Saturday, January 24, 2009

"Best" Picture?

With as much fanfare as they can muster, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just announced this year's Oscar nominees. I don't like the Academy Awards. The reasons are legion, too many to list. I think those Oscar statues are far too often held up as the gold standard on quality cinema when, far too often, they're really emblematic of conformity, timidity and mediocrity.

A few years ago, I participated in an internet discussion touched off by the unconscionable decision to award the wretched CRASH the Best Picture Oscar. Everyone seemed to agree at the time that this was one of the historically bad Academy awards, which means there may be some hope for mankind after all. The discussion expanded to include other Best Picture travesties, of which there have been a great many. I wrote the embryonic version of this piece then, but I don't think I ever actually posted it anywhere. As I recall, I found it sitting unfinished one day and, having some time on my hands and not wanting to throw away the research, began embellishing it for further reference. I've tinkered with it several times since. In compiling it, I've stuck almost entirely to "mainstream" films, which is arguably just as questionable as the procedure that leads to the actual Oscar picks. My rationale in doing this is to beat the Academy at its own game. I don't demand they recognize the cutting edge--I play with their own toys in their own back yard. In the cold glare of history, where movies either gain the esteem of classics or are discarded, the list of films that weren't even nominated is even more damning of the Oscar process than the bad calls.

This is the latest version of the piece, a non-comprehensive but hopefully still illustrative account of Best Picture travesties major and minor:

[A note: The Academy Awards are given early in each new year for movies released in the previous year. For this, I've used the release-years for the movies, rather than the years they were awarded--or not awarded--Best Picture.]

1941 - HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY beats CITIZEN KANE. It also topped THE MALTESE FALCON that year. While Kane, the Falcon and even SERGEANT YORK (also nominated) are still watched, quoted, satirized and loved today (and KANE is widely--and rightly--regarded as one of the greatest motion pictures ever filmed), no one even remembers HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. It doesn't even seem to be fondly remembered by John Ford fans.

1946 - THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES beats IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but at least both were nominated. Far better than either of them are the wholly unnominated THE BIG SLEEP, THE KILLERS and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, in a year when THE YEARLING wasted a nominee slot.

1950 - ALL ABOUT EVE beats SUNSET BLVD. Two great films but an obvious bad call. To understand the full scope of its badness, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, IN A LONELY PLACE and THE THIRD MAN were entirely unnominated that year, while FATHER OF THE BRIDE was nominated.


1952 - THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH beats HIGH NOON and THE QUIET MAN (not a fan of the latter but I can't argue it hasn't survived).

1956 - AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS takes the prize, a win which is one of the most widely-acknowledged Best Picture travesties. Unnominated that year was THE SEARCHERS (not a movie of which I'm very fond but still far better than the one that actually won), THE KILLING (a real classic and far better than either of those) and--most importantly--SEVEN SAMURAI, now universally acknowledged as one of the greatest works the medium has ever produced. The director of the latter, Akira Kurosawa, was, like Orson Welles, one of the greatest talents to ever sit behind a camera, with more than half a dozen undisputed masterpieces to his credit, many arguable ones and many, many more excellent films besides. He was never honored as Best Director and none of his films ever won Best Picture (or even best foreign language feature). Near the end of his life, the Academy did belatedly give him a lifetime achievement Oscar.

1958 - GIGI wins. Ludicrous in itself, made far more ludicrous by the fact that neither VERTIGO (easily Hitchcock's masterpiece) nor TOUCH OF EVIL (one of Welles' many classics) were even nominated.

1960 - THE APARTMENT wins--admittedly a solid film but INHERIT THE WIND, its better, was never nominated in a year when SONS AND LOVERS, THE SUNDOWNERS and THE ALAMO were. Also left unnominated were PSYCHO and SPARTACUS (I'm not a big fan of the latter but its reputation and longevity--and the films that actually were nominated in its stead--make it a noteworthy oversight)

1964 - MY FAIR LADY beats DR. STRANGELOVE. Unnominated this year are some real classics--SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, FAIL SAFE, THE BEST MAN, NIGHT OF THE IGUANA and even THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO--while MARY POPPINS and ZORBA THE GREEK are given nominee slots.

