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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 2003-2004)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

2003

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

Analysis:

Lost in Translation. Let’s face it… this movie is essentially hipster porn. The fact that it got nominated for Best Picture and Best Director is something of a miracle.\

Bill Murray plays a washed up actor in Japan to shoot a commercial for Suntory whiskey. There, he meets Scarlett Johansson, a woman half his age who is there with her husband. He’s off working (and probably cheating on her) and she’s bored. So they become friends and go around Tokyo having adventures. It’s kind of a tragic film, since it’s clear they’ll never end up together, but it’s also quite great at the same time.

It’s one of those movies that really does not fit what the Academy loves. The fact that it got this far is one of those things I just cannot explain. It is a terrific movie though. Quite funny and poignant.

The direction, though —  think we all in agreement that if this isn’t #5 in the category, it’s #4. I give it props for having an energy about it that really feels like it’s a story that needed to be told. But there’s no way it’s making its way anywhere near a vote. This didn’t need to even be nominated here and we’d have been fine with it. So let’s not get ahead of ourselves on this actually being worth a win.

Mystic River. Clint Eastwood’s step back into respectability. It’s crazy how it just sort of happened overnight. He’d always been a capable director, and he won for Unforgiven and had a bunch of well-received movies in the 90s, but no one really took him particularly seriously it seems, and no one thought of him as a capable drama director. And then once this happened, it seemed like every movie he made was an instant Oscar contender.

The movie is about three men. As kids, they are approached by a guy who tells them to get in his car. One of them does, and the boy ends up being kidnapped and sexually abused. Cut to thirty years later. One is a cop (Kevin Bacon), one is a former criminal (Sean Penn) and the other — the one that got abused — is a construction worker (Tim Robbins). Penn’s daughter ends up murdered, and the whole investigation leads to a lot of secrets and things coming up to the surface that shouldn’t be.

The film is solid. It’s well-acted and has a top notch cast. Not sure Eastwood needed to be nominated here, but sure. If that’s the way you want to go. He and Coppola are bottom two in the category for me. And it’s a toss up as to how you want to rank them. Don’t think anyone would actually vote for this in this category.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I mean, yeah. It’s the trilogy capper. Maybe a bit too long, but at this point, it’s almost earned all the excess.

Make no mistake about it, Jackson earned this award (and the film likewise earned many of its awards) on an “achievement” basis. They awarded the entire trilogy and not just this film. Not to say this film wasn’t wholly deserving to win, because it is. But that’s just how it worked out at the time. Everyone knew exactly how it was going to go, and that’s just what it is.

Still, for the iconic imagery and the way Jackson made this universe come alive, I can’t see not taking him in this category. And yes, you do kind of have to give him the achievement vote. He made three of these things and each of them is worth a win. That does add up. I can’t see him being a 90+% consensus choice in this category (if we did do this legit and polled enough people).

City of God. Foreign nominee. Meirelles didn’t get a DGA nomination (maybe because he was non DGA?), and Gary Ross got one instead for Seabiscuit (which I’m totally cool with. I love that movie).

It’s a story about two men in Brazil, and the different paths their lives take. One of them is a photographer and the other is a drug dealer. The dealer uses the photographs to become more well known in his favela, and of course he and his gang grow and so do rival gangs.

It’s a good movie. I don’t think it’s a masterpiece, but a lot of people do. I think it’s fine that Meirelles got nominated. Some people are gonna say he’s for sure the vote in the category. I am not one of those people, but that’s fine, if you want to go that way. Don’t do so at another person’s expense, and I can be okay with that. For me, he’s a third choice. Solid, but wouldn’t vote for it.

Master and Commander. Peter Weir. I feel so bad for him. Always a #2, never a potential vote. Every time. This movie would have won a shitload of Oscars had it not been for Lord of the Rings.

Russell Crowe is a British sea captain tasked with taking out a French ship. And the film is mostly a duel between the scrappy British ship and the superiorly built French ship.

It’s a terrific movie. It really is. I loved this. Haven’t seen it since the last time I did the Quest, but honestly, if not for Peter Jackson, I’d have voted for Peter Weir. This movie is so well done. I can’t take him over Jackson, but I love this effort and wish I could have voted for him.

