They Should Been (more than) Contenders!

In honor of Oscar Night, which has just passed, and for all the newcomers, I reprint this, my first ever

Live from The Chicago Municipal Opera House, bequeathed to the city by Charles Foster (Citizen) Kane, it’s Oscar Night! Tonight is a special ceremony, wherein we honor the Best Pictures to NOT win Best Picture. At what other venue could we possibly hold this auspicious event? Citizen Kane is more than just a great film that got snubbed by the Academy. It is widely regarded as one of, if not THE, greatest motion pictures ever made. In fact, so laden with accolades is Orson Welles’ groundbreaking triumph, it seems unnecessary to award it with something as trivial as an Oscar at this point. Better perhaps to allow the film that bested it, How Green Was My Valley, that one link to immortality. Leaving “Kane” aside, let us now focus our attention on some of the other masterpieces of film that were robbed of their Art Deco paperweights.

Goodfellas (1990); When The Departed won Best Picture in 2007 (it was released in 2006), most movie fans considered it to be little more than a face saving way to present a Lifetime Achievement Award to its director, Martin Scorsese. It may have been his goriest crime drama, but it was hardly his greatest picture. This is the man who gave us Taxi Driver andRaging Bull, after all. Both of those films merited an Oscar, but it isGoodfellas that must be looked upon as the master director’s greatest epic. The best gangster movie ever made? With its release in 1990, it certainly muscled its way into that conversation alongside Oscar winners The Godfather Parts I and II. Goodfellas is a cinematic tour-de-force, dazzling us with one unforgettable scene, camera angle, and performance after another. Surely every movie fan has riffed on Tommy’s (played by Joe Pesci) “Funny How?” monologue at least once. So, what movie did the Academy decide to laud as the year’s best in its place? Kevin Costner’sDances With Wolves. While not a bad movie, Costner’s politically correct Western amply demonstrates that the freshman director knew less about making grandiose, sweeping epics than Scorsese had forgotten (which would be confirmed by later Costner “epics” The Postman andWaterworld). Early in Goodfellas, when the narrator, mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), introduces us to his mentor Jimmy Conway (Robert Deniro), one of the first things he tells us is that “Jimmy loved to steal!” One cannot but wonder how Jimmy feels when the shoe is on the other foot, because he, along with his wiseguy cohorts, wuz robbed!

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Here we have a movie so unusual, so utterly unique, so creative, so visionary, so unlike any other movie ever made that it basically changed our perception of the medium. To be sure, there were “art films” before (and no doubt inspiring) 2001. But it was 2001 that first dazzled us with the technology of filmmaking, the “special effects” that opened up doors undreamed of to directors and studios. If Jaws (1975) was the movie that ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster, it was2001 which revealed the potential of what such films could look like, and the impact that makes on an audience. You don’t watch 2001, youexperience it, which was exactly what director Stanley Kubrick was intending. Plot? Secondary. Performances? Who needs ‘em? The best lines, every single one of them, went to the disembodied, hollow voice of a malfunctioning supercomputer. What supplanted all of that was a VISION; Kubrick was out to entertain our subconscious minds, not the part of us that decides to get up and buy some popcorn. So, what beat out this cinematic work of the finest art? Well, it wasn’t even nominated (though Kubrick was nominated for, and lost, Best Director), so you could say that all the nominees did. The award went to Oliver!, but Funny Girl and The Lion in Winter were also picked as better films. HAL 9000 wasn’t the only thing malfunctioning in movie-land that year, it seems.

