Split Decision: Best Picture "Losers"
Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!
This week’s question:
In honor of Green Book beating [insert your choice here] for Best Picture at the Oscars, what is your favorite Best Picture nominee from any year that didn’t win the statue?
Is it a travesty that How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane in 1941? (I would have voted for The Maltese Falcon). Not really, the Academy generally goes for middlebrow mediocrity. See how Green Book beat Roma! Even in 1980, Ordinary People and Robert Redford knocked out Raging Bull and Martin Scorsese. I think Milk was a far better and more impactful film than Slumdog Millionaire, even in 2008, but the Academy didn't. But as I want carved on my tombstone, "There's No Accounting for Taste."
I have two, and the reason I've picked them is because they are not just better than the movie that won, they are also infinitely more influential. First is 1994. Forrest Gump won over Pulp Fiction. Don't get me wrong, I will always defend Gump from the recent cultural reassessment which branded it to be outright bad, but it's only influential in that it inspired other Oscar-bait movies to ape it, and for Tropic Thunder to subsequently mock it. Granted, you can't predict influence, but Pulp Fiction changed cinema forever.
Then, in 1996, The English Patient (which I have admittedly never seen)took home the prize and Fargo did not. Fargo is an all-timer for many reasons other than simple iconography. Most importantly, not a single alt-noir movie in existence (or any contemporary set mystery, really) can claim not to exist in Fargo's considerable shadow. The English Patient is really only remembered for being very, very long.
My limitation with this category is I've seen a lot of films that probably got snubbed, but I can't be sure because I haven't seen whatever all-but-forgotten relic won Best Picture. Double Indemnity is a stone-cold classic and is probably better than a Bing Crosby musical called Going My Way, but I don't know, maybe Bing really gets something about the human condition across and makes Double Indemnity look like trash.
That said, I've seen all seven hours of Patton and I've seen Five Easy Pieces, which Patton beat in 1970, and in my mind it's clear the wrong movie won. You've got peak Jack Nicholson working with his best collaborator, Bob Rafelson and a Carole Eastman screenplay about an often unlikable guy. That last part is the main reason I wish Five Easy Pieces had taken the top prize-- there aren't a lot of Best Picture winners with this much ambiguity, where you aren't supposed to be swept away by the virtuous lead character. Nicholson's protagonist is complicated, which the Academy thinks they like, but he's also a lost asshole who hasn't magically become less of an asshole by the time the credits roll, and that's the wrong kind of complicated for big awards. Give me your Rupert Pupkins! Give me movies without morals!
The only answer to this question is Francis Ford Coppola's OTHER Best Picture nominee from 1974, The Conversation. For those not in the know, Coppola had TWO movies nominated for Best Picture that year - the aforementioned The Conversation, and what many consider to be the greatest sequel of all time, The Godfather Part II. That's right, Coppola beat HIMSELF for Best Picture at the 1975 Academy Awards, and I'm here to argue that The Academy was, as seems to usually be the case, wrong. The Conversation is a movie that continues to feel relevant today and offers new discoveries upon each watch. It's got a fantastic score that has haunted my dreams since I first saw it years ago, as well as a great central performance from Gene Hackman, one of our great actors, that is unique even to his expansive filmography. It also has one of the most memorable, absurd, and fantastic endings to a film that I've ever seen, an ending that I revisit in my mind often. And while The Godfather Part II is undeniably excellent, it is also one of the most overrated movies of all time, not coming near the greatness of The Conversation or even its own predecessor, at least in my opinion. But I don't even need to put The Godfather Part II down to sell you on The Conversation–it's greatness speaks for itself and it should be sought out by those that haven't seen it immediately.
While there are certainly older examples of some of my favorite films not winning the best picture Oscar (The Philadelphia Story (1940), The Graduate (1967) to name just two), I am going to jump ahead to the excruciating year of 1998. This was the year when a trite, forgettable romantic dramedy (which shall not be named) won instead of the breathtaking The Thin Red Line. I dont think I'll ever recover from that blow.
Firstly, I'll second Catherine, and add that both Elizabeth and Saving Private Ryan would also have been solid choices that year. I mean anything, really.
But the most painful for me is the year Goodfellas was passed over for Dances With Wolves, a movie I still can't watch in its entirety. Some 15 years later, Marty received his "body of work" Oscar for The Departed. Better late then never I suppose.
Originally I was going to pick High Noon, a wonderful stark Western that lost in part because of McCarthy and the Blacklist (especially considering The Greatest Show on Earth is canonically the worst Best Picture winner.
But searching my heart brought me back to The Great Dictator. I am a huge fan of Chaplin’s films, and I think his features are often overlooked. They certainly were at the time, and this film was his first recognition by the Academy in any competitive categories. Released after The Blitz but before the United States had entered World War II, it is a bold satire of racism and Adolf Hitler in particular. Viewed over a half century later it remains as earnest, entertaining, and urged as it did all those years ago. Soliloquies rarely work in film, but the final speech in this film is a stellar counterexample.
How you gonna vote Kramer vs. Kramer over Apocalypse Now or All That Jazz? Perhaps if the award was for the "Most Picture" instead of "Best Picture," which to be fair, it sometimes is- Apocalypse or Jazz would have won.
This was a tough one. Invariably every year I am generally displeased. Some upsets are easier to stomach than others. Sure, I like The Last Emperor... but I f#cking LOVE Moonstruck (1987). Rocky is a gem, but didn't All The Presidents Men cut just a little deeper into the psyche? Often these awards are given, not to the film of the highest merit for craft, ingenuity, artistry, etc, but rather the film that the Academy perceives that America "needs" at the time. Sadly, this year it still thinks it needs to centralize a white man's moral evolution at the tutelage of a black man to tackle ideas of entrenched racism and prejudice, and also to posture straight actors as queer characters.
While I was quite happy for Scorsese to get the award for The Departed (2006), a film I truly enjoyed, full of memorable full-tilt performances, grit and dramatic tension, Babel is far and a away a superior, more daring, more substantive, more relevant and more progressive work of cinema. Written by Guillermo Arriaga, Alejandro González Iñárritu's secretively nonlinear story of interconnectedness on a global scale, writ against narratives of profound loneliness, is masterful if not daring in its tensions, its humanity, and its structure. Compounded upon this is the fact that Kikuchi Rinko and Adriana Barraza weren't handed Oscars that night, two performances that were played so near to the heart, so complex and authentic in their vulnerability and humanity that I have yet to be so affected. Maybe Jennifer Hudson really deserved it for Dreamgirls. I never saw it, so it may be unfair of me to suggest that the honor was better handed to her TWO fellow nominees (both of whom should have been nominated in the Best Actress category, not Supporting Actress. In my estimation, an honorary Oscar for Babel’s ensemble cast would have been an easy case to make because they were, each of them, entrenched in their realities and us along with them.
I was OBSESSED with all of the Lord of the Rings movies when they came out and have certainly seen them the most, out of all the "bridesmaids to the best picture" nominees. The Two Towers is the best of the three. It lost to Chicago, which is a movie that I like to argue is terrible because I'm a musical theatre idiot h8r, but I was secretly obsessed when it came out. I have leftover vitriol from my LOTR obsession. Now, actually looking back and deciding diplomatically: The Hours may be my favorite, followed closely by 12 Angry Men.