The Fifth Annual Retroactive Academy Awards

The front of a movie theater bathed in crimson light, as seen from the front doorway.

The Oscars are changing. Among 2023’s nominees were a historically popular spectacle ("Avatar: The Way of Water"); an all-time great acting performance ("Tar"); a vulnerable, autobiographical work by a venerated master ("The Fabelmans"); an Irish fable that is hilarious, heartbreaking and violent all at once ("The Banshees of Inisherin"); a gorgeous, captivating war film based on literary canon ("All Quiet on the Western Front"); and one of the most crowd-pleasing movies ever made ("Top Gun: Maverick"), which was credited here in the Anythink blog with maybe saving the summer and by the aforementioned venerated master himself with maybe saving Hollywood too.

Despite all that, somehow, "Everything Everywhere All At Once" -  a legitimately brilliant, gonzo, kung fu, sci-fi, family comedy that is unlike any movie ever made, much less any Oscar darling - absolutely dominated this year’s awards, taking home prizes for Best Original Screenplay, both supporting acting categories, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Picture. What’s even more surprising about it is how it wasn’t very surprising. The multiversal human cartoon was the frontrunner for weeks and swept all the precursor awards except the BAFTAs (British Academy Film Awards). This was a historic Oscars performance by, I must disclose, my favorite film of 2022. But it naturally begs the question: Will "Everything Everywhere All At Once" winning everything everywhere still seem like the right call in five, ten or twenty years? 

In that spirit, I present… The Fifth Annual Retroactive Academy Awards!

As always, the rules and disclaimer: we’ll revisit Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress from Oscars five, ten and twenty years ago to determine whether the winners deserve to retain their award, or if a new champion shall be crowned. These are not meant to replace the original winners, but to reevaluate the past through our present lens. For fun. Also, I stole this idea from the sportswriter/podcaster, Bill Simmons. It’s okay, though. I doubt he’s reading this. 

2018 Oscars (5 Years Ago)

The whole reason to do the Retroactive Academy Awards is for years like this. When was the last time you watched, or even thought about, Best Picture winner "The Shape of Water"? It’s certainly not a bad movie, but it just so happened to win over one of the best, most important movies of the past decade, "Get Out." 2018 joins the ranks of 2006 ("Crash" over "Brokeback Mountain") and 1991 ("Dances With Wolves" over "Goodfellas") as Best Picture decisions that grow progressively more baffling in hindsight. "Get Out" is an instant classic, and one of the most surprising and assured directorial debuts in history. It’s an easy Retroactive Best Picture winner. (But if you think I didn’t briefly consider "Coco," you don’t know me at all.) 

Speaking of directing, Jordan Peele, the sketch comedian turned prestige horror auteur, could/would/should probably triumph over actual winner, Guillermo del Toro. (Not for nothing, Peele’s "Nope" was my second favorite film of 2022.) But I like to spread the awards around - and del Toro is a supreme cinematic artist, so it’s not like he’s undeserving. I’d love to give it to Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” but just a few years later she bested herself with “Little Women,” which arbitrarily and unfairly disqualifies her here. (And who knows how incredible “Barbie” will be this summer!) This leaves Christopher Nolan for "Dunkirk" and Paul Thomas Anderson for "Phantom Thread" to duke it out. The former is a white-knuckle war film and the latter a slow-burn psychological drama. Both are impeccably designed and executed. Either is a fine winner. But Christopher Nolan wins by a hair because of the sheer scale of the production. 

In the acting categories, I’m loath to take any award from Frances McDormand, but she’s got plenty to spare. Besides, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" really didn’t work for me. Both Elizabeth Marvel ("The Meyerowitz Stories") and Tiffany Haddish ("Girls Trip") deserve recognition, but they’re supporting parts, and frankly, the word count here is already high enough without getting into the supporting acting races. Saoirse Ronan is one of the most acclaimed actors of her generation and will likely be nominated many more times, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed for the future and passing over her authentically moody and moving performance as the titular Lady Bird. Instead, Vicky Krieps takes home the Retroactive Best Actress prize for her performance in “Phantom Thread.” She not only holds her own against co-star Daniel Day-Lewis, but she arguably beats him at his own game (the performer and the character). She’s magnificent in this movie, and it’s a shame she wasn’t even nominated - even if she disagrees.

