'Tis the season for yuletide carols, nativity scenes, Christmas shopping, and movie critics' Top Ten lists.

One by one, the various associations of film critics are heralding the Best of 2003, and their choices could not be more different. Some applaud Peter Jackson's third Middle-Earth adventure, while others celebrate more obscure, artful titles like Lost in Translation, American Splendor, Cold Mountain, and Mystic River.

What films in 2003 meant the most to you? Which do you feel were overlooked and underrated? Let us know what we missed. Next week I'll wrap up the year with a scan through the favorites of Christian press film critics and Film Forum readers. And I'll tell you about my favorite film of the year, one that played in very few theatres but is now available on DVD for rental.

Return of the Kingcontinues to conquer a critical consensus

Christian press film critics continue to rate The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as one of the crowning cinematic achievements of the year, and even of the decade.

"C.S. Lewis once remarked that after someone has read The Lord of the Rings, they are 'never quite the same,'" writes David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). "The same can be said of anyone viewing [Jackson's films.] Return … not only eclipses its predecessors in scope but weaves their disparate narrative threads into a cohesive and emotionally satisfying conclusion, resulting in a work both grander in scale and deeper in human drama than the two previous films."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) raves, "Tolkien's tale is a parable perfect for all generations and times. This final epic and body of work is Oscar-worthy in every way."

Dick Staub (CultureWatch) calls it "a most satisfying cinematic experience combining Tolkien's incredible and rich story, an attention to detail, an aesthetic sensibility, dramatic action scenes."

Cameron Bird (Relevant) says, "While the penchant for epic computer-generated battle sequences is unsurprisingly apparent, the film also lends itself great intimacy and depth to its many relationships."

But Bird also posts a criticism: "The overall continuity and grandiose valor that will categorize The Return of the King as one of the most fulfilling conclusions ever made also, however, keeps it from being exactly what it desires to be. Suffering from 60-frames-per-second syndrome, the ending drags in slow motion a bit longer than its characters seem to believe it should, teetering on spreading the audience's emotions too thin before the credits roll."

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Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) seems to agree: "Return strikes the most resonant narrative and emotional chords of all three films. The performances remain compelling, and the writing, aside from a couple of canned exchanges, is good. If the film has a weakness, however, it's the multiple endings that Jackson keeps piling on."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) calls it "one of the great movie masterpieces that weaves many biblical principles and allegorical Christian metaphors into a magnificent story, but it is too scary and intense for younger children."

Readers receive The Return of the King with praise, criticism

Film Forum readers responded to my invitation last week, turning in their own first impressions after seeing Jackson's astonishing work.

BEWARE: Some of their comments contain plot-spoilers!

Becky House says, "I thought Return was heartbreaking, 'aweful' in its original meaning, grandiose yet intimate, mournful and yet hopeful."

Dale Johnson writes that he wishes the chapter called "The Scouring of the Shire" had been portrayed in the film. "The desecration and cleansing of the Shire shows the reader that the main point in the story is the maturation of the hobbits." He adds, however, "The movie is excellent and it is one of the few movies I would pay to see again."

Rusty Bland, Vice President, Lemstone Christian Stores, says, "I felt it was the best of the three without any doubt. [But] I missed Tolkien's ending where the changed Hobbits (both physically and spiritually) returned to a Shire under siege and quickly put things back in order. There is something deeply allegorical about that portion of the book."

Barbara Tucker, a college English teacher in Georgia, says, "In some ways, I liked the first two better—this one is just overwrought sometimes. But it is still brilliant and magnificent." She adds, "My son, who is fifteen, loved the action, and … it's gotten him to read."

William O. Holston, Jr., argues, "I think they really injured the story by de-emphasizing Aragorn and his ascendancy to the throne. They captured him as conflicted hero, but not healer. The book is after all, The Return of the King. Leaving out the healing of Eowyn and Faramir really diminishes an essential aspect of Aragorn (one of the nuances of a Christ-like figure)." But he also heralds it as "a great film. I was thoroughly entertained, but I think the meaning was lost to an unfortunate degree."

Peter Noteboom of Austin, Texas, says, "This is such an archetypal story of good versus evil, where lost innocence is replaced with honor and sacrifice, where unity and love overcomes fear and greed, and where one small hobbit can wear the entire world's fate as a weight around his neck and succeed against all odds, simply because he never turned back, and because he had someone to help carry him when he could no longer stand on his own. It strikes a chord because it speaks to everything that is good and noble in all of us. In the words of Sam, 'There is good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for.'"

