Monday, February 8, 2010

81 Years of Oscar: Best Picture Winners

Hello all. So, the 82nd Academy Awards are less than a month away. This means that I'm probably thinking about Oscar more often than not. In an attempt to spread my love of these dubious awards of quality, as well as provide a crash-course in film history, I'll be spending the next month doing something of an Oscar Retrospective. Today, for your viewing pleasure, I'll be profiling the ten best and five worst picture winners (in my opinion, of course). Following, because I can, is a list of the Best Picture winners to refresh your memory. In bold are the films that I've seen.
(And I know you didn't ask, but this list is from memory. Because I'm that good.)
Slumdog Millionaire
No Country For Old Men
The Departed
Million Dollar Baby
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
A Beautiful Mind
American Beauty
Shakespeare in Love
The English Patient
Forrest Gump
Schindler's List
The Silence of the Lambs
Dances With Wolves
Driving Miss Daisy
Rain Man
The Last Emperor
Out of Africa
Terms of Endearment
Chariots of Fire
Ordinary People
Kramer Vs. Kramer
The Deer Hunter
Annie Hall
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
The Godfather Part 2
The Sting
The Godfather
The French Connection
Midnight Cowboy
In the Heat of the Night
A Man For All Seasons
The Sound of Music
My Fair Lady
Tom Jones
Lawrence of Arabia
West Side Story
The Apartment
The Bridge on the River Kwai
On the Waterfront
From Here to Eternity
The Greatest Show on Earth
An American in Paris
All About Eve
All the King's Men
Gentlemen's Agreement
The Best Years of Our Lives
The Lost Weekend
Going My Way
Mrs. Miniver
How Green Was My Valley
Gone With the Wind
You Can't Take it With You
The Life of Emile Zola
The Great Zeigfeld
Mutiny on the Bounty
It Happened One Night
Grand Hotel
All Quiet on the Western Front
The Broadway Melody

As you've surely deciphered by now, these lists will be highly subjective, as I've only seen about half of these. They will also obviously skew toward more modern fare, as the half I've seen errs toward the present (my viewing is particularly shabby in the 40s, which begins with All the King's Men and ends with Rebecca; I've only seen one). Also bear in mind that this is more my list of favorites than anything else: I'm not going with the boldest decisions, or the most atypical; I'm going with the ones I like the best. We can debate greatness another time.

The Best
10. Titanic (1997. Other nominees: As Good as it Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, LA Confidential)
I'll start with the most controversial choice right now so we can get it out of our hair. No, Titanic is not a great film. No, James Cameron is not an inspired auteur. What Titanic accomplishes, however, is pure cinema. Cameron lays his hand on the same lightning rod that Selznick, Cooper, and Fields all found to create old-fashioned, decidedly epic film. This is the one bone that escapism gets on my list: Titanic isn't concerned with being overly thought-provoking, or introducing new ideas. No, the film is slavishly devoted to delivering an experience, and it doesn't fail on those terms.

9. Shakespeare in Love (1998. Other Nominees: Elizabeth, Life is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line)
It might not be the best of the nominees, and it sure as hell caught crap for defeating Steven Spielberg's WW2 epic, but something about this little romance grips me in a way, I suspect, it gripped Academy voters. John Madden's only film of interest, Shakespeare in Love is a pitch-perfect combo of humor, intrigue, and emotional honesty. The film's effect is no doubt increased through the charismatic turns of Gwyneth Platrow, Joseph Fiennes, Judi Dench, and Geoffrey Rush, and the score remains one of the most by-turns whimsical and melancholy pieces of music written for film in recent years. Shakespeare in Love may feel like a light-weight, but it's got one hell of a punch.

8. No Country For Old Men (2007. Other nominees: Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood)
I'm honestly still confused about how this film walked away with the big prize. Sure, it was unanimously acclaimed, and is a staggering piece of work, but it's so...dark. Nihilistic. Graphic. The Academy normally loves something safe, warm, and mildly inspiring. No Country For Old Men is none of these things. I'm glad the Academy decided to head way out on a limb and reward a film outside their comfort zone. No Country For Old Men is easily one of the best films of the new millennium. As this is a favorite, not greatest, list, however, it's relegated to the 8th spot.

7. The Departed (2006. Other nominees: Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen)
Here's another atypical work. I can understand how The Departed won, however: though gritty and profane, it plays safely within an Oscar-loved genre (the gangster picture), and was helmed by modern directing legend Martin Scorcese. To try and understand the politics, however, is to undersell Scorcese's best film since GoodFellas. The Departed is vibrant, tense, and altogether thrilling, anchored by stellar performances from its youthful leads: Leonardo Dicaprio, Matt Damon, and Vera Farmiga. Add an outstanding ensemble (Jack Nicholson, Ray Winstone, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, so on and so forth), and the editing genius of Thelma Schoonmaker, and you have a completely unique, fantastic film.

