I know it’s been a few weeks, and I apologize for being out. I’m sure my one or maybe (possibly?) two regular readers have been dying to hear me gloat over The Hurt Locker’s massive success at the Oscars and Avatar walking away with only three (although the cinematography one still bugs me). Well, the time for that is over and done, and I’m not going to beat a dead horse. (Avatar being the dead horse.)
Me, I always have a penchant for looking at things in their biggest possible retrospective contexts. With that in mind, I’m taking it upon myself to look back at the entire decade’s worth of Best Picture winners to examine which were the high points, which were the low points, and which were the ones that “almost were.” Oscar history could be mighty different right now if a few things played out a little bit differently. Let’s observe!
Gladiator is a well-made and reasonably entertaining movie, and in all honesty, I’ve kinda had a hankering to watch it again lately. But is it really Best Picture caliber material? No. It’s a dressy summer blockbuster. It gets the job done, but it’s nothing really revolutionary or incredible. In fact, its plot makes it kind of the Cliff’s Notes version of Ben-Hur. It’s a great-looking movie with great effects, but everyone here has done better. Ridley Scott has certainly done better, and Russell Crowe was way better the previous year in The Insider. His Oscar for this felt mostly like a way for the Academy to correct not giving him the Oscar for that one..
Stiffest Competition: Traffic
Fellow nominees included Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and…Chocolat? Okay, so 2000 wasn’t exactly the best year for movies, but I’ve always been a fan of Traffic, and for all intents and purposes, it should have won. And it was really looking like it might pull it off—the Academy showed their overwhelming support for this movie by going against the DGA and granting it Best Director for Steven Soderbergh who was also nominated for Erin Brockovich. Traffic also picked up Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, and Best Supporting Actor. Though Gladiator won Actor and a handful of technical awards, it was looking like a Traffic-centric night. Until the end
2001: A Beautiful Mind
There’s not much to A Beautiful Mind, and it’s pretty easy to give the movie a hard time to, but I like it nevertheless. In the spectrum of biopics that become tedious and predictable as their subjects drown in seas of drugs and trash, A Beautiful Mind has the advantage of being about a person who is actually really interesting. Yes, it’s got all the Oscar-pandering tactics in it, and yes, Ron Howard doesn’t really do much that isn’t more or less obvious, but it’s a very engaging story…competently made and effective. That being said, however, it didn’t deserve Best Picture…not by a long shot.
Stiffest Competition: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
I know many that regard Fellowship as the best of the LOTR movies (most well-made, perhaps), and, as the first one, it was also the one that shook the world a bit and turned a lot of heads. Anyone who thought this was just going to be some geek-centric fantasy distraction got their comeuppance big time when this movie hit theaters. And amid all of the other nominees, two of which (In the Bedroom and Moulin Rouge) didn’t score directing nominations and another (Gosford Park) that few actually saw, the only real threat that A Beautiful Mind had came thundering down from Middle Earth.
I liked Chicago a lot, and 2002 wasn’t a particularly amazing year for movies, so I really don’t have much of a problem with this film being the representative “best movie” of that year. Granted, it’s been since it came out that I saw it, and in all honesty I remember very little about it—although I definitely remember that it was a lot of fun. As a musical, it has a similar-ish format to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret in that none of the musical sequences are actually spontaneous “let’s all sing!” moments, but rather take place separately, on a stage, and serve as the Greek chorus of the film. It’s rather refreshing to see a movie like this win, though—Oscar used to be all about the musicals, but hadn’t given Best Picture to any since Oliver! in 1968.
Stiffest Competition: The Pianist
Let’s look at the nominees, shall we? Scorsese’s Gangs of New York had an impressive 10 nominations (plus a Best Director win at the Globes), but it walked away from the ceremony entirely empty-handed. The Two Towers was probably the least-hailed of the LOTR movies—plus they were waiting for Return of the King to start really rolling out the gold. The Hours had a lot of critical support but was also another one of those movies that peaked too early. As the winner of Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, I think it’s safe to say that The Pianist was probably the biggest hurdle that Chicago had to jump to win the Oscar.
