The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 2001-2002)
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.
Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind
Sean Penn, I Am Sam
Will Smith, Ali
Denzel Washington, Training Day
Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom
SAG matched 4/5. They had Kevin Kline for Life as a House instead of Will Smith.
BAFTA matched 2/5. Two Supporting nominees went lead there, which might have something to do with it. They only had Crowe and Wilkinson.
BFCA had 3 nominees and they all matched.
The Globes matched 3/5. They had Kevin Spacey for The Shipping News and Billy Bob Thornton for The Man Who Wasn’t There instead of Penn and Wilkinson.
Russell Crowe swept every single award. This is, statistically, one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history.
A Beautiful Mind is a biopic of John Nash. A mathematician. One in a long line of mathematician biopics. Those fucking rock stars.
The thing with Nash is, he thought he was working for the CIA and doing complex analysis. Turns out, nah, he was hallucinating the whole thing and was crazy bipolar. So we see him get treatment and go through some horrific shit and come out the other side.
This, to me, is Russell Crowe’s best nominated performance. He probably should have won on performance alone, and seems like he was just about going to, until just before the Oscars, when things turned on him. Also having won for Gladiator I’m sure didn’t help. In this category, I don’t see much else going on around him from a pure performance standpoint, and it’s gonna be tough to take anyone else.
I Am Sam is… it’s hard to talk about this in a post-“full retard” world. But here we go.
Sean Penn plays a developmentally disabled man trying to maintain custody of his daughter. He is actually a great father and provides a good environment for her, but pretty soon, at age six, she’s starting to become smarter than her. So we watch him fight a court battle so he can keep his daughter.
Penn is really great here. He’s committed, and affecting. This is a hard performance to take seriously because of what they did to it in Tropic Thunder, and also because these kinds of performances all too often come off looking like a stunt. So I get him not winning. But I really love the performance and think he’s a solid second, maybe third, choice after Russell Crowe.
Ali is a biopic of Muhammad Ali.
Will Smith plays Ali.
The movie is pretty good. Maybe Michael Mann wasn’t the optimal person to tackle such an important historical figure, but the movie’s pretty good. Though Will Smith, while this is a nice nomination on the surface — I don’t think he brings anything to the character. I feel like this is such a surface level imitation that he never quite captures the true essence of what Ali was. So, while I want to like this movie, I don’t think he’s anything more than a fourth choice for me in this one.
Training Day. Aww, yeah!
This is a badass movie and a great performance. I’m not even gonna get into the movie, because I can’t fathom that people haven’t seen it. But since not everyone grew up when I did and automatically saw this movie, I’ll give it a quick once over.
Ethan Hawke is a new police officer who is on his first day and is assigned to a partner, Denzel, a DEA agent who has a whole bunch of other shit going on that Hawke does not become aware of until much later on.
Denzel is pretty great here, even though this is his “Scent of a Woman” performance, where he gives in to a lot of ticks and habits that he’d continue doing after this. I love that he won for it, but I can’t say this is the best performance. This is probably fourth or fifth on performance and third, maybe second on awesome appeal. I get why they gave him an Oscar, but since I’m all about the best performance this time around, I can’t go for this.
In the Bedroom is a quiet drama, the likes of which you don’t really see at the Oscars in all the big categories.
Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek are New England parents whose son, just out of college, has started dating a 40 year old divorcee. They don’t love this, but seeing that he truly has feelings for this woman, they make the best of it. And then one day, her ex-husband comes over and shoots their son, spiraling them into a world of grief.
Wilkinson plays a man trying to keep everything on the level, even as grief slowly envelops his entire world. It’s a really strong performance, that quietly builds until the end of the movie. A lot of people would take him here, and I completely understand. Unfortunately these types of indie performances always feel limited to me. So as much as I respect it, I just don’t love it enough to take it. He’s a solid third, maybe second on performance, and probably third or fourth for a vote, just because I’d rather take other people.