6. It Happened One Night (1934. Other nominees: Cleopatra, Flirtation Walk, Here Comes the Navy, Imitation of Life, One Night of Love, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, The Gay Divorcee, The House of Rothchild, The Thin Man, The White Parade, Viva Villa)
Admittedly, I've hardly even heard of any of the other nominees, much less seen them, so I can't intelligently comment on the worthiness of It Happened One Night as compared to its fellow nominees. What I can do is attempt to share the 100 CCs of joy that were injected straight into my veins whilst watching this film. The original cliche, It Happened One Night is arguably the first romantic comedy. It is also, arguably, the best. Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable practically invented the concept of screen chemistry while filming, and the script, despite being 76 years old, never fails to feel timelessly modern.

5. The Godfather (1972. Other nominees: Cabaret, Deliverance, Sounder, Utvandrarna)
If we were listing the greatest Picture winners, The Godfather would be even higher on the list. Francis Ford Coppola's signature piece is still the crowning achievement of cinema in the 70s; the world of Don Corleone is incredibly complicated, vividly realized, and endlessly engrossing. Containing one of the most indelible screen performances (Marlon Brando, of course), some of the most shocking screen violence seen in its time, and one of the most memorable endings in film history, The Godfather is richly deserving of all the accolades it receives.

4. Amadeus (1984. Other nominees: The Killing Fields, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, A Soldier's Story)
I might be a little biased here. I love Mozart. Needless to say, a film concerned entirely with the life and death of the famous composer is bound to play my heartstrings (pun intended) quite a bit. That doesn't change the fact that the film is amazing. Milos Forman breathes joyous life into the dull, dusty public image of Mozart, warping him into a foppish, ridiculous young man for whom genius isn't a burden so much as an amusing inconvenience. F. Murray Abraham, as his rival Salieri, provides the perfect ballast to Mozart's raucous vivacity: Salieri acts as if every moment is an exercise in tragic dignity. The performances, as well as the film itself, pulse with an unrestrained joy of a kind seldom seen in theaters.

3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991. Other nominees: Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK, The Prince of Tides)
The Silence of the Lambs is not the Academy's cup of tea: it remains the only horror film to win the big award (indeed, one of only two nominees for the genre). The Academy found the film impossible to ignore, however, and with good reason. Containing what might be the most electric leading couple to grace the silver screen (Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins), as well as one of the most intelligent, surgically horrific screenplay in recent memory, Lambs proves a difficult film to shake. After rewarding this film, the Academy, in its infinite wisdom, would spend most of the 90s rewarding large, inspirational, contrived films.

2. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930. Other nominees: The Big House, Disraeli, The Divorcee, The Love Parade)
Needless to say, I haven't seen any of the other nominees. Doesn't matter. All Quiet on the Western Front is, arguably, the only true anti-war film ever made (at least to play within the war genre), and, as such, is also, arguably, the greatest war film ever made. The movie juxtaposes lengthy sections of waiting, wondering, and worrying with spans of almost sadistic battle scenes. All Quiet...allows us to become attached to a classroom full of impressionable young men, then forces us to watch as it horrifically maims and murders them. This film is one of the most pessimistic and cynical of any I've seen: completely fitting, given its subject matter.

1. American Beauty (1999. Other nominees: The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, The Sixth Sense)
I debated for a while about whether or not my longtime favorite should cede this spot to All Quiet on the Western Front, but, in the end, I had to vote with my heart. And, as stated before, this is a list of favorites. I honestly don't know what else to write about this movie that I haven't written recently. Suffice to say it's got a lot of heart, and hits a lot of people, including me, in all the right places. Thank God the Oscar didn't go to The Cider House Rules.

Now, a tougher list. The five worst. No, let me rephrase that: these aren't the five worst films. They're the five that disappointed me the most. The five that let me down. The five that should have become close friends, but ended up stabbing me in the back. I highly doubt these would find themselves in a Five Worst list had I seen all the winners. See, I tend to avoid films that I hear are terrible, and, as such, have avoided the worst best picture winners.

5. Crash (2005. Other nominees: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich)
Crash is a skillful manipulator, but little more. I'll admit that there good acting lurks around the edges (particularly Matt Dillon, Michael Pena, and Don Cheadle), and the film contains some truly affecting moments. When viewed with an objective eye, however, Crash can't escape the creakiness of its own screenplay, which relies on contrived coincidence.

4. Braveheart (1995. Other nominees: Apollo 13, Babe, The Postman, Sense and Sensibility)
Braveheart is very big, and very pretty, and somewhat inspirational. It's also incredibly sophomoric, filled with toilet humor and homophobia, and is helmed by a painfully ham-handed director. Braveheart is enjoyable enough. But a good film? Please. Like I said: pretty, exciting, big. Also crude, intolerant, and stupid. And not inventive enough to be forgiven for any of its sins.

3. Terms of Endearment (1983. Other nominees: The Big Chill, The Dresser, The Right Stuff, Tender Mercies)
This movie plays like a daytime soap opera. We have star-crossed lovers, worrying mothers, terminal illness, cute kids, and every other Movie-of-the-Week cliche worth its salt. None of elements every congeal into anything compelling, however, despite the noble efforts of Debra Winger and Shirley Maclaine. Jack Nicholson does nothing to help, either: his normal 'Crazy Jack' schtick feels grotesquely out of place.

