Buzzfeed up-ended Oscar season this year with an absurd post (when is it not, with them) attempting to rank all 85 Best Picture winners from worst to best overall. It's a fool's exercise, made more foolish - and I say this from personal experience - because the writer was not well versed in all of the films. Don't get too far away from what you actually know, as a writer, especially as a critic. It shows.
The problem with the list, though, is deeper. It's not how good or bad the Best Picture winners are or can be seen to be. It's that, for pretty much all 85, there was at least one other film that a large swath of viewers and critics thought should get the top honor. For every Titanic, for every Forrest Gump, even for All About Eve or The Godfather... there's another nominee a lot of people really, really liked. (Okay, maybe not The Godfather. We'll see.)
The Buzzfeed list got me to thinking about this, and sketching out some options... but what really pushed me to pull out the pooter and start composing was this year's awards. Because this year's alternate is especially glaring, and it ought to be said. So that's where I'm going to begin.
Some caveats: I'm working backwards, because mass memory is about recent events, but don't ignore the classics from Oscar's early years - we are talking some great artifacts of film history, which deserve to be seen. Second, I haven't seen everything... but I will be up front about it where necessary. Third, this list is limited to Oscar nominees for Best Picture. If we get into a game of "what about that brilliant film that was shut out" we lose the plot all together, and really, the list of greatest films of all time isn't about Oscar. This is.
Finally, naturally, all of this is subjective. And yes, I'd love the feedback, and a healthy conversation. Don't be shy. And so, without further ado...
2013 - American Hustle. Talk about robbed - last year's smartest caper film woudn up completely shut out on all 8 of its nominations. And all of those were richly deserved. Since his brilliant dark comedy Flirting With Disaster, David O. Russell has made a string of smart, boundary chalenging films with great casts and intellgent scripts. And it's probably too much to ask that work this good get honored repeatedly, since Russell's Silver Linings Playbook was already a dominant winner. Still, Hustle's every bit as brilliant as The Sting, and even better in its attempt to recreate a period in costumes, sets, and songs. Were Hollywood less caught up in righting historical wrongs - including its own shabby history on race - 12 Years A Slave would probably sit in the perfectly acceptable position of having been a great adaptation of a dark, grim story of an horrific experience... but not Best. For my money, Hustle is what you reward for greatness, and timelessness.
2012 - Silver Linings Playbook.... while we're at it. Though I will say this one of those years where I think the Academy got it right - Argo is a great film, even with the overwrought ending.
2011 - Midnight in Paris. No, The Help does not deserve it. And yes, I love The Artist. But Woody Allen's filmmaking, even on Blue Jasmine, has rarely been as finely honed as it was on this gentle, loving film about not getting too caught up in worshipping the past. Masterful recreations of previous eras, gleeful cameos of past masters (especially a charming Zelda Fitzgerald, a drunk Hemingway, and explaining The Discreet Charm of The Bourgoisie to a confused Bunuel), plus a slew of masterful performances (has Owen Wilson ever been better? I think not).... what more do you need? Nothing, that's what.
2010 - Winter's Bone. Having not seen The Social Network or Inception, I feel underqualified to make the case for either; though I think Inception probably has a strong one. I can easily make the case that The King's Speech was sentimental claptrap that could easily be overlooked in the overall history of film. I can also make a strong case that this ambitious independent film, which snuck into major consideration, is way better than it has any right to be, in large measure because Jennifer Lawrence really was that stunningly good right from the beginning. A small, dark film where a win would have shown the Academy's ability to look past the obvious. And they don't, often.
2009 - Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire. In one of those harder than usual years (I could make my own compelling cases for The Blind Side and Up, just for starters), I'd say Lee Daniels was robbed; this film takes on nearly every American prejudice, and Hollywood's willful blindness to poverty, race, and size... and spins it into gold. Gabourey Sidibe's performance is undeniable. Mo'Nique will never be this glorious again. And just when you think you've heard or seen it all, the final ten minutes of the film will up-end everything you think you knew. Daniels will get there, eventually, but it will be because he already did.
2008 - Milk. Not a great year, not a great set of choices... but Lord, anything other than the ludicrous Slumdog Millionaire. It might as well be the engaging biopic of the gay community's greatest political hero, which hit the trifecta of a great script, inventive direction, and a bravura lead performance. Or we can give it to a magical fairy tale. Oh well.
2007 - Michael Clayton. An issue pic, a taut thriller, one of George Clooney's easy, masterful performances, the glorious Tilda Swinton. Is this a hard call? I think not. Instead... There Will Be Blood. It was a very dark year.
