Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My Top 20 Favorite Post-1970's Academy Award Best Picture Winners

As someone who enjoys writing about the Oscars for fun, I have also tried to make a decision to watch all of the Best Picture winners. At very least, this would help me to understand the cultural impact more and notice trends. I have gone through some highs and lows, and in the end, I come away with expectations that were either met or disappointed. In the past week, I have reached a new milestone with my goal and have seen every film that has won after 1970. The following is a compilation of my top 20 favorite as well as some honorable mentions and the five that I felt were least deserving (hint: I found some I liked less than Crash)

I must apologize for my infrequent posting in the past few weeks. In reality, it has been hard to come up with news stories to write about. As tempting as a piece on Man of Steel could be, there is the big "No" hanging over the verdict. While I expect to write a piece on The Spectacular Now and the release of the new trailer sometime later in the week, I figured that I would take this opportunity to help you understand who I am as an Oscar-watching admirer.

I admit upfront that I don't always agree with the final votes. That should be obvious for anyone who noticed my strong push for The Master this past season. However, I still admire it as a cornerstone for great cinema. Maybe the best don't always get nominated or win, but as a representation of that year in film, I think that most years at least show the mindset. Sometimes political, sometimes personal, the Oscars have always tended to be about the moment. Most of all, the nominees alone provides future audiences with films to check out. While I am alone on this one, I wouldn't have seen great films like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close or the ambitiously interesting Nashville. Maybe they're not the greatest, but I still think it does the job quite effectively.

So what should you know going into this list? This is not a general "Best of" list. This is more what films I really liked and those that I didn't. I'll admit that some will get dismissed for varying reasons, which will be given, but the reason that I chose to do the list once I hit 1970 was because that is the divide. I feel before 1970, you had a different mindset of film making. One that I am not entirely familiar with on both technical and narrative levels. Post-1970, you have more personal dramas and the entire 70's auteur movement that lead to struggles and triumph of the will on grand scales. I may be wrong, but I feel like 1970 was the start of the modern winner.

I apologize for the lengthiness of this piece, but I hope that it will help you understand who I am when I critique Best Picture nominees. Maybe some of my selections are, for many, wrong, but to me, they define Best Picture in the contemporary manner that I feel is best.

The Best of the Best
Left to right: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton
1. Annie Hall

Discovering Woody Allen films at 17 was a revolutionary experience for me. For the first time in my short cinematic existence, I felt something more than entertainment. I felt there was intellect and humor blended together to create a soul. Annie Hall rises above most of them because of its confectionary style of blending cartoons, stand-up, and whatever was on Allen's plate at that moment. It never ceases to amuse me and the amazing script creates one of my favorite comedies and movies in general. Most of all, it affected who I became as a writer and as a person. It made me look at life differently and long to just be as creative as I can be. To a large extent, I still get excited at the notion that Allen can win Best Picture again, even if I know in my heart that Midnight in Paris was never going to win over The Artist.

Jack Nicholson
2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Ever since I was young, I had this odd attraction to Jack Nicholson films. The Shining was the notable gateway as I watched this crazy man scare me with nothing but his face. While he has had an impressive body of work, nothing compares to the amazing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Let's face it, once Nicholson gets on screen, there is a reason that this is his breakthrough film. Not only does it say something poignant about the institutionalized society during the era, but it gives a subtle evolution of a sane man going crazy and Louise Fletcher being the scariest nurse in the world. Filled with humor but very clearly a drama, it is incredible that this film remains so important to me, if just because it featured Taxi stars Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd in somewhat convincing roles. I love this film and remains the biggest reason that I rank Nicholson as one of the all time greats.

Tom Hulce
3. Amadeus

If you have to say one thing about director Milos Forman, it is that he is great at ensemble casts. Years after winning for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, he released this epic biopic on Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Salieri's (F. Murray Abraham) infamous feud that resulted in one dying and the other in a psych ward. At first it sounds unappealing, but as the film gets deeper, the more this evolves into the greatest rock 'n roll story of all time. Mozart wasn't a boring man. He was always laughing and having a great time. The contrast with Salieri's jealousy only makes the picture more brilliant and even at three hours, there isn't a dull moment. This look at the past says a lot about the present and while accuracy can be arguable, this story is just a great example about how passion, censorship, and jealousy have existed for centuries. No period piece that has won has done a better job of explaining this.

