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The 15 "Edgiest" Oscar Best Picture Nominees

by Oliver Lyttelton
February 19, 2014 3:39 PM
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The Exorcist” (1973)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? Um, have you seen “The Exorcist?” Not only is it a horror movie, a genre upon which the Academy is notoriously squeamish about bestowing any sort of legitimacy, but it is one of the scariest, and most grotesque horror films ever made—we can’t recall any other film in which a prepubescent girl stabs herself in the crotch with a crucifix repeatedly and demands that her mother lick her getting this sort of industry approbation. And its overt religiosity, of course, was interpreted as blasphemy by some, with preacher Billy Graham famously calling the film itself “satanic” and claiming that even the celluloid itself that went into the prints was evil, which all seems kind of quaintly hilarious now, but adds to the surprise of the film’s level of establishment acceptance: Hollywood rarely messes with religion. And we’re not talking a random, tip o’ the hat Best Picture nomination—there is depth and breadth to the Academy’s desire to recognize this film: it received ten nominations, across major categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay) and technical categories too (Cinematography, Editing, Sound Mixing and Production Design).
Why Was It Nominated? Well, it is an extraordinarily good horror movie. And of the ten nominations it won just two (Sound Mixing and Screenplay), which could arguably make it a good earlyish example of a practice that has become more common recently, especially since the Best Picture field was widened to ten potential nominees: the “it’s nice just to be here”/“hasn’t got a hope” nomination. But aside from that, let’s look the 1974 Oscars in general: this was a year in which Ingmar Bergman was nominated (for Picture and Director) for “Cries and Whispers,” a foreign-language film in which a character self-mutilates; “Last Tango In Paris” with its explicit anal sex scene, picking up noms for Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando; even Jack Nicholson’s nod for the (at the time) incredibly profane “The Last Detail” deserves a mention. Ah, the seventies, we might say with a misty eye, and we’d probably be right: this was a period in which button-pushing, edgy fare was more routinely rewarded that it is now. Up to a point. In terms of wins, “The Sting” which also got ten nominations, won seven, including Picture and Director. This was William Friedkin’s first film since winning Best Director for “The French Connection” and so it’s very possible that whatever he’d put out next would have gotten an added bump from his newly-minted status as an Oscar-winning director. However, his nomination in that category would mark the last time Friedkin got the nod to date.
How Does It Hold Up Now? “The Exorcist” is still a terrific film, but its impact has necessarily lessened over the years, partly due to the massive, massive shadow it casts on popular culture: it’s unlikely that anyone could come to a viewing of it today without already having seen about a hundred parody references, from the pea-soup vomit to the priestly defenestration to the infamous spider-walk. But that’s perhaps part of the reason it is still a hall-of-famer: you have to see where all those pop culture references came from, and while so doing, you may well be surprised at how genuinely shocking some of those scenes still are in their original form (I refer you back to the crucifix/blood/masturbation/mother scene which still makes me gape).

"Taxi Driver" (1976)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? We pretty much could have packed out this entire list with nothing but the films of Martin Scorsese, to be honest. With the exception of "The Aviator" and maybe "Hugo," when the director makes something that might seem more obviously Academy-friendly, like "The Age Of Innocence" and "Kundun," he's overlooked, but when he's on the territory for which he's best known—brutal violence, f-bombs, drugs, etc. etc.—he often ends up with a Best Picture nomination, even if it took him nearly thirty years to actually win the thing. "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas," "Gangs Of New York" and "The Departed" all hardly feel like Oscar bait on the surface, but it's the awards success of "Taxi Driver" that feels the most surprising in hindsight. The first time one of Scorsese's movies landed a Best Picture nod, it's also one of his darkest: we'd hesitate to call Paul Schrader's script nihilistic, because there's enough religious subtext in there to give it some light, but the story of Travis Bickle, and the grim, seedy version of New York he inhabits, full of dates in porno theaters, child prostitution, would-be assassination and gun rampages, makes it an unfriendly watch even today. In fact, the film only just scraped by with an R-rating, after Scorsese desaturated the color of the blood in the final shootout at the MPAA's request. As a result, even in the stronger-stomached 1970s, it was attacked in some quarters: Time called it "thoroughly depressing realism," and the use of the then 13-year-old Jodie Foster was deemed as exploitative by some. It's also fair to say that the film was released as the tide started to change: the age of the blockbuster had arrived, with "Jaws" a nominee the previous year, and feel-good hit "Rocky" being the film that beat Bickle to the Oscar.
Why Was It Nominated? Again, the film probably went some way towards capturing the mood of a fundamentally depressed nation—the economy was only just starting to pull out of recession, the specter of Vietnam and Watergate lingered ("All The President's Men" was a nominee the same year), and crime rates were high. Rocky Balboa might have won out on Oscar night, but Travis Bickle was in some ways the more appropriate (anti-) hero for 1976. And for all the film's bleakness, he could be read as a hero—risking everything to save the innocent(ish) young girl and being hailed for his efforts in the end. It certainly helped that the film was critically praised to the skies—it had already won the Palme D'Or at Cannes the previous spring, confirming Scorsese as the next big thing, cleaned up at the critics' awards, and picked up stellar reviews of the kind that couldn't be ignored.
How Does It Hold Up? Impeccably. Whether you find this or "Raging Bull" the peak of Scorsese's career (some would argue for "Goodfellas," but they're wrong), there's no question that this is the director at the height of his powers, with a deep bench of a cast led by the titanic De Niro, and a hellishly atmospheric picture of NYC.

