Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Look Back at My Oscar Best Picture Challenge (1960-2013)

While it is fun to report on the future of The Oscars, I also have set up a challenge to myself to see every previous Best Picture winner. Through this method, I am hoping to get an overall understanding of themes and hopefully to understand the psychology that goes with the voting. With 2013 coming to a close, I have finished another leg of my goal by having seen everything that won after 1960. This feels like as good of a time as any to look back and see what made the running goal worthwhile and if it continues to be an enjoyable experience.

I am a believer that the Oscars are established as one of the prime sources for quality films on an annual basis. I am aware that there have been better films released that never receive recognition, but simultaneously, the point of the Oscars is to commemorate cinema that stands out as something beyond moving pictures. It is supposed to be a strong, artistic statement or commentary on the world around us. This is most evident for those who look back at all of the nominees and discover hidden gems like The Last Emperor or Midnight Cowboy. Without there being a definitive list, things become more complicated.

I am not saying that they are de facto overall, but I do believe that each winner says something about the era and the decade as a whole. These films are generally more populous films that influence what the general public sees as great. Maybe the voting system continues to be ran by old white men, but with winners such as Argo and The Artist continuing to dominate, it at least feels like their selections will remain relevant. 

It is true that they have had some clunkers and even gained some notoriously bad years, most recently with the winner Crash. While the film is problematic, it does reflect another issue that I have with the general consensus of the winners. The contemporary films usually get maligned while period pieces are generally accepted. I do believe that contemporary efforts like Ordinary People and Kramer vs. Kramer are important because while their views could be perceived as dated, they present a vision of the times that doesn't come through in period pieces. The Oscars are supposed to represent the quality of cinema, and I do believe that one of those elements is timeliness. Without films like In the Heat of the Night and The Apartment, there wouldn't be an understanding of what the 60's were like, whether from social or racial standpoints.

I continue to enjoy doing this list and decided to go more aggressively with the launch of The Oscar Buzz. With my end goal set for the end of 2015, I am going strongly. The best benefit is that I have found a lot of surprises and new favorites. I even feel like I understand why each film won, even if I disagreed with the results. Each decade of American history comes with a different, and the 60's was a radical period worth capping 2013 with. The following is a quick rundown by decade of my personal thoughts on themes and annotated ranking.

*NOTE: I am aware that this list differs from a previous ranking that I did. 

Left to right: Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady

Themes: There is something fascinating about book-ending the decade with The Apartment and Midnight Cowboy. The former was an exploration of old-time values and stripping away the myth of the American Dream to reveal it's depressing core. The latter feels even more ripped apart of the American Dream and paints a fascinating portrait of people involved with drugs and sex. By the end of the decade, things were turning more towards realism and a sense of dour circumstances that defined most of the 70's. The 60's feels like the transition period from old Hollywood and the new Hollywood that came. In fact, this is most evident with other winners, which ranged from films more categorized as old (musicals - West Side Story, My Fair Lady) and predecessors to new (realism - In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy). It may feel inconsistent as a decade, but no transition feels smooth. While it features some of the strongest films in the Academy's history (Lawrence of Arabia), it also feels oddly dated fare (A Man For All Seasons) and strange experiments on familiar material (Tom Jones). Nonetheless, the 60's was the first period of recognizable change, and without it, the following decades probably wouldn't be as strong.

Winner Ranking:

1. West Side Story
2. Midnight Cowboy
3. My Fair Lady
4. Lawrence of Arabia
5. The Apartment
6. In the Heat of the Night
7. The Sound of Music
8. Oliver!
9. Tom Jones
10. A Man For All Seasons

Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter

Themes: Widely considered the best decade for the Academy Awards for great reasons. Almost every year featured a strong winner and most of the losers even remain highly praised triumphs of cinema. This largely could be because of the launch of new Hollywood, which featured such iconic directors as Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. The films that won weren't just stylized portraits of everyday life (The Sting, The French Connection), but dark looks into the Vietnam War (The Deer Hunter) and pushing forward conversations on institutions by rebelling (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). It was a decade that was wired to change how the world was perceived, largely thanks to the real-life conflicts of their characters, and for that, American cinema has never felt as honest or raw as it did during the 70's.

