Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Look Back at the Oscars for 2002: 10 Years Later

This year, I thought I’d do something different and look back at the Oscars from 10, 20, 30 and 40 years ago. I wish I could go back further, but I missed two Best Picture nominees from 1962 – and too many of the acting nominees. I have seen every film nominated for Best Picture and Director from 2002, 1992, 1982 and 1972 – and the majority of acting nominees (and all winners), so I figured what the hell?

To start things off, let’s look back at 2002. I have ranked the nominees for Picture, Director and All four acting categories in order from MY choice of what should have won, to the weakest of the nominees, and added in an overlooked one for each category (limit of one per film, because what would be the point of telling you that Punch-Drunk Love was overlooked in every category). Debate away.

1.    Gangs of New York.
Save it. I know Gangs of New York is a flawed film, and yet I don’t care. It was my favorite film of the year back in 2002, and while now, 10 years later, I may well lean towards Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk-Love or Spike Lee’s 25th Hour or perhaps even Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report as the best of the year now, Gangs is still my favorite of the nominees – and the ONLY one that I revisit on a regular basis. Yes, there are flaws, but the things that work about it easily tower over everything else nominated. I have taken a lot of heat over the years for my love of Gangs of New York, but I don’t care. I love it, flaws and all.

2.    The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
I may well be alone in thinking that The Two Towers is the best Lord of the Rings films, but I do. I think it’s because we don’t have to spend a long time setting everything up as they did in Fellowship, and don’t have the countless endings of Return of the King. Instead, we get all action – great battle sequences, and Gollum, who dominates the movie. This is seen by many to be the weak sister of the trilogy, but it’s always been my favorite.

3.    The Pianist
Roman Polanski’s The Pianist is, to me, his best late period work (I loved The Ghost Writer, but Ewan McGregor’s character knocks it down a peg or two). It is undeniably a personal story for Polanski, and one that he tells masterfully – especially in the near wordless half hour segment near the end of the film. And yet, like many Holocaust films, The Pianist starts to blend together in your memory with the rest of them. We seemingly get a similar movie almost every year, and even if Polanski’s film is one of the best, it still isn’t quite as good as something like Schindler’s List, which really does stand out. A great film to be sure, just not quite a masterpiece.

4.    Chicago (Winner)
Chicago is pretty much just pure fun. The staging of the movie – part as a “real story”, part as  staged musical numbers, works out remarkably well. And the film is also well cast – from Renne Zellweger as the fame hungry starlet, to Catherine Zeta-Jones as the real star, to Richard Gere as the fast talking attorney to Queen Latifah as the prison matron, and best of all John C. Reilly, as the put upon husband. The film is just plain fun. Not a masterpiece or anything, but a film I catch bits and pieces of on TV often, and still enjoy.

5.    The Hours
The Hours is a rather heavy handed movie, looking at the sad lives of three women, in three different time periods. But as heavy handed as it may well be, it is still effective in some parts. I know most love Nicole Kidman’s segment as Virginia Woolf the most, and its fine, but I’ve always preferred Julianne Moore’s segment. The Meryl Streep one is the weak sister of the bunch, but she saves it. There were a lot of deserving films out there who could have (and should have) taken this spot, but it’s still a good film.

Overlooked: Paul Thomas Anderson really started down the path that has led to There Will Be Blood and The Master with Punch-Drunk Love, an extremely odd film that flips Adam Sandler’s antisocial film persona on its head. It may well be the best film of 2002.

1.    Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York
I don’t have much to add about this film other than what I said in the Best Picture segment, other than to say I do love some moments in Gangs of New York as much as anything Scorsese has ever directed – the opening scene for example is pure magic. No, it’s not his best work, but it’s still my favorite of the nominees.

2.    Pedro Almodóvar, Talk to Her
Personally, I prefer Bad Education among Almodovar’s films – that was the one where he pushed his style to the extreme, without ever quite tipping over as he has done in pretty much every film since then. But Talk to Her is a close second, masterfully directed by Almodovar, and an even better  written movie – which is why he deservingly won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. I wish Almodovar would get back on track, as when he’s on his game, we get films like this.