May I have the envelope, please? We now come to my personal pick for Best Picture Not to Win Best Picture, Sunset Boulevard (1950): Director Billy Wilder was firing off on all cylinders with this masterpiece, directed from the height of his powers. Combining black comedy and noir mystery with a subject he knew all too well about (Hollywood, with its egos and fantasy worlds), this, among all his works, seems his most personal statement. Did Wilder see himself as the writer played by William Holden, losing his soul to the gaudy seductress Norma Desmond (played to perfection by Gloria Swanson) who represented, better than any other role in history, Tinseltown itself? When Norma haughtily proclaims, “I’m still big! It’s the pictures that got smaller!”, is it her ego Wilder is poking fun at, or his own? Perhaps he himself didn’t know for sure, but with this claustrophobic, surreal tragi-comic nightmare, he gave Hollywood its most searing and unflinching look at itself. Nevertheless, it’s hard to fault the Academy this time. “Sunset” was bested by another great movie, featuring another stellar performance by the female lead. All About Eve is perhaps Bette Davis’ finest film (and performance), and unquestionably deserved its Oscar. The only problem is that Sunset Boulevard deserved it too, even more.

Clearly, the Academy has made some dumb, historically indefensible decisions. Worst Picture to Win Best Picture? Hard to be objective in such matters. Some people see art where others are left shaking their heads. DidTitanic deserve its Oscar? This movie, perhaps seen by more people in the world than any other motion picture ever made, certainly delivered the goods in terms of spectacle and scale. But with its two dimensional lovers, and one dimensional villain, it is doubtful that it will be talked about in years to come as a masterpiece. Preachy Crash is a movie whose Oscar provokes many a temper tantrum by serious movie lovers. But for me personally, the “honor” can only go to Chicago!, which won in 2003 (released in 2002). Chicago! is a soulless, unabashedly amoral piece of doo doo. In Roxie Hart (played with neither charm nor sex appeal by Renee Zellweger) Hollywood gave us perhaps its most annoying anti-heroine ever. Featuring unwatchable dance numbers (literally, because they are shot so dark or cut so rapidly), pathetic lyrics, lousy performances, and an utterly bleak and sneeringly cynical viewpoint, in its defense I can only say that some of the costumes are nice. Kind of. But Best Picture? Fugeddaboudit!

Maybe Norma Desmond was right. The movies really did get smaller. Consider that in 1970, Cabaret, a movie musical far superior to Chicago! in every conceivable way, lost Best Picture to an even greater film, The Godfather (consider also the competition between Sunset Boulevard andAll About Eve). 2001 would never conceivably be released by a major studio in this day and age. Hollywood is in a pretty bleak state right now, content to crank out superhero movies one after the other, or gory splatter-fests, or Will Smith special effects extravaganzas – noisy movies lacking the intelligence or wit of the films mentioned above. Great movies are still being made, just not with the regularity with which they once were. They are like oases in the desert, rare respites, refreshing reminders of the possibilities of filmmaking for we, as Norma puts it, “wonderful people, out there in the dark…..”

  1. Here’s my abbreviated Foreign commentary.

    1998 was tough. Life is Beautiful won, as it should have, but Iran’s Children of Heaven was the more subtle, affecting and artsy movie nominated.

    2001 Bosnia and Herzegovina’s No Man’s Land deserved to win, even if I also liked Frances’ Amélie and India’s Lagaan.

    In 2002 Devdas was India’s entry, but didn’t even make it to be nominated. I think they were robbed of even contending. No matter, Nowhere in Africa from Germany was excellent and also deserved that win.


    I treat 2009’s sweeps by Slumdog Millionaire as an apology to the nation of India, of sorts (never minding it was directed by Danny Boyle).

    2005 Palestine’s entry Paradise Now was nominated. I didn’t see any of the other films that year so I can’t judge, but it’s definitely worth seeing.

    But it is 2006 that was really tough. I saw three of the five that year. Mexico’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Canada’s Water and Germany’s The Lives of Others. I would have awarded them all a joint Oscar if it were possible.

    2008 is like 2005. I only saw one entry, but by god see Israel’s Waltz with Bashir.


      • Yup, I have, in fact PW. And it’s fairly typical of Iranian New Wave.

        Darius Mehrjui, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi are the really big names (some in the news the past couple years, for unfortunate reasons). If you liked that movie, I could recommend more. Quite a few are offered on Netflix if you have that.

