Armchair Oscars – 2004

Best Picture

Million Dollar Baby (Directed by Clint Eastwood)
The Nominees: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray, Sideways

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Directed by Michel Gondry)
My Nominees:
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (Neils Mueller), The Aviator (Martin Scorsese), Badasssss! (Mario Van Peebles), Before Sunset (Richard Linklater), Garden State (Zach Braff), Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino), Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood), Sideways (Alexander Payne)


Clint Eastwood carved his niche into American cinema for 40 years creating a legacy as a great movie star. Yet, after his Oscar win for Unforgiven in 1993, he turned his efforts toward creating an impressive body of work as a great director. He had been directing ever since Play Misty For Me in 1971 but he would turn himself into a full-fledged cinema artist with the coming of the new century. Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Changling, Gran Torino and his Iwo Jima duology Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima are all incredible films from an artist who clearly loves his craft.

The academy noticed and after giving him Oscars for writing and producing Unforgiven, they rewarded him again for writing and producing a much better film, Million Dollar Baby, based on a story by F.X. O’Toole about a hard-nosed boxing trainer named Frankie Dunn who reluctantly agrees to train a scrappy young waitress (Best Actress winner Hilary Swank) who wants to prove herself in the boxing world.

Like all of Eastwood’s films, Million Dollar Baby is about much more than boxing. It is about characters, about regret and ultimately about redemption. It tells a story that takes seemingly familiar material and turns it completely around with a developement that we don’t expect.  I have nothing but good things to say about this film. It is one of those surprising character studies that comes along and just seems to get every note absolutely right. Yet in choosing my favorite film of Two Thousand-Four, I am compelled to move in another direction. Eastwood is one of the best storytellers of the new century but Charlie Kaufman is one of the most inventive. While most screenwriters his age (he’s in his early 40s) are happy to stick with safe, reliable genre pieces, action pictures and horror films, Kaufman has become the master of “The Brain Puzzle”, telling stories that break the basic storytelling structure.  His stories bend backwards upon themselves and contain multiple levels of madding invention. This was evident in the great 1999 film Being John Malkovich about a group of people who discover a portal into the brain of actor John Malkovich then sell tickets to the experience. That film was a great experience, taking a completely daffy concept and then spinning it into a second and third level of creative genius.

I don’t think that Kaufman will ever equal that film’s originality, but I think with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind he comes very close. I can’t say that it was better than Malkovich but I can say that it was better than most anything I saw in two thousand-four. This film, like the earlier one, twists its story around and back again and adds a three-level playing field that is surprisingly easy to follow. The movie actually begins somewhere in the middle of the story, as we meet Joel (Jim Carrey), a nice guy who is shy and emotionally withdrawn. He is that kind of guy who dates the first woman who gives him the time of day, which would explain how he ended up with Clementine (Kate Winslet), a daffy, impulsive, dysfunctional extrovert who changes her hair color every week and never seems to stop talking. Opposites attract and they embark on the kind of sweet courtship that ends in disaster when their personalities clash when they try having a real relationship. He thinks she’s a loon who never shuts up and she thinks he’s boring and predictable (it says something of the movie that a character that Jim Carrey plays can be decribed with those two words).

The relationship goes sour and they break up. He doesn’t want to lose her and seeks her out at her job, but she seems not to know him. Plus, she already has a new boyfriend, Patrick (Elijah Wood). He finds that Patrick is working for a company called Lacuna Inc., which provides a service that can completely erase memories from a person’s mind. Clementine, it seems, has been to this clinic to have Joel erased from her mind and that Patrick has been using things that Joel gave her to pretend he knows her heart.

Joel, out of spite, goes to the same clinic to have Clementine removed from his mind and there meets a certain Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), a kindly doc who has an oddly casual viewpoint on this mad procedure. “Is there any risk of brain damage?” Joel reasonably asks. “Well, technically speaking, the operation is brain damage”, the doc says, “but it’s on a par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you’ll miss.” He is required to gather every note, gift, photograph and piece of memorabilia that has any connection with Clementine so the doctor can create a complete “mental map” and trace the paths of his memories so they can be erased (I know . . . I didn’t get it either).

