Thursday, September 5, 2013

Riske Business: Oscar Flashback (2004)

This week’s Riske Business features Patrick and me using the 2004 Best Picture race as a launching point for a discussion about those films, the Academy Awards and a whole bunch of tangential goodness. Hope you enjoy!
2004 Best Picture Nominees:
The Aviator (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Finding Neverland (dir. Marc Forster)
Million Dollar Baby (dir. Clint Eastwood; WINNER)
Ray (dir. Taylor Hackford)
Sideways (dir. Alexander Payne)

Adam: I remember in 2004 being really impressed with the nominees for Best Picture. The thought  "Wow, finally a year where they only picked movies that I like" crossed my mind. Back in its original release, I was super impressed by The Aviator's movie-ness, which I thought made it stand apart from most biopics. It felt like a biopic for a guy who deserved a biopic -- rarely the case with this genre. Finding Neverland made me cry, which is the only thing I can remember about it. Side question, does a movie making you cry automatically make it a good movie?

Million Dollar Baby really worked for me at the time, too. Super sad, but surprising. I also thought the ending raised a lot of interesting questions and stayed true to the characters. Ray was a movie I liked, but it's like giving a Best Picture nomination to Jamie Foxx. I had to work overtime convincing myself it was more than a good movie. I didn't think it was a great one. This circles back to my comment about if the subject deserves a biopic. I don't think Ray Charles does exactly. He was a genius, he was blind, he philandered, he did drugs, and he owned the masters to his music. The last part especially rings hollow to me. He owned the masters to his music. Am I, as an audience member, supposed to be like "Woo-hoo...I'm so happy for him"? I think the movie I liked the most was Sideways because it was just really f-ing good. It was a comedy that was funny, a drama that was interesting, great performances, good screenplay. It seemed the most un-fussy to me.

Patrick, back in 2004, did you think this was a good Best Picture race? What did you think of the movies back then?
Patrick: I remember there being a lot of movies I liked that came out in 2004, but very few of them are represented by that Best Picture pool. It didn't bother me then, just as it doesn't now, because I had already given up on assigning any significance to the Oscars several years earlier (right around the time Russell Crowe won Best Actor for Gladiator). At the time, I thought Million Dollar Baby was really good and powerful, so I was ok with it being nominated (and winning). I have wanted to go back and watch it again exactly ZERO TIMES in the nearly 10 years since. There's a lot to like in The Aviator and maybe it's due for a re-watch, but it's always felt to me like another Gangs of New York—great stuff in there, but a mess overall. Ray is a good performance/impression and has moments of energy, but the movie is kind of lousy (and the fact that Taylor Hackford was nominated for Best Director would disgust me if I gave a shit -- the man already gets to go to bed with Helen Mirren, he doesn't need a participation trophy). Finding Neverland is well-acted garbage, taking the fifth slot because Miramax always gets one in there. The only movie out of the group that I still really like is Sideways which, if I were giving out the awards, would have won easily.

I don't want to turn this into a rant against the Oscars, but looking at this list of nominees after not thinking about it for a decade just proves how irrelevant the Academy Awards are. Because my gut reaction to reading that group was "REALLY?" I'm positive that's not the best 2004 had to offer. Eternal Sunshine isn't on that list. Looking at the nominees now, it's like someone drew five movies out of a hat.

Also -- yes, a terrible movie can still make you cry. My wife and I cried at The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Not because the movie is good (it is not), but because it was the first movie we went to see after having our first kid and the movie ends with a little baby boy QUIETLY DYING. It was awful, and we were in bad shape. But that was about us and not about the movie being good, which, again, it is not.

Are there movies from 2004 you would have rather seen nominated? Are there any movies on that list that you think have stood the test of time? And should that even be a qualification for what gets nominated or recognized?
Adam: I really don't get this Helen Mirren thing. Who decided she was super fine? It seemed to happen around the time of The Queen. Wasn't it a boner shrinker for everyone when she won her Oscar and said "Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Queen!"? She doesn't make me AARP is what I'm saying. But I digress. Staying on Oscar speeches for a second, remember how Jamie Foxx went through a period where he may have thought he was Ray Charles?

I agree with you that Sideways is the only one of the Best Picture group that I would stop and watch on TV. Shockingly, I own all of these movies on DVD and think I have watched them a combined two times since I bought them. Finding Neverland, Ray and Million Dollar Baby are still wrapped.

