86 Best Director Omissions

Best Director Omissions 2

Once again, having surveyed all those honored by the Academy for excellence in directing, I’m ready to offer my own humble assessments of the field. But as I did last year, I’m pausing before casting my personal votes to consider the vast terrain of filmmaking outside the 214 filmmakers and 426 films in this column of Oscar history. The Directors Branch has frequently made inspired decisions, nominating the likes of Gillo Pontecorvo and Terrence Malick as well as Frank Capra and Woody Allen. I’m not a big fan of the word “snub,” though I concede its convenience as shorthand. Oscar nominations are a compliment to those who receive them and by no means an insult to those who don’t. Nonetheless, there’s only so much room in the finals each year, and the directors that cram into those five spots invariably squeeze out other admirable visions. I don’t begrudge the Academy voters their choices; I can see the merits in nearly every nominated effort, whether or not it’s my cup of tea. Still I guarantee that if I had the power, somebody would be making way for one of these personal heroes.

As with last year’s Best Actress Omissions, I’ve restricted myself to the period covered by the Academy Awards (1927 to present) and only one film per filmmaker. Even with those strictures, though, I found it difficult as always to whittle the list down to just 86, or an average of one candidate per year in the Oscar race. Many of these are among my absolute favorite films of all time, though I also considered some of the films I consider to be the most impressive directorial visions ever realized. The list ranges from rare misses by Oscar favorites (Wilder, Kazan) to those who never would have had a prayer at a nomination (Paley, Cocteau) except through the divine intervention I’m suggesting. They also wound up falling quite evenly among the decades and across a wide spectrum of production—unlike last time, feature animation and documentary are fair game.

Continue reading

Advertisements

The End of Another Quest

I sure cut this one a bit closer than last time!  But of course I got there in time to see Robert Altman’s Los Angeles epic unfold from start to finish, with a wonderful pre-screening conversation with Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed, and co-writer, Frank Barhydt!

2014-06-08 00.39.012014-06-07 19.48.21 2014-06-07 19.49.12 2014-06-07 20.08.16 2014-06-07 20.08.232014-06-07 23.14.48

Thoughts on the film to come tomorrow, followed by some final musings on the Best Director category and my overall picks.  But first, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

A Hand for the Academy Award Nominees (who needs winners?)

?????????????????????

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t undertake this quest in part so I could definitively cast my vote for Best Actress.  As a compulsive list maker (and completist), I’m also a compulsive ranker, and I get a little pleasure from checking off that last box in a category that makes me feel eligible to give my opinion.  I’ve met a number of Academy voters (though a small percentage, overall) who valiantly try to watch every nominee in a category or not cast a vote at all.  Would that more people did so; we might have more winners like Emmanuel Lubezki for Best Cinematography in Children of Men and The Tree of Life, or Jacki Weaver for Best Supporting Actress in Animal Kingdom.

Win or lose, though, what’s great about watching all the nominees—and why I prefer nominees to winners—is that you get exposed to such a wide range of taste, one that obliterates the worst stereotypes of the biopic & holocaust drama-addicted Academy.  This is the group that’s granted Best Director nominations to Krzysztof Kieslowski once, Terrence Malick twice, David Lynch three times, Federico Fellini four, and Alfred Hitchcock five.  They’ve acknowledged animated films as diverse as The Triplets of Belleville, Coraline, and Chico & Rita, and Best Picture nominees from District 9 and Beasts of the Southern Wild to The Wizard of Oz and The Ox-Bow Incident.  I particularly admire the screenplay categories, where they’ve accepted some of the most feverishly unique productions (The Wild Bunch, Brazil, Do the Right Thing), the most sublime commercial products (The Band Wagon, North by Northwest, Back to the Future), and a cavalcade of international greats (Hiroshima mon amour, The Conformist, Trainspotting).  And that’s not even mentioning the deeper craft categories, where films like Blade Runner and Seven Samurai, incredibly enough, found their place in Oscar history.  I even found out recently that Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee’s sole Hollywood studio production was shortlisted (but sadly not nominated) for Best Original Score.  Too cool!