2006 - The Queen. Sentimental? Sure. Hogwash? A bit. I really wish the film had won rather than Helen Mirren. But I'd settle for both. The film, at the very least, offers a less varnished, less rosy view of the English royals than we normally get. And anything, to me, would be better than to reward Martin Scorsese for making a pale carbon copy of the vastly superior Infernal Affairs.
2005 - Brokeback Mountain. Obviously. Crash? Oh, where to begin. It's the decade's most inexplicable winner, one that made even its supporters wince as the reality sank in. And then there's Ang Lee's spare, brilliant, quiet paean to doomed love among the cowboys and the mountains. Easy call.
2004 - Sideways. Only because I think Ray was too conventional, too by the numbers in its depiction of a musician biopic. But certainly Charles is a compelling subject and the music soars. Still, Sideways is a charming, offbeat dramedy that stings in unexpected ways. Million Dollar Baby just never intrigued me.
2003 - Mystic River. In a year that's actually a hard choice - I adore Lost in Translation, and am just sentimental enough to love Seabiscuit - I'd reward Clint Eastwood for a mystery drama that captures the South Boston experience in all its conflicted glory. And I slogged through all 3 episodes of Lord of the Rings. Still, not even close.
2002 - The Pianist. There is a question, naturally, of how many ways we can slice World War 2 movies and Holocaust pictures, but Roman Polanski's take is every bit as masterful as you'd expect from him, an unexpected journey very well told. Yes, that's me overlooking The Hours. And I liked Chicago... but Best? Maybe not so much.
2001 - Gosford Park. Downton Abbey in its concise, feature film form, from the absolute master of overlapping plotlines. It's even got Maggie Smith. As the Dowager Countess. It also has every other british actor you could dream of, doing just the sort of British things you'd want to see them doing.
2000 - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Because The Academy waffled and gave it Best Foreign Film. Which is totally embarrassing.
1999 - The Insider. How times change. I didn't pick it at the time, and I didn't entirely love it... but time has not been kind to American Beauty, which winds up less than the sum of its parts. I am moderately torn by The Cider House Rules, but in the end, I think its defenders were right - The Insider holds up best.
1998 - Elizabeth. Two films featuring the Virgin Queen will enter. Only one can win. Oops. Yeah, we could have picked the brilliant bloody epic that verified Blanchett as a star... or we could pick Shaespeare in Love. Oh yeah... oops.
1997 - LA Confidential. I would write a long defense of why, but why bother? Titanic. They gave it to Titanic. Big mistake. Huge.
1996 - Fargo. I am not a Coen Brothers fan, and I loved The English Patient. But if a film was ever overlooked while being quietly brilliant, this mystery thriller remains a truy hidden gem.
1995 - Apollo 13. I'm not married to any of the choices; I'd take reading the phone book over Braveheart. I'm sure there's a good case, even, for Babe. But Tom Hanks really likes those astronaut pictures. And people tell me this one's good.
1994 - Quiz Show. Robert Redford's film has never been appreciated for what it is - a searing indictment of WASP privilege and the lies we tell ourselves, especially via television. Even something as simple as opening his credits with Mack the Knife and closing with the actual Moritat from Threepenny Opera makes his point with knifelike sharpness. I can't even begin to discuss the travesty of rewarding Forrest Gump instead.
1993 - In The Name Of The Father. But yes, this is the year of Schindler's List. So let's not push it.
1992 - A Few Good Men. In a sea of good but not great (Howard's End, The Crying Game, and the winning Unforgiven, to be sure; less so Scent of a Woman), it's mostly a toss-up. But Rob Reiner's adaptation of a fairly routine courtroom/court martial drama holds up extremely well, features Tom Cruise and Demi Moore in surprising career highs, and gives Jack Nicholson's best scene chewing room to breathe. You can't handle the truth. And that's not even the best line in that speech. Or in the film.
1991 - The Prince of Tides. Does it outdo Silence of the Lambs? Maybe not... but let's factor in, honestly, the severe anti-Streisand bias of the Academy. Then let's point out that this is Nick Nolte's best work by far, assisted by a slew of strong performances, including the diva herself. And Streisand did a marvelous of distilling a watchable movie out of a really bad, melodramatic book (seriously. It's atrocious). A sweeping cross-generational story, full of dark secrets and stunning revelations... we've given more awards to less. But you could tell me to pick Bugsy instead, and I'd hear you out. But don't start with me on JFK.
1990 - Goodfellas. The real moment when Martin Scorsese was robbed, his finest hour of storytelling on the story he was meant to tell, an amoral fable of gangsters from the height of their cultural importance to the sad dissolution into drugs, degradation and incarceration. Just the dazzling sequence at The Copa alone deserves Best Picture. And instead? We rewarded Dances With Wolves. Seriously? Seriously.
So endeth the first lesson. Up next, the epics of the eighties, and the sad story of seventies realism.