Every Best Picture Oscar Winner Ranked
As much as the people who handle the marketing for the Academy Awards would like to present the honor as an artistic one, its not entirely true. Arguably, that’s what their Governors Awards are for, but the true rewards of receiving an Oscar come in the form of funding. It’s essentially a great PR boost and that shouldn’t be looked down on or considered any less important than any honors in artistic accomplishment and technical skill. Martin Scorsese secured money for towering, radical masterworks like The Wolf of Wall Street and Silence because of the Oscar love for one of his least ambitious works, The Departed. The late Jonathan Demme’s wins for his own masterpieces, Philadelphia and The Silence of the Lambs, allowed him to continue a career defined by audacity in form and subject matter. The same could be said of Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, and a number of other filmmakers that have defined the best of American filmmaking over the last few decades.
And yet, for those who have been and likely always will be drunk on the movies, it’s an impossible task to not feel that the Oscars should be a reflection of the state of cinema in America, reserved for movies that are fearless, unique, and overflowing with political and philosophical ideas. In rare cases, such as with The Best Years of Our Lives or The Hurt Locker, the distance between the artistic merits of the year’s Best Picture winner and its polished reflection of what Academy members want to be seen as caring most about is not that far. To bolster a movie about the startling psychological damage and fatalistic pull of war at a time when the public is exhausted with the Iraq War makes the governing body look smart and serious while also celebrating an artist as thoughtful and excessively talented as Kathryn Bigelow. Most of the time, however, the divide is much greater.
To separate the great from the good and the good from the bad, I have ranked every single Oscar winner for Best Picture and plan to update it on an annual basis. If you just can’t stand the numbers here, sound off in the comments.
90) 'Driving Miss Daisy' (1989)
What an absolutely wretched undertaking. Though it’s not uncommon to waste the talents of Morgan Freeman, this extended fit of soft-boiled racism deserves a special amount of derision for being so insufferable to gaze upon, conveying the unique feeling of being smothered by lamp doilies. The script is a forced game-show-host grin in the face of America’s tradition of enslaving black Americans, and even when that’s not readily apparent, the family drama stuff with Jessica Tandy’s titular crank and her son (poor Dan Aykroyd) is also about as exhilarating as the annual San Bernardino Ankle Sock Convention. Make it go away!
What Should Have Won: My Left Foot
89) 'Crash' (2005)
A photo-fucking-finish with the previous entry, but this one has the better cast being drowned in well-meaning sap. Paul Haggis at once energized and deflated his career with this astonishingly wrong-headed attempt to surmise and solve modern-day racism during one week of grim, ugly nonsense in Los Angeles. Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Terrence Howard, Sandra Bullock, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, and Michael Peña, just to start, try valiantly to give this thing some lifeblood but it all comes off like politically agreeable hokum, which makes its ambitions all the more embarrassing. It’s a work of staggering condescension from beginning to end.
What Should Have Won: Capote
88) 'Rain Man' (1988)
An asshole, played by Tom Cruise, belittles and attempts to make a quick fortune off of his long-lost autistic brother for two hours in this miserable ordeal. Give credit to Dustin Hoffman for devoting himself to a deeply wrong-headed character and Barry Levinson’s direction is both breezy and efficient but even for someone who isn’t fond of extolling popular morality, it’s hard to see any good in this. Other than reasserting well-treaded family values and reminding people to be kind to those with mental disorders, Rain Man brandishes little in the way of thought or political curiosity. That it’s also a tremendous bore does not help matters.
What Should Have Won: Dangerous Liaisons
87) 'Shakespeare in Love' (1998)
On first glance, this one’s fine: excellent technical work from the set design down to the wardrobe, exuberant performers, and a playful-enough story. Once you start thinking about the film, however, things are a bit less agreeable. Gwyneth Paltrow is not very good but is also not given much to work with here, and the script’s perspective on Shakespeare is borderline offensive. He’s a total cad, a drunk, and a horrid friend who steals freely from Christopher Marlow (Rupert Everett) and is then edited down by performers and producers, who were instrumental in his genius. As the film has it, Shakespeare is no different from Kramer in his absent-minded good luck, and that makes the more self-serious stretches of this bloated, insufferably cute romantic comedy all the more impossible to care about. A hearty nod for scene-stealers Geoffrey Rush, Ben Affleck, and, yes, Dame Judi Dench, but the film remains predictable, lazily paced, and unfunny in the extreme, edited into a visual mush for costume drama fans.
What Should Have Won: The Thin Red Line
86) 'The Artist' (2011)
The ultimate legitimization of nostalgia and gimmickry over invention – remember, this won over Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Hugo, a much better movie about the imaginative spirit and creatively technical minds that made silent film such a wonder. This broad-as-fuck challenge to make a silent movie adds exactly nothing to the film’s base-level charms, as it seems even more interested in venerating the power of classical Hollywood storytelling. As a reflection of the industry it professes to love, it’s pretty flat and shows none of the obsessive nuance and feeling of experience that powers the best movies about making movies. Director Michel Hazanavicius is more than competent in his visual excursions but rarely exhilarating or even particularly charming. Rather than searching for the luxurious sense of textures, the thick, lavish shadows of the bygone era of cinema, The Artist feels like a movie that was given its nostalgic heft in post-production, the true art of the silent era boiled down to a few clicks of the mouse.
What Should Have Won: The Tree of Life
85) 'Slumdog Millionaire' (2008)
You’ll have to pardon the cynic in me on this one but: What’s with all the incessant joy in this movie? Danny Boyle’s attempt to give the world a sense of Indian culture in the story of a poor young boy who turns into a bright romantic (Dev Patel) also allows the Trainspotting director to take the Bollywood format out for a test spin. This is one of those Triumph of the Cute situations, where an incredibly important subject – the fate of the poor and abandoned in post-colonial India – is mutated into an occasionally winning but largely saccharine and tedious romantic comedy. The movie is a greatest hits of Boyle’s worst visual tendencies and it zaps the film of any perceived interest in the land of India and the tight corridors of its neighborhoods and cities. The inclusion of the game show as a framing device underlines the film’s playfulness, which feels at odds with its increasingly insincere interest in the history and complicated politics of the country.
What Should Have Won: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
84) 'Out of Africa' (1985)
On one hand, it’s a biopic about famed female humanitarian and writer Karen Blixen, played with quiet but potent and often physical energy by Meryl Streep, who begins an intimate extramarital affair with an enigmatic hunk (Robert Redford) in Kenya. On the other hand, it’s directed by the late Sydney Pollack, whose movies regularly boast narrative efficiency and bucolic settings but little in the way of personal reflection or any sense of a vast, complex inner world within his characters. The story is interesting, up to a point, but the timidity of the overall production catches none of the innumerable fascinating things about Streep’s character or the men and animals she must handle with care.
What Should Have Won: Prizzi’s Honor
83) 'Kramer vs. Kramer' (1979)
A softball, borderline misogynistic depiction of divorce that spends half the time patting itself on the back. An ambitious, talented, and well-off professional (Dustin Hoffman) becomes a single parent when his wife (Meryl Streep) runs off to explore herself, an act that is only seen from the husband’s perspective and is portrayed almost exclusively as selfish. That’s certainly part of the mix of feelings, but Kramer vs. Kramer is not, in any way, interested in what the mother’s exploration is or where it comes from. Instead, it acts to lionize the single father, especially one with a creative streak. There’s also a severe lack of intimacy: the scenes between father and son feel more suited to a credit card commercial than an empathetic, experienced depiction of being a single parent with a full-time job. At this point, the movie feels like a propaganda video from the left wing of the Men’s Rights movement.
What Should Have Won: Apocalypse Now or All That Jazz
82) 'A Man for All Seasons' (1966)
The quasi-lead performance from Robert Shaw is the sweet, syrupy plum amongst a lump of bland porridge here. The Jaws actor’s take on King Henry VIII is thoughtful, aggressive, and rousingly intricate in the rhythms of its delivery, and he is backed with considerable force by Paul Scofield as Thomas More, Orson Welles, Wendy Hiller, John Hurt, and Susannah York. They all take great glee in diggint into Robert Bolt’s screenplay, which he adapted from his own beloved play of the same title. The players and the words are the beating heart inside a calcified cadaver of a movie, which fails to muster even a single image that conveys any kind of personality or ideas beyond the text. It’s a filmed play essentially, something that director Fred Zinnemann would become known for and the Oscars would continuously reward for not particularly good reasons. For all its basic entertainment value, it shows a severe deficit of visual invention.
What Should Have Won: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
81) 'Argo' (2012)
The premiere example of Hollywood’s vacant self-interest. Rather than show anything beyond a passing interest in Iran’s modern chaotic state or, say, America’s hand in developing said bedlam, writer-director Ben Affleck focuses almost exclusively on the handful of American hostages that were in danger during the uprising and the fraudulent film crew that saved them. The movie is primarily a celebration of Hollywood’s clout and the importance of the medium that they have popularized, as it is ultimately those things that distract or impress the Iranian government and people enough to hatch their escape plan. Affleck’s gift for visual tension is deployed far more efficiently in The Town and Gone Baby Gone, and neither of those films felt so profoundly self-important yet pompously careless as Argo does by the end of its excessive runtime.
What Should Have Won: Zero Dark Thirty
80) 'A Beautiful Mind' (2001)
Not unlike future nominee The Imitation Game, Ron Howard’s take on the life of cryptography pioneer John Nash (Russell Crowe in fine form) is noticeably hindered by its omissions in personal history. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has a long, storied career of writing sentimental, nonsensical gibberish for untold amounts of money and here, his attempts to restrain the more not-so-family-friendly elements of Nash’s life – repressed homosexuality, just to start – stick out like a broken algorithm. Howard is, as always, capable and efficient in his plain, classical stylization and the cast, including Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, and Paul Bettany, is uniformly compelling but the very blueprints of the movies are cripplingly faulty. Not only is it a piss-poor depiction of mental illness and treatment, it’s an expression of competency in the face of inarguable, imposing genius of a very rare sort.
