The 10 most high-powered Oscar races of the last 25 years

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Most Academy Awards hand out five nominations apiece. Some awards only hand out three; a few years ago, the Academy opened up the Best Picture race to like a million nominees. But the specific number doesn’t really matter. Most races inevitably come down to some kind of face-off between two nominees: Frontrunner vs. Dark Horse, Beloved Veteran vs. Dynamic Newcomer, Megahit vs. Beloved Smaller Film, Dark Tale Of The Modern World vs. Sentimental Nostalgia Bait.

Each year, though there are races that defy any easy binary rendering. These are the categories that stacked almost too high with talent. Sometimes that’s clear right away, and the category becomes that year’s Race To Watch media narrative. More often, it only becomes clear with the benefit of hindsight: The five nominees for a supporting Oscar become iconic faces of the ensuing decade, or the musical score of all five nominated films become synonymous with trailer-ready emotional cues.

This morning’s nominations confirmed that this year’s Best Actor race is one for the ages: Christian Bale’s method chub in American Hustle and Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas Buyers Club weight loss fill the requisite Physical Transformation slots, while Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave and Bruce Dern in Nebraska provide anti-pyrotechnics in quiet showcases of repressed strength and ruined weakness, respectively. By comparison, Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street delivers a relatively old-school Movie Star role — but he’s the Movie Star-as-Satanic-Hedonist. And you could make an equally good lineup out of the snubs: Robert Redford, Joaquin Phoenix, Tom Hanks, Michael B. Jordan and Oscar Isaac.

Not to be outdone, the Best Actress race has four past winners (Blanchett, Bullock, Dench, Streep) plus the frequently nominated Amy Adams. And perhaps in the future we’ll come to recognize another category as a uniquely high-powered collection of creative people. (This year’s Best Original Song race is already the best in years, even if none of us know what Alone Yet Not Alone is.) In honor of today’s Oscar nominations, and because we need to take a break from our frenzy of Oscar balloting, here is a fantasy-league rundown of the most stacked Oscar categories of the last 25 years. A few different variables were thrown in the mix: Cultural influence, a retroactive consideration of where the nomination came in the careers of the nominees, rigidly objective logic and highly subjective personal preference.

Best Supporting Actress, 2001
Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind (winner)
Helen Mirren, Gosford Park
Maggie Smith, Gosford Park
Marisa Tomei, In the Bedroom
Kate Winslet, Iris

A defining year for everyone involved. You’ve got Jennifer Connelly giving the last great unfiltered Jennifer Connelly performance, all gorgeous suffering and secret strength. You’ve got Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith, both perched right on the edge of a fabulous decade: Mirren was five years pre-Queen; Smith had just inaugurated her Harry Potter role, and her Gosford Park character is basically the Dowager Countess a decade early.

Tomei’s In the Bedroom role changed the whole Marisa Tomei narrative: “Did she really deserve that Oscar?” immediately transformed into “Why don’t we just keep a spot reserved for her every few years?” And Winslet’s Iris nomination — her third, at age 26 — was proof-of-concept for the Winslet Brand post-Titanic. Notably, the Winslet nom came a moment in history when DiCaprio had nothing to show post-Titanic besides The Beach and lots of travesty buzz around Gangs of New York. (Bonus stack-age: Winslet was playing young Judi Dench, also nominated that year.)

Best Animated Feature, 2009
Coraline
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog
The Secret of Kells
Up (Winner)

Over a decade after Shrek won the inaugural prize, the jury’ s still kind of out on the Animated Feature Oscar. Is it a valuable way to celebrate the ascendant animation art form? Or is it a kooky cartoon ghetto that rubber-stamps big studio product at the expense of genuine artistry? Evidence for the latter: Brother Bear and Puss in Boots (nominated 2003 and 2011). Evidence for the latter: The 2009 lineup.

Two flavors of stop-motion, with the spooky Coraline and the delightful Mr. Fox. Princess and the Frog was the last gasp of old-school 2D Disney; Up was Pixar capping off their ascendant decade in high-flying style. Secret of Kells demonstrated that low-budget curiosities wouldn’t be left out of the Animated Feature fun. Kells‘ presence also adds an essential spice of controversy, since it held off the groovy visuals from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the simply gorgeous late-Miyazaki wonder Ponyo (a 2008 release wasn’t Academy eligible until ’09.)

