by Jason F. Koenigsberg
Well, the 2019 Academy Award nominations have been announced. Regardless of what people think these are not the best nominees ever. 2018 was a solid year for movies, but far from one of the best of all time. Even when there are outstanding years for movies sometimes the Academy chooses to honor goodness rather than greatness and go with safe bets rather than bold and original visions, I’m looking at you 1999. So let us reflect back at the times the Academy Awards got it right. Not necessarily the best years for movies but the best groups of nominees where if practically any film or person won that year it would have been looked at as a great victory. Without any further ado here are the Academy Award Best groups of nominees of all time…
Best Picture 1976
Wow! What an incredible group of five nominees for Best Picture. Literally, any one of them could have taken home the top prize and it would be hard to complain. Plus, the diverse greatness of these five films is a testament to the type of films that came out during 1976 and kudos to the Oscars for celebrating some very different and outstanding pictures. Four of the five nominees are four of the best films ever made. The weakest of the nominees is the well crafted Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory which is still a fine film on its own merits. But the others are titles that are regarded as the best movies of their era. An ahead of its time actors showcase with Sidney Lumet’s Network. One of the best and most topical films of its time with Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men often hailed as the seminal political thriller and the best film ever made about journalism. A gritty, urban drama about the seedy underbelly of a post-Vietnam New York City told through the eyes of a traumatized and unstable war veteran that redefined what a hero is for motion pictures with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The Academy chose to honor Rocky, the most crowd-pleasing film of the bunch and what has become the most genre-defining sports movie of all time. Rocky is quite possibly the best sports movie ever made. Its influence can be found on practically every sports romance picture that has come since. Personally, I would have given Best Picture to Taxi Driver for illustrating New York City in a way that had never quite been done before and cannot be done today since that dark metropolis no longer exists and for making audiences question the values and morals of our heroes. My second choice would have been to Network for taking one of the most brilliant and prophetic screenplays to life with some of the best performances ever seen in a single motion picture to create a riveting revelation of a movie. Rocky would have been my third choice but one cannot be disappointed by the Academy’s decision here. Rocky taking home Best Picture is well deserved especially since it is the ultimate American underdog story and now over forty years later it still has a legacy that has expanded its audience through multiple generations more than any of these other films have been able to achieve.
Best Director 1975
A lineup with some of the most legendary names in the history of the artform. The 1970s was a renaissance of filmmaking with some of the biggest names in the medium starting their careers colliding with the legendary icons that influenced them. The sixth nominee and one who was likely cut for Fellini to get nominated for Amarcord was Steven Spielberg for his box office and critical smash Jaws which invented the summer blockbuster and remains a classic as fresh today as it was over forty years ago. Fellini’s film was not in the Best Picture race, but Kubrick who was nominated for his fourth (and final) Best Director Oscar for his fourth consecutive film, Sidney Lumet who was in the middle of a career hot streak, joined Robert Altman, also having a hot streak of his own and Milos Forman for the powerhouse and well deserved Best Picture winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Even if Milos Forman did not win and The Best Director Oscar went to one of the other filmmakers it is highly unlikely anybody would have complained. Fellini, Altman, Lumet, and Kubrick would never win a Best Director Academy Award in their long and illustrious careers. If they took home a statue here even if it was for one of their less beloved films, it would be looked at as a career-crowning achievement. Fellini, Altman, and Lumet would all go on to earn the honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar later in their careers. If the Academy was more forward thinking they could have saved time and honored one of the other directors since Milos Forman would win a second Best Director Academy Award nine years later for Amadeus.
Best Actor 2002
An unusual group of nominees. All but one were Oscar winners and the one that did not have an Academy Award would take home the statue and join the winners club that night. Nicholson already had three Oscars (one for supporting), Caine had two (both for supporting), Day-Lewis had only one but would earn two more Best Actor Oscars in the next ten years setting a record for most wins in this category. Cage also had an Oscar. Adrien Brody, the youngest and least well known of the nominees would win a well deserved Best Actor trophy for Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. But honestly, this is a lineup with not only some of the most iconic names in the history of the business but they are all delivering stellar performances more than worthy of an Academy Award for their efforts. I think Daniel Day-Lewis was the best of the bunch but Adrien Brody would have been my second choice followed by Nicholson and then Nic Cage. Michael Caine as a British reporter in Vietnam would have been my fifth choice as the weakest of the bunch by my lord is he outstanding in a complex and understated role. I would have had no qualms with him taking home his third Oscar that night, but I am happy with who the Academy honored allowing the young Brody to join the winners circle among some of the most legendary actors of his father’s generation.