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For Lawrence Hudson, Pastor First Covenant Church, Spokane, WA, Frodo is not the story's foremost hero. "There is no doubt … who the ultimate hero is. It is not heartthrob Aragorn, nor is it Legolas or Gimli—it is not even Frodo. Ultimately it is Frodo's servant Sam Gamgee. Sam's faithfulness, loyalty, discipline, courage and humility are truly heroic. Of any of them, the one you'd want to be president is Sam."

Steve Bender complains about an embellishment in which Gollum turns one hero against another. He says Return is "clearly the best of the three. My only true objection was Sam. Frodo sending off Sam is an unforgivable atrocity."

David Rogers of Biscoe, Arkansas, says, "I left with a slight feeling of disappointment. [Return] was too rushed. It wasn't long enough. I felt that the story had not fully thickened. The character of Denethor was not provided enough screen time to reveal enough of his psychological motivations prompting his actions. Eowyn, who had been slowly building in her importance, was dropped in the last portions of the film, as well as Faramir. I missed the fate of Saruman and Grima. No indication was given of the trajectory of the rest of the lives of Legolas and Gimli and Eomer. I enjoyed the film … but I now am waiting for the definitive story as told in the extended edition."

A reader from California also wanted the film to slow down. "I didn't find it too long at all; in fact when the armies were approaching the Black Gate, I found myself thinking, 'Please, no, don't end it so fast!'"

He adds, "There was one jarringly false note, and that was the moment when Gandalf takes over control of the Gondorian armies from Denethor. The change from the book (where Denethor voluntarily surrenders control) was totally unnecessary, but more importantly it is completely untrue to Gandalf's character. Tolkien's Gandalf would never, ever, seize military power by force. This is one case where I think Peter Jackson's indifference to Tolkien's religious beliefs comes through in a bad way." Still, he concludes that "the moral and spiritual themes can't be suppressed."

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Doug Daspit has strong feelings about the value of this trilogy to our culture. "The immense popularity of Return of the King points to something very significant and positive in our culture. While we Christians seem to always be complaining about our postmodern, relativistic culture, this trilogy points to the fact that our culture is looking for stories with meaning. Our world is tired of movies that merely entertain. We want movies to take on an almost mythic quality. Interestingly, it seems that Americans have by and large embraced Return of the King over and above Matrix Revolutions. The underlying worldviews are laid bare by the final chapters of these two movie trilogies. While the Matrix trilogy was undergirded by a hollow, relativistic, mishmash of spirituality, The Lord of the Rings is upheld by the Christian story. This trilogy might not be totally faithful to Tolkien's faith, but it clearly stakes its claim on the side of an absolute reality. We should applaud such movies rather than complaining when we don't see a blatant image of Christianity."

Last week, Ralph C. Wood argued that Jackson fumbled the culminating scene between Frodo and Sam at Mount Doom, saying that some changes in the events portrayed there make Frodo a valiant hero rather than a failure. Susan Prosser is similarly troubled. "It can't be said that this Lord of the Rings is true to Tolkien's themes. Rather than giving us this tragically defeated Frodo, Jackson transforms him into a thumping soap opera success. Nothing of Tolkien's profound sense of providence remains, nothing of his conviction that it was first Bilbo's and then Frodo's forgiveness of Gollum which enabled the final victory over evil. To Jackson, Frodo is an avenging angel, ultimately rejecting the pity that saw him through his travails. This Frodo is no less than a murderer, who killed Gollum in a fit of rage and is content to let his act wear the mantle of destroying the ring.

"I don't think Christians can take this failure too seriously. To me, this staging is like having a crucified Christ dismount from the cross to … drive the invaders from Israel. Christians understand that this would completely subvert the meaning of the Crucifixion."

But Mike Tice posts a rebuttal: "I have to disagree with Mr. Wood's apparent interpretation of their final struggle. This scene clearly recalls Smeagol and Deagol's opening fight. Whatever Jackson's intentions with this revision, I was left to see Frodo and Gollum as two corrupted brothers in a life-and-death struggle to possess the Ring. There was no apparent heroism in Frodo's decision to tackle Gollum. One could even argue that it was providence that kept Frodo on the ledge in the end."

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J.C. of Chesapeake, VA, is among the many who are satisfied. "It was wonderful and inspiring. At the risk of over-spiritualizing a great movie, Peter Jackson's movie reminded me that truth will prevail at the end of history and the great King of the universe (Jesus Christ) will return in all His glory."

