Skip to main content

I have to admit that I wait to talk, but I'm trying harder to listen.

And the Oscar Should Have Gone To…
The 1994 Contenders Ranked

It isn't every year you can say the Oscars at least had an interesting selection of nominees, but 1994 not only managed that, it included two unassailable classics among the five Best Picture contenders. Also unlike most years, there isn't an enormously misjudged dud in the ranks, and at least three of the pictures represented something different to the usual Academy fare.

5. Four Weddings and a Funeral

Four Weddings’ success represented one of those periodic resurgences for British cinema (usually followed by a precipitous plummet), not that Merchant Ivory hadn’t been an art house fixture for about a decade. This was mainstream populist fare, though, coinciding with Britpop and (just) preceding Danny Boyle; a rare English comedy hit (the most recent previous champ being A Fish Called Wanda), it made a bona fide movie star out of Hugh Grant, despite his best subsequent attempts at self-sabotage, and put TV veteran Richard Curtis well and truly on the movie map. It was also either the making of several of the supporting cast (Kristin Scott Thomas, John Hannah) or gave them a shot in the arm (Simon Callow), even if their sudden demand often led to ill-advised parts in Hollywood hokum… And Wet Wet Wet.

Four Weddings isn’t, however, a romcom for the ages. It has a number of funny sequences, andmostlyappealing characters, is well-observed in its insular Oxbridge way, but it problematically completely misses the boat in selecting Andie McDowell as the object of Hugh’s affections. The attempts to give her amusing material fall painfully flat, and there’s zero chemistry between the two; one’s left wondering why he was such an idiot to pass on Scott-Thomas’ unrequited allure. Like a wedding cake, or a drunken eulogy, it’s a bit of fun, but it’s no When Harry Met Sally.


Box Office: $52.7m (US, 21st), $245.7m (WW, 8th)

4. Forrest Gump

Recipient of equal parts scorn and adulation, Forrest Gump tends not to elicit lukewarm responses, but it more accurately ought to, as it’s neither fish nor fowl. As such, it represents something of the shape of his career to come for Zemeckis, who would find it increasingly difficult to regain the form of his hot ‘80s streak, quality-wise. Is Eric Roth’s adaptation a satire of all-things Americana, where the best soldier, athlete, businessman, parent is an imbecile, something we should see as a cautionary tale of a failure to reflect and consider, discern and just plain comprehend the world around us? Or is it a heart-warming tale of perseverance and indomitability, of standing steadfast in the face of all that life throws our way?

It's both those things at various points, a movie serving two masters, without the courage of its more cynical convictions and thus much too crooked and warped in its outlook to be taken on face value as an aspirant tale. Undoubtedly, fuelled by that mawkishly uplifting, feather-light Alan Silvestri score, it was the heartfelt interpretation – with some good solid, light-relief broad-stroke comedy thrown in – that the Academy voted for and that audiences came away so sated by (and globally at that – only The Lion King beat Forrest at the box office that year), but Forrest Gump is a tonal mish-mash, too astute to be dismissed with lazy finger-pointing (reading it as a conservative text simply doesn’t work), but too manipulative to be embraced for its insights.


$329.7m (US, 1st), $677.4m (WW, 2nd)

3. Quiz Show

There’s nothing very wrong with Robert Redford’s fourth directorial effort – aside from Rob Morrow’s Boston accent and Ralph Fiennes’ distancing iciness in place of charm – but for a feature that exhibits its share of dramatic licence in depicting the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals, it’s oddly staid and reverential towards the period. What was needed was a director passionate to tell the story, rather than one who saw it as his next batch of Oscar bait. Compare and contrast with JFK a couple of years previously. It could, of course, have been worse. Following in the line of nostalgic inertia for a television era past, Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck would be practically comatose, and just as irrelevant in its attempts to point out halcyon values, as if the redundant lesson would have any effect or anyone would care about translating it to today.

Nevertheless, Quiz Show remains a fascinating story that commands the attention, no matter how leisurely Redford treats the telling, and boasts a marvellous goofy turn from John Turturro as hapless winner Herb Stempel, destined to be usurped by Fiennes’ Harvard scholar but not to go down quietly. Redford arguably takes the easy option by mocking Stempel while venerating “honourable” Charles Van Doren, but Herb has the last laugh, as it’s Turturro who energises Quiz Show whenever he’s on screen. There’s usually at least one self-consciously worthy period drama slot among the Best Picture nominees, but more often they aren’t set in the relatively recent past (The Madness of King George was squeezed out). Quiz Show finds a director going through the motions with material that deserved better (see also, more recently, The Post).


