The 21st Century’s Most Unfortunate Best Picture Snubs

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When we first posted about this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, we objected to a couple of exclusions (seriously, you guys, if you haven’t seen Blue Valentine yet, we’re not quite sure how else to sell you on it). But, in general, the ten films nominated this year are all solid choice. And though it’s a change that some have objected to — loudly — we really do like the ballooning of the list from five nominees to ten (and lest we forget, five was only the rule from 1944 on — in the ’30s, they’d nominate up to 12 films for the Best Picture honor). Sure, it makes the list comparatively unwieldy, and adds a few minutes to the awards telecast, which can be a bit of a long haul to begin with. But it allows traditionally snubbed titles — like genre movies, smaller titles, comedies, and animated features — to get a little bit of extra recognition.

Were it not for the ten-nomination rule, we probably wouldn’t have seen Best Picture nominations for Inception, Toy Story 3, Winter’s Bone, 127 Hours, or The Kids are All Right , and since those are some of our favorite films of the year, we’d have been looking at a far less interesting list. The fact of the matter is, too often there are more than five really great movies in a year — or the Academy simply recognizes the wrong damn movies. If the ten-nominee rule had been in place over the last decade, for example, we might have seen Best Picture nominations for some really great films that got passed over. Take a look at just a few of them after the jump.

Memento (2001)

Inception director Christopher Nolan’s big break came with this startlingly clever wind-up toy of a movie — it plays tricks on you, yes, but it always plays fair, and one of the pleasures of Nolan’s noir-soaked filmmaking is in observing (even on repeat viewings) how ingeniously he manages to weave the convoluted assemblage of flashbacks, parallel structures, and backwards progressions into a lean, mean, brilliant package. On a much smaller scale, it’s a dry run for the mind games of Inception. It’s a shame that Memento didn’t get the same Oscar recognition — though, to their credit, the Academy did nominate it for Best Editing and Best Original Screenplay.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

One of Memento’s competitors for Best Original Screenplay that year was Wes Anderson’s wonderful family comedy/drama The Royal Tenenbaums (both lost to Gosford Park). His follow-up to Rushmore was a beautifully crafted, delicately acted peek at a highly dysfunctional family of geniuses that may very well be his finest work to date. It’s off-the-charts funny and thrillingly well-acted, with an emotionally gut-wrenching ending that really sneaks up on you.

25th Hour (2002)

Those of you who jeered our inclusion of Spike Lee in the list of great directors frequently overlooked by the Academy owe it to yourselves to seek out this 2002 drama. Lee’s film version of David Benoiff’s novel wasn’t intended to be a mediation on post-9/11 New York (and, by extension, America); it just kind of worked out that way, as Lee and Benoiff (who wrote the screenplay) adapted the story to the devastated city around them. Seen now, it captures that specific moment better than any documentary could — and it’s also a smart, compelling tale in its own right.

About Schmidt (2002)

Alexander Payne has carved out a specific, particular style for himself, making the kind of smart, sharp, funny pictures that Hal Ashby or Paul Mazursky crafted back in the day. Following Election and Citizen Ruth , it wasn’t surprising that this one was so funny or telling; the shocks came from its unexpectedly moving conclusion, and the uncharacteristically restrained work of Jack Nicholson in its leading role. He was nominated for Best Actor, and Kathy Bates was up for Best Supporting Actress, but the film’s exclusion from either the Screenplay or Picture nominations is downright inexplicable.

Punch Drunk Love (2002)

It didn’t get a single Oscar nomination, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s delicate picture is sheer perfection — an odd, off-balance, daring little movie that never steps wrong once in its entirety (an unfortunately short 89 minutes). It swims across the screen, propelled by the pure bliss of a master filmmaker at the top of his game. Anderson attempted to make a “light romance” and an “Adam Sandler comedy” after his heavyweight life-and-death drama Magnolia, but found himself unable to keep his darker demons at bay. Punch Drunk Love is a frightening, funny, fascinating hybrid that Anderson somehow engineers into a true American original.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Within what is (by definition) a science-fiction framework, the brilliant screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (and his perfectly matched collaborator, director Michel Gondry) manages to not only invigorate and entertain, but thoughtfully pose honest-to-God questions about the nature of our very existence. The result is a work of sheer genius, a marvelously kooky mindfuck, and a heart-wrenching tale of love and longing to boot.

