It has been suggested that a waiting period of at least ten years should be imposed before rewarding the "best" in film in any given year. Doing so would remove the hype element that dominates the proceedings and often declares certain films frontrunners before they've even been screened, which has the effect of setting expectations too high and of creating a sense of backlash before a film even hits theaters, and it would also give the films a chance to age and see how they hold up. So, with that in mind, I'm switching things up a bit with Ten Years Later... and looking at the Oscar nominees for the 2004 film year, focusing primarily on the nominees of the "big six" categories.
Million Dollar Baby (winner)
Hey, remember when there were only 5 Best Picture nominees a year? Halcyon days, though this isn't exactly the most inspiring Best Picture group I've ever seen. Million Dollar Baby is a film which I've always liked (as much as you can "like" a film with such dark subject matter) and which I think holds up pretty well. Finding Neverland is a film that I remember liking quite a bit when I saw it in theaters but which now seems like a weak selection for a Best Picture contender (I still think it's a fine movie, just not a "best of the year" kind of movie). Sideways is a film which I admire in certain respects but didn't really connect with either then or now, and the same can more or less be said about my feelings for The Aviator. As for Ray, this might be a minority opinion, but I think Ray is a terrible movie that benefited immensely from having a great leading performance. And, really, the mere fact that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is absent pretty much completely invalidates the notion that this is a "best" list.
I Would Nominate: Bad Education, Before Sunset, Downfall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Vera Drake
Also Worth Considering: Kinsey, A Very Long Engagement
Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby (winner)
Taylor Hackford, Ray
Mike Leigh, Vera Drake
Alexander Payne, Sideways
Martin Scorsese, The Aviator
Since the Best Director nominees almost exactly mirror the Best Picture nominees, I'll reiterate what I said above and add that while I think that Ray has other issues, my main problem with it is Taylor Hackford's inept direction and I still can't believe he received a Best Director nomination for it. Good on AMPAS' Directors branch for nominating Mike Leigh, though, whose Vera Drake is heartbreaking and anger inducing and one of the best films in a filmography that is full of excellent films.
I Would Nominate: Pedro Almodovar, Bad Education; Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Jean-Pierre Jeunet, A Very Long Engagement; Mike Leigh, Vera Drake; Richard Linklater, Before Sunset
Also Worth Considering: Oliver Hirschbiegel, Downfall; Bill Condon, Kinsey
Jamie Foxx, Ray (winner)
Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda
Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Aviator
Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
Personally I'd swap Johnny Depp, Clint Eastwood, and Leonardo DiCaprio for Jim Carey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Liam Neeson in Kinsey, and Javier Bardem in The Sea Inside, but even so there's not really anything to complain about with this set of nominees. Depp gives one of his rare performances free of overt quirks (unless you count a Scottish brogue as a "quirk") in Finding Neverland, Eastwood gives one of the best performances of his long career in Million Dollar Baby, and though DiCaprio's performance in The Aviator is not my favorite of his, given that some of his best performances have gone unnoticed by AMPAS (Catch Me If You Can, Revolutionary Road, Django Unchained), I'm not going to fault them for making room for his inclusion with this one. Cheadle is great in Hotel Rwanda, making the most of his rare opportunities to play the lead, and Foxx is outstanding in Ray, which remains a career best for him.
I Would Nominate: Javier Bardem, The Sea Inside; Jim Carey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda; Jamie Foxx, Ray; Liam Neeson, Kinsey
Also Worth Considering: Paul Giamatti, Sideways; Bruno Ganz, Downfall; Bill Murray, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; Gael Garcia Bernal, Bad Education; Sean Penn, The Assassination of Richard Nixon; Tom Cruise, Collateral
Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby (winner)
Annette Bening, Being Julia
Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace
Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake
Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
I know that people like to rag on Hilary Swank for being an actress of limited range, but to my mind both of her Oscars are utterly deserved. Swank may not have a huge range as a performer, but that doesn't mean that she isn't excellent when she plays roles tailored to her particular strengths. She deserved this Oscar, especially when you consider that the race was basically down to her and Annette Bening (because the Oscars love "narratives" and this one was easily pitched as a rematch of the Best Actress race of 1999). Bening is a great actress, but I've neither seen nor met anyone who has seen Being Julia and had she won for this I think it would have been read more as one of those Oscars actors sometimes win for having turned in a series of great performances over the years that never took home the gold rather than a win based on merit for the specific performance. As for the rest of the nominees, Imelda Staunton gives an absolutely devastating performance in Vera Drake, Catalina Sandino Moreno is commanding in Maria Full of Grace (which somehow did not translate into her becoming a star), and Winslet gives one of her greatest performances in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - any one of these three could have taken the Oscar and not left you scratching your head wondering how in hindsight.
