10 Times the Oscars Nailed Best Picture
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a deeply compromised, willfully out-of-touch, and fundamentally lazy monolith that can't stop tripping over its own dick. The creation of Oscar Bait—the blandly high-toned films pumped out to earn nominations and fade from memory come March—is a blight upon cinema itself.
But seeing as how mercy and charity are the highest of virtues, let us give the Oscars points for two things:
1. They are still not as bad as the Grammys or as boring as the Emmys.
2. There have been occasions where the Academy got it right, giving the Academy Award for Best Picture to the film that deserved it the most.
The Academy has gotten a lot of things wrong, but it got these ten Best Pictures right.
Though many worthy films were celebrated in the first two decades of the Academy's existence, much of what we think about when we think about award-winners, great films, and post-war American cinema was codified by Michael Curtiz's Casablanca.
The World War II-doomed romance is such a foundational element of American society that it's easy to take it for granted as something that's always just been around, like bread or air. Even teenagers who have never seen the film somehow know the references whenever Saturday Night Live or The Simpsons would parody it.
If you've never seen the film, do so; it offers boundless pleasures to this day. There are the lines and images that have been burned into our consciousness (there's no need to repeat them). Then there's the still-radical story structure (it was rare then and still rare now for the hero to willfully lose the girl at the end, and Rick's misdirect with the authorities is a much-copied twist) and the slow-burn heat of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
Ultimately, Casablanca endures because it is one of the great examples of cinema's ability to create modern myths—in this case, that of a selfish, disillusioned man who learns to care about a cause greater than himself, finding nobility in sacrifice and in the process becoming a symbol for his country.
All About Eve (1950)
Even the best pictures that win Best Picture tend to stick to a template: a man—either great or soon to be great—is beset by obstacles both internal and external, yet persists. Stories about the complex inner lives of women have, traditionally, been relegated to lesser status by the Academy (and society at large), at best given a token Best Picture nomination.
All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's delicious tale of show business backstabbing, ruthless ambition, and the perils of being a woman that insists on aging, is a rare and happy exception.
The cinematic equivalent of a martini thrown in your face, All About Eve didn't create camp per se, but it certainly defined the heightened melodrama that we think of as camp and that we currently associate with celebrity gossip and reality television culture. Bette Davis' acidic one-liners earned the film an undying fan base, but it's Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington's slow heel turn from naive waif to manipulative ice queen that still twists the knife.
That the film was able to win over the often stodgy Academy (most of whom probably missed Eve's romantic obsession with her idol) is proof that there is nothing the entertainment industry loves more than stories about the entertainment industry.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
It took the Academy some time to adjust to the 1960s counterculture boom. A year before Midnight Cowboy won, the kind-hearted musical Oliver! took home Best Picture; two years before, both The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde were snubbed.
That the Academy eventually came around with Midnight Cowboy is both bizarre, and a testament to the combative chemistry of Dustin Hoffman's livewire hustler and Jon Voight's deluded cowboy gigolo, the lyrical direction of John Schlesinger, and the incisive script by Waldo Salt (an American hero that deserves multiple streets named in his honor).
Though the story structure is, in retrospect, a bit lumpy at times, at its core the film is both a satire of blinkered American masculinity and a romantic comedy about two men who don't realize they are in love. Midnight Cowboy was the first film with an X rating to be nominated for Best Picture, which was unheard of at the time, as was the scene where Voight's himbo Texan transplant lets Bob Balaban blow him in a theater.
This seems quaint in a world wherein people get rim jobs on Shondaland soaps, but back then mainstream America had never encountered such a thing on the big screen. That the Academy went with Midnight Cowboy over safe pick Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid can be seen as the Academy working overtime to address complaints that it had gotten out of touch, as well as proof that everyone loves a good love story.
The French Connection (1971)
It took some time for the Academy to catch up to the "American New Wave" movement that came of age in the wake of the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll generation. But catch up it did indeed, as 1971 saw The French Connection compete with A Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show for Best Picture. A formidable bunch, but the story of Gene Hackman's "Popeye" Doyle crusade against a heroin cartel managed to come out on top.
