Happy President’s Day everyone! Today, we in America celebrate the birthdays of our 1st and 16th presidents: George Washington (February 22) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12). Furthermore, I celebrate the actual birthday of an individual more close to myself in every aspect: me! That’s right, today is my birthday! Thank you, thank you, you’re too kind. Oh no, you shouldn’t have, really, well… thank you. As much as I love to arrange admiration for myself, there are a few others I wish to pass on some birthday buzz for, including but not limited to the following people and animals who also grow a year older on February 16th:
- My friend and coworker Chris who was the first person to officially subscribe to this blog!
- Levar Burton – I’ve never met him, but no one else has ever encouraged me to take a look inside a book like he has. Also, he made that visor look really cool on Next Gen (his character from that show, Geordi La Forge, will be born on this day in 2335 according to Star Trek lore)
- Ice-T, the rapper/actor, not the drink
- Strannik, the male Amur tiger at my local zoo
- Wayne Gretsky…’s brother
- Mr. Jefferson, the first cloned calf, not the guy who moved on up to the East Side
- Soon-to-be NFL Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis
- Jeremy Bulloch – the English actor who played the coolest bounty hunter in any galaxy, Boba Fett. If the producers of the new Star Wars movies are looking for someone who fits the same birthday criteria to portray Boba Fett in his imminent solo movie in the near future, I’ll be waiting for your call.
- Pretty much everyone my friend and former roommate Joe knows – seriously, there are so many people in his life that share this birthday that if he can’t remember someone’s birthday he just assumes it’s February 16. He has a friend from high school who was not only born on February 16, but so were his father and son. Three generations born on the same day!
There are some other people born this day that I’m not as glad to share it with, such as the now (thankfully) deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, as well as Sonny Bono, Cher’s partner. I mean, forcing your people to scrape by in ruin while revering you as a god is terrible, but there’s a reason that Bill Murray was in hell waking up to that same song every day in Groundhog Day.
Speaking of movies, the 87th annual Oscars presentation is this Sunday February 22 at 7pm EST on ABC. I’ll be watching and scowling occasionally for reasons that I’ve already discussed in a not too far back post. There will be plenty of reasons to cheer as there are plenty of good and even great films up for Academy Awards this year. From the beginning the Oscars have recognized the merits of many a great film while leaving out others whose genius was overlooked or wasn’t appreciated at the time. Today, with hindsight as my witness, I aim to sing praises for the Academy as well as condemn neglect on their part. I will focus on the most coveted award in film, the Best Picture Oscar, while I offer my opinion on films that won it (Best Picture Winners, or BPWs), others that were nominated for it that did not win (Best Picture Nominees, or BPNs), and others that got the cold shoulder from the golden god of Hollywood.
To date there are 530 films that have been nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award and I have seen 426, meaning that I’ve scored just over 80% on my Oscar sight test. I’ve done even better with Best Picture Winners of which I’ve seen 77 out of 86 (until Sunday), nearly 90%. Suffice it to say, between many, many wasted hours staring at a screen of varying sizes; my current celebration of my body’s aging and decay; and my general belief that I just know these things, I feel qualified to assess the quality of films that Oscar has shown love too, as well as the ones he took steaming crap on that truly deserved his love. What follows are three lists of 10 movies each. The first is a celebration of times that the Academy got it right by listing the Best Best Picture Winners. Second is a list of the best of the rest; films that were nominated for Best Picture that should have won the award but didn’t. Finally, I conclude with movies that received no nomination for Best Picture but were deserving of the award. In each list the films are listed in order of chronological release; not necessarily in the order that I like them best. Look for your favorites, and remember that you can’t disagree with me on my birthday.
Best Best Picture Winners
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) – Based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name that you may have had to read for school, this was the third film to win the Oscar for what we now call Best Picture. It tells the tale of a young man named Paul swept up by propaganda to join the German army to fight in World War I. When he and his friends get there they discover that the reality of the situation is a much different one than what was painted for them back in school. As he observes the brutality of war through the loss of friends and the slaying of enemies he realizes that the patriotic ideals he thought he was fighting for are merely rousing words that quickly lose their luster amidst the mud, blood, and bodies. One of my favorite scenes is when Paul goes on leave and returns to his high school where his teacher’s enthusiasm for “the Fatherland” and protecting its glory that convinced him to enlist is on full display for a new class. The teacher proudly introduces him to the current students as a veteran solider to idolize and follow in the footsteps of. To the surprise of everyone, Paul denounces the war and begs for his hometown to wake up and realize the true horror of it all. The very best scene sums up the whole film when Paul goes back to the front and finds a small window of peace in a butterfly that lands just outside his trench. His admiration for it doesn’t last long though.
