Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
Sunday is the 93rd Oscars and in time with the annual ceremony, I reach the end of my 5 Favorites series on my favorite Oscar nominees and winners. Today, I tackle Best Picture.
The big category of every Oscar ceremony (except in the early days when acting categories were more prominent), was established at the 1st Academy Awards. At that time, the category was accompanied by a sort of sister category, Best Artistic Quality of Production. Not generally considered a Best Picture prize, the winner was Sunrise, perhaps one of the greatest films ever made, certainly a better film than Best Production winner Wings. Since it’s not classified as a Best Picture winner, I wanted to take a brief moment to honor Sunrise simply because it’s a great film and should it have been considered a Best Picture winner by the Academy, it undoubtedly would have made my list.
Speaking of lists, after trying to distill the list of Best Picture winners and nominees down to a single group of five, the monumental task ultimately led me to decide to do something different for this final article in the series: split winners from losers and do two Five Favorites lists from each set. While I would normally consider starting with the losers and then tackling the winners, it seemed only appropriate to give the Oscar losers more due and so I’m going to start off with the winners.
Best Picture Oscar Winners
Before I tell you my five favorites, here are some of the winners I considered including: It Happened One Night (1934), Gone With the Wind (1939), Rebecca (1940), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Casablanca (1943), The Lost Weekend (1945), All About Eve (1950), West Side Story (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Sound of Music (1965), Oliver! (1968), The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), Annie Hall (1977), Terms of Endearment (1983), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Titanic (1997), and Argo (2012).
Now, it’s on with the show.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30)
By the 3rd Academy Awards, the Academy had finally delivered a Best Picture win that was undeniably great, a film we would be talking about for years to come. All Quiet on the Western Front is a fascinating adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s celebrated novel that looked at World War I from the viewpoint of the solider. This haunting film gave audiences their first real glimpses into the horrors of the battlefield, unless they had been there themselves.
Lewis Milestone directed this insightful drama that took a group of patriotic young men and put them through military training and eventually to the frontlines where older soldiers put them in their place and made them certain they understood that fighting for one’s country is no picnic and is certainly not for the ideological. The entire film makes that notion loud and clear, creating one of the most successful anti-war films ever made. It was also heavily influential on future filmmakers as much of what we see in today’s war films can tie its roots to this film in particular.
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
As I mentioned in my piece on actress Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy holds a special place in my heart as it was the film that got me drawn into the Oscars. Starring Tandy, Morgan Freeman, Dan Ackroyd, and Patti LuPone, with the primary focus on Tandy and Morgan, it tells the story of an aging Jewish woman who’s losing her eyesight, leading her son to hire a chauffeur to drive her around. At first, she’s resistant to the idea, but over the course of the film, she becomes friends with him (Freeman).
Tandy, Freeman, and Ackroyd are terrific in the film and they earned Oscar nominations for their work. Influential, the film isn’t, as it has more often been cited as a problematic depiction of Black people in stereotype. While there’s some small basis for these observations, the film handles the interaction between Tandy and Freeman naturalistically, showing the audience what kind of environment these people lived in, but also that it takes patience to bring everyone to a clear understanding of the struggles they each face.
Daisy, having been sequestered in her white privileged life, but facing more subtle anti-Semitic bigotry and hate, initially treats Hoke as anyone would have treated a Black servant in the 1950s, but as the film progresses, she warms to him and the subtle societal barriers between the two crumble as she comes to understand better, through the framework of her own experiences, just how much in common she and Hoke have.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus is a staggering achievement that brought audiences inside the concentration camps of World War II with humanity and horror in equal measure. The film is ostensibly about Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who attempts to save as many Jews as possible from the impending eradication by the Third Reich, giving them work in his munitions factory, even at great potential personal loss. It’s a film that tells audiences that you have to do anything you can to stand up against racism and anti-Semitism in the most important way possible.
Liam Neeson conveys the conflicted emotions with which Schindler was faced when he had to protect others in the face of a looming presence of evil, more content on punishing and murdering the Jewish people than in building a better society. Only through his position of economic power was he able to convince the Nazi regime that his employees were crucial to the war effort even if that tenuous relationship began fraying as Germany began losing the war. Ralph Fiennes is brilliant in his subtly evil portrayal of a Nazi officer tasked with overseeing the ghetto in which Schindler’s employees were housed. Spielberg approached his subject matter with a keen eye towards history, insisting that we deal with the ugly and villainous treatment of Jews in the Holocaust and not be allowed to flinch from that depiction. It’s a film that not only has a lesson for all of us, but it exudes the skill and craftsmanship Spielberg had always possessed after being seen primarily as an entertainer.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
A tremendous undertaking, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was Peter Jackson’s labor of love, bringing to the screen one of the most epic pieces of fantasy literature ever written. The struggle to stay true to the narrative and themes of the book while also making it palatable for mass audiences was one Jackson was more than capable of undertaking. This was justly awarded by the Academy with numerous Oscar nominations over the course of a three-year release window and then honoring the achievement of all of the films with a clean sweep of awards in 2003 for The Return of the King, winning all eleven of its nominations.
