'Have Time, Will Travel' Part II: Best Picture Nominees We Might Have Missed
Continued from the previous article, here's a look at some of the films which have been nominated for Best Picture in the past that while not winners, are worthy and significant enough to be revisited...
The Informer (1935)
Like many of the old masters, John Ford had tons of directing credits and worked in numerous genres. The Informer is possibly one of Ford’s most political films as much as it is one of his stylized. History and politics are a regular fixture in Ford’s cinema, but in his Americana yarns he opts to print the legend (it’s practically the thesis for Fort Apache). The Informer bears some gritty teeth in being one of the first movies to explore the troubles in Ireland and the IRA. The big acting and emotional crescendos are emblematic of the mid-thirties, and Victor McLaglen has a lot of personalities, he’s a bit much at times, but that’s nothing new. John Ford made a lot of movies, most of them lyrical westerns, historical epics, war stories and adventure films, but The Informer is a unique film from Ford.
The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)
While the notion of a movie about the French chemist responsible for pasteurization might not sound all that exciting, William Dieterle and Paul Muni’s preamble in the bio territory works with equal success as the best picture winner The Life of Emile Zola. We associate the Pasteur name with what we see on cartons of milk and various dairy products when in all actuality Louis Pasteur is responsible for sterilization, proper sanitizing measures (simple things like doctors washing their hands and cleaning surgical equipment), as well as developing advancements in medical practices through his germ theory.
Dieterle and Muni seem to have a great chemistry, and they find another miraculous outcast in the Pasteur character with another excellent performance from Muni. While the similarities might echo The Life of Emile Zola, as Muni is a beard-sporting “thinking man” in both, it makes for an interesting double feature. Given the period in which these were made it might seem like this team was drawing from the same well. But, in the context of the times people in the movies business weren’t thinking about repeating themselves, or how it would look in hindsight, the old Hollywood model was “if it worked once it’ll work again.”
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
To enjoy this film is to be an immediate apologist for it’s brazenly outdated and sexist values. It's too easy to subscribe to the cop out “well that’s the past for ya” school of thought as director Stanley Donen and screenwriters Albert Hackett and Dorothy Kingsley approach the ridiculous material and treat as such. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers centers on seven titular brothers and their kidnapping of the titular seven brides on the Northwestern frontier in the mid-1800’s. The movie itself is a wonderfully colorful musical exploding with energy; the most memorably the barn raising dance with turns into an all out frenzy of fighting logrolling and all things acrobatic. A radiant romp that might be overshadowed by Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is strange but fun.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Harris will make your hair stand in this emotionally intense tour de force vehicle for its strong cast including George Segal and Sandy Dennis. Mike Nichols’ direction is even more impressive considering his reputation for more comedic satire with The Graduate, Catch-22 and later on with The Birdcage. It’s swift and strict with expressionistic flair concentrated in the grainy black and white cinematography.
While Burton and Taylor spit fire at each other, and everyone around them, we can’t help but imagine their lives before and after the night in which the film takes place. In certain circles, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has a solid reputation, and while it might not be at the top of people's watchlist, it should at least be on their horizon.
Bound for Glory (1976)
Hal Ashby’s leftist legacy consists of many classics representative of the New Hollywood movement, and one of his best movies Bound for Glory is cruelly underrated and not what we think of as a best picture candidate. Breaking the film down its components are all exemplary and the sum of their parts equal a staggering film, and yet Bound for Glory didn’t connect with an audience upon its release and was something of a failure at the box office. The idea that a large-scale production recreating the life of iconic folk singer/union organizer Woody Guthrie not connecting with people in the late seventies is mind boggling. While it’s easy to criticize the academy and their selections Bound for Glory is a revelation since it’s not only of its time but ahead of it.
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
When watching this movie, I thought to myself “where did this movie come from?” and “why isn’t this a big deal?” I suppose it was a big enough deal to earn an Academy Award nomination for best picture. We’ve come a long way in LGBT films and even for 1991 Kiss of the Spider Woman feels a bit timeless, technically it “looks” like a product from the eighties but the story feels like a Fassbinder/Almodovar-inspired as a political prisoner (Raul Julia) shares a cell with a trans, gay man (William Hurt in a truly transformative role) in what turns out to be equal parts gritty melodrama and escapist fantasy. A remarkable drama with dimensions to spare and impactful emotional power. Sometimes nominees supersede the winners (Saving Private Ryan to Shakespeare in Love perhaps?) and other times they seem to fall off the face of the earth. I feel like if the voting body maybe we’d see more Carol than Imitation Game’s and Danish Girls. Everyone has their blind spots, and here’s to hoping there’s a Kiss of the Spider Woman renaissance.
Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
This wouldn’t be the first time snub for Stephen Frears, while it’s hard to understand why this, or Mississippi Burning would lose to Rain Man, but Hoffman and Cruise struck a chord with audiences even if the depiction of autism was a bit...offensive?
Like The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Age of Innocence, and Sense and Sensibility, Dangerous Liaisons is the best movie Merchant Ivory never directed. Sumptuously devious and unabashedly sexy Dangerous Liaisons is a seductive delight with incredible cast helmed by John Malkovich, Glenn Close, MIchelle Pfeiffer even Keanu Reeves who seemed to make it his business to be taken seriously with this, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and A Walk in the Clouds at this point.
The Godfather Part III (1990)
Is The Godfather Part III perfect? Absolutely not, but it’s only following not one, but two of what many consider to be the greatest films ever made, wrapping up the Corleone legacy with decades in between the films is a feat - the fact that Coppola made a pretty solid (if problematic) finale is a miracle. The Godfather Part III also taught us a valuable lesson about Sofia Coppola, and that her talents lie behind the camera and not in front of it. Coppola seems to embrace the baroque nature of his filmmaking, maybe it’s the presence of Eli Wallach, but there are echoes of Leone in this especially the (literally) operatic finale. Tying the mafia into papal intrigue reconciles that lapsed Catholicism (or Catholic guilt?) instilled in the genre. The Godfather Part III was an interesting nominee, and if you look at sequels in this category, there’s more “part threes” than anything with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Toy Story 3.
Secrets & Lies (1996)
Whenever there's a movie in this category that’s an assured win the other nominees can fall to the wayside. 1996 had the all encompassing The English Patient, the Coen’s masterpiece Fargo, the ever so quotable Jerry Maguire, and even if you haven’t seen Shine it was still “the piano guy movie.” So what happens to Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies? Well despite being one of the best from the director Secrets & Lies has had an underwhelming life on home video, likely dwarfed by Leigh’s more sensational titles like Naked or Life is Sweet. While Leigh’s 1996 film touches on some topical matters for its time (a woman is tracked down by her daughter who she abandoned because of a mixed race relationship) while time might have taken some edge from Secrets & Lies it’s still a relevant and important film.
The Queen (2006)
What looks like a by the numbers biopic is a captivating look inside the royal family following the tumultuous period after the death of Princess Diana. Frears examines the media's invasive influence, and its role in maneuvering the shifting powers as the royal families solemn dignified treatment of the tragedy doesn’t bode with a mourning nation who interprets Queen Elizabeth’s silence as an insult due to their publicized relationship with Princess Diana’s public and private life. Furthermore, the standoff between modernist Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and Helen Mirren’s interpretation as the Queen is just as intriguing. Wonderfully acted and brilliantly nuanced by Frears, The Queen is a deft examination of the shifts in the cultural climate. 2006 was all about Scorsese (rightfully so), but Stephen Frears is not to to be overlooked.