10 nominations, 0 wins. If it wasn’t for The Color Purple and The Turning Point, Gangs of New York would live in infamy as the Oscar’s biggest loser [both of those films received 11 nominations each]. By simple odds and statistics, it is strange for a film to be that liked and still not win in even one category. The full slate of the 75th Academy Awards, which has no substantial frontrunner, makes it an even stranger occurrence.

In case you blocked it out, the March 23, 2003 ceremony’s biggest winner was Chicago, which took home 6 statues from its 13 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress [Catherine Zeta-Jones]. Otherwise, the awards winners were pretty wide open, with 9 total films winning in the open categories [non-documentary, animated, short films]. But, alas, none were Gangs of New York. Along with Chicago, only The Pianist, Frida, and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers won more than once.

For the non-Gangs of New York categories worth noting, Nicole Kidman won Best Actress for her role as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, besting Salma Hayek [Frida], Diane Lane [Unfaithful], Julianne Moore [Far from Heaven], and Renée Zellweger [Chicago]. Chris Cooper and previously mentioned Catherine Zeta-Jones each won in the supporting acting categories. Perhaps most interestingly, Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away won Best Animated Film while Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine was awarded Best Documentary.

As part of this exercise, I will determine winners in each category only by the films that were nominated. So, if I thought Adaptation. was the best original screenplay of the year, I’m still going to focus on what is in front of me. There are far too many films from the year that I didn’t see to consider everything, so this makes it easier for everyone. And with that, here are my takes on the 10 categories which included Gangs of New York.

Best Film Editing

The Nominees:
Chicago [Martin Walsh]
Gangs of New York [Thelma Schoonmaker]
The Hours [Peter Boyle]
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers [Michael Horton]
The Pianist [Hervé de Luze]

What won: Chicago
What should have won: The Hours

As you’ll see become a theme throughout this look back at these Oscars and especially in the categories that were won by Chicago, the grand modern musical sort of had it in the bag. With this quick and slick film, which zips and whirls between fantasy and reality, a heightened world and musical fantasy, there is a whole lot of editing going on. That’s never necessarily a bad thing, and depending on your enjoyment of Chicago, that may or may not be a worthy win. There is no doubt, however, that Chicago really runs. Flashy cuts aside, if the edit had been bad, the film wouldn’t be nearly as broadly entertaining. Another theme you’ll see throughout this piece is that, unlike the Academy, I don’t find Chicago to be the best choice in most of its categories.

What’s the old joke about long films? Such and such film could have used an editor… [As long as this piece ends up, you could say I need an editor, too. Fair.] All three of Gangs of New York, The Two Towers, and The Pianist are incredibly long and expansive films. The only one of the three that I can really feel drag at times is The Pianist, however. Whenever Gangs of New York starts to feel long, there is another change of pace or a watershed scene about to take place. This is definitely a sign of a well edited film, even if it could have easily been 20-25 minutes shorter [the screenplay shares the blame there, too].

Ultimately, though, my pick would be Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, which is an exemplary version of the interconnectedness-between-places-and-times film. At the beginning of The Hours, the editing works very hard to connect the women of each story within the space of the film before we really know anything about them. We see them start their days in a quick montage, waking to alarms, looking in mirrors, readying for breakfast, with the subtle differences marking their individual lives. This technique isn’t exactly groundbreaking for this type of film [especially as more of these films have come in the following years], but it is smooth and catches the rhythm of the film immediately. The stories build through their connections over the course of the film, not always as directly as the opening sequence, but always because of the editing.

Best Costume Design

The Nominees:
Gangs of New York
The Hours
The Pianist

What won: Chicago
What should have won: Gangs of New York

Here again, on paper Chicago is clearly the prototypical Oscar frontrunner. All five nominees being historical epics from starkly different periods and locations make it a pretty interesting field, however. But it is certainly natural to gravitate to the era of flapper girls and zoot suits.

The three periods of The Hours allows for a higher degree of difficulty, but there isn’t much memorable outside of Virginia Woolf’s overall look. Likewise, the costuming in The Pianist didn’t particularly stand out while I watched it, even with the nomination in mind—though a German officer’s coat does play an important role in the film’s climax.

