1. Mystic River: Why have I chosen Mystic River as the best movie of the year? Isn't The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King -- its closest rival -- more ambitious? Not really. Both films deal with souls damaged by the past, by greed, by sins of commission and omission. The difference? Nothing that pins you to your seat in Mystic River is generated by a computer. The main characters are three working stiffs from Boston, friends since childhood who have been scarred by an incident from that childhood. Now, as adults, Jimmy (Sean Penn) is trying to find out who murdered his daughter; Sean (Kevin Bacon) is the cop assigned to the case; and Dave (Tim Robbins) is the prime suspect. Brian Helgeland's adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel becomes a blueprint for director Clint Eastwood to plunge deeper into the darkness of human nature that he probed so memorably in Unforgiven. All the actors do Eastwood proud, and in a just world Penn and Robbins will both win Oscars. Eastwood, showing a classical directing style worthy of comparison to John Ford, isn't interested in spectacle but in the moral warfare raging in the eyes of three men who are taking their own trip to Mount Doom, seeking redemption and finding only ruin. Eastwood, in the directing coup of 2003, shows how violence is hardwired into the American character. Not a popular subject these days. Eastwood refused to soften his film's harsh reality for box-office gain. That's another reason Mystic River stakes a claim on greatness. It's that rare film that is truly uncompromised.
2. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King: After the Matrix sequels imploded, you may have feared big-time for the final chapter of Rings. No worries. It's now official: Peter Jackson has created the mack daddy of all movie fantasies, and Return of the King brings the film version of Tolkien's trilogy to a combustibly exciting close. Prepare to be wowed by the giant spider, the charging Mumakil, the Army of the Dead and the battle of Pelennor Fields. Prepare also to have your emotions wrung out as you watch the coronation of Aragorn (fiery Viggo Mortensen), consider the fate of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and the fellowship, and then get deeper into the character of Sam (Sean Astin comes into his own with this brave, questing performance). The dominance of effects-driven spectacles hasn't been a boon to film -- hello, Haunted Mansion -- but in the hands of a master like Jackson, who respects Tolkien's passion for action and character, it's an art form. Jackson hits a grand slam.
3. Lost in Translation: Bill Murray as a Hollywood star adrift in Tokyo gives the performance of his career. And Scarlett Johansson, 19, matches him step for step as a Yale grad who finds something in him that's missing in her careerist husband. But the real star of this movie is Sofia Coppola, who wrote the year's best original screenplay and directed with a delicacy and precision that belie her thirty-two years. In only her second movie -- The Virgin Suicides was her first -- Coppola has found a unique voice.
4. Master and Commander: It takes a director as dogged and brilliant as Peter Weir to persuade a studio to spend $135 million on a sea adventure that doesn't go in for Hollywood heroics or romantic mush. Russell Crowe as Capt. Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany as ship surgeon Stephen Maturin power their roles with non-bogus gusto as the good ship Surprise takes to the high seas, circa 1807, to bring down the French and taste sweet victory.
5. Cold Mountain: This is one stunner of a movie. Charles Frazier's lofty novel -- it's really The Odyssey set during the Civil War -- could have been one of those dust-dry film versions of "great literature." (Remember the botch job on Snow Falling on Cedars?) But gifted director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley), who wrote the well-judged screenplay, gives the story a hot-blooded urgency. Cold Mountain has it all: love, war, humor, suspense and a probing sense of what it takes for a divided America to heal its wounds. It's a triumph for Minghella, who casts the film with a keen eye. Jude Law gives a breakthrough star performance as Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier so tormented by the fighting -- the opening battle scene is authentically harrowing -- that he heads home on foot to the woman he left behind. She is Ada, and as embodied and eroticized by Nicole Kidman she is someone well worth the hike to North Carolina. Kidman lights up the screen. She and Law fire up the love story at the heart of this intimate epic. A remarkable feat, because the movie, like the book, mostly keeps these two characters apart. Inman's travels, interacting with characters such as a lonely war widow (Natalie Portman) and a lecherous preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman), are interspersed with Ada working the farm with Ruby, a rough-spoken hellraiser played by a roaringly comic Renée Zellweger, who steals every scene she's in. But even Ruby has secrets. The specter of war haunts Cold Mountain, but you remember it for the heat of its romantic yearning and the mysteries that wrap themselves around you until you're lost in another world.
