Our Ten’s List: Favorite Best Picture Oscar Winners
To date, 85 films have won the Academy Award for Best Picture (or whatever it was called at the time…it gets a name-change face-lift every twenty years or so, just to stay fresh and mess with historians.) Of these 85, I’d estimate about 20-30 are still enjoyable for a modern audience, and about a solid dozen are indispensable for lovers of celluloid. As for lovers of cellulite, I would argue about 5-6, but Hollywood had healthier conceptions of beauty in the 40’s. Let’s see which winners continue to ring bells on Our Ten’s List.
Favorite Best Picture Winners #10: All About Eve (1950). This film is a standout in the black and white era, both encapsulating many of the tropes of early Hollywood sound films, and breaking down several important walls. It is a film about acting and Broadway, a popular topic in early cinema (easier to cannibalize songs and costumes that way, and the actors are most likely intimately familiar with that world still) but it is also a film about aging, sexism, professional rivalry, homosexuality, and self realization. And it is gratifyingly dominated by its female stars, prominently Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, and Marilyn Monroe. It is the most nominated film (tied with Titanic for 14) and had four of its female leads nominated (a never repeated rarity.) Despite being about musicals, it stands up well for haters of musicals, or as I call us, everybody. Definitely worth a view.
#9: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). War movies are fairly well represented in Oscar history, from All Quiet on the Western Front to Letters from Iwo Jima. Kwai is a special kind of war movie, that is really more concerned with humanity constrained by war, than with the inhumanity of war itself. Captured British soldiers are ordered by a brutal Japanese officer to construct a bridge that will aid the Imperial war effort. Standing up for decency and an antiquated sense of honor during combat, Lt. Col. Nicolson (Alec Guiness, in arguably his finest performance) refuses, and he and the other officers are tortured as a result, while his men must begin construction. After out-lasting the desperate Japanese, Guiness falls into the role of punctilious British officer, and actually helps the Japanese make a better bridge than they intended to! At the last moment, as an allied raid is about to fail to destroy the bridge, the Lt. Col. sees that his mania for excellence has almost doomed the effort, and he gives his life to fall on the detonator. The last scene of Alec Guiness, walking bloody and dazed, mortally wounded, to the bridge is mesmerizing, and is executed in a painfully long shot.
#8: Unforgiven (1992). The Western genre rarely rises to the level of high art, but its most accomplished practitioner, Clint Eastwood, sends the cowboy genre blazing into the sunset. It is without a doubt the finest Western made in 20 years, and possibly in 50. A gritty, hard scrabble script, full of desperate individuals and failed men of principle, the Lone Ranger this film is not. Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, and Morgan Freeman are each worth an Oscar, though only Hackman took home the statue for acting. This movie turns the conventions on their head, with tawdry and foolish characters aplenty, but still manages to show the precious metal that drew so many individuals to scrabble for fool’s gold in the Western landscape.
#7: No Country for Old Men (2007). If Unforgiven buried the Western genre, No Country dug it up, dressed it in some duds from the local Wal-Mart, and told it to get its ass back to work. Cormac McCarthy’s tale of odd luck, hard-as-nails loners, and cruel fate resonates in an era where the cowboy myth is either dead, or so senile it can hardly remember where it placed its spurs. Javier Bardem took a fool’s gamble in his portrayal of a hit man with asperger’s, and takes what would have been a decent little film and makes of it the stuff of legends. Now call it. You have to call it.
#6: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Many Oscar hopefuls mine the well of great American fiction, but none have managed to so aptly capture the quintessential quality of a tale of extreme consequences told casually, with great meaning and greater indifference. The lost and damned of the mentally ill are assembled under the cruel eye of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), until a man hoping to con the powers-that-be arrives (Jack Nicholson), and all semblance of quiet and care disappear. A taught inspection of the nature of human dignity, it is peopled with colorful, once in a life-time characters, and succeeds both as an ensemble cast and the work of some truly genius actors. It took all 5 major awards, a feat not again repeated till Silence of the Lambs.
