Monday, December 14, 2009

A Decade of Oscar Winners: A Retrospective

This week, critics circles, guilds, and one group of drunken journalists all announce their nominees for various end-of-the-year awards. Suffice to say that, by Friday, we'll have a fairly clear picture of the Oscar race. I'll run a piece on that later this week, but for now, I'd like to just look back at the Academy.
And how often they screw things up.
Seriously. Rarely does Best Picture go to the actual best film of the year. Too often, the process becomes mired in politics, playing nice, buying votes, and scheduling woes. Which isn't to say that good movies can't win, of course. I'm just saying that the best films often don't. So, for your viewing pleasure, here are the best picture winners of the decade, along with the other nominees they built. I'll whine for a little about them (or compliment them, you never know), then offer up my own nominee slate. Fun times!

2008: Slumdog Millionaire
Other nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader
I'll be honest; none of these nominees get me too excited. Slumdog is definitely the best among them (though The Reader has some great moments, and, admittedly, I liked Benjamin Button), but that's not saying a whole lot. Slumdog won because it was exactly what our country needed at the time: something fast, loud, and oozing optimism. It perfectly tapped into the zeitgeist surrounding Obama's election. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's a perfectly competent film. There just happened to be a bevy of other, more challenging, more advanced films for consumption.
My nominees, in order of preference:
1. Waltz With Bashir
2. Synecdoche, New York
3. WALL-E
4. Let the Right One In
5. In Bruges

2007: No Country For Old Men
Other Nominees: Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood
How fantastic: We're only two years in, and I can't find anything to complain about! 2007 was one of the best years for film in recent memory; it would have been almost impossible to not nominate five great films, and any of the nominees could be a worthy champion in any other year. Essentially, 2007 was awesome. Nothing more so than No Country For Old Men; a film that showed the Coens at the absolute top of their game. Adroitly paced, almost unbearably taut, lean, and full of dark, cynical insight, No Country wasn't just the best of the year: it's one of the best winners of the decade. And I can't even complain about the other nominees. All of them are of the honor.
My nominees:
1. No Country For Old Men
2. Sunshine
3. There Will Be Blood
4. Away From Her
5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

2006: The Departed
Other Nominees: Babel, Letters From Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen
This is tough: I can't say I agree that The Departed was the best film of the year, but it sure came close. It's certainly the best of the nominated films (though all of those, with the exception of Babel, carry my complete and total approval). Indeed, it's hard to deny the energy and forward motion of The Departed. Plus, it's Martin Frigging Scorsese. The Departed is a fantastic entry into the Academy Canon.
My Nominees:
1. Children of Men
2. The Departed
3. Pan's Labyrinth
4. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
5. Letters From Iwo Jima

2005: Crash
Other Nominees: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Goodnight and Good Luck, Munich
Ahhh. Crash. Crash. This. Was. A. Travesty. I'm not saying that Crash doesn't have powerful moments, and I'm not saying that Crash isn't a very skillful manipulator. But that's just it: the movie is great at manipulating the viewer into thinking they're seeing something good, when what they're actually seeing is ham-fisted, obvious, and subtle as a sledgehammer. How it won out over ANY of the other nominees (all fantastic films) as well as other not-nominated greats is almost unfathomable. But especially winning over Brokeback Mountain or, to a lesser degree, Munich. Both are modern masterpieces, and are many heads and shoulders above Crash. The Academy certainly dropped the ball on this one.
My Nominees:
1. Brokeback Mountain
2. Munich
3. A History of Violence
4. Capote
5. Junebug

2004: Million Dollar Baby
Other Nominees: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray, Sideways
Here's another year where the slew of nominees did nothing for me. It's once again the case that the winner is the best of those offered, but it's not a hard accomplishment. The Aviator was technically proficient but dead inside, Finding Neverland was shallow ant smarmy, Ray was all about the lead performance, and Sideways, though loved by some, was found by this writer to be misogynistic, slow, and utterly pointless. Million Dollar Baby itself is minor Eastwood. It's not his best effort, but is better than his worst efforts. It's a movie-of-the-week. Watch it, feel sanctimonious, forget it. End of story.
My Nominees:
1. Kill Bill
2. Undertow
3. Hotel Rwanda
4. Before Sunset
5. The Incredibles

