Oscar Re-Do: 2004

As I have the last four years, I’ll look at the Oscars from a decade ago and see if the Academy really got it right (spoiler alert: usually not). Winners are in bold.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator
The Aviator
Finding Neverland
Million Dollar Baby

Should have won: The Aviator
Not even nominated: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

In most years, the Academy picks an unobjectionable winner, a nominee that’s usually good but not great. This was one of those years. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Million Dollar Baby. It’s a solid film, another Eastwood triumph, featuring strong performances and a good story. It’s just not the best nominated film of 2004, and certainly not in the same league as my personal pick for 2004, as well as the best film of the decade and probably the best film made thus far into the new millennium. Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is a biopic, true. But it’s head-and-shoulders above any of the other true life tales nominated since 2000. It’s alive and sprawling and wildly expensive, but it goes beyond mere re-telling of events. It’s a true exploration of one man’s genius and loneliness that drove him to become the hermit we picture in our heads. But even that’s got nothing on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which blew me away as a teen and still challenges me now. To avoid this post becoming a categorical reminder that the Academy missed the boat by relegating Eternal Sunshine to just two (well-deserved) categories, I’ll just quickly mention some of the other places they should have nominated it and move on: Best Director (Michel Gondry), Best Actor (Jim Carrey), Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), Best Supporting Actress (Kirsten Dunst), Best Film Editing (Valdis Oskarsdottir), Best Cinematography (Ellen Kuras), Best Original Score (Jon Brion), Best Visual Effects. Phew. Now that that’s out of my system, let’s keep going.

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of The Aviator
Martin Scorsese, The Aviator
Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
Taylor Hackford, Ray
Alexander Payne, Sideways
Mike Leigh, Vera Drake

Should have won: Martin Scorsese
Not even nominated: Alfonso Cuarón, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Scorsese did eventually win for The Departed, which is a great mob movie for modern times. But his skill is even more on display in The Aviator, which deviates from his typical work (which could also be said of lots of other Scorsese movies from The Age of Innocence to Kundun). It’s not just for swerving, but because he conveys powerful emotions in each era, but frames it all in Hughes’ passion for flight. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the few biopics that actually takes off. Cuarón also won years later for his stunning Gravity, but he was worthy of a nomination here (and for his previous movie Y tu máma tambien and his follow-up Children of Men) for what remains the best of the Harry Potter films.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator
Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda
Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Aviator
Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
Jamie Foxx, Ray

Should have won: Leonardo DiCaprio
Not even nominated: Paul Giamatti, Sideways

Look, I love Jamie Foxx. You probably love Jamie Foxx. If you don’t, I’m not sure what’s wrong with you. He’s doing a great imitation of Ray Charles in Ray. Taylor Hackford gave the comedian a great gift to play such a larger-than-life character, and Foxx rose to the occasion. I used to think this was a close race, but it’s really not. Leonardo DiCaprio is just mesmerizing as Howard Hughes. Plus, DiCaprio might be our greatest living actor now that Philip Seymour Hoffman has left this world. Yet he lost giving what might be his best ever performance. That’s as crazy as putting Kleenex boxes on your feet. And so is ignoring Paul Giamatti yet again. He’s the open heart and wounded soul of Sideways.

Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Annette Bening, Being Julia
Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace
Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake
Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby
Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Should have won: Kate Winslet
Not even nominated: Bryce Dallas Howard, The Village

How does an actress with two Oscars qualify as underrated? When her name is Hilary Swank, and she’s still rarely considered for any sort of mainstream role. She’s doing terrific work in Million Dollar Baby, finding inner strength when her outer strength is gone. But, again, she’s going up against Kate Winslet. Pretty much shattering the whole Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope before it took off, her Clementine is truly a “f—ed up girl looking for [her] own peace of mind.” It’s a performance that gets better the more you watch it, because Eternal Sunshine grows richer and sadder with every viewing. You know what else is underrated? The Village. The tide started to turn for M. Night Shyamalan here, but it’s unfortunate. Despite the advertised scares, The Village is a tale of bravery in the face of extreme cowardice. Bryce Dallas Howard, in her first leading role, is the perfect embodiment of that.

Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby
Alan Alda, The Aviator
Thomas Haden Church, Sideways
Jamie Foxx, Collateral
Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby
Clive Owen, Closer

Should have won: No complaints here
Not even nominated: David Carradine, Kill Bill: Vol. 2

As I’ve argued in the past, career achievement awards are acceptable, provided that the actor or actress is actually giving a good performance. Morgan Freeman isn’t doing anything spectacular in Million Dollar Baby, just giving another one of his gentle, lovely performances. That’s good enough for one of our national treasures. My favorite performance here is actually Jamie Foxx in Collateral, but the idea that he’s in a supporting role in that film is positively absurd. There’s a hardly a second when he isn’t on-screen. David Carradine, playing the titular mentor/torturer to Uma Thurman’s The Bride, deserved a little more recognition than the magazine and internet accolades, especially considering Alan freaking Alda got nominated.

Cate Blanchett in The Aviator
Cate Blanchett, The Aviator
Laura Linney, Kinsey
Virginia Madsen, Sideways
Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda
Natalie Portman, Closer

Should have won: No complaints here
Not even nominated: Sharon Warren, Ray

I love Cate Blanchett. I love Katherine Hepburn. This one’s a no-brainer. One of the best playing one of the best. The one praise I’d offer Ray (which I have significant problems with) is that Sharon Warren, as Ray’s mother, is almost acting in a different movie entirely from the rest of the cast, one that’s far more profound.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunset
Before Sunset
Finding Neverland
Million Dollar Baby
The Motorcycle Diaries

Should have won: Before Sunset
Not even nominated: Mean Girls

Sideways is a witty, often wildly funny film. But it’s got nothing on Before Sunset, which director Richard Linklater wrote in tandem with stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. This wistful sequel is one of my favorite movies of the decade, and it’s dialogue-driven narrative deserved this award, even if it’s a little difficult to argue how it’s competing in this category. What’s not difficult to argue, especially with a decade of hindsight, is that the Academy should have dropped its serious act, followed the Writers Guild’s lead and nominated Tina Fey’s blistering adaptation of the non-fiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes. You know it as Mean Girls, one of the 00s’ must enduring comedies.

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Aviator
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Hotel Rwanda
The Incredibles
Vera Drake

Should have won: No complaints here
Not even nominated: Shaun of the Dead

Easily one of my favorite Oscar wins ever. Some formidable contenders, but the Academy actually went with the weird, wonderful Eternal Sunshine. You can toss out an historical drama in favor of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s George A. Romero homage (a “zom-rom-com”), which combines all the bloody tropes of the genre in a loving package.

A scene from The Incredibles
The Incredibles
Shark Tale
Shrek 2

Should have won: No complaints here
Not even nominated: Team America: World Police

These days, you could fill this category with six or seven worthy contenders. But back in 2004, this was all you got. A pretty good sequel, Pixar’s latest masterpiece and the pond scum that was Shark Tale. If that was all we had, I would have expanded the definition of “animated” to include the marionette antics of Team America, which remains riotously funny and biting a decade later.

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