LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: 2003 and 2004

Posted by · 9:34 pm · December 28th, 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

2003 belonged to “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” as it won every single award it was up for, tying the all time record haul of 11 trophies. Few could argue that Peter Jackson had accomplished something unique with the execution of this trilogy, but in my humble opinion, this is the most boring and bloated Best Picture winner since “Around the World in 80 Days.”

Throw in the fact that Tim Robbins in “Mystic River” and Renee Zellweger in “Cold Mountain” are both embarrassingly bad performances and you can start to realize why Oscar and I have agreed to go our separate ways. At least “City of God” nabbed a few nominations, causing a stir in an otherwise sterile race.

Clint Eastwood completed his transformation back into Oscar darling in 2004 with a Best Picture triumph for “Million Dollar Baby,” which also scooped up awards for Director, Actress and Supporting Actor, dooming Martin Scorsese to another year in the loser’s bracket.

Billy Crystal hosted in 2003, mistakenly thinking that constant jokes about New Zealand were going to be entertaining. At least we had this though.

Chris Rock took the reigns in 2004 and may have not won over Sean Penn, but I thought his bit interviewing moviegoers at the Magic Johnson theater about Oscar contenders was amazing. Anyway, hope you all watched “Pootie Tang” this week and are ready for some new suggestions.

2003 – “The Five Obstructions” (Jørgen Leth, Lars Von Trier)

Two weeks ago I wrote in this column that “American Movie” might be the best movie ever made about filmmaking, but now I’m considering a change of tune. “The Five Obstructions” is a sharp knife dissecting the process of an artist and everything that goes along with his art, made by two incomparable provocateurs, that somehow winds up being entertaining, engaging, thought-provoking and thrilling all at once.

The basic concept of the documentary is that Lars Von Trier has always admired a short film made by Jørgen Leth in 1967 called “The Perfect Human.” As an homage/experiment, Von Trier challenges his mentor to remake the film five times, applying an obtuse or ridiculous obstacle of his choosing before each new venture. Leth despises cartoons so one of the obstructions is a remake that is animated. Leth completes each task and the two watch the films over wine and discuss them. It’s like auditing a two person class, which may sound horribly dull to some, but anyone with a deep interest in the art of film will find plenty to glean here.

Critics may also dismiss it as wealthy, ego maniacs navel-gazing at great expense and expecting an audience to find their exploits interesting. Von Trier directly addresses this with an obstruction based on “ethics,” sending Leth to Mumbai to film a scene of himself eating a feast in front of starving local children. It’s a sickening scene, perhaps made even more so by the fact that the two filmmakers have been previously seen discussing other obstructions together eating caviar. But Leth finds a way to manipulate the scene so that it doesn’t violate his personal ethics and it’s a fascinating glimpse into the power of staging images that filmmakers can use and abuse.

Von Trier is well aware of his image amongst the media and his audience and he has fun with that here. Demanding, masochistic, fiercely intelligent and mischievous. So much so that some viewers were left wondering if the entire thing was less a documentary and more a wild hoax (almost a decade before Banksy, Joaquin Phoenix and a catfish turned that idea into the approach du jour for documentaries). While their scruples can be questioned, nobody can take these two to task for their unending devotion to the medium. Whatever their methods, the intention was always to make you think about the relationship between an artist and his art, and a viewer with his/her work.

2004 – “Undertow” (David Gordon Green)

While not my favorite David Gordon Green film, it’s in some ways his most fascinating work, and certainly the last thing of any substantial merit he’s put out to this point. Working with established movie stars and genre elements for the first time, he allowed himself to experiment wildly with his aesthetic, while staying true to his southern gothic sensibilities and Terrence Malick-inspired lyricism. It’s no coincidence that Malick himself served as a producer here.

The setting is rural Georgia and Green, along with cinematographer Tim Orr, do their best to stick you right into the mud. The atmosphere is steeped so thick that you can taste the humidity and smell the terrain. Even Jamie Bell’s southern accent somehow reeks of authenticity. Bell turns in outstanding work overall, completely inhabiting the posture, behavior and cadence of an American good old boy. Dermot Mulroney plays it a bit too stiff and somber while Josh Lucas has the time of his life in the villainous role of Uncle Dell. He spits and snarls his way through the film, effectively creating a magical balance between a sense of menace and the only comic relief in the picture.

