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Reviewer Paul Clinton's top 10 films of 2003

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

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Picks include "Bad Santa" (top) with Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai" and "Shattered Glass" with Hayden Christensen and ChloŽ Sevigny.

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'Cold Mountain,' 'Mystic River' and 'Finding Nemo' are among CNN reviewer Paul Clinton's top 10 movies for 2003. (December 30)
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(CNN) -- This year proved to be an interesting one for moviegoers, with its mixture of large-scale studio films full of top stars and a wealth of smaller gems.

In 2003, films suitable for almost everyone's taste were abundant. It's been an outstanding period for adult drama. A number of big studio epics stood out from the pack. And there were even some movies that earned that much-sought-after label "suitable for the whole family."

With that in mind here (in no particular order) are my picks for the top 10 films of 2003.

'House of Sand and Fog'

Directed by Vadim Perelman

Starring Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly

(DreamWorks)

Based on the acclaimed best seller by Andre Dubus III, "House of Sand and Fog" is a remarkable film, even more so because it was helmed by first-time director Vadim Perelman. This shattering story about the American dream gone wrong is wrenching in its power and raw emotion. This film is the perfect marriage of material and actors. Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley offer award-winning performances.

'Cold Mountain'

Directed by Anthony Minghella

Starring Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, Jude Law

(Miramax)

This epic love story conveys the horrors of the Civil War in a close and personal way that has rarely been achieved on film. The story follows the journeys taken by the three main characters. Jude Law's character, a soldier named Inman, makes a physical journey as he struggles to return home to Cold Mountain after deserting the Confederate army. The characters played by Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger take journeys of the heart and soul as they fight to survive bitter hardships in a land ravaged by war. Ultimately, this film celebrates the power of love.

'Shattered Glass'

Directed by Billy Ray

Starring Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard

(Lions Gate)

"Shattered Glass" is another film that explores a different aspect of the American dream -- our culture's obsession with being the best and winning at all cost. This cautionary tale is based on a true story about reporter Stephen Glass, a writer for The New Republic magazine who was exposed for fabricating news articles. The film feels at times like a thriller as Glass tries desperately to cover his tracks and compounds his lies with more and more untruths. As Glass, Hayden Christensen proves again that he's an actor to watch as his character slowly disintegrates before viewers' eyes.

'The Cooler'

Directed by Wayne Kramer

Starring William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Alec Baldwin

(Lions Gate)

"The Cooler" is a highly adult, intelligent movie that never quite lets the moviegoer know where it's going. William H. Macy plays the king of all losers. He's a cooler at a Las Vegas casino. His job is to pass on bad luck by standing next to tables where people are beating the odds. His very presence stops their winning streak cold. Alec Baldwin is exceptional as his sleazy boss who will stop at nothing to keep control over his prize cooler. Maria Bello is heartbreaking as a cocktail waitress who unexpectedly falls in love with Macy's character -- thereby causing his luck to change and his ability as a cooler to stop. This small gem of movie should not be overlooked.

'Mystic River'

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden

(Warner Bros.)

Clint Eastwood has done it again. His expertly directed "Mystic River" with Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon is deeply moving. Three young boys suffer a traumatic event in their childhoods and are reunited by tragedy later in life. Stark and brooding, the film explores the dark side of human nature and the frailty of the safe world we would all like to think we inhabit, but don't really. It also doesn't hurt that the movie features three of America's most gifted actors. "Mystic River" is drama at its best.

'The Last Samurai'

Directed by Ed Zwick

Starring Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, William Atherton, Billy Connolly

(Warner Bros.)

"The Last Samurai" is a huge epic starring Tom Cruise in one of his best roles in years. Set in the 1870s, the film is beautifully executed by director Ed Zwick. Cruise plays a weary Civil War veteran who goes to Japan to help modernize its military and to help rid the country of the last of the Samurai warriors. Instead, his character is drawn into the Samurai code of honor. As a result, he experiences a renewed belief in respect, sacrifice and the human spirit. There are certain plot points that are similar to "Dances With Wolves," and some cynics are calling this film "Dances With Sushi," but such an assessment is really not fair. This film is actually much better than Kevin Costner's 1990 Oscar winner.

'Lord Of The Rings: The Return of the King'

Directed by Peter Jackson

Starring Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett

(New Line Cinema)

"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy is a historical achievement. With the release of the third and final installment, "The Return of the King," it's safe to say that these films will be revered for generations to come. "The Return of the King" is a stunning and perfect conclusion to an awesome franchise. This trilogy is a triumph on many levels, but most of all, it's a perfect meeting of current movie technology and J.R.R. Tolkien's vivid imagination. On another level, these are films that writer-director Peter Jackson seems to have been destined to make.

'Pirates of the Caribbean'

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Geoffrey Rush

(Walt Disney)

When it comes to sheer fun at the movies, nothing beats "Pirates of the Caribbean," starring Johnny Depp in one of his best performances in years. Swishing and buckling his way across the big screen, Depp is a cross between Keith Richards and Cher -- the latter in her "Gypsy, Tramps & Thieves" period. This extravagant high-seas adventure about pirates, stolen treasure and the supernatural is an utter delight. Geoffrey Rush is gleefully evil, and Keira Knightley is perfection. Shiver me timbers! Check it out.

'Finding Nemo'

Directed by Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich

Starring the voices of Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Willem Dafoe, Allison Janney, Geoffrey Rush

(Walt Disney)

Want a movie suitable for the whole family? Look no further than "Finding Nemo." This delightfully fishy animated tale is beautifully made using state-of-the-art, computer-generated images. Nemo is a young clownfish who gets lost in the deep blue sea and is pursued by his overly protective father (voice of Albert Brooks) and his father's overly optimistic sidekick, Dory (voice of Ellen DeGeneres). Dory has no short-term memory. It all goes in one gill and out the other. Their heartwarming and hilarious story proves there's no place like home. Add water, and you have an instant classic.

'Bad Santa'

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, John Ritter, Bernie Mac

(Dimension Films)

"Bad Santa" is anything but suitable for the whole family. This R-rated black comedy is for grown-ups only. Diabolically funny, it features Billy Bob Thornton at his best as a drunken, lowlife who plays a department store Santa. Along with his dwarf partner (Tony Cox) who's dressed as an elf, he robs the stores where they work on Christmas Eve. But their carefully laid plans are foiled when they encounter an outcast little boy (Brett Kelly), a cocktail waitress (Lauren Graham) and a sputtering store manager (the late John Ritter). This outrageous film is the perfect antidote to the typically saccharine (but beloved) Christmas flicks such as "It's a Wonderful Life."


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