While I don't think the five nominated movies were the best 2004 had to offer, I have to say that looking back on the list of movies from that year, I can see why they were chosen. 2004 was a good year for fun movies, but there wasn't much else. I like Eternal Sunshine, but it's never been a movie that I've ever loved. It's a little too Urban Outfittersy if you catch my drift. I really like Before Sunset, Spider-Man 2, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Friday Night Lights. Those four are movies I could re-watch today, especially over the five nominated picks. I guess those four plus Sideways would be the five I'd want nominated. How about you? What would you have like to seen get recognized?

I think a movie standing the test of time should be taken under consideration. Since the Academy Awards are sort of silly (which I'm realizing more as we talk about the movies nominated in 2004), let me ask you a more interesting question from a similar, but different angle. When you make a top 10 list at the end of a year, do you factor in if a movie will stand the test of time? Is it a reflection of what you liked or maybe where you are in life during that year? Are they movies you felt had something to say about the times the world was in during that year? etc. I tend to go with my gut and pick the movies that got me the most excited during the year (in short, what movies did I have a crush on). I'll then fill out the list with the movies that I admired a great deal but didn't have an emotional connection with. I have so much trouble with late in the year movies and figuring out where to place them. For example, I had The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher's version) as my No. 4 movie a couple of years ago and now I'm perplexed by that.

I think a problem with the Oscar races is twofold: 1) many late November and December releases depend on awards for marketing and grosses, so I think the movie industry sort of has an unspoken acknowledgement to nominate a Million Dollar Baby or The Aviator over something like Kill Bill Vol. 2. and 2) Since the Oscars focus so much on movies from late in the year; they (along with critics groups) get caught up in the moment and overreact since they are not afforded the luxury of having more breathing room to live with the movie.
Patrick: Listen, anyone who saw Excalibur in the '80s has had a Helen Mirren thing waaaay longer than her Oscar win. And sure, her acceptance speech gave me douche chills, but let's not pretend like she's not a super hot lady. Because we have eyes and boners.

Yes, there were a lot of good "lesser" (they are not lesser, they just don't get recognized for awards) genre-type movies that came out in '04 -- Eurotrip, Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake, Hellboy, The Chronicles of Riddick [that's right], Cellular, Team America -- I could go on and on (I realize that I saw just about every major release that came out that year). But Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Before Sunset and Shaun of the Dead and I Heart Huckabees and Spider-Man 2 and, yes, Eternal Sunshine are pretty great movies, genre or not. Even fucking Spanglish is as good as or better than three of those movies nominated.

I don't get the Urban Outfittersy critique of Eternal Sunshine. I've contended that it's the best movie released in the first decade of the 2000s. I don't know if it's for that reason that I haven't wanted to revisit it (for fear that the spell would break) or if the fact that I haven't wanted to revisit it means it's not as good as I thought. But it had more imagination and emotional honesty (coughDOUCHEcough) than, again, three of the Best Picture nominees. Maybe even Million Dollar Baby, but I won't know that until I have to kill my protégé.

Ten Best lists are very, very tricky. I've tried in recent years to be more honest with myself, since I know in the past I have put pressure on myself to include movies that I probably didn't like as much as I thought, but it was already December and all the "good" movies were coming out and I needed to have 10 movies. I end up putting too many late-release movies on my list because I've seen them the most recently and, to use your words, still have a crush on them. That's how War Horse got on my list just two years ago. And I'll maintain that that is a VERY well-made movie, but I can live the rest of my life and never see it again. So should it be on the list? Probably not.

But that's very different than the Oscars, because those aren't subject to the tastes of just one person. A whole committee of people make those decisions, which helps explains why they tend to make shitty, bland decisions. When's the last time you felt like watching The Artist? Or Slumdog Millionaire ? That's not to say they are bad movies, and there are undoubtedly people who love them, but this notion that they are somehow the BEST representation of Hollywood moviemaking that year is a joke. Is Finding Neverland REALLY one of the five greatest accomplishments of Hollywood in 2004? The answer is no. Here's how you can tell -- it basically only airs on, like, Lifetime Movies these days. No truly great movie airs only on Lifetime. It CAN air on Lifetime, but not ONLY Lifetime.

The Oscars are a broken system, probably one that is beyond repair. It has everything to do with the "narrative" of the campaign and nothing to do with the movie AT ALL. When Avatar was nominated for Best Picture in 2009, I was still in my anti-Avatar phase and complained about what a joke it was -- it was only a recognition of the movie's box office. If that movie had come out and done John Carter numbers, it would not have been nominated. But why not? It's still the same movie no matter how many people see it. So Ray gets nominated because Jamie Foxx has this great story and does a good impression and everyone's caught up on the narrative of the making and selling of the movie. But the movie itself is flashy and kind of lame.

