By Adam B. Vary
Updated July 30, 2020 at 06:25 PM EDT

By the time the 76th annual Academy Awards aired on February 29, 2004, Peter Jackson’s win for Best Director for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was such a foregone conclusion, it felt like it had been foretold in some ancient, faded Middle Earth-y scrolls. The final chapter of the Rings trilogy may have had a few too many endings, but that was a minor quibble in the face of Jackson’s staggering directorial accomplishments: The man had marshaled a small army (both real and digital) and J.R.R. Tolkien’s dense original text to create over nine hours of epic, riveting, lush, poignant, action-packed cinema, grossing over $1 billion in the process. It was his last chance to be recognized for the Rings films; of course he was going to go home to New Zealand with an Oscar. (Or, as it turned out, three: Jackson won as a producer and screenwriter as well.)

But now it’s five years later, and the pressure is off to honor Jackson for all three Rings films by giving him the Oscar for the last one. Does he still deserve it? Or should it go instead to Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Clint Eastwood (Mystic River), Fernando Meirelles (City of God), or Peter Weir (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World)? That’s the question we’re asking the entertainment industry in our Recall the Gold survey of the Oscars from 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 years ago, and now, PopWatchers, it’s your turn to weigh in.

Coppola earned her spot for the plaintive and softly poised mood she set throughout Lost in Translation, and the understated and soulful performance she drew out of Bill Murray. But rather than make Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter the first ever female Best Director (she remains only the third woman to land a nod in the category), the Academy chose instead to give her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Meirelles, meanwhile, was just thrilled to be nominated. City of God — a visually inventive portrait of the brutal slums of Rio de Janerio — was first released in the U.S. way back in January of 2003 and became a slow-but-persistent word-of-mouth hit. Most likely too intense for older Academy members, the film also credited a documentarian named Katia Lund as a co-director (Meirelles said she guided the film’s cast of young, non-professional actors), a tricky technicality that may have turned off some voters. Weir’s impeccible work in the high-brow swashbuckler Master and Commander was certainly of a far grander scale than any film he’d helmed before, but Jackson’s was simply even grander. Finally, Eastwood had already won a Best Directing Oscar, for Unforgiven, a spare, revisionist western; Mystic River, by contrast, was an ambitious, emotionally sprawling tragedy set in modern Boston, one that had many critics and moviegoers agog at its control and cumlative power. In any other year, Eastwood would have almost certainly been the man to beat — and, indeed, he landed his second Best Director Oscar the very next year for Million Dollar Baby.

So, PopWatchers, is Jackson still the one director who ruled them all that year Or is someone else deserving of the title Best Director of 2003? Vote in our poll below; if you need a reminder of each performance, check out clips from each film after the jump (although some of the language is NSFW). While you’re at it, if you haven’t already, vote in all the other polls from our ongoing walk down Oscar’s memory lane. On Tuesday, Dec. 16, we’ll take a look at the 1988 Best Picture race, and you can check out coverage of this year’s awards contenders in Dave Karger’s Oscar Watch blog.

addCredit(“Kevin Winter/Getty Images”)

Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Clint Eastwood, Mystic River (trailer)

Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Fernando Meirelles, City of God (NSFW or for the squeamish)

Peter Weir, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (not so much for the squeamish either)