Film historians often point to director William Friedkin's raw, near documentary-like realism (which feels like a big-budget cousin to the work indie hero John Cassavetes was making at the time) and the bravura car chase as the reason the film captured audience's attention.
It's easy to suspect that the Academy awarded The French Connection because it was essentially an old-fashioned cops-and-criminals flick dressed up in gritty new clothing. But that reading both short-changes the blood-shot intensity and cool intelligence Hackman brought to the role (he's easily one of the top five best police detectives in movie history) and Friedkin's prescient view of '60s idealism giving way to '70s decay and the narcotics-fueled collapse of the American inner-city.
The Godfather (1972)
At this point, it seems redundant to proselyte for the virtues of The Godfather. It is so omnipresent, its influence so deep that it feels like there is nothing left to say. One might as well advocate that chocolate ice cream and sex are also pretty keen.
But one has a job to do, so let's simply say this: Picture a world where all forms of media have been erased except for Coppola's adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel. In said world, future generations would still be able to understand all they need to know about the corrupting influence of capitalism, the suffocating bonds of family, and the complexities of the human psyche from watching this film.
If we lost all documents of human language, we could capably reconstruct a working tongue solely by using quotes from this movie. Future filmmakers and editors would know all they need to know from studying the "Satan's powers" closing montage. Everything you could possibly need from our ability to tell stories is in here, so there was no way the Academy could screw the pooch on this one. And the food still looks really good.
Annie Hall (1977)
If the very public allegations brought forth against Woody Allen by members of his family cloud your ability to enjoy his films (and perhaps, like me, you believe them), then fair enough. It can be difficult to separate the art from the artist, even for our most important works. But it's also worth pointing out that if one is inclined to avoid art created by deeply flawed if not outright horrible human beings, one will have to throw out a distressing amount of the canon of great works. Which is perhaps fine, as canons are overrated anyway.
It's not my place to tell you to ignore your conscience and just focus on the art. But if you are capable of the mental and ethical gymnastics needed to enjoy Annie Hall in 2017, then perhaps you might find yourself as delighted and pulverized as everyone else was 40 years ago.
Annie Hall is often referred to as the greatest romantic comedy ever made and Allen's best film as a writer, actor, and director. (He also won Oscars for Best Screenplay and Best Director for the film.) This is perhaps true, but beyond that, it's a testament to the healing power of storytelling itself. Throughout the film, Allen's stand-in Alvy Singer relives his relationship with Diane Keaton's titular character, trying to figure out where it all went wrong.
Despite his continual protestations that his work is much less autobiographical than people often think, it certainly feels like an artist trying to rewrite their own history, pinpointing the moment they screwed up their life and then creating a more satisfying conclusion. The film culminates in a scene where Alvy writes a play in which an Annie stand-in accepts the marriage proposal she rejected in "real" life. The Academy, always a sucker for stories about stories, couldn't help but swoon and cry like the rest of us.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Though considered a stone cold classic, The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most unusual Oscar winners ever. Jonathan Demme's adaptation of Thomas Harris' bestseller is a horror movie through and through, and horror has always been considered a lowbrow genre in the virgin eyes of the Academy. The only other film of this nature to be so lauded was the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film Rebecca, and you'd have to stretch to consider that a horror film and not a thriller. (There's a difference.)
Second, it's an unrepentantly gory film; for as much as we continually get desensitized to violence in film, the scene where Dr. Hannibal Lecter awakens wearing his victim's face as a dead skin mask and proceeds to slit throats is still unsettling. Third, the film opened in February (on Valentine's Day, no less!), which is absolutely no one's idea of a launching ground for a prestige vehicle.
The Silence of the Lambs managed to overcome this with one of the greatest sweeps in Oscar history, winning Best Picture, Best Director (Demme), Best Actor (Sir Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (former Esquire intern Jodie Foster), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally). How? There's three likely factors. One is that the film was a slow burn hit, eventually becoming a box-office smash filled with several lines of dialogue that were suddenly everywhere (shout out to fava beans).