I Would Nominate: Julie Delpy, Before Sunset; Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace; Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake; Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby; Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Also Worth Considering: Audrey Tautou, A Very Long Engagement; Nicole Kidman, Birth; Uma Thurman, Kill Bill: Volume 2
Best Supporting Actress
Cate Blanchett, The Aviator (winner)
Laura Linney, Kinsey
Virginia Madsen, Sideways
Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda
Natalie Portman, Closer
I think Cate Blanchett is a brilliant actress (who doesn't?), but I've never been a big fan of her performance in The Aviator and I can't see this win as anything other than a makeup for the Best Actress Oscar she didn't get for Elizabeth (if only voters had known that if they waited 3 years they could have given her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her gimmick transcending performance in I'm Not There). Of the nominees, I would have given the award to Laura Linney for her understated but excellent performance in Kinsey, but the work of Virginia Madsen in Sideways and Sophie Okonedo in Hotel Rwanda also hold up really well ten years later. I'm not too big on Natalie Portman's performance in Closer, though I can understand why it was so embraced at the time. I think that in hindsight you could drop Blanchett and Portman from this line up and substitute any number of other potential contenders without really missing anything.
I Would Nominate: Julie Christie, Finding Neverland; Laura Linney, Kinsey; Rachel McAdams, Mean Girls; Virginia Madsen, Sideways; Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda
Also Worth Considering: Irma P. Hall, The Ladykillers; Sandra Oh, Sideways; Daryl Hannah, Kill Bill: Volume 2; Meryl Streep, The Manchurian Candidate; Naomi Watts, I Heart Huckabees
Best Supporting Actor
Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby (winner)
Alan Alda, The Aviator
Thomas Hayden Church, Sideways
Jamie Foxx, Collateral
Clive Owen, Closer
Let's get this out of the way first: Jamie Foxx's performance in Collateral is in no way, shape, or form a supporting performance. His nomination here is the most egregious example of Oscar acting category fraud this side of Julia Roberts being nominated as Best Supporting Actress for August: Osage County. The performance, good as it is, doesn't belong here and its presence is really an indication of just how much voters liked him in Ray - so much that nominating and awarding him with Best Actor didn't seem like quite enough. Elsewhere in the category you have Clive Owen, whose brutish performance is just about the only thing about Closer that I liked, Thomas Hayden Church, who gave one of 2004's best performances in Sideways, and Alan Alda in fine form in The Aviator. Morgan Freeman's performance in Million Dollar Baby is good, but of all the performances he's given I'm not sure anyone would argue that this one should have been the one to win him an Oscar. More than anything it seems more like an attempt to makeup for the Oscar he didn't win for The Shawshank Redemption, but it's difficult to begrudge a win for an actor of Freeman's caliber when it finally comes.
I Would Nominate: David Carradine, Kill Bill: Volume 2; Thomas Hayden Church, Sideways; Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby; Clive Owen, Closer; Peter Sarsgaard, Kinsey
Also Worth Considering: Rodrigo de la Serna, The Motorcycle Diaries; Mark Wahlberg, I Heart Huckabees
All in all, back in 2004 The Aviator received the most nominations with 11, with Finding Neverland and Million Dollar Baby coming in second with 7 nominations apiece. 11 of the 19 actors nominated were first time nominees, with Foxx becoming the tenth person to be nominated as in both lead and supporting categories in one year.
Meanwhile, the Best Animated Feature category, in only its 4th year, struggled to fill out its ranks and had to resort to nominating the dreadful Shark Tale in order to fill out its three nominee roster (the winner that year would be The Incredibles), while the Foreign Language Film category managed to nominate one bona fide masterpiece (Downfall) but failed to find room for The House of Flying Daggers, The Five Obstructions, or Nobody Knows, all of which were the submissions of their respective countries and are films that have proven to have enduring shelf lives.
The crafts and technical categories spread things out among various films more than the top categories did, finding room for such varied features as A Very Long Engagement, The Passion of the Christ, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Phantom of the Opera, The House of Flying Daggers, The Motorcycle Diaries, The Polar Express, Spider-Man 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and even Troy (for Costume Design) and The Village (for Original Score); and the screenwriting categories left little room for improvement, with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Vera Drake, The Incredibles, The Aviator and Hotel Rwanda fighting it out for Original Screenplay, and Sideways, Before Sunset, The Motorcycle Diaries, Million Dollar Baby and Finding Neverland in Adapted Screenplay.
Looking back at the slate of 2004 nominees, and at the films released that year which were not nominated, I'm struck by how thin the field was for the "best," at least in terms of films that have proven to have a lasting impact. So, for a not stellar year in film, the slate of nominees for the Oscars isn't bad at all and, if nothing else, shows just how badly Hollywood has been backsliding in terms of embracing diversity on the acting front.