Gone with the Wind (1939) – This was the last film that I added to this list, but it’s place here is earned by its sheer scope. I decided on the other nine BPWs quickly, but was mulling between a few options before deciding on this classic. Gone with the Wind is an epic film taken from an epic novel by Margaret Mitchell that provides a very long look (the longest cut with an overture, intermission, entr’acte, and exit music is 238 minutes, making it is the longest BPW) of life in the American South during the Civil War. The first color film to win Best Picture, it specifically focuses on the fancies of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh, who’s performance is the longest to ever win an acting Oscar) as her high social status becomes useless to her and her family that she is forced to become the primary caretaker of as war rages. Her rough romance with suave Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) serves well to ascend her back to a more comfortable status, but her conniving ways prove to be too much for any man to stand, especially Rhett, prompting him to walk out on her and deliver one of the most famous lines in film history.
Gone with the Wind is on this list for its epic production that including recreating the burning of Atlanta by burning a collection of actual film sets, from pieces from The Garden of Allah and the wall from King Kong. It also gets credit for winning the top prize in 1939, considered by many film buffs to be Hollywood’s Golden Year due to the quality of the films released during it. Gone with the Wind beat out such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Stagecoach. In its place, I was also considering All About Eve (the winner in 1950, which is also a major contender for the title of Hollywood’s Golden Year) and The Bridge on the River Kwai, two films that I admit I like a lot more, but the impact of Gone with the Wind is too much to ignore. Perhaps the Academy felt the same way.
Casablanca (1942) – Too many films that are considered classics leave you feeling a little disappointed in their distinction as such sometimes. They’re good, maybe even really good, but are they truly in league with the all time greats? Casablanca is one of those movies that fully deserves all of its praise. If you haven’t seen any of these BPWs on my list (wtf man?) then watch Casablanca first. Set in the titular town in French Morocco during World War II, we see a unique mixture of people from different countries and cultures converging in the same place with the same desire: to get the hell out of there and into America. There are ways to do it, but they’re not easy and many will kill to secure safe passage. One thing that is assured is that everyone makes their way to Rick’s Cafe, whose American proprietor, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart in his, dare I say, signature role) is truly the most powerful man in town. He becomes even more impactful when he acquires two letters of transit that serve as incontestable Get Out of Jail Free cards for the holder. Rick has no reason to leave the land he prospers in… until his old flame shows up. The only problem is she brought her husband with her and he’s a rebel leader who’s very wanted by the Nazis. The excellent writing, intrigue, and acting are enough to make this movie beyond great, but the love triangle and reactions of each character involved in it as the plot thickens is what raises this movie to the echelon of the best films ever made. Casablanca will have you saying “play it again” in reference to the immortal theme song “As Time Goes By” and the movie itself.
Ben-Hur (1953) – This film is the epitome of epic. Excellently crafted in every way, William Wyler’s magnificent direction makes everything in this movie bigger than anything previously made, and compared to most films since too. The sets are huge, the action scenes are wildly intense, and the story is so grand that Jesus Christ is a supporting character. Ben-Hur is about Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince living in Jerusalem in the same time as the aforementioned Messiah. He is pleased to see his childhood friend Messala has become the commander of the local Roman Legion. That is until a simple misunderstanding turns into an issue of Romans versus Jews that is easier for Messala – who has become further disillusioned by Roman ideals in the years he was away – to wrap up by imprisoning Judah and his family to show his strength as a commander and the strength of the Rome. Judah bides his time and builds his strength, swearing revenge. Yet as he comes closer to fulfilling this goal he realizes that another figure of strength of a different sort is arising, and that this man may truly topple Rome’s tyranny and leave a legacy that will be everlasting.