An Iranian immigrant and a recovering junkie wrestle to win the House of Sand and Fog

Sir Ben Kingsley (Ghandi, Schindler's List) and his fellow Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) play two strikingly different characters in a tug-of-war over a valuable piece of real estate in first-time director Vadim Perelman's adaptation of Andre Dubus III's best-selling novel House of Sand and Fog.

The story does not sound like the stuff of an arresting film. But Perelman captures a nerve-wracking, heartbreaking story in one of the year's most accomplished dramas.

Kingsley plays Massoud Amir Behrani, a former associate of the Shah of Iran who moves his family to the United States to rebuild their lives. Unaccustomed to living without great wealth, Behrani works several jobs and watches the classified ads, trying to find a house that will replace the lavish estate they inhabited in their homeland. When he discovers that he can get a bargain by buying property that has been seized by the government, he becomes the owner of a house that has great sentimental value for the woman from whom it was taken.

That woman (Connelly) is Kathy Lazaro, a recovering drug addict and recent divorcee. Arguing that the government had no right to take her house, Lazaro hires a lawyer (Frances Fisher) and fights for her father's homestead. As she slowly realizes that the situation is irresolvable, she descends into self-destructive behavior, including an affair that compromises the marriage of a foolish, irresponsible policeman (Ron Eldard.)

Mainstream critics are praising the film as one of the year's best. But some religious press critics have strong objections.

Movieguide's critic says, "The two major characters who clash in the movie do not become sympathetic until the very end, which makes the predictable ending all the more disappointing. [The film] seems to be a throwback to politically liberal movies from the 1960s where the repressive, 'racist' System with a capital 'S' inexorably leads to human tragedy.

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Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, "The lurid plot and pokey pace combine to run the entire effort off the rails for a conclusion that registers as creepy rather than compelling. No amount of passion and conviction from the cast can carry the heavy-breathing hysteria of the story line."

I believe that these critics are misinterpreting a powerful tale about the wages of sin. Behrani, Lazaro, and the misguided policeman all want something desirable, but each of them is willing to take unethical shortcuts to get it. They want what they want, and they want it their way, without having to demonstrate any responsibility. Selfishness is disguised as generosity. Lust is disguised as compassion. No one looks to a Higher Power for help, consolation, blessing, or perspective. They all take things into their own hands, and they all pay the price. One rash act leads to another, until lives are ruined, and the heart of Behrani's compassionate and caring wife, Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is broken. While it is indeed a dark and troubling picture, House of Sand and Fog is one of the year's best films, in that it gives us a horrifying portrayal of what happens when we take up "the pursuit of happiness" recklessly.

It also features Oscar-worthy performances by Sir Ben Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo.

Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) says, "Perelman's tragic tale reveals with searing emotion the consequences actions—both good and bad—can have on frail human beings. It is moving and poignant, with a brilliant performance by Ben Kingsley. While the film's crushing sadness overwhelms the viewer, leaving one drained, the film's flaws cannot be dismissed."

Mona Lisa Smiledraws scowls

Mainstream critics are not happy with the new film from director Mike Newell, whose versatile career has given them many reasons to cheer.

Newell, director of Into the West, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Donnie Brasco, to name a few, has several A-list actresses on board for this story about an amateur art history professor's rebellion against the establishment. Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, an instructor who calls into question the traditions of the respected all-female Wellesly College. In the 1950s, women who attended the college were encouraged to view their futures in terms of who they would marry. Watson wants to deflate the emphasis on marriage and motherhood and encourage her students (played by Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Julia Stiles, among others) to look at new possibilities.

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Mainstream critics complain that the film's message is old news. Christian press critics are bothered by more than that.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "The film's oversold thesis advances a toxic strain of feminism, which, rather than encouraging a deeper respect for the dignity of women, extols sexual liberation as an inalienable right, while painting marriage and motherhood as slave-state stumbling blocks on the yellow brick road to personal fulfillment."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) writes, "Feminism has fallen on hard times, with so little relevance for today's young women that its advocates now insert their liberationist messages into a creaky, cliché-ridden melodrama about the repressive old 1950s. [This] preachy, pointless and pretentious piffle … may constitute a big new 2003 release but it carries the unpleasant odor of a musty museum piece."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "If we want to talk about wasted potential, we need look only at the number of female roles in this film that could have been explored with richness and depth. Instead we get a lot of superficial playacting and posing that I suppose is supposed to represent the style of the times. The filmmakers do eventually concede the point that being 'just a homemaker' is a valid choice but they stack their cards so strongly in favor of the feminist view that it comes off almost as being an afterthought rather than a revelation."

