THE LONG SHOT: Don’t look back in anger

Posted by · 2:20 pm · November 11th, 2009

Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback MountainFor all the movement in the awards game this week – Jeff Bridges leap-frogging into contention, the animation race swelling to five nominees, “Precious” continuing to gather momentum – my head hasn’t really been in it this week.

That’s partly because we’re all still making blind prognoses until four unseen juggernauts – “Nine,” “Avatar,” “The Lovely Bones,” and “Invictus” – finally deign to show their faces. And partly because I’m only looking forward to one of those titles with sincere movie-fan enthusiasm, as opposed to professional curiosity. Sometimes you just get the wholly subjective feeling that it isn’t going to be ‘your’ Oscar season – and while I’m not there yet, the fear is setting in.

So, with no current awards developments getting me particularly enthralled or incensed, I’ve spent most of my time lately in a reflective state. With ‘best of the 2000s’ lists already coming thick and fast, and my DVD trawl through the decade’s leftovers for my own list in full swing, Oscar’s own performance over the last 10 years has been on my mind.

As I discussed in this space a few weeks ago, it’s been a slightly schizophrenic decade of Oscar winners, one that has blurred long-held definitions of “Oscar-bait.” One does have to wonder about the identity or cultural relevance of any group that can alternately celebrate such disparate achievements as “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Gladiator” and “No Country for Old Men.” Who are these people, and what do they know?

But for once, I don’t want to labor the whining and sniping that makes up the awards-watcher’s default tone. For there have been both positive developments and treasurable individual moments across the past decade of Oscar ceremonies, beginning with the sweep of a film that many now choose to dismiss, but nonetheless suggested a fresh start of sorts for the Academy.

American BeautyYes, “American Beauty” was a film of the 1990s, but its five-trophy haul in the spring of 2000, breaking a seven-year streak of period pieces in the Best Picture category, had a whiff of new millennium thinking about it. No, the film wasn’t revolutionary. But it was risqué by Academy standards, and did attempt to engage with the zeitgeist in a way that voters prized on-and-off throughout the decade. (Even a frolic like “Chicago” was dressed up by media as an allegory for modern celebrity culture.)

This kickstarted a self-imposed facelift of sorts for the Academy, as the 2000s saw them sporadically engaging politics (notably in that still-touchy Best Picture battle of 2005) and redressing assorted cultural imbalances.

The number of non-white acting champs doubled, the first non-white Best Director was crowned, and small concessions were even made to foreign-language cinema (and not just from the Academy’s European comfort zone). Cinematic biases were addressed, not least of which was the unprecedented triumph of fantasy in 2003. Even the Best Original Song category played along, embracing hip-hop and world music for the very first time.

Not all of these efforts were successfully executed, and puzzling decisions still peppered the decade. (Did anyone, even the people who voted for it, think “A Beautiful Mind” was the very best film of 2001?)

But in the past ten years, the Academy has made a more concerted attempt to remain relevant than we usually give them credit for. For that, and before we plunge into this year’s shenanigans, I’d like to briefly celebrate the five best major-category choices this decade has given us.

Best Picture: For me, the triumph of “No Country for Old Men” was the category’s most daring artistic triumph since “The Deer Hunter.” (And it may not even have been the best of its field). Incorporating genre film, American psychology and jet-black comedy, it’s everything we thought a Best Picture winner couldn’t be.

Best Director: Forget the 2005 Best Picture kerfuffle for a moment. Ang Lee’s triumph for “Brokeback Mountain” not only made him the category’s first non-white winner, but one of only two directors to be honored for films in two languages. That the victory came for a film that itself broke social boundaries only made the moment sweeter, but it was all secondary to the simple fact that one of the medium’s greatest was getting his due.

Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be BloodBest Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis’s second win for “There Will Be Blood” smoothed over an egregious snub five years previously, broke a stultifying run of biopic winners and provided a face-saving major-category win for an immediate American classic, but most mercifully of all, it proved that the Academy still values eccentricity.

Best Actress: The film may be from 1999, but Hilary Swank’s win for “Boys Don’t Cry” amounted to a new-century landmark for the Academy: never had such a low-budget indie production finished first in one of Oscar’s top races, much less one with such a courageously queer sensibility. How fortunate that the moment coincided with the Academy honoring a performance for the ages.

