When I’m choosing the year to study for this feature, I try to look for variation from the one I just covered. Sometimes that means I cover a year that’s filled with good movies after covering a year that’s laden with bad. Others I’m looking for a year that goes to the core of the mission statement which is showing evolution. That’s why 2003 fascinates me. It shows the growing pains inherent in shifting to a franchise heavy industry, reacting to phenomena the industry didn’t get but tried to. I was at the movies almost weekly this year and often twice weekly, so I have thoughts!
The Year in Review
The year kicked off with a string of bad comedies best forgotten. Just Married and National Security showed the genre could get a few people in while A Guy Thing couldn’t even make back a $20 million budget and The Guru existed. Kangaroo Jack was the month’s big grosser but nothing can compare to the BTS story of how an R-rated comedy became a family film. Horror was represented with Darkness Falls and the first of many, many sequels: Final Destination 2. Lastly, we had the first of a string of Colin Farrell movies with The Recruit.
How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days didn’t lose many eyes as the month’s top grosser. It actually just edged the heavily hyped Daredevil, the first of 3 Marvel Comics films this year. Sequels abounded this month with The Jungle Book 2, Shanghai Knights, and the 4 hour long endurance test Gods and Generals (a prequel to Gettysburg.) Old School became a sleeper hit this month. On the other hand, failed Oscar bait The Life of David Gale ensured a place in infamy.
Only one movie crossed the $50 million mark this month and it was Bringing Down The House so shame on America for making this a megahit. In all fairness, dire is the only word for this month. Boat Trip. The Core. Basic. Dreamcatcher. View From the Top. The titles say it all. There was even a second Disney outing that belonged on video: Piglet’s Big Movie. Delete Bend it Like Beckham and this was an irredeemable month.
Things did get interesting in April. While the month’s big hit was the now long forgotten Anger Management, which I almost saw but the projector caught fire, there were a number of better options. The intriguingly weird Identity was a fun take on the slasher. Phone Booth teamed Larry Cohen and Joel Schumacher to great success. Louis Sachar finally reached the big screen with the excellent Holes. Christopher Guest took a step down in quality with A Mighty Wind but still a solid film. Then there were duds like the long forgotten The Real Cancun, Malibu’s Most Wanted, and the indescribably boring Confidence.
The summer’s biggest film arrived in the form of a movie I didn’t actually like very much in 2003: Finding Nemo. (I’ve revisited and like more now.) This is a bit surprising as the movie with all the hype was the R-rated The Matrix Reloaded which did well but couldn’t cross the 300 million mark. There were other hits too. X2 showed the comic book movie did indeed have life. Bruce Almighty gave Jim Carrey his last megahit in his realm. Daddy Day Care was a blockbuster for Eddie Murphy. (Both spawned sequels without their stars.) Less remembered are The Lizzie McGuire Movie which I had to check to find the year of and The In-Laws.
Four sequels landed in June to poor results. 2 Fast 2 Furious undeperformed but kept the franchise afloat, which I type on the day the 8th film’s trailer debuted. Charlies Angels: Full Throttle and Rugrats Go Wild succeeded in killing their series while Dumb and Dumberer was completely written out of canon when the actual sequel hit. Hulk somehow managed to bomb badly yet outgross everything else this month by a solid margin. On the smaller front, 28 Days Later performed well while Hollywood Homicide was a financial bloodbath.
Once more we saw a wave of sequels. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines failed to gain much traction though it did ok as did the atrocity Bad Boys II. Spy Kids 3-D Game Over was a solid hit, largely due to the eye bleeding red/blue 3D. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life on the other hand killed its series as did the profitable but derided Legally Blonde 2. This month belonged to the Pirates though. Not Sinbad, which killed cel animation at Dreamworks, but Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl which owned the summer from its release on. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, opening two days later, was completely blown out by it.
Franchises and remakes abounded in August. Freddy vs Jason and Jeepers Creepers 2 were both solid hits. On the comedy front, American Wedding and the remake Freaky Friday were huge hits. There was even a western hit: Kevin Costner’s acclaimed Open Range. The moth’s biggest hit was an almost completely forgotten effort though: SWAT. Dos anybody remember that one? Oh and Gigli opened. I’ll come back to it exactly where you expect. The month ended with the fatal trio of Marci X, My Boss’ Daughter, and the Medallion.
Things don’t come much more mixed than this month. On the high end were efforts like Lost in Translation, Matchstick Men, and Secondhand Lions. On the low end, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, Cabin Fever, and the ridiculously mishyped Cold Creek Manor. In the middle was the goofy fun of Underworld. Well liked but not well seen was The Rock’s attempt at big screen stardom The Rundown.