While under the anesthetic, the Lacuna technicians come to his home to administer the mind wipe. During the procedure, Joel – inside his own head – witnesses the memories in his own brain being erased. As the process wipes the memories clean, he begins to long for the few good times he had with Clementine. Unfortunately, he’s in a deep sleep back in the real world, so he decides to store the thoughts in areas of his brain that will not be effected. That sets off a stange journey through Joel’s mind, his memory, his subconcious and his childhood repressions. He takes a version of Clementine that he meets in one of his memories help him out.

What I’ve told you doesn’t begin to scratch the surface, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an endlessly inventive as it travels through Joel’s mind and we see the best and worst of his life with Clementine disappear like bricks in a lego set as the procedure takes effect. Some of it is inspired, like a trip to a date at a drive-in. Some of it is just plain weird, like a trip into Joel’s infancy where we still see the adult Joel but he is clearly the size of a baby.  Some of it is reasonably quite baffling.

What I love about Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays is that he is very generous.  Instead of adding one story thread and then following it through, he adds extra levels to his stories.  In Malkovich, he added a third act that took the film in a completely different direction.  He did the same with his great Adaptation in 2002, adding an extra level that gave the story more complexity.  He does the same here with a revelation involving the technicians who are erasing Joel’s memory.  There is a connection between Dr. Mierzwiak and one of the techs that seems to add a nice sideplot but really it is changing the entire texture of the ending, making it bittersweet.

Those who are willing to play along with Kaufman’s head game will get more out of it then they might expect.  What I got from the film was the same insight I got from Koreeda’s  After Life, that great 1999 film about a group of people who are told to choose one memory from their lives to take with them to the afterlife.  Both After Life and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are about the value of human memory.  When we get to the end, we are really made up of our collective memories, learning from the bad ones and cherising the good.  Joel’s relationship with Clementine may have run hot and cold but what he finds is that he cherishes the moments of sweetness and wouldn’t give them up for anything.

Best Actor

Jamie Foxx (Ray)
The Nominees:
Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), Johnny Depp (Finding Neverland), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator), Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby)

Sean Penn (The Assassination of Richard Nixon)
My Nominees: Jim Carrey (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ), Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), Giuseppe Cristiano (I’m Not Scared), Johnny Depp (Finding Neverland), Jamie Foxx (Ray), Bruno Ganz (Downfall), Paul Giamatti (Sideways), Liam Neeson (Kinsey), Ron Perlman (Hellboy)


To say that Jamie Foxx was a breakout star of two-thousand four was a little innacurate. Foxx started as a stand-up comic before his four year run on the comedy series “In Living Color” then a five year run on his own self-titled sitcom. His movie career was hit and miss, his most acclaimed work was as Willie Beaman a self-centered quarterback in Oliver Stone’s forgotten Any Given Sunday and his best known role was as Bunz in the raunchy comedy Booty Call (which I liked) . I don’t think he became a breakout star in two-thousand four, but I think he became an effective dramatic actor.

First, he played Max a good-hearted cab driver forced to drive a hitman (Tom Cruise) to his “appointments” in Michael Mann’s riveting Collateral. Then he wowed his critics with a brilliant performance as Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford’s Ray. He was nominated for both (one supporting, the other leading) but won the Best Actor prize. I loved his work in Ray because his performance transends a mere physical appearence. He able to embody the great musician and (except for a moment at the end when he takes off his glasses) make us forget we’re watching an actor.

I am not overlooking Foxx because I didn’t like his performance but because I found a lot of performances that I liked better. My first choice was Bruno Ganz who gave a ferocious performance in Downfall, in which he plays Hitler during the last few days of his life as his mind deteriorated in his bunker and leads to his suicide. Instead I’m choosing another actor who plays someone who’s mind is coming apart, Sean Penn whose best work found him playing characters who were on the edge of exploding with rage and frustration. Watch him as Daulton Lee in The Falcon and the Snowman, Seargent Meserve in Casualties of War, David Kleinfeld in Carlito’s Way, Emmet Ray in Sweet and Lowdown and Paul Rivers in 21 Grams and you’ll see men who are boiling under the surface, who can’t stand the world around them because of a deep-seeded insecurity. They can’t seem to shape their worlds into a mold that gets them what they need. He’s been perfecting this character for years and he finally gets it absolutely right playing the pathetic Sam Bick in Neils Mueller’s little-seen The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

