Like a junior high dare involving a blender full of mostly expired ingredients now mingling in my stomach, my brain has finally taken in every last extant frame of the miasma that is Best Picture, and all without hazard pay. Until a few weeks ago, I had 25 left, a whole uncharted KFC bowl liquefied for my consumption. My gaps were evenly distributed across the decades with two obvious exceptions: recent history starting with 1990’s Dances with Wolves, the start of my (if not Oscar’s) 22-year hot streak, and the ‘70s, when Best Picture went to someone’s idea of a classic—films like The Godfather and Annie Hall that mark early viewing in a cinephile’s cinephilia—every year except the last. Ahead of me were a couple of expected treasures, a couple of pleasant discoveries, and a whole lot of fat. Not every epic is Sergio Leone, not every social picture is Douglas Sirk, not every musical is Vincente Minnelli. And that goes double for Vincente Minnelli. Gigi winning the year Some Came Running goes unnominated is like Michelle Williams’ Marilyn triumphing over Meek’s Cutoff, which is to say a tragedy on par with not finding a good parking space.
That said, nothing surprised me more than discovering how many babies are in all that blackface, er, bathwater. A shot here, a performance there, and every fifteen years, a genyoowhine, honest-to-goodness great movie. Obviously my leniency derives from what Dr. Cosby calls the shallow criticism of lowered expectations, but this isn't about clear-eyed analysis or the cognitive dissonance required to take in any random "Best Picture." It's about a parade of mediocrities battering me into a vegetative state and how every once in a while something would spark brain activity. I come not to praise Oscar or bury him—he’s done both plenty on his own—but more to appreciate the stunning schnozz on his shriveled corpse smiling back at me from an overgrown plot in the graveyard. Naturally, I could think of no better way to appreciate 83 Best Pictures (and a Most Unique and Artistic Picture, besides) than a florid, overlong, self-important chronological assortment of notes with seemingly random emphases that pretends to some cohesive purpose, save maybe a musical about how much I like black people. My apologies.
[I posted pictures for the films I saw for the first time in 2012. The others I have less to say about right now. Hey, you get what you pay for.]
1927/28: Wings by William A. Wellman (Outstanding Production) and Sunrise by FW Murnau (Outstanding Unique and Artistic Production)
Personally, I think the phrase “Best Picture” ought to confer an aesthetic honor more than a commercial one, but we know how that turned out. Mostly I just want to claim Sunrise as the first Best Picture instead of Wings. Turns out the Wellman is pretty good in its own right, codifying all the tropes of troops-trips (Variety, I’m available) in this passionate necessary-evil take on war (not that I'm philosophically supportive), but it also feels like condescension to forgive its lack of sophistication as historical. The aerial shots are mighty impressive, and the swing-cam has a decade on Renoir (not that Wellman achieves his grace), but the filmmaking never really leaves the ground. Sunrise is similarly basic in plot, but Murnau is such an artist that the story of a marital reconciliation becomes at once a deeply personal piece and what feels like the digestion of an entire age. I felt for Clara Bow in Paris and that hottie from Island of Lost Souls in his downed plane (not to mention dude’s parents, forced to play the ineffable, “If he had to die, I’m glad you got to kill him,” which I guess is pretty effable after all), but it doesn’t even approach the lasting impact of, say, All Quiet on the Western Front, much less Sunrise, not just 1927's but Oscar's Best Picture. I know it’s not a competition. It’s just that it absolutely is a competition.
1928/29: The Broadway Melody by Harry Beaumont
Harry Beaumont’s The Broadway Melody is classic Best Picture, a mild, harmless diversion that’s basically point-and-shoot but for the very occasional flourish with big, irresistible, heart-on-sleeve performances. But if the acting derives from silents, the filmmaking is no more accomplished (and often less) than the earliest 19th century actualities, like Méliès’ static camera capturing tiny figures flouncing around the box that is the stage and musical numbers modeled after “The Serpentine Dance.” But there are a few good shots and one killer composition: Hank’s having her climactic blow-up, stomps to the back of her dressing room, and wheels around to reveal a storm of a scene. Behind her is a chaotic mess of torn edges and oblique angles with a cord cracking its way through not just a face on the wall or the room entire but the film itself. It may just be 42nd Street without the Busby (or Smash without the Debra, which, I KNOW, RIGHT!), but The Artist spends a half hour trying to achieve the furious energy of that one shot.
1929/30: All Quiet on the Western Front by Lewis Milestone
Talk about codifying war films. If there's a battle scene on film up to and including War Horse, the Horse That's a War that doesn't plainly derive from All Quiet on the Western Front, I'll eat Werner Herzog's shoe. This was one of the first films I watched after seriously getting into film six years ago, and it's stuck with me thanks to shot after shot of imagery so searing everyone else has been riding Lewis Milestone's coattails.
