FilmNerds Recommends: Oscar Edition
The FilmNerds crew is back once again with FilmNerds Recommends, our monthly feature where we do our sacred duty as film geeks by telling you which movies we think are worthy of your valuable home entertainment time. February is typically all about the Oscars for movie fans and while we at FilmNerds recommend you go see as many of the 2010 nominees as possible, we’d also like to offer you some recommendations that have either been honored by the Academy in the past or should have been honored and weren’t. Every FilmNerds recommendation is currently available on Netflix so if you see a pick you like, simply click on the DVD cover art to link straight to the movie’s page on Netflix.
Best Oscar-Winning Performance
This one I feel like I can have a proud opinion on. Without a doubt, Alec Guinness’ performance in The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the great cinematic performances. His interpretation of the evolution of resolve into obsession, and further into madness, is completely involving, and is only bolstered by the loose, cowardly William Holden performance it contrasts.
After looking at the entire list of winners in all four acting categories, I have to give it to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Sports fans might refer to his turn as the ruthless oil baron Daniel Plainview as an “Instant Classic.” After putting on the same list as such legendary Oscar-winning performances as DeNiro in Raging Bull, Kathy Bates in Misery and Beatrice Straight in Network, Daniel Day Lewis’ masterful work here deserves to be placed in a class all its own.
When I saw Fargo in New Orleans while in the sixth grade, I immediately found myself in it and Frances McDormand’s corner, and somehow (given the Academy’s knack for forgetfulness), she carried her momentum all the way to the Oscar stage (after a Golden Globe upset from Madonna for Evita). I wanted so much more for this movie, including a best picture and supporting actor win (and score nomination, dammit!), but if the screenplay and McDormand’s brilliant performance as Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson would have to serve as its representation on Oscar night, that was fine.
Though I haven’t seen it recently, I thought it was almost a cliche that Marlon Brando’s performance in On the Waterfront was pretty much the apex of Academy Award winners by this point. It’s really wonderful, but then, that entire movie is terrific, and when you pack your film with ringers like Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malone, Rod Steiger and Eva Marie Saint, it’d be hard not to be kind of excellent. Brando rises above them all here, even though he might be better in A Streetcar Named Desire.
I decided to mine the supporting actor/actress categories for this pick and could have picked a dozen off either of those lists. I decided to go with a performance I highlighted in a recent Great Scenes post here on FilmNerds, the incredible Oscar-winning performance by Joe Pesci who absolutely owns every frame he’s in during Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. It’s an entertaining and well-written film but without Pesci, there’s no authenticity, no real threat of violence, no sense of chaos that makes Goodfellas the greatest depiction of mob life ever filmed. Pesci’s performance does more than just support this film, it’s the very foundation of the film’s greatness.
Snubs (Best Picture Nominee That Didn’t Win)
I know this is a popular Oscar year to beat up on, but the last time I had a horse in the Oscar race that didn’t win was in 2005, when Crash beat out Munich. Brokeback Mountain was the expected winner, and while it is a better movie than Crash, I’m still partial to the complex spy movie from The Beard.
While the VERY obvious choice occurred in 1998 and will no doubt be listed by one of the other nerds, I’m going to go back a few generations and pick Citizen Kane from 1941. It lost to John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley; however, Academy gave it the now-traditional consolation of the Best Screenplay Oscar. Perhaps the Academy thought they should let the first-time director Orson Welles put a few notches on his belt before honoring him with the highest filmmaking award in the industry. Sadly, he never matched Kane, but it lives on and continues to astonish on myriad levels.
Tempted to go the Fargo route again, but I’ll play the Woody Allen card instead. Even though his work was recognized with the highest honor for what’s widely considered his greatest achievement Annie Hall, Allen deserved it again in 1986 for Hannah and Her Sisters, which might be the previous winner’s equal on several counts. Maybe not as much in originality or innovation, but it’s hard to argue it isn’t the prolific filmmaker’s best work. With all due respect to Oliver Stone and Platoon, I just think Hannah is the better film in retrospect, as is the case with most Oscar results down the road.
Network should have beaten Rocky. I love Rocky, but Network is an all-timer, one of the most prescient and cutting satires ever made. And okay, I’ll grant that was a tough year, but Network towers above them all with one of the best screenplays ever made, some tremendous performances (the film won three acting Oscars that year, after all!) and some iconic scenes. And I’ll go ahead and submit for consideration The Social Network for this list. Sigh.
