Are the 1990s my favorite decade for movies? I’ve always considered myself partial to the 1930s, but in writing these posts, I’ve discovered that the 1990s are the only decade in which I’ve actually seen every single Best Picture winner. With the dawn on the new millennium, sadly, my enthusiasm for the Oscars started to wane, and as I look over the list of winners for this decade, I see that every single year except 2003 brought a movie I love substantially more.
So let’s get started:
2000: Gladiator [Good]
In a lot of ways, this Russell Crowe-starring sword-and-sandal epic about a military general reduced to a slave’s status and his thirst for revenge against the tyrannical Emperor Commodus is a tighter, grittier, less sprawling, less offensive Braveheart. It certainly holds up better as entertainment, with Crowe’s Maximus a powerfully sympathetic protagonist and good supporting performances by Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, and Connie Nielsen. Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Commodus is a bit polarizing, but having seen 2005’s Walk the Line, I have to give Phoenix credit for his astonishing range. (Movie I Love Substantially More: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.]
2001: A Beautiful Mind [Good]
Russell Crowe is back, this time playing a mathematical genius battling (and often losing to) schizophrenia. He’s quite good as John Nash, but it’s actually Paul Bettany, as Nash’s college roommate, who captures my heart and my imagination here. (Bettany hasn’t had quite the career I would have wished for him, but he’s great in everything I’ve seen him in.) Yet even though I’m putting the film in the Good tier, I haven’t felt much need to revisit it in subsequent years — unlike the Movie I Love Substantially More, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which I’ve rewatched many times.
2002: Chicago [Good, but Not for Me]
As a fan of musicals, I should eat this up, right? It does have plenty going for it: catchy songs, great choreography, and first-rate acting/singing/dancing performances from Catherine Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah. Yet the story, of an adulterous housewife (played by Renee Zellweger) with showbiz aspirations who is put on trial for murdering her lover, is so thoroughly cynical, with not even the slightest hint of any genuine sentiment as its characters use and abuse each other without conscience, that it alienates me. (Movie I Love Substantially More: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I’m also partial to Minority Report, one of the few Tom Cruise vehicles I actually enjoy.)
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [God-Tier]
Director Peter Jackson has made some regrettable missteps since he wowed the world with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, but these three films — and I consider this award honors all three films, since they tell a single story, just as J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels did — are still the gold standard for fantasy filmmaking. Those who dislike fantasy fiction, on both page and screen, probably wish that Lost in Translation, or Mystic River, or Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (which I did love) had taken the prize. But as a long-time fan of both fantasy in general and Tolkien in particular, I love, love, love these films, even though I acknowledge their flaws (most notably the rewrite they did on the character of Faramir, played by David Wenham). Not only are they wonderful films to swim in, but they also offer a break from the harsh, acerbic tone of so many acclaimed films of this period. Heroes do exist, and it’s pure pleasure to see them so powerfully realized on screen.
2004: Million Dollar Baby [Okay]
It’s been said often that Clint Eastwood’s boxing drama is actually two films. The first two-thirds is a triumph-of-the-underdog feel-good movie, with poor girl Maggie (Hilary Swank) punching her way towards greater self-esteem and a found family (Eastwood as her coach, Morgan Freeman as his right-hand man) far more loving and supportive than her loathsome biological clan. Then the movie does a hard pivot and transforms into a dreary, depressing meditation on quality of life and the relative rightness of euthanasia. Had it continued on its original path, it would have been solidly in my Good tier. But the last third had me banging my head (metaphorically, of course) and shouting that “this was not what I signed up for!” I felt betrayed, and I still do when I think about it. A far more tonally consistent portrait of despair is this year’s Movie I Loved Substantially More (and should have won Best Picture, darn it!), Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator.
(Note: despite my dislike of the twist, I have to acknowledge Million Dollar Baby as the last Best Picture winner of the decade to feature a female protagonist. We’re heading back into No Woman’s Land; the next female-led film to win the top prize will be 2017’s The Shape of Water.)
2005: Crash [Never Seen]
Favorite Oscar-bait movies of the year: Capote and Walk the Line.
2006: The Departed [Good, but Not for Me]
Martin Scorcese is hit or miss with me. Just two years earlier he won my allegiance with The Aviator, a biopic of tormented genius billionaire Howard Hughes, and I’ve enjoyed his costume dramas The Age of Innocence (nominated for Best Picture but doomed to lose in the year of Schindler’s List), Gangs of New York (in spite of the miscast Cameron Diaz), and Hugo. But I’m far less enthralled by his movies with contemporary or near-contemporary settings, in which there’s no fascinating window into the past to make the dark, uber-gritty violence and emphasis on the baser side of human nature more palatable. Still, this drama of organized crime and police corruption in Boston is well-made and well-acted, so I can’t argue it didn’t deserve the award, especially since the Movie I Loved Substantially More, Guillermo del Toro’s dark but ultimately humanistic fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth, didn’t have a shot.
2007: No Country for Old Men [Never Seen]
I have no interest in this film. This was, in my opinion, a rather weak year for movies, at least judging from what I’ve seen; Juno, Away from Her, and Ratatouille are probably my favorites.
2008: Slumdog Millionaire [Good, but Not for Me]
This dark but ultimately triumphant story of a young Indian Muslim man who faces down both class and religious prejudice to win a fortune and the girl of his dreams is one of those satisfying blends of grit and sentiment that I love to see win Oscars. But this film didn’t quite land with me. I couldn’t help noticing that while protagonist Jamal (Dev Patel), his older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), and even the game-show host (Anil Kapoor) were all interesting and compelling characters, Jamal’s love interest Latika (Freida Pinto), the only female character of any significance in the film, gets no substantial development beyond her function as love interest. Love stories in which one character has a personality while the other (usually the woman) remains a shadow are a pet peeve of mine. A more satisfying romance, and the Movie I Love Substantially More, is Pixar’s WALL-E.
2009: The Hurt Locker [Good, but Not for Me]
I remember this movie being a well-made film; I admired it when I saw it, but nothing about it has stuck. This year I have three Movies I Loved Substantially More: An Education, Inglorious Basterds, and Up. Inglorious Basterds would have been my choice for Best Picture.