Saturday, April 24, 2010

Film List - Oscar continues to get it WRONG

It's time to conclude my survey of the most shamefully misguided American Academy Awards choices in the 'Best Picture' category. Last month, I reviewed the period up to the end of the 1970s, so today I'll run through from 1980 to the present. As before, I'll confine myself to considering the nominees that I think would have made much better winners than the Academy's selection (if I'd tried to include all the outstanding films that were passed over for a nomination, the task would have become completely unmanageable).

More Oscar-nominated 'Best Pictures' that really should have won

It seems to have become fashionable to poo-poo the winner, Robert Redford's Ordinary People, but I do think it's an exceptional film - a really powerful story with excellent performances all around, especially from the young Timothy Hutton. However, Scorsese's Raging Bull is something quite remarkable, widely acknowledged as the standout film of the entire decade.

Gosh, we were so proud and excited to have a British winner for the first time in yonks. But Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire is really a bit twee, and doesn't linger long in the memory after you've watched it. Louis Malle's Atlantic City is a much better film. However, Warren Beatty's gorgeous Reds was the cinema event of this year, and probably vying with Raging Bull as 'the best of the 80s' - a film with the epic sweep of Lawrence of Arabia. The Academy's voters presumably passed it over because it was seen as glorifying Communism (an especially big no-no at the dawn of the Reagan era) - or perhaps just because Warren is such a prick.

Well, Richard Attenborough's Gandhi is not at all an unworthy winner this year, but.... it does drag rather; the phrase 'worthy but dull' hovers in the back of my mind. Norman Jewison's delightful comedy Tootsie (Dustin Hoffman in drag - what a concept!) didn't stand much of a chance in the face of such earnestness. Costa-Gavras's Missing did, and I think it should have won - but, presumably, like Reds the year before, it was seen as politically unacceptable (it probably only got the nomination because of the extraordinarily fine lead performances from Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek).

One of the low points in Oscar history - with the statuette going to the manipulative slushfest Terms of Endearment. It's difficult to conceive how this could have been favoured over Lawrence Kasdan's fine ensemble drama The Big Chill, or the wonderful theatrical two-hander of Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney in Peter Yates's The Dresser, or Bruce Beresford's great Country & Western film Tender Mercies (which deservedly won a Best Actor Oscar for Robert Duvall, and the Best Original Screenplay award). It's a long, long time since I've seen Tender Mercies, but I am certainly tempted to give it the nod here. However, since the Oscars tend to favour 'big' films, well, it's really hard to see how Philip Kaufman's stirring account of the beginnings of the US space programme, The Right Stuff, didn't win.

I should probably take another look at Miloš Forman's Amadeus sometime. I loved Peter Schaffer's stage play, but the film left me rather cold when I first saw it. '84 was perhaps another annus mirabilis, certainly a year of tough choices: David Lean's final epic, A Passage To India, Robert Benton's Depression-era drama Places In The Heart, and Norman Jewison's riveting whodunnit A Soldier's Story. But, really, Roland Joffé's The Killing Fields didn't win? How not?

After a few years of very strong 'Best Picture' fields, 1985 was somewhat of an annus mediocris. Bland travelogue Out Of Africa won. This, of course, was the year that Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple was expected to clean up, and in fact came away with nothing. I think, for once, the Academy got something right: for me, Spielberg missed the mark by a mile in that film: everything was too lush, too smooth, there was no realism to it. No, I thought Héctor Babenco's Kiss Of The Spiderwoman was the only real standout among the nominations this year (presumably unacceptable to the Academy because of its homosexual theme and foreign setting).

Oliver Stone's histrionic Vietnam film Platoon won. The Academy was finally ready to honour a Vietnam film (after unaccountably spurning Apocalypse Now seven years before), but there are many better ones they might have chosen over the years. Roland Joffé’s The Mission was a big misfire for me: Chris Menges' photography is ravishing, but the story is clumsily executed, silly and unbelievable. However, I find it very, very hard to choose between the other three nominees this year: Children Of A Lesser God, Hannah and Her Sisters, and A Room With A View. I think I'll plump for A Room With A View - the best E.M. Forster adaptation, and one of the finest adaptations of a classic novel ever, as nearly perfect as a film can be.

There's no arguing with Bertolucci's gorgeous epic The Last Emperor in 1987, although I think James L. Brooks's Broadcast News might well have won in almost any other year.

Rain Man is an extremely good film, but I say Dangerous Liaisons is even better - a rare example of a stage adaptation really breaking free of its constraints and transcending the original.

Driving Miss Daisy??? '89 was a strange year, indeed: Field of Dreams and Dead Poets Society got nominated too. Born On The Fourth Of July should have won - it's my favourite of Oliver Stone's films (though not untainted by some of his trademark vices), and Tom Cruise's performance as Ron Kovic is stupendous.

I like Dances With Wolves. A bit too long (OK, a lot too long), and a bit too much Kevin Costner, but a good film - beautifully photographed and a sensitive portrayal of the Native American perspective on The West. But it was up against Scorsese's Goodfellas, the best gangster film since The Godfather, and one of the few really outstanding films of the '90s. Something going wrong around here....

