You shall not pass! Unless you give me 11 Oscars.

The 73rd annual Academy Awards, for the film year 2003.  The nominations were announced on 27 January 2004 and the awards were held on February 29, 2004.

Best Picture:  The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

  • Mystic River
  • Lost in Translation
  • Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
  • Seabiscuit

Most Surprising Omission:  Cold Mountain

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  City of God

Best Eligible English-Language Film Not Nominated:  In America

Rank (out of 84) Among Best Picture Years:  #4

The Race:  There was never any doubt what was going to win Best Picture.  It had been building since the first teaser for the trilogy debuted in April of 2000.  With Best Picture nominations (but not wins) for both Fellowship of the Ring and Two Towers, no one with even meager interest in the Academy Awards was going to be betting against Return of the King.  All that remained were how many Oscars it would end up winning and what four films would have the honor of getting nominated.

That race began in earnest in the middle of the summer when Seabiscuit was released.  The second film from Gary Ross, who had been Oscar-nominated for writing Dave, it was the true story of a champion horse who drew huge popular support during the Depression.  With a solid ensemble cast (Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, William H. Macy), it earned excellent reviews.  Though not a runaway box office hit like Finding Nemo or Pirates of the Caribbean, it drew strong adult crowds and had much wider Oscar hopes (Nemo was considered a shoe-in for Best Animated Film but was unlikely to make the Picture lineup and Pirates seemed likely for technical Oscars though the critics were busy with praise for Johnny Depp’s performance).  By Labor Day, Seabiscuit had taken in over $100 million, and as long as it wasn’t forgotten, seemed a likely Best Picture nominee.

Then in September came Lost in Translation.  It was the second film from Sofia Coppola.  The daughter of Francis, she had turned to writing and directing with The Virgin Suicides, a 2000 film that had earned strong reviews but no awards attention.  But her new film, starring Bill Murray, earned incredible reviews from the minute the critics got hold of it.  Murray’s performance was especially lauded as the best of his career, but so were Coppola’s script and direction and through the month of September, it used a platform opening to bring in more crowds as it expanded each weekend.

But in October came another film that threatened Murray’s Oscar chances and even seemed like it might contend with Return of the King for Best Picture.  It was Mystic River, a new murder mystery from Clint Eastwood.  It was bringing Eastwood his best reviews since his Oscar-winning Unforgiven and Sean Penn’s performance as the distraught father of a murdered young woman had been earning strong buzz since the film played Cannes in May.  After one week of limited release, it leapt into the box office fray against new films from two Oscar winning writer-directors: The Coens and Quentin Tarantino.  Luckily for Coppola and Eastwood, the other two films weren’t exactly Oscar fare; the Coens’ film, Intolerable Cruelty, was a screwball comedy starring George Clooney, who had yet to win over Oscar voters and Tarantino’s brutal revenge fantasy, Kill Bill, was only the first volume of a film that was too long and had been split into two films, with the second part not arriving until February.

By the time the first group of critics were ready to vote, only one more likely Oscar contender had hit wide release.  Peter Weir’s Master and Commander, made from two of Patrick O’Brian’s popular novels had the disadvantage of Russell Crowe, still dealing with fallout from his antics in his personal life, but also had Crowe’s performance anchoring a film that felt like a David Lean epic.  It opened in mid-November to strong reviews and strong box office in the midst of a release calender that was putting it up against The Cat in the Hat, Matrix Revolutions and Elf.

The National Board of Review started the awards year by giving Best Picture to Mystic River.  Their Best Director award went to Ed Zwick for The Last Samurai, a Tom Cruise action epic that had not yet opened and its Top 10 list included the expected Oscar contenders (Seabiscuit, Lost in Translation, Mystic River, Master and Commander), a film from a previously nominated director now in limited release and getting strong reviews (In America, from Jim Sheridan, who had earned Oscar nominations for My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father) and one film that was the most anticipated release not set in Middle-Earth: Cold MountainCold Mountain had the Oscar check-list covered: epic scale, award-winning source novel, Oscar-winning writer / director (Anthony Minghella), Oscar-winning star (Nicole Kidman), Oscar bait role for an overdue for an Oscar star (Renee Zellweger) and a hot new leading man already known to Oscar voters (Jude Law).  The expectation was that it would rival King for the most nominations.

