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The Top 10 Movies of 2003?

Sifting through the wreckage of the worst year in Hollywood history.

11:00 PM, Jan 1, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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AS WILLIAM GOLDMAN is fond of saying, this was the worst year in Hollywood history.

The end-of-the-year Top 10 lists are making the rounds and I defy you to put together a roster of 10 movies from 2003 that would pass for very good (or better). Go ahead, give it a shot.

While you're thinking it over, let's glance at recent movie history. Last year was nothing special, yet it had "The Two Towers," "Catch Me If You Can," "Minority Report," "Road to Perdition," "About a Boy," "The Quiet American," "Punch-Drunk-Love," and "Chicago." Not a list to blow the doors off, but eight solid pictures.

In 2001 there was "Fellowship of the Ring," "Monsters Inc," "Behind Enemy Lines," "The Royal Tenenbaums," "Memento," and "Ghost World"--a six-pack. In 2000, no annus mirabilis, mind you, we had "Gladiator," "Traffic," "Chicken Run," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", "Return to Me," "Almost Famous," "Best in Show," "You Can Count on Me," and "Cast Away."

If you want to get really depressed, jump back ten years when there was "Jurassic Park," "The Fugitive," "In the Line of Fire," "Schindler's List," "Philadelphia," "Groundhog Day," "Tombstone," "The Piano," "Strictly Ballroom," "Gettysburg," "Heaven and Earth," "In the Name of the Father," "Shadowlands," and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." And that's just the modern era. As Goldman has pointed out, if you go way back to, say 1950, you have "Annie Get Your Gun," "Asphalt Jungle," "Broken Arrow," "Caged," "Cinderella," "The Gunfighter," "The Men," "No Way Out," "Panic in the Streets," and "The Third Man." None of which were even nominated for Best Picture ("All About Eve," "Born Yesterday," "Father of the Bride," "King Solomon's Mines," and "Sunset Boulevard").

TIME'S UP--back to 2003. Off the top, there are three movies this year that you could pencil in on a Best Picture list and not be the least bit embarrassed about: "Lost in Translation," "Whale Rider," and "Finding Nemo."

"Lost in Translation" is a small movie. All surface area and no density, it floats along on the strength of its honesty and bravura performances by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. The film is so delicate that one small misstep would have crumpled the enterprise. Fortunately, Sofia Coppola's direction and writing are perfect. And be honest: When's the last time you saw a movie that was so earnestly and quietly disapproving of adultery?

"Whale Rider" is also a small movie although it is, in its own way, epic. The Maori girl Paikea is born to the eldest son of her tribe's chief, but her mother and twin brother die in the process. Thinking that the line of tribal leadership is broken, Paikea's grandfather resents her. "Whale Rider" avoids all the obvious clichés about sexism, the noble savage, and wicked step-parents. Director Niki Caro gets the best performance from a child actor in years and the result is a movie that is ingenuously touching.

Finally, "Finding Nemo" continues Pixar's improbable run of high-quality features (and shorts!) that began with 1995's "Toy Story." Imagine another production house going almost a full decade without making a bad movie. We are in the middle of the cinematic version of DiMaggio's hitting streak and we should enjoy it, because this won't happen again. While "Nemo" isn't as blazingly original as "Toy Story 2" or "Monsters Inc"--there's an entire genre of father-goes-on-quest-to-rescue-estranged-son movies--it is executed with verve and such precision and good humor that it's impossible to resist.

(Embarrassingly, I missed seeing "American Splendor" in theaters. People whose taste I trust would put it on our Best of 2003 list, but I'll have to wait until I catch the DVD in February.)

YOU'LL NOTE that none of these are "Hollywood" movies. "Lost in Translation" is an independent film, "Whale Rider" is a New Zealand indie, and "Finding Nemo," while released by Disney, is a product of Apple Computers' Cupertino movie experiment.

After this first tier, it becomes difficult to fill out the rest of the list. "A Mighty Wind" and "The Station Agent" were fine films. But they're not transcendent works. And after that, the drop-off is even greater: If you want to construct a Top 10 list in 2003, you're going to have to reach down to movies like "Master & Commander," "Pirates of the Caribbean," and "Old School"--entertainments that belong nowhere near a trophy case.

SUCH IS OUR LOT. Fortunately, this disappointment will soon be replaced with outright disgust. In the coming weeks the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences begins trumpeting its achievements. The nominees for Best Picture this year will be "Mystic River," Cold Mountain," "Return of the King" and some combination of "21 Grams," "House of Sand and Fog," "Master & Commander," "The Last Samurai," and "The Human Stain."