Movieguide's critic has listed it as the most "abhorrent" film playing in theatres right now. "Mona Lisa Smile is a liberal, feminist, Communist propaganda piece that uses easy targets and false stereotypes to favor sexual promiscuity and homosexuality and to attack anti-Communists, traditional moral values, marriage, traditional families, and conservatives."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "Aside from the biased and ridiculously one-sided commentary the movie makes about the '50s, the audience is left with shallow, incomplete characters and unresolved issues."

Imagining the story behind Girl with the Pearl Earring

The origins of a famous painting by Johannes Vermeer are at the center of novelist Tracey Chevalier's book Girl with a Pearl Earring. The painting, sometimes called "the Dutch Mona Lisa," gave Chevalier the idea to explore the life of the woman who might have been the subject of the work. She used what we know about Vermeer to invent a tantalizing plot about repressed passion, class prejudice, and the rare gift of artistic insight.

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Now, director Peter Webber has delivered a beautiful, soft-spoken work based on the novel, bringing this provocative fiction to life with the help of two talented actors: Colin Firth (Bridget Jones's Diary, Love Actually) and Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation.) Webber captures a vivid and convincing recreation of 17th century Holland, where young Griet goes to work as a maid for Vermeer's household. Griet sees to it that nothing in Vermeer's studio is disturbed as she cleans, so his painting will go untroubled. But her intuitions about light and composition lead to an inevitable influence on the master's work, and her humble service impresses him deeply. He spends his life surrounded by greedy and arrogant family members and patrons, and thus Griet's quiet spirit draws him powerfully.

This is the second time this year that Scarlett Johansson has played a young lady with repressed longings, underappreciated and neglected, who is suddenly noticed by a depressed but observant older man. In both stories, their budding friendship toes the line of infidelity, and yet their ill-advised relationship draws the flaws in an already established marriage into the light. While this film is not as complex or as satisfying as Lost in Translation, it is worth seeing for lush, "painterly" cinematography, and for Johansson's performance.

Webber captures the young actress's unique ability to suggest deep reservoirs of intelligence and emotion concealed behind dark eyes that seem to belong to a woman older and wiser than herself. In doing so, Webber finds the precise passion that indwells the painting, so when we finally see the finished work, we don't blink; it seems perfectly plausible that this is what someone would paint after looking at Johansson for hours. An actress has not communicated so much through so little since Juliette Binoche in Three Colors: Blue.

Fortunately, they have found an actor who can bring the same amount of gravity to the screen to portray the painter. I never would have thought of Colin Firth to portray a contemplative, passionate painter, but he makes the intense, brooding figure intriguing without making him laughably morose.

Strong supporting work is contributed by Tom Wilkinson as a lecherous but wealthy patron who keeps the Vermeer home afloat; Essie Davis as Catharina, Vermeer's statuesque wife, possessed of both a cold beauty and a volatile temper; and Judy Parfitt as Maria Thins, Catharina's mother, a formidable figure whose wicked arrogance is cracked by the fragility of her financial condition.

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Watching the film, I found myself easing into a reflective, contemplative state that movies rarely allow an audience to reach. While very little is said or done, there are important things happening in every minute of the film: curiosities developing, risks taken, covert endeavors, revelations. By inviting us to look closely for hints of emotion and suggestions of betrayal or sympathy, Webber quietly prepares us to approach Vermeer's visual art with sharper discernment. It never lectures us about the art, but it does inspire us to look more closely. I wish he could have taken this approach even farther.

The film's most important theme, however, regards the liberating and inspiring experience of being seen. This poor, abused, overlooked girl never intentionally does a thing to draw Vermeer's attention; in fact, she avoids his gaze. But when his keen vision catches in her something of substance and of shared longing—not for erotic adventures, but for beauty and revelation—it is as if, to alter a line from e. e. cummings, "the eyes of her eyes are opened."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The filmmakers have taken great care to honor Vermeer's genius and process. The cinematography in particular is superb and helps to give insight into Vermeer's world and vision. Scarlett Johansson is sublimely expressive in a nearly nonverbal role."

Mainstream critics are again praising Johansson's talents, as well as the cinematography of this handsomely filmed story.

Caine is in trouble in The Statement

The past catches up with a Nazi-collaborating French war criminal in The Statement, the new thriller from acclaimed director Norman Jewison. Michael Caine (Secondhand Lions, The Cider House Rules) plays Pierre Brossard, a character loosely based on Paul Touvier, whose war crimes of WWII led to his 1994 conviction. Working with the German occupiers of France as an officer of the Vichy government, Brossard ordered the killing of seven Jews. Tilda Swinton plays a willful judge in Paris who consents to revive an investigation into Brossard's shady dealings later in his life.

