Sunday, January 06, 2008

Best Picture Oscar Winners

This has been kind of a labor of love for me that I've been chipping away a bit at each day. I got the inspiration from, a very creatively planned-out blog. An asterick means I haven't seen the whole thing from start to finish. I've seen Lawrence of Arabia pretty much all the way to a point near the end, I'm pretty sure. All I know is I was watching that for hours on end and it still didn't end.

Anyway, I've got just a few more pictures to go.

Best Picture Winners I’ve Seen:

No Country for Old Men (2007)-Massively overrated film. I know the Coens have been in kind of a slump with Intolerable Cruelty (good but not great and even worse, not ambitious), Man Who Wasn't There (technically good but had no soul), and Ladykillers (misguided and crass) but let's not award them for the first thing they do that's good. But that's assuming that this is a good film. If it has a plot, the film doesn't really care much about it. Or characters. It basically offers three things: 1) an innovative choice for the villain's weapon 2) a couple very good actiing performances (Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem) and 3) cool scenery.

Departed (2006)-I wrote about Departed so much in other entries that just click on departed down below for a couple interesting posts on Departed and the Indiscriminate Nature of the Gun and how I think as a genre film, Departed might be in danger of not having a long shelf life because it's such a straight genre film. Departed, though, was my third favorite picture of the year (behind Little Miss Sunshine on Flags of Our Fathers)

2003-2005-Haven’t seen any of these three best picture winners but I have seen 10 of the 12 other best picture nominees from these three years. I’m not ashamed of it either. A picture has to appeal to me to get me to see it. I rarely see a picture that I don’t want to see unless I like it. I gave up on Lord of the Rings after Part I.

Chicago (2002)-Chicago won because it successfully revived a lost genre that was very integral in the history of film. Some might argue that Moulan Rouge did that the year before, but Moulan Rouge was more like a musical on crack. It was a lot of glitz and glamour, songs burst out of characters with little motive, and the average shot length was a disorienting 1.5 seconds in the musical numbers. To me, Chicago was much more in the spirit of the film musical and worked a lot better.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)-2001 was a very week year and A Beautiful Mind was deservedly the best of them. I felt that despite being at the center of the film’s marketing campaign (as in the love scenes were featured in the trailers) the romantic subplot between Connelly and Crowe was pretty weak, but other than that it was a film I liked. It dealt with issues of how to deal and cope with life after success. Most of the movie wasn’t about a man’s rise to greatness. He accomplished the greatness early in the film, and he had to deal with rediscovering himself.

Gladiator (2000)-Gladiator had everything that I like to see in a best picture or a best picture for that matter: an epic feel, a grand ambition, big production values, a marquis star, pathos, and theme that’s relevant to the present. Gladiator’s theme was about perceptions of power and how power through the masses is dependent only on what those who are in power chose to filter to the masses. The emperor and Aerelius derived their power through a mandate from the masses and that was dependent on what the people saw in the arena. You could have somewhat easily drawn parallels between the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and the Colliseum with Bill Clinton, Kenneth Star, and CNN. Traffic might have been a more innovative picture and when that happens it really hurts the legacy of the best picture and inspires hatred never before seen by movie buffs (see Forrest Gump, English Patient, Dances with Wolves, Shakespeare in Love).

American Beauty (1999)-I lost my objectivity as a film critic when I saw this. I wasn’t a film critic back then, of course, but just the same. The film was just depressing beyond belief and affected me to the point where I really couldn’t make a judgement on it. It captured the uniformity and despair of suburban life to such a realistic extent it was scary and gave me less hope in finding meaning of my own suburban existence. Some might think that’s silly to become so affected by just a movie, but if I didn’t get so much into movies in the first place, than I wouldn’t want to be a film critic. Ironic.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)-Like Gladiator, my film professor told me it had a very poetic theme: that love can exist on stage and be created through art. It’s a self-reflexive postmodern romantic comedy so it can be seen as the evolution of the post-modern comedy. It’s a good film, but in terms of grandeur, I felt it lacked the greatness of a best picture oscar winner.

