We'd love to tell you that we locked Bill Gallo, Melissa Levine, Jean Oppenheimer, Luke Y. Thompson, Gregory Weinkauf, and Robert Wilonsky in a padded room, fed them nothing but whiskey, and forced them to arm-wrestle one another for supremacy, but logistics and legalities prevented the full implementation of that plan. Instead, everyone voted for his or her favorites, point values were assigned, and when movies tied, there were tie-breaker votes. What you see below is the result, and keep in mind that each individual critic is probably tremendously pissed off at the inclusion of at least one of the titles on the list. Why a top 12, instead of the standard ten? Because we have six critics, and they each deserve second helpings.
1. In America -- Sorrow sprouts wings and flies in Irish director Jim Sheridan's radiant new film, which pits the pain and grief of unimaginable loss against the resilience of the human heart. Cowritten by the director and his two daughters, the semiautobiographical tale concerns an Irish couple who emigrate to New York City in an impossible attempt to put the death of their 4-year-old son behind them. Told from the perspective of the family's 10-year-old daughter, the story contains a deep well of sadness but also an irrepressible sense of wonder and delight. Nowhere is that dichotomy more evident than in the grim Hell's Kitchen setting, which takes on the air of a fairy tale through the eyes of sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger, who play the young siblings in the movie. The adult actors, Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, and Djimon Hounsou, are also superb, while cinematographer Declan Quinn's effortless camerawork misses nothing yet seems to capture everything spontaneously. A rare gem of a film, In America touches one's emotions in countless ways. -- Jean Oppenheimer
2. Lost in Translation -- Who would have thought that a movie about an American movie star visiting Japan to shoot a liquor commercial could feel so universal? That the film has struck so many different nerves in viewers more than likely comes from writer-director Sofia Coppola's emphasis on her lead characters' inner lives rather than the plot circumstances in which they find themselves -- the story could be set in downtown Los Angeles and still ring as true for all those people out there who find themselves in a strange part of the city at some late hour, amid a crowd of folks one has never encountered prior. Contemporary Tokyo as a setting adds to the dreamlike feel of the proceedings, however -- it's as if someone in Blade Runner decided to take a left turn away from the part of town where all those robots are killing people and took time out to be alone, never quite knowing whether that loneliness might become a permanent condition. Also, let's be honest: Bill Murray's karaoke version of "More Than This" is a heartbreaker, and Scarlet Johansson has possibly the finest ass crack I've ever seen on the big screen. -- Luke Y. Thompson
3. Spellbound -- In this year of the documentary (there were several others worthy of contention, among them Stevie and Love and Diane), Jeffrey Blitz's Spellbound proved why real life is more compelling than any fiction. No film released in 2003 was more exhilarating and affecting than this doc about eight students preparing for and making it to the 1999 National Spelling Bee. The kids, of varying ethnicities and economic situations, came from all over the country and possessed different reasons for entering such an unforgiving contest, where one letter is the difference between first place and the single, heartbreaking ping of the judge's unforgiving bell. Some wanted to please their parents, who demand only perfection; some wanted to experience the adventure; some wanted just to get it over with. Well before we're at the competition, which takes place during the film's final half, Blitz introduces us to each of the kids and their families, so that by the time we're on-stage with them, we're cheering them on as though they were our own flesh and blood. When they struggle, we sweat; when they lose, we cry; when they win, we cheer... and then want to watch Spellbound all over again. -- Robert Wilonsky
4. Capturing the Friedmans -- Six viewings in, and still it's not clear whether Arnold and then 18-year-old son Jesse committed multiple acts of sexual abuse on children taking computer classes in the Friedmans' Great Neck, New York, home in 1987. You will have your suspicions but also your doubts, as does director Andrew Jarecki, whose documentary neither judges nor absolves but only suggests. Yet the mystery, be it the result of a witch-hunt or a quest for deserved justice, withers next to the larger tale of a family obsessed with chronicling its devastation and ultimate decimation; that ultimate American tragedy is the heart of this masterpiece. Jarecki's documentary started as a light film about David Friedman, beloved kiddie-party entertainer in Manhattan, but changed course when the bitter clown hinted at long-buried family secrets. Jarecki, given access to more than 50 hours of videotapes and audio recordings the Friedmans made, shows us Arnold and Elaine Friedman as optimistic newlyweds, as young parents to three beautiful little boys, then finally as strangers who loathe each other in plain view of their sons, one of whom, Jesse, will ultimately serve time in prison. Capturing the Friedmans is harrowing and haunting and the most unforgettable film of 2003. -- Robert Wilonsky