Ben-Hur is subtitled A Tale of the Christ, and based off the 1880 novel by Lew Wallace and some earlier stage and film versions, it is certainly a Christian-influenced movie. Charlton Heston was a very devoutly religious man, and I’m guessing that many others involved in making the film were too. Nevertheless, even if you’re not into the whole Jesus thing, you can enjoy this film for its thrilling scenes and powerful score, especially the chariot race, one of the most exciting scenes ever filmed. This movie did win 11 Oscars (a record for most won by a single film it shares with Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) for a reason.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – Another one of the best and most influential films ever made, this marvelous sand-filled spectacle is the best film from one of the best directors in movie history. If you don’t know who David Lean is you are missing out on greatness. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences certainly knew who he was, as do countless directors since his time who do their best to emulate him. He and many of his films were nominated for Oscars over the decades he was actively making films the likes of which are definitive epic works. Some won the big prize, like The Bridge on the River Kwai, others probably should have, like Doctor Zhivago, but his masterpiece is his nearly four hour biography based on the memoirs of Colonel T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a British soldier who set off into the desert and united the Bedouin tribes of Arabia to fight against the Turks in WWI. Lawrence was a fascinating man to say the least, yet this does not mean that everything in his movie is historical fact. Most of the officers and leaders were real people, and the war certainly happened, but it is a matter of debate as to how much Lawrence actually did and how much he claimed to do. Lawrence was a well-educated man with talent for embellishment, and according to some (including our filmmakers) he also had quite the ego. Whether real-life Lawrence did everything he wrote he did or not is moot though because the film turned out to be incredible in every aspect. Countless fans and filmmakers love this film for its story, acting, influence, etc., and Maurice Jarre’s sweeping score is one of the greatest ever composed.
The Godfather (1972) – With the help of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James, Caan, and many other great actors, Francis Ford Coppola established himself as a great director. Factor in an excellent screenplay he co-wrote with Mario Puzo, and you’ve got another one of the best movies ever; one that definitely surpasses Puzo’s novel it’s based on. This is the movie that I’m guessing is the most popular and frequently seen on my list, and for good reason. It lives up to all of its hype and delivers on every level. There are so many memorable scenes and lines that ingrained it in popular culture. The pacing is so good that even after nearly three hours it leaves you wanting more (of course Lawrence of Arabia had the same effect for me). Fortunately there
are two more is one more great film that follows it and it might be even better than this first in the franchise. Speaking of which…
The Godfather Part II (1974) – Continuing the story of the Corleones, this second installment in the mafia film franchise was the first sequel to ever win Best Picture. It manages to both wrap up material from the book that the first film did not show and to carry on the story crafted specifically for the film. Robert De Niro, who obviously was not chosen to play Sonny in the prior film, gets into the Godfather franchise as a younger Vito in flashbacks woven between the modern day material that show the Don’s rise to power. De Niro became the first actor to win an Oscar for playing the same character previously played by another actor who also won an Oscar for the role. But before you hurry out to make your own version of the Godfather and portray Don Vito in the hopes of obtaining some acting hardware remember that the two winning actors we’re talking about are Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. In other words, fahgettaboudit! At least you can watch the first two Godfather movies to cheer yourself up. Just avoid Part III at all costs.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Did you know that Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) only appears on screen for 16 minutes in this movie? To put that in perspective, that’s as many minutes as Godzilla was on screen in Godzilla (2014). Wait, that’s my primary argument why Godzilla was underwhelming, but still, Godzilla didn’t win Best Actor for his 16 minutes. Hopkins is so dominating for the short time we do see him that he is ever present in our minds. Not to mention the fantastic directing and editing, and don’t even get me started on Jodie Foster. Okay, I’ll get started; it’s the best performance of her career. Thank goodness she and Hopkins got into this movie because it could have been very different. Originally Gene Hackman bought the rights to Thomas Harris’ novel, but his daughter was disturbed by the graphic subject matter and urged him to reconsider. This was good news for Foster who ran out to buy the rights right after she read the book only to find that Hackman had already got them. Still, she almost didn’t get the part of Clarice because director Jonathan Demme wanted Michelle Pheiffer who had worked with him previously. The producers wanted Foster, but they also wanted an actor like Robert De Niro to portray Dr. Lector. They tried to get a few other A-listers for the role, but Demme insisted on Hopkins after having seen him in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. The director and producers compromised and each got one of their choices, and it worked out far better than anyone could have possibly imagined.
