Six Spot: Who Didn’t Make it to Mordor in the 2003 Best Picture Race?

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Our Six Spot series has officially reached the terrible teens with our 13th entry!

Few wins were as unanimously beloved as “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2003. The three consecutive years of the epic series had built to quite a grand finale. While the Best Picture winner this year was unimpeachable, the other nominees were far from that. In fact, only “Lost in Translation” seems relevant to modern audiences. In a race full of ho hum Oscar nominees, was there a better option that came in sixth place? Before we look at who was snubbed, let’s take a look at who was nominated.

THE NOMINEES WERE:

  • “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” – Producers: Barrie M. Osborne, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh – WINNER
  • “Lost in Translation” – Producers: Ross Katz and Sofia Coppola
  • “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” – Producers: Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., Peter Weir and Duncan Henderson
  • “Mystic River” – Producers: Robert Lorenz, Judie G. Hoyt and Clint Eastwood
  • “Seabiscuit” – Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Gary Ross

OVERALL SUMMARY

It’s hard to imagine “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” losing Best Picture. Leading up to the awards, it seemed like a surefire frontrunner. However, the film outdid itself once the Oscar telecast started. As presenter Steven Spielberg put it, “It’s a clean sweep.” The film took home all eleven awards it was nominated for. The other four Best Picture nominees never stood a chance.

The search for a runner-up is a little bit harder. “Lost in Translation” made Sofia Coppola the second woman nominated for Best Director. It was an indie smash hit that nearly earned Bill Murray his first Oscar win. However, the Original Screenplay winner was most likely too low key to win the big prize. This leads me to believe Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” was the likely runner up. Eastwood already had one Best Picture winner under his belt (“Unforgiven”). The fact that “Million Dollar Baby” would win Picture and Director the following year shows the Academy was looking to reward Eastwood. Plus, the film won two major awards – Actor (Sean Penn) and Supporting Actor (Tim Robbins).

In any other lineup, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” would’ve been the big budget populist entry. However, just like in the craft categories, “Master and Commander” fell short of “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” in almost every way. Still, this one racked up plenty of precursors and was most likely safe in terms of nominations. “Seabiscuit” appears to be the most prone to fall out. The horse racing sports drama racked up an impressive $100+ million run over the summer. However, the lack of directing or acting nominations shows lack of overall support for the film.

THE SIX SPOT CONTENDERS ARE:

  • “American Splendor”
    • Precursors – Sundance Grand Jury Prize Dramatic Winner, New York Film Critics Online Runner Up, National Society of Film Critics Winner, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Winner, Indie Spirits Nominee, WGA Winner
    • Oscar nominations – Best Adapted Screenplay
  • “Big Fish”
    • Precursors – Critics Choice Nominee, BAFTA Nominee, Golden Globes Nominee,
    • Oscar nominations – Best Original Score
  • “City of God”
    • Precursors – Online Film Critics Nominee,
    • Oscar nominations – Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing
  • “Cold Mountain”
    • Precursors – Critics Choice Nominee, BAFTA Nominee, Golden Globes Nominee, PGA Nominee
    • Oscar nominations – Best Actor (Jude Law), Best Supporting Actress (Renee Zellweger) (Winner), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Original Song (2 nominees)
  • “Finding Nemo”
    • Precursors – Critics Choice Nominee, Golden Globes Nominee,
    • Oscar nominations – Best Animated Feature (Winner), Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing
  • “In America”
    • Precursors – Critics Choice Nominee, Indie Spirits Nominee, SAG Ensemble Nominee
    • Oscar nominations – Best Actress (Samantha Morton), Best Supporting Actor (Djimon Hounsou), Best Original Screenplay
  • “The Last Samurai”
    • Precursors – Critics Choice Nominee, PGA Nominee
    • Oscar nominations – Best Supporting Actor (Ken Watanabe), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing
  • “The Station Agent”
    • Precursors – Sundance Audience Award Winner, SAG Ensemble Nominee
    • Oscar nominations – None

INDIE MOVIE HOPEFULS

“City of God” had a wild Oscar ride. The Brazilian crime drama failed to reap a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film the year prior. However, Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein opened the film in January 2003 and kept it playing for 54 consecutive weeks. This made the film eligible for all categories, other than Foreign Language Feature, for 2003. This strategy paid off with four nominations but was unable to get the foreign film into Picture. Director Fernando Meirelles earned the distinction of being the lone director nominee this year. This points to “City of God” being next in line for Best Picture. However, as Pawel Pawlikowski and Bennett Miller know, getting into director doesn’t mean your movie was automatically in sixth (or seventh, or eighth, or ninth, or tenth) place.