The 75th Academy Awards were a travesty in so many ways (Catherine Zeta-Jones beating Meryl effing Streep for example) but none more so than the Best Picture category which saw glitzy, glamorous Chicago beating Roman Polanski’s brilliant and beautiful masterpiece The Pianist. Thankfully, Polanski and Adrien Brody were both honored for their work at the Oscars but the film itself deserves recognition as the greatest artistic achievement of 2002. It’s a sad case of trendiness and clever campaigning winning out over timeless artistic brilliance but in the long run, I believe The Pianist will leave the more lasting impression.
Most Underrated Best Picture Winner
I’ll pick Gladiator. Mmm, those tomatoes sting. This is a fantastic movie from visual maestro Ridley Scott, a kind of Roman spaghetti western, featuring a tough-as-nails performance from Russell Crowe.
When it comes to the history of Best Picture winners, one of the biggest head-scratchers for me was always The French Connection. As a kid, my general perception of a Best Picture winner was that it had to be an “important” movie that sort of taught us all something about humanity or something along those lines. The French Connection always stuck out to me as a sort of anomaly, since it really is – by definition – a gritty police procedural that doesn’t really try to say anything about humanity at all. It simply tells its story and tells it well. While I probably would have voted for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange that year, I still think that The French Connection is one of the sexiest Best Picture winners ever. It laid the foundation for other procedurals and genre pictures to get a chance to enter cinematic Valhalla: movies like Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven and – to some extent – The Hurt Locker.
I’m as big on Apocalypse Now as anybody, but the Academy got it right with Kramer vs. Kramer in 1979. Part of an all-time great run of best picture winners focusing on character studies and human drama, Kramer might personify the most basic formula to make a great film. It never attempts to elude its audience, telling its simple story as straightforward as possible. Where it gets complex are the emotions it stirs up in us. Either we’ve been directly affected by divorce or someone close to us has. You can’t walk away from Robert Benton’s movie without feeling something tangible. When I watch a great film like The Pursuit of Happyness, I’m reminded films like Kramer are still being made and recognized. It’s not the monumental technical achievement Francis Coppola’s film is, but it got what it deserved.
Look, I love Fargo. I know you all love Fargo. It would have made a ridiculously deserving Best Picture winner, no question. But I think The English Patient is a wonderful little movie in its own right that had the misfortune of beating out a movie that’s just better-regarded among critics and so forth. It’s a great, sweeping adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s previously-thought-to-be-unfilmable novel, and while it does strip away a lot of the little moments and subplots that make the novel great, it captures more than you’d expect. It introduced Anthony Minghella as the heir to David Lean; tragically, he didn’t fulfill that promise, making one more great film (The Talented Mr. Ripley), a muddled but ambitious one (Cold Mountain) and a tiny melodrama that didn’t get much of a release (Breaking and Entering) before his untimely death.
So many of the Best Picture winners from the ’80s have fallen into obscurity but when I finally got around to seeing Amadeus a few years ago, I couldn’t believe I had gone so long without hearing much discussion about a film that good and that original. Amadeus gets easily pigeonholed as a biopic but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only is the main character someone other than Mozart, it’s actually Mozart’s arch enemy, the wonderfully devious Salieri played by F. Murray Abraham in an Oscar-winning performance.
Best Oscar-Winning Screenplay
Ben Stark’s Pick – Butch Cassidy& The Sundance Kid (1969)
William Goldman’s screenplay for Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid is only one of the many dynamite ingredients in this undisputed classic. The combination of modern, dry dialogue with period narrative tropes holds this post-modern Western above all its contemporaries. (Runners-Up: The Great McGinty, Citizen Kane, The Departed)
Is there any question? Casablanca. Each action, each character and (ESPECIALLY) each line of dialogue all combine to create one thing: PERFECTION.
Incredibly torn between All About Eve, Good Will Hunting, Pulp Fiction and Fargo, so I’ll go with William Goldman’s All the President’s Men, an adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book chronicling their coverage of the Watergate scandal. So fast, so fresh and so relevant, this essentially laid the groundwork for what we might consider for this category later this month, Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. To take a story as huge as what brought down a U.S. president, still fresh in American minds, and translate it into a gripping political thriller is quite and achievement. It’s still the best movie about journalism, and it never ever gets old.
Graham’s right. Casablanca is the only choice here, and there’s no reason to say anything else, because if you’ve seen it you know why. Runner-up: All About Eve.
This is one of those films that I watch almost in the same way that I read a book. Every line seems to be carefully crafted, loaded with such wit and insight and humor. Allen’s trademark combination of sarcasm, absurdism, nostalgia, melancholy, pessimism and light-heartedness all come together into an absolutely perfect cocktail of a screenplay here and while the debate can rage on about which Woody Allen film is truly the greatest, there’s a reason Annie Hall will always be the film Allen is most remembered for. It’s a perfect summation of his unique outlook on life and love.