Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My 10 Favorite Best Picture Winners of All-Time

In my continued attempt to drum up excitement -- within myself, as well as in others -- for Oscar night, I decided to take a look at the 84 films that have been awarded the Academy's highest honor, that of Best Picture.

When a film wins Best Picture, it pretty much becomes an instant classic, ensuring that it will always be remembered in some way, shape, or form.  As such, some of the most famous classics of all-time won the Best Picture Oscar, ranging from films like The Sound of Music, to The Godfather, all the way to Gone With the Wind.  While people often argue what films deserved to win Best Picture or not, seeing as how hindsight is 20/20 and tells us which films have become more popular over the years, I feel to Kanye West someone else's Best Picture win is wrong.  If I made a film that was honored with the Best Picture Oscar, I would hate it if some critic or filmgoer was spouting off why it didn't deserve to win.  At the end of the day, whatever wins Best Picture in any given year is someone's cup of tea, and therefore to deride other people's tastes is something I'm not interested in doing, which is why I'm purely honoring the films that won Best Picture, and it's also why I'm not saying who deserved the win more, but which films are my favorites.

Key word to remember here is "my" favorite Best Picture winners.   Inevitably many other filmgoers will miss the inclusion of their own favorites, and I can already hear some people I know questioning why I left off certain films.  The bottom line is, there are 84 films to choose from, and to only choose 10 out of 84, there are obviously going to be many great films that miss out.  Which is why I ask everyone to list off their own 10 best list in the comments section below.  My hopes with this list is that I might be talking about a film you might have never seen before and inspire you to see it, or that I might cause you to rethink what you've always thought about a particular Oscar winner and its importance.  Either way, I expect some bits of debate, and I'm interested to hear what others think, so don't be too shy to reply in the comments section.  So, without further ado, My 10 Favorite Best Picture Winners of All-Time!


10.  Rocky (1976)
There are many nowadays who still bemoan the fact that such a commercially viable film beat out Taxi Driver for Best Picture, but at the end of the day, Rocky is still a genuine classic of cinema to this very day, just as much so as Taxi Driver is.  While what Rocky did is now considered cliche for most sports movies, it was the film that created the down-and-out underdog mold.  Nothing ever goes good for Rocky, but we're always pulling for him because he's such a likable guy with surprising amounts of charm and heart.  All he wants to do is be somebody, and there's the brilliance of Sylvester Stallone's script.  Yeah, while Rocky does get a chance to fight the champ, Apollo Creed, the film is also about his own personal battle to woo Adrian, paralleling that of the boxing narrative.  While Rocky does not win the fight, he wins the love of Adrian, and that is what makes this film so memorable.

9.  Braveheart (1995)
Braveheart falls into the traditional Oscar winner mold of the historical epic, and it is by far my favorite historical epic that the Academy has ever awarded with Best Picture.  What makes Mel Gibson's masterpiece so much better than most other historical epics is the depths of humanity to the film.  This is a film that is all about character and emotion first, and Mel Gibson as director takes his time to create emotional attachments to characters so that you care when they die.  Then there's the fact that Mel Gibson delivers his finest acting performance of all-time as Scot, William Wallace, blue war paint and all.  And I'll just say this, if you don't feel a rush of emotion when William Wallace is battered and broken and all he can yell is, "Freedom," then I might begin to wonder if you even have a heart.

8.  An American in Paris (1951)
While my personal favorite Gene Kelly musical done with producer Arthur Freed is Singin' in the Rain, that film hit theaters less than a year after An American in Paris swept the Academy Awards and therefore the Academy felt that they'd already been there and done that.  Even so, An American in Paris is still a marvelous movie musical that is every bit as charming as Singin' in the Rain and is every bit as glamorous and jaw-dropping.  Gene Kelly's athletic form of tap dancing is on great show here under the great supervision of director Vincente Minnelli.  The combined talents of Kelly and Minnelli lend An American in Paris a kinetic style, combining Kelly's dancing with camera moves to best showcase the dancing.  Then there are the Gershwin tunes which make up the film's soundtrack, as well as the introduction of Leslie Caron, and An American in Paris manages to more than differentiates itself from other MGM musicals of the time and manages to stand on its own two feet as the finest musical I think the Academy has ever awarded with Best Picture.

