Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Academy Awards Corrections: On the Fours

I was listening to the Cracked Podcast, where they talked about Year-End lists, and how they look pretty ridiculous in retrospect. They brought up the interesting idea that there should be a five-year waiting period to decide the winners of the Academy Awards. I thought this was really interesting, so I decided that I am going to look at the Academy Awards through the decades, and we can now retroactively make corrections to egregious errors.

I am only going to be looking at Best Picture, since to go through every goddamn category would be insane. I mean, do we need to correct what the best sound mixing was fifty years ago?

Also, this is going to be my own personal list, of course, but I am going to use common sense. For example, I'm not going to replace a well-known movie with some obscure indie movie that no one's ever heard of. The movies I'll be putting on the list will be an "Oscar movie," meaning that it will not only be good, but it will be something that reasonably could have been nominated, had the Academy not had its head up its ass. Also, I'm only going back to the 1960s, because anything before that is filled with a lot of cruddy, dated movies that I don't plan to ever see. Plus, there were only like 20 movies that came out per year before that, so the Academy couldn't screw it up too badly even if they wanted to.

Since 2014 just passed, let's start with the 4s:

1964 ACADEMY AWARDS (37th Annual)

The Actual Nominees:
  • My Fair Lady (Director: George Cukor) (WINNER)
  • Becket (Dir.: Peter Glenville)
  • Dr. Strangelove (Dir.: Stanley Kubrick)
  • Mary Poppins (Dir.: Robert Stevenson)
  • Zorba the Greek (Dir.: Michael Cacoyannis)
Clearly, my favorite movie of this list is Dr. Strangelove, which is one of the best movies of the entire 1960s. And nothing against the movie, but the fact that Mary Poppins is even on this list shows that there weren't a ton of heavy-hitters in '64. It might be the same reason that we started seeing a tenfold increase in fantasy-action movies after 9/11: escapism.

Great movies that could have been considered:
  • The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Dir.: Jacques Demy)
  • Topkapi (Dir.: Jules Dassin)
  • Seance on a Wet Afternoon (Dir. Bryan Forbes)
As much as I have a soft spot in my heart for Umbrellas of Cherbourg (including my hopeless crush on Catherine Deneuve ca. 1963), it would have been weird if a French pop-opera had been nominated over any of the American films listed. All five of the nominees pretty much hold up, although to me, Becket feels like classic Oscar Bait in the David Lean/William Wyler/Cecil B. Demille vein; it's got two great performances (Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton) but it's as cold and distant as a 12th Century British costume drama can be expected to be.

For my first stab at this, Oscar got it right.

1974 ACADEMY AWARDS (47th Annual)

The Actual Nominees:
  • The Godfather Part II (Dir.: Francis Ford Coppola) (WINNER)
  • Chinatown (Dir: Roman Polanski)
  • The Conversation (Dir.: Francis Ford Coppola)
  • Lenny (Dir.: Bob Fosse)
  • The Towering Inferno (Dir: John Guillerman)

Okay, this one is going to pretty much undermine the entire point of this exercise, because at least four of these movies deserve to be here, and The Towering Inferno is probably the odd man out. You can't argue with The Godfather II and Chinatown, and The Conversation is kind of a forgotten classic. (If you doubt that F.F. Coppola was the King of 1970s cinema, 1974 should prove it.)

In my opinion, Lenny doesn't hold up on repeated viewings, although Dustin Hoffman's performance is still stunning 40 years later. The Towering Inferno is notable in that it was a big budget disaster movie with two of the biggest stars of its day, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. And I'll be there was a lot of Hollywood money pumped into it, meaning that it had to be nominated.

Great movies that could have been considered:
  • A Woman Under the Influence (Dir. John Cassavetes) 
  • Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
  • The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Dir. Joseph Sargent) 
  • Murder on the Orient Express (Dir. Sidney Lumet)
The 20/20 Hindsight Nominees:
  • The Godfather Part II (WINNER)
  • Chinatown 
  • A Woman Under the Influence (Dir.: John Cassavetes)
  • Murder on the Orient Express (Dir.: Sidney Lumet)
  • The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Dir.: Joseph Sargent)
The Godfather II and Chinatown are bona fide classics, two of the maybe 50-75 greatest movies ever made: they stay. A Woman Under the Influence holds up much better than Lenny does, and Gena Rowlands puts in an incredible performance.