1930/31: Cimarron by Wesley Ruggles
Admittedly I’m in the tank for westerns, and yes, this film is an Oscar pioneer of well-intentioned, cringeily misjudged racial stories, but purely as a formal adventure, Cimarron has a lot to recommend it. The opening land rush is one magnificent stampede of wagons, built from a wide to a bunch of isolated bits of the bonanza back to a new wide and out, but I was even more taken by the sound. The crowd is so abuzz you can barely hear the dialogue. Later as we’re walking through the new town, we pick up on snippets of passing conversations like we’re Wim Wenders’ angels, a signature Ruggles technique if his Arizona is any evidence. That’s to say nothing of the exciting plot and visuals—a silhouetted bugler announcing Oklahoma as open for business, a camera slowly moving past different storefronts that catch its eye, classic shootout compositions. I was stunned when Ruggles establishes this one horizontal plane of action in the court scene and suddenly shifts it into a vertical at the tensest moment—which I bring up not only to illustrate Cimarron’s technique but also its sophistication relative to another Best Picture to be named in two paragraphs. There is a stilted Lady Macbeth scene not entirely redeemed by the sad final shot of Ms. Scottish Play, but Cimarron is ultimately a brutal picture, and Ruggles stares down the hope and disappointment of the frontier like a seasoned gunslinger.
1931/32: Grand Hotel by Edmund Goulding
From the faint outlines in my memory, I can only say that I enjoyed it without being bowled over by its aesthetics. The basic idea of all these stories colliding in that magnificent spiral tile lobby (and the Deep Space Nine ending) is what excited me most in my cinematic infancy. But Grand Hotel beating Shanghai Express is the kind of laughable choice synonymous with the Academy. My baloney has a first name, all right.
1932/33: Cavalcade by Frank Lloyd
Forrest Gump's stuffy English grampa Cavalcade has to be the flattest film ever to win, but then, Oscar loves when movies evoke real art like books, paintings, and plays. Here we follow a couple of families through the decades of war that marred the late 19th/early 20th centuries so that we can get to our predetermined destination: All this and Britain marches on! It might be more inspirational if Germany hadn't endured an infinitely harsher struggle during the same period, but just sticking to its amateur aesthetics, you wonder how many Hollywood execs Frank Lloyd was sleeping with in the '30s to inaugurate the Future Stephen Daldry Slot. His crowds are pretty maids all in a row, a single gaffers tape vector dissecting the mannequins; his conversations cheat out like he doesn't have a camera; and his wide shots are shallower than the themes. In short, he's the anti-Lang. (While we're at it, consider how Wyler or Dreyer, to name two talented contemporaries, work with theatrical staginess.) Things pick up as the film goes on, with a particularly effective use of short lens during a surprise wartime reunion, but it's still just a wooden cutout. Which would be so much less offensive if it hadn't won in one of Hollywood's most fertile years. Just from the nominees there's Borzage's A Farewell to Arms, Cukor's Little Women, and LeRoy's I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and that's not even considering all the unnominated pre-Code wonders with more cinema in each scene than Cavalcade has in its body. What my cat is trying to say is The Story of Temple Drake wuz rob'd! But on the serious, Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living were both eligible, each so full of life and imagination and lust, while Cavalcade just sits there in its rocking chair a musty old mummy plated in gold.
Trivia: "Auld Lang Syne" is played approximately thirty vagillion times—Get it? It's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp over here—but if it hadn't, I might never have realized how often that song crops up in Best Pictures. Second most popular Best Picture song: "God Save the Queen," of course.
1934: It Happened One Night by Frank Capra
It's been a few years and a lot of screwballs since I saw this one, but it's nice enough.
1935: Mutiny on the Bounty by Frank Lloyd
I prefer Gable via Tex Avery cartoon, and I prefer Lloyd off my screen altogether. (See also: Cavalcade.)
1936: The Great Ziegfeld by Robert Z. Leonard
Outclassed on all fronts by better musicals, better stories about entertainment, better Powell/Loy team-ups, but the worst crime of the okay Ziegfeld is setting the Oscar precedent for The Greatest Show on Earth.
1937: The Life of Emile Zola by William Dieterle
Oscar's love affair with the biopic begins. It's one of the least offensive of these early Code winners, with charming set design and art direction, but for a year like 1937, The Life of Emile Zola isn't even in the top ten.
1938: You Can't Take it With You by Frank Capra
Baseline Capra. Decent introduction, but it beat The Adventures of Robin Hood, Jezebel, and most hilariously, Grand Illusion. It should be clear just from the '30s that Oscar isn't suddenly mediocre. 'Twas always thus.
