The Best Best Pictures


With the Academy Awards upon us (next Sunday), you can easily find articles about the “worst” choices the Academy has ever made in naming their annual Best Picture.  We all love to point out that other people have made a “mistake.”

I love movies, as many people do, but I try to remind myself that its still just a matter of taste.  I like the movies that I like, and I try not to talk you out of liking the movies that you like.  (Sometimes I slip up.) I have never seen a great movie about a superhero and I doubt I ever will, but they keep making them so a lot of people obviously disagree with me.  My brain is different than your brain.

With that said, I thought I would write something about my favorite movies that have won the Oscar for Best Picture.  These are all, in my view, outstanding movies, and therefore laudable choices by the Academy.  I have seen hundreds of movies that were well worth my time, movies that I recommended to friends, movies I have may have sought out to watch again.   These are all even better than that, movies I would watch over and over.  There are only 12 movies here, and they are not necessarily my favorite 12 movies.  Many of my favorite movies did not win Best Picture.

That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.

I will list these chronologically.  I have left out saying “in my opinion” over and over again — please insert that phrase throughout.

It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934).  It seems formulaic and predictable, but it more or less invented a new type of movie and made Clark Gable the biggest star in the world.  Claudette Colbert was also great.  This movie is charming and basically hilarious.

Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939).  Yes, it romanticizes a time and place that does not deserve romanticizing, and I imagine that it makes many people uncomfortable to watch.  But it was such an incredible technical achievement that I can’t really leave it off in good conscience.  There are too many iconic characters to really count.

Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943).  The greatest American movie ever?  Or is it Citizen Kane, which lost the 1941 Oscar to How Green Was My Valley?  Kane is technically more impressive, while Casablanca is a movie you could watch once a week for the rest of your life.  Every character is so well conceived, and the story so honest, that it is never clear what everyone should do next.

The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946).  Its a period piece, but I find it remarkable that this movie could have foreseen so many of the post-war issues so soon after the war ended.  What a joy this must have been to watch in a theatre when it came out, surrounded by people in uniform.  Plus: Myrna Loy.

All About Eve (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1950).  Bette Davis might have been the greatest actress ever, but at 42 she was no longer getting prime roles, a lament she could share with actresses of every generation since.  Davis crushed this role.  To win the Oscar, Eve had to beat out Sunset Boulevard, one of my all-time favorite films.

On The Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954).  This was a tough period for movies as so many of the best screenwriters were either blacklisted or afraid of making movies that showed the little guy being pushed around by companies or the government.  OTW is a grand exception, with the not-subtle pro-labor message.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1956).   There is nothing about this movie I don’t love.  It is one of the most physically “beautiful” movies ever made.

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960).  Although filmmakers continue to spend gazillions of dollars trying to wow us with special effects and technology, there is still nothing more impressive to me than a great movie with ordinary people behaving in ordinary ways.  Making a movie with recognizable humans is HARD, but when it works you can create masterpieces like this one.

The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972).  I don’t have to much to add that hasn’t already been said.  As a movie watcher, I am generally anti-violence — it is almost always unnecessary to the plot, and acts to pull me out of the movie.  The Godfather has some violence, though not as much as the mob movies that were to come.  But the movie is essentially perfect, and this might be the greatest role in the career of Marlon Brando, America’s greatest actor.

Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977).  I am decidedly a Woody Allen fan – I think he has made as many good movies as any director ever has.  This is usually considered his “great” movie, to differentiate it from all his “good” movies, and I suppose that’s fair.  Diane Keaton is wonderful.

Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993).  Spielberg finally got his Oscar, and it was well deserved.  I have only seen this film once — let’s face it, its not a pleasant subject — but it is a grand subject and got the great film it deserved.  I pledge to see it again this year.

No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007).  I am a bit of Coen brothers skeptic — I think they make good movies, but they tend to create cartoonish characters that detract from the movie and keep pulling me out of the movie.  This is a hell of a movie though, and I was appropriately scared and interested from the beginning to the end.

That’s twelve films.  There are several near misses, and the list might grow as I rewatch more of them, especially the ones from the last few decades.

It should be stressed that there are many great films, including from the recent past, that were not named Best Picture.  Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014) was an unquestionably outstanding film, the best of the decade in my view, but the Academy looked elsewhere.  Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012) was a great film that I will see a few more times, but was inexplicably felled by Argo.