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The Reconsideration: Not a whole lot to reconsider here. Jackson wins this category on effort alone, and that’s before you even consider the previous two entries in the trilogy that he didn’t win for (one of which he wasn’t even nominated for). I think Mystic River is a wholly decent yet overrated (in terms of awards attention) film and would not vote for it. I think Lost in Translation is a great film, but the nomination in this category is the reward. I might even make the case that I’d take Eastwood over Coppola (won’t, but I could). City of God, I think is a good film, but I don’t love it the way other people love it and definitely wouldn’t nominate it. The nomination is also the reward there. And then there’s Peter Weir. Who would have been a 2 in a lot of years and is a distant 2 in this category. A shame, but no one’s taking down Peter Jackson, and I don’t think people vote outside of Jackson if they’re voting purely on effort. I feel like the way you vote elsewhere is if you go, “Well, we know he’s gonna win and we know he was great, but I want to vote for someone else to try to help them win.” Which I guess I can understand. But purely on effort, Jackson wins this. It’s completely deserved.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  2. Peter Weir, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
  3. Fernando Meirelles, City of God
  4. Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation
  5. Clint Eastwood, Mystic River

Rankings (films):

  1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  2. Lost in Translation
  3. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
  4. Mystic River
  5. City of God

My Vote: Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Recommendations:

Return of the King is essential. The entire trilogy is essential, and honestly how do you end up on this site without having seen them?

Lost in Translation has become iconic. With the big return of Bill Murray as a dramatic force, the famous last scene, and a lot of moments that will just appeal to people who like the same types of movies, this is worth seeing for all people. There’s a high chance you’re going to like this. Plus, it helps you get more into the Oscar conversation, allowing you to talk about what should or shouldn’t have won a bunch of categories this year.

Master and Commander is not essential, but is really great. And dare I say underrated. This movie really hasn’t been remembered all that well, but it’s fucking terrific. It’s almost becoming more of a hidden gem than an essential film. I highly recommend it, but you definitely don’t need to rush out to see it.

Mystic River gets less essential as each passing year goes by. However, it did win Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor (crazy, right?), making it essential for Oscar buffs. Plus, Eastwood, Penn, Robbins, Bacon, Linney, Harden, Fishburne — lot of familiar faces. Most people would want to see this on that alone. Plus, it’s just a solid movie. So it’s definitely worth seeing and you should see it. But you definitely don’t need to rush out and see this right now. It’s just worth it because a lot of people you like are in it.

City of God is a really solid foreign crime film. Not essential at all. This is one of those movies you could not see for a long time, and even when you’re really late on it and someone says, “I can’t believe you haven’t seen City of God,” you still don’t have to feel bad about it. It’s good, but it’s definitely not essential. The one thing that will make it seem essential (and I have no idea if this is still the case, nor do I really care) is that it’s stupidly in the top 40 of the IMDB top movies of all time. Which is kind of insane. But that’s the thing that’ll get you to see this more than anything else early on.

The Last Word: It’s Jackson. It’s hard not to take him on the effort alone, and that’s before you factor in the other two thirds of the trilogy. It’s clear they rewarded the trilogy as a whole, and they weren’t exactly wrong to do that. The whole thing feels really deserved, especially in a category like this, where there’s not a whole lot of competition. Eastwood and Coppola don’t even come close to being in vote conversation. Meirelles, I guess you could consider, but he feels like a #3. The solid entry whose sole strength is the direction, but not something you’d vote for. I guess you really could, if that’s what you think. And Weir feels like a 2, maybe a 3 depending on where you put Meirelles. He’s solid, and maybe you think about voting for him, but I feel like everyone would take Jackson over him. I honestly feel like this is a 90% Jackson, maybe Meirelles second, Weir third, and the other two getting a very small handful from die hards. This seems like Peter Jackson all the way, and I think everyone would agree with that, given what he achieved with that entire trilogy.

