Riding on the back of nine minutes of unseen footage, the special edition of James Cameron’s pioneering 3-D masterpiece Avatar returns to theaters Friday. But billions of dollars and path-breaking cinematic innovations later, it’s hard to ignore the part of Avatar‘s comeback that tastes like unadulterated robbery.
Those still defending The Hurt Locker‘s upset Oscar for Best Picture, which belonged to Cameron’s film using any sensible criteria, are howling into the cold winds of history. Because that’s where defenders of films like the misogynistic My Fair Lady or neurotic Annie Hall hang out, convinced that the short list below of genre films that also became Best Picture losers deserved their fate. They didn’t, and here’s why.
Woody Allen may have made waves with his smart sci-fi satire Sleeper and history goofs like Love and Death. But his metafictional 1997 tragicomedy Annie Hall, in spite of a cameo from Marshall McLuhan, was also a solipsistic love letter. As fine an example as it is of film, it pales in influence and ambition to George Lucas’ Star Wars. (Sorry George, but I just can’t call it A New Hope.) Ironically enough, Lucas built an entertainment empire on the back on his 1977 film, which has only grown in power and reach since. Meanwhile, Allen’s Annie Hall is locked in time, and now regarded as the most accessible of what has become a nearly unending stream of the director’s cinematic narcissism. For all of its amateur charm, Lucas’ Star Wars remains the better film, even as it is remixed and reissued with ever more CGI inserts. Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges.
2001: A Space Odyssey
It’s exceedingly hard to believe that Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 sci-fi classic, which came in both indispensable film and book form, wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. Worse yet, the film that did win was Oliver! — a musical derivative of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, which to this day is noted mostly for…winning the Best Picture Oscar that 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn’t even nominated for. Of course, it won an award for Best Visual Effects, while it should have won a Lifetime Achievement Award on the spot for reinventing them entirely, and was nominated, but did not win, for Best Director, Original Screenplay and Art Direction. But passing over Kubrick and Clarke’s masterpiece for a musical at a historical boiling point of geopolitical and sociocultural instability was lunacy. And still is.
Two films got robbed on this one, although of course we’re partial to Kubrick’s deathless wargasm Dr. Strangelove over Disney’s rousing Mary Poppins. But either way, the musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play My Fair Lady doesn’t deserve membership in that league, much less its Best Picture statue. After all, cinematic satire, especially one with any sexual or political component, is routinely judged against Dr. Strangelove‘s apocalyptic comedy, to see whether it passes inspection. And My Fair Lady doesn’t, except perhaps for class-sensitive pushovers looking to fetch their masters’ slippers. More than any film on this list, Dr. Strangelove was robbed blind by an Academy scared to death by its vision of (scary) things to come.
Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
Few others besides fans of Peter Jackson’s outrageous horror Dead Alive or melodrama Heavenly Creatures knew who he was before he adapted J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to CGI-stuff cinema. But everyone knew who he was seconds after witnessing his 2001 film installment Fellowship of the Ring, which equally hypnotized a both Tolkien loyalists and post-traumatized noobs careening from the 9/11 attacks. From its breathless FX to its talented ensemble of actors and artisans, Fellowship of the Ring more or less dominated the box office, critics and pop culture. But no, a haphazard Ron Howard weeper called A Beautiful Mind about game theorist John Nash starring Russell Crowe sucked up the Oscar, thanks to its principals’ comparative familiarity in Hollywood. It’s a glaring inequity Jackson would eventually ameliorate after suffering the same fate when The Two Towers lost out to the terrible musical Chicago in 2002. In 2003, his last Tolkien film Return of the King cleaned Oscar’s house, and his competitors (and viewers) were forced to watch Jackson and crew proceed to podium on repeat to pick up statue after statue. Serves them right.
The Dark Knight
As much as we love Danny Boyle’s work, especially his cerebral genre explorations like 28 Days Later and Sunshine, there’s no way his kinetic wonder Slumdog Millionaire was the best film of 2008. That honor instead belonged to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight which pwned the box office as well as critics who thought that a comics-based film couldn’t blow minds. As Inception is predictably proving, Nolan is a sure thing for brainy, riveting cinema that is as accessible as it is challenging. Boyle is good for the same too, but simply not on the same scale. Whether that’s by choice or accident is up to Boyle to decide, and we look forward to someone giving him the kind of blockbuster financial and artistic backing he needs to perhaps prove us wrong. But until he does, The Dark Knight represents a lost opportunity to prove that superheroes can swipe statues just as well as serious-minded narcissists like Woody Allen. But not the last opportunity: That probably resides in Nolan’s next Batman film, which is also reportedly his last. If we were bettors, and we are, we’d bet that Nolan’s last Batman film will end up like Jackson’s last Tolkien film. Which is to say, swallowed by cash and statues.