In part to help give you some idea of what we like and appreciate, and coinciding with the announcement of this year’s Oscar winners, thethirdrevelation and I have made lists of our favorite best Oscar winners of the 21st century. There have been many notable Oscar snubs and plenty of bizarre or repugnant nominations and winners, but these are instances where the Academy actually got something right. “Favorite best” here means favorite-best in general over these years, not necessarily “best by far in that category, that year.” Here’s mine:
30. Spirited Away, Best Animated Feature
Spirited Away presents anxieties about industrialization, suburbanization, and work ethic; of getting fat, lazy, stupid, greedy, and Westernized; of falling for fool’s gold; of dying for growth. All in all, of becoming unreal. The ghosts and demons of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been updated to the Lost Decade. Parents fail to heed seer Children; Children must save parents. It’s a confident pastiche, deftly mixing in elements of The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and medieval themes like special objects and the importance of name. It seems to be lamenting the loss of the domestic economic cooperation that drove its American-sponsored, postwar economic prosperity. For example, cooperating keiretsu have been replaced by dueling twin grandmothers. Labor is an issue. At one point, the Child has to strenuously demand a job from one of the grandmothers until the grandmother employs her. I’m reminded that a right to work is enshrined in the Japanese constitution; the scene would be less plausible in the American context. Fortunately, Japan just disarmed its own austerity bomb. Will the U.S.? From Harry Harutoonian: “In the end, this effort to negate or conceal the social divisions that instituted society in modern Japan, the immense task of repressing the vast unevenness that had gripped both political economy and culture, gave way to a frenzied attempt to ‘overcome the modern.’ … But because modernity itself constituted a constant overcoming, Japanese found themselves facing the impossible task of temporally overcoming what was already an overcoming.” The story of Spirited Away may or may not posit an overcoming of Japanese modernity. I can see both readings. Note: The parents drive an Audi.
29. Angelina Jolie / Best Supporting Actress / Girl, Interrupted
Jolie starts her character out in something of a Jack Nicholson-as-Mac McMurphy vein, then takes it somewhere more ambivalent to mine some stigma and shame. Stuck betwixt and between, her final scene reminds me of the final scene of Val Kilmer’s Doc Holiday in Tombstone, because feet are prominently and movingly involved in both.
28. No Country for Old Men, for Best Picture, Best Director (Cohen Bros), Best Adapted Screenplay (Scott Rudin and Cohen Bros), and Best Supporting Actor Javier Bardem
27. Traffic, for Best Adapted Screenplay (Stephen Gaghan), Best Director Steven Soderbergh, Best Supporting Actor Benicio Del Toro, and Best Film Editing
Depicts the intractability of what we’ve generally called “the drug problem” and “The War on Drugs.” Reminds us of the need to ask the question of why people want to alter their consciousness in the first place. In one scene, an informant is compelled to inform the police that NAFTA, and allowing Mexican trucks cross the border freely, makes it easier to traffic drugs.
26. The Departed, for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (William Monahan), Best Director Martin Scorsese, and Best Film Editing
25. The Cove, Best Documentary Feature
24. The Aviator, for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Editing
23. Sofia Coppola / Best Original Screenplay / Lost in Translation
22. Tim Robbins / Best Supporting Actor / Mystic River
21. Julia Roberts / Best Actress / Erin Brockovich
20. Denzel Washington / Best Actor / Training Day
19. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor / Best Adapted Screenplay / Sideways
18. King Kong, for Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects
17. The Matrix, for Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Film Editing, and Best Visual Effects
16. Toy Story 3, Best Animated Feature
Strong “childhood as formative” lesson and disposable society critique.
15. WALL-E, Best Animated Feature
WALL-E is the film that announced to the world that Johnny 5 and Ally Sheedy produced advanced robot children. His character draws on his Batteries Not Included ethics and her’s on her mission-impossible agenda of scientific humanism triumphing over fatalistic, authoritarian politics. They combine to effectively deliver an anti-consumerist love story with medieval themes. Good use of material culture material.
14. Charlize Theron / Best Actress / Monster
Theron’s performance is all the more impressive considering the limiting factors around her in Monster. To start with, as grim as the film is, it’s not as grim as Aileen Wuornos’s life actually was. The film’s inaccuracies and what it leaves out unnecessarily limits the viewer’s potential investment in her story. Also, Ricci does not seem very grounded in her character–almost distracted, and maybe overwhelmed–resulting in her not playing well off of Theron. Finally, the film’s overall construction doesn’t quite capture the actual messiness, violence, and high emotion it needs to. It gives us buckets instead of a view of the well. Theron carves out a striking performance despite these limits. What she does with her eyes alone–making them perfectly livewire or perfectly searching when they need to be–marks the power and intensity here.
13. Cate Blanchett / Best Actress / The Aviator
One of the most moving scenes I’ve ever seen is where Blanchett’s Hepburn is trying to coax DiCaprio’s Hughes out of an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder exile.
