1. Kill Bill Vol. 1.Would that every movie this year had imagined its make-believe world so fully, believed in it so fiercely, and realized it with such an exhilarating, infectious, damn-the-torpedoes passion for cinema.
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.In an alternate universe, the Star Wars saga ends not with the ditzy Return of the Jedi, but with the thrilling, emotionally complicated Empire Strikes Back. No alternative needed here--not with one of the great screen fantasies hardwiring itself into your brain pixel by pixel, accumulating moral force, visual grandeur, and psychological depth at every step. Arriving as it does on the heels of Saddam Hussein's capture, this pop-mythology exorcism of global unrest could easily be co-opted into election-year pageantry, and I'll spit my juice the instant some op-ed nimrod compares Dubya to Aragorn. But that's what happens when a movie writes itself into the lexicon, and into legend.
3. Friday Night.A film by France's marvelous Claire Denis offers the exact opposite of sensory deprivation. Her magical evocation of a woman's overnight fling in gridlocked Paris is as tactile as a hotel bedspread covering a naked body, as intensely immediate as the moment before you first made love.
4. City of God.By daring to portray poverty in terms other than finger-wagging despair, by acknowledging a taboo cross-cultural debt to Tarantino and Boogie Nights, and, worst of all, by connecting with a sizable mainstream audience, this feverish, fact-based Brazilian crime epic pissed off the culture cops who determine how authentically "foreign" a movie has to be to meet snob approval. Too bad: It's an object lesson in the enduring sociopolitical potency of the gangster film, as pinpointed by Robert Warshow a half-century ago.
5. Mystic River.As a tapestry of themes that Clint Eastwood has spent an entire career exploring, from imperiled innocence to the lawman's blurry role as defender or dispenser of justice, this sober, wounding, ferociously acted adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel would have the ring of finality if it didn't end with such seething anger. After sampling almost every kind, depth, and texture of screen darkness for more than two hours, the former Dirty Harry saves the darkest void of all for the sunglasses over a vigilante's untroubled eyes.
6. Finding Nemo.The fifth film in Pixar's unbroken string of gems is even darker than the abandonment-anxiety nightmare of Toy Story 2: a clear-eyed acknowledgement of the world's terrors, based on the truism that the inevitable gaining of experience for kids is often trauma for parents. And yet no movie this year has a more generous or less isolationist spirit, takes such delight in each precisely detailed locale, or rewards more repeat viewings with dazzled children.
7. Down with Love.Dismissed last summer as a mere curio--the Far from Heaven of saucy '60s sex romps--Peyton Reed's pastel pastiche of Camelot chic revives the illusion of breezy, brainy effortlessness that was once American comedy's gift to the world. Beautiful to look at, touching in its subtly wistful embrace of doomed early '60s optimism, it's a pleasure even when pitch-perfect cad Ewan McGregor isn't swiveling his hips to the swanky score.
8. The Good Thief.What The Big Sleep did for the private-eye procedural, Neil Jordan's delirious late-show fantasia does for the caper movie: It tucks away the genre's creakier tropes with fond expedience, then feasts on its incidental pleasures. As befits a cheeky "homage" to Jean-Pierre Melville's casino-heist classic Bob le flambeur, it's as much about the art of theft as the theft of art. Unlike the movie's cache of bogus masterworks, however, Nick Nolte's performance as a chivalrous, Chet Baker-like junkie prince is inimitable and irreplaceable.
9. Bad Santa.Set in the same shop-till-you-drop ghost world as Terry Zwigoff's previous film (it could be another issue of the same underground comic), this side-splitting act of Yuletide vandalism looks at first like an attack on everything holy. But what it's really (and I mean really) pissing on is the commercial desecration of the season, the indoctrination of tykes into a lifelong swirl down the consumer drain. Think of this as Elf's incontinent, syphilitic militant cousin--and of Billy Bob Thornton as the virtuoso of comic misery that he is.
10. Ichi the Killerand Irreversible(tie). How to defend the indefensible...twice? I'm not sure, and that's part of the vise grip that these two brilliantly made, deliberately reprehensible films still have on me. I'm grateful to know that in bloody, bellicose, benumbed 2003 there is still such a thing as going too far, and I'm neither kidding nor exaggerating when I say that I fear what comes next. (People said the same thing in 1971 after seeing Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange.) And I still regret not socking that bastard Gaspar Noé back when I had the chance.