This concluding entry about every movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture doesn’t need the four-paragraph intro that Part One did. All you need to know is that the list begins with the 1970’s – generally believed to be the best decade for quality filmmaking – that my all-time favorite movie is on the list, and that after March 4, 2018, another movie will join this list.
(Also, films in italics are especially worth watching. Read on.)
Patton (1970): A great film, with a towering performance by George C. Scott as four-star general George S. Patton, who led Allied troops and enraged German field marshal Erwin Rommel during WWII campaigns across Italy, France, and North Africa. No saint he, Patton was famously sidelined after slapping a shell-shocked soldier, and the film sees him as a historian who imagines himself a great Roman Empire battlefield commander. The humble Scott, who was the opposite of Patton himself, famous declined his Best Actor Oscar, saying that actors shouldn’t have to compete with one another. Whatever you believe on the subject, be sure to see “Patton.” It is a masterpiece, and one of the best films of the early 1970’s.
The French Connection (1971): Four years before directing “The Exorcist,” William Friedkin made this taut crime thriller that, while fictionalized and featuring different character names, was loosely based on real events. The title refers to the fact that at that time, most drugs coming into the U.S. made their way via France. Gene Hackman (who won the Oscar for Best Actor, his first of two statuettes) and Roy Scheider (a Best Supporting Actor nominee) play the NYC cops chasing the drugs, the smugglers, and in one classic scene, a New York subway train. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, this film seems more dated, and less entertaining, than “Taxi Driver,” “Marathon Man,” “Three Days of the Condor,” and other NYC-set dramas from the same decade.
The Godfather (1972): Simply put, this is the greatest movie ever made. Every frame is so perfectly composed, every performance so perfectly subtle, every word of dialogue as smooth as a knife cutting through soft butter, that it is hard to believe that the Robert Evans-produced, Francis Ford Coppola-directed film was so beset by filming disasters that it barely made it to the editing bay, let alone to the top spot of so many critics’ lists. If you’re one of the few people who haven’t seen the movie, know that it’s a condensation of Mario Puzo’s novel about an aging mafia don, the level-headed Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), who passes power to his youngest and smartest son, Michael (Al Pacino), a war hero who initially had no interest in entering the family business, only to find himself very, very good at it. Remember: “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” (“And may your first child be a masculine child.”)
The Sting (1973): Lively caper comedy from George Roy Hill, his second collaboration with Paul Newman and Robert Redford following “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” four years earlier. Newman and Redford are Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker, Chicagoland grifters and card sharps who team up for the ultimate con against gun-wielding mobster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw, who gives the best performance in the movie). “The Sting” features razor-sharp wit, entertaining plot twists, and an instantly-recognizable score by Marvin Hamlisch. Although it more than holds its own against later genre films such as Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight,” it is – simply virtue of the decade’s strong contribution to cinema in general – one of the weaker winners from the 1970’s. (Also, is it really better than that year’s also-nominated “American Graffiti?”)
The Godfather Part II (1974): Never mind “The Empire Strikes Back.” Francis Ford Coppola’s 200-minute masterpiece is the sequel to end all sequels. Two complicated stories unfold onscreen at two distinct points in time. In one, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has consolidated his family’s earnings in the casino business, and finds efforts to expand into Cuba thwarted by the New Year’s Eve revolution. In the other, young Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando in the original and Robert DeNiro in this version) first arrives in America and slowly makes a name for himself in New York’s Little Italy. Bottom line: the finest ensemble acting in any movie ever produced. Pacino, DeNiro, and John Cazale (as weak-willed, ill-fated Fredo) do what may be career-best acting.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975): The second of just three movies to win Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay (Adapted, in this case from Ken Kesey’s novel), “Cuckoo’s Nest” is a mile-a-minute dramedy about life in an insane asylum once Randle P. McMurphy, who fakes insanity on a statutory rape charge anticipating an easy sentence, arrives and threatens the routine of head nurse Ratched to keep the peace – a routine that includes forced drugs and intimidation. As McMurphy and Ratched, Oscar winners Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher do some of the best work of their careers, with Nicholson’s career ultimately being more storied than Fletcher’s.
