Weathering Another Year in Film My Winners and Losers for 2003

Before I bid adieu-or a more tentative au revoir-to the 2003 movie year, with its insane schedule of 500 or so releases, I’d like to take a stab at explaining my modus operandi behind my end-of-year list-making, an activity I’ve been engaged in for close to half a century. This year, I’m comparatively late in unveiling my various lists, mostly because it’s taken me well into the new year to drag myself through three hours and 20 minutes-a long time for my shrinking life span-of Peter Jackson’s widely acclaimed Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King . But of course I had to see it, before inevitably leaving it off my 10-best list of films in the English language.

I say “inevitably” because I’ve long been prejudiced against the franchise blockbuster à la Mr. Jackson’s opus. Back in the 40′s, I took to heart a seemingly casual comment by the British film critic, C.L. Lejeune. She observed that the greatest gift of the film medium may turn out to be not so much its scope as its intimacy. And when I think of my most cherished moviegoing memories, it is a voice, a face, a pair of eyes that haunt my dreams-not vast hordes of extras assembled for battle. This is not to say that thrilling charges don’t rock my boat, especially the ill-fated battles in Henry V , Four Feathers and Alexander Nevsky , a foolish but stirringly heroic tradition currently preserved in The Last Samurai and Lord of the Rings .

My esteemed colleagues have compared Rings with the epic periods of David Lean and the silent-era Fritz Lang of Die Niebelungen . Putting Lang aside, I much prefer the earlier Lean of Brief Encounter , The Passionate Friends and Great Expectations to the later Lean of The Bridge on the River Kwai , Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago .

Though the final segment of Mr. Jackson’s massive enterprise is well-crafted, surprisingly well-paced and not without its own subtleties, I still feel that its most popular feature is teenage narcissism, elevated to the level of cosmic megalomania: The fate of a kingdom, its massed armies and the earth itself-mythologically “Middle” as it may be-hangs on an accursed magic ring on a hobbit’s finger. So it won’t be a surprise that I prefer Mr. Jackson’s earlier, earthbound work in Heavenly Creatures (1994) to his efforts in Middle Earth.

Having said that, Mr. Jackson’s prodigious energy in transforming New Zealand into a worldwide tourist attraction cannot be dismissed, and in this spirit I hereby institute the annual Star Wars Prize and present it to Mr. Jackson for fashioning a franchise blockbuster that has made it even harder for grown-up films in the pipeline to be made. Ah-hemmm.

Without further ado, here are my other choices, both positive and negative, for a year in which there were more talented players than there were creative projects. But it was also a year in which the watchability factor was stronger than ever in 2003 (see box).

Notable Female Performances:

Cate Blanchett, Veronica Guerin ; Sarah Polley, My Life Without Me ; Hope Davis, American Splendor , The Secret Lives of Dentists ; Emily Grace and Judith Ivey, What Alice Found ; Maria Bello, The Cooler ; Lauren Graham, Bad Santa ; Laura Linney, Love Actually , Mystic River ; Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation , Girl with a Pearl Earring ; Naomi Watts, Leslie Caron, Kate Hudson, Stockard Channing, Glenn Close, Le Divorce ; Oksana Akinshina, Lilya 4-Ever ; Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington, Mili Avital, Jacinda Barrett, Anna Deavere Smith, The Human Stain ; Romola Garai, Tara Fitzgerald, Sinéad Cusack, Rose Byrne, I Capture the Castle ; Charlize Theron, The Italian Job , Monster ; Christina Ricci, Monster , Anything Else ; Marie-Josée Croze, Barbarian Invasions ; Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham-Carter, Alison Lohman, Big Fish ; Agnes Bruckner, Frances Fisher, Blue Car ; Julie Walters, Helen Mirren, Calendar Girls .

Also, Jeanne Moreau, Cet Amour-Là ; Eileen Atkins, Kathy Baker, Natalie Portman, Renée Zellweger, Nicole Kidman, Cold Mountain ; Drew Barrymore, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Roberts, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind ; Miranda Otto, Lord of the Rings ; Olivia Williams, Helena Bonham Carter, The Heart of Me ; Emilie Dequenne, Brigitte Catillon, The Housekeeper ; Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, Kill Bill Vol. 1 ; Hiroyuki Sanada, The Last Samurai ; Frances McDormand, Laurel Canyon , Something’s Gotta Give ; Neve Campbell, The Company ; Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier, Swimming Pool ; Audrey Tautou, Dirty Pretty Things ; Jamie Lee Curtis, Lindsay Lohman, Freaky Friday ; Alison Lohan, Matchstick Men ; Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst, Juliet Stevenson, Marcia Gay Harden, Julia Roberts, Mona Lisa Smile ; Diane Keaton, Frances McDormand, Amanda Peet, Something’s Gotta Give ; Samantha Morton, Emma and Sarah Bolgier, In America ; Renée Zellweger, Sarah Paulson, Down with Love ; Chloë Sevigny, Shattered Glass ; Famke Janssen, Anna Paquin, X-2 ; Emma Thompson, Love Actually ; Gwyneth Paltrow, Blythe Danner, Sylvia ; Suzanne Flon, Nathalie Baye, The Flower of Evil .

