By John H. Foote
The eighties are often a much maligned 10-year period coming after the seventies, the greatest decade in American film history. The staggering financial failures of major big budget auteur projects allowed the studios to take back the power and lower budgets drastically, but in fairness the eighties has many great films. Granted not as many as the seventies, but in hindsight the cinema through the eighties was often thrilling work, more so in the years spanning 1980-1985.
Here are 10 great films that failed to earn a much-deserved Best Picture nomination.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
Deeper, darker, and grander than Star Wars (1977), the second of the trilogy was not directed by George Lucas but by his former college professor from USC Irvin Kershner. With Lucas at his side, Kershner gave this film a sense of darkness that the first did not have, and fascinating locations such as the Ice Planet Hoth, the swamp planet Dagobah, the ancient Jedi master Yoda, and, of course, the big reveal that literally drew gasps in every screening I attended. So many secrets emerged in the film, the greatest being that Darth Vader was father to Luke Skywalker whom he wants to join him. The film ends with Skywalker escaping Vader, but we knew the Dark Lord of the Sith was going to chase Luke until he found him. The visual effects were superb, the scope of the film much larger, grander because now Lucas had nothing to prove. Superior to the first film, it remains a stunner it was not a Best Picture nominee because it remains one of the great cinematic experiences of the decade. The actors had found their groove with their characters, they were deeper in their portrayals and the score was lush, to match the great drama within the film. An absolute knockout.
THE STUNT MAN (1980)
A rollicking film about the movie business, Peter O Toole was brilliant as the potentially dangerous director Eli Cross. Though the critics bestowed wonderful reviews on the film, getting audiences in to see it proved tougher. It had sat on a shelf for two years before Richard Rush dug into his own pocket and paid for a theatre to screen the picture. Found by critics, championed by Pauline Kael and the New York Time, the Academy awarded the film three major nominations, but there should have been many more. O Toole is mesmerizing as the maniacal director who might just place art and his film above human life, while Steve Railsback is terrific as Lucky, a criminal fleeing the law who learns how the magic of the movies can hide him as a stunt man. O Toole never seems to be earthbound, impossibly light on his feet he seems to float through the film as though otherworldly. When he roars “if God could do the tricks we can do he would be a happy man” you can see the glint in his mad eyes. Sensational, as millions of VCR owners discovered.
BLOW OUT (1981)
How was this Brian De Palma masterpiece ignored from the race altogether…it has everything going for it? Beautifully directed by seventies enfant terrible De Palma, fusing his sense of paranoia with a genuine heart stopping thriller, acted with astonishing grace and power by a young John Travolta portraying an adult for the first time, shot, edited with artistry and genius and the sound…my God even the sound is perfection. Travolta is a sound man for terrible movies who accidently captures the assassination of a presidential candidate on his tapes while gathering night sounds. When he saves the young lady, who was in the car with the man, he is involved whether he wants to be or not. Apparently, elements of the murder were botched, and now a serial killer for hire is on the path to kill the young woman Travolta saved, portrayed with sleepy sexiness by Nancy Allen. Travolta reminds one of the young Brando in the film, capturing the purity of Brando in the role, cementing his reputation for all of time as a great actor. Though nominated for his magnificent Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever (1977) the Academy missed the chance to nominate him again for this, and they should be ashamed. One of the greatest films never to be nominated. An absolute masterpiece.
SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982)
Never have I understood why Alan J. Pakula and Sophie’s Choice were snubbed for Best Director and Best Picture nominations for this magnificent adaptation of the William Styron novel? No question, Meryl Streep gave the greatest performance ever captured on film as Sophie and won the Oscar as she should have along with every other acting award available to her. But why was the film treated so shabbily? Who knows? The adaptation was superb, near reverential, and the film was created with loving care to capture everything beautiful and harrowing about the story of Sophie who survived the death camps but is a walking ghost because of how she saved herself. Kevin Kline dazzled with movie star charisma as Nathan, the paranoid schizophrenic she loves and he her between bouts of viciousness, and wild fighting, while Peter McNeil was excellent as Stingo, the southern writer who becomes their best friend. In the end the film belongs to Streep who is beyond brilliant as a doomed woman who left her soul back in the death camps, and walks the streets of New York, smiling, fighting back death, which reaches from the past to claim her. I was in awe of her work the first time I saw the film, and every time since. A stunning omission.
SHOOT THE MOON (1982)
Again, rave reviews greeted this powerful drama about divorce, but it was in and out of cinemas so fast no one really had a chance to see its greatness. It remains among the greatest films made about the falling apart of a marriage and a family, with stellar performances from Albert Finney, especially Diane Keaton and Karen Allen. All the anguish and pain that comes with divorce is on display along with the rage, and wounds that might never heal, particularly those of the children, the eldest portrayed by the late Dana Hill in a raw, honest performance that breaks your heart. Alan Parker directed the film with great sensitivity and grace, never allowing for maudlin of any kind to creep in, there is not a false moment in the film. Its truth alone should have got in the Oscar race, I remain stunned that the Keaton performance was ignored. Her scene in the bathtub where she gently croons “if I Fell”, the seminal Beatles love song, is heartbreaking.