The Constant Gardener (2005)

Director Fernando Meirelles followed up the pure cinematic dynamite that was City of God with this angry, smart, and engrossing thriller, based on John le Carré’s novel. Bursting with atmosphere and urgency, it’s a tightly-crafted yet thought-provoking picture. Rachel Weisz won a (well deserved) Best Supporting Actress statue, and it grabbed nominations for Editing, Score, and Adapted Screenplay, but its exclusion from the Best Picture list was inexcusable.

Before Sunset (2005)

Even those of us who adored Richard Linklater’s gimmicky-but-heartfelt 1995 walk-and-talker Before Sunrise would have never expected to even see a sequel to it (they don’t tend to make sequels to movies seen by so few people), much less that the follow-up would turn out to be such a delicate and moving affair, spotlighting starring turns by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy that feel less like performance than confession. Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay but nothing else, it’s a wonderful, charming picture, and may include the best closing line of the decade (“Baby, you are gonna miss… that… plane”).

Children of Men (2006)

In a year that saw nominations for Letters from Iowa Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, and Babel, Oscar voters apparently couldn’t handle the sheer emotional power and storytelling force of Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning look at a brutal, uncertain future. It is a film of tremendous confidence and control, and the technical achievements within it remain astonishing. But in its closing scenes, with those boats meeting at sea, it transcends our usual boundaries of filmgoing — it’s not something we watch, but something that happens to us. Brutal, thrilling, pure cinema.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Andrew Dominik’s epic Western drama is fascinating, lyrical, and spellbinding, equal parts psychological drama and tone poem, something akin to if Terrence Malick made a cowboy picture. Casey Affleck’s revelatory turn as the titular coward was nominated for Supporting Actor, as was Roger Deakins’s luminous photography, but the film is much more than either of those elements; it’s a quietly riveting picture that proves, with subsequent viewings, to be as bottomless as a scratchy recording of an old murder ballad.

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

His Oscar for screenwriting notwithstanding, no one was entirely prepared for the sheer skill of Ben Affleck’s feature directorial debut. But it’s a terrific piece of work — at first blush, it’s a detective picture, a genre piece about a kidnapping, but director/co-writer Affleck (working from Dennis Lahane’s novel) slowly, delicately reveals the human tragedy underneath, and digs in to some heavy questions about morality and obligation. Amy Ryan’s rich supporting turn got the film’s only Oscar nomination.

Zodiac (2007)

It’s hard to say what makes David Fincher’s crime/newspaper procedural so mesmerizing — perhaps it is the tone, or the crispness and efficiency of James Vanderbilt’s screenplay, or the spot-on recreations of the 1970s aesthetic. One thing is for certain, though: it is a perfect marriage of filmmaker and material, as the notoriously prickly (but unquestionably skilled) director peers deep into the most notorious of America’s unsolved killing sprees, embracing and examining the trivia and dead ends that lesser filmmakers would have shrugged off and streamlined. But not in Fincher’s film — for him, the devil (as they say) is in the details.

WALL-E (2008)

It handily won the Best Animated Feature award, but that somehow seems too narrow an honor for Pixar’s marvelously innovative and thoughtful mixture of silent comedy and science fiction (with a little bit of eco-friendliness mixed in). Its dialogue-free opening sequences remain a stunning testament to the force of the studio’s knockout visual flair, and the romance between the title character and “Eva” is one of the sweetest in all of recent film.

The Dark Knight (2008)

If there was one thing we got too many of in the ’00s, it was comic book movies, but they may have all been worth it if they led us to Christopher Nolan’s stunning urban tragedy, which redefined the very perimeters of what a “comic book movie” was, and what popular American moviemaking was capable of. Nolan’s complex themes and complicated heroes and villains put the dull, boilerplate storytelling of his contemporaries to shame, while his jaw-dropping action sequences exhibited Hollywood craftsmanship of the highest order. Many have surmised that this film’s exclusion from the Big Five prompted the expansion of the category; if that’s the case, then more power to it.

So what’s your preference — the bigger pool of Best Picture nominees, or the tighter five? And what films from the 2000s would you like to have seen get more recognition?