Gene Hackman
4. The French Connection

Just like the chase scene that defines this movie, The French Connection was the beginning of a new era. Gone were the epics of the earlier years and in were the fast paced, gritty dramas with a soundtrack to match. It also helps that this may be one of Gene Hackman's best roles and Popeye Doyle. Even if Martin Scorsese would make Mean Streets the following year, this film beat him to the punch and makes a good case for Scorsese plagiarizing his whole career. The French Connection is that good. It introduces a lot of great set pieces, an iconic character, and the best way to tear apart a car. There have been few like it since that have won, but if anything, this film is symbolic of what could be done with cinema afterwards. It never slowed down or cared to apologize for its flaws, and it is all the better for it.

Liam Neeson
5. Schindler's List

One of my favorite stories about Schindler's List is that director Steven Spielberg would get so depressed while filming it that afterwards he would call up Robin Williams, who he worked with on Hook. Williams was in charge of cheering him up. It may not have a lot to do with the picture, but it says a lot about how dedicated Spielberg was to making a massive, depressing look into the horrors of World War II concentration camps with an equally great John Williams score. While he would continue to make films on WWII, none remain as poignant or meditative as Schindler's List, which may be a massive emotional undertaking to watch more than once, but is nonetheless a masterpiece of film making.

Al Pacino
6. The Godfather/The Godfather Part II

Is it a cheat to make director Francis Ford Coppola's two Best Picture winners into one slot? Seeing as they are congruent parts to a whole, I am not entirely sure. These two films are two halves to the same whole and feature an all-star cast that soon went into the pantheon as the greatest American film since Citizen Kane. Of course, what is more impressive is that both defied expectations and soon were both on their way to defining great film making. I may argue that Apocalypse Now is Coppola's best film and that Chinatown deserved to win over Part II, but nonetheless, Coppola was a master at capturing emotion and story through brilliant performances. No matter what you say about these two, there will always be someone out there with a higher opinion, which is saying something.

Left to right: Paul Newman and Robert Redford
7. The Sting

Wonder what the coolest, most suave Best Picture winner in history is? The Sting. No competition. With great performances by Paul Newman and Robert Redford as con men, this film managed to make everything look so cool. Largely thanks to Marvin Hamlisch's adaptation of ragtime classics and a wardrobe of great suits, this film is almost too confident to even be a Best Picture winner. The story is tight and the performances so solid that no film could really compete for a beat for beat most engaging, breezy story. The Sting holds up because even if it was a throwback even for the 1970's, it is the coolest throwback that has probably ever existed.

Elijah Wood
8. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Another sentimental favorite. As a middle school student in the early 00's, Lord of the Rings seemed like the greatest trilogy in the world. The epic scales, the fact that the libraries didn't ban the books. Even in comparison to the Harry Potter movies, J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy series was an impressive translation to the big screen on all fronts. Technically impressive to the point of presenting one of my favorite cinematic characters: Gollum. I remember watching the film the day that it swept the Academy Awards. It was quite a day of celebration. I still occasionally pop on the trilogy and get swept away in its grand, epic scope. While I am more in love with The Two Towers, there's no denying that The Return of the King has an equally sentimental place in my film collection with that big extended edition box set.

Left to right: Jean Dujardin and Bernice Bejo

9. The Artist

Have I lost you? I love The Artist on so many levels. For starters, I have been a fan of the ability to emote without words, and the final act of this film is nothing but powerful. It may seem like a hacky, familiar premise, but it manages to be more than a throwback silent film by presenting great performances, a great score, and a great dog named Uggie. It may be my love of the old ways of cinema and the wardrobe of the period, but this film hits all of the right beats. During my time of studying the winners, I found that the 00's, as diverse in winners they were, wasn't my favorite period. In fact, I could argue that in the past 10 years, The Artist is my favorite. Few films have managed to capture the essence and artfulness so perfectly. Also, cannot wait to see what Jean Dujardin does with the rest of his career.

