Friday, February 15, 2013

Undisputed Oscars

It's looking like Argo will be this year's Oscar winner for Best Picture, and it's not a bad choice.  It wouldn't be my personal choice* but it's good enough, and "good enough" is about all you can ask for when you're making such a subjective decision as calling a film the Best Picture of its given year.  All I ask for is that the Best Picture winner not be an outright bad or mediocre film….I can deal with a masterpiece losing to a film that's just very good, but not to a choice that's already embarrassing as soon as the name comes out of the envelope.

* = as you'll see in next week's long-awaited 2012 Markademy Awards post!  Cheap plug!

Olly Moss' recent gallery of Best Picture-related artwork got me thinking, however, about the quality of the Oscar winners.  Even for a longtime Academy watcher like me, it still struck me in realizing just how rare it is that the Best Picture actually ended up being the best picture of its year.  In fairness to the Academy, we have the benefit of hindsight.  Many a "good enough" or even legitimately excellent films have won Best Picture, and in past decades, most Academy voters weren't able to easily screen* a number of foreign classics that easily stand as the best of their years.  Of course, given how the insular the Academy was and is, it's very possible that all of these foreign classics would've been snubbed in favour of Hollywood productions anyway.  Ah, cynicism!

Let's break down those Oscar winners and see just how many were "undisputed" Best Pictures.  These are the films that stand out as more-or-less the best of their year, beating out other (if slightly lesser) masterpieces from both Hollywood and around the world.  It's a surprisingly short list, especially by my criteria of only citing the absolute hands-down best choices.  Granted, it's very apples-and-oranges, but I'm trying to remove my personal opinion as much as possible and simply going by general critical consensus.  There are a lot of great movies that don't make the cut simply because there other equally great movies in the running that year which could be argued to be just as good or better.  To wit, here are the…


1934: It Happened One Night.  The first movie to sweep the "big five" (Picture, Director, Screenplay and both top acting awards) and yet while it's a great film, you could argue that The Thin Man could've just as easily been worthy of a similar sweep.

1939: Gone With The Wind.  The single biggest hit in movie history (if you account for adjusted gross) and a shoo-in to clean house at the Oscars, yet its triumph in 1939 wasn't complete simply because because 1939 was arguably the most stacked Best Picture field of all time.  GWTW went up against Wizard Of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, Ninotchka, Dark Victory, Of Mice And Men, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and Love Affair -- the first two also all-time classics, the next four all beloved classics of that era, and the last four being solid films that have been remade a few times over since.  And this isn't even counting The Rules Of The Game, often cited on critics' lists as one of the best films ever made. 

1950: All About Eve.  In one of the more top-heavy BP fields ever, 1950 featured three mediocrities left in the dust by All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard.  The Third Man also came out this year, so as great AAE is, it didn't have a clear claim to the top slot.

1974: The Godfather Part II.  Forget it, Jake.  It's Chinatown. 

1986: Platoon.  While it cleaned house at the Oscars, people forget that this was the same year of Hannah And Her Sisters and Blue Velvet, both of which essentially split many of the major critics' awards.  Platoon is a great movie and widely held as a great Best Picture, yet there was just enough doubt that I couldn't call it "undisputed."

1992: Unforgiven.  Another close call, even closer than my omission of Platoon.  I love this movie to death but 1992 is also the year of The Player, Malcolm X, The Crying Game (a major hit that is largely remembered today only for the twist ending) plus other films that rose in estimation over the years like Glengarry Glenn Ross and Reservoir Dogs.

And now, with help from Olly Moss' artwork, that leaves us with….

1929/30: All Quiet On The Western Front.  There was a lot of garbage in the early days of the Academy Awards, as of the first six BP winners, three (Cavalcade, Cimarron, Broadway Melody) are arguably the three worst Best Pictures, and two others (Grand Hotel, Wings) are both remembered with indifference.  The one major exception was AQOTWF, which is still cited as one of the greatest war movies ever made and certainly one of the most influential.  It helps that the 29/30 Oscar season was a real gray patch of filmmaking overall, but even against stronger competition, All Quiet would've stood out.

1943: Casablanca.  Nuff said.

1945: The Lost Weekend.  Few directors have as strong a filmography as Billy Wilder, so much so that Lost Weekend is, well, kind of lost in the shuffle behind some of his more popular films (Some Like It Hot, Sunset Blvd, The Apartment, Sabrina, Double Indemnity, etc.).  You could make a case that Lost Weekend, however, was possibly Wilder's best, and it was a hands-down winner.  If I ever do an "undisputed Oscar" list of winning performances, Ray Milland will also feature prominently on that list.

1946: The Best Years Of Our Lives.  An absolute monster hit in its time and a slam-dunk winner of Best Picture, yet it's oddly forgotten today.  Not sure why, given that the film's topic (veterans struggling to adapt to home life after World War II) is sadly just as relevant now as it was in 1946.  Interestingly, this was also the year of "It's A Wonderful Life," which obviously has stood the test of time and become a much-remembered classic, but that's a movie can thank holiday tradition for its longevity.  The moral of the story is that 1946 was definitely the year for kinda-schmaltzy-yet-surprisingly-dark films with life-affirming titles.  