1965 - THE SOUND OF MUSIC beats DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. REPULSION goes unnominated, while DARLING, SHIP OF FOOLS and A THOUSAND CLOWNS fill out nominee slots.


1968 - OLIVER! beats Zefferelli's ROMEO & JULIET. OLIVER! over nearly anything would be a travesty. In its year, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY joined both PLANET OF THE APES and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY in the not-nominated pile, while both RACHEL, RACHEL and FUNNY GIRL were nominated.

1969 - MIDNIGHT COWBOY beats BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. I wouldn't give the Academy too much hell for that. The travesty comes from the fact that THE WILD BUNCH, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (probably the greatest Western ever committed to film) weren't even nominated, while the Academy found room in its list of nominees for both HELLO DOLLY And ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS.

1979 - KRAMER VS. KRAMER beats APOCALYPSE NOW. A monumentally poor call, one made even worse by the final line-up that led to it: Unnominated that year was DAWN OF THE DEAD, THE CHINA SYNDROME, ALIEN, BEING THERE, ...AND JUSTICE FOR ALL and Herzog's NOSFERATU but the Academy still had room for nominations of the likes of ALL THAT JAZZ, BREAKING AWAY, and KRAMER VS. KRAMER (which had been entirely forgotten only a few years after it had won).

1988 - RAIN MAN beats DANGEROUS LIAISONS. That, alone, would be an unbelievable travesty (as would RAIN MAN winning over just about anything) but as usual, it's even worse: THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST wasn't even nominated, in a year when WORKING GIRL was.

1989 - DRIVING MISS DAISY beat BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, while GLORY, DO THE RIGHT THING and Kenneth Branagh's HENRY V go unnominated.

1990 - DANCES WITH WOLVES beats GOODFELLAS. Absolutely no way to justify that. Excluded from nominations were HENRY & JUNE, THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER, and INTERNAL AFFAIRS, while dogshit like AWAKENINGS and GHOST were nominated.

This is only one of the many years in which Martin Scorsese deserved honors and went without them. The Academy breezed through MEAN STREETS, ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, GOODFELLAS--an entire career of genuine classics--without granting Marty the prize. This was only recently "corrected" but even that turned into a bit of a travesty--Scorsese was honored for THE DEPARTED, one of his distinctly lesser films, over more deserving competition.

1994 - FORREST GUMP--trite rubbish--beats out THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and PULP FICTION.

1996 - THE ENGLISH PATIENT beats FARGO. Far better than either, however, were the unnominated: SLINGBLADE, THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT and LONESTAR. And THE CRUCIBLE, down the scale but still far better than the winner, didn't make the cut either. The 1990s were incredible years for movies but you'd hardly know that from the Oscar allots. The year 1996 should have been a very competitive Oscar year, like one of the years from the '70s, but instead, it was bogged down in lousy nominees. JERRY MAGUIRE and THE ENGLISH PATIENT--both embarrassing rot--seemed to turn up in every major category in place of all of these films.

FARGO is a good movie but I've never really thought of it as Best Picture material; it's certainly one of the Coen brothers' lesser films. The Coens' two greatest films were O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU (a genuine American classic) and BARTON FINK, neither of which were even nominated in their respective years. O BROTHER wasn't given a slot among the nominees in a year in which TRAFFIC, GLADIATOR (!!!) and ERIN BROCKOVICH (!!!!!!!!!!!) were. Worse, the Academy couldn't find a place for FINK in a year in which they stuck BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (!), BUGSY (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and THE PRINCE OF TIDES (!s to the point of requiring scientific notation) on the ballot.

The Academy has continued to be clueless about the Coens--last year saw Best Picture delivered over to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN--in reality, the Coens' biggest creative misfire since THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE and a film even further divorced from everything that makes their regular work special than was FARGO.

