Category Check 2014: 2 down, 6 to go

All right! Some computer problems have finally been put to bed and I’m happy to return for an update on the overall progress of the Oscar Quest.

Having now completed the Best Actress and Best Actor categories, I find that I still have a long way to go. Updating each of the six remaining checklists, I’ve realized that the Big Eight categories are far less interconnected than I originally thought. I’d anticipated that most of the Best Director nominees would be multi-category juggernauts, and indeed many were, especially when one factors in the craft categories. However, true across-the-board nominees tend to be the ones I had seen already, and my recent conquests barely made a dent in most of the remaining fields: I’ve only checked off 21 of the 123 remaining Best Actor nominees and a mere 10 of the remaining 127 Original Screenplays. To be sure, by finishing Best Director I made much more overall progress than I did by finishing Best Actress, but the fact remains that I’ve now seen over one thousand movies with major Oscar nominations, and I still have several hundred to go.

This prospect is daunting and exhilarating at the same time. With six diverse and extensive categories remaining, it’s clear that unless I should wind up in traction or under house arrest in the near future, finishing the Oscar Quest will mean five more summers of heavy film viewing. Frankly, though, I’m glad to have so much still ahead of me! I don’t doubt for a second that each of these categories has brilliant, fascinating, and downright perplexing nominations in store, just like those I discovered on the Best Actress and Best Director Quests.

Last year, I posted individual profiles of all seven remaining categories. I doubt there’s any need to replicate such detail, so I’ll confine myself to a link to last year’s overview, a quick update, and a few sundry thoughts.

Best Picture – 27 down, 43 left

Here, of course, we do see a lot of Best Director overlap. I won’t conceal that I am saving this category for last, and that I’ll probably tackle it right after I finish the penultimate category. I’ll be curious to see the different facets of this category that are revealed as I peel of each screenwriting and acting category. This is the only category left in which I’ve seen all the winners, but I do still expect some remarkable filmmaking from among the remaining contenders! I’m particularly looking forward to two longtime holes in the DVD universe (Ruggles of Red Gap and The Magnificent Ambersons) and two disaster spectaculars (Airport and The Towering Inferno), all of which I hope to catch on the big screen!


Best Actor – 21 down, 102 (including 10 winners) left

Though I typically think of Best Actress as the real “one-shot” performance category, Best Actor also has its fair share of films nominated exclusively in that category. Given that many of my favorite Best Actress performances (Testament, Séance on a Wet Afternoon) came from such low-profile films, I’ll eventually take on this category with an open mind and high hopes! Sight unseen, I’m particularly anxious to see the non-winning work by several of the category’s winners, such as Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker, Jeff Bridges in Starman, and Denzel Washington in The Hurricane (1999).

Best Supporting Actress – 10 down, 82 (including 9 winners) left

Supporting Actor and Actress are a fascinating mixture of moonlighting stars, rising or fading legends, true character actors, and complete outsiders. As I’ve said before, I often know so little about the nominated performance that I’m looking forward to the film first and foremost. However, I’m especially keen to see the Oscar-nominated work of actresses I know for completely different reasons: Billie Burke in Merrily We Live, Paulette Goddard in So Proudly We Hail, and yes, Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted.

Best Supporting Actor – 13 down, 104 (including 12 winners) left

With a total of 305 separate nominees, Supporting Actor represents more separate individuals than any other acting category. Again, it’s a spendid mix of the famous, the familiar, and the unknown, with several of my all-time favorite performances included among the ones I’ve already checked off. I hardly know how to start narrowing it down, but I’d say I’m most excited by the truly great character actors, like Thomas Mitchell in The Hurricane (1937), John Lithgow in The World According to Garp, and Arthur Kennedy in The Trial.

Best Original Screenplay – 10 down, 117 (including 9 winners) left

Original Screenplay is the youngest and thus the smallest category among the Big Eight, and yet it still has the most left for me to see.  That just shows how exceptionally idiosyncratic the category is. As with Best Actress, the category defines a minority of commercial films (around the world as well as in Hollywood), and the best work often comes from the most marginal movies. I have a huge array of anticipated and totally unknown titles before me, but I’m especially looking forward to the robust contingent of international films, including Rossellini et al’s Paisan, Duras’ Hiroshima, mon amour, and Jackson & Walsh’s Heavenly Creatures.

Best Adapted Screenplay – 18 down, 78 (including 1 winner) left

As this is also something of a shadow Best Picture/Director category, I have fewer remaining in this category than any other and it will likely be my next target. Many of the titles still outstanding come from those pesky 2nd Academy Awards, in which multiple works were under consideration for each individual. I don’t know if I can expect to find all of them, but I’ll do my darnedest! Meanwhile, as with Original Screenplay, I look forward to catching up with many of the foreign offerings: Amedei & Fellini’s Rome, Open City, Bertolucci’s The Conformist, and Hodge’s Trainspotting.

That should do it for now!  I’ll post sporadically in the coming weeks and months, including comments on the 2013 Oscar race and the season that will intervene between now and the start of the next category.  And if all goes according to the current plan, I’ll be back next spring for Best Adapted Screenplay!


Category Check: Best Original Screenplay


In contrast with Adapted Screenplay’s tortuous early lineage, Original Screenplay, the youngest of the major categories, has always featured five nominees and reasonably clear criterion: that the screenplay not be based on preexisting written material.