In my opinion, the two most “costumy” [by that I mean the costumes are an actively important piece to the filmmaking] films are Frida and Gangs of New York. Frida Kahlo’s wonderful dresses are as potent as the art she creates. But Gangs of New York has a slight advantage for wonderfully dressing the dozens of characters that make up the hordes seen around the Five Points. The crazy plaid pants, abundance of top hats, vests, and colorful corsets take what we would expect from a costume drama of this era, but have a unique and dungy flair.

Best Cinematography

The Nominees:
Chicago [Don Beebe]
Far from Heaven [Edward Lachman]
Gangs of New York [Michael Ballhaus]
The Pianist [Pawel Edelman]
Road to Perdition [Conrad L. Hall]

What won: Road to Perdition
What should have won: Road to Perdition

Four of the nominees in cinematography take on a very classical style. Road to Perdition is probably the most clear example of that, and maybe that’s why it ultimately won the prize. It isn’t a stodgy looking picture, though, with innovative camerawork and a number of brilliant scenes that are directly created by the film’s look. The film’s climactic shootout in a rain drenched Chicago street is the highlight—it is undoubtedly the first image that comes to mind; it is difficult to remember the entire film doesn’t have this same aesthetic. For its mix of classic and modern cinematographic techniques, Road to Perdition is the most striking film of the year and one of the few categories the Oscars definitely got right.

The Pianist has the same approach, but much less artistic style—at least less flash. Gangs of New York mixes the classical style with a bit of a more modern energy. Surprisingly, though, there aren’t many specific shots that stand out to me. The foggy final showdown between Amsterdam and the Butcher is almost enough on its own to pick.

Far from Heaven is classical but fitting to a more specific style of film. An homage to the Sirkian melodramas of the 1950s, the film’s cinematography is most striking by its use of vibrant colors, used to heighten the emotional states of its characters. Otherwise, Far from Heaven uses elegantly moving camerawork [more movement than the typical film from the period] and a beautiful soft light that supports the gauzy nostalgia of its themes. This was definitely the biggest contender to Road to Perdition in my opinion.

The “one that doesn’t belong” is the much more modern looking Chicago. But unlike its token lead for editing and other technical and artistic categories, cinematography isn’t Chicago’s best feature. In fact, it probably doesn’t even deserve its nomination on merit and I’ll assume it is here because of its general sweep over the year. It isn’t an ugly film by any means, but the shot selection philosophy of the musical numbers typically make them feel smaller than they should. The kinetic use of the camera, too, diminishes the impact just enough to be a disappointing misstep.

Best Art Direction

The Nominees:
Gangs of New York
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Road to Perdition

What won: Chicago
What should have won: Frida

This category that is basically a coin flip for me. The 1920’s aesthetics of Chicago vs. the grimness of Gangs of New York vs. the brightness of Frida vs. the epicness of The Lord of the Rings vs. the gangster style of Road to Perdition. They are all so different but so fully realized.

Ultimately, the coin comes up with Frida, which is the bright and painterly film you would expect from its subject and director Julie Taymor, who is an underrated visual stylist. I’m not sure if any of the other nominees put in as much attention for every detail on screen, with the look of its main character, the art [both cinematic and work of its character] surrounding her, and the overall color palette. I can’t fault any other preference, including the Academy’s, but I’ll take the most immediately striking looking film.

Best Sound Mixing

The Nominees:
Gangs of New York
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Road to Perdition

What won: Chicago
What should have won: Chicago

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in sound mixing, but I’m guessing a musical with lively and well produced songs is going to have the edge, which ultimately led to Chicago’s win. I really have no issue with this pick, even if I can’t articulately defend it.

Of the big blockbusters, Spider-Man actually might have the most interesting use of sound. Upon rewatching the film, I noticed an interesting sound mix during the final fight between the title hero and the Green Goblin, which was very reminiscent to the close-up montages director Sam Raimi used throughout his Evil Dead series.