As for the men, kudos to Gary Oldman ("The Darkest Hour") for the prosthetics and the voice and all the Churchillian mannerisms, but too often the Academy rewards great actors for impersonating real people in forgettable movies (the "Iron Lady" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" conundrum). Daniel Day-Lewis ("Phantom Thread") is, of course, always deserving, but he loses Retroactive Best Actor to another Daniel: Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”). He’s since become one of our best actors, but he was a revelation in this movie - and a big reason for its success. 

2013 Oscars (10 Years Ago)

The 2013 Oscars are also perfect for this exercise, but for the opposite reason of 2018. At the time, it seemed like a pretty decent year for movies. A decade later, though, almost every Best Picture nominee has fallen in esteem. "Lincoln" and "Django Unchained" are wonderful, but each is generally regarded as lesser entries in their respective directors’ oeuvres. "Les Misérables" was a serviceable musical then and remains so now. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is beautiful but almost completely forgotten today. Even "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Zero Dark Thirty" have been visited by a cultural reevaluation and now come with a certain amount of problematic baggage (which also dampens the case for "Django").

It’s hard to consider cool, indie-ish genre gems like "The Place Beyond the Pines," "Mud" or "Looper" for such a prestigious prize, even though they might actually be the best movies of the year. Same applies to the charming "Safety Not Guaranteed" or the totally bonkers "Spring Breakers." And I have deep affection for "Moonrise Kingdom," but it’s just a touch too twee to take home the top prize.

2013’s actual Best Picture was "Argo," a slight surprise at the time. It has since been plagued by its own share of controversy, but worse, it has aged like a Twinkie: it’s neither better nor worse now than it was then. I haven’t rewatched it since its release, but I think my opinion remains unchanged: “It’s fine.” Rather than fine, we’re going with a movie that is the complete opposite of the tepidness of "Argo," one that challenges - perhaps even alienates - its audience: "The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson’s quietly captivating exploration of the strangely symbiotic relationship between a cult leader and one of his desperate followers. "There Will Be Blood" may forever be PTA’s classic, this is a Masterpiece in its own right. 

Again, you can never go wrong with Daniel Day-Lewis as Best Actor - he's even great in "Nine" and nobody remembers "Nine" - and he won in 2013 for "Lincoln." If you want him to keep the victory here, that’s fine; go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. But Joaquin Phoenix ("The Master") and Denzel Washington ("Flight") have stronger cases than you’d think, as does Bradley Cooper’s live-wire comic performance in "Silver Linings Playbook." All three were nominated, but my choice for the Retroactive Best Actor award goes to someone who wasn’t nominated: Jamie Foxx in "Django Unchained." He holds the movie together with a steely intensity as everyone around him chews the scenery in that delightful Tarantino way. The movie only lands emotionally (if you indeed believe it does) because of Foxx.

Remember when Jennifer Lawrence was the next big thing? I do, because I still believe she’s a terrific actor. She won for "Silver Linings Playbook," but Jessica Chastain was also nominated for "Zero Dark Thirty," capping off an incredible string of roles (her 2011 is legendary) that jumped her right over “next big thing” to “legitimate A-list.” She finally won last year for doing the Oscar thing and donning an accent and a whole bunch of makeup in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," but she deserves it here for her difficult and exacting performance as the woman who hunted down bin Laden. Controversy aside, she’s terrific in the film - and our Retroactive Best Actress for 2013.

Finally, Best Director is a bit of a cheat. Normally, I’d roll my eyes if a documentarian was nominated for Best Director. It’s an entirely different medium and skill set. And, frankly, it’s much easier to keep up with the David O. Russels (2013 nominee for "Silver Linings Playbook") and Ang Lees (2013 winner for "Life of Pi") of the world. But with "The Act of Killing," a documentary in which the leader of a genocidal death squad participates in dramatic reenactments of the killings he perpetrated decades earlier, Joshua Oppenheimer - along with co-directors Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian person - deserves the Retroactive Academy Award for Best Director for the sheer audaciousness of the concept and the brutal, heartbreaking elegance of the execution (oof, no pun intended). 