Rocky (1976): In my April, 2016 post about the Top Ten Sports Movies, “Rocky” ranked in the top five. The film’s theme, about going the distance, encapsulates everything that boxing is about, and so its ranking on that list feels appropriate. That being said, it doesn’t have the artistry of other Oscar winners from the same decade, and its relevance seems to fade a bit with each successive, unnecessary sequel. That is unfortunate, because behind the not-very-good acting, there is still something to like about the image of a black-eyed Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, as if you didn’t know) shouting across the ring for his one true love, Adrian (Talia Shire) even though he has just lost the big match.
Annie Hall (1977): What can be said about the movie that, as improbable as it may seem to movie geeks of today, beat “Star Wars” for Best Picture? Well, for starters, “Annie Hall” was as influential to cinema as “Star Wars” was in its way. “Annie Hall” introduced us to the concept of breaking the fourth wall, incorrectly cited as as “the ‘Ferris Bueller’ effect.” “Annie Hall “made us believe that a nebbishy stand-up comic (Woody Allen, who was nominated for Best Actor and won for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) could go the distance with a necktie-wearing beatnik (Best Actress Diane Keaton, a revelation). Finally, “Annie Hall” reminded us that a romantic comedy doesn’t have to have a happy ending to still be a great time at the movies.
The Deer Hunter (1978): A interesting, albeit bleaker, companion piece to 1946’s “The Best Years of our Lives,” Oscar winner Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” follows a group of Pittsburgh steel workers, include Robert DeNiro’s title character, before, during, and after Vietnam. Tender, touching, and tragic, the movie shows, perhaps better than any other movie about the Vietnam War, the ordinary lives touched by the conflict and the difficulty they have moving on after such a nightmare of captivity, torture, and literal Russian roulette. One of the greatest films of the 70’s, and an acting Master Class.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979): Sentimental and enormously popular for its time, but barely remembered today, Kramer vs. Kramer is perhaps now best known as the movie that gave Meryl Streep the first of her three Academy Awards (for Best Supporting Actress). Streep plays the troubled wife of a workaholic ad exec (Dustin Hoffman, who his first Oscar too, for Best Actor) who throws both of their lives into disarray when she tells him she is leaving, forcing him to become much more than an absentee father to their young son (Justin Henry, just eight years old when nominated for Best Supporting Actor). That, alas, is only part of the story, with the custody battle that comprise the film’s final act sure to leave you in tears. “Kramer vs. Kramer” still makes for an enjoyable viewing, but there is little about its filmmaking – aside from the strong cast – to mark it as more than just run of the mill.
Ordinary People (1980): There is nothing inherently wrong with Robert Redford’s directorial debut; the simple story of an affluent suburban Chicago family falling into dysfunction following one son’s accidental drowning and the other son’s subsequent suicide attempt is actually quite good. If anything, the depression-fueled deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams 35 years later brought the issue of mental illness out of the shadows, making the film more relevant than ever. It is just that “Ordinary People” should never have beaten “Raging Bull” for Best Picture any more than Redford having beaten Martin Scorsese for Best Director.
Chariots of Fire (1981): Beautifully scored and photographed, but boring, this historical sports dram about British Olympic runners, one (Ben Cross) a persecuted Jew and the other (Ian Charleson) a man of the cloth, is based on actual events. The synthesizers-and-piano score, though dated, is still memorable, but the music alone isn’t enough to make the movie moving or memorable. The characters simply never captivate…certainly not as much as Indiana Jones, whose “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was by far the more deserving film from 1981…and in fact the finest film of the decade.
Gandhi (1982): The best screen biopic since “Patton,” and the first of several from the 80’s to win Best Picture. The film opens with a suspicious Sikh man watching from a distance as India’s beloved “Mahatma,” non-violent independence advocate Mohandes K. Gandhi (Best Actor Ben Kingsley) goes for a morning walk with his family, then flashes back several decades before leading back to that momentous morning. As the diminutive Gandhi, Ben Kingsley shows us first, a stubborn, educated lawyer working in South Africa, then a faithful husband who nonetheless believes man are superior to women, then a man unafraid to question British Raj in India, then a charisimatic storyteller, then a revered, peaceful old man, who accomplished so much yet seems as if he could nary harm a fly. One of the great performances in film history, in an important motion picture, both sweeping and intimate.
Terms of Endearment (1983): With the exception of 1987’s wonderful “Broadcast News,” I have always found the films of James L. Brooks to be overrated. “Terms of Endearment,” which won five Oscars, is no “Broadcast News.” Sure, the mother-daughter bickering between Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger leads to some waterworks, and yes, Jack Nicholson’s ex-astronaut character earns a few laughs, falling for MacLaine’s Aurora Greenway while never failing to put her in her place. Still, which film will be remembered longer in the annals of film history: “Terms of Endearment” or “The Right Stuff?” Enough said.
