Oscar season is all about prognostication. But what happens after the fact? How have the Academy’s picks stood up over time? Here, four of the nation’s premiere film critics take a critical look back at the last 20 years of picture winners: The best, the worst, the shoulda-beens, and an early prognosis for 2006.
Film critic for the Wall Street Journal
Best: “Lord of the Rings.” What I realized when I saw that movie was that this is what the movies can do; they can create worlds and create audiences to visit those worlds. It was a genuine event. At a time when so many productions are pitifully impoverished, here Peter Jackson just arrayed every technique known to moviemaking man.
Worst: Uppermost in my mind is the bogus uplift of “Forrest Gump,” especially in a year when the alternatives were “Pulp Fiction,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Quiz Show.” “The English Patient” was right down there, too — it seemed an example of the bogus literary quality that the Academy sometimes goes for. And I defer to no one in my admiration for Bertolucci, but “The Last Emperor” was pretty vapid.
Overlooked: “Out of Sight.” It’s an Altmanesque movie, with that quicksilver quality. It’s alive and mercurial, ironic and romantic. That 15-minute scene at the top of the motel in Detroit is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen.
This year: It doesn’t feel like a great year, though I was a great admirer of “The Departed,” or most of it, and the Algerian film “Days of Glory” was suberb.
Film scholar, author and co-host of Turner Classic Movies’ “The Essentials”
Best: “Unforgiven,” “Silence of the Lambs.” It’s interesting not just that they’re genre films, but also that they’re very dark, especially “Silence.” Genre films usually don’t win because they’re not obvious or ambitious enough for the Oscars. But that’s what makes them appealing, of course.
Worst: “Forrest Gump,” “Braveheart.” “Braveheart” was just a lot of noise about nothing. And “Gump” was the worst kind of crowdpleaser in that it just pandered to the audience.
Overlooked: “The Grifters” is a genre movie that really crosses over between pulp and elegance. “Empire of the Sun” I still think is Spielberg’s best film. And I can see why “Leaving Las Vegas” didn’t win; it’s so dark and, to some people, depressing, though not to me.
This year: One of my favorites is “Volver,” as well as “Blood Diamond,” “Casino Royale” and “Notes on a Scandal.” I think with the exception of “Dreamgirls” (not one of my favorites) all the front-runners are incredibly violent and male-oriented, and I wonder if films that don’t interest female audiences can win Oscars. “The Departed” is very violent but heartbreaking, too. Nor is “The Queen” precisely a feel-good movie, that ultimate critical put-down. I detest “Borat,” which offends almost everyone — everyone except savvy condescending liberals.
Author and film critic for Time magazine
Best: “Unforgiven, “Schindler’s List.” “Unforgiven” is one of the very best Westerns ever made, and has a really interesting mix of characters. In a certain sense, it’s almost a modernist Western, with a rich panoply of mixed motives. And like “Unforgiven” could have just been a Western, “Schindler’s List” could have just been a moral drama. But it has real life in the characters.
Worst: It’s a long list. I’m not big on “Lord of the Rings,” “Braveheart” or “The English Patient.” A lot of these are so predictably right-thinking. There’s nothing objectionable about the point of view they express, but they’re just uninteresting movies.
Overlooked: I loved “Secrets and Lies,” which was just a terrific movie, but we knew it wasn’t going to win. And nothing against “Million Dollar Baby,” but “The Aviator” was a genuine epic.
This year: It’s a hard year to predict. I do think “The Departed” is a superb movie. “The Queen” is awfully good, as is “Flags of Our Fathers,” which I think has been very misunderstood.
Critic for Newsday and Daily Variety
Best: “Silence of the Lambs.” It just holds up so well. You could argue that it’s almost a police procedural, but it’s been tweaked.
Worst: “Crash.” I really hated “Crash”; it was pretty much the “yeah, no shit” movie of all time.
Overlooked: “Topsy-Turvy” should have won everything; it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, although 1999 was a strange year in that very few of the nominated films have had an afterlife. I don’t think people even think about them much now; they don’t resonate. That same year you also had “Being John Malkovich” and “Election” — those were great movies.
This year: People are talking seriously about “Little Miss Sunshine” getting Oscar attention, and if all the tentpole movies hadn’t crashed and burned the way they did, people wouldn’t even be considering it. The only one that seems a shoo-in for a nomination would be “The Queen.”