        The irony is that the same restrictions of the Islamic Republic actually make them better.

        This one won the Palme d’Or in 1997:


        (though I thought the mise-en-scène minimalism was a wee pretentious and I liked his next film better)

  2. WTS you know I love love movies and your artwork is incredible again.

    Stanley Kubric is one of my favs and I think he still made the best Sci Fi and parody (Dr. Strangelove) movies of all time.

    My favorite movie of the past couple decades was Avatar. I know James Cameron is a bit heavy handed and his moral messages are a bit too literal but really Avatar literally made me feel like I was on an alien world. I don’t think any other modern director puts you in the world they make as much as Cameron. As far as using the full effect of modern film media no one leverages technology better than Cameron IMHO.

    • KQ, I liked Avatar as well. The plot was pretty standard, but that was a good choice, I think. There was so much going on visually in that movie that to have a complicated plot or totally incomprehensible aliens would have been too much for the everyday movie goer. I saw it a couple of times in 3D Maxx, and it was superb.

  3. Questina, I was actually in a big movie.

    They slapped a big, curly wig on me and made me wear a really tight corset.

    Yup, I was a hobbit.

    If you look close, you might see me at the 1:46 mark


    • Haruko -- well it’s a cute scene and the Hobbits are adorable, but I will NEVER figure out which one is you since, well, I have NO template with which to work.

      How’d you get in the scene? Frizzy wig or no, that must have been a ton of fun! Do you do this professionally or was it a one-time thing? Was this your first film? Do tell the background -- sounds fascinating!

      • All I did was answer a casting call. They wanted women under 5-foot-3 (155 centimetres) and I was about 4-foot-9 or 4-foot-10 at the time (about 145 centimetres), and they said “no acting experience necessary.” So they took one look at me and hired me on the spot and I spent several days in Matamata, running around at night and pretending a dragon was chasing me while wearing fake feet, this poofy wig and ridiculously tight bodice.

        No one had ANY idea that we were in the Biggest Movie Ever made. Everyone thought it was just going to be a little Kiwi movie. We were all quite gobsmacked … and chuffed … when it came out two years later.

      • Mighty-- A funny story re LOTR. I used to buy a lot of books on tape and the Ring was one. I used to play it all day and in bed before sleep. When I was dating my now-husband, whenever I played it at bedtime, he fell asleep instantly. (The reader had a soothing mellifluous voice.)

        He actually bought that tape as a sleep aid. And all he ever heard of the story was, “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” The end.

  4. Another great image, wts. I agree with a lot of your picks. Sunset Blvd is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. And I thought Chicago was so boring I just popped it out of the player and took it back. I don’t do that very often. And it’s embarrassing that Citizen Kane didn’t win. I thought Goodfellas was good too but I’m not a big fan of gangster movies. If I must have blood and gore (ugh) I’d go for Pulp Fiction or Fargo — at least the brilliant dialogue makes it worth the effort of coping with the blood and gore. But, I think every male movie buff I know thinks either the Godfather or Goodfellas is one of the best movies ever made (a guy thing?) My favorite flicks are all weird German (Werner Herzog) movies. I’ve got a thing for that crazy guy. Aguirre, the Wrath of God is utterly brilliant. Herzog (and his muse, Klaus Kinski) had a physicality and madness that made their films almost shattering. I think David Lynch had some of that same touch.

    • It’s definitely a guy thing, about Goodfellas and The Godfather, although Cher seems to be a “guy” in this regard.
      There’s just something about those wise guys that makes you keep going back, despite the body counts in those two films (First Godfather and Goodfellas).

      Herzog..yeah! I haven’t seen many, but Aguirre is a definite classic. I don’t care much for David Lynch movies though. I think he just tries too hard to be weird, and his movies have a sameness about them.
      Everything after Eraserhead could practically be titled David Lynch movie II, David Lynch movie III etc.

