The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1996

1996 is one of the years I hate most in Academy history. To me, almost every major decision they made was a bad one. It’s one of those years where you can’t really do anything, because the Academy is always going to be the Academy, so we have to live with it. But at least here, we can all agree that they made a terrible decision, even if it was the one they were always going to make.

Outside of this category, The English Patient wins Best Director for Anthony Minghella (talked about here), a foregone conclusion and Best Supporting Actress for Juliette Binoche (talked about here), a decision I actually really like. I think that even though Lauren Bacall was a very deserving veteran, her performance was decent at best and her film was beyond terrible (and Barbara Hershey’s film/performance was way too on-the-nose). Best Actor this year was Geoffrey Rush for Shine (talked about here), which I hate as a decision. I love Geoffrey Rush, I think he deserves an Oscar (Supporting would be better), but I felt his performance was clearly a supporting one in the film, and that Billy Bob Thornton was so good in Sling Blade (and even Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient) that Rush is one of the most inexplicable winners I’ve ever seen. Best Actress was Frances McDormand for Fargo (talked about here), which I love, because the film’s great and she’s great in it, but she’s really a supporting character, and Emily Watson’s performance in Breaking the Waves is so good that I’m shocked she didn’t win (Brenda Blethyn was also amazing in Secrets & Lies). And then Best Supporting Actor was Cuba Gooding, Jr. for Jerry Maguire (talked about here), which, while I love the performance — William H. Macy really should have won. He really should have.

So that’s 1996. I like two categories. And one of them — ehh, maybe it’s not the best decision. So overall, I think this is a pretty terrible year. One of my least favorites. And, like most bad years, it all starts at Best Picture.


And the nominees were…

The English Patient (Miramax)

Fargo (Gramercy Pictures)

Jerry Maguire (TriStar)

Shine (October Films)

Secrets & Lies (Fine Line Features)

The English Patient — This is film, I feel, that is too long, too indulgent, and too desperate for Oscars to be any good. If this film were made in 1950, and it were an hour shorter, and all the fat was trimmed off, this could have been a really great movie. Now, it’s a long, unwieldy mess.

The film begins with a plane crash in the middle of the desert. Ralph Fiennes was the pilot. He’s been badly burned over 90% of his body. He is put in the care of Juliette Binoche, a French nurse. They move him to a villa to recoup. While there, he recounts his story to Binoche, which we see in flashback. He used to be a cartographer, and one day, Colin Firth comes to him with his wife, Kristin Scott Thomas, and wants to join him on one of his expeditions. And on the expedition, he and Thomas have an affair and fall in love. But eventually, Firth finds out and attempts to kill them all. He puts Thomas in a plane and tries to drive the plane into Fiennes. But only he dies. Fiennes moves out of the way, and Thomas lives, but is badly hurt. Fiennes rides day and night to get help for her, leaving her in a cave. When he returns, she has died. He, in his despair, tries to kill himself (this is where we came in). Binoche, after hearing this, and seeing how badly he wants to die, administers enough morphine to kill him.

Right there — good film, right? You can see the romance, the drama, and the frame story enhances it. That’s fine. And even you throw in a subplot for Binoche with a man (which the film has, but I’ll get into that in a minute), and you have a really solid film. However —

This film has about an hour of unnecessary touches that are so Weinstein-esque that it’s ridiculous. They are what turn what could have been a great film into what this film is — something designed to win the hearts of Academy voters and nothing more.

First off — Willem Dafoe. He serves no purpose in this story, and could have been entirely cut out and nothing would have changed. He shows up in the present, we flash back to the past. We see his story. He leaves. That’s it. Then Binoche. Her romance angle is too long. Naveen Andrews is a soldier she starts to fall for. He defuses bombs. She is convinced that everyone she gets close to dies. The end has him defusing a dangerous bomb just as the war ends. It’s a good scene, only it’s too long. It’s overindulgent, the film. It’s a 2 hour, 40 minute film, when it could have been 111 minutes and been perfect. Even 122 minutes would have been fine.

