Monday, April 3, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1959

The Contenders:

Anatomy of a Murder
Ben-Hur (winner)
The Diary of Anne Frank
The Nun’s Story
Room at the Top

What’s Missing

When you talk about great years for movies, 1959 needs to be one of the first years that gets mentioned. There are so many great movies from this year that it’s tragic that the nominations were limited to five. Ten wouldn’t have been enough. I’ll drop the noteworthy films that aren’t really the kind that get nominations for Best Picture. These start with Black Orpheus and Eyes Without a Face. I also love The House on Haunted Hill, but it’s not a film that would be nominated in a million years. Foreign films don’t get a lot of Best Picture nominations, either, so films like The 400 Blows, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Wild Strawberries, Pickpocket and Breathless probably wouldn’t get nominations in all but the weakest of years, which this isn’t (and I wouldn’t nominate Breathless). Now, let’s get serious. There are at least three movies that bear serious consideration and that I would pick over at least two of the nominees. The first is Suddenly, Last Summer, a bizarre and creepy film that goes to some very weird places. Second is the classic Some Like It Hot, considered by many to be the funniest movie ever made. Third, and for me the biggest miss, is North by Northwest, the greatest move ever made.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I think The Diary of Anne Frank was nominated not because of its quality (it’s not bad), but because of what it is. It’s a sentimental nomination, the sort of film that feels like it should be nominated and held up as one of the great achievements of the year. Were this a more generic tale of a family in hiding during the Holocaust—change the names and nothing else—I don’t think it winds up here. It’s not a bad film, but in a year this good, it’s not even one of the ten best films of the year, let alone one of the five best.

4. The Nun’s Story is interesting, but it has some real problems. The main problem is that it’s far too long for the story it tells. At just shy of 150 minutes, it’s at least a half hour longer than it needs to be, and probably a bit more than that. Again, it’s good, but it wouldn’t crack my top-10 for 1959, let alone be considered as one of the best films of the year overall. Not even the particular and wonderful charms of Audrey Hepburn can change the fact that it needs not just a trim, but a serious cut to make it worth watching a second time.

3. Ben-Hur almost certainly won because it’s a huge Biblical epic, and that screams “Best Picture” to a lot of people, especially in this Hollywood era. I think an argument could be made for the chariot scene being the main reason that the film won, and it is perhaps the most spectacular piece of cinema since the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind. I give the film a great deal of credit for that, and while I understand completely why it won, that scene—as good of an argument as it is for letterboxing—isn’t enough to give it the top position.

2. Anatomy of a Murder is one of the first films I reviewed on this site, going all the way back to the second day of film reviews. Hundreds and hundreds of movies later, and I still remember a great deal of it. It was edgy for its time, which makes the nomination a little surprising. There’s a lot to like with this film, It serves as an indictment of the American legal system in many ways, which also seems surprising in Eisenhower’s America. I could see putting it on the top of the nominations we have.

1. That leaves us with Room at the Top, which features a fantastic performance from Simone Signoret and the typical cold, calculating performance from Laurence Harvey. I think the story is just about perfect. It works by giving everyone in the story everything he or she wants and then having them realize that it’s the worst thing they could possibly have. The story still works as well now as it did when the film first came out. Of the five nominations, it would be my pick almost every year, with Anatomy of a Murder winning perhaps one in five. But it’s not the real pick.

My Choice

C’mon, really? Of course I’m going to pick North by Northwest, although I could absolutely see picking Some Like It Hot just as easily. Those are the two best movies from this year without question, and I don’t know anyone who will disagree. If you do, please let me know below, but know now that you’re wrong.

Final Analysis


  1. Remarkable in a year this rich in quality that some of these films made it in. I love Biblical epics but I've always found Ben-Hur a dull slog except for that showpiece chariot race and Stephen Boyd. Not much of The Nun's Story stayed with me outside of Audrey Hepburn's performance and this version of Diary of Anne Frank is singularly uninspired given the power of the story.

    I think Room at the Top is a nicely turned tale but a great deal of its impact is tied to Simone Signoret though this is one of the few times where Harvey's cold personality strengthened a film, Manchurian Candidate being the other, but it wouldn't be my choice to come out on top. Anatomy of a Murder is such a finely layered film, well-paced and involving with a cast all turning in outstanding work that of these five it's an easy winner for me. However if we were talking the totality of the year it wouldn't be my pick.

    This is one of those years where ten nominees really would have been easy to fill but staying at five Anatomy is the only one of these I’d include, Room at the Top would place just beneath at six or seven. As I've said before this year would be an almost complete sweep for Some Like it Hot and that hasn't changed. N by NW would be a close second followed by Anatomy then The 400 Blows and Rio Bravo-which you didn’t mention.

    Other films that belonged in this lineup instead of those bottom three include: Compulsion, Look Back in Anger, The Devil’s Disciple and Black Orpheus. I’m sure others would mention Hiroshima, Mon Amour but I’ve yet to see it, probably my biggest blind spot for this year.

    1. I think I remember you picking Some Like It Hot on an early post concerning this year. I can't say it's a bad pick or even one with which I disagree. I have a huge soft spot for North by Northwest, though, and there's no getting around that. I think either one is the right choice.

      There's something about Anatomy of a Murder that leaves me a little cold. I'm not sure if it's the ending or something in the plot, but it feels emotionally flat in some ways. Room at the Top is vicious and emotional in all the right ways. Again, I think a case could be made for either one.

  2. Well, you know what my winner would be, but that's the only difference. Complete agreement about everything else.

    1. I don't at all object to the idea of Some Like It Hot winning. I like that fil a lot--it'sjust in competition with my favorite movie.

  3. "far too long for the story it tells"

    That's an evergreen criticism if ever there was one. Just ask Peter "The Hobbit" Jackson.

  4. This was a tough year to judge! Some Like It Hot was my personal favorite and on most days I would go with Anatomy of a Murder over Room at the Top among the nominees but I can totally understand your logic.

    1. In a year as strong as this one, there's rarely going to be a single right answer for anything. THere's going to be a lot of opinion that can be backed up to greater or lesser degree. In a year like this one, I don't really take issue with anyone else's opinion. Hard to be wrong when there are this many ways to be right.

  5. I will not and cannot argue your point. North by Northwest got robbed big time.

    1. Word. But, to be fair, so did Some Like It Hot.