One of my favorite intermittent features on this blog, and for some reason one of the hardest for me to keep feeding, were my top ten lists that I tried to keep alive every Monday. The mood struck me to resurrect them for a little while, a month at least: for the Oscars are happening in a few weeks, and there’s very little that makes better list fodder in the world of cinema that quantifying the various faces of the Academy Awards. So with that in mind, I proudly present my list of
The Ten Best Slates of Nominees in Oscar History
Won: Out of Africa (Stephen B. Grimes, Josie MacAvin)
Brazil (Norman Garwood, Maggie Gray)
The Color Purple (J. Michael Riva, Bo Welch, Linda DeScenna)
Ran (Muraki Yoshirô, Muraki Shinobu)
Witness (Stan Jolley, John H. Anderson)
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog
The Secret of Kells
For all that it’s easy to accuse Oscar’s taste in this category as being fixated on sad wives and prostitutes, I have actually found that Best Actress has, by a commanding margin, the best slates of acting nominees. For the Best Year of Hollywood Filmmaking Ever, they gave the nod to a fine selection of star turns: the great, brittle Davis in an unusually vulnerable, weepy place, Dunne showing the world how a middle-aged woman can turn a fine romantic drama into an all-time masterpiece through sheer strength of will, Garbo giving a wonderful comic performance that is simultaneously nestled in her well-worn persona, and completely different from anything she’d ever had to do, and Garson giving what is, to my tastes, by far the best performance she would ever give for the rest of her career in the movie that put her on the map. Best of all, of course, is Leigh’s towering achievement as Scarlett O’Hara, one of the great works of film acting full stop, and almost certainly the best performance ever rewarded with an Oscar.
Before the Academy knew what the hell it was doing, it was actually quite a lot more fun: most of the categories in the first year of the awards are pretty damn great, none more than the first ever Best Picture slate, an unimaginable mix in any other year, and not just because with only three candidates, they were able to cut down on the dross (all in all, I prefer it to the tonier Most Unique and Artistic Production – Chang doesn’t do much for me). The winner, despite not being Sunrise, is still an outstanding adventure film with great star turns and visual effects that hold up more than eight decades later; 7th Heaven is of course one of the most beautiful and delicate sentimental dramas of silent cinema’s best year, and The Racket is a terrifically entertaining gangster picture from when that genre was still experimenting with its own identity.
Won: Here Comes Mr. Jordan, by Harry Segall
Ball of Fire, by Thomas Monroe & Billy Wilder
The Lady Eve, by Monckton Hoffe
Meet John Doe, by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell
Night Train to Munich, by Gordon Wellesley
I miss this category – a film can have a great story & not a great screenplay, and vice-versa – almost as much as I miss when the Academy would be this cool with nominating four comedies and a thriller in any category. And such comedies! They come in flavors ranging from the sticky-sentimental (Meet John Doe) to the witty and playful (Here Comes Mr. Jordan) to the manic (Ball of Fire) to the very manic (The Lady Eve), and in every case it’s the scenario as much as the dialogue or even acting that gives the film its comic heft. Night Train, for its part, is a razor-sharp WWII adventure that is one of the best examples of British war pictures doing double duty as propaganda and entertainment.
Won: The Informer, by Dudley Nicholls
The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, by Grover Jones & William Slavens McNutt and Waldemar Young & John L. Balderston and Achmed Abdullah
Mutiny on the Bounty, by Talbot Jennings & Jules Furthman and Carey Wilson
Captain Blood, by Casey Robinson (write-in)
The names have changed, but it’s basically Adapted Screenplay – and such fantastic adaptations! My favorite among the lot is Mutiny, for shaping the material in a more exciting narrative context and doing the best job in any medium of correctly balancing the emotional registers that frequently turn Bligh into a psychopath; but the other two official nominees are fantastic themselves: the driving sense of doom underpinning The Informer‘s moral drama, and the spirited sense of adventure that makes Bengal Lancer‘s jolly colonialism easier to take than most other “Brits in India” pictures of the ’30s. Though I have to say, neither of them pleases me as much as Captain Blood making it to third place in the balloting without even having a nomination, despite distilling everything we love about matinee adventures, dashing hero-pirates, and kiddie-family political intrigue into one intoxicating mash.