2003:The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Among the best of the decade’s Best Pictures, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is big, grandiose epic filmmaking at its best—and it’s been pretty damn good. I’ve been a tough sell on the LOTR films over the years. It’s not because I’m a book purist—I’m just now starting to read the books—but because for awhile I just wasn’t the biggest fan of high fantasy, and it was that part of me that just blocked it out. I’ve since revisited the films a few more times, most recently watching them in their extremely long extended versions which actually pulled me in more than the theatricals.
There’s so much story, all of it so meticulously constructed and fascinating. I repent for my sins against this film and its predecessors—it’s really something else, and easily the most deserving of the somewhat lackluster other four nominees.
Stiffest Competition: Mystic River The film that would have been the frontrunner if not for LOTR, Mystic River was well-hailed, scored many nominations, and picked up two acting awards for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. Lost in Translation probably had a decent shot too, although Bill Murray losing Best Actor for his role in the film was a bit of a shock. The other two, however, Seabiscuit and Master and Commander, frankly were just happy to be there.
2004: Million Dollar Baby
I really liked Million Dollar Baby a lot. It lies somewhere between Rocky and mega-downer melodrama, but it’s a pretty engaging picture, complete with a trifecta of outstanding performances, which includes Hilary Swank who won her second Oscar for her work here, Morgan Freeman, who also won an Oscar, and Clint Eastwood who was nominated for his performance, but won (his second Oscar) for directing the film. It’s not exactly a happy movie—pretty damn devastating, enough to make one inconsolable—but it gets the job done with flying colors. Again, it wouldn’t have been my pick for the gold, but it’ll do.
Stiffest Competition: The Aviator
Most of the nominees here were long shots. Sideways had lots of acclaim, but was destined to fare better in the screenplay category. Finding Neverland was perhaps a little too small, and the hype over Ray was more for Jamie Foxx’s performance than anything else. The Aviator, however, took home the Best Picture Golden Globe, and was the favorite for the Oscar early in the season. Subsequently, it was nominated for a wealth of Oscars, including Picture and Director, but lost all the key ones.
The least deserving Best Picture winner of the decade is arguably Crash. To me, Crash is one of those movies that isn’t nearly as wonderful as its supporters say it is, and not as abominable as its detractors claim. The performances are very good, there are some very astute observations and a couple of genuinely powerful scenes, but what bugs me to no end about this film is the awful and painfully obvious dialogue which blatantly spells out of the movie’s themes on racism at every last turn. It’s a tough movie to watch at times—not for its supposed gritty realism, but because it feels like an ambitious high school play. To think of some of the movies that this film beat—Brokeback Mountain, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich, and Capote—it just makes me a little sad. This one’s a bit of a blot on Oscar history if you ask me.
Stiffest Competition: Brokeback Mountain
There have been only two modern-classic cinematic surprises that I can proudly say I saw coming. One was the ending of The Sixth Sense (which has since been done to death, but at the time seemed fresh), and the other was Crash upsetting Brokeback Mountain for the Best Picture win at the 2005 Oscars. The nomination itself was a surprise; it didn’t have much in the way of precursors, except for the SAG win, which many attribute to be the key cause of its Oscar win—there are lots of actors in the Academy…and as an ensemble film, there were lots of actors in Crash. On top of that, the Best Picture nomination showed that while most others forgot all about it, this early-May release sure left a strong impression on the Academy. Brokeback, however, was the movie on everyone’s lips and without question the one to beat. Well…it got beat.
