Before revealing my favorite fiction films in 2003, I want to draw attention to four commendable documentaries: Stanley Nelson's The Murder of Emmett Till and Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer's Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary, whose subject matters are obvious; Jeffrey Blitz's Spellbound, a wonderful look at contestants in the National Spelling Bee; and Scott Hamilton Kennedy's O.T.: Our Town, the story of an inner city school's struggle to stage a production of the Thornton Wilder masterpiece. You won't be sorry to rent any of these titles.
You will be sorry, however, if you rent any of the following: Alan Parker's The Life of David Gale, a film that manages to prove the opposite of its own position on capital punishment; Bruno Barreto's View From the Top, which suggests that Gwyneth Paltrow should work less; Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, which makes us wonder if maybe Pulp Fiction was an accident; and Brian Helgeland's The Order, which manages to turn Christian religion inside out. What's particularly distressing about these four films is that they are made by filmmakers who have done very fine work previously.
Among the worthy and enjoyable films that didn't quite make my year-end honor roll, I would include: Gurinder Chadha's Bend It Like Beckham, the story of an English girl whose traditional Sikh parents don't want her to play soccer; Richard Linklater's School of Rock with wild man Jack Black as a substitute teacher who turns a bunch of uptight 12-year-olds into a rock 'n' roll band; Richard Curtis's multi-character romantic comedy Love Actually with scene-stealing Billy Nighy as an aging rocker and a brilliant Emma Thompson as a wife worried that her husband has fallen in love with someone else; and, believe it or not, the Farrelly Brothers' Stuck on You, a farce about conjoined twins that has a heart as big as Wyoming.
And now, in reverse order, my favorite movies of 2003: 10. Gore Verbinski's wildly entertaining Pirates of the Caribbean has knock-dead performances by Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Depp. 9. Jim Sheridan's excellent family film In America is about Irish immigrants trying to recover from the loss of a child. 8. Patrice Leconte's The Man on the Train is the tale of an unlikely friendship between an elderly literature teacher (Jean Rochefort) and a career criminal (Johnny Hallyday). 7. Ridley Scott's often humorous drama Matchstick Men about a neurotic flim-flam man's relationship with a 14-year-old daughter he just met has terrific performances by Nicolas Cage and Alison Lohman.
6. Fernando Meirelles' harrowing City of God focuses on astonishingly violent gangs of children in a Rio housing project. 5. Palestinian writer/director Elia Suleiman's metaphorical drama Divine Intervention looks at the contemporary situation in the Middle East through the lens of magical realism. 4. Christopher Guest's latest mockumentary A Mighty Wind pokes fun at folk music by staging a "reunion" concert and gives Eugene Levy the best role of his career as a damaged singer whose best moments come on stage.
3. Caroline Link's Nowhere in Africa looks at Nazi-era German-Jewish refugees in Kenya and reminds us that the victims of the Holocaust included the survivors as well as the murdered. Among the many reasons to admire this film is its wise understanding that among the virtues possessed by our imperfect species, love transcends. 2. Writer/director Peter Hedges' subtly funny and ultimately touching family comedy Pieces of April profiles a rebellious daughter trying to reconcile with her judgmental mother and offers note-perfect performances by Katie Holmes and Patricia Clarkson and a spectacularly affecting celebration of the spirit of Thanksgiving. 1. Whale Rider, Niki Caro's story of a 12-year-old New Zealand Maori girl's desire to become her native village's chief, is less like a conventional work of fiction and more like a poem written in light. Young star Keisha Castle-Hughes exhibits the luminescence and prepossession that Natalie Portman showed at the same age. Played out in a world of magic and myth, the film's shattering climax transcends expression in words.