Okay. Enough foreplay. The trilogy is complete, and it was time for the big celebratory parade. Only one movie to talk about in 2003. Please welcome our final Joint Champion.
The Joint Champion
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was the most anticipated movie in a year with two Matrix sequels and the return of the X-Men. It was also the end of such an incredible cinematic achievement that the Academy went a little nuts and showered it with every Oscar it was nominated for. Which…
I can admit that just like The English Patient definitely didn’t deserve to sweep nearly every category it was up for (the only explanation I’ve ever heard for their Best Costume Oscar is “they wore scarves in the desert sometimes,” Jesus Christ), nor did Return of the King deserve to get every single Oscar it was up for. Look, “Into the West” by Annie Lennox is a fine song that makes for a great end-credit number for the trilogy, and I like it more with age (someone sing it at my funeral), but “Belleville Rendez-vous” slaps like it’s challenging you to a duel, come on. That said, I still wish Sean Astin had managed a Supporting Actor nomination for Samwise like Ian McKellan had two films earlier (Fellowship is peak Gandalf, but King is Sam’s movie to shine), because if the streak had kept going*, a) a Goonie would have an Oscar, and b) Return of the King would have set a new record for most wins instead of tying Ben-Hur and Titanic. Honestly I’m a little annoyed that Ben-Hur’s name is still on that record.
*Really the one place where these Oscar sweeps tend to stumble is the acting categories, so that wasn’t a guarantee, but I can dream.
Wow two sizeable paragraphs and a footnote in and I’ve barely gotten into the movie… well it’s a triumph, to be sure… some of my favourite moments of the trilogy happen in Return of the King. The Last Charge of the Rohirrim. “I am no man.” Aragorn and his murder ghosts arriving to turn the tide. “Let him go, you filth!” Mount Doom, and Sauron’s panicked realization that the Ring is there. “I can’t carry it for you… but I can carry you!” The love and bond between Frodo and Sam, the rivalry of Gimli and Legolas… so much of this movie hits perfectly. That said…
Yes the battle of Minas Tirith leans on CG more than the other battles, even beyond the Frighteners-influenced ghost army and the four-tusked giant elephants, which makes it a little less visceral than the big fights in Fellowship or most of Helm’s Deep, but everything from the Rohirrim’s arrival to the murder ghosts wiping out the last of the orc army is, to me, pretty damn riveting. Yes it’s also the longest movie, and… and it’s also the longest, yes, that’s a thing, I don’t… strictly have a defense for that. During this viewing I thought “Here I am, at long last, at the climax, meaning there’s only an entire episode of The Flash worth of movie left to go.” Even the theatrical cut is very lengthy. It ran so long they made the baffling choice to cut the end of Saruman’s story from the theatrical cut, and that was a mistake, that should have stayed in, they could have found five minutes somewhere else. Sure by 2003 fans had started seeing the theatrical cut as just a long trailer for the extended cut DVDs, so it’s fine they cut the orcs’ disfigured general Gothmog, but damn, how you gonna do Christopher Lee dirty by cutting the resolution scene of the first two movies’ primary on-screen antagonist?
Also what Arwen is given to do is pretty minimal and feels worlds away from her “Come and claim him” moment in Fellowship, but there weren’t a lot of choices there and hey it’s still better than their attempts to shoehorn in Galadriel because someone made the choice to pay Cate Blanchett for three movies despite her only having a role of consequence in the first one.
Okay, I picked fights with Tolkien purists on the other two, so here goes… damn right they cut the Scouring of the Shire. This movie already gets mocked for having five endings, can you imagine if they’d tried to wedge a plot twist and another battle sequence in between endings three and four? People have their coats on and are fumbling for their keys, nobody is in the mood for a grudge match with the abusive ex-owner of Bill the Pony and those goddamn Quislings the Sackville-Bagginses.