Murder on the Orient Express and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three take the other two slots, because they are just as good as The Conversation and The Towering Inferno, and in my opinion, more entertaining. If you're going to reserve a slot for an action movie, I'd take Pelham over Inferno any day.

1984 ACADEMY AWARDS (57th Annual)

The Actual Nominees:
  • Amadeus (Dir.: Milos Forman) (WINNER)
  • The Killing Fields (Dir.: Roland Joffe)
  • A Passage to India (Dir.: David Lean)
  • Places in the Heart (Dir.: Robert Benton) 
  • A Soldier's Story (Dir.: Norman Jewison)
1984 was a good year for a lot of things, but Prestige Movies was not one of them. For every Amadeus, there were three Ghostbusters, Gremlins and The Terminator. It was a watershed year for popcorn movies and pop music ("Born in the USA," "Thriller," Like a Virgin), but when it came to Oscar Worthy Films, the Academy pretty much picked the only five that qualified, and all five meet one of the Academy's unwritten criteria

Amadeus is a period film about a tortured genius. (Mozart, heard of him?) The Killing Fields is a war/journalism picture about the horrors of Cambodia during the time of the Khmer Rouge. A Passage to India was the final film for the legendary David Lean, and it features exotic locales and Alec Guinness as an Indian scholar. Places in the Heart is a triple-whammy: it is directed by an Oscar Winner (Benton, who won the Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer five years prior); it's about the Great Depression; and it's about social issues like segregation. This movie was made to get an Oscar nod. And finally, A Soldier's Story, which is about the segregation-era American South.

Note that not one of 1984's films took place in the present day: A Soldier's Story takes place in the 1940s; Places in the Heart in the 1930s; The Killing Fields in the early 1970s; A Passage to India in the 1920s; and Amadeus in the 1820s. If ever there were a template for Oscar Bait, this one is it.

So, by default, we aren't left with a ton of replacements. Most of the other "good" movies of this year are light popcorn fare: The Karate Kid, This is Spinal Tap, Beverly Hills Cop. Even movies that might have been considered Oscar Worthy, like, say Romancing the Stone or Broadway Danny Rose or The Natural, all lacked any kind of real gravitas, especially compared to war, segregation, exotic foreign lands and mental illness.

So I'm going to leave this list alone. That isn't to say that it is perfect, or that really any one of these movies (save for possibly Amadeus) is really considered a "classic," but you can't really argue with any of them in a surprisingly weak year. Damn you, Academy!

1994 ACADEMY AWARDS (67th Annual)

The Actual Nominees:
  • Forrest Gump (Dir.: Robert Zemeckis) (WINNER)
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral (Dir.: Mike Newell)
  • Pulp Fiction (Dir.: Quentin Tarantino)
  • Quiz Show (Dir.: Robert Redford)
  • The Shawshank Redemption (Dir.: Frank Darabont)
1994 is one of the most important years in cinema history, and most people will point to Pulp Fiction as the standard bearer, since it really is the movie that changed movies. Pulp still resonates to this very day, two decades later, as proof that film can go in nearly any direction, so long as it follows the language of movies and storytelling. 

Forrest Gump gets a lot of shit, too, because by comparison to Pulp, it seems like a slight piece of pop entertainment, hardly worthy of being even uttered in the same sentence. But take a step back and remember that Gump was a phenomenon, and it is one of the most intricately and expertly crafted movies of all time, despite whether you agree with its socio-politics or its place on the Academy's pedestal.

1994 was so good that movies like Quiz Show and The Shawshank Redemption didn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of bringing home the trophy, and they are both fantastic movies, ones that may have won the Award in any of the two or three years before and after. In fact, you have to give the Academy credit for recognizing Shawshank, a box office flop that would only gain its current cult status a few years later when it caught on via home video. The Academy looks eerily prescient here. So what do we have left?

