Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 21
I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 21: 2002
In the Bedroom
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
A Beautiful Mind (winner)
Gosford Park: Look, there’s Diet Coke…and then there’s Classic Coke. Gosford Park is the Diet Coke of murder mysteries.
In this Agatha Christie-style story of The Remains of the Day meets Murder on the Orient Express, a whole flock of A-list celebrities star in an upstairs/downstairs farce about the wealthy elite and those that serve them. It’s hard to know where to start with Gosford Park, but I know where it ends: general disappointment.
Set on a lavish English estate in the 1930s, Gosford Park is a who’s who of British cinema. Looking at the cast list, you might think this movie is bound to be intriguing…but it takes its dear, sweet time getting started and, even when we get to the action, the film spends way too much time thinking about how clever it is without doing anything clever at all.
The proprietor of Gosford Park is Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), who – with his wife Sylvia (Kristen Scott Thomas) – is hosting a shooting party for many of the country’s wealthy elite. These “upstairs” guests include:
Constance, The Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith)
Lord Raymond and Lady Louisa Stockbridge (Charles Dance and Geraldine Somerville)
Anthony and Lavinia Meredith (Tom Hollander and Natasha Wightman)
Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban)
Each guest also arrives with their plethora of attendants. These “downstairs” guests include:
Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald)
Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe)
Robert Parks (Clive Owen)
Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren)
Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins)
Mr. Jennings (Alan Bates)
Elsie (Emily Watson)
And so begins our century-old version of Big Brother, with a bunch of people trapped in a house, bickering, fighting, eating, competing and necking in the hallway. But when someone ends up murdered, everyone becomes a suspect.
Up until this point, the tone of Gosford Park is incredibly dull. Quiet dinner scenes are followed by watching Maggie Smith play cards. Needless to say, I was more than excited when Stephen Fry arrived, playing the whimsical Clouseau-like Inspector Thompson, but even he wasn’t enough to save this movie.
As Thompson interviews each houseguest, he blatantly ignores the clues that surround him – footprints on the floor, fingerprints on a teacup, a secret hidden door. It would be funny if the first half of the movie wasn’t so damn serious. They don’t match up. By the time the murder is solved (I mean, any bugger with a brain can solve it before these characters do), no one cares because the murder was never the point of the movie.
Besides Thompson, the only person less interested in solving the murder was director Robert Altman himself. This romp through the upper crust of England was nothing more than Altman wanting to create a tapestry of kooky characters. By the end, I felt like I do after leaving most parties I attend – exhausted, drunk and happy I can at least go home and take my pants off now.
In the end, Gosford Park tried to be too many things at once. What started off as an upstairs/downstairs satire turned into a murder mystery, which turned into a comedy, which turned into a drama which then just kind of…ended. Everyone ascended or descended to their respective levels and no one learned anything.
A lot of people say this is one of those movies you need to watch more than once to really appreciate it but, by the time the credits rolled, I had no desire to revisit this story. Guessing whodunnit is the best part of the murder mystery genre, but it sucks when you think the obvious clues are just too obvious to be correct…and then you’re correct anyway. This “murder mystery” somehow failed to put the murder, or the mystery, front and center.
In the Bedroom: Grief. It plunges the best of us into a series of wrenching, confusing and chaotic emotions. Acute sensitivity follows numbness…days of sleeping follow nights of insomnia. While we try to process and understand the reality of a loss, we must also cope with the long and oftentimes devastating encounter with our own inner demons.
In the film, In the Bedroom, Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek) describes her grief as “...coming in waves and then nothing – like a rest in music. No sound, but so loud.” In this movie that can really only be described as an independent crime tragedy, a family is brought face-to-face with their own repressed emotions, as they try desperately to heal without falling apart. But what was it that T-Swizzle said? Oh right – Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes.
The story begins as most love stories do – in sunshine and romance. Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl), a young soon-to-be college graduate is in love with Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), a divorced woman about 10 years his junior with two kids of her own.
Natalie’s estranged ex-husband Richard (William Mapother) has a history of being verbally and physically abusive, which has Frank’s parents Ruth and Matt (Tom Wilkinson) worried. Ruth tries to warn her son that getting involved with a woman with baggage can have dire consequences, but Frank brushes her off, telling her it’s just a summer fling.
Despite Frank’s unconventional romance, the Fowler’s are not unlike most middle-class east coast families. Ruth is a choral director at the local high school and Matt is a general practitioner. They are intelligent, open-minded and pride themselves on being able to have an open communication with their son. But then, something happens.
