Scorsese's biopic ranks ahead of all the other considerable biographies this year.
The third best male performance of the year is owned by talented Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. (I nominate Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles and Paul Giammetti as Miles Raymond in Sideways for the first two slots respectively.) Some credit can be given to Martin Scorsese as a director with vision enough to hire DiCaprio for the role and keeping him from overarching one of the most fabulous characters of the 20th century.
Hughes piloted his life through stunning achievements in aviation (fast planes and airlines) and filmmaking (think Scarface, Hell's Angels, and The Outlaw) to wooing Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner among many others. DiCaprio butts up against Jamie Foxx's biopic triumph as Ray Charles by playing Hughes the genius as he might have been, impetuous, intuitive, and self reliant without playing obnoxious. DiCaprio, under Scorsese's deft hand with out-sized characters (think Jake LaMotta and "Bill the Butcher"), evolves gently but inexorably into the madness of germ phobia and plain old dementia.
The aerial scenes of making his famous "Hell's Angels" are stunning, even when Scorsese resorts to process shooting rather than digitizing. When Hughes is flying with the planes and filming them in dogfight splendor, the excitement of all his life is encapsulated in those sequences. DiCaprio's repartee with the estimable Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn shows the young actor has matured to the point of equality with a consummate actress, and the young Cate has a perfect rendition of the iconic Kate.
Scorsese's biopic ranks ahead of all the other considerable biographies this year, even besting Ray and De-Lovely. While I think such films as Sideways and Closer will keep it from gaining the best picture Oscar for 2004, it will win other honors and be remembered as DiCaprio's major role of a lifetime, Scorsese's comeback film, and Hughes's validation as one of the leading figures of the last century.