12 Smart Choices

presented by j:

as promised, my second of 3 Oscar posts is entitled “12 Smart Choices.”  this time of year, everyone likes to complain about how the Oscars always make terrible choices and lament that this person won instead of this person or this movie over this movie.  like my friend/former roommate/war re-enactment extraordinaire David Butler’s 12-year-long gripe about Tom Hanks losing Best Actor to Russell Crowe in 2000.

agree with them or not, AMPAS chooses who they will, but remember: the choice is never unanimous.  every nominee gets votes as the “best” or else they wouldn’t even be nominated.  one just happens to get more.

so here are 12 “controversial” Oscar wins that i happen to agree with and will explain why.  see more below.

12. “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan”
this is one of the most common complaints – how in the world could “Shakespeare in Love” win Best Picture over “Saving Private Ryan.”  though the two films are so different it makes unbiased comparison nearly impossible, it ultimately comes down to the basic building block of all movies: story.  “Shakespeare in Love” is a literature nerd’s dream come true, and AMPAS is made up of a LOT of literature nerds.  it is written with exactly the same type of format as a Shakespearean play, utilizing his archetypes, humor, and depth.  and though “Saving Private Ryan” has a good story too, “Shakespeare” easily wins when it comes to the creative element.  throw in the fact that “Shakespeare” has a top-notch stellar British cast (most of the Academy is made up of actors) and it’s really a no-brainer.  so while “Saving Private Ryan” will always be a great WWII film, “Shakespeare in Love” is simply just a great film and has a timeless quality that “SPR” falls just short of.  besides, the real best movie of 1998 was “Life Is Beautiful.”

11. Roberto Benigni over…everyone else.
possibly an even bigger surprise in the 1998 ceremony than the win of “Shakespeare in Love” was Roberto Benigni’s unprecedented Best Actor win over fellow nominees Nick Nolte, Tom Hanks, and Ian McKellan.  McKellan and Nolte especially were favored to win.  after all, it’s hard for a foreign-language film star to win because the mostly-English-speaking AMPAS has to read all of the performer’s dialogue and can easily miss out on vocal nuances that often define some of the best performances.  but “Life is Beautiful” was Begigni’s labor of love, working as the film’s co-writer, director, and star in Orwellian fashion.  the character of Guido defines the entire film for what it is and it made sense to reward the movie by specifically rewarding him.  he is still the only actor to win for an entirely non-English-speaking role, which is braggable.

10.  Tan Dun’s score of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” over Hans Zimmer’s score of “Gladiator”
this was one that surprised me and initially also upset me.  Zimmer is possibly my favorite film score composer and, having seen both films, i thought he deserved it for the rousing, epic score of “Gladiator.”  but in retrospect, if one defines the quality of a film score by how well it suits the narrative of the film and how it accents the plot, then Dun’s score for CTHD definitely gets the edge.  on repeated viewings, there are new intricacies and melodies to discover, mythic and haunting, much like the film itself.  it’s also interesting to note that Zimmer has somewhat grown weary of the whole Oscar scene, choosing to not even submit his score of “Rango” for awards consideration.

9.  Roman Polanski for “The Pianist” over Rob Marshall for “Chicago”
the conventional Oscar pool wisdom says when selecting “Best Director,” base it upon your choice for “Best Picture.”  the two awards nearly always go hand-in-hand.  not always, but often.  so when Rob Marshall won the Director’s Guild of America award in 2002 for the front-runner “Chicago,” it seemed a sure thing.  after all, why would anyone award Roman Polanski, a man guilty of statutory rape of a teenager who can’t even step foot into the U.S.?  but when it comes down to it, “The Pianist” is easily the better-directed movie of the two.  in fact, “The Pianist” should have won Best Picture that year, but “Chicago” just had a bit too much hype/too many big names starring in it to fail.  as the years go by, “The Pianist” proves to be the true masterpiece, while “Chicago” grows more and more forgettable.  IMDB seems to agree with this since after ten years, “The Pianist” retains a whopping score of 8.5, where “Chicago” has sunk to a 7.2.

8.  Tom Hanks for “Philadelphia” over Liam Neeson for “Schindler’s List”
in 1993, Tom Hanks was the clear favorite to win Best Actor for playing a fired lawyer dying of AIDS in “Philadelphia.”  but in retrospect, many people say Neeson should have won for his stirring portrayal of Nazi businessman-turned-Jewish savior in “Schindler’s List.”  the main reason for this, though, is because – in hindsight – Hanks would go on to win again the next year for “Forrest Gump.”  true, the two performances are hard to pick between, but Tom Hanks remains the better choice.  Hanks not only gives a terrifically nuanced performance but also underwent significant physical change for the part – and for that, he still deserves the win.

