Best Pictures Continued 2003-

2003: The Lord of the Ring: The Return of the King  Times Seen: 1  Rating: ***1/2
I could not get as excited about the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy as others have, who seem astounded that an exciting, classic book could be transformed into a good movie. Overall, the film trilogy was good (certainly miles ahead of the awful Ralph Bashki cartoon version made in the 1970’s), but certainly there is plenty of room for a future filmmaker to come in and do it better. My main objections, however, are not with this Best-Picture-winning third installment, but primarily with the over-praised first part. My objections include the ridiculous narrow escapes (those Dark Riders sure are inept, and it was nice of them to stop their chase of Frodo at the river so that Liv Tyler, of all people, can mutter an incantation that will sweep them away in a flood once they get the energy to restart), the battles featuring three or four heroes against 10,000 computer-generated (and also apparently inept) bad guys,  a Gandalf who, rather than being cool and in control, is emotional and hysterical, the ponderous and incongruous emphasis on the aforementioned Miss Tyler, the early overemphasis on Orcs and their physiogamy before we’ve even left the Shire, the incongruous mountains that form the backdrop of the Shire, etc. etc.). In this third part, I also disapprove of the elimination of the “Scouring of the Shire” sequence, which forms the surprise ending of the book. My rating for each part is Fellowship of the Ring, ** ½ (B-); The Two Towers, *** (B); The Return of the King ***1/2 (B+). The battle scenes in the third part are impressive, and overall this part (of the three) seems the closest in spirit to the book.

2004: Million Dollar Baby           Times Seen: 1            Rating: ***
This is a decent movie, but certainly not great, and definitely does not have the impact of The Passion of the Christ, which should have been Best Picture (but was not even nominated for “Culture War” reasons). The performances in this film are very good, although the scenes of Clint Eastwood and the Priest feel disconnected, and the euthanasia element feels pathetic rather than tragic. Morgan Freeman is always good, but his continual use in the part of the “Wise Old Black Man” is starting to get monotonous, although in this movie the role is not nearly as out of place as his “Wise Old Black Muslim” turn in the abysmal Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.

2005: CrashTimes Seen : 1Rating: ***
Interesting multi-plot story that takes place in Los Angeles. It's good but not great, with good performances all around (Matt Dillon in particular). I doubt this will pass the test of time as a classic film, but I'm certainly glad the gay cowboy movie (of all things) that was its chief rival didn't win instead.

2006: The DepartedTimes Seen: 1      Rating: ***

Many were excited when Martin Scorcese finally won the Best Director Oscar (for this film), but this film is a good example of why he never won before-his films are good but not great. There's really not one of his I've seen (Raging Bull included) that is without some clear flaws.

This film is about a Boston crime syndicate (headed by Jack Nicholson) that has a police spy in their ranks (Leonardo Di Caprio), while the police that are trying to break up his gang have a gang spy as one of their own (Matt Damon). Good elements include terrific acting by Di Caprio, and a relentless pace that sustains interest (though the picture could have shed 10-15 minutes fairly easily). Jack Nicholson is also undeniably compelling.

Negative elements include some questionable casting (Alec Baldwin seems more appropriate for a comedy role and looks out of place, while Martin Sheen seems strangely befuddled), and some poorly written characters (Mark Wahlberg's character can be best be described as a cocky guy with no social skills who gets very angry and swears a lot).  Psychiatrists are also so incredibly stupid in movies that it makes you feel sorry for them in real life. In this case, the lady police psychiatrist quickly gets into a serious affair with Matt Damon, a weirdly superficial person whose whole life is a lie-it seems like anyone with a half a brain would pick him out pretty quickly as the rat, with his phony smile and shallow banter (it's hard to say whether Damon is doing a good job of depicting an unsympathetic character, or a bad job of depicting an unsympathetic character who is trying to appear sympathetic). The psychiatrist is also so dumb that after moving in with Damon (and getting pregnant by him, which she seems happy about, despite his oddities) she has a passionate affair with DiCaprio, who she thinks is a heavily medicated low-life police academy dropout, but is actually an undercover officer, making her 2 for 2 on having absolutely no idea who she's been sleeping with, which would be a poor record for an airhead, let alone a brilliant police psychologist. At least DiCaprio, unlike Damon, seems to be a real human being.