The Statement portrays a Catholic Church that strove to protect war criminals after the war. But Jewison fudges the facts, generalizing in a way that casts the Catholic Church as a conspiracy of wicked men trying to save the church's soiled reputation.

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Jewison never seems to decide whether he wants to make a serious study of the abuse of power or a John le Carre cloak-and-dagger thriller." He is also bothered by the film's anti-Catholic leanings, and the fact that it clearly makes heroes of "a lapsed Catholic and an agnostic."

More reviews for In America, Last Samurai, Big Fish, and a preview

In America, Jim Sheridan's somewhat-autobiographical drama about Irish immigrants in New York, continues to draw the applause of religious press critics.

Movieguide's critic calls it "a sentimental, uplifting, funny, dramatic, sad, and winsome movie that celebrates America, family life, and the indomitable spirit of Irish immigrants with some content that make it a movie for mature audiences."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "very personal, very intimate, and quite magnificent. While the performances of the cast are uniformly excellent, we must mention again just how wonderful the two Bolger sisters are. As natural as nature can be, they carry the picture upon their tiny shoulders and lift it to us with all the innocence that their tender ages possess. Heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time. It is not an easy feat … though they make it look as if it were."

Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "The film is a well done exploration of the struggle to live through the pain of grief. It doesn't offer an easy solution. Even the emotional climax, which may seem easy, is the result of moving through grief over time to get to that point."

Other critics are cheering for The Last Samurai, a film their religious press peers strongly criticized two weeks ago.

Will Johnson (Relevant) says, "When it comes to entertainment, the U.S.A has always practiced revisionist history, endlessly promoting and glorifying their nation. Hollywood likes to re-write history, inserting Americans as the heroes in every story. There was U-571 and Saving Private Ryan. Then there was the terrible Pearl Harbor, and shlocky outings like Armageddon and Independence Day. Hollywood never seems to miss an opportunity to promote and honor its nation and its way of life. But at what expense?

"What a breath of fresh air it is to see a movie like this. To see the beauty of another culture glorified and explored, and the excess and gluttony of Western civilization shown in a more realistic fashion. What an absolute pleasure it is to see Americans represented as (God forbid!) the bad guys."

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Melinda Ledman (Hollywood Jesus) says, "Family, culture, tradition, your enemy, your word, principles, change … the film addresses humankind's tendency to devalue things which are by nature worthy of respect."

Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus) finds himself wrestling with the film's ideas. "As I watched the bloodshed and futility of the battles, I realized that I've grown weary of watching noble warriors, whether samurai, Jedi knights, Arthurian knights, Lakoda warriors, or Rocky Balboa. All of them fight a good fight. All of them strive to be honorable. But can there be honor in a system based on violence?"

He adds, "There are many connections between this film and Dances With Wolves. In both films an American Cavalry officer finds himself among these noble warriors who many consider to be uncivilized savages. (Of course, both foreign cultures are ultimately portrayed as actually more civilized than the Western culture that is invading them.) The officers in the films each earns acceptance in the new culture and even becomes one with them against his own culture. The film treats … suicidal warriors as heroes and implicitly encourages us to emulate them. Would we think the same of a suicide bomber?"

Elsewhere, Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) has posted a review of Tim Burton's whimsical new film Big Fish. He writes that it "manages to be both sad and uplifting at the same time—uplifting, because it points to a profound truth, but sad, because it offers no basis for that truth; beneath the film's feel-good vibe, there is just a hint of despair."

Chattaway also reviews the new comedy starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt, Cheaper By the Dozen, this week. Film Forum will feature more reviews of that film next week.

A whole new Peter Pan

Next week, Film Forum will feature religious press reviews of the new big screen version of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan.

But if you would like to read some early first impressions, check out the review by Frederica Mathews-Green (Our Sunday Visitor). "The film itself is wise and treats the topic with appropriate delicacy," she writes. "You couldn't ask for more. In a culture which generally presents young women with the worst possible advice about how to understand their sexuality, this film stands out like an antidote. Where conservatives don't know what to say beyond negatives, Peter Pan dares to present a positive view, expressing the loveliness of guarded, chaste, yet warm desire. So, for once, sex is the reason you should see a film rather than avoid it."

Next week: Reviews of Cold Mountain, Peter Pan, and religious press critics line up to recommend the most meaningful films you might have missed in 2003.