2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Other Nominees: Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River, Seabiscuit
I have trouble arguing with this one. As a stand-alone film, The Return of the King is strong, but not strong enough to win over the others. As a piece of a trilogy, and as a cinematic accomplishment, The Return of the King (and, really, The Lord of the Rings) is staggering work that's nearly impossible to ignore. And that's what the Academy did here: the Oscar wasn't for Return of the King. It was for The Lord of the Rings, and it's hard to compete with three films, even if the competition is as fantastic as the other nominees (with the notable exception of Seabiscuit, which made me try to eat my own tongue).
My Nominees:
1. Lost in Translation
2. City of God
3. Mystic River
4. 28 Days Later
5. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

2002: Chicago
Other Nominees: Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Pianist
How the hell did Chicago walk away with this? I'll be the first to admit that Chicago is entertaining and well-made. But it's little else. There's nothing challenging or new about the film. It makes you smile for a couple of hours, then is promptly forgotten. Admittedly two of the other nominees were uneven efforts (Gangs of New York and The Two Towers), and the other two were too depressing and cerebral for most viewers, but that's no excuse. The Pianist or The Hours would both have made far more deserving winners than Chicago. And I haven't even mentioned all the films that weren't nominated that were better than Chicago. Geez.
My Nominees:
1. Y Tu Mama, Tambien
2. Minority Report
3. Adaptation
4. The Hours
5. Hable Con Ella

2001: A Beautiful Mind
Other Nominees: Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Moulin Rouge!
...I don't even want to talk to the Oscars right now. 2001 was a banner year for cinema, chock full of films that did new, bold things, played with content, form, style, films that revitalized dying genres, films that defied expectations, films with fascinating character studies, intense moments, and all general forms of greatness. And the winner was....A poorly made, slow-paced, shallow-minded biopic that has been seen 1,000 times before. Seriously, I think I saw A Beautiful Mind on Hallmark as a made-for-TV movie before it got a theatrical release. It's just embarrassing. All of the other nominees would have been incomparably better as winners than this perfect storm of retardation. (Side note, but where the hell was Black Hawk Down when it came to voting time? How did it not make the cut?)
My Nominees:
1. Black Hawk Down
2. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
3. Gosford Park
4. Moulin Rouge!
5. Memento

2000: Gladiator
Other Nominees: Chocolat, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Erin Brokovich, Traffic
Not a strong start to the decade, really. 2000 had some great films. Not many of them can be found in the nominees listed above. Gladiator is large, loud, and well-made. A great film it is not. Though, I understand that, out of the nominees, it was the only plausible winner: Chocolat and Erin Brokovich were flukes, Traffic was too clinical, and The Academy will burn in Hell before they give their top prize to a foreign-language film. But see, the solution to this problem is not to choose the lesser of five evils: it's to nominate the good films in the first place. Oh well.
My Nominees:
1. Almost Famous
2. Billy Elliot
3. Requiem For a Dream
4. The Virgin Suicides
5. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

The 2000s: A fantastic decade for films. Not a fantastic decade for Academy Award winners. If I had to list the winners by my preference, it would be as follows:

1. The Departed
2. No Country For Old Men
3. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
4. Slumdog Millionaire
5. Gladiator
6. Million Dollar Baby
7. Chicago
8. Crash
9. A Beautiful Mind

Honestly, only the first two have my first three have my complete approval. The next two are good enough, and then it's all downhill from there. And what's going to join this not-so-awe-inspiring list in March? The Hurt Locker. Please, please let it be The Hurt Locker. Finish the decade with a bang (pun not intended). Or who knows. I have lots of big, 'prestige' films left to see this year. Maybe Avatar. Maybe Up in the Air. Just...something good, OK Academy?

What do you think? Am I being too hard on these winners? Are these nine films a collection of cinematic gems that will resonate throughout the ages? Let me know.

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