Best Original Screenplay, 1995
Braveheart, Written by Randall Wallace
Mighty Aphrodite, Written by Woody Allen
Nixon, Written by Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson & Oliver Stone
Toy Story, Written by like everybody (see below)
The Usual Suspects, Written by Christopher McQuarrie (Winner)

The odd man out here is Mighty Aphrodite, which earned Allen a courtesy nod on the front wave of a dry spell that wouldn’t end until he found his passport. Coincidentally, Nixon was the last time anyone took Oliver Stone seriously, and the mixture of dense research with X-Files conspiracy theorizing and Shakespearean melodrama is the very definition of Things Like Which They Don’t Make Anymore. (In contemporary terms, Nixon = Lincoln + Zero Dark Thirty x Anne Hathaway’s cry-snot in Les Misérables.)

The other three nominees in this category aren’t just historic. You could make the argument that they invented the next two decades of Hollywood. Braveheart is every vaguely ancient battle epic of the last twenty years — Gladiator, Lord of the Rings, 300, yeesh, even Avatar – with the Big Speech that every drunken American male can quote by heart backwards. The Usual Suspects is every mystery-within-a-mystery thriller of the last twenty years, with the Big Twist that led to the whole mini-cinema of WTF meta-stories. (See: Fight Club, Shutter Island, Identity, the films of Christopher Nolan and M. Night Shyamalan and J.J. Abrams.)

And Toy Story. The movie every animated movie wants to be. A kids’ movie for grown-ups: Once Toy Story did it, it feels a bit like Hollywood stopped trying to do anything else. A partial list of the people who worked on Toy Story: John Lasseter, Pixar chairman and Neo-Walt Disney; Andrew Stanton, later director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E; Pete Docter, later director of Monsters, Inc. and Up; and Joss Whedon, later director of two episodes of The Office and some other stuff.

Best Original Song, 1991
“Be Our Guest,” Beauty and the Beast
“Belle,” Beauty and the Beast
“Beauty and the Beast,” Take a guess (Winner)
“When You’re Alone,” Hook
“(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,” Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

The final Alan Menken/Howard Ashman Disney joint before Ashman’s untimely death netted three noms for Beauty and the Beast, at the time a record. Disney pushed the title song, recorded as a duet between Peabo Bryson and Celine Dion. Dion was very young and had basically just learned English; hiring her to sing “Beauty and the Beast” in 1991 is the equivalent of investing heavy in Google in, well, 1991.

And “Beauty” wasn’t even the best song from the movie! That would be the relentlessly quotable “Be Our Guest,” although we’ll also accept arguments in favor of “Belle,” aka “The Song About How That Girl Is A Weirdo Who Likes Books And Stuff,” aka “The Hipster Anthem.”

Depending on your perspective/age, “When You’re Alone” is either the most mawkish part of a painfully mawkish movie or the reason why there are tears falling down your face right now, tears on your keyboard, all of the tears from all your life falling out all at once. But Bryan Adam’s Robin Hood song is an all-time karaoke essential. The Best Original Song category has trended unmemorable and boring the last ten years — yeesh, Adele won just by singing the word “Skyfall” over and over again — and one can’t help but yearn for a time when cheesy pop acts frequently blessed cheesy blockbusters with immortally cheesy theme songs.

Best Production Design, 2001
Amélie
Gosford Park
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Moulin Rouge! (Winner)

I’m going to make a wild and yet inarguable generalization and say that — at this specific moment, Thursday January 16 2014 AD — everything  in the world looks like one of these five movies. All musicians and human beings young enough to use SnapChat dress like the wallpaper in Moulin Rouge! Brooklyn and all its neo-bohemian global constituents are engaged in a neverending Amelie set-design theme party. The inaugural Potter and Rings movies established a look that would run throughout both ensuing kabillion-dollar franchises and filter down into every other vaguely fantastical effects-heavy blockbuster. This is a category where the least interesting nominee is Gosford Park, which conjured up the whole postmillenial nostalgia-vision of pre-modern English aristocracy.

Production design is one of those artsy technical Oscars that nobody quite understands. Us laypeople don’t have an accepted language for good production design, the way we have a language for describing good cinematography or a language (however inaccurate) for describing good film editing. But the production design of these five movies seems, to me, like the architecture of the dreamlife of an entire ensuing era.

Best Supporting Actor, 2012
Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django (Winner)

Last year’s most stacked category already belongs on the books. America’s funny-angry uncle Alan Arkin stole every scene he was in, plus a few he wasn’t. De Niro gave his first committed performance in memory. On the other end of the spectrum, Hoffman and Waltz represented the Co-Lead-as-Supporting redefinition that has turned “Best Supporting Actor” into a euphemism for “Best Actor Who Lost The Coin Toss.” And any other year, the prize would’ve gone to Jones. Supporting Actor winners usually get one big scene; Jones’ Lincoln performance was all big scenes, big speeches and wacky wigs and quotable period-appropriate insults and even a twist-ending wife (played by S. Epatha Merkerson!) Every man on the list was a past winner. If we’re lucky, every man on the list will be in the Oscar conversation for the forseeable.

Best Actress, 2001
Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball (Winner)
Judi Dench, Iris
Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge!
Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroom
Renée Zellweger, Bridget Jones’ Diary

How awesome was the 2002 ceremony? It featured Peak Berry, Peak Kidman, and Peak Zellweger: A rare nexus point for three very different careers that all went supernova at the exact same moment. Berry has been in victory-lap mode ever since; Kidman and Zellweger both won make-good Oscars for way less interesting work in The Hours and Cold Mountain. Throw in old pros Dench and Spacek both doing the opposite of coasting — Dench in Iris had non-cute dementia, Spacek in Bedroom was a grieving mom spiraling into quiet rage.

Further evidence that this category represents a unique confluence of powers far beyond our mortal sphere: Although Dench, Kidman, and Zellweger lost the Oscar, their unified chi propelled their collective costar Jim Broadbent — who spent 2001 playing Dench’s husband, Kidman’s boss, and Zellweger’s Dad — to an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Best Cinematography, 2007
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Roger Deakins
Atonement, Seamus McGarvey
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Janusz Kamiński
No Country for Old Men, Roger Deakins
There Will Be Blood, Robert Elswit (Winner)

One Deakins? TWO Deakins??!?!?!! The eternal Oscar bridesmaid and semi-official Third Coen Brother turned Jesse James into a dreamy autumnal tone poem and then transformed Cormac McCarthy’s prose into the funny-scary action-noir No Country. It was a big year for Auteur Sidekicks: Paul Thomas Anderson’s longtime co-conspirator Elswit won for his oil-blackened epic There Will Be Blood. It’s a category filled with some of the most glorious wide-open expanses in recent Hollywood history — and yet, you could argue that Kamiński’s work is the most daring, with the camera attempting to capture the mindset of a man locked inside his own body. The color-blasted Atonement is the by-default shrimp in this ridiculously overstuffed group, but it can lay claim to having one of the most enjoyably shameless “LOOK AT ME!!!!!!!” Steadicam shots of the decade.

Best Original Score, 1994
Forrest Gump, Alan Silvestri
Interview with the Vampire, Elliot Goldenthal
The Lion King, Hans Zimmer (Winner)
Little Women, Thomas Newman
The Shawshank Redemption, Thomas Newman

Newman pulls a Deakins with one score (Little Women) that looks in hindsight like the Platonic Ideal of Period Piece Music and one score (Shawshank Redemption) that became the go-to soundtrack for Serious-Movie movie trailers. The Shawshank score sits right alongside Silvestri’s Forrest Gump score in Happy-Sad Music Hall of Fame. The ’94 Score category is also an essential trivia answer: For which movie did Hans “Mr. Hollywood” Zimmer win his only Oscar?

Best Picture, 2010
127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech (winner)
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone

Tough to beat 1994, which had the Pulp Fiction/Forrest Gump and a pre-cult Shawshank Redemption and a rare romcom nomination for Four Weddings and a Funeral. But 2010 remains the best argument for the Academy’s Best Picture expansion pack. Excellent blockbusters like Inception and Toy Story 3 mixed with lowdown grit like The Fighter and 127 Hours. Uniquely contemporary stories like The Social Network and The Kids Are All Right sit alongside the oldest of Old Hollywood stories like the western (True Grit) and the wartime biopic (The King’s Speech.) There’s also a movie where Natalie Portman has sex with Mila Kunis.

All that, and the Academy buying big on Jennifer Lawrence stock before most people knew who Jennifer Lawrence was! Seriously, the worst movie on that list is The King’s Speech, and even it deserves some credit for overdelivering on Oscar bait. British royal with speech impediment fights Nazis using the power of acting? And this actually happened, kinda? Yahtzee!


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