#5: Schindler’s List (1993). Some topics defy film treatment, as either too delicate or too obvious. The systematic murder of millions of innocents by the Nazi regime is such an issue, and while many have tried, few have handled such a fraught story with the requisite force and tact. Neither a polemic, nor a one-note indictment, Schindler’s List attempts to show the human face of a staggering tragedy that could casually dwarf personality in its wanton cruelty. The use of black and white, with careful coloration, is masterful, and the movie is both technically and thematically powerful.
#4: The Last Emperor (1987). Another film that tackles the troubling ease with which brutality is used in governance, this movie discusses the oft ignored issue of the Communist Revolution in China, and its treatment of former luminaries, in this case, the child Emperor of China, Puyi. Though not a truly foreign film (the rights belong to Columbia), this movie utilizes many talented actors from abroad, as well as unparallelled access to Chinese historical sights, and even the Chinese Army. It is scathing in its quiet presentation of a life-time of wrongs suffered, and it would be hard to imagine it being allowed by China today. Buffeted by one regime to the next, including the royalist regime that tears him away from his life at only two years of age, Puyi is the hapless victim of powers he never truly understands. As tragic as his life story is, it ends with no final crescendo, instead, fading into anonymity. Lushly gorgeous, this film is a window into worlds that so quickly disappeared at the eve of the modern era.
#3: Gandhi (1982). I guess I like movies where the whole of earthly powers are aligned for the purpose of crushing the weak and downtrodden. Call it a kink. Finally, though, we get a film where the little guy actually gets his justice. The movie is at turns somber and life affirming, beautiful and squalid, majestic and domestic. Ben Kingsley, himself a British citizen and of Indian descent, offers the work of a lifetime, which is unfortunate, since he was relatively young at the time, and has been ducking this role for more than 30 years. If you saw Sexy Beast, or God help you, Bloodrayne, then just remember, that dude was Gandhi, and he would probably like you to forget that fact.
#2: In the Heat of the Night (1967). This film had so much impact, it produced two sequels, and spawned a television series, starring Archie Bunker. It is the the most important film about race that absolutely nobody has ever seen. It has Sidney Poitier, perhaps one of the finest actors to ever grace the screen, and I get blank stares whenever I mention it. It’s just not fair. Especially in America, where this insightful and unflinching look at racism is not only desperately needed, but completely relevant. And this film is not martinally about race. It is all about race. And class. And income. A murder in Mississippi leads the not-exactly enlightened sheriff to arrest an out-of-town Black man, for an easy slam dunk prosecution. Except that man happens to be a big shot detective, and manages to actually solve the case by himself. This film flays open the scab of lingering racism, but does not fall into stereotypes itself. The white bigot sheriff is a real character, and a decent man overall, and comes to have a real report with Poitier’s character, who suffers from the anger of a man living under indignities all his life. The rich, the poor, the dispossessed, they all find real, human voices in this film. It would be criminal to miss this excellent crime drama.
And the Winner Is…
#1: Army of Darkness (1992). The best film to ever be made, Army of Darkness has been credited with miraculous healings, and with the ability to raise the dead. It launched the non-stop success train that was Bruce Campbell’s career…What? They never nominated this film for an Oscar? Son of a bitch! Stupid frumpy Academy! Well, what the hell did they nominate…
#1: Casablanca (1943). This film taught Hollywood how to make a movie. Viewed as “just another film” by its studio, Casablanca managed to create some of the most memorable moments in cinematic history. Taking Humphrey Bogart out of his comfort zone as a leading tough guy, and moving him into a romance paid off in spades (Sam Spades! Man, I crack myself up…) Ingrid Bergman was beyond reproach, and a real slight was made in not nominating her preformance. The film includes a fine cast of characters, most familiars from the Noir genre, and the film manages to flirt with becoming a Noir pastiche, but always plays its hand straight and tight to the vest. The dialogue is so great, it is consistently misquoted to this day (no, he never asks Sam to play it again.) If you never see a black and white film (and shame on you for ignoring The Maltese Falcon and Clerks…) make it a double and sit down to see one of the best films ever made…not featuring a dude with a chainsaw hand…