1939: Gone with the Wind by Victor Fleming
One of the great movie years. Just so we're clear, it goes The Rules of the Game (potentially ineligible), Only Angels Have Wings (unnominated), Midnight (unnominated), Stagecoach, Love Affair, and The Roaring Twenties (unnominated). Then Ninotchka, Young Mr. Lincoln, Wuthering Heights, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And then somewhere in the mix below is Gone with the Wind. It's fine.
1940: Rebecca by Alfred Hitchcock
Another strong year, and for the first time (of three) in Oscar history, my own personal pick for the best picture released in a year aligns exactly with Oscar's.
1941: How Green was my Valley by John Ford
Ah, yes, the "it's not Citizen Kane, so/but..." film. Seems to me even big Valley fans defend it on the basis of Ford's in-the-moment artistry as opposed to the overall quality of the picture. To say nothing of Kristin Thompson's emotional engagement strategy; to each her own. Me, I loved that immersive first section, and then, like in Flaherty, the story begins. And really, Ford is all the justification the film needs, though I wish it either hung together more tightly or completely unwound. It doesn't totally hide its magic tricks, but it's still a beautiful, lyrical portrait, and the obvious grandfather of A Christmas Story. And for the record, it's not Citizen Kane.
1942: Mrs. Miniver by William Wyler
Like an apology for Cavalcade, Mrs. Miniver does an English family going through war with style. I’ll never understand the auteurist complaints about Wyler, as if his generosity with performers is somehow detrimental to the personal expression of his art. After Miniver I wanted to see everything Greer Garson had ever done; Walter Pidgeon too. The story is everystory, dealing in overextended finances and a kid back from college with a little bit of knowledge and a whole lot of righteousness, but these subplots simultaneously lure us into the comfortable lives of the Minivers and set the starting point for this story of tremendous change. Only the rose is aggressively symbolic, but Wyler’s such a literary director it hardly seems out of place.
It’s undeniably classical, full of shot/reverse shot, close-mediums, and theatrically extended sequences (set pieces?) elegantly stitched together. Even if it lacks the sustained atmosphere of Curtiz—for instance, I almost died when Mrs. Miniver reaches for the wounded soldier’s gun, but the rest of the scene isn’t scary or tender or anything until the end—Wyler punctuates precisely where he needs to: an extreme low-angle during the first air raid drill, the oppressive shadows when the son’s off to war, the rising tension of the bomb shelter sequence, the zoom as Mrs. Miniver discovers what happened to Carol. Then we fade out and back in on a train station while some house band soothes us with strings, and later there’s a big wide shot of the empty house with Garson sitting catatonic and Pidgeon walking around removing all the curtains from the windows. Wyler can’t bear to sustain the sadness where Welles would have shot the whole scene in the empty expanse of their social class. I won't even discuss the tacked-on coda, which overbearingly imposes its simplicity onto a complicated scenario like a good, little demagogue. It’s not perfect. But I’ll be damned if Mrs. Miniver doesn’t insist on greatness anyway.
1943: Casablanca by Michael Curtiz
This is how it's done. Aside from Doctor X (and, fingers crossed, the upcoming Dodge City/Virginia City double feature I'm headed for), I find Curtiz offputtingly loose, but Casablanca's so jam-packed—with characters, motives, quotes—that it sets the standard for the "well-oiled machine" metaphor. Never get tired of catching it on TCM.
1944: Going My Way by Leo McCarey
I mean, it's no Dangerous Minds, but I love that title card.
1945: The Lost Weekend by Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder is one of those greats that I like less the more I see. But even back when I just had his noirs under my belt, I loathed this after-school melodrama. I see a lot of love for it nowadays, but it's going to take a lot of arm-wringing—and perhaps an alcohol problem—to care enough to reexamine.
1946: The Best Years of Our Lives by William Wyler
I'm not eager to return, but I was impressed at the time. For now it's among my top ten Best Pictures.
