Although the relative quality of films being touted for the upcoming awards season remains mostly theoretical for most film fans, the hype machine is already spinning up to full speed. For many, the earliest indicator of who the true contenders might be comes during the Toronto International Film Festival.
But of course, not everyone can be a winner. It’s important to remember that the actual garnering of hardware doesn’t always serve as an indicator of cinematic excellence. I offer as evidence The English Patient. Best Picture my eye.
There are also films – later recognized as classics – that went mostly ignored. There is not a single Academy Award nomination in the following list. What they do have is a sterling reputation among generations of audiences which, in the long run, is probably more than enough.
CITY LIGHTS (1930): The Academy, evidently, was slow to recognize the singular genius that was Charlie Chaplin. Not only was this film, widely considered one of his best, completely ignored, so was his 1936 classic Modern Times. Chaplin would be awarded an honorary Oscar in 1971. Better late than never.
NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955): The Academy doesn’t give comedy a lot of attention, and science fiction is routinely written off. So, sadly, are thrillers. Alfred Hitchcock never got a lot of love, and neither did this film, one of Hollywood’s most frightening character studies. Robert Mitchum plays a dangerous religious fanatic who terrorizes a family over $10,000 in ill-gotten gains. Today it is recognized as one of the finest films of the 1950s. Then, a crime story unworthy of note. Who’s laughing now?
THE SEARCHERS (1956): When critics make lists of the very finest Westerns, this epic routinely ranks near the top. When they discuss John Wayne’s finest performances, his role as a tortured vet searching for his niece and soul always ranks near the top. Was it recognized for excellence in 1956? Well … It’s a shame.
TOUCH OF EVIL (1958): Much is made of the very few nominations Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane managed to snag. Still, it did better than this crime drama, which elevates what pulp fiction can and should be. There are many – myself included – who consider this a superior film to Kane. The fact that a master working at his pinnacle went unrecognized by his peers demonstrates how far Welles’ star had fallen by this time.
MEAN STREETS (1973): This early Scorsese work left its mark on every street-savvy crime saga that followed. The rhythms and kinetic energy have been imitated, but never duplicated, for nearly 40 years. Too small, and perhaps too smart, to compete in ’73, it has, in the years since, become recognized as the stone cold classic it is.