State of the Art

If ‘Revenant’ wins a best-picture Oscar, it’ll have lots of lame company

Leonardo DiCaprio looks to heaven to supply his long-overdue Oscar in “The Revenant.” The film got 12 nominations, some of them deserved.
Leonardo DiCaprio looks to heaven to supply his long-overdue Oscar in “The Revenant.” The film got 12 nominations, some of them deserved. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

A reader who came across my lukewarm review of “The Revenant” e-mailed me last week to say I must be wrong: An unmemorable movie wouldn’t get 12 Academy Award nominations.

That set me thinking. Could I find even one decade in Oscar history when all 10 best picture winners (forget the nominees) were outstanding? I perused the database at oscars.org, and I surely couldn’t.

Some years didn’t yield even one nominee that ought to be seen more than once or required further thought after the end credits rolled. The 2006 best picture nominees were “Babel,” “The Departed” (which won), “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Queen” – all with some redeeming virtues, none of them first-rate.

So should “The Revenant” take the top prize next month, it will join The League of Mediocre Champions. Here’s some of the company it will keep:

“The Broadway Melody” (1929) – The best production number in this slow-moving backstage musical, which introduced “Singing in the Rain,” was done far, far better in ... “Singin’ in the Rain.”

“Cimarron” (1931) – Turmoil in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma provides a backdrop for this turgid western full of overacted performances and dialogue delivered slowly and formally (as it often was in the early days of microphones).

“Mrs. Miniver” (1942) – Thinly disguised propaganda designed to remind the homefront why it was crucial to preserve The English Way of Life – and, incidentally, get America to join the war against Hitler.

“Around the World in 80 Days” (1956) – This clumsy adaptation of Jules Verne’s piquant novel had a wafer-thin plot, countless intrusive cameos by famous people, a massive budget and a boorish audacity that makes it mindless semi-fun.

“Oliver!” (1968) –An overlong, gracelessly lavish adaptation of a more biting stage musical. Frequently gorgeous to look at and listen to, but so overblown that it all but finished big-budget studio musicals for decades.

“Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979) – Either “All That Jazz” or “Apocalypse Now” should have topped this domestic drama. Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman were fine as a couple fighting over a son’s custody; otherwise, it’s a Lifetime movie.

“Gandhi” (1982) – Too long, too reverent, too stiff and the kind of picture the Academy likes to choose because it’s Really Important. Why didn’t it give Ben Kingsley an acting prize in the title role and let “E.T” go home the big winner?

“Braveheart” (1995)/“Gladiator” (2000) – Two hefty action movies – one literally sword-and-sandal, the other metaphorically so – with stereotyped characters, revisionist history and sweeping scores. Enjoyable stuff, but not classic.

“Crash” (2005) – This muddled, improbable, loosely connected series of vignettes about life in dangerous Los Angeles slogs from cliché to cliché. If older voters weren’t so homophobic, it could never have beaten “Brokeback Mountain.”

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