Best of the rest: No win this decade delighted and surprised me as much as Pedro Almodovar’s Best Original Screenplay triumph for “Talk to Her”: that voters could put up with the film’s study of near-necrophilia, its Buñuelian vaginal fantasy sequence and its non-English dialogue to recognize the genius of its construction seemed indicative of unprecedented sophistication and worldliness growing in the Academy’s ranks.

Alas, it wasn’t quite to be – and the fluke-ish win was, in all probability, only enabled by the failings of the Best Foreign Film race to begin with – but it was a seed of hope nonetheless. As we head into a new decade of Oscar winners, and as I wrap up this very shapeless column, it’s that seed that keeps me going.

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73 responses so far

  • 1 11-11-2009 at 8:48 pm

    Speaking English said...

    I did. Theron is far and away best female performance of the decade, and best performance along with Day-Lewis (both roles).

  • 2 11-11-2009 at 8:51 pm

    davidraider88 said...


    Probably because “Monster” is already pretty much a forgotten film.

  • 3 11-11-2009 at 9:11 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Too bad. Hard to understand how such a transcendent, searing work of art can dissipate in one’s memory.

  • 4 11-12-2009 at 1:39 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Even though it eventually became predictable, I still think the Heath Ledger love fest last year culminated in the coolest Oscar victory since Kevin Kline in 1988.

    And go figure — look who introduced Ledger’s performance at the Oscarcast.

  • 5 11-12-2009 at 2:08 am

    mike said...

    Best Actor-Denzel Washington Training Day
    Best Actress-Halle Berry Mosters Ball
    Best Supporting Actor-Morgan Freeman -MDB
    Best Supporting Actress-Jennifer Hudson Dreamgirls

    Best Director-Martin Scorsese The Departed
    Best Movie-The Departed

    Best Original Song-Eminem Lose Yourself

    Worst Actor-Daniel Day Lewis There Will Be Blood
    Worst Actress-Charleze Theron- Mosters Ball
    Worst Supporting Actor-Alan Larkin. Eddie Murphy is the most talented person in movies and that was a slap 4 his non-ass kissing behaviour.
    Worst Supporting Actress-I dont even pay attention to this category i cant remember anyone.

    Worst Film-Gladiator
    Worst Director-Ron Howard
    Worst Screenplay-Borat

  • 6 11-12-2009 at 2:09 am

    Nigel Bridgeman said...

    OK, bests and worsts from me:

    Best Picture and Director
    Just before “The Aviator” lost I said on the Goldderby forums that the Academy would wait to honour Scorsese with the non-Oscar bait “The Departed”. Some people said that it was too much of a genre flick. I wish I had a link to that thread and remembered who said I was wrong. Oh well. “The Departed” and Scorsese for that very reason.

    Worst Picture and Director – A Beautiful Mind. Ridiculous.

    Best Actor
    The worst for me was Sean Penn. I really didn’t like him in “Mystic River” – to be honest, I never really liked him in anything apart from “Dead Man Walking” until I saw “Milk” earlier this year. My personal pick for Best Actor in 2003 was the unnominated Paddy Considine for “In America”.

    The best Best Actor was Adrien Brody. Sure, part of the reason he won was because he was the only non-winner nominated, but he still deserved it.

    Best Actress
    This category hasn’t really done much for me over the last ten years, so I’ll just go with Marion Cottilliard for being only thing approaching a surprise as the best one.

    Worst: Nicole Kidman. Give me a break.

    Best Supporting Actor
    Would Heath Ledger have won – indeed, even been nominated – if he hadn’t died? We’ll never know. That said, it was one of the few times that the Academy has gone outside the square and awarded a truly great performance in a genre flick. If only they weren’t so scared to do it more often (I’m thinking Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone).

    For worst, I’ll go with the Academy giving an Oscar to one of my favourite actors, George Clooney. He gave an Oscar-worthy performance, yes, but I hate it when the Academy gives A-list stars Oscars in the supporting categories. It’s just not right and I’ve never thought it right. Sigh.

    Best Supporting Actress
    Rachel Weisz was… I just can’t think of the words to describe her performance and what it did to me, so I’ll just say that hers was my favourite. It was also one of the best films of the year, so of course it wasn’t nominated for Pic, Director or Actor.

