The movies of 2004 are knocking on theatre doors, but the fuss over 2003 is just getting started. The Golden Globe Awards will take place January 25th, and Oscar ballots will be filled out in a matter of days. Every morning, the Internet buzzes with the latest batch of critics' awards or industry honors.

Religious media outlets are no exception. Michael Medved's 2003 picks are posted here. The films favored by J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) are also posted.

I find it difficult to say with any conviction what the "best films" of 2003 are. Very few critics can say they've seen everything that should be taken into consideration before making such a claim. But I have provided a list of the films that meant most to me in 2003. They are posted here.

If you've seen many of the films that wrapped up this year, you're probably feeling a bit shell-shocked by multiplex massacres. With cannons, longswords, rifles, crossbows, catapults, point-blank pistol shots, 2003 wrapped up with several cinematic explorations of war, its causes, its forms, its consequences. Cold Mountain. The Last Samurai. The Return of the King. (To cap it off, we now have Monster, the biography of a serial killer.)

The bloodletting does not look likely to stop anytime soon. As the films of 2004 march into view, it appears that battlefields will continue to fill the screens.

Two major films about Alexander the Great are being made. Oliver Stone's Alexander stars Colin Farrell (Phone Booth, Daredevil) as the Macedonian conqueror, supported by an all-star cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Rosario Dawson, and Val Kilmer. Baz Luhrman's version will bring Leonardo DiCaprio to the screen opposite Nicole Kidman in 2005.

In April, we'll remember The Alamo, in a film from John Lee Hancock, the director of The Rookie, starring Billy Bob Thornton as Davey Crockett.

In May, legends will walk the screen to wage war for the sake of a woman in Wolfgang Petersen's Troy. Brad Pitt stars as Achilles, and he'll be joined on the battlefield by Sean Bean and Orlando Bloom (Boromir and Legolas in The Lord of the Rings), Eric Bana (Hulk), Julie Christie, Diane Kruger, Bryan Cox, and Peter O'Toole.

King Arthur returns to the screen in a new film by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day). Clive Owen (Croupier, Gosford Park) and Keira Knightly (Pirates of the Caribbean) star as Arthur and Guinevere. The knights will take the screen in July. But this version of the adventure is reportedly an attempt to tell the story in a more "realistic" and historical context without any of the hocus pocus.

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On February 25, another gory feature will grab headlines. In fact, it's already made the news. Mel Gibson will finally deliver his controversial film about Jesus' last hours: The Passion of the Christ. Film Forum has been following the controversies surrounding the film for almost a year. At last, audiences will be able to judge for themselves as to whether Gibson's intentions are tainted by anti-Semitism, or if the objectors have been misinterpreting the movie. Jim Caveziel portrays Jesus through the worst of his sufferings.

But if you'd rather just watch gobs of violence without having to care, there's always director Paul W.S. Anderson's much-hyped Alien vs. Predator, in which the two famous sci-fi beasties meet in the Antarctic for a round of intergalactic smackdown. Our fascination with these bloodthirsty monsters has become so strong, apparently we don't even need the "good guys" anymore.

Also courting cries of "Gratuitous violence!" and "Self-indulgence!", Quentin Tarantino returns with a contender for the bloodiest entry of all, Kill Bill vol. 2, the conclusion of the violent revenge story he began last fall.

War-oriented angst will be the focus in director Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate. Denzel Washington has the lead role as the war veteran who has strange nightmares that suggest something went very wrong while he was serving overseas. The supporting cast includes Meryl Streep, Kimberly Elise, Jon Voight, and Liev Schreiber. The film has been transplanted from the Korean War into the context of Desert Storm.

That's just a sampling of what lies ahead. Violence will always stir up religious press critics, as some see it as a sign of the decline of civilization whenever violence is portrayed, while others argue that conflict portrayed in the proper context can make for meaningful storytelling and, in the end, actually counteract violence in the real world. Hopefully, some of these titles will inspire more rewarding explorations and discussions.

But for those who are weary of epic battles, there will be plenty of other interesting questions to discuss at the movies.

Mary McGuckian's adaptation of The Bridge of San Luis Rey is the latest film version of Thornton Wilder's novel. (The first adaptation was released in 1929.) It's a story about the collapse of a bridge in 18th century Peru. Five people are killed in the disaster. A priest, played by Robert De Niro, tries to comprehend what God's purpose in such a disaster might be. Kathy Bates (About Schmidt), Harvey Keitel (Bad Lieutenant), Gabriel Byrne (Miller's Crossing), and F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) co-star.

