Will The Last Samurai slay The Return of the King? Will Mystic River swamp Big Fish? Or will dark horse contender Seabiscuit take first place and reward those longshot bidders?

It's ridiculous, isn't it—pitting one work of art against another as though they were athletes competing for the Super Bowl? That's the way Hollywood works during Oscar season. The studios bait us to give up our dollars by stirring up contest-oriented hype. Some of the films they tout are indeed deserving of acclaim. But only occasionally do the contestants truly represent the most rewarding films of the year.

Many of the year's most accomplished, artful, and meaningful films never earn mention at these cultural brouhahas. Some lack the funding for prime-time television advertisements. Some don't have the promotional backing to earn time on a screen at the typical shopping mall Cineplex. (My favorite film of the year only played for one night here in Seattle, at an art museum. It wasn't until it earned a limited DVD release that I was able to show others the movie that made such a mark on my mind and heart.) And some focus on subject matter that isn't flashy enough to grab our attention in a soundbite, like House of Sand and Fog's story of a tug-of-war over real estate. Thus, Academy members will inevitably overlook some of the year's best films.

That is where film critics can do moviegoers a service. As surely as Hollywood turns loose the marching bands for the big budget movies, many film critics spend December and January campaigning for those smaller films that deserve more attention.

To some moviegoers, however, recommendations from professional film critics appear suspicious. In January of this year, USA Today published the commentary of a "cultural crusader" who criticized other film critics for including obscure film titles in their year-end recommendations. "Endorsing such movies not only enhances a critic's conviction that he serves some important purpose, but also strengthens his sense of superiority, suggesting that the reviewer possesses knowledge, refinement and sophistication that set him apart from ordinary moviegoers," wrote Michael Medved. He argued that critics should spend more time instead on those films that gain popularity with average moviegoers.

Medved's argument, applied to any other discipline, would lead to alarming conclusions. If your doctor or nutritionist recommended that you try an alternative diet, would you accuse her of being just a know-it-all? Should we demand that food critics review only what's on the menu at McDonalds?

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We should hope that film critics "possesses knowledge, refinement and sophistication that set [them] apart from ordinary moviegoers." Otherwise, to whom will moviegoers turn for recommendations? Advertisers? It is, after all, a critic's job—this applies especially to Christian film critics—to approach his or her subject with discernment, steering us clear of time-wasting, mediocre films even if they score at the box office. It is also the critic's responsibility to spotlight what is worth experiencing, especially if it is being overlooked and misunderstood. The "majority rules" perspective would, more often than not, lead us to dwell on mediocre entertainment. Some of the films most meaningful to us would never have been discovered had a critic not noticed them in a smaller-scale project. Would a little film like Chariots of Fire have become an Oscar winner and the personal favorite of so many people without critical acclaim? Its competition, including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Reds, had much wider exposure and box office success.

Many religious press critics know that beauty, wisdom, and profoundly moving art can be found in the most unlikely places. This week, Film Forum focuses on 2003's overlooked gems, those movies that did not get the publicity and hype and the wide distribution, but that just might end up on your list of all-time favorites if you take the time to seek them out. Here are some of the surprises they've discovered in their journeys off the beaten path.

"One of the year's least-seen worthy films was The Guys," says Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). He describes it as "a small, intimate film both written and set in the days immediately after 9/11. Transparently honest and deeply affecting, it is a simple, direct portrait of grief amid overwhelming circumstances.

"In one scene, a character reflects on the futility of trying to bargain with God on the one hand, and the intolerability of accepting or becoming reconciled to the horror of evil on the other. In taking these false options off the table, The Guys takes what could be a first step toward faith and trust in God on his own terms—or at least a step away from superstition and despair.

"Though The Guys is at times hard to watch, those who aren't put off by its austerity will find it more than capable of rewarding them." The raves of mainstream critics are available here.

Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus) recommends OT: Our Town, a compelling documentary about a high school's production of Thornton Wilder's play. "It is about the struggle within a school to make something happen without much support … especially without money," he writes. "It's about the lives and growth of the students and teachers involved. It's about the timelessness of the play. It's about determination." You can scan the reviews of mainstream critics here.

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Mike Hertenstein, coordinator of the Cornerstone festival's film program Flickerings, chooses a Greek film called Hard Goodbyes: My Father. "[It's] a 'little film,' a small story that pulls us inside the little dramas that are actually quite epic to the people to whom they occur, in this case a little boy who faces major transitions in his life in the shadow of the Apollo moon landing." More information on the film can be found here.