The Silence of the Lambs is a terrific thriller that showcases spectacular acting alongside some truly horrific sights and sequences. An FBI trainee is enlisted as bait in a last ditch effort to coerce pertinent information about an active serial killer who skins his victims from the once esteemed Dr. Hannibal Lector. He is a refined and cultured man who is well spoken and educated. Also he kills and eats people. This movie is the most recent of the three winners of the Oscar Big Five Awards for Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress. It’s been followed (and even preceded) by other adaptations of Harris novels featuring the demented doctor, but this one is still easily the best.
Schindler’s List (1993) – Every once in a great while a film is made that really matters. It displays important subject matter in a beautiful work of art. Schindler’s List is such a film. This movie shows humanity at its very worst and its very best. It tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a real-life German industrialist whose interest in utilizing the cheap labor of Polish Jews detained by the Nazis gradually turned to an effort to save as many of them as possible from certain death.
Steven Spielberg was the man in 1993, first churning out Jurassic Park before filming this masterpiece. As a matter of fact, he was contractually obligated to make the films in that order because Universal Studios feared he would be too emotionally consumed after Schindler’s List to effectively deliver dino goodness. He later acknowledged this was a good move. Now Jurassic Park is one of my favorite movies and one that I seriously think was worthy of a nomination for Best Picture in 1993, but Schindler’s List is one of those aforementioned once-in-a-while films that earned its award not because it shows someone doing very nice things for a suffering ethnic group but because it really is that good and the fact that it’s taken from real history makes it all the more resonant.
Spielberg often says Schindler’s List is the most important film of his career and he actually refused to be paid for it as he felt it would have been “blood money” and considered it more of a documentary. There are intense scenes of the horrors of the Holocaust and lots of deaths both on and off-screen, but ultimately this film is uplifting. The scene at the end where Schindler says, “I could have got more out. I could have got more.” is truly, truly heartbreaking.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – The culmination of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal masterpiece is the best yet. The only fantasy film to ever win the big award, it managed to also be the only movie to date that won all of its awards when it was nominated for at least 10 (it got 11 total, the biggest clean sweep in Oscar history, and tied for the most all time, but you knew that already because I said it earlier). Few films have capture the great character embodiment, pacing, and rousing action needed to make an epic film work, and this one has got all that, terrific technical effects, makeup, and costumes, and scenes that keep amping up the excitement and topping what you just saw. Howard Shore’s Oscar-winning score is grandiose at the best moments like the lighting of the beacons, and the actual moment of the return of the king, and not to mention this happens. But the best part of the whole series is right here. You want to make the next time you help your drunken friend stumble on home fun? Say that.
Best Best Picture Nominees That Didn’t Win That Should Have
Citizen Kane (1941) – Regarded by many critics and classic film fans to be the best movie ever made, it is a stunning wonder this movie did not win Best Picture. What did win that year was John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, about Welsh coal miners and their troubles. It’s not bad, but it sure ain’t no Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane was Orson Welles announcement to the world that he had arrived and Hollywood better look out! (You know, because he got really fat and took up a lot of space.) Loosely based on the life of news tycoon William Randolph Hearst, this movie is the best you’ll ever have spoiled for you by Peter Griffin. Its style has influenced so many filmmakers since its release and it has truly stood the test of time. Also great that year and much better than the actual BPW, Humphrey Bogart’s other best movie, The Maltese Falcon, is a close second best behind Citizen Kane, and is one of the greatest films ever made as well.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) – Let me just say right now, I love My Fair Lady. But just how long I could have danced (all night!) is irrelevant to the discussion of which movie was best in 1964. That honor should have gone to Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy that is as ridiculous as its long-winded title. What began as a serious adaptation of Peter George’s novel Red Alert, which depicts a nuclear war started on accident, quickly turned into a satire when Kubrick realized just how hilarious some of the scenes he had written were. Add in incredible performances from Peter Sellers (in three roles), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden and many others, as well as hysterical lines (“Gentlemen you can’t fight in here; this is the War Room!”; “You’ll have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company.”) and you’ve got yourself a winning combination. Plus any movie that gives Slim Pickens the chance to be Slim Pickens is great (see Blazing Saddles), especially when he gets to ride a nuclear bomb through the sky.
