Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Best of the Best Picture Winners

Next Monday, Australia time, the 2009 Oscars will be held (Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin are doing the hosting). Now the Oscars are always fun to disparage – after all they very rarely get it right – and I like to write about how they get it wrong as much as the next person, but in the spirit of the season (err Oscars season), let’s try and focus on the good things – let’s look for the best of the Best Picture winners.

A while ago I thought about trying to build up my DVD collection so that it would have every Best Picture winner. The problem though is that there was so much dross that I gave up pretty quickly. But there are some gems among the winners. Now I could try and rank all 81 winners, but bugger that for a joke. Instead I’ll divide the winners into their decades and select the best. It’s hard enough to try and compare films made around the same time, let alone trying to compare say The Godfather with Casablanca.

For those of you who are wondering, yes the I know the decade starts with a ‘1’ and ends with a ‘10’, but let’s be honest, has anyone in the history of the world ever said 1980 was part of the seventies? The only ones who do a ridiculous pedants who even in their heart of hearts know it doesn’t matter, so in this exercise the decade will start with a ‘0’ and end with a ‘9’ (except the first decade, in which I’ll include the films from 1928 and 1929).

The Thirties


Gone with the Wind (1939)


You Can't Take It with You (1938)


The Life of Emile Zola (1937)


The Great Ziegfeld (1936)


Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)


It Happened One Night (1934)


Cavalcade (1933)


Grand Hotel (1932)


Cimarron (1931)


All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)


The Broadway Melody (1929)


Wings (1927)

The first decade does not contain a great deal of quality – many mistake were made. I won’t do a running, “what should have won”, but Sunrise should have been the first winner, and it is hard to believe films like City Lights, Modern Times, Scarface, The Awful Truth, King Kong or The 39 Steps are not as good as some of the films here.

That said, All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the greatest early “talkie” films and I am tempted to give it the vote . I’m a fan of Frank Capra but It Happened One Night is rather dated, and I have to admit not being able to recall seeing You Can’t Take it With You. But while All Quiet on the Western Front is of great quality, I can’t go past Gone with the Wind.

GWTW is just so over the top, so huge, so massive in scope that it washes all else away. You could say it was the 1930s’ Avatar (or Titanic), except it has a crucial difference: great acting, and a wonderful script – though good luck working out who wrote it. About the only thing most agree on is that the guy who won the Oscar for Best Screenplay may have done the first drafts, but what ended up on the screen was not what he really had in mind. I’ll give credit to Ben Hecht: in his memoirs he recounts how he, with David O. Selznick and Victor Fleming, doctored the script in seven days despite not having read Mitchell’s novel. They worked from a “treatment” by Sidney Holland, who had since died. Neither Hecht, nor Selznick, nor Fleming received a writing credit, but Hecht states he was paid “fifteen thousand dollars for the week’s work”.

Best of all it holds up well even now – it is pure soap opera, but it is glorious soap, and Vivian Leigh turns in one of the all-time great performances.

The Forties


All the King's Men (1949)


Hamlet (1948)


Gentleman's Agreement (1947)


The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)


The Lost Weekend (1945)


Going My Way (1944)


Casablanca (1942)


Mrs. Miniver (1942)


How Green Was My Valley (1941)


Rebecca (1940)

Yep, Citizen Kane is missing, but so too are The Grapes of WrathSullivan’s Travels, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, It’s a Wonderful Life  and Treasure of Sierra Madre. Even if they were on the list, I’d still be giving the best Best Picture of the 1940s to Casablanca.

I think the film is perfect, as I have written earlier. I love the film so much I even tried to recast it (and got the role of Ilsa completely wrong!). Yes the script has a big hole in it – an exit visa signed by Charles de Gaulle would be absolutely worthless in a Vichy France province. I don’t care; I never will.

The Fifties


Ben-Hur (1959)


Gigi (1958)


The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)


Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)


Marty (1955)


On the Waterfront (1954)


From Here to Eternity (1953)


The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)


An American in Paris (1951)


All About Eve (1950)

Some great ones here – and also some dross. The Greatest Show on the Earth is great Sunday afternoon TV fare, but it has no place winning Best Picture (especially when that year could have gone to Singin’ in the Rain). And can you believe Around the World in Eighty Days beat The Searchers (or that The Searchers didn’t even get nominated?)  Ben-Hur is big and bold, but unlike Gone with the Wind – it IS like Avatar – great special effects, but the script is wooden and too long and the acting is the same. It is a hard ask to sit through it now – much like I suspect Avatar will be in a not too many years (and like Titanic is now). On the Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai and All About Eve are true top drawer films that should be in every film fan’s collection. But I’m going with From Here to Eternity. It has the iconic scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr on the beach, and it also has an amazing performance by Montgomery Clift. Sure it was heavily sanitised from James Jones’ novel – but I actually found the novel rather over long – whereas this is paced perfectly.