3.    Roman Polanski, The Pianist (Winner)

Again, not much else to say about this one that wasn’t said in the Best Picture segment. Masterfully handled by Polanski – especially the final sequence. The early scenes are a little familiar, but he makes up for it. Polanski may well be a pervert and a rapist, but the man knows how to direct.

4.    Rob Marshall, Chicago
Rob Marshall has spent the last decade trying – and failing – to make a film as good as Chicago. He tried going serious with Memoirs of a Geisha, but was weighed down by the subject matter. He tried regaining his musical touch with Nine, and a few moments aside, failed. He tried going blockbuster with a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and made us all miss Gore Verbinski. Perhaps this is as good as he’ll ever do. It is fine work.

5.    Stephen Daldry, The Hours
Poor Stephen Daldry, who has become one of the most hated directors on the internet, simply because his films keep getting nominated for Oscars when many think they shouldn’t. Personally, I think his best work is The Reader, but I don’t mind The Hours. No, it shouldn’t have been nominated, but that’s hardly his fault.

Overlooked: It’s impossible to feel sorry when the Academy overlooks Steven Spielberg since he is nominated so often, but his futuristic Hitchcockian thriller Minority Report really shows him at the height of popcorn film powers – and may not have the happy ending everyone complains about.


1.    Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York
I know there are some who pick on Day-Lewis’ performance here – he is too far over the top they say, his accent is wrong they say, but really, I don’t care. Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher is one of the best movie villains of the 2000s – a larger than life bad guy, who spews racist venom, and is a violent sociopath. He commands the screen, and makes everyone around him seem small by comparison. It is, for me, a great performance by Day-Lewis – the one that started his decade as the greatest actor in the world.

2.    Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt
From wildly over the top, to completely subtle. Nicholson is one of those actors who everyone loves, but is often criticized for just being Jack in every movie. No one can accuse him of that in his masterfully, understated performance in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt – where he plays a widowed mid-Westerner who has to deal with the fact that he has pretty much wasted his life, and no one really likes him. It is a Nicholson at his very best – I would have much preferred the Academy waited five years to give him his third Oscar, so he could have won for this, instead of As Good As It Gets – as Jacked up a performance as he could give.

3.    Nicolas Cage, Adaptation.
Cage earns every bit of the criticism he receives for making so many horrible movies where his talent is completed wasted, and when he simply goes batshit crazy in one of his movies for no apparent reason. Yet, when Cage is given the right role – seemingly only a two or three times a decade – he can be better than just about any actor around. Here, given the dual role of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who struggles to adapt an unadaptable book, and his twin brother Donald, who takes one of those screenwriting courses and thinks he knows every, Cage is brilliant. Along with his work in Leaving Las Vegas and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans, this is the best work Cage has ever done.

4.    Adrien Brody, The Pianist (Winner)

Brody won this year for two reasons – Nicholson had three Oscars already, Caine had two, and Cage and Day-Lewis each had one, so there was no reason to award them again, and second, the late breaking support for The Pianist almost made the underdog win the whole shebang. Oh, and because Brody is pretty terrific in the lead role. Like the film itself, Brody gets better as the film moves along, and that wordless sequence, although a directorial masterstroke, wouldn’t have been as effective without his performance. True, Brody hasn’t really capitalized on the momentum the Oscar win gave him, but he delivered the goods at the time.

5.    Michael Caine, The Quiet American
The fact that Michael Caine is fifth on this list is not a shot at the performance – this is truly one of the strongest Best Actor lineups in memory. Caine is excellent as a British journalist in Vietnam in the 1950s. The film is a romantic triangle on one level – with Caine bitter when a young American steals his mistress, but is also a political movie about America’s involvement in Vietnam – which as we all know would grow in the coming years. Caine’s performance is quietly masterful in the film. Yes, I would have loved to see someone else nominated (Edward Norton in 25th Hour for example), but you won’t hear be complain too much about Caine’s nomination.

