We may like to gripe around here about all the mistakes that the Academy Awards have made over the years, but we also have to acknowledge that, every once in a while, Oscar gets something right too. For this week’s Roundtable, we’re going to try a little positivity. Here’s our look at some Academy Award winners that actually deserved their acclaim.
The topic this week is not just limited to Best Picture winners (though a lot of the staff tended to go that route). Any Oscar category is fair game.
- ‘Schindler’s List‘ – There’s really no contest for me here. The Oscars in 1994 got it right. Nothing was beating Steven Spielberg’s opus that year, and nothing should have. (The other films in contention were ‘The Fugitive‘, ‘In the Name of the Father’, ‘The Piano’, and ‘The Remains of the Day’.) ‘Schindler’s List’ is a beautiful, tragic, and transcendent movie that will live on forever as one of the greatest films in cinematic history. So many times we can look back on the Oscars and find movies that were maybe better deserving of a win, like ‘Pulp Fiction’ in 1995, or ‘Saving Private Ryan‘ in 1999. In 1994, however, I don’t think many – if any – people will argue with ‘Schindler’s List’.
- ‘Annie Hall‘ – The Oscars get Best Picture wrong more than they get the category right, but there are rare examples of the Academy getting things really, really, really right. Let’s take the highly-contested win of ‘Annie Hall’ besting ‘Star Wars’ in 1978. Since then, nerds nationwide have been decrying the decision. From a technical standpoint, it’s hard to think of another film that changed the way that movies were produced and consumed in the same way that ‘Star Wars’ did. However, looking at the films movies side-by-side, a clear victor emerges. Woody Allen’s breathtaking ‘Annie Hall’ has so much to say about the human condition, about the way we remember relationships (and interact with those memories), and what it means to be a feisty New York Jew. The first ‘Star Wars’ wasn’t even the best film in that initial cluster (although, obviously, leaps and bounds above the dramatically inert newer films). And besides, how bad can you feel for a loser that has made hundreds of millions of dollars in the years that followed? Right.
- ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King‘ – There are people out there who prefer “films” to “movies.” They’re the same people who hang out exclusively in the “Literature” section of Borders while ignoring the rest. They hate sci-fi and they hate fantasy. They also, apparently, vote on the Oscars. ‘Return of the King’ was the first fantasy movie to win for Best Picture, and it will probably be the last to do so for a good while. It was refreshing to see a movie so far away from the norm get recognized for being as good as it was.
- ‘The Apartment‘ – I know it’s unpopular to say that Oscar got it right, but in looking through the list of Best Picture winners over the years, I have to admit that, more often than not, I think they did get it right. There have been a few recent winners that I’ve never agreed with. (Lookin’ at you, ‘Gladiator‘.) But really, most of the big winners have stood the test of time. One Best Picture winner I’ve always thought deserves more recognition is ‘The Apartment’. Billy Wilder’s film hit theaters the same year as ‘Psycho‘, but in my opinion, ‘The Apartment’ is the more skillfully written and timeless of the two films. As with many Wilder productions, it’s also a much darker project than viewers might initially realize. Corporate corruption, broken hearts, infidelity, family abandonment, suicide… All this in a “comedy”! Take away the styles and some of the tackier period decor, and this film could have been made yesterday. It’s just a great, great movie, one that perfectly distills Wilder’s bittersweet world view. (The man’s life story more than explains how that came to be. In fact, it’s a miracle he was as capable of seeing humor in the world at all after the tragic events in his own life.) There’s just one important question regarding this more than deserving Best Picture winner. Where is the Blu-ray?
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
- ‘Black Narcissus‘ – ‘Black Narcissus’ remains, after more than sixty years, a breathtakingly gorgeous film. Its Academy Award wins for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography are well-deserved. The seductive beauty of India isn’t merely a backdrop; it’s one of the driving forces of the film’s story and very much a character in its own right, largely to blame for the mental unraveling of its convent of young nuns. ‘Black Narcissus’ does an extraordinary job conveying the colossal scope and natural majesty of the Himalayas. It’s all the more impressive that this was accomplished through matte paintings, forced perspective, and an incomparable visual eye, with virtually every last frame of the film shot on a British soundstage. The three-strip Technicolor cinematography by Jack Cardiff continues to mesmerize these many decades later. Despite the great strength of the film’s incisive script and outstanding performances, it would have been almost unrecognizably different without Cardiff’s talents. The craftsmanship behind the ambitious visuals is nothing less than staggering. Despite the many years that have passed since the film was first produced, its visual effects work doesn’t look dated in the slightest. The matte paintings hold up marvelously even under the revealing eye of Blu-ray.
- ‘L.A. Confidential‘ – Hold on a second, didn’t ‘L.A. Confidential’ lose Best Picture to ‘Titanic’? Indeed it did, and that’s an argument for another day. However, Curtis Hanson’s mesmerizing period mystery did take home a Best Adapted Screenplay consolation prize that was incredibly well-deserved. The script by Hanson and Brian Helgeland does a remarkable job of distilling James Ellroy’s labyrinthine crime novel down to the essential elements of the story. It’s brilliantly structured, with what seems at first to be a complete beginning, middle and end all before the half-way mark, at which point the film spins off on a major plot shift and builds an even more compelling three-act arc. There’s not a wasted moment or line of dialogue in the whole thing. The result is a perfect sort of adaptation, one true to the spirit and intentions of its source material but unafraid to make major changes to the sacred text in order to allow the film to develop and flourish as its own distinct piece of art.
- Christoph Waltz – What a coming out party! Before ‘Inglourious Basterds‘, how many of you knew about this actor? Very few, since his filmography has more German in it than David Hasselhoff’s music fan club. Director Quentin Tarantino introduced us to Waltz in stunning fashion, with one of the most captivating, complex characters in some time, topped off with a superb performance. Waltz didn’t play Col. Hans Landa, he became the tri-lingual Jew hunting Nazi villain.
- ‘American Beauty‘ – 1999 has to be one of the greatest years in cinema, bar none. Run down a list sometime of the films released that year, and you’ll find some very memorable pieces of work. The Best Picture winner was definitely the best of the bunch, even if it wasn’t by head and shoulders. Sure, the shopping bag in the wind is pretentious, but ignore that one minute of film and realize every other scene can be considered among its best. Superbly acted and directed, they don’t come much better than this.
- Philip Seymour Hoffman – Christian Bale may get accolades for losing, gaining, losing, gaining, and losing weight to fit his roles, but has he ever turned into a wimpy gay diminutive writer named Truman Capote? Didn’t think so. When you think about Hoffman, you think of a burly, sweaty dude – the guy who “sharted.” Yet here he is, forty pounds lighter and completely unrecognizable in voice, mannerism, or appearance. ‘Capote‘ is a film to watch solely due to the conviction of its lead actor, a role so different from his norm that it’s almost scary.
Those are our picks. Now tell us yours in the Comments. We know that there must be at least one Oscar winner that you agree with. Maybe a Best Actor or Actress, or a particularly great score? How about a great foreign film or documentary that really earned its trophy? Let us know what you think.