This year’s Academy Awards ceremony—to be televised Sunday, Feb. 29, at 8 p.m. (ET) on ABC—may well be the same glitzy, excessive, over-long affair to which we’ve become accustomed. Host Billy Crystal will analyze this and that about the past cinematic year. Cameras will close-up on Jack Nicholson’s grin, Russell Crowe’s scowl, and Nicole Kidman’s state of undress (or over-dress). Viewers will be “treated” to long montages of movie clips, during which they’ll reach for more party mix—or else run to the bathroom.

Some things never change.

But, as Lawrence Fishburne said in the Matrix sequels, “Some things do change.” And the list of nominations for the 76th Annual Academy Awards proves it.

This year’s nominees indicate an Academy willing to overlook glamour in favor of real art. They even acknowledge excellence from beyond American borders. Flashy Oscar epics (Cold Mountain, The Last Samurai) have been disappointed, while honors went to a small and subtle human drama shot in Tokyo (Lost in Translation), a fantasy film made in New Zealand (you know which one), and a crowdpleaser about the little racehorse that could (Seabiscuit). Several nominations were awarded to the brilliant, brutal, Brazilian City of God that never played multiplexes and went unmentioned by Oscar’s best guessers.

But there’s more. Hollywood usually celebrates superficial, sentimental, predictable stuff. Worse, they often applaud stories that champion smug self-righteous heroes, vigilante justice, and reckless individuality. This year the spotlight falls primarily on films that remind us we need to depend on something more than just our own fickle hearts and appetites. We can’t overcome impossible odds on our own—we need relationships and faith. Hope lies in fellowship and in something higher.

Perhaps the voters are starting to think about these things. Perhaps they are tiring of films that are more frosting than cake, more style than substance, more sentimentality than storytelling.

Or perhaps it’s just a fluke.

Whatever the case, here are some thoughts on the top categories:


• The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
• Lost in Translaton
• Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
• Mystic River
• Seabiscuit

Should have been nominated:

Finding Nemo, for taking animation to a new height while telling a story that thrills and satisfies all ages. And In America, boasting brilliant ensemble performances and, unlike Mystic River, offering a fuller picture of life, rich with humor and hope.

Which film I think should win:

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Director Peter Jackson’s achievement is arguably the grandest visual spectacle ever splashed across a screen. But beyond the special effects that leave us drop-jawed and saucer-eyed, Jackson has given us a cast that makes intimate character interaction the highlight of the films, something sorely lacking in other adventure franchises. (Who will ever forget valiant Samwise picking up his battle-scarred friend Frodo and carrying him those last fateful steps to the gates of Mount Doom?) Tolkien might have winced at some of the plot changes and character alterations, but he would likely have been thunderstruck by the vivid dramatization and visual realization of his own inventions.

Rings now shares the record set by The Godfather trilogy, having won Best Picture nominations for each episode. Moreover, if this chapter wins Best Picture, it will be the first-ever “third movie” in a series to win.

Which film will win:

Mystic River. It’s not the popular prediction (Return of the King is). But Hollywood loves Clint Eastwood. Best Picture winners typically have strong contenders in the acting category, and Rings, in spite of earning 11 nominations, came up empty there. River, on the other hand, has a host of heavy hitters—Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins, Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden, and Laurence Fishburne—three of them nominated. It’s also thoroughly American, whereas Jackson’s epic is an international affair. Further, Mystic River is predisposed toward scenes of angst, anger, and emotionalism … the stuff that makes Oscar come running.

I hope I’m wrong, because I’ll be happy to see Return of the King win. It offers hope, while Mystic River portrays a world in which a person’s mistakes control their future and God is silent when they cry out.

Almost made it:

Seabiscuit will remain an audience favorite about how appearances can be deceiving, and how the most damaged individuals can be redeemed. But while the horse was a longshot winner, the movie isn’t.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World takes its themes of leadership and integrity seriously. But Master, as great as it is, lacks acting nominations and something else … women.

