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Monday, February 20, 2012

One of the most fun things to do is to bitch about how consistently wrong the Oscars have been throughout their history; but in the interest of being positive and loving to all things in the world, I thought I'd take the exact opposite tack of spending some time exploring the places where the Academy did well, even really well. The places, in fact, where the Academy gave out an award so smart and deserving that I can hardly assume that it was the same body responsible for maintaining that John Mills gave a great supporting performance in Ryan's Daughter, that Joan of Arc had cinematography deserving of any better compliment than "functional", or that Ron Howard directed A Beautiful Mind with more skill than that demonstrated by Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, Robert Altman, or David Lynch.

I give you a list of:

The Ten Most Deserving Oscar Winners (Outside of the Big 8)

Honorable Mention:
Mostly because it seemed like the fair thing to do, I only included competitive wins, and not any of the special awards given out here and there along the way. But that said, I think it would not do at all to forget about the 1952 Honorary Oscar given to Rashomon as the best foreign-language film released in the United States in 1951; the arcane rules of the actual Best Foreign Language Film category, introduced five years later, mean that very few real masterpieces have even been nominated there, let alone won, but it is pleasing that the film which in one stroke established Japan as one of the most important national film industries, as well as kicking off the decade when non-American films first became a major force in the lives of U.S. cinephiles, should be recognised in some capacity.

10. Best Art Direction-Interior Direction in Color, 1946:
The Yearling (Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse, Edwin B. Willis)

First, if you think you're too sophisticated for the story of a carpetbagger boy and his pet deer in Reconstruction-era Florida, you are mistaken: the film is by no means as sugary or simple as its plot would suggest. And a very huge part of the reason why is the brilliantly-realised world that the movie takes place in, one that is appealingly quaint but also realistic enough not to seem like a storybook. It's also an unusually fine example of an exterior set that strikes a good balance between looking like the actual out-of-doors and the pleasantly artificial world of a studio. The fact that it beat out the almost-equally deserving Henry V even means that this wasn't, in despite of the evidence, the most conservative choice that year.

9. Best Film Editing, 1969:
Z (Françoise Bonnot)

All things considered, Editing is one of the categories that has a better track record than most; even then, a politically audacious Greek biopic-thriller-message movie is an unusual choice (that same year, they could have gone with Hello, Dolly! - the brain revolts). On the other hand, it's a typical winner in this category in a lot of ways: calls a lot of attention to itself through chronological manipulation and fast pacing and such. "Typical", that is, except in its level of achievement: the film itself is one of the tightest, most brutally driving thrillers of its decade, and that is largely the result of Bonnot's immaculately well-timed cuts.

8. Best Cinematography, 1975:
Barry Lyndon (John Alcott)

On paper, this one is pretty damn conservative: pretty movies usually win here, and Barry Lyndon is nothing if it isn't pretty. And I suppose that's probably why it actually won. On the other hand, it's also one of the most technically innovative movies to ever triumph here, given the tendency for really important works of cinematography to lack the postcard loveliness the Academy favors (as Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki, to name two recent high-profile losers, have cause to know). So it's a bit of luck that this film which re-wrote the book on using on-camera and natural light happens to have also been so gorgeous; and yet not luck at all, given that it was precisely the technological leap that Alcott and Stanley Kubrick made in shooting this film that gave it such a painterly quality.

7. Best Costume Design in Black-and-White, 1963:
La dolce vita (Piero Gherardi)

There have been a lot of fine and worthy winners of the Costume Design Oscars, but more than any other visual category, the Academy knows what it likes here: 18th or19th Century period pieces with lots of big, pretty dresses. Which makes the occasions that they've broken away from that all the more precious. A lot of those were clustered around the beginning of the 1960s, of which the smartest to my mind is Gerardi's first victory (he was back for ) for Federico Fellini's study of the lives of the stylish classes; a movie in which the clothes that people wear are frequently the only indication of their personality, or more to the point, the personality they'd like to showcase. It's one of cinema's most sustained and effective examples of costume-as-storytelling, and a fantastic time capsule of haute couture c. 1960 as well.