1947: Gentleman's Agreement by Elia Kazan
The Best Social Picture reaches a new low under Elia Kazan, whose Normal reveals the adversity of his Others like he's a curly Emma Stone transfixed by the nobility of black women. But that's not even the worst crime of the forgettably pretty Gentleman's Agreement. Here's a sample line, delivered by Gregory Peck at peak sleepiness:
“Hey, hang on, maybe that’s a new tack. So far I’ve been digging into facts and evidence. I’ve sort of ignored feelings. How must a fellow like Dave feel about this thing? Over and above what we feel about it, what must a Jew feel about this thing? Dave! Can I think my way into Dave’s mind? He’s the kind of fellow I’d be if I were a Jew, isn’t he? We grew up together, we lived in the same kind of homes, we were the gang, we did everything together. Whatever Dave feels now, indifference, outrage, contempt, would be the feelings of Dave not only as a Jew but the way I feel as a man, as an American, as a citizen, is that right, Ma?”Notice the repetition of "this thing." For a would-be indictment, Kazan sure has trouble calling a spade a spade. It's the first of the film's 300 monologues that don’t explore an idea so much as beat it to death with a wooden Pulitzer. The distended nutshell of this film cracks open to reveal a shriveled kernel that was ripe—or at least flavorful—back when Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice. On top of which, there's a debatably cute kid who's just there to confront simple, should-be-obvious truths. It's true: All Best Picture roads lead to Gentleman's Agreement.
1948: Hamlet by Laurence Olivier
With its gorgeous, gargantuan castle labyrinth exhaling fog to the beat of far-off war drums and its frames that recall nothing so sincerely as a production still, Hamlet ’48 is nothing if not the spiritual godfather to Hammer horror. We glide around the castle like a particularly cheesy ghost, we flashback to a hazy hallucination that’s really a pretty flat parody of silents, we are treated to the extravagant visual effects of a pan across stairs leading back to itself comically seamfully. The amateur vibe is charming in its own way, but it sure clashes with the hyperpolished performances and art design. There’s plenty to grab hold of here—for all of Olivier’s hesitant camerawork, he’s like a ninja when Hamlet throws Ophelia to the floor, panning and zooming in one breathless move, and the closer we get to the end, the more one-on-ones we get, which are either Olivier’s directorial forte or easier scenes to shoot—but this was some kind of letdown. Hamlet’s at its most interesting treating Elisnore as a big, empty stage for actors and the occasional prop, but it's such a careless storm that it could drive anyone mad.
1949: All the King's Men by Robert Rossen
I've seen a relative lot of Rossen fandom lately, but as a superfan of the Robert Penn Warren novel, I died twice watching this. At least Walsh's A Lion is in the Streets has alligator attacks.
1950: All About Eve by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Still fantastic. Not better than Sunset Blvd. But a worthy contender nonetheless.
1951: An American in Paris by Vincente Minnelli
Staggering finale doesn't totally redeem the film, but I'll never tire of it.
1952: The Greatest Show on Earth by Cecil B. DeMille
The narrative plays like an homage to the pre-code circus dramas like He Who Gets Slapped, The Unknown, and Freaks—a doomed romance here, a shady past there—but DeMille drains all that romanticism away with his straightforward Walt Disney Presents tour of the big top. Oh, there’s reversal of fortune and hard-won victory and James Stewart in clown makeup, but you won’t feel anything. The only stimulating sight in the film is Cornel Wilde’s half-naked physique (Dude was almost an Olympian, true story). Lest you think I checked out, it’s clear DeMille is trying to show the circus as a social microcosm working together like a leviathan, most obviously in the setting-up-camp sequence and the reaction to the trainwreck, which works better as set decoration than visual effects. The film’s visually chaotic, and narratively, too with a revolving troupe, but always to a purposeful, ordered end. Perhaps even more centrally, DeMille wants to honor entertainment, the sheer pleasure of diversion concocted by hard-working performers, so we get a lot of cutaways to the howdy doodats. Too bad he doesn't come close to earning all those wondrous smiles.
1953: From Here to Eternity by Fred Zinnemann
Zinnemann keeps impressing me because I keep going in with low expectations. From Here to Eternity is hardly the American classic its iconic beach scene suggests, but neither is it unimaginative hokum.
1954: On the Waterfront by Elia Kazan
One of the very first films I saw in my cinephilia lo those thousands of films ago. I don't feel qualified to say anything other than I liked it at the time, impressed by the quality of the black-and-white cinematography and disappointed in the layers piled onto Marlon Brando's early '50s bod.
1955: Marty by Delbert Mann
Marty has plenty of virtues—that street photography goes a long way toward capturing the feel of one long, unspooling night—but everything is so damn serious you’d think modernism were smothering individual freedom or something. Not to be all boohoo, suck-it-up, kid about it. Guy’s depressed, and frankly, I was entirely absorbed by his sadness. But it’s not Network, and like his unchosen heir Aaron Sorkin, Paddy Chayefsky doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish degrees of angst. Moreover, Marty feels very TV. It’s all medium/close-ups. You feel like there’s a camera staring at a stage. The cumulative effect is fine, but it’s hard to imagine Marty won the Palme d’Or, much less Best Picture.