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Jesus will make another appearance in The Lamb, Regardt van den Bergh's $20 million dollar sci-fi epic about a father and son who set out on a South African journey that is punctuated with visits from the Savior. The film is currently in production, and no release date is yet scheduled. Van den Bergh has formerly directed an episode of The Visual Bible.

One title comes with a guarantee that it will stir up what has become an annual debate among Christians and film critics. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in the successful franchise based on J.K. Rowling's bestselling series, will come to the screen. This episode comes from Alfonso Cuaró n, director of A Little Princess and Y Tu Mama Tambien. Thus, it promises to be a darker, more grown-up Potter story. If the pattern holds, many critics will find meaning in the film's fairy tale metaphors, while others will insist that the film is a tool of the devil meant to lure children into dabbling with the occult.

In April, director Guillermo Del Toro will continue the trend of comic books adapted for the big screen. But his film, Hellboy, will probably provoke some religious press talk in that its hero is a demon from hell who decides to rebel against Satan and resist him in the real world.

Also leaping from the comic pages, Spider-man 2 will spin a more familiar web, pitting the masked hero (Tobey Maguire) against a malevolent multi-limbed menace called Doc Ock (Alfred Molina of Chocolat and Raiders of the Lost Ark.) The first film's theme, that power comes with responsibility, made it a hit with Christian critics. This episode was penned by the award-winning novelist Michael Chabon.

Lars Von Trier's Dogville will challenge audiences to follow a parable played out on a minimally decorated stage, like a low-budget theatre production. But the story is acted out by a stellar cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Anne Bancroft, Paul Bettany. It's the tale of a woman on the run from the mob who hides out in a Colorado town, only to discover that their protection will cost her dearly. The townspeople, on the other hand, will discover that taking advantage of a fugitive may cost them as well. Is it a coincidence that the fugitive's name is Grace?

The film most likely to cause an outcry in the Christian press is called Saved. A satire about religious legalism, Saved takes place in the corridors of a Christian high school. The students are portrayed as something akin to zombies as they surround and try to redeem one of their fellow students who has become pregnant out of wedlock. Their condemnation and judgmentalism become the stuff of horror films. Mandy Moore (A Walk to Remember) plays the persecuted youth.

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But by the end of the year, it is likely that the name Peter Jackson will be the hot topic of discussion, as the significantly extended edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King finally arrives on DVD. There is a possibility that Jackson will add as much as an hour to the conclusive chapter that is currently in theatres. Scenes involving a final confrontation with Saruman, the rehabilitation of injured heroes, a face-off between Gandalf and the Witch King, and a confrontation between Aragorn and a nasty fellow called "the Mouth of Sauron" are expected to fill unfortunate holes in the film's narrative, making the film's conclusion even more resonant.

Aileen Wuornos devolves into a Monster

When America's most popular and respected film critic Roger Ebert posted his top ten films of 2003 last week, the #1 title came as a surprise. The film opened just this week, and very few people have seen it yet.

The movie is called Monster, and it portrays the sordid past and sufferings of Aileen Wuornos, who responded by inflicting far greater sufferings on others and ended up being executed for a killing. While the story is indeed startling and sad, the thing that is putting Monster in headlines is the transformation of its star, the blonde bombshell Charlize Theron, into a beleaguered, bitter woman so unrecognizable that one critic even described her as resembling Jon Voight. The film co-stars Christina Ricci as the young woman who falls in love with Wuornos before the bitter end.

"Both women are disconnected from reality," explains Ebert, "and their search for happiness leads to a serial killing spree in which the death of a well-meaning man … is unbearably painful. We are told to hate the sin but love the sinner, and Monster is a luminous work of empathy, showing us a woman whose destiny was already sealed as a battered child."

This interpretation is not shared by everyone. Movieguide's critic will not be including this in his top ten list. He calls it "revisionist history. [The movie] declines to inform viewers that Aileen was often in trouble with the law for drunk driving, assault, disorderly conduct, auto theft, armed robbery, and other crimes before she even met her lesbian lover. Thus, although [Theron] … gives a powerhouse performance, Monster tries to garner sympathy for this admittedly troubled, but despicable, killer, and contains a tremendous barrage of obscenities and the kind of gross sexual immorality that is destroying many children."

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"Expect a harsh film with no light whatsoever," says Trae Cadenhead (The Phantom Tollbooth). "Charlize Theron just about singlehandedly makes Monster worth one viewing for those who can stomach it. It's a shame that the best acting performance in recent history is found in the most unsettlingly disturbing film in recent history."