I will not spoil this movie for you, but let’s just say this twist makes the second half of the film near impossible to predict. The story itself feels like it’s unraveling, leading to places I never would have expected. What started as a lovely-dovey romance turns into a story about how hurt and sadness can turn into anger and blame. With great poise, In the Bedroom shows how the littlest of things can cause the greatest pain in the wake of terrible tragedy.
What makes In the Bedroom so freaking amazing is that the performances here are near perfect. Nick Stahl, a young man half in love with a woman and half in love with just being in love, has moments that speak to his adolescent nature. A budding architect, he spends his free time drawing and playing with blocks. Marisa Tomei, who is older and wiser than her young lover, knows all too well the problems they face and is almost motherly in her protection of him.
Sissy Spacek, who really is fantastic in almost everything she does, showcases a mother who has painful issues of her own. She is not unlike a dormant volcano…ready to erupt at any given moment. There is a clear hidden struggle behind the surface, and Spacek is masterful at showing it.
Tom Wilkinson is no different, imbuing Matt with a quiet dignity and simmering fury that only grows as the movie progresses. Matt is a father who lives vicariously through his son a little more than he’d like to admit, and when he and Ruth lash out at each other, when words we’d never dare speak come tumbling out in a moment of rage, we are shocked but not surprised. Difficult times often reveal a strong man’s Achilles’ heel.
In the Bedroom was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Wilkinson), Best Actress (Spacek) and Best Supporting Actress (Tomei), but did not win any. However it did quite well at the box office, grossing about $44 million on a $1.7 million budget.
The title of this movie might be an attention grabber, but it has little to do with sex. It refers to the rear compartment of a lobster trap, known as “the bedroom”, and how it can only hold two lobsters before they begin to turn on each other. It’s mentioned by Matt in a throwaway line while fishing on a lobster boat, but it becomes the focal point of the entire film. It also speaks to the secrets that are shared at night when two people are in the most private room in their home, the thoughts spoken, and unspoken, that bind us to another human being.
The enigmatic ending of In the Bedroom is both satisfying and deeply troubling. As Matt removes a Band-Aid from a finger that was earlier nipped by a lobster, we can see that his cut has healed, symbolizing that he’s achieved some kind of closure. But the same can’t be said for us. As the audience, our lack of closure suggests that grief is eternal, it stays with us forever. While this movie offers answers, it makes no claim that they are the right ones…and when we see the evildoers punished for their crimes, it’s both stunning and upsetting. Like Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, we wait to see retribution, then are shocked to get exactly what we wanted.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: Honey, you’re either a Legolas girl or an Aragorn girl and there’s no in between (the fact that our dog was named Strider should tell you all you need to know about my personal choice!).
When I saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time, I was blown away by how accurate it was to the Hogwarts of my dreams. The cobblestone sidewalks, the candlelit hallways, even the Great Hall came to life just as it had in my 13-year-old imagination.
The same year Sorcerer’s Stone was released, another beloved literary fantasy series found its way to the big screen. While I stepped into the theater, ready to board the Hogwarts Express, my dad found his hairy, bare feet planted in the green grasses of The Shire, as one of his favorite childhood books, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came to life before his very eyes.
Now, I say this having never read LOTR – but I think what Fellowship accomplishes better than almost any other fantasy film, including Harry Potter, is that it transports us to an entirely different reality, immerses us in it, then leaves us there for nearly three hours. From the first beautiful shot of The Shire, I was there.
In this first installment of a three-part series, Fellowship introduces us to the scale and scope of Middle Earth, its creatures, heroes, monsters and villains. Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is a Hobbit, carefree and happy in his home in The Shire. He enjoys his pastoral existence with his uncle, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), eating, dancing, then eating some more.
Meanwhile, the dark lord Sauron (Christopher Lee), obsessed with recovering an evil ring that would give him supreme power, learns that his prized possession lies somewhere in The Shire…in the pocket, in fact, of one Bilbo Baggins.
Created for evil, this ring can only be used for the most monstrous things and corrupts whoever wears it. The only way to destroy it is to throw it into the fiery bowels of Mount Doom, where it was forged. This becomes the task of young Frodo, cast upon him by the great-bearded, pointy-hat-wearing, pipe-smoking stoner wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen).
Together with Gandalf, his Hobbit cousins Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), and his best friend Sam (Sean Astin), Frodo and company embark on a “We’re Off to See the Wizard” journey to meet with Elrond (Hugo Weaving), a wise elf who Gandalf believes can offer guidance on how to destroy the ring and rid the world of evil once and for all.
