December 29, 2003 12:00 PM

Climb This Mountain

A resonant wartime romance is among 2003’s films to love, actually

American Splendor

Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis

Harvey Pekar, a walking sour ball who toiled as a file clerk in Cleveland while writing autobiographical alternative comic books, was the unlikely real-life hero of the year’s most original movie. A biopic of sorts, it features Giamatti doing a grandly grumpy impersonation of Pekar in most scenes, though the real Pekar pops up periodically, thereby echoing the film’s themes about life meeting art and vice versa.

Big Fish

Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney

A disapproving son (Billy Crudup) returns home to visit his dying father (Finney), hoping to learn before it’s too late whether there’s any truth behind the many tall tales Dad has been telling for years. In examining how much any of us can ever fully understand our parents, director Tim Burton has allowed his heart to follow his imagination, resulting in a fantastical journey and eye-popping visuals.

Cold Mountain

Jude Law, Nicole Kidman
Based on Charles Frazier’s 1997 National Book Award-winning novel, this haunting romantic drama takes a clear-sighted look at how war changes both those who fight and those who wait at home. The Odyssey replanted in southern soil during the Civil War, its themes are big and sweeping but all the more affecting for playing out at an intimate level.

Finding Nemo

Voices: Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres

An animated adventure about an over-protective clown fish’s search for his missing son, this fish tale works its magic equally on children and adults.

In America

Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine

Lyrical and intensely personal, director Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical drama about the ups and downs of an Irish family newly living in New York City is deeply moving.

Lost in Translation

Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson
Two American strangers—a middle-aged movie star (Murray) and a young wife (Johansson)—staying at the same hotel in Tokyo bond over jet lag but soon discover they’re soulmates. Fresh, funny and wise, Lost is about finding friendship in unexpected places.

Love Actually

Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson

This minuet of multiple overlapping love stories may go on a bit, but it is still our absolute favorite romantic comedy all year. Love is witty, boasts a swell cast, and as for those who snipe that it is excessively cheerful, what’s so bad about feeling good?

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany

A commanding Crowe rules the seas in a briny adventure that lives up to the spellbinding Patrick O’Brian novels upon which it was based. This is big, Hollywood studio filmmaking at its best and so realistic that we’re still wiping off the sea spray.

Mystic River

Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon

For three boyhood friends from a working-class Boston neighborhood, some wounds go too deep to heal. Superbly acted by a top-notch cast, this searing tragedy just may be director Clint Eastwood’s finest film.

Spellbound

W-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l. Who could have predicted that a documentary about the adolescent contestants at the National Spelling Bee would prove such a nail-biter? If these kids are the future of the country, we’re going to do all right.

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