Best Picture: Chocolat (2001)
Throughout the 1990s, Miramax honchos Bob and Harvey Weinstein redefined Oscar campaigning, mounting elaborate (and expensive) operations to get their movies the nominations and wins that often translated directly into art-house box office boosts. Frequently outspending their studio competition for ads, screeners, and VIP events, it seemed that any movie backed by the Weinstein machine could make an impressive showing come nominations morning — a thesis proven by the five nominations they bought snagged for Lasse Hallström’s romantic comedy/drama, a film so lightweight and disposable, most moviegoers forgot it existed by the time they reached their cars. But the AMPAS didn’t; not only did it pick up nominations for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score, but a nomination for the biggest prize of all, Best Picture (and this was back when there were only five nominees). Among the eligible films not nominated for Best Picture that year: Almost Famous, You Can Count on Me, Pollock, Requiem for a Dream, The Virgin Suicides, Wonder Boys, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Best Actor: Sean Penn, I Am Sam (2002)
Pandering to the membership for an acting Oscar by playing a brave, differently-abled protagonist is nothing new; history shows it’s pretty much the easiest way to land a nomination or a win. But there was something especially transparent about the thirstiness with which Mr. Penn went after the Oscar by going – um, well, we’ll let Kirk Lazarus explain it. At any rate, it didn’t take; Penn lost to Denzel Washington’s delicious turn in Training Day, though Penn would eventually win twice in the years to come, for his work in Mystic River and Milk.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Shrek (2002)
Shrek was the fifth film released by Dreamworks Animation, and their first mega-hit; bringing in $484 million worldwide on a $60 million budget, it announced the young studio as a real player in the world of computer animation, and the clever, PG-rated gross-out cartoon also entertained parents and prompted industry giggles (via its shots at Disney classics and that studio’s chief Michael Eisner, with whom Dreamworks co-founder and former Disney bigwig Jeffrey Katzenberg had rather a complicated relationship). It was nominated for, and won, the very first Best Animated Feature prize – which was fine, I mean, it beat Monsters, Inc., but whatever, that was fine. What was baffling was its simultaneous nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, as if the notion of spoofing cartoons and dropping in randomly anachronistic pop culture references was so revelatory that the film’s scribes deserved additional praise.
Best Picture: Crash (2006)
Paul Haggis’s nomination and win for Best Original Screenplay was irritating, sure; it was, after all, a boorishly schematic white-splaining of racism, with every character a trope, and every line of dialogue a position paper. But as simple as it might’ve been, the picture’s “racism is bad” messaging was catnip to Academy voters (especially older voters who fancy themselves progressive), so that victory was perhaps forgivable — even though it beat the infinitely smarter scripts for The Squid and the Whale, Match Point, Syriana, and Good Night, and Good Luck — since the presumptive Best Picture winner, Brokeback Mountain, was an Adapted Screenplay. This was Crash’s consolation prize, NBD! And then Crash won Best Picture. It shouldn’t have even been nominated (among the films that didn’t make the final five: The Constant Gardener, North Country, A History of Violence, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and the aforementioned Match Point, Syriana, and The Squid and the Whale); it beat not only Brokeback but Good Night, Capote, and Munich. Every true film lover has that moment when they realize, Oh, right, the Oscars are some bullshit; a lot of those moments happened that night.
Best Animated Film: Cars (2007)
Pixar was a frequent favorite in the Best Animated Feature category — nominated for Monsters, Inc., winner for Finding Nemo and The Incredibles — and for good reason: their films were intelligent, warm, funny, and manage to engage kids and their pickier parents. But sometimes the Academy will get into the habit of default-nominating the latest effort from a favorite actor or studio, which is about the only explanation for the nomination of Cars, which most Pixar viewers agree was the studio’s first disappointment — great to look at, but ultimately lacking in the wit and heart than made the studio so exceptional. Voters seemed to at least catch up with that in time for final voting (it lost the prize to Happy Feet), though that 2013 win for Brave is pretty sketchy too.