1956: Around the World in Eighty Day by Michael Anderson
The pinnacle of ‘50s bloat is this paean to transportation. The reason it takes at least 80 days for the story to begin—after such necessities as a sequence where Edward R. Murrow describes “La Voyage dans la lune” and a sequence of a contemporary rocket blasting off—is because there is no story. It’s a travelogue told in wide shots of boats, because that’s what’s engaging about this. Even The King’s Speech is all, “Enough with the bulbous landscapes already!” What passes for episodic digression amounts to a single uneventful action in each place: Fogg saves an Indian girl, Passepartout conducts a bullfight, the club twirl one another’s mustaches. Literally nothing happens across the entire Pacific Ocean, and blaming Jules Verne only goes so far. The intended intrigue and adventure is at best light and goofy and vaguely colonially romantic (as opposed to, say, particularly critical of Fogg's provincialism). There’s so much wasted talent, from executive producer William Cameron Menzies to a hundred cameos of the Marlene Dietrich variety, that it’s easy to overlook the stalwart Cantinflas. No wonder they save the Saul Bass animation for the end credits. The Anderson version is the amateur opening act; Bass tells the story like a master.
1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai by David Lean
It's hard not to appreciate a film about Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, and William Holden, but this isn't exactly one of my favorites. But what do I know? My favorite Lean epic is Doctor Zhivago.
1958: Gigi by Vincente Minnelli
As I said above, Some Came Running makes Gigi look like the little girl it is. Oh, it's fine, splendid in parts, and I love me some Maurice Chevalier. It's just nowhere near Minnelli's best, the latest in a long trend of Oscar anointing the lesser work of great artists.
1959: Ben-Hur by William Wyler
Speaking of the fat ‘50s, Ben-Hur has some pretty (and pretty florid) stuff for the first seven hours, but it gets good as soon as it actually begins, which is to say as Charlton Heston grits his way onscreen. There’s classic epic stuff about loyalty and power and revenge, and then comes an inciting incident so suspenseful I forgot all about how much I hate Gladiator. And such precision! Shot 1: Low-angle from the road looking up at Judah and Esther on the roof as they overlook the royal procession just after she accidentally looses some tiles, which knock Gratus off his horse. Shot 2: Aerial high-angle from above the road looking down at Judah and Esther on the roof and panning slightly to reveal the courtyard inner sanctum. Shot 3: Low-angle from the courtyard as the soldiers enter looking up at Judah and Esther on the roof. It’s so sudden and tense despite being foreshadowed, and the geographic integrity of that sequence is more miraculous than anything that happens afterward. The chariot race is so masterful the only thing it could have used is an insert of Jabba nonchalantly knocking a small alien off his towering pedestal.
But then the God stuff begins in earnest. Before this it was all, “May God grant me vengeance,” which, um, okay, and a shot of sandals rewarding Judah’s prayer for water, which I find as genuinely moving as Galadriel appearing to an unconscious Frodo. And then we devolve into Christ myth, magically relieving all Judah’s suffering. Literal deus ex machina saves Judah Ben-Hur from going full-on Anakin Skywalker (and in case it’s not clear, Ben-Hur is the Star Wars prequels if they had stuck to magic instead of midichlorians). This is not storytelling, and this is pointedly not the same as Ordet, which itself climaxes in miracle. Ordet’s characters have agency, or think they do, and they struggle against/with a potentially uncaring God. Ben-Hur’s characters also have agency, but at the last second they are healed, which is to say cured of that agency, and that’s a problem at least for narrative (to say nothing of arbitrary whim masquerading as divine imperialism in real life). So all that beautiful filmmaking—and let’s not forget there’s plenty of ridiculous nonsense mixed in, too—is still beautiful, but in service of a dead-end story with a troubling thesis. Doesn’t mean I don’t still love that chariot race.
1960: The Apartment by Billy Wilder
Somehow The Apartment smacks of schadenfreude or at least glee in its relentless doom more than, say, Sunset Blvd. or Double Indemnity. It's pretty, in look and sound, and I need to revisit, but for now my taste is growing out of it like an adolescent phase.
1961: West Side Story by Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise
Never want to watch this again. I'm not saying I'm right, or that my early opinion is backed by anything like critical merit, but this was some dull homework back in the day.
1962: Lawrence of Arabia by David Lean
Well, I've only seen it on—gasp!—my laptop in college, but I liked it. I know that my opinion is now worthless. In my defense, Houston is the East Berlin of culture.