But it wouldn’t be the Academy Awards if that central premise weren’t riddled with loopholes and ambiguities.  Authorship, narrative, and originality have always been fraught topics in filmmaking, as this category bears out:

  • Fiction and feature-length criteria have been permeable in the past: unique among the Big Eight, Original Screenplay has featured a nomination for a documentary (Helen Slote Levitt, Janice Loeb, and Sidney Meyers’ The Quiet One) and a win for a short film (Albert Lamorrisse’s The Red Balloon).
  • Sequels to original screenplays (Norman Panama and Melvin Frank’s Road to Utopia, Harry Kumitz’s What Next, Corporal Hargrove?) were initially allowed to stay “original,” even if the writers differed between the films, and were only later shunted over to Adapted.
  • A persisting standard allows films based on historical fact (including biopics from Wilson to Milk), even those that credit pre-existing sources (Letters from Iwo Jima, On the Waterfront), if the characters and scenes are not the creative product of a published work.
  • Even publication status plays a huge role: as adaptations of unproduced stage plays, the Epstein Twins and Howard Koch’s Casablanca won in Adapted in 1943 and David Seidler’s The King’s Speech won in 2010, but would have flopped categories if they’d been released in each other’s eras.

All these vagaries aside, it’s probably the most diverse and surprising category of the Big eight, and a project I dearly wish to engage, especially given my weakness in the category.

As opposed to the comparatively well-trodden Adapted Screenplay category, I have seen a mere 231 of the 360 nominees, or less than two-thirds.  That leaves a whopping 129 films to go, including fifteen winners, from the inaugural recipient, Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty, all the way up to Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game in 1992.  Original Screenplay also features the only year in which I’m 0-for-5 in a category: 1943, for which I have yet to see any of the heavily World War-themed nominees.  Among the other hundred and change, there are many that are burning holes on the list, from landmark works like Alun Owen’s A Hard Day’s Night or Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape to blindspots in the great Woody Allen’s oeuvre (Alice, Bullets over Broadway) and other works by mighty writer-directors like Preston Sturges (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) and John Sayles (Lone Star).  I’m especially piqued, though, by the raft of war and veteran films that populated the category during and after World War II, from straight combat films like Robert Pirosh’s Battleground and Richard Murphy’s The Desert Rats to more unorthodox addresses of the topic, including Comden & Green’s It’s Always Fair Weather and Powell & Pressburger’s One of Our Aircraft Is Missing.

Unlike Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture overlap in Original went from slight in the early 1940s, to practically nonexistent through the early 1970s (only 15 out of 135 nominees from 1945-1972), to moderate (an average of around 2 per year) in the last four decades.  Only 105 of the 260 nominees in this category are Best Picture nominees, and since the founding of the category, never have all five nominees overlapped with the Best Picture slate (as Adapted did from 1940-1943, 1964, 2010, and 2012).

Filling the Best Picture rain shadow formed by Adapted Screenplay, the Writing Branch has embraced a range of filmmaking often excluded from the other big categories, most notably in their passionate and prescient endorsement of the postwar international art house: from Cesare Zavattini, et al’s Shoeshine and Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot’s Holiday to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad and Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, most years from 1945 to 1987 featured at least one foreign language nominee, including a stretch in the mid-1960s when half of the nominees (and two winners, Divorce Italian Style and A Man and a Woman) were in another language.

Even in English, though, the category has maintained room for a smorgasbord of alternatives to traditional prestige cinema, from virtuoso postmodern storytelling (Tom Stoppard, Terry Gilliam, and Christopher McKeown’s Brazil or Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s Memento), stridently independent voices (Gregory Nava’s El Norte and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing) and unabashed but whip-smart entertainment (Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s Back to the Future, or Ernest Lehman and Ben Hecht’s brace of Hitchcock films: North by Northwest and Notorious).

All in all, this might be my favorite category, a strange and startling minority report against the eternal hegemony of Adapted Screenplay, which has perennially represented the lion’s share of films made in Hollywood (and worldwide), as well as those nominated for Academy Awards.  I look forward to tackling this category one day, but I think 129 films is a bit unrealistic for one summer, so I’ll have to dedicate myself to this category at a later date.

Category Check: Miles to Go


Lest anyone think that my recent completion of the Best Actress category is the rule and not the exception, I’m starting a survey of my progress in the other seven categories as of the day that I watched the last Best Actress nominee. Among the overabundance of reasons that led me to begin the Best Actress Quest was that it was my weakest category, and would remain so unless I took deliberate action.  It’s funny now to see where the other categories lie relative to one another, and how the completion of the Best Actress quest has affected their trajectories.

These lists remain essentially accurate as of the time of writing–as an intentional change of pace, I’ve spent the last three weeks sampling films well outside of the Best Actress wheelhouse.  Between cult films (Primer, Point Break), documentaries (Stories We Tell, The Yes Men Fix the World), and new movies (Star Trek into Darkness, 42, Before Midnight), not to mention gobs and gobs of TV from To Play the King to Redwall, I’ve had a nice refreshing break from the typical range of the Best Actress film.  Only 1 of 19 features I’ve seen since The African Queen boasts any major Oscar nomination, the exception being Mildred Natwick’s Supporting Actress nomination for her delightfully haphazard mother-in-law in Barefoot in the Park–though I’ll be appalled if the number doesn’t retroactively rise to 2 in January with Julie Delpy’s nomination for her magnificent work in Before Midnight.

Anyhow, the next three days will see me post overviews of the Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture, along with a few comments on the best of what I’ve seen and the work cut out for me.  And last but not least, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it’s now the beginning of summer, leaving me just under three months in which to polish off a second category!  Which one ought to become clear soon enough.  In the meantime, let’s take a look at the mountains yet to be scaled.