The other indie that surprised on Oscar morning was the Irish immigrant drama “In America.” Director Jim Sheridan already had an impressive Oscar track record. His films “My Left Foot” and “In the Name of the Father” both were nominated for Best Picture, among other categories. The film got Best Picture nominations from both the Indie Spirits and Golden Globes. What really made “In America” a Best Picture contender was its SAG Ensemble nomination.  Ultimately this translated into surprise nominations for Actress and Supporting Actor, but didn’t get it into Best Picture. Still, this does position the film as a possible spoiler for the sixth spot in Best Picture.

Another independent film snuck into the SAG Ensemble race. “The Station Agent” was just a small indie that grossed $5 million in the last quarter of 2003. However, the Sundance Audience Award Winner had its passionate fans. Many were focused on acting nominations, particularly for Patricia Clarkson (who made it in for a different film). Perhaps this kept it from being the indie that went the distance with Oscars. For what it’s worth, there was a contingent, particularly in the acting branch, that kept this in the Picture conversation.

SUMMER STAYING POWER

Many wanted “Finding Nemo” to become the second animated movie up for Best Picture. The smash hit Pixar film was the eighth highest grossing film of all time by the end of 2003 (“Lord of the Rings” was just catching up at this point). “Nemo” captured the zeitgeist in a way that made many see it as more than a film “for children” (as if any Pixar movie is only for children). Many precursors reflected this sentiment. The film received Best Picture nominations at the Critics Choice and Golden Globe. However, with the Animated Feature category in place, voters felt they could honor the film there. In an expanded Best Picture field, “Finding Nemo” would’ve easily demonstrated the same trajectory of “Up” or “Toy Story 3” and made it. However, it’s a bit more doubtful whether or not it would’ve been number six this year.

On a very different side of the box office spectrum, “American Splendor” showed quite a bit of staying power. The Sundance winner casts Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar, a comic book artist who amasses a passionate cult following. By the year’s end, the $6 million film was the talk of the critics’ awards. It received wins from both the National Society of Film Critics and Los Angeles Film Critics. The buzz didn’t stop there though. The film broke into the guild awards, winning the WGA for Adapted Screenplay. It’s easy to see the film taking a “Winter’s Bone” like route to a Best Picture nomination in the expanded category. However, with lots of indie contenders this year just on the fringe, it might be harder to claim this was number six.

THE DECEMBER GLUT

Tim Burton had been on the cusp of Oscar for quite some time. While his films have craft nominations (“Sleepy Hollow”) and even an acting win (Martin Landau – “Ed Wood”), Burton still possesses no Picture or Director nominations. “Big Fish,” his personal passion project, was supposed to change all that. The movie employed a steady platform release (finally going wide in January) in hopes it would be top of mind for voters. Unfortunately, it may have waited a bit too long. Despite Best Picture nominations at the Critics Choice, Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards, the film was only nominated for Best Original Score.

“Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” wasn’t the only big budget event Picture in December. Edward Zwick’s “The Last Samurai,” starring Tom Cruise, was expected to be the second biggest blockbuster of month. Carrying a $140 million price tag and a large marketing campaign around the film, many thought it would hit huge with audiences and Oscars. In reality, it was the fourth highest grossing movie of the month, falling behind surprise hits “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.” The film still showed up at the Critics Choice and PGA, keeping the Oscar hope alive. However, the film was not able to compete with “Lord of the Rings,” or even “Master and Commander,” to get into Best Picture.

Even with these high profile December openings, “Cold Mountain” was seen as the most likely Oscar contender a year out. The film combines everything that one describes as Oscar bait. Based on a best-selling novel (check), Oscar winning director Anthony Minghella (check) crafts an epic romance (check) set during the Civil War (check). As if one wasn’t convinced enough, sight unseen, the film starred the previous year’s Oscar winner, Nicole Kidman, alongside Jude Law, one year away from his six film year. Add on Renee Zellweger, who just had two consecutive Oscar nominations, and you have an “Oscar proof” movie. The film received respectable reviews and strong enough box office ($95 million) to still be a threat. However, once nominations were announced, the film walked away with seven nominations, but not Best Picture. Early frontrunner status costs another film the top nomination.

THE SIX SPOT FOR 2003 BEST PICTURE WAS:

COLD MOUNTAIN

Who do you think came in 6th place in the 2003 Best Picture race? Share with us in the comments below.

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