Friday, February 16, 2024

Top Ten Things: Oscar Snubs, Best Picture Edition

Welcome to another Oscar-themed edition of Top Ten Things, here at!  The big Academy shindig is just days away, so why not take this opportunity to do more complaining about stuff they ignored over the years?

You may have seen my previous Oscar Snubs list, which centered on individual performances Oscar failed to recognize, but this time I'm talking about entire films that flew under the radar in the all-important Best Picture category.  So many great films both mainstream and otherwise have come and gone with little or no attention paid by the Academy, and some of them seemed tailor-made to garner award nominations.  But for whatever reason (in some cases political) they garnered large quantities of the shaft instead.  Here are twelve such examples, in chronological order...

1. City Lights (1931)

Only one of Charlie Chaplin's classic films, The Great Dictator, was ever nominated for Best Picture (partly because much of his work predated the Oscars), but here's a second film that should've been included.  City Lights is the delightfully touching story of Chaplin's Little Tramp, who falls in love with a blind flower girl, happens upon some money, and gives it all to her so she can get her eyes fixed.  Such a simple plot, but executed in the signature Chaplin style that earns both laughs and tears throughout.  The Academy was still finding its legs in 1931 (the release window was split over calendar years at this point), but surely there must've been a slot for what is widely considered one of Chaplin's greatest films.

Key Scene: The finale in which the now-seeing flower girl hands the Tramp a flower, touches his hands, and realizes he's the one who helped her see, remains one of the most genuinely touching in cinema history.  If this doesn't choke you up, you're a monster.

2. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Walt Disney's first full-length animated film broke box office records and blew everyone's mind-holes upon its release.  Disney had gambled basically his entire career and studio on this ambitious, expensive project, hoping to revolutionize animation, and it paid off in truckloads of cash and a cartoon feature dynasty.  An art form that had previously been aimed at entertaining children for 5-10 minutes in front of "real" movies was now looked upon as a true artistic achievement, and just about every animated feature since owes something to the success of Disney's first homerun.  But the Academy more or less viewed the animated film as something of a cheat, not to be judged alongside live-action movies.  Thus when it came time for awards season Walt Disney was given a somewhat begrudging Honorary Oscar instead of a bona fide Best Picture nod.  It wasn't until 1991 that an animated feature was given the big nomination (Beauty and the Beast), and not until 2001 did the Academy create a separate category for animated features.

Key Scene: Hard to pick just one, but I always loved the Queen's transformation into the old hag, reminiscent of Jekyll & Hyde.  Kids back then must've freaked the fuck out.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

This one boggles my mind; until a few days ago I'd mistakenly remembered 2001 as a Best Picture nominee.  Stanley Kubrick's ground-pulverizing sci-fi/art film was so highly influential and convention-defying it's easy to forget its initial release was met with a deeply polarized reception.  After all, how do you review a film that's unlike anything ever made up to that point?  Viewers either loved its audaciousness and lofty, existential concepts or found it ponderous and boring.  2001 did receive four Oscar noms, but not for Best Picture (It won best Visual Effects, providing Kubrick with his lone Oscar).  Considering how lasting a couple of the 1968 nominees were not (Rachel, Rachel??), I'd say there was room in this category for Kubrick's masterwork.

Key Scene: Gotta be the Star Gate sequence, where effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull came up with the idea of using the slit-scan technique over various pieces of artwork to get the bizarre color streaking effect.  That sequence, and all the effects in this film, hold up completely 50+ years later.  Stoners back then must've freaked the fuck out.

4. Do the Right Thing (1989)

Considering the mediocrity of a film that won Best Picture for 1989 and what a soft take on American race relations it was, it's unfathomable to me that Spike Lee's breakout tour de force Do the Right Thing was passed over.  A brutally honest take on the fragility of race relations, DTRT takes place mostly during a single sweltering summer day in Brooklyn, the center of its small-scope universe an Italian-owned neighborhood pizzeria with primarily African-American clientele.  Tensions begin to boil over when Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) demands the shop's owner Sal (Danny Aiello in a career performance) change his "Wall of Fame" which features photos of famous Italian-Americans, to include black celebrities as well, citing the fact that it's black customers who have frequented his business over the years.  The animosity between the two sides ratchets up throughout the film, and caught in the middle is the pizzeria's delivery man Mookie (Spike Lee), torn between his loyalty to the neighborhood and his place of work.  Lee's first masterwork made him a white-hot director at the time, and it seems to me the Academy hasn't known what to do with his no-punches-pulled filmmaking style or his outspokenness ever since.  Driving Miss Daisy getting a nomination (and Best Pic win) over Do the Right Thing is one of the great Academy injustices from where I sit, and they'd all but repeat it three decades later when Green Book won Best Picture over BlacKKKlansman (though at least the latter earned a nomination and nabbed Best Adapted Screenplay - baby-steps progress).

