It’s now been twenty years since what I consider the golden year of 21st century filmmaking. While there have been many great years so far this century with 2001, 2002, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2019 being the finest, I would consider 2003 among the very best. It was a year of many revered films both from indie filmmakers and studio films, and there was something in the air where the best films were about lonely, lost, and disconnected souls searching for someone or a purpose in their lives. While these remain universal truths of the human experience, so many films released that year felt so genuine in their odyssey in understanding of the human condition. While it was a year where there were so many cash grab sequels that have long been forgotten, so many stellar studio films, indies, and international films lived up the artistry that was expected of them. Like I do today with my year-end lists, the year of U.S. theatrical distribution is the model used for films to be determined on the list. I also included six runners-up, a list of honorable mentions, and a notable list because it was such a memorable year. So if you’ve missed some of these titles suggested below, please seek them out/ Here are the best films of 2003:

Lost In Translation: Key scenes and themes Courtesy Focus Features 

1. Lost in Translation (d. Sofia Coppola)

Lost in Translation is a complete treasure of a movie, one that is very delicate but deeply contemplative. A woozy and exquisite love letter to Tokyo that idles away observing two lost souls coming together and having a radiant and human connection in a strange place that goes beyond words. Not many movies since or from the latter have captured the beauty of chemistry and longing as well as Lost in Translation, this masterpiece still remains Sofia Coppola’s most accomplished work to date. Bill Murray still hasn’t topped his performance and Scarlett Johansson proved just how vulnerable she can be. Johansson and Murray’s exchanges are indeed some of the most affecting and charming chemistry you will ever see on celluloid. A truly moving entry to unspoken longing, to Japan, and geographical desolation. The film centers around an aging Hollywood actor, Bob Harris (Murray) ends up discovering just how disconnected and lost he feels once he’s on a quick travel to shoot some Japanese whiskey commercials. He ends up encountering a lonely wife, Charlotte (Johansson) who is also traveling to Japan with her detached husband (Giovani Ribisi). Bob and Charlotte encounter each other and form a bond and friendship that is profound on so many levels. I find myself still thinking of this film—the power of human connection—how connections come and go, and how heartbreaking it is to see how connections come and go. Because of that, I think certain people come into our lives when we need them most. The film still feels as amusing, absorbing, and moving as it was then. Watching this film for the very first time in 2003 I knew I just witnessed something truly special, now 20 years later there hasn’t been a day that has gone by where I haven’t thought about this outstanding miracle piece of cinema since. The word masterpiece is certainly overused these days, but Lost in Translation earns that label.

Fernando Meirelles' 'City of God' - CineMontage Courtesy Miramax Films 

2. City of God (d. Fernando Meirelles)

What a revelatory feat this was. After getting snubbed for a Best International Film as Brazil’s Official Submission at the 2002 Oscars, City of God was released theatrically a few months later by Miramax, pushed by Roger Ebert (who got to see it early at the time), and sure enough one year later it generated enough legs to be eligible and earn four Oscars at the 2003 for other categories due to its 2003 release for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Editing. Marielle’s and screenwriter Braulio Mantovani’s adaptation of Paulo Lin’s semi-autobiographical novel is sprawling, visually innovative, and it holds the brisk energy of Martin Scorsese’s greatest crime films. The subject matter is very harrowing, and it bounces between bleak to sensationalism, but Meirelles’s vision is pure and gritty enough where it gives it a genuine perspective on how poverty and desperation leads to such lurid crimes. It’s some of the most extraordinary filmmaking of its era, and we spend nearly two fascinating hours watching troubled souls attempting to survive in their visceral environment.

3. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (d. Quentin Tarantino) 

Here's what we learned from re-watching “Kill Bill” 15 years on | Sleek Magazine Courtesy Miramax Films

3. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (d. Quentin Tarantino)

After the massive success of “Pulp Fiction “, Tarantino was given a much bigger budget (still only $30 million), and he was able to pull off wonders and make the action movie he always wanted to make or even see. This was the film where Tarantino just put all his favorite kung-fu movie references openly out in the table, and basically told his detractors to deal with the fact that he is a post-modernist filmmaker that believes cinema should recycle, or rather re-invent all the great imagery that came before it. This is perhaps Tarantino’s most breezy and well-paced film to date, as the Bride (Uma Therman) seeks her revenge on the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad led by Bill (David Carradine) is amplified with great energy and vibrancy. Tarantino pulls an impressive pastiche of spaghetti westerns, Japanese samurai flicks, kung-fu movies, and revenge movies that mixed deadpan humor with stunning set-pieces, all structured in a non-linear fashion that brilliantly build-up the conclusion the following year in 2004 with the equally remarkable Kill Bill Vol. 2.