Jaws (1975) – My favorite movie that I think is as close to a perfect film as has ever been made. Steven Spielberg’s major directorial debut was the first summer blockbuster and started a trend that continues today and looks to forever. It lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which was the second film to win the Big Five, but I don’t care. It’s a good movie that deserves to be in the mix, but Jaws has everything: suspense, horror, action, adventure, drama, romance, and a 25 foot great white shark. In fact, the mechanical shark is the biggest problem for the film. It is not an accurate depiction of any shark in behavior or ability, but it doesn’t look exactly like one either. Still, it’s scary and clearly a shark, and Spielberg did a fantastic job of hiding its flaws. His excellent direction (which I know the Academy hates themselves now for not recognizing with a nomination then) and John Williams iconic score (which did win) make it so that the shark is scariest when we don’t see it. Factor in perfect casting and acting and you’ve got the best movie ever made. A must see for everyone, just maybe wait until after you’ve learned how to swim.
Star Wars (1977) – Another of my top five favorite films, Star Wars is the most important cultural phenomenon in film history. This is one of a very select few science fiction films to have been nominated for Best Picture, but it lost to one of Oscar’s favorite people: Woody Allen. Now I’ve got nothing against Woody Allen (as a filmmaker that is), and Annie Hall, the BPW for 1977, is really good and quite hilarious, but the Academy loves the hell out of him to a fault. Know what they don’t love? Sci-fi. At least John Williams was again recognized for composing the greatest cinematic musical score of all time.
George Lucas does a wonderful job of presenting his most brilliant universe in the galaxy far, far away. The greatest modern take on the mythological hero quest, Star Wars is a fantastic story that happens to be complemented by then-groundbreaking special effects that still stand up today (and often actually look better than the CGI used in the inferior prequels). Lucas does a marvelous job of incorporating influences from almost every great science-fiction and fantasy story ever told – everything from Homer’s Iliad to Herbert’s Dune – and still presents an incredibly original story.
But the crowning achievement is the motley crew of characters that carry this story up into the stars throughout the saga. The film can seem a little slow at first with so much time spent on the desert world of Tattooine to establish the story, but every minute is filled with wonder. The whipped cream and cherry on top of this glorious sci-fi fantastic sundae is the explosive finale, the assault on the polar trench of the Death Star, which is nothing short of the greatest climax in cinema history.
Star Wars clearly has had the bigger impact in every possible way, but back in 1977 it was only able to get into the mix while Annie Hall was given the gold. That’s like flying down the polar trench of the Death Star and trusting your targeting computer to make the shot.
Apocalypse Now (1979) – After he made the Godfather movies ,Francis Ford Coppola set out to make a Vietnam film. Based on his recent successes he was basically granted carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted, but studio producers soon regretted this. Coppola’s record of coming in ahead of time and under budget exploded into the sky as he poured in millions upon millions to achieve his perfect vision. The result was a very expensive project that didn’t get made on schedule (kind of like this post, but hey, one does not simply spend his birthday writing over celebrating), and it was one of the best war movies ever made. Was it the end for Coppola? You bet, in this sense. More great direction, writing, performances, and even better scenery than any previous Coppola project. Certainly it excelled beyond the divorce court drama Kramer vs. Kramer.
If you were to ask people what they feel is the most enduring film of 1979 the answer would most likely begin with an “A”, involve a small crew in mortal danger thanks in part to the people they’re working for, and owe a debt of gratitude to Joseph Conrad. Surprisingly, two films fit this oddly specific criteria. First is Apocalypse Now, the superior film from that year that brilliantly translates Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the context of the Vietnam War. This is no easy task considering Heart of Darkness is Conrad’s best known work that evokes the horrors of venturing into the unknown, losing yourself in the wild, and 6th period English. You said it, Marlon Brando.
Speaking of which, the next best film of 1979 is my vote for scariest ever. Naturally it’s another terrific science fiction film done by a promising young director.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Back to Spielberg and George Lucas (and back when Lucas was on top of his game), this collaborative effort was made as an homage to the great adventure films of their youth and early film, yet it soars to a level above all others before and after thanks to their direction and writing, and the writing of Lawrence Kasdan and Philip Kaufman (both will be mentioned again), as well as a man named Harrison Ford who looks better in a fedora than anyone else. This film introduced the world to Indiana Jones who gives us all the running we need in a movie in the opening sequence. (Alfred Molina was thinner back then.) This is historical fiction at its finest, intelligent and action-packed with plenty of good humor and old-fashioned ass-kicking at the expense of the Nazis. What more could you ask for? (Don’t say aliens.) Thankfully Harrison Ford’s exhausted logic took away a probably too ridiculous whip versus sword fight and gave us this best part of the movie instead. We still get to hear that whip crack plenty of times anyway. Did you know that the crack of a whip is from the tip breaking the sound barrier? This achievement of creating a sonicboom is integral to the next movie on our list as well.