The New York Film Critics confirmed the Oscar status of Return of the King (Best Picture) and Lost in Translation (Best Director and Actor).  But the LA Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics only added some confusion.  Though Eastwood won from the NSFC and Jackson in LA, their choices for Best Picture were a small independent film unlikely to be in the Oscar discussion for Best Picture – American Splendor, based on the long-time comic by Harvey Pekar.

While The Last Samurai opened to solid reviews, the next contender also arrived: Tim Burton’s Big Fish.  Mixing Burton’s blend of comedy and adult entertainment, it was seen as Burton’s first real shot at making the Oscar line-up.  Big Fish immediately benefited from 4 Golden Globe nominations and appeared to be the only film capable of challenging Lost in Translation for Best Picture – Comedy.  But the biggest boosts went to Lost in Translation (the big 5 nominations), Return of the King (only 4 noms, but Picture and Director included), Mystic River (5 noms, including Picture, Director and Screenplay) and Master and Commander (only 3 noms, but Picture and Director included).  But the biggest boost of all was for Cold Mountain, which still hadn’t been released, but lead all films with 8 Globe nominations.  But nothing was settled by the Critics Choice, which had all the major contenders in their Best Picture lineup: Return of the King, Lost in Translation, Mystic River, Master and Commander, Seabiscuit, Cold Mountain, The Last Samurai, Big Fish, Finding Nemo and In America.

But, the big worry was about Cold Mountain‘s release date.  The Oscars had shifted the date of the awards up a month.  While King was a solid bet, Cold Mountain was sticking to the old Christmas release date for Oscar nominations and some began to wonder if the date shift would hurt the film.  While Cold Mountain had the bulk of the Miramax marketing machine and lead the pack in Globe nominations, when the Globe awards were announced it only had one win (Supporting Actress), with Return of the King and Lost in Translation taking the major awards.  Then came the Directors Guild nominees.  Widely expected to get nominations were Jackson, Eastwood, Coppola, Weir and Minghella.  But suddenly, there was Gary Ross in the race rather than Minghella.  The Producers Guild and Writers Guild added nominations for Cold Mountain, but it suddenly was beginning to look like there were six films for five spots.  With Mystic River and Lost in Translation all but assured spots, this left Seabiscuit (which also had PGA and WGA noms), Cold Mountain and Master and Commander vying for two spots.  The BAFTA nominations suddenly pushed Cold Mountain right back into the heart of the race; its 14 nominations lead the way.  But King (12 noms), Lost (8 noms, including the big 5) and Master (8 noms, including Picture and Director) had also done well.  Headed into the Oscar nominations, it remained to be seen whether the summer film would be forgotten or the Christmas film would be unable to get enough people into theaters to earn a nomination.

my own predictions:  I figured that the Globe and BAFTA nominations, combined with Miramax would put Cold Mountain in the race, though no longer with a chance to end up with the most nominations.  I had King with 13 noms, followed by Cold Mountain with probably 9 or 10 noms (including Picture and Director), Mystic River with 6 or 7, Lost in Translation with 4 or 5 (depending on Actress) and possibly Seabiscuit taking the Picture spot and Weir taking the director spot rather than Ross.

The Results:  Cold Mountain and Seabiscuit both had 7 nominations with 2 major nominations each.  But Cold Mountain‘s were acting and Seabiscuit was in the Picture race against Master and Commander (10 noms, including Director), Lost in Translation (only 4, but all major) and Mystic River (6 – all major).  Return of the King had indeed lead the way – with 11 nominations.  The only question that remained was whether King would actually lose any of its races.