$24.8m (US, 56th)

2. The Shawshank Redemption

If everyone else appears to love something enough, the only remaining available position is to tear it down, which is why, even though Shawshank remains atop IMDB’s chart, you won’t find many new articles claiming it deserves that position. Even I won’t, and I wouldn’t begin to think of decrying it. Shawshank actually fits the aspirational Oscar-winner mould more perfectly than probably any of the year’s other nominees, but the 1990s wasn’t much of a decade for the little movie no one saw causing an upset at the big awards (the lowest grosser was Unforgiven, and that still made $160m worldwide).

The criticisms Shawshank commonly receives aren’t groundless, of course – if you want a realistic portrait of prison life, or require a voiceover narration to offer information that can’t be gleaned from what’s patently obvious on screen, you’re going to become irked quite quickly – but for its adherents, it’s a picture that embraces the value of hope and perseverance without descending into gross sentimentality or indulgence. Frank Darabont successfully distils the essence of another Frank, Capra, into a picture for modern audiences, even if, like several of the best Stephen King adaptations, it’s firmly set in a bygone era.


$28.3m (US, 51st)

1. Pulp Fiction

What caused more upset, Forrest Gump beating Pulp Fiction or Sam Jackson being bested by Martin Landau? The latter for Jackson personally, obviously, but Pulp Fiction’s loss represented a missed opportunity for the Academy to respond to an increasingly rare nomination for a zeitgeist picture. And a zeitgeist picture that fully deserved the recognition to boot.

Pulp Fiction entirely holds up, even given its over-referencing in pop culture during the subsequent quarter of a century, and remains the best thing Tarantino has written, somehow allowing him to overcome the limitation of being a moviemaker who loves making movies that are entirely about riffing on the movies he loves; it’s a straightjacket that largely restricts him from saying anything really significant (which is fine, just don’t pretend he’s something he isn’t).

Yet Pulp Fiction creates its own transcendent iconography, and even manages to comment on its own artifice and veneration of the form in a creative way through its plays with chronology; dead characters are still living as the movie ends, in much the same way they are for the viewer who watches their favourite films time and again (Tarantino, basically). Tarantino’s undoubtedly become more technically accomplished as time has gone on, but he’s also become more indulgent and less self-disciplined; about the only area his standards have been raised in the intervening period is that he no longer feels the need to inflict his acting self quite so wantonly on his audience.


$107.9m (US, 10th)/ $233.9m (WW, 12th)

Best Director
Winner: Robert Zemeckis
Should have won: Quentin Tarantino

If Zemeckis was going to win, it should have been for Back to the Future (he wasn’t even nominated). Woody Allen and Robert Redford represented respectful filling out of numbers rather than anything special, but Krystof Kieslowski (Three Colours: Red) certainly merited consideration. It was Tarantino’s to lose, though, and lose he did.

Best Actor
Winner: Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump)
Should have won: Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George)

At the time I might have said Travolta, for an instantaneous career reinvention that miraculously erased nearly a decade and a half of lousy choices. Or Morgan Freeman, but his performance is so much soothing voiceover, he could deliver it in his sleep as a means to send youto sleep. Paul Newman (Nobody’s Fool) was good – as ever – but not so you seriously think an Oscar’s warranted. Hanks meanwhile gives a fine comic performance, no doubt about that, but he’s delivered much better comic performances, meaning voters were really taken by the maudlin backdrop to Forrest’s blithe indifference, rather than the performance itself. So I think almost by default, Hawthorne would be my pick, even if the film as a whole is decent but unremarkable.

Best Actress
Winner: Jessica Lange (Blue Sky)
Should have won: Susan Sarandon (The Client)

We nearly had a Jessica Lange in Blue Sky win this year with Glenn Close and The Wife, another film no one saw yet voters had the feeling (only not enough for Glenn) that it was time to honour the actress (albeit, Lange had already won Best Supporting Actress). Even less saw Miranda Richardson in the unloved Tom & Viv. Winona Ryder in Little Women? Nah. Then there was Jodie Foster’s hilarious “Ah am a don-key” performance in Nell. Another by default is my pick, then; Sarandon is on authoritative form in a merely passable John Grisham thriller, but I don’t think any of the contenders this year were that interesting.

Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Martin Landau (Ed Wood)
Should have won: Samuel L Jackson (Pulp Fiction)

Jackson has hitched his cart to entire wagon trains of shit since, but he’s undeniably great in Pulp Fiction. Landau’s turn is fine and affecting, but it isn’t in the same league (his greatest performance is still Crimes and Misdemeanours); I’d probably put Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump) ahead of him but have the Space: 1999 veteran on similar pegging to Chazz Palminteri (Bullets Over Broadway) and Paul Scofield (Quiz Show).

Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Dianne Wiest (Bullets over Broadway)
Should have won: Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction)

Still Thurman’s best role. Wiest is always good, of course (particularly with Woody, hence this being her second win). Also in contention were Rosemary “Aunt May” Harris (Tom & Viv), Helen Mirren (The Madness of King George) and Jennifer Tilly (Bullets over Broadway). Of the latter, being cast as irritating sometimes just means being cast to type.

Best Original Screenplay
Winner: Pulp Fiction
Should have won: Pulp Fiction

At this point, Woody Allen was pretty much a fixture in this category, plaguing the ceremony in the manner of Meryl the accented peril (he was nominated five times during the decade). Richard Curtis (Four Weddings) received his only nomination to date, and Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh their first (of three) for Heavenly Creatures. That and Three Colours: Red were both strong pieces of work, but nevertheless up against Tarantino and Roger Avary.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Winner: Forrest Gump (Eric Roth)
Should have won: The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont)

Darabont’s is almost a text-book great adaptation, so easily eclipses other contenders, The Madness of King George, Nobody’s Fool and Quiz Show.

Best Original Song
Winner: Can You Feel the Love Tonight (The Lion King)
Should have won: Circle of Life (The Lion King)

I don’t know how the least of three Lion King noms won, but the real mercy is that Randy Newman (The Paper) was shut out.

Best Original Score
Winner: The Lion King (Hans Zimmer)
Should have won: The Shawshank Redemption (Thomas Newman)

I’m mostly unimpressed by the Disney Renaissance of the ‘90s, scores included, so I’d have picked Thomas Newman’s work for Shawshank over Zimmer, Elliot Goldenthal (Interview with the Vampire), Alan Silvestri (Gump) and Newman again (Little Women).

Best Art Direction
Winner: The Madness of King George
Should have won: Interview with the Vampire

Best Cinematography
Winner: Legends of the Fall
Should have won: Legends of the Fall

It looks great, even if it’s far from a great movie.

Best Costume Design
Winner: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Should have won: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Best Makeup
Winner: Ed Wood
Should have won: Ed Wood

Also nominated: Forrest Gump, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Best Visual Effects
Winner: Forrest Gump
Should have won: Forrest Gump

Also nominated: The Mask, True Lies.

My Top Five Films of the Year

5. Ed Wood

Many would argue Tim Burton’s career has been on a creative nosedive ever since this, his least successful movie. A love letter to cinema’s “worst director”, it’s undoubtedly the case that there’s affection for the subject matter rarely evidenced elsewhere, and that this is by far the most fruitful of his (now defunct?) collaborations with Johnny Depp. 


4. The Shawshank Redemption

There are two directors’ feature debuts on this list, and in both cases their first two efforts would never quite attain the same level of quality again. Frank Darabont evidently needs to find another non-horror, validating Stephen King short story to adapt.


3. Chungking Express

Wong Kar-wai’s third film is, like Pulp Fiction, composed of interweaving stories touching on the world of crime, although in this case only one actually features criminals. Wong Kar-wai’s are tales of love-sick cops, one (Takeshi Kaneshiro) stuck on the girlfriend who dumped him and the pineapples she had a penchant for, but engaging in a dalliance with Brigitte Lin’s drug dealer. Most winning, though, is the second story, as Faye Wong plays California Dreamin’ on a loop while breaking into the flat of Tony Leung Chui-Wai’s cop and tidying up for him. It’s an irresistible confection, romantic and melancholic, lacking obvious happy endings but leaving you floating on a cloud.


2. Shallow Grave

While Trainspotting is obviously the grander achievement, both in terms of distilling the source material and reconciling it into a movie audiences wanted to see – let alone turning that into a pop-cultural event – part of me still says Shallow Grave, Danny Boyle’s debut and Ewan McGregor’s real breakout role, is the superior work (notably, it won the BAFTA for outstanding British Film, while Trainspotting was trumped the following year by The Madness of King George). A pitch-black tale of opportunism and greed, as a grim plan to retain a suitcase full of cash spirals out of control, McGregor, Kerry Fox and (particularly) Christopher Eccleston are as impressive as Boyle’s focused, budget-strapped execution of John Hodge’s screenplay.


1. Pulp Fiction

It isn’t too often that my favourites of the year are also up for the big awards, but the Academy was in the mood for both cool and classy in 1994. Even if the big winner was neither. 


You may also like:

Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the