The Right Stuff (1983) – Based on Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name (a great read btw; my favorite nonfiction work), this is the real-life story (with some dramatic liberties, of course) of the beginnings of the American space program. Opening in the post-war experimental aviation boom that was kept mainly top secret during its time, the film starts by introducing us to Chuck Yeager, the greatest pilot to ever grace the skies, as he is selected to attempt to fly faster than the speed of sound. The story gradually progresses over the next 16 years (and by gradually, I mean it’s over three hours long – but totally worth it), showing Yeager’s rise as the most respected pilot and the training of the Mercury 7, the first American astronauts who became more well-known and loved than Yeager and the fellow test pilots they beat out for the space job.
Per the favoring of director Philip Kaufman (told you he’d pop up again), the film glorifies Yeager above all else, which was more than an annoyance to Tom Wolfe and screenwriter William Goldman. In fact, Wolfe ends the book pointing out how Yeager was still one of the best, but wasn’t regarded as the best anymore. He was an older man and had been knocked off the top of the pyramid of men with “the right stuff” by younger pilots and astronauts. Maybe true, but I can’t say I blame Kaufman for getting caught up in the heroics of Yeager as each plane disaster we see him avert on film actually happened in real life. For more on this consult my love letter to Yeager from a few months back.
Pulp Fiction (1994) – 1994 was one of the more recent years that many film buffs consider to be one of the greatest ever in film history and the Oscar noms from that year show why. Classics like BPW Forrest Gump, and The Shawshank Redemption have gone down as some of the most revered films of more than just the 1990s. Even the oft overlooked Quiz Show is a solid film (Robert Redford knows how to make a movie). Shawshank is a close second for me for 1994, but number one is undisputed, and it’s not Forrest Gump (which I do really enjoy). Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino’s and 1994’s best film, is a vivid collage of crime that throws linear timelines out the window and mashes together an interesting interwoven set of stories that are filled with great characters and some of the best dialogue you’ll ever hear in a film. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of best you’ll hear in a film, get a load of that score! It’s all great underground rock, soul, R&B, and whatever the hell theme songs and sound effects Tarantino liked hearing on TV as a kid. It’s almost the best collection of non-original music (as in not written for the movie; I don’t mean that it’s plagiarized or anything) in a movie, but we’ll get to that later.
Saving Private Ryan (1998) – It still stuns me that this excellent film lost to Shakespeare in Love. Again, a cute movie that I enjoyed more than I anticipated, but goddamn it, Saving Private Ryan earned the Best Picture Oscar just with the D-Day sequence that opens the movie. This is my favorite war film, and it just may be the best one ever made. It doesn’t glorify the war, but it does glorify the men who fought in it while highlighting their humanity, especially as they ask the question, “What is the life of one man worth?” Things are further complicated when they finally do find that man and he refuses to leave his band of brothers. Filled with all of what you would expect in a Spielberg movie (except plucky children), this is one of the few films that is spilling over with celebrities in major, minor, and bit roles and no one is out of place or steals the show but only adds to it.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – No other film introduced us to a cinematic version of a literary world like Fellowship did when it took us to Middle Earth. Brilliantly adapting the best book I (and many others) have ever read and loved, fans of Tolkien and people who had never heard of him alike loved this movie when it came out. I actually hated it when I first saw it, but that was because I was kid who didn’t know how long of a movie he was in for at the time and I didn’t understand what all the fuss over a piece of simple jewelry was. I do now, much more than I probably should… but the long and short of it is that this film altered the cinematic landscape and brought fantasy to the Oscar party for the first time in a long time. It was actually nominated for more Oscars than the third film in the series that swept the ceremony away two years later, but though it got four, the big one it should have gotten went to A Beautiful Mind instead.
Best Pictures That Weren’t Even Nominated for Best Picture That Should Have Won Best Picture
Duck Soup (1933) – It was a tough call to decide between this and King Kong, but much as I love that giant gorilla, he’s just not as funny as the Marx Brothers. Not to mention, this finest film of theirs is positively snapping with biting satire. Actually banned by Mussolini who felt it was a comical critique of him specifically, this laugh a second affair details the rise to power of an inept and corrupt politician (Groucho Marx) who is backed by a wealthy woman who is so absolutely baffled by him that she fails to see how hilariously harmful he is in a position of power. The conniving nation next door sends equally bumbling spies (Harpo and Chico Marx) over to create havoc, and in this they actually succeed, but only in ruining the dastardly plans of their superiors and the days of many a comely young woman. On the surface this seems like a typical Marx Brothers romp, but hidden among the chuckle-worthy chaos is a damnation of corrupt politics and dirty dictators. Mussolini might have actually been onto something there.