The answer very quickly became no.  And then Steven Spielberg came out and opened the envelope and said “It’s a sweep.”  Return of the King had tied Ben-Hur and Titanic with 11 Oscars and the series was over – 30 total nominations and 17 Oscars.

end note:  Go here for a great reaction to Oscar night.  Normally I would just post this comic, but when I talked to John Kovalic, he asked me to link to any comics.  Always glad to comply with the request of someone who always makes me laugh.

Oscar gets it right 11 times.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

  • Director:  Peter Jackson
  • Writer:  Peter Jackson  /  Fran Walsh  /  Philippa Boyens  (from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien)
  • Producer:  Peter Jackson  /  Fran Walsh  /  Barrie M. Osborne
  • Studio:  New Line
  • Stars:  Viggo Mortenson, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Miranda Otto
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Adapted From Another Medium, Editing, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Costume Design, Makeup, Original Song (“Into the West”)
  • Oscar Points:  560
  • Oscar Records:  Most Wins – tied  (11)
  • Length:  201 min  /  251 min
  • Genre:  Fantasy  (Epic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $377.02 mil  (#1  –  2003)
  • Release Date:  17 December 2003
  • Metacritic Score:  94
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1 (year)  /  #12  (nominees)  /  #3  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Wood), Actor (Mortenson), Supporting Actor (Astin), Supporting Actor (Serkis), Supporting Actress (Otto), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup, Original Song (“Home is Behind”), Original Song (“Into the West”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  840
  • Nighthawk Records:  Most Points  (840)
  • First Watched:  opening day with Veronica at the Century Eastport

The Film:  Let’s get the first thing out of the way.  This film does not have 10 endings.  You can make the argument that it has three – and even if you want to make that argument and complain about it, it means you haven’t read the book.  Because if you have, it’s absurd to complain that the film should end with the destruction of the ring and dumb to complain that the film doesn’t end with the coronation.  The film ends exactly where it should end, exactly how it should end, with tears and a journey, with those simple words, “I’m back.”

But now then, what about the film itself?  After all, it is a film that is clearly appreciated on all levels: winning 11 Oscars in a sweep, becoming only the second film to break $1 billion at the box office, achieving near universal critical acclaim.  And I would argue that on some levels it is even under-appreciated.  I saw the film 10 times in the theaters (the second most for me behind the original Star Wars), yet it still made significantly less money than Titanic.  And it won 11 Oscars, but it wins 13 Nighthawk Awards (10 of the same – only missing out on Song, but adding Supporting Actor, Cinematography and Sound Editing) and earns 19 Nighthawk nominations (most notably, five for acting, which was missing in its accolades almost everywhere except the SAG Ensemble Award).  Some of these awards are easy – look at the costumes, the makeup, the sets, listen to the sound of the film.  But then look closer.  Watch the epic battle scenes and you’ll understand the award for the effects.  But look at other shots, that make it so clear why it won that and why it deserved the award for Cinematography.  Watch the shot that begins miles above Minas Tirith, following the Nazgúl on their flight down upon the men of Gondor.  Or listen to the sweep of the score when the camera follows across the White Mountains, with each beacon lit ever further on the horizon.  And the beacons scene represent another Oscar – the brilliance of how the three of them – Jackson, Walsh and Boyens – changed what scenes they needed to, adapting the novel to the power of the screen.  In the book, the beacons are a warning, not a desperate call to Rohan for aid.  But they wisely excise the red arrow and instead give us a scene that immediately earns a place in film history for the sheer force of its majesty.

But what about the Editing?  So many complain that I always talk about the Editing when a film is too long.  But remember – a film is only as long as it feels.  I could have easily watched another hour of King and never gotten tired of it.  And watch the editing in scenes like Faramir’s approach to Osgiliath, juxtaposed against Pippen’s haunting song (brilliantly put to music by Billy Boyd himself).  Watch how expertly the story moves between the various characters in their different locations before finally bringing them all together again.

