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Eastwood's 'Million Dollar Baby' towers over other year-end movies

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Hollywood often withholds its more ambitious movies until year's end, on the (correct) assumption that Academy Award voters tend to be most enthusiastic about films that are fresh in memory.

Ambitious isn't synonymous with thoughtful or entertaining, though. The current rush of year-end releases has some excellent items to offer, and also a fair amount of junk.

Million Dollar Baby, the new Clint Eastwood drama, stands with the best of the season, and of the year. That said, it's a very hard movie to review, since it hinges on a plot twist I'd rather not give away - even though moviegoers are sure to hear about it one way or another, unless they race off to see it as quickly as they can.

I can reveal the premise, at least. In what's by far the best performance of his long career, Mr. Eastwood plays the grumpy old owner of a third-rate boxing gym. His only close friends are an aging prizefighter he trained years ago (Morgan Freeman) and - less a friend than an intellectual sparring partner - the priest he enjoys arguing with after the church services he attends every single day.

His life changes when he agrees to train a female fighter (Hilary Swank) even though at 30-something she's already past her prime. She turns out to have phenomenal gifts in the ring, and the movie's first half is so triumphant that you start wondering what the point of the story might be.

Then, in a single slow-motion moment, it turns into a very different kind of movie - closer to "The Sea Inside," another of this week's releases, than to prizefighting pictures of the "Rocky" and "Raging Bull" varieties. While it's a tad cloying at times, Paul Haggis's screenplay (based on the stories of F.X. Toole) follows its internal logic to an unflinching climax that's bold even by Eastwood standards.

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