In the first installment of Every Oscar Best Picture Ranked, we learned that I have little patience for prestige pictures marked by under-representation. #OscarsSoWhite? Oscars white by design. In this installment I blaspheme Audrey Hepburn and deify Bing Crosby. I wouldn't have guessed it either.
45. Argo (2012)
|Actual fake concept art for the real fake Argo by Jack Kirby|
A vastly enjoyable suspense film bolstered by the fact that its primary message seems to be that (even imaginary) movies can literally save lives. It doesn’t amount to much more than empty calories and resonates like tin can, but it’s a ride I’d take again.
44. My Fair Lady (1964)
It’s difficult for me to pin down what I like about My Fair Lady. I never really buy its romance because Higgins and Pickering are such great closeted characters. It looks beautiful, but never escapes its staginess which makes it nigh irrelevant. I love Audrey Hepburn despite being left with a great amount of uncertainty as to whether she can act, dance or sing. On paper, it should add up to an unholy mess and I’m reminded that I also love The Lizzie McGuire Movie. The heart has its reasons something something.
43. Schindler’s List (1993)
A thesis titled How to Shift Your Paradigm could be written using, as its exclusive example, my relationship with Schindler’s List. I vehemently argued against this film as a young man and, while I still believe the tenets I stood for, I don’t trust my intentions. I went through a spell where Spielberg films were verboten as the anti-indie. I later distrusted the film as a product of a blockbuster wunderkind wanting another key to the city. Later, as a prestige picture that garnered the most praise of a decade for its subject and presentation rather than by being prestigious.
Only, after years of back and forth, I have to admit it is prestigious. No matter the kind of film Spielberg makes, I can’t diminish his unparalleled gift for visual storytelling. What’s more, Spielberg doesn’t have a reputation of working with—but creating—big stars. Neeson, Fiennes and Kingsley are all great.
My biggest problem with the film is the life it took on as the historic representation of arguably the biggest event of the 20th Century—a film made by a Jew, lauded by a largely Jewish Academy, supposedly about the Jewish experience—yet it has no central Jewish characters. It’s like the old trick of the Western which makes its heroes both conquerors and victims; I’m not certain that we need what would become the Holocaust story to be about a golden-hearted Nazi.
42. The Broadway Melody (1929)
There are at least two more big surprises landing in the top half of my list (all three have probably been derogatorily described as “quaint”), but, my God, people hate this movie. It won Best Picture at a time in which the Academy wasn’t even sure what it meant. Yes, it looks dated. So does The Godfather. When it comes to Velvet Underground songs, “Sister Ray” is far from essential in my book, but we wouldn’t have The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” without it. Similarly, the world is a better place because of this:
41. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
One of the pillars of cinema that I find somewhat inflated. Its comments on war are, I believe, perceived as subversive but, though it works are a character study, it doesn’t really add up to much for me thematically. For such an economical and craftsmanlike director, I still think this film gets away with some confusion at its climax.
40. From Here to Eternity (1953)
This is the Titanic of the ‘50s: a handsome woman’s picture with enough “cinema of attractions” appeal for its male audience. Like Kwai, it is somewhat undeserving of its reputation but has star power and classic drama in spades.
39. The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
One of the saddest examples of the Academy’s unintentional nocuousness toward its own cultural product was its tendency to honor American films with decidedly European subject matter as if geography would transfer dignity by osmosis.
Surprise! I think Gigi is kinda great in its confident gaudiness. I don’t know how many of its cap feathers are due to Minnelli being denied Best Director for An American in Paris, but the film had the gusto to give a 70-year-old Maurice Chevalier the “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” number and it lands as charming rather than pedophilic.
37. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Have you seen this thing lately? The performances are still ace, but its cynicism certainly feels contrived within the environment of New Hollywood’s birth.
36. West Side Story (1961)
Just about all the accolades thrust upon West Side Story in its time were incorrect. Praising its social realism seems a joke in the 21st Century, and I’m not even sure I like it as a musical. It strains for a represent a hip, youth culture but is charming where it is square. It lacks any effortlessness that marked Hollywood’s classic musicals, but makes up for it in style and production design writ large. It’s a social message film and a musical that works in spite of not holding up on either account. I’d say it’s a testament to the malleability of Shakespeare, but that shortchanges it.