What Should Have Won: Gosford Park
79) 'Chicago' (2002)
This is around the part of the list where we get into straight mediocrities, which make up the majority of this list. Indeed, most of the movies that have won best picture are not out-and-out bad but rather weak tea. Such is certainly the case with Hollywood’s long-gestating adaptation of Chicago, the Broadway smash centered around the trial of saucy husband-killer Roxie Hart, played by Renee Zellwegger. Richard Gere is having a ball as Billy Flynn, her swanky lawyer, and Catherine Zeta-Jones lights the place up as Velma, her newfound, scandalous best friend. They’re all entertaining, and they’re all almost eclipsed by John C. Reilly bringing down the house with “Mr. Cellophane.” Director Rob Marshall adds plenty of flash and fading dazzle but his large evasion of long takes betrays a lack of confidence in the physical and vocal abilities of the stars. The whole production feels like a giant put-on, a half-kidding exercise in capitalizing on brand recognition. With the athletic pizzazz and wonders of stagecraft leached from the adaptation, replaced by effects and attentive production design, Chicago comes off as a glittered-up trifle.
What Should Have Won: The Pianist
78) 'The Broadway Melody' (1929)
The Broadway Melody opens with an exquisite sequence, in which an owner of a musical think-tank of sorts passes through a hall with rooms filled with different musicians creating distinct sounds and melodies, ending with the man who pens the titular number. It’s all downhill from there in this amiable, impersonal musical about a pair of showgirl sisters (Anita Page and Bessie Love) who turn competitive when the entertainment business favors one over the other. The characters come off as primarily cyphers, representing a series of pretty familiar opinions of showbiz and entertainers in general, predictable even for the 1920s and 30s. As such, the movie comes off as nothing more than a vaguely competent musical with nothing much in the way of delights beyond the songs.
What Should Have Won: The Patriot
77) 'Braveheart' (1995)
How long will it be before Mel Gibson alienates us all again? My guess is about 18 months after President Donald Trump attends the premiere screening of Passion of the Christ 2: Resurrection Boogaloo. Maybe I’m letting my cynicism get the better of me here but Gibson’s obsession with the victimization of Christians has tainted his entire catalog, including Braveheart. As Gibson writes and portrays him, William Wallace is less a thoughtful yet violent revolutionary than a cypher for Gibson to express how reasonable, good, and not at all misinformed or ill-intentioned Christian folk are always chopped up, tortured, and executed by the greedy government and betrayed by the godless. Gibson is not interested in the complex political philosophies of Wallace or even the everyday toils of life under the rule of King Edward the Longshanks, only his makeup as a Christian martyr. His simplicity, even in its remarkably epic scope, disgraces a tremendous historical figure and carelessly milks outrage against those who don’t agree with Christians.
What Should Have Won: Babe
76) 'Mrs. Miniver' (1942)
William Wyler holds the title for the most nominated director in Oscar history and, for the most part, he deserves that title. To me, Wyler is the missing link between John Ford and Steven Spielberg, an artist capable of crafting masterworks but also egregiously docile prestige dramas. Mrs. Miniver lands in the latter category, unfortunately, but it benefits greatly from Wyler’s sharp, economic sense of visual storytelling. The story, about a British family dealing with life in the early days of Germany’s invasion of England, is lacking for intimacy and unremarkable, unwilling to see the ugliness, loss, and chaos of war and the effects of such conflicts at home. There are moments that are moving but Wyler’s film largely sticks to a far too familiar and biased perspective of World War II, the Oscars’ favorite subject by quite a margin.
What Should Have Won: The Magnificent Ambersons
75) 'West Side Story' (1961)
Let’s forget for the moment that gang warfare, even in the days when guns were less prevalent, wasn’t quite as romantic as this. Musicals, for the most part, have a tendency to excise the ugliness and bluntness of their subjects. The more unshakeable issue with this adaptation of Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents’ stage musical of the same name, itself an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, is its classicism. Directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, West Side Story, which incorporates matters of race, crime, and class into its reminiscent narrative, is absolutely petrified of actually confronting those matters, even as it hints at their more illicit outcomes to drive its drama. The skill of the performers and the thrill of the music numbers is undeniable, but West Side Story never feels like the cinematic dream of anxious, angry youth that it should. Instead, Wise and Robbins’ colorful trifle comes off as nothing more than a mediocre musical unimaginatively transferred to the new environs of the big screen.
What Should Have Won: The Hustler
74) 'Cimarron' (1931)
This is a particular disappointment. Anthony Mann’s 1960 version of Cimarron depicts a brutal, unyielding emotional landscape that came from the land rush of the late 19th century in Oklahoma. It’s not a perfect movie – Mann’s venomous stylistic persona was watered down by co-director Charles Walters – but it’s one that palpably gets at the ugliness, violence, and unchecked ferocity that help bring America into the modern age. Wesley Ruggles’ 1931 take, on the other hand, is a visually plain, if passable family drama that occasionally gets wrapped up in the bigger drama of an America coming together through rampant opportunism, theft, and corruption. Mann’s film remains stuck in your mind despite its flaws, whereas the 1931 version evaporates like steam the moment after it finishes.
What Should Have Won: The Front Page
73) 'Around the World in 80 Days' (1956)
Absolutely none of the thrilling, adventurous spirit of that powered Jules Verne’s exceptional novel survives in this bloated adaptation from John Farrow and Michael Anderson, he of Logan’s Run and The Quiller Memorandum. Though clearly hampered by the technology of the day, this would-be epic, clocking in at nearly three hours, is impressive for its wonky, expressive set and production design, as well as David Niven’s central performance as the playful and wise Phileas Fogg, but not much else at all. The warmth between Fogg and Passepartout (Cantinflas) feels tinny at best but even worse is the halted sense of action, a constant feeling of unending inertia. For a film that should be inflicted with curiosity, confidence, and a bear’s appetite for the unknown, Around the World in 80 Days more convincingly conjures the experience of sitting in a waiting room for that same amount of time.
What Should Have Won: Giant
72) 'Gigi' (1958)
Of all the movies that they could have nominated the great Vincente Minelli for, they had to award his artistry for one of his most empty and impersonal projects, a rare mediocrity in a career full of reflective, daring masterworks. Sure, the Academy also awarded the very good An American in Paris but that hardly assuages the issue. This musical, which follows the courtship between a wealthy Parisian bachelor and the titular young woman who captures his attention when so many other woman simply bore or disgust him, gave us one of the more famed renditions of Jacques Brel’s infamous “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” That’s not a compliment. The entire film justifies lust for youth without considering the psychological pitfalls of the scenario, and never considers what it says about older men who chase after young women. For all the fanciful environs and set design, the film scurries past the idea that desire for youth tends to stem from a shattering fear of death. There’s no fear and little in the way of pain in Gigi, which makes its outlandish story of unlikely romance all the more unconvincing and surprisingly crude.
What Should Have Won: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
71) 'Gone with the Wind' (1939)
Problematic doesn’t even begin to describe David O. Selznick’s massive wartime melodrama, which casts Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, the ultimate heroine of the antebellum South, alongside Clark Gable’s tough-as-tar Rhett Butler, the man who sweeps her off her feet. The glorifying of the American South here is chilling in its willingness to excise any sense that anyone in the South, including the slaves, thought slavery was bad. In technical terms, the movie remains something of a wonder, thanks to set and production design, as well as wardrobe artists, but the storytelling is utterly grotesque and often offensive. Compounded as it is with the story of rich white people who must fight courageously to stay rich, become richer, or regain their vast fortunes, Gone with the Wind may be the premiere illusory narrative of the modern Republican party.
What Should Have Won: Ninotchka or Dark Victory
70) 'The Sting' (1973)
Along with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting was hoisted up high on little more than the admittedly charming merits of its two stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Watching them work off each other isn’t exactly the worst way to waste your time but in this movie as much as the egregiously overpraised Butch Cassidy, it’s also the only lively element of the whole production. Robert Shaw is limited to his scowl and imposing delivery as the nemesis for their 1930s con men and the script is seriously lacking for tension and anything resembling intimacy or experience in a world full of loose morals and unyielding cheats. Director George Roy Hill and writer David S. Ward fashion a mild, inoffensive comic whirligig out of these elements but then even whirligigs are supposed to be marvelous in action.
What Should Have Won: Cries and Whispers
69) 'Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)' (2014)
Say this for Alejandro G. Iñárritu, his movies sure do look good. He also attracts great actors, which explains how this risible attempt at soul-searching is stacked with the likes of Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, and Lindsay Duncan. The wandering-camera effect that Inarritu and the unparalleled DP Emmanuel Lubezki perfect here is a technical marvel and on its own could hold attention for the better part of this overextended harangue. Any attention paid to the narrative being told, however, would immediately collapse the illusion out of confusion, disbelief, outrage, or possibly all three. The filmmaker, who co-wrote the script, unloads on the era of superhero movies, critics, and even the audience, while only feigning to skewer his own place in modern moviemaking. Sentimentalized, moralistic melodramas about globalization and/or faith, which are Mr. Inarritu’s speciality, are just as cheap, simplistic, and programmatic as superhero movies and even more distasteful for their insistence on their own inflated importance. But yeah, it looks great.