Titanic (1997)-While something like L.A. Confidential was hailed by film critics as the better picture in retrospect, Titanic was just a massive unstoppable phenomenon at the time, and I like it today in retrospect. It broke every box office record conceivable and was just something like “The Ultimate Movie.” At the same time, it wasn’t really included on many “best of the century” lists in the next couple years and a lot of mega blockbusters have come along since then with equally big production values. The closest big budget blockbuster in recent years to have a chance of getting the attention of the Oscars as a picture (not just a technical awards extravaganza) was King Kong and it only won the technical awards, and wasn’t even considered for anything like story, actor, director, or picture. The times are now different than when Titanic was around: You can be a big budget high money grosser or an oscar winner, but not both.

Forrest Gump (1994)-Forrest Gump is a sentimental favorite that plays on emotion and nostalgia rather than innovative reworkings of genre material. A critic who thinks with his head will favor Pulp Fiction 9 times out of 10 over Forrest Gump. The problem with Forrest Gump is it’s not a film people want to see twice which is why its shelf life withers in comparison to Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction, but we have to put ourselves back into 1994 when Forrest Gump was both the must-see movie of the year for the movie going public and an enormous critical hit. I’ve written about this in other posts and have even published an article on this.

Schindler’s List (1993)-“The Color Purple” aside, Schindler’s List was Spielberg’s coming out party as a serious filmmaker. The truth though is that among the academic community and art house types, Spielberg is considered the #1 person to blame for the supposed decline in the state of film because it can be argued that his enormous commercial success (mainly Jaws & Indiana Jones) had the accidental effect of restructuring Hollywood towards relying more on one big blockbuster to carry studios’ loads and leading to this sequelitis-infected blockbuster-oriented era we’re currently living in. Schindler’s List was Hollywood’s way of saying, “You know, you really are a good filmmaker after all.” The art house community still hasn’t caved in despite the fact that Spielberg made the two most revered films of the 90s in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but oh well.

Unforgiven (1992)-This could arguably be considered the only Western ever to win a best picture Oscar. Most sources will tell you that three Westerns throughout film history have won best picture awards: 1930’s Cimarron, and 1990’s Dances with Wolves (which I’ve seen about 2/3 of) are frontier stories but aren’t really true Westerns in my opinion. This is a shame, considering The Searchers and High Noon are the two best Westerns ever made, and there are a small handful of Westerns that might be considered better than Eastwood’s film, but it’s a very small number. Eastwood’s picture stands out as a great personal statement from a former actor reflecting on the genre that made a name out of him. It’s a very intelligent and concise film on many levels.

Silence of the Lambs (1991)-This film is the reason I didn’t follow the Oscars in any capacity whatsoever until approximately 1999. During the 1992 Oscar ceremony, I was 8, and my mom said I was not adult enough to watch the Oscars but I did and the short clips of Silence of the Lambs the ceremony showed were enough to scare the hell out of me. From there, I concluded that the Oscars were about terrifying and disturbing movies that I was too young for. Nevertheless, this movie still scares the hell out of me and is a film I find disturbing on a base emotional level, but I suppose that’s a testament to the power of the film, I suppose. I have more of a Frank Capra attitude on films and prefer their power to uplift people, rather than scare the shit out of them with disturbing images of guys who want to eat and torture each other, but, yeah, I suppose there’s a wide range of films out there, even the films on the darker end of the spectrum and it’s better than a film like Sin City that’s dark and nihilistic just because it’s cool. I would just find it odd that in the glamorous eternally optimistic Tinseltown, people would vote for a film about a disturbed cannibal of all things. If Silence of the Lambs won an Oscar, what’s next? Resident Evil?

*Dances with Wolves (1990)-I’ve seen about 2/3 of the film, so I’m not the true expert, but it looks like a film that’s like a serious evening at an upscale theater where you pay upwards of $100 a seat: a rich cinematic experience provided you’ve got the patience to stay with it. It’s essentially an epic. If you watch it on TV, you’d probably call it boring because you’re not getting the full experience. For his part, Kevin Costner, knew it was a risky project, but he said he liked the epic and I applaud him for that. Of course, people will always compare it to Goodfellas and it will suffer for that, but now that Scorsesee has his Oscar, can’t we put it all behind us?

