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On Row Three: Oscars Rank ‘Em

Much of my free time over the past week has been taken up with a mondo Rank ‘Em post on Row Three, ranking all the Academy Award Best Picture winners according to my personal preferences (of the ones I’ve seen – 72 out of 84). It was definitely a fun process, but also a rather exasperating one, since it’s a really hard group of films to rank. Flickchart helped me a lot, but I didn’t quite stick to it totally, because in some cases, frankly, it’s wrong. Gotta work on that at some point. Anyway. The whole post, with all 72 Best Picture winners I’ve seen, is here on Row Three. Here’s just a sampling of films culled from throughout the list.

#72: Crash (2005)

If you know me at all, you’ll know the abiding hatred I have for Crash. In fact, a lengthy thread about this movie is even to blame for my presence at Row Three. What was initially just disappointment and dislike moved to hatred after the film gathered critical acclaim and eventually an Oscar win – in my opinion, the most egregiously misplaced Oscar win in the history of the Oscars, and not even because I was passionate about another film in the race. I’m not a particular Brokeback Mountain fan, either, as were most people who thought Crash should’ve lost. No, I just dislike this film that much. It’s well-made enough, I guess, but it’s so manipulative and heavy-handed in getting across a message that we all know, whether or not we necessarily put it into practice. Racism is still a problem, I realize this. Telling me racism is still a problem in the didactic and condescending way that this movie adopts is not effective. There, now that this one is out of the way, pretty much all the rest of the low-ranking films aren’t films I dislike, just ones that are unmemorable or unremarkable.

Did it deserve to win? No
Other nominees: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich
My favorite film that year: Brick

#60: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

This film is often cited when people talk about the least deserving Academy Award winners ever, and yeah, it’s a weaker entry in the collection – especially when you note some of the films it was up against. It’s not even the best of Cecil B. DeMille’s spectacles, focusing on the trials, tribulations and love lives of a bunch of a circus troupe rather than, say, the parting of the Red Sea. Still, I can’t quite hate on this movie, because taken apart from its status as “Academy Award Best Picture Winner,” it’s a pretty fun film, with some great supporting turns from Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Lamour, an unrecognizable but moving James Stewart as the clown with a past, and a really impressive climactic train crash. Eat your heart out, Super 8. If I were judging this strictly on whether they deserved to win Best Picture, this might be lower, but just based on how much I enjoy the films, this one’s not too bad.

Did it deserve to win? No
Other nominees: High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge, The Quiet Man
My favorite film that year: Singin’ in the Rain

#56: The King’s Speech (2010)

This film is pretty much the epitome of Oscar bait, and it did its job perfectly – it’s impeccably-made, well-acted, looks good, ticks all the “Oscar favorite” checkboxes. But it’s so unbearably safe and predictable that it just kind of sits there like a bump on a log. I actually watched this the day of the Oscar ceremony last year, just because I knew it was going to win, and it was exactly what I expected it to be. Films like this are why the Oscars are becoming exasperating to some degree – it’s not that they’re picking terrible films. They’re picking well-done, highly calculated films that have no stakes, take no risks, and thus have no ability to surprise and overwhelm the way great films always should. And there were at least three or four other films nominated in 2010 that did just that.

Did it deserve to win? Not really
Other nominees: Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids are All Right, 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter’s Bone
My favorite film that year: The Social Network

#53: Wings (1927-1928)

This picture and the most recent winner have something very major in common – they’re both silent, the only two silent films to ever win Best Picture. This may be the only year that’s true. Coming right at the cusp of the sound era, Wings may not stand as one of the greatest silent films ever made, and indeed, is largely forgotten except by Academy Award completists and Clara Bow aficionados, but in 1927 it was the pinnacle of big budget silent cinema. The love triangle is a bit hokey now, but the WWI battle scenes remain impressive, as does the touching if somewhat overwrought friendship between the two boys who go off to war.

Did it deserve to win? Maybe
Other nominees: The Racket, Seventh Heaven
My favorite film that year: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

#41: My Fair Lady (1964)

I sometimes give My Fair Lady a hard time because it’s an example of the overblown, over-produced musicals that studios made a TON of in the 1960s (and that I don’t tend to like as much as musicals from earlier eras), but I should lay off. Aside from the fact that they should’ve let Julie Andrews reprise her role in the Broadway play (not that Audrey Hepburn is bad or anything; just saying), this is a pretty solid film. A little overlong, perhaps, but Rex Harrison is great in his signature role as caustic language professor Henry Higgins, and the Lerner & Loewe songs are classics.

Did it deserve to win? Maybe
Other nominees: Becket, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Mary Poppins, Zorba the Greek
My favorite film that year: Band of Outsiders

#37: You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

Frank Capra’s second Best Picture win was for this film, sandwiched in between Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and not quite as good as either of those films, if you ask me. Still, it’s a solid family comedy, with lovers James Stewart and Jean Arthur dealing with the inevitable culture clash between his straight-laced family of businessmen and bankers and her free-spirited, nearly bohemian clan. It’s a piece of socioeconomic fluff that fit perfectly with the just-out-of-the-depression time period, but does seem a little on the corny side now, despite my resistance to devaluing Capra’s very fine work as Capracorn. Still, any chance to watch this set of actors (not only Stewart and Arthur, but also Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, Spring Byington, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and a very young Ann Miller) do their thing is all right with me.