The fact that this film is so indulgent is really why I can’t abide it having won. It really didn’t need to be this long. It’s overkill. And when you watch it, you’re seriously just clicking off all the parts of the Harvey Weinstein Oscar playbook. It’s so obvious what they’re trying to do. I don’t see how anyone watches this and Fargo and says, “Yeah, I vote this.” I don’t.

Fargo — What a perfect film this is. We all know it.

The film is a tragedy of errors, which begins when used car salesman Jerry Lundergaard (played by William H. Macy) tries to secure financing for a business deal, but cannot, even from his own father-in-law. So, desperate, he hires two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife. The idea behind this is, once his father-in-law finds out she’s kidnapped, he’ll pay a huge ransom. And Jerry plans to set a fixed rate with the criminals but get a lot more from the father, which he would then keep and use for his business deal. However, everything goes wrong. The two criminals end up killing a policeman and two people who accidentally witness the murder, leading to a police investigation, run by Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). And slowly, we see the net get tighter, the murders begin to pile up, and everything spiral out of control.

It’s an amazing film. We all know it. We all know this should have won. Everything about this film is superior to The English Patient. But, the Academy is the Academy. Some things never change.

Jerry MaguireWhat a great film. I love that this is here. I know people consider this weak, but I don’t care. This film is amazing.

Jerry Maguire is a sports agent. He’s great at what he does, has dozens of clients, and lives what appears to be a great life. However, when one of his clients gets injured and the man’s son calls Jerry out for not truly caring about his father’s well-being, Jerry has a crisis of conscience. He writes a memo (which is really more of a mission statement) about how agents should really start taking on fewer clients and giving them more personal attention, rather than treating them as faceless financial entities. This, naturally, gets him fired. He loses all but one of his clients, and leaves work with Dorothy Boyd (Renée Zellweger), who believes in his idealism and, without thinking, quits alongside him. The two start their own company, with their one client, charismatic and selfish Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), and try to focus on him, because unless they get him the new contract he wants, they’re both broke and screwed. And they also fall in love during the process and he had her at hello and she completes him and all that stuff that makes people without souls hate this movie. (I admit it’s become cliche, but this is the movie that created the cliche, so it’s really backwards reasoning.)

I feel so horrible about writing up these synopses all wikipedia-like, but, I figure, if I’m gonna do it, might as well do it right. It’s everything I hate, yet, I feel I should do it. If only to see if I can remember all the plots.

Anyway, this film is amazing. It should never have won (though, honestly, over The English Patient…), but it’s a really great film. Anyone who hates this film doesn’t. They hate its stars, or they dislike that it’s become its own cliche. It’s truly impossible to hate this movie. People who say they don’t like this are just doing it to be haters. Those people who stubbornly refuse to admit a film is anything but terrible even though all evidence points to the contrary. Can’t change ’em, so I ignore ’em. Still, Fargo beats this.

Shine — I’ll tell you up front that I have a bit of a bias against this film, purely because its one of those stories that’s a Miramax special. Not a story that needs to be told, one that is, and it’s filled with Oscar bait, designed to get votes, even though the film is not particularly outstanding. The other reason I don’t really like it is because Geoffrey Rush won Best Actor for what is essentially a supporting performance (if you think anyone but Noah Taylor is the lead of this movie, you’re insane).

The film is about David Helfgott, a child piano prodigy. We see him as a child, as his father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) pushes him to be better in the most cruel ways. He basically tortures his son, purely so he can be what he wants him to be. And the kid eventually has a nervous breakdown because of it. And we flash back between David as a kid and as an adult (mostly as a kid, which is why Geoffrey Rush isn’t the true lead of the film), and there’s some sort of fake “redemption” whereby he’s clearly not the man he used to be, but still plays piano beautifully.