Hertenstein has included the film in next year's lineup at Flickerings. "I was astonished to find that it wasn't showing up on anybody else's radar. Then a few weeks ago I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard this report on NPR about Atlanta journalist Liz Yuan who had seen the film at the only other North American screening (in Toronto). Liz loved the film so much she basically got into the film distribution business so she could distribute it herself. She's also put together screenings in L.A. to meet requirements for this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar considerations. Check out the official site, and watch for screenings Liz is trying to put together around the country."

Stef Loy (The Matthews House Project) joins other critics in extolling the virtues of Bus 174. He writes, "This strident film puts a Brazilian spin on the concept of 'social justice.' Rio de Janeiro's street kids have to turn into hardened adults way too fast, but the kind of people they have to turn into are those that a system of apathy inevitably produces. Bus 147 is the story of what happens when, for one moment, the voiceless class awakens us to other perceptions of ourselves and our financial ease." Loy's full review is here. And the enthusiastic raves of mainstream critics are linked here.

Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) highlights The Far Side of the Moon: "Someone once said a good movie is a movie with three great scenes and no bad ones, and The Far Side of the Moon easily qualifies. Robert Lepage's very funny and visually poetic adaptation of his own play [is] about sibling rivalry, the space race, and the line between narcissism and self-knowledge. This film was shot (and projected) in high-definition digital video, and it's easily one of the best looking films of that sort that I have ever seen." More information on the film is posted here.

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Marie Asner (The Phantom Tollbooth) recommends a handful of overlooked titles. "Secondhand Lions was a commercial film that showed a loving family unit may not always have mother and father. Uncles can be stand-ins for wholesome values. I Am David is the story of a boy who escapes from a Bulgarian prison camp. His first encounter with choir music in a church is a revealing scene." She also recommends The Bread, My Sweet and The Hiding Place for their strong portrayals of showing respect for the elderly.

Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) nominates The Gospel of John. "In all of the hype about the release of The Passion of the Christ, this film is remarkably honest and convincing, and has made no waves at all." This film is now available on DVD. Mixed responses from mainstream critics are posted here.

M. Dale Prins (The Film Forum, The Christian Century) recommends one that will get people talking: "No film in recent memory has taken on the driving theme of most Christian cinematic criticism—how to reconcile morality with less-than-moral art—as explicitly or as provokingly as Neil LaBute's greatest film, The Shape of Things. Not only does LaBute have the patience (and, of course, the typical LaBute deviousness) to wait until the final reel to bare his art v. ethics theme, but he surprisingly allows the surrogates for each side get a reasonable opportunity to defend their point of view, making The Shape of Things the most interesting Rorschach test of a film since Hell House. If not The Greatest Film of 2003, [this film] ought to win anyone's Film Most Likely to Inspire a Fiery Argument award, and compared to last year's winner of that prize, Bowling for Columbine, [Labute's film] is more reasoned, more tempered, and more cerebral. Even Christians who don't like it will almost certainly mull over its dogmatic dichotomy." Mainstream critics debate the film here.

Steve Lansingh (The Film Forum) writes, "Rivers and Tides, although well-received by critics, is mostly absent from year-end accolades because of the perception that its on-screen magic is provided by the documentary's subject, artist Andy Goldsworthy, and not by the behind-the-camera talent that awards are meant to recognize. But director Thomas Riedelsheimer is downright daring in his insistence on capturing the transitory nature of Goldsworthy's outdoor nature-works. His lengthy shot of a driftwood hut unspooling in the rising tide, which he allows us to watch without distraction, is one of the most beautiful things I've seen on film."

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For this moviegoer, Stevie tops the list of Most Overlooked Films. In fact, it's my favorite film of 2003. I find myself recommending it more often than any film I've seen. It's a work that does more than tell a good story—it challenges us to see that even the most complicated and damaged lives can be redeemed. It doesn't need good actors. It's a documentary, and the broken and dysfunctional people … including its self-effacing but noble narrator … are real. They are still out there, still wrestling with personal demons, still dependent upon unconditional love and forgiveness. The film has betrayal, courtroom drama, racism, tales of harsh violence, romance, and an edge-of-your-seat resolution. It has villains who are given a chance to be redeemed, and it has heroes who go out of their way to give losers a second chance. It may well change the way you look at others, move you to compassion, and make your heart more capable of hope. My full review is here.

