Guides | October 2, 2007 | Comments ()
I used to think the Oscars were about pure quality. Of course, I also used to believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the notion that love could keep two people together; I’ve come a long way in realizing the error of my ways. I used to watch the Oscars with a sense of excitement and anticipation, hoping that the films I loved would be honored and also secure in the knowledge that whatever judgment was passed down would be sound, and true. After all, this is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the governing body that annually bestows awards upon the films its members have deemed to be most worthy of celebration. But, like I said, I’ve gotten older and wiser since then, and the years of seeing good films passed over for bad ones — the brave ones spurned in favor of the safe ones — have finally gotten to me. Sure, sometimes the Oscar winner for Best Picture is just that, a film of heart and depth that deserves all the merit bestowed on it even as it competes against equally compelling, stirring films. (I’m thinking of how Shakespeare in Love earned the nod over Saving Private Ryan, a choice I support, though I certainly see both sides of the argument.) But let’s be honest: We’ve all had that moment of sheer disbelief, of unpleasant shock, when the film we thought was nominated just to be fair turns out to win the top award over a film that was smarter, truer, or just plain better. It’s not that the Oscars avoid awarding Best Picture to the actual best picture; it’s just that award often finds its way into the hands of the film that had the highest overlap between storytelling quality and mainstream palatability.
This list is to decry those choices, and to try to set right the Academy’s missteps by speaking truth to power and being honest about the films that should have been gifted with the Best Picture statuette but were sadly overlooked. For the sake of convenience, I’ll only be discussing films that were nominated for Best Picture; opening up the race to every film released in a given year would be problematic, to say the least. And just for the hell of it, let’s go chronologically:
Ordinary People beats Raging Bull
The first entry on the list begins with what will be a theme for the Academy: Screwing over Martin Scorsese. Raging Bull was Scorsese’s first nomination for directing, and it’s a fantastic, gritty, brutal film. In other words, the kind of movie that gets nominated on buzz and shafted on the big night in favor of something sappy, saccharine, and much easier for the Academy fogeys to swallow. In this case, that turned out to be Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, a dull, WASPy, terribly melodramatic movie that’s right up the voters’ cheesy allies. While later injustices still sting — there’s more Scorsese later on the list — this one is just plain nonsensical given the films’ respective legacies over the past 27 years. Raging Bull is still regarded as one of Scorsese’s best, and the man’s no slouch when it comes to filmmaking. But Ordinary People is the kind of drivel you stumble across on HBO late at night and quickly pass over. Raging Bull was a classic in 1980, and it’s just as good now.
Rain Man beats Mississippi Burning
Pauline Kael wrote that “Rain Man is Dustin Hoffman humping one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes,” and it’s hard to disagree. For some reason, the Academy loves handing out awards to actors and movies that deal with mentally retarded characters, even though no one knows how hard or easy it is to convincingly play the role. In the otherwise forgettable The Score, Edward Norton’s con man faked being mentally challenged to get inside the vault he was attempting to rob, and the stunning ease with which he switched between “regular” and “handicapped” tore a giant hole in the myth of what it means to “act” the role of someone with a mental disability. Is it really as easy as just doing that voice and changing your walk? It can’t be, can it? It can. And the Academy loved it from Hoffman, who I’m surprised didn’t beat himself senseless with a hammer to achieve some kind of Method-level of performance. Rain Man was giant ball of shlock from the often-reliable Barry Levinson, but it still beat Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, a compelling real-life drama about the disappearance of civil rights workers in 1960s Mississippi and the subsequent FBI investigation. Parker’s film had solid performances from Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, as well as a terrifying turn from Michael Rooker, but it didn’t matter. Hoffman just mumbled about being a good driver, and that was that.
