As usual, neither of my favorite films from this past year received Oscar nominations. Europa Report, a low-profile sci-fi film about a research mission to look for alien life forms, is one of the most realistic sci-fi films I've ever seen - and no wonder, since NASA consulted on the design and script - and also a rare film about the wonder and passion of scientific discovery, rather than Kirk and Han Solo fighting space monsters, or whatever. My other favorite, Blackfish, is a documentary film that has spawned a minor social movement, changing the way that we think about keeping whales in captivity. It's particularly disappointing that this film wasn't nominated given that it was helmed by a female filmmaker, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, and the Academy has a habit of ignoring films made by women. With the Oscars fast approaching, I've decided to explore some of the great masterpieces that didn't get a single nomination. I've only considered nominations in categories that actually existed the year that the film would have been eligible (and also assuming a release in the US).
Lang's visual tour-de-force was the very first feature length science fiction film, and it, remarkably, remains one of the finest science fiction films of all time, if not the absolute finest. In a dystopian future in which the rich live in impossibly high skyscrapers and spend their evenings in wild nightclubs, the poor live in an underground maze where they toil at menial jobs, keeping the machines of industry running. A prophet foretells a mediator that will lead the poor above ground, but a diabolical inventor in league with the industrialists creates the ultimate weapon, subverting the revolution.
Should have been nominated for: Unique and Artistic Production, Best Director, Dramatic Picture (Fritz Lang), Best Actress (Brigitte Helm), Best Art Direction (Otto Hunte)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
In my opinion, this is the greatest film of all time, greater even than Citizen Kane or Gone with the Wind, or The Bicycle Thieves, or The Rules of the Game. Renee Jeanne Falconetti (also known as Maria Falconetti) is so incredible as Joan of Arc that her performance becomes unworldly. The film begins with Joan's trial and interrogations, following her tortured spiritual path to her martyrdom.
Should have been nominated for: Outstanding Picture, Best Director (Carl Theodor Dreyer), Best Actress (Renee Jeanne Falconetti)
Pandora's Box (1929)
This German masterpiece is about Lulu (Louise Brooks), a woman so incredibly alluring that both men and women will commit any act, no matter how ruinous, for the chance to have her. Lulu is a deeply sexual being, a woman whose physical enjoyment of life is either supremely selfish or radically liberated, depending on one's point of view. Pandora's Box is a strikingly modern take on gender, sexuality, and desire.
Should have been nominated for: Outstanding Production, Best Director (G.W. Pabst), Best Actress (Louise Brooks)
Another of Lang's great masterpieces and in his own estimation his finest work, M is a disturbing thriller about a compulsive murderer and child molester, whose crimes are so incredibly despicable that the entire criminal underworld unites to put him on trial before the police can catch up to him. It is astonishing that this was Lang's first talkie - the sound work is magnificent and groundbreaking. This film is also proof of the extraordinary acting abilities of Peter Lorre, who struggled to find suitable roles when he came to the US.
Should have been nominated for: Outstanding Production, Best Director (Fritz Lang), Best Actor (Peter Lorre), Best Adapted Screenplay (Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Paul Falkenberg, and two others), Best Sound Recording (Fritz Lang)
Dinner at Eight (1933)
With one of the most impressive all-star casts ever put together in one film, Dinner at Eight captured the excesses and anxieties of the Great Depression. John Barrymore, nearing the end of his career, plays a washed up alcoholic actor, Lionel Barrymore is a formerly wealthy magnate on the verge of bankruptcy, Billie Burke is his neurotic and self-absorbed wife, Jean Harlow is a gold digger and social climber, Wallace Beery is her surly husband, and Marie Dressler is the former sex symbol confronting her age. This is one of the great classics of the 1930s.
