Second verse, same as the first: this time we look at the Best Picture nominees from 2000 to 2009, working backward. That’s why we begin with the first year in which the number of films that could rank among the Best Picture nominees expanded from the traditional five to as many as ten. I don’t know whether the official explanation for this was because the Academy caught a lot of crap for not nominating The Dark Knight (five more potential slots means a less exclusive club and therefore room for funnybook flicks), but it’s the explanation I believe in, damn it.
Best Picture nominees: The Hurt Locker • Avatar • The Blind Side • District 9 • An Education • Inglourious Basterds • Precious • A Serious Man • Up • Up in the Air
What a narrative it was: the divorced couple competing for the same prize. Though I did enjoy Avatar (but are there another four movies in it?), I was rooting for The Hurt Locker, and the Academy delivered. It would matter not at all were we to discover for sure that the consensus among voters was “Jesus, not that asshole Cameron again, with his ‘king of the world’ bullshit. Give it to his ex-wife—that’ll really roast his bolitos.” Besides, The Hurt Locker was just flat-out the better movie, confirming what many of us had known since at least 1987: Kathryn Bigelow is one of the great directors, and she just needed the right project at the right time to bust out.
The problem with widening the field from five to ten is that it makes it harder to say you’ve seen all the nominees. Of the ten in 2009, I still have only seen half: Mom’s and Pop’s films, plus Inglourious Basterds, District 9, and A Serious Man. Though I rooted hard for Mom against Pop, in any other year I’d have been good with Avatar winning. Sad to say, I don’t imagine setting aside two hours or longer out of my ever-decreasing time among the sentient to catch up with Up, Up in the Air, Precious, An Education, or The Blind Side. Especially The Blind Side. Fuck The Blind Side.
Best Picture nominees: Slumdog Millionaire • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button • Frost/Nixon • Milk • The Reader
Lordy, how I hated Slumdog Millionaire. Hated hated hated. Hated. Of course, it ended up with eight Oscars, including the big one. Benjamin Button will remain unseen by me because fuck Fincher, but I’ve seen the other three nominees, and I’d have no problem sleeping underneath the same big sky under which Milk or Frost/Nixon or even The Reader — tedious thing, that — was declared best of the best. As long as it wasn’t Slumdog fucking Millionaire.
But honestly, folks — why not The Dark Knight? Engaging as F/N is, it’s a two-hander, a filmed play. You could take it out with no damage done and substitute the Nolan. The Dark Knight takes pulp and elevates it with a high-serious gloss; we could be here all day nitpicking the script, but it’s obvious by now that what motivates Nolan is great sequences. He doesn’t much care about the connective tissue. You take all the big great sequences from Nolan’s films, stitch them together, and you have yourself Nolan’s 007 film. He’s making his Bond film piecemeal throughout his career.
But the Academy wasn’t yet ready to offer the big trophy to a comic-book movie; Dark Knight would have to content itself with a win for Heath Ledger posthumously, and for Best Sound Editing. It would take ten more years, in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, for the Academy to choke out a nod for Black Panther.
Best Picture nominees: No Country for Old Men • Atonement • Juno • Michael Clayton • There Will Be Blood
The right movie won; I remember the consensus being that it was between this and There Will Be Blood, and the other three nominees were there essentially to fill the category out to five. I like Juno and don’t mind the Codyspeak, but there is probably no year in which Juno could be reasonably shelved among the top five. Best Screenplay, sure. But as cinema it’s such a wee thing. I know I said what I said about Fincher, but he’s got a couple of bona fide classics, and Zodiac is one of them, and that could’ve been one of the five. Wanna know what isn’t one of the top five? Michael Clayton. Or goddamn repressed Atonement with its typewritten C-word thundering across the wide screen.
Michael Clayton wants to be a complex drama about how hard it is to hold onto ethics in this world, but it borrows its plot motor from Erin Brockovich and it effectively gentles Tilda Swinton into a cardboard bad guy who exists so that George Clooney can tell her off at the end. Of course, she won what will likely be her only Oscar for it. Regardless, 2007 was actually the last year in which I saw all the nominees.
