2003 was the year in which old genres became new again -- two high-seas movies? And both of them good? -- great books fought against Hollywoodization, and Peter Jackson's insane gamble paid off. Yet for my money the headiest on-screen action came earlier in the year -- in a wave of documentaries that troubled and entertained, and in disarming fables of recognizable human beings fighting to be noticed by their own lives. Overhyped Oscar bait comes and goes, but if 2004 offers work as challenging, engrossing, or flat-out enjoyable as the 10 films below, it'll be a good year.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
Intoxicating proof that a film can be about more than what it shows you. Some went into this highly lauded second feature from Hollywood princess Sofia Coppola and came out feeling burned: Nothing happens, and slowly. Which is fine; not every movie has to speak to you. Those able to downshift into the cool ambience and dreamy tempo of this tale of two fellow travelers adrift in Tokyo drank deep and came away spiritually replenished. Bill Murray gives the performance we've all been waiting for, Scarlett Johansson comes into her own -- and, imagine, a May-September romance that doesn't involve wrinkled sheets. The camerawork and music combine to take "Translation" out of travelogue specifics and into a spooky, redemptive universality. Coppola got a lot of ink for being her father's daughter, but any director with such control over her art deserves the raves.
The latest film to bubble up from the world of underground comix, "Splendor" is the most structurally audacious movie of the year -- a biopic/adaptation that lets its subject share screen time with his own fictional correlative. The beauty of the approach is that Harvey Pekar's grouchy, quotidian comic book "American Splendor" has always been about giving everyday life a shape through which to appreciate its beauty; the movie similarly spins the mundane until it takes on the sudden comedy of truth. Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis are hilariously down at their heels as Harvey and his common-sense spouse, and with charming deftness directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini commingle the real and the written, drawing and film, art and life.
THE MAGDALENE SISTERS
Not so much a blow against the Catholic Church as an indictment of an entire culture, Peter Mullan's blistering work of moral agitprop dramatizes the injustices done to wayward Irish girls by the Magdalene Sisters laundries in which they were incarcerated. Part prison flick, part expose of a society's sexual paranoia, "Magdalene" has performances of soul and nerve from Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, and Eileen Walsh, and it includes a frighteningly human monster in Geraldine McEwan's Sister Bridget. The brilliant opening sequence, involving a rape at a wedding and its whispered aftermath, serves notice that Mullan won't be taking any prisoners.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
By the time the ninth hour rolls around, we understand we're witnessing one of the most ambitious, self-consciously mythic film cycles in the history of the medium; it's as though Cecil B. De Mille, "Lawrence of Arabia," and "Star Wars" were mere warm-up acts. Peter Jackson's thundering third film in the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy is both relentless and relentlessly solemn -- there are no small moments anywhere in it, and maybe there should have been -- but it shows a great moviemaker in the full joy of his passion, and it's visionary enough to qualify as a working definition of cinema itself.
MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD
Not as lavishly praised as "King," but Peter Weir's accomplishment is no less spellbinding than Peter Jackson's. "Master" takes a sprawling literary universe -- Patrick O'Brian's 20-volume series of men and man-o'-wars -- and renders it not just real but hyper-real, with a vibrant production that re-creates in honest, awful detail what a wooden city on the ocean in 1805 might have looked and felt like. As Captain Jack Aubrey, Russell Crowe buries his charisma to give us an intuitive man of action. One of the most old-fashioned films of the year, "Master" is also one of the most exquisitely crafted: a hand-carved frigate in a celluloid bottle.
There are always great documentaries out there -- 2003 just happened to be the year that audiences started going to them again. Jeffrey Blitz's look at eight adolescents jostling to win the 1999 National Spelling Bee seems like simple fly-on-the-wall filmmaking, but the more you know about these kids and their parents, the deeper it gets, and the climactic rounds caused more cuticle-shredding than any Hollywood suspense film released this year. At its core, "Spellbound" dares us to ask what childhood, learning, even words are for.
CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS
Moviefone cofounder and novice director Andrew Jarecki stumbled on the story of a lifetime in this documentary about a dysfunctional Long Island family and the tragedies of sin and justice that bedevil it. "Capturing" is real filmmaking, though: Handed the home-videos that one of the Friedman sons taped after their schoolteacher father was accused of child molestation, Jarecki assembles a pitiless yet heart-rending mosaic of a nuclear family in full meltdown. It's Eugene O'Neill in Great Neck.
A woman is raped in an underground passageway by a thug. Her lover and an ex-boyfriend search for the criminal and end up killing the wrong man. Not much to that story, and France's Gaspar Noe dares you to walk out by filming the brutal events with head-on realism and sadistically exploiting star Monica Bellucci's allure. But he also tells his story backward -- scene by scene, each separated by the vertiginous whirl of time flowing against itself -- and "Irreversible" slowly moves from violence into an innocence that's all the more precious when you know what's coming. Hard to stomach; harder still to forget.
THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS
Here's an under-represented on-screen demographic: parents of young children, struggling to keep their marriage upright before it sinks under the weight of Huggies and sleep deprivation. Alan Rudolph's sly comedy of domestic horrors -- his best movie in years -- casts Campbell Scott and Hope Davis as husband and wife dentists drifting apart into politeness and adultery. The tag-team flu epidemic that climaxes the film may have parents weeping with the laughter of recognition, and Scott expertly conveys the stunned disbelief of a man for whom the Novocain has suddenly worn off.
THE SCHOOL OF ROCK
Hollywood piffle -- but since Hollywood has long lost the knack for unpretentious, well-crafted piffle, this Richard Linklater charmer came as a shock: It's a feel-good comedy that actually felt good. Jack Black won over his detractors as a rock 'n' roll slobbo who masquerades as a substitute teacher and brings the joy of power chords to a bunch of fifth-graders, and the supporting cast is aces from top to bottom, especially Joan Cusack as the principal with a hidden jones for Stevie Nicks. Go figure: It took a bunch of indie outsiders to make the best mainstream entertainment of the year.
"Camp," "Cold Mountain," "Finding Nemo," "Gerry," "In This World," "Lilya 4-Ever," "Mystic River," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Raising Victor Vargas," "Seabiscuit," "The Station Agent," "Sweet Sixteen," "Swimming Pool," "28 Days Later," "Winged Migration"
THE CAT IN THE HAT
In which clueless filmmakers take an elegant little kiddie classic and throw out everything good about it. But hey, who cares as long as the cross-promotion deals are in place? A rank turd in the sandbox of Mike Myers's career, this is so far from the spirit of Seuss that it beggars belief.
A VIEW FROM THE TOP
Gwyneth Paltrow ended the year with a brave, deglamorized performance as Sylvia Plath -- but she began it with this laughless "ironic" stewardess romance that condescends to everyone in sight. And whaddya know, Mike Myers is in this one, too.
GODS AND GENERALS
How not to make a Civil War epic: dress all the men in fake beards that suggest a Smith Bros. cloning experiment gone horribly wrong. Have everyone declaim deadening slabs of prose that ape the style of the time while imparting none of the life. Oh, and hide all the black people.
Maybe this would have worked with Joan Crawford in 1948, but in 2003, with Angelina Jolie globe-trotting about in a charitable lather over hunky doctors-without-borders medic Clive Owen, it's an embarrassing, soapy mess.
THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE
A Big Issue movie gone nuts, "Gale" is an anti-capital punishment melodrama with so many twists that it ends up pro-capital punishment. Fine actors such as Kevin Spacey and Laura Linney swim upstream against a swelling tide of ridiculousness.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.