Mystic River (2003) - IMDb Courtesy of Warner Bros.

4. Mystic River (d. Clint Eastwood) 

Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River easily remains one of Eastwood’s greatest accomplishments since his Oscar winning masterpiece Unforgiven just 11 years prior. It was a return to his more complex dramatic flair after spending nearly 10 years directing mostly mystery thrillers with a romantic drama throw in the mix with The Bridges of Madison County. While Mystic River holds the tropes of a whodunit, it becomes more of an intricate look at past traumas and personal affliction between a group of neighborhood friends (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon) who faced a tragedy when they were just neighborhood children playing hockey in the streets that still haunt them to this day. Now 25 years later, they are faced with another tragedy after Jimmy Marcum’s (Penn) daughter (Emily Rossum) disappears and is murdered, leaving Sean (Bacon) solving the case while Dave (Robbins) was the last person to see her alive. What could have just been another basic whodunit mystery, writer Brian Hegeland brilliantly adapts the best-selling Denis Lehane novel, while Eastwood pulls off some of the complex performances of his directing career and Eastwood evokes a shattering chronicle of friendship and betrayal that unfolds like an engrossing Greek tragedy. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins both won Oscars for their stunning performances here.  Marcia Gay Hayden, Laura Linney, Kevin Bacon, and Laurence Fishbourne are also quite notable.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | MUBI Courtesy New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. 

5. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (d. Peter Jackson)

2003 really was an impressive year for swashbucklers, rousing epics, and period pieces, but it was Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King that yielded the most triumphant spectacle with the conclusion to Peter Jackson’s beloved trilogy. The year also offered Cold Mountain, The Last Samurai, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and Pirates of the Caribbean–all of which were extravagant epics that were cinematic but not overly bombastic. I couldn’t find room for all those epics, or even the previous two Lord of the Rings in my previous top ten lists (Fellowship made my runners-up in 2001) but Return of the King was my absolute favorite epic of the era, for its breathtaking visuals, towering vision, and endearing performances from an all-star ensemble cast featuring Viggo Mortenson, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom. It’s a powerful conclusion, perhaps the greatest conclusion to any trilogy in cinematic history, even though some argue it’s just the ending to one long 9-hour movie that was released in 3 large chunks during the course of the three years. However, one wants to frame it, The Return of the King is an extraordinarily cinematic feat.

Irreversible (2002) | MUBI Courtesy Lions Gate Entertainment

6. Irreversible (d. Gaspar Noé)

Gaspar Noe’s sophomore feature Irreversible sure gained a reputation over the years, unfolding an unnerving revenge tale as it unfolds backwards, calling attention to itself with its shocking violence and infamous unbroken rape scene, and then it sways away from all the chaos, and becomes even more shattering as a French provocateur. Gaspar Noe observes his characters and upholds some impressive characterizations, as he slows things down, as the character’s frightening fate awaits them. It does all of that, and it features some of the most innovative style of filmmaking to emerge in the new century. Some really formally daring filmmaking that is on par with other pioneers that Noe certainly gets influences by such as Kubrick, Dreyer, and Bunuel to just name a few. While Noe incorporated a lot of creative stylistic trademarks with his film that holds a certain visual language that captures the chaotic, heightened reality his characters are facing. In the end, the film focuses more on some existential philosophies that allows the viewer to contemplate the concept of time, fatalism, pre-determinism, and determinism. Just how life can be so harmonious and peaceful and never one moment can tragically transition into the inevitable disarray that awaits us all in some injunction. Irreversible remains Noe’s greatest film to date, and like his other exceptional films such as Enter the Void and Vortex, it ends up focusing more on his characters over the shock. It was just re-released in a linear cut, which I’m curious to see, even though it’s always advantageous to want to revisit this film.

