One of the nice things about awards ceremonies is that they foster discussion based on how people perceive them. Some people couldn’t care less. Some people place great importance on them. Some view it as a guide on what films might be worth checking out, but place less importance on the actual winner. And whether it’s a minor award or the Academy Awards themselves, just about everybody periodically disagrees with the winning selection.
The Oscars don’t rank their nominees; it’s simply one winner (at the end) and the other nominees. But I enjoy deciding where each falls in my personal estimation. I’ve done two prior Re-Ranking the Oscars lists, but each was on Best Animated Feature. It can, after all, take a while to see all the nominees for a year. But I was fortunate to finally knock off the last film from one of the more commonly-discussed years for Best Picture: 1994.
So here are my rankings for the five films nominated that year.
#5: Four Weddings and a Funeral
An Englishman pines after an American woman who he encounters over a series of social functions.
1994’s Best Picture race doesn’t seem to spawn a lot of agreements, but one thing that most people seem to agree on is that if any nominee was unjustly kept out of the winner’s circle, Four Weddings and a Funeral wasn’t it. It’s the one film that everyone seems to agree was the “also-ran” in the category. To be honest, it’s somewhat puzzling that it even made the final five. It’s not a terrible film by any means, it’s just not all that remarkable as romantic comedies go. A well-crafted film, sure. A pleasant film, indubitably. One of the five best films of the year? That’s an iffier proposition.
#4: Pulp Fiction
A quartet of crime stories interweave as the characters impact each others’ lives directly and indirectly.
This is probably the most controversial placement on the list, and was certainly so in my own mind. Spots #1, 2, and 5, I had no difficulty placing. But the order of the third and fourth films was something I bandied about in my mind for a while. Pulp Fiction is a fun homage to the old crime novels that gave it its name, and when it arrived it was a breath of fresh air in cinema. With the exception of its predecessor in Tarantino’s filmography, Reservoir Dogs, there wasn’t anything quite like it at the time, and even with that Pulp Fiction is a clear evolution from the earlier film.
What keeps it from ranking higher is that the top three films all manage to be entertaining and, at the same time, have some emotional depth to them. Pulp Fiction is the epitome of style over substance. Now, this isn’t entirely a bad thing; if I were ranking a list of “style over substance” films, it would be very hard to displace Pulp Fiction from the #1 slot there. It’s simply the best of what it tries to be, or very near to it. But what it tries to be isn’t as impressive as if it had tried to be more. As unfair as it may be to bring Tarantino’s later work into the discussion, consider the superior Inglourious Basterds, which has a scintilla of depth to it. Style over substance isn’t quite as cool as style and substance.
A mentally handicapped man impacts history in subtle ways as he tries to earn a living and waits for his childhood love to love him back.
While not quite as universal as the opinion that Four Weddings and a Funeral didn’t measure up to the rest of the nominees, it’s a fairly common opinion that Forrest Gump should not have won as it did. Although it’s an opinion I obviously share, I can see the Academy’s point of view in awarding it the statue. Although the film can be rather cloying at times, there’s a lot of charm in the film as Forrest Gump lives his life and nudges history along the way like a Sam Beckett without the time machine or triple-digit I.Q. Although it is of course implausible that one man would be involved in all of those things, Forrest’s involvement isn’t meant to play up his importance; quite the opposite. Forrest is a stand-in for the audience, his involvement and perspective meant to take these historical events — often revisited in grandiose fashion in other films — and bring them back down to ground level. By having a mentally slow individual act as the monkey wrench in the gears of history, Forrest Gump shows what they look like without the glamor. The message it conveys is that the wondrous and the mundane are all the same, all just life.
#2: Quiz Show
An investigation reveals that a popular game show is rigged in order to manipulate the ratings.
These days we tend to take some things for granted with unscripted programming. A few rubes aside, most of us assume that the majority of the “reality” genre is, in fact, unreal. But we assume that game shows are mostly played honestly, that Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak aren’t secretly slipping the answers to their favored contestant. There was a time when this was assumed, but wasn’t actually true. In order to manipulate ratings by having a popular contestant have a long winning streak, the show Twenty-One fed him answers. Quiz Show has the challenge of telling that story, one that is known to some of the viewers, and which is almost immediately revealed to the rest by the nature of the movie. No film is about an investigation is going to have the investigator not find anything going on. Despite this, the film stays tense and interesting, and charismatic performances from Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow, and John Turturro light the screen up.
#1: The Shawshank Redemption
Convicted of his wife’s murder, Andy Dufresne attempts to survive Shawshank Prison while maintaining his innocence.
I may get disagreement from some quarters when I say that The Shawshank Redemption should have won Best Picture, but I don’t imagine I’ll get very many comments saying it’s a decision without merit. It’s a film that has a lot to say about persistence and the human spirit, with an engaging pair of lead actors. It has the most solid narrative out of any of the five nominees, a strong sense of style that never feels like it’s reaching for anything, a powerfully uplifting climax. For me, it’s an easy call for the best of 1994’s nominees, and — at least so far in my viewings — the best picture of the year.
And now that part which is always fun with these… discussing what didn’t get in, but perhaps should have. In the case of 1994, it’s not an easy question. It’s fairly easy to say that Four Weddings and a Funeral could have been bumped off the list, but “By what?” is a trickier issue. I’ve seen 38 films from 1994 so far, and truthfully so far I’m hoping I haven’t seen all of the best ones yet, or it’s looking like a bit of a weak year. It doesn’t take very long on my list of films seen before things have dropped below the threshold of “all time great film” that a Best Picture nominee hopefully qualifies as.
Clerks is one possible consideration, given the novelty factor of it at the time. But although I enjoyed it, and thought it was funny, I’m not sure it really is a strong film so much as just one that has a cult following. (It may also have simply been way under the Academy’s radar at the time, but that’s not a barrier to the question of omissions.)
The Lion King is a possible candidate, and not a totally outlandish one. After all, it was only three years before that Beauty and the Beast finally broke the animation embargo in the Best Picture category. The Lion King was highly acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, and certainly had the Academy’s attention — although the music categories often seem like they’re tacked on, there’s something to be said for a film that wraps up three nominations in one category. Although I don’t see it as a film which would have won, it could easily have displaced Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Finally, another film that comes to mind as a potential candidate is Leon: The Professional. Taut, gripping, and loaded with action and both emotional and philosophical depth, it’s something of a cult film itself, but is still a great work of cinema. It’s actually somewhat surprising it didn’t get a nod in any category at any of the major awards. It would have been a worthy contender in the Best Picture category — and the debates it and Pulp Fiction would have inspired would have been terrific.
That’s how I see it. Let me know what you think.