Sam Bick is Penn’s most accomplished work, a pathetic human being who isn’t a bad guy but isn’t a guy you can easily tolerate. Bick is one of life’s window shoppers, always looking in at opportunity but never able to partake in anything. His life is a mess, he and his wife are separated, he fails at his job as an office furniture salesman because he’s too honest. He is having trouble moving on a bank loan so he can start his own tire business. He has a brother who wants nothing to do with him. We kind of understand why, he’s an easy fellow to sympathize with but a difficult person to tolerate.

The thing that frustrates Sam more than anything is dishonesty so it is fitting that we’re meeting him in 1974, as the Vietnam War is still burning, Nixon is defending himself in the press and the country has become disallusioned by the lies from its own government. Nixon’s press conferences on television play as a Greek chorus to Sam’s frustration and so we’re not surprised when it becomes a catalyst for his eventual decent into madness.

Sam is an odd duck, stumbling around in three-piece suits with an irritating mustache, he seems to wear the tag “loser” on his back. He’s is socially retarded and when he tries to be a man of good cheer, his attempts are so sad that we almost can’t look. His associations with his ex-wife, his business partner, the loan officer at the bank, his boss always end in frustration. All of his association create snowball effect in which it will begin cheerily enough but inevitably snowball into a confrontation. Those who know him sigh and roll their eyes when they see him because he’s a walking irritant, a thorn in thier sides that won’t go away. Even his kids’ dog seems indifferent when he comes around.

All through the film he provides his own narration which making tapes that, for some reason, he sends to composer Leonard Bernstein. It is never clear exactly why he chose Bernstein but the narration gives us clear insights into his addled brain. “Who are these men, maestro, who keep us waiting at their feet?” he says on one tape, “The meek shall not inherit the earth. The earth belongs to the bullies who do not care how they get to the top, as long as they arrive.”

What Mueller does with the pacing of the film is interesting. He begins by slowly pacing the scenes depicting the mundane aspects of Sam’s life, suggesting that every action is a frustrating stall but then later as he begins to lose his mind, the pace quickens and we sense that his mind has spun out of control. The last scenes of the movie are not a surprise. The pace of the film quickens and Sam’s face becomes lined and droopy especially in a series of quick cuts as he goes to the mailbox everyday to see if the bank has sent him information on the loan. His plan to highjack a plane and fly it into the White House is pathetic, half-formed and when he finally takes it over (while it’s still on the ground) we realize that this man, who can’t seem to do anything right, can’t even become an effective criminal. The film is loosely based on a real life story of a man named Samual Byck – the name and most of the facts have been changed. It was then ironic that this sad, forgettable man would become a tiny footnote in history.

Best Actress

Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby)
The Nominees: Annette Bening (Being Julia),
Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace), Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), Kate Winlset (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)

Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake)
My Nominees:
Nicole Kidman (Birth), Julianne Moore (The Forgotten), Meg Ryan (Against the Ropes), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace), Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby), Audrey Tautou (A Very Long Engagement), Uma Thurman (Kill Bill Vol. 2), Kate Winlset (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)


In the years following her Oscar win for Boys Don’t Cry, Hilary Swank seemed to have trouble coming up with a good role. Her subsequent films were either in supporting roles behind Al Pacino and Cate Blanchett and lead roles in forgettable fare like The Affair of the Necklace and the unfortunate sci-fi outing The Core. To some, she had become a private joke, an Oscar fluke who was never likely to have a good role again.

Then she silenced her nay-sayers when she teamed up with Clint Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby, playing Maggie Fitzgerald, an aspiring boxer with a lot of heart and determination. She won a second Best Actress Oscar, not only making her a two-time winner but now her Oscar status was 2 and O. I was never among her negative critics, I always feel that she gives 150% even in movies that aren’t so great. I almost gave her my Best Actress Oscar but revisiting these two performances, I have to say that I prefer her work in Boys Don’t Cry. It’s probably not fair to compare but I found her work in the earlier film to have a little more depth.