Best Original Song

The Nominees:
8 Mile [Lose Yourself]
Chicago [I Move On]
Frida [Burn It Blue]
Gangs of New York [The Hands That Built America]
The Wild Thornberrys Movie [Father and Daughter]

What won: 8 Mile
What should have won: 8 Mile

I don’t need to spend a lot of time on this category. “Lose Yourself” is the only option, not only because it is fun that Eminem is an Oscar winner. It is also a great pop song that fits with the film it represents. As the first rap song to win an Oscar, it is an important part of cinema history. Also, “The Hands That Build America” is by U2, which should have disqualified it from the start.

Best Original Screenplay

The Nominees:
Far from Heaven
Gangs of New York
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Talk to Her
Y tu mamá también

What won: Talk to Her
What should have won: Talk to Her

Though it used to be a more regular practice, screenplay nominations for foreign language films is relatively rare. Since 2000, 13 foreign language films have been nominated [4 adapted, 9 original] which comes out to about 8% of the total [Babel counts, though it is in multiple languages, including English]. Surprisingly, two were nominated in this year, including the winner, Talk to Her—only the fifth foreign language film to win the Oscar, and the first since French film A Man and a Woman in 1966.

Talk to Her may have been an unconventional and surprising choice, but its screenplay builds and changes its dramatic tones incredibly well. It is far from as big and broad as Gangs of New York, but offers a much more diverse dramatic ride. Seamlessly, it shifts from romance to melodrama to thriller. Gangs of New York is impressive for taking big ideas and political history to make a cinematic revenge tale, but Talk to Her does more with less through its screenplay.

The other foreign language film in the bunch, Y tu mamá también gets the nominations for being a painfully honest and smarter-than-average look at teenage male friendship. What it does best, however, is build the world through narration that seasons the lives of its characters and the people and places they encounter on their journey. Little touches, like the story of a couple who died in a terrible accident at an otherwise unassuming spot on a road years earlier, aren’t particularly necessary to the main plot, but make this world feel real.

The original screenplay nomination was the Academy’s official nod to the biggest surprise hit of 2002, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and it probably is the most well suited nod it could give. Written by its star Nia Vardalos, it takes a pretty broad romantic comedy framework and fills it with personal touches. Being the only comedy of the bunch, it is a welcome inclusion, but it is not the strongest screenplay of the year.

Far from Heaven is a painstakingly 1950s melodrama narrative that would have never been made in the 1950s. The homosexual and interracial relationships aren’t so radical today, but within the 1950s context the stakes are resounding. Because it is such an artistic homage, its technical achievements [including its nominated cinematography] are in the forefront. The screenplay, however, definitely deserves recognition for how it subtly plays with the Sirkian melodrama tropes without feeling reductive. Overall, though, I like the Academy’s surprising pick of Talk to Her.

Best Actor

The Nominees:
Adrien Brody [The Pianist]
Nicolas Cage [Adaptation.]
Michael Caine [The Quiet American]
Daniel Day-Lewis [Gangs of New York]
Jack Nicholson [About Schmidt]

Who won: Adrien Brody
Who should have won: Nicolas Cage

When Adrien Brody won the Oscar for his role as Szpilman, the Jewish pianist who suffers greatly during the German occupation of Poland during World War II, he became the youngest winner for the category—a record that still holds today. Though his win is definitely surprising given the status of actors he was up against, the Academy definitely loves honoring work for the type of role he was playing, and The Pianist definitely gives him a lot of emotional ground to cover. It is pretty easy to scoff at the win in hindsight given his infamous acceptance kiss and where Brody’s career has gone since [though there are definitely a few films he’s done that are greatly underrated]. That aside, judging the work alone, he doesn’t give my favorite performance of the group. Brody works best in the film in the silent moments, especially in a very tense third act when he has become near destitute. Still, the character doesn’t show off great range and the actor himself doesn’t transcend or add to the dramatic stakes being placed upon him.

