This year has been a turbulent one for films, with a summer full of duds followed by an end of the year rally that saw some of the best work in years. “The Station Agent”, “Dirty Pretty Things”, “The Triplets of Belleville”, and “21 Grams” all pushed the envelope with much-needed independent originality, while the fall saw a swarm of superstar directors converging on cineplexes across America, a “perfect storm” of American talent. The Cohen Brothers gave us a classic screwball comedy with “Intolerable Cruelty,” Tarentino used his fanatical sense of style to conjure up “Kill Bill,” Peter Weir went from low-budget to blockbuster with “Master and Commander,” and Ron Howard went native with “The Missing.” None of these fine films, however, managed to outdo the end of the year juggernauts because Hollywood has finally realized that in the age of awe-inspiring CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) effects, it is the slow, careful examination of humanity that stands out. With that in mind, I give you the three best films of 2003.

1. “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”

Peter Jackson’s epic film, at first glance an action/adventure that pushes CGI effects to their limits, is also, more importantly, a revealing character drama that examines the power of friendship and love in the face of death and destruction. Jackson begins “The Return of the King” on a human scale with Smeagol’s failure to stay true to friendship when faced with the temptation of the ring. For this failure he is stripped of his humanity and reduced to Gollum, left to wander alone with his crime. Jackson expertly weaves Frodo’s struggle together with Gollum’s, and crafts the showdown at Mount Doom, one of the greatest and strangest sequences to ever grace the face of cinema, to split their fates. At the end of this sequence, Frodo is saved from death because of his friendship with Sam while Gollum plunges to his doom. Expertly acted by Sean Astin, Sam proves the divine value of friendship by “carrying the load” for most of the movie while Frodo is incapacitated by his struggle with the ring. Jackson gradually lets Sam, the most human of the hobbits, become the hero of the film and it is he, not Frodo, that is left to continue the story of mankind at the end. The grand battles of Gondor are worthless without Sam’s internal fight to defend his friendship. Even in the face of Frodo’s betrayal, friendship wins out as Sam ultimately carries Frodo to the finish. It is not only up to Sam to show the value of companionship, throughout the battles of “The Return of the King,” Jackson succeeds at showing the small gestures of friendship that win the battle. Merry stabs the Nasgul in the shoulder giving Eowyn time to destroy him, Pippin saves Gandalf from an orc and rescues Faramir from his father. These battle-turning gestures of friendship and Sam’s struggle result in King Aragorn’s thankful bow to the hobbits.

Apart from his perceptive retelling and understanding of Tolkien’s story, Jackson proves himself a fine director. He trusts in his actors and only seamlessly uses CGI effects to aid their performances, not to eclipse them. Countless times his camera lingers on Astin’s expressions, ignoring the usual quick-cutting style of most blockbusters. The Mount Doom sequence takes place with hardly any words, and the climactic struggle between Frodo and Gollum above the lava is silent, allowing facial expressions to carry the weight. He expertly finishes the film with a cascading waterfall of scenes, bringing the excitement down pool by pool and replacing it with the sadness of leaving a familiar place behind. “The Lord of the Rings” is the greatest of all cinema epics for that very reason: Jackson creates a living world that relates directly to mankind’s inner struggles with life, death and the passage of time.

2. “Cold Mountain”

While Jackson gave his wars a sense of glory and purpose, Anthony Minghella’s drama looks at America’s greatest war with regret and despair. From the opening explosion to the piles of dead soldiers to the killing of small animals, Minghella never flinches, making “Cold Mountain” into the most brutally violent film ever made. But far from being senseless, violence is used expertly to show the destruction of morals caused by war. Every kill taints the air with regret and with a longing for the beauty of the South before its destruction.

Inman’s wish for a return to his idyllic past leads him on a quest back to Cold Mountain. Just like Frodo and Sam, he wants to retreat into his past and escape reality, but the real world doesn’t let him go so easily. Minghella structures the movie almost like “Pulp Fiction,” taking Inman through bizarre episode after bizarre episode on his journey. Each of these episodes is filled with brilliant acting, each vignette exposing the ruin of the South a little more. Minghella allows each gut-wrenching scene to fill with silence, going even farther than Jackson to make it clear that the pain here is even deeper than words. Thus, the love affair between Ada and Inman is strangely silent for a Hollywood tragedy, Inman is awkward with words and doesn’t like to use them; he teaches Ada to let them go. Minghella’s characters know that joy and words are fleeting and dispense with them. Life itself proves fleeting too, as almost every episode and Inman’s journey as a whole, end in death.

After his Pandora’s Box of woe, Minghella carefully leaves a small bit of hope to drive the movie on. Ada is left with a child and her new friend Ruby to take care of her and life goes on one way or another. But, just as Frodo’s scar will never heal, no matter how happy Ada becomes, her innocent past is lost to the horrors of the world.

3. “Lost in Translation”

Sofia Coppola’s lonely journey into the empty culture of Tokyo manages to take a serious look at both communication and loss from a comic point of view. Companionship takes on a role of comfort for both