7.  Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
I'm always a little wary whenever I include a fairly recent film on any sort of favorite film of all-time list, because the question arises, how long have I really lived with the film for it to sink in, but then I think, I'm still discovering many of the classic films I've included on this list, some of which I didn't even see for the first time till after I first saw Slumdog Millionaire, and therefore I don't feel bad at including it on this list.  What makes Slumdog such an unforgettable experience, is that I can't think of any other film to compare it to.  Director Danny Boyle gave the film this very fast-paced, non-linear style that always kept the film intriguing and kept you on your toes in even the more slow dramatic scenes.  Though, where I find myself coming back time and time again to rewatch this film is the love story that encompasses every single frame of this film.  Jamal spends this entire film searching for Latika, it's his only motivation, and you root for him because Jamal is an everyman.  While most have not experienced many of the hardships that Jamal has, we can all relate to that feeling of love lost and hope to find that love once again.  I believe this is why I can rewatch such a difficult film, because 99% of the film is fairly rough, seeing children in squalor, and yet, when Jamal and Latika finally kiss and do their Bollywood dance, I don't think I've ever been happier.  I rewatch Slumdog Millionaire to go on this journey and to feel this cathartic form of happiness, and it's why this film will always be one of my favorite Best Picture winners of all-time.

6.  The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
It's arguable whether there's ever been a director who has had more success with the Academy than William Wyler.  Having won Best Director three times, nominated a total of 12, the most nominations of any one director in history, you could easily call him one of the Academy's all-time favorite filmmakers.  In fact, three of his films won Best Picture, and I believe that The Best Years of Our Lives is his finest work to have won the award.  This was a timely film that clearly struck a chord with an America only one year removed from the official end of World War II.  Seeing the challenges and triumphs of returning war veterans struggling to readjust to normal society made the film an affecting piece of work that spoke to many Americans in the audience, and is what still makes it such a powerful film.  Most importantly, the film asks the question of how do you move on and re-establish normalcy after an earth-shattering event?  In our modern society, be it a devastating natural disaster or a war, the themes of this film are still easy to relate to, and it's why I am such a fan of the film.

5.  On the Waterfront (1954)
"I coulda been a contender."  Easily one of the most mimicked lines in all of movie history, and it's only one of the many fantastic moments from director Elia Kazan's masterpiece.  Made during the Red Scare, I've always been amazed at how the film was not seen as more subversive than the government at the time probably did.  The film is all about unionization and the rights of the common working man against the large machine, represented in this film by gangsters.  Featuring my personal favorite Marlon Brando performance of all-time, On the Waterfront was simply ahead of its time in both thought and production techniques.  The film was shot entirely on location and not on a studio, a rarity for Hollywood films of that day and age, as well, Kazan was one of the pioneering Method directors in Hollywood, pushing Method acting.  Kazan's preaching of the Method brought out powerhouse performances from his stars like Brando and Eva Marie Saint, making a film that felt real and not like a stage play, which is how so many other dramas at the time felt.  Even to this day, you could probably take this same script and the film the would be relevant, and I think it's because thematic ideas such as what the film deals with are simply timeless.

4.  You Can't Take It With You (1938)
Director Frank Capra is another one of the Academy's favorite filmmakers of all-time, having the distinction of being the only director in Oscar history, who wasn't also an actor, to ever be the Oscar host.  Considering the sheer volume of classic Frank Capra films, when you see which films of his actually won Best Picture, and which didn't, the list is surprisingly small, with only two of his films having won Best Picture:  It Happened One Night and You Can't Take It With You.  In this case, You Can't Take It With You is not just my favorite Frank Capra film out of the two, but it also just so happens to be one of my favorite Frank Capra films in general.  You Can't Take It With You is just pure old Frank Capra charm from start to finish.  It will make you laugh, cry, and feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  It's as if you took the idea of Romeo and Juliet and made it heartfelt and funny with Frank Capra styled characters.  Featuring great performances from Jimmy Stewart, Lionel Barrymore in a surprising nice guy role, and my favorite leading lady of all-time, Jean Arthur, more likeable than ever before, I just can't say enough about this film.  If you haven't seen it, you need to go find a copy.  It's that good.

