It’s curious that something as seemingly random as a year’s worth of movies can somehow take on its own semi-coherent themes. Following 2001 (the year of questioning perception) and 2002 (the year of the tragicomedy), here comes 2003: the year of pulp. What are Kill Bill Vol. 1, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and the Matrix and X-Men sequels if not splashy, impeccably made pulp fictions writ large? This year also yielded unusually thoughtful and clever horror tales like 28 Days Later, Willard, May, and Bubba Ho-Tep. This was the year Freddy vs. Jason was finally realized, for God’s sake.
Still, it was hardly a stellar year. “It was a lousy year for movies” has become an annual exaggeration that I usually attempt to debunk (2002, for example, was a pretty thrilling year for movies). But there’s something off about 2003. As much as I like these 10 (or 11) movies, I doubt more than a few of them would’ve made it onto my list last year, or the year before, but all of the following are movies to seek out. I’ve seen many of them twice, and will revisit them all in the future. Pulp may have been the dominant storytelling mode of 2003, but movies like these show just how powerful that stuff can be.
1. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino)
Unfortunately, Harvey Weinstein indulged in his two favorite treats this year: publicity and 90-minute movies. Yes, Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 was sliced in two, but I’ll give this to Mr. Weinstein: when it cut to black, it felt like Hattori Hanzo steel. Before that perfect cliffhanger, the film offers plenty of Q & U’s magnificent wrath, by turns exhilarating, harrowing, hilarious, and shocking. Most surprising is the deliberateness of its pacing; Tarantino’s kung fu doesn’t need to fly by to hold an audience rapt.
2. Once Upon a Time in Mexico (Robert Rodriguez)
Two movies, two friends, two tales of revenge. Tarantino pal Robert Rodriguez caps his “Mariachi trilogy” with a glorious mishmash of seedy characters and double-crosses, as sprawling as Tarantino’s film is single-minded. Johnny Depp’s performance as crooked CIA Agent Sands is almost more exciting to watch than his other genius work of scene thievery this year, because here you realize he’s done it twice in a row, and without repeating himself to boot.
3. Big Fish (Tim Burton)
I don’t know that this is Tim Burton’s best, most personal or most grown-up movie to date. But it certainly finds itself in good company with its inventive and deeply moving story of a father (Albert Finney), son (Billy Crudup), and the alter ego we all kinda wish we had (Ewan McGregor). Burton’s movies are known for their gorgeous photography and set design; this one is no exception, but can we take a moment to appreciate the work of Burton and casting director Denise Chamain, finding plum parts for talents as diverse as Jessica Lange, Danny DeVito, and Steve Buscemi.
4. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
Every five years, Bill Murray gives his best performance ever. In ‘93, it was in Groundhog Day; in ‘98, Rushmore; and this year, Sofia Coppola’s sophomore anti-slump. As Bob, he flirts with young, married Charlotte (Scarlett Johannsen) in Tokyo. That’s pretty much the whole movie, yet it doesn’t take much more than Murray’s hilarious, heartbreaking performance and Coppola’s sensitive direction to render this the best pulpless movie of 2003.
5. American Splendor (Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman)
A triumph of mixed media dedicated to bringing to life one Harvey Pekar, played by Paul Giamatti in the performance of his career, so far. Seeing it a second time, I was struck by what a moving experience first-time feature film directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman have crafted, and how they craft it through honesty and humor, not showboating.
6. X2 (Bryan Singer)
A sequel that more or less equals the original in quality while surpassing it in scale, Bryan Singer’s follow-up to his X-Men is an intelligent collection of sly performances (especially Hugh Jackman and Ian McKellan) and fantastic set pieces (Nightcrawler’s opening attack! Invasion of the X-Mansion! The fight with… okay, every set piece in the movie). It’s a wonder more nerds didn’t die of happiness. Let’s hope the forthcoming Spiderman 2 follows its example.
7. Matchstick Men (Ridley Scott)
For sheer watchability, Matchstick Men may be the best movie Ridley Scott has ever made. For once, Scott’s stylish direction isn’t in service of a bloated or dull story, but rather something small-scale and character-driven. The players are Nicolas Cage (OCD con man), Sam Rockwell (sidekick), and Alison Lohman (daughter), giving a trifecta of flawless performances.
8. Elephant (Gus Van Sant)
Gus Van Sant’s second, even better film of 2003 (shout out to the other dozen people who saw Gerry!) defies our expectations about how to make a movie about high school violence, refusing to offer easy answers for anyone. The camera drifts through the hallways, over sports fields, revisiting mundane events from several points of view, filling us with dread over what we know is to come. When it does, you almost want to hit the ground yourself.
9. The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (Andy and Larry Wachowski)
Okay, no, they’re not as good as The Matrix, not as tight, not as novel, and certainly not as self-contained. But look: most of the movies on this list aren’t as good as The Matrix, either. And most movies I saw in 2003 couldn’t match this pair for both technical artistry and unpredictability. There are sequences of pure comic book brilliance in this pair, and I for one didn’t feel gypped for that. Con: They don’t hold up as well to repeat viewings as The Matrix, either. Pro: They hold up better than 90% of the science fiction and action pictures I’ve seen.
10. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton)
Another wonder from Pixar, the most consistently dazzling filmmaking team in the universe. The animation is beautiful and the jokes are sharp, but what reasonates is its touching exploration of parent-child dynamics. Movies like Nemo, Monsters, Inc., and Toy Story 2 don’t succeed because they’re computer-animated; they succeed because viewers of any age can leave the theater feeling great.
Note: As of this writing, there are several promising 2003 titles I have not yet seen, including All the Real Girls, Cold Mountain, and Shattered Glass.
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