Another weird year, with the hugely overrated horror-thriller The Silence Of The Lambs unaccountably taking the top prize, while Disney's The Beauty And The Beast and the Barbra Streisand-directed romantic drama The Prince Of Tides were padding out the nominations. I suppose I would have given the prize to Warren Beatty's Bugsy - narrowly over Oliver Stone's JFK.

In 1992 Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven was a decent winner - the best Western in nearly 20 years, although I think it stops some way short of greatness. Howards End (another near-perfect Merchant/Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster) and Neil Jordan's haunting transsexual love story The Crying Game should have been running it very close.

The schmaltzy picaresque of Forrest Gump won. Pulp Fiction didn't. Something going wrong around here....

Braveheart??!! Oh, how the Americans love their Brit-bashing pseudo-history! George Miller's wonderful talking-pig charmer Babe or Ang Lee's Emma Thompson-scripted Sense and Sensibility would have been far more deserving winners, but I think I would have given the prize this year to the superb Apollo 13.

The English Patient is a useful illustration of how a too-finely-wrought and rather pretentious literary novel can appear merely ludicrous when transferred to the big screen. I'm amazed that this piece of tosh won anything but Razzies. What's even more baffling is that it beat a fairly strong field: Jerry Maguire, Fargo, and Shine. Another very tough choice, but I'd favour Mike Leigh's quirkily wonderful Secrets & Lies (lord knows how it ever got nominated!).

Of course, 1997 was Titanic's year. I like it well enough, but I don't love it. I would have liked to have been able to make an argument for its not winning - but none of the other nominees that year was really deserving of the accolade.

This was the year the Oscar voters got confused by period costumes. They gave the award to Shakespeare in Love when clearly they must have intended to give it to Shekhar Kapur's dazzling Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett has been a 'Fantasy Girlfriend' of mine ever since).

It was nice to see the resurgence of the 'sword & sandal' epic, but Ridley Scott's Gladiator - aside from Russell Crowe's great, grizzled performance - is really pretty vapid. Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich was clearly the pick of the crop this year.

A Beautiful Mind is not by any means a bad film (another great performance from Russell), but Todd Field's In The Bedroom is in a whole other class: it is, I think, probably the finest American film of the decade.

I don't particularly rate the next two years' winners, Chicago and The Return Of The King, but none of the other nominations were conspicuously worthy either. Was there really such a dearth of decent films at the start of the Noughties?

The Academy said Million Dollar Baby; I would have said Sideways.

The Academy went for Crash, Paul Haggis's overwrought and unbelievably coincidence-driven study of racial tensions in Los Angeles. Everybody had expected Ang Lee's (beautifully photographed and played, but rather uninvolving) gay cowboy saga Brokeback Mountain to win; it was probably undone by the same homophobic impulse that ruled Kiss Of The Spiderwoman and The Crying Game out of serious contention. Somehow everybody ignored George Clooney's simply superb black & white recreation of TV news anchor Edward R. Murrow's titanic clash with Senator Joe McCarthy, Good Night, and Good Luck. This film almost deserved to win for the photography alone, although the script, acting and direction are brilliant too. David Strathairn should have got the Best Actor Oscar for this, and maybe Clooney should have got Best Director - an unjustly overlooked instant classic.

Honouring the deeply flawed police melodrama The Departed was in effect a 'Lifetime Achievement Award' for Martin Scorsese. Clint Eastwood's magnificent war film Letters From Iwo Jima would have been a far worthier winner (although I think its companion film, Flags Of Our Fathers, is even better, and I'm mystified as to why it didn't get the nomination).

Although I'm a huge fan of the Coen brothers, I did not love their thriller No Country For Old Men - I found the disconnected narrative structure and lack of resolution deeply unsatisfying (although it seems I may have seen a severely bowdlerized pirate copy which rendered parts of the story incoherent). There was a strong field this year - Michael Clayton, Juno, Atonement. However, for me, the standout of the year was clearly Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood.

I have issues with the story in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, the 2008 winner, but it's hard not to be seduced by the sheer zest of it all, the snappiness of the direction, the lushness of the photography. And there wasn't that much competition: Milk and Frost/Nixon were very fine films, but not clearly 'Best Picture' material.

I am grateful to The Hurt Locker for shutting the infantile Avatar out of the major awards, but it is itself a pretty terrible film. As I said on the eve of this year's Oscars, the utterly captivating Sixties coming-of-age story An Education would have got my vote.

So, there we have it. I wonder how the Academy will manage to stuff up this year...


Tony said...

I missed a lot of these and have never even heard of some. For the rest, I disagree with about 60% of your verdicts.
But this is a sensitive and perspicacious survey, and I shall keep it by me to look up those that come round on TV.

stuart said...

I really enjoyed this post.

Fully agree with Goodfellas, Broadcast News, Pulp Fiction, and Elizabeth.

Froog said...

Tony, do you at least agree with me more often than you agree with the Academy? Or are you saying that you think they got the 'Best Picture' choice right most of the time and I am a fool to criticise them? It would be nice to hear some examples of where your opinions diverge.

How did you get on with Dog Day Afternoon? I hope it didn't undermine your faith in my judgement!

And nice to hear from you again, Stuart. What did you think of The Hurt Locker (which I reviewed in depth a couple of days ago) and the rest of this year's crop?

stuart said...

Hurt Locker: worth downloading, but not one for the 'never to be deleted' folder. I do have a soft spot for it, though, having opposed Avatar on the exchanges.