Which is the Better Best Picture: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King or Casablanca?

The readers of TIME.com are choosing the BEST Best Picture of All-TIME. Vote in today's semifinals.

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Few Oscar contenders have enjoyed the aura of inevitability that surrounded The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. Nominated for 11 awards, the Middle Earth epic scored a rare clean sweep: Best picture, director, adapted screenplay, original score, original song, visual effects, art direction, costume design, make-up, sound mixing and film editing. And long before director Peter Jackson took to the podium to a rousing ovation, there seemed to be a collective understanding that the night’s awards went far beyond the third Lord of the Rings installment, which found Frodo (Elijah Wood) ascending Mount Doom and overcoming his internal demons to destroy the Ring of Power once and for all. It was widely understood that this Oscar celebration was less about a singular achievement than the commemoration of one of the most audacious, and adept, trilogies in cinematic history. Filmed in one extensive shoot, commissioned by New Line Cinema in a colossal financial gamble and entrusted to a single filmmaker who was empowered to mold his singular and distinctive vision, the Lord of the Rings films were works of fantasy that transcended the genre, entrancing both mainstream audiences and Hollywood heavyweights.



When Warner Bros. picked up the rights to the flop play Everyone Comes to Rick’s, they planned to cast one of their contract players, Ronald Reagan, to play opposite his frequent leading lady, Ann Sheridan. After a typical round of Hollywood casting roulette, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman were handed the roles, and the title was changed to Casablanca. Bogart was the brusque, scarred Rick Blaine, Bergman was his lost love Ilsa Lund (“We’ll always have Paris”) and Paul Henreid was Ilsa’s husband, the noble leader of the anti-Nazi Resistance, all converging on French-occupied, German-dominated Morocco on Dec. 6, 1941. Directed by Michael Curtiz, from a script rewritten so furiously during production that Bergman said she didn’t know which man her character would end up with, Casablanca had a dream climax — it became the top-grossing movie of 1943, winning Oscars for Picture, Direction and Screenplay — and an even happier afterlife. It is the oldest entry on the Internet Movie Database’s all-time top 20, and third on the Zagat list of movie classics (behind the first two Godfather films).

Succeeding generations of fans are attracted by Bogie’s heroic fatalism, Bergman’s sanctified adultery (a big deal at the time) and timeless dialogue like “Here’s looking at you, kid” and “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By’.” Film scholars have inferred or imagined that Rick is really F.D.R. on the eve of Pearl Harbor (casa blanca is Spanish for White House), and that the butch Rick and the flirtatious Renault are pursuing something more than “a beautiful friendship.” But most viewers respond to the picture for the same reasons their grandparents did: it’s a movie made without pretense but with serious wit, brisk glamour and eternal star quality. Then as now, if you were asked to summarize the glory of Hollywood filmmaking in one word, your answer would have to be Casablanca.