The Third Man (1949) – As good as Citizen Kane is, it is far from Orson Welles’ best movie. Carol Reed directs this caper like Hitchcock at his best (which we’ll talk about in a moment), tilting the camera to provide askew glances at a similarly off-kilter society. Set in post-war Vienna, this adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel is regarded by many film lovers as the best movie ever made (I feel like I’ve said that a lot). It’s quite a shock that it didn’t even get nominated. Much like the surprise that American Western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) gets when he travels to Vienna to work with his old friend Harry Lime only to find that Harry is dead. Apparently Harry was killed by being struck by a car, but Holly feels like there are holes in the story and investigates further. What he discovers is that everything is not as it seems, but is in fact, much more surprising than he could have imagined. Orson Welles is only in the movie for a limited amount of time, yet his performance is widely considered one of the best of his career, and his entrance is one of the best by any character in any film.
Vertigo (1958) – One of Hitchcock’s best films, which is saying something. He works again with James Stewart who plays a former police detective turned private eye who is afraid of heights after a traumatic experience that ended his police career. He is hired by a friend to follow his friend’s wife (Kim Novak) who has been acting strangely. He follows her around for a while, and even ends up saving her life when she jumps in San Francisco Bay. They fall in love with each other but such happiness is not meant to last as tragedy ends the romance. That’s when things get really strange.
1958’s BPW, Gigi, is generally considered the worst movie to have won Best Picture. It managed to beat out good movies like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Auntie Mame, and The Defiant Ones, but the biggest crime is the lack of nomination and win for Vertigo, which is better than all of these combined. Actually, all of those movies combined would be weird and really long, so we’ll just say Vertigo is better than each of them and every other film in 1958.
Psycho (1960) – Hitchcock’s defining work, which is really saying something considering how much he made before and after this film and the quality of each of those films. Defying and defining horror film conventions, this classic was shocking then and still is now. The instantly recognizable score is chilling and matches the frenetic acts of murder that occur on camera, but those violins are hard at work discomforting us before we even get to the Bates Motel.
I really like The Apartment, the Jack Lemmon movie that won Best Picture in 1960, but Psycho is just so good and should have been a contender and champion that year.
Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo [The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly] (1966) – Speaking of signature scores everyone knows before they see the movie it was written for, Ennio Morricone’s classic and quirky western “wah-wah-wah”s are perfect blended with Sergio Leone’s masterful direction for his third and final installment in the Man with No Name series (although Clint Eastwood’s character is addressed as both Monco and Blondie in the films, so while neither is probably his proper name, he is christened). Taking place in the western United States (despite the fact that it was filmed in Spain and Italy) during the Civil War, it tells the tale of three men – all of whom are more bad than good – searching for a gold-filled grave and racing the other two to find it. Blondie and Tuco (the Good and Ugly) team up here and there, but the end finds each one staring down the others in a climactic and suspenseful standoff. Leone succeeds in bringing the best Western the screen had ever seen, which happened to be the best movie of 1966, and he may have done it again with C’era una volta il West [Once Upon a Time in the West] in 1968 were it not for another film…
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Once again I’ll say it: this is considered by many to be the greatest film ever made. Extraordinary in every aspect, this is a hallmark film on innovation, style, and substance. Technically impressive and philosophically incredible, 2001 asks the biggest question we possible can: “Why are we here and where do we go from here?” I guess it’s a two-part question.
More people need to see this movie if for no other reason than to get the joke I always make whenever someone is experiencing computer difficulty: “What’s the matter? HAL won’t open the pod bay doors?” There is a reason the background on my computer is the smiling face of the most famous AI ever conceived in fiction. Also, it’s also one of the greatest films ever made. Not just one of the best science fiction films, one of the best films. It certainly has the best unoriginal musical score of any movie with a perfect selection of classical music for each scene. It fits so well that one can clearly see that some scenes are built around the musical composition that plays throughout them.