6. American Splendor: Here's the kind of indie gem that falls between the cracks when audiences rush out to the high-profile epics. This one-of-a-kind biopic about comic-book writer Harvey Pekar, indelibly played by Paul Giamatti, does not deserve such a fate. Harvey's relationship with his third wife, Joyce Brabner (the criminally underrated Hope Davis), makes for a whacked-out love story of blending neuroses. The idea of having the real Harvey and Joyce step in to comment on the action, plus using animation to bring Harvey's comic ideas to life, is the brainchild of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, married documentarians (Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's) making the year's most promising debut in features.
7. Big Fish: Arguably the most personal film Tim Burton has ever directed, this tall tale of a son (Billy Crudup) who wants to find the truth behind the yarns his dying father (a ferociously fine Albert Finney) tells him cuts to the way living in fantasy can hurt and heal. Ewan McGregor plays the father as a young man, a fantasist, like Burton, who finds comfort in a magical world of giants and freaks. There are bigger, more powerful films this year. There's none lovelier.
8. A Mighty Wind: Just looking at the photo above of Mitch (Eugene Levy) and Mickey (Catherine O'Hara), a folk-singing duo split by Mitch's nervous breakdown, makes me remember all that's heartfelt and hysterically funny about Christopher Guest's wondrous satire of the Sixties folk world. Levy and O'Hara give the kind of tone-perfect performances that never get nominated for Oscars. That should be excuse enough to overhaul the whole corrupt system. Listen to them duet on "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," and let me know who else can make you crack a smile and shed a tear at the same time. Guest, who devised the story of a folk reunion concert with Levy -- the cast improvised the rest -- has shown talent for this game before in 1997's Waiting for Guffman and 2000's Best in Show. A Mighty Wind can take its place proudly in that classic company. It's the comedy of the year.
9. Kill Bill: Vol.1: The Balls! Splitting your movie in half, releasing one part in October and then making us wait to pay for Vol.2 in February. The thing of it is: Quentin Tarantino pulls it off, at least with Vol.1. Uma Thurman rocks hard as a bride who avenges herself on her former colleagues (all part of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad) for killing her groom and leaving her for dead on her wedding day. The bride's battles with Bill (the mostly unseen David Carradine), the mace-swinging Go Go Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama) and the lethal O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) belong in a time capsule. Tarantino turns his mad love for grind-house kung-fu into movie poetry.
10. Angels in America: This altogether astonishing adaptation of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play isn't a legit movie at all. It's on HBO, starting this month, and is therefore ineligible for a movie ten-best list. Says you. Kushner, adapting his own play, and director Mike Nichols, working at the top of his game, have created a transfixing masterpiece, and I'm not about to ignore it on technical grounds. Running more than six hours, this fiercely funny, poetic and moving meditation on AIDS, politics, religion and hypocrisy during the Reagan years in Manhattan is a true movie event. Al Pacino is a mesmerizing monster (meaning he earns our reluctant compassion) as Roy Cohn, a lawyer with AIDS who won't admit he's anything as weak as a homosexual. Other major names lend their support to the project, including Emma Thompson as the angel you see in the ads and Meryl Streep, shining in several roles, including a bearded rabbi. But the film belongs to lesser names: Justin Kirk as Prior Walter, deserted by his lover (the excellent Ben Shenkman), who can't live with the ravages of Prior's disease. The revelatory performance comes from Patrick Wilson as Joe Pitt, a Mormon lawyer who arrives in New York with his wife, Harper (Mary Louise Parker). Joe blinds himself to corruption, his attraction to men and the fact that history, in Kushner's words, is "about to crack wide open." The film offers a view of the Twin Towers to remind us of what we were like in the mid-1980s as the millennium approached. Kushner was there to watch, and what he gives us in language, alive with beauty and terror, is a legacy for our time. This is what I call a real movie.
For sticklers who say real movies must be released in theaters, put any of the following in as Number Ten:
Finding Nemo (directed by Andrew Stanton) -- a new animated classic.
Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki) -- the best documentary.
The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand) -- the best foreign film.
28 Days Later (Danny Boyle) -- no 2003 movie had bigger scares.
The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan) -- a scathing indictment.
Whale Rider (Niki Caro) -- a magical fable of a girl's empowerment.
Camp (Todd Graff) -- a musical that hits all the right notes.
In America (Jim Sheridan) -- the immigrant experience, expertly done.
House of Sand and Fog (Vadim Perelman) -- a strong adaptation.
Seabiscuit (Gary Ross) -- an underdog horse you have to love.
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