As this year’s Oscar-winning films continue their box office reign, it’s salutary to remember that some excellent films have been honoured over the years. Even as many have faded from memory (Crash, anyone?), some of the award-winners that can be found on Netflix represent the very best in contemporary cinema. Here are some of our favourites.
The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme’s psychological thriller was the last (to date) film to win the ‘big five’ at the Oscars – Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Although many aspects of it, especially Anthony Hopkins’s performance as the intellectual cannibal Hannibal Lecter, have been parodied and imitated so often that they have lost their initial ability to chill, it is still a masterclass in tension, performance and pacing. There have been many other attempts to bring Lecter to the screen, most recently in the Hugh Dancy/Mads Mikkelsen show Hannibal, but this adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel remains the high point.
The Revenant (2015)
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film had a notoriously troubled production, shooting in some of the most isolated locations in the world and having its budget more than double, from $60 million to $135 million. Pictures of this nature either end up being flops or massive hits, and The Revenant ended up being the latter, not least because of Leonardo DiCaprio’s utterly committed and Oscar-winning performance as frontiersman Hugh Glass who is betrayed, left for dead and ends up seeking revenge on Tom Hardy’s dastardly trapper. Iñárritu also won an Oscar – one imagines as much for surviving the experience as for his achievement – and the film grossed a massive $533 million, although it lost out on Best Picture to Spotlight.
Iñárritu had also won Best Director, as well as Best Picture, the previous year for his black comedy Birdman, which starred Michael Keaton in a career-revitalising performance as a washed-up actor best known for superhero films who is trying to stage a Raymond Carver adaptation on Broadway. A distinct change of pace from Iñárritu’s previous work, which included the likes of Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros, it showed that he could bring his visual pizzazz to a different type of genre. His cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki ensured that the majority of the film looked as if it unfolded in a single shot, but this never felt gimmicky, thanks to the excellence of a cast including Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone, all of whom were Oscar-nominated but none of whom won.
Shakespeare In Love (1998)
Harvey Weinstein’s power and influence were at their peak in the late Nineties, and his schmoozing allegedly ensured that his pet project, the Tom Stoppard-scripted Shakespeare in Love, won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress for a pre-GOOP Gwyneth Paltrow. Although there was an outcry that the film had defeated the ‘worthier’ winner Saving Private Ryan, it is undeniably true, two decades later, that the lighter film is a lot more fun to watch. This is mainly due to Stoppard’s ineffably brilliant (and justifiably Oscar-winning) script, but also because this is that rare beast, a genuinely funny and sexy romantic comedy that can appeal to men and women equally.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
John Schlesinger’s buddy film, set in New York at the tail end of the Sixties, was enormously controversial on its release, due to its frank portrayal of sexuality; it was rated X (today’s equivalent of an 18), and became the first film to win an Oscar for Best Picture despite (or even because of) such a distinction. Today it’s both a fascinating social document, presenting New York in all of its seedy, seamy horror, and a touching account of the friendship between two men at the bottom of the barrel, naïve young would-be cowboy Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and fading con man ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). The ending – a dark mirror image of the conclusion to Hoffman’s breakout role in The Graduate two years before – never fails to be affecting.
Oliver Stone is largely forgotten as a director today, but in the Eighties and early Nineties, his films, usually dealing either with Vietnam or American presidents, were hugely popular. Many would argue that his masterpiece is Platoon, which won Best Director and Best Film, and concerns the inexperienced young recruit Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) who, upon arriving in South Vietnam, is torn between the diabolic Sgt Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the noble Sgt Elias (Willem Dafoe), whose Christ-like death gave the film its iconic poster image. Stone’s energy and flair elevates a simple war-is-hell saga into something more poetic and unforgettable.