- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

Wise beyond its years, the Washington Area Film Critics Association marked a first anniversary by selecting “The Return of the King,” the concluding epic in Peter Jackson’s stirring movie versions of the books in J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythological trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” as the best movie of 2003. Being consistent, the group also voted Mr. Jackson best director. A number of other critical groups have reinforced these preferences, and it would be just and satisfying to see them echoed by the Academy Awards, now scheduled for the last day of February in a mercifully compressed awards season.

Any other choice at this juncture would seem perversely trifling and oblivious, although a case can always be made that 2001 was the pivotal year of the “Rings” films. The release of “The Fellowship of the Ring” began three consecutive holiday seasons of extraordinary heroic spectacle and gratification under Mr. Jackson’s imaginative guidance. I found the opening installment so appealing that I would have been glad to see the entire cycle in consecutive days rather than consecutive years. The productions were shot as a unit rather than separately, so the completed set has preserved a pictorial and dramatic unity that eludes most sequels to auspicious prototypes.

These films really do reflect the same creative intentions and circumstances. The principal cast members haven’t had time to age (or seriously tarnish their careers) between “The Fellowship of the Rings,” “The Two Towers” and now “The Return of the King.” The director hasn’t started from scratch when assembling the second and third chapters. As a result, we seem to resume the adventure within a consistent, intensified system of illusion despite the extended release pattern and running times of the films themselves. This trilogy is more streamlined and harmonious than any comparable cinematic adventure epic ever made. Indeed, it may be necessary to go back 80 years to find a comparable undertaking: Fritz Lang’s two-part “Nibelungen” saga of the early 1920s.

The year’s most satisfying popular movies:

Peter Weir’s seafaring adventure thriller “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (also derived from a famous cycle of novels); “The Return of the King”; and Pixar’s lush and playful fantasy of marine life, “Finding Nemo,” have set potentially daunting standards for competitors who might be tempted to stylize vintage naval combat, mythical kingdoms or underwater fauna. They also magnify one’s expectations about the next work from filmmakers who have proven to be prodigiously resourceful and accomplished.

Seascapes had a very good year. Dana Brown’s disarming update of surfers and their sport, “Step into Liquid,” was unsurpassed as a documentary scenic spectacle. It also rates as one of the most humane and touching pictures of the year. Even if he somehow escapes the notice of official humanitarian organizations, Mr. Brown does good will a favor by liberating it from solemnity.

Documentaries also enjoyed a resurgence. “Winged Migration,” “To Be and To Have” and “Capturing the Friedmans” belong in any list of the 10 or dozen best movies of the year. The fact that “To Be and To Have,” a French movie about a dedicated rural schoolteacher, was also the best foreign-language import of the year illustrates what a weak year it was for fictional movies from abroad. Modest cases can be made for “Jet Lag,” which matched Juliette Binoche and Jean Reno as a romantic-comedy team, and for “Mondays in the Sun,” which showcased Javier Bardem in a commanding role. The most entertaining import was a neglected, virtuoso murder mystery retrieved by the American Film Institute, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s “Mortal Transfer,” released a few years ago in France.

The happiest comedy inspiration of the year was Christopher Guest’s new ensemble piece, “A Mighty Wind,” which deserves to monopolize the best-song category at the Academy Awards. Not that anyone seems to notice these days, but Woody Allen has rediscovered a playful side and provided himself with a remarkable supporting role as a psychotic kibitzer in “Anything Else.” Kevin Costner rediscovered what suits him best in the Western “Open Range.” The year’s soundest dramatic films with a contemporary, realistic underpinning were “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” “Matchstick Men,” “Shattered Glass,” “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Sylvia” and “The Guys.” Given the profusion of movies that have glorified mercenary deceivers in the aftermath of “The Usual Suspects,” it was gratifying to see examples of the breed mocked and humbled in both “Matchstick Men” and “Shattered Glass.”

Any annual best list begins to blur into supplementary titles that justified patronage for one valid reason or another, even if the movie as a whole left plenty to be desired. The strongest element is usually a performance, from someone unknown, as in the case of Wentworth Miller in “The Human Stain,” or someone established, as in the case of Ben Kingsley in “House of Sand and Fog.” But sometimes it can be a mood or sensibility. There were two striking examples in 2003: “All the Real Girls,” which surfaced and faded early in the year, and “Lost in Translation,” evidently so well-timed that director Sofia Coppola and leading man Bill Murray emerged as critical darlings. If a consensus has formed that this is Mr. Murray’s year for an Oscar, it will need to be purchased at the expense of mavericks who were more impressive, notably Nick Nolte in “The Good Thief” and Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

The unwitting apparatus responsible for “Gigli” seemed to get an instant stranglehold on the booby prize of 2003, but only if one defines the “worst” movie of the year as the most wrongheaded specimen that also happens to embarrass overpublicized lovebirds. The shoddiest commercial movie of the year was certainly “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” The unchallenged white elephant was the Russian art-history oddity “Russian Ark,” which contrived to shortchange a long day at the Hermitage. Given its credentials, “Love Actually” seemed the most inexcusable letdown of the year. “Under the Tuscan Sun” proved much funnier while doting on the absurdly lovelorn.

The most thematically repellent pictures began with the French rape extravaganza “Irreversible” and continued blithely through Quentin Tarantino’s slaughterfest “Kill Bill,” Clint Eastwood’s misery-loving “Mystic River” and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s rejoinder with a suffering Sean Penn, “21 Grams.” It’s obviously more fun to mock Ben Affleck, but Sean Penn came closer to being the movie incarnation of the discouraging adage “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” in 2003.

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