Which 2016 films would have won Academy Awards in 1929?

99 homes - academy awardsI tried. They’ll never know how hard I tried. I tried my very best not to write anything remotely related to this year’s Oscars. For god’s sake, I’m sixty pages into a new screenplay. I have minor dental surgery coming up. We have fruit flies. It’s not like I don’t have other things to do.

But in the end, it was hopeless. Fish gotta swim, and birds gotta fly, and bloggers gotta testify.

So, the problem with writing the Oscar column is making it new and different. Everyone has already written the who will win and who should win and who should have been a contender pieces. Is there really anything new to say?

No, there isn’t. So to find some new take on the 2016 Oscars, I’m going back – way back – to the 1929 and the very first Academy Awards. That’s right, today we’re gonna party like it’s 1929.

One of the good things about 1929 is they only had twelve categories. And what I like even more is that they used different criteria for selecting the winners. For one thing, even though Wings technically won the equivalent of today’s Best Picture, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans won an award that was quickly discontinued for Unique and Artistic Production.

And Janet Gaynor and Emil Jannings, who won Best Leading Actress and Actor respectively, were awarded for multiple roles during the year. I like that “body of work” concept.

So here are my 2016 awards, 1929-style.

BEST ART DIRECTION

We now call this one “Production Design.” But if “Art Direction” was good enough for William Cameron Menzies in 1929, it’s good enough for me today. And it’s good enough for Mark Digby, whose work in Ex Machina helped make it one of the best early releases of 2015.

BEST ENGINEERING EFFECTS

This is kind of a hybrid today. You know, it’s part special effects, part general production. As such, you could make a case for movies as diverse as The Force Awakens and The Revenant. And since it should be obvious that I don’t really know exactly how they were defining this way back when, I’ll use that ignorance as an excuse to give this award to a movie that I liked better than both of those – Beasts of No Nation. And since I don’t really know who to give the award to, since there was no one credited for “engineering effects,” I’ll just go with Cary Joji Fukunaga, since he did virtually everything else on the production.

BEST CINEMATOGRPAHY

Maybe I’m just a sucker for the cinematography in movies about artists. Last year, I thought Dick Pope’s work in Mr. Turner was clearly the best. This year, it’s Danny Cohen for his magical work on The Danish Girl.

BEST WRITING, TITLE WRITING

OK, this doesn’t exist anymore. We don’t use intertitles. Characters on screen can talk. But – if you’re a typical one-language-speaking American like me, we can morph this award into the Best Foreign Language film. Because they use titles, get it? If you think that is forced logic, then write your own damn blog. For me, the best movie that used titles this year was the Estonian war epic 1944.

BEST WRITING, ADAPTED

I don’t know how you adapt a book about economic theory, but fortunately Adam McKay and Charles Randolph do, and they did it in The Big Short.

BEST WRITING, ORIGINAL

They put my blurb on the cover of the DVD, so I may be biased here. But I did call it the best American movie of the year, so I feel pretty comfortable recognising Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi for their work on 99 Homes.

BEST DIRECTOR, COMEDY

This is where it really gets good. Yeah, that’s right, they gave an award for directing a comedy. How Golden Globes of the Academy. Mckay gets some consideration here for The Big Short, as do Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen for Inside Out. But when I really thought about it, there was one obvious choice: seventy-two year old Swede Roy Andersson’s mesmerising A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is filled with more ingenious comic ideas than any movie I’ve seen in a long, long time.

BEST DIRECTOR, DRAMA

Look, I didn’t even like it all that much, but even an opinionated jerk like me can see Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was doing something pretty special in The Revenant.

BEST ACTOR

Remember, body of work. You play Steve Jobs and Macbeth in the same year, and you do it this well, you get my vote. Congrats, Michael Fassbender.

BEST ACTRESS

If you’re just putting up a single performance, I go with Saoirse Ronan. But Alicia Vikander was so good in a supporting role in Ex Machina, solid in both Testament of Youth and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and extraordinary in what I would consider a lead role in The Danish Girl. No actress topped that body of work.

UNIQUE AND ARTISTIC PRODUCTION

The fact that this award did not beget the line of Best Pictures we have come to know is a pretty good indication that the industry has always favoured technical brilliance over artistry. Those may be vague terms, but it’s undeniable that cinema is a technological medium in which technical innovation necessarily precedes artistic creation. Screw all that. I think we should still give an award for Unique and Artistic Production. And if we did, Room would win it in 2016.

OUTSTANDING PICTURE

I’m going with my own interpretation of what this award meant in 1929. That’s right, I am a strict constructionist. Not a cinematic activist. I am promoting nothing, just doing what the founding fathers wanted. The best technical production of the year was Mad Max: Fury Road. I think the story was flawed in some ways, but by Odin’s beard, it was amazing to look at.

Those were the twelve awards given out at the first Academy Awards in 1929. But, they also gave out two honorary awards, which allows me to cheat just a bit and make up two honorary awards as well. We’ll call the first one …

BEST DOCUMENTARY

Yeah, I know, not very creative. Joshua Oppenheimer should have won the Oscar a few years ago for his extraordinary The Act of Killing. This year’s follow-up, The Look of Silence is no less riveting. See them both.

And finally…

BEST MOVIE, REGARDLESS OF CATEGORY

This movie was made in 2009 but only released in the States in 2015. It was not eligible for Oscar consideration for reasons too dull to go into. And it wouldn’t have won, or even been nominated, were it eligible. But it was my favourite movie of the year. Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly.

For those of you who mourn the past, I’ll point out that 2015 was a better year for movies than 1929. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still learn something from the past.

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

8 thoughts on “Which 2016 films would have won Academy Awards in 1929?

  1. 99 Homes was heartbreaking. I could barely watch the ending where a good man paid the price for violating his conscience–an indictment of society and what it means to survive by surrendering your soul.

    • I met Ramin Bahrani after a screening of Chop Shop. No one in the States is telling stories about the working class the way he is. The difference in tone between his earlier movies like Man Push Cart & Chop Shop and 99 Homes seems telling to me. Those earlier movie were full of hardship, but they had a joy about them as well. 99 Homes is empty and terrifying, and to me, utterly riveting.

  2. Great post Jon, amusing and insightful. I have just got the About Elly DVD and am looking out for 99 Homes, both on your recommendation.

    • Thanks E. I tend to prefer character driven stories that tackle complex human issues in creative and engaging ways. Aliens have invaded the Earth dozens of times on screen, but Roswell notwithstanding, to the best of my knowledge, it has never actually happened. But keeping dangerous secrets or struggling to keep your house – those things are happening every day. Everyone has their own criteria for movies, but the ones that tell those stories well will always resonate more with me.

    • Thanks Pete. We once talked about ranking “best years” for both American and world cinema. It would be an interesting exercise. Wonder what it would reveal.

      • An interesting exercise indeed. One I do not fully have time for at the moment (due to an impending screening of Starman), but I quickly broke out my thousand-best list and grouped by year. For me, as of right now, the overall year is 2004, which covers forty movies from that thousand, and the split is almost half and half (22 domestic/18 foreign). Going to have to dive farther into it when I have more time.

        • You’re way further along than I am Goat. When I think of good years, these come to mind, in chronological order: 1928, 1941, 1944, 1960, 1972, 1975, 1994, 1995, 1999, 2004. Though I haven’t considered it all that much, I suspect 2015 will rank pretty high as well. Off the top of my head, I’d go with 1960 as best, but that would be almost entirely based on international cinema and not on American, which I don’t recall being all that impressive.

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