Best Picture Winners: The Best of the Best

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I have spent much of my life in a love/hate relationship with the Academy Awards, as I think anyone who loves film has.  For me, growing up in Los Angeles, and with parents who are members of SAG and the WGA, winter doesn’t mean snow and tinsel, it means advance movie screenings, Q&As and DVDs (Last year, when my Mom was on the SAG nominating committee, we got literally everything).  What’s more, my interest in film was piqued largely through the Oscars—starting when I was in sixth grade, the Academy, for their 75th anniversary, did a retrospective of every Best Picture winner.  It took a year and a half to screen all seventy-five movies, but I was there almost every week.  I literally watched the medium evolve from The Broadway Melody (the first screening, as they were busy restoring the first winner, Wings), to the most recent winner at the time, Chicago.[1] 

Now that the 86th Oscars are upon us, I think it’s only appropriate to go through what I think the best winners are—and a couple of my least favorites.  Mind you, I’ve seen every winner except for two that I haven’t finished, Cimarron and The Greatest Show on Earth, so I’m not going to analyze those.  And I’m not going to waste space in this column bashing movies just because they beat movies we like more, with one exception.  Yes, I know you’re still mad that Dances With Wolves beat Goodfellas.  It was twenty years ago.  Get over yourselves.

Without further ado, my ten favorite winners:

10. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Some people think this movie has dated, but it’s been one of my favorite films since I saw it in middle school.  A lot of reasons I love this film are personal: this was the movie that opened the floodgates for me to see whatever else I wanted, since my parents figured that after seeing the only X-rated movie to win Best Picture, nothing could be off-limits.  Another was that Jon Voight came to introduce the screening, and as he left, I ran out of the theatre and got to meet him and have a really sweet conversation with him.  He signed my program “Jeremy, what a pleasure to hear you speak of our work, may you achieve all your dreams.”  Another is that I have gone as Ratso Rizzo, Dustin Hoffman’s character, for Halloween, with my friend JJ as Jon Voight’s Joe Buck.  But apart from the personal reasons, I love the imagery of New York in the 60s, before Disney came in and prettified the city.  I love the handheld camera and the improvisatory feel of the film, especially Dustin Hoffman’s classic “I’m walkin’ here!” moment, which never fails to get applause from the audience.  And what’s more, it has so many simple moments which never fail to touch me.  My favorite is when Joe meets the woman at the diner who says, “Welcome to Miami.”  It’s a simple act of kindness and in the context of everything Joe’s been through, it’s one of the few times someone’s just been nice to him.  I wish it wasn’t the only gay cowboy love story to win Best Picture, but we’ll get to that later.

09. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

My parent’s favorite movie, this three-hour film about veterans returning home from WWII is almost unthinkable today.  If it was made, it would be on television, since no one would think a story like this could hold an audience’s attention for so long.  But this intimate epic captures America at its most vulnerable, when we were getting out of troubled times and had to readjust to normalcy.  Like Midnight Cowboy, its emotions are never thrown in your face: director William Wyler’s subtle touch makes every moment real, from Dana Andrews revealing to his wife that he’s unemployed, to my favorite, when Fredric March comes home for the first time and keeps the kids quiet so that his wife won’t know he’s there.  The sequence, done in one shot, is a master class in how to evoke emotion from simplicity.

08. Annie Hall (1977)

This is the movie that most people think of when they hear the name Woody Allen, and there’s good reason for it.  It’s brief (ninety minutes), filled with one great line after another, and probably did more for women’s fashion than any movie since Bonnie and Clyde.  What’s more, Allen gets relationships dead on in this film.  Breaking up is one of the hardest things in life, especially when it’s with someone who we know is great, but we’ve reached a dead end with.  Believe me when I say I have broken up with a girlfriend using the words “what we have on our hands is a dead shark”—and the fact that she didn’t get the reference probably made my decision to break up easier.[2]

07. Unforgiven (1992)

It’s not perfect—there are a couple of performances that just don’t cut it (the problems that come with shooting in Canada), but Clint Eastwood’s summation of the west is more than just a great western, it’s one of the best American films of the last twenty years.  It seems at first like just another, “Oh, the former outlaw has to go back in the game” kind of films, but it goes deeper than that, into being a meditation on good and evil.  The performances from Eastwood, Gene Hackman (who won an Oscar for his role as the corrupt sheriff Bill Daggett) and Morgan Freeman are superb, as is the now-famous finale where Eastwood rides into town to confront Hackman.  It must be seen in a movie theatre to be believed, since its cinematography is so beautiful.

06. No Country For Old Men (2007)

A companion to Unforgiven in many ways, since it’s also a statement on good and evil, and what it means to be a man in modern-America.  The Coens’ neo-western is also a statement on why the west itself is dead: Josh Brolin’s loser husband-turned-outlaw fancies himself John Wayne.  Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem’s unforgettable killer, is the black hat who makes Liberty Valance look as intimidating as Dumbo.  And in the end, it turns out that neither of them win—sheer dumb luck gets in the way.  Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff stands for us, as he can’t make sense of the level of violence the characters commit, nor the complex machinations of the plot.  Apart from all that, it’s also a hysterically funny movie at times: the Coens know how to do black comedy better than anybody.  The first time I saw this film I was perplexed by it, and upset by its lack of a conclusive ending.  Upon seeing it again, I realized what a masterpiece it was.  More than any other film on this list, this is the one that needs to be seen twice to really understand.