What Should Have Won: The Grand Budapest Hotel
68) 'In the Heat of the Night' (1967)
It’s not hard to see the perceived political importance in Norman Jewison’s adaptation of John Ball’s classic crime novel about Mr. Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a black American detective sent to help investigate a murder in the deep South, alongside Rod Steiger’s tough-but-fair Gillespie and Warren Oates’ Wood. Jewison’s direction is uninventive but sturdy and as a cop drama, In the Heat of the Night is involving and builds a loamy sense of community in Mississippi, though most of the film was shot in Illinois. Poitier, Oates, and Steiger are often enough to keep the movie moving on its own, but Jewison and Ward severely underserve the elements of race and history in the narrative. Tibbs’ past in the police department, his life dealing with brazen, lethal racism wherever he went, is never brought to the fore. Poitier’s courageous, measured performance suggests a brooding fury and devastating intellect that spawned from desperate environs but the movie, like Tibbs, too often feels cooled out and at a distance from its incendiary subject matter.
What Should Have Won: Bonnie and Clyde
67) 'Chariots of Fire' (1981)
Speaking of great-looking catastrophes, there’s Hugh Hudson’s sumptuously shot tale of the rivalry between British athletes Eric Lidell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), the former a Christian and the latter a Jew, at the 1924 Olympics. In any other movie, those distinctions wouldn’t matter really but Chariots of Fire trades in certain stereotypes aligned with those religions. Lidell is seen as a more natural and careless talent, eased by his faith, and Colin Welland’s script would suggest that his character was never much more complicated than that. Abrahams is seen as tortured and weighted with existential dread, and neither the history of his faith, or his relationship to his face, seems to be of much interest to Hudson or Welland. The result is a visually sophisticated but not particularly thoughtful sports drama that takes the most simplistic of age-old conflicts as its narrative and thematic backbone.
What Should Have Won: Reds
66) 'American Beauty' (1999)
At the not-so-tender age of 16, my view was that Sam Mendes’ breakout, about a dysfunctional suburban family led by Kevin Spacey’s sardonic paterfamilias, was a revelation. Working from Alan Ball’s script, Mendes created a glimpse at society where infidelity wasn’t a mortal sin, personal responsibility was a sham, and your weed dealer was the most decent person on the planet. How could a teenager not love this? Years later, however, the movie feels evasive and too cynical for its own good, well-acted but with more one-liners than actual, tenable characteristics. Certain portions of the movie are still interesting, specifically Annette Bening’s Carolyn and the romance between Jane and Ricky (Thora Birch and Wes Bentley), and Mendes work with the great Conrad L. Hall is often exquisite without being all that reflective. It’s hard to deny the fact, however, that he ultimate revelation at the end of all of this is that you’ll never know how great the status quo really is until you experience the inarguable emptiness of drugs, scandalous sex, exercise, low-risk employment, and free-floating sarcasm.
What Should Have Won: The Insider
65) 'Forrest Gump' (1994)
There’s an infectious kind of optimism to Robert Zemeckis’ Oscar-dominating historical drama, wherein Tom Hanks plays the vaguely mentally-disabled young man of the title, who gives Apple some early seed money, becomes a war hero, makes JFK chuckle, and co-founds the famed Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Again, much of this is easy enough to stomach, despite it’s cutesy disposition and the fact that Forrest never seems to get angry, unless he’s also jealous over his beloved Jenny (Robin Wright). There’s a pretty inappropriate attempt to sanctify Gump here, to portray him less as a human man with a rampant, unknowable interior life than as an unexpected role model. He calls in Watergate, inspires “Have a Nice Day!” and “Shit Happens,” saves his Lieutenant from depression, and becomes a full-time father when he finds out Jenny has AIDS. He’s a build-your-own American icon and he is in many ways appealing, as is the movie, but the way the movie only relates to Jenny and Forrest’s mother (the inimitable Sally Fields) through Hanks’ hero is indicative of an overall tendency to trade in familiar pop culture totems or events for actual, honest-to-goodness characteristics.
What Should Have Won: Pulp Fiction or Quiz Show
64) 'The Sound of Music' (1965)
The songs from this iconic musical deserve their solidified place in history, if only because I honestly can’t remember much of anything else from this overwhelmingly dull classic. Nazis show up at some point too, which would also put this in the already crowded running for most idle movie about World War II ever made. Perhaps the beauty of the Von Trapp family’s livelihood in The Sound of Music is in its nostalgia and I’m simply not it’s main audience. Even if that’s true, however, that doesn’t make up much of a reason to celebrate the film, especially in the same year that Darling came out.
What Should Have Won: Darling
63) 'Oliver!' (1968)
You’d better like the songs. There’s little else to marvel at in this surprisingly innocuous take on the story of Oliver Twist from master filmmaker Carol Reed, he of The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, and Odd Man Out. Rewatching this drab and exceedingly dull song-and-dance show makes Reed’s involvement all the more hard to fathom, though he admittedly never took to color the way he did black-and-white cinematography. Still, with the exception of a few intricate long takes, Oliver! is totally devoid of visual personality and doesn’t even have the good sense to fall back on spectacle. What’s left is something akin to Tom Hooper’s inexplicable Les Miserables in its pre-digested narrative thrust and its indifferent style, though Reed does have the heart to not burden us with Russell Crowe’s singing voice.
What Should Have Won: Rachel, Rachel
62) 'Cavalcade' (1933)
Another story about the Great War and it’s effects on both the rich and the poor. That’s part of the issue with this largely amiable war drama, in which an affluent British family, and the family that makes up much of their household staff, face what it’s like at home when the patriarchs of both families head off to the frontlines. The poor father, in particular, is a bit of a blotch on the screenplay, as his post-war behavior suggests a weakness in character rather than sensitivity to the horrors of war. This, of course, was a long time before we were able to fully consider the psychological effects of fighting in the war but in contrast, the rich man is depicted as mostly head-sure and capable of getting back into the swing of things. Even if one were to ignore the somewhat ludicrous implication that the rich are immune from such psychological crutches, Cavalcade paints its familial drama and societal observations in ways that make it clear that no one was interested in facing the more insidious and complex emotional reverberations of wartime experience.
What Should Have Won: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
61) 'Gandhi' (1982)
The Academy Awards first became obsessed with the biopic with The Life of Emile Zola, the Oscar winner that cast Paul Muni as the famed intellectual and writer. In a way, Gandhi renewed interest in the subgenre, especially for producers who think of (hollow) prestige as much as money, and for the most part, it’s about as entertaining as these things get. Richard Attenborough does a fine, sober job of directing a charming and imposingly confident Ben Kingsley as the titular nonviolent political icon, and John Briley’s script is dutifully attentive to the big experiences of Gandhi’s public life. The issue, naturally, is there isn’t much in the way of small stuff, moments that speak to the Mahatma that existed only in private, perhaps even only alone. In a way, this rote storytelling tactic leans on one of the great falsehoods in the comprehensive list of American sayings, that what really matters is what you do, not what you say or think. Attenborough, working with a fantastic cast that also includes the likes of Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen, and John Gielgud, depicts all the major acts that Gandhi performed with majesty and finesse but we never get inside the man, never sense him working out a complex idea internally. In essence, the movie is no better or worse than a textbook chapter.
What Should Have Won: Tootsie
60) 'The Greatest Show on Earth' (1954)
Cecile B. Demille was known as a man of spectacle, a master craftsman who worked obsessively at making sure his audience would be suitably wowed by the end of his movie. There is, however, a difference between filming a spectacle and making a spectacle through cinema. This way-too-long symbolic drama, in which DeMille envisions himself as the exhausted yet driven manager of a big-top circus, played by Charlton Heston, belongs more in the former category. In a better world, this would have been DeMille’s ultimate confession, a revealing look at the highs and lows of a life devoted to entertainment, but by the end of the film’s 150-minute runtime, I felt like I would have gotten just as much out of taped footage of a stop on tour for Barnum & Bailey.
What Should Have Won: The Quiet Man
59) 'Wings' (1927)
If the first Best Picture winner had been a talkie, it might have (pun intended) landed far lower on this list. This story of a wannabe aviator with hopes for romancing his town’s prettiest rich girl and making a life for himself as a man’s man is more interesting for the clear artistry of William Wellman’s silent cinema than it is for its sense of character or the accuracy and authenticity of its wartime plot. Thematically, Wellman’s film rarely gets beyond platitudes – be gracious, keep an eye out for what’s right in front of you, etc. – but the expressive tools that the director and his performers use, as well as the thrilling technical work in the flying scenes, more than make up for its oscitant subtext. As such, Wings may in fact be the ideal first film to win the Best Picture Oscar.
What Should Have Won: The Racket
58) 'My Fair Lady' (1964)
The person who makes the argument that this adaptation of Pygmalion is unique and worthy of singling out for anything other than Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison is either a huckster or a fool. A pretty decent movie for children that enough people thought was good enough to justify robbing the most audacious and compelling movie of the 1960s of its just and overdue honors from Hollywood to find another way to say that that Pygmalion is a great story. What astounding nonsense.
What Should Have Won: Dr. Strangelove or; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
57) 'Terms of Endearment' (1983)
That most rare of all Oscar winners: a bona fide comedy, written and directed by the legendary James L. Brooks. The structure is ruminative and unpredictable, wandering from one event or experience in the life of Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) to another, whether that be a romance with an astronaut (Jack Nicholson) or the illness that takes hold of her daughter, Emma (Debra Winger). It’s also a tearjerker, one of the all-timers, and when the movie makes a forceful effort to sentimentalize Aurora’s tragedies, it irrevocably falters. In those moments, Brooks undermines the same wisdom and complicated feelings that make the humor here work so damn well. Additional performances from John Lithgow, Jeff Daniels, and Lisa Hart Carroll lend nuance to the emotional landscape, but when the script brazenly highlights when they want the audience to feel bad or cry, the whole thing feels like a well-arranged ploy.