2003 Oscars (20 Years Ago)

We could go a lot of different ways here. Historical epic by a historically great director? "Gangs of New York" is the answer. Crowd-pleasing adventure that seems to get better and better with each viewing? Let’s go with "Catch Me if You Can." International cinematic sensation that walked so "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Parasite" could run? "City of God" is the winner - and very deserving one at that. We could also just fall back on that old chestnut, personal preference, and give it to "Adaptation," my favorite movie of the year. But no. When in doubt, let’s make history!

An animated feature has never won Best Picture before. And until 2003, no international movie had ever won Best Animated Feature. So the hypothetical record setter in the former is the actual record setter from the latter: "Spirited Away," Hiyao Miyazaki’s brilliant, beautiful journey into a realm of childhood, spirits and parental porcine transformations. Maybe the best movie by one of the most important filmmakers of the modern era? That’s a Retroactive Best Picture winner right there.

We can have a conversation about separating art and artist if you really want, but there’s no way Roman Polanski is keeping his Best Director trophy here. I haven’t even seen "The Pianist," but I’ve read Polanski’s Wikipedia page and… nope. Curtis Hanson improbably turned a thinly-veiled Eminem biopic into an affecting, inspiring glimpse at urban poverty with "8 Mile," so he deserves consideration. It’s also tempting to reward Steven Spielberg for making not one, but two very enjoyable flicks this year, "Catch Me if You Can" and "Minority Report." But he’s already an incredibly decorated filmmaker with a deep Oscars history. You know who - famously - isn’t? Spike Lee. And while I’m not big on the whole “he’s due” argument, I genuinely think "25th Hour" is great. It manages to be psychologically probing and movingly melancholy while retaining Lee’s signature style. He’s our Retroactive Best Director for 2003.

Adrien Brody won Best Actor in real life for "The Pianist," but we're going to play a different tune (oof, pun intended and regretted). Daniel Day-Lewis has popped up in each segment of these Retroactive Oscars, and his Bill the Butcher ("Gangs of New York") is the most fun, unhinged, and terrifying performance the famously committed actor ever put to film. But speaking of fun and unhinged, we’re giving 2003’s Retroactive Best Actor to Nicholas Cage. With an Oscar already under his belt in 1995 for "Leaving Las Vegas," his performance in "Adaptation" - as twin (50% fictional) screenwriters Charlie and Donald Kaufman - is somehow subtle and over-the-top at the same time. "Adaptation" gets both its humor and its pathos from his neurotic desperation. But the exact same thing could be said for "Punch Drunk Love" and Adam Sandler, so consider this a very close call. 

Strangely enough, 2003’s Best Actress was the category I grappled with the most in this entire blog post. All the nominees are deserving - Salma Hayek ("Frida"), Diane Lane ("Unfaithful"), Julianne Moore ("Far From Heaven") and Renée Zellweger ("Chicago") - as is Nicole Kidman, the actual winner, for playing Virginia Woolf in "The Hours." After leaning slightly towards Zellweger, then realizing Julianne Moore is a national treasure, and then carefully considering the almost completely unknown Kate Dollenmayer for "Funny Ha Ha," I finally decided to just completely cheat: The 2003 Best Actress was not only the charming, grounded center around which her film’s frantic energy revolves - she also wrote the screenplay! Nia Vardalos took matters into her own hand and penned a personal comedy for herself with "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" that became an unprecedented indie sensation. Is it the best performance of the year? No. But again, she wrote it, too. So, you can’t knock the hustle. In fact, you must reward the hustle with an entirely fake and subjective Retroactive Best Actress victory.

Thanks for reading all those words! And as always, please share your thoughts in the comments. I expect and invite a lot of disagreement. That’s what makes it fun.


I look forward to reading your Retroactive Academy Awards every year! Thanks for sharing so many recommendations.