Sunday, March 2, 2014

The 76th Academy Awards, Ten Years Later

Tonight's ceremony of the 86th Annual Academy Awards showcases achievements in film and motion pictures from the last year. We love our award ceremonies, and we love congratulating ourselves. But I've always been of the opinion that these awards happen too soon, or that a "real" ceremony should be held on a later date to commemorate the true test of any film: its longevity.

"Best Picture" is something controversial even when it's handed out, but 10 years later, some choices become even more of a curiosity, and some snubs become even more glaringly apparent. To a lesser extent, an actor's performance may or may not have aged well, although I find this occurs less. "Best Actor" or "Best Actress" is often more indicative of the time's feelings and attitudes, and the affect of a performance is much more immediate and direct. I don't have as much of a problem with these awards being presented at the end of a year. It doesn't mean curiosities don't exist, but I find them to be less so.

My general idea is to look back and see what's up held up from the Academy Awards of the past. We're looking at and examining the 76th Annual Academy Awards and the nominees for Best Picture of that year. And it's quite an interesting one. We take you back to 2003...

Can you believe this was ten years ago, guys?
Can you even recall an Oscar-nominated movie from 2003 other than Return of the King?
That's right, folks. It was one of dozens of years to be called a year of too many sequels, but it was one of the only years an Oscar winner was a sequel. And the only movie that won to be the third part of a trilogy.
And maybe that was the problem.

Did Return of the King win simply as a prize to the entire trilogy? Granted, the trilogy is an excellent series of films. There aren't too many trilogies in the pantheon of the phenomena that function fully as a series and are each entertaining chapters in and of themselves. Some point to the fact that the first two chapters remained generally unacknowledged as evidence to this. Others say it is well-deserved. While I do agree to a certain degree, as a fan of Lord of the Rings, it doesn't feel completely fulfilling to just watch Return of the King. The trilogy feels much more like a single movie, split into three sections for easy digestion.
I guess the question, which is two-part, is A) Is Return of the King the strongest representation of the trilogy, and B) Does Return of the King, on its own, stand up against its fellow nominees and against some of the other big movies of that year?

Let's look at the Best Picture nominees of that year:

The pet project of Sofia Coppola who wrote and directed this intimate semi-love story set in Japan between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Arguably Johansson's breakthrough role, and a great turn from Murray, the movie took home Original Screenplay at the Oscars and the Golden Globes for that year. It also won Best Comedy or Musical Film at the Globes, but the Oscars can be a little hesitant to award a film mostly billed as a comedy (Annie Hall is the standout exception). But is Lost in Translation really a comedy? There's comic moments, to be sure, mostly with Murray dealing with his rather absurd commercial gigs.
It's a lot of silent gazing and body acting, but Murray and Johansson are very compelling. And they manage to convey the endless loneliness of living in a big city that we all feel. Re-watching it last week, I appreciate it much more than I did ten years ago, but it's a rather straightforward movie, despite the stellar casting. There really isn't much script to speak of, but come on, what did Bill Murray whisper in her ear!?

There's not massive appeal to Translation, but women are so rarely represented, so it's wonderful to see Coppola get acknowledgement. (And it takes 'til 2008 for Kathryn Bigelow to win for The Hurt Locker. Not sure why she didn't win for Point Break, because that's quite possibly the greatest movie of all time. And I'm not joking.)
Translation is also beautifully shot and beautifully acted, but I think it's sometimes too much for audiences to confront their own realities presented in a movie form.

No loss here. A beautiful effort, but probably wouldn't have won in almost any year.

Crowe and to a lesser extent, Bettany, are go-to guys for a period piece. It won for Cinematography at the Oscars, and I dunno, I thought Lost in Translation was more beautifully shot. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was a movie shot at sea.
It's certainly more of a private complaint, but movies on boats make me seasick. I don't actually get seasick, the few times I've been on a boat (because you're insane if you're going out on a boat) but I do when I watch Pirates of the Caribbean, Perfect Storm, anything of that nature.
I found Master and Commander to be overly long and boring. I'll just be honest. I re-watched it last week to talk about it in this post, and I fell asleep. It took me three or four different attempts to finish this movie.

It's too bad, because I like Crowe and most of the rest of the cast, and this movie's just a rare miss.
Also, doesn't it feel like this is the second movie in a series, with that second part of the title? I'm not sure why Cold Mountain wasn't nominated into it over Master and Commander.

Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won for their respective roles at the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Cold Mountain and Mystic River inadvertently run in the same place in my mind (the adjective + geographical feature place), but River is actually quite a good movie. It's dark, haunting, and well-acted. It's surprising for me, because I also haven't been a fan of late-era Clint Eastwood, but this is one of his more thought-through efforts, and it pays off in dividends.

Add Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, and Kevin Bacon to a stellar cast.
I'm still not even sure what happened, because this movie fucked with my mind so much. I think this movie of the five had a legitimate run at being Best Picture.

I never enjoyed Seabiscuit, and what's even more unfortunate, is that I just watched Secretariat a little while before re-watching this movie (which, I can't even remember my original viewing of) and Secretariat is a much cooler movie. Seabiscuit is a little too sensitive and sweet for me. It's like a sports movie, where we must feel good by the movie's end, and the odds are so stacked against the protagonists that it's just a foregone conclusion they'll overcome the odds.

