Next Sunday the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will recognize achievements in filmmaking by passing out awards—Oscars—to the films it chooses as the best in one of the many categories it honors. So, with those prestigious awards looming on the horizon, here is one reviewer’s opinion of the best of 2003.

Five Overrated Films: “Thirteen,” “Cold Mountain,” “The Last Samurai,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and “School of Rock.”

Ten Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): “Calendar Girls,” “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Lost in Translation,” “Love Actually,” “Monster,” “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” “Shattered Glass,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “The Triplets of Belleville” and “Veronica Guerin.”

And here are the 10 “best” films of the year:

No. 10: “The Station Agent.” A simple film about grief, prejudice, loneliness and friendship. If more people would seek out fantastic small films like this one, cinemas would be filled with more art and less garbage.

No. 9: “American Splendor.” A nearly perfect film mixing animation, actors and their real-life counterparts to tell the true story of Harvey Pekar, an angry and frustrated working stiff who turned his ordinary life into a cult comic book series.

No. 8: “House of Sand and Fog.” When selfishness and pride become more important than doing the righteous thing, disaster is inevitable. “House” is a film that takes the consequences of sin very seriously, and, sadly, it is another great film that failed to find a wide audience.

No. 7: “Whale Rider.” Keisha Castle-Hughes may have shocked many by becoming the youngest person ever to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, but her recognition did not shock anyone who saw this extraordinary film about family and gender roles. It’s an emotional story, an inspired message, and one of the best performances ever by a juvenile.

No. 6: “City of God.” This film picked up four Oscar nominations including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director. It opened in the United States last winter and was in theaters at the same time as “Gangs of New York.” This was the more powerful and moving gang story. It is also a film for people who love the art of filmmaking. Violence, drugs, sex and desperation are shown as young children and teenagers struggle to survive on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. This disturbing film is impossible to forget.

No. 5: “Seabiscuit.” A perfect metaphor for family and for the church: three men and a horse who rescue one another from the struggles and failures of life. Hope is revived and with it comes great success. The film is set in a time when the nation was struggling, and some believed that the call for all was to help make one another better. Is “Seabiscuit” only a film about the past, or a prophetic word about what the future could be?

No. 4: “Mystic River.” Many have called it the best film of 2003. This murder mystery is a haunting tale of a contemporary neighborhood, horrible events from the past and lost friendships. This film offers many of the finest performances of the year from a stellar cast, all of whom deserved Oscar nominations. Clint Eastwood has never directed a finer film, and that includes his Oscar-winning “Unforgiven.” “Mystic River” will carry one away in its powerful emotional currents.

No. 3: “21 Grams.” Sean Penn had a remarkable year in 2003 as he starred in two of the best four films. Many believe “Mystic River” is his better work, and it earned him his Oscar nomination, but “Grams” stunned me the most. Told with a broken timeline—a device used too often these days but almost never with the artistry one finds here—”Grams” tells a story of grief, suffering, revenge and faith. No film this year deals more openly with Christianity than “Grams,” but it’s another remarkable film that has been seen by far too few people. Hopefully “Grams” will find new life when it arrives on DVD.

No. 2: “Finding Nemo.” No film entertained in more creative ways than did “Nemo.” The people at Pixar finally succeeded in creating a film equal to the mastery of their “Toy Story” films. Who would have thought that a movie about fish could be the most touching, comedic and inspired film about family released this past year? “Nemo” is an instant classic. If there is only one certainty Oscar night, it is that “Finding Nemo” will take home the Best Animated Feature Award. (This is saying a lot considering that one of the other nominees is the splendid “Triplets of Belleville.”) The award will be well deserved.

No. 1: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” One could choose this film as the best of 2003 just because of the achievement that is this single film. However, it is impossible to separate it from the trilogy. None of us over 40 thought any trilogy would ever rival the original “Star Wars” films. Two great trilogies in our lifetimes is a remarkable thing. Peter Jackson and all those who worked with him have made cinematic history and do not need Oscars to prove it, though it seems inevitable that they will get many Sunday night. If there is any doubt about the power of this film, one needs only to watch the lighting of the signal fires. If that actor-free, dialogue-free scene does not move one, then check for a pulse.

Roger Thomas is pastor of First Baptist Church in Albemarle, N.C.

Reviewer’s Note: Many of the above titles contain mature material (including extensive violence, sexual scenes, nudity, drug use and profanity) intended for adult audiences. The films were chosen based on filmmaking artistry and the power of the story.

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