Laura Linney and Sean Penn in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River
Laura Linney and Sean Penn in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River

Ten Best season is irresistible to almost any confirmed movie buff, from the stuffiest of ivory-tower critics to the most omnivorous habitué of the multiplexes, arthouses, cable channels and video racks. Everybody has opinions, and the Ten Best ritual is a ready opportunity to put some kind of a frame around, impose some sort of structure upon, the experiences of a film year.

Anybody can name favorite movies, and favorites can't be argued with. Most published Ten Best lists are assumed to reflect a degree of judgment rather than simple (and perhaps accidental) enthusiasm: judgment based on what constitutes exceptional filmmaking, unique creativity, freshness of discovery, depth of feeling and insight, a respect for the power and clarity that come only with form and style and content in mutually enhancing harmony. Genre is no barrier to excellence: a vital Ten Best list may, perhaps should, include triumphant examples of solid "Hollywood" entertainment along with rarified art cinema and the best of so-called independent filmmaking. A good movie is a good movie is a good movie.

Reading Ten Best lists may cue you to look up pictures you might have missed altogether or assumed you could safely forget about. They may tell you even more about the people who select them than they do about the movies selected. They can give you strokes by reinforcing your own tastes, or make you mad as hell, or chivvy you into a fresh perspective you weren't looking for but are richer for considering.

As a first step, the listmaker has to rule some movies in and some movies out. Seattle sees lashings of films every year, but we don't necessarily get all the year-end biggies till January or even February. For instance, Roman Polanski's The Pianist, the anti-Chicago that cornered the serious awards in the 2002 Oscar race, didn't open here till early 2003; I saw it at an early critics screening and singled it out for praise around this time last year in the News, so I don't feel bad about disqualifying it from this year's Ten Best derby.

Then there are the firsts that just seem chronologically beyond the pale. The best movie I first saw in 2003 may well have been the 1970 French gangster classic Le Cercle Rouge, showcased in the Seattle International Film Festival and subsequently given a week's run at the Varsity. Jean-Pierre Melville's masterpiece probably didn't ever play here before, even in the cut, English-dubbed version. Restored to full length and its original language, and framing impeccable, possibly career-best performances by Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté, André Bourvil and Yves Montand, this cinema milestone will now be permanently available as a Criterion Collection DVD. See it.

 Without further ado, then:

 1. MYSTIC RIVER  Clint Eastwood, U.S.  Several reels into Mystic River there is a scene on a staircase involving Tim Robbins, playing a man whose life was blighted in childhood before he had any chance to conspire in his own fall from grace, and Marcia Gay Harden as his wife. A terrible crime has been committed, a crime that wounds and horrifies everyone in their community bound by generations of familiarity and experience and culpabilities too numerous to name or sort out. Robbins has told Harden one version of what he was doing and where he was that night; she begins to glimpse other possibilities. Here they stand, joined yet separated, changing places from stair to stair, meeting and not meeting each other's eyes, seen from this angle and that, Joel Cox's editing finding the natural rhythm to counterpoint their growing doubts and conscious or unconscious deceptions. The filmmaking couldn't be more straightforward, or more eloquent. Nothing is signposted or underscored; everything is charged with ambiguity and mutual heartbreak. Acting, costarring and directing don't come any better. This film is a rare thing, an authentic, deeply American tragedy. And as clean as an ax sunk in dry wood.

 2. CHIHWASEON  Im Kwon-taek, South Korea  This account of Ohwon, a 19th-century Korean of lowly caste but extraordinary genius who became both a prolific painter and a revolutionary icon, astonished me with the assurance and completeness of its own mastery. Movies about painters have rarely captured much sense of either their subjects' art or how they went about creating it. In Chihwaseon Ohwon's boisterous, exquisite brushstrokes make luminous sense as reflections and refractions of the world around him. A sky filled with wheeling clouds of birds, a shroud of rain in front of a mauve-green forest, a single human figure striding in silhouette against an endless gray sea - all find their way onto the perilously fragile scrolls Ohwon turns into shimmering masterworks and, often as not, crumples and casts aside. "Chihwaseon" means "strokes of fire"; once you've seen the film, you'll know why that fits.

 3. THE SON  Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, France–Belgium  The brothers Dardenne make extraordinary movies that seem torn from the flesh of existence; you have periodically to remind yourself that you're not watching a documentary, that the actors are actors (equally powerful whether professional or nonprofessional) and that the relentlessly prowling camera (cutaways are rare) is serving a shaped, dramatic event rather than stalking cinéma-vérité prey. Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet plays a contractor who hires on a troubled youth who ... who did something I hesitate even to say, since the film covers considerable ground before revealing it. Like its prizewinning antecedents La Promesse (1996) and Rosetta (1999), Le Fils is a shattering, transcendent experience.