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)-This film certainly doesn’t feel like a best picture winner and raises the question of whether there’s a certain requirement of a picture to deserve the honor of best picture. History has shown that there’s an incredibly wide range of pictures to get the honor and no real formula. Still, I tend to think that all the best pictures have a boldness in vision which includes a certain thematic gravity. I feel like Driving Miss Daisy brushes on ageism and interracial themes but at too much of a distance to feel like a profound statement has been made. I am pretty sure that in this decade’s Oscar-oriented November and December templates, Driving Miss Daisy would never have stood a chance at a nomination. It would be considered a pleasant character-driven film that would get some good reviews but would get drowned out by more ambitious films. Matchstick Men, Interpreter, The Weatherman, and Secondhand Lions are films that come to mind in this category. This is made all the more odd when we consider how great of a year 1989 was with Crimes and Misdemeanors, Henry V, Dead Poets’ Society, and Do the Right Thing.

Rain Man (1988)-I think this film also lacks a little bit of the ambition I spoke of with Driving Miss Daisy but the acting is so impeccable here that it puts the film on a different level. Dustin Hoffman gives the performance of a lifetime and Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman have such convincing chemistry. Another thing to consider is that Barry Levinson was on a role at the time with hits like Diner and Good Morning Vietnam, and in a decade increasingly oriented toward testosterone-laced blockbusters, Levinson’s films brought a deeper exploration to the masculine hero.

*Platoon (1986)*-I’ve only seen parts of this film. We watched it during a couple periods of my 11th English class in the last week of the school year. It felt like a very gritty war film that put the viewer into his point of view.

Out of Africa (1985)-A good epic film that features one of Robert Redford’s great performances. Sidney Pollack is only the 2nd best director named Sidney from the last 30 years, and it’s a shame that the great Sidney Lumet never won an Oscar.

Chariots of Fire (1981)-I’ve reviewed this film before, but essentially I felt it was a film that didn’t get the credit it deserved. My theory: Too often we expect a sports film to feature characters set against each other, and the fates of the two protagonists, who were rivals to some extent, do not end up in a climactic moment where they must compete over the same medal. I felt the film was a great character study and the stylized tone made for a great period piece.

Annie Hall (1977)-Woody Allen never made a truly great film in my opinion. He made a number of very good films. Annie Hall isn’t my favorite film of his: I appreciated some of the innovative gimmicks he uses to tell his story, but I found the storyline annoyingly disjointed.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)-I’ve seen the film two or three times, and this time, I'm just going to nitpick: Somehow the ending doesn’t seem right to me. I mean, do we really think that Chief is self-conscious enough to know what he’s doing? Remember: everyone but Randall McMurphy was, in fact, retarded. In a symbolic sense, there’s a lot to be read into this story with themes of oppression of independent-minded people, but in practicality, does the story really make sense? What makes the evil Nurse Ratched tick? In real life, why would she care about lobotomizing Murphy?

French Connection (1971)-Well, if anyone’s going to accuse the academy of being high brow, don‘t forget they gave an Oscar to the movie with the most kickass car chase ever. It’s a neat movie and I once attended a Q & A with William Friedkin about the film, so having heard his opinions on what he was trying to do I now respect the film that much more. Nowadays however, stories about cops are a dime a dozen from Shoot ‘em Up to We Own the Night to Narc to The Recruit to Training Day to whatever, but Friedkin’s film stands out for being a product of its era, at the very least.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)-The film competed against counter-culture pictures such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, which might have made In the Heat of the Night the less hip choice. I think, however, that this film marginally deserves to be considered one of the greats. Of the four Sidney Poitier films I've seen, it has his most meaningful performance. I don't say "best" because he's pretty much the same in everything but more that it's a great use of Sidney Poitier (Not to knock Poitier's acting, but I don't see him an actor giving a performance as a civil rights pioneer carrying the weight of African-American actors on his back and making choices designed to give blacks dignity on screen. That's at least at least how he's been framed historically). The film has a palpable sense of danger, two strongly defined characters, two great performances, and a chemistry between the two leads that is definitely something.

Sound of Music (1965)-Julie Andrews + Adorable Children + Sweeping vistas + Music + Backstory involving Nazis and WWII = Oscar. What else can you say?

