Friday, January 24, 2014

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1985

The Contenders:
The Color Purple
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Out of Africa (winner)
Prizzi’s Honor

What’s Missing

While 1985 was a great year for film, you certainly wouldn’t know that by looking at the five Best Picture nominees. Just looking at the nominees for Best Original Screenplay shows how good a year it was: Back to the Future, Brazil, The Official Story, and The Purple Rose of Cairo were all good enough for that nomination, but not for the big one. Toss in the missed films—and while Back to the Future is admittedly a stretch, the others mentioned aren’t—you don’t have to stop there. Films like The Breakfast Club, LadyHawke, Silverado and The Goonies aren’t going to get Best Picture nods, but are certainly worth seeing. On the foreign front, we have Ran, Come and See, Shoah, The Burmese Harp, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and the wonderful Tampopo, most of which were ignored completely. I’m sure there are a number I have forgotten.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: The Color Purple is the sort of movie that you’re not supposed dislike, but dislike it I did. The overwhelming message of this film is that men are bad, weak, or both. It’s a film that is ugly in its intent, and I have significant problems with this. I’m fine with people who like this movie or find it important, but I’m not going to be guilted into thinking that it’s great. Spielberg often plays to maudlin, and he goes for it with both barrels here.

4: The biggest selling point of Out of Africa is the beautiful scenery. Come to think of it, in my world that’s the only selling point of this film. The romance is tepid at best; in a three-hour film, it doesn’t even become a romance until the final hour. Out of Africa is little more than a big budget Harlequin Romance with its exotic locations and people with dangerous jobs. I got less from this than I would a nature documentary, which would have the same beautiful landscapes and would actually teach me something.

3. Prizzi’s Honor is a good dark comedy as well as a mob film and it features the direction of John Huston. It’s got a lot going for it. I’m just not certain it was worthy of a Best Picture nod in a year with this many good films. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but can’t help thinking that there are at least a half dozen films I would have rather seen in this position.

2. With Kiss of the Spider Woman, we have the sort of film that on its surface is exactly what the Academy is looking for, but seems to have some additional problems under the surface. William Hurt winning for his portrayal of a homosexual prisoner may have been as far as the Academy could go in awarding this film. I like this film just fine, but I’m not sure it deserves to win.

1. All of this brings us to Witness, which is a fine movie. There’s a lot to like with Witness, but there are also some significant problems with it. I don’t buy the way our Amish temptress acts throughout the film. I am disappointed in the way it bows to the conventions of its genre. I like Witness more than I like the rest of the nominees from this year, but I still don’t think it’s worthy of Best Picture. It's far too predictable in places and has too pat an ending for it to be anything more than a very good example of its genre.

My Choice

None of ‘em. Go back to the top paragraph here and pick a sampler of any five of those films mentioned and you’d have five films I almost certainly liked better than all five of these. For my money, the best English language film of 1985 was Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The greatest movie of the year was Kurosawa’s Ran. My favorite movie of the year, though was Juzo Itami’s Tampopo. Any three of those would have been a better choice.

Final Analysis


  1. I've only seen 13 movies for this year. The most notable ommissions are Brazil and The Color Purple. I've been avoiding the latter because I fear I would have exactly the same reaction as you did.

    I would have hard time choosing between Tampopo and Ran for my favorite movie of the year. Actually, like you, I love Tampopo more but I think Ran is probably the greater accomplishment. I looked it up and was amazing to see neither film was nominated for Best Foreign Film. It has me wondering what Japan submitted as its entry. At least Ran got nominated in several of the mainstream categories and won for its awesome costume design. I am also astounded that Shoa didn't get nominated for a Best Feature-Length documentary award.

    1. I have a feeling you'll like Brazil, or at least appreciate it for what it is.

      I agree with you exactly on the two Japanese films. Ran is definitely the greater accomplishment, but Tampopo is just so much fun. It's a film I never get tired of watching. I have no idea why neither of them were nominated. The Japanese submission that year was called Gray Sunset, which may well have been a tactical error from Japan. I can't imagine that Ran wouldn't have beaten The Official Story if nominated.

  2. I agree on The Color Purple: it's nothing more than a "men are evil, evil, evil" film designed to push buttons. I liked Out of Africa more than you, but I think that's mostly because I was dreading it so much after seeing The English Patient. When I finally watched Out of Africa my reaction was along the lines of "that wasn't anywhere near as bad as I was expecting."

    I also agree that Witness, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Prizzi's Honor are all roughly even. I don't think there's a clear standout among any of the nominees. My top film for that year would be, quite frankly, Back to the Future, even though it's not an "Oscar-type" film.

    I'm not in the majority on Brazil. It actually took me two tries to watch it. The first was when it came to HBO/Cinemax in 1986. A friend came over, excited to see it, but we turned it off after 20 minutes or so, disappointed. Over the next couple decades the hype for it just grew and grew. I finally sat down to try it again, but with admittedly not the best of attitudes. While I liked parts of it, I'm certainly not a big enough fan of it to talk it up with others. And it's not Gilliam's style - I love his film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen which is from around the same time.

    1. I would be okay with Back to the Future being considered the best of its year. It's a movie that I love watching and that hasn't really lost a step as far as I'm concerned. It's also (sadly) the sort of film that would never get any sort of consideration for a major award beyond screenplay (which it was nominated for). Such are the ways of the Academy.

      Brazil might be an acquired taste. It's not a film I can watch often, but I think it's Gilliam's best film. It's probably too weird for the Academy, though--in fact it's probably still to weird. Ran was the most realistic winner of my suggestions, but since giving the award to a foreign language movie has never happened (and may not in my lifetime), it didn't have a chance in hell of winning.

    2. I think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had the best chance of any foreign film of winning so far. When it didn't that may have knocked down other foreign films from having a chance for quite a while. It had 10 nominations overall - far more than any foreign film had ever received. It won four of them, too, including cinematography, but none of the "big" ones (Picture, Director, Screenplay).

    3. Unfortunately, I think the biggest issue is that if a foreign language film is nominated for Best Picture, it's almost guaranteed to win Best Foreign Language, which seems to take it out of the running for the top prize. Ditto for animated films. It's a shame, but I think it's also reality.