1963: Tom Jones by Tony Richardson
The problem with writing off midcentury Best Pictures because they’re midcentury Best Pictures is that sometimes there’s a film that only looks (from plot description and awards history, that is) like a stuffy historical love drama. Tom Jones is actually an aggressively modern comedy, with an opening that’s a contemporary riff on silent film and lots of fierce, imprecise ‘60s zooms (and a delightful split-screen wipe) across the quasi-bildungsroman of a typically magnetic Albert Finney, foundling. I know Woody Allen was already a comedy personality in the early ‘60s, but the seeds of his cinematic self-consciousness are present here, yet Tom Jones isn’t hyper-jokey. It also contains these silent, lyrical passages that just absorb you in its delirious folds. It's one of those movies that helps redeem a project like this, a film with real personality.
1964: My Fair Lady by George Cukor
How Julie Andrews’ winky twee in Mary Poppins beat Audrey Hepburn’s animalistic performance—and I mean “performance”—in My Fair Lady for Best Actress is one of the great frustrations of Oscar history. Another is the infuriating My Fair Lady demanding classicdom, mostly by sheer force of the art direction in the spellbinding Three Months Later montage. I won’t say the “happy” ending contradicts the chocolate bribery and general nastiness of Rex Harrison’s ostensibly lampooned misogyny, but it hardly fuels the sardonic edge, and simply from a plot perspective, I don’t see where the characterizations support the sudden romance. Nice to see him soften, but it plays like Stockholm syndrome for her. Words are weapons. If ever a Best Picture called for "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," it's My Fair Lady.
1965: The Sound of Music by Robert Wise
Mostly I just like Salzburg. The songs are fine, too.
1966: A Man for All Seasons by Fred Zinnemann
While nothing in A Man for All Seasons lives up to the early Orson Welles encounter, his body and personality dominating the film for a too-brief scene, there’s some good stuff here in the skeleton. Fred Zinnemann may not be the man for the job—the outdoor scenes look like Robert Shaw and Paul Scofield are LARPing in a way that Ben-Hur, among others, never does—and the film doesn’t dare compromise its martyr with anything like humanity, but framing world-historical changes as the sum of gossip, passive-aggression, angling for power, and general pettiness is a great leap forward for historical cinema. It never really develops any paranoia—as you can see, Zinnemann’s a little flat and painterly here—but it absolutely earns its inexorability.
1967: In the Heat of the Night by Norman Jewison
I was both impressed and disappointed by this film, which isn't the crude first volley I expected in Oscar's campaign to find a black friend. But next to The Graduate, much less Godard, who even remembers this movie happened?
1968: Oliver! by Carol Reed
It's nowhere near 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s certainly not The Fallen Idol. It's not even Oliver and Company. The kids are cute. The art direction unifies the film by smothering it, not that I’m complaining. Nothing got me through the two-and-a-half-hour wasteland better than the damp cobblestone and those proto-Querelle sunsets. I’m falling asleep just thinking about it.
1969: Midnight Cowboy by John Schlesinger
Loved it back then (2005, that is), but that song still makes me think of Seinfeld. And from what I've seen, Schlesinger is far more than the footnote Sarris consigns him to.
1970: Patton by Franklin J. Schaffner
Forgettable. Give me "The Last Supper" at a military hospital any day.
1971: The French Connection by William Friedkin
Lots of people I respect like this but I've never really warmed to Friedkin (he says, having seen, like, three Friedkin films). For me, it's A Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show (and especially McCabe and Mrs. Miller) all the way.
1972: The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola
If you're looking for an original take, move along, nothing to see her. Great film, not the best of its year, not even the best American film of its year (Ulzana's Raid, suckahs!), but a film that demands its sweep and earns its place in the hall of fame by a mile. Most quotable classic since Casablanca.
1973: The Sting by George Roy Hill
I hate the truism/non sequitur/duh "It is what it is," but The Sting is certainly that. Does anyone really admire it? Is anyone really caught up in it? The more interesting trivia for this year: It is crazy to think that Cries and Whispers was nominated for Best Picture (and that Best Director, in particular, used to find a slot every other year for the likes of Bergman, Fellini, and Truffaut), but then, Oscar's taste in foreign fare wasn't as elementary as it is now.
1974: The Godfather, Part 2 by Francis Ford Coppola
Great Godfather or the greatest Godfather? Consider wisely. Pacino tolerates no dissent.
1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Milos Forman
Maybe I'm not allowed to complain about especially Oscary movies when I'm discussing Oscar-winning movies. And I like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest fine. I'll just say I preferred his first album, when he was underground.
1976: Rocky by John G. Avildsen
Enjoy. I don't hate Rocky. I just don't care about Rocky. Y'all have fun.
1977: Annie Hall by Woody Allen
Love. This is the movie the Academy could point to through the '80s to say, "See, we do have good taste!"
1978: The Deer Hunter by Michael Cimino
I don't know why, but the overbearing emotion doesn't alienate me here. I love the four-hour opening, falling into the rhythms of this industrial town, and the Vietnam stuff is appropriately hellish. The final act isn't my favorite from 1978, but as Oscar goes, so goes the nation, I mean, it's not bad.
1979: Kramer vs. Kramer by Robert Benton
A pretty engrossing start—Hoffman and Streep are just too good not to totally pull you in—electrifies this surprisingly lived-in procedural. It’s not High Melodrama. It’s just How Things Are in a separation like this. But what would be enough for a strong, if not especially remarkable, late ‘70s film is not enough for this one. It has to throw on an angry boss and a sudden injury and a court battle. Hoffman and Streep don’t suddenly lose it; even in the worst moments these two are outclassing everything else. But boy, is Kramer vs. Kramer intent on reducing its weirdness to the stuff of Lifetime.
1980: Ordinary People by Robert Redford
I like Ordinary People. Why shouldn't it be adolescent in its psychology? I wouldn't say Robert Redford has a strong sense of expression, but Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore, and Donald Sutherland are all ferocious.
1981: Chariots of Fire by Hugh Hudson
Hard to feel inspired by a film with so little self-awareness. I submit that no Best Picture is as dated as Chariots of Fire, and it starts with that score. It’s ridiculous: the chimes, the Six Million Dollar Man sha-ta-ta-ta, the Casio melody. There are flashbacks shown from different angles in a row and slo-mo to heighten the myth. Throw on the flailing arms—these guys can’t race without flailing—and you have pure self-parody, our first, and greatest, made-for-television Best Picture.
1982: Gandhi by Richard Attenborough
At least I never have to see it again. It's not even bad in any aggressive way, apart from leaving Missing for dead. The philosophy behind this historical infomercial is extraordinarily vital, Ben Kingsley is a lot of fun, and there's some interesting stuff in South Africa that I didn't know about beforehand. But mostly it's a drawn out model of the Oscar biopic, intensely paint-by-numbers and staunchly invested in simple causality shot as plainly as possible. Gandhi deserves a real film.
1983: Terms of Endearment by James L. Brooks
I won’t pretend like the Houston setting didn’t hook me immediately, but Terms of Endearment is also much more than the cancer weepie I always expected. It is also that, and of all the overused Best Picture scores, this one’s by far the most insistent. But then there’s Nicholson playing drunk and MacLaine giving absolutely nothing and a free-wheeling structure that skips however much time it feels like between scenes. There’s Brooks’ (or McMurtry’s) dialogue: “You really bring out the devil in me” is so much better than “You make me want to be a better man.” There’s that gauzy nightmare prelude. And there’s a cut to a hospital room so bilious you already know the prognosis. Later you notice Jeff Daniels’ douche cheater is wearing the tie his wife got him ages ago, but the subtlety is of course farted away when she realizes it, too. Yes, like all the non-epic Best Pictures of the period, it can be very television, with close/medium shots of shallow characters, but Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine are rich enough to compensate. And Brooks doesn’t just point and shoot. When Winger spots her husband’s student mistress, she chases after her in a low-angle tracking shot of a completely neutral hallway until she shouts just as the camera passes an extra in blaring red, the only color in the hallway. That’s directing, man. I didn’t cry or even feel like I should, and I’m not sure Terms of Endearment has much insight beyond its emotional playing field, but this is the clear standout of the post-New Hollywood (pre-New World Order) Best Pictures.
1984: Amadeus by Milos Forman
I don't really remember it that well, but where would we be without the Amadeus riff on 30 Rock?
1985: Out of Africa by Sydney Pollack
I never knew how much I wanted to see Meryl Streep whipping lions, but here we are. While we’re on the subject, it’s a good thing Streep gets top, not equal, billing, because I’m not sure Redford ever acts in this film. It put me off enough to wonder if he’s ever acted, but maybe that’s just his voice (and swagger and grin and blondeness). As for the film itself, well, there’s a scene where Robert Redford knowingly walks around an entire room slowly while talking to someone who’s stationary, so, no, I wouldn’t say Out of Africa really knows what it’s doing. It is exhaustingly capital-R Romantic, which you can tell from the opening Lion King montage. That said, it's nice to see an Oscar-winner about the spread of syphilis.
1986: Platoon by Oliver Stone
Well, it's no Hannah and Her Sisters, but I don't hold a grudge against Platoon. Maybe that's the college nostalgia/baby cinephilia talking, but I don't even mind the big, overblown finale. Wouldn't be an Oliver Stone joint without it.
