Yesterday, while most of you were falling asleep in lecture, I was sitting in a plush theater in Birmingham with two of my best friends waiting to see what would be the best movie of the year. Admission was free, the handicap parking spot was secured and everything was shaping up for a great cinematic experience. To my great joy, the theater was only a third full, and those few that were in attendance were the quiet type. The lights went down and the already hushed theater froze in complete silence. I gave my companions an agreeing nod as the images came on the screen at their usual 24 frames per second.

Paul Wong
Jeff Dickerson

Three hours later the lights came back on. The silence remained for a few moments as the end credits finished their course. My pants were soaked and it wasn’t from the Coke I spilled halfway through the film in the midst of an epic battle sequence. I could tell from the drool on my colleagues’ shirts that they shared the same opinion on the film. We had just seen “The Two Towers.”

Yeah, that’s right, I have already seen the new “Lord of the Rings” movie, and two weeks early at that. I won’t ruin any of the movie for you (but Gollum looks oh-so incredible and the part when Gandalf returns is sweet), I’ll just say that Peter Jackson’s “The Two Towers” is simply the best movie of the year.

Rewinding back to this time last year, I was only mildly excited for “The Fellowship of the Ring.” I was more concerned with deciphering the cryptic plot of “Mulholland Dr.” than seeing the first live-action adaptation of Tolkien’s fantasy novels. I had already made up in my mind that my vote for movie of the year would be between the aforementioned “Mulholland Dr.” and Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Boy was I wrong. “The Fellowship of the Ring” was not only the best film of 2001, but one of the greatest films of all time.

I feel bad for other filmmakers, I really do. Take David Lynch for example. Here is a director who turned a failed TV pilot into his best film since “Blue Velvet,” and if were any other year, “Mulholland Dr.” would have snagged my personal best picture award. His surrealist take on the Hollywood system was mind-bending, brilliant and entirely original. I saw it five times in the theater over the course of a few weeks; I was captivated. But ultimately the stylish film wasn’t enough to best the sight of an elf laying waste to mass of orcs with a barrage of arrows. I saw “Fellowship” 10 times in the theater.

Now let me tell you a little something about that other fantasy film based on a popular literary series that came out roughly at the same time. Prepare for a rant. “Harry Potter,” the reigning champion of the over-hyped, over-rated and over-blown media, is nothing more than bad combination of a Roald Dahl novel and “The Lord of the Rings.” The box office (as well as home video) success of the first film in the “Potter” series is the best example of the sheer stupidity of the average American moviegoer since “Titanic,” when hoards of teenage girls in braces went to see that supporting character on “Growing Pains” freeze to death in the icy waters of the Atlantic. OK, I’m done with my rant for now.

This year, the film calendar is eerily reminiscent of last year. Another “Harry Potter” film is out, and it’s just as disposable as its predecessor. 2002’s version of “Mulholland Dr.” is Paul Thomas Anderson’s quirky romantic comedy “Punch-Drunk Love,” a great film that, despite all its wonderful qualities, will end up no higher than second place once the year’s top 10 list is calculated and drawn out. And the year is not even done. Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York, Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation” and Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt” are all coming in the next few weeks, but despite early positive reviews, the best they can settle for is second place.

It’s tough to be a filmmaker in this day and age. No matter how good your movie is, it can’t top Jackson’s pitch-perfect fantasy series. It’s like trying to surpass Gretzky’s 215 points in the ’85-’86 NHL season; it just isn’t going to happen.

In one year, director Peter Jackson has gone from cult-Aussie-unknown to mainstream-worldwide-wunderkind, and all it took was one film. But when that single bit of cinema is the finest example of filmmaking since 1994 when Tarantino finished “Pulp Fiction,” you deserve such recognition. Next year Tarantino returns with “Kill Bill,” but I’m going to say it right now: “Return of the King” will be the best movie of 2003.

-Want to know what happens in “The Two Towers?” Too bad, you’ll have to wait until Dec. 18 when it is officially released. Jeff Dickerson can be reached at jsdicker@umich.edu.

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