3.  The Apartment (1960)
The Apartment is in many ways the precursor to many modern romantic comedies, deftly blending humor and drama to make an unforgettable film that far surpasses any other comedy that has ever won Best Picture, even though that list is incredibly short.  If there's one thing that the Academy hates almost as much as they hate big blockbusters, it's a comedy.  For a comedy to succeed with the Academy, it typically has to fall into The Apartment mold, and yet that's not a bad mold to be in.  There is a reason that The Apartment is one of only a handful of comedies to win Best Picture, and it's because this film was so rich in human authenticity, while also being highly hilarious at the same time.  The thematic ideas and character types are still prevalent in our own modern day society and it makes Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine all the more relatable.  There are still people who would do anything to move up the corporate ranks in their office.  People who have affairs and lie to their lovers that they're going to leave their spouses.  And there are still lonely men like Lemmon's C.C. Baxter, who pine over the same, seemingly unobtainable woman, day after day.  This is why The Apartment is one of the greatest Best Picture winners of all-time.

2.  Casablanca (1942)
Often tossed up there with Citizen Kane and The Godfather as one of the greatest films of all-time, there is a reason that Casablanca continues to impress generations upon generations of filmgoers.  For myself, this is just the quintessential Old Hollywood film.  It's got drama, it's got suspense, as well as romance.  It has colorful characters from larger than life actors, as well as a few gags here and there, not to mention the fact that it has the greatest work-in-progress script in movie history, that resulted in some of the most memorable dialogue and one of the most tightly plotted films ever.  Whether it's the romance that gets you, or if you're like me, you love the characters and the suspense, Casablanca is a Golden Age masterpiece, perfect as patriotic propaganda for any nation at war.  I think that's why Casablanca initially won Best Picture, and it's why it still continues to remain relevant.  The thematic idea of patriotism runs underneath the entire film.  Released right after the US entered World War II, the film rung true.  While in the film it's the French against the Nazis, when the film was released, the US took the message and placed themselves in the shoes of the French people seeking freedom in Casablanca.  For every war or conflict since, or whenever you just needed to be reminded of what patriotism looked like, Casablanca was there to impact filmgoers.  Patriotism is one of those notions that will never die, and therefore, neither will Casablanca.

1.  The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
It was just an unwritten rule, blockbusters never won the Academy Award for Best Picture, let alone get nominated, and then there was The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Not only did every film in the trilogy get nominated for Best Picture, but then The Return of the King, the final installment in the epic fantasy franchise, went 11 better, winning not just Best Picture, but a total of 11 Oscars, tying Ben-Hur and Titanic for the most Oscar wins in Oscar history.  What makes The Return of the King, or for that matter, the entire trilogy, so spectacular, is that the films do not purely rely on their spectacle to win over moviegoers, like so many blockbusters do.  While yes, these films did include some of the most jaw-dropping special effects and production design work in movie history, creating a larger than life canvas that no film since the Golden Age of Hollywood had quite managed, but they also managed to make you care about the characters and their plights.  I think this is why The Return of the King was the one to finally win Best Picture, because it was the third film in the trilogy, we had two films to get to know these characters, and this time about, it was the grand finale.  The Return of the King wraps everything up in an emotionally satisfying way, not just delivering the big action-packed ending that the film does have, but it made you care while watching it, and it's why this is the only fantasy blockbuster to have ever won Best Picture.  If only more fantasy or science fiction films would learn from The Lord of the Rings.  It's not about the action or spectacle that allows audiences to relate, it's the humanity of the story, the thematic undercurrents of friendship, love, and heroism, that any filmgoer can relate to.  That's what makes The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King not just one of the finest blockbusters of all-time, but also one of the greatest films of all-time in general, and it's why this film easily earns the honor of my favorite Best Picture winner of all-time.


Tune back in on Friday as I play the hypothetical game of, "If I had a ballot for the Academy Awards."

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