A movie has to be a thrilling journey. It has to create some doubt in some way. Even if we know we're headed toward a happy ending, as we usually are in movies, there has to be an effort made by the filmmakers to create some doubt. And there's also a difference between attempting to create that doubt and falling short or just completely failing to try, which is what Seabiscuit is guilty of for me.

On a personal level, I had problems separating this cast in their characters. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Cooper all hold too iconic of a place in my head that they had to do a lot more than they did for me to make me believe their roles in this.

Seabiscuit is essentially a biopic, just about a horse. I don't have a problem with biopics as a whole, but they very rarely capture a satisfying comprehension of the person's life. Also, your main character is a horse. It's my same complaint as War Horse. It's just not a compelling centerpiece to me. It's my larger complaint with animal buddy movies. With the exception of Homeward Bound (which is different, because it's mostly a comedy, and also they have the animals talk...and not in the somewhat disturbing way that the animals in Babe talked) I couldn't care less about animals in movies.
I understand that animals are capable of superior intelligence and I'm optimistic about living long enough to see an era where we can communicate on a sophisticated level with animals (and then dying long before the ape takeover) but I will NEVER accept them as my movie protagonists. I do not agree with their lifestyle.

And what of the rest of the movies that year? Well, like I said, it was a year of sequels, but some of the obvious go-overs not nominated for Best Picture (at least in the final 5, anyway)
Charlize Theron won Best Actress for Monster pretty much across the board, but I guess it's a little presumptive to nominate a whole movie for one person's performance. (Actually, that's my complaint with The King's Speech winning. It's all for Firth and Rush, the rest of the movie is rather bored and dry. So, British.) Both are also biopics, so yeah...
Also, Monster is about essentially no redeeming characters. It's just difficult to get behind.

Cold Mountain was left out of the top 5 but there's quite a bit to enjoy about it. It's certainly a more interesting period piece than Master and Commander (which I'm sure won out for being more visually engaging and cinematic) but Kidman, Law, and Zellweger are all good, it's an Oscar ploy clearly, especially with the stellar supporting cast it assembles.
My dark horse pick for a truly great cinematic achievement that year is this movie, 28 Days Later. I won't cross the line into saying it redefined the zombie genre (because I know...they're not technically zombies...blah, blah, blah...) but in terms of movies like Contagion, just worldwide biological disaster movies, this movie is the granddaddy, and it stands up. The deserted London streets are disturbing (those who've been to London know it's never that deserted) and it's a pretty powerhouse performance by Cillian Murphy. Rarely are these types of movies so engaging and thrilling, and also even more rarely is there such hope given to the protagonists by the conclusion.
Days would've never won, but it's certainly one of the coolest highlights of that year.

As for the sequels, we had a bit of a fixation on our AI superiors: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions made it to theaters that year. Bad Boys 2, X-2: X-Men United (terrible name), Final Destination 2, 2 Fast 2 Furious (excellent name), and Scary Movie 3 and Legally Blonde 2 both killed their respective franchises.
I'm a little curious as to Kill Bill Vol. 1 not at least getting an acknowledgement in nominations, because that was probably the most centrally focused movie of the year.
It was a tough year for Comedy: American Wedding, Shanghai Knights, Bringing Down the House, and this was also the year of Dumb and Dumberer. Although Love Actually and Elf helped make the holiday season awesome.
Speaking of bad movies, Gigli and From Justin to Kelly both came out this year.
I think the only other oversight of the year was Finding Nemo not getting nominated for Best Picture. Obviously, it won for Best Animated Picture, but I hope it's only a matter of time before that category just gets rolled in, because the achievements of animation are amazing, especially following Nemo as a marker. I'm convinced in addition to seeing the next level of animal communication, I will also see an animated movie win Best Picture.

So, final verdict?
I suppose in terms of cinematic politics, it's fair to award Return of the King.
As its own movie, it provides the most action. Gods and Generals came out in '03 as well, Master and Commander had its own combat (the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean came out this year too) but the feel of the battles are just more engaging.
The characters have built a relationship with us over the course of three movies, and they manage to do what The Matrix failed to do, despite developing almost simultaneously, which is create compelling protagonists we care about. It's also something that falls a bit short in other nominated movies of that year: we don't care about Seabiscuit as much as we do about Frodo Baggins overcoming the odds, we don't relate to the loneliness of Murray and Johansson like we do the loss of Liv Tyler and Viggo Mortensen as Aowyn and Aragorn.

I also do think that movies that are able to make us buy into a world, and not just provide us escapist fluff, but give us something we truly relate and hold to, then we have a superior moviemaking effort on our hands and we must acknowledge that. Return of the King is a stronger movie than both the previous two chapters as well (though Two Towers is my favorite). Fellowship of the Ring is plodding to begin, Two Towers is too brooding but Return manages to find the right balance, without re-treading too much similar ground from the original (like how Return of the Jedi is a flashier re-tread of A New Hope).

It'll be another year before I get to do another post like this. But does anyone remember 2004 in film? Do you agree? Was it Lord of the Rings' year to lose? Disagree? Let me know!