  5. Most years, my favorite movie of the year doesn’t get nominated.

    First off, Goodfellas is such a great movie. I’ve seen it a hundred times and it never gets old. I still think Godfather is the best American mafia movie ever overall but Goodfellas is by far the best for pure entertainment value. The bits of levity and comedy are layered in so well. My favorite Scorsese movie is still The Color of Money.

    Which brings me to one of my favorite nominees to not win Best Picture:

    The Hustler. One of my all time favorite movies. I grew up with a pool hall right down the street and, though I never got very good, I always enjoyed the game. And if you were looking for something more exciting, someone was always ready to put money on the line. But not a lot of hustlers in a small town. I was accused of it a few times but it was never anything more than a brief encounter with incredible luck.

    Anyways, Paul Newman is just so fantastic in it. But he’s fantastic in everything. He’s Paul fucking Newman. I still cringe during the scene with the breaking of the thumbs. It’s not graphic but you KNOW what they are doing and the sound is enough. It lost to West Side Story. WTF?!

    But as I scanned the list of Best Picture winners over the years, I found myself saying that a lot. 1962 was kind of a toss up for me because I like Lawrence of Arabia,it’s a great film. A true classic. But To Kill a Mockingbird, in my opinion, was the best film made that year. And I really like Mutiny on the Bounty too.

    Doctor Zhivago losing to The Sound of Music was kinda silly for me too. But I’m biased against musicals and I understand they use to be HUGE in this country. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is another one of my favorites. I love westerns. But the meta-insane tour de force that was Midnight Cowboy is hard to beat. Rocky beating Taxi Driver is debatable for me. I LOVE Rocky.

    Apocalypse Now should have beaten Kramer vs, Kramer. Apocalypse Now is better than good and greater than the best. Kramer vs. Kramer is an hour and a half of Dustin Hoffman yelling at Meryl Streep with ten minutes of a kid looking sad padded around it. I didn’t wanna get into this one because I haven’t seen The Last Emperor, but it can’t be as good as Broadcast News.

    Shakespeare in Love beating out Saving Private Ryan is one of the great travesties in the history of the Oscars. I will say no more. 2000 is another toss up year for me. Gladiator was an awesome action flick and a pretty damn good movie. But so was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That’s a tough one for me. Chicago beating Gangs of New York is another WTF?! moment for me. Does the Academy hate Scorsese?

    2007 is another toss up year. No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood are both equally awesome.

    I haven’t seen How Green Was My Valley, but Citizen Kane was fucking boring. I still don’t get the fascination with that Orson Welles stroke-fest.

    • “The Hustler” is great! On the other hand, WSS was very innovative as musicals go, very edgy in parts, and lots of experimentation with the music, so I think it merits its Oscar.

      Saving Private Ryan -- agree, very deserving of an Oscar, but I think Academy thought on that was that Spielberg already won his Oscar for a WWII movie with “Shindler’s List”.

      “Citizen Kane” was fucking boring? I’ve seen it at least three times and was never bored once.

      • I think “Saving Private Ryan” should have won.

        And I think “Apocalypse Now” is the most terrifying, intense film I’ve ever seen, even if it did steal the plot from an 80-year-old Joseph Conrad novel.

    • I loved both No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, but to give Javier Bardam the Best Oscar winner for that role?? Talk about travesty! Against Daniel Day Lewis in Blood?? Bardam was a one-note part. Kee-ryst!

  6. The Shop on Main Street (1965 Czech film). Best ever. Maybe the ending is sappy, but it was the only way to deal with the ultimate heartbreak of it all. Tiny film about little people dealing with the horrors of the Nazi holocaust. Amazing.

      • You want REALLY depressing, the “Bandits of Orgosolo” set in 1960 Sardinia is the most overwhelming study of abject hopelessness, desperation, and ruthless competition for survival I’ve ever seen. It’s not particularly violent so much as it is a study in what poverty and hopelessness drive people to do to one another. Hadn’t thought of it in years, but that’s only because I’ve supressed it.

