Monday, July 8, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1996

The Contenders:

The English Patient (winner)
Jerry Maguire
Secrets & Lies

What’s Missing

1996 was a fine year for movies, and while there are some good ones on the nomination list, there’s a hell of a lot of room for improvement. We’ll start, as usual, with the films that would never get a nomination because of genre. These kick off with The Craft and Scream as well as The Frighteners. I love all three of these movies even if Oscar would rather die than acknowledge any of them. I don’t love Twister, but there’s a good joke regarding it with my wife, so I feel I have to mention it. I also don’t like Breaking the Waves, but I think it’s an important film. The People vs. Larry Flynt is a much better movie than people remember, and I think it belongs here. The Birdcage is one of those rare films where the remake is vastly superior to the original. Lone Star didn’t have the audience or clout, which is a damn shame for a very good movie. The biggest shocker to me is Branagh’s Hamlet. It’s a damn sight better than the Oscar-winning Olivier version from 1948, and it’s nowhere to be seen.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. We have an odd case here where, on Letterboxd, all five of the nominations have gotten a different rating from me, from 3 stars to 5. This means, objectively, I have an order for these to go in. Frankly, when I looked at my ratings, I’m surprised I put Shine at the 3-star mark. I remember liking it a lot less than I evidently did, and I’m not sure it would score this high if I could be bothered to rewatch it. It plays very much like a “disease/disorder of the week” movie with a very good cast. I have no desire to see it a second time.

4. Winner The English Patient is exactly the sort of movie that wins Best Picture Oscars. It’s a huge, sweeping romance with lots of scenery—a small love story shown on a huge canvas. Oscar voters eat this stuff up, and the win for The English Patient started a short trend of billowy romances winning the top award. It’s a fine movie, but again, it’s a movie I don’t think I’d bother to watch a second time. It’s bit, it’s romantic, there’s a lot of suffering and sighing, and then it ends, about half an hour after it overstays its welcome.

3. If you’ve never heard Patton Oswalt’s bit on Jerry Maguire, track it down—you’re doing yourself a disservice. Regardless of his experience at the theater, I think this is a solid movie, one that is probably a little worse than a lot of people think it is, but a little better than it deserves to be. Sure, it’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s a feel-good movie with a decent cast, and there are those movies where you fall for the clichés in spite of yourself. Jerry Maguire is that sort of movie. It works even though it shouldn’t.

2. I went into Secrets & Lies knowing absolutely nothing about it and kind of dreading it. I left on the other side a true believer in the story and the characters and the power of whatever binds us together as human beings through the best and worst of our lives. This is a movie that would win from me in a lot of years, and I love that the Academy, a body that has a long history of nominating a bunch of duds that have important messages or that give them their own little self-importance boners, nominated this little heartfelt drama that should be seen by more people.

My Choice

1. Fargo is the one and only right choice for this year, though. There are a lot of great and noteworthy films from this year, and if I were making the list of nominations, I’d probably only keep the top two, but Fargo is walking out on top every time. In addition to having a great story with an intricate and interesting plot, it also houses Marge Gunderson, the single greatest movie character of the last 30 years. There’s not a second of fat in this movie, either—every scene matters, and that’s a rare thing, indeed. It’s close to cinematic perfection, and it should have been the choice of Oscar, and I think they know it.

Final Analysis


  1. For me personally, I would've chosen Breaking the Waves as Best Picture in terms of how it stripped down the visuals and its exploration of faith. My runner-up would've been Trainspotting yet I would agree with you on Fargo as I felt that should've won Best Picture as it was daring and funny. Secrets & Lies would've been my runner-up pick in that list. I've only seen Shine in scattered bits but not enough to make me want to see it as a whole. Here's my list of what I thought are the best films of that year though I haven't seen the entirety of Lone Star while I also wanted to see the long, long version of Hamlet which I heard is a visual feast for the eyes.

    1. Oh wait, I have seen Lone Star. It's been a long time since I've seen it as I need to re-watch it.

    2. Hamlet is long, but it's (my opinion) the definitive version of the story on film. It's also interstingly cast, and Branagh at the sort of Shakespearean sweet spot in his career.

      Shine is borderline worth it. If you don't ever see it, you're not missing a great deal.

      Lone Star has a wonderful performance from the under-utilized and sorely missed Elizabeth Pena--perhaps her best performance in a career of good and great ones.

  2. Absolutely out of these five it should have been Fargo. It's a sly trenchant movie without proclaiming itself to be important (as English Patient does). Plus it's full of fascinating characters none more than Frances McDormand's Marge. It's the only one out of these nominees that would make my own list, though Secrets & Lies is a fine film.

    I love the mention of Hamlet, I was perplexed when it didn't receive much love from the Academy at all-it's a cinematic treat and far better than most of the actual nominees crammed with great acting. Branagh name should have been all over the place in the nominations, I just don't get it.

    Besides Hamlet and Fargo my list would include the marvelously incisive Brassed Off, the droll Emma (the only time I've been able to abide Gwyneth Paltrow on screen) and the film that would take the prize, the intense Primal Fear. While Fargo would be a close second I probably favor Primal Fear because of my love of courtroom dramas. Both are brilliantly acted.

    1. I haven't seen all of Brassed Off, so I don't feel right including it. I do love Pete Postlethwait, though, so I should probably get to it.

      I agree on Fargo. The best part of it is that it's a serious movie that doesn't always take itself that seriously, at least on the surface. It's pitch-perfect and I can't think of much that I would change.

  3. I'm going to be the fart in the church and declare that I liked Zeffirelli's Hamlet—yes, with Mel Gibson, and yes, highly truncated—better than the Branagh version (and I liked the BBC's Tennant/Stewart production better than the Gibson one). I really didn't appreciate some of the dramatic choices Branagh made, both as actor and director, especially in the way Hamlet dispatches Claudius. Maybe that makes me a brachiating moron (to borrow Mark Leyner's pungent insult), but so be it.

    That said, I loved-loved-loved Branagh in Henry V, which is for me the absolute best of his Shakespeare-on-film work.

    1. I agree that Branagh's Henry V is is best cinematic Shakespeare--an opinion you can find several places on this blog if you dig far enough.

      I've seen the Zeffirelli Hamlet and it's fine, but it feels so much like Hamlet-lite to me, like Baby's First Shakespeare. It has the shape of the story but none of the depth that makes it work. Admittedly, Branagh could have shaved a bit from his epic version, but I like almost all of his casting choices and directorial choices with it. I don't actually hate the death of Claudius scene, although it is admittedly florid. If memory serves, it has some connection to the 1948 Olivier version, which may make this a more cinematic connection choice than a purely dramatic one.

      Regardless, I don't hate the Gibson version (Glenn Close as Gertrude is great casting, and Alan Bates is always worth watching), but it's always going to feel like a summary to me.

  4. I liked the English Patient much more the second time I saw it...seeing it when it first came out and this year. Hamlet is so solid and love what Branagh did...but I still have to be in the right frame of mind to watch the entire four hour plus epic. Fargo I love. Most years I would pick that one, but my choice for this year is Sling Blade. It certainly is my favorite film of the year. Low key and low budget, but with a great story with real Southern characters (a Hollywood rarity) and Billy Bob's character of Karl is one-of-a kind.