Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Many best-picture Oscars missed the mark

Charles Ealy
In a perfect world, director Kathryn Bigelow would be richly rewarded for her magnificent 'Hurt Locker.'

The Oscars made a poor showing when it came to selecting best picture during the 2000s.

This isn't a surprise. Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have long avoided controversy and overlooked some of the edgiest, most creative movies.

There are exceptions, of course, most notably when 1969's "Midnight Cowboy" won best picture. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a similar deviation in the past decade.

In fact, two traditional movies, both of them featuring Australian actor Russell Crowe, started the decade with two Oscar wins.

"Gladiator," a sword-and-sandals epic reminiscent of "Ben-Hur," won in 2000, followed by "A Beautiful Mind" in 2001.

But three of 2000's most risky movies — "Memento," "Requiem for a Dream" and "In the Mood for Love" — weren't even nominated for best picture. The same can be said for 2001. "Donnie Darko," "Mulholland Dr" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien," all of which are making the best-of-the-decade lists by many critics, were shut out of the best-picture race.

In 2002, the academy went even further into throwback mode, giving the top Oscar to the musical "Chicago" while giving the Holocaust drama "The Pianist" best director and best actor. But neither will probably be remembered as long as Pedro Almodóvar's "Talk to Her," Fernando Mereilles' "City of God" and Gaspar Noé's shocking "Irréversible." So much for a foreign-language movie ever winning best picture.

By 2003, the academy finally caught on to the movie decade's top phenomenon, "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. "The Return of the King," the third installment, took home the Oscar, beating "Mystic River" as well as "The Station Agent" and "The Barbarian Invasions," two of the most memorable independent movies of the past decade years. (The latter two weren't even nominated in the category.)

The academy went back to tradition again in 2004, awarding the best-picture Oscar to one of their longtime favorites, Clint Eastwood, for "Million Dollar Baby." Yet one of the best pictures of the year, Almodovar's "Bad Education," didn't even make the final five nominees. Other best-picture snubs included in the British arthouse stunner "Vera Drake" and Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

But 2005 might be best remembered for exemplifying the academy's timidity. In a surprise movie, the best-picture Oscar went to "Crash," which is sure to be forgotten long before the movie it bested, the gay drama "Brokeback Mountain" from Ang Lee, who won best director. Terrence Malick's "The New World," meanwhile, was overlooked, getting only one nomination, for cinematography, which it didn't win. And the Texas-based drama "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" was similarly snubbed.

The following year didn't fare much better. The academy seemed to want to make up for past mistakes by finally giving the Oscar to Martin Scorsese for "The Departed." But can it really be considered in the same league as Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth"?

In the past two years, the academy has redeemed itself, at least in part. In 2007, it gave the best-picture Oscar to "No Country for Old Men," and in 2008, the same award went to "Slumdog Millionaire."

Many critics would argue that Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" deserved to win the top prize of 2007 over "No Country." And they have a point. But it was heartening to see "Slumdog" break barriers for India the following year, even at the expense of several great movies that weren't even nominated, including "Synecdoche, New York."

This year, the academy has a chance to break another barrier. It could — and should — give best director to a woman for the first time: Kathryn Bigelow. And her movie, "The Hurt Locker," should wrap up best picture, too. But as the decade shows, the academy often misses opportunities, preferring the safety of a blockbuster such as "Avatar" or a crowd-pleaser typified by "Up in the Air."

Neither can compare to "The Hurt Locker," but it might not matter.

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931