10. The Last Emperor

This may have been one of the most skeptical times that I went into a Best Picture winner. Yet, when I came out, I was amazed at how in a grand scope, it managed to say so much about a man who did so little. This epic covers Pu-yi's entire life in a fascinating way of time jumping and revealing just what it took to be an emperor ever since you were a child. The beauty is that not only does it cover how emotionally complex the simple mind of being in charge can have, but also how China was changing at the same time. The contrasts are so amazing that when everything is set in motion in the final act, there is a sense of sympathy for the life unlived. Even the final scene has a touching moment of a man's significance. This is an exploration of life and cultural influence in a fascinating, tragic, and beautiful looking way.

Left to right: Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon
11. The Departed

As a fan of cinema, it is impossible to not admire director Martin Scorsese. While this win, in hindsight, may come off as a sympathy win, I do admire the irony. Where Scorsese was known for making films about Italian mobs in New York, this is about an Irish mob in Boston. The subtle twists are hilarious, but not as much as the brilliant performances by the entire cast and the use of a Dropkick Murphys song that launched them onto the global scale. With Nicholson's last great performance, this darkly funny picture is so twisted in plot that it will take a few viewings to fully understand. Even then, it may be the most lively and fun winner of the 00's, and with brilliant nods to cinema's past, Scorsese definitely deserved the win. The argument on if its his best shouldn't be the discussion. The bigger argument should be why he hasn't worked with Nicholson since. 

Javier Bardem
12. No Country for Old Men

The class of 2007 nominees may be one of my personal favorites in recent years, if just on the basis that I have rewatched these films the most. While No Country for Old Men is a tough watch sometimes, I still keep coming back to it for a few reasons. Besides it being a film by my favorite directors of all time, Joel and Ethan Coen, it is the brilliant performance by Javier Bardem as the evil, cow prod-toting lunatic. His slow, menacing crawl through the film asks you not to pay attention and it results in some iconic, dark moments that still hold up. It may not be the Coen Brothers' best film, but it shows their ability to make a simple heist story into a philosophical, violent look into a cop who just wants to retire, but has to deal with a crazy lunatic before he can... And then I woke up.

Kevin Spacey
13. American Beauty

One of the issues with Academy Award winners that deal with family dramas is that people tend to write them off as immediately dated. Still, I think that these films should be representations of the era in which they were conceived as well as being great art. I feel like American Beauty is the perfect intersection of the two and maybe one of the better Best Picture winners of a dull stretch in the 90's. It is at times dark and funny and the exploration of high school life is an excellent update on Ordinary People. Director Sam Mendes definitely earned his chops with this film and with a great performance by Kevin Spacey, there isn't much that I can find wrong with the film. It felt authentic for the period and it still manages to be an entertaining film today. Do I love it? Not entirely, but it still deserves more credit than it receives.

Tom Hanks

14. Forrest Gump

Many argue that Forrest Gump is escapism for idiots. Others think that Pulp Fiction was the clear pick for Best Picture. The thing is that it is hard for me to separate all of this because ever since I was 5, I knew the film. The box of chocolates monologue and Lt. Dan story all have been ingrained in my pop culture, Tom Hanks-liking, brain. In a way, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) was someone I knew long before I saw the film, and that was a testament to my generation finding deep infatuation with him. I suppose this speaks to its legacy and why it is one of my favorite Best Picture winners, if just because it skews history enough to make some impressively original stories and the greatest pee joke in Best Picture history, Life of Pi notwithstanding. I think I love the film simply because of its familiarity, which is something amazing, especially since few winners since have become as iconic to my generation as Forrest Gump.

George C. Scott
15. Patton

This is the film that put writer Francis Ford Coppola on the map. He wrote the screenplay about this no guff general Patton (George C. Scott) as he lead him men to war. The film immediately sets itself up for greatness with a rigorous, memorable pep rally monologue from Patton about the violence of war. Immediately he becomes this figure that means business, and it turns into a fascinating epic about war and a man who will do anything to protect his country. While it was the first winner of the 70's, I personally feel like this is the connecting piece between the old school film making style and the modern take on it. That lone provides some significance on top of just being a very entertaining film with an equally great score. 

Joaquin Phoenix
16. Gladiator

I believe that it is obvious that I just love Joaquin Phoenix as an actor. However, what makes Gladiator great is that director Ridley Scott managed to make an epic that fit with the 00's running theme of finding identity as well as being a throwback to the swords and sandals epic of the earlier decades. It was equal parts entertainment and redemption with a menacing villain and a great performance by Russell Crowe, who in two years made two great Best Picture winners. Still, this film's struggle for justice is done on such an impressive scale that I can find little to argue against it. If Braveheart is epic violence done wrong at the Academy Awards, then Gladiator is epic violence done right. It fits the story and with the iconic "Are you not entertained?" speech, this film cements itself as one of the more entertaining winners of the 00's.

Left to right: Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman
17. Rain Man

If there is one actor that is almost defined by the Oscars, it is Dustin Hoffman. From Midnight Cowboy to Rain Man, he turned in a lot of amazing performances. For me, it all started with Rain Man, a film that introduced me to the potential greatness of Hoffman and his ability to play mental disabilities without feeling crass. Even with a score that seems out of place for Hans Zimmer nowadays, this tale between two brothers trying to bond over gambling and K-Mart sticks with me for that performance. It manages to be funny and moving without tugging too much at the heart strings. In the 80's, the Academy seemed to be voting in any film that had emotional complexity as proven by Out of Africa and Driving Miss Daisy. However, when they got it right, they managed to get gems like this one that unfortunately was the dawn on Dustin Hoffman's continual appearance in the Best Picture Oscar race.

Robert De Niro
18. The Deer Hunter

While I would go on to loathe director Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, there is no denying that he had something brilliant in The Deer Hunter. In this tale, he manages to show the life of a small steel mill town before, during, and after the Vietnam War. Packed with memorable moments and a brilliant performance by Christopher Walken, this story almost humanized the war in ways that very film other films managed to. If Platoon explored the tragedy of war, then The Deer Hunter showed the aftermath in such a way that it still resonates in depressing detail. Not a moment is wasted. With great performances by an all-star cast, there is little doubt that The Deer Hunter's legacy exists not because of the bar scene or the Russian roulette game, but because for once, a film showed just how much that war is hell.

Left to right: Judd Hirsch and Timothy Hutton
19. Ordinary People

For many, the back-to-back win of Kramer vs. Kramer and Robert Redford's directorial debut marked the end of artistic films always winning, especially with Apocalypse Now infamously losing. Still, what should be noted, and it is something that I thoroughly believe, is that it is important for the Academy to recognize contemporary stories that reflect the era. That is the only way that they can become more than the arty film awards show. Still, Ordinary People is a marvel because it almost seems to resonate to this day. The film's exploration about how dysfunctional families and talking to each other improves lives is a powerful theme that is brilliantly executed in the film. Also, Timothy Hutton was well deserving of that Best Actor Oscar, at which point he became the youngest winner in history. Maybe it is the brilliant turns by comedic performers Judd Hirsch and Mary Tyler Moore, but this film feels as modern now as it did then, save for a few cultural differences. Ordinary People may be more of a sappy drama, but what it says is important, and that is why it deserves more respect.

Hilary Swank
20. Million Dollar Baby

It was tough to cut the list off at 20, as I am sure many would say "Where's Unforgiven, Rocky, Kramer vs. Kramer or Silence of the Lambs?" Trust me, those are all hard to leave out. Still, when looking at the films that were favorites, I had to go with my heart. Not being a sports fan, I was blown away by Million Dollar Baby on numerous fronts. The notable reasons is that I like how director and actor Clint Eastwood has evolved into a film maker who deals in some ways with vulnerability in his work, and this film packs it amazingly. While I consider The Fighter to be the best boxing movie of recent years, this one gets a mention solely because of its execution. With great performances by Hilary Swank and Eastwood, there is little to dislike. The final act switch even adds an emotional layer that seems uncompromising for a sports film and gives it the edge. Of course, I also am just a fan of Morgan Freeman voice-over, which this film uses almost perfectly. It has humor, heart, and tragedy. It is a great sports film for a non-sports fan.