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) agrees, calling it "the best film of the year. Director Steve James is best known for directing the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams, but Stevie is even more powerful. The documentary is also an extraordinary meditation on family, community, and our responsibilities to our 'neighbor.' Now available on DVD, it's absolutely essential viewing."

Josh Hurst (The Rebel Base) turned in similar sentiments, saying Stevie is "uncomfortable and difficult to watch, but it's also a richly rewarding look into the life of a very troubled man, and the amazing power of unconditional love to redeem even the neediest of us. An astonishing, unforgettable film."

Film Forum reader Tim Willson wrote in raving about Stevie as well: "Repeated viewings have only served to deepen my appreciation for the elegance of the story-telling. There are several scenes in particular where the cameras capture some of the most poignant and deeply human exchanges I've ever seen. Almost no one I talk to has heard of Stevie, but I think it is one of the most sobering and challenging films of recent years, especially for Christians."

Even though very few people have seen Stevie, it remains among the year's most critically acclaimed films. You can peruse the reviews here.

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Hogan helps this Peter Pan fly higher than previous versions

Religious press film critics seem impressed with director P.J. Hogan's new adaptation of J.M. Barrie's classic children's tale, Peter Pan.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) compares Hogan's adaptation to Peter Jackson's adaptation of Tolkien. He says that, like Jackson, Hogan emphasizes "hyped-up action, effects, and production values. His Neverland combines an endearingly storybook quality with a modern action aesthetic. But … Hogan seems awkward and uncomfortable with the early scenes in London and the nursery. What keeps this Peter Pan from being a great adaptation of Barrie's story is that it is, finally, too self-aware. The whole point of a fairy tale is to present in imaginative form what cannot be said openly, at least not yet. A fairy tale must be about something, but it must not, in a sense, know what it is about. Hogan's Peter Pan does know."

"Peter Pan is a very tender story," writes Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight), "and this production seems to not do any harm to it." But he believes that Steven Spielberg's Hook "outshines it."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) disagrees. "This movie isn't just 'another version' of Peter Pan. This is the version—a classic for the next 100 years!"

Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus) writes, "Hogan's Peter Pan is not only a pretty good movie—and a pretty good children's movie, to boot—it's also perhaps the most fully-realized interpretation of Barrie's classic work yet. This Peter Pan is darker and scarier than Pans of the past. Still, it's hard for us to deny that our children live in dark and threatening times, just as children have done since Barrie's time and before. The point of Hogan's film—Barrie's own point—is not to scare children, but to show them that in spite of their fears and insecurities, parents do love them; and that the real world can be a loving, comforting place—a better one, in fact, than Neverland."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "While it may be a bit too intense for the very young, Peter Pan is a rousing good time for a family outing. This film is much more faithful to the original text than the Disney animated version."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "While Barrie's timeless fairy tale has inspired countless retellings over the years … few can rival the luminous charm and technical bravura of Hogan's lavish interpretation. The film also imparts a valuable message about bravery, explaining in one scene how it manifests itself in many forms, some more subtle than others, including the heroism of parents who sacrifice personal ambitions for the good of their children."

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Ted Baehr (Movieguide), who persistently describes Harry Potter as occultic and evil because of its magical elements, seems to have no trouble with this story full of magic and pixie dust. He says it's a "wonderfully crafted, morally uplifting movie that intentionally emphasizes the fantasy elements of the story both in dialogue and design of the film."

Not everyone is so pleased. "This live-action Peter Pan is fun, action-packed and smart-looking, if a bit misguided," says Bob Smithouser (Plugged In). "There are plenty of positive messages. Yet parents may feel it's inappropriate for the target audience. Peter Pan is darker and more violent than many families of 5- to 10-year-olds would prefer. There's also a subtle sexual subtext that may generate questions from little ones that force Mom and Dad to discuss issues of puberty and first love before they're ready."

Critics in a civil war over the merits, flaws of Cold Mountain

Charles Frazier's bestselling novel Cold Mountain is an epic romance that has now become a spectacular motion picture under the direction of Anthony Minghella (The English Patient). While the movie does seem to go out of its way to avoid the issue of slavery, it serves up a compelling story about a man and a woman separated by war and how irrational faith gives them the strength to endure and find each other again.

