07 February 2009
Oscar Doesn't Always Get it Wrong, 15 Best Picture Winners That Were Worthy of the Award
Regular readers of this space (both of us) know my disdain for the Academy Awards and their knack for laughable selections and glaring omissions. However over the course of their 80 year history they've managed to get a few winners right -- even in the category of Best Picture. While best picture winners have included such God awful decisions as Crash, Around the World in 80 Days, Gone With the Wind and My Fair Lady, there have been some very worthy winners. In a few instances they have actually been the best film of that year.
Here are 13 examples of Oscar winners for Best Picture that just so happened to be great films.
1928 Wings and Sunrise. Wow, what a promising start. In their first year when the Academy had two winners (one for Production an d one for Artistic Quality of Production), two terrific films won the big prize. Who could have surmised from this the disasters to come? Two ways to look at the two inaugural picks: one, Sunrise (pictured above) was the far superior film; two, Wings is a damn sight better film than most of the winners to follow. Sunrise is German expressionist director F. W. Murnau's beautifully photographed story of a married man led astray by a woman of ill repute. While there have been countless technological improvements in film making since Sunrise premiered (like the addition of sound) it remains one of the most visually stunning films ever. Wings was directed by the great William Wellman. It is both the story of a love triangle and air fighters in World War I. It too is visually stunning. (As good as Wings and sunrise are they were, in my estimation only the second and third best films of the year, behind King Vidor's The Crowd.)
1930 All Quiet on the Western Front. In just its third year the Oscars got it right on the money again with this classic war film from director Lewis Milestone. It was based on Erich Maria Remarque's brilliant novel of the same name. Its a powerful story of men in war (in this case Germans in World War I). We meet them as idealistic students inspired by their elders to serve Kaiser and country in battle with visions of the glory to come. We see them come to terms with the harsh realities of modern warfare and emerge cynical and embittered. Stunningly realistic for its, or for that matter, any time.
1934 It Happened One Night. Director Frank Capra was popular with audiences, critics and the Academy. Quite the trifecta. His best weren't always rewarded like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). But there was nothing wrong with the selection of this wonderful comedy which paired Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Colbert is the heiress on the run and Gable is the reporter who in her finds the story of a lifetime. He ends up finding the love of a lifetime to boot. One of the few comedies to win the Best Picture Oscar.
1943 Casablanca. I would venture to guess that the pick of this pic was partially based on patriotic war time fervor. In addition to being a great movie, Casablanca was a vehicle to rally the home front in the early days of the war. In any case, it was an instant classic and remains one of the most popular films of all time. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman lead one of the greatest cast of all time. Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt and Dooley Wilson. Michael Curtiz directed and has never gotten the credit he deserves.
1946 The Best Years of Our Lives. The Oscars loved director William Wyler, awarding him a closet full of statuettes. The most deserved was surely for this memorable tale of World War II veterans returning to their Midwestern town after the war. The story of their transition to civilian life, saddled as they were by psychological scars and in one case devastating physical scars, was quite relevant when the film came out. Indeed, it must have been somewhat discomforting to contemporary audiences. The messages are timeless and the film holds up over 60 years later. It doesn't hurt that there is an all star cast led by Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy and Harold Russell. The latter was a maimed soldier in real life playing one in this film.
1954 On The Waterfront. Hollywood was starting to develop a social conscience in the years after WWII. While this did not always translate into good film making (witness the mediocre if well-intended, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)) in the hands of director Elia Kazan it could mean something like On the Waterfront or A Face in the Crowd (1957). Needless to say Marlin Brando’s stunning performance (along with the likes of Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb and Vera Miles) are at the heart of this film’s excellence. On the Waterfront is an utterly unflinching look art a few honest mens’ battle against powerful and corrupt union bosses.
1957 Bridge on the River Kwai. Actor James Donald as Major Clipton says it all at the film’s end: “madness...madness.” I’ll say. You’ve got a totally anal buy-the-book British Colonel in a Japanese POW camp in the Burmese jungles helping (!) an equally intractable Japanese Colonel build a bridge. In the bloody middle of World War II! And you’ve got an American misanthrope who escapes from said camp and miraculously makes it back to safety and then must to return to the jungle and help British commandos blow the aforementioned bridge to smithereens. Under the fantastic direction of David Lean this story, based loosely on real events, makes for a corker of a story. Speaking of fantastic...the fantastic cast led by William Holden as the American and Alec Guinness as the British Colonel, make this one of the better films ever.
1962 Lawrence of Arabia. A David Lean picture again. The Academy clearly likes an ambitious epic and this came to be a Lean speciality. Lawrence is one of the most revered films of all time. While it takes certain liberties with the story of T.E. Lawrence, it captures much about the man and his time in the Middle East. Absolutely made for the big screen, but in letterbox adequate on a TV set.
1972 Godfather. There have been a number of reasons to just shut down the Oscars and admit that the whole thing is a farce. Surely if they hadn't awarded Francis Ford Coppola's story about a family business (in this case organized crime) the Oscar, the whole show would have been run out of town. Then again How Green is My Valley beat out Citizen Kane so who knows.
1973 The Sting. The Seventies were a great decade for American film, one that has not since been equaled. But in terms of the 1973 Oscars, The Sting only really had competition from The Exorcist. Either would have been fine though I think the Academy got it right. The Sting is as much fun as you’ll ever have at a movie, whether you’re seeing it for the first time or watching it with someone who’s seeing it for the first. Even without the surprise ending, the story of a couple of grifters (Robert Redford and Paul Newman) getting the “gang” together to swindle a crime boss in the midst of the Great Depression is an utter delight. George Roy Hill directed.
1974 Godfather Part II. Amazing! Three years in a row the Oscars got it right. Of course with two parts of the Godfather saga included it wasn't all that hard. Failing to give the Oscar to Godfather II would have been a travesty akin to...oh, I don’t know awarding Crash over Brokeback Mountain.
1977 Annie Hall. Not only was this the right choice but it was a surprising one. Woody Allen films are not the type of fare that the Oscars like to reward with the big prize. Allen has screenwriter nominations aplenty and has supporting players have been proffered many a trophy, but the big enchilada? Wow! In this instance the academy recognized a revolutionary film style. They also recognized one of the funniest films of all time. Good going.
1986 Platoon. I'll say this about war, it provides great material for movies. Oliver Stone's semi autobiographical film about his stint as a soldier in Vietnam is high up on the long roll call of great war films. One Vietnam veteran said it was so realistic that the only thing missing was the smell. A great primer for anyone who’s curious about the Vietnam war.
1993 Schindler's List. There is no denying that the Academy loves a good Holocaust story and when a great one came along it was a sure bet to win. Director Steven Speilberg has been behind the camera for a wide variety of excellent films, none better than this true story of one’s man effort to save as many Jews from the gas chambers as possible. The most recent black and white film to win the Oscar.
2007 No Country for Old Men. I'd given up hope that their would be justice in the Best Picture category (Crash over Brokeback mountain -- come on!) until last year's show. On the one hand I’m surprised that the Academy rewarded a film so rich in themes and so dominated by violence. On the other hand it was so superior a film that it would have been insane not to. The Coen Brothers as producers, directors and writers took Cormac McCarthy’s amazing novel and did the right thing. They didn’t mess with it They also managed to get Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin as leads and surrounded them with an excellent supporting cast. A strong contender for best movie of the decade.
Other outstanding films that won the Oscar: The Lost Weekend (1945), All About Eve (1950), From Here to Eternity (1953), Midnight Cowboy (1969), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Dances With Wolves (1990), American Beauty (1999).