Critic Aaron Hillis finds films worthy of Oscar ballot

Village Voice and GreenCine Daily critic Aaron Hillis confronts the conventional wisdom that 1939 was the last year deserving of 10 best picture nominees. On closer inspection, Hillis finds several years in which 10 pictures could have easily competed for the top slots.

1951

With a dizzying mix of hits and misses, 1951 was hardly a banner year for Hollywood, offering up “Decision Before Dawn,” “A Place in the Sun,” “Quo Vadis,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and the prizewinning “An American in Paris.” But where did “The African Queen” sail off to? What, no memorial for “Death of a Salesman”? With more slots, film culture might have further embraced auteurs such as Billy Wilder (“Ace in the Hole”), Alfred Hitchcock (“Strangers on a Train”) or Powell and Pressburger (“The Tales of Hoffmann”), while populist auds might have found “The Thing From Another World” or “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

1969

Champions of the New Hollywood cite 1969 as another 1939, with “Anne of the Thousand Days” and “Hello, Dolly!” competing alongside “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “Z.” Left out of that lineup are such seminal pics as Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” “Easy Rider,” “Medium Cool,” “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” and antiestablishment drama “If….” — all confrontational films, which may have intimidated Academy voters. Years later, many critics proclaimed Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows” (made in ’69, but not released in the U.S. until much later) the best film of 2006.

1975

It was the year “Jaws” became the first film to cross the $100 million milestone. The shark tale shared the ballot with the likes of “Barry Lyndon,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Nashville” and winner “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Also released in 1975, Antonioni’s “The Passenger,” Hal Ashby’s “Shampoo,” John Huston’s “The Man Who Would Be King,” Fellini’s “Amarcord,” Kurosawa’s “Dersu Uzala” and Truffaut’s “The Story of Adele H,” not to mention Dino Risi’s version of “Scent of a Woman,”Cassavetes’s “Woman Under the Influence” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

1992

1992 was literally the year of a few good men, though it was “Unforgiven” — a tough-guy Western — that won. “Scent of a Woman” earned Al Pacino his first (and thus far only) Oscar, “Howards End” was a sisterly tale with a man’s name, and we all know the secret of “The Crying Game.” So if five more films had been allowed, they might have included such testosterone-heavy sagas as “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Malcolm X” and “Chaplin,” plus, in the wild-card slot, perhaps “The Player,” “Reservoir Dogs” or “Husbands and Wives.”

1999

As recently as 1999, the Academy seemed to need more slots. In the year that “American Beauty” won, there were at least nine other equally deserving pics left off the ballot altogether, including such ambitious and forward-thinking films as “Being John Malkovich,” “Election,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Fight Club,” “Magnolia,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Three Kings,” Pixar favorite “Toy Story 2″ and an outright pop-cultural pioneer, “The Matrix.” Is it too late for a recount?

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