Best Actress 2004
Not as iconic name-wise as the Greatest Best Actor Lineup, but I challenge you to find a better crop of award-worthy performances by an actress in a leading role. Annette Bening is easily the weakest link of the group, but the others are four of the best performances from an actress that decade. My vote would have gone to Imelda Staunton for her heartfelt and oddly humorous performance as the title role in Vera Drake, one of the best and most humanistic working-class feminist dramas from master British auteur Mike Leigh. But Kate Winslet, Hilary Swank, and Catalina Sandino Moreno are as good as acting can get and as diverse as Best Actress roles come. A young actress delivering a bravura performance in a foreign film, a young British actress playing an American in one of the best romantic comedies of the 21st century, an older English actress playing an Englishwoman helping women with abortions, and eventual winner Hilary Swank as a female boxer that made the audience feel every hit and smile along with her. Swank would win due to Million Dollar Baby peaking at the right time to also take home Best Picture, Director and Supporting Actor. It was Swank’s second Oscar after winning five years prior for Boys Don’t Cry and once again beating Annette Bening in the process when she was nominated for 1999’s Best Picture Winner American Beauty. She deserved her first Best Actress Academy Award and even though I would have given it to Staunton over her and time has been especially kind to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I have no problem with Hilary Swank emerging victorious amongst these other outstanding performances.
Best Supporting Actor 1993
This could easily be the strongest lineup of the entire article. Other than DiCaprio who was just getting started on his legendary acting career, these are probably the best career-defining performances from the other four nominees and you could easily argue that DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is still his finest performance and it would be hard to argue against that. John Malkovich is probably the weakest performance of the bunch but Holy Cow is he electric as the mad assassin taunting Clint Eastwood’s secret service agent throughout In the Line of Fire. Any other year he would be the best of the nominees but he is up against career-best performances from two immensely talented British Actors Ralph Fiennes as an even better villainous Nazi and Pete Postlethwaite as the warmest of fathers going to jail for a crime his son was wrongfully accused of. But as outstanding as DiCaprio, Fiennes, Postlethwaite, and Malkovich are, the Academy got it right this year giving the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Tommy Lee Jones as the U.S. Marshall on the trail of Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. He practically stole the movie from Harrison Ford who quite possibly gives the best performance of his career as the innocent surgeon wrongly convicted of killing his wife. Tommy Lee Jones hits all the right notes as pompous, conceited and is never quite the villain nor is he a hero, just simply a man doing his job who will stop at nothing to find his man even as he starts to learn that the good doctor may be just that. Tommy Lee Jones supports Harrison Ford as the perfect foil and enhanced The Fugitive making it one of the best action films of all time.
Best Supporting Actress 1990
Poor Annette Bening. When she delivers her best performances and the Academy takes notice of her, she is always up against some of the best female performances of all time. This group of female nominees is the best I could find all in one group in the Supporting Actress category. This was the hardest one to select. Often times it is one or two outstanding performances by actresses up against a bunch of nothing special nominees from movies that are either fantastic and they rode the wave of acclaim to an Oscar nomination or were the standout elements from an otherwise subpar movie. But in 1990 the Academy selected great roles from five great or at the very least very very good movies. I would have given the Academy Award to Lorraine Bracco for her superb role as mob wife Karen Hill in Goodfellas who let herself get seduced by her husbands Mafia lifestyle knowing the risks that it came with. She grew, evolved and matured on screen before our very eyes with just a little make-up, hairstyling and a lot of immense talent with the emotions she delivered from her face and voice. The Academy instead chose to go with the popular choice of Whoopi Goldberg in the crowd-pleasing romantic hit Ghost. Whoopi became the first African-American woman to win an Oscar since Hattie McDaniel broke the Hollywood color barrier in 1939. Talk about a long time coming. Knowing that it makes it tough to argue against the Academy’s decision to honor Whoopi Goldberg even though Lorraine Bracco was the strongest performance of the bunch and Diane Ladd certainly the second best of the nominees as the mother in law from Hell determined to destroy her daughter’s passionate relationship in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. Bening is great and has never been sexier than in The Grifters and Mary McDonnell is the example of a performance riding the coattails of Best Picture favorite and eventual winner Dances With Wolves to a nomination, but the difference here is that the movie is actually a sweeping historical epic and she delivers a terrific Oscar-worthy performance. I challenge anyone to find a more deserving five nominees in the history of this category or in fact a better group of nominees from any of the Best Oscar Lineups chosen for this article. These are five times the Academy had a treasure chest full of worthy performances and they honored the best performances and films from their respective years.