Overooked: Edward Norton was given the best role of his career by Spike Lee in 25th Hour. As a drug dealer with only 24 hours to go before he has to report for a long prison stretch, Norton is at his intense best, as he parties, but realizes that he has essentially wasted his entire life. A great performance by a great actor.
1.    Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven
Far From Heaven was probably the critics favorite film of 2002 and many were very disappointed it didn’t get into the top race. At the time I was hoping Moore would pull off the upset and win this award, but alas it was not destined to be (Moore remains one of the best actresses working right now without an Oscar at home). Her performance as a 1950s housewife, whose world is shattered when she finds out her husband is gay, and at the same time is drawn to an African American gardener, truly is the best performance of her career – and Todd Haynes’ tribute to the Douglas Sirk movies of the period is one of the most visually gorgeous films in a long time. It should have gotten more awards recognition.

2.    Diane Lane, Unfaithful
Sometimes great performances come from the most unlikely places. Diane Lane’s work in Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful is a perfect example. On the surface, this is kind of an inverse of Lyne’s biggest hit Fatal Attraction, except this time things play out with far less bombast (which is probably why it wasn’t as big of a hit). Lane’s performance as the cheating wife is easily the best thing about the movie – it elevates the entire film. Too bad Lane has not been able to continue to get work this good since.

3.    Nicole Kidman, The Hours (Winner)

On Oscar night, everyone knew Kidman was going to win. There was just too much going for her – she was nominated the previous year (for Moulin Rogue) and lost, she was at the peak of her popularity as a movie star and celebrity, and she had a strong resume behind her. Not to mention the performance itself where she played a famous person (Virginia Woolf), who comes to a tragic end, and was a beautiful woman who “uglified” herself for the win. The Oscars sometimes make it easy to be cynical about these things, but Kidman’s performance really is quite good.

4.    Salma Hayek, Frida
As with everything that Julie Taymor directs, the visuals threaten to overpower everything else in the film. But Salma Hayek anchors the film, and keeps it from flying off the rails with her excellent performance as the famed Mexican artist. This was a passion project of Hayek’s, and it shows – she has never come close to being this good either before or since this performance, although part of that is the roles she chooses. Anyway, her performance her is excellent, and a career peak for Hayek.

5.    Renee Zellweger, Chicago
Renne Zellweger would eventually win her Oscar (the following year, for her god-awful performance in Cold Mountain), but much of the reason she won was because of her work here and in Bridget Jones’ Diary. She is excellent in Chicago despite the fact that she isn’t the strongest singer in the world – perhaps because she’s playing a character who isn’t the strongest singer in the world. Anyway, she’s fun in Chicago – at her perky best really – but I for one am kind of glad she doesn’t pop up in too many movies anymore.  

Overlooked: Perhaps the best performance of the year in this category was Isabelle Huppert for her brave work in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. As the sexually repressed teacher, who spirals dangerously down the rabbit hole into obsession, Huppert lets it all hang out, and delivers a raw, emotionally gut wrenching performance.


1.    Chris Cooper, Adaptation (Winner)
The one category I think the Academy got right this year! The strange thing about Chris Cooper’s performance in Adaptation is that he plays an admittingly weird character – and character many who read Susan Orlean’s book to be extremely strange – and yet in the movie version, he may well be the most normal person in the film. Compared to how crazy Charlie and Donald Kaufman get, or Streep’s Susan Orlean, Cooper seems downright normal. Cooper was a great character actor before Adaptation, and he remains one to this day – and far too often, these types of actors never win an Oscar. I’m glad he did.

2.    Paul Newman, Road to Perdition
The last great screen performance of a legendary career, Paul Newman is great as a mob boss, who makes the difficult decision to try and kill his surrogate son (Tom Hanks) in order to protect his screwup real son (Daniel Craig). Newman has never looked so old or fragile, and never seemed more vulnerable than he does here. I almost wish the Academy had not given him the Oscar for his average work in The Color of Money, and instead gave him this one.

3.    Christopher Walken, Catch Me If You Can
Christopher Walken so frequently whores himself out to any movie – no matter how low rent – that needs a crazy person, that it can be easy to forget just how good the Oscar winner can be in a normal role. In Catch Me If You Can, you plays an exceedingly ordinary man, whose son is the con man at the heart of the movie – and it brings him nothing but joy to live through his son vicariously. Walken’s role is small, but crucial to the movie – so much of the film is just a fun romp, that Walken helps to remind us that real people are involved. One of his best performances.