Of course, these were all unsuccessful nominations.  The truly inspired wins (Kevin Kline for A Fish Called Wanda, Best Picture/Director/Screenplay for The Apartment, Best Animated Feature for Spirited Away) are few and far between, since mass opinion will always gravitate toward the middle.  But I love the difference that’s articulated in each raft of nominees every year, and I’m happy to cast my pretend vote in tribute to the amazing work enshrined in these films, and in this case, by these actresses.  And while I’ll need a bit of a break for my own sanity, part of me can’t wait to go exploring deep in the nominees of another category!

85 Best Actress Omissions

25 Best Actress Snubs

Before I finally close the frontier of the Academy Award for Best Actress, I wanted to quickly acknowledge that, despite the many magnificent performances that it includes, there are many that lie beyond its reach.  I don’t like the word “snub” that much, but I’m willing to use the term for the sake of expediency to describe an array of performances that were omitted by the Academy, for reasons either understandable (Wei Wei in Spring in a Small Town) or confounding (Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby).  Just limiting myself to one performance her actress, I easily came up with 85 of my favorite or most-admired performances, one for each year of the Academy Awards (on average, not one per year).  Of course this list is flawed in its own right, reflecting my own viewing biases and not tackling, for example, the thorny issue of what three 1948 actresses I might consider bumping in my own Oscar Fantasy League.  It even excludes wonderful performances by Rumi Hiiragi and Edie Bouvier Beale by keeping in place the same barriers that the Academy erects to keep out voice acting and documentary.  And God knows who I’m forgetting.  But such is the nature of all lists; the hope being that they can then shine the limelight on those passionately loved inclusions.  Anyway, here’s the list of my biggest Oscar omissions:

Pola Negri Hotel Imperial 1927
Maria Falconetti The Passion of Joan of Arc 1928
Eleanor Boardman The Crowd 1928
Lillian Gish The Wind 1928
Marion Davies Show People 1928
Miriam Hopkins Design for Living 1933
Ginger Rogers Top Hat 1935
Jean Harlow Libeled Lady 1936
Paulette Goddard Modern Times 1936
Ruth Chatterton Dodsworth 1936
Katharine Hepburn Holiday 1938
Judy Garland The Wizard of Oz 1939
Claudette Colbert Midnight 1939
Rosalind Russell His Girl Friday 1940
Barbara Stanwyck The Lady Eve 1941
Dorothy Comingore Citizen Kane 1941
Carole Lombard To Be or Not to Be 1942
Gene Tierney Laura 1944
Wendy Hiller I Know Where I’m Going! 1945
Bette Davis The Corn Is Green 1945
Ann Savage Detour 1945
Ingrid Bergman Notorious 1946
Moira Shearer The Red Shoes 1948
Marlene Dietrich A Foreign Affair 1948
Wei Wei Spring in a Small Town 1948
Machiko Kyô Rashômon 1950
Elizabeth Taylor A Place in the Sun 1951
Debbie Reynolds Singin’ in the Rain 1952
Danielle Darrieux Madame de… 1953
Kinuyo Tanaka Ugetsu 1953
Gloria Grahame The Big Heat 1953
Eva Dahlbeck Smiles of a Summer Night 1955
Véra Clouzot Diabolique 1955
Simone Signoret Diabolique 1955
Giulietta Masina Night of Cabiria 1957
Isuzu Yamada Throne of Blood 1957
Jean Seberg Breathless 1960
Corinne Marchand Cleo from 5 to 7 1961
Harriet Andersson Through a Glass Darkly 1962
Anna Karina Vivre sa vie 1962
Constance Towers The Naked Kiss 1964
Bibi Andersson Persona 1966
Cheng Pei-Pei Come Drink with Me 1966
Audrey Hepburn Two for the Road 1967
Mia Farrow Rosemary’s Baby 1968
Liv Ullmann Shame 1968
Ruth Gordon Harold and Maude 1971
Diane Keaton Sleeper 1973
Shelley Duvall 3 Women 1977
Sissy Spacek 3 Women 1977
Hanna Schygulla The Marriage of Maria Braun 1979
Darling Légitimus Sugar Cane Alley 1983
Jamie Lee Curtis A Fish Called Wanda 1988
Gong Li Raise the Red Lantern 1991
Irène Jacob The Double Life of Veronique 1991
Juliette Binoche Three Colors: Blue 1993
Julianne Moore Safe 1995
Kathy Bates Dolores Claiborne 1995
Pam Grier Jackie Brown 1997
Emma Thompson Primary Colors 1998
Franka Potente Run Lola Run 1998
Cecilia Roth All About My Mother 1999
Reese Witherspoon Election 1999
Cameron Diaz Being John Malkovich 1999
Maggie Cheung In the Mood for Love 2000
Maribel Verdú Y tu mamá también 2001
Naomi Watts Mulholland Dr. 2001
Laura Harring Mulholland Dr. 2001
Scarlett Johannson Lost in Translation 2003
Patricia Clarkson The Station Agent 2003
Isabella Rossellini The Saddest Music in the World 2003
Uma Thurman Kill Bill, Vol. 2 2004
Zhang Ziyi House of Flying Dagers 2004
Julie Delpy Before Sunset 2004
Kate Winslet Revolutionary Road 2008
Laura Dern Inland Empire 2006
Belén Rueda The Orphanage 2007
Anamaria Marinca 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days 2007
Yolande Moreau Séraphine 2008
Lina Leandersson Let the Right One In 2008
Michelle Williams Wendy & Lucy 2008
Mélanie Laurent Inglourious Basterds 2009
Leslie Manville Another Year 2010
Tilda Swinton We Need to Talk about Kevin 2011
Jo Min-Su Pieta 2012

