Wednesday, September 25, 2013

17 Best Picture Winners the Oscars Got Right

It’s always fun and instructive to point out the times when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences makes a bad decision for their annual Best Picture winner. The Academy, to its credit, doesn't make a habit of giving its most important award to movies based on hype or something other than quality. It does happen, though, and as the years go by it becomes apparent just how bad or, as is more often the case, mediocre these films really are.

When Crash beat Brokeback Mountain and Good Night and Good Luck in 2005, one could make the argument that Hollywood played it safe by picking a movie that would not ruffle feathers. The English Patient, seen as sweeping and epic when it won in 1996, is now regarded as alternately tedious and pretentious (a sentiment, I'm proud to say, I held when I first saw it), while its competition Fargo has taken its place as a modern American classic.

1998's winner Shakespeare in Love doesn’t make a whole lot of appearances on cable TV movie channels, classic or otherwise, while its competition Saving Private Ryan has become a staple on the Memorial Day and July 4th viewing schedules. Another beneficiary of the Miramax marketing machine, 2002's winner Chicago, doesn't seem to get a lot of attention in the secondary viewing markets or among film buffs now. And when was the last time you read a gushing retrospective about 1985's Best Picture winner Out of Africa?

Time is the key ingredient that determines if a film is truly great, "great" meaning it still commands attention and admiration from some segment of the movie-going public. Hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to second guess. There are times, though, when the American entertainment masters do get it right and hand the award to the film that, honest debates notwithstanding, truly deserved it. Such as these:

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30) - A cinema classic from a time when major players weren’t afraid to get political, and not just in a right-leaning faux-populist/limousine-liberal way. It’s a fairly straightforward story told so plainly and powerfully that countries planning to go to war did their best to ban it from being shown.

Gone with the Wind (1939) – Like it or not, this is one of a group of films that defines Hollywood. I’ve never even seen it in its entirety in one sitting, but I feel like I have through the eternal references to it in American culture. It’s a big, lasting film, which is the standard by which greatness is achieved.

Casablanca (1943) – I feel like even the most cynical moviegoer would find something to like in this film. The quotes alone make it memorable, but there's a lot more – The acting, cinematography, and writing all work beautifully together.

The Lost Weekend (1945) - A dark story of alcoholism that hasn’t lost any of its relevance to this day. The only recent film I can think of that comes close to matching its level of intensity for this subject is 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas. This is probably as close to Noir as Hollywood would allow a Best Picture winner to get.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) – An epic drama that is ultimately about dignity of the soldiers who need to find their place in society again. America could do well with a movie like this updated for current times. What happens to soldiers after the war is over is not talked about enough in the most powerful communications medium ever invented.

On the Waterfront (1954) - Another political film that deals with relevant social issues, specifically power and the people who wield it. With overt socio-political commentary becoming the territory of documentaries, I don’t think a film like this would make it to the BIG big screen these days.

Ben-Hur (1959) - Give Hollywood enough money and a talented enough leading man, and they rarely miss on a gladiator picture. This is the kind of action you cannot replicate with CGI and green screens (boxing movies like Raging Bull are the same way). This movie is a reminder of what movies and ONLY movies can do.

The Apartment (1960) - A sly look at the underside of corporate success, this was one of the big successes for United Artists, a studio that was driven buy creativity as well as profit.

Midnight Cowboy (1969) - The only X-rated film to win a Best Picture Oscar at a time when everything about how society talked about itself was changing. Its gritty urban look and subject matter would help set the tone for a generation of movies and TV shows that followed in the ‘70s.

The Godfather (1972) - I’m a Goodfellas guy when it comes to gangster pictures, but there’s no denying the epic sweep of this one and its sequel (the third chapter doesn’t measure up to the first two, it’s generally believed).

Rocky (1976) This was one year where it was impossible for the Academy to get it wrong. Between this movie, Network, Taxi Driver, and All the President’s Men, 1976 was basically idiot-proofed for the voters, and maybe only bested by the previous year when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the eventual winner), Nashville, Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, and Jaws all competed in the same year for Best Picture. Dear Hollywood: please take a hard look at what you were releasing in the mid-’70s and ask yourself, what the hell happened?

Annie Hall (1977) - Every “single gal in the big city” sitcom made since the ‘90s has this movie to thank for making the world (and prime time TV) safe for their brand of comedic mood and attitude.

Amadeus (1984) - A stellar period piece whose drama and vivid characters aren’t swallowed up by the costumes and accents. F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce deserve a lot of credit for making this story of genius and jealously so memorable.

Platoon (1986) – This is one of the last films to come from the generation of “maverick” directors who came to prominence in the 1970s. Oliver Stone’s overwhelmingly tragic story is brought to life by performances from powerhouse cast (including Willem Dafoe, Tom Berringer, a pre-batshit Charlie Sheen, Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, and John C. McGinley ). One of the minor miracles of this film is in how Stone managed to keep the standard Hollywood candy coating (a shoe-horned love story, a scene of forced “This Is America” pap) off of it while still getting it released.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – A masterpiece thriller that might be the last word on the Mad Scientist story which was taken to and beyond its logical end (with ever diminishing returns) by Torture Porn franchises like Saw. Just watching how ridiculous the sequel was makes the greatness of the original all the more visible.

Gladiator (2000) - See Ben Hur.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – Peter Jackson’s trilogy doesn’t get enough credit, IMO. It’s the first multi-billion-dollar-making spectacle since the first Star Wars trilogy to appreciate that the way to make Sci-Fi magic is to have the special effects serve the story, not the other way around, and that people talking to each other can carry just as much weight as sweeping fake vistas and strange creatures. And in just about every way imaginable it delivers what motion pictures were invented to do. Maybe it's because it had the bad fortune to be released in the midst of 9/11. Maybe it’s not action-packed enough for general audiences and not “serious” enough for cinema fans or devotees of the books. Nevertheless, I feel like it’s going to be a long time until something that good on that scale comes around again.

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