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This week’s question is the result of a discussion about the 90th Academy Awards ceremony happening this weekend:
What year was your favorite Best Picture lineup at the Oscars?
Rocky’s Best Picture win for movies made in 1976 (49th Academy Awards) is often held up as one of the perennial examples of “When The Oscars Got It Wrong,” its victory over Taxi Driver, Network, All The President’s Men, and (to a lesser extent) Bound For Glory yet more evidence of the Academy’s fallible, milquetoast tastes. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that all of these were nominated, nor what an incredible year it was for film. Any Best Picture lineup that can boast Martin Scorsese’s seminal urban noir, Sidney Lumet’s scathing media satire, and Alan J. Pakula’s seminal political thriller (and the best film ever made about journalism) in a single go is one for the ages—and that’s even true for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, a movie that might have seemed like a lightweight, sentimental favorite in comparison to those other three, but one that’s loomed undeniably large in American mythology ever since. To me, the ’76 Best Picture lineup represents the Oscars ideal: arthouse dark horses, meaty actors’ showcases, huge political dramas, lovingly crafted biopics, and big old populist hits duking it out, with the underdog occasionally pulling an upset—just to keep things interesting.
This one’s easy for me. The Best Picture lineup of 1975 films (48th Academy Awards) is my go-to example for when the Academy really got it right. Granted, voters didn’t have to break especially hard with their historically mainstream, safe, U.S.-centric tastes to find five genuinely terrific nominees in ’75, a time when some of the best movies in the world were coming from Hollywood. (I fully expect to see at least a couple more years from the ’70s offered up in this AVQ&A.) But just look at this gangbusters lineup. Robert Altman’s joyous country-music ensemble Nashville! Sidney Lumet’s crackling true-crime hostage drama Dog Day Afternoon! Stanley Kubrick’s technically (and technologically) masterful costume drama Barry Lyndon! Steven Spielberg’s seminal summer blockbuster Jaws! And Milos Foreman’s insane-asylum tearjerker One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which ended up not just winning the big one, but all five of the major Oscars! Most years, the best you can hope for from a Best Picture lineup is only a clunker or two. For 1975, all five films were classics in the making from towering auteurs, making for the rare year when any of the nominees would have been a worthy winner. I fear it would take going back to just five for Best Picture to ever match the consistency of this peerless slate; giving the Academy six to 10 slots is just begging them to nominate Darkest Hour.
The Oscars for films made in 1939 (12th Academy Awards) were a cage match between twin epics Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz, but the rest of the lineup (10 total back then, as now) was so spectacular that it’s hard to believe how many classics got lost in the awards shuffle: Capra’s breathtakingly idealistic Mr. Smith Goes To Washington; Bette Davis’ ultimate tearjerker Dark Victory; the first of many adaptations of John Steinbeck’s then-new novel Of Mice And Men, starring Lon Chaney and Burgess Meredith; and John Ford’s classic Western Stagecoach. Then there’s Garbo laughing finally in Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, penned by Billy Wilder; Robert Donat traveling through decades in his Best Actor performance of Goodbye, Mr. Chips; and the finest version of those star-crossed lovers on an ocean liner, Love Affair. Topping it all off is the likely Best Picture in any other year: the gothic, savage romance of Wuthering Heights, featuring the only Heathcliff that will ever matter, Laurence Olivier. (And one of the greatest Hollywood movies of all time, Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, didn’t even make the cut.) By my count, there should have been a three-way tie at least.
This is a little hard for me to write, given that it contains a movie I hate with a mild-to-furiously-bored passion, but I’m going to stump for the class of 2009 (82nd Academy Awards). The first year (in 66 years) to feature an expanded list of 10 nominees, the roster has some undeniable bloat: Sandra Bullock’s treacly The Blind Side, for instance, or Jason Reitman’s pleasant but slight Up In The Air. (Not to mention Avatar, a movie so disagreeable to my constitution that it single-handedly turned me against director James Cameron for life.) But there are so many highs here—the rawness of Precious, the harrowing opening scenes of Inglourious Basterds and Up, the insane world-building and potential of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9—that I’m still grateful for the expanded recognition all the same. The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s gorgeous, contemplative study of the psychology of modern war, rightly deserved its win, but I’m still most partial to the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, one of the best movies I know about how none of us can ever really know shit.