It's hard for me to talk about the Oscars without coming off like a mad grandpa. They serve a function and they get people talking about movies, so I don't begrudge anyone who enjoys them. But that list of 2004 nominations is evidence of just how big a joke they are.

Last complaint: we both agree that Jamie Foxx is the reason Ray got nominated for Best Picture. So how does Sideways get a best picture nomination, but Paul Giamatti is every bit as important to that movie's success as Foxx is to Ray (maybe even more so, since he's just MAKING UP his character) but doesn't get nominated?
Adam: Well, at least we won't have to fight over Helen Mirren. I'll take Susan Sarandon to our double date to Ed Debevic's. Academy Award winning actresses love that place.

I completely forgot about Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead being from 2004. Both are great movies. My Urban Outfittersy comment for Eternal Sunshine was probably more dismissive than I intended since I do like the movie. It's more of a reaction to the kind of people I knew at the time who loved it than the movie itself. I would totally revisit it if I were you. I think it improves on multiple viewings. The thing I'll always remember about that movie is I was in a happy relationship the first time I saw it and it left me cold, but the second time I saw it was after I was dumped really badly for the first time and I found it very moving.

Anyhow, this was a fun exercise?

In closing a few questions,

-Does a movie going through the gauntlet of an awards season make you more tired of it and less likely to want to return to it? I think it might. For example, I know The Social Network is a fast-paced, entertaining movie but I never feel like re-watching it because I feel like I lived with it during its initial release and subsequent awards season as much as I'll really want to.

-What are some biopics about musicians that are better than Ray?

-How's Wimbledon? (another Dunst ‘04). It's on my DVR. My living room has turned into the Kirsten Dunst career retrospective as of late.
Patrick: Whoa, whoa whoa. Slow down, Toretto. No one said Susan Sarandon was on the table. As I have said on the podcast before, she beats just about anyone.

I understand what you're saying about the "awards show gauntlet." I don't know if it's more a testament to a movie's worth or my own ability to tune out the white noise of Oscar season, but I feel like I'm able to revisit good movies (or at least movies I like) no matter what. Meaning I could watch The Social Network or Inception right now, but definitely not The King's Speech, the movie that beat them both. But that's because while I thought The King's Speech was fine, I wasn't crazy about it in the first place.

Of course, there are those "good" movies that I'm less inclined to go back to. Back in 2009, I was fine with The Hurt Locker beating Avatar for Best Picture (because it should have been Inglourious Basterds anway). I have never felt like watching The Hurt Locker again, even though it's the better movie. And Avatar...well, you know...

Off topic but to answer your question, there are a LOT of musical biopics better than Ray. I like Walk the Line better, even though it's pretty much the EXACT SAME movie. The Buddy Holly Story. Great Balls of Fire! Does Sid & Nancy count? My favorite musical biopic of the last 10-20 years is I'm Not There, because it found a completely different way to approach a very stale genre.

I haven't seen Wimbledon since the theater, but I remember really not liking it at all. And I'm glad that what started as a discussion of Best Picture winners can end with an offhand pan of Wimbledon. Only at F This Movie!, people.


  1. Great article! You guys should make this a weekly feature and revisit every year. My personal top 5 of 2004:
    1. Collateral
    2. Shaun of the Dead
    3. Man on Fire
    4. Napoleon Dynamite
    5. Saw

    Worst: Raising Helen

    Ahh.. simpler times.

    1. Thanks Matt! Glad I skipped Raising Helen.

  2. I don't take a comprehensive approach to watching movies, so this isn't surprising, but I haven't seen any of the Best Picture nominees. I can probably say that about most years.

    Eternal Sunshine definitely still stands up. Based on a quick search I'd add The Incredibles, Mean Girls, Anchorman, Napoleon Dynamite, Team America to the list of good movies I'd watch again.

    I searched for 2004 on IMDB and organized it by box office, which is depressing. There were a shit ton of sequels (not exactly new) and almost exclusively awful sequels.

    And Without a Paddle made $58.2 million. Have a nice day :)

    1. I am responsible for $7 or $8 of the final gross for Without a Paddle. #MadeADifference

  3. Million Dollar Baby winning Best Picture is just another example of the Academy getting it wrong. Of that list of nominees, Sideways is definitely the best.