Discerning viewers should take note: This is a film about hope enduring the trials of human depravity. The war scenes are graphic and nightmarish. Sexual temptation confronts our hero in several guises, and the film includes a fair bit of nudity.

But ultimately, Cold Mountain is a sort of Pilgrim's Progress tale about faith-filled hearts that press on through evil days in hopes of attaining true love. It follows a young Confederate soldier named Inman (Jude Law) who deserts the Southern forces to trudge his way back home, where his true love may still be waiting for him.

Along the way, he encounters a terrified group of escaping slaves in a cornfield, a sexually perverse reverend (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a wicked brothel manager (Giovanni Ribisi), a lonely and desperate war widow, and patrols on the hunt for deserters. In the end, he must put his life on the line to prevent disaster for the one he loves.

Inman's love, a beautiful minister's daughter named Ada (Nicole Kidman), meanwhile, tries to avoid the clutches of a wicked man who has been appointed to serve as a local sheriff while the able-bodied men are away at war. He uses his authority in despicable ways, as if hunting deserters is just his excuse for indulging his appetite for torture. Ada becomes thankful for the support of a feisty woman named Ruby (Renee Zellweger), who teaches her to fend for herself in an increasingly dark and dangerous world.

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In Frazier's vision of the South, characters long for but cannot find a state of peace, where civility and sacrament can be enjoyed without corruption and fear. In their battle-scarred world, they must grasp what pieces of Eden's wreckage they can.

Minghella captures unforgettable and poetic imagery, and he draws some powerfully memorable performances from his cast. (Natalie Portman makes an especially memorable appearance.) We are drawn through an unpredictable tour of melodrama, comedy, paralyzing violence, pastoral beauty, surrealistic backwoods depravity, and glimmers of grace.

The real problem with this film is the way in which it has been severely edited. Minghella rushes us from one spectacular sequence to the next without giving us time to absorb the weight of what is happening. Watching it is a rare and excruciating experience—like reading the Cliff's Notes version of The Odyssey and imagining how compelling it must be to read the full epic. It's 2003's most memorable misfire. My full review is at Looking Closer.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Minghella's greatest contribution to the film is the casting. While the leads are certainly able to carry the film, they don't have to. The supporting cast is brilliant and adds the flavor and texture that the story needs and deserves." He also highlights the film's theme of hope, hope that persists in spite of harsh realities. "Hope is the backbone of our faith; the steel in our believing. Those without hope do not have the strength to endure during the hard times. This world can often be an unpleasant place in which to live. During those times, we can remind ourselves that we are not of this world. We have the promise of a life beyond this one."

Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) calls it "a hauntingly beautiful film that pulls the viewer into the characters' tragic lives, thereby underscoring the human cost of war."

Lisa Rice (Movieguide) does not see hope or faith portrayed in Inman and Ada's story. She says the movie's "real problem is with its deplorable worldview, which, like many other current films, promotes quiet acquiescence to despair, rather than true healing available in Christ."

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Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, "If it weren't for the powerfully poetic camera work and a luminous star turn by Nicole Kidman, Cold Mountain easily could be dismissed as hokey historical melodrama." He calls Renee Zellweger "supremely annoying. She overacts shamelessly." The scenic locations, moody visuals and atmospheric score … this over-long, overripe epic seem more substantive than it is."

Michael Leary (The Matthews House Project) calls Cold Mountain " the most beautiful bad movie this year has produced. An incredible opening sequence, Jude Law's compelling take on a man transformed by the horrors of war, and the people he meets on the way home from the battlefield redeem the film from being little more than an expensive soap opera. It is too bad that the stretches of film between the great parts of the film are long and unconvincing."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "From a purely intellectual and artistic vantage point, the work Minghella creates serves its purpose well. He coaxes brilliant performances from his stars. His storytelling [is] luxurious and compelling. Even his moral conundrums can prove instructive, but one had better have a fixed, godly worldview through which to filter them in order to survive them."

The complaint offered by Holly McClure (Crosswalk) is that the film does not have a completely happy ending. "Whether artsy, independent Hollywood filmmakers want to admit it or not, audiences root for the good guys and cheer for star-crossed lovers. When you have a movie about two people who are kept from each other until the very end, the result better be a happy ending that will give the audience something to cheer about." (Once again, a critic argues that an artist should strive to give the audience what it wants. If that were an admirable artistic practice, we'd have no tragedies.)