1997 - TITIANIC beats L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. BOOGIE NIGHTS--the legitimate Best Picture of 1997--wasn't even nominated, nor were THE SWEET HEREAFTER or IN THE COMPANY OF MEN (all better than either TITANIC or L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.)

1998 - SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE wins. The fact that it beats SAVING PRIVATE RYAN always comes up in discussions of Oscar travesties but I don't agree with it as an example of poor decision-making. SPR is one of the most overrated excuses for a movie of the last two decades. Derivative of every major World War II picture, its every component part had been done, done better and then done to death years before they were Xeroxed into this flick. Much of the film is embarrassingly awful and so cliche-ridden that, while watching it (and being incredibly bored), I was able to describe, with remarkable accuracy, what would happen next. My friend to whom I was offering this commentary thought I'd lied about having never seen the movie. In a sense, I had--it was just that I'd seen it in all the other war movies in which everything in SPR had been worn to cliches. I don't dispute those who say SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE probably didn't deserve Best Picture that year--I certainly wouldn't have given it the award--but its advantages over SPR--originality and intelligence--are glaringly obvious, and SPR's failure is not some sort of martyr to bad decision-making. In that latter category, instead, falls some of the other awards SPR was given (including Spielberg's Best Director nod).

It would require a book to fill in all the full-fledged Best Picture travesties.

Look, for example, at 1995, wherein you had, as nominees, APOLLO 13, BRAVEHEART, IL POSTINO, BABE and SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. None of these even deserved nomination, much less to win.

While second-stringers and third-raters of that ilk filled out the nominee roster, films left entirely unnominated that year include SE7EN, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, LEAVING LAS VEGAS, ROB ROY, STRANGE DAYS, Ian McKellan's RICHARD III and (far down the list) TO DIE FOR.

That list of unnominated films would have made a more credible Best Picture list than the ones actually on the list and any of them would be more deserving of Best Picture.

For that matter, the unnominated films I've mentioned for several of these years would have made more credible Best Picture lists than the ones actually nominated.

The Oscars do sometimes get it right (AMERICAN BEAUTY's many wins seem almost miraculous, as bad as things have gotten in recent decades). They certainly aren't any sort of gold-standard for quality when it comes to Best Picture though (and a list of directors who were never nominated or won would probably be even more damning than this one). Sometimes, they go to movies that shouldn't even be up for any sort of award, and the undeserving beat the deserving as often as not (far more often than not, in recent years). I don't have much use for them.



  1. "How Green Was my Valley" is great, really great, you can take my word for it. But there's no way in hell it can beat "Citizen Kane".

    I for once am not bothered by "Dances with wolves" winning. To me, Marty's most deserved Oscar was "Raging Bull".

    Holy crap!!! "Working Girl" was nominated!?!?!?! WTF?!!?


  2. "How Green Was my Valley" is great, really great, you can take my word for it. But there's no way in hell it can beat "Citizen Kane".

    Or THE MALTESE FALCON (which can't beat KANE, either).

    I for once am not bothered by "Dances with wolves" winning.

    I don't join the brigade that sprang up to bash it. It's one of those films I think could have legitimately won in a lot of years, but not when it's up against GOODFELLAS. No way.

    To me, Marty's most deserved Oscar was "Raging Bull".

    His movies tend to be so different, it's hard for me to pick a "most deserved." I think he made movies for decades that deserved awards. Certainly all of those I listed. The mighty BULL did pick up the trophy for editing, but the editor herself (who has cut a large number of Marty's movies) said it was really his Oscar--he had it edited in his head before he ever shot a frame of it. All she had to do is piece it together.

    Holy crap!!! "Working Girl" was nominated!?!?!?! WTF?!!?

    The same year THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (another deserving best picture) wasn't even nominated, and RAIN MAN (which was grossly inferior to both of those films, and to DANGEROUS LIAISONS, which was nominated) took home the prize.

    Unbelievably, Dustin Hoffman also took home a trophy that year for RAIN MAN. Hoffman, who has given one rock-solid performance after another over the years, was given an award for a part any random homeless person could have played just as well (not a slam on Hoffman--just on the part).

    It boggles the mind.