What Should Have Won: The Right Stuff
56) 'Titanic' (1997)
The similarities between Wings and Titanic, especially in terms of technology overwhelming the effectiveness, are quite remarkable. Actually, Titanic is close to what might have happened if the young pilot had won over the rich girl…on the most famously doomed ship in American history. The class politics here are clean, uncomplicated, and thus deeply uninteresting, with almost all the rich people acting like aloof, condescending pigs and all the poor people depicted as the most moralistic heroes on this blue planet. The first hour may very well put you to sleep, if you can get block out James Horner’s incessant score, but the second half, as the ship hits the long-awaited glacier, lets Cameron loose with his technological gifts and the results are often dazzling. Visually, much of Titanic is a blast – props to veteran DP Russell Carpenter – but when Cameron’s dialogue is given the stage, one rightly begins searching frantically for the fire exit.
What Should Have Won: Good Will Hunting
55) 'Ben-Hur' (1959)
34 years after MGM made a silent version of Ben-Hur, William Wyler took up the cause with Charlton Heston in blazing color for that very same studio and took home 11 Oscars for it. Gore Vidal did some work on the script, along with Maxwell Anderson, the writer behind Lewis Milestone’s majestic All Quiet on the Western Front, and one can intermittently sense their more radical ideas pushing forth in the dialogue. Were those ideas the heart of the film, Ben-Hur might have been Wyler’s greatest masterpiece, but Wyler’s thirst and undeniable talent for spectacle drags him a bit more toward the middle, rendering Ben-Hur another vague call to arms against indiscriminate assailants and oppressors.
What Should Have Won: Anatomy of a Murder
54) 'The Life of Emile Zola' (1937)
Any attempt to convincingly portray the life of a writer is likely a fool’s errand. Though their personalities might prove attractive, gregarious, witty, and even warm, the work of a writer is not exactly cinematic. Unless one were to get all Malick-like and try to breakdown the very process of thinking visually, there’s little hope and in The Life of Emile Zola, German-born director William Dieterle doesn’t go after his craft as much as he goes after his intellect, especially in relation to his crucial work on the Dreyfuss Affair. The righteous political ideas reveal an anger in Dieterle and his screenwriters but this outrage stops at the water edge, as none of the creative forces seem interested in understanding the military culture that would allow something like the Dreyfuss Affair to happen. Similarly, they don’t show much interest in the artists and ideas that inspired Zola to do what he did, whether for Dreyfuss, his fans, or other victims of a reactionary, naturally secretive society.
What Should Have Won: The Awful Truth
53) 'The King's Speech' (2010)
This take on King George the VI (Colin Firth) and his struggle to overcome his debilitating stutter and the great traditionalist reputation of his father, King George V (Michael Gambon), is above par for most prestige pictures. It’s funnier that most “serious” movies allow themselves to be; the acting is a bit more physical and improvisational in its looseness; the direction is acutely aware of texture, color, and mood. What bogs all this down is that it’s feeling for history is flimsy, mere window dressing for a movie that is primarily about defeating a stutter and finding self-confidence. Director Tom Hooper gets the look of London on the brink of World War II but the dialogue and the overarching story are devoid of thoughtful opinion, showing a great disinterest in the complexities of wartime in favor of a fluttering fascination with Oedipal psychology and speech issues.
What Should Have Won: The Social Network
52) 'Dances with Wolves' (1990)
It won over GoodFellas. The movie about Kevin Costner getting in touch with his Native American side for some three hours beat out GoodFellas. It’s an entertaining movie with plenty of gorgeous shots but no matter how good Dances with Wolves might be in the eyes of its most devoted viewers, there’s no getting over the fact that this, in the minds of the Oscar voters, was the more substantial picture when put up against GoodFellas. If one were to try to prove the ineptitude and wrong-headed perspective of the Academy as an organization in a case argued in front of the Supreme Court, this single fact would prove to be damning, irrefutable evidence.
What Should Have Won: GoodFellas
51) 'Tom Jones' (1963)
Albert Finney plays the titular scallywag in Tony Richardson’s joyously malevolent adaptation of Henry Fielding’s beloved classic, based off a screenplay by John Osborne, writer of the original Look Back in Anger adaptation. It’s been over a decade since I read Fielding’s book but if memory serves, Tom Jones is a faithful adaptation and Richardson is unafraid to depict 18th century England as a strange, lustful time. Wild animals show up constantly in Richardson’s frame and the suggestion seems to be that man is no more or less a moral being than a rooster or a flea. Richardson also enjoys a sort of roaming narrative as well, so portions of the film feel more like filler than substantive storytelling or alluding to personal characteristics. It’s a good movie with plenty of interesting ideas but it nevertheless comes off like an unhinged bauble.
What Should Have Won: America, America or Cleopatra
50) 'Ordinary People' (1980)
Mary Tyler Moore’s sensational performance in this family drama, focused on a suburban household haunted by one child’s death and unsure about the future of the other, hits a note that isn’t found anywhere else in this film. She’s mean at times and can be unreasonable but doesn’t make excuses; the wounds of her child’s death are written across her face but steeped in bitterness rather than grief. The rest of this movie, aside from top-tier work from the likes of Judd Hirsch, Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton, would be a perfect fit for a Lifetime movie or a sparsely attended Sundance screening but to award this over Raging Bull is, along with the defeat of GoodFellas, a black eye for the Academy that will never, ever heal.
What Should Have Won: Raging Bull
49) 'The Great Ziegfeld' (1936)
Where The Greatest Show on Earth saw showbiz through the prism of the circus, The Great Ziegfeld envisions it through the eyes of one of the great stage producers of all time, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. Those looking to understand much of where Ziegfeld came from, his historical, personal, and geographical roots, will be disappointed but those looking for a study in the philosophy of an entertainer may get something out of this beyond William Powell’s exuberant, addictive lead performance. Early on, Ziegfeld faces off with a slimy competitor who, in essence, begins selling sex and oddities to pack in his audience, in comparison to the talented weightlifters, gymnasts, and other performers that stick with Ziegfeld. As he grows, however, he begins to see the thrill and attraction of oversized spectacles, and his morals begin to wain just a bit. Things never get quite intimate enough – we’re pre-neo-realism here – but as a study of the fearless, maybe even frightening drive that brings entertainers out of the woodwork, The Great Ziegfeld is an intriguing, if not quite essential watch.
What Should Have Won: Dodsworth
48) 'Hamlet' (1948)
If you’re going to adapt the greatest play by the greatest playwright in the history of the English theater, you better have a good reason for doing it. With his 1948 take on the Bard’s most visceral and contemplative play, Laurence Olivier, as an actor, had a great reason – he wanted to play Hamlet on the big screen. As a director, however, he seemingly had almost none. He uses the original text here, which really is a sort of cheat – Shakespeare’s words are so sumptuous, so pouring over with ideas and meaning, that even a Michael Bay adaptation would feel insightful. Visually, Olivier is thoroughly efficient but never hurried, which gives the entire film a graceful sweep but there’s no sense of what Olivier saw in the text on a personal level. Orson Welles strived to create majestic, imposing, and complex images to match the effusive, dense dialogue in his takes on Othello and Macbeth, but Olivier seems to think that not only do the words speak for themselves but that it would be intrusive or uncouth to play around with such a magnificent work of art.
What Should Have Won: The Red Shoes
47) 'The English Patient' (1996)
Here’s an easy and totally subjective test: watch a movie set during a historical conflict or even time period and then, after the movie is over, wait three hours. If at the end of three hours you can remember the place and its importance at the time, the movie cared about history and genuinely wanted the narrative to reflect what was going on in the world. If you can’t, it was probably just window dressing. With The English Patient, I needed to look up the settings and conflicts – the movie ends at the end of World War II – that surrounded the rapturous romance at the center between Count Laszlo (Ralph Fiennes) and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). History tends to be a way of pumping up narrative urgency for a screenwriter and a reason to spend money on primo set design, production design, and wardrobe, and here, it does just that without really leaving any impression as to what this historical epic thinks about history. You could have set this thing in a Jupiter, Florida Marriott and it would have been just as memorable. In fact, it would have been more so.
What Should Have Won: Fargo
46) 'Gladiator' (2000)
A year after he should have won Best Actor for his extraordinary work in Michael Mann’s The Insider, Russell Crowe won for his portrayal of Maximus, a disgraced Roman general who is framed for the death of his emperor, Marcus Aurelius, played by the late Richard Harris. It’s not hard to see what the populace saw in Gladiator and what it still sees in it: it’s a tale of violent, physical vindication against a tyrannical, heartless government that alludes to its hero being one with the Christ. The plotting here is quite mechanical – nearly every conversation is meant to push the story forward rather than explore a character or a place – but everything else is sensational to watch on the big screen. Director Ridley Scott lucked out with a stunning cast – Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Oliver Reed, Harris, Connie Nielsen, etc. – but one must not forget Scott’s formidable skill as a big-budget filmmaker. His talents render the dramatic exchanges between Phoenix’s self-obsessed monster and his scheming sister (Nielsen) as thrilling as the gladiator fights with chariots, lions, archers, and the immense Ralf Moeller. Had Scott demanded a more nuanced and intimate script, one where Maximus wasn’t depicted as simply the perfect man, this would have ranked up there with Scott’s very best.
What Should Have Won: Traffic
45) 'From Here to Eternity' (1956)
Anyone who is a bit perplexed by how Hacksaw Ridge got so much attention would do themselves a favor by watching From Here to Eternity. The set-up is quite similar: a young, able-bodied recruit, played by Montgomery Clift, arrives on a new base and immediately gets himself into trouble for not taking up his side-job as a boxer again for accolades and money. Meanwhile, one of his senior officers, Warden (Burt Lancaster), is starting up a rousing affair with Karen (Deborah Kerr), the wife of his own commanding officer – they’re the couple making out on the beach that you’ve no doubt seen by now. Director Fred Zinneman, also known for High Noon and The Day of the Jackal, lands on a few key ideas about the military – it’s tendency to imbue violence with carelessness, the corruptive power of uniformity, etc. – in Daniel Taradash’s script and the cast makes a hearty stew of the repressed feelings and wounded principles. The filmmaking is a bit stiff but the drama never feels regimented to bring us to the final conclusion, allowing the audience to luxuriate in the characters’ desires without waiting for the other show to drop the whole damn time.