 4. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING  Peter Jackson, New Zealand  I haven't named any installment of this bounteous trilogy the best picture of its year, simply because each is really part of a single, three-part, 10-hour film that's almost certainly greater than the sum of its constituent chapters. Still, come Oscar night in late February I'll be pulling for Jackson & Co. to carry off the well-deserved Oscar for which placeholder nominations were duly entered in 2001 and 2002. It isn't enough to say that The Lord of the Rings puts such pop-cultural franchises as Harry Potter and The Matrix to shame. This is an event in the chronicles of the human spirit, the very definition of state-of-the-art in the art of filmmaking, a stirring validation of upholding human values and standing against the forces of evil, and an even more heartening demonstration that telling - and paying attention to - a grand story is not a lost art.

5. KILL BILL, VOL. 1  Quentin Tarantino, U.S.  Asked why he wanted so much blood in his 1965 film Pierrot le Fou, Jean-Luc Godard replied, "There is not a lot of blood in my film - there is a lot of red." Same goes for Tarantino's lyrical mash note to the samurai, yakuza, chopsocky and spaghetti Western fever dreams that got him through childhood and extended adolescence. If you don't feel even a hint of exultation and delight when Uma Thurman as The Bride looks down from her Okinawa-to-Tokyo flight to "see" Lucy Liu/O-Ren Ishii's black caravan of limos and motorcycles roaring along the Tokyo skyway, then slides into frame herself as a biker in yellow, we have nothing to talk about.

6. AMERICAN SPLENDOR  Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, U.S.  Something in a gentler vein? OK, but it has to be divinely wacky, too. This inspired, inventive biopic of underground-comics author Harvey Pekar might have been sweet, funny and magical even as a conventional and-then-he-wrote account as long it starred the brilliant Paul Giamatti as Harvey and the acutely daft Hope Davis as the fan who becomes his wife. As refracted through the screenplay and direction of heretofore-documentary filmmakers Berman and Pulcini, with commentary and sometimes onscreen participation by the Pekars and other real-life figures in the story, and occasional overlays and interpolations of comics imagery, it’s a one-of-a-kind movie. And a heart-warmer as genuine as it is unexpected. Seattle Film Critics Award as best film of the year

7. 21 GRAMS  Alejandro González Iñárritu, U.S.–Mexico  González Iñárritu exploded into arthouse stardom with his first feature, Amores Perros (2000), and hasn't stumbled by shifting to English-language filmmaking north of the border. Whereas the three separate, distinctly stylized episodes of his debut film intersected briefly and unexpectedly, 21 Grams is an intricate reassemblage, from moment to moment, of several characters' fiercely intertwined lives, with past, present and future in freefall. Naomi Watts, Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro are all terrific. And no, it's not a dope movie: 21 grams is the amount of weight each human being loses at the moment of death.

8. MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD  Peter Weir, U.S.-Australia  Only in the year The Lord of the Rings reached culmination would this peerless seagoing adventure movie be overshadowed as an epic. It's a big, eye-filling movie, but Peter Weir doesn't allow a wasted moment to linger over a pretty shot or toss in an extra explosion. Strong characters, bold and coherent action, and a persuasive sense of historical and nautical accuracy all honor the film's origins in two volumes of Patrick O'Brian's series of novels about the 19th-century British Navy. Russell Crowe is perfection as "Lucky" Jack Aubrey - but you expected that.

9. ALL THE REAL GIRLS  David Gordon Green, U.S.  Curiously neglected locally, the second film by the writer-director of George Washington is a gem. Green's storytelling never obliges its characters to do or say anything formulaic or pat, refuses to traffic in epiphanies that "change everything" or violate the rhythms of life unfolding and time passing in a compellingly specific place. Zooey Deschanel and Paul Schneider are superb.

10. OPEN RANGE  Kevin Costner, U.S.  At least half a dozen of my runners-up have a just claim on this slot, but no movie all year gave me more sheer pleasure as a moviegoer - with, admittedly, a nostalgia for the last great cycle Westerns (though hardly the last great Westerns) in the 1950s. Again and again in this long, patient, lovingly crafted film, you really can't be sure who's going to survive, and you care, a lot.

Close, and by all means a cigar: Man Without a Past, Vendredi Soir, In This World, Raising Victor Vargas, School of Rock, Better Luck Tomorrow, Lost in Translation, Dark Blue, City of God, Swimming Pool, The Good Thief, The Man on the Train