Movie Review: “Gerry,” the “Forgotten Van Sant” take on “Waiting for Godot” | Movie Nation Courtesy Miramax Films

7. Gerry (d. Gus Van Sant)

Shortly after his commercial success with his studio films of To Die For, Good Will Hunting, and Finding Forrester along with a huge misfire of his shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1998), Van Sant returned to his more indie roots with Gerry. A visually bold and experimental film, where he reteams with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who play two hikers who wander through the desert and find themselves lost. With a set-up that sounds like a basic survivalist film, it instantly builds itself up with Arvo Part’s Spiegel I’m Spiegel playing over an extended tracking shot of the two Gerrys traveling in their car. Once they get out of the car, it becomes a hypnotic and meditative tone poem in a visual style that is sublimely abstract in so many ways. The two Gerry’s walk in Bela Tarr influenced long-take tracking shots in search of what they refer to as “the thing,” and Van Sant contemplates with many allegories and abstractions on what it all means. The film can be read as a subversive exploration on male ego, gay companionship, friendship, or even a modern rework of Waiting for Godot. This is what makes Gerry so fascinating, it’s more than just a film, it’s a sensory experience that one should surrender themselves to. It’s a ravishing piece of rhythmical filmmaking that’s one of the most pure and breathtaking avant-garde films where you will be crushed to see some shots cut away.

Elephant (2003) | MUBI Courtesy HBO Films

8. Elephant (d. Gus Van Sant)

Polarizing upon release and its huge win for the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant tragic retelling of the 1999 Columbine tragedy that changed its setting and characters in respect of its victims can sadly mirror many other school shootings that have plagued our nation since. Still a stylish and visually intoxicating masterpiece and middle entry of Van Sant’s death trilogy, Gerry (2003) and Last Days (2005). Indeed, as a harrowing retelling, Van Sant doesn’t turn to easy answers of the root causes of these shootings, which so many turn to bullying, violent video games, exposure to fascism, broken homes, easy access to guns, and mental illness, which Van Sant subtly shows all these are in the background being ignored. Van Sant rather examines a school shooting unfolding within minutes and backtracks into the shooter’s lives in a very observational way of what led up to the war. Elephant remains the most essential film yet to look at school shooting. But the best part in the film is how involved you get with the victims leading up to the incident. but using the main character of John (Jon Robison) character as kind of the centerpiece character, we see he also comes from a broken home of an alcoholic father where he gets begrudged by the school’s principle and is thrown off guard by a sudden kiss to the cheek from a fellow female classmate. We can see he is every bit as alienated, lost, and troubled as the shooters, but at the end of the day, anxieties and troubles only intensify if they aren’t confronted-hence the title to this artfully constructed and staggering masterwork.

Films in Films | American Splendor Courtesy HBO Films 

9. American Splendor (d. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

This inventive film is a treasure, very much in the vein of a Terry Zwigoff film with a lighter touch, it’s quite an extraordinary feat in just how filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini were able to executive such an innovative and deeply moving film that expertly merges fact with fiction, even in the same frame as we see the real Harvey Peaker drift in and out and narrates the film as the stars in the movie take a break for the next set-up. The film is a portrait of comic book writer Harvey Peker, a Cleveland file clerk who had a cult following after writing the American Splendor chain of comics that was co-illustrated by Robert Crumb. His comics weren’t about superheroes, but instead just about ordinary people living in the mundane. Paul Giamatti delivered one of the most impressive performances as the grouchy Harvey Peker, grounded in a reality of pessimism, who finally discovers some hope once he encounters Joyce Brabner, a comic book admirer from New Jersey who ends up falling in love and marrying Harvey. Together their relationship goes through many ups and downs with life’s curveballs that finds shimmers of life’s joys and hope along the journey. By mixing grittiness with quirkiness, American Splendor remains a terrific film that holds up extremely well over the years. On a plus note, Comedian Juda Friedlander is also memorable as Harvey’s co-worker and best friend Toby Radloff, a self-described nerd who loves Revenge of the Nerds and White Castle burgers.