Best Picture: The Blind Side (2010)
Sandra Bullock’s Best Actress win for her work as Leigh Ann Tuohy in John Lee Hancock’s adaptation of Michel Lewis’s book was arguable – for my money, both Carey Mulligan’s turn in An Education and Gabourey Sidibe’s in Precious were infinitely more interesting – but understandable, a fine performance by a beloved actor who’d yet to win the big prize. But that doesn’t explain the film’s inclusion in the Best Picture sweepstakes. Put simply, Blind Side is garbage, a textbook definition white savior narrative, the story of a young, good-hearted black man who is abandoned by all of the irresponsible black people in his life, and is only saved from the cesspool of the ghetto by a rich, white, Christian Republican family (while all the other people of color are seen as either grossly negligent, maliciously obstructive, or out-and-out criminals). It’s an insultingly simplistic, casually racist movie, and even in the newly expanded Best Picture field, it’s way out of its element. (Fun fact: Bullock also fronted 2012’s worst Best Picture nominee, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.)
Best Original Score: John Williams, War Horse (2012)
It’s not exactly controversial to call John Williams one of our finest composers of music for film; his iconic themes for Superman, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park are inseparable from those films, and thus from our cinematic consciousness. But real talk: the quality of his work has sharply declined over recent years, not only in regards to the (often familiar) sounds of his scores, but his maddeningly simplistic interpretations of the material he’s accompanying. But he’s John Williams, and he’s another member of the automatic-nomination club; between Best Score and Best Song, he’s been up for the Oscar fifty times (winning five). Several of those nominations are questionable, none more so than his twinkly, plodding, hilariously on-the-nose music for Spielberg’s worst picture to date.
Best Original Screenplay: Flight (2013)
Robert Zemeckis’s pilot-in-crisis drama deserved exactly one Academy Award nomination, and got it: Denzel Washington for Best Actor, award-worthy as much for his wrenching, complex performance as for the tiresome screenplay tropes he managed to sidestep in it. Yet somehow, the very script he had to overcome landed a nomination for Best Original Screenplay – and this is one case where the “Original” label seems particularly inaccurate, stuffed as John Gatnis’s script is with every addiction movie cliché from The Lost Weekend to Leaving Las Vegas (and every movie in between). It lost, thankfully, to Django Unchained, but even its nomination could’ve gone to more deserving and ingenious scripts like The Master, Looper, or Holy Motors.
Best Supporting Actress: Meryl Streep, Into the Woods (2015)
With 18 nominations (and three wins) since 1979, no actor has been recognized by the Academy as often as Ms. Streep – it’s not even close. And most of those nominations and wins make sense. But a few are head-scratchers, the result of the aforementioned auto-nomination impulse (One True Thing? Music of the Heart? August: Osage County?), and that impulse is about the only possible explanation for last year’s Best Supporting Actress nomination for Rob Marshall’s ugly, dumbed-down, and downright forgettable adaptation of the Sondheim fave. And Streep is… I mean, fine? I guess? She does her best, and there’s nothing especially wrong with her work here — but it prompts us to wonder exactly how bad Streep would have to be in a movie these days not to get nominated, particularly considering how many genuinely great performances (Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year, Rene Russo in Nightcrawler, Carmen Ejogo in Selma) were passed over for her slot.
Best Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant (2016)
Iñárritu’s wins at the DGA Awards, the BAFTAs, and the Golden Globes have made his Best Director Oscar one of this year’s few certainties — and what’s more, it’ll make him one of only three directors (following John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz) to win the prize two years in a row, and the first to do so in over half a century. Shame he’s getting it for Most Directing rather than Best Directing, with voters inexplicably falling for the endless talk of its miserable shoot and noble intentions, to say nothing of the art-house pretensions that muck up what could’ve been a perfectly serviceable revenge n’ survival tale. So the wrong guy’ll get the Oscar. But hey, it’s not like it hasn’t happened before.