Everyone who watches the Academy Awards has their disagreements with the Academy. Not one living person would look at the complete list of Best Picture nominees and argue that the right movie has won every single year since Wings. We all have our own ideas about what makes one movie better than other movies. The idea of separate, distinct works of art being forced to compete against each other in an expensive dog-and-pony show may seem crass, especially considering the plethora of talents, genres, budgets, studio systems, sweetheart agent deals, and marketing departments that are fundamentally incomparable in any reasonable aesthetic discussion. Big-budget award-grubbing machines and high-minded shoestring-budget indie flicks shouldn’t be fighting each other; they should be working side-by-side, providing viewers with a vast assortment of reasons for film lovers to remain invested in the medium, and maybe even teaming up for the occasional crossover.
Just the same, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences insists on the annual flickfights. Sometimes Academy voters pick the right winner. Sometimes they struggle with hard choices. Sometimes they get it wrong. Sometimes they do it on purpose to upset the rest of the world, or at least me specifically.
The following Best Picture nominees from decades past represent a few differences of opinion between my biases and the questionable preferences of the Hollywood voting majority. While I have the advantage of limited, selfish hindsight peering back from outside their contemporary context, they have the advantage of being famous artists and filmmakers whose personal valets make more in a month than I do in a year. Thus do they have the privilege of deciding whose names are engraved on the statues and which ones have to settle for “I coulda been a contendah” jokes.
Some of those nominees are:
* The Thin Man (1934). Not that I have anything against the fun romance of It Happened One Night, but Nick and Nora Charles are five times the fun, not to mention one of the most solid husband/wife couples in anything ever, fellow detectives or otherwise. Living in a bygone era where “politically incorrect” wasn’t a thing yet, their methodology was questionable (gather all the suspects and hope someone tips their hand? Foolish but genius); Nick’s alcohol dependence was played for a few laughs but not taken entirely for granted (he grudgingly quit drinking in later films); and their relationship was 100% unflappably rock-solid (in one hectic scene, Nick saves Nora from a bullet by punching her in the face, somehow without destroying their marriage — good luck pulling off that trick outside a tasteless R-rated comedy today). “They don’t make ’em like they used to” doesn’t begin to describe the series’ legacy. The happy couple regrettably didn’t stand a chance against a shirtless Clark Gable.
* Citizen Kane (1941). It’s my understanding that if this isn’t on your list, they take away your Internet card. All things considered, I shouldn’t be surprised that Orson Welles lost, but when was the last time anyone you know gushed about How Green Was My Valley? It’s my least favorite of all the John Ford films I’ve seen so far, and that’s including the one where John Wayne attempted a laughable Swedish accent.
* High Noon (1952). After The Searchers (as previously lamented), this would be my second-favorite Western to date. Alas, though Gary Cooper got to ride off into the sunset with Grace Kelly after the tense countdown to that final showdown, he fell against the onslaught that was The Greatest Show on Earth, 2½ hours of a grumpy Charlton Heston punctuating what was by all appearances an extended circus advertisement that doesn’t pick up steam until the grand finale, in which a trainwreck awakens the audience and Jimmy Stewart’s clown finally reveals his deep, dark, lovable secret. The marshal was robbed.
* Broadcast News (1987). The grandeur of The Last Emperor notwithstanding (what little I can recall without Google Images), James L. Brooks’ perspicacious skewering of corporate news production may not be the only work in that particular dramatic subgenre, or even the best (remind me to get around to seeing Network someday so I can compare), but it seems a shame to see exotic costuming win out over the quest for truth in both reporting and living.
* Dead Poets Society (1989). Once upon a time as an English major struggling to justify his college enrollment, a partly serious Robin Williams and a strong trio of famous-actors-to-be (Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles) provided me with more insight into the magic of the written word than some of my real-life English seminars ever managed, even though I was never a Walt Whitman fan. Rather than allow themselves to be stirred by Mister “O Captain, My Captain”, the voters flocked instead to Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy as the world’s oldest will-they-or-won’t-they wacky couple.
* Good Will Hunting (1997). In debates over whether or not Titanic deserved its landslide victory, detractors usually point to the killer noir of L.A. Confidential as that ceremony’s biggest loser. While Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe were a team to reckon with, I was always partial to…well, yes, another Robin Williams film, but I promise I’m not addicted to him. When I saw Good Will Hunting in theaters, I saw a lot of myself in young Will Hunting — not the part where young Matt Damon would grow up to become rich and famous, but in the dichotomy of a character gifted with enormous talents who makes the conscious decision to let them go to waste. In the long run, that’s given me much more food for thought than the three-hour teen romance with giant boat crash.
* The Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers (2002). My least favorite of the trilogy was still a monumental achievement, though every wide-scale army battle I’ve seen since then has bored me stiff. I never thought of it as Best Picture material, but I vastly preferred it to the inmates of Chicago who mistake murder for victory and serve it up as ostensible satire of us evil, evil males. I also thought The Pianist was riveting, but it was a Roman Polanski film, which means I’m supposed to withhold compliments and heap shame upon it. Movies would be much easier to see and discuss with a clear conscience if it weren’t for all the unrepentant sinners. (Much like large portions of Earth itself in that respect, really.)
Honorable mentions: When compiling historically based lists such as this one, I prefer to avoid examples from recent years as much as possible, because narrow hindsight irritates me when I see it in other writers. That being said, I’m curious to know if in years ahead I’ll still have fond memories of The Descendants, The Social Network, and the crowd of high-caliber entrants that lost against The Hurt Locker.