First of all...I never quite got around to seeing The Return of the King in 2003.  I barely had two seconds to rub together towards the end of the year and just never seemed to find that four hour stretch of leisure to devote to Gollum, the giant heffalumps and the Queer Eye of Sauron For The Hobbit Guy bonding twixt Frodo and Sam...so I don't know.  Folks seem to love the CGI-gantic sweep of it all, and maybe after I finally see LOTR3 I'll be forced to update this list...'cuz Lord knows there's not a whole lotta passion in my Top 10 this year.  Some good movies, yes -- even some excellent ones -- but (with maybe an exception or three) nothing truly earthshaking, groundbreaking or youthquaking as in years past.  By and large, the 2003 cinematic landscape was quiet, subdued and melancholy...small pockets of enjoyment here and there in a general low tide of national inspiration, morale, sanoog and Joie de Vivre.

And speaking of the 2003 cinematic landscape, I must, of course, disqualify On_Line from the following Top Ten, since it would be unseemly to use this space for crass self-promotion...but feel free to add On_Line to your own year-end Top Ten and/or shopping lists, and be looking for the On_Line DVD release sometime this February at a digital entertainment emporium near you!

...ahem...so anyway, now that that's outta my system...herewith, my picks for the best (and worst) of 2003...


"Hey, wait just a cotton-pickin' minute," you're no doubt saying to yourself.  "Angels in America...shouldn't that be on your TV Top Ten list with Survivor:  Amazon and Survivor:  Pearl Islands?"  Well, for starters,  this wasn't TV...it was HBO.  But more importantly, in a lackluster cinematic year of low ambition, lowered expectations and lowest common denominator multiplex landfill, it's hard to ignore a six hour celluloid phantasmagoria of knockout performances, potent dialogue, thematic resonance, wrenching humanity, astonishing visuals and staggering audacity.  Sure, it got a little silly sometimes, but who would've thought a movie about the AIDS plague would find time for so much humor, imagination and hope...and, as opposed to that other lengthy, operatic, sometimes silly epic about heroic bravery in the face of faceless evil, lethal apathy and looming death, the cultural and political battles depicted here were no fantasy and continue to rage on and on and on...


A sad, funny ode to those fragile bubbles of joy, romance and meaning in life's otherwise bitter cocktail of boredom, loneliness and disappointment, Lost in Translation captured a certain mood of isolated intimacy so well that I only wish I could've stumbled across it in a deserted movie theater and kept the experience all to myself, like Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanson's secret "like" affair in the streets and karaoke bars of late-night Tokyo.  But, no, pretty much everyone likes this film (at least until the inevitable backlash), so for now I guess I'll just have to share.


A friend of mine was unimpressed by Shattered Glass, describing it as nothing more than a dully predictable "reporter lies/reporter gets caught" story...and, to be honest, that's pretty much all that happens in this dramatization of the rise and fall of disgraced New Republic "journalist" Stephen Glass.  But in this era of rampant media manipulation and political fallacy as national policy, it's just incredibly satisfying to watch Hayden's Christensen's smug rising star get knocked out of orbit and experience Peter Sarsgaard's dry, bracing anger in defense of unfashionable concepts like integrity, truth and ethics.


Morality plays about friends in rough neighborhoods lured by crime and vice are a dime a dozen in Hollywood...but most of 'em wouldn't last ten seconds in the ring with the psychotic anarchy of Cidade de Deus (a.k.a. City of God, a 2002 release that didn't hit most theaters until 2003).  A raw, sprawling crime epic of ceaseless narrative drive and invention, this electric shock true story of teen (and pre-teen) gang warfare in the slums of Rio de Janeiro shows the hellish underside of a seeming vacation "paradise," the nightmares of poverty hidden by national dreams of wealth and the narrow path between survival and insanity.


I prefer the fictional Harvey Pekar to the real guy, which seems to mesh with the underlying themes of both the print and movie versions of American Splendor.  Without the frame of art (and, one suspects, the friendship of Robert Crumb), Mr. Pekar would be just another homely (and, one suspects, foul-smelling) Cleveland file clerk.  But thanks to the autobiographical comic based on his life, that life actually became something worth chronicling, and the movie does a great job reimagining Harvey (embodied in a career-best performance by Paul Giamatti) as a man reimagining himself as a man finally worth caring about.


On a cheerier note, Les Triplettes de Belleville (a.k.a. The Triplets of Belleville) was a sheer, giddy blast of pure fun and art-for-art's sake nonsense, featuring an incredibly groovy soundtrack and nearly wordless animated characters more expressive than all the verbiage in both Matrix sequels combined.  Finding Nemo was charming, but this peculiar tale of a little old pepperpot woman searching for her dour, gigantically-shnozzed grandson with the help of a big fat dog and a trio of cackling, frog-eating chanteuses was just a little better...plus, at a mere 78 minutes, there was even time for a short pre-show featurette by Disney and Salvador Dali(!).


One word:  Dinklage.  Yes, the scene-stealing "angry dwarf" from Elf and Living In Oblivion takes center stage in this quiet, Sundancey character study, compensating for his lack of height with emotional stature, disarming humor and a stylish wardrobe so fly it's easy to buy his transformation to romantic lead (even if Michelle Williams' sex-bomb librarian is a bit of a stretch).  Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Canavale, Raven Goodwin and Paul Benjamin round out the fine ensemble in a charming celebration of simple kindness and decency.

8.  CAMP

Like the teen drama geeks of its titular summer theater retreat, Camp is homely, dorky, amateurish and way too earnest for its own good...but also sweetly charming and downright irresistible to a fellow drama geek like me.  Despite increasingly hostile and exasperated reactions from my loved ones, the "Turkey Lurkey" production number from the movie's super-peppy soundtrack was my holiday theme song for 2003, and Camp was definitely my unabashed guilty pleasure of the year.


While I would've preferred something a little more substantial from Mr. Tarantino after his long hiatus, and while it's unfortuate to see QT playing catch-up with McG in terms of meaningless genre-hopping bubble-gum action filmmaking (and while I really wish both of them would stop hiring and thus perpetuating the career of Lucy Liu), I have to admit Kill Bill was pretty damn exhilirating for most of its running time (and the Crazy 88s and that super-scary ass-kicking Asian schoolgirl will live as icons in my pop culture memory a helluva lot longer than, say, Cameron Diaz on a mechanical bull).


It always gets tricky down around the bottom of the list, especially this year.  I mean, was Pirates of the Caribbean really more or less enjoyable than, say, the X-Men sequel or School of Rock, and if so, why?  Aside from being enjoyable, what more do I really have to say about them?  But Anything Else entertained me a lot more than I was expecting, partly because it felt like a real Woody Allen film, as opposed to the cuddly, toothless "Woody Allen" brand contractual obligations he's been turning out recently.  Like the far superior Stardust Memories (which critics also hated), Anything Else is a very, very cranky film...but also a surprisingly funny one, with the courage of its own misanthropic convictions, Christina Ricci in a bravely unlikeable (but undeniably vivid) "girlfriend-from-hell" role and the Woodman himself playing a noticeably tougher, angrier version of his worn-out shlemiel character that may, with luck, signal better things to come from one of the all-time kings of piss and vinegar.

Finding Nemo, Master and Commander, Masked and Anonymous, Elf, School of Rock, Pirates of the Caribbean, American Wedding, Spellbound, Terminator 3, The 25th Hour, Final Destination 2, Lost in La Mancha, Old School, The Core, A Mighty Wind, Gerry, Rules of Attraction, X2

WILD CARDS:  Based on the previews and word of mouth, RETURN OF THE KING, BIG FISH, CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS or THE FOG OF WAR may have all or singly found spots on my Top 10 list if I'd gotten around to seeing them in calendar year 2003.

NOTABLE MOMENTS/PERFORMANCES:  All the good people of On_Line, Al Pacino's habitual scenery chewing put to good use for Angels in America, Hugh Grant's English P.M. telling off Billy Bob Thornton's cocky American president in Love, Actually, the masterful CGI "you-are-there" intensity of the final battle scenes in Matrix Revolutions, Sean Penn and the Savage Brothers in Mystic River, Michael Jeter's final funky performance in the otherwise laughable Open Range, Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, the ever-luminous Alyson Hannigan in American Wedding, the first half of 28 Days Later, the "giant" hairy Spaniard in Lost In La Mancha, Eugene Levy in A Mighty Wind, the "Thebes" conversation in Gerry.


Maybe it's because I'd already read (and loved) the book, but Clint Eastwood's overpraised adaptation just seemed flat to me, failing to capture the mystery, suspense or logic of the murder investigation, the sense of community in the central neighborhood or even the tragedy of a young girl's untimely death (by way of comparison, go back and watch, say, the first episode of Twin Peaks, a similar tale of unexpected death in a close-knit population).  Clint nails a few details of Boston life, and Sean Penn is terrific, but his wife and daughter barely register as real human beings and even Mom wasn't fooled by the all-important "did he or didn't he?" arc of Tim Robbins' character.  (And what the hell ever happened to sleek, handsome Laurence Fishburne?  Did he catch the gout from Steven Segal or what?)


Alejandro González Iñárritu's debut film Amores Perros was a bleak yet thrilling movie that played with chronology to build suspense while disrupting traditional notions of fate and narrative.  His follow-up is a pointlessly bleak study of Sean Penn's hair, Benicio del Toro's fake tattoos and Naomi Watts' startling nipples that plays with chronology to confuse, then bore the audience with endless repetitions and reorderings of meaningless events surrounding a hit and run accident, a hokey heart transplant metaphor and the ultimate unveiling of the aforementioned startling nipples.


Coming attraction trailers had the headache-inducing Daddy Day Care neck-in-neck with the cringe-inducing Radio (what is it with actors and their insatiable need to portray...y'know...mentally-challenged types?) when suddenly Hollywood came along and ruined yet another beloved childhood memory.  While the Grinch movie was a godawful monstrosity, it didn't spoil and desecrate my love of all things Seussian as totally and utterly as the shameless marketing juggernaut that is Mike Meyers' latest abomination.  Nice job, Mike.  Thanks to you, I can't even smile affectionately at hippies and ravers in those big goofy hats anymore.


I suppose I'm really too old to be getting excited about big budget Hollywood sequels, but the first Matrix was so rad I thought maybe, just maybe Reloaded would get me all excited the way big studio movies used to back when I was, say, 32.  Instead, all I got was that same exact sinking feeling I got during Phantom Menace, in the same exact kind of scene (you know, the cheesy "council of elders" scene, with all the robes and pompous speechifyin' and whatnot)...but fortunately, Matrix Revolutions was so mind-blowingly great it totally restored my faith in gigantic studio franchise product!  (Or not.  But Harold Perrineau was really good!)


Jack Black's never done me any particular harm, so I don't know why I've come to dread him so much.  Maybe it's because he is everywhere...always...ominpresently ironic...and yet, despite what sounded like a premise for the worst Pauly Shore movie never made, I came away from School of Rock with much love for the Tenacious One...but now, really, he needs to go away for awhile and let absence make the heart grow fonder...okay?

(in no particular order)

Four Go Mad In Massachusetts (by John Mitchell, illustrations by Jana Christy) - Fine travel tales and roadside oddities for hepcats, families, hepcat families and everyone in between.

Them (by Jon Ronson) - This British reporter's adventures with various extremists and his search for the secret rulers of the world is funny strange, funny ha-ha and funny unnerving all at once.

Lonesome Dove, Dead Manís Walk, Comanche Moon (by Larry McMurtry) - After thousands of pages with the complex, vivid characters, lived-in landscapes and fantastic storytelling of McMurty's modern Old West saga, I could easily read a thousand more.

(in no particular order)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (R.I.P.), Survivor (especially the Amazon edition), Six Feet Under, The Wire, The Office, Dinner for Five, Project Greenlight, Sex in the City, Celebrity Mole:  Hawaii, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Saturday Night Live


Album of the Year:  A Musical Enema (The Tim Sprague Tribute Album).  Runners up:  Liz Phair (Liz Phair), Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Outkast), Morvern Callar soundtrack,  Chicago soundtrack, A Mighty Wind soundtrack.

Live Shows of the Year:  R.E.M., Ween, the Gourds, Lucinda Williams, Particle, Shawn Colvin (Austin City Limits Festival), Bjork (Fleet Pavilion)

Songs of the Year:  "Clocks" (Coldplay), "Hey Ya!" (Outkast), "You Can't Stop the Beat" (Hairspray soundtrack), "It's Sweet/H.W.C." (Liz Phair), "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" (Warren Zevon)

(in no particular order)

Much love to Hairspray, The Producers, Bat Boy:  The Musical, Boston's Improv Asylum, Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse and John Fleck's one-man show Nothin' Beats Pussy.


Four words:  Vice City kicks ass.