Great movies that could have been considered:
  • The Lion King (Dirs.: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff)
  • Ed Wood (Dir. Tim Burton)
  • Heavenly Creatures (Dir. Peter Jackson)
  • Exotica (Dir. Atom Egoyan)
  • The Last Seduction (Dir. John Dahl)
  • Hoop Dreams (Dir. Steve James)
And this is, again, where the problem lies: after The Lion King, which wouldn't be unprecedented, as Beauty and the Beast had been nominated for Best Pic a few years prior, things start to thin out a bit after Ed Wood. The last four mentioned above are all, in my opinion, superior films, but they don't quite meet the Academy's criteria in most ways.

The only real turd in the punch bowl of 1994's actual nominees was Four Weddings and a Funeral, which is fine, but pales horribly in comparison to the other four nominees. The Academy really did get four of the five best films of the year. So....

The 20/20 Hindsight Nominees:
  • Forrest Gump 
  • The Lion King
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Quiz Show 
  • The Shawshank Redemption (WINNER)
I know Pulp Fiction would get the nod from most cinephiles, and it's a landmark movie, don't get me wrong. But once you get past the non-linear storytelling, it doesn't hold up quite as well as hoped. Shawshank, on the other hand, is nearly flawless, and absolutely holds up after dozens of repeated viewings.

And I'm also not saying that The Lion King is a superior film; in a lot of ways it is the kind of movie Disney would have come up with in a focus group. But when you think 1994, you think Lion King more than you think Four Weddings. Also, I think Four Weddings kind of sucks.

I'm not saying these are necessarily THE five best movies of '94, but they are a good survey, twenty years later, of what the year was about.

And finally....

2004 ACADEMY AWARDS (77th Annual)

The Actual Nominees:
  • Million Dollar Baby (Dir.: Clint Eastwood) (WINNER)
  • The Aviator (Dir.: Martin Scorsese)
  • Finding Neverland (Dir.: Marc Forster)
  • Ray (Dir.: Taylor Hackford)
  • Sideways (Dir.: Alexander Payne)
Let's get this out of the way: The Aviator and Ray have no business being on this list, whatsoever. The Aviator is an interesting, dynamic film about another tortured genius, but as a film it's far too unfocused and flawed to be considered one of the five best films of the year. Ray is just an extremely mediocre film, with Jamie Foxx doing an impressive parlor trick for 90 minutes; Ray's inclusion here is an abomination.

There were quite a few movies I liked from 2004, but wouldn't probably be on Oscar's radar, such as Palindromes, Collateral, Garden State, Layer Cake, Mysterious Skin, Friday Night Lights, A Love Song for Bobby Long and The Woodsman. So that leaves a few candidates that could have possibly been in the mix.

Great movies that could have been considered:
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Dir.: Michel Gondry)
  • Vera Drake (Dir.: Mike Leigh)
  • Closer (Dir.: Mike Nichols)
  • Bad Education (Dir.: Pedro Almodovar)
I am not as huge a fan of Eternal Sunshine as a lot of other people are, but it's about fifty times better than Ray. I think Vera Drake is a very underrated, wonderful little film. And Bad Education is criminally overlooked. Closer is basically an update of Nichols's own Carnal Knowledge -- one of the best play adaptations ever made -- three decades later. That said, here is my own list.

The 20/20 Hindsight Nominees:
  • Bad Education
  • Finding Neverland
  • Million Dollar Baby
  • Sideways (WINNER)
  • Vera Drake 
I make no bones about my love for Sideways, and although Million Dollar Baby is a fine film, it doesn't hold up nearly as well against the inexorable march of time as Sideways does.

I am looking forward to going back through the rest of the last fifty-or-so years, decade by decade, to correct the Academy's mistakes. I have a feeling that, unlike the Grammys, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences generally get it almost right. There haven't been too many egregious, "bad" films on any of these lists. (Although get ready for the year 2000, with a movie whose name sounds an awful lot like the type of confection that a candy bar is made of.)

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