12. Jennifer Connelly / Best Actress / A Beautiful Mind
11. Brokeback Mountain, for Best Director Ang Lee, Best Adapted Screenplay (Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana), and Best Original Score
10. Christoph Waltz / Best Supporting Actor / Inglourious Basterds
9. Inside Job, Best Documentary Feature
A thorough and scintillating dissection of the 2008 financial crisis.
8. Christian Bale / Best Supporting Actor / The Fighter
The walk Bale’s character does to the triple-decker Amy Adams’s character lives in rings true. It astutely captures how important place is to those Massachusetts characters. Radiating out of that walk and otherwise, Bale captures the highs and the lows; the joy of victory and agony of defeat there; the rhythms and the pressures–including of being an older brother; of trying to make it and trying to make it out. Bale is now approaching Daniel Day-Lewis territory, which is to say, the best of the best.
7. Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth / Best Original Screenplay / Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine asks and answers the question of whether it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. Contains interrelated metaphors of being at the end of the line and in a bulwark (see, for example, Montauk). It’s a commentary on trying to emerge from a dreary and constraining world through overcompensating in our partners; the influence of childhood; the intersections of memory, image, identity and anonymity; nostalgia; making a mark; judging; invidiously comparing; defining oneself through others. It’s about how micro-valuations and micro-aggressions can lead to macro-valuations and macro-aggressions, and about ethics when no one is watching. It asks what personality is and looks at its possible permanence and impermanence; at its stubbornness, its mutations; its compulsions, propulsions, cocoonings and betrayals. A main metaphor and visual in it is one of psychic architecture. It seems to be arguing, with its portrayals of transience and spatial dislocations, not only that we are losing our place-based natures, but that the kind of cramped and frenetic scenario- and simulation-running we tend to do in response is pathological. A lot of the themes have a postmodernist, series-of-empty-nested-boxes texture to them. The film is also modernist to the extent it’s about knowing what your condition is but not being able to do much about it.
6. Man on Wire, Best Documentary Feature
Free spirits often unjustly get a bad rap and are not really taken seriously. Philippe Petit corrects this here. Petit is a special free spirit. He’s a trained, disciplined free spirit who is well-practiced in the art of social jiu-jitsu. He brings things back to human scale with his technique, will, and movement, engaging each of these qualities in us in the process. He does a high-wire act that balances between spectacle and martyrdom. It was special for me to see the film in New York with a bunch of New Yorkers, many of whom cried.
5. Bowling for Columbine, Best Documentary Feature
Jim Shepard, in his Columbine-inspired novel Project X, includes the following passage from the point-of-view of his bullied, eight-grade narrator: “Everybody’s in a group. Everybody spends all their time thinking about their group. Or how they want to be in a different group. It’s a big shitpile with everybody shitting downward, so you want to be as high as possible.” That applies across the board these days. This interview with South Park co-creator Matt Stone is one of the parts of the documentary that sticks out for me. Rights, propriety, property, suburbia, difference, dissent, bystanderism, despondence, being “painfully average,” bullying, stigma, educational tracking, fear of life trajectories, missed opportunities: all are touched upon in under three minutes. One criticism of the film is that there’s a limit to Moore’s fear-based analysis and he would’ve been wise to go into power, status, and hegemonic hypermasculinity more. One thing we need to do is push for real, state-based anti-bullying laws that have mandatory reporting and enumeration of protected classes.
4. Crazy Heart, for Best Actor Jeff Bridges, and Best Original Song (Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett, “The Weary Kind”)
Bridges’ performance is a baby boomer swan song and a metaphor for how they can get off the stage gracefully. He devastatingly communicates suffering related to feeling dislocation in, and separation from, one’s own homeland, and illustrates the difficulty today of keeping body and soul together. He engages F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that there are no second acts in America. The lyrics of the song fundamentally describe America today.
3. Hilary Swank / Best Actress / Boys Don’t Cry
2. Heath Ledger / Best Supporting Actor / The Dark Knight
Coming out of a restaurant in London, Jack Nicholson was asked about Ledger’s death earlier that night. “I warned him,” he said. Ledger probably did give his life for the role. It’s particularly impressive that he was only 28 years old when he accomplished what he did in the part. Solid Beetlejuice borrowing.
1. Daniel Day-Lewis / Best Actor / There Will Be Blood
The best performance by the world’s greatest living screen actor in a very important film about American contradictions and contradictory Americans. The meditative opening establishes cause for his character, one Daniel Plainview, to later say implicitly “Where was God then?,” and starts us off on Nietzschean Overman themes. He initially saves children, but as the film goes on, he begins to embody amoral capital and inequality capitalism. He begins to mischannel his well-founded frustrations. Focusing on character at the expense of conditions, and abetted by confirmation bias, he loses contact with others and his humanity, increasingly finding evidence of his self-fulfilling prophecies of zero-sum games and the lowness of his fellow man. Eventually he passes a point of no return, landing at the belief that he’s a self-made man giving the plain view and what the hell is wrong with everybody else. Through Plainview, Day-Lewis stands the myth of rugged individualism on its head in an astounding way. We’re left with reminders to be careful what we wish for and that we become what we do.