Capturing the Friedmans (2003) | MUBI Courtesy HBO Films

10. Capturing the Friedmans (d. Andrew Jarecki) 

Examining the nature of truth, memory, hysteria, and perspectives and everything else in between, Andrew Jarecki’s documentary Capturing the Friedmans is an unnerving watch due to its sensitive subject matter, but it’s impossible to look away from the trauma that’s explored so virtuously by Jarecki. The film is about the Friedman’s, a middle-class Jewish family that is conflicted about the allegations that begin to surface after father Arnold Friedman is arrested for ordering child pornography through the U.S. Postal Service. Eventually, this leads to a dozen of children and former students of his who came forward to and accused Arnold and his 18-year-old son Jessie during their computer class they held at their house. There are a lot of horrors to be found, the film allows the viewer to must what is true or untrue, or even uncertain. Structured with riveting interviews, home video footage, and archival news footage, Capturing the Friedmans is a masterful study of family dysfunction. The real horror in the film is how a functional and happy family can easily deteriorate once the dark secrets are revealed.

Runners-Up (In Alphabetical Order)

28 Days Later Actually Is A Zombie Movie, According To Alex Garland – Exclusive | Movies | Empire

28 Days Later (d. Danny Boyle)

Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) proved to be one of the most innovative filmmakers of the 90s through the 2000s. With 28 Days Later, he created one of the most impressive and iconic horror films in the last 20 years. By shooting the film digitally with innovative editing techniques, he gave a new rhythm to horror film making, forming a new form of intensity. Most importantly, along with a transcendent original screenplay by Alex Garland, the film allowed the compelling characters to emerge upon the aftermath of a deadly virus that transforms humans into flesh-eating and fast zombies. You end up caring for the characters with the impressive cast that consists of Cillian Murphy, Naomi Harris, Brendan Gleeson, and Megan Burns who band together to embark on a journey to find a militarized society that ends up being just as primitive as the zombies. Terrifying and equally ganging, the film startles, and the visual style and tone still immerses.

Watch The Fog Of War | Prime Video

The Fog of War (d. Errol Morris) 

This riveting documentary, released during the first year of the Bush administration’s egregious Iraq War, could have been a dull talking head documentary featuring the late Robert McNamara, but skillful documentarian Errol Morris crafts the documentary with brilliant striking juxtapositions of archival footage and a rhythm on the agonies, mistakes, and regrets of the Vietnam War; in which McNamara was the Secretary of Defense under both J.F.K. and Lyndon B. Johnson and how the story is about America’s foreign policy itself; the story of how we allow reactionaries dictate irrational decision making before military intentions and how it impacts our diplomacy and standing in the world. Furthermore, The Fog of War feels so relevant in its time during the Bush administration and can even feel relevant now as we see the current war between Ukraine and Russia as our tensions escalate with China and Russia. McNamara’s insights, reflections, and pontifications are contemplative, it reveals a time and place of attempting to make rational decisions during irrational times and not a moment of this engrossing documentary is wasted.

Lilya 4-Ever (2002) - IMDb

Lilya 4-Ever (d. Lukas Moodysson) 

Long before it started getting into the mainstream in the West, Swedish author and filmmaker Lukas Moodysson created a bleak depiction of human trafficking crises between Europe and Russia in Lilya 4-Ever. Ever since the films released, we have seen endless number of films and tv series examining such a troubling topic in how innocence is coerced into such an inhumane act, but Moodysson’s film feels the rawest and most harrowing. While a difficult watch, there an undeniable courage to Moodysson’s uncompromising vision, as well as to the commanding performance by his lead actress Oksana Akinshina who plays the title character, Lilya who resides in an urban wasteland of high-rise apartments and vacant buildings with little economic opportunity, ends up being abandoned her own mother and coerced into sex trafficking. Moodysson’s film is never exploitive or explicit, but it is a harrowing human story that is both challenging and liberating. | A Mighty Wind | Movies

A Mighty Wind (d. Christopher Guest)

One of Christopher Guest’s strongest treasures, A Mighty Heart perhaps is the lightest and certainly his most moving film out of the bunch. It certainly generates massive belly laughs, and the film sets out to do many things, one part a parody of the folk music scene of the 1960s, and the other a mockumentary that ends up elevating its parody into a loving tribute of the music. This is due mainly to the payoff in the film regarding the characters of Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara as Mitch Mikey, a former couple that used to release and perform music together where they always ended their performance on their hit song “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow“, that would always end with them kissing each other. Years later they are broken up, but they reunite with all the past heartbreak and regrets they hold to perform for a folk tribute concert. That is just one of the few astounding subplots until its gloriously amusing and charming finale.