Best Picture nominees: The Departed • Babel • Letters from Iwo Jima • Little Miss Sunshine • The Queen
Goddamn it, all the legitimate masterpieces Scorsese should’ve won for, and he finally wins for this empty, gimmicky shit. It’s as though Spielberg hadn’t won for Schindler’s List but for A.I. or something. People who at least accept its win tend to favor Scorsese’s crime movies over his other kinds of movies — his spiritual films, say, or his cinematic statements to the effect that “This is where I am now on the subject of entertainment.” For me, this was the latest in a decade-long fallow period, from which Scorsese only fully emerged with Shutter Island.
It’s not as though the competition were fierce. The Queen basically is Helen Mirren; it functions as a delivery system for that Mirren performance. Letters to Iwo Jima was surprisingly thoughtful coming from late-late-period Clint. Little Miss Sunshine was this year’s Juno: give it Best Screenplay, and Arkin earned what was basically a lifetime achievement award, but Best Picture of the year? C’mon. Babel showed the first tremors of artsy-fartsy been-there-done-that in Iñárritu’s work — and it was only film #3 from him. 2006 was kind of an awful year, if you really look at it.
Best Picture nominees: Crash • Brokeback Mountain • Capote • Good Night, and Good Luck • Munich
The Green Book of its day. The scuttlebutt was that a lot of older viewers just couldn’t hang with the gay-cowboy movie and went with the one that congratulated good liberals on their impeccable conscience. Ang Lee, at least, snatched Best Director away from Paul Haggis, who seems to have fallen from favor anyway (there were sexual-misconduct allegations against him, but he’s also a Scientology escapee, so take that into account).
I’ve seen all of these and the clear top cat is Brokeback. It seems like Capote and Good Night were, again, just delivery systems for great performances. Clooney is such an amiable, common-sensical kinda guy that you always want the movies he directs to be better than they are; Good Night is likely his best all-around effort, which doesn’t mean I’ve come close to watching it again in the last fifteen years. Munich was fine, the other side of Spielberg’s post-9/11 coin.
Best Picture nominees: Million Dollar Baby • The Aviator • Finding Neverland • Ray • Sideways
Oh, this racist, ableist, classist pile of shit. It came out of nowhere at the end of its year — much like Clint’s later American Sniper, come to think of it — and it dominated, absurdly, though its competition that year was pretty pallid. Two of them I missed, Finding Neverland and Ray, and who knows, I might give Ray a day in court at some point. The Aviator was bold and confident but, in memory, decidedly minor Scorsese — basically his Tucker: The Man and His Dream, and I liked it better when Coppola did it. Sideways, eh. Show of hands, who’s set out to watch it again lately? Whatever good will Alexander Payne had in this house dissipated for good with that ill-tempered crap Nebraska. Jesus, I think I’ve seen ’em all except Downsizing. Oh, well, nobody has seen Downsizing.
But yeah, fuck Million Dollar Baby in perpetuity. It’s not like it stole the prize away from anything sorely deserving, so I’m not angry it won. I’m angry it exists.
Best Picture nominees: The Lord of the Rings 33 1/3 • Lost in Translation • Master and Commander • Mystic River • Seabiscuit
This fucking thing with its eleven thousand endings. I started out a booster of the films, was even more so with the second, but the grand finale (ha! little did we know there were three Hobbit films and an HBO series on the horizon) lost me. I remember sitting in that damn theater just dying to get out into the fresh air, and the movie just … wasn’t … letting me go. It was inevitable that this would triumph, because the Academy was stalling for three years, holding off the Tolkien fanboys who demanded the first and/or second be honored, and I was like “Shut the fuck up, nerdstench, they’re waiting for the last one so they can retroactively acknowledge the trilogy.” Luckily for the Academy, the trilogy capper didn’t turn out to be Viggo Mortensen farting into a kazoo for 201 minutes.
But, whatever. What should have won? I enjoyed the smack out of Master and Commander, a rousing old-school adventure that didn’t have 917 endings. Lost in Translation was aces and should’ve won Murray the Oscar he was denied for Rushmore. It was good to see Robbins take it for Mystic River; his dark-tinged performance has aged better than Penn’s red-faced signifying. I know I saw Seabiscuit but remember very little of it. Was that the one with Diane Lane? No, that was Secretariat. Probably none of these four is a slouch, but nothing could’ve stopped the Peter Jackson juggernaut.
Best Picture nominees: Chicago • Gangs of New York • The Hours • The Lord of the Rings 2: The Squeakquel • The Pianist
The second of the perfectly fine movies to catch shit from the Shire-heads. How dare this … this musical, this women’s picture, this amusement park for gays, defeat our hero? So I’m of a mind to rate Chicago more highly than it probably deserves, but what the hell — it was a movie musical at a time that we weren’t getting very many of them (we still aren’t), presented by folks who (mostly) knew what they were doing.
