Sunday, February 26, 2012

7 Times Oscar Got It Right

Yes, I know I’m not supposed to care about the Oscars, but, well, I do, and if you’re reading this, chances are you do, too, maybe just a little bit. Anyway, I’ve done a couple of Oscar things the past week for Vulture – I contributed to this piece prognosticating the winners and suggesting witty things to say when they're announced, and I also wrote this piece about some of the best performances in the worst Oscar bait films over the years

But I also wanted to write this list here. We spend so much time grousing about the worst Best Picture winners and whatnot, that sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves of those occasions when Oscar actually gets it
right. So, here are the Best Picture winners from the past forty years that I actually agree with, in chronological order. And by “agree with,” I mean, “Yes, that movie actually was -- or was at least close to being -- the best motion picture release of that given year." You will certainly disagree with a couple of these choices. Know that I would probably disagree with a couple of yours. Enjoy.

Don’t need to explain this choice too much. I’m not including The Godfather Part II because, as much as I love that film, I think I love The Conversation and Chinatown more. The first one, though, is a perfect example of the ideal Oscar movie. A prestige adaptation of a big, pulpy best-seller that, in translation to the screen, expands and becomes a true work of art on an exquisitely grand scale.

Yeah, I know, Star Wars was also this year, but this is basically the Star Wars of romantic comedies. Woody. Diane. Tony. Shelley. Wallace. Marshall. Christopher Effing Walken. “Touch my heart…with your foot.” “You mean, my whole fallacy is wrong.” “Jew eat yet?” Manhattan might be the better Allen film, but Annie Hall is so, so full of iconic moments that it just cannot be ignored.

AMADEUS (1984)
Um, I think we’ve said enough about this one for now.

I love this film so much it’s obscene. I saw it ten times during its initial run in theaters (I was fourteen at the time, and just getting into BernardoBertolucci and Italian cinema) and I’ve come back to it over and over again over the years. Forget, for a moment, the fact that it’s quite possibly the most opulent and beautifully shot film, like, ever. (Not that one should ever forget such things – this is cinema we’re talking about, after all.) It’s also deceptively complex– it features a thoroughly passive protagonist who, despite having great symbolic power, wields almost no actual power and must live constantly at the mercy of others. Somebody at the time described it as an “anti-epic” and that seems about right. Other directors would have scaled their aesthetic down to match the personal drama at the story’s heart. Only Bertolucci was perverse enough to create a film whose very hugeness served to highlight his central character’s smallness.

Full disclosure: It took me several viewings before I could embrace Clint Eastwood’s grim Western masterpiece. And 1992 does in fact have one American film that I would easily rank higher than Unforgiven: George Miller’s sublime Lorenzo’s Oil, the most underrated film of that decade. (Go here to read something I wrote on it.) But Christ, is Unforgiven magnificent – taking the whole melancholy cowboy motif and turning it on its head by (ironically) really committing to it. Interesting thing to watch out for: Note how often people make references to being dead or being in the Afterlife in the film. Unforgiven takes our mythic ideas about the Wild West and fashions a kind of bleak purgatory out of them. (Seriously, can you believe this won Best Picture??)

TITANIC (1997)
No, fuck you.

This one gets a bit of a bad rap, in part because fellow nominee There Will Be Blood has come to seem like the more timeless film. But the Coen Brothers’ Neo-Western is still amazing, a gripping dirge of desperation and menace that just builds and builds until it reaches near-abstraction. Was it the absolute best film of its year? Maybe not – I’d give it to Jafar Panahi’s Offside (and, retroactively, Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light, which didn’t open in the U.S. until 2008), but No Country belongs alongside There Will Be Blood and Zodiac as one of that year’s major American masterpieces.


  1. I was close to 14 when my parents took me to see The Last Emperor, and I got restless, but I've grown up a little and have wanted to give it another chance. Would you recommend the longer version Criterion released? Looking forward to reading your Lorenzo's Oil article. 1992 was the year I kept going back to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

  2. Yeah, can't argue with any of these. Even Titanic!