7.  “Braveheart” over “Sense and Sensibility” and “Apollo 13”
1995 was an interesting year for Oscar (Nicholas Cage of all people was named Best Actor – hard to imagine based on his current career).  the majority of other Best Picture honors had been split between “Apollo 13” and “Sense and Sensibility,” so it was a bit of a surprise when “Braveheart” pulled out wins for both Best Director Mel “Crazy Mel” Gibson and Best Picture at the very end – especially when it had lost in the screenplay category, where it had been favored to win.  though each film is great in its own right, 17 years later, it’s clear the Academy picked the right film to honor as “Braveheart” proves to now be the more-watched and most-remembered of the three.  a part of me wishes nominee “Babe” had won that year just to REALLY make things crazy.

6.  Adrien Brody for “The Pianist” over Daniel Day-Lewis for “Gangs of New York” and Jack Nicholson for “About Schmidt”
some years prove more surprising than others and 2002 was one of those.  guesses for Best Actor were pretty evenly split between Day-Lewis and Nicholson with the former having the edge since his movie was also a Best Picture nominee.  but Brody – relatively unknown at the time – was the winner for his incredible performance in “The Pianist,” and today it is clear that he should have been the true frontrunner all along.

5.  “Chariots of Fire” over “Raiders of the Lost Ark”
this one of course is pretty personal and i’m very biased about it since “Chariots of Fire” is my favorite movie of all time.  like everyone else in the world (with the exception of my wife), i also love “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but when it comes down to it, “Chariots” is simply the better movie.  It speaks deeply upon a number of human issues – racism, spirituality, rivalry, integrity, respect – that “Raiders” simply can’t hold a candle to.  “Chariots” was an underdog-of-a-nominee that year, being put up against Spielberg’s “Raiders” and Warren Beatty’s “Reds.”  but it’s true life story, revolutionary score, and solid cast all gave it the push to be 1981’s favorite.
4.  “The Great Ziegfeld” over “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”
in 1936, “The Great Ziegfeld” won Best Picture over “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.”  one of these is still watched (Deeds) and the other is not (Ziegfeld).  most people – including myself – consider “Deeds” the better film, so why am i defending “Ziegfeld’s” win?  mostly because of what “Ziegfeld” represents.  a bio-pic about the creator of the famous “Ziegfeld Follies,” the film celebrates art and show business – the drama behind the drama – much like this year’s nominees “The Artist,” “Hugo,” and even “Midnight in Paris” do.  the real-life Ziegfeld’s vision for live musical theater helped both Broadway and Hollywood become what they are today, so it made sense – and still does – for AMPAS to reward it with their top prize.

3.  George Seaton’s screenplay for “Miracle on 34th Street” over Moss Hart’s screenplay for “Gentleman’s Agreement”
some wonder how in the world the script for a Christmas movie about a man who claims to really be Santa Claus could beat out the script for that year’s winner of Best Picture.  in the case of “Miracle on 34th Street,” though, there can be no argument, especially when compared to the dry and dull “Gentleman’s Agreement.”  sure, it may have been a shock in 1947 that such a “crowd-pleaser” could beat such a serious work of drama, but it makes perfect sense now.  AMPAS did the right thing by awarding George Seaton’s fabulous writing over the drab “drama of the day.”

2.  “Rocky” over…everything else
film critics are still fuming over this as though they can change the outcome.  they gripe that “All the President’s men,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Network” are all more deserving films than “Rocky.”  of those, i’ve only seen “Taxi Driver.”  but it’s not really hard to figure out why “Rocky” won and why it was worthy to win over those other films, even if i haven’t seen them.  “Rocky,” in some ways, is the model for the future indie film.  it was made on a shoe-string budget with a cast led by an unknown, desperate actor (Sylvester Stallone) who only got the part because he also wrote the script and refused to sell it otherwise.  Stallone wrote it literally over the course of one night and the movie was shot in just 28 days.  and blame it on 1976 being the nation’s bicentennial, but AMPAS felt patriotic – and rewarding gritty, negative films like the three aforementioned just wasn’t going to feel right no matter how good they might be.  so they went with the feel-good, “American Dreamy” film…and i’m glad they did.

1.  “Annie Hall” over “Star Wars”
here is a big one.  in 1977, “Star Wars” had taken the world by storm and had revolutionized movie-making.  on Oscar night, it walked away with a whopping 6 wins…but not Best Picture or Best Director.  those went to the romantic-comedy “Annie Hall,” written and directed by Woody Allen.  in fact, 3 of “Annie Hall’s” 4 Oscars were in major categories where it faced “Star Wars”: Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture.  “Star Wars” is one of my favorite movies…”Annie Hall” is not.  so why am i defending “Annie Hall’s” win?  because it has one of the best scripts ever put to film, one that revolutionized (there’s that word again) the rules of cinema…which cannot be said about the script for “Star Wars.”  to this day, “Annie Hall” remains one of the most original films, and i applaud AMPAS’ willingness to award originality over popularity.  a part of me will always wish that “Star Wars” had won, of course – but at the end of the day, i can’t disagree with “Annie Hall’s” Best Picture win.  personally, i’m rooting for Allen to take home another Oscar this year for his brilliant script, “Midnight in Paris.”

sorry to be so lengthy, but there you have it…12 smart choices by the Academy, no matter how surprising they might have been at the time or how much people might gripe…including myself.

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