To drive home the point that this was several thousand years ago, Roman Polanski won Best Director for The Pianist (which also took Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor). He couldn’t receive the award in person, of course. But the audience responded with a standing ovation when Harrison Ford read Polanski’s name. Ah, 2003. What were people thinking? Well, there was the small matter of George W. Bush getting us into a war right around then. That was the year a lot of acceptance speeches reflected our unhappy reality, including, famously, Michael Moore’s. As for one old guy who’d raped one girl (she was the only Polanski victim we knew about back then), he seemed to pale next to the death machine that had been kicked into gear.
Never saw The Hours — another homework movie. Gangs of New York I thought was god-awful — Scorsese making the damn thing because someone (Harvey Weinstein! Wow, 2003!) finally gave him the money. And I have to be honest and stare you all full in the face and say that I, back there in 2003, found The Pianist riveting and moving. I never said I was perfect. Oh, and the Academy booted Polanski in 2018.
Best Picture nominees: A Beautiful Mind • Gosford Park • In the Bedroom • The Lord of the Rings 1 • Moulin Rouge
Yeah, have a nice tall glass of shut-the-fuck-up, D&D fanboys. A Beautiful Mind gets a lot of things wrong, but it’s an honorable and well-carpentered fable about a man at war with the same organ that brings him respect. True, it’s about a real man who had a real affliction, and if you know anything about either of those subjects you’re going to harrumph through the whole thing — but it’s a movie. Russell Crowe is terrific in it, Ron Howard did a pretty good job of transcending his Ron Howardness, and basically any movie that wasn’t Moulin Rouge would’ve gotten my nod of approval that night. Is there any reason to watch Gosford Park or In the Bedroom now? I still haven’t been arsed to look at them. Maybe if I do an Altman Year, Gosford will finally get its day in the sun.
The Oscar ceremony that year, the first post-9/11, was full of blather about how we need Teh Magik of Moobies “now more than ever,” as Tom Cruise intoned in his keynote address. Woody Allen made a rare television appearance introducing a Nora Ephron tribute to New York — hey, it was 2002. We were assured that the show must go on, because — yes, literally someone said this — if the Oscars are cancelled, “the terrorists have won.”
I still haven’t rewatched any of the Lord of the Rings films since they were in theaters. The extended editions? Have you lost your whole mind? Yeah, that’s what those things needed, to be longer.
Best Picture nominees: Gladiator • Chocolat • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon • Erin Brockovich • Traffic
You’ll have to tell me if this throwback with extremely shaky computer effects holds up twenty years later, because I’m certainly not planning to sit through the Christ-damned thing again. Better this than Chocolat, though — I can scarcely believe that poodle fart of a movie even got released as is, much less got Oscar nominations.
Soderbergh competed with himself, bringing Erin Brockovich and Traffic to the table, and won Best Director for the latter, with all its gimmicky color-coded narrative jumping. I preferred the former and was happy to see Julia win for it. Crouching Tiger won four Oscars, but damn, wouldn’t it have been something if it had pulled a Parasite and told all the American contenders for Best Picture to sit the actual fuck down?
Now for the stuff I think shoulda won. Trying to stay away from nominated films here:
2000: Ghost Dog— I mean, there’s no question. I didn’t even really have to look at what came out that year.
2001: Hedwig and the Angry Inch — There was a period where I wore out the Broadway and movie soundtracks. Never saw it onstage, though.
2002: The Rules of Attraction —If Roger Avary was only put on earth to make this film (ignoring his handful of others), it’s a good ‘un.
2003: American Splendor — My favorite comic-book movie.
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — There should be a Kaufman and/or Gondry film on here, and this may as well be it.
2005: A History of Violence — This would’ve been the perfect time for the Academy to salute Cronenberg, not that he’s ever cared about that.
2006: The Fountain — One of the Aronofsky efforts that really hit dead-bang for me.
2007: Southland Tales — I’m fond of it.
2008: WALL•E — A certain handsy film critic once groused that the hand-holding scene amounted to rape. I guess he would know.
2009: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans — Every seventeen years some gutsy actor should do his or her or their own riff on the basic premise of a cop lost in addiction and self-abuse. We’ve still got five years to find the right actor.