Philip Glass contributes a terrific and trademark minimalist score and you just got the sense that here was an indie filmmaker raising through the Hollywood ranks and using his access to the big guns to compliment his unique voice. Perhaps the catastrophic failure of “Undertow” at the box office inspired Green to radically change direction, first with “Snow Angels,” (his first adaptation and first film set outside the South), and then “Pineapple Express.” It was unfortunate to be released by United Artists at the height of their ongoing bankruptcy struggles and the film never really stood a chance in theaters.

It might have never had a chance either way, since Green self-described it as, “There’s a lot of blood and slitting throats and knife fights and stuff. But then you sit back and look at the sunset.” He may be exaggerating on both ends of those extremes, but it’s the delicate shifts in tone that make the journey, and traditional storyline, so interesting to keep up with. The stylized opening credits alone are worth the price of admission for their schizophrenic, effects heavy, hypnotic effect.

Those are my picks. What do you guys think?

[Photo: Zentropa]
[Photo: United Artists]

→ 46 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Life Without Oscar

46 responses so far

  • 1 12-28-2010 at 9:46 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Have you seen Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “The Return” from 2003? That would be my pick – a haunting, biblical parable powerfully and poetically told.

    And I adored the 2003 ceremony. Perhaps partially because that was the first year I watched a full telecast, partially because I adore LOTR.

  • 2 12-28-2010 at 9:55 pm

    Chris138 said...

    Just saw “Undertow” recently. Immensely under appreciated.

  • 3 12-28-2010 at 10:17 pm

    RJL said...

    2003: Veronica Guerin
    2004: The Manchurian Candidate

  • 4 12-28-2010 at 10:20 pm

    RJL said...

    For some reason, I haven’t been able to post on this site for about a month. It appears that problem has been rectified so I’d like to re-submit my ideas for 2001 and 2002.
    2001: Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (If you have not seen this, try to find it. Beautiful.)
    2002: Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind

  • 5 12-28-2010 at 10:56 pm

    Beau said...

    Bloated? Boring? Really? Did you see ‘Gladiator’?

  • 6 12-28-2010 at 10:59 pm

    Rob T. said...

    I was OK with Return of the King winning the 2003 Oscar, but if the Academy had to honor one film in the trilogy it should have been the first.

    I liked The Five Obstructions a lot, both for the intrinsic interest of the filmmaking process and for the way Von Trier gets increasingly frenzied at being unable to force Leth into some sort of breakdown while Leth, at first skeptical and unenthusiastic, looks like he’s having the time of his life by the end of the film.

    My candidate for best film of 2003 not nominated for an Oscar would be Holes, for my money the most underrated film of the decade. (In this case, “underrated” means “I love it beyond all reason and everyone else thinks I’m crazy.”) Seriously, this film goes farther than most in pushing the boundaries of “family films”, both in terms of form (several intricately interwoven personal stories, some going back a century, using not just regular flashbacks but flashbacks within flashbacks to tell them) and content (trying to avoid spoilers, but I’m thinking of the unhappy fate of a certain pair of lovers). I know it’s a book adaptation (by the book’s author, Louis Sachar), but it could also be imagined as someone’s reworking of Lone Star for a “family” audience, retaining as much of that narrative’s complexity and history of violence as they dared.

    Among 2003’s nominees, my favorites are City of God and In America (My favorite sentimental film of the last 20 years, partly because it’s edgy enough to give us a good hard look at the possibility of an unhappy ending); I also liked Finding Nemo and Capturing the Friedmans a lot.

    Never seen Undertow, but now I’m curious. Of the various 2004 Oscar nominees, the ones I liked most were Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Incredibles, Hotel Rwanda and A Very Long Engagement. My favorite non-nominated film was, curiously, a movie-about-the-movies–Baadasssss!, Mario Van Peebles’s insider account (as a child actor and son of the auteur) of the making of Melvin Van Peebles’s landmark black independent film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Mario plays his own father, while Khleo Thomas (fresh from his portrayal of Zero in Holes plays young Mario. Obviously Mario’s view of the process is partial, privileging his relationship with his father, but his experience as a filmmaker also lends him some empathy for Melvin’s struggles to get the film made.

    I’m enjoying your series; thank you, and keep up the good work!

  • 7 12-28-2010 at 11:30 pm

    al b. said...

    Disappointed by your thoughts on Return of the King. My all-time favorite movie! I remember seeing it opening weekend when I was 12 and nothing before or since has moved me in such a way as Return of the King. I just saw it on Christmas as is tradition with my fellow movie nerds and it just reaffirmed its status for me as my all-time #1!

    And @Speaking English: That’s so weird! The 2003 ceremony was also the first full telecast that I watched mainly because LOTR was nominated!

