Monday, February 25, 2013

Top 10 Best Picture Winners

Hey Brandon, Chris, and John – great lists.  As you could probably imagine, mine's fairly similar to all of yours.

The Academy Awards are decidedly a mixed bag.  As a film lover, I have an interest in watching them because, like Brandon, I enjoy seeing certain people win in various categories.  For instance, last night, I enjoyed seeing Daniel Day-Lewis win again because apart from being a phenomenal actor he's also an inimitable class act with a wealth of charm, generosity, and humor.  He never disappoints.  But the ceremony itself is usually a grueling experience.  Be it through woefully unfunny hosts (ahem, Seth MacFarlane) or padding through musical numbers and montages that seem unending, the Oscars are never a clean or brisk ceremony.  They always feel exaggerated to the point of numbness and ultimately tedium.  And this is saying nothing about the paltry selection of films that usually win these awards.

The Academy has an undeniable history of making awful choices.  They are basically notorious for it at this point.  So much so that it's hard to really take them seriously, especially in modern times.  There's no getting around it.  But it's important to remember that, despite the way they present themselves, they are hardly the definitive or prestigious voice on film quality within a given year.  Their members aren't a collection of experts, vigorously pouring over and analyzing films, but a large group of insiders within Hollywood who are easily swayed by groupthink, buzz, and mass appeal.  Some of them are likely very intelligent and thorough; some of them are likely very idiotic and fickle. But as a whole they tend to lean in an often predictable and boring direction.  As I said though, they aren't experts, just a group of random people essentially.  We shouldn't necessarily give them more prestige then they deserve nor truthfully be disappointed with what they pick.  I mean, is anyone really expecting all that much from them?  I said the Oscars usually disappoint me, but this has less to do with their selections and more to do with the sad commercialism that dominates what they nominate and how they present themselves.  As Brandon and Chris mentioned, it's unfortunate that the Academy has the antithetical task of trying to seem respectable whilst also pandering to populism and youthful appeal.  These desires are rarely leading down the same path - just look at cable news.  It's always nice when the HURT LOCKERS of the world beat the AVATARS of the world, but on the whole, the Oscars tend to lead towards the juggernauts or just those who campaign the most fervently (Weinstein).  It's more pageantry than earnest testimonial.

Occasionally they do get things right, however.  It's kind of a drag that the lowest rated ceremony happens to be the best I've ever seen.  NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was a strong and bold choice for Best Picture.  It's one of the few picks that I think the Academy can be proud of within the last thirty or forty years.  It was critically acclaimed and seemed to find something of a niche audience at the box office, but still it's hardly the typical Oscar bullshit along the lines of CRASH, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, or THE KING'S SPEECH.  It's an unconventional pick.  The film's expertly made, but also uncompromising, brutal, and profound to the point that you could imagine it being esoteric to some.  And to think that the main competition to NO COUNTRY that year was THERE WILL BE BLOOD – an even more bizarre and seemingly rarefied choice.  In my opinion, THERE WILL BE BLOOD should have won, but I'm not even going to pretend to be disappointed that NO COUNTRY was chosen instead.  They are both undisputed masterpieces and among the very best films of the last 30 years or more.  That one of them had to win over the other is unfortunate, but I'm still stoked that we had one year where these two were the frontrunners for Best Picture.  It's hard to imagine any other Oscar ceremony like that going forward.

The history of Best Picture winners is hardly the spectacular array to choose from; I agree with John.  Looking over that list leaves plenty to be desired.  But there are still some great films in there.  I've seen a lot of them too.  Almost all from the 30's through 70s, not a lot of the 80s, and then most, if not all, from the 90s and 00s.  I don't really have a desire to see shit like OUT OF AFRICA.  I wish I had never seen CRASH.  Here are my favorites:

1. It Happened One Night

This is flawlessly endearing and majestic cinema.  You're right, Brandon, there is such a communal, romantic spirit to Capra that I've often found less schmaltzy and more edifying.  He doesn't get enough credit among cinephiles for having such a glorifying attitude towards humanity during a highly troubling and painful period in American history.  This is one of his great masterpieces.  The scenes of Colbert and Gable sharing a hotel with the sheet between them and the rain gently taping on the window outside are among the best I've ever seen at capturing a sort of dreamy romanticism and muted desire.  This is a witty, bustling, and highly amusing picture, but it's also tender to the point that it makes you swoon.

2. Rebecca

I suppose it's unfortunate that Hitchcock never won an Oscar for Best Director, but the list of directors who have never won Academy Awards is certainly greater than the list that have, so Hitch is at the head of some highly prestigious company.   REBECCA remains one of my very favorites of Hitch's many masterpieces.  I suppose it's partly due to my love for Gothic imagery and settings (I'm a huge Brontë fan, after all).  But, it's also due to the expertly taut way this film unfolds.  It's beautifully made and structured with a palpable eeriness and mounting dread.  These are all traits Hitchcock was famous for, but here they are presented in one of their most glorious displays.

3. Annie Hall

Oddly enough, two of my top 3 favorite Best Picture winners are comedies.  Comedies are notorious for being shafted by the Academy, but these two are among the best ever made and were justly rewarded.  I don't have much to offer in terms of selling this film other than that it introduced me to Woody Allen and I've been an unabashed fan of him and it ever since.

