Oscar Re-Do: 2003

As I have the last three 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.

Russell Crowe in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Lost in Translation
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Mystic River

Should have won: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Not even nominated: Cold Mountain

It was one of the biggest sweeps in Oscar history. The Return of the King, the final chapter in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, won all 11 of its nominations. A decade later, that’s absolutely ridiculous. It wasn’t a fair fight for Best Picture, Director or Adapted Screenplay; it was three films against each one of the other nominees. But its complete sweep indicates the Academy in 2004 was either lazy or extremely impressionable. Its wins for Score and Original Song, the former of which Howard Shore had won two years prior, are particularly egregious. Literally every nominee was more deserving. It seems as though voters were just checking boxes every time the film showed up. Had it been nominated for Sound Mixing or Cinematography, it surely would have won those as well. So if we’re only comparing each film on its own merits, Master and Commander is the clear victor here, a grand high seas adventure that has never been attempted again outside the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. (Though I suppose you could argue this year’s nominee Captain Phillips fits some of the parameters.) That’s only the best of the nominees. The year’s best live-action film was Cold Mountain, which picked up seven nominations but not the one it deserved most. It was sadly snubbed for Best Director, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay as well.

Peter Weir (Photo courtesy of The Guardian)
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation
Clint Eastwood, Mystic River
Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Fernando Meirelles, City of God
Peter Weir, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Should have won: Peter Weir
Not even nominated: Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Again, this wasn’t a fair fight. Had it been, I’d have preferred Peter Weir win for his commanding direction of the film’s action scenes and genuine moments of camaraderie, but also for his outstanding career as one of Australia’s greatest filmmakers. Though I’m not sure who I would have subbed out, it would have been nice to see Tarantino nominated for his most visually inventive movie to date, which incorporated all of his loves into one awesome hodgepodge.

Bill Murray in Lost in Translation
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Ben Kingsley, House of Sand and Fog
Jude Law, Cold Mountain
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation
Sean Penn, Mystic River

Should have won: Bill Murray
Not even nominated: Javier Bardem, Mondays in the Sun

By now, this preference is common knowledge. Certainly not his funniest performance—that one will be debated for all eternity—Lost in Translation is Bill Murray’s finest hour as a capital-A Actor. There’s so much pain amidst all the cultural humor. His performance is basically a template for any comedian doing melancholy work. I’d prefer that to Sean Penn’s rage-filled tough guy. Javier Bardem, a few years away from his first and only win, deserved a nomination as an unemployed dock worker in Spain’s official submission from 2002. He’s so good and so natural, miles away from his great but offbeat work in No Country for Old Men and Skyfall, that it’s easy to see why he won his third Goya (Spain’s Oscar), on his way to picking up two more.

Charlize Theron in Monster
Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider
Diane Keaton, Something’s Gotta Give
Samantha Morton, In America
Charlize Theron, Monster
Naomi Watts, 21 Grams

Should have won: No complaints here
Not even nominated: Uma Thurman, Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Every other choice would have been more interesting, especially Keisha Castle-Hughes, but Theron’s giving the performance of a lifetime, throwing it all into a portrayal of a serial killer that’s at once terrifying but also deeply human. She will probably never be nominated again, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with honoring a lower-tier actress’s greatest accomplishment. Speaking of which, Uma Thurman in the first Kill Bill is nearly six feet of pure badass. But, y’know, she doesn’t weep uncontrollably, so who cares?

Emma Bolger, Djimon Hounsou and Sarah Bolger in In America
Alec Baldwin, The Cooler
Benicio del Toro, 21 Grams
Djimon Hounsou, In America
Tim Robbins, Mystic River
Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai

Should have won: Djimon Hounsou
Not even nominated: Albert Finney, Big Fish; Morgan Freeman, Bruce Almighty; Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cold Mountain; Paul Bettany, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; Peter Sarsgaard, Shattered Glass

There was simply an overabundance of great supporting male performances in 2003. You could easily make a category of five other actors and still have a fine representation of great acting. Djimon Hounsou gives the best performance of the nominees, a performance full of life that eschews any clichés about HIV-positive men. If I had my pick of anyone, it would easily be Albert Finney’s incredible portrayal as the dying fabulist in Tim Burton’s least characteristic work. Without him, the whole movie falls apart.

Renée Zellweger in Cold Mountain

Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog
Patricia Clarkson, Pieces of April
Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River
Holly Hunter, Thirteen
Renée Zellweger, Cold Mountain

Should have won: No complaints here
Not even nominated: Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation

We’ll never know if she would have fared if Universal had properly placed Scarlett Johansson in the lead category. But she’s equally as important as Bill Murray, even if her performance isn’t quite on par with his. Still, her portrayal of complete loneliness is so palpable, it almost becomes another character. She’s magnificent and hasn’t come close to achieving anything like it since. Zellweger’s “controversial” win still stands up today because she’s giving a great performance—particularly since she’s the only character not carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders—but also because it capped an incredible four-year stretch that quickly dissipated. When was the last time you heard about a movie she was going to be in? 

Sarah Bolger, Paddy Considine and Emma Bolger in In America
The Barbarian Invasions
Dirty Pretty Things
Finding Nemo
In America
Lost in Translation

Should have won: In America
Not even nominated: Love Actually

Lost in Translation is a pretty good story, but it’s the performances and camerawork that make it so memorable. In America is heart-wrenching and beautiful and authentic. Love Actually is the complete opposite. It’s a pure confection, but it’s so joyous and funny and gives showcases to some of the greatest British actors that it deserves a nomination as well. I mean, if trifles like Green Card and Crocodile Dundee and Splash can get nominated, surely a Christmas tradition can.

Hope Davis and Paul Giamatti in American Splendor
American Splendor
City of God
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Mystic River

Should have won: American Splendor
Not even nominated: Matchstick Men

At the time, I thought this was the only award Return wouldn’t win that night. Obviously I was wrong. The best choice here is definitely American Splendor, which does what too few biopics do: tell a person’s life story in an interesting way. Harvey Pekar has a great story, which he told well in comic-book form and Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini do a great job of adapting it into a truly unique film. I just wish there had been room for a terrific novel adaptation: Ted and Nicholas Griffin’s clever, twisty Matchstick Men, which marked one of the last times Nicolas Cage actually gave a thoughtful performance.

Nemo and Gill in Finding Nemo
Brother Bear
Finding Nemo
The Triplets of Belleville

Should have won: No complaints here
Not even nominated: N/A

Nothing to say here. Finding Nemo may just be Pixar’s finest film. Triplets of Belleville is a fine runner-up.

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