2014 Academy Award Best Picture Nominees Cartoon

After all the handwringing and concern, this year’s Oscars were reasonably even-handed. After all, the directors for AdaptationShame and Children of Men all got to make acceptance speeches — and they got to give them while representing incredibly strong pieces of cinema, standing alongside some stridently beloved performers. The next morning, there was a general perception that the whole program had been “fair” after a few years where the politicking (and its results) were too overt, where decent had replaced outstanding, where ossification had set in. The Academy had finally gotten it right. Whatever that means.

The thing is, to think of any given stack of Oscar ballots as being wrong is both faulty and perfectly natural. We do it every year with gusto even knowing that — for all the pomp and ceremony — the Academy Awards aren’t a final or definitive word on quality. They’re one group’s opinions, but they feel like something more. Something that has the power to solidify cultural merit or spark an artistic legacy. It’s why the digital pitchforks come out for “snubs.”

With that in mind, Scott Beggs, Rob Hunter and Landon Palmer got together to argue what movies should have had their names etched in Oscar history, to do a calculation on Academy accuracy — admittedly with the benefit of clear-eyed hindsight and correct opinions. That didn’t make some years easier or anything. Some bad picks were obvious, but most years led to a lot of verbal fisticuffs.

Still, we managed to come out with one shining example of cinema for every year from 1983 through 2012.

1983: Terms of Endearment

Was it nominated? Yes

What won? Terms of Endearment

Emma (Debra Winger) and her mother Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) don’t exactly get along, but as the years pass and the two women grow older they discover their differences pale beside their love. If alien invaders ever worm their way into our society this film and its ability to identify those with or without human hearts might be our only line of defense.

It’s a beautifully acted and written adult drama that will wring every last ounce of fluid from your tear ducts, but the genius of it is that it never feels manipulative. Instead, writer/director James L. Brooks and his immensely talented cast deliver an authentic glimpse into the lives of people that we come to know and care about.  – Rob Hunter

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1984: This Is Spinal Tap

Was it nominated? No

What won? Amadeus

Not exactly a year bursting with prestige, it did far better on the populist front. Somewhere in the middle of that Venn diagram, lost backstage, is the mockumentary brilliance of Christopher Guest‘s career blueprint. On the surface, it’s hilarious and endlessly quotable, but beneath all that it’s a cringing exploration of fame and self-delusion. Mostly self-delusion. Not only is it a success at making us laugh, it uses three long-haired court jesters (in perfect, empty-brained performances) to seek out human traits that are rarely explored in film. Naturally, its profundity holds hands with songs like “Lick My Love Pump.” – Scott Beggs

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1985: Brazil

BrazilBabyMask

Was it nominated? No

What won? Out of Africa

Brazil’s troubled production history is proof enough of the importance of recognizing risk-taking filmmaking in the face of an increasingly risk-averse studio system, but in this case, the controversy ultimately mimicked the film itself. What begins as a manic, inventive depiction of bureaucratic chaos quickly morphs into a no-holds-barred portrayal of systems of dystopic control that implement the method behind the madness. “1984″ as imagined by Salvador Dali, Terry Gilliam’s film was never meant to be a cautionary tale, but a funhouse mirror that forces a consideration of the baby-masked forces that limit the possibilities for a better future. – Landon Palmer

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1986: Stand By Me

Was it nominated? No

What won? Platoon

Without a single insincere note, this story about a group of four friends, a dead body and a road trip without a car treats youth (and all of its complexity) with raw honesty. It also refuses to condescend to its pubescent heroes even as it reveals their flaws. Of course, they’re our flaws as well, or at least the flaws we owned before we tested for a driver’s license. And maybe a few we held onto.