Amadeus (1984): Amadeus, which I included in one of my top ten posts about great screen biopics, is two parts of a good movie. The first half is a giddy costume drama about the impish, womanizing title composer (Oscar nominee Tom Hulce) who impresses Austrian royalty while enraging his peer, Antonio Salieri (Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, who has never found a comparable role since then, causing critic Leonard Maltin to coin the phrase “F. Murray Abraham syndrome”). The second darker half, finds Mozart struggling to compose following his father’s death, with Salieri taking cruel advantage of Mozart’s haunted state. Alas, the two halves don’t always mesh, but the structure is different than that of the typical biopic, and the costumes, music, and art direction are suitably sumptuous.
Out of Africa (1985): Sydney Pollack, who passed away in 2008, is perhaps better known as a character actor than as a filmmaker, but it was his work behind the camera, producing and directing “Out of Africa,” that won him his only Oscars. Ironically, “Out of Africa” is considered by many cinephiles to be unworthy of its Best Picture status, with many people preferring Peter Weir’s “Witness,” Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple,” or the non-nominated “Back to the Future.” Watching “Out of Africa” today, about Danish writer Karen Blixen’s (a pseudonym for Isak Dinesen, who wrote the autobiographical novel upon which the film is made) unfaithful marriage to a Kenyan farmer and her on-again, off-again romance with pilot and game hunter, it is clear that the movie resonated with voters not because of its dull story, but because of its stirring John Barry score and its sumptuous visuals of parched African savannas. Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, and Klaus Maria Brandauer (remember him?!) star.
Platoon (1986): Of the gazillion Vietnam movies to be released during the 1980’s, “Platoon” is certainly the best. It was written and directed by ‘Nam vet Oliver Stone, giving it a heightened sense of realism and grit. Watching “Platoon,” you can practically feel the humidity, breathe in the pot smoke, and tingle with dread as the soldiers nap in foxholes, above which danger lurks. Of special note is the strong cast of before-their-prime actors, namely Charlie Sheen, Kevin Dillon, and Johnny Depp. Unfortunately, the acting is terrible, even the Oscar-nominated performances of Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger.
The Last Emperor (1987): Beautiful, intimate, and cold, this cradle-to-grave study of the life of Chinese emperor-turned-political-prisoner-turned-gardener Pu Yi (John Lone) is a study in production design and set decoration. It was nominated for nine Oscars and won all nine, a bested just once, by “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2003. “The Last Emperor” is not a movie you’ll want to re-watch very often, but it does an admirable job cramming seven decades of history into a three-hour movie; the film’s subject, perhaps the loneliest person who ever lived, had a life story so remarkable that you would hardly believe the movie to be as accurate as it supposedly is.
Rain Man (1988): According to Raymond “Rain Man” Babbitt (Best Actor Dustin Hoffman), Kmart sucks. This film doesn’t. I was just 13 when I watched in the theater, and it was the first time I had even heard of such a thing as an autistic savant, which is how you would describe Babbitt in the not-so-PC 1980’s. The road trip that Babbitt takes with his brother Charlie (a superb Tom Cruise, who actually gives the better performance) in a misguided attempt by Charlie to get the fair share of his late father’s inheritance, is one of the most remarkable cross-country journeys in late-20th-century cinema. Humor and pathos intertwine seamlessly; the only dated elements are the costumes, a few bits of dialogue, and Cruise’s hairstyle.
Driving Miss Daisy (1989): 1989 was an important year for the theme of race relations in America. Edward Zwick’s “Glory” followed the first black regiment, the Massachusett’s 54th, into Civil War battle. Spike Lee’s masterful “Do the Right Thing” brought things to a fever pitch on a single, gentrified Brooklyn city block during one too-hot day. Finally, “Driving Miss Daisy” detailed the decades-long friendship between a wealthy Atlanta widow (Oscar winner Jessica Tandy) and her long-suffering chauffeur, Hoke (Morgan Freeman). Of these very different films, “Driving Miss Daisy” was the weakest, but it was the only one to be nominated for “Best Picture.” It is a nice movie, full of uplift and careful not to offend anyone…but forgotten about mere moments after having been seen.
