Saturday, January 28, 2012

All-Time Top 10: The Best Picture Winners that Wowed Me

My parents were always Academy Awards haters.  Still are. It's not the idea of the Oscars themselves, but just that they don't like places where large egos are gathered with other large egos to pat one another on the back and smile falsely.  This, to them, is real fall of Rome shit.  I've heard these complaints as far back as I can recall, yet I also remember watching the ceremony even when I was quite young.  So, we can call my mom a red carpet apologist, perhaps.  If there had to be an excuse, it was probably chalked up to the gowns and her daughter's shared affinity for glittery objects.  Where was I going with this?  Oh, yeah, in middle school I started a love/hate relationship with the Oscars.  This was when I really remember having an opinion on who won or lost, even though my tastes then ran towards the Lost in Space movie.  Since then, the Oscars have managed to repeatedly disappoint me.  Every year.  I know they mean almost nothing, yet I can't help but revel in the pageantry, clip reel montages, and history behind them.  Even as I despise them, I love the conversations those complaints create.  Which is why I'm going to run through a series of personally slanted lists of Oscar hits, misses, and snubs, beginning with my 10 Favorite Best Picture winners.  

10.  Lawrence of Arabia (1962) / Rebecca (1940) 
 If you must know, Hitchcock's gothic adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's classic and our ultimate desert epic narrowly beat out Casablanca and My Fair Lady, the last of which I truly love.  The reason is that there's something about each film that seems to embody its individual genre so completely that the two become the gold standard. Rebecca was a lilting period romance that I found positively haunting in its first viewing and which, for a long while, pushed it to the top of my list of favorite Hitchcock films (a tough call).  Lawrence was a vast, luxe surprise of an epic in which music and visuals merged so perfectly I still hear the theme song when confronted with a desolate landscape.  

9. No Country for Old Men (2007)  
Though fellow contender There Will be Blood was my favorite in 2007, No Country for Old Men was at least an acceptable stand in that, weirdly, restored my faith in The Academy's ability to occasionally vote against public opinion and dig into the darkness.  The film itself was a striking piece of work that seems, with distance, only to take on more power, to grow in intensity and dwell parasitically in memory.

8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
I just realized this list is all adaptations thus far.  As adaptations go, however, you can't hope for one much better than Cuckoo's Nest, with a devilishly young Jack Nicholson and a cast that embodies its characters so completely it's almost surprising when you remember just how many 'names' are locked up here.  Is it possible to make a film about the institutionalized without thinking of this one?  I vote no...

7. It Happened One Night (1934)
A bad ass, truly wonderful romantic comedy that manages to be as thoroughly amusing as it is charming.   Anyone who hates on modern rom coms without seeing the originals needs to watch and reevaluate their argument.  Gone with the Wind may be where Clark Gable gets the most play these days, and while watching him bicker with Vivien Leigh is great, Claudette Colbert has a leg up (or...out).

6. American Beauty (1999)
Maybe it came around at the right time when I was at the right age, but each time I've seen American Beauty it's only gotten better.  For all the ham-fisted symbolism and color coded art direction, the performances resonate, the photography is beautiful, and the story sucks you in to a melodramatic suburban world of desperation, malaise, and deep dark comedy.

5. Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Proof that America was so over the glorified ideas of war as soon as WWII was finished.  The quiet, anti-war statement to end all anti-war statements, The Best Years of Our Lives is an epic of emotional intensity and familial disquiet that sneaks up and sucker punches you 40-years before Oliver Stone thought he was showing us something new.

4. All About Eve (1950)
One of the all-time great Hollywood stories.  Once you've seen it, every backstage drama and struggling protege reads as a little more sinister, a little less original, and seriously lacking in Bette Davis. 

3. The Godfather pt. I and II  (1972/74)
Yes, I put them together. Yes, I think we can all agree that makes the most sense.  We grow up hearing talk of The Godfather.  If we're not shown them when we're young, the expectations grow to nearly impossible heights.  When I saw the films for the first time, I thought I knew exactly what to expect. I'd seen so many clips, heard so many references, and yet, when the time came, everything was richer and better than what it had seemed.  

2. The Sound of Music (1965)
I've likely said something along these lines before, but, when I was a kid I loved the superficial elements of The Sound of Music.  The first half with the kids, the puppet show, the singing, the dancing, and Julie Andrews. Now, I still love that, but I love everything else about the film too (except Maria's costumes).  What continually amazes me, with every repeat viewing, is the scope of this film.  Every scene is positively massive. The ceilings, the skies, the Alps all push at the edges of the screen with a cinematography that would make Powell and Pressburger envious.  Even when the sentiments are small, the movie is epic.  It is a war film, a sweeping romance, and a child's musical all at once.  It works. 

1. Annie Hall (1978)
Annie Hall beat Star Wars.  I mean, Star Wars. That movie is a symbol, basically, but a bittersweet comedy about a break-up beat it.  It's crazy, but I can't complain.  Annie Hall was a great call, and, rhyming aside, it was more revolutionary than anyone could have imagined at the time. It's a film that reads as honest, that's stylized in a way that's simplistically absurd and cleverly quirky, and most importantly, a movie that redesigned the talking comedy, staunchly rejected every fantastical notion on Hollywood romance and yet,  somehow, became more romantic by doing so. 

This is by no means a definitive list, so the question must be asked: what are your favorite Best Picture winners?

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