"Pulp Fiction" (1994)
Why Was It A Surprising Nominee? Believe it or not, there was once a time before Harvey Weinstein was the Oscar-dominating beast we now know him as. That time (other than a brief warm-up with "The Crying Game," another unlikely Best Picture nominee) came to an end in 1994: every subsequent year between then and when Weinstein left the company he founded in 2005, Miramax had at least one Best Picture nominee. That it was Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" that led the way is both fitting (given their continuing work together since), and somewhat unlikely (given the nature of the film). Tarantino had announced himself as an exciting new talent with "Reservoir Dogs," but given the blood-soaked, f-bomb-dropping nature of his debut, one wouldn't have imagined that his follow-up would be headed to the Kodak Theater, something seemingly set in stone when TriStar, who'd been developing the project, dropped it, allegedly because studio chief Mike Medavoy found it "too demented." The content of the film, once it was seen, looked to back that up. It had a time-jumping tripartite structure. It came close to breaking cursing records. A number of people meet splattery ends (pity poor Marvin). A vicious gang-boss is sodomized by a man in a gimp mask, only to be saved by a katana-wielding Bruce Willis. Two sympathetic characters use heroin. Christopher Walken wears a watch up his ass. But perhaps more importantly, Tarantino was a distinctive new voice, dropping pop-culture references and movie nods that likely would have been unfamiliar to a large chunk of the Academy audience. And the release of the movie, while wildly successful, was accompanied by endless think pieces, attacking the film's use of violence, of the n-word (the Chicago Tribune tying it to "the ability to signify the ultimate level of hipness for white males who have historically used their perception of black masculinity as the embodiment of cool"), and Tarantino's status as a sort of post-modern cultural magpie.
Why Was It Nominated? The debut of "Pulp Fiction," not least in the midst of an awards season dominated by the rather staid, middle-of-the-road pictures, the likes of "The Madness Of King George," "Nobody's Fool," "Little Women," "Nell" and "Legends Of The Fall," undoubtedly had a cultural impact on a similar level to that of "Bonnie & Clyde" twenty-seven years before it. EVERYONE had been talking about since it premiered at Cannes that May (where it won the Palme D'Or, to the anger of some of the local crowd). Richard Corliss in Time said "It towers over the year's other movies as majestically and menacingly as a gang lord at a preschool," and EW's Owen Glieberman added "I'm not sure I've ever encountered a filmmaker who combined discipline and control with sheer wild-ass joy the way that Tarantino does." Sure, it might have gone too far for some Academy members, but in a year where "Forrest Gump" dominated, you didn't have to be a radical to want something fresh and new in there. And it helped that with Harvey Weinstein, now flush with cash after the purchase of Miramax by Disney, could really push the film. And it paid off: "Pulp Fiction" was lauded on the precursor awards circuit, and Tarantino was named Best Director by the L.A. Film Critics and the New York Film Critics.
How Does It Stand Up? Ok, so don't all yell at once, but if, like this writer, you were a touch too young to see the film on initial release, and came to "Jackie Brown" first, "Pulp Fiction" isn't quite the game-changer it seemed at the time. By that point, we'd sat through the imitators, and fallen for the director's richer and more humane follow-up, so when we finally got to 'Pulp,' we enjoyed it enormously, but it feels more cartoonish and slight than 'Brown,' or indeed many of the director's other films. Ok, you can start yelling now.
"Black Swan" (2010)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? Love it or loathe it (there are plenty in both camps, though we land firmly on the love side), the across-the-board success of "Black Swan" (which, alongside its Best Picture nomination and four others, also made more than $300 million worldwide) still remains something of a head-scratcher. Director Darren Aronofsky had previously made a black-and-white headfuck about maths and mysticism, a brutal drug-addiction drama that ended with amputation and a double-headed dildo, and a critically-derided box-office disaster involving Incas, cancer and a bubble-shaped spaceship. His latest didn't seem like it would be much more Oscar-friendly either: a retelling of "Swan Lake," set in the world of contemporary ballet, but turned into a psychological horror movie that nodded to Polanski and giallo. It also featured some fairly unpleasant violence and body horror, and an attention-grabbing lesbian sex scene between the two female leads (one of whom was Mila Kunis, an actress who'd never even been adjacent to awards fare in the past). The film's grand, realism-defying camp proved divisive with critics too: Leonard Maltin said he "couldn't stand" the film, labelling it "ludicrous", while The Hollywood Reporter gave it a backhander by calling it a "guilty pleasure," and Kenneth Turan called it "high-art trash" in the LA Times.
