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It was 20 Years Ago Today: A Look at Movies in 2003

This week, your Webb movie critic honors his venue’s 20th anniversary with a look at films from 2003 — the same year this publication saw its inception (if you’ll pardon my mild cinematic pun).

That year’s biggest smash was “The Return of the King,” netting over $1 billion while also tying “Ben-Hur” and “Titanic” for most Academy Award wins (11); indeed, Peter’s Jackson epic was only the second sequel to take Best Picture. (As for the first: consider this an offer you can’t refuse.)

Other worthy 2003 hits included “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Elf,” “Finding Nemo,” “School of Rock” and the first “Pirates of the Caribbean.” But this piece will focus instead on a handful of lesser-knowns from that year; most can be found in my book on under-the-radar titles, The Best Movies You Never Saw.

Here they are, in order of release:

“What a Girl Wants” – With this title, plus the later “She’s the Man,” “Sidney White” and “Easy A,” Amanda Bynes seemed poised for a breakthrough — though sadly, that never panned out. Nonetheless, this is a charming rom-com about a teen jetting off to London to meet her long-lost father — who doesn’t even know he has a child. He’s a British Lord who’s running for Parliament — and he’s played by Colin Firth! Excellent cast includes Jonathan Pryce, Anna Chancellor and Eileen Atkins (as one of the few in Dad’s family who’s willing to welcome the young Yankee lady).

“Holes” – Disney gem is not exactly under the radar — since it’s based on an uber-popular kids’ book; but I had to include “Holes” because it’s among my all-time favorite films. The story focuses on palindromic protagonist Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf), who is unjustly shipped off to juvenile boot camp, where he has an appointment with destiny. This masterpiece features a terrific soundtrack; a dazzling, multi-strand plot that comes together like a jigsaw puzzle; and a top-notch cast: Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Tim Blake Nelson, Patricia Arquette, Dule Hill and Henry Winkler. Watch also for Madame Zeroni, played by the great Eartha Kitt — Catwoman on TV’s “Batman” and crooner of the Christmas classic “Santa Baby.”

“Johnny English” – First of three modest hits featuring Britain’s brilliant Rowan Atkinson (of “Mr. Bean” fame). Here, the star plays a Bond-style government agent who is, if possible, even less competent than the “Pink Panther’s” famed Inspector Clouseau. Incidentally, despite Atkinson’s well-known antics playing idiots, the actor has a graduate degree in electrical engineering — from Oxford University.

“Matchstick Men” – Quintessential under-the-radar winner from director Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Gladiator,” “The Martian”). It stars the redoubtable Sam Rockwell and Nic Cage as low-rent con men, the latter of whom suddenly learns he has a teenage daughter. And she wants in on his con. The plot here never goes where you expect — honestly, it’s like the story has three endings.

“Pieces of April” – Touching dramedy from writer-director Peter Hedges (“Dan in Real Life,” “Gilbert Grape,” “About a Boy”). Katie Holmes shines as a misfit daughter who, in a cramped Manhattan walk-up, struggles to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for her suburban family — including her abusive mother, who is dying of cancer. With Oliver Platt, Allison Pill and an Oscar-nominated Patricia Clarkson as Mom.

“Master and Commander” – Starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, this was slated to be the first in a series adapted from Patrick O’Brian’s revered Aubrey-Maturin books, which are set aboard sailing ships in the Napoleonic wars. Sadly, despite a massive budget, gripping historical detail and expert direction by Peter Weir (“Witness,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Picnic at Hanging Rock”), the film didn’t catch on, so this one stands alone. And stand it can — as long as you’re OK with open endings.

Here’s to 20 more years of Webb — and good movies!