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2004

Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby

Taylor Hackford, Ray

Mike Leigh, Vera Drake

Alexander Payne, Sideways

Martin Scorsese, The Aviator

Analysis:

Million Dollar Baby. Ah, this movie. 2004 and 2005 were the two years where I was most misplaced in terms of my loyalties at the time. Because I was 16 and 17 and an idiot. But anyway…

This is about a female boxer. Hilary Swank is poor and in her 30s and wants nothing more than to be a boxer. But she’s “too old.” She goes to Clint Eastwood’s gym every day, trying to train, and eventually he takes pity on her and agrees to train her. So we see them training and getting close, and eventually she goes on a crazy run and makes her way to a championship match. But then something happens and the film completely shifts gears. I won’t get into what it is if you don’t know, but let’s just say that the movies has you emotionally in the palm of its hand for a long while.

The film is great, and I definitely see why the Academy voted with their emotions and got this a Best Picture win. In terms of this category, the direction is fine, but I don’t know if we all really think it was the best effort in the category. That said, there’s really not many other choices in the category, so this rises to the top pretty quickly. Definitely in contention, even though most years I wouldn’t have this higher than a 3.

Ray. This movie was always solid. The Best Picture, Best Director combo is fine, but I don’t think anyone would have said it needed it. But that’s what this era was. We’ll get into that with Capote next year. Really good, and definitely one of the better films and efforts of the year. But it feels like it got both nominations because it fits the mold of what they like over anything else. Still, though, solid is solid.

This is a biopic of Ray Charles. Most people couldn’t really recount what happens in it except that Jamie Foxx is fantastic. It’s a straightforward biopic. Nothing groundbreaking.

The direction is fine, but I don’t think anyone would take it. He ends up possibly as high as third simply because of how weak this category is overall. This is one of those years where, since there’s no #1, the vote is wide open, but all the efforts are all bunched up in terms of quality that there’s really nothing you’d want to take outside of the obvious two.

Vera Drake. Mike Leigh snuck on with the BAFTA vote despite the lack of a DGA nomination. (Marc Forster got one instead for Finding Neverland. Which — okay.)

It’s about a working class woman who really loves her family, but also on the side provides abortions. That’s pretty much it. Mike Leigh movies are short on plot, long on character development and performance. So there’s not a whole lot to say about them in terms of story.

It’s well acted, and a good film, but there’s no way anyone actually vote for it in this category. I’m surprised he got nominated. I’m always surprised when he gets nominated. But you have to realize — the directing here is him allowing his actors the freedom to find the characters and the story while they are shooting. That’s why he’s always here. It’s not the same kind of directing we’re used to seeing, so while it may seem strange to see him nominated, it does make sense. That said, I’m only okay with the nomination, and wouldn’t dream about considering him any higher than fifth (maybe fourth in this category)

Sideways. If you’ve read this site, you probably know my history with this movie. The short version — I didn’t really watch it the first time, was bored, didn’t like it, and then everyone loved it and said it was the best film of the year. And the 2002-2003-2004-2005 years were the ones where I really had defined opinions about what I liked and what I didn’t like  (14-17 are those years for everyone. High school.) So I’ve always had a general feeling of unease about this movie and always was adamant about not liking it. I sort of watched it again for the first round of the Quest, but not really. I watched it enough to confirm that I didn’t like it and left it there.

I am proud to say that I watched this movie, in full, just three weeks ago, and gave it another shot.

The film is about Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. Giamatti’s a writer who likes wine and Church is an actor reduced to voiceover work. They’re going up to wine country as a sort of bachelor party before Church gets married. And then they meet some women, and have misadventures, and mostly it’s about Giamatti finding love after a period of stasis.

The thing about this movie is how Payne took a bunch of character actors and made them leads. I get why people loved this. I like Alexander Payne movies very much. I think this movie is fine. And because I think it’s fine, that’s what always tweaked me when I heard that people loved it. There’s love, and then there’s love. I can accept non-italicized, but it always makes me curious when it’s the italicized version and I’m not even in the ballpark. It’s an enjoyable movie, but for me, it’s easily the weakest of Payne’s films, Election forward. (As of this moment, I’ve yet to watch Citizen Ruth, but I will soon enough.) I do think this is enjoyable, but I really don’t see the crazy love people have for it. But okay.