Along the way, the group picks up a mysterious drifter named Aragorn “Strider” Elessar (Viggo Mortensen), a warrior named Boromir (Sean Bean), an archer elf named Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and a little, feisty dwarf named Gimli (John Rhys-Davies). Together this group of nine Hobbits, humans, elves, dwarfs and wizards make up “The Fellowship of the Ring” or those who have sworn to protect Frodo on his journey to Mount Doom. Together they must battle monsters, treacherous landscapes and their own inner demons as part one of the LOTR trilogy draws to a close.
As is the case with most beginning chapters, Fellowship is a lot of introductory content. Through narration and storytelling, we’re given a solid Reader’s Digest background of what we need to know to understand the story moving forward. Granted there’s not nearly as much action as there is in Return of the King or even The Two Towers, but fans of the series know the best is yet to come.
Still every character means something to the story, and the Fellowship specifically. Each member is meant to be there for a reason and, without any of them, they’d be a lesser group for it. Some characters, such as Frodo and Sam, have better character development than others, but that’s mainly because Frodo has to convince us, as viewers, that his story is worth the 12-hour time commitment.
Ironically, Fellowship wouldn’t be quite as successful as its final chapter, The Return of the King, but it still managed to receive 13 Academy Award nominations, winning four: Best Makeup, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score and Best Visual Effects. It was the #2 highest-grossing film of 2001 (behind Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), bringing in $887.8 million worldwide. It’s estimated that more than 54 million tickets were sold in the US alone during its initial theatrical run.
Like any movie based on a book, what viewers take away from this adventure will depend, to some extent, on whether or not they’ve read the novels. For me, who has not read them, these films are still magical works of art. While they certainly feature weird, made-up languages and even weirder creatures, at its core, LOTR is about friendship, courage and bravery. It’s about how even the smallest among us have the ability to change the world and how even the best of us have the potential for evil as well as the potential for good.
A Beautiful Mind: In our digital age, there are still quite a few rational people who argue about whether or not a machine can think. Two people can look at the same computer and where one sees artificial intelligence, the other sees a simple program run on rules. This argument can also be made over a human being’s state of mind – one sees a madman, the other sees a visionary. We’ve seen this a bazillion times in Hollywood: The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Good Will Hunting, Shine…these movies often become heroic biopics of one man overcoming his own disability, oftentimes fueled by the overreaching power of love…and A Beautiful Mind is no different.
As a graduate student at Princeton in 1947, math whiz John Nash (Russell Crowe) has yet to step foot into an actual classroom, fearing it will dull his creative genius (yeah, guy…me too). Instead, he spends his time scribbling on any surface he can find, looking for his one original and revolutionary idea.
Like most typecast Hollywood nerds, Nash isn’t a popular fellow on campus. He claims to have “…a chip on both shoulders” and knows that people don’t like him much…which is fine because he doesn’t like anyone, either. But, together with his roommate Charles Herman (Paul Bettany), we come to appreciate his weird quirks and ticks. And so does William Parcher (Ed Harris), an agent with the Department of Defense, looking to recruit Nash as a codebreaker for the American team tasked with breaking imbedded Soviet messages.
A student of game theory, Nash becomes a pawn in an intricate Cold War political plot, unable to share his top-secret work with those closest to him, including his student-turned-wife, Alicia (Jennifer Connelly). Things finally come to a head when a group of supposed Russian spies infiltrate one of his speaking engagements, causing Nash to have a very public, and emotional, mental breakdown. Yet, Alicia stands by her man, proving that a beautiful mind is only surpassed by a devoted heart.
The end? Not quite…because – PLOT TWIST – Nash also suffers from mental illness.
A Beautiful Mind subscribes to the Stephen Hawking idea of disability – everything is fine as long as your disability awakens some great mental or spiritual superiority. No one can be normal and suffer from mental illness, just like no one can be unusually smarter than their peers without some type of disability. Hollywood at its best!
Based on a true story, this film is quite the kind retelling of a life somewhat torn apart by infidelity. The real John Nash suffered from a sea of marital problems, including fathering an illegitimate child and sleeping around with both men and women…but those things are conveniently left out of this Ron Howard feel-good biopic. Instead, A Beautiful Mind gives full credit to Alicia, a woman who stood by Nash’s side because she needed to believe “…that something extraordinary is possible.” Then, they gave Connelly an Oscar for it.
The real John Nash lived to a ripe old age of 86, dying in a car crash with his wife in 2015. Unlike Alan Turing in The Imitation Game or Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Nash eventually learned to control his mental illness, making him one of the lucky ones to pull out of his downward spiral. And while A Beautiful Mind is by no means an honest retelling of Nash’s life, (it also left out the fact that he won a Nobel Prize for his work) it succeeded in giving us another inspirational story about man overcoming insurmountable odds, armed with a math book, a tweed jacket, and the power of love.