    As for your choices Chad, I love Undertow! Hard to believe Green could create a film like that given his more recent work.

  • 8 12-29-2010 at 12:25 am

    Nauval Y. said...

    2003: The Door in the Floor. At least a nod for screenplay + Kim Basinger’s quiet, devastating performance.

  • 9 12-29-2010 at 12:45 am

    Andrew Rech said...

    2003 was kind of a hard year to find something. I’m going with 28 Days Later. Love the energy, the vibrant camera work and that empty London is just haunting.

    2004 I’m going with Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter….and Spring. A stunningly moving film, thematically and visually. The back drop of the seasons never feels obvious, and instead works perfectly synchronized with every other element of the film. The calligraphy sequence on the flood floors me.

  • 10 12-29-2010 at 1:47 am

    Dominik said...

    Totally agree about Zellwegers and Robbins highly questionable accolades. The supporting actress-category was shamefully weak in that year, but Benicio del Toro would have been a reputable option to Robbins for his great work in “21 Grams”.

    For 2004, my choice is “The Motorcycle Diaries” – was totally snubbed (except Best Song).

  • 11 12-29-2010 at 2:59 am

    AdamL said...

    Agree that LOTR is simply appalling.

    2003 – Kill Bill Vol. 1 (alternate: thirteen, which only scooped 1 nom)

    2004 – Goodbye Lenin! (alternates: Garden State, Stage Beauty

  • 12 12-29-2010 at 3:42 am

    Robin said...

    Interesting, because for me and I’m sure many others, seeing the LOTR trilogy finally get its due after two years of dissapointment and in such an emphatic way was a moment I doubt the Oscars will ever top from a personal perspective. To each their own.

    04 was like bad karma. I didn’t care about any of the films in that derby, ‘Sideways’ was by far the best but even that sits around the bottom of my top 10. The films of the year were ‘Before Sunset’, ‘Eternal Sunshine’, ‘I Heart Huckabees’, ‘The Incredibles’, ‘A Very Long Engagement’, ‘Dogville’ etc…

  • 13 12-29-2010 at 4:40 am

    Michael W. said...

    The way the Academy over-awarded Return of the King in 2003 was embarrassing to watch. Fellowship should have won picture and director. “Part III” is in my opinion the weakest link in the trilogy, which makes all the wins even worse. But hey, I’m over it now (sort of ;-) ). So let’s move on.

    My pick for 2003 would be Gus Van Sants Elephant. A very deserving Cannes winner and a terrifying and terrific piece of work.

    For 2004. Garden State. Simply wonderful.

  • 14 12-29-2010 at 5:37 am

    Simon Warrasch said...

    Sibel Kekilli and Brino Ünel in Head on, Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah for Kill Bill Volume I and II, Paddy Considine in In America, Nicole Kidman and Patrica Clarkson in Dogville, Michael Nyquist and Frida Hallgren in As it is in Heaven, Javier Bardem in The Sea Inside, Bruno Ganz in Downfall, Scarlett Johannson in Lost in Translation, Jim Carrey in The Eternal Sunshine of a Spottless Mind, …. those are just a few performances that the Academy has snubbed in 2003 and 2004!

    And not to forget the Movie: Seabiscuit!

  • 15 12-29-2010 at 5:53 am

    Maxim said...

    Return of the King is perfectly fine. The Two Towers was by far the best of the trilogy though.
    The best movie of 2003 was Lost in Translation.

    As for 2004, #1 is Before Sunset and #2 is The Terminal.

  • 16 12-29-2010 at 6:36 am

    bluemoon02 said...

    I understand Renee Zellweger’s performance in Cold Mountain was overrated but why was Tim robbin’s performance in Mystic river bad? Can someone please explain why, just am curious about the cliams here.

  • 17 12-29-2010 at 6:51 am

    DylanS said...

    Yeah, that surprises me a bit too. Robbins was incredible in “Mystic River”.

  • 18 12-29-2010 at 6:59 am

    Simon Warrasch said...

    I have noticed that there are some people who discuess if the performance given by Tim Robbins in Mystic River was bad!?

    For me Tim Robbins gave one of his finest performances ever! His performance of a man who has been abused as a child and who has been accused for the death of his best friends daughter was stunning! Sure, BUT for me – and i speak for mysleve – what Benico del Toro has done in 21 Grams was overwhelming! I mean the whole Cast: Sean Penn (who should have won the Ocsar for 21 Grams and not for Mystic River) Naomi Watts (who gave one of the best performances ever in cinematic history and should have won also the oscar over Charlize Theron), Benico del Toro (who should have won the Oscar too for this movie) and Mellisa Leo (who should have been nominated) were perfectly cast! They all blew me away!