What Should Have Won: Shane
44) 'Mutiny on the Bounty' (1936)
In any other year, the fact that the best film version of Mutiny on the Bounty won the Oscar would be worth celebrating. Charles Laughton and Clark Gable are physically rigorous and spellbinding in the lead roles of Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian, and director Frank Lloyd firmly grasps the mortal stakes and adventurous thrill of their work on the sea. It’s an astounding entertainment, even today, but the idea that this won over not one, not two, but three out-and-out classics is simply impossible to ignore. Heck, in a dead-heat between this and Top Hat, I might even understand Lloyd’s film winning but up against John Ford’s mighty, soul-scathing The Informer or Leo McCarey’s heartening, near-perfect Ruggles of Red Gap, Mutiny on the Bounty falls quickly into the drink.
What Should Have Won: The Informer or Ruggles of Red Gap
43) 'Marty' (1955)
When you hear the name Paddy Chayefsky, you probably think of Network and with good reason; the amount of American movies in the same weight class as Network is miniscule. You might also think of his wildly adventurous and diabolically cerebral script for Altered States, but that’s not the script that meant something to him. Marty, which focuses on the titular Bronx-based butcher, played by Ernest Borgnine, and his search for love, finds the Bronx-born Chayefsky clearly digging deep within himself. Not surprisingly, it also proved to be the writer’s most warm and optimistic work up until that point, unless you have tender feelings for Lee Marvin’s drunk in Paint Your Wagon. With plenty of location shooting, Marty feels comfortable but not entirely safe, understated, and charming in a pointedly not-showy way, not unlike a random lonely night passing between the local dives in your hometown.
What Should Have Won: Marty
42) 'Amadeus' (1984)
By the time Milos Forman arrived in America, he had lost much of the inspired perversity that had made The Firemen’s Ball, The Loves of a Blonde, and Black Peter such immediate classics of the Czech New Wave. What he hadn’t lost is his touch for the seeming madness of artistic ambition or, really, ambition in general, whether it be the kind that caused McMurphy to cause a revolt in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or the kind that drove the conflict and competition in Amadeus. Tom Hulce’s depiction of Mozart, staked out by Peter Shaffer’s script, is demented and thrillingly uncommon, suggesting that geniuses are truly different without conveying anything like moral superiority to others. F. Murray Abraham is equally excellent as Salieri, his quiet rival, and it’s his performance that uncovers the darker truths of Forman and Shaffer’s story, particularly the pitfalls of professional ambition and the severe resentment that those who are studied experts feel against those with natural talents. The editing is more for tempo than to challenge the ideas being unfurled here, but that’s a small gripe against an otherwise very good movie.
What Should Have Won: Amadeus
41) 'Going My Way' (1944)
The masterful Leo McCarey got his Best Picture win from one of his least ambitious projects, Still, Going My Way is an unmitigated delight for the most part, especially if you can avoid thinking about Bing Crosby’s personal life as he plays a beloved young priest who takes over New York City’s St. Dominic’s Church. Embedded in this seemingly sweet-natured and straightforward story is a trenchant study of the effects of age and time on not just disposition but on logic. Much of the film focuses on Crosby’s priest’s rivalry with his predecessor, who doesn’t think Crosby’s character fits his preconceived mold of a Father, as much for his age as his late stage of taking up religion. McCarey, working from a script by Frank Butler and Frank Cavett, doesn’t discount the positives of age and wisdom but he sees youth, fresh perspectives, and new experiences as the key to any belief system surviving, including the Holy Church. He would gaze at the other side of the coin with his greatest masterwork, Make Way for Tomorrow, but his thoughts and inclinations here are no less sterling.
What Should Have Won: Double Indemnity
40) 'Grand Hotel' (1932)
Another rare comedy win, this time from the great Edmund Goulding of The Razor’s Edge, Nightmare Alley, and Dark Victory. Part of the great joy of this towering comic melodrama is watching the way Goulding orchestrates the bustling business of the hotel with the variety of guest storylines that are packed into the narrative. One can see its roots in something as majestic as The Grand Budapest Hotel but also in a range of 1990s trifles ranging from Blame It On the Bellboy to Once Upon a Crime. And yet, its most memorable moments are small: a silent glance of swarming thought from Greta Garbo, the rhythmic, visceral delivery of Joan Crawford, and the storm of romantic brooding and simultaneous abandon that seems to be hanging over John Barrymore. Much like a great hotel, it’s the little things you remember with this one.
What Should Have Won: Shanghai Express
39) 'Spotlight' (2015)
When it comes to the conflict at the center of Spotlight, it’s not hard to be on the right side of history. Real-life, righteous, and left-leaning journalists fighting against a conspiracy weaved together by an army of pedophiles who pretend to serve god? Where do I sign up? So, coupled with the fact that the movie is stacked with thoughtful, daring actors, one is almost guaranteed to be satisfied in some way when Spotlight ends. And that’s the issue: everything goes down a bit too easily here. Only two victims are heard from – the first only has one scene, the other has two or three – and the church itself always seems to be squirreled away from the main conflict. For all the narrative sturdiness and dramatic tension that director Tom McCarthy evinces, there’s no lasting ugliness about Spotlight – the haunting slight at the end is against journalistic ethics, not organized religion. And even a minor work like Kevin MacDonald’s State of Play has a more propulsive, detail-oriented, and modern vision of what a newsroom is like in this day in age. What Spotlight does, and does very well, is polish journalism’s apple for two hours while barely traipsing over a handful of the most controversial subjects currently on the docket.
What Should Have Won: Mad Max: Fury Road
38) 'All the King's Men' (1949)
Had this not come out the same year as Joseph Mankiewicz’s sublime A Letter to Three Wives, it would actually be the ideal pick for Best Picture out of the nominees that were on hand. Directed by Robert Rossen, the master behind The Hustler, The Roaring Twenties, and The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers, this stunning adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-ensconced novel of the same name takes a look at the political process as a menacing, corrupting force, one that not only eggs on but demands the actions of the worst part of you. The question Rossen expertly muses on here is whether it is the requirements of politics that pollute these governmental roles or do people easy to corrupt simply gravitate toward this work. The alternate sides of this argument take their answers to these questions as philosophical dogma and much of that has led us to the current administration, which makes the campaign of Broderick Crawford’s Willie Stark seem like a Shirley Temple revue. Rossen writes and directs with an uncanny fury and a constant sense of mounting societal dread, a knowledge of how easily people like Stark can come into power and warp the fabric of the country. If there’s any kind of tangible afterlife, Rossen must be howling at the moon.
What Should Have Won: A Letter to Three Wives
37) 'The Last Emperor' (1985)
An oddity, to be sure. A luminous epic about the last Emperor of China, played by the Peking Opera-schooled John Lone, directed by Italian master Bernardo Bertolucci in (mostly) English. And yet, this strangeness of production nicely fits with the surreal feeling that must have washed over Pu Yi on a daily basis as a puppet leader for the invading Japanese. Bertolluci gives the character landscapes that are thunderous with life and beauty, but also details the Emperor’s bizarre, second-hand existence as a God on Earth. The first movement, with him as a baby and then a child, includes some of Bertolucci’s most wondrous, imaginative scenes and sequences to date. And considering Pu Yi’s severely compromised place at the head of his country, Bertolucci’s outsider reputation and suave, dense style fits the undertones of the narrative perfectly. Still, the one thing that the movie noticeably lacks is a sense of history beyond the wardrobe and the architecture, an absence of feeling at home and knowledgeable of the setting. As far as popular movies made about China go, The Last Emperor would not rank high and yet, decades later, The Last Emperor feels like one of Bertolucci’s most personal films.
What Should Have Won: Broadcast News
36) 'You Can't Take It With You' (1938)
Capra! Thank the good and decent lord he’s finally shown up. Critic Manny Farber famously tossed Capra off as a career feel-gooder, interested in nothing but making people happy, even at the expense of complexity and tough questions. Looking over his triumphs now, including this superb family comedy, it never felt like he was ignoring the most deep-seated problems that come with existing and having a curious mind. It’s a Wonderful Life is sick with the power that money has over even the smallest hinges of modern society, and You Can’t Take It With You pivots on the egregious fortune of James Stewart’s Tony Kirby, who falls head over heels for penniless Alice (Jean Arthur) and her family of eccentric buffoons. Just because Capra never quite fessed up to capitalism’s basic allure or showcased its most brutal outcomes doesn’t mean that he was apolitical or impersonal. You Can’t Take It With You has the unmistakable feel of a movie made by a singular artist with a time-tested belief in what he’s doing and a constantly challenged moral philosophy and compass.
What Should Have Won: Grand Illusion
35) 'An American in Paris' (1951)
Now this is what I’m talking about with Vincente Minnelli. A wild, romantic fantasia starring Gene “I Dance, Motherfucker!” Kelly and Leslie Caron about the breathless exhilaration of living and exploring abroad and, more over, the people you meet when you travel. The story is largely a loosely connected series of interactions and musical set-pieces, and it’s disinterest in a tight overall narrative gives Minnelli more room to dazzle with Kelly, playing off of Alan Jay Lerner’s script. As one might expect from the (uncredited) co-writer of The Band Wagon, Lerner knows how to set-up a simple but effective story and Minnelli’s dance sequences are mesmerizing, inventively choreographed and thrillingly s scenes are still masterfully choreographed things of blood-and-mud-flecked beauty, but for the masses who kept up with the movies and either liked or loved them, this brought everything home and then some and, yes, fine, we could have done without the then some.