    Worst: Jennifer Connelly in “A Beautiful Mind”. One of the most boring performances in years, and the worst nominated performance since Kathleen Quinlan looked at the sky and cried for two hours in “Apollo 13”. Honourable mentions to Zellweger and Blanchett for the aforementioned “no stars in Supporting!” rule, although I liked the sentiment of giving Blanchett a lifetime achievement award for less than ten years in the movies.

  • 7 11-12-2009 at 4:05 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Okay, I knew it only a matter of time before the goodwill ran out and we started getting into “worsts”! For what it’s worth, here are my least favourite wins of the decade:

    Picture: “Crash”
    Director: Peter Jackson, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”
    Actor: Jamie Foxx, “Ray”
    Actress: Helen Mirren, “The Queen”
    Supporting Actor: Michael Caine, “The Cider House Rules” (for the sticklers saying that’s cheating, Morgan Freeman is next)
    Supporting Actress: Renee Zellweger, “Cold Mountain”
    Original Screenplay: “Crash”
    Adapted Screenplay: “The Pianist”
    Foreign Language Film: Nowhere in Africa”
    Animated Feature: “Shrek”
    Documentary Feature: “An Inconvenient Truth”

    I should perhaps explain that, despite my diss in the article, I don’t really dislike “A Beautiful Mind.” I’ve just never met or heard ANYONE who loved it. That makes it a truly perplexing winner to me. (Meanwhile, as you may have guessed, I wouldn’t have given it to “Fellowship” either.)

  • 8 11-12-2009 at 4:16 am

    Nigel Bridgeman said...

    The only thing I can think of re: A Beautiful Mind is that it became the frontrunner because everyone listened to everyone else and started to believe that it was worthy. When you think about it none of the other Best Picture nominees was really an Oscar movie either:

    Gosford Park – Robert Altman movie
    In the Bedroom – too indie
    LOTR:FOTR – fantasy (also, “Ooh, let’s honour the whole trilogy in two years!”
    Moulin Rouge! – too musical and wacky

    It probably won because it was the most Academy friendly, but I still don’t know what made critics and pundits install it as the frontrunner so early on – if memory serves it started becoming the favourite before the critics awards were being handed out.

    That said, looking at the other films nominated that year I can’t really see anything else that could have been friendly enough to win. It would be interesting to see 2001 repeated now, given that the Academy seems more open-minded than they were back then. Black Hawk Down? Amelie?

  • 9 11-12-2009 at 5:35 am

    Roger said...

    Guy: Thats a list of worsts that i would never expect… Are they Personal opinion worst or “General Quality” bad?

  • 10 11-12-2009 at 5:44 am

    red_wine said...

    The 2 most gratifying Best Picture nominations for me were There Will Be Blood, I thought it was too brilliant for the academy. And Letters From Iwo Jima, it really seemed to have no chance.

    I wouldn’t give the entire credit of No Country to the academy. It was pretty obvious it was gonna win. It had swept through the guilds, the academy just did what was expected of it.

    The best ‘Best Picture’ win for me is Million Dollar Baby. I wasn’t really into Oscars in 2004 and I had only seen Aviator and liked it a lot. And I thought it was utterly obvious that it was going to win. I was actually like wtf, MDB won? And then I saw the movie and I would now count it as 1 of the greatest achievements of this decade.

    The Best Director nomination has to be David Lynch. That film is just so splendidly loopy, kudos to the director’s branch for nominating it.

    Worst Winner: Gladiator

  • 11 11-12-2009 at 5:59 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Roger: Personal opinion, of course. What else can we go on?

    Red: True about “No Country.” But as we learned in 2005, the Academy doesn’t always do what is expected of it. So I give them some credit.

  • 12 11-12-2009 at 9:07 am

    Me. said...

    Peter Jackson being the worst winner of best directing? Are you serious Guy? The trilogy would not have been possible without his vision, both artistically and emotionally. He`s my second choice, right after Polanski.

  • 13 11-12-2009 at 9:23 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Least favourite” isn’t quite the same as “worst.”

  • 14 11-12-2009 at 9:55 am

    evelyn garver said...

    Great conversation! All Oscar buffs, especially those of us who have been watching for decades, know that winning can depend on the year’s social or even political trends, the acdemy’s mood, and the relative strength or weakness in each category. These factors are likely eternal. I do want to say that there are some artists whose work rises above all trends. Daniel Day-Lewis (who rightfully should have 3 Oscars) and Helen Mirren have achievements which will stand the test of time and astonish generations of critics and viewers. Adrien Brody should be so lucky!