6. Best Original Score, 1938:
The Adventures of Robin Hood (Erich Wolfgang Korngold)

John Williams, Miklos Rozsa, Maurice Jarre: a lot of great composers have won for a lot of great scores. But my favorite will always be Korngold's bright and hugely enthusiastic pop-symphonic adventure in obvious emotions and exhilaration - a score without which it's difficult to imagine Williams's career - that is perhaps the most singularly rousing adventure music ever tied to a Hollywood production. Sure, it's not as experimental or challenging as a lot of the music that hasn't won or been nominated, though it's more innovative than you might think, in a world where its descendants can be found five or six times every summer; but what matters is ultimately how much flair it adds to an already peppy film, and how it's one of the few scores from the 1930s that is worth listening to on its own merits as music.

5. Fanny and Alexander, 1983:
Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Anna Asp, Susanne Lingheim) and Best Costume Design (Marik Vos-Lundh

And also this fella named Sven Nykvist won for Cinematography, but the reason I have lumped these two together, and not that one, is simple: both of these categories have a pronounced weakness for period films that Fanny and Alexander fulfills to a "T", and in both cases, this is the best period film that has ever been rewarded. Largely because Fanny and Alexander is among the best period films that has ever been made at all; one in which the precision of the sets and costumes is not merely eye candy, but the viewer's visual entryway into a world that is fundamentally different than ours even if the emotions are the same; it is a film in which nostalgia for a time and place we have never personally experienced is a major element in how it goes about telling it story, and the heightened, even theatrical feeling of turn of the century Sweden as depicted in this film is far and away the most important element in creating that nostalgia.

4. Best Film Editing, 1975: Jaws (Verna Fields)

A legendary achievement in turning a pile of footage into a clear, driving narrative; but as impressive as it is that Fields was able to make Jaws exist in the first place, that's not why I've put her here. It's because of the degree to which this film, among the finest action-adventure-thrillers ever produced, relies upon savvy and impeccably-timed cutting for almost all of its best moments to land with the, frankly, sublime force that they do: several of the film's most celebrated sequences, from the opening shark attack to the climactic face off between Roy Scheider and a dysfunctional shark robot, are masterpieces of the editor's craft as much or more than they are the director's or screenwriter's.

3. Best Cinematography, 1927-'28:
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Charles Rosher, Karl Struss)

The first-ever winner of this award is also the best: a grab-bag of every trick and technique that filmmakers had achieved as of the pinnacle year for visual storytelling in silent cinema. Combining sentimental pictorialism with some of the brashest and most Expressionist shots in American film history - its depiction of the city as a nightmare of straight lines and cruel angles is topped only by fellow Class of '27-'28 film The Crowd (which wasn't nominated in this category), while its dreamy depiction of the countryside in its final sequence is matched nowhere else in the medium. How much of this is due to the cinematographers and how much is the German genius F.W. Murnau is hard to say, but with results this good, it's hard to be concerned with such matters.

2. Best Original Song, 1940:
"When You Wish Upon a Star", from Pinocchio
(Music by Leigh Harline, lyric by Ned Washington)
1. Best Original Song, 1939:
"Over the Rainbow", from The Wizard of Oz
(Music by Harold Arlen, lyric by E.Y. Harburg)

Even before the notorious failure of the Best Song category to justify its own existence in even the slightest degree (seriously, they nominated the song from motherfucking Rio), Best Original Song had a legendarily bad track record: some of the losing nominees include "They Can't Take That Away from Me", "What's New Pussycat", "The Bare Necessities", "Blame Canada", and "Nine to Five", and that's without so much as the songs that weren't able to swing a nomination. But there have been exceptions, of which the most extraordinary was a 2-year run that has never been matched in any category at the Oscars. The 1940 song is, of course, a ballad of winsome yearning sweet enough that 72 years later, it's still the official theme song of the Walt Disney Company; and while it is undeniably on the corny side, it takes a much stronger viewer than I to resist its delicacy.

Even so, it's not a patch on the winner from the year before: another yearning ballad that was slow enough that it very nearly was cut from the film before its release. But wiser heads prevailed, and so the world was given the gift of teenage Judy Garland, before MGM got her all jacked up on pills, singing one of the tenderest "I Want" songs in the history of the American musical, and a solid candidate for the title of best song ever written for a motion picture. You'd say that such perfection was a shoe-in for the Oscar; no such thing when it comes to Original Song, but sometimes heartbreaking genius is simply too obvious to deny.


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