Moulin Rouge!: It seemed like there wasn’t a theater, choir or band kid in my high school who didn’t see Moulin Rouge! when it came out in 2001. In this computer-generated Paris, everything from the costumes to the music to the actual performances are over the top. Very clearly inspired by the colorful and vibrant Bollywood films, this ode to truth, beauty, freedom and love is nothing if not spectacular (spectacular).
Our wild and crazy acid trip of a musical begins in 1900s Paris, where starving writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) is helping a group of struggling Bohemians write a musical called “Spectacular, Spectacular”. In an effort to get it on stage, they decide to take a trip down to the sexy, colorful, wild and wacky Moulin Rouge, the hottest nightclub in Paris, to pitch the idea to Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), the owner of the club.
Spotlighting those who have no life outside the spotlight, the Moulin Rouge is filled with dreamers, the prettiest being Satine (Nicole Kidman), a celebrated courtesan who captures Christian’s heart pretty much immediately. Though he has no actual experience of being in love, he can’t help but be mesmerized by her beauty. Suddenly, love lifts him up where he belongs! All he needs is love! He wants to fill the world with silly love songs! And really, what’s wrong with that?
Well, a couple things. For one, Satine is suffering from consumption and must hide her illness not only from her lover, but from her boss and her clients. Furthermore, the Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh) – who has agreed to finance “Spectacular, Spectacular” – will only provide funding if he can have Satine to himself. As preparations for the show progress, an illicit affair between Satine and Christian comes to a head on opening night, revealing everyone’s true, vibrant colors.
Directed by Baz Lahrmann (who also directed the Leonardo DiCaprio dud, Romeo + Juliet), Moulin Rouge! is like being stuck inside a kaleidoscope for two hours. Images explode from the screen, performers rock out to pop songs with kitsch choreography, and the dance halls are alive with the sound of music. The quick and sporadic cuts make if feel like this film was fed through an electric fan, and though we’re constantly stimulated with bright colors and set design, we never even get the chance to look around. Like being in love for the first time, everything is illuminated, and over too fast.
But what holds this crazy musical together is, of course, the music. Classic and contemporary pop songs, from Rogers and Hammerstein to Elton John and David Bowie, get gloriously revamped and tucked neatly into this fantastical love story. Major credit to the entire cast, who all did their own singing…but special credit to Jim Broadbent for his rendition of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”, which is quite the site to behold, as is Jack Koman’s gruff tango to Sting’s “Roxanne”.
There are also some creative touches applied to familiar tunes. The fusion of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Material Girl” works surprisingly well…like, I’m surprised this hasn’t happened before…and the “Love Montage” seems to effortlessly merge nearly half a dozen love songs into one stunning performance.
Like any great Hollywood musical, Moulin Rouge! is nothing if not brass and outrageous. The costumes are layered with vibrant colors, the makeup is borderline cartoonish and the set design is something you might see after a night of partying with The Green Fairy…but we live in an age of excess. With aggressive cuts, colorful costumes and a killer soundtrack to boot, Moulin Rouge! provides a template for a new kind of movie musical.
And like all its 1950s musical cousins, this film is nothing if not cheeky – but it works. Being hopelessly in love can often blind us from the sad realities that loom right around the corner, but this musical teaches us that there are ways to make it work – come what may.
It’s strong and it’s sudden and it’s cruel sometimes
But it might just save your life
THAT’S THE POWER OF LOVE!
Love was certainly the name of the game for the movies of 2002. From the love you have for your best friend to the love you share with a husband, wife or partner, these movies proved that the world really hasn’t had enough of silly love songs…er…stories.
Gosford Park and In the Bedroom (my hidden gem this year) showcased what can happen when familial love turns sour, particularly that relationship between parents and their children. The Lord of the Rings is really a dedication to friendship and what it means to truly have someone’s best interests at heart, and Moulin Rouge! just took the idea of love and ran with it, up one song and down another.
As for A Beautiful Mind, it showed how the love between a husband and wife can take on the cruelest of challenges…be it mental illness, work obligations or undeserving Best Picture Oscars. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good movie, but it really just had “Oscar bait” written right in the code of its production. The Lord of the Rings was easily a better movie experience than A Beautiful Mind, and though the Academy would never recognize a little homegrown movie like In the Bedroom, it was leagues above the rest of these in shear talent alone.
After 9/11, it was clear that America longed for an escape from reality. Besides these nominees, 2001 also saw the release of Amelie, Spirited Away, Ocean’s Eleven, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, A Knight’s Tale, Legally Blonde, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Zoolander. Americans ran to the comfort of that cozy, well-worn theater seat, where beloved characters had happy endings and love conquers all.
Onto the next pull!