Twelve Best Actress Nominees I Would Watch Again in a Heartbeat

Splash_Annette_Bening_4_1

I first got started on this quest in the summer of 2009, when I moved into a new apartment in Santa Monica and had access to their public library system and its incredible catalog of DVDs.  I started renting movies I’d meant to catch up on for a long time.  They were of every variety: classic Hollywood, foreign, critics’ Top 10 films from recent years, and of course past Oscar winners and nominees.

One of the first times I visited, I came home with a batch that included Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, In the Bedroom, and Being Julia: all films I’d meant to track down with varying degrees of urgency, and that all happened to be on the shelves that day.  Woolf and In the Bedroom impressed me with their strangely resonant portraits of marriages fraught by a deep wound; Sissy and Liz both earned my votes for their respective Best Actress races.

However, the film that started what I came to regard as a quest was Being Julia, a miniature, yet lavishly polished backstage drama, based on a work by D.H. Lawrence, and featuring a delicious turn by Annette Bening in a revisionist Margo Channing role.  Hers is not my favorite nominated performance of 2004 (Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), or even my second favorite (Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake), and the film falls squarely alongside Stardust and Drunken Master as one that I love irrationally, regardless of its merits.

Watching all three of these Best Actress nominees was immensely satisfying, but Being Julia in particular got me thinking about the many enjoyable films and performances that might lie buried away forever in the depths of this category.  The Best Actress race might be the most idiosyncratic of the major Oscar categories, shaped by the politics of movie star careers and littered with single-nomination films that begin to immediately fade from memory, eclipsed by the image of the star (that is, if she doesn’t fade away, too).  Indeed, even some of the winners fade away: for as iconic as Sophia Loren and Julie Christie have become, I wonder how many have seen Two Women or Darling.

Hoping to uncover more gems among the 240 unseen nominees, I slowly began to work through the movies available (see my introduction for a bit more detail).  The gems were, of course, few and far between, and many of the greatest films (A Woman Under the Influence, Howards End) were films I had meant to see anyway.  Here, however, are twelve lesser-known films (in no particular order) from this quest I would watch again in a heartbeat, diamonds in the rough and miniature classics that join Being Julia in a set that makes the whole undertaking feel worthwhile to me.

