Friday, February 22, 2013

Why Winning the Best Picture Oscar Isn't Always a Good Thing

Sasha Stone, over at Awards Daily, just wrote a piece I couldn’t agree more with “The Cure of the Winner” ( . This is something I’ve felt for a long time now – there are few things more damaging to the reputation of a film than winning the Best Picture Oscar.

It seems odd to say that, considering how much time and effort goes in to campaigning for the Oscars – how much everyone seems to want to win, but it’s true. There are a lot of really good films that have won the Best Picture Oscar over the last 25 years that people seem to hate. They didn’t hate them when they were released – or all through their respective Oscar seasons. If they did, they wouldn’t have won. But they seem to hate them now. So let’s go back those 25 years – to 1987 – and see what films still have a good critical reputation today.
1987 – The Last Emperor. This one seems to have survived pretty much intact, but I think that may have something to do with the fact that everyone forgets it won, and no one really feels all that passionately about any of the other nominees, or really any other film from that year. Moonstruck or Fatal Attraction would look like jokes now had they won. People remember John Boorman’s Hope and Glory even less than The Last Emperor. Broadcast News is wonderful, but in today’s cynical media society, looks almost innocent. Plus, The Last Emperor was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, and now one is going to complain that the director of The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris didn’t deserve an Oscar. So it gets a pass.

1988 – Rain Man. Okay, audiences still like this one. But do they love it? I think it’s a fine film, but really, a Best Picture Oscar seems too much, doesn’t it? But like 1987, it gets much more of a pass because of its competition – The Accidental Tourist, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning and Working Girl. Would any of them look all that much better? And even pretentious film buffs like me admit that the “best” films from 1988 – Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being – would have no chance in ANY year.

1989 – Driving Miss Daisy – BIG backlash against this rather innocent, enjoyable little film. 1989 will forever be the year that the Academy ignored Spike Lee’s brilliant, incendiary Do the Right Thing – probably the best film about race relations in America ever made – and instead with this lightweight film, that was more than slightly condescending on the same topic. Do the Right Thing is a masterpiece, Driving Miss Daisy is not, but the film is better than its reputation suggests.
1990 – Dances with Wolves – BIG backlash again. It’s easy to forget that Dances with Wolves was a phenomenon back in 1990. And it’s easy to forget that Costner had not yet turned into a joke because of Waterworld. Costner’s big, romantic Native epic is actually quite good. But it will never, ever be forgiven for committing the sin of beating Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas – one of the very best films of all time, and something nearly everyone loves – even those who have been beating up on Scorsese’s for years now (their oft-heard refrain is always, he hasn’t made a great film since GoodFellas).

1991 – The Silence of the Lambs – Another film to survive relatively intact, which is a testament to just how great the film is, since the studio has done everything possible to make Hannibal Lecter into a joke by releasing Hannibal (a fun guilty pleasure), Red Dragon (directed by Brent Ratner – ‘nuff said), and the egregious Hannibal Rising. You would think that The Silence of the Lambs would have jumped the shark like Rocky years ago, but Hopkins and Foster’s performances, and Demme’s perfect direction, have prevented it. Good for it.
1992 – Unforgiven – Another film to survive intact. In fact, this film’s reputation may well have grown over the years, as Eastwood has proven over the last decade to be a truly great filmmaker. It helps that the film beat Scent of a Woman (gag me), The Crying Game (great film, best known for a gimmick), A Few Good Men (entertaining) and Howards End (stuffy costume drama – at least in the public’s eye). Who the hell doesn’t love Clint?

1993 – Schindler’s List – Yes, you get the odd Spielberg hater ragging on Schindler’s List, but for the most part this is probably the film on this list that has had the least backlash. It was viewed as Spielberg’s masterpiece in 1993, and for many, still is.
1994 – Forrest Gump – HUGE backlash. Everyone seemed to love Forrest Gump back in 1994. It made a freaking mint, was critically acclaimed, had the most popular star in the world (Tom Hanks), was funny, nostalgic, well made and tackled a few “serious” issues along the way as well. Now, sweet Jesus, do some people ever hate this film. I never thought it was a masterpiece – so back in the 1990s I was viewed by some as being a Debbie Downer on this film, and because now I still think it’s a good (not great) film, I look like an apologist. But I’m the only one who HAS NOT changed their opinion on this one!