Won: There Will Be Blood (Robert Elswit)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Roger Deakins)
Atonement (Seamus McGarvey)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Janusz Kaminski)
No Country for Old Men (Roger Deakins)
The no-doubt-about-it worst of these, Atonement, is still one of the smartest-looking mid-century period pieces of modern times, with McGarvey able to save even the gaudiest of director Joe Wright’s visual conceits with skill and class. And the other four are all unimpeachable: Kaminski’s work is ill-served by shaky direction, but it still has as much imagination and cunning as anything he’s done, while Elswit and Deakins both turn in career-best work, in careers that are certainly not wanting for high points. Indeed, all three films put in a strong bid for title of best-shot movie of the last 25 years, making it a little bit easier to swallow the fact that Deakins couldn’t even win it when he had a 40% chance.
Won: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Dog Day Afternoon
I’m not sure which is more telling: that the winner, and easily my least-favorite here, is nonetheless one of the very best of all the ’70s chamber-dramas-about-the-Zeitgeist, with a stunning ensemble cast; or that Jaws, one of the most perfect action-thrillers of all time and the best popcorn movie in history, would only have come in third on my ballot, behind Nashville‘s condensation of America at the dawn of its third century into a sprawling cityscape of pitch-perfect stories and moments, and Barry Lyndon‘s absolute reinvention of the artistic heights to which a costume drama could possible reach. Add in DDA, the second-best film of Sidney Lumet’s career, and a magnificently nervy tale of urban life during the social chaos of the day, and you have an irreproachable blend of stories about the modern day and historical movements, outstanding character work and genre experiment, and as flawless a capsule of “this is what great cinema looked like in 1975” as anyone could ever hope to assemble.
Won: Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday
Anne Baxter, All About Eve
Bette Davis, All About Eve
Eleanor Parker, Caged
Gloria Swanson, Sunset Blvd.
The legendary battle between two of the great film performances of the post-war era, Davis’s epically bitchy theater diva and Swanson’s grandly insane movie diva ended, of course, with the crowning of a neophyte, but it’s not fair to jump all over Holliday, as some have taken occasion to do; she’s incredible in a role that almost demands to be played more broadly and simply than she does here, in a performance so sly that it is impossible to appreciate just how deep it runs until a second or even third viewing. Baxter was never going to win with her co-star in the mix, but it’s still a brilliant turn, far subtler and less theatrical and a perfect fit because of it, and you have to hand it to the Academy; if it came out today, she’d undoubtedly be thrown in Supporting Actress, but they had none of that bullshit in 1950. Parker is obviously the fifth wheel here; I’ll admit to not having much use for her most of the time, but she’s pretty damn great – career-best great, right in her big coming-out moment – in a woman in prison movie that has a lot more going on than the genre usually can muster up.
Won: Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather, Part II
John Cassavetes, A Woman Under the Influence
Bob Fosse, Lenny
Roman Polanski, Chinatown
François Truffaut, Day for Night
It was surprising, to me anyway, how many times in how many categories there would be four top-class, world-beating nominees, and then one complete throwaway there to ruin it all. Of these, the most galling was Best Picture ’74, in which the Academy had to hunt way outside of its comfort zone to find The Towering Inferno, just about the only plausible choice that could keep that slate from making this list itself. Happily, Best Director nailed it (in fact, Director is stronger than Picture in all but one or two seasons of the Academy’s 84-year history) with the densest cluster of geniuses ever: Polanski and Cassavetes making their respective masterpieces, Fosse making the best biopic of the decade, and Truffaut having all kinds of fun with cinema’s most delightful and brilliant movie about movies. I wish Coppola had made it in for The Conversation, but that wasn’t going to happen; and when you’re nitpicking over which of Coppola’s two best movies gets the nomination, you’ve run out of things to complain about.