Every year the windows open and the night rings with the sound of outraged voices. Profound declarations of anger and disparate opinions that can be quelled by nothing. A deep fire has been sparked that shall never go out. Twitter fights are fought. Old wounds are opened. The tears of Leonardo DiCaprio flow freely, and Harvey Weinstein looks out from his mansion balcony knowing he is the only winner here. It is the night of the Oscars, and nothing is sacred.
Since 1929, the enigmatic and inherently evil entity that is the Academy has dished out awards every year to the film they deem “Best.” Often, their choices are mind numbingly awful. It is a pattern so consistent that I have come to believe that the Academy is not a myriad of Hollywood-types but actually a singular and immortal deity who enjoys the pain and suffering of people with good taste, like a troubled child enjoys torturing small animals. Crash over Brokeback Mountain? Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction? Let’s not even get into the innumerable times great films haven’t been nominated at all (Boogie Nights, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Brazil to name a few atrocious examples). Who other than a sick minded sadist would make these picks? It is utterly confounding. When the Academy doesn’t make glaringly bad choices, they make bland and predictable ones, which is almost worse. Yet, every once in a while the torment lets up. Maybe it’s that someone has made the right sacrifice or maybe it’s something in the air, but sometimes the Academy makes a bold, interesting, and correct choice that results in beaming smiles and the scratching of heads. Here I have dutifully compiled the instances I feel the Academy got it right. I excluded films like The Godfather or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because they simply seemed like not only too obvious a choice but also very likely to be chosen by the Academy. I love The Godfather, but surely the Academy wasn’t going to choose Deliverance for Best Picture. Do you think they were going to give the award to a Kubrick film? Or a bloody thriller about sharks? My choices below reflect the times the Academy not only made good choices, but bold ones.
Lawrence of Arabia
David Lean’s breathtaking 1962 epic may seem like an obvious pick now because of its place cemented in the never ending wall of film history, but in hindsight it really was not such a clear winner. The film is a four hour talky movie about politics and the desert, with a very un-leading man like Peter O’Toole as its star. The competition that year was a feel good coming of age movie based on a much beloved book and some much more serious Academy friendly fare. A movie this ambitious and bold seemed too different for the Academy. It was an epic without the big battles. Ben-Hur minus Charlton Heston. And yet, it pulled through and for the better. Lawrence of Arabia holds up better now than any film that came out in 1962 and will continue to for years to come.
No Country for Old Men
Personally, I would have chosen Paul Thomas Anderson’s vastly superior There Will Be Blood over No Country for Old Men, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still love the film. And I certainly admire the choice on the behalf of the Academy. The talents of Joel and Ethan Coen had been widely ignored by the Academy for years. With some of their best films like The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing getting thrown in the metaphorical bottomless pit by the highway where all Oscar-less films are thrown. Why would an incredibly bloody Cormac McCarthy adaptation with a quiet and unconventional ending finally win? It is possible the members of the Academy woke up from their sleep, no doubt induced from watching Forrest Gump again, and realized that this was good cinema deserving their recognition. Films like No Country take real talent to make, and it was high time the Coens received some acknowledgment for their efforts, even if it was at the expense of There Will Be Blood. Some things can be forgiven.
In 1977, most people were expecting the crowd-pleasing Star Wars to take home the awards. Surely, Annie Hall had no chance. If the Academy was going to let a romantic comedy win, it would be the much more conventional Goodbye Girl, not something as profoundly offbeat and melancholy as Annie Hall. It was different, snarky, and a little profane. How could it win? On April 3rd, 1978, the dice fell just right, and Woody Allen’s magnum opus took home the award it deserved. While they do sometimes screw up and gloss over films like Goodfellas and Do The Right Thing, it’s wins like Annie Hall that give me hope for the Academy.
The Silence of the Lambs
Transvestite serial killers, lots of blood, and a strong female protagonist were what made up Jonathan Demme’s 1991 thriller. It seemed too peculiar and grotesque for the schmucks at the Academy to vote for. It was also released far earlier in the year. It would have been no surprise if the Academy had completely forgotten about it by the time voting came around. Bugsy or JFK seemed like more obvious choices. After all, Oliver Stone had won before, as had gangster films. Why not again? The lambs were not silent that year and justice was served. Crime procedurals are not popular at the Oscars, but something clicked with Demme’s masterpiece. While I would have chosen Barton Fink as the winner in 1992, The Silence of the Lambs is definitely the next best choice and certainly the boldest.
12 Years a Slave
It’s common knowledge that the Academy is mostly made up of old, white men who have the film tastes you would expect old, white men to have. They love sentimentality, white people overcoming odds, and Kevin Costner riding horses. Dallas Buyers Club or American Hustle certainly would have been predictable winners for the 2014 Oscars. Feel good movies that catered to things the Academy loves most. A long and brutal film about how god awful it was to be a slave and the white faces that were behind it, directed by a guy who was fresh off making a movie about a sex addict, was certainly not one I would immediately expect the Academy to jump at. Maybe the looming importance of 12 Years a Slave was too much for the Academy to ignore. Maybe the dart simply hit the right place on the board. Regardless of how it happened, we should all just be happy it did. There were better movies released in 2013 (Her and Inside Llewyn Davis to name a few), but 12 Years a Slave was the one that needed to win. It might just have been something in the air, but maybe, just maybe, the Academy is starting to get it.
Feature Image: No Country for Old Men, Miramax Films