What makes an Oscar winner? I have no idea, really. But I can take a guess by watching each Best Picture winner, regardless of if I’ve already seen it, at random years, and then watching the two nominees with the most Oscar nominations for that year to find out, in my pompous assessment, if the Academy made the right choice. If I’ve already seen the subsequent nominee, I’ll move on to the next most nominated for that year.
The 77th Academy Award Best Picture nominees I watched: Million Dollar Baby, The Aviator (11), Finding Neverland (7)
[ bold = winner / italics = losers (nominations) ]
When I watched these: November 5th – 9th, 2017
The snacks: usual stuff – chicken taquitos, chips and dip, and mini tacos.
The year: 2004.
Did I skip any of the movies?: Nope.
So why did the other movies lose?
Poor Leo. Even with DiCaprio playing metamorphing roles such as Howard Hughes in The Aviator under legendary director Martin Scorcese, with the film garnering the most nominations AND Oscars for the year, wasn’t enough to wrest that Best Picture award away from Eastwood’s work. It’s possible Leo’s lingering typecast roles as heart-throbby characters in Romeo + Juliet, Titanic, and The Man in the Iron Mask made the Academy think twice about hoisting up The Aviator as the best of the best. Or perhaps, despite sharp coloring reminiscent of Technicolor 50s films and intense scenes like the plane crash and Hughes’ disturbing reclusion period (oh, the effects), the meandering plot and the surrounding characters were nearly forgettable. DiCaprio is certainly anchoring this film as the smooth talking and womanizing but misfortunately neurotic Hughes, and hereafter I’m sure critics began taking his potential and obvious talent more seriously.
While The Aviator proves to be the heaviest and most epic film of the group, Finding Neverland might be the most interesting and inspiring. Johnny Depp plays an equally transformative role as the historical playwright James Barrie, ironically alongside Leo’s Titanic co-star Kate Winslet, who plays widow struggling with four young boys desperate for a father figure in their lives. Barrie (Depp) takes up the opportunity to come alongside them, and is subsequently inspired to write “Peter Pan,” a tale about a magical place where nobody grows up. The film is laden with “moments,” often blurring reality and fantasy — a scene where Barrie sees the boys jumping on their beds, then imagining them taking flight out the window one by one is especially poignant. You might need a mop for all of the tears when you’re done with this one. But it’s not quite enough — possibly because the film “sacrifices” humanity by injecting these alternative realities, and occasionally plays the sentimental notes for a bit too long. But this is certainly my favorite of the bunch.
So why did Million Dollar Baby win?
2004 seemed to be the year of transformative roles. While we get a micro-glimpse of Clint Eastwood’s heart in the character of Frankie Dunn through the hardened leathery demeanor, we’re stuck with the same ol’ Eastwood at the outset. Enter Maggie (Hilary Swank), who comes to Frankie’s gym believing that fighting is the only way out of the rut of her life. The film arrives as somewhat cliche, but it takes a few turns that depict both Frankie and Maggie as incredibly human; the majority of the film is wrought with emotions. It also hits all the right Oscar-worthy buttons: social class, prejudice (both sexism and racism are prominently discussed), mental disorders, and the right to life. Swank is an absolute beast in the film — she IS Maggie, her pain and determination jumping off the screen from beginning to end; she fights until the very end. And shouldn’t we all? The movie resonates with a wide audience, which is why it gathered the Best Picture trophy.
The movie that should have won: Million Dollar Baby
Swank’s performance and Eastwood’s directorial masterpiece really grew on me. I was troubled by the movie on first viewing, and even turned it off during the second viewing through the IMDb Top 250, but it makes sense now as a landmark film. One film that didn’t get its due in 2004, however, is Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, a stunning movie starring Jim Carrey and — yep — Kate Winslet. It has a peer in Finding Neverland, but it’s put together even better, likely overlooked because of what Carrey typically represents in dumb comedy films.