  7. whatsthatsound, nicely done. I couldn’t agree more. There is a definite lack of creativity in Hollywood, regarding story and plot and great dialogue.
    The really strange thing about Cabaret/Godfather, was that Cabaret won 8 Oscars and Godfather only two, yet the Godfather won best picture. Maybe deservingly so, I am not quite sure.
    Cabaret was an excellent picture, without doubt. So was The Godfather.
    I think 2001 failed to get best picture because, I believe, that so many people failed to understand it. Woody Allen said that the first time he watched it, he didn’t care that much for it, but several years later, he watched it again and realized that it was a great achievement.
    It is hard to understand just how these awards are decided.

    • Thanks for the comments, KT. I agree, it is hard to understand, and there is clearly a lot of deal making, deliberate snubbing, etc., going on. The egos of Hollywood spilling over into its awards ceremony. I think “2001” probably could never have won Best Picture, for the reason you give, and that probably goes for every Kubrick picture that might have deserved it (i.e., Dr. Strangelove and Clockwork Orange). His films were just so altogether different, and that was both their strength, and in many cases their weaknesses.
      I think he wanted his movies to be considered almost as Noh theater. He wanted to take us completely out of reality and into his world.

      • wts, Kubrick was a stickler for portraying his stories as real as he could make them. The closeness to reality was one of his big concerns when making a film.
        The only Kubrick film I didn’t much care for was, The Shining.
        His film, Full Metal Jacket, was also a great achievement. Very real to life. Great story and good dialogue. I love the line by Joker, during a meeting with the editor where they are talking about the Tet Offensive, where Joker asks, “So does this mean Ann Margrette is NOT coming?”

          • You can tell he went to town on that one, because they got to speak that bizarre dialect. I think this is something most people don’t consider about Kubrick, but he had a very distinct way of putting words into his characters’ mouths.

            Sometimes it’s irritating, like the way Shelley Duvall talks in “The Shining” and the Hungarian guy I mentioned in Eyes Wide Shut.

            But sometimes, as in “Clockwork”, the drill sergeant segment of “Full Metal Jacket”, and the voice of “HAL”, it’s bloody brilliant.

            I truly think this is one of the keys to his films, why they stay with you, and that he knew what he was up to.

            • That movie would have butchered the book without Anthony Burgess’s dialect.

              It’d be like making 1984 with no Newspeak.

              It was integral to the story whether in novel or film.

        • I don’t see his movies as being real at all. Mostly the dialogues are weird, like little speeches. Think of the Hungarian schmoozer in “Eyes Wide Shut”; people don’t really talk like that. Or Nicholson, even before he went mad, interviewing for the job as caretaker. All very stilted, almost courtly. Like I said, reminiscent of Noh.

  8. OH, WHATS! I LOVE this piece and this ART!!! I couldn’t agree more.

    Where to start?

    Sunset Boulevard was far superior to All About Eve--which I just watched again last night. I have watched Sunset dozens of times and each time find something new. The opening scene of Holden floating in the pool, with his voice over is black comedy and so innovative! The final scene of Desmond--equally hysterical and dark. And between those two scenes is fabulous dialogue and grit and pathos.

    And Yes, Kane is perhaps the greatest, but I don’t begrudge How Green. They were totally different of course, but I can see why Green won.

    And I agree that Goodfellas was a freakin’ masterpiece. In every way.

    Chicago? One of the Worst. Movies. Ever.

    And the fact that Funny Girl won over 2001 is ludicrous. I also just watched that stinker recently and it’s worse than I remember.

    BTW, Whats, who is the baby in the little coffin?

    • Nah -- All About Eve beats Sunset any day of the week, IMHO. I can watch it over and over, and Sunset makes me cringe. It’s just too damned ugly. You know, like Hollywood. Used to work in that area, and seeing the Norma Desmonds of the world -- curdled and dyed black hair, too much make up, out of focus eyes, the smell of desperation -- just creeped me out. Eve fought back against the stereotpying and ageism. Desmond just went nuts and pretended it wasn’t happening. I like Eve! Hate Desmond. Ick. AAE respects women. SS does not.