2. Forrest Gump (1994. Other nominees: Four Weddings and A Funeral, Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, The Shawshank Redemption)
I know I'm going to catch some heat for this, as most if not all of my regular reader love this movie, but I'm going there anyway. Forrest Gump is the Academy at its most conservative. The film itself is safe, conservative, almost condescending. I know I'm a pretentious film dick, but I tend to prefer new, or original, or daring in some way. Forrest Gump is as safe as it gets. I'm not saying it's a terrible film. It's just the kind of movie I'll never enjoy.

1. A Beautiful Mind (2001. Other nominees: Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Moulin Rouge!)
I will say that this one is a terrible film, though. Director Ron Howard is the master of faux-inspirational, historical garbage, and this is the creative nadir of his not-so-illustrious career. The fact that this film won is downright offensive. A Beautiful Mind's success is the best proof that sometimes, the Academy just doesn't care about quality.

Well, there you have it. Sorry, long post. I know. I got carried away. If anyone's still reading, what do you think? Am I being too hard on some films, and too easy on others? Willing to show me how wrong I am about Forrest Gump? I'll never learn if someone doesn't try to teach me.


  1. Angie Vopat PattonFebruary 8, 2010 at 4:15 PM

    I agree Entirely about Forrest Gump. I think Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption are far better films given the scripts, performances, and technical aspects. Forrest Gump is heartwarming and what not, but was it deserving of best picture, I don't believe so. I honestly think if not for its best picture win it would lose its cult following as well. It would be looked at as just another sweet, naive movie about a retarded man. No disrespect.

  2. I concur. Pulp Fiction and Shawshank are heads and shoulders above (particularly Pulp Fiction, which is one of the more influential films in recent memory). And this is to say nothing of the not-nominated great films that are also wide margins better than Gump: Heavenly Creatures, Hoop Dreams, Rouge (of Kielokowski's Three Colors Trilogy). Hell, even The Lion King. Point is, it's not a bad film, per se. It just really shouldn't have won. Here's an interesting question: I agree that it wouldn't havae the following it does had it not won. Do you think it would be hated so vehemently by people like us if it had lost? I think we'd still dislike it, but not to the extent that we do now.

  3. Angie Vopat PattonFebruary 8, 2010 at 4:47 PM

    I think I'd be more or less indifferent to the film. The fact that it won over two better movies (which as you mentioned are just two better films that are nominated, and don't include the other number of pictures far better that were released that year) , which also happen to be some of my favorites makes me that much more heated. The fact that it won best picture is clearly my biggest qualm with it. There are plenty of tame, rather cliche movies that come out yearly that i'm not outwardly opposed to. They exist, that's cool I don't have to have an opinion one way or the other, but when one wins best picture it really gets me on my soap box. Personally for me it's the same as Million dollar baby, i don't like the film, i find it far too boring and predicatable, but some people love it. Granted it's a little different solely because Million Dollar Baby wasn't exactly nominated against any other great films...the fact that Eternal Sunshine (which i know you're not particularly fond of), Hotel Rwanda, Kinsey, Closer, and the Motorcycle Diaries were snubbed when Million Dollar baby, Ray, and Sideways were nominated still boggles my mind.

  4. God, right? 2004 is a year that always pisses me off: the nominees were, as you pointed out, Million Dollar Baby, Ray, Sideways, Finding Neverland,and The Aviator. I like Million Dollar Baby more than you do, but it's still not a great movie. Same with the Aviator. My biggest problem is that Kill Bill didn't get anything, but I was also pissed by the snubbing of Undertow, Before Sunset, The Incredibles, Collateral, and Yesterday, in addition to the titles you mentioned. See, 2004 was a great year for movies, but the best picture lineup kind of sucked.
    ...Crash, anyone?

  5. Angie Vopat PattonFebruary 8, 2010 at 4:59 PM

    Oh jesus, don't get me started. I've hated crash since the first time i saw it. Everyone else I know was in love with that movie, and to me it's right up there with gran-Torino as far as "movies that people think might be good because they're about racism". It was terrible, one of the worst Oscar winning movies ever, i was sad to see it was only your number five! It tricks people into thinking it's meaningful because of its subject matter, but when you actually look at the content it and the story it falls short. it simply didn't do it's job of portraying such serious issues, it was almost a mockery in my opinion. I really hate that movie.

  6. I don't hate it as much as you. What endears it to me, I think, is the acting, which can be pretty good at points (I thought the supporting nomination for Matt Dillon was richly deserved, and was sad Michael Pena didn't make it in). Still not at all worth best picture though. Most winners this decade aren't worthy of the accolade, honestly: since 2000, the only movie I completely agree with is No Country For Old Men (though The Departed and Slumdog Millionaire were the best of the nominated films).