Should have been nominated for: Outstanding Production, Best Actor (John Barrymore), Best Actress (Marie Dressler)
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
Leslie Howard gives one of his two finest performances (the other being as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion) as Sir Percy Blakeney, an effeminate, foppish dandy, who may or may not be the notorious Scarlet Pimpernel, the savior of the French aristocracy from the guillotine. The stunningly beautiful Merle Oberon, in a series of gorgeous gowns by Oliver Mossel, plays the Lady Blakeney, whose contempt for her husband is only matched by her adoration of her brother. This film is a top-notch adaptation of the Baroness Orczy's romantic suspense novel.
Should have been nominated for: Best Actor (Leslie Howard)
Anna Karenina (1935)
Though it's far from the most faithful adaptation of Tolstoy's novel, this version is the best for one reason - Greta Garbo. Garbo was born to play the role of the sensual, frustrated Anna, trapped in a socially advantageous marriage and fruitlessly seeking something transcendent. Directed by Clarence Brown and co-starring Fredric March, Basil Rathbone, and Freddie Bartholomew, Anna Karenina is one of Garbo's best films.
Should have been nominated for: Best Actress (Greta Garbo), Best Cinematography (William H. Daniels)
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
This heartrending movie is about an elderly couple who lose their house and have to separate because none of their five children has room for them. This is a quiet film, but stunning in terms of its emotional depth and poignancy. Leo McCarey in fact won the award for Best Director in 1937, for his work on The Awful Truth, a delightful screwball comedy, but McCarey felt, and I definitely agree, that he should have won for his direction on this film instead.
Should have been nominated for: Outstanding Production, Best Director (Leo McCarey), Best Actor (Victor Moore), Best Actress (Beulah Bondi), Best Adapted Screenplay (Vina Delmar)
Long unavailable in the US because Visconti did not have the rights to James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice on which he based this, his first film, Ossessione is both the first Italian work of neorealism and the finest adaptation of Cain's work. The film was also banned by the Fascist Italian government, who even attempted to destroy the negative. Luckily, Visconti had a duplicate and thus preserved this brilliant telling of the sordid story of a woman's affair with an earthy tramp and their plan to murder her husband.
Should have been nominated for: Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Director (Luchino Visconti), Best Actor (Massimo Girotti), Best Actress (Clara Calamai), Best Supporting Actor (Juan de Landa), Best Adapted Screenplay (Luchino Visconti, and others)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
Roger Livesey plays Major-General Candy, a man who has risen through the British Army, living through the Boer War, World War I, and World War II, which was ongoing as production went forward on this film. The film, despite the brilliant photography, a witty and profound screenplay, and fabulous performances, was originally unpopular, in large part because audiences of the time were offended by the portrayal of sympathetic German characters. This is one of Powell and Pressburger's best films.
Should have been nominated for: Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Director (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), Best Actor (Roger Livesy), Best Original Screenplay (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), Best Cinematography, Color (Georges Perinal)
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Another marvelous film from Powell and Pressburger, A Matter of Life and Death follows a British pilot (David Niven) who is scheduled to die when his parachute fails, only for Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) to lose sight of him in the fog. The pilot is then given the opportunity to present a case to the authorities of Heaven, so that he may continue to live. This film is gorgeous from top to toe, a perfect masterpiece from a team that specialized in perfect masterpieces.
Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), Best Supporting Actor (Marius Goring), Best Original Screenplay (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), Best Story (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), Best Art Direction, Color (Alfred Junge), Best Cinematography, Color (Jack Cardiff)
Beauty and the Beast (1946)
Cocteau's film is perhaps the greatest cinematic fairy tale of all time, a vivid and magical retelling of the romance between an innocent and selfless beauty and the tortured beast who holds her captive. The special effects, achieved with the slimmest of resources, are truly astonishing, giving the film an otherworldly effect and enchanting audiences. It is undoubtedly one of the great achievements of world cinema.
Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Jean Cocteau), Best Actor (Jean Marais), Best Dramatic or Comedy Score (Georges Auric), Best Art Direction, Black and White (Christian Berard), Best Cinematography, Black and White (Henri Alekan), Best Special Effects (Jean Cocteau?)