A Look at 2003’s Best Films as Oscar Season Aproaches

Even though Hollywood had a tough year, with ticket sales down for the first time in almost a decade, it was a pretty good year for those of us on the other side of the screen.

On Jan. 27, we'll find out which films will be the big competitors on Oscar night. In the meantime, here's my list of 2003's top films. The top five are the ones I'd nominate for best picture.

Bend it Like Beckham, Seabiscuit, Something's Gotta Give, The Station Agent and Monster were near-misses, at least on my top 10.

Note that the rules say no documentaries (or Fog of War, Capturing the Friedmans and Spellbound would have made the list) and no foreign-language films (or Barbarian Invasion and City of God would have made it, too).

No. 10: School of Rock

School of Rock surprised me. Movies like this aren't supposed to be this good. I loved it for two reasons: One, the kids in the class look like America. Two, it was just more fun to watch than any other movie this year.

No. 9: American Splendor Not only do Hope Davis and Paul Giamatti play real people in American Splendor, and the real people they're playing actually show up in a film that mixes documentary, fiction and animation.This is the first film from co-directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, and it's rare that a first-time film this original is executed so splendidly. The future of film is in good hands.

No. 8: Dirty Pretty Things I don't want to tell you what Dirty Pretty Things is about because … discovering what it's about is part of the fun of watching this near-perfect thriller. It's not dirty. It's not pretty. Bad title. Great film.

No. 7: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

I can't think of another film actor who combines the physical, intellectual and emotional aspects of his craft better than Russell Crowe. And I mean any actor ever. With action in this tall-ship adventure so real, the snack bars sell popcorn, soft drinks and Dramamine. No. 6: Lost in Translation This is Sofia Coppola's second film, and she could be the first American woman ever nominated for a best directing Oscar. She deserves it. And I'd love to see an Oscar nod for Bill Murray as well.

No. 5: In America The five films I'd nominated for best picture begin with In America, the true story of Oscar-winning director Jim Sheridan and his family in the early 1980s, when they were illegal immigrants living in a New York tenement. Sheridan's daughters wrote the story, and the young actresses who play them are just plain magic on a movie screen.

No. 4: Finding Nemo I loved this film even though the villains' names are Siegel. OK, Sea gull. A great script, beautifully done. Don't ghettoize animated films — a movie is a movie and a great movie is a great movie.

No. 3: Cold Mountain Director Anthony Minghella uses his tools — picture, costume, sound and cast — the way a novelist uses words, not just to tell us a story, but to envelop us in it. Cold Mountain is No. 3 on my list, and I predict one of these top three will win best picture. No. 2: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King This is truly historic filmmaking. Compare The Lord of the Rings with this year's other big trilogy, The Matrix, which sank after the first installment. Here's one way to measure: In The Matrix, Hugo Weaving plays Agent Smith and had to be cloned into hundreds of Agent Smiths to fight Keanu Reeves. Rings needed just one Weaving (he's the elf king Elrond). Even better, there's no Keanu Reeves. For twice-nominated director Peter Jackson, the third time may be a charm.

No. 1: Mystic River As a critic, I think it might be easier for actors and directors to hide behind period costumes and special effects than to create a drama out of today's headlines with everyday people like us. That's why Mystic River is my best picture of the year. Clint Eastwood tells the story so simply he barely moves his camera. The only special effect in this film is genius.