To me, this is pure Academy bullshit. I hate films like this. This one isn’t so bad, but I can’t stand what this represents. To me, a film like this should never win Best Picture. It’s not a very good film. It’s an okay film, but it shouldn’t be nominated here. It really shouldn’t.

Secrets & Lies — This is a small drama, about a lower-middle class woman who finds out that she has a daughter. We spend the first half of the film with the woman and the daughter separately. The mother has problems with her life, and there’s all sorts of soap opera drama there. The daughter tracks down her mother (she gave her up for adoption) and calls her. They meet at a coffee shop (which is really the best scene in the film. It’s 8 minutes, one take, and amazing). Then the mother brings the daughter to meet the family, and all the tensions boil to the surface during the party.

The first thing you should know is that I don’t like Mike Leigh films. I don’t like his style. In case you didn’t know, what he does is come up with a base character, usually designed for an actor or actress, and then a basic story, and then sits and creates the film through long improvisations with the actors. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but for some reason, the way he does it — I haven’t really liked any of the films he did that I saw. I find them totally lacking in story. This one is no different. Plus it looks like it was shot for television. To me, the only appeal of this film is the performance of Brenda Blethyn. Outside of that, I don’t see why this is even here. But, it looks like a very weak overall Academy year, so I don’t really care one way or another. It was clearly the #5 film among the nominees. (Okay, maybe #4, but still — never gonna win.) So since it never had a chance, I don’t really care about it. I’d never vote for it.

My Thoughts: It’s not a contest. It’s Fargo all the way. And I’ll put it one step further — if you would actually vote for The English Patient here, I will lose respect for you as a person.My Vote: Fargo

Should Have Won: Fargo

Is the result acceptable?: No. It’s too Out of Africa. Not good enough to deserve it at all. Does anyone think this is remotely acceptable?

Ones I suggest you see: Fargo is a perfect film and is essential. If you don’t see it, you don’t love movies.

Jerry Maguire is also essential. Culturally. You need to see it. Don’t not see it and pretend like you have. That makes you a schmuck.

The English Patient is a film you probably should see just because it won Best Picture, and to see why there’s a good movie inside this, and why it represents all that is wrong with the Academy Awards.

Shine is okay. Kinda worth it. It won Best Actor. I wouldn’t recommend it one way or the other, though.

Secrets & Lies — honestly, in my opinion, all you need to see is that coffee shop scene between the two of them. Unless you like Mike Leigh movies (or are a fan of acting). I can’t recommend this, though. I just don’t like it enough to do that.


5) Secrets & Lies

4) Shine

3) The English Patient

2) Fargo

1) Jerry Maguire

3 responses

  1. Matt Zurcher

    You hit the nail on the head by saying (about Jerry) “Anyone who hates this film doesn’t. They hate its stars, or they dislike that it’s become its own cliche.”

    It really is a fantastic piece. I don’t care how crazy Cruise becomes — he’s a marvelous interpreter.

    English Patient’s triumph will certainly go down as one of the more disappointing entries into Academy Folly. Fargo was the clear choice. But… I still believe that, had Fargo won in ’96, No Country would have lost to There Will Be Blood in ’07. So, in a sense, I think the Academy tends to correct its own idiocy from time to time. No Country is a masterpiece, but it is still subordinate to Blood. Karma seems to work when that time of year rolls around.

    April 26, 2012 at 1:53 pm

  2. Yeah, if The English Patient was perhaps an hour shorter, and wasn’t so self-indulgent, MAYBE I wouldn’t have minded it winning Best Picture, but after seeing how amazing Fargo is, I agree with you that they definitely made a huge mistake. The English Patient may have looked gorgeous, but Fargo was a masterpiece in every other sense of the word. It should have earned more than Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay.

    September 27, 2013 at 10:05 am

    • what did you think of the birdcage cause im shocked it didnt get an oscar nomination?

      April 28, 2017 at 2:52 pm

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