1995 – Braveheart – HUGE backlash. I think almost immediately, people starting questioning this one. Part of the problem was that the Academy ignored some great films in the Best Picture Race that year (Dead Man Walking would seem like a much better fit) or didn’t nominate the director (Ang Lee for Sense and Sensibility and Ron Howard for Apollo 13), meaning Gibson’s film won almost by default. I never much liked it, aside from the battle scenes, but people LOVED this back in 1995. Now they hate it. Never underestimate what a drunken, anti-Semitic rant will do to your reputation.
1996 – The English Patient – BIG backlash. I remember being alone in my hatred of this film for a long time. It was lonely. Than Seinfeld did their brilliant episode where Elaine was forced to watch the film again and again and again, and absolutely hated it and the cultural back began. Today, it looks like a joke that this beat Fargo. I’m glad I was ahead of the curve on this one.

1997 – Titanic – Big backlash. Again, my opinion on Titanic has not much changed since I saw it in 1997. The last hour is magnificent – one of the greatest sequences of its kind ever put on film. The first two hours is fine, entertaining, romantic fluff, buoyed by the chemistry between DiCaprio and Winslet, who save James Cameron’s horrid dialogue for him.  But the film today is largely seen as an embarrassment by many – perhaps because every time he opens his mouth, James Cameron proves himself to be an asshole. Not sure what the public would want to win now – I was always an L.A. Confidential man among the nominees (but that film didn’t really set the box office on fire, and the fact that Curtis Hanson has struggled in his career since, means unfortunately for many, that film’s memory is fading). Still, I’ll take Titanic over Good Will Hunting, As Good As It Gets or The Full Monty.
1998 – Shakespeare in Love – HUGE backlash. I remember 1998 well. From the moment Saving Private Ryan opened in July, it was the Best Picture Winner. Everyone knew it was going to win, and everyone said it again and again and again, and did so right up until the moment Shakespeare in Love won the Best Picture Oscar. True, for me I would now go with The Thin Red Line and not Private Ryan (and I know few in the public would agree with me), but I think this probably stands as one of the biggest injustices in the eyes of the public ever. But hey, Shakespeare in Love is a fine little film.

1999 – American Beauty – HUGE backlash. This one kind of mystifies me a little. Normally, the critics lead the backlash when a film they liked more lost. But that wasn’t really the case in 1999 – where American Beauty was one of the two or three most critically acclaimed films of the year. Just look at all the prizes awards it won back in 1999 to see proof. So the Academy follows suit – after nominating the brilliant The Insider, and three other films (The Green Mile, The Cider House Rules and The Sixth Sense) that left critics scratching their heads, and they still bitch the Academy out. True, American Beauty has aged faster than many films in the late 1990s, but if the critics couldn’t see that at the time (and they didn’t) you can’t much blame the Academy.
2000 Gladiator – Moderate backlash. Ugh. I remember 2000 being a VERY long spring for me in high school, as almost daily for the entire season, I had to explain to someone why Gladiator sucked (luckily I graduated that spring). This was a very popular film back then, and to many, remains so today. But I do think the backlash has grown against this film since it won, and is still growing. Hopefully one day, we can all agree that I was right all along – and Gladiator sucked.

2001 – A Beautiful Mind – Moderate backlash. The reason I only list as a moderate backlash is because I don’t think that many people truly loved A Beautiful Mind even back in 2001. It certainly wasn’t a critical favorite – the reviews were all good, but few called it the year’s best. And while it was a box office hit, it certainly wasn’t talked about as much as the first Lord of the Rings film. And that’s another reason the backlash has been moderate – the film the public would say deserved to win, would win – two year later.
2002 - Chicago – Moderate Backlash. Another film that I don’t really think critical opinion has changed on. It was viewed as a fun musical romp in 2002 – and that’s pretty much how it’s viewed today. Certainly few think it actually deserved to win, but then what did? Gangs of New York has had a bigger backlash, no one saw The Pianist in 2002, and not many more saw The Hours. And second Lord of the Rings film is (unjustly) seen as the weak sister of the trilogy. Chicago is just one of those winners which is just kind of there.

