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I believe we can all agree that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not a perfect institution, and that if they haven’t fixed the problems in 86 years of award giving, they probably aren’t going to start any time soon.
But this isn’t just laughing and finger-pointing at what, for many years, came across as a bunch of stodgy old folks whose interest in stereotypes often overwhelmed proper decision making. This feature is meant to further champion the movies that we all know should have the distinction of being called Best Picture winners, but inexplicably didn’t make the cut. Too bad there wasn’t room for classic that didn’t even get nominated, like 2001 or Vertigo. Someone should make a movie about there being a big drawn-out conspiracy involving someone illegally winning the top prize in some way. Make sure it has an elderly woman shedding her bigoted behavior, a controversial person from America’s history, and put some songs, dances and death in it. Oscar voters sure do love those sorts of things.
And now, in no particular order, here are 10 of the most glaring examples -- in our humble opinion -- of the Oscars losing sight of what Best Picture actually means.
Crash – 2004Why it Won: Because some American movies are a reflection of America, and Paul Haggis probably watched Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros and 21 Grams the same day he heard someone use the N-word on the subway. The result? The disparate story-weaving "issue drama" Crash, where the surgical inspection of racial tension is handled while wearing a catcher’s mitt. It felt very much like important storytelling a decade ago, but mainly because it wasn’t just about people hating on black people. Crash hasn’t held up well at all, and repeated viewings just tear the holes wider.
What Should Have Won: Anything else, really, but mostly Brokeback Mountain, a beautifully told drama about homosexual love, years before legalized gay marriage had its watershed moment. Do the Right Thing, a much more important and relevant film about race, wasn’t even nominated, so imagine how well a film like Brokeback would do now that acceptance is wider. But even if that wasn’t a frontrunner, the other three nominees that year were Steven Spielberg’s Munich, George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck, and Bennett Miller’s Capote. But no, Ludacris carjacked Terrence Howard in the right place at the right time, I guess.
How Green Was My Valley – 1941Why it Won: Because the Academy was still too young to understand what it was supposed to be doing. How Green Was My Valley is a fine period film about a good ol’ town devastated in various ways by coal mines. Not quite the There Will be Blood of its day, this is a lushly shot pic with enough plot, characters and grimness (not to mention Roddy McDowall) that an entirely different film could be created from it, and I guess that kind of hard-hitting story was what people in 1941 were looking for. Except…
What Should Have Won: Citizen Kane, a-dur. In what is arguably the most infamous snub of all time, what is arguably the greatest film in the history of cinema was beaten out by a bunch of coal-faced idgits. The context that most people view How Green Was My Valley in revolves around it beating Kane for Best Picture. Maybe people were mad when they found out who Rosebud was, I don’t know. Any idea what else My Valley Was So, So Green beat out? John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. I’ll just assume all of the voters had family members who worked on the winner’s production.
Kramer vs. Kramer – 1979Why it Won: It was the end of the 1970s, and Robert Benton’s take on Avery Corman’s 1977 novel was a smart and well-delivered drama about divorce and a split household, which wasn’t exactly all the rage in Best Picture nominees in previous years. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep are the perfect actors in their roles of bickering parents who claim they only want the best for their son, and the realistic performances given to the sometimes stilted dialogue still makes this the apex of divorce dramas. Plus, the movie actually managed to make Hoffman look like the victim at times, even though he’s kind of an oaf, and that was just the stereotypical push needed to launch this one into the accolade stratosphere.
What Should Have Won: The real divorce that year happened between reality and madness when moviegoers saw Benton’s film beat out Francis Ford Coppola’s nightmarish war epic Apocalypse Now, a movie that probably couldn’t be further from Kramer vs. Kramer if it tried. This stinker of a decision ended a decade-long perfect streak of Best Picture choosing. True, part of Apocalypse Now’s allure is in knowing the behind-the-scenes mayhem of Coppola’s version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but the movie itself is a fever pitch of dark and brooding intensity no matter how many times you watch it. And audiences do want to watch it over and over, unlike K. vs. K.. Platoon’s win seven years later was more a slap to the face than anything else.
Forrest Gump – 1994Why it Won: Despite 1992’s Death Becomes Her not winning over audiences, Robert Zemeckis was at the height of his game in 1994, and Forrest Gump is the amalgamation of about thirty different movies that would all be nominees in and of themselves. This is not a film that has aged all that well, and would have spawned a meme outbreak had the Internet been as big then, but it’s a heartwarming and fleeting story that takes on love, war, friendship, loss, bravery, personal acceptance and more. This was the year after Schindler’s List took the prize, and America just needed some life-affirming Tom Hanks to prove to us that simpletons make the world special.
What Should Have Won: Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, the movie that probably gives TNT about a quarter of its ratings in a given year. Adapted from one of Stephen King’s deft departures from horror, this timeless prison drama featured a career-best performance from Tim Robbins, and told a story that encompasses the very nature of "drama," where innocence is just a dream on the horizon and the repetition of life behind bars is optimal to the chaos of the outside world. And if that seems too "Oscar bait-ish," then what about Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the movie that made loving movies look even cooler than it ever did? The Academy really ate a Shrimp Royale with Cheese by avoiding both of these superior movies.