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The Reconsideration: Russell Crowe gives the best performance in the category, and he’s my vote. Simple as that. Wilkinson is second, probably, but I don’t love the performance enough to take it. Penn is my second favorite on performance, but I can’t vote for him. And Denzel, I love the performance most of all, but it’s not the best. It just isn’t, and I think we all recognize this. And Will Smith is there on all accounts except performance, where he’s just good. so it’s Crowe for me. He’s got the strongest performance in the category, and is an easy choice.
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- Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind
- Sean Penn, I Am Sam
- Denzel Washington, Training Day
- Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom
- Will Smith, Ali
- Training Day
- A Beautiful Mind
- I Am Sam
- In the Bedroom
My Vote: Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind
Training Day is essential. Because what film buff hasn’t seen this movie?
A Beautiful Mind is a Best Picture winner, and that makes it essential. As a film, it’s really good, but it’s no masterpiece. Enjoyable but really only required because it won. Still a high recommend either way.
I Am Sam is a solid film that gets a solid recommend because it’s just broadly appealing. It’s not the best movie, but it’s fun. Definitely gonna miss with a lot of people, but it’ll hit with a fair amount as well.
Ali is a solid film that I give a solid recommend to. Because of the subject matter, star and director, most people will want to see this. As a film, it’s just pretty good. Definitely not as good as its subject matter deserves. But I’m not sure if there’s any movie that could achieve that with Ali.
In the Bedroom is a high recommend, really solid film but not essential unless you want to dig a little deeper and find some hidden gems. Only you’ll know if you want to do that or not.
The Last Word: Russell Crowe gives the best performance. Did he need back to backs? No. So logistically it’s fine that he didn’t win. Wilkinson wouldn’t have held up as a lead actor winner. Sean Penn would get two later (one great, one not so much) and Will Smith wouldn’t have been a good winner. Denzel actually seems okay, having an Oscar. Was this the best performance of his career? No. But it’s not the worst decision they ever made. Probably bottom 30% on performance, and below average all around. I’ve seen them make more egregious errors, but I find it difficult to have a problem with this one.
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Adrien Brody, The Pianist
Nicolas Cage, Adaptation
Michael Caine, The Quiet American
Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York
Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt
SAG matched 4/5. They had Richard Gere for Chicago instead of Michael Caine.
BAFTA matched 5/5.
BFCA had three nominees and two winners. And the two winners (Day-Lewis and Nicholson) matched. Robin Williams for One Hour Photo was the third.
The Globes matched 5/5 across both categories.
This one would have been easy to pick. There were six potential nominees and four of them were locked. And it was basically between Gere and Caine for the fifth spot.
As for the win, though, we all remember this as one of the most surprising results in Academy history.
Daniel Day-Lewis won SAG, BFCA (tie), BAFTA.
Nicholson won BFCA (tie) and the Globe for Drama.
And then Adrien Brody comes out of nowhere.
The Pianist is Roman Polanski’s masterpiece. Well, one of them.
Adrien Brody is a Jewish pianist during World War II. And we see him make his way through the war, enduring absolutely horrible conditions.
Five years ago, I said (probably) this was one of the worst decisions of all time. I rewatched this movie again about two years ago, and holy fuck, has my opinion changed. Adrien Brody is absolutely wonderful here. And he absolutely deserved to win this award. Do I take him? Not sure yet, but he absolutely deserved to be considered top two in this category.
Adaptation is Charlie Kaufman’s… well, maybe not masterwork, since they’re all fucking masterpieces. But this one is my favorite.
The movie is about Charlie Kaufman trying to adapt an unadaptable book about flowers to the screen. And we see him struggling with his many neuroses and trying not to bastardize the book and turn it into a “Hollywood” movie, faced with writer’s block throughout. And the wonderful thing is — oh fuck it, you already know. And if you don’t, I won’t spoil it.
Nicolas Cage plays both Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman, Charlie’s twin brother. I’ll… yeah. He plays both. And he’s fucking wonderful here. I love when Cage turns in these performances that remind you how well he can act. This one is so fucking good. Though as much as I love it, the sweatiness of it all, he’s only a fourth choice for me. I’d have put him higher in 2002 and I’d try to push him further in the moment. But here, he’s a third choice at best. I couldn’t really find a way to say he gives the best performance in the category, even though he gives a great one.
The Quiet American is based on a Graham Greene novel, and is one of Michael Caine’s really wonderful later-career performances.
The film is about a war reporter in Vietnam who is an opium addict. He basically stays out of everything until he befriends a CIA analyst who says he wants to create peace but is quietly helping stir up some shit. He also steals the man’s mistress, which is pretty fucked up.
Michael Caine plays the reporter, and it’s a solid performance. Definitely really worth the nomination, but he’s a fifth choice for me in this. Wouldn’t take him at all and don’t think he does enough to beat the top contenders in this one. But it’s a very underrated performance that most people would dismiss without looking at. But he’s much better than that, and I bet could rate as high as third or even second for some people if they really looked at it closely.
Gangs of New York is a wonderful, flawed film that represents the third renaissance of Martin Scorsese’s career. Or maybe second. Second seems more likely.
The film is about… well, it’s in the title. But mostly it’s about Leonardo DiCaprio as a boy who lost his father to a member of a rival gang during a gang fight, and then twenty years later he comes back, looking for revenge. And in doing so, he grows close to the man he wants to murder. It’s one of those stories.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, a ruthless man who is just so goddamn charismatic. He’d disappeared from acting for basically a decade. He was in The Boxer, but that didn’t get much notice. So he comes back and reminds people, oh fuck, he’s really that good. I can see why a lot of people would vote for him here, and he’d definitely make top two for me, even though this is a really strong category. I think the unevenness of the film hurts him, but he is definitely strong enough to overcome that in most respects.
About Schmidt is perhaps my favorite Alexander Payne film. I love it so much.
Nicholson plays a retiree who, after working for 35 years, now is home with nothing to do. He has no meaning in his life. His wife dies suddenly and now he’s just drifting. His daughter is getting married, and he decides to take a road trip out there to convince her not to marry the man. It’s such a beautiful film.
Nicholson gives perhaps his best later-career performance, and is quite wonderful here. It’s a wonderful mix of comedy and drama and works perfectly. Without the win five years earlier, they probably would have given this to him. And in a weaker year, they still might have given this to him. Though, as much as I love the film and the performance, I would take at least two other people over him. He’s a third choice for me and likely fourth for most others.
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The Reconsideration: This is one of the stronger categories of all time. Maybe top ten, even.
I don’t take Michael Caine, no matter what, so he’s out. Cage and Nicholson I love, but they flip flop for third and fourth. I think Nicholson gives the better performance, even though I’m more apt to vote for Cage. But whatever.
It’s really between Day-Lewis and Brody. And, even without knowing Day-Lewis would win two more after this, and basing it purely on performance — I take Adrien Brody. I think they actually made the right decision here. He’s really good, and it took me a while to realize it, but I completely agree with this decision now.
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- Adrien Brody, The Pianist
- Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York
- Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt
- Nicolas Cage, Adaptation
- Michael Caine, The Quiet American
- About Schmidt
- Gangs of New York
- The Pianist
- The Quiet American
My Vote: Adrien Brody, The Pianist
Adaptation is a Charlie Kaufman. His movies are essential.
About Schmidt is Alexander Payne. His movies are essential.
Gangs of New York is Martin Scorsese. His movies are essential.
The Pianist is essential. It’s Roman Polanski, won Best Director and Best Actor, and it’s just fucking wonderful. Every film buff must see this movie.
The Quiet American is a solid film. I don’t love it, but it’s good. Definitely worth a watch, but not something you need to run out and see.
The Last Word: Adrien Brody is, by no fault of his own, the least of the actors in this category and the one who didn’t need a Best Actor award. But on performance, this is one of the better decisions they ever made. He holds up the best on performance, and this was a great decision. Everyone else has Oscars. So, best performance, and logistically, it works. So great decision all around. And honestly, watch the performance. He deserved this.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)