Did it deserve to win? Maybe
Other nominees: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Boys Town, The Citadel, Four Daughters, Grand Illusion, Jezebel, Pygmalion, Test Pilot
My favorite film that year: The Adventures of Robin Hood

#30: Amadeus (1984)

The film may be called “Amadeus,” but it’s really the story of Antonio Salieri, the court musician to the Hapsburgs in Vienna when the upstart Mozart sprang on the scene and took the world by storm, despite his youth and vulgarity. Salieri’s jealousy grows as Mozart’s popularity threatens his position, but he also recognizes Mozart’s brilliance – this combination of jealousy, respect, and frustration at such a gift being given to such an (apparently) undeserving youth makes Salieri’s character a fascinating one (and a role that won an Oscar for F. Murray Abraham as well). The film is highly fictionalized, but to excellent dramatic effect, and had the side bonus of resurrecting the actual Salieri’s music, which had largely been forgotten.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: The Killing Fields, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, A Soldier’s Story
My favorite film that year: This is Spinal Tap

#25: Rebecca (1940)

I’ve been known to rag on this film for two reasons – one, it’s quite far down my list of favorite Hitchcock films, simply because most of his films are so incredibly amazing, and two, it changes the ending from the book in a way that I think is something of a cop out. But I’ve got to give the film its due – taken on its own and disregarding both Hitchcock’s other output (most of which hadn’t happened yet when this film was made) and the source novel, this is one solid, creepy, and well-done little Gothic drama. Joan Fontaine is suitably mousy as the unnamed narrator, unable to come to terms with the reminders of her husband’s former wife everywhere she looks, and Judith Anderson is downright menacing as the housekeeper who will never let her believe she’s as good as Rebecca was. Not quite a ghost story, but Rebecca’s absence is almost as palpable as if she were haunting the place.

Did it deserve to win? Maybe
Other nominees: All This and Heaven Too, Foreign Correspondent, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, Kitty Foyle, The Letter, The Long Voyage Home, Our Town, The Philadelphia Story
My favorite film that year: His Girl Friday

#15: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

I’m sure to take flack for having this film so high, but I don’t care. I saw it three times in the theatres, and have watched it many more on DVD, and I love it every time. Tom Stoppard’s sly script is impeccable, and the tongue-in-cheek view of Elizabeth Theatre put a new spin on Shakespeare for me – I already liked Shakespeare in general, but I’m pretty sure my love for his work actually solidified with this film. I’m not even going to waffle and say that it probably didn’t deserve to win Best Picture, because to me, it did, Saving Private Ryan notwithstanding. That’s an unpopular opinion, but I will stand by it.

Did it deserve to win? Yes
Other nominees: Elizabeth, Life is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line
My favorite film that year: Shakespeare in Love

#11: The Godfather Part II (1974)

I may not like either of the Oscar-winning Godfather movies as much as I’m supposed to (I haven’t seen The Godfather III yet, and I’m not anxious to), but I do like Part II significantly more than Part I. That being said, most of what I like more about Part II are the flashbacks to Vito’s childhood and how he became a mob boss. I liked the parallels being made to the modern-day story involving Michael and his attempts to retain control while losing even more of his humanity, but I often found myself bored with Michael’s story (except the incredibly powerful scene where Diane Keaton gives him what for), so I still don’t count myself a complete fan of this film either.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, The Towering Inferno
My favorite film that year: Chinatown

  • Jonathan A.

    You are my new hero! I totally agree with your “fighting against the tide” opinions of both Crash and Shakespeare In Love! I absolutely abhored Crash for all the reasons you say – totally manipulative and full of emotional tricks. Blech! And as for Shakespeare In Love – it’s the film I watch when I just want to sit alone and enjoy a bittersweet picture. And I don’t really know Shakespeare all that much, and I still love it.

    Now, tell me you don’t like Goodfellas or The Departed and I’ll buy you a present :)

    • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

      Yay! I’ve found a few people willing to rally with me on those two. It’s good to hear I’m not alone!

      I do actually liked Goodfellas and The Departed, though. I don’t think Scorsese should’ve won for The Departed, but I think it’s a solid film. (It came in 23rd overall on the list - http://www.rowthree.com/2012/03/08/rank-em-academy-award-best-picture-winners/3/.) And I also chose Goodfellas as my “should’ve-won” in 1990. So yeah, I guess I’ll have to forego that present.

      • Jonathan A.

        Yeah, I saw your rating of the Scorsese films. Meh. They weren’t bad but certainly not 4 stars. I just over react to their unwarranted adoration.

      • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

        Jonathan, I’d rank them both 4 out of 5 stars, probably.