Wednesday, April 26, 2006

OSCAR'S TOP DRAWER: THE 10 BEST BEST PICTURE WINNERS (and a little something extra...)

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: (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!


Mr. Middlebrow said...

Great post, Dennis. Equal parts lyrical and insightful, as always.

If you've looked over my Prof. VH quiz answers, this will come as no shock, but I have to add THE RIGHT STUFF to any list of slighted Best Picture nominees. It might not lift the decade to the storied heights of its predecessor; but maybe it redeems the '80s a bit. As do, I think, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, A ROOM WITH A VIEW, and the coming of the Brothers Coen.

I'm putting the finishing touches on my own Best o/t Best list for EC's survey. Like you, I'm very excited to see how it all turns out. In fact, between your last quiz and all these best/worst lists, I've been inspired to try one of my own. I'd be honored if you'd participate (your writing really classes up any enterprise) and appreciative of any link or mention you might care to make.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Mr. M: I actually saw the goings-on on your site before I saw this comment. My contribution to your survey is up and running!

As for The Right Stuff, you're absolutely right, and I'm embarrassed that I somehow overlooked it. I loved that movie from the first (of many times) I saw it in a theater, and it's only gotten better over time, whereas so many of the movies from that period that were honored and/or respected have not. Please consider my Ten Best FNFBPTDAWTA now expanded to 18.

Anonymous said...

"Sunset Boulevard" is one of the great non-winners; yet it was beat by "All About Eve", which is one of the great winners. Both are amazing movies.

Anonymous said...

I sent my list in as well, although I gave a nod to West Side Story #6 as well as what may come as a shock to most of you. My #1 pick was Dances with Wolves. I have never been so taken by a film for it's thoughtfulness, it's emotional depth as well as the sense that this was a personal journey that I was somehow invited to experience. It never pretends to be more than what it is. I like it when a filmmaker knows he doesn't have to talk down to the moviegoer.

Anonymous said...

just ran across your page, nice blog!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks, Robert. Hope you'll come back and stay a while!

Anonymous said...

Great list as usual Dennis, though I have to say I disagree with your acessment of the post Annie Hall period of Woody Allen's career (I am really biased in favor of Woody though). He is only twenty years removed from Hannah and her Sisters, and that period also included absolutely brilliant movies like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Deconstructing Harry and Crimes and Misdemeanors two er... Match Point. Not to mention highly enjoyable lesser fare like Bullets over Broadway, Shadows and Fog, Husbands and Wives, and Mighty Aphrodite. I agree that Woody will never be able to top from 1975-1986 where he made about 7 great movies, all completely different (Love and Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Hannah and her Sisters) and the others in that period were still fairly amusing (Stardust Memories, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy and I hear Interiors is great). I guess I just hate to hear anyone run Woody down because I think that he is one of the most well rounded filmmakers around, but to each his own.

Anonymous said...

Hey--great post, Dennis. Sorry I've been so silent lately (or you're welcome, depending upon how you look at it!)--but you know we are busy preparing to load up the ol' covered wagon for the Oregon territory.

Interesting about Woody Allen; I love his stuff, too, in general, and though I agree that his best stuff was in the 70s and just beyond, I like some of the later stuff, too...h'mmm, now that I think about it, though, I can't remember any of the ones I liked since about '82, so maybe they weren't that great. Still have yet to see MATCH POINT, which I blame on my evil wife, who snuck off to see it with a friend while I was at work. Benaiah, if you see either STARDUST MEMORIES or INTERIORS, it would be interesting to see whether you think they're any good (I'd be very surprised if you found them "amusing," especially the dreary INTERIORS). I swore I would never be cruel enough to myself to watch them again after I saw them upon their respective releases--but maybe after all these years it wouldn't be a bad idea to give 'em another try.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Benaiah: I admit that my comment about Woody Allen's output over the last 20 years may have been a bit too sweeping. He has made good movies-- Radio Days seems slight, but I think it's perhaps his last truly masterful movie. Crimes and Misdemeanors is very good, Husband and Wives was morbidly interesting in 1992, but I've never felt the need to revisit it, Manhattan Murder Mystery is hilarious, effortlessly reconjuring that ol' Allen/Keaton magic, I loved his 1994 TV remake of Don't Drink the Water, and there was plenty to admire about Deconstructing Harry.