Dances with Wolves (1990): “Dances with Wolves,” which could better be titled “How the West was Lost,” had the unfortunate distinction of being released the same year as “Goodfellas.” Most cinephiles consider it an outrage that Kevin Costner’s pensive western trumped Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic for the top awards of the evening. And to be sure, it *seems* like the film could have used some pruning, and fewer scenes, for example, of Costner’s Civil War Lieutenant John G. Dunbar bathing. But these scattered moments of self-indulgence barely detract from the bigger picture: a gorgeous glimpse into a dying frontier and its oft-misunderstood native peoples, a series of intelligent, close-knit farmers and hunters who were driven from their lands and slaughtered to near-extinction. An important picture.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991): The only horror movie to win Best Picture, and one of just three movies to also win Best Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. Jonathan Demme’s classy adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel, a peek into the minds of serial killers and of the FBI agents pursuing them, was nominated alongside such showier films as “Bugsy” and “JFK,” but it holds up better than either one and its classic scenes, from Hannibal Lecter’s (Anthony Hopkins) jail break to Clarice Starling’s (Jodie Foster) desperate show-down with Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) in a dark basement, have lost little of their original impact. Remember: “It places the lotion in the basket.”
Unforgiven (1992): “Unforgiven,” one of just two westerns to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, is deservedly mentioned in the same sentence as “The Searchers,” “High Noon,” and “Shane” genre high water marks all. Director and star Clint Eastwood, headlining his last and perhaps best western, plays reformed former gunfighter William Munny, who straps on his irons one last time in a moment of financial desperation. His target: a pair of thugs who cut up a prostitute in the remote town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, where the sheriff (Best Supporting Actor Gene Hackman) rules with an iron fist. “We all have it coming,” Munny says at one point late in the film, and about that he’s right. In the game of vengeance, no one gets away clean.
Schindler’s List (1993): It is difficult to categorize Schindler’s List in any other genre besides “Holocaust drama.” Though it focuses on the gradual conscience grown by Nazi Party member and WWII war profiteer Oskar Schindler, who saved thousands of Polish Jews from certain death by employing them as laborers in his machine factory (making weapons for Germany), it isn’t quite a biopic and it isn’t quite a war movie, either. What it is…is a miracle of cinema. A labor of love for Steven Spielberg and his quid pro quo from Universal Studios for directing Jurassic Park earlier that same year, you can feel the care put into crafting every second of this almost 3.5-hour, black-and-white passion project, one of the best movies of the 1990’s and required viewing for every fan of cinema and of the human race.
Forrest Gump (1994): Although it is difficult to argue with the film’s Oscar win for Best Visual Effects, in which the title character (Tom Hanks) makes history alongside JFK, LBJ, and Richard Nixon, I really, really, really loathe this movie. The fact that “Pulp Fiction,” “Quiz Show,” and “The Shawshank Redemption” lost to this cloying piece of claptrap makes for one of filmdom’s biggest slights.
Braveheart (1995): “Braveheart” is an interesting film. On the one hand, this action-packed drama, part war movie and part biopic, about the efforts of Scottish highland William Wallace (Mel Gibson, who also directed) to fight for freedom from English rule, is rousing, romantic, and fun. On the other hand, the similarly-themed, not-nominated “Rob Roy,” released the same year and focusing on Scottish rebel Robert Roy MacGregor, is every bit as good, and twice as subtle. Neither film, though, holds a candle to Ron Howard’s superb space race adventure “Apollo 13,” the best film of its kind in an genre that includes the also-good “Gravity,” “Hidden Figures,” and “The Right Stuff.”
The English Patient (1996): Surely one of the most polarizing Best Picture winners (it even inspired a “Seinfeld” episode of the same name, “The English Patient” is, for some, a trial to sit through, with its confusing flashbacks, ambiguous heroes, and burned lead (an unrecognizable Ralph Fiennes). For the highbrow crowd and those with the patience to let a complicated story slowly unravel itself, however, “The English Patient” is a superb entertainment about the WWII-era intrigue that our title character (Fiennes, whose Count Almasy actually hails from Hungary) finds himself embroiled in as a result of his devotion for Catherine (Kristin Scott Thomas), the beautiful wife of his humorless cartographer colleague (a pre-stardom Colin Firth). Not as endlessly rewatchable as the same year’s “Fargo,” but worth a viewing nonetheless. It did win nine Oscars….
