The Terrific Threes

"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" has critics debating whether it's Michael Bay's best 'bot movie.

But if history judges No. 3 the best — or at least better than the other two — it won't be a first for a franchise.

Ideally, moviemakers grow ever-fonder of their characters and more confident of their powers as a series goes along.

That's why affection and inspiration can occasionally reach critical mass at No. 3.

Here are three great examples from the past several decades:

Goldfinger It's still the ultimate 007 movie for its expert juggling of adventure and invention. It perches right on the line dividing wit and camp, from Bond's souped-up Aston Martin to his near-death by laser beam. There's never been a pithier hero-villain interchange than Bond asking, "Do you expect me to talk?" and Auric Goldfinger answering, "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die."

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban From the opening scenes of Harry in the purgatory of Aunt Petunia's house, director Alfonso Cuaron and screenwriter Steve Kloves place you behind the boy-wizard's spectacles with an ease missing from the first two films. Transfiguration is the movie's theme. No film has ever played it out with more inspired special effects: Cuaron's visualization of the half-horse, half-eagle hippogriff is a pinnacle of movie magic.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King In Peter Jackson's third movie installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's three-book epic, what ups the voltage is how near the characters come to catastrophe. The true subject of this picture is doing the right thing when the choice could be suicidal. Tolkien's genius was to place that challenge on the shoulders of childlike hobbits. Jackson's genius is to re-create their heart-sapping journey with an imaginative zest that never succumbs to bathos.

Michael Sragow

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