Arthur J Pais

Having seen over 150 films through the year -- about 50 of them at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) -- I found it a bit daunting to choose year’s top 10.

As I recollected my reaction to the movies I loved, I asked myself which of those films made me most impatient. I then made a short list of films that I wanted to end fast, even though I was thoroughly enthralled by them, so that I could tell my friends about them -- and write stories telling the readers why those films were utterly special.

The final list included films that cost over $100 million (The Return Of The King) as well as those made for less than $100,0000 (Distant, from Turkey)

These are the films that startled me because they were beyond anything that I had expected: Lost In Translation is one such film. Or they were far more electrifying and imaginative than my expectations: The Return Of The King, for instance. Then there were a few slow moving and disturbing films on the human condition that were nevertheless so compellingly interesting that I asked myself, why can’t there be more films like these? 21 Grams is one such film.

The list includes films from Hollywood, Russia, Turkey and India, which were seen either at movie theatres or at the New York Film Festival and the TIFF. Every film on the list is in release except for a few that will open shortly.

Finding Nemo, which ended its theatrical run recently, is a huge seller in video stores. It has made even more money, $500 million in North America and counting, than in movie theatres. Some films on the list, like Monster, are in limited release but will be expanding through January.

If I could have compiled a list of only Hollywood films, and extended it to 12, I would have added American Splendor, In America, Master And Commander, Cold Mountain and Pieces Of April.


The Lord of The Rings: The Return Of The King

The movie that grossed an awesome $600 million worldwide in just about two weeks offers not only epic grandeur that could make David Lean jealous but also emotional intensity that a Steven Spielberg may envy.

Its epic scope, intriguing characters and ethical battles are all found in the massive J R R Tolkien tomes. But how diligently director Peter Jackson distilled their essence in the final film of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy is a wonder.

I fully agree with Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers who wrote: 'To praise Jackson isn’t enough. He’s more than director, he’s a miracle worker.'

The huge commercial success of this film proves there are times when big is better, and that a big box-office triumph could also win great critical acclaim and, Hollywood willing, couple of major Oscars.


The Return

A gripping, suspenseful and deeply psychological film from Russia, it has been acclaimed at many film festivals. At Venice, it won the top prize, the Golden Lion, and at the Toronto International Film Festival, it emerged as one of the top films among the nearly 200 films shown there in 10 days.

First time director Andrey Zvyagintsev unfolds the story of the harrowing reunion of a dour and quietly menacing father with his sons after a 10-year absence, against a bleak and melancholic landscape.

The spare and brooding picture continues to tell the story as the two boys go on a fishing trip in rugged Russian lake country with their father. There is Hitchcokian suspense here and its emotional jolts leave a long impact.

'For a first-time director it's absolutely extraordinary,' said Screen International critic Lee Marshall at the Venice film fest. 'It's an incredibly strong story of a father-son conflict with elements of even Greek tragedy behind it.'


Lost in Translation

The brief encounter between a fading Hollywood star who is in Tokyo to shoot for a whiskey ad and a lonely wife of a photographer is the background for this seemingly slight but profound and heartaching film about marriage and temptation.

Often funny and always luminous, the film has turned yesterday’s failed actress (in Godfather 3) Sofia Coppola into a formidable director. She has also extracted a towering performance from Bill Murray while getting newcomer Scarlett Johansson (who is even better in The Girl With A Pearl Earring) reveal an astounding glimpse of her talent.

By setting the film in Japan, where the film’s potential lovers also have to deal with cultural confusion, Coppola has made the film more intriguing and complex.

Its parting scene is one of the very best in recent cinema, and it is more heartfelt and quietly emotional than the last scenes in such classics as The Third Man and Brief Encounter.


Mystic River

A meditation on crime and its unseen consequences, this film marks director Clint Eastwood’s return to a more fulfilling cinema. After turning out several tepid films, the Oscar-winning director (Unforgiven) offers a densely plotted story in a film filled with first-rate performances and haunting images.

How can one forget the scene in which a devastated Sean Penn rushes to see the body of his murdered daughter?

Though the screenplay is a bit muddled towards the end, the film still offers many pleasures: a suspenseful story, an imposing cast that includes not only the spectacularly impressive Sean Penn, but such talents as Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden.

