6. The Shining (1980)
Another horror, but one from Stanley Kubrick, who had been nominated before, but this seemed not to be enough for the Academy to recognise the sheer wonder of what is that greatest achievement – a film you can watch repeatedly and find something new each time.
Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a frustrated novelist with a bad case of writer’s block who agrees to take on a job as a caretaker at the Overlook Hotel during the winter months when the place is closed. (One rule to be learnt from this list – don’t try to overcome serious personal problems by taking on a job somewhere far from home.) But Jack isn’t alone – he brings his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) along. Oh, and the place is haunted. Maybe.
The Shining wasn’t the biggest hit when it was first released (another reason Oscar may have ignored it), but it has since grown in status to become one of the greatest movies in horror – in fact in any genre – of all time. There are subtle touches that are easily missed, but when they catch your eye lead to further potential interpretations of what is going on and what it all means.
Is the place haunted? How much of it is in Jack’s head? Is the first half real and the second half taking place in the book he is writing? And if so, which is more dangerous? The Shining suggests that a blank piece of paper can freeze a man just as easily as a blizzard.
Perhaps the whole thing is some bizarre, Cabin in the Woods-type sacrifice? After all, surely the Overlook would be making a killing in the winter from tourists who want to go skiing? Unless something dangerous comes out with the snow? Something that might like to have a little fun with some idiot who thinks he’s going to write a great novel…
No one answer covers every detail. The film is as endless as the shifting corridors that Danny speeds along on his tricycle. No matter how often you watch it, you never know what you’ll find round the next corner…
7. Nil by Mouth (1997)
Gary Oldman is best known for his work in front of the camera in a career that began in the 1980s. He’s not one to shy away from more theatrical performances, such as in Leon: The Professional (“EVERYONE!!”), The Fifth Element and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (though with lines like “I have crossed oceans of time to find you,” playing the Count as a retiring wallflower was never going to be on the cards).
But behind the camera, Oldman has written, produced and directed a single feature film, Nil by Mouth. A semi-autobiographical story set in South London where he grew up, it is an unsentimental examination of alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence and broken families.
Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke play married couple Ray and Val. We see them going about their everyday lives, whilst Val’s brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) is constantly seeking to score heroin. Ray’s drinking fuels his insecurities leading to him lashing out and beating Billy and later Val.
Entire scenes show us Ray and his mates hanging out together, telling stories (some more believable than others), and that’s it in terms of the plot. This is a simple film (Christopher Nolan it ain’t), but what comes through is a feeling of authenticity. Everything from the acting to Oldman’s style of direction creates the impression not of great performances but actual life.
It is one of those films that is so good at depicting the brutality that people inflict on one another that you may never want to watch it again. But other forms of recognition have come its way. It won BAFTAs for both Best British Film and Best Screenplay, the latter of which is impressive for a film that uses the word cunt more times (82) than any other before or since.
But the Academy didn’t seem to even know of its existence and so nothing was forthcoming. It’s a shame if only because Oldman hasn’t gone on to produce anything else, aside from filming the concert Jack White: Unstaged. He has talked of other films he would like to make, but perhaps, without a single Oscar nomination for his debut (such things must make it a bit easier to get another film produced), Oldman may follow the same path of Charles Laughton, who also quit directing after the poor performance of his one and only directorial effort, The Night of the Hunter.
8. In The Mood For Love (2000)
Most films are about the events. They’re about the characters and what they do, what they say, how they interact and so drive the plot forwards. In short, most films are stories.
Wong Kar-wai’s film is essentially no different. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play neighbours who come to suspect that their spouses are having an affair. This leads to them considering whether or not they might follow suit.
But the film, which was shot without a script over a period of 15 months, is much more about, well, the mood. Instead of the two main characters having a passionate love affair as would normally occur, we instead get two people spending time with one another, sharing a drink and some conversation, exchanging glances as they pass in cramped stairwells. This isn’t a film about what happens next, but rather what could happen… but might not.
