wounded soldier trying to get home to his roots despite huge obstacles, and in that, it's fluent, frightening, and beautiful all at once -- a gorgeous piece of filmmaking you can feel in your heart and your gut. Thanks to cinematographer John Seale, production designer Dante Ferretti, and costume designer Ann Roth, every bayonet thrust and jacket button looks like the real thing (a must for hard-core Civil War reenactors), and the period-authentic folk songs (selected by bluesman T-Bone Burnett) have just the right plaintive yearning. After all these decades, Gone With the Wind seems to be just that -- gone. Herewith, the new standard for Civil War drama onscreen. -- Bill Gallo
12. Mystic River -- Dirty Harry Callahan never had much use for those soft-headed San Francisco judges, and Eastwood's squint-eyed Western antiheroes tended to shoot first and ask nothing later. But with this ominous, beautifully acted drama about crime and its traumatic consequences, director Clint Eastwood's worldview seems to have taken a major turn. Sean Penn's seething ex-con, Tim Robbins's handyman, and Kevin Bacon's wounded homicide detective have all accepted the rhythms and routines of everyday existence, but when a tragedy suddenly invades their lives, they are forced to confront the emotional pains of the past as well as the dark challenges of the present. Written by Brian Helgeland (from a novel by Dennis Lehane), the film gives Eastwood an opportunity even greater than the one he seized in Unforgiven to examine such big issues as crime, guilt, and the varieties of justice. Always sensitive to actors, Eastwood evokes splendid performances from his three principals (especially the gifted Penn) and from a supporting cast that includes Laura Linney, Emmy Rossum, and Marcia Gay Harden. Of the 24 films Eastwood has directed, this is the darkest, the most intimate, and far and away the most personal effort of them all. It may even constitute a kind of penance for his own past. -- Bill Gallo
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