Ten Reasons I Liked Going to the Movies in 2003

The year just passed proved a mixed bag for Catholics at the movies.

The Church seemed to come under attack with inordinate frequency (The Crime of Father Amaro, The Magdalene Sisters, Luther, The Statement) even as Hollywood pumped up the volume on family-friendly entertainment (Elf, Cheaper by the Dozen, Secondhand Lions).

The good news was that, if you looked with a discerning eye, you could certainly find plenty to enjoy amid the cinematic morass.

My picks for the 10 best movies of 2003:

1 THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING

The triumphant finale to Peter Jackson and company's historic three-part adaptation is perhaps the most awesome spectacle ever filmed, and the most ambitious and emotionally affecting of the trilogy. From the rugged beauty of Minas Tririth to the thrilling sequence with the mountaintop beacons, from Eowyn's showdown with the witch-king to Samwise's final act of devotion on the slopes of Mount Doom, the film's tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien's world exceeds all reasonable hope. Tolkien's Catholic themes, including echoes of the harrowing of hell and purgatorial atoning for sins, are at their most overt here.

Content advisory: Some depictions of intense and sometimes bloody battle violence; scenes of menace and grotesquerie involving orcs and other “fell creatures”; a single crude expression.

2 THE SON (LE FILS) Morally and spiritually the year's most richly challenging and inspiring film, The Son has a documentary-like restraint that makes for comparatively demanding viewing at first, but the difficulty of the first viewing becomes irrelevant in light of its rewards. The Dardenne brothers’ hand-held camera closely follows a middle-aged carpenter working with troubled teens as he focuses on one particular boy. A nearly religious parable of humanity, falling and grace, The Son's achievement is one of showing, not telling —telling much more would diminish the showing (though many reviews will rob you by doing just that).

Content advisory: A few objectionable phrases; references to remarriage after divorce and extramarital pregnancy. French with subtitles.

3 FINDING NEMO The hallmarks of Pixar's virtually perfect craftsmanship — narrative tightness, witty dialogue, satirical humor, note-perfect emotions, eye-popping graphics — are all here, but there's also a magic that defies analysis. A coming-of-age fish story that has as much sympathy and compassion for parental anxieties and tribulations as for childhood frustrations and fears, Nemo is both about an overprotective father learning to give his child room to grow and face his own challenges, and about a disillusioned child again seeing his dad as a hero. Note the pro-life resonances of an early scene depicting the parents’ loving concern for their unhatched offspring.

Content advisory: Animated high excitement and menace; parental separation theme. Could be frightening to sensitive youngsters.

4 MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD

Eschewing the anachronistic modern-day attitudes and dumbed-down moral conflicts Hollywood usually brings to period pieces, Peter Weir's thrilling first film from the popular historical novels of Patrick O'Brian allows its heroes to talk and argue like intelligent adults of their own time and place. Set on a British frigate in the Napoleonic wars, the film is breathtakingly authentic, from the creak of the timbers to the matter-of-fact Christian milieu of its protagonists.

Content advisory: Bloody scenes of battle violence and field surgery; a suicide; somewhat profane language; a couple of rude jokes and brief obscenity.

5 SHATTERED GLASS Among stories of journalistic corruption, first-time director Billy Ray's intelligent, riveting fact-based drama of the rise and fall of Beltway hotshot Stephen Glass (Hay den Christensen) stands out for its strongly ethical stance and for its riveting depiction of Glass’ ability to insinuate himself to his co-workers while ingeniously covering his tracks. Peter Sarsgaard is brilliant as the editor forced to confront Glass’ fraud while beleaguered by office politics. Some may wish Ray had focused more on Glass’ motivation, but the film doesn't need Catch Me If You Can psychoanalyzing: It knows that what finally matters isn't why Glass lied but that he did.

Content advisory: Some obscene and profane language; a few crude references; a depiction of drug abuse.

6 WINGED MIGRATION One of cinema's most valuable functions is to show us things we would never otherwise see. If you want a narrator to tell you all about the diet and mating habits of birds, watch Animal Planet on cable TV; if you want to see birds as you've never seen them before, here's the film for you. The filmmakers insinuate the camera's eye so intimately into the midst of airborne birds that one can almost count the hair-like barbs on the feathers. Other shots are staggering for the sheer number of birds on the screen. It's a mesmerizing meditation on the wonder of creation.

Content advisory: A few images of birds in distress; a fleeting image of a dead bird.

7-8 (Tie) SPELLBOUND / OT: OUR TOWN

A pair of uplifting documentaries about young students working and studying for an hour of onstage stress and glory, Spellbound and OT: Our Town have different styles and different rewards. Spellbound is an endearing, heartbreaking, satisfying look at eight young spellers from various socioeconomic backgrounds competing with more than 200 other kids at the Washington, D.C., National Spelling Bee. OT is an inspiring account of inner-city youth at a demoralized high school known only for basketball and race riots, who — despite no money or existing program — take on the challenge of staging Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Both films celebrate achievement, grace under pressure and self-respect; OT is also about community and culture, while Spellbound honors family and parents in a story of competition and personal achievement.

Content advisory: Spellbound — Nothing problematic. OT: our town — Harsh social milieu includes recurring obscene language, references to suicide, teen pregnancy, etc. Mature viewing.

9 THE GOSPEL OF JOHN It's not “based on” the Gospel of John, it is the Gospel of John — visualized and enacted, and to that extent interpreted and glossed, but not “adapted” in the usual sense. Combining the visual engagement of a biblical epic with the textual fidelity of the Bible on CD or audio-cassette, The Gospel of John is a unique hybrid of the literary and dramatic — an approach that offers unique benefits as well as inevitable trade-offs. It's not perfect, but the gist of the biblical message comes to life in a unique way, with special credit to solid production values, strong acting and engaging narration by Christopher Plummer.

Content advisory: Passion narrative violence.

10 THE GUYS A small, intimate meditation on grief and loss in the days after Sept. 11, The Guys is clearly a product of the period it documents. Based on a stage play by a New York writer drawing on her own experiences helping a fire captain compose eulogies for fallen comrades, the film's lack of artifice makes it a quietly moving experience. The Guys captures how the horror of evil strips away our spiritual complacency: We want to bargain with God, yet we have nothing to offer and can settle for nothing less than everything. Slow and somber, The Guys is rewarding to viewers not put off by its austerity.

Content advisory: A few crass expressions; reflections on death and grief.

Steven D. Greydanus, editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com, writes from Bloomfield, New Jersey.