But the key to the film is the acting.  This would not earn its place in film history without the amazing ensemble cast.  Watch Frodo’s eyes when he tells Sam to go home (another brilliant departure from the book – it heightens the sense of danger when Frodo is in Shelob’s lair), look at the heartbroken Sam when he realizes what he is being asked.  But it’s not just the main characters.  There is real fear in Eowyn and Merry’s eyes as they prepare to ride into battle.  There is a desperate sense of loss in Billy Boyd’s face when he finishes his song.  When Faramir makes the decision and says “Tell the men to break cover.  We ride for Minas Tirith.” we can hear the desperation in his voice.  Or we can look at one scene, one of my favorite in the film.  In the book, Faramir tells his father of the failure of his mission, and then, slowly, turns to other matters.  “Gandalf sat up and gripped the arms of his chair; but he said nothing, and with a look stopped the exclamation on Pippen’s lips.”  But in the film, Faramir’s eyes go wide when he sees Pippen and Gandalf immediately knows.  There is wonder in Faramir’s eyes, and when Pippen says “You’ve seen Frodo and Sam!” there is sheer delight in his voice.

But all of the action, all of the epic scope of the film, pales in comparison with Frodo’s mission.  And here is the beating heart of the film.  His friends will throw themselves into the darkness, face death, for the sake of aiding him.  And yet, in the end, even Frodo’s strength fails and he requires assistance unasked for and unexpected.  Even the wise cannot see all ends, as Gandalf has said.  And yet, with the destruction of the ring, not all is over in the film.  Because part of what is so important here is that Frodo sets out to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for him.  So we need that final scene, the real ending of the film, on the shores of Middle Earth, those cleansing tears, not evil ones.  We need to know that Frodo cannot be healed of all the evils that he has endured and it is for Sam, and Sam alone to walk home and utters those final words.  And we get that last little beautiful speech before we reach the real end: “My dear Sam.  You cannot always be torn in two.  You will have to be one and whole for many years.  You have so much to enjoy and to be and to do.  Your part in the story will go on.”

You know the Mystic flows under the Tobin, which is featured in a song by Mark Wahlberg, who was in The Departed, directed by Scorsese, who lost the Oscar to Clint Eastwood the next year for a film not as good as this one.

Mystic River

  • Director:  Clint Eastwood
  • Writer:  Brian Helgeland  (from the novel by Dennis Lehane)
  • Producer:  Robert Lorenz  /  Judie Hoyt  /  Clint Eastwood
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Laurence Fishburne
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Adapted From Another Medium, Actor (Penn), Supporting Actor (Robbins), Supporting Actress (Harden)
  • Oscar Points:  295
  • Length:  138 min
  • Genre:  Mystery
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $90.13 mil  (#33  –  2003)
  • Release Date:  8 October 2003
  • Metacritic Score:  84
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #51  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Penn), Supporting Actor (Robbins), Supporting Actress (Harden), Editing, Cinematography
  • Nighthawk Points:  280
  • First Watched:  opening day at the Century Eastport with Veronica

The Film:  “I’m trying not to move  /  It’s just your ghost passing through.”  The Tori Amos song which this line comes from (“Putting the Damage On”) is not featured in Mystic River, but it says so much about the film.  Because there are ghosts running through this film, passing through the adults who are trying to put the ghosts behind them.  It is a stark reminder of the brutal core of violence that lives just below the surface in Boston, struggling to break through to the surface.  The three main characters in this novel, scarred by childhood, seem to be three different approaches to this core.

First, there is Sean Penn.  He own a liquor store and his daughter, in the opening of the film, is brutally murdered.  Scarred by the childhood incident he barely avoided and haunted by Catholic guilt and his own violent past, he understands that this is a reflection of his life (“I know in my soul I contributed to your death.”) and he finds himself struggling to cry for her.  Penn’s performance, an incredible barely contained explosive device, sets in motion the rest of the cast.  They can all play off him, off his desperation at reigning in the violence.  He has embraced the violence in the past, and he will do so again before the film is over.