So there are a lot of wonderful films being made.  My favorite film of 2015 was Spotlight.  Whether it gathers the statue or not is anyone’s guess, but will not affect my opinion of it in any way, and it should not affect yours.

My advice: watch more movies.



“Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty”

The following review of Charles Leerhsen’s book “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” was published in the February issue of SABR’s Deadball Era newsletter.  Please join SABR.


When Charles Leerhsen began working on this book, he tells us in its pages, he believed Ty Cobb to be “a racist and a mean, spikes-sharpening son of a bitch.” Leerhsen came by this belief honestly, from the popular Cobb biographies, from Ron Shelton’s movie Cobb, from Field of Dreams (which idealizes an entire era of ballplayers, except Cobb, who was a “son-of-a-bitch”), from Ken Burns’ documentary on the game’s history. As he begins his research, a lot of the standard Cobb stories begin to ring false, especially Al Stump’s absurd accounting of Cobb’s final days, first published as an award-winning magazine article in 1962 and later as a book in 1994.

Leerhsen comes to believe, and reports to us, that Cobb was not a racist, or at least no more so than the America of his time, that he did not sharpen his spikes, and that he was liked and respected by many of his contemporaries. Can the author’s change of heart be chalked up to growing too close to his subject? Not solely. The author has done first-rate research, and presents a solid case that Cobb was much more complicated than the monster of Stump’s largely made-up book or Shelton’s related movie.  He probably did not sharpen his spikes. There is no evidence that he killed anyone (a claim made by Stump and others).  He performed many acts of kindness throughout his life, to black and white people. He could be a charming man who, on occasion, would just snap.

A drawback of the book, at least for me, is that the author frames the narrative around telling us what prior authors or moviemakers got wrong, who Cobb was not, as opposed to telling us who Cobb was. There is more in this book about Al Stump than there is about Cobb’s wife of forty years.

A staple of the oft-told Cobb story is that he spent much of his life beating the crap out of people, usually people of a lesser station, and many of them black, with little or no provocation. What we learn here is that several of these people were actually white, which somewhat reduces Cobb’s sin (he did not discriminate in who he beat up) but hardly eliminates it.

Of course, Cobb did have some famous confrontations with black innocents. In June 1908 Cobb attacked a black worker who had the temerity to tell Cobb and his companions not to cross the street because of newly poured asphalt. According to a newsman on the scene, Cobb used racial language before the fight. Leerhsen mitigates the charge of racism by citing some of Cobb’s racially liberal relatives as evidence that he was not a typical Southerner.

In April 1919, as far as can be determined, Cobb pushed an 18-year-old black chambermaid into a hallway, kicked her in the stomach, and knocked her down a flight of stairs, causing her to be hospitalized for several weeks. Cobb was not arrested and it was barely covered in the mainstream press other than a note, weeks after the event, that Cobb was being sued. Leerhsen researches the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, to try to find out how it was resolved.   It is not actually clear, though at one point the Tigers team was trying to settle with the victim. Wrapping up the episode, Leerhsen informs the reader that the Defender was kind to Cobb in his obituary 42 years later, and that Cobb had complimentary things to say about black players in the 1950s. What remains is this: Ty Cobb, a large physical professional athlete, pushed a young woman down a flight of stairs. The rest hardly seems to matter.

A point Leerhsen repeatedly makes is that Cobb’s kindness to black people at a particular time and place suggests that his cruelty at another time and place was not racially motivated. Is it not possible that Cobb liked black people well enough, but demanded they treat him with a degree of deference and became enraged when they did not? (It is perhaps interesting that all of Cobb’s physical altercations took place during the season, and not back in Georgia where he spent every winter.) Is it also not possible, even likely, that he held many views in 1952 that he did not hold in 1918?

Cobb was tremendous ballplayer, a very intelligent man on and off the field, and the most interesting person in nearly every room he ever walked into. Leerhsen captures this Cobb very well. He was not a hardscrabble backwoods Southerner, he was a learned well-to-do man who dressed well, and carried himself like a kingly figure even as a young man. Cobb did many good things in his life.

The takeaway of all Cobb biographies, including this one, is that he was a somewhat sad figure. Despite all his gifts, he lived much of his life angry and bitter with someone or something. He did not seem to have any real friends, people that could tell him the hard truths about what he was doing. His relationships with his five children—one of whom later said she was afraid of him her entire life—were, to be kind, complex. He spent the end of his life essentially alone. In baseball’s long history, Cobb has few peers as a player. But off the field, there is very little happiness in this book or in this life.