The three films were developed in tandem and largely filmed at the same time to ensure that the look and feel of the film was consistent across all three chapters with the building dread slowly infusing the image as it progressed with the brighter, happier vistas depicted in the first film slowly giving way to the dark and sinister dangers the world of Middle Earth would face in increasingly threatening ways as the series progressed. There was no element of this massive trilogy that wasn’t a incredible success, from the production design to the costuming and the makeup and effects, this was a film that was not just a sum of its parts, but a combination of efforts that built on top of one another to create a singular achievement. Without this film, today’s successes for films and TV series like Game of Thrones and Watchmen might not have been possible as Jackson helped show that the risk aversion to fantasy literature was nothing to fret about.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
As Spielberg’s Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust, Steve McQueen’s haunting adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s autobiographical novel takes the audience behind the scenes of plantations in the Deep South where a free man from the north, Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is sold into slavery where he struggles against a brutal and disbelieving culture that forces him to serve in spite of his insistence that he is not a slave. Through his interaction with fellow slaves, including Lupita Nyongo’s Patsey, he comes to understand how dire a situation there is in the South and thereby he struggles not just for his own freedom, but for the freedoms of others who were not tricked into enslavement, but were born into it.
McQueen’s harrowing depiction of the south is reminiscent of that which formed the foundation for the miniseries Roots. While that production was wildly popular in the 1970s, it did little to advance the cause of freedom for Black Americans as the 1980s progressed and their tenuous acceptance by society as a whole began to crumble. 12 Years a Slave is another attempt to bring these atrocities to the attention of younger audiences in hope that the slow advancement of human rights doesn’t get bogged down by a generation raised on white dominance. The simple scenes of Patsey being whipped for daring to obtain soap from a neighboring plantation when she’s given none of her own and of Northrup being hanged by the neck from a tree in a position that was more torturous than deadly, but which might bully him into not contradicting the orders of his supervisors.
These scenes, across a film of blistering rebukes of white slave owners and even supposed white saviors, help present the horrific history of slavery in the United States to an audience that needs constant reminder of where we’ve come from and just how far we still have to go. The harrowing experience of watching this film is what makes it so crucial an effort and in significant need of support and recognition.
Best Picture Oscar Losers
Now, we take a look at the Oscar losers I loved. As always, I start with the list of favorite losers that didn’t make the cut. They were: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932/33), Lost Horizon (1937), Grand Illusion (1938), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Gaslight (1944), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Sunset Blvd. (1950), A Place in the Sun (1951), Giant (1956), 12 Angry Men (1957), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Auntie Mame (1958), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Mary Poppins (1964), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Z (1969), The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), Nashville (1975), Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Reds (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), The Color Purple (1985), The Crying Game (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Babe (1995), Secrets & Lies (1996), The Thin Red Line (1998), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), Lost in Translation (2003), The Aviator (2004), There Will Be Blood (2007), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), District 9 (2009), Up (2009), Inception (2010), Her (2013), Selma (2014), Brooklyn (2015), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Call Me by Your Name (2017), Black Panther (2018), and The Favourite (2018).
That’s a long list with a lot of great titles on it and while I have frequently cited the likes of Citizen Kane, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and others, I changed things up a bit with the below list, an eclectic bunch that span the last fifty years with more than half coming in the last two decades. So, without ado, here are my five favorites.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
2001: A Space Odyssye and Dr. Strangelove are undeniably great films and while some say they are Stanley Kubrick’s best, I think A Clockwork Orange took his affinity for shocking observations and amped up that horror in a film that’s as challenging to watch as it is to understand its motives. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) is an ultra-violent street punk who, along with his mates, the Droogs, goes on a spree of violence across London, culminating in the brutal assault, rape, and murder of a young woman while her husband watches helplessly. The film then progresses to the arrest and attempted rehabilitation of ringleader Alex.
McDowell is sensational as a carefree teen who must watch in silent horror as a harsh brainwashing technique is used to insure that he is no longer a threat when released. It’s this segment of the film that demands the audience recognize torture in all its forms and realize that the punishment is no less violent than the crime itself and to ask whether such efforts are humane or appropriate. As the young man is finally released into the world, his new aversion to violence ultimately makes him defenseless such that society itself, without having been reformed alongside him, is now a more hostile environment than it was going in.