"An Unmarried Woman" (1978)
Why Was It A Surprising Nominee? It might have been the most daring period in Oscar history, but the late 1960s and 1970s were very much a boys' club when it came to the Academy Awards (especially in contrast to the early days of the Oscars, which were much more open to what was then broadly-deemed the "woman's picture" (see "Mrs. Miniver" or "Rebecca," to name two that won). Look at the films that were nominated or won Best Picture in this time period, and there's an awful lot of testosterone, from "Midnight Cowboy" and "Patton” through "The French Connection" and "The Godfather" films to "The Sting," "Rocky" and "The Deer Hunter," with only the occasional "Love Story" or "Julia" to break it up. Which makes "An Unmarried Woman" all the more of an outlier in the grand scheme of things. Following a wealthy New York woman (Jill Clayburgh, who was also nominated) adjusting to a new life after her husband leaves her for a younger woman), it hailed from writer/director Paul Mazursky, who'd received nominations for penning "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" and "Harry and Tonto," but who otherwise remained somewhat outside the establishment. Clayburgh, meanwhile, was mostly an unknown face, best known for playing a love interest in "Silver Streak," leaving supporting player Alan Bates the best known face in the film. And perhaps most importantly of all, this was a film not just about a woman, but about the sexual awakening of a middle-aged woman. You'd be lucky to get a film about that at an indie festival in 2014, let alone in wide release at the end of a decade dominated by the womanizing, hormonal movie brats.
Why Was It Nominated?  In part, and like so many of these films, "An Unmarried Woman" came pre-lauded by an international film festival: it had played in-competition at Cannes, and Clayburgh had taken the Best Actress Prize there. The reviews were fairly sensational too, with Ebert calling Clayburgh's performance "luminous," and concluded by saying that Mazursky "won't settle for less than the truth and the humor, and the wonder of 'An Unmarried Woman' is that he gets it." But perhaps more importantly, it landed at the right time. A sea change was coming as the very masculine New Hollywood era came to an end, and in contrast to the films that had come before, the next few years would bring winners and nominees like "Kramer Vs. Kramer," "Norma Rae," "Ordinary People," "On Golden Pond," "Terms Of Endearment," "Places In The Heart," "Out Of Africa" and "The Color Purple," more sensitive films for a more sensitive 1980s. "An Unmarried Woman" helped to pave the way.
How Does It Hold Up? We're admittedly very fond of Mazursky, but even we would acknowledge that "An Unmarried Woman" has dated a bit, with the late '70s being a very different time for women than it is now in general. But there's enough universality to the picture, enough touching wit and funny pathos, that it'd be worth seeking out even without Clayburgh's marvelous performance.