What Should Have Won: An American in Paris
34) 'Rocky' (1976)
What’s surprisingly resonant here is the use of Philadelphia. John G. Avildsen shoots the small slum-like neighborhood where Sylvester Stallone’s would-be champion lives as a cold, desolate, and dangerous place, all shadows and busted street lights littered across a series of bars and apartments. That this place would produce a soft-hearted yet bullish boxer like Rocky is part of the elusive backstory of our hero pugilist. He does violent work for the mob and has a weakness for small animals and quiet girls who read. It’s a bizarre yet immediately identifiable creation and Stallone, though more than deserving of all the jokes, is also deserving of iconic stature for his work on the script, in front of the camera, and behind on this singular loser’s tale that ended up spawning a franchise about an excessive winner.
What Should Have Won: Network or Taxi Driver
33) 'The Shape of Water' (2017)
There’s a certain softness to Guillermo del Toro’s tenth feature that I suspect is both the reason it clinched its Best Picture win and the reason why I find it one of his least affecting works to date. Which is to say that it’s still better than 97% of what big studios put out in a year.
First of all, the Amelie comparisons are not baseless, despite the fact that Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s brash accusations against the movie are flimsy and primarily self-serving. The Shape of Water has a similarly swooning air to every fantastical frame as Jeunet’s unlikely hit, amplified by Alexandre Desplat’s score in both cases, which waters down the darker corners of del Toro’s fable. Per usual, the director brings the best out of a sensational cast – Michael Shannon, Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, and the incomparable Doug Jones deserve endless accolades – and he smartly undergirds the entire story with familiar, relatable political tensions, both in the nation and behind the closed doors of American homes.
What weakens the film is that his largely populist political opinions are doled out in ways no less subtle than that off Frances McDormand’s character in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The message of many of his storylines overrides the complicated inner-workings of these characters and the pain of being a perceived outsider, never more frustrating than in the case of Richard Jenkins’ lonely illustrator. These big statements bely the intimacy he captures in the invitingly frank sexual and emotional relationship between Hawkins’ courageous janitor and her egg-eating fish-man (Jones). The entry-level liberal politics are highlighted at the expense of diluting the enticing and vibrant strangeness of that romance, set against the repressive rigidity of male-dominated and male-centric society embodied in Shannon’s character.
Still, it is a del Toro joint, and there’s no mistaking the wide-eyed wonder, infectious curiosity, vision, and formal elegance that comes with that. There are much, much worse things on this list than a big-hearted movie about a frisky janitor and her aquatic lover made by an unabashedly big-hearted director.
What Should Have Won: Phantom Thread or Get Out
32) 'Million Dollar Baby' (2004)
Clint Eastwood, like Steven Spielberg, has entered a part of his career where many viewers think he’s playing exclusively to the Fox News crowd. The movies do not bear this opinion out in the slightest. This grave, moving drama about a boxer (Hilary Swank) and her unlikely trainer (Eastwood) is one of the director’s great meditations on the worth of life and, by extension, the finality of death. This is likely his last great performance – he’s admirable but less convincing in Gran Torino – and he approaches both Paul Haggis’ soulful script and the art of boxing with a patient, curious artist’s eye. The grim, devastating ending is measured and unsentimental but the emotional wallop is no less deflating and Swank, especially in the late scenes, emits a preternatural understanding of these hardships and her character’s instincts. Her rapport with Eastwood feels easy and immediately intimate, even when he pushes her away, and that gives a startling potency to their training sequences, his dark past, and her similarly depressing backstory. More than that though, it’s one of those great boxing movies that understands the sport as being as much about defending yourself as it is about how your offense begins and ends.
What Should Have Won: Sideways or The Aviator
31) 'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962)
The first time I watched Lawrence of Arabia was during Hurricane Sandy and the timing seemed appropriate. On a 70mm screening in New York years later, certain vast shots made me lightheaded with joy. David Lean understood how important the grandiose stage was for the story of T.E. Lawrence, the officer who led the Arab tribes against the Turks during the Great War. One can feel Lawrence’s outsized ambitions in Lean’s compositions and in Peter O’Toole’s disciplined, forceful delivery when he addresses colleagues and adversaries. This remains O’Toole’s greatest role and he also catches the total lunacy of Lawrence’s mission. For whatever his ability to bring together warring factions, Lawrence’s peace was an elaborate mirage that went up in smoke. The first time you watch it, Lean’s composition are simply awesome but there’s also a palpable element of alienation in these wide vistas that speaks the complex, death-riddled future of the region.
What Should Have Won: Lawrence of Arabia
30) 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' (2003)
The endings never bothered me but they may be the movie’s biggest influence. Anyone notice the four times La La Land ended before the credits rolled? Regardless of the length and the humorous subtext and the odd pacing and the bird that could have helped this fit inside one movie, The Return of the King is a thing of thunderous emotional power. The battle scenes are still masterfully choreographed things of blood-and-mud-flecked beauty, but for the masses who kept up with the movies and either liked or loved them, this brought everything home and then some and, yes, fine, we could have done without the then some.
What Should Have Won: Mystic River or Lost in Translation
29) 'The French Connection' (1971)
Popeye Doyle. That is all.
What Should Have Won: The Last Picture Show or A Clockwork Orange
28) 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' (1957)
One of the great works on the majesty and isolationism of war, set in a Japanese POW camp underneath the all-important access point of the title. As with Lawrence of Arabia, director David Lean makes the experience of war feel immense and impossible to ignore, attempting to summarize the shock of being a soldier thrown into a camp in Japan where you might very well die. That’s the intimacy that movies like this and The Great Escape were never interested in; they were interested in depicting soldiers as constantly resourceful, imaginative, and sacrificing. Movies like Men Go to Battle and The Thin Red Line understand and expertly convey that intimacy but this perspective on war is just as important, though there’s an argument to be heard that this perspective glorifies war. In the case of The Great Escape, that is completely true but it doesn’t quite fit Lean’s movie. The slow, uncertain tempo of the long days and the manifold tortures of the captors leave lasting effects and this makes the chaotic climactic sequence all the more thrilling. War is hell but there’s also an undeniable feeling of heroism and excitement about being the first line of defense that can’t be ignored.
What Should Have Won: 12 Angry Men
27) 'It Happened One Night' (1934)
The best romantic comedy ever made.
What Should Have Won: It Happened One Night
26) 'Schindler's List' (1993)
Though I respect Stanley Kubrick’s argument against the very idea of this movie, Schindler’s List is and has always been a stunner with an asterisk. The story of Oscar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a wealthy merchant who worked with the Nazis and helped free a large number of Jews through his built-up fortune, is an ideal cypher for Spielberg, as Schindler’s ultimate inability to do more is also Spielberg’s anguish at not being able to do more to defeat something so evil. It takes a bit of an ego to get that far but that doesn’t mute Spielberg’s hurt or seemingly shattered hope. The asterisk is, of course, the red jacket and it’s hard to imagine a more inelegant move for such an elegant and endlessly compelling epic. Thanfully, it’s balanced out by the astounding ending, what remains Spielberg’s most audacious decision in any movie he’s made. Spielberg felt a bit more radicalized in A.I. Artificial Intelligence and in Munich as well but here, the ambition seems to come from somewhere darker and far more severe than Spielberg usually allows himself to reveal. In this, Schindler’s List is a work of rare emotional oomph.
What Should Have Won: Schindler’s List
25) 'All Quiet on the Western Front' (1930)
There are plenty of worthy contenders, but for me, this will always be the greatest of all war films. A few days a year, I don’t think that but most days, I do.
What Should Have Won: All Quiet on the Western Front
24) 'The Lost Weekend' (1945)
One of Billy Wilder’s darker toxins. Ray Milland is a drunk writer attempting to keep a good hold on sobriety during a four-day stretch. It doesn’t look good in the beginning and the odds get worse as you get to know Milland’s self-destructive Don Birman. The movie is almost all Milland and Wilder behind the camera and on those merits alone, it’s a knockout. Milland turns the bottle into a multifaceted spiritual item for poor Don, a forgiver, a healer, a friend, and a gravedigger, and Wilder frames his wild thirst with a sharp, even distanced sobriety. We are forced to imagine the terror of Don’s internal struggle, driven by a belief that a little sip will solve his problems and yet in clear knowledge that that’s not true. It is Wilder’s one truly classic tragedy.
What Should Have Won: The Lost Weekend
23) 'The Deer Hunter' (1978)
Michael Cimino’s existential treatise on the Vietnam War is a hulking, massive work that’s almost never anything but devastating. Beginning in the small industrial towns of Pennsylvania before going over to serve and then finally returning home, hulled out, the film tracks a gaggle of friends, played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale, and more, who are setting out to do something with their lives and find out that their life is a plaything for others. Playing Russian Roulette with their captors while at war, their lives become simply a matter of survival, avoiding pulling the trigger of a loaded gun and not giving in when the torture becomes too much. Can you return to a life with church on Sunday and dinner with the Smith family after that? That question isn’t entirely sussed out by the end of The Deer Hunter but the weight of its not-so-simple answer can be felt long after the movie has ended, even years later.
What Should Have Won: An Unmarried Woman
22) 'No Country for Old Men' (2007)
A tight and taut adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s death-obsessed novel of the same name, with Javier Bardem as the pale devil chasing a good-natured thief (Josh Brolin) and a seasoned sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones). The Coens were not to be toyed with before this but No Country for Old Men solidified them as bankable directors who could make you a cult hit or an Oscar winner, and something akin to both with the exceptional Inside Llewyn Davis. The editing here is curt and direct but never cold or overtly efficient. The unyielding yet methodical pace turns up the heat just right in bloody sequences like the hotel shoot-out on the Mexican border and the nighttime chase after Brolin’s thief retrieves the drug money. The simplicity gives the entire story the feeling of a biblical fable, and the Coens make Texas feel like the ideal setting for the meeting of good’s might and evil’s rampancy.