Winner Ranking:

1. Annie Hall
2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
3. The French Connection
4. The Deer Hunter
5. The Sting
6. The Godfather Part II
7. The Godfather
8. Kramer Vs. Kramer
9. Patton
10. Rocky

Left to right: Judd Hirsch and Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People

Themes: Probably the most problematic decade in the modern Oscars history reflects the downside of being contemporary. If the 70's painted realism, then the 80's painted an attempt at social unity. Majority of the winners featured protagonists travelling by train to foreign lands to help others (Out of Africa, Gandhi) as well as dealing with people with disabilities (Rain Man) and different races and creeds (Driving Miss Daisy). It almost felt like the optimistic cousin that wanted everyone to like them, even to the extent of a baffling attempt to have a Rocky (Chariots of Fire). If the decade is lacking anything, it is a sense of urgency. While films like Amadeus and The Last Emperor helped to establish the epic genre with glorious imagery and deeply flawed characters in fascinating ways, it was mixed in with meandering, overlong tributes to the past. If anything, it is probably the least successful decade simply because it felt safe. There were some hidden gems (Terms of Endearment), but as a whole, it feels like the Oscars are slowing down.

Winner Ranking:

1. Amadeus
2. The Last Emperor
3. Rain Man
4. Ordinary People
5. Terms of Endearment
6. Platoon
7. Gandhi
8. Driving Miss Daisy
9. Out of Africa
10. Chariots of Fire

Juliette Binoche in The English Patient

Themes: The 90's may be one of the most misunderstood decades, if just because it had to follow the 80's and its somewhat impressive track record. In a sense, it did feel like the second coming of the 70's with a sense of auteur film making taking prominence again (Titanic, Unforgiven) and giving distinctive voices to their works. However, these films tend to be more divisive with audiences (The English Patient) and therefore get an unfair reputation. While there were some definite clunkers (Dances with Wolves, Braveheart), majority of the decade was strong and came with urgency (Silence of the Lambs) as it explored the unnerving core of society. The decade explored what made us tick and our relationship with the past. This is most evident with films like Forrest Gump and The English Patient in which historical events are romanticized and includes a sense of reflection. The decade may have riled too much in the past (Shakespeare in Love), specifically various wars, but they brought a new artistic edge to them that progressed our understanding. Films were bolder and art was stronger, thanks largely to triumphs such as Schindler's List). While it does seem like American Beauty is the odd man out, it really is a culmination of ideas presented throughout the decade with a man eager to change his life. That regret and need for change runs through all of these films and even if the 90's are more divisive, they are quite a triumph of artistic statements about our modern perception of history.

*Note: I saw Silence of the Lambs after publication of my last ranking and my opinions have greatly differed.

Winner Ranking:

1. Silence of the Lambs
2. Forrest Gump
3. American Beauty
4. Schindler's List
5. The English Patient
6. Unforgiven
7. Titanic
8. Shakespeare in Love
9. Braveheart
10. Dances with Wolves

Left to right: Hilary Swank and Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby

Themes: In a sense, the 2000's were the real contemporary equivalent to the 70's in that they mixed art with social commentary in fresh, new ways. Films like The Hurt Locker updated how war films could be done by tackling it on a grittier scale. The notorious Crash worked as a modern tale of race relations in America and provoked audiences. More than anything else, the decade was a period of stories revolving around identity. Starting with Gladiator, the decade ran with stories that chose to explore how the individual is defined and how to overcome struggle. Films like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King placed this on a grand scale with the theme of the smallest man could make the biggest difference while serving to redefine the modern blockbuster epic. However, probably the most symbolic of this concept came with The Departed in which there is mystery regarding betrayal and loyalty. All of these films deal with it in various ways, whether through sports (Million Dollar Baby), TV shows (Slumdog Millionaire), or old age (No Country for Old Men). It is a decade that saw the resurgence of various genres winning in a post-9-11 world, which probably influenced the search for identity more than anything else in the decade that managed to experiment contemporary styles with grander scale concepts.

Winner Ranking:

1. No Country for Old Men
2. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
3. The Departed
4. Gladiator
5. Million Dollar Baby
6. A Beautiful Mind
7. Slumdog Millionaire
8. The Hurt Locker
9. Crash
10. Chicago


Themes: Maybe it is easier to judge this decade's winners because there are only three winners so far. While it does feel like the 10's have been consistent with the previous decade in that it is a search for identity, I feel like it is through the art of media. Starting with The King's Speech, each winner has explored the influence in which the media has had on political (Argo), personal (The King's Speech) and emotional (The Artist) change. Each film feels greatly different and seems to be done during different eras. However, all of their reliance on media influencing global change does feel somewhat of a pandering concept, but it is true. Maybe by the end of the 10's, things will look differently. For now, it is a decent decade that feels like it is the 00's consistent cousin. 

Winner Ranking:

1. The Artist
2. Argo
3. The King's Speech

What are your favorite winners? Do you feel like one decade is better than the other? What themes do you feel that I overlooked in this post?

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