*The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)*


Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Andy Serkis, Billy Boyd, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, John Noble, Bernard Hill, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Dominic Monaghan, Karl Urban, Cate Blanchett

Director: Peter Jackson

Summary: Gandalf and Aragorn lead the World of Men against Sauron’s army to draw his gaze from Frodo and Sam as they approach Mount Doom with the One Ring

Other Nominations: Director*, Adapted Screenplay*, Original Score*, Original Song (“Into the West”)*, Sound Mixing*, Art Direction*, Makeup*, Costume Design*, Film Editing*, Visual Effects*

* I watched the theatrical cut (201 minutes) as opposed to the extended cut (251 minutes) as it’s the cut Academy voters would have seen when voting*

I’m glad I watched these films, but honestly I have absolutely no interest in ever seeing them again. All of the strengths of the previous movies (score, production design, makeup and visual effects) are again on display here, but everything else really has gone downhill for me since Fellowship. I enjoyed Fellowship because it felt focused, it did a great job of establishing it’s setting and premise, and there was still the novelty of the production, designs, costumes, score, etc. I assumed they would develop the characters to make them more compelling by giving them depth over the course of the next two films, but other than Gollum and Frodo at the very end, that didn’t really happen. The problem is how many subplots and characters there are and that way too much time is devoted to the action scenes-the basic story is very straight forward without all that many twists and turns and characters rarely develop in a meaningful way or have all that much depth, so what required so much time? Economy of storytelling is always extremely important to me: the runtime of the trilogy is 556 minutes (9 hours, 16 minutes), and that’s the theatrical cuts; it’s 714 minutes (11 hours, 54 minutes) for the extended cuts. That’s absurd-I could do an entire re-watch of Neon Genesis Evangelion and End of Evangelion in about the same time (approx. 600 minutes if you skip the credits each time) and that’s 26 episodes and a movie. Compare this all to the 376 minutes (6 hours, 16 minutes) for the original Star wars trilogy. What works for a book (which you can pick up, stop and pick up again and read over days and weeks) doesn’t work as well for a movie (which you’re supposed to watch straight through in essentially one sitting), and they should have trimmed more than they did.

So what stood out to me as things I liked about this installment in particular? Well, Nobel as a mad king is a lot of fun and I enjoyed Gandalf having a lot more to do this time (compared with The Two Towers) and he has some of his personality back. Like in the last film, the scenes with Frodo, Sam and Gollum were the best part and we get a nice conclusion to all of their character arcs (even if the film stubbornly refuses to end). This was a makeup ceremony that rewarded the achievements of the series as a whole, and I completely understand that: it was groundbreaking in many ways, and helped (along with the Harry Potter movies) pave the way for all the “epic” franchises we’ve gotten since. Still, it never captured my interest to the degree I was expecting it to and overall feels like a disappointment considering I love a good action-adventure story and with the hype it has.

Rating: B-

Lost in Translation (2003)


Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris

Director: Sofia Coppola

Summary: A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Murray), Original Screenplay*

I enjoyed it, although I don’t have the same level of praise a lot of people do for the movie. I can certainly relate to most of its themes (alienation and an inability to connect, what am I going to do with my life (who am I and what do I want), marriage) and it does a good (although I would not say exceptional) job of exploring those themes through its characters. Murray is a perfect fit for the lead and is able to exhibit a lot of pathos without resorting to scenery chewing, but Johansson stood out to me even more. She was only 18 at the time, and yet she’s believably playing 25 because of her voice and how she carries herself in general; Faris is 26, yet if you didn’t know better, you would think Johansson is the same age or maybe even older.

My problems with the movie are two-fold. The biggest one is that it’s too laid back for my taste and even for what is almost purely a thematic and character piece, lacks any sort of real plot. The second is one that I’m not completely sure how I feel about to be honest. The film provides a very superficial look at Japan (heck, I’m shocked they never teased them going to a love hotel), and the main characters only engage with the country, its people and culture in the shallowest and broadest of ways with no interest in learning anything beyond that: the country feels alien and strange to them because they choose to keep that distance and only think about how things are different. However, it’s hard to say if this is a bug (making the cheapest and laziest types of jokes in this type of movie-”oh those wacky foreigners!”), or a feature: the filmmakers did this intentional because Murray and Johansson have a hard time engaging with the country on any real level of depth in the same way they seem to be having a hard to time engaging on a deep level with anything other than each other. I’m leaning more towards the latter (after all, Coppola wrote this movie based partially on her trips to Japan that I would imagine felt very similar to the ones the main characters had). Ultimately, it makes the character look kind of like assholes/jerkass foreigners and I don’t think that’s intentional and it detracts from the main characters’ story. Even with that, I did enjoy the little journey these two characters had a lot, it felt sincere and even with its faults is a film worth watching.

