Sunday, January 1, 2012

Academy Awards Best Picture Revisited: Mystic River (2003)

I needed to take a week off for Christmas.  The truth of the matter is I forgot about watching Mystic River last week.  2003 was one incredible year at the movies, Peter Jackson finished his trilogy (without splitting it in two parts), Sofia Coppola emerged from her father's shadow, and Clint Eastwood started a pattern that provided some of the best films in his career.

Clint Eastwood has had an impressive career. Eastwood started as television actor in the 1950s, moved on to film acting, and then in the early 1970s he started acting and directing.  Eastwood's early career as an actor centered on westerns, and being a bad ass cop.  Eastwood's career as a director and producer, is much more impressive than his acting career (in my opinion); his first major critical success as a director was the 1988 film Bird.  Bird was a film about the life of Charlie "Bird" Parker.  Clint Eastwood won his first major award, a Golden Globe for direction, with this film.  Eastwood was not nominated for a Best Director Oscar.  Eastwood's first Academy Award nominations came in 1993 for starring, producing, and directing the film Unforgiven; he won for producing and directing the film.  Two years later the Academy Awards honored Eastwood with the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award, a lifetime achievement award.  Eastwood had several films in between like Space Cowboys and Bridges of Madison County, but waas not nominated again until 10 years after his first nomination for producing and directing Mystic River.  Mystic River started Eastwood's continuing journey to attend the Academy Awards.  In 2004 he was nominated for starring in, directing, and producing the film Million Dollar Baby; he won for directing and producing.  Eastwood's most recent nominations came in 2007 for directing and producing Letters for Iwo Jima; he was honored more the critically liked film in a pair.  Eastwood's nomination this year came from producing and directing two films from two different perspectives during World War II.

Eastwood is much more than this time period, but his film Mystic River is one of the crowning jewels in his career.  Mystic River centers on three friends Jimmy (Sean Penn), Dave (Tim Robbins) and Sean (Kevin Bacon) who as young children encountered two men who pretended to be police officers in order to lure the boys away to and molest them.  The only person who ended up going with them was Dave.  This one dark incident impacts this trio and their future path to adulthood, and their family.  As adults another incident brings this trio back together and takes them on a dark journey.

I remember reading the Dennis Lehane book, and thinking about how difficult it would be to adapt into a film, but Eastwood and the screenwriter Brian Helgelend took a book on a complex subject matter/a mystery and made an exceptional film.  Dennis Lehane has had three works made into films (including Mystic River) the other two were Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island.  Lehane's books all provide great context that allow directors and screenwriters to make an easy transition to the big screen.  While I tore through the book Mystic River the film version added such wonderful context to the characters.

While the film can become a bit melodramatic especially the scene where the cops have the restrain Sean Penn at the crime scene.  While  Penn earned an Oscar nomination for this film I think he gives a far superior performance in 21 Grams.  Penn won for his body of work that year (nothing wrong with that). Mystic River had a strong ensemble and the movies quality was bolstered by strong performances.  Stylistically, Eastwood knows the material and uses his actors and the story to construct a strong film.  I am intrigued to see how his films, including this film age.  Will Mystic River stand the test of time and be remembered as one of the best films from this year?

Picking five Best Picture nominees in 2003 is a challenge. Mystic River had six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director-Clint Eastwood, Best Actor-Sean Penn (winner), Best Supporting Actress-Marcia Gay Harden, Best Supporting Actor-Tim Robbins (winner), and Best Adapted Screenplay.  The five nominated films were: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River, and Seabiscuit.

Of the five nominees 3 of the films deserved to be here.  The winner was the swan song for Return of the King, and I glad this film finally won, what an epic conclusion.  Mystic River deserved its nomination as (for reasons stated above).  While many are torn on Lost in Translation, this is one of my favorite films, and I think it captures the emotional struggle of its two leads well.  The other two films would not even come close to making my top ten list.  Master and Commander is boring, and Seabiscuit was the perennial attempt to show the voters have a heart.

If the voters wanted to show their heart they could have picked the much better film In America.  America was directed by Jim Sheridan and details the struggles of an Irish immigrant family.  If the voters wanted the action of Master and Commander they should have gone with Tarantino's masterful return to for, Kill Bill Volume 1.  The Academy was of course not edgy enough to even nominate Uma Thurman for Best Actress.  Fernando Mirielles was honored with a Best Director nomination for brilliant film City of God, but the film itself was snubbed. The Best Animated Feature gave Nemo and Dory an opportunity to be part of an Oscar winning film, but Finding Nemo was one of the most beloved, and best films of this year.  21 Grams had all the raw emotional power of Mystic River and it starred the same guy, Sean Penn.  This was wonderfully poignant tale that interweaves the stories of three different individuals.  Then last but certainly not least there is the film American Splendor, which tell the story of the graphic novelist Harvey Pekar. Splendor is hilarious, dark, and has one of Paul Giamatti's best roles.  I could go on and on about all of these films.  Each one has a right to be called the best film making of 2003.

Narrowing this list to just five films in an amazing year is incredibly difficult, but if I had to my top five films of 2003 would be City of God, Kill Bill Volume One,The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Lost in Translation, Mystic River.  In all honesty I would need six nominees and my sixth would be In America.  2003 is a great year, and Mystic River is a wonderful film that fits into the growing landscape of cinema.  The film uses a traditional setting while intermingling the role the past plays in someone's developmental process.

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