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 ...

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