But I'm definitely in the "funnier is better" camp-- I've found his dramas almost all painfully derivative and dramatically suffocating. Interiors, Stardust Memories, Another Woman, September, even Alice, are all movies I would cross the street to avoid encountering again. And truth be told, I'm not a very big appreciator of The Purple Rose of Cairo either. (For reasons I cannot explain, I would, however, like to look at Shadows and Fog again.)

For me, Allen has simply gone to the same well way too many times, and some of his later stuff, like Everyone Says I Love You, is outright maddening. I admit, I haven't seen one of his movies since Celebrity, and though the opposite may be true, I get the feeling I'm not missing much. I will see Match Point, however, because I'm curious to see what a Fatal Attraction-type thriller looks like coming from Woody Allen.

He was once, for a brief time, a very special filmmaker, I think, and his particular status as an untouchable within the business itself-- he makes whatever he wants whenever he wants with virtually no interference-- is worthy of study due to its freakish singularity alone. I would call him an gifted filmmaker, but given the degree to which he's spun his wheels, and recycled the same themes to apparently decreasing artistic returns over the last two decades, I don't think I'd call him very well-rounded. That said, we'll always have Bananas, Love and Death, Sleeper and, yes, Annie Hall, and not even a wandering through the creative desert can take those away from us.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Blaaagh-- I did encounter Interiors again not too long ago, and I found it was just as dreary and precious as ever. (How dare Maureen Stapelton invade that morbid house full of prigs with her red dress and tarted-up life-force?!) I had a copy of it and Stardust Memories in that first Woody Allen box that MGM released a few years ago, and it's a measure of my disdain for those two films that, rather than keep a nice boxed set together as marketed, I sold them both off for the going rate. Believe me, Sleeper, Bananas, Love and Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan and Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* *but were afraid to ask don't miss 'em one bit!

Anonymous said...

Great blog, Dennis. Matt Seitz, through his blog, has turned me on to some great film criticism, yours included. (Your condolences to him on his recent loss were lovely and heartfelt, and I'm sure he appreciated it.)

As for your list of the best non-winning nominees...I'd include any of Altman's non-winners, but I'd have to go with Gosford Park over M*A*S*H, the latter not having held up with me as well after a recent viewing last week, as compared to when it was originally released. Gosford Park, though, gets richer for me with every repeated viewing (up to 6 or 7 now), and as it took 2 to 3 viewings just to catch all the dialogue, it wasn't until the 4th that I caught on to the juxtaposition of Balaban's Charlie Chan pitch while on the phone with the arrival of his in-film counterpart. Just perfect.

Anonymous said...

I liked Stardust Memories a lot. It was no 8 1/2 but it was cool to see Allen talking about himself and still making what I found to be an enjoyable movie. I didn't like Sleeper as much as Love and Death because the format is so jarring and the jokes just landed better in L&D. He does seem to return to the well, but I don't know... his control of words and pictures (not to mention how he always finds great jazz), I just think he is great. I haven't seen radio city days, but evidently I should. Match Point is really something though, you should check it out.

In other news, I made a student movie this year and wow it is hard. It took me 20+ hours to edit a 7 minute movie, maddening.

Mr. Middlebrow said...


Thanks for adding TRS to your list of "10." (Wow, a picture, even. Neat!) For reasons that pass understanding, I've taken it on as my personal mission in life to get that film the props it deserves.

Speaking of which: extra special double-secret thanks for your contributions in words and web traffic to the over-under survey. You came through with some delightfully unexpected suggestions; it's making for some fun an provocative exchanges.

Anonymous said...

Dennis, that list of Woody movies you kept from the boxed set--Sleeper, Bananas, Love and Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan and Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* *but were afraid to ask--really calls up a strong memory for each title of when I first saw each of them: SLEEPER at (I think) the Mt. Tabor Theater with my entire family, all of us laughing hysterically; BANANAS at the Music Box with my friend Caroline w/co-"hit" THE TWELVE CHAIRS; LOVE AND DEATH someplace when it was new, and the feeling that I was too young to "get" all of it; ANNIE HALL at the Southgate, where I worked,and then 8 million more times afterward in Portland and Eugene;MANHATTAN with you, I think at the cheapo Cinema World Crackerbox Cinemas; and EVERYTHING the drive-in with my big brother, feeling like I was getting away with something for seeing it.