1953: From Here To Eternity.  Surprisingly, the whole movie isn't just Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling around on the beach, impossibly in love.  (Though even if it was, it still might've been an Oscar contender.)  The 1950's was an overall odd period for the Academy, as the Best Pictures of this decade have no middle ground between 'all-time classic' and 'bizarre/terrible choice.'

1954: On The Waterfront.  Seven Samurai wasn't Oscar-eligible until 1956, and as much as everyone loves Rear Window, OTW was (and still is) held up as a just a cut above.  Maybe if Rear Window had been just a wee bit better, it coulda been a contender!  *guffaw*

1957: The Bridge On The River Kwai.  Two of Ingmar "Don't Call Me Ingrid" Bergman's classics came out this year, but neither Wild Strawberries nor Seventh Seal were eligible for Oscars, so I can't fault the Academy for making a contentious choice since they weren't allowed to vote for either picture.  Might not have mattered anyway since TBOTRK is just that damn good.  David Lean has one of the absolute best one-two punches in cinema history, since his next movie after River Kwai was…

1962: Lawrence Of Arabia.  It's a testament to LOA's high reputation that "To Kill A Mockingbird" also came out this year and yet I didn't even consider putting 1962 into the tough cut category.  LOA is a milestone in movie history, ranking highly on many 'greatest of all time' lists.  Frankly, TKAM was probably better served by losing Best Picture lest its own great quality be in any way tainted by an undeserving Oscar win. 


1972: The Godfather.  In one of those weird quirks of Oscar history, Cabaret largely dominated the ceremony this year, winning eight Oscars and setting a record for most Academy Awards won without winning Best Picture.  While it was a solid movie, had Cabaret actually won the top prize this year, it would be remembered as one of the more egregious results in Oscar history.  If you could dig up Bob Fosse or steady Liza Minnelli from her case of the dizzies long enough, even they would tell you that Godfather was the hands-down best of the year.

1984: Amadeus.  Probably the most underrated of the "undisputed."  1984 is somewhat unfairly remembered as a poor Oscar year simply because the usual slate of heavy dramas were nominated ahead of several classic comedies (Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, This Is Spinal Tap) that dominated audiences that year.  While Spinal Tap is one of my favourite films and Ghostbusters is one of the pop culture touchstones of my life, let's be honest here, we would have to be living in a completely different universe for either of those movies to win a Best Picture Oscar.  I'm talking a mass hysteria, dogs and cats living together kind of world.  Amadeus is a bit overlook since the Academy rewards a lot of historical biopics, but this was a case where by all accounts they got it right.

1991: The Silence Of The Lambs.  Really an inspired choice here from the Academy given that this is decidedly NOT the subject matter that usually wins Oscars.  TSOTL came out in February 1991, was a big hit, and then it just kept hanging around the public consciousness for the entire year while most obvious, Oscar-baity movies came and went (and in several cases, disappointed).  Like 'All Quiet On The Western Front,' TSOTL may have benefited from a somewhat weak Oscar year, but it was a more than worthy Best Picture. 

1993: Schindler's List.  Nuff said, part two. 

2003: The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King.  Now this is kind of an interesting case.  ROTK absolutely swept the Oscars, going a perfect 11-for-11 and being widely acclaimed as completely deserving of those awards, as the Academy saw fit to reward the epic trilogy after it had been completed.  Technically, by the rules of my little game here, ROTK shouldn't be here since this particular film itself (as a stand-alone movie) had strong competition in 2003, particularly from the likes of Lost In Translation and Mystic River.  That said, I'm not going to miss the forest for the trees here --- Return Of The King was definitely an "undisputed" choice.  If anything, history might've looked even better on the Academy for also rewarding Fellowship of the Ring, since that would've cut out the thoroughly average Beautiful Mind from a Best Picture trophy.

2007: No Country For Old Men.  I almost hesitated in putting this on the list since this Best Picture was handed out only five years old.  It's still a little early to determine for sure that NCFOM will be remembered as the best choice of 2007 but I feel pretty safe in considering this one "undisputed."  It's somewhat similar to Silence of the Lambs' victory in 1991 in that NCFOM is not the kind of movie that usually cleans up at the Oscars yet it was simply too big and too acclaimed for the Academy to ignore, plus there may have been a bit of sentiment that the Coens were overdue.  Interestingly, while I had no problem with NCFOM winning and consider it an "undisputed" Oscar, I actually didn't have it atop my own ballot for the year.  I gave my Markademy Award for Best Picture to "Once" since I'm a giant softie.

So there you have it.  Fourteen movies from 84 years of Oscars.  That works out to a cool one "undisputed" pick out of every six Best Pictures.  Nice work, Academy voters.  That's certainly a solid batting average for people who work in the industry and are theoretically experts in cinema. 

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