My Top Ten Films of 2003
(film comments by Mark R. Leeper)

I always resist a little the task of making up a top ten list of the best films I have seen over the year. I tell myself that I have a preference for entertainment films over artistic independent films. To me that makes my list seem a less than serious. This year I stood back and looked at the list and found somewhat to my surprise that there are really only three or so studio films and even those have a sort of independent film feel. In any case these are the films that I most enjoyed over the past year.

    Journalistic integrity is a concept that is a little abstract and the story involves no guns, chases, or explosions. Billy Ray has written and directed a surprisingly exciting film very different from just about anything else out there. He gives us a very nuts- and-bolts explanation of what is not really a nuts-and-bolts sort of business, the writing of opinion. SHATTERED GLASS also looks at the question of how do we know what we know is true. This is a surprisingly intriguing film.
    Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
    What is probably the best-written film of the year functions as a thriller and as a human drama. Two people from different backgrounds struggle for ownership of the same house. The film plays with our expectations and our prejudices but also touches on some very serious issues.
    Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
    This is almost certainly the most exciting pirate film ever made. This fast-paced confection of an adventure has wit, a good story, and imaginative visuals. Johnny Depp gives what is probably his best performance as a grubby yet stylish pirate captain.
    Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
    This documentary follows many species of birds as they go through their lives and especially as their migrations. We see it almost literally "up close and personal." Much of the film is jaw dropping and more than a little is genuinely funny. Give this one a chance and almost certainly you WILL like it.
    Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
    Inspired by reading the memoirs of Robert S. McNamara, Errol Morris made THE FOG OF WAR. McNamara was the Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968. In this film McNamara offers some extremely surprising opinions about American foreign policy from the Second World War to the present, but especially during his term as Secretary of State.
    Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
    Charlize Theron proves herself capable of Oscar-worthy performances in the story of a real-life serial killer and prostitute who has a lesbian relationship with a runaway. The plot is familiar, the direction is only mediocre, and the photography is flat, but the acting is really top notch.
    Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
    In 1805 Jack Aubrey, captain of HMS Surprise, is obsessed by the mission to capture or sink the French ship Acheron. More so than in any previous film we are brought aboard a fighting ship from Britain's war against Napoleon. The story may be slow except for some really exciting action scenes, but the historical detail is probably the best for any film about the period. If you enjoy Aubrey (or even Hornblower) stories this film from director Peter Weir is a must.
    Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
    Clint Eastwood directs Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, and Marcia Gay Harden in a powerful drama about three friends haunted by an incident in the past that still looms heavily over their lives. This is a film with great performances and a strong feel for its Eastern Massachusetts setting. The film builds to a powerful conclusion that is reminiscent of a certain respected western film.
    Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
    Though this story of New Zealand's Maori people is set in the present and told with some realism, it is still enchanting. WHALE RIDER is the mythic story of a girl chosen by the gods to lead her village. Pai seems to have a spiritual destiny, but the tale is told as if it happened to people with real 21st century problems. Though some of the material is familiar and cliched, it is still an affecting story.
    Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
  10. BIG FISH
    Tim Burton directs this study of a troubled father-son relationship with a dying father whose fairy tale stories of the major events of his life have always been a major barrier between himself and his son. The story has long fantasy sequences that pull the viewer into the stories studded with giants, werewolves, circuses, huge fish, Siamese twins, and more. The subject is really the upside and the downside of a strong imagination.
    Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

In addition I would like to call attention to the following films that would be on my top ten list except for technicalities.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING perhaps deserves to be on this list. Bringing THE LORD OF THE RINGS to the screen is an impressive feat in this nine or ten hour film released in three parts. It deserves to be the best of a year. It does not deserve to be the best of the year for three consecutive years. I gave THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS my best of the year for 2001 with instructions that it should share that honor with its two siblings.

I would also like to call attention to three other films that are appearing at film festivals, but not getting general releases. These were films I would have put on my top ten list (probably) had they become available to the general public. I say "probably" because I would add them to the top ten list and then would have to take three films off. I am not sure which films would come off. In any case the films are:

No, it is not about THAT Osama. It is about a young woman in Afghanistan in the days of the Taliban. Extreme Islamic religious restrictions prevent her mother and herself from any legal way to earn a living so she masquerades as a boy to get a job. This leads to tragic consequences.

While nominally not based on the writings of Phillip K. Dick, this is one of the best science fiction adaptations of Dick's ideas. Director Vincenzo Natali (CUBE, and the upcoming NOTHING) has a sure hand and could be a major talent. Jeremy Northam plays a nerd who becomes an industrial spy and the key player in a world war between two mega-corporations.

This is the true story of highborn gentile women in Nazi Germany who had married Jewish husbands. The husbands are arrested and imprisoned preparatory to sending them to death camps. The wives organize and demonstrate for the release of their husbands, attempting to make themselves a serious embarrassment for the Third Reich.

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2004 Mark R. Leeper