Dances With Wolves – 1990Why it Won: Dances With Wolves is rightly classified as an epic film, though its inherent epicness has faded with time. Not only was this a war movie that focuses much of its screentime to Native American characters, it was a stunning directorial debut for the extremely popular Kevin Costner, who also took home the Oscar for Best Director, though not for Best Actor. 24 years and The Postman, later, Dances With Wolves is more like Yawns With Unintentionally Amusing Treatment of Native Americans. What may be a timeless story on the page doesn’t hold up nearly as well on the screen.
What Should Have Won: Three words. Good. Fuckin’ Fellas. A film that doesn’t give viewers the time or room to yawn, Martin Scorsese’s crime masterpiece reteamed Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci as two of the scariest mobsters ever put on film, and showcases Ray Liotta’s intensity to the greatest effect. Scorsese’s later undercover cop drama The Departed finally earned the director his first Best Picture and Best Director statues, but it should have been his third or fourth at that point. Goodfellas is the kind of movie that can’t be turned off once it’s started, while I would turn off Dances With Wolves just to scratch my ears.
Shakespeare in Love – 1998Why it Won: William Shakespeare hadn’t seen any big gold from the Academy since Sir Laurence Olivier directed himself as Hamlet back in 1948, and Shakespeare in Love was a romantic comedy that wasn’t just a ripoff of When Harry Met Sally. Going almost as meta as mainstream films get, John Madden’s film was co-written by the acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard, who knows how to give a character a mouthful of interesting things to say, especially when it comes to Shakespearean allusions and wordplay. It doesn’t stand up under the highest scrutiny, but that might be because we’re all still secretly reeling from the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan all these years later.
What Should Have Won: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan wooed its viewers into theaters with Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and a stellar supporting cast, and then it blew them out of their seats with the most exciting and confronting WWII cinema that may never be topped. Seriously, it should have taken Best Picture based purely on that opening Normandy Beach sequence, but the rest of the film still stands tall. It’s about brotherhood, but doesn’t overplay the emotions, and is about survival without appearing maudlin or trite. Few action films have this much drama, and few dramas have this much action. The Bard shouldn’t have stood a chance against these guys.
Ghandi - 1982Why it Won: Beyond the whole "Biopics FTW" angle, Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi was a big film that sprawled across differing ideologies, religions and conflicts, centered around Ben Kingsley’s solid performance as one of the most humane and inspirational people who have ever lived. The role of Gandhi won Kingsley his own Oscar, and the film earned eight altogether, though it has lost some of its verve over the past 30 years, and a lot of that can be attributed to the three-hour runtime. But the film starts and ends with the tragic assassination of this peacekeeping historical legend, so no other films really had a chance.
What Should Have Won: Steven Spielberg strikes again, as E.T. is a far more memorable and emotionally sound film than Gandhi could hope to be, strange as it may seem. A boy and his alien, and the heartfelt story they share, can still bring people to tears just mentioning it, whereas it’s much more preferable to just picture Gandhi’s actual life rather than the film version. But if children’s fare isn’t good enough, what about Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie, which features one of Dustin Hoffman’s most iconic roles. Transcending the mere "man dresses like a woman" screwball comedy that Bosom Buddies was, Tootsie is still a rollicking good time that proves laughs, drama and just the right amount of social and sexual commentary.
The King’s Speech – 2010Why it Won: Take one part My Fair Lady, one part British royalty biopic, and swish it all around in a glass half-full, and you have Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech. It’s unclear to me why the film won other than the pure merit of the acting and direction, as this film doesn’t quite represent cinema in 2010 so much as it does stand out from it. The fast and furious shared scenes between Colin Firth’s Prince Albert and Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue are joyous, and Hooper’s slightly off-kilter direction make the film feel far more contemporary than stuffy.
What Should Have Won: With The Social Network, the brains of director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin melded together and produced a film that is so invested in the personality and problems of its main character, Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg, that it sometimes seems to forget that it’s a film entirely of its time and place. Had this film somehow been made 50 years ago, it would have been about the poor schmo whose life was being ruined by the big bad zillionaire Mr. Zuckerberg, but viewers have matured enough to understand that not all heroes will blind you with their valor. It was a very strong year for nominees, but this one should have been "liked" a little more when voting happened.
Rocky – 1976Why it Won: Are you kidding me? It’s Rocky!
What Should Have Won: Are you talking to me, and also kidding me? It’s Taxi Driver!
Driving Miss Daisy – 1989Why it Won: The most remarkable aspect of this Werther’s Original of cinema is that it came at the end of the 1980s, instead of the 1880s. A sometimes sweet, warm and finger-waggingly fuzzy tale of a half-prejudiced old white woman who gradually accepts and befriends her black chauffeur driver. 1989 was apparently a year where we felt sorry for people who had to be driven around all the time. Fine performances from Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman don’t hinder any disputes that this film shouldn’t have even been nominated that year, with Do the Right Thing sitting in Miss Daisy’s seat.
What Should Have Won: Dead Poets Society.
Or Field of Dreams.
Or My Left Foot.
Or Born on the Fourth of July.