Titanic (1997): This “little” movie, which was the most expensive movie ever made at the time of its release, only to shatter all box office records (a trend its writer-director, James Cameron, would repeat in 2009 with “Avatar”), holds up well, 20 years after its release. Kate Winslet (playing Rose Dewitt Bukater) claims to have been horrified by her performance, and Leonardo DiCaprio (playing Jack Dawson) doesn’t come into his own until the second half of the movie, but they share some of cinema’s most romantic scenes, with an FX-heavy backdrop. Quite possibly the best disaster movie ever made.
Shakespeare in Love (1998): This uproariously funny fiction about forbidden love ending William Shakespeare’s pre-“Romeo and Juliet” writer’s block, “Shakespeare in Love” is whimsical and extraordinarily romantic, even more than “Titanic” from the previous year. If you refused to see the movie as an act of protest for it having beaten “Saving Private Ryan” in the category, you owe it to yourself to give the movie a chance. While it probably wasn’t better than Steven Spielberg’s gruesome D-Day adventure, it would surely have been the most deserving candidate for the top prize in almost any other year.
American Beauty (1999): 1999 was a banner year for independent movies. “Being John Malkovich,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Election,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Go,” “Run Lola Run,” “The Straight Story,” and “Topsy-Turvy” were just a few of the more unusual films to have been released that year, and all of them to critical acclaim. “American Beauty,” a DreamWorks production, was not independent, but felt edgy enough to collect the top prize as representative of a especially creative year for Hollywood. Some of the film’s edginess is tame by today’s standards, while other aspects, namely Kevin Spacey’s lust for young Mena Suvari, simply come across as creepy in retrospect. Beautifully shot, but dated, and not quite as profound as you may remember. Still the best film by director Sam Mendes, though.
Gladiator (2000): Aside from the 1952, 1969, and 2005 Best Picture winners, few movies are considered as undeserving of their Oscar statuettes as “Gladiator.” Frankly, I don’t understand the hate. The year 2000 had two other strong contenders for the top prize in “Traffic” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” but “Gladiator,” despite director Ridley Scott’s over-reliance on CGI and choppy camerawork to heighten the action scenes, is a still-fun throwback to “Spartacus,” “Ben-Hur,” and other “swords-and-sandals” epics of a bygone age. And Russell Crowe, who won Best Actor despite the fact that he didn’t play a paraplegic, substance abuser, or person of historical importance, was simply terrific in the role, and at the top of his career. His Maximus never existed…but Crowe makes us wish he did.
A Beautiful Mind (2001): Russell Crowe again, a Best Actor nominee for the third year in a row, this time playing Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, who may or may not have been an NSA code breaker and whose brilliant mind was often overtaken by extreme schizophrenia. There is nothing inherently wrong with Ron Howard’s well-acted dramatization of actual events, aside from the usual biopic problem of playing hard and loose with the facts (hey, even “Lawrence of Arabia” did it!). Somehow, though, this movie bores me, which is the most grievous crime that a screen biopic can be accused of.
Chicago (2002): This lively musical, fun but too stagey, brought home an Oscar not just for Best Picture but also for Best Supporting Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, one of four actors nominated for their work here, in which femme fatales (including Zeta-Jones and lead Renée Zellweger) become celebrities courtesy of their media-friendly lawyer, Billy Flynn (a sensational Richard Gere). Looking back 15 years, many cinephiles are of the opinion that “Chicago’s” Best Picture was a consolation prize for the more imaginative “Moulin Rouge!” one year earlier. Ultimately, neither musical seems likely to join the pantheon of great musicals like “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music.” The bigger slight was failing to nominate Gere, in the best performance of his career, for Best Actor.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003): The “LOTR” movies are harder to rank in order of good, better, best, than the original “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones” trilogies. There is merit in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” which finds all nine companions journeying together, in “The Two Towers,” which features better character development and the stunning motion-capture animation that is Gollum, and certainly in “The Return of the King,” which ups the emotional stakes and features more closure than perhaps any other movie in memory. So it was little wonder, then, that “LOTR: ROTK” won all 11 Oscars it was nominated for, even a couple (Best Original Song, anyone?) that it didn’t deserve, as a long-overdue kiss from an impressed Academy that, in any other year, would opt for a film more grounded in reality. Well done, New Line and Peter Jackson and company.