In what is likely his last of 12 Oscar nominations, About Schmidt is a nice final chapter for Jack Nicholson [I realize he was in more films afterwards, including The Departed, but if About Schmidt goes down as his last notable role, I’d be happy with that]. He’s an unorthodox voice for director Alexander Payne’s midwestern sensibilities, but he really nails the part. He’s especially good in the dramatic breakdown following the death of Schmidt’s wife, unhinged and sad without going over the top. Nicholson hasn’t been as likeable a presence for a long time, but unfortunately, there are a few behemoth performances that draw more attention.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Nicolas Cage are the two frontrunners for me. But to say a word about Michael Caine in The Quiet American, it is a fine performance in a mediocre film that seems most notable because the performance doesn’t mesh with his oft-parodied rhythm.

What can I really say about Daniel Day-Lewis? He is clearly the most powerful actor working today [when he works, at least]. Bill “The Butcher” Cutting is one of his most striking performances, a perfect balance of charming and despicable. The nomination is a bit strange, though, given that he isn’t the lead character in the film, but it is difficult to quibble too much with his amount of screen time and importance to Gangs of New York. Still, my cynical side for some reason holds it against him in a near impossible choice for me. If he had been placed in the Supporting Actor category, it would have been a clear runaway. Oscar politics always get in the way [even if it is usually a lead performance up for supporting… ahem Viola Davis ahem Dev Patel…]

And so, Nicolas Cage’s performance in Adaptation. is one of my all-time favorites. He perfectly conceives the absolutely oddball creation of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman in a way few actors could. He is a perfect sad sack vehicle for the dark comedy. And his ability to play two characters with wildly different worldviews is wonderful, especially without any grand mannerism or physical ticks to easily differentiate the two characters more naturally. Cage gives so much life to Charlie and Donald that it almost defies regular Oscar categorization. Say what you will about the majority of Nicolas Cage’s career since Adaptation., but he is absolutely brilliant with proper material and motivation.

Best Director

The Nominees:
Pedro Almodóvar [Talk to Her]
Stephen Daldry [The Hours]
Rob Marshall [Chicago]
Roman Polanski [The Pianist]
Martin Scorsese [Gangs of New York]

Who won: Roman Polanski
Who should have won: Pedro Almodóvar

Polanski’s win was, no doubt, a controversial one. I’ll assume that you know director’s circumstances and I’d rather not get into the art vs. artist debate in this space, but I’ll say that on merit alone, I don’t think Polanski shouldn’t have won this directing prize. Honestly, compared to Polanski’s best work, The Pianist seems pretty direct-by-numbers, at least stylistically. In its theme and character, it fits right in with the auteur’s work, but it is mostly pretty undistinguished looking. It is definitely competently made, and Polanski’s natural sense of paranoia brings out a lot in the film’s best moments. Perhaps more outward style would have detracted from the story or been impossible given the overall classical look of the film, but like another nominee I’ll mention below, I prioritize voice and style when I’m thinking about great directorial work. Polanski’s work here only hits on one of those personal requirements.

If there is one thing that has become clear over years, it’s that the industry loves them some Rob Marshall. The man responsible for an inordinate number of 21st century movie musicals [though it has surprisingly only been three, though that still might qualify as “inordinate”] made his debut with the Broadway adaptation. His direction of the big song setpieces definitely live in the ADHD music video era, with quick cuts and too many closeups. Still, there are some nice flourishes, especially in numbers like “Razzle Dazzle” and the “All That Jazz” opening. Marshall’s style also comes off a bit like a watered down, mainstream version of Moulin Rouge, with the glitz and glamour without the desire to be weird.

Daldry’s work in The Hours is delicate despite the intensity of the drama. I’m not sure if the look and tone of each of the three stories being basically the same is a strength or weakness. Certainly, the storytelling method wouldn’t be so seamless if the parts were more visually distinct, and there would be some thematic resonance lost, but it lacks a directorial stamp that might be necessary to win this award. That’s an unfair position for Daldry—what is better for the film shows off his skills as a workman other than a more artistic craftsman.