My Fair Lady (1964)-With Born Yesterday, Bringing Up Baby and Philadelphia Story going unrecognized, I think My Fair Lady was a career achievement award for George Cuckor than it was recognition for an innovative film. The film has some great musical numbers and great performances by Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison but does fall a little short of the bar expected of an Oscar-winning musical. I also wonder if it is fair to judge My Fair Lady on the fact that the songs, one of the film’s main strengths, weren’t originally written for the film, anyway.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)*-An epic among epics. Peter O'Toole imbues Lawrence of Arabia with traits of an uneasy man who's been pinned for a loser his whole life but who's also taking the biggest risks of his life. It's a performance where you're just trying to think "What's making this guy's head tick." Let me just say, holy crap, is this a long movie. Watching it was like a marathon that I dropped out of at mile 21.

West Side Story (1961)-This is a film for the ages as far as I’m concerned and as the kind of musical innovative enough to break the mold of its genre to be deserving of a best picture (unlike My Fair Lady). For someone who isn’t in to musicals, I’m sure that they can appreciate the quality of the dance sequences even if it’s not their thing.

Apartment (1960)-According to Cameron Crowe’s book “Conversations with Billy Wilder,” When Billy Wilder accepted his Oscar, the guy handing it to him said “you know, you’ll probably never top this one” and he was probably right. The Apartment is not only an absolutely amazing film and personal favorite that I could go on for hours about, but it’s one of the few comedies to ever win best picture and that’s hard to do. I’ve also never seen a comedy that so effortlessly provided social commentary and satire. I'm not really someone who is strongly aware of mise-en-scene (the way the scene is framed in th camera) when I'm watching a movie, but this is one of the first instances where the art of it jumped out at me. Particularly, the way the cubicles in the Office call to mind a modern-day equivalent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)-Like Apartment and West Side Story, I’m not judging them on the level of Oscars but films among the best ever made and this transcends the question "did it deserve an Oscar." For me, the question is can you possibly shower it with enough Oscars and praise? It is my second favorite war film (we’ll get to the first in a couple minutes) and easily one of my 20 favorite films of all time, approximately. The protagonists are so interesting, with Alec Guiness forming such an interesting contrast to William Holden and such startling similarities with Sessuye Hayakawa, (Guiness and Hayakawa give two amazing performances too). The score and scenery is top notch, the ending is one of the most shocking I've ever witnessed.

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)- I can't help but acknowledge the sentiments that the selection of this picture almost single-handedly strips the "best picture" club of its integrity, but I think in examining why this film was so unfit to join the ranks of Oscar-winning films, then we get somewhere in terms of establishing what we expect from the Best picture winner. Perhaps, the lack of a theme? The lack of importance? Was it too enjoyable? Too little dramatic tension? The cameos cheapen the experience? In any case, it's certainly an enjoyable film of considerable scale if you don't think too hard about what the award means. I think of it as a spectacle of places and people and there's the certain extravagance to it that classic film buffs might look back to the olden pictures for with nostalgia.

From Here to Eternity (1953)-My favorite war film. Some might dismiss too loose of a narrative with two stories that have little to do with each other, but I think it paints interesting portraits of five unique characters and it's a very captivating epic. Montgomery Clift's character in particular makes such a strong impression. What would prompt a man to that level of stubborness, that he won't box or play the trumpet unless he does it his way? I often think when I watch it, that that trait is parallels the entire military structure.

Greatest Show on Earth (1952) - Greatest Show on Earth is grouped in with Around the World in 80 Days as one of those films that should never be uttered in the same sentence with the other winners but I found it a very good story and I think there's a lot more to be remembered from the film than the train crash scene. It is somewhat of an ensemble piece and I'm not sure if the way that, say, James Stewart isn't really relevant to the story but takes up screentime in a pleasantly time-consuming way is what makes the film feel irrelevant.