The movie starts with an incident of child abuse that has lingering consequences as the three friends in a rough section of Boston grow up. It is a story of all-around corruption but its main concern is the corruption of soul.


Finding Nemo

Already the highest grossing film of 2003 in North America with a $340 million take, it has grossed an extraordinary $450 million abroad, with more to come. It has made more than $500 million from video and DVD sales in America in just about three weeks.

Utterly charming, brilliantly drawn and thoroughly intriguing, it was expected to be a hit but who expected it to make far more money than the hotly awaited Matrix Revolutions?

The Academy Award-winning creators of Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Monster’s,Inc. dived into a colourful underwater adventure this time. The movie follows the comedic and eventful journeys of two fish: Marlin and his son Nemo, who are separated in the Great Barrier Reef. The overly cautious father risks everything to find his lost son.

While the film set new standards for computer-generated animation, it was a smart catch for children and adults. There was gentle humour, sustained wit, plenty of pathos and adventure in the film to make it a must-see-several-times hit.


21 Grams

This slow-moving and reflective film, which is not easy to take unless you surrender to it right at the start, is an example of what cinema can become in the hands of a determined director who is passionate about his vision.

Teemed with superlative performances especially by Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, the film, directed by the distinguished Mexican Alejandro González Iñárritu, is an arthouse success, unlike Mystic River, which played wide and earned about $55 million.

What a surprise that Inarritu has made his Hollywood debut with a very unlikely Hollywood film.

It tells the complex and interconnected story how the lives of a former drug addict and single mother Christine (Watts), a terminally ill mathematics professor Paul (Penn), and an ex-convict who is now drawn to religion Jack (Benicio Del Toro), intersect following a car accident.



A tough and demanding film, it offers a deep look into wounded souls, especially its psychopathic anti-hero. Its biggest asset is a deeply revelatory and searing performance by CharlizeTheron, who deserves an Oscar nomination.

The movie works around Aileen Wuornos (Theron) whose harrowing childhood had led her to become a prostitute by the age of 13. Wuornos moves to Florida from her Midwest home and is making money selling herself to truck drivers. But her real sexuality seems to be different: she has a lesbian relationship with Selby (Christina Ricci). And she is also tired of men who cross the line or try to rape her. For the latter, she has no intention of letting live.


Matrubhoomi, A Nation Without Women

If Manish Jha continues to make films with the integrity and passion he invested in this violent, taunting and utterly fascinating film, he could become a major arthouse name in worldwide cinema.

He deals here with a frightening scenario of an India where marriageable women are scarce because of relentless female infanticide. So in a small village, a beautiful young woman is sold to five brothers in a family as their wife and procreator of their children.

The film has no release date in the West, but has already won kudos at many film festivals. It got some violent reaction from desis at the Toronto International Film Festival who complained that it gave a 'wrong impression' about India to the West.



A triumph at many international film festivals including the ones in Cannes and Toronto, the taut and lean Turkish film opens in America with a New York release on January 9.

Set in Istanbul during a snow-covered winter, it tells the story of a lonely photographer whose life is tested anew when a jobless relative from the remote village he grew up in visits him.


House of Sand and Fog

Another first time director, Vadim Perelman, makes a mesmerising film about dispossessed people. Often, the film works as a well-crafted thriller that does make time to do some serious soul-searching.

An Iranian exile in California, Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley) is living a lie to fulfil a dream. When he buys a house in an auction for a throwaway price, he hopes he can fix it and sell it, and thus give up his menial job and lead a comfortable life. But the previous owner (Jennifer Connelly), who rightly feels she was cheated out of her inheritance, desperately wants her house back.

It wasn't a big deal to expect first rate performances from Kingsley and Connelly, both Oscar winners, but who expected to see two wondrous Iranian artists: Jonathan Ahdout, who plays Massoud's smart teenage son and the absolutely stunning Shoreh Aghdashloo, a suffering wife who still fights for her own mind. She cannot bear to be disloyal to her husband but she also gets to see the dispossessed woman's viewpoint.

Undoubtedly a grim film but one that leaves you with exhilaration because it does an excellent job of probing the darker depths of its central characters.

Don't Miss! Best of 2003!

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