Admittedly, compiling 10-best lists is a weird enterprise. Most film critics I know do it as almost as a Talmudic duty. The task starts as soon as the year begins. With every new film encountered, you think, “Is it 10-best material?” In some ways, it’s a convenient method for chronicling any year’s ups and down. What’s weird is how easy it is to get to year’s end, look at your list, and go, “What?”

That’s what happened to me in 2003. Readers who’ve followed my annual lists over the years, and now glance at the one below, will probably sense what I mean. Two decades back when I began publishing these lists, they were invariably dominated by arcane masterpieces from avant-gardish directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and R.W. Fassbinder. This year I blinked when I looked at my list and realized it contained not one but four big Hollywood movies, the sort that in past years might not have made it onto my aesthetic radar at all.

Have my tastes grown more mainstream, in a way largely unnoticed by me? This was the question that nagged at the back of my mind as I prepared to hear its insinuation in the reactions of artier friends. The worry subsided only later, when I concluded that the somewhat bizarre nature of this list accurately reflects the peculiar qualities of the cinematic year 2003 as much as it registers my own predilections.

It was only last year, after all, that my list was topped by two daring European art films of the classic sort, Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke and Alexander Sukorov’s Russian Ark. As a general principle, it’s fair to say that European cinema has been in a slow downward spiral since the 1980s (some Europeans opine that their former glory seems to have decamped to Iran). But that doesn’t mean there won’t be masterpieces to equal Rohmer’s and Sukorov’s next year. They just were nowhere evident in 2003.

Overall, as one friend noted, it was a year of many good films rather than a few great ones. (That “many” is reflected in the honorable-mentions list below, for which there were innumerable candidates.) And as I pondered my list further I realized it contained a number of themes, which might be enumerated as follows: 1. elegant provocation; 2. documentaries; 3. North Carolina; and 4. Hollywood competence.

Elegant provocation refers to four films that employ refined, sometimes mesmerizing formal approaches to address troubling social concerns. In the cases of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, about a Columbine-like high school tragedy, and Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, a prismatic portrait of former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara, those concerns are deeply American. I emerged from both films wondering if their stylistic beauties were entirely appropriate to their thorny subjects. In fact, the doubts engendered by these films–rather any nominal perfection–is what makes them so provocative, and that in turn is why they struck me as the year’s two most important movies.

A similar devotion to formal subtlety and social themes characterizes the two foreign titles on my list. Both concern the impoverished urban left-behinds of this rapidly globalizing world: Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things deals with illegal immigrants in London, and Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold with Tehrani workers sliding into crime.

It’s in the documentary arena, however, that we find arguably the happiest story of the past cinematic year: the crossover of nonfiction films into mainstream success. That development is registered in the fact that two of my list’s top three films are docs. But The Fog of War and Jeffrey Blitzer’s wonderful Spellbound are only the tip of the figurative iceberg, in a year when my most memorable moviegoing experiences included films such as Winged Migration, Rivers and Tides, Bus 174, The Stone Reader and Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves.

As for North Carolina, you can judge whether my liking for the Tar Heel-related films All the Real Girls (with its authentic western N.C. flavor), Big Fish (derived from a book by Chapel Hillian Daniel Wallace) and Cold Mountain (from Raleigh author Charles Frazier’s Civil War bestseller) is mere coincidence or a case of regional bias. Though not immune to the latter, I was mainly happy to see all these movies turn out so impressively.

Finally, I will confess even greater amazement at the level of big-budget excellence in all four of the “Hollywood” titles on my list. Of those, Tim Burton’s Big Fish and Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give are very credible auteur works as well as dazzling entertainments, while Rick Linklater’s School of Rock and Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain are more like classic studio movies in how they succeed due to topflight achievements in numerous departments. It remains to be seen whether the collective quality of this films is harbinger or fluke.

In any case, the list below is inevitably provisional. And, as always, it is meant to inspire your own.

Best Films of 2003

1. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, USA). The camera glides through high school corridors following one student and then another, until the ordinary gives way to the unimaginable. Along with his other 2003 film, Gerry, Van Sant’s latest marks a return to idiosyncratic low-budget filmmaking for one of America’s most talented directors, a shift that has resulted in a dramatic artistic renewal. Winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, Elephant is a mesmerizing stylistic tour de force that poses disturbing questions on subjects that include its own elegance.

2. The Fog of War (Errol Morris, USA). How’s this for odd synchronicity: It was well before 9-11 that documentarian Morris began making his portrait of Robert MacNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, but by the time the film was finished, America was being led into a new war by a defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, whose brash hauteur eerily recalls MacNamara’s. Its contemporary reverberations aside, Morris’ film is gorgeously crafted, historically revelatory and endlessly thought-provoking.

3. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitzer, USA). The year’s best directorial debut was also its most purely delightful film. In following eight school kids from their far-flung homes to the National Spelling Bee, Blitzer creates a suspenseful, comic and often moving look at youthful aspiration that is also a fascinating and, in the end, heartening testament to education as the most essential ingredient in America’s cultural melting pot. Anyone who missed this terrific documentary in theaters should seek it out on tape.

4. All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green, USA). It’s been ages since a film about young love–a commonplace but dauntingly tricky subject–proved as subtle, quirky and persuasive as this offbeat comedy by N.C. School of the Arts alum Green. Shot, for the most part, in Marshall, N.C., and a quantum leap beyond Green’s acclaimed but uneven debut George Washington, the film combines a flair for literary and formal stylization with an acute sense of the actual fears and confusions of one’s first big romance. Green also got strikingly assured performances out of his leads, Paul Schneider (who co-wrote the script) and Zooey Deschanel.

5. The School of Rock (Richard Linklater, USA). Sure, the word “formulaic” could be applied to this high-concept comedy about a frazzled rock’n’roller who, posing as a substitute teacher, gives a class of privileged fifth-graders lessons in rock as music, myth and rebellion. What earns it my vote as the year’s best major-studio movie is the near-perfect contributions of its primary creators, director Linklater, writer (and co-star) Mike White, and wild-man star Jack Black, who has found his ideal vehicle in this hilarious paean to the glories of “rawk.”

6. Big Fish (Tim Burton, USA). A tribute to the Southern art of storytelling that’s also an affecting exploration of both father-son dynamics and conjugal love, this phantasmagoric comedy perhaps has more in common with The Wizard of Oz than with the darker of Tim Burton’s tenebrous films. Yet the fit of the story’s Southern Gothic whimsy with the director’s post-Disney Hollywood Gothic sensibility proves astonishingly smooth, and Burton adorns his most open-hearted film yet with wonderful performances from a cast brilliantly led by Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney.

7. Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears, UK). The lives of displaced people the world over are movingly evoked in this suspenseful drama about an African living in London who gets drawn into the underworld trade in human body parts. Frears, who pioneered such studies of multi-culti Britain in his ’80s classics My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, here provides a gorgeously subtle mounting that stresses the strained ambivalences of immigrants’ lives. In my world, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s lead performance would win the Best Actor Oscar.

8. Something’s Gotta Give (Nancy Meyers, USA). There’s nothing wrong with glossy Hollywood romantic comedies of the James L. Brooks/Nora Ephron school except that there hasn’t been a really good one in years. That’s one reason this home-run by writer-director Nancy Meyers (who was already Hollywood’s most successful female director, ever) is so satisfying. Other reasons include the script’s very astute and amusing take on aging and love, and the way Meyers meaningfully employs the images of her stars, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, while eliciting two of their best-ever performances.

9. Cold Mountain (Anthony Minghella, USA). The Civil War in North Carolina is depicted with awesome realism and eloquence in this vivid adaptation of Charles Frazier’s bestselling novel. Far more assured than director Minghella’s overrated The English Patient, the film is not only a complex, engrossing depiction of America’s most terrible war, but also a love story of tremendous power. Cast as North Carolina, alpine Romania does almost as good a job as human leads Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger.

10. Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, Iran). Scripted by Abbas Kiarostami, this latest Iranian triumph probes the death of a pizza delivery man turned hapless criminal. A study of the various discontents of present-day Tehran, the film is as penetrating politically and socially, as it is elegant stylistically. Once again, Panahi (The White Balloon, The Circle) proves that he is one of current world cinema’s most subtle formalists. The film makes its U.S. theatrical debut on Jan. 16.

Selected honorable mentions:
Peyton Reed’s Down With Love, Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves, Jim Sheridan’s In America, Alan Rudolph’s Secret Lives of Dentists, Lucas Moodyson’s Lilya 4Ever, Christine Jeffs’ Sylvia, Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasion, Rithy Panh’s S21:The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, Thomas Riedelsheimer’s Rivers and Tides, Robert Duvall’s Assassination Tango, Jacques Cluzaud’s Winged Migration, Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, Mark Moskowitz’s The Stone Reader, Vadim Perelman’s House of Sand and Fog, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich’s Finding Nemo, Felipe Lacerda and Jose Padilha’s Bus 174, Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind, Peter Weir’s Master and Commander, Kevin Costner’s Open Range, Matt Dillon’s City of Ghosts, Carl Franklin’s Out of Time, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor. EndBlock