Credit: Merie W. Wallace

Today in Recall the Gold, we’re recalling the Best Actor Oscar competition of 2003. There were a number of strong performances that year. Johnny Depp had the biggest hit among the contenders, with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl‘s inventive, astonishing, hilarious Capt. Jack Sparrow, the first-ever nominated performance from a movie inspired by a theme park ride. Ben Kingsley delivered a haunting performance as the proud Iranian colonel in House of Sand and Fog. Jude Law, who may have played more Southerners by now than Englishmen, gave a mostly silent but affecting performance as fugitive Civil War soldier Inman in Cold Mountain. Bill Murray earned what is, incredibly, his only Oscar nomination to date as a lonely movie star stranded in Japan in Lost in Translation. And Sean Penn erupted as a grief-stricken father who takes the law into his own hands in Mystic River.

The role, which marked Penn’s fourth nomination (after Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown, and I Am Sam), finally earned Penn a statuette. But did he win because his performance was the best, or was the Academy finally giving Penn, often called the best actor of his generation, his due after three unsuccessful Oscar bids? I think Penn’s is indeed a wrenching performance that’s one of his finest, but I wouldn’t have complained if Kingsley’s equally anguished turn or Murray’s subtle work had been honored. Depp’s may have been the year’s most purely creative performance, though it’s lost some of its luster after the two lame Pirates sequels. Law did a good job as a difficult, recessive character who slowly disappears under layers of grime and blood, but the movie belongs more to Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger.

Looking back from today’s perspective, which of these performances doyou think is the best? Vote in our poll, and list your comments below.(For a refresher, watch the clips embedded after the jump, whichmay contain some NSFW language.) Remember, we’ll be running the Recall the Gold surveys every Tuesdayand Thursday until January, so you may go back at any time and vote inthe other polls (click hereto see them all), reexamining the Oscar races of 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25years ago. On Thursday, October 16, we’ll look at the 1983 Best Actresscompetition. Watch also for commentary and context throughout,including on Dave Karger’s new Oscar Watch blog.

addCredit(“Merie W. Wallace”)

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

Ben Kingsley in House of Sand and Fog

Jude Law in Cold Mountain

Bill Murray in Lost in Translation

Sean Penn in Mystic River