The top 25 underrated films of 2003

Our journey through the lesser-known films of the 2000s continues. This week, it's 2003...

It was the year that Arnold Schwarzenegger went from Terminator actor to Governor of California, and when The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King dominated the global box office with a gross of more than $1bn. 2003 was also the year the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy thundered to a close, the year Freddy Krueger clashed with Jason Voorhees in, er, Freddy Vs Jason, and the year Pixar scored another hit with Finding Nemo.

But as you’ve probably gathered by now, 2003 was also a year of quite brilliant, less lucrative films. The movies we’ve included in this week’s list were chosen for a variety of reasons – some were ignored in cinemas, while others were harshly treated by critics. Some were modestly popular or given awards on release, but have largely dropped out of the general conversation about cinema in the decade since.

In order to give some lesser-known films a chance, we have, as always, had to make some tough decisions. We were tempted to include Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy – arguably one of the best films of 2003 – but came to the conclusion that it’s simply too acclaimed and venerated by its fans to make the final cut.

So while you might not necessarily agree with all of our choices below, we’re hoping you’ll at least find one or two films you’ve never seen before – and that’s the best thing about digging back through the less appreciated output of any given year: you’ll always find something new you missed the first time round…

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[Please note: this series is going on a short break, and will return early next year]

25. 11:14

For a cracking high-concept thriller made on a low budget, look no further than writer and director Greg Marck’s 11:14. Featuring a great cast, which includes Rachael Lee Cook, Henry Thomas, Patrick Swayze and Hilary Swank, it’s about a series of coincidentally connected events all occurring around the time of the film’s title.

Expect car crashes, tumbling dead bodies, the accidental removal of sexual organs, and all kinds of other blackly comic incidents in an indie film that is funny, well acted and expertly paced. Had 11:14 been better marketed, we suspect that it would have fared far better with audiences than it did.

24. Party Monster

Just as the film 54 was a flawed but interesting film charting the infamous Studio 54 nightclub in New York, Party Monster focuses on Michael Alig. Alig was a party promoter in the city, whose life fell apart as he grew addicted to drugs. And in the film? He’s played by Macaulay Culkin. Culkin would make a better film later in the decade – Saved! – but he’s clearly putting himself on the line here, and a child star playing against type instantly gets any project some headlines.

Party Monster is best classed as a muddled beast though, and the generally severe reviews it got are testament to that. But there are ingredients worth checking the film out for, if not the coherent whole. Frustrating, but still with more merit than its reputation suggests. Not bad work from Culkin, either.

23. Swimming Pool

From director Francois Ozon, Swimming Pool casts Charlotte Rampling as a crime writer, who heads off to her publisher’s retreat in South France to work on her new novel. The complication arrives in the form of said publisher’s daughter, which kickstarts a series of events that led the film to being described as Hitchcock-flavoured by some critics.

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You can understand why too, and the film’s unwillingness to spoon-feed you answers is very much to its credit (although inevitably, not everyone feels the same). Rampling is great here, although if you’re looking for a more entry-level Francois Ozon movie, you might be on safer ground with 8 Women. That’s not a bad place to start…

22. Down With Love

Harking back shamelessly – and to its advantage – to early 60s American comedies, Down With Love doesn’t always fire quite as well as you might like, but there’s a whole lot of charm to it. Furthermore, it’s got points to make, even if they don’t always shine through.

What does shine through though is the two leading performances. Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor make a strong leading couple, both very much in the spirit of the film’s tone, and there are lovely touches and moments of reverence woven in. Director Peyton Reed – who also helmed Bring It On and The Break-Up – brings a visual zest to the film, and Down With Love remains a fun film that never quite excels, but rewards repeated viewings.

21. Thirteen

Catherine Hardwicke began her filmmaking career as a production designer on films like Tombstone, Three Kings and Vanilla Sky, before striking out on her own as a director with features including Lords Of Dogtown, the hit Twilight and the less successful Red Riding Hood.

Thirteen was Hardwicke’s debut, a semi-autobiographical drama co-written with its young co-star Nikki Reed. Along with Reed, Evan Rachel Wood stars as a young girl battling through the latter stages of childhood, suffering the barbs of her school friends while living with an alcoholic mother (Holly Hunter) back at home.

The film’s unflinching depiction of less-than-cheery topics like substance abuse, self-harm and underage sex earned it a certain amount of controversy, but Hardwicke deals with the subject matter sensitively and truthfully. Written and directed quickly and on a low budget, that sense of urgency seeps into the finished film, giving Thirteen an energy that’s in keeping with its youthful characters. Both Hardwicke and stars would go on to more financially successful projects, but Thirteen is still among their best work.

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20. Pieces Of April

Quite a short movie this, boasting a brilliant, Oscar-nominated turn from Patricia Clarkson. She plays the mother of a family with no shortage of malfunctions. The catalyst is Katie Holmes’ April, who invites her mother over for Thanksgiving. Her mother is ill, and Peter Hedge’s film covers the build-up and journey to the dinner, before getting his characters around the table.

Punctuated with humour and sadness, there’s an occasional rawness to Pieces Of April, but it hardly harms the film. There’s no sugar coating either, but lends it an authenticity, and enables it to make its points.

Running to just 81 minutes and costing less than half a million dollars to make, Pieces Of April may have won initial attention for Clarkson’s performance – and deservedly so – but there’s an awful lot else that the film gets right.

19. The Sin Eater

This supernatural horror, also known as The Order, did relatively little at the box office, despite the headline draw of Heath Ledger in the lead and Brian Helgeland behind the camera. Helgeland cut his teeth as a writer on things like Nightmare On Elm Street 4 and 976-EVIL while he was still in his 20s, before moving onto bigger films like L.A. Confidential and Payback.

The Sin Eater was his third film as director (his first was the aforementioned Payback, which was substantially altered by its studio), and it’s an odd mash-up of religious conspiracy and pot-boiling mystery that is rather difficult to describe. Ledger appears as a member of a religious order which specialises in battling demons and other assorted spooks, who heads to Rome to investigate the sudden death of a colleague.

If we’re being honest, not everything in Helgeland’s dark stew makes absolute sense, but then again, The Sin Eater didn’t really deserve the seething critical reaction that greeted it a decade ago, either; Ledger holds the movie well, it’s atmospherically shot, has some effectively gory moments, and features Peter Weller as an amusingly creepy cardinal.

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Enjoy it as pure hokum, and you’re sure to find much to enjoy in this murky slab of horror.

18. Young Adam

Ewan McGregor must have got a right chill filming this one, an adaptation of Alexander Trocchi’s novel of the same name. He plays a man by the name of Joe, who works on a river barge. The key ingredients here are a dead woman who turns up in the river, Ewan McGregor taking his clothes off, Scotland, and some cold looking weather.

David MacKenzie’s film is a very downbeat one, yet that tonal choice works very much to Young Adam‘s advantage. McGregor is strong, leading an excellent cast that also features Peter Mullan, Tilda Swinton and Emily Mortimer. And the film itself is a gripping piece of work, that feels uncompromised in its storytelling. Bleak certainly, but also very, very good.

17. The Cooler

William H Macy gathered lots of well-deserved acclaim for this one, a thriller in which he stars alongside Alec Baldwin, Maria Bello and Paul Sorvino. Here, he plays a casino ‘cooler’, a man who – thanks to his uniform run of bad luck – is used in casinos to break the winning streak of more successful clientele. Yet his luck begins to change throughout the movie, and Wayne Kramer’s film explores the ramifications of that.

As brilliant as Macy is in leading the cast, the film’s sole Oscar nomination went to Alec Baldwin for his supporting role as the manager of the Shangri-La casino. In truth, it’s the quality of the performances all round that lead the film to punch above the weight of its story. Shot well too, The Cooler never really surprises much, but it remains a lot of fun to spend time in the company of.

16. Matchstick Men

This Nic Cage-starring drama wasn’t one of Ridley Scott’s box office misfires, but neither was it among his big hits – in fact, it was among the least successful of the director’s many films shot in the 2000s, including his 2006 romantic comedy, A Good Year. Business matters aside, Matchstick Men is surely among Scott’s best films from this busy period, with Nicolas Cage on restrained form as an anxious LA con artist, and Sam Rockwell as his cocksure partner in crime.

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Can Cage’s antihero conquer his neuroses, pull off a major con, and ingratiate himself with his estranged teenage daughter (Alison Lohman)? You can probably guess how some of it pans out, but the quality of the acting and writing means that the story remains engrossing from beginning to end.

15. Good Bye Lenin!

Director and co-writer Wolfgang Becker gets a huge amount of dramatic mileage from a simple premise: having grown up in a divided Germany, Alex (Daniel Bruhl) watches as the Berlin Wall falls in 1989. Unfortunately, his mother, an ardent supporter of the Socialist Party, has been in a coma for several months – so when she finally regains consciousness, she’s entirely unaware that her beloved party is gone forever. Alex, anxious that the news will prove too much of a shock on his mother’s weakened state, then goes about trying to pretend as though nothing’s happened.

Funny yet also extremely poignant, Good Bye Lenin! is an effective and occasionally poetic snapshot of a key moment in Germany’s modern history. Although bestowed with awards in 2003, we’d argue that Good Bye Lenin! is one of those smaller films that has gradually dropped out of cinema discussions in recent years. As such, we’d urge you to seek it out if you haven’t seen it already.

14. Confidence

We’ve always enjoyed con caper movies, and whilst Confidence is hardly going toe to toe with the likes of The Sting and The Spanish Prisoner, it’s still hugely entertaining. It’s from Glengarry Glen Ross director James Foley, and his ensemble brings together Edward Burns, Rachel Weisz, Paul Giamatti, Andy Garcia, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Forster and Luis Guzman, amongst others.

As with many films of this ilk, the less you know going in the better. Furthermore, to get the most out of it, it’s worth cutting it a bit of slack as things get just a little stretched. Yet we enjoyed Confidence an awful lot. It’s perhaps a little too slick for its own good at times, but there’s a lot of entertainment to be had from it. Even if you do sit there trying to second-guess the thing.

13. A Mighty Wind

The group of actors and writers partly responsible for the brilliant This Is Spinal Tap – Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean – have made their way into these lists more than once in the past, with Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show being among our pick of earlier underappreciated films.

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A Mighty Wind, a delightfully funny and entirely affectionate comedy about folk musicans, is another work of brilliance. Again shot in a documentary style, it follows a trio of folk acts who stage a concert in memory of a recently deceased movie producer, and from this minimal premise, writers Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy find laughs and even some quite moving moments in the most unlikely places.

With the cast rounded out by the likes of Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey and Fred Willard, A Mighty Wind is another deliciously amusing treat.

12. All The Real Girls

What a lovely, well-made and endearing film All The Real Girls is. David Gordon Green has gone on to higher profile movies since he broke through with this and 2000’s George Washington, but his latter work doesn’t leave you caring about the characters as much as you do here.

Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel star as womaniser and the sister of said womaniser’s best friend respectively. They find themselves drawn to each other, but there’s inevitably a distrust between them. This being set in a small town, the reputation of Schneider’s character goes before him, but the film is a tender and restrained look at their potential relationship, and the difficulties it faces. What results is one of the best movies about young love of the decade, that voids some very obvious pitfalls and finds something far more authentic and interesting instead.

11. Open Water

Based on a true story, it’s the mundane simplicity of this drama that makes it so horrific: young couple Daniel and Susan (Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan) are accidentally abandoned in the middle of the ocean during a scuba driving trip, and come face to face with their own fear and despair – not to mention a range of jellyfish and very hungry sharks.

Made for very little money and in genuinely difficult conditions, director Chris Kentis’ film is a harrowing, bleak yet ultimately gripping movie, with some convincing performances from the two leads – which is hardly surprising, given that those were real sharks sniffing at their heels.

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10. Holes

Years before Shia LaBeouf made his name in the Transformers movies and a certain Indiana Jones sequel you may have heard about, he starred in this quirky adventure film based on a novel by Louis Sachar. LaBeouf plays Stanley Yelnats, a young boy who’s packed off to Camp Green Lake in the middle of the desert to dig holes in the dust. Stanley’s weird and unjust punishment is partly due to a curse on his family, which stretches back 150 years in the past and has something to do with a gypsy played by Eartha Kitt.

An eccentric and imaginative mix of earthy realism and surreal, generation-spanning fantasy, Holes is blessed with an eclectic and fun cast (where else could you see Jon Voight, Sigourney Weaver and Henry Winkler all in one place?), and while it was only modestly successful on release in 2003, it remains a bracing, entertaining watch a decade later.

9. The Mother

It’s a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig here, and he’s in blistering form as a man having an affair with a woman twice his age. Anne Reid plays the ‘mother’ of the film’s title, and Hanif Kureishi’s excellent writing follows the loneliness of her character, and the ramifications of the relationship at the core of the film.

Director Roger Michell ended the 90s making the huge hit Notting Hill, but The Mother is one of four very different, really strong films that he made in the 2000s. It’s surprising that Anne Reid in particular didn’t get more recognition for this one, and Michell too. The director would explore themes of old age again, incidentally, in this year’s Le Week-End.

8. Dark Blue

With its pedigree and quality, it’s still a mystery why this police drama wasn’t a hit. Directed by Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Tin Cup), with a screenplay adapted by David Ayer from a story by James Ellroy, it’s a story of corruption set during the LA riots of 1992. Kurt Russell plays Sergeant Eldon Perry, who specialises in on-the-spot capital punishment and plants evidence when it suits him, while Ving Rhames plays the chief who grows increasingly suspicious of Perry’s actions.

Positively crackling with great dialogue, and boasting some brilliant performances from Russell and Rhames – their turns here are arguably among their best to date – Dark Blue is tense and engrossing from beginning to end. David Ayer received acclaim for his work on films like Training Day and the superb End Of Watch (which he also directed). Dark Blue is very much in keeping with those films, and if you haven’t seen it before, you really ought to track a copy of it down.

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7. Elephant

This true-life drama, a fictionalised account of the tragic Columbine high school shooting, is directed quietly and sensitively by Gus Van Sant, and his restraint makes its climax all the more devastating. As writer and director, Van Sant follows both the victims and the perpetrators with a journalist’s eye for detail, exploring the events that lead up to the incident and its aftermath. Alex Frost and Eric Deulen play the two shooters – seemingly ordinary young pupils who cold-bloodedly plan and carry out an unfathomably horrible crime.

Unsurprisingly, Elephant doesn’t make for easy viewing, but it’s a brave piece of filmmaking by Van Sant, and poses questions that, as yet, have no easy answers.

6. Hulk

It’s a fair question: what on earth is a film with a $100m+ budget, with takings of $132m in the US alone, doing on a list of underappreciated films? Accepting that we’ve played a little loose with the rules before on these lists, the thing with Hulk is that we’ve rarely seen a blockbuster movie we love so much that’s so widely despised. Not by everyone, granted: there’s a legion of people that love this film as much as we do. But we suspect we’re in a very obvious minority.

That’s a shame. To be fair, if you go into Hulk expecting a conventional superhero blockbuster, you’ll be reaching for the remote within an hour. But by hiring Ang Lee – a man who has recently said that he should have “had more fun with it” – what we actually got was a very expensive family drama. Accepting that it goes to pot a bit for its ending, it’s an excellent family drama too, with the key quartet of Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte and Sam Elliott.

We’re not taking a bullet for the effects work, but we will say this: Hulk remains an intelligent blockbuster movie, that never quite remembers to be a massive crowd-pleaser. We can understand why lots of people don’t like it. We think, however, it’s something really rather special. Take a ticket and help yourself in the comments…

5. Tokyo Godfathers

When Satoshi Kon died in 2010, Japan lost one of its most intelligent animators and filmmakers. It’s sad to think, in fact, that his career as an anime director was relatively brief, because everything he made was so individual. 1998’s Perfect Blue was an unforgettable psychological thriller about a singer terrorised by an anonymous fan. 2001’s Millennium Actress was like a trippy anime remake of Sunset Boulevard.

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Then there’s Tokyo Godfathers, an ensemble drama about three homeless people who find an abandoned baby and try to discover the whereabouts of its parents. Beautifully animated and written with real maturity, it introduces a collection of unusual and endearing characters and weaves them into a warm and philosophical story.

After Tokyo Godfathers, Kon made the equally magnificent Paprika – a dream thriller on a par with Inception – and Dreaming Machine, which he was still working on when he lost his battle with cancer. The latter will be completed and released posthumously. We can only look at films like Tokyo Godfathers and wonder what other beautiful images he could have produced had he not passed at such a tragically young age.

4. Touching The Void

This icily compelling mix of documentary and drama (with a heavy emphasis on the latter) follows two mountain climbers’ near-death experience in the Andes in 1985. With one climber, Joe Simpson, breaking his leg somewhere near the summit of Siula Grande, he and his partner Simon Yates then have to make the painful 6km descent to safety – and what happens stretches their friendship and trust to the limit.

Director Kevin McDonald, whose films include The Last King Of Scotland and State Of Play, gives Touching The Void the pace of a thriller, with some beautiful cinematography underlining the desolation and danger of the climbers’ surroundings. It has to be said that Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron are also excellent as the two climbers in the reconstructed sequences, bringing an authenticity to a nail-biting tale of survival.

3. Open Range

Regular readers need little reminding of our appreciation for the work of Kevin Costner, and once again, one of his films is at the north end of one of our lists of underappreciated movies. This time it’s his third – and thus far last – directorial outing, Open Range. This is, frankly, a brilliant western, notable for one of the most realistic-feeling shootout scenes in the genre.

Robert Duvall takes the lead role as a cattleman driving his herd, aided by his small team (which includes Costner’s character). But his open ranging ways aren’t liked by some in a local town, which is where Michael Gambon’s land baron comes in. And Costner the director brings these assorted ingredients slowly but surely to the boil. The film explores violence amongst its themes, and there’s attention to detail right throughout the film, Furthermore, Duvall is excellent.

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Costner has taken his love of westerns to the small screen now, with the TV drama Hatfield & McCoys. But it’s be great to think he could direct at least one more on the big screen too. This is, arguably, up there with Dances With Wolves, and demonstrates that a love of a genre can be a very, very good thing. An excellent movie.

2. The Station Agent

Thomas McCarthy’s acting work has seen him take on the likes of Meet The Parents, Good Night And Good Luck and 2012, but his best film arguably remains one that he wrote and directed himself.

The Station Agent casts Peter Dinklage (now, of course, known for Game Of Thrones) as a quiet man who’s happiest residing in an abandoned train station as he comes to terms with a recent loss. His path crosses though with other people battling loneliness in their own way, and The Station Agent centres on three characters who gradually come together as friends.

There’s no fuss to either the story McCarthy is telling nor the manner in which he tells it. Pretty much from the off, you’re left feeling that this is just a little off the beaten track, and by the time the credits roll, you’re not just saluting the majesty of Dinklage’s work here, but also more than likely appreciating the fact that a film with on the surface small ambitions can achieve so much. Peppered with humour, The Station Agent is a warm, wonderful piece of cinema.

1. American Splendor

Paul Giamatti has a catalogue of excellent performances that it’d need a good article or two to fully work through. But maybe his best is his turn as Harvey Pekar in the utterly unconventional comic book adaptation, American Splendor.

To be fair, the source material was a little different too, given that it’s based on Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical series (specifically including Our Cancer Year, written with his wife, Joyce Brabner). At first glance, this is a straight biopic of Pekar, with Giamatti taking on the role. But directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini wonderfully rip up the rule book by having the real life Pekar punctuate the film. They’ve got other tactics too to shake up the conventions of the biopic, and incredibly, they pull it off.

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It does inevitably take a little time to settle, but American Splendor soon becomes a fascinating, unpredictable and enthralling adaptation. Pekar doesn’t always come out of it too well, but there’s no glamorisation here, nor an exaggeration the other way. Instead, you get a film that relates a fairly down-to-earth life, which also factors in a look at how it is to be depicted in a film (a subject Pekar would go on to explore his subsequence comic book, American Splendor: Our Movie Year).

It also says a lot about the courage of Paul Giamatti as an actor to appear alongside the man he’s portraying on screen at the same time. How many other actors would be willing to do that?

American Splendor really is something special, that we’re desperately trying not to spoil by saying too much about it. It’s a bold approach, brilliantly executed. It’s also a fitting testament to Pekar, who passed away in 2010. He leaves behind one of the best comic book adaptations and one of the best biopics of the past 20 years.

See also:

The top 25 underappreciated films of 2000

The top 25 underappreciated films of 2001

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