Million Dollar Baby (2004): Like 1976’s uplifing “Rocky” and 1980’s harrowing “Raging Bull,” “Million Dollar Baby” is about a boxer who defies the odds. The twist? The puglist is Maggie Fitzgerald, a down-on-her-luck L.A. waitress who, under the tutelage of her past-his-prime trainer, Frankie, beats every female opponent she faces…until she doesn’t. Clint Eastwood directed (and stars as Frankie), while Hillary Swank plays Maggie, winning her second Oscar in the process. Other Oscar winners? Eastwood, for Director (his second Oscar win for the category, too), and Morgan Freeman for Best Supporting Actor, playing narrator and fellow trainer Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris. Ultimately about not just boxing but about Catholicism, surrogate parenting, and letting go, “Million Dollar Baby” is a winner.
Crash (2005): Maudlin, too short, and riddled with over-simplicity, “Crash” was essentially the nail in the short cinematic coffin of filmmaker Paul Haggis. The ensemble drama about disparate Angelenos whose lives literally and figuratively “crash” into each others, racial biases and all, was well intended but underdeveloped and anything but subtle. The impressive cast includes Sandra Bullock, Terrence Howard, Jesus Peña, Ryan Phillippe, and Oscar-nominee Matt Dillon, but none of that matters; “Crash” will forever be known as the movie that beat “Brokeback Mountain” for Best Picture.
The Departed (2006): While not the best film in the impressive filmography of Martin Scorsese, “The Departed” is a strong contender for top five inclusion. The blistering, Boston-set tale revolves around two cops, one (Leonardo DiCaprio) working undercover as an underling for local mobster Frank Costello (a scenery-chewing Jack Nicholson), the other (Matt Damon) Costello’s mole in the force. As the two conflicted young lawmen close in on each other, tensions mount and the authentic dialogue zings by faster than machine fun fire. Remarkably, the movie is a remake – of Hong Kong’s “Infernal Affairs” – and, even more remarkably, is better than the original! Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, and Martin Sheen, whose on-screen death is one of the most memorable in modern film history, round out the cast.
No Country for Old Men (2007): The Coen Bros., who gave us “Fargo,” “Blood Simple,” and “Miller’s Crossing,” turned in their darkest film yet with this faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, neo-nwestern crime novel. There wasn’t a single on-screen showdown in 2007 more intense than that between Texas hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and coin-tossing hitman Anton Chigurh (a chilling, Oscar-winning Javier Bardem). Indeed their on-screen pursuit features moments of nearly unbearable tension, punctuated by aging Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who laments the moral decay of the day and who is always two steps behind. It really is too bad, then, that the movie’s infuriating non-ending undoes the phenomenal 90 minutes that precede it, making for one of the more frustrating Best Picture winners.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): It would be a few months before the Oscar nominations were even announced, but I knew as I watched “Slumdog Millionaire” for the first time, that it would win the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The movie, both funny and sad, about a streetwise Mumbai youth (Dev Patel) whose remarkable misadventures made it possible for him to answer every question on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” correctly (and then be accused of cheating), is intense, original, and still feels fresh today. That being said, it was not the best movie of 2008. That honor belongs to Christopher Nolan’s not-nominated “The Dark Knight.” But what can you do?
The Hurt Locker (2009): This Iraq War drama, still the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner of all time, is perhaps most famous as being the movie with the strange name that beat James Cameron’s “Avatar” for Best Picture and Best Director. History was made when “Hurt Locker” director Kathryn Bigelow – who just happened to be Cameron’s ex-wife, became the first (and still only) female to win Best Director. All of this was somehow prophetic considering that Bigelow has made two movies since “The Hurt Locker” while Cameron hasn’t made any; supposedly languishing on a quintet of “Avatar” sequels that no one has asked to see. Furthermore, “Avatar” has aged poorly while “The Hurt Locker” remains an important film considering the unstable state of Iraq nine years later. Oh, if you’re wondering, the film’s title refers to the deep chasms of selves inside which career soldiers store their physical and psychological pain.