The Sixties


Midnight Cowboy (1969)


Oliver! (1968)


In the Heat of the Night (1967)


A Man for All Seasons (1966)


The Sound of Music (1965)


My Fair Lady (1964)


Tom Jones (1963)


Lawrence of Arabia (1962)


West Side Story (1961)


The Apartment (1960)

It is very hard for me to go past West Side Story – one of my very favourite films. And I also don’t give a damn what any of you say, I love The Sound of Music, and so have generations, so you can all just take your sniggering and bugger off! In the Heat of the Night is good – but really it feels too short and rather shallow. I find My Fair Lady a bit tiresome, and Oliver! is a bloody travesty!! (has some good songs though). Midnight Cowboy has the incredible work of Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo, but I I found the film rather a heavy meal to get through, and not very satisfying.

But Lawrence of Arabia? It’s big, it’s magnificent, it has brilliant performances, it has iconic scenes. It has it all. All due respect to Sam Worthington, but if Avatar had starred Peter O’Toole, I might be believing it should win Best Picture (wouldn’t hurt if it also had Alec Guinness, Omar Shariff and Anthony Quinn).

The Seventies


Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)


The Deer Hunter (1978)


Annie Hall (1977)


Rocky (1976)


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)


The Godfather: Part II (1974)


The Sting (1973)


The Godfather (1972)


The French Connection (1971)


Patton (1970)

What a decade! But even with this very good lot of films, there are still movies that could/should be here – Chinatown, American Graffiti, Manhattan, Apocalypse NowJaws, Taxi Driver...

Can you go past The Godfather? I can’t. The only film that comes close is its sequel, but I prefer the first one by the barest of margins. Really they should be considered together (as does Sight and Sound in its 10 yearly poll). A great cast, script, direction (though Coppola didn’t win Best Director – Bob Fosse did for Cabaret). Is it the perfect film? I can’t see much wrong with it, and I sure as hell wouldn't want to change a thing.

The Eighties


Driving Miss Daisy (1989)


Rain Man (1988)


The Last Emperor (1987)


Platoon (1986)


Out of Africa (1985)


Amadeus (1984)


Terms of Endearment (1983)


Gandhi (1982)


Chariots of Fire (1981)


Ordinary People (1980)

Not a good decade for film. OK, give 1980 to Raging Bull, but there’s not a lot of classic films from the decade that can feel like they have been shafted. Perhaps The Right Stuff, E.T., Tootsie, The Killing Fields. But really, it wasn’t a good 10 years for film.

My favourites for the decade are Chariots of Fire, Amadeus and Platoon. Chariots I’ve seen a zillion times, but I wish they hadn’t taken such liberties with the facts as they did. Amadeus is sumptuous, but I have to admit, by the end I’m kind of ready for the annoying genius to die.  I’ve seen Platoon so often I can repeat almost the entire dialogue (I definitely could 20 years ago). It is a great, great war film (beats the absolute crap out of Saving Private Ryan), and it also was a very important film, given its timing. It wasn’t the fake movie war that was The Deer Hunter – this was the real thing (at least for the Yanks) and it holds up incredibly well today. Can you say the same about Out of Africa, or Terms of Endearment?

The Nineties


American Beauty (1999)


Shakespeare in Love (1998)


Titanic (1997)


The English Patient (1996)


Braveheart (1995)


Forrest Gump (1994)


Schindler's List (1993)


Unforgiven (1992)


The Silence of the Lambs (1991)


Dances with Wolves (1990)

A pretty good list, all things considered. Yeah people might prefer to see Goodfellas, The Shawshank Redemption or Fargo, or LA Confidential or Saving Private Ryan (but I’m not one of them) or The Truman Show, but really there aren’t too many stinkers. Sure Braveheart is pretty bad, and yes Titanic is far, far too long, with far, far too much shitty dialogue. And yes, it is hard to believe from this distance that Dances with Wolves could beat Goodfellas… ok maybe all thing considered it isn’t as good list, but The Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, Unforgiving, and American Beauty are high quality – and I think Shakespeare in Love is brilliantly done (if you can put aside your Gwyneth dislike).

But Schindler’s List takes the title in this decade. I have a lot of issues with the film – I think doing it in black and white is a total crock – but Liam Neeson as Schindler is excellent, and Ralph Fiennes as Goeth is beyond perfect (he didn’t win the Oscar of course).

The Noughties


Slumdog Millionaire (2008)


No Country for Old Men (2007)


The Departed (2006)


Crash (2004/I)


Million Dollar Baby (2004)


The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)


Chicago (2002)


A Beautiful Mind (2001)


Gladiator (2000)

If we were to count The Lord of the Rings three parts as one film, I’d give it to that, but The Return of the King is my least favourite film of the three, and so I can’t. Chicago? I can’t get past the fact it beat The Pianist. Million Dollar Baby is well acted, but it just never really gripped me (and it won in a very lean year). Crash and Slumdog Millionaire are crimes against humanity (I cannot put into words how much I hate Slumdog Millionaire).

No Country for Old Men and The Departed are good films, but if I’m honest, I’m not going to sit down and watch them should they be on TV (No Country has been doing the rounds on Foxtel, and I never bother watching it).