The Station Agent (2003) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

The Station Agent (d. Tom McCarthy)

The Station Agent is a hidden indie gem that demands to be discussed more, as it’s easily one of the top 3 films from Oscar-winning filmmaker Tom McCarthy. Few filmmakers that emerged from the 2000s brought has much deep humanism and pathos as McCarthy did with this astounding debut, perhaps because he’s so genuine with the character depth of his characters. With The Station Agent he uses the camera mostly in static shots and the camera becomes more alive as the characters do. Let’s not forget to mention the pitch-perfect performances, as Peter Dinklage still has delivered a career highlight performance as Finn, a quiet man with dwarfism who holds a deep love for railroads and mostly keeps to himself. After his boss dies at the model train shop, he works at, Finn ends up inheriting a train depot in a rural community in New Jersey. He ends up bonding with some people in the community, including Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a Cuban American who operates a food truck, and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), an artist who’s recently going through a separation from her husband and the grief of her young son. With a year that had Lost in Translation, American Splendor, and Matchstick Men, 2003 was certainly a year about loneliness and the need for genuine human connection. The Station Agent was an absolute indie treasure that also resonated so profoundly on these themes.

The Triplets of Belleville' 15th Anniversary: 7 Insights Into The Making Of A Contemporary Classic

The Triplets of Belleville (d. Syvlain Chomet) 

Easily one of the greatest animated films to emerge of the century, French animated master Sylvain Chomet’s debut film The Triplets of Belleville is a bizarre, surreal animated feature that offers minimal dialogue, and it’s an otherworldly experience, a highly visual world that feels like retro 20s merged with some modern touches that’s the polar opposite of most nominated films that come out today. The film which is about a grandmother who attempts to train her cyclist bicyclist Champing for an upcoming Tour de France ends up being kidnapped by a mob boss who will use him for an underground world of glamping, Madame Souza along with her dog end up joining forces with a trio of elder sister performers and song writers to find his whereabouts and rescue him out of the scheme. There is an oddity and grotesque beauty within Chomet’s vision. The film is filled with a quirky spirit, and it delivers both laughs and joy.

Honorable Mention

21 Grams (d. Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu)
All the Real Girls (d. David Gordon Green)
Big Fish (d. Tim Burton)
Bus 174 (d. Jose Padilla)
Finding Nemo (d. Andrew Stanton)
House of Sand and Fog (d. Vadim Perelman)
In America (d. Jim Sheridan)
The Last Samurai (d. Edward Zwick)
Man on the Train (d. Patrice Laconte)
Raising Victor Vargas (d. Peter Sollett)
School of Rock (d. Richard Linklater)
Shattered Glass (d. Billy Ray)
The Son (d. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
To Be and to Have (d. Nicholas Philibert)
Whale Rider (d. Nikki Caro)

Other notable titles: Bad Santa, Balsesos, The Barbarian Invasions, Blue Car, Cabin Fever, Cold Mountain, The Cooler, Demonlover, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, Elf, Friday Night, Girl with a Pearl Earring, The House of Sand and Fog, In the Cut, Love Actually, The Magdalene Sisters, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Matchstick Men, The Matrix: Reloaded, Millennial Actress, Monster, My Architect, Northfork, Open Range, Pieces of April, The Pirates of the Caribbean, Platform, Seabiscuit, The Secret Lives of Dentists, Something’s Gotta Give, Spellbound, Spider, Sweet Sixteen, Ten, Uknown Pleasures, The Weather Underground, Winged Migration, Willard

**No worries! The Best of Youth, Coffee and Cigarettes, Crimson Gold, Distant, Dogville, Goodbye Dragon Inn, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Memories of Murder, Oldboy, The Return, The Saddest Music in the World, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring, Time of the Wolf are all put into 2004 and 2005 Retrospective consideration list due to the respected 2004 and 2005 North America and U.S. Release Date.