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Filmmakers conjured real emotion in 2003

Iraq wasn't the only awkwardly occupied territory this year. The video-game industry's co-option of commercial moviemaking is almost so complete that it's tempting to start bringing control pads to the theater. This meant storytelling duties fell to the country's nonfiction artists, who were all too thrilled to take us places we never thought we'd go. Many of the best movies turned the seemingly unpopular documentary format into the year's most compelling and crowd-pleasing entertainment.

Hollywood, meanwhile, seemed afraid to look inward, griping instead about piracy eating a hole in its wallet. Mainstream movies were generally so stultifying and empty that when a perfectly sound movie for adults arrived the way, say, "Mystic River" did in October, it was seen as "historic" and culture-changing. And in a year that brought us two movies based on Disney rides, Clint East-wood's stark drama did start to look more and more like the Greek tragedy it wanted to be. What went wrong in 2003 is that ideas and danger were gone. Only a handful of filmmakers -- among them, Gus Van Sant, Errol Morris, Quentin Tarantino, and Gaspar Noe -- dared to make the dark an unsafe, uncomfortable place to be. Here's hoping for more movie-going mischief in 2004.

BEST

LOVE AND DIANE
Jennifer Dworkin set out to make a documentary about a family she'd heard about through some kids in her art class. The film was supposed to be a simple snapshot of a woman and her family, but the woman turned out to be an unstoppable life force named Diane Hazzard, and her family included the four estranged children with whom she found herself suddenly trying to rebuild a life after her emergence from drug rehab. In the filmmaking debut of the year, Dworkin chronicles the distrust and disaffection that ebbs and flows in a child for her parent. The camera is hotwired to its subjects, as if docu detachment were just for Hollywood movies. Words wound here. Images linger. And the film is a true and complete work of art.

ELEPHANT
Gus Van Sant had been threatening to retreat from Hollywood's glow, and after this school massacre nightmare and the time-space head-trip "Gerry": mission accomplished. After 20 minutes of cinematographer Harris Savides's voyeuristic hall-roaming, the high school experience comes rushing back as a weird, semi-documentary abstraction: the half-structured, half-randomness of a school day, the faces you vaguely recognize, the faces you don't. We never really know these kids, but their deaths are shocking and sudden and intimate. The film is either a tightlipped essay on the Columbine massacre or a sub-pornographic piece of exploitationist hooey. It's either a pretentious art director showing off what he can do or the grisliest John Hughes movie ever. The brilliance of Van Sant's movie is that it's all of those things.

THE FOG OF WAR
As Tom Cruise fought for the Japanese in "The Last Samurai" and elves, hobbits, and men fought orcs for the future of Middle-earth in "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," Errol Morris's documentary profile of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was the year's real combat epic. In the film, McNamara explains his role in conflicts in Cuba and Vietnam; he knows that many of the decisions he made were wrong, but only sort of. Morris is gentle, giving us McNamara-on-McNamara, until the chilling, mind-changing coda, where the old man appears to have run out of excuses and fallen into a spider hole of self-incriminating nondisclosure. The efficiency expert gets a human face, and creepily, it looks a lot like Donald Rumsfeld's.

KILL BILL, VOL. 1
Loving Quentin Tarantino's movie was like being in a club the night a melee breaks out. You have to walk outside and explain to news crews what you were doing there. "Look, if they want to brawl and tear stuff up, fine. I came to get my party on. And part of partying in this club means knowing that somebody's probably gonna get kicked through some bamboo sliding doors or clocked with a mace. I could go somewhere else, but frankly I came to see somebody get clocked with a mace." More clubs should try to put on shows half as funky and wall-to-wall entertaining. (The party continues Feb. 20 with "Kill Bill, Vol. 2.")

SPELLBOUND
Pint-sized word freaks descend upon the national capital for the year's most adrenalizing thriller. But while director Jeffrey Blitz and his ingenious editor Yana Gorskaya capture the unbearable intensity of the National Spelling Bee, they also temper our nail biting with individual family portraits that humorously and vividly spell A-M-E-R-I-C-A.

TO BE AND TO HAVE
This year we Americans got professors Julia Roberts ("Mona Lisa Smile") and Anthony Hopkins ("The Human Stain") at their most righteous and appalled. Meanwhile, in Nicolas Philibert's in-the-classroom documentary, the cluster of adorable young French students got the devoted and humane Georges Lopez. Not long before the credits roll, he announces he'll retire, leaving his students saddened and shocked. Philibert is documentary film's sneakiest practitioner, balancing scenes of the kids in school and at home with shots of seasons changing. Philibert offers a quiet answer to what happens to life without M. Lopez -- it simply goes on.

LOST IN TRANSLATION
Sofia Coppola's triumph was never supposed to happen. Movie success. The cherry atop Bill Murray's career. The rocket launch of Scarlett Johansson. Adulation from everywhere. But Coppola's second movie both fulfills its destiny as hipster love note between beached fogy and drifting fawn and achieves something more permanent: a plaintive, rock 'n' roll half-dream about finding a girl to laugh at your jokes and a man to whisper the sweetest nothing in your ear.

COLD MOUNTAIN
Funny, nothing in those Ken Burns Civil War documentaries mentioned the destitute women looking as ravishing as Nicole Kidman or the soldiers looking as gnarly but fine as Jude Law. Also, was the fight about emancipating slaves or not? In the hands of Anthony Minghella, however, it all seems moot. Homer's "Odyssey" is grafted onto Margaret Mitchell with a kiss of perfume and brimstone as Law tries to make his way home to Kidman, who waits for him as her farm falls apart. It's grandly moving, blatantly erotic, and kind of cheesy. It's also voluptuous and valiant Hollywood moviemaking.

THE STONE READER
Man reads book. Book affects reader. Reader tries to track down author. Author is missing. Reader makes film about attempt to find author. Still no luck. Film reveals academic world of failed authors. Viewers' minds fill with sadness about authors' books that yellow on their shelves. Does the filmmaker's obsessive detective work lead to sought-for missing author? See for yourself. Regardless: a heartbreaking, soul-stirring, utterly personal movie about the supreme joys of reading.

28 DAYS LATER
Dear Leatherface, Freddy, Jason, etc.: Some things you should know about the horror film. First, what's horrifying has changed. Bogeymen? Not scary anymore. Real-world possibility is where it's at --think a fluid-borne virus that wipes out most of the planet, as is the case with our zombie flick. Second, be keen on character, structure, pacing, drama, philosophy, comedy, dread, and a carefully employed amount of shock. Third, respect the people who pay to see your movies.

Finally, unless you're using them to hack up infected people, machetes are so "Halloween 2."

Yours, director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland.

HONORABLE MENTION

IRREVERSIBLE
The year's most notorious movie -- running backward, it opens with a gruesome murder, peaks with a rape, ends with a shot of paradise lost, then ends again with a stroke-inducing strobe effect -- is also the one I had the hardest time letting go of. When Gaspar Noe's film came out last February, I laid into it with the appalled fury that some people spent on "Elephant" and "Kill Bill," which also spoke violence as a first language. I found Noe's syntax cheap and infuriating, but his defenders were just as keyed up. All year the sparks flew, until it became clear that, at the very least, Noe had surpassed Lars von Trier as the world's most wicked filmmaker. Sometimes, these are the types of fights we should go to the movies to have.

OTHER NOTABLE FILMS

"AKA," "Blackboards," "Capturing the Friedmans," "Demonlover," "Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary," "Gerry," "The Hulk," "Lilya 4-Ever," "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," and "Ten."

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.


What films topped your best and worst lists for 2003 films?
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