1987: The Last Emperor by Bernardo Bertolucci
Bertolucci is so much more interesting capturing the changing world of Imperial China than explaining it, but we’re saddled with time-jumpy framing and expository conversations nonetheless. Half the film is absolutely marvelous, silently following a roving, playful, observational camera exploring every little passageway in the Forbidden Palace, a lush, exotic place that soaks up the strange artifacts and designs and especially music. Tableaux freeze the world so we can drink it in, but for every electric composition there’s an immediate cut, occasionally back and forth, always leaving you with that shadow image, a quick jolt of energy charging the relentless march of progress. Speaking of, western influences seep in so gradually that, before you know it, Puyi is dressed in a suit and dancing the Charleston with his wife as his girlfriend dances with an Englishman. (“You can only have one wife in the west,” it turns out.) The more salient dichotomy: The Last Emperor is half spellbinding history and half eye-rolling Oscar-bait.
1988: Rain Man by Barry Levinson
Oh, Oscar. He means well.
1989: Driving Miss Daisy by Bruce Beresford
Worse than The Help? Maybe not, simply on account of the graveyard scene where Miss Daisy helps Morgan Freeman learn to read, but boy, does Oscar feel guilty about not having any black friends. Driving Miss Daisy is so off that Dan Aykroyd is cast to not be funny. There's a close-up of a white hand clasping a black one in friendship. Do the Right Thing came out six months earlier. But as with all movies set in the South, at least there's a Deadwood actor (Ray McKinnon) dispatched to try to rescue one scene. He fails, like everything else in this tarpit.
1990: Dances with Wolves by Kevin Costner
1991: The Silence of the Lambs by Jonathan Demme
1992: Unforgiven by Clint Eastwood
1993: Schindler's List by Steven Spielberg
1994: Forrest Gump by Robert Zemeckis
1995: Braveheart by Mel Gibson
1996: The English Patient by Anthony Minghella
1997: Titanic by James Cameron
1998: Shakespeare in Love by John Madden
1999: American Beauty by Sam Mendes
2000: Gladiator by Ridley Scott
2001: A Beautiful Mind by Ron Howard
2002: Chicago by Rob Marshall
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by Peter Jackson
2004: Million Dollar Baby by Clint Eastwood
2005: Crash by Paul Haggis
2006: The Departed by Martin Scorsese
2007: No Country for Old Men by Joel & Ethan Coen
2008: Slumdog Millionaire by Danny Boyle
2009: The Hurt Locker by Kathryn Bigelow
2010: The King's Speech by Tom Hooper
2011: The Artist by Michel Hazanavicius
The modern age has been simultaneously better and worse than usual. Unforgiven and No Country for Old Men are all-timers, while that smell is distinctly emanating from the collective asscheeks of Crash and A Beautiful Mind. Of the ten worst Best Pictures, in my opinion, nine were anointed after 1980. Forrest Gump and Braveheart celebrate mindless conservatism, reneging on the dark, guilty knockout of Silence of the Lambs-Unforgiven-Schindler’s List like it’s the end of 1984. Then we get a decade’s worth of epics about broad themes that are each intermittently moving—some (Titanic, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) even more than that—followed by a string of Oscar skeletons (the literary adaptation, the social picture, the period piece) that play like twice regurgitated meals. It’s a dark time of Sam Mendes and Paul Haggis and Clint Eastwood at his most baroque, Oscar-auteurism marked by crutches, anvils, and hammers that promise to date the early 21st century (Ridley Scott’s color correction, Tom Hooper’s fisheye, Danny Boyle’s 5-hour energy) as much as the topical interests and forgettable stories. Yet No Country for Old Men wins the gold, and A Serious Man and The Tree of Life get that nominee laurel (same as The Blind Side and The Help!). I understand the waning interest, but I guess I’d rather have one great film every ten years than a perfectly fine film every other year.
Which brings us to The Artist. Who cares? Well, a lot of people like it, but from my perspective, this is such an obviously harmless entertainment, poorly put together, that I can't fathom the passion one way or the other. I'd love to see Hazanavicius shoot one of George Valentin's adventures. That's the material for his brand of light, pulpy homage, not this would-be What Price Hollywood? It's easy to hate in light of all the corpses in its wake, including fellow nominees The Tree of Life and Hugo, and I'd definitely rank The Artist among the bottom third of Best Picture history, but I'm ready to move on. We're almost due for a good one!
And now the picture comes to an end. It seems at once sudden and forever in the making, but with all the content behind us, however haphazardly assembled and infrequently enlightening, if at all, there's nothing left to do but shake hands with Miss Daisy, jump forward in time, and ship off from the Grey Havens, or at least Galveston. If I've learned anything from Best Picture it's that one ending isn't nearly as final as four, but I'm exhausted, so roll credits, cue hype, and bring on the backlash.