Edward Copeland, proprietor of Edward Copeland On Film, is counting down the final days before the deadline to submit your list for The Ten Best Academy Award Best Picture Winners, and I’m sending my ballot in today, along with apologies to Edward for taking so long to get to it. I encourage you to hustle over to his site NOW, check out the rules and regs and get your choices sent in so Mr. Copeland won’t be spending every waking second of his upcoming weekend tallying votes.
The list I’ve sent to Edward consists of the ten best I was able to mercilessly cull from a complete roster that was actually a little stronger, considering how easy it was to compile a Ten Worst List, than I expected. I also found it interesting, and not the least unexpected, that the ‘80s would be the easiest decade to dismiss— but for the appearance of The Last Emperor and, yes, Driving Miss Daisy (not a classic, but hardly a poster child for racial insensitivity either), I might have guiltlessly blocked and deleted the entire line-up of winners for that ten-year span.
I also found it encouraging that, through no element of design, at least one film from each full decade that Best Picture awards were handed out made it onto my list—although, again, no huge surprise that fully half my list should be weighted toward the ‘70s and beyond.
Finally (and I hope I’m not trumping a future Copeland inquiry here), I decided to extend the optimism of this survey a degree further by trying to fashion a list of the Ten Best Films Nominated for Best Picture That Didn’t Actually Win the Award. Well, that was an even longer list than the 78 actual Best Picture winners, and proved to be much too daunting to be held to just 10. I slashed and ripped and tore at the list of nominees, heartlessly boiling it down further and further. But as I got nearer to that magic number there came a point where I found that I could slash no more. So my Ten Best FNFBPTDAWTA list is actually comprised of 18 essential titles, examples of when the Academy got it right, but could have gotten it even righter.
Again, Edward’s deadline is midnight CDT, Saturday, April 29. He will surely post the final results, along with some highlights of the delicious comments he’s sure to receive, whenever he damn well wants to. Here, then, are my lists.
1) The Godfather Part II (1974) Lightning in a bottle. The one film sequel that has done what (arguably) no other film sequel has done—breathed new artistic life into a predecessor that was already considered about as good as it could be and expanded the scope, emotion, metaphorical power and ultimate horror of the most potent, self-contained vision of America ever made in this country. And in a two-film series stuffed with brilliant acting, John Cazale, as the doomed Fredo Corleone, turns in one of the great overlooked performances in American movie history.
2) The Godfather (1972) The bar that seemed so unsurpassable. It is itself an incredible feat of art and passion winning out over the demands of commerce and the shortsightedness of studio executives, who would reap a huge financial and cultural windfall anyway. What would the landscape of American cinema in the ‘70s, right up to today, look like without the blood, sweat and fears of Francis Ford Coppola, the eccentricity of Marlon Brando, the interior geography of Michael Corleone courtesy of Al Pacino, or Richard Castellano's way around a pot of spaghetti?
3) Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Nine years after the introduction of Cinemascope and nearly a decade of gargantuan productions like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, David Lean fulfilled the promise of the epic scale of motion pictures and the wide-screen image with this rousing, troubling, awe-inspiring adventure. Like most of the films on this list, it has made an imprint on nearly every movie of any measurable scale, regardless of genre, that has been made since.
4) It Happened One Night (1934) Frank Capra drafted a durable template of screwball comedy with this graceful, ageless delight, even as his stars, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, would never strongly be associated with the form (Colbert still had great comedies in her, however, for Mitchell Leisen and Preston Sturges.) Unless you’re a Sunday school teacher, you’re more likely to think of this movie than the Old Testament if someone mentions the walls of Jericho. Seventy-two years later, whenever someone mentions great comedies, we’re still thinking of this one.
5) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) One of the great war movies, this is, of course, a spectacle grounded in character, centered on a psychological battle of wills between two officers and how wartime strategy quickly curdles and madness infests the motivations of both. Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa and William Holden were perhaps never better than in David Lean’s warm-up to Lawrence of Arabia and, once I heard it, “The Colonel Bogey March” has never really left my head.
6) Unforgiven (1992) A summing up of and engagement with the dark underbelly of not only Clint Eastwood’s career, but also with the nature of American life and history as well. The actor/director is likely never to make another western, but Unforgiven is such a rich, evocative, chilling and morose experience that it really does feel like the last necessary word on the subject, at least from this filmmaker.