So I’m going with Gladiator. It was a film that they made even though they don’t make ‘em like that anymore. A great performance by Russell Crowe (fully deserving of the Oscar – he took the biggest film of the year and made it into an Oscar winner – again, no disrespect Sam Worthington, but if Russell Crowe had been in Avatar…). It has an excellent script, brilliant set pieces, and a fantastic score by Hanz Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard (though only Zimmer got the Oscar). It gets my vote both here, and in the number of times it’s been in my DVD player.


So there you go, the best Best Picture winners by decade. But of course some decades are stronger than others. Which of the 81 would make my top 10 of best Best Picture winners? I can’t rank them, but in chronological order my top 10 would be:


Gone with the Wind (1939)


Casablanca (1942)


All About Eve (1950)


From Here to Eternity (1953)


West Side Story (1961)


Lawrence of Arabia (1962)


The Godfather (1972)


The Godfather: Part II (1974)


Annie Hall (1977)


Schindler's List (1993)

Though I’d probably change it this time next week.


Rationalist said...

What a wonderful post on some classic films.

Bushfire Bill said...

Reading your original post on Casablanca I can only agree. My favourite scene is La Marseillaise. It tingles the hairs on the back of my head every time. If I'm talking to someone at the same time, I get choked up.

You're right: Casablanca does make you want to go and enlist.

Unlike you, we watch it on a big screen every time. I have a home theatre setup with Hi-definition projection, and we own the Blu-Ray of Casablanca. IT's actually not that much of an improvement on the DVD, which was excellent. But seeing it 5 feet high by 7 feet wide from 12 feet away in a darkened room does give the movie an altogether different feel from just watching it on TV.

My favourite from the 80s was Ghandi. We have that in blu Ray and watch it in Cinemascope with a special projection lens. I tried watching Schindler's List again recently and found it hard going. Spielberg just couldn't help himself in my opinion. The little kid in the colorized red jacket ruined it for me. Too schmaltzy.

From the 90s: Shakespeare In Love. WE have that too and just love it.

The rest of your choices are pretty much in agreement with mine (for what THAT'S worth!).

I've often tried to work out what makes a movie a classic. I guess it's "re-watchability"... a film you can watch over and over again for the fun of reliving old memories and feelings and the hope of discovering - yet again - something new about it. You obviously know the story, but that doesn't matter. You watch the movie because it's a pleasue to watch. Not too many like that. I could probably count them on ten fingers.

Lawrence would be one, but alas Sony is dicking around with the Blu-Ray release and the DVD (even the superbit version) is atrocious.

Anyway, nice to "meet" another film buff who cares about politics as well. A killer combination!

Bushfire Bill said...

Just an addendum...

I'd substitute Eternity with Kwai for the 50s entry.

What I like about BOTRK is Guinness. My favourite scene is where they're in the colonel's office after the officers have been let out of the hot boxes. They finish dinner and the meeting a Guinness asks "and are there any more questions?".

To which Saito replies, "Will you finish the bridge on time?"

To which Guinness replies (paraphrased), "Frankly no. We lost a lot of time due to an unfortunate set of circumstances for which I was not to blame".

That's one of the bitchiest and funniest lines I've ever heard. Tickles me pink each time I hear it, and it has become my standard excuse around the house when I haven't finished something I said I'd do (usually the lawn mowing).

I lvoe the way it switches from Thailand to Ceylon - misery to martinis - and then back again. And the final scene is a corker, especially when Guinness and Saito are on the bridge in the twilight. Beautiful cinematography.

The story of Pruett and Pearl Harbour is a wonderfully powerful movie...another of those you can watch time and time again, but I think it's the combination of color and Cinemascope (complete with cheesy logo) and just the sweep of Kwai that gives it the edge IMHO. Have to confess I'm a Lean junkie.

I even adore Ryan's Daughter ("God bless yer, Tim O'Leary!" is another of those hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck lines) and wish they would just get on and release these magnificent Lean movies in Blu-Ray so I can watch them in 'scope in my own home and my own time. I saw them all (bar Kwai) in their original cinema releases (some of them as a kid in short pants) ... I'm that old!


Roheryn said...

Agree with most of your choices, including probably one of the most controversial , Gladiator.
However Zimmer did NOT win an Oscar for the soundtrack . Tan Dun did for Crouching Tiger.
Zimmer's marvelous themes from Gladiator are familiar icons ten years later. Can you hum a note of Tan Dun's score ? No, me neither.

Grog said...


You are quite right - Tan Dun did win to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I don't mind that score, but I do prefer Zimmer's. I think his best score is the one he did for The Thin Red Line.

BB - Kwai is fantastic. I could just as easily give that my Bes tof the 50s vote.

Bushfire Bill said...

"I think his best score is the one he did for The Thin Red Line. "

A very disappointing movie. Not anything like the book, in fact, the inverse of the book.

Witt, in the book, was a lean, mean, nasty killer. In the movie he came over as some kind of New Age hippie,comporting with the natives in God's paradise on earth.

The movie completely ruined the story for me. Tres disappointment.

Grog said...

You're quite right BB - The Thin Red Line has almost nothing to do with the actual novel