4. On the Waterfront

There's no question that this is a great film.  Emotional, gripping, powerfully acted and directed.  Kazan is a fine director whose talent I greatly admire.  His personal choices are unfortunate and it's hard to admire him as a man, but I've always firmly believed that an artist's personal life should have no detrimental weight on his or her art.  Case in point.  Also, ON THE WATERFRONT, apart from being a masterpiece of cinema, is just a fascinating document of the Cold War era and the post-McCarthy Hollywood landscape.  I'm not sure there's much here in terms of anti-McCarthyism as as there is just a personal desire to see informing rebranded as a moral imperative.  This is a highly personal film from Kazan because its his plea for informers not to be seen as traitors or rats but as people caught in a bad situation who must do the "right" thing no matter the consequences.  Whether one agrees with this message or not doesn't hide the fact that this is a great piece of American history.  It's an engrossing look at the culture of the Cold War.  A film very much of its time but certainly not dated.

5.  The Godfather

I do admire you for picking Part II over this one, Brandon, if only because it's the more explicitly courageous choice.  Still, as much as I love Part II, I remain a bigger fan of the first part.  I guess I just like its arch better.  The juxtaposition of Vito's rise and Michael's fall is fantastic in Part II, but you get a better since of the family dynamic in the first part that I find especially captivating.  I like the passing of the torch from Vito to Sonny and eventually Michael.  Sonny's death and Michael being pulled into the family business coupled with Vito's ailing health and sadness over what's become of both children is compelling stuff.  I also really like when Sonny beats the shit out of Carlo.

6. All About Eve

This was one of the first less-well-known classics I ever saw, which is likely why it holds such an endearing place in my heart, even after all these years (I mean "less-well-known" in that it wasn't as famous as CASABLANCA, GONE WITH THE WIND, or CITIZEN KANE).  I didn't know Bette Davis when I saw this, which is why I never really had a desire not to see this – I was just interested in seeing classics, period, at that point.  But now, knowing more about Davis and her films, I can see why you were a little apprehensive to see this one, Brandon.  I like Bette Davis and am a fan of several of her films, but she also tended to star in these super-serious prestige dramas made by studio directors that don't hold up all that well when compared to genre pictures made by the autuers of the era.  They just aren't as interesting or exciting to me.  ALL ABOUT EVE does not fall in this category, however.  It's a wonderfully scathing film that also happens to be incredibly well-written and viciously entertaining.  Mankiewicz doesn't get a lot of credit from cinephiles, but he could be as fun as Wilder when he was on top form.

7. The Bride on the River Kwai & Lawrence of Arabia

I'm lumping these two together because they are both majestically mounted and highly entertaining films from a master director.  I don't have much too add about them either.  Coincidentally, they were both on TCM this morning and a watched a bit of both.  Impeccable filmmaking.

8. No Country For Old Men

As I mentioned above, this is a straight-up masterpiece of the highest order.  Every decision the Coens made with it is practically perfect.  From the casting right down to the lack of a score.  There's so many terrific scenes in this that it's hard to single out just one, but the scene with Lewllen in the motel with Chigurh on the prowl outside is one the most masterfully suspenseful I've ever seen.  It's genius.  The tension-building gauntlet for the modern age was thrown down on this film.

9. The Apartment

I always liked that despite being very jaunty and amusing this film also has a hazy melancholia to it.  There's an air of loneliness and failure that hangs over Lemmon's character it that makes the film's humor all the more piercing and its inevitable romantic triumph all the more satisfying.  It's also gorgeously photographed.

10. Casablanca

Fuck it, I'm putting this on here.  I still find this to be a deeply romantic and admirable film even if it has been eclipsed in my mind by other less-praised films from the period.  I haven't watched it in a few years, but the last time I did, it still made a strong impression on me.  I watched it with an old girlfriend one rainy night, and it sort of put classic film in perspective for me.  The girl I was with hadn't seen it (or hardly any other classics), and it just reminded me that there's a majority of people in this country that not only haven't seen this but wouldn't be caught dead watching it.  As cinephiles we often take our small community for something larger than it is.  I can imagine that less than 5% of people under 50 have any interest in seeing anything black-and-white let alone anything pre-1970.  To a vast majority of people there's no difference between CASABLANCA and something like THE PROWLER.  They are as equally obscure.

 Honorable Mentions:

11. How Green Was My Valley
12. You Can’t Take It With You
13. The Best Years of Our Lives

Sadly, I haven't seen A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, but seeing how much John likes it makes me really want to now.  I'm glad Brandon added THE DEPARTED to his list, even if I'm not a huge fan of that film.  I like it, and I think you make a terrific case for it Brandon (a great enough case that I'm tempted to watch the film again and re-evaluate it even).  But I was really hoping Scorsese would win for THE AVIATOR, which I see as a painstaking labor of love from Marty and one of my favorites of his within the last decade.  Truthfully, he should have beaten Redford in 1980 and Costner in 1990, but I honestly thought '04 was his year to make up for those past mistakes and then Eastwood stood in the way. Did you ever notice how often Marty's best chances of winning were always squandered by actors turned directors?  Damn star-fucking Academy :)

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