Sunday, February 22, 2015

The 77th Academy Awards, Ten Years Later

Tonight are the Oscars, and I always have a lot of fun with this particular Blog post, wherein I analyze the year’s nominees and other major movies from a decade ago and see how everything stands the test of time. Last year, we covered 2003 in film, culminating with the 76th Annual Academy Awards.

I’ve held the belief for years that naming the Best Picture of any given year immediately after the year’s over is a bit soon to call it. In the moment, a movie may seem like the strongest contender, but years later (in this case, the minimum is ten years later) a winner here and there seems curiously out of place amongst the best pictures of all time. Everyone’s prime example of this is Saving Private Ryan not being a Best Picture winner. In 1998, that honor inappropriately went to Shakespeare in Love. Even then, it was a pretty curious choice. Don’t get me wrong, I love Shakespeare in Love. In terms of replay value, it’s much easier to sit down and casually enjoy a viewing of Shakespeare in Love than Private Ryan. But in terms of quality, and even in terms of standing the test of time, you have a mostly embellished historical fiction about artistry with a love story at its heart, while on the other hand you have quite possibly the best movie adaptation of the second World War that is at the heart a family drama, while being entirely engrossing and even painful in its cinematography and editing.

Another big error for me comes from 1989, when Driving Miss Daisy took the top prize. Just reading the names of the other four nominees is enough to give anyone pause nearly 3 decades later: up against Field of Dreams, My Left Foot, Dead Poets Society, and Born on the Fourth of July. I don’t know if I like Platoon or Fourth better, but it’s certainly up there. I love Field of Dreams as compared to Bull Durham, and My Left Foot is crazy moving and special. Dead Poets Society is one of my favorite movies of all time. Driving Miss Daisy, while having some very serious issues at its heart, it’s rather bland and inoffensive, serviceable, but nothing terribly ambitious like its contenders.
So throughout this post, I revisit the five nominees of the 77th Annual Academy Awards for Best Picture, and see how the eventual winner stands the test of time. I’ll also look at some of the highest-grossing films of the year for 2004 and see if any of them deserved contention, as well as some other notable films.

As a bonus at the end, I’ll also quickly gloss over the nominees from twenty years ago and see how everything stands there!


2004 was a year of blockbuster sequels, the first year of the new millennium to not include a Lord of the Rings entry. But that didn’t mean other franchises weren’t there to take its place. Animated films and big budget action flicks were the order of the day, a few were comedies, and the Oscar bait stuck out like a sore thumb. Still, not every deserving movie was even acknowledged in the fray.

Of the final five, the range of genres is pretty well represented. We start with Sideways, featuring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh, and Virigina Madsen. An intimate comedy-drama, Sideways focused on the relationship of Giamatti and Church’s characters on their final getaway before Church’s entry to wedded life. Spirited performances by the cast and an intimate setting lend itself to a strong character study with the dialogue understated and the arcs never verging into too broad, which is a credit to the awesome acting of the cast. Ultimately though, Sideways is mostly forgettable. A cute movie in a forest of louder, more audacious candidates.

The most audacious of those candidates, I would argue is Finding Neverland. Personally, one of my favorite movies of all time, the incomparable Johnny Depp plays author JM Barrie to perfection, alongside Kate Winslet, who brings strength and dignity to a rather thankless role as the mother of the Llewelyn Davies. Freddie Highmore shows some amazing prowess and control as the loose cannon brother of the four, Peter, namesake of the boy who never grew up. The drama, with bits of magical realism owing mostly to the imagination of the film’s central character, makes for But in terms of musical biopics, and biopics in general, Ray stands head and shoulders above the rest, mostly
because of Jamie Foxx’s near-flawless rendition of the legendary Ray Charles. Like I said, it’s way heavier and honest than Finding Neverland is with JM Barrie’s life, which had its fair share of darker moments that tend to get glossed over in the proceedings of most exploring the origins of Peter Pan. Ray however, journeys into the psyche of a tortured artist, a genius, a man far from perfect, and one of those explorations that asks us to see if we can separate and appreciate the man’s artistry while accepting that he lived with darkness for much of his life, literally and figuratively.

The remaining entries of course stay on the darker side. The
Aviator, another biopic, examines the life of the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes played by Leonardo DiCaprio. While DiCaprio is a great actor and none of his performances have been particularly awful, I do still think he gets nominated for his more lackluster performances. Aviator is fine, but I prefer his Catch Me If You Can (which was not nominated), Blood Diamond is fine but forgettable, and he should have been nominated for The Departed instead that same year, Titanic is better than What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Aviator charts Hughes’ descent into madness as he increasingly becomes more reclusive, paranoid, and delusional. DiCaprio’s performance is something to behold and while, like I said, I prefer Catch Me If You Can as a performance by DiCaprio, but it doesn’t take anything away from Aviator. It’s a strong and brilliant portrayal, but Foxx’s Ray is more tortured, and Depp’s Barrie is full of more interesting quirk.

That brings us to our eventual winner of the year, Million Dollar Baby. Quite frankly, a darkhorse to win the top prize, with Sideways taking the majority of the “lesser” awards, and Aviator picking up the remainder (including Best Director… something that happens a curious amount more than it should, with the two awards being split, including that previously mentioned curious anomaly of Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan, with Spielberg winning the director credit). Usually the Golden Globes et al more or less predict the outcome of the Oscars. Controversial perhaps most of all for its ending, the late-entry nominee took everyone rather off-guard. It was unexpectedly good, dramatic, and clean. I personally find it to be one of Eastwood’s strongest efforts, it’s a marvelous showcase of talent for both he and Hilary Swank, and despite the criticism of its ending, I find it to be dramatically earned and appropriate. While personally, I would’ve loved to see Finding Neverland or Ray win, it makes sense to give it to Million Dollar Baby.

