The story of an underdog horse and his underdog human handlers is what Hollywood does best. That's why it's the year's best.
As usual, many of Hollywood's richest films arrived during the holiday season. It took a racehorse named Seabiscuit to hold off all hard-charging challengers for best-of-year honors down the homestretch.
Seabiscuit broke from the gate in July, a long time ago on the award system's time clock. Critics and Oscar voters have notoriously short memories, so most contenders for prizes and top 10 lists are held until November and December.
This month alone, House of Sand and Fog, In America and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King were impressive enough that I seriously considered them for the top spot on my annual top 10 list. Although they nudged a few memorable movies down the rankings, the latecomers couldn't overtake Gary Ross' superb slice of Americana.
All it took was another reading of my original review and a Seabiscuit viewing on home video. Even on a smaller screen, the movie's emotional and aesthetic pull was enormous. This is what Hollywood does best: brilliantly conveying a historic period (in this case, the Great Depression), essaying underdogs (five, counting the horse and the nation) and turning truth into something as magical as fiction.
Does this mean Seabiscuit is a film for the ages? Not necessarily, because 2003 wasn't a banner year for cinema. Seabiscuit is simply my favorite of an above-average lot in terms of posterity. But it's the one most likely to be watched again 10 years from now without seeming dated or, for its type, outdone. (Sorry, Rings fans, but larger spectacles are inevitable as technology improves.)
Here's one critic's ranking of 2003's best films. Feel free to discuss among yourselves.
1. Seabiscuit. Boys meet horse, horse loses race, nation gains a hero. This inspiring tale kicks off the coincidental American experience trilogy at the top of my list.
2. House of Sand and Fog. Ben Kingsley is magnificent as an Iranian immigrant grasping for the American dream at the expense of a woman (Jennifer Connelly) wasting her chance. (See review in this issue of Weekend.)
3. In America. Young Irish family immigrates to New York in the 1980s, carrying grief and goodwill with it. I was sobbing throughout the movie and for an hour after it ended. (See review in this issue.)
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Okay, I'm convinced now. But if the first two episodes of the trilogy had had this much depth, resolution and Gollum to match the awesome special effects, I wouldn't have doubted.
5. Finding Nemo. The last time an animated film was this touching, funny and groundbreaking was Toy Story, my No. 1 pick in 1995.
6. Lost in Translation. Proof that Sofia Coppola will soon be her father's equal as a director. Bill Murray deftly handles a dramatic role by playing it loose enough to make tragedy humorous.
7. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The best popcorn movie of 2003 because it is the smartest about its characters, setting and strategy involved in blowing up things.
8. Mystic River. Clint Eastwood's moody drama of crime and self-punishment rose higher from my original estimation (grade A-) on reconsideration than any other film on the list.
9. 21 Grams. The most daring, harrowing film among the top 10. Dazzling performances hold together director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's downbeat, demolished narrative. (See review in this issue.)
10. Elephant, Thirteen and Better Luck Tomorrow. I'm fudging, but this trio of films about modern teenagers should be viewed by parents alongside their children. In most years, there isn't even one movie as honest as these about what makes youths go wild.
Honorable mention: Les Triplettes de Belleville, The Last Samurai, Capturing the Friedmans, American Splendor, Shattered Glass, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Camp, Pieces of April.