Lost in Translation was directed by one of the Coppolas, a Hollywood royal family. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, in career-best performances, play an over-exposed celebrity and a nearly invisible newlywed who stop and notice each other’s sad and lonely hearts when the rest of the world won’t bother. But the movie’s beauty is too subtle, and most Oscar voters won’t understand it.


• Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean)
• Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog)
• Jude Law (Cold Mountain)
• Bill Murray (Lost in Translation)
• Sean Penn (Mystic River)

Who should have been nominated:

Paul Giamatti for his endearingly grouchy performance as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor.

Who I think should win:

Bill Murray, for playing a subtle, sad, funny, adulterous fool who breaks free of his cynicism and self-destructive plunge, and whose character just might yet salvage his marriage. It’s his finest, most complex work.

Who will win:

Sean Penn. In Mystic River‘s intense moments, he pushes it too far over the top. His performance in 21 Grams was better. But he should have won for Dead Man Walking, so voters will probably make it up to him here … especially since he plans on actually showing up for the ceremony this time.


• Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider)
• Diane Keaton (Something’s Gotta Give)
• Samantha Morton (In America)
• Charlize Theron (Monster)
• Naomi Watts (21 Grams)

Who should have been nominated:

Scarlett Johansson, for her quiet, radiant performance in Lost in Translation. Inexplicably, the studio campaigned her in the Supporting Actress category.

Who should win and will win:

Charlize Theron. One could argue that Morton, Watts or Castle-Hughes (the youngest Best Actress nominee ever) are better choices—their work was excellent without unbalancing the rest of the movie. Theron is so amazing here that her performance distracts us from Monster‘s themes of love deprivation, vengeance and consequences. But it’s a transformational performance, a Daniel Day-Lewis-level re-invention.


• Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog)
• Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April)
• Marcia Gay Harden (Mystic River)
• Holly Hunter (Thirteen)
• Renée Zellweger (Cold Mountain)

Who should have been nominated:

Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent)

Who I think should win:

Holly Hunter, for her performance as the lonely, broken, single mother of a reckless adolescent in Thirteen. If the Oscar went to an actress for giving three great performances, Patricia Clarkson would be taking home the gold (The Station Agent, Pieces of April, and All the Real Girls).

Who will probably win:

Renée Zellweger. Her humor and heart stole Cold Mountain right out from under its melodramatic stars. Plus, some still think she deserved last year’s award for Chicago, when Nicole Kidman won (who, in turn, deserved it more the year before that for Moulin Rouge). Possible upset: Shorheh Aghdashloo, for becoming the gracious, beating heart in the center of the bleak House of Sand and Fog.


• Alec Baldwin (The Cooler)
• Benicio Del Toro (21 Grams)
• Djimon Hounsou (In America)
• Tim Robbins (Mystic River)
• Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai)

Who should have been nominated:

We need a whole new list! Peter Sarsgaard, the magazine editor in Shattered Glass.Master and Commander‘s Paul Bettany, whose inquisitive character stole the show from Russell Crowe. Return of the King‘s Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, or Billy Boyd, who were all essential to Rings‘ success.

Who I think should win:

Benicio Del Toro or Alec Baldwin. Although 21 Grams was a depressing and excessively grim mess—it claimed to be a story of redemption without God—Del Toro was riveting. He created a complicated, immature Christian of feeble faith. Baldwin, meanwhile, made the tragic character of a cruel casino bigwig something almost Shakespearean in an otherwise shallow and disappointing film.

Who will probably win:

Tim Robbins. He gives a performance of weakness, confusion, and vulnerability, something quite contrary to his typically cocky demeanor. But for this viewer, his performance was too self-conscious, so that I never forgot that I was watching Tim Robbins.


• Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation)
• Clint Eastwood (Mystic River)
• Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King)
• Fernando Meirelles (City of God)
• Peter Weir (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World)

Who should have been nominated:

Jim Sheridan, for In America, where he portrayed one of the big screen’s most memorable and beautiful families with such subtlety and sensitivity.

Who should win and will win:

Peter Jackson. And it’s about time. He accomplished a seemingly impossible task and achieved more than reasonable Tolkien fans could have hoped for. His work is standard-setting, and will remain a challenge to all other action-adventure directors for many years to come.

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