While there are undoubtedly many objectively better years of nominees, my favorite has to be the awards for 2007 films (80th Academy Awards), which contain two of my favorite movies ever: No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Probably my favorite Coens brothers’ film and definitely my favorite PTA, they’re moody, manly, relentlessly beautiful Westerns with kickass soundtracks and images that’ll be baked into my brain for eternity. The only thing better than the week in December when I watched both of those was the month in February when the second-run theater got hold of them, and I smuggled a bottle of whiskey in with a friend to shout Daniel Plainview quotes to an empty theater. (We did this multiple times.) Add to that slate Michael Clayton, which absolutely tickles my fancy for the “men yelling at each other in suits” subgenre, and Atonement, which satisfies my lifelong and somewhat secret love for posh British prestige pictures, and you’ve got a healthy Best Picture competition. Pity that they had to include Juno, a movie I abhor, especially when Pixar’s best movie came out that year, but I’ll take four out of five and run with it.
The 50th Academy Award lineup is a good one for extra-textual reasons as well as the films themselves; the two nominees typical of the Academy’s preferred dramatic heavy hitters featured women in the main roles, while the other three included a straight-up comedy, a space opera, and a rom-com. 1977 is a rare year when the Academy seemed to be straining against its own standards. The two surprising picks for Best Picture—Annie Hall and Star Wars—are two of my favorite films of any years. What’s more, Annie Hall won the thing, part of the tiny group of comedies to win Best Picture. (No other subsequent Star Wars has been nominated for Best Picture.) The Goodbye Girl is more rom-com than drama, with Richard Dreyfuss in the role that won him the Best Actor Oscar and some snappy Neil Simon dialogue. And even the two films more in keeping with the Academy’s conservative bent are stories centering on the relationship between two women: In Julia, it’s Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, whose friendship unfolds against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism; in The Turning Point, it’s Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, whose family vs. career story of contrasts, by now a tired one, is at least told through their powerhouse performances.
The 67th Academy Awards is best remembered for the Academy choosing the baby boomer nostalgia porn of Forrest Gump over the medium-redefining Pulp Fiction, a slight that continues to piss people off 24 years later. I get it, but the Oscars so seldom reward anything provocative that I still don’t understand the uproar. Pulp Fiction is a masterpiece, and at the risk of losing what little AVC cinephile cred I have, I’ll whisper this next part: Forrest Gump is totally entertaining. It’s not even as good as Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, also nominated that year, which has a bounty of excellent performances and a compelling true-life story. Forrest Gump isn’t as good as The Shawshank Redemption either, but no one would realize that until years later. The cult of Love, Actually has its inciting incident with Four Weddings And A Funeral, a charming romantic comedy written by Richard Curtis (who’d later do Love, Actually, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones). Each film in the 1994 class qualifies as seminal in some way; people just need to look beyond the “Quentin was robbed!” outrage.
Let me echo something Sean said in his first answer way back up at the top of this list: Certain years feel like the Oscar ideal, in that a strong contender from nearly every style of film gets to battle it out, just as it should be. And at the risk of being accused of presentism, last year’s awards for 2016 films (89th Academy Awards) was one of the most purely enjoyable lineups of great films in Academy memory. Moonlight? A stunning arthouse achievement. Arrival? Instant sci-fi classic. Manchester By The Sea? Searing character study. Hell Or High Water is a tense and nervy oater, La La Land is a delightfully old-school crowd-pleaser (yes, I’m a defender), and even lesser films like Fences and Hacksaw Ridge contain superb performances. Sure, it suffers from latter-day bloat in the lineup (sorry, Lion), but this is what I want from my Best Picture competition: a bunch of great movies, nearly all of them well worth seeing, going head to head, with the final result even going to arguably the most worthy film. (I might push for Arrival, personally, but Moonlight is one of the more deserving winners of the 21st century.) More matchups like this, please.