Critics expose opinions on Calendar Girls

In order to raise money for a hospital, the aging members of an English women's club cast off their clothes and created a sensation that eventually earned them fame and a guest spot on Jay Leno. This true story is now a new comedy called Calendar Girls, starring Helen Mirren. The film is earning both grumbles and guffaws from the religious press critics.

Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) says the movie is "enjoyable but mostly forgettable. [Its] appeal lies in the few laughs it manages and a likable cast. Yet its flimsy premise doesn't have the energy to sustain the entire film and the third act just peters out."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "an enjoyable evening's entertainment." For those concerned about the racy subject matter, he adds, "The nudity is tastefully done and handled with a great deal of humor by director Nigel Cole and his extremely talented cast of accomplished older actresses." Elliott also offers some thoughts on the film's implications: "Fame can be intoxicating and easily cause us to lose sight of what is important. It is why meekness and humility are such important qualities to build and maintain as we go about our lives."

That's not the message that Movieguide's critic came away considering. He writes, "The message of the movie is that the end justifies the means."

Death and despair divide criticsin The Barbarian Invasions

French-Canadian filmmaker film director Denys Arcand, most famous for his film Jesus of Montreal, is earning widespread critical acclaim for his new film The Barbarian Invasions, which serves as a sequel to his 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire.

Remy (Remy Girard) is an aging history professor whose knowledge has become a source of great anxiety. Without any religious faith to guide him, he stares at history's facts and sees emptiness, chaos, disintegration, and doom. Likewise, when he looks back at his battle-scarred life, he sees only failed philosophies, loss and regret. The fact that he is dying from inoperable cancer makes him helpless to do anything about it. Only his ex-wife Louise (Dorothee Berryman) stands by him … until his son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) arrives.

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Sebastien is a successful London investment banker who is more than happy to invest his fortune into making his father more comfortable. But he resents his father's history of philandering and has no interest in intellectual pursuits, while Remy views his son as the embodiment of values antithetical to his own. Determined to help ease his father's decline, Sebastien invites a crowd of Remy's old friends—fellow hedonistic survivors of the '60s, past sexual conquests—to come and visit him at the hospital. Once the friends from American Empire are reunited, they revel in nostalgia a la The Big Chill as Remy's inevitable departure approaches.

This witty and philosophical film is full of strong performances, especially from Girard as the dying, despairing, promiscuous old man and Marie-Josee Croze as a young heroin junkie who "helps" him. Arcand's direction makes us well-acquainted with this broken and misguided family even as he offers revealing observations about the dismal state of Canadian health care. But viewers should be cautioned that these characters are not examples of admirable living. In fact, only the Catholic nurse Sister Constance (Johanne Marie Tremblay), who occasionally attempts to steer Remy's attention to his spiritual poverty, seems to have a clue about the source of contentment, and her character remains marginal.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Though the film draws comparisons between the sack of Rome and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Arcand uses the term 'barbarians' to encompass a broad range of toxic influences which he sees as having an erosive effect on society, among them drugs, the health care bureaucracy and unrestrained capitalism. However, flying in the face of Arcand's assertion that the story is ultimately life-affirming are the film's pervasive nihilism and cynical view of traditional morality in favor of sexual autonomy, compounded by its reprehensible solution to suffering—murder, the most 'barbaric' act of all."

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Movieguide's critic says, "Though this movie has numerous drug portrayals and sexual conversations, the film is well crafted and should win awards. Regrettably, as with recent movies dealing with death, there is no mention of the only true life available to mankind—redemption through Christ Jesus. The Barbarian Invasions is about restoration of family and unconditional love, but an exploration of death void of the promise of eternal life is dismal viewing, indeed."

But Michael Leary (The Matthews House Project) finds the film to be much deeper and more profound than that, "probably the most rewarding drama of the year. Funereal, desperately romantic, totally exasperating,The Barbarian Invasions simply does what all films should."

He explains, "One has a hard time feeling pity for a man who would characterize the unbelievable compassion of his son as barbaric, especially since it is Sebastien and his mother who have had to shoulder the effects of his philandering lifestyle treated so cavalierly in The Decline of the American Empire. But we feel pity nonetheless, a horrible tearful pity. Arcand really gets across the fact that death is always sad regardless of its subject. It is nothing less than the end of a life and nothing more than that final moment."

Next week: Chasing Liberty, and more.