5. SeabiscuitGary Ross’ Seabiscuit is a solid, middlebrow movie that you can easily see the aging Academy members responding to. It mainly plays it safe, and tells the inspiring true story about a how no one believed in, and a jockey, who was blind in one eye, ending up becoming famous – and an inspiration for many during the great depression. Tobey Maguire is fine in the lead role – Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper are even better in support. There is not much wrong with Seabiscuit – it does precisely what it sets out to do. Personally, I like a little more ambition in movies – something that strives to be somewhat different, and while Seabiscuit doesn’t do that, it does what it does as well as can be expected.
Peter Weir’s Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World was the beginning, and end, of a would be franchise that didn’t make quite as much money as they hoped it would. It’s a shame that it didn’t – because I would have loved to have seen more films about Russell Crowe’s hard driving Captain Jack Aubrey, and his right hand man, who he clashes with at times, played by Paul Bettany. Set during the Napoleonic wars, this is exciting, old school, sea faring excitement done just about as well as it could be done. Perhaps the movie was a little too square, a little too old fashioned for modern audiences - and that’s a shame, because to me, Master & Commander was about as good as these movies get – with great direction by Weir, great below the line work by the crew, and two terrific performances at its core.
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (WINNER)No was surprised during the Oscar ceremony when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King swept. Everyone assumed since the original film debuted two years earlier that the Academy would wait until the third installment to properly award the series – they didn’t want to look like idiots and give it to a franchise that went downhill from the first installment on down. All Peter Jackson had to do is not screw-up the second and third installments – and he didn’t. While I think The Fellowship of the Ring is probably the most popular of the three, and to me The Two Towers is the best of the three all three films are the type of big budget, blockbuster entertainment done with intelligence and style that we see all too infrequently these days – even Jackson has had a hard time replicating the success of this trilogy since. As an individual film, I’ll put Return of the King third for the year – as part of the trilogy, which is really what the Academy was voting for, it’s hard to argue against it.
2. Mystic RiverClint Eastwood’s Mystic River continues the path the great filmmaker started years before – in particular with the Oscar winning Unforgiven. Both films look at the causes and effects of violence – albeit in different ways. This is a film about three childhood friends, the event during their childhood that set them on separate paths, and how that event reverberates down through the generations. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins both won Oscars for their performances – long overdue in both cases, and deserving in this year even if neither performance is what you would call subtle. Kevin Bacon, as the third man, is much more subtle – which is probably why he didn’t even get nominated. Eastwood’s film is a haunting one – one that sticks with you long after you’ve seen it. I loved Million Dollar Baby from the following year as well – the one that won Eastwood his second Best Picture and Director Oscars – but I think Mystic River is even better.
1. Lost in TranslationJust about the exact opposite of The Lord of the Rings in every way, Sofia Coppola’s breakthrough film was probably the critical favorite of 2003 – and with good reason. This is a quiet film about two lost souls in Japan – Bill Murray playing a movie star there to shoot a commercial, and Scarlett Johansson as the wife of a famous photographer, left to her own devices. The two bond unexpectedly – and not in the way the audience first suspects. The film is a gentle comedy – not one that makes you laugh out loud throughout, but one that finds humor in its characters, which it slowly lets us get to know and love. Coppola became a critical favorite for this film – and despite the fact she has bashed in some circles for simply repeating herself in the 10 years since, I believe she has continued to do strong work. Is Lost in Translation her best film? Yes – but Somewhere and in particular The Bling Ring deserve more respect.
What They Should Have Nominated: They found room for City of God in Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing and Cinematography, but not Best Picture. They completely ignored Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume I. Unsurprisingly they also ignored the Palme D’or winning masterwork Elephant by Gus Van Sant. A little more love for American Splendor would have been good as well. And is anyone really going to deny that Finding Nemo is more beloved than most of the Best Picture nominees?