It’s not going to be for everyone. Films that are about characters actively resisting the storyline we expect them to follow can come across as very passive experiences. But this resistance can work effectively on the viewer if there is something seemingly irresistible at work. And love is the one thing people like to think of as being outside of their control. Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, Brokeback Mountain – it’s all in the name of love.
As with other entries in this list, the fact that this isn’t an English-language film certainly wasn’t going to help it garner Oscar’s attention. But if it is often so hard for great films to get into the Best Picture race, there is still room for “lesser” awards, such as cinematography, costumes, production design, etc. Or not, hence why this masterpiece is on this list.
9. Zodiac (2007)
For many this is director David Fincher’s best film. It presents an examination of three of the men who were drawn into investigating the Zodiac murders in and around San Francisco from the late 1960s through to the seventies. Many were expecting another serial killer movie, similar perhaps to Fincher’s early hit Se7en, but instead were presented with something closer to the New Hollywood’s more thoughtful dramas and Oscar hits such as All the President’s Men and The French Connection.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, who becomes fascinated by the search for the Zodiac. He, along with crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), finds that the case is more than just an interest – it becomes an all-consuming passion.
The real Graysmith said that after reading the screenplay for the film he suddenly understood why his wife left him. Watching it, it’s sometimes hard to understand what it is that motivates Graysmith. He says he has to see the Zodiac for himself and know that it’s him.
Isn’t this what audiences want too? To finally confront the monster and see it destroyed? Instead we’re presented with a scene of mutual destruction, where Graysmith and the man he believes to be the Zodiac just look at one another in a store, both realising that the game is now over. What’s left for either of them?
Certainly not any Oscars. Perhaps the Academy couldn’t take a film that so effectively created an air of uncertainty in its audience. The film offers no complete sense of closure, which is discomforting when we like to know who the Hannibal Lecters and Clarice Starlings are in the world. The film came out in March, missing the deadline to be considered for that year’s awards, as well as not causing much fuss at the box office, but it’s now regarded as an intelligent and well executed examination of obsession and isolation. Hunt it down!
10. Calvary (2014)
A small Irish film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh that didn’t cause too many waves and most people aren’t even aware of its existence. Yet this deceptively simple drama deserves wider recognition.
Brendan Gleeson plays Father James who takes a confession during which an unseen man says he intends to kill the priest in seven days’ time as revenge on the Catholic Church for the years of sexual abuse he suffered as a boy. The man says that Father James is a good person, so killing him will have far more impact than if a known paedophilic priest were to be murdered.
Calvary manages, with wit, drama and sincere feeling, to show us a man that everyone on the surface seems to pity for having faith in a Godless universe. But at the same time the characters seem to be testing James, with all their lies, violence and tales of harrowing pain; if he can remain unswayed by all they have to throw at him, then perhaps there is some point to it all.
The other films on this list could plausibly have expected to end up being nominated, but Calvary never stood a chance. It’s not even, one could argue, particularly cinematic, being mostly made up of scenes of people talking, as if it had been originally written for the stage.
But Calvary is a reminder that films don’t need to be flashy or loud in order for them to create a roar in our hearts. Though we all love to discuss and judge films – and the Oscars afford plenty of opportunity for this – the only thing that really matters is when the end credits roll and the viewer is left with that feeling of life being forever slightly different and that awful question in their heads: What now…?
Honourable mentions: Frankenstein (1931), King Kong (1933), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), The Searchers (1957). Paths of Glory (1958), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Mean Streets (1973), Once Upon a Time in America (1984), The Terminator (1984), Miller’s Crossing (1990), The Big Lebowski (1998).
Author Bio: Sasha Roberts is a screenwriter and playwright residing in Cambridge, England. He spends his time, when not walking his mum’s dog, watching films and making himself feel clever thinking about how he would have done it better.