Oscars 2003: If We Picked the Winners (Best Picture 2003)

When I look at the slate of Best Picture nominees from 2003, it appears to have been a true high-water…

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When I look at the slate of Best Picture nominees from 2003, it appears to have been a true high-water mark for the industries’ “epic” films. While we still suffer from the aftershocks of Hollywood’s obsession with “the epicness of epicdom” (two made up words, I know, but that’s just how self-consciously epic these films are), in 2003, the tone still felt new and fresh. These epic films were not only rewarded with successful box office receipts, but high critical praise as well (thus the Oscar nominations).

In the years following, while the box office receipts have remained consistent (or even increased), the grades from critics and enthusiasts have slowly fallen away as the genre has become increasingly stale. In 2003 though, we had mostly good films from the genre in our rear-view mirror, so the potential for the genre was promising and people were ready to bite on anything that had the slightest whiff of saga. This is why you see two films (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) with a colon in their title (a surefire sign of how epic a film is) among the nominees, and while Mystic River and Lost and Translation exist well outside the boundaries of the “epic” genre, I am tempted to throw in Seabiscuit into the “epic” mix as well.

There may be no swords, bows and arrows, or large battle scenes in Seabiscuit, but tonally it carries a lot of similarities to these films. The heavy use of cliches and conventionalities without the slightest sense of acknowledgment or self-deprecation, blatant ploys to smother the audience in sentimentality and exaggerated finales where everything comes down to “this one moment”, plague all three of these films, which should really come as no surprise, seeing as how the “sports” genre and the “epic” genre are parallels of one another (is a “game” not just a low stakes version of a “battle”?). The tone of the modern day sports film has also seen the same shift to overwrought drama that the epic has experienced in the last few years, which is why I feel Seabiscuit could easily be included in the group of epic films.

If I had my druthers though, which films would I have chosen in the stead of these epic films? Well my first pick would have been Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, an epic film in it’s own gritty sort of way. Loosely based on real events, City of God chronicles the rise of youth crime and gang warfare in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro during the 1970’s. Many branches of the Academy were sufficiently impressed with the film, as it managed four Oscar nominations (including a Best Director nod for Meirelles) and also appeared on quite a few “best of the decade” lists at the dusk of the aughts. Hardly a unique choice then, it’s just too bad there weren’t enough members in the Academy with the foresight to give it a nomination.

Tim Burton’s work post-1990’s hasn’t exactly been sterling, but in 2003, he made his one great film of the new millennium, Big Fish. While I didn’t have quite the level of disdain many had towards films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Dark Shadows, they definitely felt like films that were below the potential promised by Mr. Burton’s previous work. Big Fish though allowed Burton to mix his trademark surrealist aesthetic tendencies with the sort of sentimental narrative that best befits Burton’s personality. It’s just a shame the Academy didn’t see it that way.

Another film that I would have preferred to see as a Best Picture nominee over most of the actual nominees, is Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1. The level of violence in the film, as well as its action genre trappings, precluded it from ever being a serious contender for Best Picture. Other possible substitutes that I would have preferred over some of the nominees include the Harvey Pekar biopic, American Splendor, the Coen’s modern day screwball comedy, Intolerable Cruelty,  the Jack Black rock comedy, School of Rock, the dramedy about the life of a dwarf (starring Tyrion Lannister himself), The Station Agent, and the true story of 20th Century journalistic fraud, Shattered Glass.

As always though, we must come back to reality, so let’s get down to ranking the nominees.