    My favorite movies of 2004
    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
    The Incredibles
    Shaun of the Dead

  4. For the last nine years, I have been telling anyone who will listen about the travesty of the LEAD ACTOR of what is, in my opinion, the best film of the last ten years being snubbed by the Academy Awards. It's okay, Paul Giamatti...I know the truth...

    Two other music biopics I would offer as better than RAY: LA BAMBA (Esai Morales in that film is someone else I frequently cite as an unjust Academy omission) and Clint Eastwood's BIRD, about the great Charlie Parker.

    1. Giamatti getting robbed is one of the biggest oversights at the Oscars. He's so great in that movie. I think he's nomination in Cinderella Man was a make-up for missing him with Sideways but that's just a guess.

      Thanks for the suggestions. La Bamba was a movie I saw WAY too young and made me afraid of going on planes (for a short time) when I was young. I've been meaning to watch Bird for years.

  5. Jessica Lange said she was available next week for Debevic's.

  6. @Mark Ahn - Jessica Lange can eat her own weight in World's Smallest Sundaes. Just a head's up. Bring extra cash.

    1. Screw that, we should go to Red Robin, home of the bottomless milkshake.

      How's that for product placement, summer movies?

    2. Bottomless fries, too! Plus they make milkshakes with Blue Moon beer. I'll meet you guys there at 8.

    3. Heath, which Oscar winning actress are you bringing?

    4. I was going to bring Gwyneth Paltrow but I don't want Patrick glaring at her all night so I'll probably bring Holly Hunter.

    5. He glares at everyone. Just ask Jessica Tandy.

  7. 1)Thanks for all the Sarandon pics. I'll be back in a few minutes.

    2) Also, I have a confession to make. I've never told anyone this but since Ray and Jamie Foxx has come up, I feel it's time to divulge. Until Django Unchained, I HATED Jamie Foxx...and it started because of his behavior during his awards-show circuit that year. Ray Charles is a great musician and wrote and performed some legendary R&B in the pioneer days of rock and roll. He's great. We couldn't have that episode of The Cosby Show where the Huxtables lip-sync to one of his songs. But Jamie Foxx seemed to think that HE was Ray Charles in every single appearance he made. Yes, he can play piano. Yes, he sings real purty, and he's a reasonably attractive man. But he seemed to have the swagger of Ray Charles himself instead of an actor who was merely playing a character. He did this thing on several of those shows where he'd get the audience to do a call-back with him. He'd say "Heee-eey!" and the audience would say "heee-eey!" and then he's say "Hooo-ooo!" and the audience would say "hooo-ooo!" and it made me want to smack him in the face with a herring. I mean, yeah, it was great...WHEN RAY CHARLES DID IT. I really think Foxx started to think the hype about Ray was ALL about him. And that is an ego I couldn't stand.

    But I'm okay with him now.

    Thanks to Django.

    1. What about Collateral? Were you not a fan of him in that movie either (assuming you've seen it)?

    2. Although it sounds like you have more of a problem with his personality and ego (as you stated), and not so much him as an actor.

    3. Heath, I totally get where you're coming from about Jamie Foxx during his Ray media blitz. It wasn't enough to turn me against him though. I love Django but he's always going to be Steamin' Willie Beaman to me. And yes! He's really great in Collateral.

    4. Yeah, it was never his performances, it was his personal ego that completely overshadowed his performances to me. I mean, he's fine in everything I've ever seen him in, including Collateral. He's talented. I even liked Breakin' All The Rules. And Django did eventually turn me around on him, but there were years where it was a lot of work to get through some of his movies because of how I felt about him as a person.

    5. When Jamie Foxx (I don't even like typing that -- two X's? Who do you think you are?!) was announced as the lead in Tarantino's (then) upcoming film, I was pretty annoyed. I think I even used the FTM Twitter account to voice my displeasure (it's there for the public to see, just go back about 5,000 tweets). Thankfully, he was awesome in Django Unchained (which makes me like him as an actor), and now I can kind of tolerate him as a person. But, you know, past sins and all. I mean, he's basically channeling Ray Charles in "Gold Digger," right? And that's weird and pompous and ugh. Let's also realize that him being great in Django has a lot to do with Tarantino knowing what the F he's doing (just like we know what the F we're doing). I don't really have a cool way to end this long comment so I'm just going to stop ... typing ... now.

    6. It's not just me, then!

      *wipes sweat from brow*