Dances With Wolves beats Goodfellas
This one still hurts. When Dances With Wolves came out for Thanksgiving 1990, Kevin Costner was still in the middle of his improbable heyday: He starred in The Untouchables in 1987, Bull Durham in 1988, and Field of Dreams in 1989. Costner ruled Hollywood with that amiable charm and his willingness to make baseball movies. But it was his directorial debut, Dances With Wolves, that established him as Very Serious Filmmaker. Costner’s effort was a hammy film that aimed for epic, but there was no way it could top Scorsese’s masterpiece. Goodfellas was raw and energetic and didn’t let up for two hours, compared with Costner’s soporific ode to casting yourself in your own movie. Again, just look at how the films have aged: Costner’s film isn’t remembered for much except for being the moment when his career began to ebb, while Scorsese’s film is considered to be one of the best films of the decade and one of the greatest mob pictures ever.
Forrest Gump beats The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, and Quiz Show
This is the first of three entries on the list where the Best Picture winner took the trophy over several films that were equally deserving of the award. In a way, this is even worse than a bad film beating a good one; this is a bad film winning out over two, or three, or even four films that were all better than the winner. It’s no surprise that Forrest Gump won; it’s a damn love letter to Boomers, set to the greatest hits of the 1960s and ’70s and featuring that old Academy favorite, a retarded hero. The greatest injustice of Forrest Gump’s winning Best Picture was the fact that The Shawshank Redemption was overlooked. The Shawshank Redemption is one of those movies like Office Space that everybody loves but that no one saw in the theaters. In the fall of 1994, everyone was too busy freaking about how awesome Tom Hanks was to care that a modern classic was slipping off the radar. On top of that, Robert Redford’s Quiz Show was miles beyond his earlier directorial work, a continuation of the human drama he started in A River Runs Through It and a fantastic, character-driven period piece. And then there’s Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino’s second film and still the best of his career, a fiery, explosive movie that heralded the height of the indie/Miramax movement and the unlikely resurrection of John Travolta. The Shawshank Redemption is a beautiful, wonderfully watchable film; Quiz Show is a brilliantly realized commentary on the loss of whatever innocence American once pretended to have; and Pulp Fiction is one of the most influential films of the 1990s. And they all lost.
Titanic beats L.A. Confidential, Good Will Hunting, The Full Monty and As Good As It Gets
And the hits just keep on coming. It almost feels like a waste of energy to point out that Titanic was a bloated, ungainly wreck of a movie, a grandiose, stupid, cloying melodrama that forever changed director James Cameron from the guy who does reliable sci-fi action to the guy who got really obsessed with himself. He even shouted “I’m the king of the world!” when the film won its 927 awards that year, a joke that sank faster than Leonardo DiCaprio’s corpse in the North Atlantic. But it’s not just that Titanic won Best Picture; it’s that it did so at the expense of three much, much better films. Good Will Hunting put Matt Damon and Ben Affleck on the map, and say what you will about either of them, but their work in that film and on its screenplay is sharp; it also features the best performance Robin Williams will ever commit to film, and for which he won Best Supporting Actor. Likewise, As Good As It Gets was a pristine example of a rare subgenre of filmmaking that’s increasingly harder to find: The comedy for adults. Director James L. Brooks hadn’t made a film this good since 1987’s Broadcast News (though to be fair, he’d only made one film in the interim, 1994’s deeply troubled I’ll Do Anything). Hell, even The Full Monty was light and fun and a nice surprise. Even if it wasn’t quite on the level of the other films, at least it was honest. And oh, L.A. Confidential. Curtis Hanson’s direction, from Brian Helgeland’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel, turned what could have been an overburdened excuse in stunt casting into a masterful period drama and a damn fine whodunit, set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, when everything was sleazy and nobody cared. It’s the movie that put the names of Aussie stars Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce on the lips of everyone in America; it’s the movie that brought back Kim Basinger; it’s the movie that made you remember how great a simple crime drama could be. And it was passed over for Titanic, a towering mess of forgettable filmmaking that put more stock in set design than story. Ugh.
