I thought 2003 was sort of a bum year, but I do think the writers managed to highlight a far more interesting set of films than I expected they would. In both categories, as nominee after nominee came out, I was pleasantly surprised at the candidates they plucked from the margins for recognition.
There is one lousy nominee, though, and that was on the Adapted side: Seabiscuit. I understand that Laura Hillenbrand's book had been pretty acclaimed, but everything about this script struck me as so aggressively ordinary. And, as Mister Tee says, it wasn't even really a very engaging narrative -- at times I wondered, which one of these characters is the protagonist here, and what is this story about? I know that the films I'd have cited (House of Sand and Fog, Big Fish) weren't really in the running, but I think they're far more ambitious and compelling works than this.
American Splendor is a formally inventive piece of work, with a lot of wit and, in its cancer plot, genuine poignancy. So many biographies feel like cookie cutter affairs, I have to salute one that feels this fresh in sensibility. Still, if you'd have told me after I saw it that it would go on to win TWO of the critics' Best Picture prizes AND the WGA, I'd have been surprised. It struck me as a pleasing but minor movie, and though I'm glad it was recognized somewhere at the Oscars, it doesn't get my vote.
I, too, was pretty floored when The Return of the King managed the screenplay award -- I thought only the subtitled effort stood less of a shot at prevailing. I wasn't bothered the way some were, as I think the quality control on this series was pretty high, and I think the script for this third installment has both a strong narrative thrust and a great deal of emotional power (two things I feel have been sorely lacking in a lot of blockbusters lately). But, even though it's among the best written examples of this kind of movie, its win still feels like it just got swept along with the movie's momentum. For a movie that's predominately action sequences, I can grant it Best Director and tech prizes, but not Best Screenplay.
The nominations for City of God strike me as just about the most completely-from-nowhere as any I've seen in my decade and a half of Oscar watching. And as a fan of the movie, I was quite pleased. I know some felt it was mostly a nifty structure obscuring redundant content ("nothing new except the milieu" was a phrase I remember one critic using), but I thought the film's portrait of Brazil's violent favelas wasn't something I'd seen before, and the plot structure felt exciting without seeming like a gimmicky, Pulp Fiction knock-off. It wasn't necessarily groundbreaking in the writing department, but I thought it excelled in this area pretty highly, and it would be my runner-up.
But Mystic River was my favorite movie of the year, and I will vote for it in this category (as I thought a majority of Oscar voters would). The central mystery plot is engaging enough on its own, but where the movie really excels is in the broader portrait of a damaged community, one where past tragedies hang hauntingly over present ones. The ending wobbles a bit -- I never really bought Laura Linney's sudden Lady Macbeth-style turn -- but on the whole, I find it to be a film of great power and despair, with a lot of richly developed characters and surprising narrative turns. Eastwood's direction and the amazing cast deserve a lot of credit for making the film work so well, but it's got a very solid foundation, and the screenplay gets my vote here.
On the Original side, I would probably have voted for 21 Grams had it been an option. I know that's another movie a lot of people hate, and it does have its melodramatic elements, but I think the structure is used in a compelling manner, and the central scenario full of a lot of interesting moral complexity.