What Should Have Won: There Will Be Blood
21) 'Gentleman's Agreement' (1947)
Though primarily known as the director of On the Waterfront and the so-called betrayer in the age of McCarthyism, Elia Kazan was originally known as the filmmaker behind this powder-keg political drama in 1947, four years before he filmed Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. Gregory Peck’s courageous reporter starts telling people he’s Jewish for a story he’s doing and the repercussions unveil a conspiracy of polite facades that hide untold bigotry and resentment. Kazan, himself a Jew, was skeptical of the post-war friendliness that so many people showcased and it’s not hard to see his rough analysis in every interaction Peck’s journalist has under his guise. If On the Waterfront is a quintessential tale of a wouldabeen, Gentleman’s Agreement finds its focus on a man of integrity, leadership, and hope who loses his hunger for humanity when he sees what it’s like behind the curtains and the bedroom door.
What Should Have Won: Gentleman’s Agreement
20) 'The Departed' (2006)
2006. It took until 2006 for the gaggle of pinheads who decides these things to finally award Martin Scorsese for direction and for Best Film. Both Raging Bull and GoodFellas were more deserving but the fact that this charade ended at all is a matter to be celebrated considering all the people Oscars never saw fit to award anything more than consideration to. This lunatic slice of self-excoriating crime drama, adapted from China’s Infernal Affairs franchise, gives Scorsese an antic and bloody landscape in which to consider loyalty and identity, whether or not you are who you pretend to be. Scorsese’s answer would seem to be a no but that’s not to say that the sins of the illusory self cannot be visited upon the one with the girlfriend, the nice home, and the weekend rugby team.
What Should Have Won: Letters from Iwo Jima
19) 'The Apartment' (1960)
I don’t have time to explain to you why this is one of the best comedies ever made and frankly you should have already seen this by now. Yes, it’s the one with Jack Lemmon as the heal who rents his home out to cheating corporate types before he falls for his boss’s mistress (Shirley Maclaine). Yes, it’s one of the most influential screenplays ever written in this or any other country. And yes, it’s a goddamn delight every single time you turn it on or come across it on TV.
What Should Have Won: The Apartment
18) 'Patton' (1970)
The great conqueror meets himself at the end of the world and contemplates the meaning of all this death and war, and then he grunts. George C. Scott’s take on the notorious General Patton is a showstopper on its own but this delirious epic, penned by Francis Ford Coppola, also considers the iconography of America’s military as compared to its actual use on the world stage. What if the great conqueror is no longer needed in a land that wants peace? Where does the behemoth stride when the battles and the blood have all dried up?
What Should Have Won: Patton or MASH
17) '12 Years a Slave' (2013)
Steve McQueen’s third feature is flawed but that fact should not weigh in on the matter of its necessity. That it also features one of the most brazenly self-serving cameos in the history of the modern cinema from Mr. Brad Pitt is also excusable in the name of the film’s very real value. For all of McQueen’s sumptuous, wrenching images, Solomon Northup, as played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is essentially unknown for much of the runtime, and the fact that we never know him seems to be the point. His life, his persona, and all the things that made him Solomon Northup have been taken away in the name of free labor and white supremacy. What McQueen does is put the horrors of slavery and the hurt of those who bore witness to film, and for that alone, 12 Years a Slave should be considered required viewing.
What Should Have Won: The Wolf of Wall Street
16) 'Platoon' (1986)
On patrol during the Vietnam War, Charlie Sheen’s neophyte soldier gets stuck between two men, the brooding, bloodthirsty killer (Tom Berenger) or the high-minded, grass-smoking philosopher (Willem Dafoe). As Oliver Stone writes and directs it, the drama centers on that quagmire but also the idea of what, if anything, America wants to be on the world stage. Are they the thinkers who can act funny and share a joint or are they the hard-asses who only think about how to defeat their perceived enemies? The fight on the ground might be symbolic but Stone imbues every scene with details in decoration, music, wardrobe, lingo, and food that convey a sustained authenticity, and when the talk gets heavy, Stone never overindulges his opinions. Following this and Salvador, Stone rarely found subject matter that was incendiary enough for his formidable political indignation but in Platoon especially, you can feel Stone’s two sides – angst-ridden radical and obsessive filmmaker – working in unison.
What Should Have Won: Platoon
15) 'Midnight Cowboy' (1969)
It’s hard to concisely summarize John Schlesinger’s notorious drama but it’s primarily a movie about a friendship, the one between a hunkish hustler (Jon Voight) and a rattled, furious New York derelict (Dustin Hoffman). And it’s a pretty warm one at that. Buck and Ratso are only looking for enough money to get away from the cancerous grip of the city, which is here at once somewhat demonized and depicted honestly as the hotbed of sin it is and will always be. Schlesinger shows the city as both hell on wheels and wonderland, tossing Buck and Ratso through a barrage of nasty night-life scenarios. Despite all of this, the emotional bond that Hoffman and Voight build-up incrementally becomes the heart of the story. That the director never sentimentalizes or tries to overanalyze their connection is crucial to its reputation – companionship that’s this dedicated and unexpected relies on an air of mystery, which Midnight Cowboy keeps up through the very last shot.
What Should Have Won: Midnight Cowboy or Z
14) 'Rebecca' (1940)
The only Alfred Hitchcock movie to win the Best Picture statue at the Academy Award. In any other year, this would have been long overdue and reason for celebration. In 1940, however, it beat out Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, two of the best movies ever made, and it’s win feels borderline outrageous. You never know with this stuff.
What Should Have Won: The Great Dictator
13) 'The Hurt Locker' (2009)
Those who suddenly grasped the idea that Kathryn Bigelow was a great director when The Hurt Locker arrived were clearly not playing attention. Her study of male vulnerability and masculine illusions can be felt throughout Strange Days, Blue Steel, and Point Break and her bravura technical work explains James Cameron’s continued endorsement, even after their relationship ended. With The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow seemed to escape the trappings of B-grade genre workouts, which many of her films could have been mistaken for, by engaging with different genres – the war movie. And much like Clint Eastwood, she took the subject matter with gusto. The explosives experts, led by Jeremy Renner’s wild man, of The Hurt Locker know technical work just like Bigelow but are constantly caught off-guard by the human element, by the things that are impossible to control. Those are the things that can get you killed and Bigelow’s film not-so-gently confirms that there’s not much you can do about that.
What Should Have Won: The Hurt Locker
12) 'The Silence of the Lambs' (1991)
Jonathan Demme can do anything. That sounds like a bold statement, but if you take a close look at his track record, the man has made some of the best films of the decade for the last three-to-four decades. This is true of his work perfecting the romantic comedy in Something Wild or putting some much-needed blood into the timely political drama with Philadelphia or redesigning the Altman-esque multi-character melodrama with Rachel Getting Married. Yet none of these successes are within the realm of his adaptation of Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, an almost operatic treatment of the horror genre.
Not for nothing is The Silence of the Lambs also a work of layered psychological confession and warfare. Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter gets fleeting but substantial kicks out of breaking down the psychological walls that Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a talented FBI cadet, has been building up in the fallout of her father’s death. And yet, it’s his needling of the cadet that brings her to become the stellar agent she becomes, through both offering her his opinion of the crimes and liberating her from her conditioned wanting for masculine security and dominance that she’s been looking for after her father’s death. The influence of Hannibal, another man, may signal a complication but Hopkins’ devious creation is a thing beyond power over others and when he’s done pressing the anguish out of Sterling, he relinquishes his power, leaving her calling after him, as if calling after her father one last time.
What Should Have Won: The Silence of the Lambs
11) 'On the Waterfront' (1954)
What were you supposed to be? Did your mom or dad tell you? How about your grandparents? Girlfriend? Sibling? Marlon Brando’s hoodlum prince was supposed to be one of the great pugilists of his day but it didn’t turn out that way because of a bet. A little money began falling into his pocket, just enough to keep him comfortable and quiet, until he’s implicated in a heartless murder. Elia Kazan’s heroic, humanistic tale plays like a grand morality play, rife with symbolism (the pigeons) and memorable lines (“I’m a bum…”) but Kazan goes the extra mile to implicate corporate America and its anti-union crusades in this telling. Years later, you wonder how the staggering ending isn’t projected on the sides of house while the current administration dismantles the rights of workers for the good of the rich.
What Should Have Won: On the Waterfront
10) 'Annie Hall' (1977)
The movie that spawned an incomprehensible amount of pretenders to the throne, each one of them more predictable and far less funny than the last. Time and chance, as always, are the most sinister tricksters of them all in Woody Allen’s movies and it does it’s work here. The hesitant build-up to Allen’s courtship with Diane Keaton’s titular “it” girl lets us slowly get to know both of them too, and allows Allen to wax philosophical and moralistic for awhile. The dialogue is as rich as ever and the movie never feels guided toward a happy ending or an easy one for that matter. Had Annie never gone to Los Angeles, she might never have left New York or Alvie; had Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters never met back up with Dianne Weist’s character, they might have remained alone and unhappy. Allen doesn’t offer an easy architecture for a pleasing, decent life because he doesn’t believe that any being or force did that for the human race. Instead, he pivots on indecision and uncertainty, feelings that take on cumbersome importance in a world with no clear guidance and an excess of life options.