Key Scene: The riot that ensues in and around the pizza shop is horrifying and tragic, and encapsulates issues of race, violence vs. nonviolence, and police brutality, particularly in the moment when Mookie throws a garbage can through the pizzeria's front window.  It calls out the hypocritical outrage from people more appalled at the property destruction than at the wrongful loss of life that provoked it.  The best cinema sparks complex discussion, and Do the Right Thing is a prime example of this.

5. Boogie Nights (1997)

By far the best movie of 1997 in my opinion was Paul Thomas Anderson's darkly funny look at the 70s adult film industry.  Starring Mark Wahlberg (in really the first role that proved he could be a serious actor), John C. Reilly, Burt Reynolds, and the show stealing Julianne Moore, Boogie Nights chronicles the rise and fall of fictional adult movie prodigy Dirk Diggler, plunging us into a world of disco, pool parties, sex and drugs.  It's hilarious, harrowing and above all, immersive.  Boogie Nights is one of those films that makes you want to time travel to the late 70s and walk around.  Reynolds, Moore and the script were all nominated that year, but not the movie itself.  I'd have nominated this film for Best Picture in place of The Full Monty.

Key Scene: The Burt Reynolds character throws a big party at his house to introduce everyone to his latest find, Eddie Adams (soon to be Dirk), and during this extended sequence we're introduced to most of the supporting characters as Eddie meets them for the first time.  It's handled so expertly we feel like party guests ourselves.

6. Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Daron Aronofsky's traumatic cautionary drug tale should be required viewing in high school.  Four characters become hopelessly addicted to various substances and their lives spiral out of control with catastrophic results.  Aronofsky's jarring visual/editing style is front-and-center as the film puts us inside the chemically-altered minds of each of the characters.  Ellen Burstyn was robbed of a Best Actress award, but at least she was nominated.  Requiem was ignored in the Best Pic category, in a year that was pretty thin on great movies (Fucking Gladiator?  Really??).  It's tragic, it's disturbing, it's horribly upsetting, but Requiem for a Dream is a tour de force.

Key Scene: The final intercut sequence where we see the dreadful fates of each of the characters is masterful in its rapid-fire edits and visual parallels.  If watching this film doesn't dissuade you from taking up drugs I dunno what would.

7. 25th Hour (2002)

Spike Lee has numerous masterpieces on his resume, but my favorite might be this Edward Norton crime drama about a convicted drug dealer on the last day before his prison sentence begins.  One of the first films to address the 9/11 attacks, 25th Hour casts New York City as a character unto itself, capturing its grittiness, its austerity, and in the famous "mirror rant" scene, its cultural tensions.  A shroud of doom envelops the entire movie, as Norton's Monty Brogan must tie up his life's loose ends before saying goodbye to his friends, family and his girlfriend (who may or may not have been the one to rat him out to the police).  The entire cast is stellar, as are the writing and direction, but the Academy ignored this film altogether.  Just one of many times Spike Lee's work has been given the shaft.

Key Scene: It's between the mirror rant and the hypothetical ending sequence, where Monty's father offers to drive him far away so he can hide from the authorities and live out the rest of his life quietly.  Both extremely poignant scenes.

8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

This superbly surrealistic sci-fi/romantic comedy (is that a whole new genre?) snagged two nominations, for Best Original Screenplay (which it won) and Best Actress (which Kate Winslet didn't), but it really should've been in the Best Picture hunt as well.  Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michael Gondry helmed a wonderfully stirring exploration of love, memory, fate and the subconscious, with modest science fiction trappings and strong performances all around.  Of the two Oscar-nominated Kate Winslet films that year, Eternal Sunshine deserved way more accolades than Finding Neverland.

Key Scene: This movie is so "train of thought" it's hard to select one piece of it, but a favorite is Jim Carrey's memory of the day he met Kate Winslet as it's being erased, thus their surroundings are disintegrating before our eyes.  It's both visually stunning and heartbreaking.

9. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Guillermo del Toro won big at the 90th Oscars for The Shape of Water, but for me the film he should've won it all for is its spiritual cousin, Pan's Labyrinth.  A grown-up fairy tale played against the backdrop of 1940s Francoist Spain, the film centers on a young girl who discovers a fantastical underworld inhabited by an anthropomorphic faun, who believes she is the reincarnation of an ancient princess.  The girl must complete various tasks to earn her rightful place back on her throne, while evading her suspicious, abusive stepfather.  Pan's Labyrinth is a magnificent blend of fantasy elements and brutal real-world austerity that features incredible practical effects and stunning imagery.  Not only was it passed over for the Best Picture category, but it didn't even win Best Foreign Language Film!  It did however snag Best Cinematography, Art Direction and Makeup.  Still, this opus deserved more.

Key Scene: The Pale Man sequence is fucking terrifying.

10. Rescue Dawn (2007)

Werner Herzog's amazing, grueling Vietnam film chronicling the true story of American fighter pilot Dieter Dengler's capture and eventual escape might just be his best film.  Starring Christian Bale in the year's first great performance, Rescue Dawn makes oppressive use of what Herzog calls "The voodoo of location," shot in the vibrant green of the Thai jungle.  Bale and costars Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies shed significant weight to play starving American POWs, and all three turned in extraordinary performances.  That Rescue Dawn was ignored by the Academy across the board is simply absurd, as its one of the finest of all Vietnam War films and certainly one of the best movies of 2007.  Bale and Davies also deserved acting nods (though they'd have rightly lost to Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem, respectively).

Key Scene: The POWs' prison break is a taut, nerve-wracking sequence.

11. The Dark Knight (2008)

And now for what arguably proved the most inadvertently influential Best Picture omission, Christopher Nolan's superhero crime drama benchmark, The Dark Knight.  The crossover mega-hit picked up eight nominations, a record for a superhero film, but the Academy played it safe with the Best Picture category, including Miramax's Holocaust film The Reader instead (Thanks a lot Weinstein, ya scumbag!).  Thanks in part to the backlash over this decision, the Best Pic category was expanded the following year to include ten films instead of five (it was later adjusted again to be a flexible number between 5 and 10) and to open the door to more critically acclaimed commercial films (Avatar, Inglourious Basterds and Up would be the first major beneficiaries of the new policy).  A decade later Black Panther became the first superhero movie to receive this honor, but it's safe to say that Christopher Nolan's Faustian Batman epic indirectly paved the way.  I'm still pissed the Academy didn't give The Dark Knight the nod it so truly deserved.  But what're you gonna do?

Key Scene: The Batman-Joker interrogation scene is still goddamn chill-inducing.

12. The Batman (2022)

Alright not everyone will agree with me on this one but let's be frank, if the recycled drivel that was Top Gun: Maverick is worthy of a Best Picture (and for the love of all things holy, a Best Adapted Screenplay???) nomination, then Matt Reeves' visually stunning, 1970s-esque crime epic The Batman absolutely should've been nominated too.  I suspect if the two films' box office receipts were swapped, we wouldn't be having this conversation.  Hell, even Joker from 2019 was acknowledged in this category, not that it wasn't worthy, but how has the Clown Prince of Crime's story been nominated for this award but never Batman's?  Anyway Reeves took the stark realism of the Christopher Nolan Bat-films even further, setting his film in an austere, hopeless hellscape where a terrifyingly unhinged serial killer known as The Riddler is on the loose and Batman must make use of all his detection skills to stop him.  Robert Pattinson brought this character to life as a disillusioned young loner consumed by his alter-ego and lust for vengeance, who learns that justice is about more, that people need a symbol of hope.  Making use of an astounding who's who of accomplished actors (Paul Dano, Zoe Kravitz and Colin Farrell are the standouts), Matt Reeves turned the Batman mythos into a gritty, fully grounded film-noir, and for my money this film, like The Dark Knight, should've been nominated for the big award.

Key Scene: So many great sequences in this film but maybe the most intense is where DA Gil Colson has a bomb strapped to his neck and Batman must help him answer The Riddler's questions before it goes off.  It's superhero film meets Saw. 

That's enough bitching and moaning outta me for now.  Thanks for reading!  Enjoy the Oscars, and join us on Facebook, Twitter, MeWe and YouTube

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