  • 19 12-29-2010 at 7:14 am

    James D. said...

    Elephant and Dogville for me.

  • 20 12-29-2010 at 7:42 am

    JJ1 said...

    For me:
    2003 – Love Actually, Matchstick Men.
    2004 – The Notebook, The Manchurian Candidate.

    And as for Return of the King – it deserved the awards recognition it got. This wrapped up the most glorious epic trilogy I’ve ever seen. And I doubt there will be anything else like them ever again. It will probably be the last amazingly reviewed, Oscar-winning Epic we’ll ever have.

    Furthermore, Tim Robbins – he’s not my win for 2003, but he was superb. How could someone call that portrayal poor?

  • 21 12-29-2010 at 8:11 am

    PalCinema said...

    The under-appreciated films:

    2003: Pieces of April, Shattered Glass, Japanese Story, Bad Santa, The Magdalene Sisters, 11:14

    2004: Nobody Knows, Kinsey, I Heart Huckabees, De-Lovely, The Woodsman, Dear Frankie, Being Julia, Bad Education, P.S., Tarnation

  • 22 12-29-2010 at 8:26 am

    Jack Wyle said...

    2004: A Very Long Engagement

  • 23 12-29-2010 at 9:06 am

    JJ1 said...

    Yes, PalCinema, I too enjoyed De-Lovely, a lot from 2004.

  • 24 12-29-2010 at 9:07 am

    Cameron said...

    2003 – Oldboy
    Seriously, those who haven’t seen it need to sign up for Netflix and see it to believe it. Probably the only truly thrilling “thriller” I’ve seen in a good long while.

    2004 – Shaun of the Dead
    Need I say more?

  • 25 12-29-2010 at 9:16 am

    PalCinema said...

    Yes! Totally forgot about Shaun of the Dead!

  • 26 12-29-2010 at 9:28 am

    JJ1 said...

    Oldboy was too brutal for me. A friend of mine LOVED it, though. He had recommended it to me.

  • 27 12-29-2010 at 10:09 am

    Patriotsfan said...

    For people who think Winter’s Bone is patronizing towards the south (which it probably is a bit), Undertow is one of the most patronizing films I have seen. I guess I will have to respectably disagree with you on that choice.

  • 28 12-29-2010 at 10:10 am

    Patriotsfan said...


  • 29 12-29-2010 at 10:19 am

    Rashad said...

    2003 – Matchstick Men was sadly overlooked in every regard.
    Kill Bill Vol 1

    Out of the nominated, Master and Commander was my pick

    2004 – Kill Bill Vol 2 is one of Tarantino’s best works and should have been rewarded.

    Before Sunset was an amazing movie. Don’t see how this script lost to Sideways. Just can’t.

    Also The Village. People were misled by marketing into thinking this was a horror film.

    And why no Collateral? How the hell did Foxx get nominated but Crusie didn’t? I don’t get that shit.

  • 30 12-29-2010 at 10:20 am

    Rashad said...

    And I liked The Terminal a lot too.

    Sue me

  • 31 12-29-2010 at 10:50 am

    Scott C said...

    “Bloated and boring” – so true. Sitting through parts of it was excruciating. I strongly agree with the comment above that if any LOTR film was going to snag the Oscar, it should have been the first one.

    I’d say: 2003 – Lost in Translation (or Elephant or Northfork), 2004 – Bad Education

  • 32 12-29-2010 at 11:08 am

    JJ1 said...

    Fellowship could definitely have won in 2001, but ABM swept in; not to mention formidable challenges from Moulin Rouge and Gosford Park. The 1st LOTR was the best. That said, I’m fine with it’s wins in 2003 because the trilogy needed to be acknowledged.

  • 33 12-29-2010 at 11:24 am

    Henry M said...

    2003: Bad Santa
    2004: Garden State

  • 34 12-29-2010 at 11:58 am

    Kane said...

    I don’t think Tim Robbins was bad in Mystic River, maybe a bit over-acting in the “vampire” scene. But I don’t think he deserved the Oscar. I liked Benecio Del Toro far far far better.