Why Was It Nominated? The film certainly benefited from the expanded Best Picture field introduced the previous year: for the first time in sixty years, there were ten Best Picture slots rather than five, which allowed more esoteric fare like this to make the cut. But given the film's other nominations (including Aronofsky for Best Director), it's more than possible that it would have made the cut if there were only five nominations. Despite the naysayers, the film did have a broad swath of critical support, and it helped that even the harshest critics had kind words to say about lead Natalie Portman, who won Best Actress, and the buzz around whom probably got more Academy members to watch the film than might have otherwise done. Setting it in the ballet world undoubtedly helped to lend a veneer of class that it probably wouldn't have had if it was a more straight-ahead psychological horror, allowing arthouse crowds to flock to the film without feeling guilty, as well as letting actors draw parallels with their own struggles back in the day. And a successful premiere at the Venice Film Festival (before shifting to Telluride and TIFF) again helping to legitimize it and distance it from the more genre-y elements, was only one aspect of a very strong campaign from Fox Searchlight, who’d really found their Oscar feet a couple of years earlier with “Slumdog Millionaire.”
How Does It Hold Up? Well, it's only been three years, but those who loved the movie (it was this writer's favorite film of 2010) haven't changed their tune—it's a balls-to-the-wall feat of pure filmmaking from Aronofsky, centered around a gorgeous, career-defining performance from Portman.
Why Was It A Surprising Nominee? Take it from someone who left it out of their final Oscar nomination predictions a year ago: while there was always the possibility that "Amour" would be an Oscar nominee, it sometimes seemed like it had an insurmountable mountain to climb to get there. For one, the Academy were less friendly to nominating international fare than they'd been in, say, the 1970s: twelve years had passed since the last foreign-made, foreign-language Best Picture nominee ("Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon") and even that was made with some U.S. money ("Life Is Beautiful" and "Il Postino" had been the only other two in the decade before that.) The film also came from Michael Haneke, the Austrian director whose films were so austere and bruising that the idea of him being a Best Picture nominee (and even Best Director, and three other nominations, which he also picked up) would have qualified as a hilarious gag only a year earlier. "Amour" was perhaps a little softer, in that no one is raped or drowned or cuts their own throat, but it was still an emotionally-punishing tale, set entirely in one increasingly-claustrophobic apartment, in which an elderly man cares for his immobile wife after she suffers a stroke. Again, up against more obvious crowd-pleasers like "Argo" or "Life Of Pi," it didn't seem to stand a chance, especially given that its subject matter risked reminding the mostly aged Academy membership of their own mortality.
Why Was It Nominated? Well, the film had a few things on its side. Haneke had become a more familiar face in the U.S. in the years running up to "Amour," making his English-language debut with the "Funny Games" remake, and being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film with previous picture "The White Ribbon." He'd also cast it with two legitimate icons of French cinema, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, both of whom had extraordinary careers of working with some of the greatest-ever filmmakers behind them. And it came pre-approved: like the previous year's nominee "The Tree Of Life," it had premiered at Cannes to rapturous reviews (The Guardian called it "film-making at the highest pitch of intelligence and insight," and Manohla Dargis labelled it "a masterpiece about life, death and everything in between"), and picked up the Palme D'Or. Perhaps most importantly, despite Haneke's reputation, and the devastating nature of the film, the title wasn't misplaced—the film unmasked a new tenderness in the director, proving unspeakably moving whereas his other films had remained distanced.
How Does It Hold Up: Again, we're less than two years gone from the film's premiere, so it doesn't quite have the required distance. This writer prefers some of Haneke's other films (namely "Caché" and "Code Unknown") but it's still a major work by an absolutely major filmmaker.
“The Wolf Of Wall Street” (2013)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? Right from the moment of its Christmas Day release, Martin Scorsese’s maximalist, excessive, gaudy Wall Street extravaganza polarized critics and audiences alike. A far cry from the safe middlebrow prestige drama that, rightly or wrongly, is regarded as the Academy’s cup of tea, its obviously Oscar-friendly elements—Scorsese, DiCaprio, topicality—were offset by the film’s unapologetic garishness, something a few viewers apparently confused with the filmmakers condoning the behavior they showed. But really, what the pre-nomination debate boiled down to, was an argument that often dogs the Oscar race: one of “worthiness.” There is a sense in which a film that tackles a serious topic should be difficult, it should be a bit of a slog, it should be hard to watch and you should come out feeling thoroughly taught, maybe angry, but certainly not entertained. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is outrageously entertaining, which, even for those who weren’t offended by their own misinterpretation of its point of view, threatened to discount the film from the Oscar discussion on the grounds of lightweight-ness: the Academy has never favored comedies, and while ‘WOWS’ is technically a drama, it’s certainly the funniest drama we’ve seen in a while. It’s undoubtedly true that in a five-nomination year ‘WOWS’ wouldn’t have been a contender, but for our money that proves the wisdom of the category change of itself: purely by its presence in the mix (no matter how little chance it has at actually winning) the film expands a little our idea of what an Oscar film could be. And let’s not forget that its respectable five nominations are in fact across five major categories too, so it does seem to indicate a level of widespread Academy acceptance that the initial reaction might not have suggested possible.