The effort for me is, if not the overall weakest in the category, then the second weakest. I think Payne’s strengths are in the writing here. I wouldn’t even think about voting for him, though in a year like this, I could see why people would consider it. Not for me at all though.

The Aviator. Show me all the blueprints.

This is a biopic of Howard Hughes, done by Martin Scorsese. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Chances are you’ve seen it. If not, chances are you will see it pretty soon after this, because it’s one of those films that crosslists with just about everything else you like.

The film is terrific, and the way Scorsese directs it is great too. The first act is entirely shot in two-strip Technicolor, to evoke the films of the era its portraying. It’s always fun seeing how Scorsese finds a way into a story.

The direction here is really solid. In most other years, I don’t know if I’d have this effort as the #1. But in this year, what the hell else are you gonna vote for? Without much deliberation at all, this category comes down to Scorsese vs. Eastwood. Neither feels like a strong #1, but that’s all we have, so that’s what you have to decide between.

– – – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This category is a good litmus test to see how people vote for Oscar categories. There’s really not a whole lot to take.

Mike Leigh is always a #5 for me in every Best Director category. No way in hell people would actually vote for him in this category. Alexander Payne is always a solid effort, but here, he’s no better than fourth. It’s just standard directing. There’s nothing you can point to in the effort that screams “vote.” It’s the writing, not the directing. Taylor Hackford is a solid effort, but again, don’t think anyone actually takes him. Though he is easily a #3 here. Maybe you put him fourth. But no one puts him higher than third. And then Eastwood vs. Scorsese — is that even a conversation? Million Dollar Baby is great, but no way do I consider that a better effort than The Aviator. Eastwood’s a solid 2 who would be a 3 most other years. Here, Scorsese stands alone as the only person who you can really consider for a vote. And even he might be a 2 in other years. It’s just a weak year for directorial efforts. (Though, even though I don’t like to speculate… Collateral, Passion of the Christ, Eternal Sunshine, even Kill Bill.)

So yeah, it’s either Clint or Marty. I think Scorsese takes this easily, though I could understand an Eastwood vote.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category and films):

  1. Martin Scorsese, The Aviator
  2. Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
  3. Taylor Hackford, Ray
  4. Mike Leigh, Vera Drake
  5. Alexander Payne, Sideways

My Vote: Martin Scorsese, The Aviator

Recommendations:

The Aviator is Scorsese, which makes it essential. It’s also really awesome, has a lot of references to old Hollywood, and won Best Supporting Actress. Lot of reasons to see this.

Million Dollar Baby is a Best Picture winner, a great film, and has become a bit of a cultural reference point the past decade. Not sure how this holds up further over time, but it is a great film and is basically essential as it stands at the moment. So you need to see it.

Ray is a great film and features a great lead performance. Jamie Foxx alone makes this practically essential. You don’t need to rush to see it, but a Best Actor winner and one of the great performances of the past 20 years, you should probably see it.

Sideways is Alexander Payne. And his stuff is basically essential. A lot of people love this film. I don’t. So I can’t recommend this film as highly as most people. But people seem to think this might be his best film. So you should probably see it because of that.

Vera Drake is Mike Leigh. You should see and be familiar with at least one of his films and with his style. This film per se isn’t particularly essential. But Imelda Staunton is good, and if you like Mike Leigh, you’ll probably like this.

The Last Word: The efforts are all solid in their own ways. To me, Payne’s is the most standard and seems least worth voting for. Some people might actually want to take it in this category. I would argue against that, but I can’t say you’re completely wrong, given the lack of a clear winner here. Leigh’s effort is more about how he constructed the film. Wouldn’t vote for him, but I understand him being here. Still, don’t think anyone could or would really take him for the win. An argument could be made for him, though. Hackford — ehh. It’s more the performance and he came along for the ride. I think he might get the least amount of votes overall if we gave this category to 100 random people who saw all the films. I don’t think there’s enough love for the film or the effort for people to actually take him. Which leaves Scorsese and Eastwood. They seem like the only choices. Looking at the films and the efforts, it’s gotta be Scorsese. At least for me. I can see taking Eastwood, I guess. But for me, Scorsese is the choice, and that’s without even taking into account that he hadn’t won until this point.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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