Best Picture, 2003
(Click on the linked film titles for reviews of those movies.)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King


Even before last year's ceremony, people were prognosticating that the third installment would take the crown. After a year of underwhelming rivals, best-of-year box office, and the surprise laurel of the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle (plus the expected Golden Globe), the Precious seems well in hand.

The Fellowship of the Ring led the 2001 field with 13 nods and only copped four statuettes in technical categories. The Two Towers went 2 for 6, only winning the Effects races. One has the sense that the admiring Academy still gets cold feet about Jackson's opus at the decisive moment of balloting.
Lost in Translation

This piquant, minimalist mood piece earned raves in the Venice Festival this summer, and the enthusiasm of fans never waned, even when bigger-budget projects opened in later months. After a triple crown at the Globes, its status as an industry pet is clearer than ever.
Isn't this picture a little too slight to be the one to unseat The Lord of the Rings? The movie isn't scaled to traditional Academy tastes, and looks even smaller next to three epics and a writ-large domestic tragedy.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Ten nominations are nothing to scoff at, and with three major studios signed on as producers and distributors, a lot of voters will feel some loyalty to the project. Hollywood seems impressed with itself for reviving an old-fashioned genre with a true-blue autuer at the helm..
Speaking realistically, this has to be the least-beloved film ever to score double-digit nods. In a stronger movie year, a middling commercial performer with no claim on actors' or screenwriters' tastes would never have fared so well. Some technical trophies are likely, but the pleasure cruise stops here.
Mystic River

Having emerged as a critical darling at Cannes, Mystic River crossed over bigger than dark, character-based dramas generally do, and it picked up an expected slew of awards citations. Unforgiven's 1992 sweep proved that Oscar gets Eastwood's vibe.
Rapturous buzz seems to have ruined the film, or at least significantly dulled it, for lots of people who saw a strong, interesting ensemble locked into an imperfect conception and sometimes wobbly story. No support from the technical wings can be assumed, and Lost in Translation seems closer to people's hearts.

Seven nominations offer ample evidence of industry affection. No acting nods, but like Chariots of Fire or Braveheart, the film has a strong emotional appeal beyond individual performances or deep critical support. Temptation to emulate the film's own themes with an upset victory may be strong.
The film already beat significant odds, scoring a nod despite an early release date and a raft of holiday epics that many expected would overshadow it. However, without a director nod or a single critical prize to its name, it really will take a sort of miracle.

WHO WILL WIN: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Lost in Translation and Mystic River are catnip to actors, and Master and Commander and Seabiscuit are luscious and lickable for production-values types. But the LOTR cycle has bowled everybody over, and it's time for those speeches to finally get read.

WHO SHOULD WIN: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
I'm not nearly the disciple of this picture that many people are. Master and Commander's impressive naturalism and Mystic River's fleeting moments of grandeur are close rivals, but The Return of the King's vivid, colorful majesty is a truly impressive achievement, whatever its flaws.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: Oh, as if. Nothing I would have really rooted for—Monster and The Company were my highlights of the year—would ever have been nominated in a zillion years. But the lovely, impressionistic In America swayed some voters and would have been a nice substitution for the equally precious but ultimately slicker Lost in Translation (not to mention that horse movie.)

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