The second is that the Academy spent the '80s celebrating high-toned, admired, but not exactly cherished epics such as Out of Africa and The Last Emperor and sorta schmaltzy feel-good films like Driving Miss Daisy and Rain Man; they were starting to look stuffy and out of touch. The third is that this movie is still just that good. And while the depiction of gender dysphoria seems dated at best, it's also worth pointing out that this is arguably the most overtly feminist film to ever win Best Picture.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
The Academy has long had problems with genre films. Even the most well-made and innovated flicks were ultimately viewed as kid stuff that keeps the business afloat while Serious Dramas get the real art done. Steven Spielberg had to make Schindler's List to finally get an Oscar, and classics like E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark have had to do with "thanks for playing" Best Picture nominations.
So how did The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the third part of Peter Jackson's groundbreaking adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's beloved fantasy trilogy, manage to not only win Best Picture, but win 11 awards, leveling up with Titanic and Ben Hur for the most awards ever won by one movie?
It always helps to make money. Jackson's trilogy not only earned more than some nations' Gross National Products, but he paved the way for Hollywood's highly lucrative, effects-heavy focus on franchises, adaptations, and cinematic universes. At the same time, Jackson showed how special effects could be used to enhance and modernize that most hallowed of Hollywood genres, the now all-but-extinct Sweeping Historical Epic; take out the wizards and orcs and The Lord of the Rings films aren't that far from treasured widescreen tales such as Lawrence of Arabia.
It also helps that Jackson's film was legitimately great, filled with top-notch acting, story points that paid off in satisfying ways, and emotional beats that made a world of golems and wraiths feel human. Sure, there's a thousand endings too many, but this is big budget, epic storytelling at its finest, and Jackson making a compelling argument that effects-heavy genre films deserved to be taken seriously.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Academy mostly snubbed the Coen brothers for the first two decades of their career. Classics such as Miller's Crossing and Raising Arizona were ignored, Barton Fink received only a handful of smaller nominations, and Fargo lost to The English Patient, which is just absurd.
Clearly, the Best Picture prize for the Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men was a case of the Academy making things right and finally recognizing the most innovative American directing team of the past three decades.
But this award was no mere consolation prize. The film introduced one of cinema's all-time most chilling villains with Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh and rebooted Josh Brolin's career, and the scene where the two try to out-maneuver each other through a hotel vent is a marvel of tense editing and sustained tension.
Most impressively, the Coen's stayed true to McCarthy's bold, unconventional ending, which ignored audiences' expectations in favor of driving home the author's philosophy on moral rot. Reasonable people can argue if this film is superior to Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, which was also nominated in 2007, but no one can reasonably argue that the Coens didn't finally earn the trophy for one of their best.
The Hurt Locker (2009)
The Academy has snubbed auditoriums worth of visionary creators. And until seven years ago, it also snubbed an entire gender, which is an impressive feat of short-sightedness for a voting block keen to pat itself on the back for its progressive beliefs. With The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow finally broke the glass ceiling, becoming the first (and at the moment, only) woman to win both Best Director and to helm a Best Picture.
The Hurt Locker is famously the lowest-grossing film to ever win Best Picture, and also managed to beat Avatar, the highest-grossing picture of all time. How did it pull it off? By turning the Iraq War into a surprisingly intimate chamber drama. Many talented filmmakers stumbled when trying to tell stories about What Iraq Means, whereas Bigelow explores the toll the war has on one man (a revelatory Jeremy Renner), and why he can't seem to bring himself to say no to fighting, despite the family he has back home.
Bigelow is a master of the action film, and the explosions and battle scenes are as intense as anything you'll ever see, but what lingers in your mind is the climactic look of both shame and relief on Renner's face when he finally accepts his mortality and runs for safety rather than dying in a blaze of glory. This wasn't just a film about war—this was a film about why men fight it, and that's why it stood out.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.