The Oscars

February, 2006, Commentary

What do Oliver, Rocky, Braveheart, Gladiator and Driving Miss Daisy have in common? All were Oscar winners as best picture of the year. Is there a sadder commentary on recent American movies? Even worse, how did films such as Cleopatra, Airport, The Towering Inferno, Love Story and Peyton Place manage to get nominated in that category, while Chinatown, Raging Bull, Z, MASH and Bonnie & Clyde were losers? Why is it so hard, pouring over the entire output of movies  released each year, to find even a handful of really good ones? 

What about 2005? It parallels that old English nursery rhyme about the little girl who, “when she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad she was horrid”. Audience demography and the Hollywood studios’ lingering addiction to “blockbuster-itis” resulted in the usual collection of cheesy horror flicks and inane romantic comedies for teenagers along with big-budget sequels of existing franchises, making the year a poor to mediocre one at the box-office overall. But there were a handful of truly wonderful films last year, as the 5 current nominees for “best picture” attest. In fact, a review of the nominees in this category over the last 20 years suggests that, in the aggregate, 2005 generated the most worthy group of “best picture” movies in the last two decades. Want proof? Here are some samples:

2000

Gladiator(won)

Chocolat

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Erin Brokovich

Traffic

1995

Braveheart(won)

Apollo 13

Babe

The Postman

Sense & Sensibility

1990

Dances With Wolves(won)

Awakenings

Ghost

The Godfather, Part 3

Goodfellas

1985

Out of Africa

The Color Purple

Kiss of the Spider Woman

Prizzi’s Honor

Witness

The intervening years tell the same story; a couple of worthy choices per annum, sandwiched in between commercially successful but mediocre pictures. How else explain nominations like “The Postman”, “Ghost” and “Babe”, much less “Godfather 3”? Yet each of last year’s choices really is worthy of the honor it received; A thoughtful examination of “closet” homosexuality, (Brokeback Mountain) the troubling story behind the creation of a literary classic, (Capote), an exciting recreation of a pivotal point in broadcast television (Good Night & Good Luck), a study of contemporary race/class relations in urban America, (Crash) and perhaps most tellingly, an agonizing review of Israel’s utilization of retaliation as a response to the terrorism directed against them at the Olympics (Munich). While audiences will have their own individual opinions as to which one should be honored with the Oscar, in terms of content, script, acting and cinematography, all five are deserving of serious consideration. 

When added to films like “Syriana”, “The Squid & The Whale”, “Match Point”, “Junebug” and “The Constant Gardener”, 2005 is also striking for the degree to which its successes, (at least critically) came to the screen outside the traditional major studio production process. Last year, good films tended to be developed outside the majors, (who subsequently got involved in distributing them.) Given that this trend is unlikely to change in the near term, prospects for audiences this year look encouraging, with the already-released “The Three Burials of Melquides Estrada” leading the way. 

Here’s hoping that’s the way 2006 plays out.

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