So this is where best-picture nominees go to die. Sidney Lumet's Network and Dog Day Afternoon each had their day in the sun—losing out to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and, uh, Rocky, respectively—and each has already seen release on DVD. But with the studios going through their back libraries like a hemophiliac through a blood bank, how could they resist repackaging these losers as a handsome box set (All the President's Men rounds out the selection) with a spit shine of "controversy" to keep them looking fresh? Profiteering aside, Lumet's films stand on their own, not least because they show how this year's crop of nominees will look when they get the box-set treatment 30 years from now.
Network is like Crash crossed with Good Night, and Good Luck (in fact, George Clooney is currently planning a remake of the 1976 film for CBS). A brilliant satire on infotainment, years before the term was coined, Network features Peter Finch as a mad prophet anchorman who threatens to kill himself on air to bring up ratings. There's also a terrorist squad paid to make news and a sitcom producer who takes over the news division. The film is by no means perfect. As in Crash, the characters are more bullet points than people, the plot more lecture than story. When Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall decide to kill Finch, whose ratings have fallen off, the turn feels about as cheap as the 5-year-old Latina who shields her father from a bullet in Crash. The only difference? Network is supposed to be ridiculous. The film's one real failure, the relationship between Faye Dunaway and William Holden, makes that difference in tone all the more obvious. Though the affair pays off with some great satire—Dunaway confiding to Holden, directly following orgasm, "What's really bugging me now is my daytime programming"—the film bungles their breakup, with a lecture on "basic human decency" that feels straight out of Crash.
Dog Day Afternoon is based on a true story, "Man bites dog"—I mean, "Man robs bank to pay for boyfriend's sex change." You can't get more tabloid than that, yet the film, like Brokeback Mountain, stuns precisely because it leaves the easy tabloid headlines ("Gay Cowboys," "Queer Gangsters") so far behind. Al Pacino invests his character with the mania of a normal guy: a neighborhood Italian kid who just happens to have "married" a pre-op transsexual and thrives in the spotlight like a political prodigy. Yet Dog Day is easily forgotten because its plot, with all the mess of a true story, seems over-specific; Brokeback's plot, almost classical in its symmetry, benefits from the sparse, gritty elegance of Annie Proulx's story, and performances nowhere near Pacino's take on massive significance as a result. It won't need the excuse of a box set when it gets re-released 30 years down the line.