2003 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – Among serious film fans, this probably doesn’t sit very well, but among the public, it certainly does. How else can you explain The Hobbit making $300 million this year?
2004 – Million Dollar Baby – No real backlash. There were grumblings back in 2004 about how the film was offensive to the poor (with its harsh depiction of Hilary Swank’s family) or too manipulative, but it never really took off. The critics pretty much feel in line with this one, and even if they thought at the time (like I did) that Sideways was the best film of the year and think now (like I do) that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the best of the year, everyone seems ok with this winning. The same cannot be said for Hilary Swank.

2005 – Crash – BIGGEST BACKLASH EVER. 2005 was the ugliest Oscar campaign I can recall - this year comes close though. Munich was this year’s Zero Dark Thirty, taken down before the race even really began by silly attacks that for some reason everyone took WAY too seriously. Brokeback Mountain was supposed to win – and its supporters could not go more than about 1 minute without telling you that. Crash was viewed, even at the time, as simplistic and formulaic and dated, and yet it gradually picked up steam, and eventually pulled off the win – and all hell broke loose. Ridiculous assessments started immediately – people calling it the worst film to EVER best picture (have you not seen Cimarron? Cavalcade? The Greatest Show on Earth? Around the World in 80 Days?). Oscar websites shutting down permanently because the Academy embarrassed themselves. Somehow Crash, a perfectly harmless, pretty average film, has become the worst film in the history of cinema.
2006 – The Departed. This has suffered a little bit of a backlash – mostly people saying that the director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas should have won for one of those, and not this simple “genre piece” (although, personally, I think the film is deeper than that, but I’m not going to get into that argument again), but for the most part, everyone agrees Scorsese deserves an Oscar, so no real backlash developed.

2007 – No Country for Old Men – One of the few films to suffer no real backlash whatsoever. The film ranks as the 17th best film of the 21st Century according to They Shoot Pictures Don’t They? Annual tabulation (as of last year, they are still counting down this year’s list). This was the year that the public seems to have forgot even happened – no big hits were nominated and critics love the Coens, so no backlash happened, and I doubt it ever will. Undoubtedly, one of the best winners of all time.
2008 –Slumdog Millionaire – BIG BACKLASH. I saw one of the first public screenings ever of this film – at TIFF that year, and for the rest of the festival it was all anyone could talk about. It was BELOVED by all who saw it – but then everyone seemed to realize that EVERYONE loved it, and so it no longer became cool to love Slumdog Millionaire, the little film about the scrappy underdog. Besides, this year will always be known as the year the Academy DID NOT nominate The Dark Knight or Wall-E, and immediately changed their rules to include 10 films.

2009 – The Hurt Locker – Another rare, no backlash film. The film navigated smartly throughout the season, pitting itself against the behemoth that was Avatar in a true David vs. Goliath fight, that everyone now seems to agree was won by the right film. Plus, it gave us the first female director winner of all time – and NO ONE wants to question that one.
2010 - The Kings Speech – BIG BACKLASH – Whenever I read one of those pieces about how the Academy is out of touch with audiences, they always mention The King’s Speech beating out The Social Network. True, The Social Network is a masterpiece, and The King’s Speech is only very good – but someone really needs to tell those people that The King’s Speech FAR out grossed The Social Network. Anyway, the backlash for this winner is already very big, and I think will grow as time goes on. Such is your luck when you beat a masterpiece.

2011 – The Artist- BIG BACKLASH. I continue to be of the belief that had The Artist did what it was supposed to do – come and go from theaters in a week with no one seeing it, and getting ignored by Oscars voters, than film buffs would still being trying to convince their non-film buff fans to see the film. But, it became a (moderate) hit and won a bunch of Oscars, so now it’s just populist crap, right? I may have said last year that The Artist was as “deep as a thimble”, and I stand by that, because, well, it is. But it is also a hugely entertaining technical marvel.
So that’s the last 25 films to win Best Picture. So congrats Argo! Enjoy the weekend, because by this time next year, you’re more than likely going to be seen as over rated.

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