That said the endings all work. I can’t think of one I’d cut. Frodo being reunited with the Fellowship (minus Boromir)? Beautiful. Aragorn’s coronation? Works. The hobbits returning to a Shire that doesn’t even know there was a war, surrounded by hobbits whose biggest thrill is a particularly large pumpkin? Then having a silent toast about being home? Might be my favourite one. And Frodo leaving for the Grey Havens with Elrond, Bilbo, Gandalf, Galadriel and her chump husband? That’s the right ending.
It’s the one that lays out that sometimes time and trauma mark us too deeply, and there is no going back. To quote Defending Jacob, a show I might actually watch when all this Oscar stuff is done, “There is no normal to go back to. There is only before, and after.” Or in the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley*, “These wounds won’t seem to heal, this pain is just too real, there’s just too much that time cannot erase.”
*Or Evanescence, one of those.
Does no one else appreciate epilogues? Sure “Hey the Death Star blew up let’s party” worked as an ending both times they used it, but… don’t you ever wonder what happens next? I do. And I’m glad to be told. Ending this on Aragorn’s coronation would have been a mistake. Even without the Scouring, this could only end in the Shire. It’s where we started, it’s where we had to end up, even if we weren’t the same people anymore.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a spectacular accomplishment, genius filmmaking throughout, from the direction to the cinematography to the make-up effects to the nigh-flawless score, and I know Return of the King wasn’t the best, but throwing all the Oscars at that one rewarded the trilogy as a whole. Maybe some people can argue that Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation was a better movie than Return of the King as an individual film, but not rewarding Rings as a complete sags would have been a crime.
And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s down at #40, just over Rocky and under… under Amadeus? Oh you go sit in the corner for that one, RT. Probably being dragged down by cranks like Roger Ebert, who as I recall docked it points for being too much about the humans and not enough about the hobbits.
Which Fellowship Member Are You? Sometimes overlooked for splashier or more solemn entries, but it’s the one, true hero of this whole decade… which makes Return of the King its own title character, Samwise Gamgee.
…What? It’s called Return of the King and the last thing that happens in both book and movie is Samwise saying “Well, I’m back,” it doesn’t take a genius to–
Other Events in Film
- This Year in Superheroes: We are into a period where most years saw three different unconnected Marvel movies from a variety of studios, but only one tended to be good. This year? Coming off a hit debut, the X-Men had the boosted confidence (and probably budget) that success brings, and delivered a bigger, better sequel in X2.
- Elsewhere… Patrick Willems once lamented that the problem with Marvel Studios (prior to WandaVision) is that they were so formula-driven that we’d never again see a superhero movie with such a unique, big-swing directorial vision as Ang Lee’s Hulk. I see where he’s coming from, but Hulk was hot garbage, and I refused to pay to see movies for three months afterwards because I didn’t want to be hurt again.
- Ben Affleck’s Daredevil split the difference. Less incoherent than Hulk, but no Spider-Man. But screw the haters, I’m glad the soundtrack aggressively featured Evanescence, they rock.
- League of Extraordinary Gentlemen makes so many changes to Alan Moore’s Victorian literature superteam that it had a hard time connecting with fans of the comics. Or anyone else, but for different reasons.
- Trilogies Update: Neo’s battle with the machines gets complicated, and we work through multiple perspectives on predestination vs free will interspersed with fight scenes in The Matrix Reloaded. And because they took the Back to the Future approach, it was only a few months’ wait for the kinda disappointing conclusion, The Matrix Revolutions.
- Speaking of third installments that let us down, Terminator 3, everybody! Made by people who maybe watched but clearly did not understand Terminator 2.
- Looney Tunes: Back in Action is much, much better than Space Jam, pairing Bugs and Daffy with Brendan Fraser worked much better than Michael Jordan, and it should have been a bigger hit, so that modern-day-us would be spared Discourse over Lola Bunny being less curvy in the Space Jam reboot that shouldn’t exist.
