The 'Best' in Pictures

As I said in my first post, I recently completed my goal of seeing every Best Picture Oscar winner. As I scratched that item off my mental bucket list, I wish I had gone through the films à la Julie Powell, and written about them as I went through them chronologically. But fortunately, one of my friends was going through the list as well, so I always had someone with whom I could discuss the films and/or trade copies of the ones either of us needed to see (it was also funny how frequently we disagreed about some of the movies).

   Part of what made this a worthwhile film project was discovering how much some of these noteworthy cultural texts are not easily available. While all but two of the films have legitimate DVD releases (1933's Cavalcade and Wings, the first winner, are not available), many of them are hard to find. Their lack of availability in video stores probably stems from merchants being forced to reduce their stock of older films as they make room for Blu-Ray and gaming sections. Finding some of the older titles actually made this a lot more fun than I expected it to be, as I spent hours digging through second hand record stores to acquire some necessary titles. E-bay is also a great resource to find the Oscar winners, and I found it quite a novelty receiving sketchy Korean import versions of Wings and The Life of Emile Zola in the mail.
   Overall, most of the films I screened are worthy of holding the title of “Oscar Winner”. However, during the course of watching the films, I often made an effort to see other films that were nominated, and more often than not, I found that the Best Picture Winner was rarely the strongest film released in its respective year.

Anyways, here are my picks for the ten best Best Picture Winners:

1. Annie Hall (D: Woody Allen, 1977) Many fanboys quibble over the fact that Annie Hall bested Star Wars, but never has Oscar gotten it so right. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen blends his trademark portrayal of the neuroses of love and romance with a sharply satirical take on contemporary America. Inspired by the real-life relationship between Allen and Diane Keaton (Keaton's real name is Diane Hall), Annie Hall is one of the best examples of art imitating life, and the personal nature of the material allowed Allen to graduate to making more mature films from the humorous sex-comedies of his early career. Not only is Annie Hall still Allen's strongest film to date, it's still the best comedy ever made.

2. Casablanca (D: Michael Curtiz, 1942) Casablanca holds the record of being the only film to win the Academy Award the year after its release. The film had a limited release in the winter of 1942, but didn't receive a wide release until January 1943. Perhaps foreshadowing the film’s enduring popularity, Casablanca managed to win the top prize the year after it was initially eligible. This crowd-pleasing tale of the war-torn romance of Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is all the more impressive when coupled with the fact that much of the film was written on the fly during shooting. Casablanca is also noteworthy as being one of the more successful American propaganda films of World War II, as Rick's heroic change of character made for a powerful call to arms for American audiences.

3. The Godfather Part II (D: Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) The second installment of Coppola's crime saga is perhaps the best example of how to make a good sequel. The film continues the story of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) as he becomes corrupted by his new power as the head of the family, and it also features a parallel flashback narrative depicting Michael's father, Vito (Robert DeNiro), becoming a career criminal in New York.

4. The Godfather (D: Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) A brief paragraph hardly does justice for Francis Ford Coppola's brilliant allegory for capitalism and greed in America. The Godfather is one of those films that can be watched numerous times, with each viewing yielding new observations on innovative filmmaking, brilliant attention to detail, and nuanced performances by an extremely talented cast, especially Marlon Brando, whose Vito Corleone is probably the most iconic performance in American cinema.

5. The Silence of the Lambs (D: Jonathan Demme, 1991) Suspenseful, scary, and gruesome, Silence of the Lambs is hardly what comes to mind when one imagines the title of "Academy Award Winner". Nonetheless, the film succeeds so greatly because the psychological depth of the characters is easily the most fascinating and most chilling element of the narrative. What makes Anthony Hopkins' Best Actor winning Hannibal Lecter so scary is how friendly and sane his character initially appears to be. Lambs quite deservedly shares the honor of being one of only three films to sweep all top five categories at the Oscars: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress (Jodie Foster), and Screenplay. (It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are the other two.)

6. On the Waterfront (D: Elia Kazan, 1954) Marlon Brando won his first Oscar for his performance as Terry Malloy, a boxer who stands up for the rights of his fellow dockworkers when they are being exploited. A powerful take on the communist hearings during the 1950's, On the Waterfront also features Brando's famous "I coulda been a contender" speech in which he laments his loss over standing up for what is right.

7. All About Eve (D: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) Although Sunset Blvd. was probably the best film of 1950 (and the 1950's for that matter), All About Eve comes a close second. In All About Eve, Bette Davis gives the performance of her career as Margo Channing, a stage actress whose career and personal life are upstaged by her conniving understudy Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). One of the cleverest films ever written, All About Eve is essential viewing, especially since its influence on Hollywood is still apparent in almost any film depicting professional rivalries or the showbiz industry (ex: Working Girl, All About My Mother, Dreamgirls).

8. The Last Emperor (D: Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987) A stunning epic biography of Pu Yi, the last emperor of the Manchu dynasty, who spent much of his life secluded within China's Forbidden City. The Last Emperor is possibly the most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing of all the Oscar winners and it deservedly swept the Oscars, winning in all nine categories in which it was nominated. With spectacular and sumptuous color palettes, the film must be seen on the new Criterion Collection DVD release.

9. It Happened One Night (D: Frank Capra, 1934) It Happened One Night is perhaps the best of the early screwball comedies, and it is one of the few that doesn't feel dated. Clark Gable stars as a reporter in pursuit of a spoiled heiress (Claudette Colbert) who runs away when her daddy disapproves of her new husband. Needless to say, the two soon fall in love and hilarity ensues.
10. Rebecca (D: Alfred Hitchcock, 1940) The only Alfred Hitchcock film to ever take top prize, Rebecca is also one of the prime examples where the movie is better than the book. Based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca tells the story of a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who marries cold millionaire Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier) and is forced to live in the shadows of his previous wife, Rebecca. With its rich gothic atmosphere, Rebecca is Hitchcock at his best.

And what Oscar list wouldn’t be complete with singling out the worst offenses?
Oscar’s five biggest blunders:

1. Cimarron: Easily the worst of the winners, Cimarron won for 1931 and it is, without question, the best example of a film that feels “dated”. Hokey, moronic, and unbearably slow, it’s no wonder that it took Oscar a whole sixty years to award another western.

2. Rocky: Yes, Rocky is an inspirational story. However, a great story does not necessarily mean it’s a great film. While it’s a good movie, how Rocky managed to upstage Network, whose satire on the television industry is now a reality today, will always baffle me.

3. Forrest Gump wins over Pulp Fiction. At least Rocky was a good movie. Pulp Fiction has the dishonor of being a great movie that lost to the sentimentality of Forrest Gump. Unfortunately, Forrest Gump is extremely well done from a technical point of view, but with how often it encourages us to laugh at Forrest, its poor quality shows in every second scene.

4. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: When Return of the King won, it was clear that the accolade was nothing but a deferred acknowledgment of the work that went into Peter Jackson’s trilogy. By including several false endings and unnecessary battle scenes, and then eliminating crucial storylines and details that should have continued from the previous installments, Jackson not only made me feel cheated by the final installment, but he managed to diminish my appreciation for the earlier films as well.

5. An American in Paris is proof that the all it took to win in the fifties or sixties was to be a musical. The film has few musical numbers, but then tacks on a completely random fifteen-minute ballet sequence before the film comes to an abrupt end. To think this beat A Streetcar Named Desire! And A Place in the Sun!