Next is Kevin Bacon.  In one of the best performances of this consummate character actor, he walks back into the streets where he played, the same streets that he escaped from.  He is incapable of communicating with his wife, but he finds purpose in his work.  As a statie, he works to contain the violence, not just his own, but all the random violence in the world around him.  He searches for his truth and he know that violence is at the core of the truth and he just hopes to keep it from causing more damage, either to himself, or to others.

Then there is Tim Robbins.  When evil comes calling in their childhood, it is he who is brutalized.  It is not the everyday violence, the brutality of the Boston streets that does him in – that same violence which Penn unleashes and Bacon works against, is nothing compared to the violence done to Robbins’ soul.  More than the others, he has the ghost passing through, the ghost of who he was, long ago, before he got in the back of that car.  And he finds himself in a situation where the violence crumbles all his defenses, but with so much damage already done to his soul, is incapable of explaining it to anyone.

All three men are married.  But the statie has managed to push his wife away and the violent breakage of Robbins’ soul pushes his wife away at the one point where he desperately needs her closer.  It is only Penn, who finds in his wife, a soul who understands the violence at the heart of his (delivered magnificently in a dark, disturbing speech by Laura Linney that can only be compared to Lady MacBeth), who finds a soulmate that truly works for him.

There is more to the film than this.  There is the way the editing never allows you to lose track of the three stories and how they intersect and the amazing shots over Boston.  There is the great ensemble cast – Harden as Robbins’ wife, Fishburne as Bacon’s partner.  But at the heart what we have is maybe the best film ever made by one of America’s best directors, a dark disturbing tale that understands so well the violence at the heart of my city.

Yes, I went with the poster with Scarlett rather than Bill Murray. What would you expect from me?

Lost in Translation

  • Director:  Sofia Coppola
  • Writer:  Sofia Coppola
  • Producer:  Ross Katz  /  Sofia Coppola
  • Studio:  Focus
  • Stars:  Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Murray)
  • Oscar Points:  210
  • Length:  103 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $44.58 mil  (#67  –  2003)
  • Release Date:  12 September 2003
  • Metacritic Score:  89
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #89  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Murray), Actress (Johansson), Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  305
  • First Watched:  opening day at the FOX Tower with Tavis

The Film:  “It is a great relief in any event that The Station Agent is not one of those movies in which the problem is that the characters have not slept with each other and the solution is that they do.”  (Roger Ebert)

Ebert, obviously, is not talking about Lost in Translation but he easily could have been.  It is a good insight about a great film and which bears repeating here because it is just as applicable.  What makes this film great, what makes the relationship formed in this film between a depressed actor and a lonely young woman still trying to figure out what she is going to do is not about sex.  It is about the loneliness that can be inherent in humanity and finding something to beat it away with.

Even a forgettable film can teach you something sometimes.  When I was in a relationship that began in London and didn’t survive the transition back to my life in Portland, I was reminded of Forget Paris, and that a relationship started away from home, when everything is different, often has trouble dealing with the mundane aspects of regular life.  But this film, developing along a parallel theme, has so much more to say than that.  But that’s part of what makes this a great film and not a forgettable one.  And yet, it is, at heart, some of the same message.  When you are away from home, when things are strange and you feel lost, you can find a language to speak with someone else who feels what you are feeling.  That’s what develops here.

Now, that could easily be the set-up for a dumb romantic comedy, and in Forget Paris and a whole slew of other films, that’s exactly what happens.  But there are several things that set Lost in Translation apart.  First, it isn’t a romantic comedy.  It is a comedy and it does involve two people who could become involved, but romance is not what draws them together.  What develops instead is so much more interesting than a tumble in the hay would have been.  They find something in friendship that pushes the loneliness away from them, at least for a little while.  Second, there are the performances.  Bill Murray so underplays this role that it’s amazing – a career best from someone who has long been vastly under-rated actor.  But then there is the incredible performance from Scarlett Johansson, and we may never see the like of it again in her career, so we should be grateful for this one.  Third, there is the ending.