Jay, I love GOSFORD PARK, too, and want to see it 6 or 7 more times, especially now that you've mentioned it and gotten me excited about it again. And, like you, I saw MASH again recently and didn't like it much: it's got a nasty spirit, maybe on purpose, and the main characters are assholes.

Benaiah, thanks for the scoop on STARDUST MEMORIES--I'll definitely brave it again! I do love SLEEPER, almost best of all Woody's movies, but I'm a goofball; can't wait to see MATCH POINT! Funny you should mention your film--I read that just after I hung up the phone with a friend who shot a student film over the weekend and was worried that she has "only" three weeks to edit it.

Mr. Middlebrow--kudos to you for promoting THE RIGHT STUFF. I think it's great, too. I worked on a play last fall with an actress who was in it, in a small part as a waitress who talks with Fred Ward in a diner or something. She had great stories about Shepard and the other actors...I was so jealous.

Anonymous said...

I was shooting right up until the last minute and so I only had one night to edit, so I took a bunch of aderol (ADHD drug that focuses concentration and keeps you awake, not to damage my internet reputation, but it is basically essential sooner or later as a college student) and went to the editing room at 11 pm. My class was at 11:40 the next day, but unfortunately it took me until 1pm just to crack out a rough cut. Two days and eight hours later I still hadn't finished (to this point I still haven't). Her three weeks is such a wonderful luxury, I want to reshoot the whole thing and she might actually have a chance to get the important stuff.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Jay: Thanks for stopping by. I've provided a link above to the pictures Matt posted yesterday of Jennifer, which were almost too heartbreaking to look at.

As for M*A*S*H, you and Blaaagh remind me that the main reason I picked it was because of the fact that it was the movie that put Altman on the map-- I guess I was going for overall signifcance here. M*A*S*H is, however, one of those movies, like Clockwork Orange, that I've had a running love-hate relationship with ever since first seeing it. Depending on where I'm at in my life when seeing M*A*S*H (and I'm sure there are others that fit this general pattern), I either think it's flat-out exciting and fun or, like Blaaagh pointed out, insufferably smug and populated solely by jerks and assholes, poster children for socially and politically liberal, hedonistic and/or anarchic points of view who, strangely, have zero tolerance for anyone who doesn't toe the line with their irreverent way of thinking (or reacting). Right now I guess I'm feeling fairly generous toward it, though in my recent assessment of Robert Altman's career I seem to remember coming off less happy about it than that.

Anyway, I have no such problems with Gosford Park, and it really does seem like proof positive that Altman was/is still on his game 30 years after M*A*S*H. The witty bits of direction and thematic overlapping like the one you described, Jay, the spectacular cutting between the haves listening to Ivor Novello at the piano in the parlor, to the have-nots listening surreptitously in the upstairs quarters, to the ignorance/indifference of both as a murder is being committed-- they're all quietly spectacular. And I love the way the movie deemphasizes the murder almost from the moment the body is discovered. I've seen it three times myself, and I was lucky enough to create the subtitles for the DVD. Though I got to know the ins-and-outs of that dialogue pretty well, I look forward to resdicovering it now a couple of years later.

Benaiah: I don't know that I ever had as hairy a deadline as the one you describe, but I can remember lots of lonely nights on the third floor of the film building at the University of Oregon (the oldest, creakiest building on campus), trying to cobble together a cut of a film I'd made, being grateful for the company of the Domino's delivery guy at 3:00 a.m., and wondering if, at the light of day, anything I'd done all night made any sense. Usually it didn't-- once or twice it did. But it was exciting and, yes, maddening, all the same. I'd love to hear more about what you did, and of course I'd love to see the finished product!

Blaaagh: Bananas, plus "co-hit" The Twelve Chairs. Wow! I think that between them the brothers Moyer, Larry and Tom, must have employed that movie as a "co-hit" with just about every petering-out main feature they ever screened! (I first saw it as a "co-hit" with The Last Remake of Beau Geste!)