Honorable mentions of 2003: Elf -- Because Will Ferrell made the ultimate film fashion statement, wearing mustard yellow tights and his big, hilarious heart on his sleeve. Hulk -- Because director Ang Lee provides a primer on how to make a comic-book movie rather than just a movie with comic-book characters in it. Identity -- Because director James Mangold and screenwriter Michael Cooney very nearly salvage the now-cliched concept of non-linear narrative and create a murder motel that's Psycho cool. Laurel Canyon -- Because Frances McDormand gives the hottest female performance of the year as a legendary rock producer believably bedding a much younger man and struggling to connect with her more straitlaced son. Lost in Translation -- Because director Sofia Coppola is brave enough to trust the beauty of simplicity. And, finally, Phone Booth -- Because director Joel Schumacher and rising star Colin Farrell make an all-out adrenaline rush of 81 minutes of a guy on hold.
And now for the numbers:
10. The Dancer Upstairs -- Because the sorrowful eyes of actor Javier Bardem look the way a Latin American country caught between the corrupt old ways and a rising revolution must feel. Because debuting director John Malkovich's strange intelligence stalks every shot. Because the film's unhurried final scene knows a million ways to gently break your heart.
9. (tie) Mystic River and The Human Stain -- Because complicated works of fiction can make for flawed but interesting films. Because Sean Penn's raw performance in River is a stunner and Nicole Kidman more than leaves her mark on Stain. Because directors Clint Eastwood and Robert Benton don't ever let themselves get in any kind of a hurry.
8. (tie) Open Range and The Missing -- Because directors Kevin Costner and Ron Howard prove that the truest American cinematic art form still has a little kick left in its corral. Because Costner wasn't afraid to lose what little clout he had left on a flawed film he believed in -- and because Howard was willing to dip into a Fort Knox of Hollywood political capital for exactly the same reason. Because, placed side by side, Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones are half of a Mount Rushmore of weathered weariness and true grit.
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl -- Because Johnny Depp's Capt. Jack Sparrow absolutely plunders any preconceived notions of pirateness. Because director Gore Verbinski's use of special effects complements -- and doesn't compromise -- his storytelling technique. Because nobody guessed that a movie based on a theme park ride could possibly be this good. Because the gang's already agreed to a sequel.
6. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World -- Because Paul Bettany is an actor whose talent far exceeds his name recognition. Because Russell Crowe is an actor whose talent far exceeds his rowdy reputation. Because director Peter Weir is as comfortable capturing the camaraderie of men as he is blowing a ship's mast to smithereens. Because it's about time something on the big screen held a candle to A&E's Horatio Hornblower series.
5. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King -- Because the trilogy reintroduced J.R.R. Tolkien as a household name and introduced Viggo Mortensen as a star of tomorrow. Because Peter Jackson and company survived. Because they got it right.
4. The Matrix Reloaded -- Because it's quite possibly the most stylish action-adventure that will ever be made. Because the trilogy changed the way movies will look for a generation. Because the Wachowski brothers convinced us that Keanu Reeves really could save the world.
3. Finding Nemo -- Because it marries technical wizardry with good old-fashioned charm. Because you don't have to be a preschooler to think it's laugh-out-loud funny. Because, if they had to, our dads would brave the open sea, put up with amnesiac fish, make friends with sea turtles and learn to speak whale, too.
2. Kill Bill -- Because it's messy, ridiculous and absolutely electric. Because Japanimation and Uma Thurman used well can be beautiful things. Because, despite his too-long hiatus from Hollywood, it took director Quentin Tarantino about five seconds of film to prove that his juices still flow like no one else's. Because with The Matrix and LOTR trilogies a thing of the past, Vol. 2 promises us a reel reason to live.
1. The Last Samurai -- Because John Wayne and Errol Flynn don't make movies any more, but Tom Cruise does. Because the smile and the swagger are only two weapons in a maturing actor's growing arsenal. Because it's the most ambitious, stirring epic since 1996's The English Patient. Because its star-vehicle status is quietly and purposefully undermined by the exemplary ensemble work of Cruise, Ken Watanabe and Koyuki. Because the spirit of Kurosawa is alive and well, after all these years.