  • 15 11-12-2009 at 10:29 am

    mike said...

    4 the cat that said how did daniel day lewis lose 4 Gangs Of NY, please explain to me, not a film connerseur but a regular average film fan that dips in and out certain years regarding Oscar, what was the difference betwween his GONY performance and There Will Be Blood. I know i aint no movie film expert that can write paragraphs on nuance etc like Manohla Dargis but 2 me, it was the same over the top method acting ish. thats real talk.

  • 16 11-12-2009 at 10:40 am

    Nigel Bridgeman said...

    DDL’s performance in GONY never did much for me either. Then again, I didn’t care for the film.

    He gave three of my all-time favourite performances in My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father and There Will Be Blood, so you’d like think I’d like him in Gangs of New York as well.

  • 17 11-12-2009 at 4:13 pm

    Louis said...

    Guess I’ll give my best and worst too, but many of you might want to discredit me from the start because I confess to hating DDL’s performance in There Will Be Blood.

    Picture: The Departed
    Actor: Adrien Brody
    Actress: Charlize Theron
    Supporting Actor: Chris Cooper
    Supporting Actress: tie- Swinton/Harden
    Original Screenplay: Eternal Sunshine
    Adapted Screenplay: Sideways

    Picture: A Beautiful Mind
    Actor: Daniel Day Lewis
    Actress: Halle Berry
    Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman
    Supporting Actress: tie- Connelly/Zellweger
    Original Screenplay: Milk
    Adapted Screenplay: A Beautiful Mind

  • 18 11-12-2009 at 8:11 pm

    Me. said...

    Great Best Actor pick Louis. Adrien Brody is definately the Best Actor of the Decade in my eyes (with Bruno Ganz in “Downfall”).

  • 19 11-14-2009 at 9:15 pm

    head_wizard said...

    Best choices
    Best Picture-The Departed
    Best Director-Ang Lee
    Best Actor-Daniel Day-Lewis-There Will be Blood
    Best Actress-Halle Berry
    Best Supporting Actor-Heath Ledger
    Best Supporting Actress-Tilda Swinton
    Best Adapted-Sideways and Brokeback Mountain
    Best Original Screenplay-Lost in Translation

  • 20 11-15-2009 at 12:36 am

    Patrick said...

    Interesting discussion! Here are my choices:

    Best Picture: Chicago (as much for reviving the musical genre as for its actual quality)
    Worst Best Picture: Return of the King (gack!)

    Best Director: Danny Boyle
    Worst: Peter Jackson (why does this man keep getting money?)

    Best Actor: It’s a motley crew, but I’ll go with Adrien Brody
    Worst: Jamie Foxx (his Ray Charles wasn’t bad, but you had to know we’d get a decade of crap as a result) and Daniel Day-Lewis (yawn)

    Best Actress: Halle Berry (no question)
    Worst: Reese Witherspoon (no vulnerability…is she made of plastic?)

    Best Supporting Actor: George Clooney (even though it’s arguably not a supporting role)
    Worst: Heath Ledger (won because he died; Alan Arkin’s a close second)

    Best Supporting Actress: Catherine Zeta-Jones
    Worst: Renee Zellweger

    Most Overlooked: the brilliance of Far From Heaven
    Most Overpraised: the most boring, unconvincing movie in history, Brokeback Mountain (with LOTR and Lost in Translation right behind)

    Okay, shoot…

    Best Actress:

  • 21 11-16-2009 at 11:26 pm

    Marvin said...

    I was actually disgusted that the Academy chose to award Howard over Altman and A Beautiful Mind over Gosford Park, one of my favorite films ever.

    I was delighted when they nominated Penelope Cruz for Volver and was thrilled that Cate Blanchett won for her Kate Hepburn performance in The Aviator.

    Ang Lee’s win was sweet indeed and so was Pedro Almodovar’s.

    Children of Men, Y tu mama tambien, Lost in Translation and Before Sunset garnering Oscar nominations was also nice to see.

  • 22 11-16-2009 at 11:30 pm

    Marvin said...

    Also I don’t think Chicago has held up over the decade.It leaves me flat now and I used to love this movie.