Rating: B

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)


Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd, James D’Arcy, Chris Larkin, Edward Woodall, Robert Pugh, Max Benitz, Max Pirkis

Director: Peter Weir

Summary: During the Napoleonic Wars, a brash British captain pushes his ship and his crew to their limits in pursuit of a French war vessel around South America

Other Nominations: Director, Sound Editing*, Sound Mixing, Art Direction, Cinematography*, Makeup, Costume Design, Film Editing, Visual Effects

Filming a movie on a boat sucks; filming a movie on a boat with loads of child actors (who are bound by child labor laws in terms of how many hours they can work) REALLY sucks, yet the filmmakers really were committed to an level of authenticity and technical detail about turn of the 19th century naval warfare that does justice to the novels it’s based on and pulls no punches. There are a lot of strong points here-the action sequences are exciting and well-executed, Jack Aubrey (Crowe) borrows a lot from genre tropes but is still a very likable, flawed main character and Crowe’s performance is great, and the cinematography is interesting. It’s distinctive because you get a lot of dutch angles that slowly rock back and forth, simulating being on a ship in a way. The weakest part of the movie is the narrative, which follows a lot of expected territory (the captain has his white whale, there’s the threat of mutiny because the captain is stretching everybody too thin working for his own ends), but even if it’s nothing groundbreaking it’s not outright bad or anything. Ultimately, this is a film I probably admire more than anything else about it because of the clear effort, thought and craftsmanship that went into making it, but the narrative, characters and action are good enough for me to recommend it.

Rating: B

Mystic River (2003)


Starring: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Tom Guiry, Emmy Rossum

Director: Clint Eastwood

Summary: With a childhood tragedy that overshadowed their lives, three men are reunited by circumstance when one has a family tragedy

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Penn)*, Supporting Actor (Robbins)*, Supporting Actress (Gay Harden), Adapted Screenplay

Mystic River is well acted and well directed, although it definitely fell off towards the end for me. It’s rare for a movie to receive 2 Oscars for acting and three nominations, but here it’s mostly understandable. Robbins gives his performance like he always has a weight on his mind, as a person who can’t shake his past and is doomed to live out the rest of it as a sort of ghost; him and his wife (played by Gay Harden) are the two highlights for me-she feels like a normal person who has been sucked into this horrifying situation where she believes her husband has committed some horrible act and she’s simply overwhelmed by it. For both of these actors, they do a good job of playing realistically vulnerable, something that’s not always easy. As for Penn, I’ve never been much of a fan of his (some of it certainly owed to the kind of person he comes across as in real life), but he certainly gives a very capable performance even if I’m not sure I would have given him an Oscar for it.

The script is solid and it builds effectively, but the end result of the mystery comes off as lame-there was almost no foreshadowing for the reveal, and the motivations behind it are extremely anti-climactic in an unsatisfying way. Also, it feels contrived when two critical pieces of information that have gone unnoticed or unfound for weeks just happen to both come to light at exactly the moment after they would have been extremely useful to know for the characters. Something similar goes for the stuff we see about Linney’s character at the end as well-there was nothing previously indicating anything like it and it’s also not really relevant to much of anything so I’m not sure why they bothered going in as hard a direction as they did. The performances and the build-up towards the end were enjoyable for me, but the last 20 minutes come off as unsatisfying and hurt what was previously a very solid film that deserved a better conclusion.

Rating: B-

Seabiscuit (2003)


Starring: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Gary Stevens, William H. Macy, Eddie Jones, David McCullough (Narrator)

Director: Gary Ross

Summary: True story of the undersized depression-era racehorse whose victories inspired a nation

Other Nominations: Adapted Screenplay, Sound Mixing, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing

You know this is a pretty uninspired movie when the highlight is the filmmakers going full-on Ken Burns, with the David McCullough narration on American history with moving still photos. While nicely shot, it’s a super-sentimental film that incorporates nearly every underdog sports movie trope and takes way too long to get into anything, the problem being that they’re trying to make it a “big story” (about the Great Depression as much as it is about Seabiscuit) and it mostly falls flat in this regard for me. I don’t get why they thought they needed to spend quite so much time on Jeff Bridges’ character, and when they do, it sometimes feels haphazard-we meet his son and he’s dead 3 minutes later, he meets a woman and 3 minutes later they’re married. Also, making Jeff Bridges uninteresting in a movie takes some real doing-it’s like Samuel L. Jackson in the Star Wars prequels.

It’s a perfectly competent movie that looks nice enough and the acting is fine, it’s just not the kind of movie I feel should be getting Best Picture nominations. It’s just alright.

Rating: C

2003 in Review

Other Notable Films from 2003

Finding Nemo

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl


The Station Agent

American Splendor

Kill Bill: Volume 1

The Room



A Tale of Two Sisters

The Triplets of Belleville

Old School

Memories of Murder

Fog of War

2003 Nominees in Review

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World: B

Lost in Translation: B

Mystic River: B-

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: B- (Won Best Picture)

Seabiscuit: C

A pretty weak year by my estimation, and that’s mainly because I just didn’t like Return of the King anywhere near as much as most people do. Master and Commander or Mystic River probably would have won in a different year, but alas this was the Academy’s turn to reward the Lord of the Rings trilogy all at once after the previous two installments failed to win any Oscars in the major categories. Considering how weak the slate of nominees this year was, I have no problem with RotK winning despite it being my fourth favorite of the year.

For 2004: Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for her performance playing a 4-time Oscar winner; This is Dustin Hoffman’s second Peter Pan-related film after playing the title character in Hook; Oddly enough, this is the third straight Warner Brothers movie to win Best Picture that co-starred Morgan Freeman (after Driving Miss Daisy and Unforgiven); Jamie Foxx wore eye prosthetics that actually made him blind throughout the filming; and this film caused a 20% spike in sales of Pinot Noir around the time of its release.