We react to films for our own reasons.  We bring as much to a film as we take away sometimes.  And the closing minutes of a film, that last little taste of it, can make the whole thing rise or crumble away into nothingness.  So, I take into Lost in Translation a story called “Nightlights.”  I set it up as a sequel to another story I had written and was sending it out to friends as an e-mail serial.  Everyone reading it was convinced that the main two characters would sleep together at some point.  But they hadn’t paid attention to the Bob Dylan quote that had been presented as an epigraph in the first installment: “One more time at midnight near the wall  /  Take off your heavy makeup and your shawl  /  Won’t you descend from the throne from where you sit  /  Let me feel your love one more time before I abandon it.”  It was always intended that there would a scene, set against the setting sun, him saying goodbye, knowing she was going off to marry someone else, and they would kiss and that would be the end of it.  Nothing more.  A bittersweet kiss and she is gone.  And that was what I brought to this film.  It felt like the ending I would have written.

But for one thing, which was more brilliant than I could have imagined.  The whisper in the ear of the young woman.  The whisper that we don’t hear, that we aren’t allowed to hear, that we were never intended to hear.  And it doesn’t matter what you think he says.  It doesn’t matter what I think he says (I don’t think about it).  It’s that he whispers it and she smiles and she cries and they share that kiss and he walks away and everything will be okay.  And then comes the music, that amazing song, and the drift away into the traffic and the darkness and the credits and this film ends exactly where it should end, in perfection.

I understand that they made it from two of the books, but they really could have just given it one title.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

  • Director:  Peter Weir
  • Writer:  Peter Weir  /  John Collee  (from the novels by Patrick O’Brian)
  • Producer:  Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.  /  Peter Weir  /  Duncan Henderson
  • Studio:  20th Century Fox
  • Stars:  Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  305
  • Length:  138 min
  • Genre:  Adventure  (Epic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $93.92 mil  (#31  –  2003)
  • Release Date:  14 November 2003
  • Metacritic Score:  81
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #6  (year)  /  #154  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  170
  • First Watched:  opening week at the Century Eastport

The Film:  Is this the epic that David Lean never made?  Lean spent years trying to get a version of Mutiny on the Bounty made and it never happened.  But this film – with it’s epic scale at sea, with its magnificent battles (it feels like the film is full of them, when there really is only the one at the beginning and the one at the end), set against the human backdrop is a reminder of the best of David Lean.  In some ways, it is the humanity at the core of Peter Weir’s career that makes this feel less like an epic.  It’s not that Weir can’t do things on the grand scale – look at Gallipoli for a perfect example.  But he’s more interested in human interaction, even in Gallipoli, but especially in films like Witness, Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show.  And in a film like Picnic at Hanging Rock, we can see the deadly divide between nature and humanity and how one can overwhelm the other and we can find ourselves lost in the nothingness surrounding us.

Look at the captain and the doctor.  Look at the way they interact with each other.  They play together (literally – their instruments bringing beautiful music to the heart of the sea, and it never feels like a quirk of the writing, but rather something natural springing from the core of their characters).  They work together.  And they seem like soulmates.  Since the 1950’s, thanks partially to Fredric Wertham, there seems to have been this pervasive belief that friendships like this must imply homosexuality.  Batman and Robin, Bert and Ernie, Frodo and Sam, all of them must have homosexual subtext according to some.  But to others, there is nothing of sexuality about it – simply a close kinship between two friends with so much in common.  And for this captain and doctor, both of them smart, both of them gifted, both of them in these pressure situations, knowing that one wrong move can mean death, for themselves, for others, there is a bond.  It is this kind of friendship that can lead to the arguments they have – the arguments over the importance of science or war.  But it lends extra emotion to a line “We do not have time for your damned hobbies, sir!”  It reminds us of the bond between these two men.  And when the doctor will turn his back and hurry across the island, not for king and country, but for his friend, we can understand.

