If you’re wondering what the best movie was in any given year, you have plenty of options. You can look for the movie that had the biggest take at the box office. You can look to critic reviews. You can scroll through the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com). You can review the dozens of award lists. Or you can just watch the movies and choose for yourself. Three thousand Oscars will have been given out by the end of this year’s 88th annual Academy Awards tomorrow. But what does the Academy know? Historically it’s Oscar-bait that takes the big trophy, often over-represented categories like not-always-so-historical costume dramas, biopics, “family” melodramas, or just plain highbrow yawners, all usually released within the last three months of the year. The movie viewing public often raises its collective eyebrows to winners who seemingly take home the prize for sentimental reasons, popularity instead of performance, atonement for being overlooked in the past or catch-up Oscars for an end of career weaker performance to award an actor’s entire body of work.
Writer Danny Peary did something we all want to do, and wrote a book to correct all of Oscar’s many past errors. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but Peary presents many great arguments for overlooked American masterpieces and acting triumphs, in his 1993 book Alternate Oscars. His best selections shore up the biggest failing of Oscar, its ongoing snubbing of genre works. Peary argues that many worthy movies were passed over, and awards his Alternate Oscar to the likes of King Kong in 1933 instead of Cavalcade, Hitchcock’s mystery The 39 Steps instead of Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935, The Adventures of Robin Hood instead of You Can’t Take it With You in 1938, the all-time fantasy classic The Wizard of Oz instead of Gone With the Wind in 1939, Citizen Kane instead of How Green Was My Valley in 1941, Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946 instead of Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives, Strangers on a Train in 1951 instead of An American in Paris, the Western Shane in 1953 instead of adapted novel From Here to Eternity, The Searchers in 1956 instead of Around the World in 80 Days.
Peary would have the arguable best comedy of all time Some Like it Hot sweep the big Oscar categories in 1959. The sci-fi game changer 2001: A Space Odyssey would have taken Best Picture of 1968 instead of the musical Oliver! Steve McQueen would win Best Actor for the police procedural Bullitt. And George Lucas’s American Graffiti would have taken Oscar instead of The Sting. In 1982 E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial would knock out Gandhi, The Right Stuff would take out Terms of Endearment in 1983, and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V would have beaten Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. In 1991, Wesley Snipes would win Best Actor for New Jack City instead of Anthony Hopkins for Silence of the Lambs.
Peary, like all of us, agrees that sometimes the Academy selected the right winners to take home the Oscar. Like Best Picture winner All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930, James Cagney for Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942, Casablanca for Best Picture in 1943, Vivien Leigh for both of her Oscars for Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, The Godfather for Best Picture in 1972, Jack Nicholson in 1975 for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jodie Foster in The Accused in 1988, and Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot in 1989. In 1941 Peary thinks the Academy awarded the right actor, just for the wrong movie, Gary Cooper for the classic comedy Ball of Fire instead of the patriotic biopic Sergeant York. In 1963, in Peary’s view, no movie was good enough to merit a Best Picture Oscar.
If you sneer at the thought of someone else’s best film list, consider that Peary’s book offers up plenty of great movies you may have missed. With streaming opportunities today there is no better time to catch up on some movie classics.
I would love to write a new edition of Alternate Oscar focusing instead on the supporting actor and actress categories. For whatever reason the Academy expands its reach in these categories, yet so many actors were passed over for other, more forgettable performances. Those passed over include Jane Alexander in All the President’s Men in 1976. Alec Guinness in 1977 for Star Wars. Jack Nicholson in 1992 for A Few Good Men. Holly Hunter in The Firm in 1993. Ian McKellen for The Lord of the Rings in 2001. Christopher Walken in 2002 for Catch Me if You Can. Mark Wahlberg for The Departed in 2006. How about Jonah Hill for Moneyball in 2011?
What’s last year’s best picture? The only judge that matters is you. Get your copy of Danny Peary’s Alternate Oscars here at Amazon.com.