  3. An epic post. So here it goes...

    I agree absolutely that it's unbelievable that "An American in Paris" managed to "beat" "A Streetcar Named Desire". Nothing against musicals, but this one was quite silly at times, while "Desire" was extremely powerful then, and even know.

    Of course that "High Noon" is better than "The Greatest Show on Earth"! Though I think it wasn't that half-bad DeMille film.

    "Around the World" is a weak film, it has so many star cameos but it's extremely dated. Really sad they didn't nominate "7 Samurai", though two Kurosawa film's won the best foreign language film Oscar: "Rashomon" and "Dersu Uzala" (a great little film!)

    I agree. "Gigi" was silly. I never understood why the Academy was so obssessed with musicals in the 1950s.

    Sorry, but I have to disagree with you on this one. For me, "The Apartment" is more than just a solid film, it's a masterpiece. One of Billy Wilder's best. "Inherit the Wind" is excellent, but I consider it an inferior film. So the Oscars actually got it right that year. But I'm sad they didn't award Hitchcock for best director for "Psycho" - it was virtuoso directed.

    I agree that it's susprising they didn't nominate "Repulsion", but I guess it was just a too shocking film for them.

    I agree. "The Graduate" is one of my favorite films, a real masterpiece that's better than the (admittedly excellent) "Heat of the Night".

    Of course it's unbeleivable from today's stance that "2001" wasn't nominated for best picture. It's a masterpiece, but not for everyone: during it's premiere, many viewers didn't know what to think about it. It's not that much a Sci-Fi film as it's a philosophical essay about life.

    No, sorry, we differ on that. "Midnight Cowboy" was, and still is, at least for me, an excellent and shockingly realistic, dark and depressive social drama. It stands the test of time. But yes, it's unbeliavable how wrong they were for ignoring "Once Upon a Time in the West".

    After a few good choices in the 1970s, the Academy once again made a questionable decision. "Kramer" is a very good film, "Apocalypse Now" also, but in my opinion "Being There" beats them all with ease. It's an endless pity that Asby's classic has been forgotten with time, since it's a shining film that works so subtly. The fact that they blocked out Peter Sellers for best actor is something I can probably never forgive them. Unbelievable injustice.

    I haven't seen "Glory" yet, so I can't comment, but "Do the Right Thing" and "Henry V" weren't *that* good in my opinion. They were rather overhyped, though quality films. By the way, I haven't seen "Driving Miss Daisy" for years, but I know I loved it the first time I saw it. It was wonderfully quiet and calm.

    Many people tend to include this year as the Academy's biggest injustice and failure. But, to be perfectly honest, I think they actually did it right that time. As much as "Goodfellas" is an excellent film, it's cold, while "Dances With Wolwes" is an amazing, beautiful and deeply touching western with a soul. Rarely have I been so emotionally impressed by a film from the 1990's as in that one. The music surely enhances the experience. But alas, I guess I stand in minority on that one...
    I agree that "Ghost" and "Awakenings" are overrated, but "The Cook..." wasn't that much better either. Though I have a soft spot for "Henry & June", it's somehow a very intimate film.

    You skipped this year, but I just have to say that "Groundhog Day" was terribly neglected by everyone, except the BAFTA awards that proved right when they awarded it, since it's now cosnidered a classic comedy.

    I'm sorry, but we differ on that one too. Rob Vaux once wrote: "Being There is everything what Forrest Gump should have been, but wasn't". And yet, I saw "Forrest" as a child and was deeply impressed by it. And continue to be impressed by it even today. Many people tend to hate that film, but it's emotions and vibrant style are a rarity. Tastes differ.

    I agree about your comments. Though "Breaking the Wawes" should have won the best picture, in my opinion. Interesting thoughts about the Coens, though.

    I agree about "Boogie Nights". It's a film charged with energy and creative directing from start to finish. But it's theme was about porn industry, which is why it may have been deliebrately shunned by some. And how Burt Reynolds didn't win the award for best supporting actor is just tragic, really.

    All in all, it all goes to show that people have different opinions and tastes, which is why it's hard to agree upon great art. Regards.