Be Better than Best
After months of speculation or, more realistically, some frantic research into the nominees this week as ballots were due for both Academy members and Oscar pool participants, the Best Picture of the year will be announced this Sunday. The Oscars’ existential crisis towards mass entertainment has been written about ad nauseam as the number of big budget films that overlap with Oscar-friendly stories has diminished to almost zero per year; indeed, last year’s awarding of a sci-fi monster movie dressed up like an art film romance over a more traditional historical epic like Dunkirk (which grossed half a billion dollars worldwide) may have fundamentally shifted the balance of what we expect from the Best Picture of the year. Whether it's due to the uncertainty of recent upheaval, the diminishing importance of film to prestige TV -- then again, the Emmys haven't exactly stepped up their game -- or the host-pocalypse, interest in this year's ceremony feels particularly low. Some observers have blamed a weak crop of movies, despite the presence of a legitimate franchise favorite, two highly acclaimed films from foreign directors and Green Book. More likely, as with politics, the confusing nature of the competition and lack of a compelling horse race narrative may also be to blame.
Then again, there's a counter-argument that could factor in here. How difficult is it to choose the best movie of the year? Taste is subjective, but reasonably well-informed voters should be able to discern which film has the most artistic and narrative merit. The rise of the internet and widely available streaming options should have only made this easier, right?!?! Of course, there are years of evidence to the contrary, numerous cases in which a completely underserving movie won while groundbreaking classics were shunned. Citizen Kane is the most famous case, losing to a John Ford movie that doesn't even make it into Ford's top ten list (or his next top ten after the first). There are the Kubrick chronicles: Dr. Strangelove lost to My Fair Lady; 2001: A Space Odyssey lost to singing Dickensian orphans. More recently, no one needs to relive the travesties of Brokeback Mountain and The Social Network at the Oscars because no one remembers the movies that actually won. Clearly, the word "best' in these years did not mean what voters thought it meant. This may be the Oscars bigger existential problem in the long run. With surprising frequency, the Academy seems to blow it when it comes to the big prize. Sometimes there are understandable reasons. For instance, choosing No Country for Old Men over There Will Be Blood feels like a toss-up between two dark neo-westerns from great directors. More often than not though, the best film of the year, or the movie with the most lasting legacy and influence, isn't even in the conversation. For anyone looking for an Oscar contrarian weekend, here is a list of movies that are much better than the Best Picture from the release year available to stream right now.
Brazil (1985) - Who doesn't remember Out of Africa starring notable actors of color Robert Redford and Meryl Streep? Clearly, 1985 Academy members were more inclined towards a forgettable colonialist romance than an Orwellian sci-fi satire from a member of Monty Python. Terry Gilliam's movie set the standard for dystopian movies and darkly ironic twist endings. Though to be fair, a lot of people might opt for a different sci-fi film from this year as the most deserving of top honors.
Do the Right Thing (1989) - Actual winner Driving Miss Daisy has come to symbolize Oscar-baiting treacle. Spike Lee, finally receiving his first nomination this year, offered a slightly contrasting view of race relations in his masterpiece of racial disharmony that rings truer than ever 30 years later.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) - At the time, everyone understood the novelty act of The Artist would wear thin. This portrait of a school killer from Lynne Ramsey, who was again snubbed this year, has only grown more disturbing and fascinating with time. It's become a cultural shorthand for f***ed up things that no one ever wants to discuss (apologies to Gus van Sant's similar attempt to coin this with Elephant).
Clueless (1995) - Even before Mel Gibson's endless cycle of rising and falling from grace, Braveheart felt like bombastic, ahistorical imitation of epic filmmaking in blue face. There's a strong, if sadistic case, to be made for Seven this year, but Amy Heckerling's wry send-up of affluent teenagers is still so much smarter and acerbic than it needs to be. Gus van Sant (a name that keeps popping up here!) may have created the contemporary teen adaptation of great literature sub-genre in My Own Private Idaho, but this reworking of Jane Austen's Emma defined it for future generations.
Tangerine (2015) - To be fair, Spotlight is a perfectly well made docudrama about an important issue, though it's much less interesting than Tom McCarthy's earlier work. Sean Baker's iPhone shot movie not only revolutionized how films are made, but trailblazed his now signature style of making hilariously funny movies about incredibly depressing social issues. This Cinderella story was not for the Oscars, but it's the best portrait of raw humanity we've seen from a filmmaker in a long time. Fun fact: the donut shop featured is now a Trejo's Coffee and Donuts!