  1. Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) – I’ve reviewed it here already, but this British drama really is one of the most impressive crime films/psychological studies I’ve seen in a long time, Kim Stanley adds a huge plume to the Actors Studio’s cap.
  2. Never on Sunday (1960) – This is hardly a flawless film, but Melina Mercouri’s hooker with a heart of gold, evoking the best of Giulietta Masina and Sophia Loren combined, is so much fun to watch in every scene!
  3. The Subject Was Roses (1968) – I’m normally averse to family melodrama, but this three-part drama (Martin Sheen, Oscar-winning Jack Albertson, and Patricia Neal) is so perfectly executed that I couldn’t shake these embattled characters from my head now, even if I were to watch The West Wing, Willy Wonka, and A Face in the Crowd on a 24-hour loop.
  4. The Letter (1929) – Bursting forth from the screen in only the second year of the talkies, Jeanne Eagels gives a flawed but nonetheless magnetic performance that is a generation ahead of her peers in its raw intensity, all in a riveting pre-Code adaptation of the Maugham play, later made immortal in high-classical style with an also-nominated Bette Davis.
  5. Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) – Given my poor opinion of the original, I was prepared to loathe this even more, but was completely surprised.  Here, the story is less Cate Blanchett’s performance, though campily enjoyable, than the absolutely stunning production design, an unbridled fever-dream of early 17th Century England.
  6. Six Degrees of Separation (1993) – I’ve also written about this film, a magnificently sophisticated post-modern play carried onto the screen with flair by Nicholas Hytner, and featuring a scintillating Stockard Channing.
  7. Shirley Valentine (1989) – A pure sentimental favorite, I would watch Pauline Collins resisting the dreary pull of her English surroundings, playing her irrepressible and intelligent housewife straight to the camera, any time.
  8. The King and I (1956) – Perhaps not that low-profile a film, but Deborah Kerr, as a perfectly poised governess, pulls off a beautiful job of acting through and between her musical performances, maintaining her cautious reserve in a world where her unlikely romance must remain forever unfulfilled.  Clearly a case where getting Marni Nixon was the right move (and Kerr agreed).
  9. Educating Rita (1983) – Yes, it’s just Pygmalion set in the ivory tower, but I find Michael Caine and Julie Walters’ chemistry as an English professor and his cockney middle-aged student unbelievably irresistible, and the academic-tinged humor catnip to my Quiz Bowl sensibilities.
  10. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) – For me, one the unsung Great American Movies, a microcosm of humanity in a dance competition in Depression-Era Santa Monica, with an already-hardened Jane Fonda at its bitter core.
  11. The Collector (1965) – A masterfully directed abduction thriller (William Wyler at his most un-Hollywood), with shades of The Silence of the Lambs.  Deeply disturbing, but Terrence Stamp and Samantha Eggar are eerily incredible together.
  12. The Rose Tattoo (1955) – Anna Magnani truly had a blessed career, becoming the patron saint (matron saint?) of Italian Neo-Realism before taking Hollywood by storm in this sincere performance as an immigrant single mother desperate for satisfaction.  Not even Burt Lancaster can diminish this performance for me.

These are far from the only total discoveries, but they definitely top the list!  It makes me wonder what else might lie hidden away in Best Original Screenplay or Best Supporting Actor…all in all, a testament to the serendipity of watching an unknown movie.