2001 has a lot going on in it even when it doesn’t have a lot happening. It’s definitely worth watching more than once, but I will admit that first viewing can be tedious. In a word, 2001 is hypnotic; it’s incredible captivating throughout the entire film, but you still might be asleep at the end of it.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – My favorite movie that takes place in space is no contest. Many do also call this the greatest film of all time, but I will admit they are mostly nerds. Nevertheless, they’re nerds with a great taste in favorite films because this is the greatest sequel of all time; besting its predecessor in every conceivable way – and its predecessor was pretty damn good. Not to mention, 1980 was a weak year for BPNs, so Empire should have been a shoo-in. What gives, Academy? No love for the Lucas? Did you get a glimpse in the future and see what he would do with this franchise and preemptively punish him for it? It’s still not deserved. Besides, Empire was directed by Irvin Kershner and written by Lawrence Kasdan (told you he’d be mentioned again!) and Leigh Brackett from George Lucas’ story. The characters we love show more depth and pain, we meet new characters and see new worlds, and we get a great lightsaber duel which culminates in the greatest twist that everybody already knows now. This is the best movie of the 1980s and it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture in its own year.
The Dark Knight (2008) – I explained in my previous Oscar gripe post that 2008 was a key year in the expansion to the current up-to-10 film format for the Best Picture award. A major reason why was this excellent film that is the best from Christopher Nolan. Had it been nominated for Best Picture as it should have been, The Dark Knight would have flown back to the Batcave with some shiny new hardware. For what it’s worth, at least Heath Ledger was awarded his much deserved Supporting Actor Oscar posthumously for the incredible performance he gave to the Joker that blew the previous portrayal by perennial Oscar winner Jack Nicholson out of the water.
Drive (2011) – Bloody and brilliant, the former probably scared off the Academy from nominating this dynamic film adaptation of James Sallis’ novel. Like some of the other minimalist movies I’ve mentioned here, Drive does so much by doing so little. For example, the use of the quadrant system, as explained here, is a simple yet effective technique that subconsciously drives (no pun intended) the film along. The acting is soooo good all around too. Seriously, look at the people in this movie and observe how none of them steal more scenes than their characters are supposed to (Albert Brooks is supposed to steal a lot of scenes). Ryan Gosling showed he can be a badass and a reserved dramatic actor in this. Carrie Mulligan excels again as a woman in a complicated romantic situation. Bryan Cranston, well, c’mon. Albert Brooks, God Damn, Man. I was not expecting that dark side from Marlin the clownfish. This film also has a great collection of music that adds to its signature style. Then there’s the driving. Oh yeah, even though he didn’t have a driver’s license at the time, director Nicolas Winding Refn showed he knows how to film people in cars (probably why he got the job directing those Lincoln commercials with Matthew McConaughey). The car chases are heart-pounding and rank as some of the best ever filmed. But if blood makes you squeamish then you might want to look away during some scenes because there are some showers of scarlet.
Interstellar (2014) – I’ve kind of belabored my point on this one enough, so read my past posts if you want to hear more.
Whew! That was a long one, I know, but now you’ve got 30 great movies to think on and assess the value of just as I did. Whether or not you agree with me or the Academy or neither doesn’t matter because ultimately it’s whatever you want to watch that will rate as your favorite film of each year. Our favorite movies may have a few flaws, or a lot, or be what we refer to as a “guilty pleasure”, but they’re our favorites for a reason, just as the Academy’s favorites are theirs. But what fun would it be if we just shrugged our shoulders and said, “Okay, whatever,” to their selections every year? Everybody makes mistakes, and filmmakers and raters are no different; look at how many more shitty movies than good movies get made each year.
Thanks for reading! I apologize for the tardiness, but you try writing this much and enjoying your birthday at the same time: something’s gotta give, and I hope it’s the writing part. So live a little and send me questions, comments, requests, and all that jazz to firstname.lastname@example.org. As movies are a favorite subject of mine to ramble on about I may start a specifically movie oriented blog in the near future with more posts complaining about Oscar selections of past and present, so keep your eyes open for that. That’ll probably be a once-in-a-while posting venue if I make it, and I’ll let you all know if and when I do on this site. Fear not, I will stop writing here. You can still expect whatever random topic pops into my head to find its way somewhat poetically onto this page every Monday/very early Tuesday.
R.I.P. Jon Lovitz,