"The Silence Of The Lambs" (1991)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? A pulpy thriller, from a director who was well-liked but never remotely registered on awards radars before, with a release on February 14th, 1991—a full thirteen months before the Oscar ceremony for which it was eligible—it's safe to say no one was thinking Oscar. The principle cast was promising, sure—Jodie Foster was a recent Oscar-winner for "The Accused," Anthony Hopkins was a British theater legend—but there didn't seem to be any reason to think it was an Oscar contender any more than, say, "Sleeping With The Enemy," which opened the week before. In fact, probably less: at least that film dealt with the serious issue of domestic violence, whereas "Silence Of The Lambs" didn't have much in the way of subtext. Instead, it was about a cannibalistic serial killer who helps an FBI agent capture a transgendered killer who skins women's corpses in order to make a "woman suit." It was a horror movie ("The Exorcist" being the only other such film to get an Oscar nod), positively saturated with gore (both Gene Hackman, who originally planned to direct and play Hannibal Lecter, and Michelle Pfeiffer had pulled out of the project because of concerns about the violence), and strong language. Oh, and there's a scene at which a character flicks semen at the heroine and tells her "I can smell your cunt." How was this ever going to be a serious contender for an awards that had been won two years earlier by "Driving Miss Daisy"?
Why Was It Nominated?  It's a little confusing to this day, because "Silence Of The Lambs" wasn't just nominated, and it didn't just win Best Picture, it became one of only three films in history to win all the top five categories (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay). It wasn't lacking in competition either, with "JFK," "Beauty & The Beast" and "Bugsy" among the films nominated that year. There again may have been a certain extent to which it captured the zeitgeist—July 1991 saw the capture of Jeffrey Dahmer, a cannibalistic serial killer of 17 people, which helped to keep the film in the headlines. But it's probably more that it was deemed a rare and exceptional example of the genre, one of the most widely praised since Hitchcock passed. The film had been legitimized by a premiere at the 1991 Berlin Film Festival (where Jonathan Demme won the Silver Bear for Best Director), and simply managed to keep up the momentum for the year to come.
How Does It Hold Up? "The Silence Of The Lambs" certainly didn't date as badly as Michael Mann's earlier Thomas Harris adaptation, "Manhunter," which is a great film (arguably as good as 'Lambs' or better), but couldn't seem more '80s than if the main characters were all Rubik's Cubes and members of Duran Duran. But the countless imitators on both big screen and small have ensured that the shock of the new that came from the smart, beautifully-executed take on the serial killer genre has been dulled over the years. It's still a high water mark for the genre, but what was once innovative now can feel like cliché after the many rip-offs.

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  • natalie | April 20, 2014 2:15 PMReply

    FYI - Douglas Sirk directed"Imitation of Life".

  • fergus brazel | February 27, 2014 6:51 PMReply

    Has anyone read Ty E`s truly astonishing reveiws of "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "12 Years a Slave" over on Soiled Sinema ? hes perhaps the ONLY film reveiwer in the entire world whos had the guts and the nerve to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about those two 'supposedly great' movies ! ! !.

  • Fergus Brazel | March 7, 2014 5:37 AM

    This is not me making these comments. Why are you using my name to post comments on this board?

  • fergus brazel | February 27, 2014 6:46 PMReply

    Jervaise, every geezer in the world wants to bugger Abigail Breslin, THATS A GIVEN ! ! !.

  • Fergus Brazel | March 7, 2014 5:38 AM

    This is not me making these comments. Why are you using my name to post comments on this board?

  • jervaise brooke hamster | February 27, 2014 6:43 PMReply

    I want to bugger Abigail Breslin.

  • jervaise brooke hamster | February 27, 2014 6:42 PMReply

    I want to bugger Linda Blair (as the bird was in 1977 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  • jervaise brooke hamster | February 27, 2014 6:40 PMReply

    "The Silence of the Lambs" is an unwatchable pile of garbage.

  • frank | February 24, 2014 10:55 PMReply

    Sorry but William Wyler did not direct Imitation Of Life, Douglas Sirk did. He might have wished he had!

  • Chris138 | February 21, 2014 9:01 PMReply

    Nope, you're not alone in your assessment of A Clockwork Orange. I feel the exact same way. I've watched it twice and both times found things to admire (mainly McDowell's performance) but everything else feels flat and, quite frankly, rather dull. It's my least favorite Kubrick film, but I know that is a minority opinion.

  • Anonee | February 26, 2014 1:59 AM

    Even kubricks WORST film is better than 95 percent of all movies ever made.

  • Fergus Brazel | February 20, 2014 6:33 PMReply

    No mention of Blue Velvet which was nominated for Besy Director award in 1986. Surely the 'edgiest' film ever nominated. Its omission pretty much renders your list invalid.

  • Fergus Brazel | February 20, 2014 6:38 PM

    OK, I've just realised that the list is of Best Picture nominees and I suggested a film that was nominated for Best Director and not Best Picture, so just ignore my remark.

  • Giordano | February 20, 2014 3:13 PMReply

    just a few films of this list were truly big surprises or really edgy. I mean... Everybody knew "Inglorious Basterds", "The Wolf of Wallstreet", "Black Swan" were going to be nominated. Too much buzz.

    And where is "Babe" in the list? That was surely edgy!

  • John | February 20, 2014 3:52 AMReply

    I couldn't disagree more with you about A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. I recently re-visited this film and found it more powerful than when I saw it ten years ago. It's a bold, courageous and deeply unsettling film about human nature and the way we cannot control it. I mark this as one of Kurbrick's best. There aren't enough films like this that provide such a deep insight into human psyche and divide critics and audiences alike.