2006: The Departed
If there’s a Silence of the Lambs of the Best Picture winners of the 00’s then it’s probably Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Like Silence, this film is first and foremost a genre picture—but, also like Silence, it’s a really great one. Based on Infernal Affairs, a Korean action movie, The Departed is an insanely well-crafted thriller that hits all the notes of its source material while improving upon it at every turn with that classic Scorsese style. It’s the movie that Scorsese finally won his Oscar for, and while it’s not his best, it’s an extremely well-made, well-acted, well-written, and incredibly entertaining movie. Does that mean it deserved Best Picture? Some would say yes, some would say no. Me, I’m perfectly fine with it.
Stiffest Competition: Little Miss Sunshine
Of the 2006 Best Picture nominees, Babel had won Best Picture at the Globes, but had some detractors (myself included), The Queen, great movie though it was, had peaked a bit too early, and Letters from Iwo Jima, the surprise art-housey Eastwood pinch-hitter after his Flags of Our Fathers had disappointed, was more of a case that nomination was its award. Little Miss Sunshine, however, was a very good movie, an audience favorite, and the Best Ensemble winner at SAG, as well as the WGA winner. Despite no Directing nomination, it still walked away with Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor. I’d say that if there was a runner-up, this was it.
2007: No Country for Old Men
I love the Coen brothers to no end—I’m a fan of every movie they’ve ever done—yes, even The Ladykillers. And so obviously I’m way into this one, although I have to admit that the movie is so faithful to the Cormac McCarthy novel upon which it’s based that I have a really tough time separating myself from the book whenever I watch it. However, that aside, it really is a pretty rich achievement, an honest-to-god modern western. If there’s an Unforgiven to The Departed’s Silence of the Lambs, then look no further than No Country for Old Men.
Stiffest Competition: Juno
I’d like to think that There Will Be Blood had a pretty good shot, but I think most people mainly focused on Day-Lewis’s performance before the film itself. Michael Clayton was one of those really good, really low-key movies that entirely deserved to be there but didn’t really have a shot. And though it won the Golden Globe, Atonement’s buzz had died way down. In the end, 2007 was another almost-unfortunate close call, as the stiffest competition for No Country was that of the remarkably overrated and consistently annoying Juno, which boasts one of the most irritating Oscar-winning scripts ever written.
2008: Slumdog Millionaire
Slumdog Millionaire is a one-of-a-kind film, and certainly quite powerful. It subscribes to the gritty slum-life City of God genre, but tells its story in one of the most innovative ways that I have ever seen, playing out like a wonderful, endearing fairy tale for our times. Out of all ten of last decade’s Best Picture winners, Slumdog Millionaire is probably the most original, and one of few that were truly great.
Stiffest Competition: Milk
The decade’s most unimpressive assortment of Best Picture nominees was easily that of 2008, in which I could only be really enthusiastic about one of them—luckily it was the one that won. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was timeless and grandiose, but really pretty hollow. Frost/Nixon was a bit paint-by-numbers, and The Reader…I just had issues with. I liked, but didn’t love, Gus Van Sant’s Milk, and as the winner of Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay, it probably posed the biggest threat to Slumdog, although it was definitely a year where there was no stopping that movie at all.
2009: The Hurt Locker
A mighty monumental achievement on a couple of different levels, The Hurt Locker was not only the movie that won Best Picture over nine other nominees but also made history by being the movie that earned the first Best Director Oscar for a woman. And I can safely say that on both of those accounts, the Academy made the absolute right decision. I’ve written enough about Hurt Locker already, so I won’t repeat myself. Suffice it to say that this film was a supremely solid close to the decade.
Stiffest Competition: Avatar
Though certainly not the film I would have alternately handed Best Picture to, whether I like it or not, the potential spoiler of the year was James Cameron’s big dumb environmental space epic. With an equal-to-Hurt Locker 9 nominations to its credit (although rightfully none for writing or acting) and the Picture and Director win at the Globes, not to mention sporting the impressive title of the highest grossing film of all time, Avatar was a pretty strong contender. If The Hurt Locker was going to lose, it was unfortunately going to be to this.
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2004: Million Dollar Baby
2006: The Departed
2007: No Country for Old Men
2008: Slumdog Millionaire
2009: The Hurt Locker