05. The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy, which no doubt had an influence on Mad Men fifty years later, plays beautifully today: I can watch it over and over and never tire of it.  Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine are perfectly matched together, and their chemistry is always entertaining to watch.  Fred McMurray is also great as the piece’s villain: along with Double Indemnity, it is his finest work as an actor.  There isn’t much I can write about this movie that hasn’t been said elsewhere, since it’s such a favorite film of many who work in the industry today.  I’ll just give the last word to Wilder, who said, “We had the right actors.  It worked.”

04. Amadeus (1984)

I’m going to keep this brief, because I’m writing about this film in a column that’ll go up later this week.  Needless to say, this is my favorite adaptation of a great play for the screen, since it truly re-invents its source material for the screen rather than just trying to film the play.

03. The Godfather I and II (1972/74)

These two movies have to be paired together, since they’re so of a piece that I can’t split them apart.  It’s one of the greatest cinematic tragedies, on a level with the best of the Greeks and Shakespeare.  I guess the big question is, which one do I love more?  It depends which one I’ve seen most recently.  When I’ve seen Part I, it’s my favorite, when I’ve seen Part II, that becomes my favorite.  I love them both for different reasons: Part I for its action sequences, Brando’s work, and the tragic arc of Michael’s character.  Part II stands out for me because of its flashbacks, and not just De Niro’s scenes.  Maybe my favorite scene in either movie is the climax of Part II, when we see the family get together to surprise Vito Corleone on his birthday.  The moment when they run offscreen and yell “Surprise!” to an unseen father, leaving Michael alone, is the essence of the two films: the son whose father is always going to haunt him, and through his own machinations, will always be alone.

02. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

I’ve seen this movie six times and have never been bored by it.  Even as a kid, when I didn’t know what was going on towards the end, I was captivated.  You can only see this movie on a big screen—not even the best blu-ray player can capture it in its full splendor.  Peter O’Toole’s performance—legendary.  Some might say it’s the greatest ever put on film, and I’m not going to argue with them.  The more I watch it, the more I learn from it.  There’s no other movie like it, and it could never be made today, so I am grateful that it was ever made at all.  Once is better than never.

The best: Casablanca (1943)

This is a pretty easy pick, all in all, as I consider Casablanca the greatest Hollywood movie ever made, even above Citizen Kane.  The reason is simple: Hollywood used to make a movie a week, fifty-two movies a year.  The people who made this film took it as an assignment, but approached it with professionalism.  None of them thought their story was going to resonate after seventy years, much less be the movie that summed up an entire era of movies.  When the old studio system worked, it gave us movies like this, which were not only supremely entertaining, but also had deep things to say about life and death.  It’s fair to say that Casablanca is probably the most beloved American movie of all time.  Hyperbole?  Not at this point in time.

And just a few of the least distinguished movies to take the top prize:

Cavalcade (1932/33)

It’s hard to believe Noel Coward wrote this wooden drama about an English family’s life from 1900 to 1933.  It’s so hackneyed as to include scenes where the young lovers go, “Nothing will stop us now!” and then the camera reveals they’re on the deck of the Titanic!  However, if you’re a Downton Abbey fan, you should watch it so you can see the way it has influenced decades of British drama.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

I don’t get pissed when I think about Rocky beating Network, Ordinary People beating Raging Bull, or How Green Was My Valley beating Citizen Kane.  But The Great Ziegfeld, a three-hour biopic of impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, beat one of my favorite movies, William Wyler’s subtle masterpiece, Dodsworth.  And for that, I can’t forgive it.  Also, IT’S THREE HOURS!

Going My Way (1944)

I’ve written about my issues with this movie elsewhere, but it’s just a film that really fails to speak to a modern audience.  I think it also bugs me because I associate its director, Leo McCarey, with the most unsparing and unsentimental of classic films, Make Way For Tomorrow, which inspired Ozu’s Tokyo Story, so any time I see him direct something sentimental, it doesn’t feel right to me.

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

This bloated travelogue is symptomatic of what was wrong with Hollywood during the 50s: they relied too much on spectacle to keep audiences in the theatres and away from their TV sets.  It also doesn’t help matters that it’s based on an equally boring book, which I seem to be the only idiot to ever have read.  However, it’s not a total loss: Victor Young’s score is beautiful, and Saul Bass created an ingenious end titles sequence which recaps the entire movie.  Watch that instead and call it a day.

Crash (2005)

I know, I know, it’s too easy to pick on this film.  And the acting is very good in it, I’ll admit.  But its simple, sentimental answers to complex problems is irksome and its repetition of the same note over and over tiresome.  However, I think the reason Crash is the worst movie to win isn’t because it’s actually “the worst”—again, the acting keeps it from being a total burnout—but because it won out of anti-gay prejudice, and that’s forever going to taint it.  It’s also not just because it beat Brokeback, the most obviously gay-themed of the five nominees, but the fact that the three other nominees had them too.  After all, Capote was about a gay writer, Munich was by a gay writer, Tony Kushner, and as for Good Night and Good Luck, we all know what George Clooney’s hiding…


[1] While I may not have voted for it, the symmetry of this series starting with a musical and ending with a musical has made me ever grateful for Chicago winning the Oscar that year.

[2] Also, continuing in my tradition of dressing for Halloween as characters from film, my high school girlfriend and I went my senior year as Annie and Alvy.  It was definitely better than my Ratso Rizzo costume, which nobody got.

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