The Best Best Pictures

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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.

 

 

Author: Mark Armour

Long-time SABR member, founder and past chairman of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, current President of the SABR board of directors, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.

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