I've done a lot of complaining in my recent Top 5s about times the Academy has either gotten it wrong, snubbed deserving actors, or doomed them to mediocre films after their wins. However, I should point out that they also have a pretty good track record when it comes to "getting it right" so to speak. For every Best Picture winner that has made me cringe (Slumdog Millionaire, Chariots of Fire, or perennial punchline The Greatest Show on Earth) there are others that are spot-on (Schindler's List, The Godfather, Casablanca). Here are my Top 5 times the Academy one hundred percent nailed an award and didn't play politics (Crash) or succumb to the allure of a well-run campaign by a less-than deserving winner (Shakespeare in Love).
5. The Usual Suspects (1995): Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey, Best Original Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie
Sadly nominated for only two awards, Bryan Singer's groundbreaking debut film went home on Oscar night 1996 with both of those trophies in a pair of insanely well-deserved wins. Kevin Spacey was a well regarded character actor who had mostly gotten by in under seen films like The Ref and Glengarry Glen Ross, but with his breakout roles in both this film and Se7en, 1995 became the year he went from unrecognized workhorse to Hollywood elite in a win over incredibly talented competition like Brad Pitt (12 Monkeys), Tim Roth (Rob Roy), and Ed Harris (Apollo 13).
And without Christopher McQuarrie's unbelievably tight, economic, and innovative script, none of this would have been possible. His script is credited with giving rise to the "unreliable narrator" trope that has been done to death in the nearly twenty years since this film debuted. While Tarantino may have been the most influential screenwriter of the decade, The Usual Suspects became the screenplay that inspired a generation of writers to put the twist ending into practice, with a seemingly never-ending series of diminishing returns. One of the best films of the nineties remains one of the most deserving Oscar winners of all time.
4. The 1975 Academy Awards
One of the strongest years in a decade rife with strong years for filmmakers, 1975 brought us a Best Picture showdown that included the likes of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, Steven Spielberg's Jaws, Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon, Robert Altman's Nashville, and Milos Forman's eventual winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. All of these films would go home with at least one award, the big winner being Cuckoo's Nest which also won Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman), the first film to win the "Big 5" since It Happened One Night 41 years earlier.
All of these awards were hard fought winners over equally deserving performances and scripts, but the Academy somehow managed to reward the other Best Picture nominees in all the right places. John Alcott's amazing natural light cinematography for Barry Lyndon, as well as the film's Costumes & Art Direction were rewarded. The amazing editing by Verna Fields on Jaws was rewarded, as was the film's Sound Design and iconic score by John Williams. Dog Day Afternoon took home Original Screenplay honors for its crack script by John Pierson, and Nashville, a film whose music is so central to its plot took home Best Original Song honors for Keith Carradine's "I'm Easy." The Academy spread the wealth around to all of its Best Picture nominees and all in the right places. How often has that happened?
3. Vitorrio Storaro, Best Cinematography: Apocalypse Now (1979), Reds (1981), The Last Emperor (1987)
When talking about the all-time great cinematographers, several names will come up: Conrad L. Hall, Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubezki, Freddie Young, Greg Toland, the list goes on. In my mind, however, one name stands above them all, Vittorio Storaro. Winning three Oscars for his work with three different directors, Storaro's first win came for Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Coppola allegedly gave him the freedom to run wild and do whatever he wished, resulting in one of the simultaneously most horrifying and beautiful films ever made. His next win came on Warren Beatty's Reds, which inexplicably lost Best Picture to Chariots of Fire, but Storaro's work was breathtaking, combining sweeping vistas with intimate and impeccably lit and framed close-ups.
His best work of all though came with frequent collaborator Bernardo Bertolucci's Best Picture winner The Last Emperor. Once more Storaro managed to combine all of the elements of his previous work, but when coupled with the sumptuous, Oscar-winning Art Direction and Costume Design, as well as the inkiest of blacks one could possibly hope for, it makes for one of the all-time most gorgeous films of all time. He would work with all of these directors again, but the Academy absolutely nailed his three most-deserving films, and rewarded him accordingly.
2. On The Waterfront (1954): Best Picture, Best Director: Elia Kazan, Best Actor: Marlon Brando, Best Supporting Actress: Eva Marie Saint, Best Screenplay: Budd Schulberg, Best Cinematography (black & white), Best Art Direction (black & white)
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, On the Waterfront remains one of the best motion pictures ever made, and the eight Academy Awards it received on Oscar night in 1955 only cemented that fact. Though it sadly suffered from likely vote splitting among its whopping three Best Supporting Actor nominees (Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, and Rod Steiger), all of whom went home empty handed, the positively electric lead performance by Marlon Brando became his first Oscar on his fourth consecutive nomination. This was one case where the Academy "waiting it out" so to speak paid off brilliantly.
However, unlike films such as Raging Bull, To Kill a Mockingbird, and There Will Be Blood, Brando's powerhouse performance wouldn't be the film's lone major award. Voters were savvy enough to select the film and its director over such distinguished competition as Sidney Kramer's The Caine Mutiny and Alfred Hitchcock for Rear Window. Though it is easy to dismiss Elia Kazan now as a traitor for his cooperation with HUAC, the work he did here was second to none, and Budd Schulberg's screenplay remains one of the absolute best ever written. If you have never seen this film, you are doing yourself a disservice.
1. Amadeus (1984): Best Picture, Best Director: Milos Forman, Best Actor: F. Murray Abraham, Best Adapted Screenplay: Peter Shaffer, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Makeup
Amadeus is a film I have loved since I was very young. I first saw it when I was around seven or eight years old and was captivated by it from that time on. As I've gotten older, and been able to understand its themes of man vs. God, coupled with its incredible use of Mozart's music and Peter Shaffer's absolute command of dialogue, I am more and more blown away by it. I had some fun with F. Murray Abraham's post-Oscar career last week, but make no mistake, his performance is an absolute wonder to behold. It's a shame he couldn't share the award with his nominated co-star Tom Hulce, whose performance as Mozart is no less magnificent, but Abraham steals the show as the jealous and vengeful Salieri. It's a performance for the ages.
While I could rightfully gripe that Miroslav Ondricek's amazing cinematography and the masterful editing by Nena Danevic and Michael Chandler were sadly overlooked in favor of the very well-shot and edited The Killing Fields, I also must praise the virtues of the Academy for spreading the wealth around to some extent that year. Amadeus is a timeless film, one that you would never surmise was made in 1984. It feels as though they purchased a time machine and returned to 18th Century Vienna to film it, when it was in actuality late 20th Century Prague, which had fallen victim to Communist disrepair, remaining largely untouched in over two hundred years. Amadeus is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. There is no better film to have won the Best Picture Oscar, nor do I think there ever will be (except maybe The Godfather).