    Say what you will about Return of the King being bloated and boring. It might’ve been overlong but it deserved every award in the technical categories, including cinematography (sadly not even nominated) and Peter Jackson directed the F**K out of that film. I do, however, favor Fellowship probably because of the magic I first felt :P

  • 35 12-29-2010 at 1:00 pm

    Jack Wyle said...

    Just wondering:

    How do you direct the f*** out of a film?

  • 36 12-29-2010 at 1:14 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Lots and lots of helicopter shots I guess.

  • 37 12-29-2010 at 1:24 pm

    Fernando said...

    Well, I agree with the comments of if the academy was to acknowledge LOTR trilogy it should have been with the 1st part.

    I’m just gonna ad that LOST IN TRANSLATION should have taken the golg home. It was the best movie of 2003. As finest as you get.

    and, Sean Penn? really. I mean, he was fantastic in mystic river. But Sean is never wrong, he obviously would have other chances to get recognision as he did with MILK, Bill Murray on the other hand, was likely to be in his only chance, and he should have taken the honors. It was a well acted and well performed character.

    Scarlett johanson should have been nominated as well, and Sofia as a director. What a shame she wasn’t the first woman ever to win for best director.

  • 38 12-29-2010 at 1:33 pm

    Jeremy said...

    I didn’t like “Undertow” at all, and I thought Renee Zellweger was terrific in “Cold Mountain” (though I had some issues with Tim Robbins in “Mystic River”). Oh well.

    2003: The Matrix Reloaded. For me, probably the most unfairly maligned movie of the past decade.

    2004: Shattered Glass.

  • 39 12-29-2010 at 1:40 pm

    Kane said...

    Maybe not the correct wording I should’ve used but Jackson poured his heart and soul into the making of all three films. In my opinion I can’t imagine many other filmmakers pulling off a task as complicated as making those films.

    And lots and lots of helicopter shots can be done by anybody, ask Michael Bay. But Jackson made me care about every character.

  • 40 12-29-2010 at 1:43 pm

    Joe7827 said...

    2003: Holes. While I may not have reasoned the same way as Rob T, I agree with what he said.

    2004: The Terminal. I really liked the creative energy behind it. And it’s about the only thing Catherine Zeta-Jones has ever done that I liked her in. What an underrated movie.

  • 41 12-29-2010 at 1:58 pm

    Cameron said...

    @ Jeremy

    Totally forgot about Shattered Glass. Why Peter Sarsgaard wasn’t nominated baffles me to this day.

  • 42 12-29-2010 at 2:01 pm

    Maxim said...


    I saw Collateral and The Village the same evening and liked both, though I’d give preference to the former, as it is a truly great film.

    And I don’t understand what Ebert was thinking when he wrote that ‘The Village’ review. It works quite fine as a fable and suprised that he didn’t see it as such. I do think that, whatever Shyamalan’s later missteps, the movie wasn’t that dumb.

    And I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said.

    By the way, The Holes had a pretty talented director behind it. Kind of wish he made another character driven action film.

    P.S. I can write an essay on The Terminal.

  • 43 12-29-2010 at 2:07 pm

    Maxim said...

    “2003: The Matrix Reloaded. For me, probably the most unfairly maligned movie of the past decade.”

    Was there really that much of a negative outpour towards that film after it came out? Or did it happen after the (all things considered underrated Matrix Revolutions came out)?

    I think that Wachowskis could do an awesome Superman film, by the way.

    All things considered, Return of the King had little in the way of actual filler and bloat. I think that Jackson should be comended on having this much plot be this watchable. He did deliver a great adaptation, I just wish he kept the Two Towers editor around.

  • 44 12-29-2010 at 2:14 pm

    Jeremy said...

    Maxim: Fair point. I think “Matrix Reloaded” was adequately received (if still underappreciated) at the time of its release, but over the years, a consensus seems to have developed that “Reloaded” and “Revolutions” were jointly terrible and somehow tainted the greatness of the original “Matrix”.

    Also, I’ll throw “The Village” into the same category of unfairly maligned pictures. It’s a shame that it was so poorly regarded, as Shyamalan seems to have lost his way since.

  • 45 12-29-2010 at 3:38 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Damn it! I wanted a Hilary Swank joke from you Chad.

    Tim Robbins won because he’s Tim Robbins. They decided not to honor Bill Murray and in doing so made it quite logical for the men of Mystic River to sweep. I detest Penn’s first win – “Is that my daughter in there?” – No it’s someone else’s.

  • 46 12-30-2010 at 11:09 am

    Craig said...

    I can understand how someone would find ROTK bloated (though I find it perfect), but no way is it more bloated or boring than Titanic.