7) Annie Hall (1977) Because it was such an unlikely choice to best a phenomenon like Star Wars, and because it became itself the unlikely pinnacle of Woody Allen’s connection with an audience (i.e., the real world), this self-conscious, maddening, riotously funny and surprisingly sweet comedy makes the list. When I think of 1977 some 30 years later, I’m much more likely to conjure an image from this movie than of C3PO or R2-D2, and for that, Woody, despite your output over the past 20, I thank you.
8) The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) Peter Jackson’s feat of bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels to the screen with abundant integrity and vision, sustaining that integrity and vision over three films, and adding such overwhelming sorrow, yearning and, ultimately, joy to the third part is the kind of expansion of Lean’s epic filmmaking into a fantasy realm that must still give George Lucas fits of envy and nightmares of what could have been. Jackson’s contribution to the Oscar roster stands the best chance of being undervalued over time (actually, I think it already has been) due to its sheer popularity and inclusiveness.
9) All About Eve (1950) Released the same year as Sunset Boulevard, these two Best Picture nominees must have give the impression that Hollywood suddenly really had it in for itself. Wilder’s film carries with it the truly acrid scent of dead flowers, whereas Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders and company are in it for the bitchy fun. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Essentially a soap opera for the above-the-line set, the movie is carried almost effortlessly along by the arrogant entitlement, and the confusion, of Davis’s Margo Channing, one of the most unlikely repositories for audience identification in the history of the movies.
10) Casablanca (1942) The ultimate studio picture, seemingly conceived by the seat of its pants out of providence, unlikely chemistry, spit, bailing wire, prayer and sheer luck. But to fully accept this theory would be to discount the importance of director Michael Curtiz, a solid craftsman who, despite helming other classics like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces and Yankee Doodle Dandy, has never been one to stoke much auteurist heat. Overexposure and excessive popularity are other enemies against which this movie’s reputation has had to endure. But a clear eye reveals Casablanca to be one of the pinnacles of the studio system, proof that even too many cooks and a bunch of conflicting recipes don’t spoil the soup every time.
The Ten (18) Best Films Nominated for Best Picture That Didn’t Actually Win the Award
Ruggles of Red Gap (1935; Leo McCarey)
Grand Illusion (1937; Jean Renoir)
Stagecoach (1939; John Ford)
Citizen Kane (1941; Orson Welles)
Double Indemnity (1944; Billy Wilder)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946; Frank Capra)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951; Elia Kazan)
Roman Holiday (1953; William Wyler)
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964; Stanley Kubrick)
M*A*S*H (1970; Robert Altman)
Deliverance (1972; John Boorman)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975; Sidney Lumet)
Nashville (1975; Robert Altman)
Taxi Driver (1976; Martin Scorsese)
Breaking Away (1979; Peter Yates)
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982; Steven Spielberg) *
The Right Stuff (1983; Philip Kaufman)
Babe (1995; Chris Noonan)
* In choosing E.T. over Jaws, I decided that losing to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (as did Jaws) was no dishonor, whereas losing to Gandhi (as did E.T.) was a slight that I wanted to address in some fashion, however insignificant.
If you have your own lists, please get thee promptly to Edward via his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (And don’t worry about that address. As Edward said himself, “I know the title seems wrong for a best contest, but I created the address especially for the first contest, so might as well use it again.”)
Or if you just feel like dropping the names of a couple of other candidates or arguing with the ones on my list, the door to my comments column is always open. With a survey like this, the more perspectives, the better.
Thanks, Edward, for inspiring a load of fun. I look forward to seeing how it all shakes out!
UPDATE 4/27/2006 In a comment below, Mr. Middlebrow quite correctly pointed out that I left one of the best movies of the '80s, one that actually was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award off my Ten Best FNFBPTDAWTA list. I have updated it above, but please now consider that Ten Best list expanded from 17 to 18 with the tardy inclusion of Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff.
ALSO, Mr. Middlebrow has a fun survey of his own going on at his site A Drinking Song (You know... "Show me the way to go home/I'm tired and I wanna go to bed...") that will give you an opportunity to stand up for 10 movies you think have been unjustly ignored or given the critical shaft. I've already turned in my list and I encourage you to do the same!