Five Final Films, all of which I already know (I just haven’t seen them)

Final Five ActressesFinal Five Pictures

Not to overly commemorate the final stages of this countdown, but it’s remarkable to stand less than twenty-four hours away from the completion of this quest, faced with a final five actresses:

  1. Ann Harding in Holiday (1930)
  2. Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen (1951)
  3. Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
  4. Liv Ullmann in The Emigrants (1972)
  5. Joanne Woodward in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973)

Of course I’ll have plenty to say about the movies and their leading ladies as I watch them one by one tonight and tomorrow.  However, I just want to say a little bit about the phantom relationship that I already have with all five of these films:

  • An epic saga of Swedish-American pioneers nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, and Foreign Language Feature (the year prior to all the other nominations), The Emigrants was for a long time my Questing Beast out of the major Oscar nominees.  Part of a two-film sequence, with the following year’s The New Land, neither is available on DVD in any format with an English language option!  The best I could find was a dubbed VHS release until earlier this week when a helpful messager on the IMDb Boards pointed me to YouTube, where it lies waiting for me, in subtitled glory!  I cannot wait to see Liv Ullmann–and hear her voice–opposite Max von Sydow in this non-Ingmar Bergman landmark film in Swedish cinema.
  • The original Pathe version of Philip Barry’s play Holiday, later made into a Columbia screwball dramedy about the American class divide starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, has long been a film I’ve been hungry to watch, even in the pitiful viewing conditions of the copy I procured (as you can see from above).  The Columbia version serves as a delightful but somewhat darker sibling of Barry’s The Philadelphia Story, also a signature film for Katharine, and Holiday‘s Linda Seton may be my all-time favorite of Katharine’s characters.  All of this makes me itch to see how Ann stacks up in the original film portrayal.
  • The wildcard in the mix is Joanne Woodward in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, a film of which I remained deliberately uninformed because of how captivated I became with its evocative title.  I expect very little from this film, except perhaps a quality performance from the miraculous Joanne, and perhaps as well from Sylvia Sidney in the sole Oscar-nominated performance of a career that stretched from Rouben Mamoulian to Tim Burton!
  • Of course, I’ve learned all about American cinema and the long, long shadow that Bonnie and Clyde casts upon it.  I’m someone who tries not to thwart a film with high expectations, but for many people this one of the masterpieces of cinema, let alone the New Hollywood Era, and I’m curious to see if it will join the likes of Nashville, The Crowd, Stagecoach, Fargo and a handful of others in my personal canon of the Great American Movies.
  • Last, and certainly not least (perhaps even most!) is the legendary The African Queen.  To be clear, this film will ring down an era in my film viewing, beyond just the completion of the Best Actress quest.  I was a Katharine Hepburn fan from my early teenage years, and of course I am in awe of Humphrey Bogart and his long-time collaboration with the brilliant John Huston.  Back when I was watching the masterpieces of cinema at an alarming rate, I became rather frightened of running out of good movies.  I now realize that this was a silly fear; there are far more great films to discover than one can possibly know, but I took a vow to preserve this last great work from the oeuvres of Katharine, Humphrey, and John, until I could give it a fitting viewing experience.  I hope that watching it on the big screen at the TCM Classic Film Festival tomorrow evening will fulfill the promise I made years ago!

So the quest will be complete very soon, after which I’ll indulge in my evaluation of the very best (and maybe a touch of the worst) of the 424 nominated performances.  In the meantime, let’s see if I can effectively balance eating sleeping, driving, and watching films!  Wish me luck! in this vaunted category.

Acknowledgments, Part Two

ishot-1571

ishot-1569

ishot-1570

Also, lest tackling this quest start to go to my head, I want to point that I’m not the only person to do so, nor, should I succeed by Sunday will I be the first to see every nominee.  That honor goes to the incomparable Nick Davis, an English professor who completed the Best Actress category back in 2010 and nearly led me to give up from sheer inferiority.  In addition, in my Google searches I constantly encounter two far more robust blogs covering the Best Actress race, year by year: The Oscar Nerd and Fritz and the Oscars.  For those who are much more interested in the Oscar race than little old me, I can’t recommend the three authors of these sites enough!  All of them have considerable critical skills, insight into Oscar history, and colorful, enthusiastic writing (yes, the English professor has a bit more than his fair share of the latter!)  They make me feel positively lazy by comparison, and paradoxically, I’ve tried both to avoid aping their styles and look toward them as models for what I might eventually do with this project.  At any rate, do yourself a favor and check them out!