Gladiator beats Traffic
Being a man — or anyway, a male — in college when Gladiator made it to DVD was tough; this is the quintessential dorm room movie for colleges in small Texas towns, and if that’s where you, as I, happened to be matriculating, God help you if you think Ridley’s Scott’s pseudo-epic is clunky and dull and just not that good. This was also the year that Academy awarded Best Actor to Russell Crowe, despite pretty heavy competition from Tom Hanks (Cast Away), Ed Harris (Pollock), and Geoffrey Rush (Quills). Crowe’s award was part of the Academy’s practice of giving someone a statue more for an overall body of work, or even something overlooked in the past, instead of the film in question. Crowe’s performance in Michael Mann’s The Insider was ten times as riveting and affecting as his brutish turn as Maximus, but that’s how these things shake out. But come on: Steven Soderbergh was at the top of his game with Traffic, a sprawling, layered look at the drug trade that told a relevant story about American decay. And that’s why the Academy went with Gladiator: It was triumphant where Traffic was lamenting, war-like where Soderbergh’s film saw the futility and mutual suicide of war. Traffic was the better, smarter, bigger film, but its ambiguity cost it the trophy.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King beats Mystic River
There’s no question that Clint Eastwood has now, at the supposed end of his career, begun to make the best movies of his life. Hell, he was 62 when he made the near-flawless Unforgiven, and 73 when Mystic River came out. His contemporaries are wandering aimlessly through Wal-Mart in sandals and argyle socks, and this guy’s making damn masterpieces. Mystic River is just one of the many peaks of his elderly renaissance, a sad, stirring movie about the horrors we visit upon each other in the supposed name of love, or justice, or vengeance. It’s got a big broken heart running through it, anchored by another blistering performance from Sean Penn, who’s easily among the best of his generation. In other words, it’s everything that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King isn’t. The Return of the King is a stunning technical achievement, to be sure; Peter Jackson came as close as anyone can probably come to getting the look of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel right on the screen, which is why the Academy awarded his film Best Picture. But that’s all The Return of the King is: A triumph of computer effects. Mystic River wallowed in the deep places of the soul; The Return of the King skated right over them, trading the spare, almost tender, way that Tolkien crafted his characters for a slick, overly produced, ham-fisted drama that’s about as subtle as being struck in the back of the head by an actual copy of The Lord of the Rings. If I had any faith left in the Academy, this is the year I lost it.
Crash beats Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Munich, and Good Night, and Good Luck
Scratch that; this is the year I stopped trusting the Academy. This is the year I realized that they will still continue to award quality work in filmmaking, but only serendipitously, out of sheer happy coincidence. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was a tender, doomed love story, and became a cultural event larger than the film itself. Bennett Miller’s Capote was a stunning feature debut that revolved around Philip Seymour Hoffman’s amazing lead performance, which won the Best Actor award. Steven Spielberg’s Munich was the director’s most politically charged film in years, and showed he was still at the top of his class of film-school revolutionaries. George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck was an equally thought-provoking film, one where Clooney took a back seat to the story at hand and David Strathairn’s gripping turn as Edward R. Murrow. All of these films are good films, smart, strong, well-made films that deserve to be praised. But Paul Haggis’ Crash is just the kind of pseudo-intellectual dreck that finds itself atop the awards heap when all is said and done. It attacks the issue of modern-day racism with all the sophistication of a college freshman, never stopping to wonder if people fight each other because they’re lonely, or frustrated, or just plain assholes. If someone cuts you off in traffic, and you get upset, maybe it’s not because the driver’s a different race; maybe you just don’t like being cut off on the highway, you know? Haggis’ film soars past the usual level of manipulation filmmakers employ when telling a story and becomes something cheap, and unclever, and almost offensive in the haphazard way it pretends to talk about real issues. It’s not merely that Haggis made a clunky film about race; it’s that, in the midst of a turbulent war and with the memory of Sept. 11 still lingering over a generation, he abused the power he has a filmmaker to create something complex and tough and challenging and good and instead funneled into something tawdry and exaggerated and stereotypical and embarrassing. Movies can show us who we are, and what we want to be, and how far we sometimes have to go make up the difference, and Crash is the antithesis of all of that. Of the other four films nominated this particular year — and they’re all masterful films — perhaps Munich comes closest to dealing with the terrors we visit on each other and the price we pay for what we think is justice. But Spielberg’s film is a tough one, unwilling to compromise in its search for answers to the big questions, and that ultimately disqualified it from winning. Crash is slick, dumb, and full of answers, but no one seemed to care that they were the wrong ones.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.