Using my personal scale of voice + style, this was a close choice [go figure] between Almodóvar and Scorsese. Two of the most acclaimed film stylists of this generation, their films couldn’t be much more different. At the time, Scorsese was on his famous winless streak that would finally end with The Departed, so I’m sure there was some pressure on the Academy to choose him, and I wouldn’t have argued. Gangs of New York, like most of master’s films, is big and bold and distinct, but also incredibly personal. Given how much we’ve noted this week that the themes resonate even stronger today, it has proved to be have an important cinematic voice, as well.

Unfortunately for Scorsese, though, I adore Talk to Her. Almodóvar is one of the most distinct filmmakers working today and this is perhaps the best version of his style and storytelling. Only a filmmaker with his talent could so easily juggle the film’s mix of contradictory styles—at times lush, at times incredibly dark. And none of the nominated films so clearly bear its filmmaker’s vision.

Best Picture

The Nominees:
Gangs of New York
The Hours
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Pianist

What won: Chicago
What should have won: Gangs of New York

Did Chicago really win Best Picture or was it a showstopping musical fantasy we all just imagined? Considered one of the lesser winners in Oscar history, I went into my first viewing of Chicago expecting something far worse than the resulting slick and entertaining song and dance show. That might be damning it with faint praise, as it actually surprising that a group of people would consider it the best film of any given year, but it is quite enjoyable.

So, then, one must turn to the other nominees and wonder if it was just the beneficiary of weak competition. The remainder is made of three epics and a smaller drama that is thematically larger than what is on the page. If I was under complete control of this year’s ceremony, the Best Picture would most certainly have come off the board to one of the more interesting films that were nominated in other categories, yet missing here: Adaptation., Far from Heaven, Talk to Her, and Y tu mamá también leading that cause. Of what was nominated, it is a tough call to pick a winner.

After winning Best Actor and Best Director, among its other nominations, The Pianist probably would have been the favorite in the moments before the envelope was opened, and I’m actually a bit surprised it didn’t win. Given its subject matter and its classical artistic craft, it seems like a film the Academy usually chooses to honor. And given Polanski’s controversial win, it may have been safer to give The Pianist Best Picture while choosing a different director [I know that’s not how it works, but it makes sense in my head]. Certainly, there would have been much less head-scratching in the years to come if The Pianist would have won, though the criticisms may have shifted to it being a “safe” pick.

Part two of The Lord of the Rings trilogy is maybe the weakest entrant of the extraordinary series [that’s grading on a steep curve, I realize]. And in any case, I think it is fair to consider that Peter Jackson’s work on the revolutionary series would get plenty of love the following year, possibly as a sum of the series parts.

The Hours is a film I’d seen previously but hadn’t thought of much since. Similarly, I think it has been mostly forgotten or remembered solely as a style of film that would become increasingly dour and obvious. It is a really beautiful film with an exceptional cast [Nicole Kidman won the Oscar for a very good performance despite the facial appliance that might end up as the leading image of the film’s legacy] and sharp convergence of script and edit. I fear if it had won Best Picture, it wouldn’t be held in much higher regard, though perhaps more than Chicago.

That leaves Gangs of New York, a film that is more of a base entertainment than the prestige picture it may seem to be. That isn’t a criticism—far from it actually. No matter how dynamic the historical period, whenever Hollywood gets its hands on material like this, it is too easy to screw it up. Gangs of New York could have easily been Les Miserables, but it is instead appropriately wacky and violent. Even with Leo DiCaprio in the midst of his most awkward leading man period and a Cameron Diaz being miscast [though I think she is better than she’s been given credit], the thrown-in romance doesn’t derail what is otherwise so unusual.

Honestly, this was a difficult choice despite having no personal stakes whatsoever. Since I only “awarded” Gangs of New York in one other category [and Best Costumes, no less], it seems like it may not be worthy of being my “Best Picture,” but given the other films the Academy chose to highlight and the fact that it was a worthy nominee in all 10 of its nominated categories, I feel it is the right choice. None of these films particularly stand out, so I prefer the most lively one. For any of its faults, Gangs of New York is a big, interesting, complex, and well-rounded. It isn’t the best picture of 2002, but under the circumstances, it should have been Best Picture.