What Should Have Won: Annie Hall
9) 'All About Eve' (1950)
Show-business is hell but Joseph L. Mankiewicz had a knack for turning the ordeal into a whole lot of fun. In this classic tale of back-stabbing actresses and the men who love them, he considers just how useful it is to be a serious player in a job where you cannot trust or even help out anyone without fearing for your own space in life. Of course, the iconic Mankiewicz saw this as an increasingly dire issue in show-business as well as everyday life – a new philosophy of self-obsession in the name of a greedy society. That’s the root of the hurt but in All About Eve, things become harder to figure out with the actors and actresses mending various versions of themselves for those around them. The hope, as All About Eve suggests, is that creating different versions of yourselves on the stage or big screen may spare you from the unknowable oblivion of death, It doesn’t but Mankiewicz makes belief in just that a strong, spellbinding affair to contend with.
What Should Have Won: All About Eve or Sunset Boulevard
8) 'Casablanca' (1943)
There aren’t many scenes in Michael Curtiz’s beloved wartime romance that aren’t iconic. “Here’s looking at you, kid.” “I’m shocked, you hear, shocked to find out there’s gambling going on in here.” “This is the start of a beautiful franchise.” I could go on but this is growing a bit boring. A lesser actor might not have been able to summon all the pickled regret, bitterness, and loneliness that Humphrey Bogart expresses with little more than a sneer and his disillusion with the world anchors the story. Curtiz argues here that being a cynic doesn’t by any means suggest that you don’t care about people or the state of the world, rather that you’re skeptical of everything and everyone. And like all great acts of courage, Rick pulls off his final escape without anyone but a corrupt police officer knowing. Casablanca could be seen as an ode to the man who can do it all and it’s smart not to ignore all the moral rot and want for self-destruction that typifies that man.
What Should Have Won: Casablanca
7) 'Unforgiven' (1992)
If Clint Eastwood had never made Gran Torino, a rewatch of Unforgiven would have given you a similar dose of what that movie cooked up. Having become rich and famous off his persona as a cowboy throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Eastwood seemed to be taking a look back at a life as a figure of violence and righteous, lawless revenge. And when Eastwood’s elderly would-be plot farmer is called out of retirement to shoot down a cadre of rapists and sadists, one can feel the iconic Western star contemplating the real toll of killing, which he summarizes later in the movie as taking away everything a man was and will ever be. It’s a haunting monologue toward the end of this masterpiece but it’s not by any means the only time one can sense that death is out front and regularly on Eastwood’s mind.
What Should Have Won: Unforgiven
6) 'The Godfather: Part II' (1974)
It’s the best sequel of all time, but that’s just to start. The story of how Don Corleone got to where he was in life, and how Michael took over the business, is a far more narratively complex affair than it’s predecessor, but the emotions are clear. As Michael turns further away from his old life as a decent husband and father, so does the Coreleone family begin to gnaw hungrily at it’s own stomach. As devastating as the first film is, Part II is the one with venom in it’s bite, and in it’s most raucous, angry scenes, there is simply no dramatic work released in the 1970s that comes near it’s power. The dissatisfaction is thick by the end of all of this, as is the alienation. Part II leaves us with Michael having severed all meaningful ties that don’t involve money and influence, the capitalistic instinct endemic to all crime finally rendering him autonomous, bitter, and hating himself. Coppola doesn’t a fleck of sugar to his black brew and his judgment of man, far away from warmth and family while subsumed with power, is convincing and unequivocally damning.
What Should Have Won: The Godfather: Part II
5) 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' (1975)
Of Milos Forman’s many celebrated American films, this and Taking Off are the two that most closely resemble Forman’s groundbreaking work in the Czech New Wave. In essence, it’s a group made up of the severely disturbed, the mentally disabled, the unhinged, and the criminal making small talk and planning the uprising against the villainous Nurse Ratchet. In Forman’s early films, the robust, intimate talk and unexpected eruptions of activity were reflective of his home still recovering from the war, of people who can now, once again, be drunk on life. With his first major big-studio project, Forman’s derelicts were representative of a new line of directors, actors, and other creative types who meant to make Hollywood safe for the weirdos again, an attempt to turn the asylum over to the patients. They failed but the pent-up angst and energy expressed here went onto influence another whole generation of filmmakers who wanted a room on the ward.
What Should Have Won: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
4) 'The Godfather' (1972)
Books have been written about The Godfather. It’s largely accepted as the high-water-mark for populist cinema and those who have an adolescent affinity for organized crime have turned it into a cult object alongside Brian De Palma‘s Scarface. It’s the touchstone of modern American prestige, which is tied very much to the classics of the New Hollywood era. With all of this, it’s hard to explain what its like being alone with the movie, away from its burdensome reputation. It’s gorgeous, first of all, every single shot rich with texture, shadow, and light. The pace is brisk yet never rushed, and the sprawl of characters is at once immense and welcoming.
The movie has class, and that’s what I imagine people relate to in the movie at first, entering in on the extravagant wedding of Don Corleone’s daughter. As the warring between the families fires up, one starts hoping that Don Corleone and his brood get away from this; later, we root for them to kill the competition. We do this because we love these characters and it might not even dawn on many people until the end – at least on first viewing – that what we’ve been watching is power, greed, violence, and macho pride submerging Michael (Al Pacino), corrupting the singular agent of good in the Corleone family. It’s easy to see the triumph in the story and the rush of their embattled survival never dies down but after all the bodies have been stacked up, there’s the good soldier, closing the door on the wife he loves and the empathies he cultivated, in the name of keeping the, for lack of a better phrase, family business going.
What Should Have Won: The Godfather
3) 'Moonlight' (2016)
Some have opined that the truly beguiling scene at last year’s Oscars, wherein La La Land was handed the award before it was revealed that Moonlight was the night’s true winner, was proof that reality is a façade and we’re living in some computer simulation. If that happens to be true, that would be somehow easier to accept than what was actually happening in America when the Academy Awards had its most epic meltdown. And perhaps no movie that has ever won the Best Picture award was more deserving of such an existential fracas than Barry Jenkins’ luminous, groundbreaking second feature.
Fractured and pieced together again in dream-like memory scenes, the narrative of Moonlight is not much in terms of plot. A young boy, Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), befriends a ruthless yet empathetic drug dealer named Juan, played with shattering vulnerability and nuance by Mahershala Ali, to get away from his crack-addicted nurse mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). Chiron grows up to be an awkward but gifted teenager (Ashton Sanders) who has a sexual awakening while getting a hand-job on the beach and faces endless bullying. Finally, the young man has become a grown man, now nicknamed Black (Trevonte Rhodes), slinging dope just like his father figure until a reconnection with a past lover stirs something up inside him.
There’s no familiarly conservative revelations of character here. The young man is still dealing drugs at the end of the movie and there’s no sense that this fact implicitly makes him bad. There’s not one cliché indulged in its portrait of a man’s sexual awakening with another young man. Jenkins comes at the material from a deeply personal place and the result is a film of radical intimacy. The structured storytelling avoids ever getting hung up on the cleverness of its conceit, something Jenkins has in common with one of his favorite filmmakers and clear influences, Wong Kar-wai. What he’s made here is a portrait of a man that we haven’t seen often enough in film, his very soul given texture, shade, and depth through Jenkins’ sublime imagery and moving focus on gestures and setting as much as speech and movement. The movie comes off like a lucid dream conflicted by a series of characters that feel like someone you’ve known forever yet never met
2) 'How Green Was My Valley' (1941)
John Ford made Westerns, primarily. In fact, one of the most influential books about his career is called “John Ford Made Westerns.” His dramas, however, pack the same emotional wallop and artistic temperament as his best Westerns, whether it be in the verdant environs of The Quiet Man or the political outrage of The Grapes of Wrath. How Green Was My Valley, however, deserves a place alongside his most immovable works, such as The Searchers, The Informer, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and My Darling Clementine. Here, Ford imagines the lives of his parents and grandparents in a Welsh coal-mining town and sets about collecting together their quotidian dramas, sudden upheavals, and rare triumphs over the troubles of life. Ford shows an attentive eye to the textures of the home and the details of the small town where the Morgans live, tapping into the nuances of memory as much as the dictates of authenticity. The movie heaves with images from a life Ford escaped but, tellingly, could have easily slipped into at some point in his life. The director sees himself as Walter Pidgeon’s patriarch, as much as his own father and his father, and afford his story the kind of pain and grace usually saved for the saints. For Ford, saints don’t exist but people like Mr. and Mrs. Morgan do and their stories have a universal power that can hit with the force of 20 locomotives, as long as you have the right person behind the camera.
What Should Have Won: How Green Was My Valley or Citizen Kane
1) 'The Best Years of Our Lives' (1946)
Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not The Godfather and no, I’m not trying to get any attention by putting it at #3 rather than #1. Francis Ford Coppola is a name that everyone cares about for good reason: he’s made some of the most popular and audacious films of the New Hollywood movement and laid the groundwork for much of the stylistic decisions made today. William Wyler, on the other hand, is only interesting to people who love the cinema and have a sense of its history, so its not hard to see why Coppola’s film would end up on top so often. The Best Years of Our Lives, however, is the superior film in every sense of the word and is arguably the best film to ever be nominated outside of Citizen Kane.
Where so many films take the World Wars as their plainly dramatic setting, Wyler’s film is set in the weeks and months following a conflict, seeing the soldiers come home from the trenches and trying to find their footing once again. The experience of war doesn’t feel contained in Wyler’s vision, nor does it suddenly bubble up one night when some asshole starts talking wise. The effects of the war are felt in everything that the trio of soldiers Wyler follows do, whether it’s Frederic March’s Al prizing loyalty to servicemen over business acumen or Dana Andrews’ Fred barely able to keep a hold on a department store job when the signs of PTSD start showing. Wyler, working from Robert E. Sherwood’s script, doesn’t simply see heroes in these men and his empathy is not limited to those who served. He feels for these people without pointed reason, whether they’re celebrating or in mourning, and thus The Best Years of Our Lives comes off as an ode to life itself and the people that help make existence worth living through.
What Should Have Won: The Best Years of Our Lives