Skipping over a few other minor logic flaws, there is a shocking plot twist at the end of the movie...however, on further review, the charcater who initiates the plot twist (a second mole in the police department) has absolutely no motivation for acting. Since the crime boss who put him there is now dead, and Matt Damon has been fingered as the rat, he's in the safest position now that he has ever been as long as he just does nothing. So, not to be a spoiler, but a lot of people are shot in the end because of this charcater's inexplicable lack of common sense.

One thing this movie fails in also is common to several other recent movies with their "stunning plot twsits"--when the audience invests ina  protagonist, they want hom to achieve his goal (even if he dies doing it), so that we feel cheated if we root for someone for so long and then in the end he dies just randomly, Other recent movies like this with "stunning plot twists" that actually damage the movie include Memento (where the protagonist's goal throughout the movie is not actually real), and The Others (where the kids who have been fearful of ghosts throughout the movie turn out to be ghosts themselves), It should be noted that Alfred Hitchcock always regretted his decision in Sabotage (1936) to blow up the bus with the protagonist boy on it (check out the movie!), because he felt it was cheating teh audience to put a sympathetic charctaer intoa  suspenseful situation and not ultimately relieve that suspense.

For all this negative talk about the movie, it's still pretty good, but not recommended if you don't like swearing (mostly unnecessary, as usual), and violence (overdone, but not outrageous).

2007: No Country For Old MenTimes Seen: 1   Rating: **1/2

Although slickly directed, this film is something of a shaggy dog story with the message that "life is meaningless" writ large. Our protagonist, a man who has discovered a large cache of drug money, is pursued by an implacable, remorseless killer. After taking extraordinary efforts to avoid the killer and protect his innocent wife, in the end our hero is (offscreen, no less) killed by the killer, who then proceeds to kill the hero's wife. Driving away from that crime, the killer is hit by a car and is injured, so maybe something bad will happen to the killer in the end (but perhaps not). It's definitely a cheat to make us worry for the protagonist, only to see him randomly killed--the film is more about the almost supernatural killer than the ostensible hero. To add insult to injury, the hero would not have been in this predicament if he had not gone back to the scene of the drug deal gone bad to give an injured man a drink. The nihilism of this film is as contrived as any film with a happy ending, and perhaps more so. The film has some interesting parallels with the 1972 Steve McQueen film The Getaway, though it's not an exact copy of that film. I mush prefer The Getaway.

2008: Slumdog MillionaireTimes Seen: 1Rating: ***1/2

This is a unique and memorable film, with many moments that linger in the mind long afterward. The pluses include the memorable plot: a poor young man from the slums of Mumbai (Bombay) appears on the Indian version of the game show, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," and does so well that he is accused of cheating. The flashback sequences, which comprise the bulk of the film, reveal how he knew the answers to the seemingly disconnected questions. It is all tied into a touching tale of lost love. What sets this film apart from many of the preceding Best Pictures is that despite many squalid moments the film taks an optimistic view of life, and has (shockingly enough in these times) a happy ending. Danny Boyle's directing is truly first-rate, though he doesn't completely succeed in providing the level of emotional impact he seems to be striving for--the film succeeds intellectually better than it does emotionally. I do have a couple of quibbling objections.The final question ("Two of the Three Musketeers are Athos and Porthos. Who is the Third Musketeer?") seems too easy for the million rupee question, and the hero as an adult does not really seem to be a grown-up version of the child in the flashbacks. He comes across more like an earnest college student on holiday in India, and his excellent English and polished manners (and the same is true for his long-lost love, Latifa) are not very convincingly explained.