Ten years later for me, that’s still the movie that sticks the most from that year. Ray’s music outshines any picture of his life, and I very rarely find enough merit to award a “star vehicle” with best movie (my complaint of King’s Speech, which is all Colin Firth). (Foxx’s Best Actor win however, is more than well-deserved.) Finding Neverland’s ultimate strength and what I find most appealing is perhaps its downfall: it never quite reaches the emotional depths or the urgency of Million Dollar, Aviator, or Ray. Even Sideways, mitigated by its comedic sets, earns its share of dramatic weight.

Outside of the final five, were there any other films deserving of attention?

Most immediately, the comparison to Sideways is brought up to Closer: a four-person drama adaptation split two girls and two guys about relationships
and intimacy. I think Closer is the superior movie, and not simply because I love the play so much. Also, the cast just in comparison is top-notch: Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law…four actors I consider with the utmost respect. Closer went ignored by the Academy and I think incorrectly. It could’ve made the final five over Sideways easily. The other immediate comparison is Annette Bening’s star turn in Being Julia, also set in a bygone England, also about the theater. There’s certainly a part of it that once again goes beyond the emotional depths of Finding Neverland to portray the struggling psyche of an artist. I think this one gets forgotten about a lot too, especially as a late entry, and getting overshadowed by movies like Closer and Million Dollar Baby.

It’s a little surprising to me that both Man on Fire and Ladykillers went un-nominated, though the Academy tends to avoid remakes. Still, Denzel in Man on
Fire is worth the price of admission alone, and Ladykillers is top-notch Coens, who have gained more notoriety in terms of the Academy in recent years. Less surprising to me but still surprising to some was Kill Bill Vol. 2 being overlooked. Personally, I prefer part 1, with more urgency and more storytelling told through action rather than overwrought monologues. The only true comedy that I really felt warranted some merit was Shaun of the Dead. There was no way it could have won, but simultaneously encapsulating and subverting an entire genre is one mean feat, and Simon Pegg handles it wonderfully. In terms of period pieces, the two that stand out most for me are Troy, which could have perhaps earned Eric Bana a supporting actor nomination, but it couldn’t have gone for the top prize, not with so many compelling dramas in the running. The other is Passion of the Christ. Subtitled movies occasionally make it
to the top 5 but the truly horrifying (I won’t say realistic, I’ll just say gruesome) depiction of the last days of Jesus Christ are eventually tough to stomach. It’s uncomfortable to watch and there is little dramatic payoff to the gore. I think even as a Christian, the weight of
the journey seems lost. I never understand the conflict inside the character of Jesus, I never understand the catharsis of the moment. It’s a well-made movie, but I feel it’s essentially lacking the necessary drama. It’s practically just torture porn.

In terms of the franchises, arguably the strongest of the respective anthologies came out: Spider-Man 2 and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. For both, featuring the perfect mix of storytelling, matured acting, action, and fun, they became some of the highest-grossing movies of the year. Spider-Man 2 still works emotionally and dramatically. Prisoner of Azkaban hasn’t aged quite as well (especially with the trio of kids improving vastly as the series continued) but is fun nonetheless. We may never see another franchise like Lord of the Rings get Oscar nods, and Spider-Man 2 and PoA may have been the closest we’ll get.

Over in the animation department, two other high-grossing entries warrant mention, with The Incredibles from PIXAR continuing a proud tradition of strong animated features, both comedically and dramatically. Shrek 2 was also the strongest entry of its franchise, and for a time was the highest-grossing
animated film of all time. I think PIXAR has stronger possibilities for nominations (Up, Wall-E, Toy Story 3) and I’ve yet to meet a DreamWorks movie I think is moving enough to warrant such an honor, so we’ll move on.

The remaining four movies overlooked from the year, two big budget: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which cinematically was stimulating, but ultimately lacking in pretty much everything else (interesting characters, compelling plot, moving arcs); and Hotel Rwanda, suffering mostly from its pace. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was an unexpectedly good movie forgotten because of its early entry into the year, I think again features an amazing performance by Kate Winslet, and when is the Academy going to accept that Jim Carrey is a fantastically moving actor?! This would’ve been another one of my choices. Finally, Garden State featured a strong performance by Zach Braff, an expectedly strong Portman, but ultimately remembered more for its soundtrack, which has proven to be more moving than the movie itself, which I think tends to be heavyhanded in its symbolism.

So, had I had my way? Ray, Aviator, Million Dollar Baby keep their spots. Eternal Sunshine and Closer would’ve taken the other top two. I think Million Dollar Baby keeps its Oscar, though. As much as I love Finding Neverland, it just feels out of place. Taylor Hackford helming Ray or Scorese covering Aviator I think warrant the Director award more than Eastwood. Foxx as Ray is unbeatable. I question Swank’s Best Female Actor (Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake or Annette Bening), but both Supporting Actors can stay as is.

Quickly, revisiting 1994, and what a year it was. Forrest Gump, for those who haven’t seen it recently, does not hold up well. A meandering pace, borderline melodramatic interpretations of characters, and a wooden script keep this as one of the worst Best Picture winners for me. It was against Tarantino’s unbelievable Pulp Fiction, Redford’s Quiz Show, and The Shawshank Redemption, which is everything Forrest Gump is attempting to be as an Oscar movie: dramatic, introverted, conflicted, and nuanced. Needless to say, I cannot believe Forrest won over Shawshank. Some people don’t find this award as egregious, I find it almost unforgiveable. Also, Lion King was amazing, guys.

Anyway, that’s it from me. Agree? Disagree? They say hindsight is 20/20 are the Oscars as in dispute, or does everything seem business as usual? Let me know what you think!