Why Was It Nominated? Leaving aside the unlikelihood of anyone but Scorsese making this film (it’s a remarkably Scorsese-ish picture after all) it’s highly unlikely that if it didn’t bear his name, we’d be looking at a five-times nominated movie. Outside of the Best Picture nod, this will be Scorsese’s eighth Best Director nomination, with just the one win, for the relatively minor-feeling “The Departed” under his belt, and we don’t think the wellspring of goodwill toward a director who’s become little less than the patron living saint of American Cinema can be overstated, especially as everyone kind of knows in their heart of hearts that his Directing Oscar was wildly overdue and came for the wrong movie. But back to Best Picture: the subject matter reflects well on the Academy for being relevant, it stars and is produced by golden boy-turned-power-player Leonardo DiCaprio, and it marks a welcome return to controversy for Scorsese after the relative stateliness of “Hugo.” Come to think of it, why did we ever doubt it would make it in?
How Does It Hold Up Now? Well, with the benefit of just under two months of hindsight we’re still fans—some more than others, it should be said—and it’s been interesting to watch the initial furor die down and to see what’s left in its wake. Some might argue that, shorn of its controversy, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a somewhat empty experience, while others have enjoyed the opportunity to savor its quieter pleasures, like some of the tremendous smaller performances, not least from Kyle Chandler whose scene on the yacht with Belfort is powerhouse, and doesn’t get enough props. We’ve the feeling that this is a film whose retrospective reputation will change as we get further away from the events it satirizes and start to look at it in terms of craft and in terms of its place in Scorsese’s body of work, but right now it just feels good to have Marty, at 71, turn in a film so exuberant and vital.
Of course, an organization with the Academy’s long history has had a few more surprising moments than that. A few Best Picture nominated films whose nominations were surprising for reasons sexual, political or social and that we thought about for this piece included, in roughly chronological order: “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” (1932), a social issues drama starring Paul Muni which actually effected the release of the man on whose story it was based; “La Grande Illusion” (1937) Jean Renoir’s French-language masterpiece; 1945’s “The Lost Weekend,” a pretty unflinching film about alcoholism; “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) which dealt overtly with anti-semitism and racial prejudice just a couple of years after the end of WWII; 1948’s “The Snake Pit” which was set in a women’s insane asylum; Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959) which, while a courtroom drama, addressed sex and rape in pretty graphic terms; classic literary adaptation “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962); Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) which, being a pitch-black comedy was in a genre the Academy seldom recognizes; two 1967 films “The Graduate” and “In the Heat of the Night” which for different reasons seemed controversial choices for Oscar; three Bob Fosse movies—musicals “Cabaret” (1972) and “All that Jazz” (1979) and scorching biopic “Lenny” (1974) were all outside the Academy wheelhouse; while the overtly political “Reds” (1981) and the homosexual love story “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1985) were also anything but obvious Oscar picks. “Goodfellas” (1990) nomination was kind of a surprise at the time for its violence and profanity—of course the real surprise now is that it lost out to “Dances With Wolves”; and then over the last few years, changes in the category have meant smaller films like ”District 9,”(2009) “Winter’s Bone,” (2010) and “The Kids are All Right” (2010) have seen their way in, where previously these films would have been most hopeful of festival recognition rather than Academy kudos. “Inglourious Basterds” also got in to 2010’s awards, but by the time “Django Unchained” picked up its nod in 2013 we had ceased being surprised by the Academy’s embrace of all things Tarantino.
If nothing else, these films, among others should maybe convince us to at least qualify the rhetoric around the Academy’s conservative tendencies—surprising choices are a minority, but they’re there. Anything else in the Best Picture category through the years make your jaw drop? Tell us below. —with Jessica Kiang (who would like to respectfully disassociate herself from the "Pulp Fiction" assessment).