Every year, about a month or so into the winter season, the Internet begins buzzing in earnest about the Academy Awards nominations (this piece included). That murmur continues as the nominated films enjoy a burst in box-office windfall and consensus begins to form. By the time the (increasingly under-watched) Oscars telecast airs, speculation is at a fever pitch and the results are delivered by millionaires in couture. Sometimes there are snubs but most often expectations are fulfilled, and our awards antennae are allowed to hibernate for another couple seasons before they are called to action again.
All of this to-do over surprisingly heavy statuettes bears the question: should you care and, more importantly, does history care? The quick answers to those two questions are “no” and “definitely not”, but for the sake of argument, let’s use the results of the 2006 Academy Awards as a case study.
Let me begin by stating that I am a fan of The Departed, the winner of its year. A huge fan. It features career-best, legitimate acting by Mark Wahlberg, a crackerjack plot and enough cursing to make David Mamet blush. And who doesn’t love seeing Leonardo DiCaprio getting shot in the face (spoiler alert)? It was a return to criminal, non-ponderous form for Martin Scorsese (from which he regressed with 2016’s interminable Silence) and even features a late-career performance from Jack Nicholson that doesn’t make your eyes rocket out of their sockets from rolling so hard.
But was it the best movie of 2006? Nah, it wasn’t. It wasn’t even the best of the five that were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. That distinction goes to The Queen, which manages to wring tense drama out of the excessive stiffness of Queen Elizabeth II’s upper lip. It’s well established that The Departed’s victory, as well as that of Scorsese, at the Academy Awards was a long-overdue bit of recognition for Scorsese’s previous achievements as a filmmaker, most glaringly for Raging Bull and Goodfellas. It was so thoroughly a laudatory ceremony for the asthmatic Italian that his generational compatriots, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola, presented the Best Director award. Imagine how awkward it would have been if Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu took the stage instead? He’d get his chance eventually. Twice.
No, the other Mexican filmmaker who deserved the spotlight that evening was Guillermo del Toro for his magnum opus, Pan’s Labyrinth. Despite running at just under two hours, Pan’s Labyrinth is a two-for-one deal: it’s simultaneously a heart-stoppingly tense historical drama and a dangerously beguiling fantasy. It even has the bonus feature of being in Spanish, so that takes care of all the dumb people who are too lazy to read subtitles (yay, elitism!).
For those of you living under a rock, or if you’re the sort of person I just insulted at the end of the previous paragraph, Pan’s Labyrinth takes place during the waning days of the Spanish Civil War. It focuses on a young girl’s attempts to secure her entrapped mother and unborn sibling from the clutches of a sadistic, Franco-employed captain. Being whip-smart and having a fecund imagination (like, say, that of del Toro himself), the girl, named Ofelia, retreats into a parallel fantasy world inhabited by horror monsters like the Faun, a disgusting, gluttonous toad, and a ghoul with eyeballs in his palms. Moving back and forth a rock and a hard place, Ofelia negotiates the incredibly perilous situation that exists in the real world and the one (arguably) inside her mind. And unlike most movies with kids at the center, this one doesn’t end too well.
I don’t want to give the impression that Pan’s Labyrinth is critically underappreciated: after all, it did win Academy Awards for its art direction, cinematography and makeup. It was even nominated in the major categories of original screenplay and foreign language film, which it lost to the quite good but nevertheless inferior films, Little Miss Sunshine and The Lives of Others, respectively. Having landed on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list as well as snagging a coveted spot in the Criterion Collection, Pan’s Labyrinth has proven itself to be not only the best film of 2006, but also one of the best films of all time.
Ten years removed from its release, it only gets better with age. Can you say that about The Departed? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe eff yourself.