Rob Reiner‘s film also combines all the best and most familiar elements of Stephen King’s writing — classic rock ‘n’ roll, friendship, morbid fascination, bullies, transformation and the power of a good story. Oddly enough, it’s also easy to forget that it’s a direct meditation on death and loss with the journey to see an ex-person bookended by an adult Gordie learning about Chris’ violent end. Devoid of white noise and urgency, it plays out exactly like a favorite memory should. – SB

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1987: Broadcast News

Was it nominated? Yes

What won? The Last Emperor

A network news producer (Holly Hunter) finds herself lost in a love triangle of sorts with an anchorman (William Hurt) and a field reporter (Albert Brooks), but her biggest challenge is her struggle to remain true to herself. James L. Brooks‘ greatest film is also my favorite movie of all time. Every frame, word, and performance is perfection with the lead actors in particular playing at the top of their game. The story remains a sharply insightful and sadly predictive look at the cheapening of our media and televised journalism, and its ability to balance that intelligence with incredible wit and an awkwardly realistic adult romance is a feat rarely matched in or out of Hollywood. It’s an honest film that finds value in every emotion, for better or worse, that combine to make us who we are. – RH

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1988: The Thin Blue Line

The Thin Blue Line Movie

Was it nominated? No (not even for Best Doc)

What won? Rain Man

Excluded from consideration for Best Documentary Feature because AMPAS members saw its reenactments, pointed advocacy, and deliberate reveal of information as unbefitting non-fiction filmmaking, The Thin Blue Line has probably influenced documentary filmmaking more than any single film of the past quarter century. Errol Morris not only makes an art of reality (complete with a hypnotizing score by Philip Glass), but in doing so inaugurated his career-long fascination with exploring the nature of how we come to know and understand what it is we think we know and understand. By exploring the ways that we make reality of fictions, The Thin Blue Line took non-fiction to a new level. – LP

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1989: Do The Right Thing

Was it nominated? No

What won? Driving Miss Daisy (Yup, seriously.)

Has there been another film about contemporary American race relations quite like this? Spike Lee’s magnum opus captured a moment somewhere between the Civil Rights era and a gentrified Brooklyn and, in the context of a 1980s NYPD culture that regularly brutalized black Americans, urged a conversation about what we talk about when we talk about difference. Its huge cast of characters, its regional specificity, its hip-hop soundtrack, and its pained search for justice make Do the Right Thing a quintessential American film. It serves as a necessary reminder of what sugar-coated films purportedly “about race” rarely dare to say about race. – LP

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1990: Goodfellas

Was it nominated? Yes

What won? Dances With Wolves

In an alternative universe, Martin Scorsese would have won his Best Director statue 26 years earlier than he did, and his angry film about organized crime would have scored Best Picture. (To be clear: I think Dances With Wolves is a great movie, and that backlash against it is mainly motivated by its undeserved win instead of genuine dislike.)

Goodfellas evoked the filmmaking of the 1970s — both as a concise resculpting of The Godfather and as an exhibition of Scorsese’s energy — while taking advantage of the technology and access at the director’s finger tips in the 90s. It’s one of the last times that Robert De Niro fully owned a role (Cape Fear 1992 is arguably on the list, too), but it was the freedom to improvise on set that led Joe Pesci to steal scenes like a hair gelled Jesse James and earn an Oscar of his own. It’s an epic tale of having a dream, pursuing it, achieving it, and then watching it eat away at your soul. – SB

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1991: The Silence of the Lambs

Silence of the Lambs

Was it nominated? Yes

What won? The Silence of the Lambs

Jonathan Demme‘s crime thriller is a dominating movie. It sticks to your ribs like curdled milk that you’re happy to drink a second glass of. No wonder it won all of the big five Oscars and continues to be studied and re-analyzed year in and year out. More than just fame, this is a movie that’s reached icon status.

Jodie Foster‘s Clarice Starling is a fantastic character constructed from familiar noir tropes without relying on them. Her performance anchors the insanity — truly, insanity — floating around her and the case. More than that, it’s rare for a film to feature two iconic villains, but Buffalo Bill with his kidnapping, skinning and front-tucking stands out even as Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) eclipses the sun. It’s as perfect a procedural as we’re likely ever to see. – SB

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1992: Glengarry Glen Ross

Was it nominated? No

What won? Unforgiven

James Foley is the reason that all other Mamet films feel…well, “less than.” Foley meets Mamet’s precise sense for rhythmic dialogue with impeccable staging and perfect camerawork, a stunning realization of stage material for the medium of film. Mamet’s expressive portrayal of winner-take-all economics already speaks well beyond the era of Reagan and Friedman, but the real gift of Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross is in watching great actors deliver the meatiest of material. A gold standard for screen performance as well as adaptation, it is an eternal reminder that a few people and some words don’t only make for great theater. – LP


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