  • Larry | February 19, 2014 9:01 PMReply

    William Wyler's Imitation of Life?? No, no, it was Douglas Sirk who directed it. And The Exorcist didn't get a Best Actor nomination; it was Best Actress nom for Ellen Burstyn. I think I'd add Brokeback Mountain as an edgy surprise; though the Best Picture nom wasn't really a surprise, the fact that the Academy embraced it (sort of) was the surprise. A bigger "surprise" was that it lost Best Picture to the mediocre Crash, though Ang Lee won for directing Brokeback. I think it lost because so many homophobes said they refused to even see it -- Ernest Borgnine, Tony Curtis, and Mark Wahlberg among them. Another edgy surprise for me was Juno, an adult movie that included teen pregnancy as a topic.

  • mass | February 19, 2014 6:55 PMReply

    TAXI DRIVER: ... ... ... ...

    AMOUR..... ... ... ..... ....

    PULP FICTION... ... ... .... ... ...

    THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... ....

    Yeah. I wonder which film The Playlist is rooting for this year.

  • Agent's Assistant | February 19, 2014 6:47 PMReply

    "...(some would argue for "Goodfellas," but they're wrong)..."

    Show me, dear "oliver", the hardcore, empirical, multi-sourced evidence corroborating your claim. Or is this just one more pompous statement (in an article rife with pompous statement?) You laptop critics are surely carving out a specific niche for yourselves.

  • JD | February 20, 2014 10:43 AM

    "hardcore, empirical, multi-sourced evidence corroborating your claim"--you don't get what criticism is, do you?

  • Joe H. | February 19, 2014 4:39 PMReply

    Your dislike of a Clockwork Orange is just you. It's Kubrick's greatest film, much more compelling and significant that 2001.

  • az | February 19, 2014 5:56 PM

    It's not just you. And I agree about Jackie Brown, in fact I think it's Tarantino's best. I wonder if a film like Bonnie and Clyde could survive the initial reviews these days, probably not.

  • Mike | February 19, 2014 4:18 PMReply

    This list reads like my 'favorite films of all time' list, although I think it's constrained by just focusing on nominees. Most truly edgy films are too edgy to actually be nominated. 'Fear and Loathing', 'Easy Rider' and 'Natural Born Killers' to be the edgiest stuff I've seen. I even think 'Caddyshack' and 'Animal House' are very edgy, the former is how it pokes fun at class warfare, and the latter at how it pokes fun at sex in college, subjects that were more taboo during their time. I've always liked how 'Fear and Loathing' lacks any real consequence for the massive amount of drugs the pair do, rather than even how movies like 'Wolf of Wall Street' usually use them for metaphorical falls from grace.

  • Alex | February 19, 2014 4:14 PMReply

    It's hard for me to have an objective stance on 'Clockwork's merits.. it was originally my favorite of Kubrick's films. It jumped out at me, shook me, empowered me and left me in awe of a film willing to address taboo issues with such infectious abandon.. I was given real food for thought and inspired to experiment more with ideas, as well as showing me the possibility of film. Still to this day, ruminating over the film, I am given things to think about. I just wanted to give a different perspective on 'Clockwork'.. I owe it to that film and the experience of seeing it for the first time.

  • Christian | February 19, 2014 4:11 PMReply

    Almost all of these are among my favorites..!

  • Jim | February 19, 2014 4:05 PMReply

    I'd say Inception was pretty edgy and unusual for a Best Picture Nom.

  • spassky | February 21, 2014 4:18 AM

    In that it's an horrible, over-rated piece of gargantuan shit? agreed.

  • kf | February 19, 2014 3:55 PMReply

    black swan, seriously? is there anything more oscar baity than that?

  • Alex | February 19, 2014 4:17 PM

    How is Black Swan 'oscar baity'? There's no sentimentality.. it's infused with existential dread, with a narrative flow that twists and confuses the audience's idea of the true reality of the situation.. I left completely obliterated by the film, affected to the point that I had to ask my brother to drive home. Whether my reaction was a sign of personal fragility or not, to say this film is 'oscar baity' is way off base! A film like 'The Butler' is oscar baity.. Lee Daniels was born to feed off the sentimental glow of the oscar statuette.

  • Nolan | February 19, 2014 3:48 PMReply

    Pulp Fiction was such a strange cultural event that I can remember my square, Republican parents renting it to see what the fuss was about. I was probably ten or so, but I still remember hearing the language from the other room and them turning it off after ~15 minutes.

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