We film buffs remember Oscar's outrages; we hold them close in our hearts and drag them out as evidence that the Awards are "bogus" or "full of it." Granted, I have my own list of Oscar's outrages, my own moments when I find it presumptious of a single group of people (with vested interests) to tell us which films are better than others. By the same token, however, it behooves us to remember those instances -- few though they may be -- when the Academy honored exactly the right person, exactly the right film.
1. "Schindler's List" (Best Picture, 1993)
If ever a Best Picture victory stood beyond criticism, it's this one. The importance of its subject matter would suffice to gain it attention, but not to gain it the uncontested win. Nor are the admittedly superb performances of Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley (whose lack of nomination counts as one of Oscar's outrages) quite what do the trick. It's the ensemble cast, the actors portraying people grasping for dignity in the midst of perhaps the most bitter degradation in history, that make this film special. Thanks to them, and the deftness with which the screenplay allows us to get to know them, little by little, as the film progresses, we can put faces with the names on Schindler's list, and feel how much his triumph matters on a deeply personal, as well as socio-political, level. Despite many horrific scenes, I contend that this film is not as depressing as it's reported to be; we can feel the light fighting to pierce through the darkness, because we see it in the eyes of the ensemble cast. Courage and heroism triumph. That's not depressing.
2. Peter Jackson, Best Director, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2003)
The choice of ROTK for Best Picture does have a few detractors (though I am emphatically not among them), but even those who don't care for the film, and even those who disdain fantasy as a genre, should acknowledge the expert hand it took to manage this massive undertaking. The overall look of the film, the CGI effects, the settings, the performances, ALL the elements it took to make such a film work are, in the end, on the shoulders of the director, and Jackson managed to carry them all with passion and conviction. Few who have seen the "Lord of the Rings" films would deny their pictorial beauty, but for me, it's Jackson's attention to detail, particularly of the performances and characterizations, that makes the films work.
3. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Best Actor, "Capote" (2005)
Hoffman's nomination, along with the nominations of Joaquin Phoenix (playing Johnny Cash) and David Strathairn (playing Edward R. Murrow), drew a lot of criticism, because some critics argued their performances were "impersonations" rather than acting. My feeling is that these critics either didn't see the films in question or didn't pay close attention to them, because all three performances were excellent, moving far beyond "impersonation" by revealing the characters' inner lives. Of the three, Hoffman's was the best, largely because it was the most demanding, the most complex. Capote, who depends on his glib and witty mask, is cracked open and forced to confront the very things he wishes to hide, from himself as well as anybody else. Through him, the audience undergoes a harrowing emotional journey, and Hoffman hits every beat with precision. Many a good performance by an actor playing a fictional character lacks this potency. Impersonation, my foot.
4. Helen Mirren, Best Actress, "The Queen" (2006)
While we're on the subject of "impersonations," Mirren deserves a mention. Very little of the skepticism regarding Hoffman, Phoenix, and Strathairn was aimed at her, though she too portrayed a real-life figure. I suspect she was so darned good that even those carpers couldn't fail to see it. Aside from Meryl Streep, few American actresses past their prime get the chance to play such deliciously complex leading roles. The Brits don't put their older actresses out to pasture, and we get the benefit of it when we see Queen Elizabeth, like Truman Capote, forced to take a good, hard look at that which she would gladly deny, and Mirren, like Hoffman, grabs hold of us and takes us with her. Unquestionably the best performance by a leading actress in 2006.
5. "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," Best Animated Feature, 2005
All three contenders for this award were impressive. "Howl's Moving Castle" has all the beauty and adventure we've come to expect from the master of Japanese animation, Hayao Miyazaki. "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" bravely tells a highly unorthodox love story and makes us care about all three members of the triangle: the confused Victor, the shy Victoria, and the dead but lively Emily. But in terms of what's often called in ice-skating circles "the complete package," "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" takes it. This movie has just about everything: humor, wit, imagination, romance, horror, and something all too rare in contemporary cinema -- genuine sweetness. In his review of "Were-Rabbit," Roger Ebert ventured the opinion that Wallace and Gromit are the most sympathetic characters in the history of animation, and having seen all their shorts as well as their feature, I can't disagree. They're heroes well worth rooting for, and our pop-culture landscape can always use those.