UNDER FIRE (1983)
And yet another that was met with rapturous reviews from the critics, Pauline Kael again leading the charge, but audiences did not respond until the film was on video, where then it found an audience. The Academy responded with a single nomination, for best score. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode, it is an electrifying drama about the role of the press as war correspondents and when they should and should not get involved in the conflict they are covering. In Nicaragua, two journalists dance dangerously close to the flame and their friend, a famous newsman is killed in plain sight, which is captured on film by Russell (Nick Nolte) the photographer, who wears his cameras and lenses like additional appendages. Gene Hackman is perfectly arrogant and smarmy as the doomed newsman and Joanna Cassidy superb as the woman who comes between the two friends. In a spectacular supporting turn, Ed Harris is quietly terrifying as the jaunty CIA executioner who moves with the press corps from country to country as a hired executioner. Beautifully directed by Spottiswoode, and a score that stays with you long after the film ends. Brilliant on every level.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)
Sergio Leone directed this masterful crime epic but be warned, you MUST experience the four hour plus version of the film, anything less is butchered and not worth seeing. The film explores more than fifty years in the lives of Noodles (Robert De Niro) and Max (James Woods), two childhood friends who set themselves up in a life of crime, bringing in millions through their lifetime. But when Max begins to display murderous tendencies, Noodles betrays the group and only he survives the ambush, or so he thinks. Years later he encounters Max, but the meeting is not what he expects. Filled with melancholy and regret the film is haunting in its exploration of the consequences of the actions of our lives. Is it flawed? Of course it is, all masterpieces have a flaw. This one is Elizabeth McGovern, woefully miscast as the object of De Niro’s affections, is simply no match for the rest of the actors in the film. So many great actors have small roles in the film, Joe Pesci, Treat Williams, Tuesday Weld, just a magnificent huge sprawling epic. The score is forever haunting, the cinematography the best of this particular year. Once of the best De Niro performances of the decade and among the greatest gangster films ever made.
BLUE VELVET (1986)
It begins with such beauty, a man watering his perfectly manicured lawn as a bright red fire truck drives by under an impossibly blue sky. Then without warning the man falls to the ground felled by a stroke, and the camera plunges under the grass to show the corruption and bugs living underneath, feasting on the beauty, exposing the rot. Right away if you are paying attention you know what this film is going to be about. Home visiting his father, a young man finds an ear in a field. Some investigation by him proves the ear belongs to a man kidnapped by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) perhaps the most vilest of villains in the history of the cinema. He is fascinated with Dorothy Valance (Isabella Rossellini) a singer, whom he routinely abuses and rapes, holding her child and husband hostage. The young man, Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) gets far too close to Dorothy incurring the wrath of Frank who is an absolute madman. The film has a surrealistic feel to it, like a dream and dreams of course are a recurring theme. Dennis Hopper is stunning as Frank, seething with hate and rage and never knowing why, while the rest of the cast shines. Director David Lynch received the films only Oscar nomination for Best Director, leaving many puzzled as to why it was not a Best Picture nominee. Critics loved the film, and it earned top prizes from the National Society of Film Critics.
EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987)
Steven Spielberg was already a great director when he started making this film, but something happened to him during the making of the picture and he became a director for the ages. Where to start…a stunning coming of age story about a 12-year old British boy left behind when the Japanese invade and take China. Sent to a POW camp he ekes out survival there by scamming, constantly in motion to wheel and deal to stay alive. He makes friends that are never really his friends, and he longs for his parents, though he confesses he forgets what they look like. Christian Bale was astonishing as Jim giving one of the great child performances in cinema history, showing early his extraordinary range. Everything about the film is absolute perfection from the acting, cinematography, score, production design and that haunting ending, but especially the direction. Nominated for six Academy Awards and a DGA award but snubbed for Best Picture and Best Director, the film was a critical hit but struggled at the box office only to find a loyal audience on home video. Recognized now as a masterpiece, one of the directors finest works, its absence in the Best Picture category remains a terrible shock. An astonishing achievement.
WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988)
Robert Zemeckis created pure movie magic with this film, placing live action characters in the same frame as animated characters but making it look utterly seamless, which had never been accomplished before. Virtually every animated character in movie history shows up in the film as part of the infamous ToonTown, a place where animated characters live, working in harmony (most of the time) with living people. Roger Rabbit is a huge movie star having troubles in his marriage to the luscious Jessica Rabbit, voiced by the sexy Kathleen Turner. Bob Hoskins is the down and out private investigator hired by Roger to find out the worst about his wife, not realizing he is walking into a dangerous trap. Mourning his brother, who was murdered by a toon, he summons his courage to return to ToonTown to solve the puzzle and crimes. I could not quite believe what I was seeing on the screen, so mesmerizing were the visual and sound effects merged with remarkable cinematography. Seven nominations, four wins, a DGA nomination for Zemeckis, but no Best Picture or Director nod.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.