My favorite performance of the year came from one of Swank’s fellow nominees, Imelda Staunton in the title role of Mike Leigh’s devastating Vera Drake. I am sort of ashamed to admit that before this film, I had never heard of Staunton (though she had been in movies for more than 20 years). In terms of this film, that may have been an advantage because not being familiar with the actress lent a certain mystery to the character. Today, she is better known for her role as the wickedly evil Professor Dolores Umbridge in three of the Harry Potter pictures. Yet, if you see those films then screen, Vera Drake, you will be shocked. The difference between the two roles is like night and day.

We meet dear Vera in England in 1950 as she goes about her daily routine. She’s a kindly lady with the round cheery face of an aunt who is always making tea and cookies. She walks about town visiting neighbors who are old or bed-ridden or just need a favor and then heading home to take care of her own large household. She is the housekeeper for rich people, always polishing one thing or another. In the homes of her poorer neighbors, we see her fluffing pillows, changing sheets, making tea and always humming a merry little tune.

Several times a week, she also performs abortions, stopping in the houses of women who need “help”. This was illegal in England in the 1950s and we think that this is going to be a case of the cringe-inducing back-alley butchery but Vera’s method is simply to use a rubber syringe to induce a miscarriage and her method is surprisingly easy to watch. We’re surprised how simple her method is and even one of her patients gasps “Is that all?” She makes these women comfortable, gives simple instructions on what to do next and then leaves with a warm smile.

What is stunning is the way that director Mike Leigh handles these scenes. They aren’t punctuated but they are seen simply part of Vera’s daily routine. What I didn’t notice at first is that Vera has a way of handling sympathy for these girls by keeping her distance. While she is very sweet to the women she helps, she never tries to be a comfort. Later, when one extremely nervous woman starts crying, Vera doesn’t try to console her but but her face isn’t uncaring. When she visits a Jamaican woman who has a lot of questions and a lot of concern, Vera’s demeanor is pleasant and direct but not unkind. She accepts no money for these services, deeming it as a favor to a young girl in trouble. Her best friend, however, who often gets in touch with the women, occasionally takes money without Vera’s knowledge. She is Lillian Crane, a hard old bat with the face of a school marm and a hateful demeanor. In terms of her disposition, she is Vera’s polar opposite. It is Lillian who arranges Vera’s unfortunate meeting with Pamela Barnes.

She meets the girl and her mother in their home and the procedure seems to go like all the others. The difference is that the next day, Pamela ends up in the hospital and her mother is forced to give up Vera’s name to the police. When they come to the Drake home, Vera already knows why they are there and this is where Imelda Staunton’s performance finds is center. We see this cheery face break down into a mask of fear and confusion as she tries, through her tears to explain that what she has done was not an abortion in the clinical sense but that she was doing a kindly service to women who were in need of help but could not afford to have them done by professional doctors.

The scene that will stay with me comes during her questioning by the police. A teary eyed Vera is asked to account for how long she has been performing abortions but she can’t think and keeps repeating “A long time.” There is a hint of some insight into her history when the large, very imposing, but not cold-hearted police inspector asks how she got started doing these favors. When he asks if she had it done to her as a girl, her tears overtake her and she never answers directly.

The film is broken into two halves, before she is arrested and then the effects afterwards. I was struck by how comfortable I was in the Drake’s house with her kindly, loving husband Stan who works in machine shop alongside his brother (who has a bitchy wife who adds a nice touch of colour). They have two children, Sid is a tailor and when we visit him on the job we see that he really knows his stuff. They have a daughter, Ethel, a shy but sweet girl who, through her mother, meets an equally shy fellow named Reg. They can’t help but be close, they live in a small house with cramped living quarters and narrow hallways. We see how Vera’s efforts pull this family together and how their lives are effected by her. Contrast the cheery mood in the house early in the film with the mournful tone late in the film after Vera has been arrested. These events (plus the knowledge that they were kept completely in the dark about the abortions) nearly bring the family apart.

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