Kubrick’s film demands we not only identify with a raping murderer, but ask ourselves if the rapist/murderer is a victim of society or if society is a victim of the rapist/murderer. It then asks where we would draw the line between rehabilitation and torture and are we no more guilty of destroying his life than he was of destroying hers and at what point does sympathy devolve into apathy. This is probably Kubricks’ most incisive film, asking the audience a number of questions that he doesn’t have the answers for, nor should he. Advancing and maturing as a society requires tackling these subjects and finding a solution that is no worse than the violence itself.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Moving from the horrific events of A Clockwork Orange to the boisterous musical extravaganza that is Beauty and the Beast shows just how broad a swath of cinema history the Academy has honored with Oscar nominations over its 93-year history. 1991 was a watershed year. Not only did the Academy honor its first horror film (technically a thriller, not horror), it was also the first year that an animated feature broke through the live-action crowd to score a Best Picture nomination.
Disney’s second film in their vaunted 1990s renaissance, was a wildly popular feature that has seen a stage adaptation as well as a live-action adaption. Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise brought this adaptation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale to the big screen and it was, and still is, the pinnacle of Disney’s animation history. With a lively vocal cast that includes Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, and others, the animation genre, as well as musicals in general, would never be the same again. This seminal film is an important part of film and Oscar history and if you haven’t see it, then Be Our Guest and give it a watch. Then you’ll know what everyone else has already known.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Another watershed achievement, this Ang Lee-directed film starred heartthrobs Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as two part-time shepherds who share a moment in their loneliness and isolation that brings them closer in a turbulent period of American history when homosexuality was being aggressively singled out for abuse and murder. Brokeback Mountain redefined what gay cinema could be and ushered in a more broadly acceptable cinematic environment for gay character portrayals.
Ledger is utterly brilliant in his role as Ennis Del Mar with Gyllenhaal nearly his equal. Throw in solid performances from Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams as the women in their lives that help shield them from suspicion and persecution and you have an expertly crafted drama that humanizes and supports characters that would have been unreasonably stereotypical through much of Hollywood’s history. Lee’s success with this film earned him an Oscar for directing, but the film was unfairly denied the Best Picture Oscar that the precursors had supported because of an element within the Academy that refused to even see the film because of its homosexual content. Those voices are almost all dead now and history has shown that Brokeback Mountain, and not the tepid winner Crash, is the most important and significant film to emerge from 2005, and is one of the most important of the 2000s altogether.
Get Out (2017)
It feels strange to focus my attention on nominees primarily from the last two decades, but the significance of these pictures is not to be underestimated and when you look at Oscar history, there’s plenty of attention put on films like Citizen Kane and myriad others that lost the Best Picture Oscar (or weren’t even nominated), but newer classics and influential efforts deserve some recognition as well, which leads us to the final two titles on my list today. Get Out is comedian Jordan Peele’s directorial debut. It’s the story of a Black man invited to meet his white girlfriend’s family at their remote home. Once there, Chris Washington (soon-to-be-Oscar-winner Daniel Kaluuya) stumbles into a strange and dangerous situation that puts his life at risk.
Billed as both a comedy and a horror film, there’s little funny about Get Out and that’s because the horrific situation Chris finds himself in isn’t terribly far removed from the very class and race struggles being faced daily by the Black community. Here, the villains are white liberals with a false sense of racial parity, but the frightening events feel as real as they are fictitious. Kaluuya is terrific in the film and Peele’s directorial style is fascinating, evoking the command of form and function not seen since Alfred Hitchcock passed. In fact, Peelian will likely be a word you hear in the future as new filmmakers take influence from Peele’s daring and provocative debut feature.
Little Women (2019)
The same will likely be true Greta Gerwig second feature film, a re-adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s popular novels published under the title Little Women as most school-age children may be familiar. Alcott’s life as a female writer influenced her work on Little Women and its companion novel Good Wives, which were collectively produced as a single source for all of the familiar adaptations we’ve seen over the years. Gerwig was not only influenced by Alcott’s novel, she was also influenced by Alcott’s daring life, which isn’t far afield from the life led by the novel’s lead character Jo March (Saoirse Ronan). That history is built into a film that uses the publication of this novel as a framing device for the events within the film, though instead of Alcott’s struggle to earn publication, it’s Jo’s, which makes for a fascinating embodiment of life influencing art.
Gerwig’s first solo feature, Lady Bird, was celebrated for its originality, but what Gerwig does with Little Women is different. It’s refreshing. The film not only marks the best adaptation to date of Alcott’s novel, it redefines how adaptations can be handled, looking for exterior influences of the author’s life to inform the cinematic narrative. Well paced and brilliantly acted, Little Women didn’t earn Gerwig an Oscar nomination for directing even though she richly deserved it, but its lasting influence on young women, many of them potentially becoming young filmmakers, is indefinable right now, but over time, we’ll soon understand the degree to which that influence will be felt.