Mainstream critics debate the pros and cons of this Oscar-hopeful here.

Cheaper by the Dozen richer for its values—but is it well made?

Director Shawn Levy, actors Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt, and a score of rambunctious youngsters were a hit at the box office hit this week with the comedy Cheaper by the Dozen. Martin plays a high school football coach who moves his family into a new home so he can take a coaching opportunity at Northwestern University in Chicago. But the relocation brings with it some serious challenges. His children have trouble in their new school. The new fast pace of their lives makes them uncomfortable. And then, when the publication of Mom's book requires her to set out on a two-week book tour, Dad has to stay home and manage the family on his own.

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The bad news is that the family comedy, Cheaper by the Dozen, is not a new and improved version of the 1950 original. It's just new."

But Movieguide says, "It makes a tremendous number of positive, redemptive, and moral points including affirming the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the midst of messy situations. When the children are talking about Christmas, the true story of Christ comes out, including the resurrection. Ultimately, this movie is pro-forgiveness, pro-family, pro-mother and father, pro-children, and anti-immorality."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "This is a perfect family movie to see and talk about afterward regarding how your family relates (or differs) with this family's values, responsibilities and kid dilemmas. This 'Baker's dozen' never comes up short and delivers a satisfying and entertaining comedy all ages will enjoy."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "Dozen's three main themes are family, family and family. Tom lives by the sacrificial motto: 'If I screw up raising my kids, nothing I achieve will matter much!' No minister, no parachurch leader, no counselor could say it better! While it's certainly not a perfect film, there's no doubt here that kids are a blessing, not things to be endured or ignored in favor of personal and career goals."

Mainstream critics are so busy condemning the film for poor craftsmanship, they have little to say about its ethics. Kevin Thomas (Los Angeles Times) says "as synthetic as a plastic Christmas tree." Geoff Pevere (Toronto Star) calls it "a horror movie trying to pass as family-values, feel-good holiday fare."

Ben Affleck's Paycheck bounces

Ben Affleck, whose earlier 2003 films Daredevil and Gigli blew his credibility with many moviegoers, is apparently flunking yet another test.

Paycheck, director John Woo's adaptation of a Phillip K. Dick novel, is a sci-fi thriller set in the future. Affleck plays Michael Jennings, a consultant hired to develop cutting-edge technology for companies looking to outrun their competition. Typically, Jennings will work on a classified project and then have part of his memory erased so that his secret innovations cannot be stolen. But when his latest memory erasure leaves him in circumstances alarmingly different than those he had expected, he ends up on the run from villains and the FBI, trying to connect the dots and fill the blanks that will explain to him what happened during the last three "erased" years.

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) expresses displeasure with the result: "Despite an intriguing premise … the film never kicks into gear thanks to its miscast lead, uncharacteristically rote direction by Woo, and preposterous plot twists which test the suspension of disbelief generally accorded the genre."

Eddie Turner (Movieguide) Elements of the story suggest parable-like Christian meaning and the story has some interesting twists, but ultimately it is a typical action movie with plenty of fast-paced violence.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Director John Woo is in full, high-octane mode here, probably hoping that amid all the gunplay, explosions, and stylishly filmed high speed chases, we'll overlook the many apparent flaws in the script."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) calls it "a stinker. Not just because of the profanity and violence, but because John Woo lacks the subtlety to make this man-on-the-run tale anything more than a loud, kinetic potboiler loaded with clichés and stock characters."

Read enough raves for Return of the King yet?

This week, Megan Basham (Razormouth) catches up with Peter Jackson's blockbuster conclusion to his Tolkien adaptation: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. She says, "The Christian worldview in the books is so strong, it weathers the vaguely 'spiritual' interpretations the actors and director try to pin on it tolerably well. Mercy is still the overwhelming virtue that saves all of Middle Earth. The most humble and unlikely of creatures still defeats the mighty." She posts excerpts from interviews with the stars here.

Josh Hurst (The Rebel Base) gathers superlatives in his review, calling it "simply the most spectacular, overwhelming film I've ever seen."

You'll also find transcripts from my experience at the Return of the King press junket at Looking Closer, featuring interviews with Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, and John Rhys-Davies.