The King’s Speech (2010): The Duke of York (Best Actor Colin Firth) has a debilitating stutter and, frankly, seems uncomfortable in his own skin. But history, fate, and familial infidelity marks him as George VI, future King of England and he knows that, with WWII ramping up to include raids over Britain, his country needs him to be a strong leader. As such, he hires a speech therapist (a very good Geoffrey Rush), and – in what was probably an exaggeration for the sake of the movie’s happy ending – the two become close friends. So that’s the plot; is it just me or does “The King’s Speech” sound old-fashioned for a contemporary Oscar winner? Perhaps, but its strongest competition that year, the superior “The Social Network,” was a bit too contemporary for voters to swallow. That being said, while I enjoyed “The King’s Speech” and was pleased with Firth’s Oscar win, director Tom Hooper simply should not have beaten “Social Network” director David Fincher. Alas, there have been greater slights on Oscar night.
The Artist (2011): There were many good, but few great, movies in 2011. A product of French actors and directors working in Hollywood, “The Artist” was one of three Best Picture candidates associated with France; Woody Allen’s delightful “Midnight in Paris” and Martin Scorsese’s showy “Hugo” were the others. Which one was the best of the three? Hard to say, but “The Artist” remained the movie to beat almost from the moment it was released. The second silent movie to win Best Picture, and the first since “Wings,” 84 year earlier, “The Artist” set a comedic and structural benchmark that was hard to beat in 2011, even though it doesn’t have the weight of some of the meatier Best Picture winners. Worth a watch, though.
Argo (2012): For what is a serious topic: the almost-botched rescue of U.S. diplomats hiding in Iran following the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in the Carter-era 1970’s, Argo gets a lot of mileage out of jokes that are forgettable within minutes of having been told. Ben Affleck, who starred, produced, and directed, was famously snubbed in the category of Best Director, and it would appear that was the best thing to have happened to his movie, which went on to win what most Hollywood insiders now consider the “consolation prize” of Best Picture. “Argo” is competently-made and definitely worth seeing, but far from the movie of the year. I might have chosen Steven Spielberg’s insightful “Lincoln” or Kathryn Bigelow’s tense “Zero Dark Thirty” instead.
12 Years a Slave (2013): The first Oscar winner of real grit after several consecutive years of good, but not great, Best Picture winners, “12 Years a Slave” is about as substantive a movie as you’ll ever see. Based on the autobiographical story by Solomon Northup, a free black man who is tricked (it’s a long story) into a dozen years of indentured servitude at the hands of harsh ranch hands and masters, “12 Years” has images that you won’t soon forget. Chiwetel Ejiofor, the British-born actor usually relegated to insubtantial supporting roles, gives the performance of a lifetime as Northup, and as good as he is, supporting players Michael Fassbender (as Epps, the abusive master) and Lupita N’yongo (as Patsey, a fragile slave woman) are even better. Outstanding in every regard, and the best Best Picture winner since 2006.
Birdman (2014): Is “Birdman” the weirdest movie to win Best Picture? I would say so, with the reminder that it’s okay to shake up the system once in awhile. The very meta “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” plants us in the middle of a turning point in the life of Riggan Thomsan (a terrific Michael Keaton), a former action star who is now mounting a Broadway show beset with problems. When we first meet Riggan, he is meditating, floating in mid-air, in his tighty whiteys. It only gets more bizarre from there – and it all appears to have been filmed in a single cut, but most of what is on screen is a series of metaphors to dreams, regrets, and second chances. Headier – and tons more fun – than its main Oscar night rival, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.”
Spotlight (2015): An important film, with a structure reminiscent of Alan J. Pakula’s brilliant “All the President’s Men,” “Spotlight” depicts the Boston Globe’s investigation of buggery by Catholic school priests, and the church’s attempts to cover up these priests heinous crimes. Though possibly the best-reviewed film of the year, its Oscar win was something of a surprise, as most people expected “The Revenant,” directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, to win; Mr. Iñarritu had taken home the Best Director statuette earlier the same evening and won both top prizes the for “Birdman” the year before.
Moonlight (2016): Upon my first viewing of “Moonlight,” director Barry Jenkins’ honest depiction of what it is like to grow up poor, black, and gay in contemporary Miami, I admired the film for its artistry, score, and lean pacing. Upon my second viewing, I recognized “Moonlight” to be the finest film of the year, perhaps the finest in the last several years. The movie is sensitive, mournful, quiet, meditative, and above all, a thing of beauty. The Academy got it right, even if the cast and crew of expected winner “La La Land” found themselves taken aback.
How many of these movies have you seen? Which ones do you think were not worthy of the top prize? Which ones are your favorites? Finally, is “Forrest Gump” really that bad?