Despite being thought of as a time for horror, October was shockingly light on the genre with only the success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the success of another kind of House of the Dead. Scary Movie 3 mocked the genre to great success. For those seeking a blood fix, Quentin Tarantino’s much built up and much delivering Kill Bill vol. 1 delivered in spades. On the family front, there was the glory of School of Rock and the forgetability of Brother Bear. The Coens struck out hard with Intolerable Cruelty. Clint Eastwood by contrast seemingly redeemed himself with Mystic River. Not a hit but one I love: Shattered Glass.
This was a month to fail. It was game over for the Wachowski sisters* the second The Matrix Revolutions hit and lost money. Things were equally dire for Joe Dante, who has only made two films in the wake of the epic bomb but Film Room fave Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Mike Myers also saw his name implode with the raunchy The Cat in the Hat. Eddie Murphy couldn’t lead The Haunted Mansion to the same success as Pirates. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was a flop despite being so good even I, a hater of war movies, adore it. Timeline was probably the biggest bomb of the month though. Saving the month were three holiday classics: Elf, Bad Santa, and Love Actually.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King owns this month to the point it’s almost an afterthought to discuss anything else. Still, there was The Last Samurai, which I’m listing because I’ll have no other reason to mention it ever again. Something’s Gotta Give became a popular film with moms. Movies like Mona Lisa Smile and Cold Mountain occupied spots of prestige but weren’t notable. Ben Affleck mildly rebounded with Paycheck. There was also the oddly well liked Stuck on You. Regrettably Peter Pan flopped despite being good.
The Big Themes of the Year
The industry had no idea what to do with franchises. Look at a lot of the big franchises of this year and you see sequels I’m not sure people really wanted. Sure Charlie’s Angels was a hit but was there an outcry for a sequel? Nobody wanted a Terminator movie without James Cameron though they tried twice more. Even franchises people did want were mishandled such as the Matrix sequels being rushed in one year. Then there were stillborn franchises like Daredevil, Hulk, Looney Tunes, and Master and Commander. Really not a great year on this front.
The serious films struck out too. Looking back, I was thrown by how off the “Oscar season” was. There were a few successes like Mystic River but this was honestly one of the most muted seasons I can recall. Lost in Translation and 21 Grams aside, even the arthouse wasn’t all that great. Blame such failed Oscar bait as Cold Mountain (it got one but it fizzled badly), The Human Stain, and the big Oscar miss The Last Samurai. No wonder Best Picture went where it did.
Actors were starting to matter less. The mid 2000s were an odd moment for star vehicles as they were beginning to clank. Hollywood tried hard on Colin Farrell but couldn’t get him to more than a solid character actor, which admittedly he kills at. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez embarrassingly imploded this year. Tom Cruise was just “OK” this year. Jim Carrey had a last gasp but it was only that. There were exceptions with Will Ferrell beginning a well deserved run but they’re rare.
The wealth was spread. It’s interesting to me just how many films crossed the 100 million mark. 29 movies hit the century mark vs 24 in the year before and the year after. Even the films that didn’t usually performed quite well this year with another 28 movies crossing the 50 million mark. True, there was money lost throughout the year, but there was variety at the box office. Contrary to The Onion’s take, this was a good thing.
Many of the filler films would never happen in 2016. This is a theme of the early 2000s. A lot of movies at major studios seriously wouldn’t get made now. Matchstick Men? It’s an indie. Love Actually? It goes to Open Road. Then there’s the wave of tween flicks like Hilary Duff and Amanda Bynes’ attempts at movie stardom that just weren’t to be. Not happening today anywhere I fear unless there’s a dystopia.
Did the Oscars get it right? Yes and no. No complaints on Theron for Best Actress (though it’s a perfect storm of cheap tricks), Coppola getting best original screenplay, or LOTR storming the stage to a record tying 11 wins. But the aforementioned weakness in the “serious” front led to a rather strong number of bad films getting nominations or even worse wins to flesh it out. I mean, Seabiscuit getting any nominations? Ugh.
The Worst Films of 2003
These choices are probably far better than the norm. I don’t care. These are the movies that I think of 13 years later and wince. I’m not trying to shock. These were just bad movies.
Honorable Mentions: The Matrix Revolutions and Intolerable Cruelty both made me very angry. But I’m leaving them off the list because I at least respect them. They’re not for me but they’re by artists who would later blow me away with works not that far removed from these. I might’ve been wrong. I also hated Spy Kids 3-D but come on, that was never for me. Gotta be fair. Confidence would make the list but I recommend it as a perfect cookie cutter film.
6. Bad Boys II. OK, starting the list with a beloved film I cannot stand even in the least. I have no idea why this found such a fanbase. This movie is punitive to the viewer. It’s too long, too loud, too boring. Not remotely fun.
5. Mystic River. Wait, this is here? Damn straight. Mystic River is garbage and it baffles me people fell for it. It’s paced like a glacier and it has acting ranging from good but misplaced (Tim Robbins in a decent but not Oscar worthy turn) to this belonged at the Razzies (Sean. Penn.) Clint Eastwood made a great looking film but nothing happens until we get to the cheat of an ending. Yes I know it’s supposed to be unsatisfying. It’s a joke of an ending though. Such an awful film.
4. Hulk. Yes! I have a Marvel Comics film on my worst of list. And I have an Ang Lee film too. Lee is a maddening director to follow because he can as likely make a Brokeback Mountain as a film like this. Like what’s weird about it it is it’s actually fairly faithful as a Hulk movie. It’s just astonishingly off in every note. Sam Elliot aside, the cast is pretty bad. The effects don’t really work. There’s no weight to it. It’s just bad.
3: Something’s Gotta Give. In 2003, I was so mad at this film I called it the worst I’d ever seen. It wasn’t. It’s not even the worst of this year. Honestly, now that I think on it, it might’ve even avoided this list all together with a different ending as it does get better in its third act. But here’s the thing: it’s still got a unendurable first/second act. Two great performers cannot redeem the irredeemable. It’s not that bad. But it’s third worst.
2: Gigli. I hate all of the people who trashed this movie because they heard about it or bought into the backlash. I hate them because they didn’t suffer like I did. Yes, this movie has quotably awful moments. It also has a level of dead air that has to be endured to be comprehended. 52 minutes of this film’s 121 minute running time are in one location. The score is A Talking Cat!?! level bad. In fact, that’s this movie really. A Talking Cat!?! level. Except not as good. But one film was worse.
1: Gods and Generals. At 219 minutes, this is the longest film I’ve ever seen theatrically. I wish a better movie held that title. There is absolutely nothing about this movie that merits being in a theater. It’s a bad TV miniseries that escaped to theaters. Even trying to discuss why it’s so bad exhausts me. It’s just dull. There’s no life here. There’s no filmmaking. It’s nothing.
The Best Movies of 2003
2003 was a rough ride in retrospect. So many of the big films of the year were misfires. The gems shined though. These deserve celebration.
10. Secondhand Lions. What a wonderful film this is. It’s a shame it’s not better known but it’s one I’ll celebrate for years. A superb fable and a celebration of trust and faith. Few movies left me this happy this year.
9. Big Fish. What if Pirates hadn’t broken big and Johnny Depp was marooned while this solid performing film did well and convinced Tim Burton he could grow up? I’ll forever wonder this. Big Fish showed actual maturity from the man which would be eradicated with his next few films. Damn shame. This is still great.
8. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. We’re quick to trash movies that aren’t in our genres. It’s why I rarely give good reviews to war movies. They’re not for me. So I need to celebrate one that had me on the edge of my seat. There isn’t one boring moment in this film. Instead the film works by immersing us in the world, understanding the characters, and knowing why we should care. This was an experience.
7: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. It’s easy to forget how perfectly crafted the first film is. Every beat, every line is honed to perfection. It’s an impossibly entertaining film. Too bad Jack Sparrow became a virus for his star. But this one? It’s still great.
6: Shattered Glass. The great unsung film of the year. This one is how you do a story about a terrible person. Stephen Glass is the most odious character in any film in 2003 and you’re fascinated by his journey. Hayden Christensen deserves more praise for his work here while Peter Sarsgaard desperately needs another morally sound role because he’s really good at them.
5: Love Actually. You’re damn right this is my number 5 for the year. I’ve got to praise a film I’ve seen countless times and could watch countless more. No, not every story works. Yes, it’s problematic as hell. But I laughed. I felt. This belongs here.
4. 21 Grams. If Sean Penn had won his Oscar for this, I would’ve said nothing. This was a thunderous experience with three astonishing turns. The movie’s almost random order is deceptively non random. The scenes flow according to the emotional arc of the film which isn’t the plot order. One I’ll never forget.
3: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Endings are hard. Star Wars did it well but had a few missteps while the Matrix didn’t really end. This is how you do it. Yes, the overlong ending has long been derided. Do I look like I care? I don’t think it’s too long at all. I think it’s a well earned victory lap. This is how you seal a story.
2: Kill Bill Vol. 1. I didn’t feel like I could put vol. 2 on the 2004 list but it was a top 5 film easy. Vol. 1 will represent the work. And what a work. Quentin Tarantino’s grand grindhouse epic is everything it was sold as. It’s funny. It’s violent. It’s at once made from preexisting parts and completely its own thing. It’s cinema at full blast.
1: Lost in Translation. I’ve not been subtle that this is one of my favorite films of all time. It is. It’s not changing. This movie succeeds on every single level. It’s a bear hug of a film. I can’t add anything more than that.
And that’s that for 2003. An interesting, uneven year but one worth studying.