4.    John C. Reilly, Chicago
John C. Reilly had a great year in 2002 – co-starring in The Hours and Gangs of New York as well as getting his first (and so far only) Oscar nomination for playing the role of Renne Zellweger’s put upon husband. In many ways, this is the prototypical John C. Reilly role – lovable and lunk headed. There is no doubt what earned him this nomination however – his stirring rendition of Mr. Cellophane, which adds some real emotion to the film. It’s a fine performance, by a fine actor who will hopefully WIN an Oscar someday.

5.    Ed Harris, The Hours
Ed Harris is one of those great actors, who for whatever reason, has just never been given the role good enough to actually WIN him an Oscar. He has been nominated four times – this along with Apollo 13, The Truman Show and Pollock, which he directed himself, and is his best work to date. His role in The Hours is typical Oscar bait stuff – gay, dying of AIDS, suicide, etc but Harris elevates it. Not enough that he really should have been nominated, but he’s still quite good.

Overlooked: Probably the biggest surprise of Oscar nomination day was that Dennis Quaid was not nominated for Far From Heaven. Quaid seemed to have everything going for him – a solid career, a critically acclaimed role, in a critically acclaimed film playing a gay man (which the Academy continues to think brave for some reason). Yet, somehow Quaid missed the cut. That’s a shame because his work is quietly brilliant – and when he swears, it is among the most shocking moments of 2002. Perhaps it was because his co-star, Dennis Haysbert, was also great, so they split their vote. But Quaid should not only have been nominated – he should have won.


1.    Meryl Streep, Adaptation.
In my estimation, Streep’s work in Adaptation is better than two of her Oscar winning performances – Kramer vs. Kramer and The Iron Lady. And what’s more, it’s a different type of role for Streep – one that shows just how deft a comic actor she can be when she’s given the right role. Streep makes Susan Orlean into a fascinating character – completely different from the real one, but who cares? Her performance as an author in the midst of a mid-life crisis is both comic and touching – and some of the best work of her career.  

2.    Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
Bates became an unlikely movie star with her Oscar winning performance as the psycho in the Stephen King adaptation Misery. And she’s great in that movie. But she may well be even better in About Schmidt, as the mother of the man the title character is about to marry, Bates is a larger than life, Midwest creation, and she makes the most of her role. Her hot tub scene is all anyway talked about – and she is great in it – but the whole small performance leaves its mark. Bates is a great actress, and About Schmidt is one of her best performances.

3.    Julianne Moore, The Hours
While there is no doubt that out of Moore’s two 1950s housewives she played in 2002, this is the weaker of the two, I still think that Moore’s segment of The Hours is the strongest. She plays Laura, a woman with a husband she doesn’t love, a son she doesn’t understand, and really should have lived her life as a lesbian – if such a thing were possible in those days. More than the other women in The Hours, she is trapped by her circumstances, and just wants a way out. Moore makes her struggle real, in what could have been cliché. It is another wonderful performance by her.

4.    Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago (Winner)
I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time crapping on Chicago in this wrap up, and I don’t mean to. It’s a fine film, just not quite at the level of some of the others. The same can be said for Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance as Velma Kelly. She nails it – she has the vocal and dancing chops, and the looks to give Velma the glamour that is required of the character. You can hardly find a fault in the performance, other than to say it just isn’t as good as some of the other nominees. Sorry.

5.    Queen Latifah, Chicago
Queen Latifah is pretty much perfect as Mama in Chicago. She only gets one chance to truly shine – When You’re Good to Mama – and she absolutely nails it. But ask yourself – when compared to the other nominated roles in this category, do you really remember her as much? I don’t. She is perfect for what the role required, and yet I cannot help but think she simply got swept into a nomination because of how much the Academy liked the film.

Overlooked: Miranda Richardson could hardly have had a more difficult role than the one she played so brilliant in David Cronenberg’s Spider. Her character pretty much exists in the demented mind of the story’s main character – whose memories of his mother and stepmother, as well as his new landlady, all start to meld together – and Richardson has to play all three. It is a brilliant performance, and one that should have netted her an Oscar nomination – if not the win.

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