Kyle Smith

2003 appears to be the year the major studios finally figured it out.

Judging from the overwhelming amount of year-end literature, as well as PLAY’s own Top Ten list, studios have produced a handful of films that might stand the test of time. “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “School of Rock,” “Mystic River” and “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” all had significant budgets, substantial profits and surprising acclaim.

Other films winning widespread praise include “Big Fish,” “Cold Mountain,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” “Seabiscuit,” “Finding Nemo” and “X-Men 2: X-Men United.” The combined budgets, including marketing costs, of the ten movies just mentioned is an astonishing $1.1 billion. Their collective domestic box office? Over $1.3 billion (and counting). And the number of nominations from that painful pre-Oscar awards show, the Golden Globes? Twenty-nine, including 7 best-picture nods.

But documentaries performed strongly as well, and the majority of this year’s critical favorites continue to come from independent productions. Curiously, no foreign films are on our list, and the much-praised “Lost in Translation” received just one vote.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King — Even more remarkable than the sheer existence of these films is how surprisingly engaging they are, punctuated by moments bordering on the sublime. Anyone who doesn’t get goosebumps at the onset of the film’s central battle might not have skin.

2. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 — “Kill Bill” was a thrilling collage of nothingness. Quentin Tarantino did away with character depth and development–or at least postponed it until the concluding chapter, due out in February — in favor of idolizing his cinematic heroes and frolicking in an orgy of dismemberments. However, its proximity to “Elephant” on this list is disturbing.

3. Elephant — Gus Van Sant pulled one of the greatest two-movie years in film history. Though not as commercially successful as Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report”/”Catch Me If You Can” double-bill in 2002, the school shooting drama “Elephant” and its aesthetic precursor, the desert-set “Gerry,” were devastating exercises in experimental narratives and the troubling effects of isolation.

4. All the Real Girls — PLAY’s pet film for 2003. David Gordon Green’s second feature managed to improve drastically on his debut “George Washington,” infusing this simple, gorgeous love story with hilarity and subtle drama. His career largely overlooked thus far, Green’s handling of the big-screen adaptation of “A Confederacy of Dunces” should awaken audiences to his talent.

5. American Splendor — This might as well count as another successful 2003 documentary. The inventive, playful narrative tells the story of real-life comic book creator Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) by alternating vignettes from his life with onscreen commentary by the actual Pekar. It’s a wonderful moment of cinematic meta-euphoria that ranks ahead of anything in “Adaptation.”

6. School of Rock — How did a movie this clich