35. An American in Paris (1951)
As a genre, the musical has done well for itself with the Academy compared to other audience favorites like the horror film and the Western, but An American in Paris is the full package. Gene Kelly appears as effortless as always, but the Academy got it right in honoring the film with awards for Art Direction-Set Decoration and Costume Design which pull more than their fair share in this Minnelli masterwork.
34. You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
Frank Capra’s cracker-barrel moralism and relentless patriotism seems like the sort of attitude the Academy would have eaten up in its time. Strangely, the only other Capra film to score big on Oscar night seems risqué by comparison. You Can’t Take It With You isn’t fantastic as a screwball comedy but is undeniably timely, earnest and heartfelt
33. Gone With the Wind (1939)
This is a difficult film. It’s racist, it’s whitewashed, it established a precedent in the Academy of the “proper” kind of roles for minorities and then patted itself on the back for it. It’s difficult for me to give much of a damn about, but it’s also difficult not to admire from a technical standpoint. At times strikingly beautiful with an ugly underbelly, it’s also difficult to watch with fresh eyes. I think it is enough to say that it’s not one of the greats, but is undeniably important.
32. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
My problem with The Silence of the Lambs isn’t that it doesn’t quite do its source material justice but that it has been outdone by adaptations before (Manhunter) and since (“Hannibal”). It seems disappointing because it’s merely good where it should have been great. Hopkins feels like something of a cartoon character, but it doesn’t take away from the power it had over me as a 12-year-old who had just seen his first R-rated movie.
31. Platoon (1986)
Another war film for which the populace confused broad character tropes and romanticized madness for realism. I often want to like Stone, but subtlety is rarely a part of his pedantic repertoire. Fortunately his earnestness goes a long way in a film that gives a damn without—as so many of his later films do—trying so hard to look like it gives a damn.
30. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
Few films on this list have aged worse than Gentleman’s Agreement, but this is not entirely the fault of the picture. It reaches an important balance of presenting straightforward ideas unconventional to the screen in its day without overstatement. Modern viewers are likely to wrap those two modifiers (“straightforward” and “overstated”) in a ball with “corny” and find the pill difficult to swallow, but it was unconventional in its day: Wealthy Jews didn’t want the film made and the National League of Decency pushed back against a character being a divorcee.
The film lacks subtlety and any roughness around the edges, and that’s a problem. What it did do, in 1947, was challenge audiences to see that well-intentioned, middle-class Americans can be racist without being outwardly hostile. Any movie that broaches the topic today is a liberal circle-jerk. We could use an updated version that unpoliticizes race and makes the culture say “oh.” It’s an obvious lesson we haven’t digested.
29. Amadeus (1984)
Top three scenery-chewing film of all time, with a bullet.
28. The Departed (2006)
This is the 21st Century’s Reservoir Dogs: an unnecessary remake of a recent Asian crime film for which the American critics gave way too much credit to the auteur theory. Which is to say it’s quite good but nowhere near top tier Scorsese.
Once, as a teenager, I accidentally inserted cassette two of The Godfather: Part II into the VCR and watched it for twenty minutes thinking Coppola adopted European arthouse sensibilities of obtuse narrative with an absence of opening titles. I love this anecdote because, while I have never worshipped at the altar of Coppola, my bungle allowed me to see the film’s colors more vividly.
26. American Beauty (1999)
This film met me at a sea change. I was a waffling college sophomore in the middle of changing my major. I was in love with someone way too young. Elliott Smith’s music spoke to me. Stanley Kubrick had recently died and that damn plastic bag tied it all together. I understand it is trite, but I’ve maybe seen this movie more than any other.
I even tried impressing on my dad (with whom I had something of a strained relationship at the time) how I found it life affirming and thought it might mean something to him. I’ve never been 100% on this, but I’m pretty sure he thought I recommended the movie because I was trying to tell him I was gay.
So, there you have it. It might be jejune, but the interpretations can still be multifaceted.
25. Patton (1970)
I’m hard-pressed to come up with a better or more appropriate one-man show from one of the all-time great actors for the part. What’s more, the script is deviously sticky which must have been no small feat in the Vietnam era.
24. The Hurt Locker (2009)
A Western that takes place in the desert of a never-conquerable frontier starring Jeremy Renner as a cowboy whose effusivity is filtered through post-9/11 nihilism.
23. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Though often seen only as a pejorative, all movies are manipulative. The success of a film is, rather, not based on its level of perceived manipulation, but on how well it earns us allowing ourselves to be manipulated. The Best Years of Our Lives is a heavy picture that dared speak about the atrocities of war through the prism of pathos. It earns it.
22. How Green Was My Valley (1941)
In which a middle-tier John Ford film autologically paints the sublimity of our relationship with the past.
Easy to unfairly dismiss as a melodramatic alternate-universe picture, it’s important to see Mrs. Miniver for what it is: a contemporaneous film about a global issue that tried to stay level-headed despite the creeping terror of Pearl Harbor. It feels, in tone and message, very much like a picture the British would posthumously tell about themselves were the weltanschauung not deracinated by unimaginable tragedies like the Holocaust and the atomic bomb.
I speculate there are many reasons contemporaneous conflict films are scarce: disparate perspective, lack of hindsight, the economics of politics. It’s a shame that a modern, lazy response to a film like Mrs. Miniver as “quaint” might also be a detractor.
20. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
As pure a modern Oscar template as exists. What this says about female representation I’ll leave for you to decide.
19. Grand Hotel (1932)
I’ve often said that I don’t believe in too much subjectivity when it comes to film criticism; that there are right and wrong answers in the liberal arts or we wouldn’t talk about them. The caveat with Grand Hotel is, what I love about film isn’t always a matter of scorecard.
Its direction is pedestrian, its script is, at times, unbearable, and there are performances that would make the Pope weep. None of this, however, makes it any less watchable as the ineffable quality of its star power burns like the heat of one thousands suns. It’s an imperfect film I much enjoy spending my time with.
18. Going My Way (1944)
Leo McCarey could really say something about old age and, if sentimentality is a dirty word, no one ever clued him in on it. There’s no bitter to the sweet, as there would be in Make Way For Tomorrow, but the film is worth watching to marvel at Barry Fitzgerald alone.
When I saw how high this was ranking on my list, I was prepared to do a fair amount of apologizing. The more I think about it, I shouldn’t have to apologize for what brings me joy while marrying religion to social justice. Yeah, yeah, rose-colored glasses. I’m diabetic and I’d like to think this gives me a little authority on sweet.
And the Oscar for Best Skull in a Motion Picture goes to…
It’s strange to me that Marty ever won Best Picture. In a decade of pre-sold, conventional films, the most familiarity America had with the source material was from the cinema’s prime rival— the television version—which was produced two years earlier.
The film version takes away the television version’s qualities of intimacy and liveness, but credit it to its writing and performances (and certainly budget to some extent), the film version is the better realized of the two.
15. Casablanca (1942)
Casablanca is almost critic-proof. It’s so well-structured, well-written, and Bergman and Bogart are so iconic it exudes classic Hollywood. It’s a very above-average movie and it’s a shame that the direction is such a bummer. Curtiz is a workhorse, sure, but there is nothing definable about his visual work here. We’re left with a very good play that probably would have sounded fantastic on radio.
14. The Godfather (1972)
What is often simplified as a critique on American capitalism largely misses the point that The Godfather is most interesting in its character duality. Loyalty to familial ties leads to death. Religious devotion is juxtaposed against violence. The powers that be puff their chests to compensate for their failed institutions. Yet it’s the characters—the ethnic, the naïve, the loyal characters—irrational optimism towards the American dream is what makes The Godfather so fascinating.
13. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
A true epic masterwork, Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is one of the rare films that should be required annual viewing. It’s the rare example of traditional Hollywood outdoing the French New Wave movement in an era where the epic wasn’t en vogue. It’s old-fashioned but timelessly breathtaking.
12. The French Connection (1971)
In today’s segment of “Life of a Cinephile” our hero plays Scene It? with a group of friends when an “All Play” round resembling “Wheel of Fortune” pops up. As letters slowly appear, the puzzle reads:
_ H E
_ R E _ C H
C O _ _ E C _ _ O _
His wife excitedly blurts out “THE WRENCH COLLECTION.” End scene.
His wife excitedly blurts out “THE WRENCH COLLECTION.” End scene.
11. All About Eve (1950)
Perhaps the most universally loved of all Best Picture Winners, All About Eve presents bully performances and lands in a perfect niche between what the 1940s saw as prestigious (European, literary) and what the 1950s saw as safe (conservative, pre-sold). It’s its own brand of cinematic genius for which the stars aligned.