- Theme Park Attraction Movies find their Superman much, much faster than Video Game Movies, as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl wowed crowds. It was a simpler time, a time when we weren’t sick of Pirates of the Caribbean yet. We’ll… come back to this. They also hit their downswing in record time with Eddie Murphy in Haunted Mansion.
- Michael Bay bounces back from the failed Oscar bait of Pearl Harbor with distilled, 180 proof Michael Bay fodder in Bad Boys 2.
- Civil War movie Cold Mountain scores the most Golden Globe nominations of any film, but does not get a Best Picture or Director nomination at the Oscars. Theories on the so-called “snub” range from “Nicole Kidman is too pretty for someone running a farm alone,” to retribution for filming a US Civil War movie in eastern Europe, to the Academy being sick of Harvey Weinstein and his aggressive award campaigns. Which… fair, but it’s not the main thing he did they should have been sick of. Rene Zellweger still won every Supporting Actress award, possibly because voters felt bad passing her over in Chicago in favour of Nicole Kidman in a putty nose in The Hours.
- Bend it Like Beckham helps launch Keira Knightley to the point that they added her name to the Pirates of the Caribbean poster, but doesn’t equally launch Parminder Nagra, the actual lead of Bend it Like Beckham. Hollywood, you so white.
- The Real Cancun tried to bring reality TV to the movies. Thankfully it failed horribly and that idea died on the vine. Well, save for the lamentable Jackass movies.
- Speaking of trying to bring reality TV to the big screen, From Justin to Kelly tries to cash in on the celebrity of the winner and runner-up of the first season of American Idol. They never tried that again.
- Pixar gets its first Best Animated Feature Oscar with Finding Nemo… at the expense of the delightful Triplets of Belleville.
- 2 Fast 2 Furious does not manage to lure back Vin Diesel, so Tyrese Gibson’s Roman Pearce takes his place in the story. The Italian Job is a much better 2003 car-based crime flick.
- 28 Days Later introduces, or at least popularizes, fast zombies. Which shifts the metaphor if that matters to you.
- Tommy Wiseau introduced the world to his magnum opus, The Room.
- The Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises take one last big swing with Freddy Vs. Jason. Look, the title battle could have gone much worse.
- Kevin Costner tries one more long-ass western with Open Range. It’s less successful than Dances With Wolves but not worse by any stretch.
- Jack Black stars as a burnout would-be rock star who cons his way into teaching music, and learns that teaching is more rewarding than trying to screw over his old band in School of Rock. Name one person, one single person in 2003 who could have guessed Andrew Lloyd goddamned Webber of all people would turn it into a Broadway musical.
- Uwe Boll turns loopholes in German tax law making bombs profitable, Producers-style, into a weirdly lucrative career making utterly abysmal adaptations of video games, starting with House of the Dead. They’re bad. They are very, very bad.
- Vampires vs. Werewolves franchise Underworld kicked off in 2003, buoyed by Kate Beckinsale in skin-tight leather.
- Scary Movie 3 is an improvement over the last two, thanks to David Zucker taking over direction and better screenwriters, but it still requires you to know every film it’s referencing, so… I mean it did the exact parody of The Ring I wanted, but… I can’t exactly recommend it in good conscience.
- Why haven’t I seen The Singing Detective with, among many other notable names, Robert Downey Jr.? …Oh because the best reviews called it an “interesting failure.”
- The trend of Disney movies where a BIOC lead is turned into an animal continues with Brother Bear, which reunites SCTV hosers Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as comic relief moose, but is another one you won’t see at the parks.
- Elf and Love Actually are holiday favourites to many people who aren’t me. I personally prefer Bad Santa.
- Gigli is so reviled (taking Worst Picture at the Golden Raspberries, despite opening the same year as House of the Dead and The Room, honestly the Razzies are so basic) that it pumps the brakes on the film careers of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, leading to an unfortunate re-editing of Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl.