I don’t claim to have the authority to pronounce the best film of the year. But I can share which titles have proven most rewarding to me.

1. Stevie

I was tempted to choose The Return of the King as the best film of the year. Return captured my imagination, but Stevie blindsided my head and my heart. It’s been on my mind since the day I first saw it.

Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) delivers a powerful piece of work—and it comes from his own home movies, so to speak. This true-life account captures as volatile a conflict as I’ve ever seen onscreen. It’s a war movie, but it’s about the war for a man’s sanity, spirit, and soul.

It starts simply, with James looking up the young man he mentored ten years ago in a Big Brother program. But when he finds Stephen Fielding—”Stevie”—he finds a man accused of sordid crimes. As Steve James tries to find out what happened to the boy he once knew, he discovers that many of those around Stevie are contributing to his downward spiral towards a miserable doom.

Steve decides to try and salvage something of Stevie’s life. He lets the camera roll not so we can see his virtuous efforts, but so we can witness the result of parental neglect, abuse, and poverty. He’s also teaching us to look past the alarming exterior of a dangerously aggressive and self-absorbed person.

Stevie is the most beautiful, riveting, heartbreaking documentary I’ve ever seen. It is a gift of humility and confession, inquiry and insight. It will move you, and it may even change you. Beware.

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Peter Jackson’s work is the single most Herculean filmmaking endeavor I’ve seen. And I credit him and offer my most heartfelt gratitude to him for preserving the power of Tolkien’s story as well as he did. The project has fulfilled the greatest cinematic dream of my childhood: that my favorite stories would reach the screen in a way that resonated with my own imaginings of Tolkien’s work.

While individual elements are clearly flawed—especially the screenwriters’ attempts to make noble heroes flawed, and then ennoble a hero who profoundly fails in the book—their achievement, held up against the work of other filmmakers, dwarfs anything released in my lifetime. They have brought to life an exquisitely detailed world, overrun with powerful parables, profound symbols, and whisperings of the Holy Spirit.

3. Finding Nemo

It’s as though all animation has been building to this. Nemo is as visually enthralling as any cartoon ever made. Marlin the clownfish and his forgetful friend Dory are a brilliantly funny team, voiced perfectly by Albert Brooks and the hilarious Ellen Degeneres. Pixar’s wizards show themselves to be as confident at storytelling as they are at animation.

While I wouldn’t say it’s funnier than the Toy Story movies, the story takes on poignant themes for kids and for grownups. There are lessons about being responsible kids and courageous parents. But there’s also a love story that sneaks up on you before it’s over. Thanks to Pixar, animation as a form of storytelling is reaching a new peak.

4. Lost in Translation

This film, in which two people in different marriages strike up a flirtatious friendship, is not a good story about how to have a healthy marriage. But it is a truthful story about people who have made a mess of their lives, and who are learning a little bit about honesty and friendship. They laugh together. They explore together. Stuck in a mid-life crisis, Bob the celebrity needs to rediscover a sense of wonder and courage. Young Charlotte needs a voice of age and experience in her life to tell her that it won’t always be so frustrating, and Bob’s attention gives meaning to a life that her husband’s neglect is leaving empty.

Emotional adultery? Perhaps. But their moral compasses are still active, and they know that they cannot consummate their relationship. They resist the carnal adultery most storytellers would have allowed them to indulge. And they part ways, wiser and—I believe—better equipped to make their marriages work. Director Sofia Coppola demonstrates a uniquely languid and poetic visual style, showing impressive confidence and a deliciously subtle touch in one of the most complex and challenging relationship stories I’ve ever seen.

5. In America

In this story about Irish immigrants trying to renew their lives and spirits by making a home in New York, Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine give award-worthy performances. Sisters Emma and Sarah Bolger play their daughters, and they turn in the most affecting performances by young actors this year. The movie, based on director Jim Sheridan’s own experience, makes you laugh and cry by telling you the truth through the trials, adventures, crises, and joys of an unforgettable family.

6. Pieces of April

Every character in this film, written and directed by Peter Hedges, is memorable. And the story becomes an inspiring holiday tale about how good things can happen if we take the time to knock on the door and get to know our neighbors. It’s also a powerful story of forgiveness and courage, ultimately reaching a conclusion in which healing and hope strike powerful chords.

7. The Son

The Dardennes Brothers show us that powerful storytelling has nothing to do with extravagance. This quiet, subtle film sets us on the shoulder of a seemingly simple carpenter and lets us observe his strange, erratic behavior until our questions take hold and refuse to let us go. Olivier Gourmet gives the best performance by an actor this year in this timeless cinematic parable about forgiveness.

8. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Peter Weir’s films always have strong stories, great performances, troubling questions, and completely convincing worlds. Here, extraordinary effects and cinematography give the audience the most compellingly convincing journey on the high seas that they’ve experienced. Russell Crowe is much better here than he was in Gladiator, and his character—Captain Jack Aubrey—is more complex and interesting. His best friend Stephen (played by Paul Bettany), is a great example for all of us—a conscientious but dutiful hero who has the courage to challenge his superior with truthful questions.

9. Dirty Pretty Things

Echoing Casablanca and Blue Velvet—a most unusual combination—Steven Frears’ latest gives us an unconventional love story, a detective story, and a behind-the-scenes look at the dark side of London. The film’s heroes are illegal immigrants trying to earn money and escape nightmarish circumstances before they’re discovered. Although it has elements of many great films, it never succumbs to sentiment or crowd-pleasing shortcuts. We’re always aware that we’re seeing a story that hasn’t been told before.

10. (tie) Pirates of the Caribbean and X2: X-Men United

In recent years, “popcorn movies” have been rather consistently disappointing. But these two films brought back the glory of popcorn flicks. Full of respectful nods to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pirates recalls the best adventure films of the 80s as director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio remember that audiences will become much more attached to characters than they will to effects. And thus, the trio of Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley become the most likeable and whimsical adventure team since Luke, Leia, and Han. Meanwhile, X2 was one of those rare sequels that surpasses its predecessor in every way. The jokes are sharp. The cast is note-perfect. The spectacle is spellbinding. And the tone is just right: X2 feels like a stack of the best comic books a teenager could wish for. It joins Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan and The Empire Strikes Back as one of the best sequels ever made.

This story was adapted and condensed from Jeffrey’s story, 2003: The Year in Movies, in which he picks the year’s top 20 films and muses on various others, including 11 that he deemed “Forgettable” and an awful six that landed in his category, “Suffered Through.” Click here to read the whole story, found on Jeffrey’s website, Looking Closer.Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.

Share This On: