10 Greatest Oscar Face-Offs

February 18th, 2009 by Barak

With the Oscars only a few days away, it seems that the fight for Best Picture is down to Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Over the years there’ve been a lot of fascinating showdowns between acclaimed movies. Here are the ten biggest rivalries for the Best Picture award. The Academy has made some bad choices – but in their defense, some years it was absolutely impossible to decide…

10. 1999: The Green Mile vs. American Beauty

In other words: A guy with a special ability stuck in prison vs. a guy with a midlife crisis stuck in (suburban) prison

The Green Mile: Director Frank Darabont‘s second adaptation of a Stephen King prison tale (the first being The Shawshank Redemption) is a charmer with a hint of the supernatural. It features uniformly excellent performances, notably Michael Clarke Duncan as Coffey; David Morse and Barry Pepper as Tom Hanks’s fellow prison guards; and Michael Jeter as condemned killer Edward Delacroix.

American Beauty: Considered a modern classic, this Sam Mendes flick tells the story of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a suburban father who snaps when he becomes disgusted with his stale, repetitive existence.

And the Academy chose: American Beauty

Were they right? Yes, Mendes’s direction, combined with Ball’s writing and Spacey’s acting, were definitely Oscar-worthy (unlike their new collaboration, Revolutionary Road).

9. 1964: My Fair Lady vs. Dr. Strangelove vs. Mary Poppins

In other words: Classic vs. classic vs. classic

My Fair Lady has become one of the most popular musicals of all time. Based on George Bernard Shaw‘s 1913 play Pygmalion, with Cecil Beaton’s lavish sets and costumes and Lerner and Loewe’s winning score. Director George Cukor‘s striking mix of styles that range from the fantastic to the abstract in his telling of the tale of a waif who’s educated to become a lady.

Dr. Strangelove is Stanley Kubrick‘s Cold War masterpiece. The film is set at the height of the tensions between Russia and the United States, when all it would take to destroy the world was one push of a button. It just may be the funniest, most poignant black comedy ever made, a vicious satire of the military and the Cold War.

Mary Poppins: A magical, musical nanny brings a breath of fresh air into the stuffy Banks household in turn-of-the-century England. This children’s fantasy is filled to the brim with wonderful dance numbers and outrageous songs (such as the seemingly unpronounceable “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”). The film’s seamless blending of live-action with animation was exceptional in its day.

And the Academy chose: My Fair Lady

Were they right? No, Mary Poppins should have gotten the Oscar. It’s the ultimate family movie.

8. 1977: Annie Hall vs. Star Wars

In other words: The thin and fluent Woody Allen vs. the fat and not so fluent Chewbacca

Often considered the peak of a prolific film career, Annie Hall marks the start of the second phase of Allen’s filmmaking career, abandoning the slapstick of Sleeper and Bananas for more thoughtful comedies (and eventually dramas) that explore human relationships and psychology.

Star Wars, George Lucas‘s stunning sci-fi masterpiece, is arguably one of the most inventive and entertaining films ever made, garnering generations of loyal fans who keep the characters and dialogue alive. Star Wars revolutionized the cinematic world with its epic storytelling and amazing special effects. Even today, Lucas’s astonishing film leaves viewers wanting to see it again and again.

And the Academy chose: Annie Hall

Were they right? Close, but overall, Star Wars is groundbreaking, a cult classic, hugely successful with critics and the box office, and so should have been preferred over Annie Hall. But the Academy doesn’t dare give Best Picture to a light, entertaining sci-fi fantasy…

7. 1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest vs. Jaws

In other words: Jack Nicolson fights a shark

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, based on the novel by Ken Kesey and the play by Dale Wasserman, is a disturbing, witty, and electrifying drama, presenting a biting and ultimately tragic satire about mental institutions and the human spirit.

The Jaws film shoot was notoriously difficult for the young Steven Spielberg, who had directed only one feature film before Jaws. The mechanical shark seldom operated correctly, and Spielberg was frequently forced to create the idea of terror without actually showing the shark. But the film became one of the highest-grossing of all time – surpassing The Godfather as the first to gross more than $100 million.

And the Academy chose: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Were they right? Yes. While Jaws is one of the best suspense movies, time proved the Academy was right. Jaws now seems a bit dated, while One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has timeless dramatic quality. Plus it’s one of Jack Nicolson‘s best performances, if not the best of all.

6. 1941: Citizen Kane vs. The Maltese Falcon vs. How Green Was My Valley

In other words: Orson Wells vs. John Huston vs. John Ford

Citizen Kane is Orson Welles‘s greatest achievement – and a landmark in cinema history. Every aspect of the production marked an advance in film language: the deep focus and deeply shadowed cinematography; the discontinuous narrative, relying heavily on flashbacks and newsreel footage; the innovative use of sound and score; and the ensemble acting forged in the fires of Welles’s Mercury Theatre. The film is essential viewing, quite possibly the greatest film ever made.

John Huston‘s brilliant directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon, is aided by first-rate performances, excellent camera work, as well as the director’s acute attention to detail while shooting the film. Based on the crime novel by Dashiell Hammett, some consider it to be the best film noir ever made.

Possibly the most moving film of John Ford‘s career, How Green Was My Valley is based on Richard Llewellyn’s nostalgic novel. It could hardly have found a better director than Ford, who had an affinity for family and community themes. While the acting and writing are excellent, Ford’s brilliantly chosen groupings and compositions are the most expressive elements.

And the Academy chose: How Green Was My Valley

Were they right? No. Both Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon are much more remembered and talked-about movies than How Green Was My Valley.

5. 1974: The Godfather 2 vs. The Conversation vs. Chinatown

In other words: Coppola and De Niro vs. Coppola and Hackman vs. Polanski and Nicholson

The Godfather 2 is one of the only major sequels ever made that might just surpass the original. Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro were at their very best. Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire and John Cazale reprised their roles from The Godfather, playing the people forced to watch the new Godfather’s moral destruction. Robert De Niro, speaking in Italian, captures the mannerisms of Marlon Brando‘s Vito Corleone from the first film brilliantly.

The Conversation is a towering achievement, a masterfully constructed portrait of one man’s descent into madness. Gene Hackman delivers a devastating performance as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who gets paid to invade the privacy of strangers. He’s one of cinema’s most unforgettable characters, a man who appears to be in control on the outside but is crumbling on the inside.

Chinatown is director Roman Polanski‘s classic neo-noir detective story. Set during a heat wave in 1930s Los Angeles, intrigue and adventure culminate in life-changing moments for the protagonist, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). With an excellent score by composer Jerry Goldsmith and a script by Robert Towne that recalls the hard-boiled cynicism of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Chinatown is a complex and superbly crafted period drama that has become Polanski’s most critically acclaimed film.

And the Academy chose: The Godfather 2

Were they right? Yes. Timing is everything, and The Conversation and Chinatown couldn’t have chosen a worse year to be made. You can’t match The Godfather 2. At least Coppola lost to himself.

4. 1982: E.T.: The Extra-Terrstrial vs. Gandhi

In other words: The benign alien vs. the benign leader

E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial is Steven Spielberg‘s warmhearted classic delight for both children and adults. The movie was originally to be based on a story idea by director John Sayles, but after he removed himself from the project, screenwriter Melissa Mathison took over the script and made it her own. John Williams beautiful soundtrack became forever linked to E.T.

The epic, acclaimed dramatization of the life of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi starts from his days as a South African-educated lawyer, and continues to his historic struggle to free India from British Colonial rule. With a large, distinguished cast, headlined by Ben Kingsley in a nuanced performance, Sir Richard Attenborough‘s biopic is a classic of the genre.

And the Academy chose: Gandhi

Were they right? It’s a tough call. Both E.T and Gandhi are in their own way peaceful and lovable characters. Maybe the Academy chose the more realistic of the two. Or maybe it’s just another example of the Academy’s inability to honor a light, entertaining, fantasy.

3. 1980: Raging Bull vs. The Elephant Man vs. Ordinary People

In other words: The temperamental boxer vs. the deformed misfit vs. the dysfunctional family

Raging Bull: Shot in crisp black-and-white, Martin Scorsese‘s story of middleweight boxer Jake La Motta is played with incredible intensity by Oscar-winner Robert De Niro – delivering  one of the screen’s most unforgettable performances as the out-of-control fighter. Joe Pesci is just as intense as Joey, who finally realizes that he is unable to tame his animalistic brother. Cinematographer Michael Chapman shot the film with a stylish flair that fills the boxing scenes with boundless energy and adds immediacy to the arguments that erupt whenever Jake is outside the ring. Simply put, Raging Bull is one of American cinema’s masterworks.

The Elephant Man: David Lynch’s black-and-white contribution (were they out of color in 1980?) brings his own dreamlike style to the heartbreaking yet somehow uplifting story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a hideously deformed individual dubbed the Elephant Man. This seamless blend of art and entertainment earned eight Academy Award nominations. Freddie Francis‘s breathtaking cinematography combines with John Morris‘s score to re-create Victorian England with haunting beauty. But is the compassionate performances of Hurt and Anthony Hopkins that lift The Elephant Man emotionally, bringing an inspired sadness to Lynch’s striking vision.

Ordinary People: Robert Redford‘s directorial debut is a classic portrait of family life in the face of tragedy. Based on the novel by Judith Guest, the film features the debuts of Timothy Hutton and Elizabeth McGovern as well as breakthrough performances from Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland.

And the Academy chose: Ordinary People

Were they right? Were they on drugs? Ordinary People is a good movie, but it’s audacious to compare it to two cinematic giants: Raging Bull (possibly Scorsese’s finest), and The Elephant Man (possibly Lynch’s finest). Maybe the academy couldn’t decide between the two fantastic movies, so they gave the Oscar to a third party: two fight and the third one wins. Or maybe it’s the inability of the Academy to honor dark Scorsese masterpieces. This was the second (and not last) time they did it…

2. 1976: Rocky vs. Taxi Driver

In other words: “Yo, Adrian!” “You talkin’ to me?”

Director John G. Avildsen‘s Rocky is the stand-up-and-cheer saga of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), an underdog boxer who gets his million-to-one shot at love, self-respect, and the world heavyweight title. Shot with gritty realism on the mean streets of Philadelphia, Rocky introduced a new American cinematic hero, spurred on by rollicking action sequences and a rousing soundtrack. A triumph for star and screenwriter Stallone, who himself came from nowhere to reach the top, Rocky is crowd-pleasing entertainment at its finest.

Taxi Driver: Martin Scorsese‘s intense film, a hallmark of 1970s filmmaking, graphically depicts the tragic consequences of urban alienation when a New York City taxi driver goes on a murderous rampage against the pitiful denizens of the city’s underbelly. Scorsese fills Paul Schrader’s screenplay with a tragic realism, brilliantly capturing the muck and grime of New York City. Robert De Niro, playing the fragile hero, steps so deep inside his role that the results are deeply frightening. Bernard Herrmann‘s haunting score – which turned out to be his last – completes the urban nightmare.

And the Academy chose: Rocky

Were they right? So this is where the Academy started the tradition of not honoring dark masterpieces by Scorsese, in this case choosing the feel-good urban ghetto flick. But in this case, for most movie lovers choosing between the acclaimed Taxi Driver and the beloved Rocky is like choosing between your mother and your father. You can’t do it. The Academy had to choose. I won’t.

1. 1994: Forrest Gump vs. The Shawshank Redemption vs. Pulp Fiction

In other words: “Life was like a box of chocolates” vs. “Only guilty man in Shawshank” vs. “Hamburgers. The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast”

In Forrest Gump, the title character leads viewers through an accidental travelogue of American social history from the early 1960s through the present. Vietnam, desegregation, Watergate and more are presented from the perspective of Tom Hanks‘ lovably slow-witted character as he finds himself embroiled in situations he can’t quite comprehend.

The beautifully crafted The Shawshank Redemption features touching and sincere performances from the entire cast, with an uplifting message about  indomitable spirits and the redemptive value of hope. Based on the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King, Frank Darabont‘s intriguing adaptation is easily one of the finest films of the 1990s, if not ever.

Pulp Fiction is a funny, violent, tongue-in-cheek tribute to the less “classic” side of filmmaking – the potboilers and capers, blaxploitation and gangsters. The film interweaves three tales, told in a circular, fractured manner, which only fully connect as the final credits roll. Quentin Tarantino wears his cinematic influences proudly.  The all-star cast steps into their roles with obvious glee, and Tarantino once again uses his soundtrack to up the “cool” ante yet another notch.

And the Academy chose: Forrest Gump

Were they right? Three fantastic movies, it’s difficult for me to decide which one I like best, but the people have spoken and The Shawshank Redemption ranks #1 on IMDb’s top 250. To say that you don’t like it is like saying you don’t like chocolate, puppies and breathing. The Academy missed its timeless effect and yet again chose a light, sweet and sweeping Americana tale.

So in few days the Academy will choose again. Those of you who read my previous Oscar post know how much I like Benjamin Button, so I hope the Academy will make the right decision, and the superior Slumdog Millionaire will hit the jackpot.

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