“2003: The Mouse that Roared”
by Scott Mantz

A year ago at this time, the two “Matrix” sequels, which were shot back-to-back in Australia for the bargain price of $315 million, were easily the two most anticipated movies of 2003. After the first groundbreaking film opened in 1999 and grossed a better-than-expected $456 million worldwide, there was every reason to believe that the sequels would deliver the goods by going to the next level. The fact that they were going to be released 5 months apart in the same calendar year (a first) was icing on the cinematic cake, and 2003 was destined to go down in movie history as “The Year of the Matrix.”

Well, what a difference a year can make…

Box office success aside (“The Matrix Reloaded” grossed an amazing $750 million worldwide, but “The Matrix Revolutions” didn’t fare as well with about $410 million worldwide), it’s safe to say that both movies were tremendously disappointing on a creative level. Yes, the special effects were great, but thanks to an incoherent story, cold characters and two of the most self-indulgent co-directors in motion picture history, “The Year of the Matrix” gave way to “The Year of the Mouse.”

Disney was the box office king this year with $1.52 billion in domestic ticket sales, and for good reason. While everyone expected “Finding Nemo” to continue the critical and commercial success of Disney-Pixar – the team behind “Monsters, Inc.,” “a bug’s life” and the “Toy Story” movies – nobody expected the family adventure to swim off with $340 million domestically. Not only does that make “Nemo” the highest grossing movie of the year, but it also takes the crown from “The Lion King” as the biggest animated film of all time.

More surprising was what came in second place, and ironically, it was also from Disney. The concept of turning a theme park ride into a major movie was a risky venture that was met with a heap of skepticism (remember “The Country Bears?”), but then again, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” was no ordinary theme park movie. With mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer calling the shots, “The Ring” director Gore Verbinski manning the helm and a hilarious Johnny Depp stealing the show, “Pirates” kept ‘em coming back for more to the tune of $305 million domestically.

There’s no denying that Disney ruled 2003 in box office terms, but now that it’s over, it’s time to pick the year’s best movies…well, they’re the year’s best movies to me. Now, keep in mind that I pride myself on being a non-conformist. There were many movies that everyone loved, but I only liked (“Mystic River,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”), and there were plenty of movies that I liked, but everyone else hated (“Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” “Daredevil”). That said, here are the movies that I really loved…and if you didn’t like them, then go make your own list!

1) “Lost in Translation” – I can’t remember the last time I sat in a movie and didn’t want it to end. Sofia Coppola’s long-awaited follow-up to 2000’s “The Virgin Suicides” demonstrates that she has grown in leaps and bounds as a filmmaker with a vision. Thanks to atmospheric direction, introspective dialogue, an unpredictable story that didn’t follow the Hollywood pattern, a dreamy soundtrack and excellent chemistry between Scarlett Johansson and a never-better Bill Murray, the film cast a strong spell that just didn’t let go. I got “lost,” and what did I find? Cinematic bliss!
2) “Shattered Glass” – The timing for this film was uncanny after the debacle at The New York Times, but that’s beside the point. “Shattered Glass” may have the production values of a made-for-TV movie, but it still feels right at home on the big screen in just about every way – taut direction, sharp dialogue and superb acting. “Star Wars” alum Hayden Christensen does an effective job at displaying the title character’s sick balance between charm and delusion, while Peter Sarsgaard is downright sensational as the soft-spoken editor who slowly comes to realize that he has a ram among his sheep.
3) “Whale Rider” – If good things come in small packages, then young Keisha Castle-Hughes is one “whale” of a good thing. Not only does she hold her own against a strong cast in an effort to fulfill her family’s destiny, but she’s also the heart and soul of a film that will simply move you to tears. Sure, it may be slow-going at first, but before you know it, you’re trapped by a strong undertow that pulls you into its emotional wake.
4) “The Last Samurai” – Judging by the divided reviews, many critics couldn’t seem to get past the Tom Cruise factor to appreciate the movie. To that I say, “gimme a break!” Not only did Cruise transcend his superstar status with a commanding performance, but director Edward Zwick topped his own legacy with an exciting, exhilarating and genuinely moving hero’s journey that cuts deeper than both “Dances with Wolves” and “Braveheart” combined.
5) “Finding Nemo” – Just when you thought that the folks at Disney-Pixar couldn’t do any better, they top themselves with their best film yet. Sure, it was fun for the whole family, but most of the time the adults were laughing louder than the kids. Between eye-popping computer-generated animation, genuine excitement and a scene-stealing vocal performance from Ellen Degeneres, “Nemo” turned out to be an enchanting undersea adventure for the ages.
6) “28 Days Later” – “Night of the Living Dead” creator George Romero must be eating his heart out (pun intended!). With this arty, terrifying, balls-to-the-wall low-budget thriller, director Danny Boyle gave the zombie picture a much-needed facelift. No big budgets or marquee names here…just a well-made, confidently-directed and well-acted romp-with-a-message. It’s already a cult classic.
7) “School of Rock” – When it comes to Jack Black, you either like him, or you don’t. Well, a lot of people must like him, for not only did this endearing, upbeat and irresistible fall comedy roll to the tune of $80 million domestically, but it also ended up being one of the best-reviewed movies of the year. By playing his rambunctious self (more or less), Black revealed that he was even more charming and a lot funnier than most people gave him credit for.
8) “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not” – Remember this little ditty from back in February? If you don’t, then run to the video store and rent it right away! In this clever French import, “Amelie” cutie-pie Audrey Tautou plays a lovelorn waif with a somewhat fatal attraction for a yuppie doctor. What starts off as a sort of “Amelie Redux” takes a very dark turn about midway through, giving the “he-said, she-said” scenario a remarkable, ingenious and unforgettable twist.
9) “Capturing the Friedmans” – In a year that saw excellent documentaries like “Spellbound” and “Winged Migration,” this one easily stands out from the pack. Long before the Osbournes turned the cameras onto themselves and gave the words “dysfunctional family” a whole new meaning, the Friedmans recorded their own implosion as they fell apart over allegations of pedophilia. Thanks to devastating new interviews, heartbreaking archival footage and an informative point of view that refuses to take sides, this disturbing story is a masterpiece that will stay with you for days.
10) “Freaky Friday” – Alas, the Mouse House closes out my top 10 with a movie that I didn’t even think I was going to like. Well, boy was I wrong, for not only does this good-natured remake top the 1976 original in just about every way, but by doing so, it became the year’s most pleasant surprise. A career-best performance from Jamie Lee Curtis and an equally impressive turn from the confident Lindsay Lohan helped make “Freaky Friday” a freakin’ funny movie that had plenty of charm to spare.