American in Paris (1951) - American in Paris was pretty much MGM and the Arthur Freed Unit at the top of their game. Gerswhin's score, Minelli's escapist sensibilities, and Gene Kelly's charm are the perfect combination, and Levant and Caron are good additions as well, although the guy who replaced Maurice LeChavilier as the French man was really quite a pushover. The problem which couldn't have been anticipated back in 1951 was that in 1952, an even greater film came out, "Singing in the Rain," which is now remembered as the highwater mark of the MGM Musical era, but again they didn't have a time machine, so let's not fault them. Also, worth noting: 1951 was one of the most competitive years in film history with three other films from AFI's top 100 (A Place in the Sun, Streetcar Named Desire and African Queen) coming out that year, so American in Paris gets a bad rap for that.

All About Eve (1950) - A cynical and twisted picture that's so marvelously done. These days, to explore the dark side of human nature, filmmakers need to incorporate murder or some other crime into a plot. I love how All About Eve is so dark yet no one is really doing anything "wrong" in a sense. Anne Baxter stands out as the conniving Eve who's loved by everyone except for the one person who's career she is destroying. Ironic that this came out in the same year as Sunset Boulevard which is the only other dark satire of Hollywood that comes close to this one.

Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947) - I've seen this film twice and each time it hits me in a very funny way. I like the thematic content but the actual storyline becomes dull somewhere along the way. Gregory Peck might have given one of the best performances in cinematic history in To Kill a Mockingbird but he's a little dry and unconvincing here. When he talks about how someone's trying to pick a fight "with his girl," like he's John Trovolta in Grease, it just makes me cringe. It's a film with too much exposition and talking away as well. It's certainly curious how Elia Kazan never came under fire in the way Stanley Kramer did for having films that were overly preachy.

How Green was my Valley (1941)-Yes, it beat Citizen Kane, but it's actually one of John Ford's best films and shows the master at his best. Orson Welles revered John Ford and watched Stagecoach 30 or 40 times in preperation for making Citizen Kane, so I imagine if his masterpiece was going to lose out at the Oscars, he wouldn't have wanted it to lose to anyone but John Ford.

Rebecca (1940)-Hitchkock did stick entirely to one genre which was a self-created one, but in within his work he takes his Hitchkockian qualities and makes textbook examples of other genres with a Hitchkockian spin: Strangers on a Train is a perfect example of noir, Psycho is the precursor to all those horror movies that flood our theaters, and the lavish Oscar-winning book adaptation is Rebecca. In other words, I think that while other Hitchkock pictures might have been better, Rebecca might have been the film with the most grandeur to it. It also helps that Joan Fontaine and Lawrence Olivier turn in two of the best performances of Hitchkock protagonists I’ve seen and Mrs. Danvers is quite a villain. I’d probably rank Rebecca as one of my top five or six Hitchkock films.

Gone with the Wind (1939)-Gone with the Wind WAS the biggest picture ever. It outranks Titanic in terms of intake when you adjust for inflation and THEN you have to realize how little a ticket cost back in the day as well. It might be argued that until Gone with the Wind, movies weren't that big of a deal. All the things from Gone with the Wind, the music, the color, the scope and scale of the images on screen, the performances, and most importantly the impact of the story and dialogue took audiences to a level they'd never seen before. That doesn't mean it's the one must-see film we all should be dying to see in present day because it's so awesome, but it still gets plenty of commendation which is important because nothing really can compare to Gone with the Wind in terms of public impact. I notice that lists generated by users, like the 2 online top 100 polls polling internet critics and regular movie fans as well as the imdb top 250, it doesn't rank particularly high.

The Life of Emile Zola (1936) - A fairly run-of-the-mill 30's film. I wouldn't call it anything particularly special. I'd say it's interesting if you're interested about learning about the person of Emile Zola. Good crib notes for a history essay.

It Happened One Night (1934) - Like Gone with the Wind, it's impact on the general public can't be underestimated. This film single-handedly made Columbia Pictures and Frank Capra's career. The film was the pinnacle of screwball comedies: Through a romance of two different classes, it gave hope to audeinces struggling during the Depression but the movie didn't just connect to audiences back then, I think more than Gone with the Wind, even, It Happened One Night is timeless. It's handling of the battle-of-the-sexes theme still reads well today and it's a great deal of fun. Truly, an underrated film.

Grand Hotel (1933)-See "Grand Hotel" tags. I absolutely adore this movie.

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