That is why the story never allows the film to get lost in the epic.  But, oh, the epic is magnificent.  We get a sailing adventure like we haven’t had for decades, reminding us of how bad the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty was and how great the 1935 film was.  We get a magnificent battle to open the film, the sudden surprise, the desperate fight against death.  Then we get the storm going around the cape, and another desperate fight against death, this time against nature itself.  And there is human loss both times, and we feel that loss.

It is perhaps the epic scope of the film that allowed on thing to be lost.  Not a single group – not the WGA or the Oscars or the BAFTAs – thought the script was worth nominating.  Yet, it is clear that it is in the script, in the interaction between the characters that this film really comes alive.  So, when the captain (played in a rather excellent performance by Russell Crowe) says to the doctor (in a very good performance by Paul Bettany – so much better than his man who wasn’t there in A Beautiful Mind), “The bird’s flightless?”, we can all smile.  For we have seen the humanity in their interactions and we can appreciate the smile when the captain ends the film with the great line: “It’s not going anywhere.”

It’s still a movie about a flippin horse.

Seabiscuit

  • Director:  Gary Ross
  • Writer:  Gary Ross  (from the book by Laura Hillebrand)
  • Producer:  Kathleen Kennedy  /  Frank Marshall  /  Gary Ross
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, William H. Macy
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  195
  • Length:  140 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Sports)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $120.27 mil  (#17  –  2003)
  • Release Date:  25 July 2003
  • Metacritic Score:  72
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #59  (year)  /  #362  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • First Watched:  on video

The Film:  I would say that this is kind of ridiculous – an old-fashioned film that seems more like an anachronism than a throwback.  But then Spielberg himself would do it eight years later and also find himself in the Best Picture race.  So does that say something better or worse about Seabiscuit?  Well, given that War Horse doesn’t have the kind of supporting performances that Seabiscuit has from the likes of Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and William H. Macy and is still a far superior film says something worse about Seabiscuit.  And of course, there is my own issues here.  Because after all, I’m gonna say the same thing that I said before I saw it the first time (why I didn’t see it in the theater) and and what I said again up re-watching it (before I saw War Horse).  It’s still a movie about a flippin horse.

Now, that being said, how good a movie about a flippin horse is it?  Well, it’s really a pretty standard Hollywood movie.  If you’re talking about the Hollywood of 1935.  Except in 1935 this movie would have been a half hour shorter.  True, there were lots of films back then that would drag on forever (just look at The Great Ziegfeld).  But, in an era where they could make Mutiny on the Bounty in 132 minutes and keep Les Miserables under 2 hours, there’s no way they would have padded Seabiscuit the way it is.  There are those who would say that the film is this long because it gives the necessary character development, to allow the story to develop over time.  But let’s get this straight – there actually isn’t much character development in the film.  Are any of the human characters appreciably different at the end of the film than they were at the beginning of the film?  This isn’t about how they developed – it’s about this horse touched their lives.  That’s not to say that the actors don’t do as much with these characters as they can.  In fact, the biggest problem with Seabiscuit‘s acting Oscar hopes was figuring out which actor really deserved the attention, because they form a strong ensemble.

But all of this distracts from the bigger issue of the film.  I just can’t bring myself to care that much about it.  You could say that the fault is with me – that I had no interest going in and I came out the other end the same way.  But that’s not necessarily the problem.  I don’t care about boxing, in fact I actively dislike it, but a film like Raging Bull or a documentary like When We Were Kings can absolutely suck me in.  I constantly deride soccer, but I was riveted by The Damned United.  I might have cared more about the film if they had actually focused more on the horse, kept it shorter, and stopped trying so hard to make me care about all the people who care about the horse.

Seabiscuit is a well-made film.  The direction is solid, the sounds of the film keep you involved and it always looks good.  But between the script and the editing, I just couldn’t keep myself caring about what was going to happen – especially since we all knew what was going to happen.  Not because we knew the history (as much as they want to make this the big story of the Depression, the story seemed to have mostly been forgotten before the book became such a big seller), but because this is Hollywood.  Do we really think they’re going to make a film about a horse that breaks a leg and is simply put out to pasture or shot?

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