* = 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….
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.
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.