      • Choicelady, you mean the Bette Davis character, right? Not Eve. Eve was the conniver, not a likable character at all. Bette’s character was fantastic, no doubt, and that’s where the Oscar came from. But in terms of plot, AAE is just a little gimmick. I.e. when will people figure out the truth about Eve? Sunset is way more complex and multi-layered, and thus a superior film, I feel.

        • Oh right, WTS -- I ALWAYS forget that. Yes, the Bette Davis character is the one I like. Eve will turn INTO Norma Desmond. I don’t dispute that AAE is somewhat less complex a plot, but I think it’s more honorable than just setting up an ageing woman to be the vehicle for destruction of herself and others around her. I think the tension between Bette Davis’ character working for self regard and Eve’s manipulation is far richer than just watching an abandoned and self deceptive woman’s descent into hell. I think THAT is what is predictable. It’s so freaking Hollywood -- if you’re old and femal, you’re useless and there’s no way out but madness. To me Sunset Blvd. is just one step up from “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”. Eeeuuuww.

          • an interesting take on Sunset, and not one I disagree with especially. I just think there are more ways to look at it as well. The move from silent films to talkies, for one. In fact, the Norma Desmond character isn’t all that old; but her career is truncated by the changes in Hollywood. The blurring of reality that is what ALL of Hollywood is about as another interpretation. I see her as more of a symbol, and feel that Wilder did as well. But I respect your more feminist critique as well.

    • Hi Cher, thanks for the great comments. We seem to agree almost completely! The coffin contains Norah’s pet monkey, an actual prop in the movie. The William Holden character interrupted its funeral, and that was how he first met Norah and Max.

      Chigago….what can I say?
      Here’s some lines from the song, “Roxie”
      Mmmm, I’m a star!
      And the audience loves me!
      And I love them
      And they love me for loving them
      And I love them for loving me
      And we love each other
      And that’s because none of us
      Got enough love in our childhoods
      And that’s showbiz, kid!

      the creators of the film were trying so hard to implicate the viewer in their own crassness, trying with lines like that for a “gotcha!” moment. But when your film alienates its audience from the get go, the only finger you’re pointing is at yourself.

      • I did like the husband’s song, “Mr. Cellophane”. It was very moving. The rest of the film was pretty awful, though Richard Gere’s tap dancing defense presentation was kind of clever.

        WORST film EVER -- “Four Friends”by Arthur Penn 1981. Gag. Absolutely terrible and so sophomoric it was beyond belief. It got some GREAT reviews which is when my faith in film critics died permanently and forever. Absolutely only good part -- shots of the South Chicago/Hammond-Whiting steel mills. BUT you have to like that sort of thing.

      • Oh gosh, Whats-- I looked again, and it certainly IS Norma’s chimp. I should learn by now never to doubt you!

        As you likely know, that was the perfect way for Joe to meet Norma--as he replaces the chimp as her new pet.

        The script is so rich in reference and metaphor it deserves a post all it’s own.

        • Indeed, it does! (maybe we should collaborate on that…..) It’s a true classic. But I am sure the Academy had no intention whatsoever of giving it Best Picture, as it rips into Dreamland itself.

    • I like the circular logic of that! It takes us from Warhol’s “everybody gets to be famous for fifteen minutes” all the way to everybody gets to hold up an Oscar once in their lives.
      I hope the Disney company is paying attention, or a Vegas casino. It could be a great theme park attraction.

  9. Wts, I just checked, and nothing is showing of your post except for the title and the featured image. Your post isn’t there. Did you work on it, then forget to save it in Draft, or did you publish it as soon as you finished it?

    You have a post in Autosave, did you check that?

    Sorry, I’ve checked autosave too, and word count is at 0.