Honorable Mention
This is a film that was neither great nor terrible. It is one that I feel like time has mistreated and I just wanted to give it a shout out as being just good.

Juliette Binoche
The English Patient

Okay, I hear blasphemy rising through the internet. The truth is that I didn't love The English Patient, but I felt like its reputation has been a little unfair. Its sweeping scenery and romantic story are all greatly done in a cinematic and beautiful way. Almost every scene in this movie is great to look at. With solid performances by Ralph Fiennes and the rest of the cast, this romantic drama from the 90's has been maligned as one of the worst. The film that I can compare this to and feel like it is a superior version of is Out of Africa: another romantic story that looks good, but is essentially dull. Here, there is plenty to chew on and plenty of memorable scenes. Love it or hate it, it was a nice touch of romance in the middle of the 90's love of war and history.

The Worst of the Worst
Controversial selection, but these five just were loathsome to watch and remind me that the Academy doesn't always make sense.

1. Chariots of Fire

Sometimes you have to wonder how films win these awards. While it is in the Rocky mold of an underdog overcoming adversity to win the Olympics, what else does it have? It is a movie about people running for two hours. Take out the iconic Vangelis score, and what do you have? People running for two hours in an unthrilling manner. Add in the iconic Vangelis score, and you get the same thing, but set to a bizarre, slightly better than Blade Runner, synthesized slow motion film about running. It makes no sense and it is kind of unnerving to watch, especially as it now feels like satirizing an actual good film. Chariots of Fire remains the hardest Best Picture film for me to fully understand why it won.

Kevin Costner
2. Dances with Wolves

For those thinking that The English Patient was slow, please consult Dances with Wolves for a guideline of how voice over can go wrong. Maybe it is just that Kevin Costner's voice sounds a little funny, but I didn't really feel anything was really established of interest in this race relation of a film that wasn't done in a more interesting light in Driving Miss Daisy. Even the action feels a little off and there is a scene involving pissed pants that makes me wonder what the early 90's were like that urine was a popular gag in Best Picture winners. As far as epics go, this would have been better if it wasn't trying to be one.

Mel Gibson
3. Braveheart

A film full of mooning and getting spears into your butt is just not my idea of fun. Also, Mel Gibson's penchant for depicting the Scottish as violent just didn't work. The romance was bland and the excessive use of the f-word "Freedom" did little to make the film feel more triumphant. It seemed ridiculous and pales in comparison to Gladiator in terms of mixing story with epic violence. Billy Connolly once demeaned this movie as garbage for its poor depiction of Scotland. While he would go on to disprove this with Brave, he did have a point. It is ridiculous and bloated, and unfortunately won over superior films like Babe.

Gwyneth Paltro
4. Shakespeare in Love

Maybe it is just that I dislike Shakespeare, but this film felt a little too hoaky to win Best Picture. Even as a romance story, it paled in comparison to The English Patient and did little to make the life of Shakespeare fascinating or interesting. It attempted to show how censorship was strong in England and how this one genius was being held down. However, it does neither triumph of the will or heart to quite an effective level and just results in a lot of actors reprising Shakespeare in a manner that isn't captivating. However, Judi Dench somehow won Best Supporting Actress for very brief screen time, so there's that. Also, I suppose this is one of those times that favoritism of studios (Weinstein Company)  winning over quality films like The Thin Red Line or Saving Private Ryan.

Left to right: Meryl Streep and Robert Redford
5. Out of Africa

This movie is beautiful to look at, but it did leave me thinking the whole time why Meryl Streep is such a respected actress. This isn't a cry against her personally, but watching Out of Africa, it didn't feel like anything exceptional. There was romance and a sweeping score, but even then, it just felt like another example of Hollywood royalty saving the day overseas. It was a tough watch and would have been far more effective at a shorter length. For all of the greatness that the meditative qualities added, I kept thinking of how much better The English Patient is as a film and how much better chemistry the people in that film had.

There you have it. My picks may not be the most orthodox, but I stand by most of them. What do you think? What are your favorites? What are your least favorites? Remember, I am only discussing films released after 1970.

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