February 22, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Great movies transcend the frenzied Oscar race

Who doesn't love 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid'? The film stars film legends Robert Redford and Paul Newman. (20th Century Fox)

As we look ahead to the 86th annual Academy Awards ceremony on March 2, let’s gaze back on some of the cinematic landmarks that changed and challenged cinema.

There was 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan” and 1994’s “Pulp Fiction.” Recall the stately power of 1992’s “Howards End” and the brutal artistry of 1990’s “Goodfellas.” Think of the scathing cultural commentary of 1976’s “Network,” the charismatic rebellion of 1969’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the generational shift of 1967’s “The Graduate.”

Great movies all.

And not one of them won the Oscar for best picture.

“Saving Private Ryan” lost out to “Shakespeare in Love”; “Pulp Fiction” was bested by “Forrest Gump.” Seriously, which film has had more influence on cinema over the past 20 years?

“Howard’s End” ended up blasted by “Unforgiven,” “Goodfellas” was taken out by “Dances with Wolves.” “Network” lost to — get this! — “Rocky.” Freaking “Rocky.”

“Butch Cassidy” was beaten by “Midnight Cowboy.” And “The Graduate” lost to “In the Heat of the Night.” You can’t call either of those choices wrong. Great movies were going up against great movies.

But they are a reminder of how many wonderful films, and performances, and technical achievements get left behind.

How is it possible that Al Pacino never won an Oscar for a “Godfather” film, or for “Dog Day Afternoon,” but did win one for 1992’s disposable “Scent of a Woman”? How can Glenn Close have six Oscar nominations and not one win? How does Marisa Tomei win best supporting actress in “My Cousin Vinny” and yet not win for “In the Bedroom” or “The Wrestler”?

Politics. The whims of the cultural gods. Being part of the in crowd. Playing the game, not playing the game. The nature of the characters or films themselves. All play a part.

These are things we should remember at this time of year. Handing out awards for artistic merit as if everyone was involved in some sort of carrot-growing contest is not only crass, but it’s inevitably inaccurate. Judging achievement by some sort of lowest common denominator groupthink is plain absurd.

The two strongest performances — among many, many strong performances — I saw this year came from Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips” and Adele Exarchopoulos in “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” Neither earned an Oscar acting nomination.

But I have a feeling each will survive the test of time. Cinema isn’t about awards. It’s about stories and characters and perspective. And those things tend to outlast statues.

Witness “Last Tango in Paris,” “The Exorcist,” “Cries and Whispers” and “American Graffiti.” All considered classics.

In 1973, they lost collectively to “The Sting,” a period-piece, crime caper now mostly forgotten.

Again, it’s only a statue.

The 86th annual Academy Awards

8: 30 p.m. March 2

ABC

tlong@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/toomuchTomLong

Uma Thurman dances with John Travolta in the critic and fan favorite 'Pulp ... (Miramax)
The waves Dustin Hoffman's 'The Graduate' made in 1967 still ripple today. (Columbia TriStar)