Notable Male Performances:

Bill Murray, Lost in Translation ; Billy Bob Thornton, Bad Santa ; Paul Giamatti, American Splendor ; Mark Ruffalo, My Life Without Me , In the Cut ; Peter Sarsgaard, Hank Azaria, Hayden Christensen, Shattered Glass ; Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman, Bruce Almighty ; Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Hugo Weaving, John Noble, Lord of the Rings ; Kurt Russell, Brendan Gleeson, Dark Blue ; Campbell Scott, Dennis Leary, The Secret Lives of Dentists ; Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Pirates of the Caribbean ; Chris Cooper, Jeff Bridges, Tobey Macguire, Seabiscuit ; Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sergi López, Benedict Wong, Dirty Pretty Things ; Jean-Pierre Bacri, The Housekeeper ; Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Matchstick Men ; Jason Biggs, Danny DeVito, Anything Else ; Thierry Lhermitte, Sam Waterston, Matthew Modine, Le Divorce ; Anthony Hopkins, Gary Sinise, Harry Lennix, Ed Harris, Wentworth Miller, The Human Stain .

Also, Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Danny DeVito, Big Fish ; Djimon Hounsou, Paddy Considine, In America ; Albert Brooks, Michael Suchet, Michael Douglas, The In-Laws ; Sam Rockwell, George Clooney, Rutger Hauer, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind ; William Macy, Alec Baldwin, Paul Sorvino, The Cooler ; Jean Rochefort, Johnny Hallyday, The Man on the Train ; Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, The Last Samurai ; Paul Bettany, The Heart of Me , Master and Commander ; Nick Nolte, The Good Thief ; Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, X-2 ; Kevin Bacon, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Mystic River ; Jack Black, The School of Rock ; Tommy Lee Jones, Aaron Eckhart, The Missing ; Jack Nicholson, Keanu Reeves, Something’s Gotta Give ; Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, Girl with a Pearl Earring ; Colin Firth, Bill Nighy, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Love Actually ; Tony Cox, Bernie Mac, John Ritter, Bad Santa ; Ewan McGregor, David Hyde Pierce, Down with Love ; William H. Macy, Gary Stevens, Seabiscuit .

Best English-Language Films:

1. Lost in Translation

2. Bad Santa

3. American Splendor

4. Sweet Sixteen

5. The Human Stain

6. Kill Bill, Vol. 1

7. Sylvia

8. The Secret Lives of Dentists

9. Shattered Glass

10. Mystic River

Runners-Up:

My Life Without Me , What Alice Found , Big Fish , Monster , Blue Car , Freaky Friday , The Heart of Me , Veronica Guerin , Seabiscuit , School of Rock , Cold Mountain , Dirty Pretty Things , The Swimming Pool , Laurel Canyon , Matchstick Men , In America , Bruce Almighty , The Magdalene Sisters , Dark Blue , The Cooler , Raising Victor Vargas , The Italian Job , Something’s Gotta Give , The Last Samurai .

Best Foreign-Language Films:

1. Barbarian Invasions

2. Lilya 4-Ever

3. Man on the Train

4. The Son

5. Autumn Spring

6. The Flower of Evil

7. Together

8. Nowhere in Africa

9. Cet Amour-La

10. The Housekeeper

Runners-Up:

TheEmbalmer,Seaside, Chihwasean

Movies Other People Liked and I Didn’t:

1. 21 Grams

2. Master and Commander

3. House of Sand and Fog

4. Capturing the Friedmans

5. Girl With a Pearl Earring

6. The Missing

7. Thirteen

8. A Mighty Wind

9. Demonlover

10. And Now … Ladies and Gentlemen

Movies Other People Despised and I Didn’t Think Were So Bad:

1. Le Divorce

2. The Company

3. The Hulk

4. The Good Thief

5. Love, Actually

6. I Capture the Castle

7. Down with Love

8. Hollywood Homicide

9. The In-Laws

10. Anything Else

Best Nonfiction Films:

1. Stone Reader

2. My Architect

3. To Be and to Have

4. Sex in a Cold Climate

5. Winged Migration

6. Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers in World War II

7. Spellbound

8. Stevie

9. Fellini: I’m a Born Liar

10. Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary