In 2003, fact outshone fiction at the cinema

With the exception of Jack Black's riffing, the year's best movies tackled serious issues.

If you're a trivia buff, you may remember 2003 as the year when no fewer than three great beauties - Nicole Kidman, Scarlett Johansson, and Jennifer Connelly - swerved away from their usual pert characters to play cleaning women.

That coincidence aside, the three films I'm referring to - "The Human Stain," "Girl With a Pearl Earring," and "House of Sand and Fog" - are as different in quality as they are in subject and appeal. Like every other year at the movies, 2003 was uneven. But it was a good one overall, for everything from thoughtful documentaries to Hollywood haymakers.

As happened in 2002, the big studios held back many of their ambitious items until November and December, hoping this would keep them fresh in the minds of awards voters. Still, the past two months have been no more impressive than the previous ones - a tad less so, in fact, given the disappointment that sets in when major pictures like "The Human Stain" and "House of Sand and Fog" turn out to be less than first-rate.

No real trends announced themselves, except that sex and violence appear to be having a comeback. When even comedies like "Stuck on You" and "Anger Management" are punctuated with fistfights, and Christmas packages like "Love Actually" and "Bad Santa" are as sensual as summer teen flicks, you know something's changing in the zeitgeist.

There were enough high-quality pictures in 2003 to fill a list of more than 10, but that's the traditional number for end-of-year lists so I'll stick with the unwritten rules, adding a few additional titles that also could have made the final cut. Here's my alphabetical inventory of the best pictures to open in American theaters during the past 12 months.

1. "American Splendor." At least three kinds of movie - the biopic, the docudrama, and the documentary - turn a new corner in this inventive, entertaining look at the life and work of Harvey Pekar, who's best known (to the extent he's known at all) for his autobiographical "American Splendor" comic books. He and his wife are splendidly played by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, but the Pekars also appear as themselves in segments of the movie. Fans of underground commix already know Pekar is one of a kind, and so is this movie, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, two highly promising newcomers.

2. "Capturing the Friedmans." It all started when Andrew Jarecki set out to make a documentary about professional clown David Friedman, and then discovered this jokester had a hidden family story that's the opposite of funny - the prosecution of his father and brother on charges of child sexual abuse. Much of their travail was caught on home video, which Jarecki orchestrates - along with other material - into a gripping nonfiction account that raises profound questions about the ability of our criminal-justice system - and of us ourselves - to ascertain the intricate truths of human experience.

3. "Elephant." Based on the Columbine High School shooting rampage, this unsettling drama centers on similar students as they go through an ordinary day that culminates in horror. In a daring decision, director Gus Van Sant turns this grim episode into a kind of dark cinematic poetry, urging us to think deeply about the reasons for random youth violence - a scary elephant in the American living room that too many of us would rather evade than confront.

4. "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara." Turning his attention to the Vietnam era, Errol Morris aims his unblinking camera eye at the controversial secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, unveiling many startling realities - among them the fact that Mr. McNamara has a highly complex and conflicted view of the factors at play (including his own role) in the intractable Southeast Asian conflict. The year produced no more revealing historical record or more gripping psychological drama than this relentlessly intense documentary.

5. "The Man Without a Past." Finland's greatest filmmaker strikes again with this sardonic comedy-drama about a man who loses his memory after a mugging and sets about reconstructing his life with a little help from his friends. Aki Kaurismäki's latest is funny, sad, and unforgettable.

6. "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." Peter Weir finally succeeds in combining the subtle mystery of his early Australian pictures with the scope and scale of a Hollywood blockbuster. The results are riveting, and Paul Bettany's breakthrough performance as an intellectual doctor more than compensates for Russell Crowe's slightly underdeveloped acting as Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey, who spends most of the movie chasing a Napoleonic vessel that sneaks up and slips away when least expected. How refreshing it is to encounter so much character psychology in an adventure film, especially when most American war pictures are simplistic, militaristic, and jingoistic.

7. "My Architect." The title gives a major clue to the content of Nathaniel Kahn's documentary about his very eccentric father, architect Louis I. Kahn, who secretly maintained three separate families while his activities as a master 20th-century artist went through roller-coaster ups and downs. This moving documentary is a triumph of personal filmmaking.

8. "The School of Rock." The most accessible of Richard Linklater's movies is also the funniest, thanks largely to Jack Black, exploding with energy as a failed rock singer who turns a gaggle of coddled grade-schoolers into his latest steamin' band. Add sparkling performances by Joan Cusack as a wired-up principal and Mike White as the world's geekiest landlord - both totally in tune with Mr. Linklater's split-second comic timing - and you have a laugh-filled jam session that'll melt your face for sure. (See the movie if you're not sure what face-melting is.)

9. "The Secret Lives of Dentists." Behind that faux-lurid title stands one of the year's most sensitive movies, about two dentists whose marital troubles teach them that the state of wedlock is like a set of teeth - troublesome to maintain at times, but so solid it'll last forever if it's fundamentally sound. Campbell Scott cements his status as one of today's most brilliant actors, and director Alan Rudolph chronicles the couple's domestic life - drawn from "The Age of Grief," a richly composed Jane Smiley novella - with loving care.

10. "The Triplets of Belleville." The year's most amazing animation focuses on a monomaniacal grandma who trains her grandson as a bicycle racer, and then sets out with her faithful pooch to rescue the lad when he's kidnapped by a gambling ring. This brings them to the surreal city of Belleville, where they stay with three old dames who entertain nightclub crowds with music played on "instruments" like the vacuum-cleaner hose and the refrigerator shelf. "Finding Nemo" is fine, but this is the animation to see if you want humor of truly mind-bending proportions.

Other memorable movies include Robert Altman's ballet drama "The Company," the sort-of-romantic comedy "Lost in Translation," the somber "Mystic River," the scathing muckraker "Shattered Glass," the family-friendly "Freaky Friday," the cautionary fables "Owning Mahowny" and "The Shape of Things," the ravishing "Girl With a Pearl Earring," the indescribable "21 Grams," the harrowing "Thirteen," and fine documentaries like "Stevie" and "The Weather Underground."

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