It’s getting to be that time of the year again, and it’s one of the closest Academy Awards we’ve ever truly had. I’d be content with just about any of the nominated films taking best picture this year at the 85th Oscars, a feeling I’m unfamiliar with. There’s less likely to be a snub, like back in 2002 when Gangs of New York lost to Chicago.
But nevertheless, this is when pools and polls and bets and parties commence for all us proud cinegeeks, whose idea of a good time is talking about the latest movie they saw all day long between each other—or to disgruntled non-cinegeeks.
The Academy Awards are a historically intriguing process, a celebration of extraordinary cinema and its accomplishments in creating entire worlds and stories to open eyes, open hearts, and/or just plain help people escape their lives with entertainment for anywhere between an hour and a half, and three hours. The movies are an experience, a rollercoaster which tugs our feelings around, grants us vicarious excitement. They grant us connection with the people around us and the characters we see. They unify.
We are like any other aesthetic medium out there, and like any other, deserve rewarding. Here I am to list my personal Top Ten films that have won Best Picture at the Academy Awards since 2002, and brief thoughts on the nominees this year at the end of the article. Please enjoy, and I look forward to watching the 2013 85th Oscars with you!
10.) Chicago – The 75th Academy Awards – March 23, 2003
We will begin our list moving up, from least favorite to most favorite, with this musical which in no way should have overcome either The Pianist or Gangs of New York. In general, it simply is an inferior movie, despite its truly intriguing plot and I’ll tell you why—it’s the same reason Les Miserables fails miserably.
Musicals and plays were written to be performed and experienced as musicals and plays. Very rarely is the correct attitude or aesthetic captured, and here Chicago cannot manage it. Nor does Miserables represent the source material of its book well. Sometimes, the Academy Awards select an upset, and this is a prime example. Average IMDb ratings.
9.) The King’s Speech – The 83rd Academy Awards – February 27, 2011
It takes an incredible amount of personality to make a biopic convincing and engaging. Even Spielberg himself made a remarkably boring movie for the entire first half of Lincoln, despite how powerful it flips about to be during its second half. This film was well performed, well told, but altogether feels more like a textbook.
In comparison to nominee The Fighter, also based on a true story, the differences are clear. Presentation is required. Just because your story or historical figure is interesting does not mean your movie is, unless audiences are actually interested already in the person or the period.
I also do not believe in terms of the aesthetics of film as an engrossing medium that this biopic is stronger than Black Swan, which is perfectly performed by Natalie Portman and tugs your senses while flexing your psychological muscles in an artistic and sometimes frightening way. Is The King’s Speech a good film? Yes. Enough to earn Best Picture? I can’t agree.
8.) Crash – The 78th Academy Awards – March 5, 2006
Here is a best picture film that highly polarizes audiences even today. Films with a distinct and often times important message must balance between obviousness and powerful, insulting or propelling their audiences. Many argue whether this film falls into the former or latter category.
I believe it’s a terrific script, emotionally captivating, and yet the taut thriller nominee that year Munich tells its equally tragic and disheartening story with less plausibility issues. To be perfectly honest, I remain undecided of its value as a Best Picture winner, but I just don’t think it’s as strong a film as those below.
7.) Lord of the Rings: Return of the King – The 76th Academy Awards – Feb. 29, 2004
Only three films belonged in the category of best picture that year, and this was one of them. If there is a fault to the original Rings trilogy, this conclusion to the series righted itself from the mostly boring diary of a wimpy hobbit and his idiotic friends (except for Sam, the actual hero).
This movie went Wrath of Khan on us, here meaning that not only is the film a good product of its source material for fans, but for anyone at all. Pacing issues are corrected, its visual effects and music are top notch, and we actually forget about the giant plot holes. Only The Hobbit has come close to this film, even though it drags a bit.
6.) The Artist – The 84th Academy Awards – February 26, 2012
This is an incredible silent film, homage to an era of film by storytellers who clearly love that era as much as the audiences that made it Best Picture. Film is the art of telling a story with a camera, at its foundation, and without sounds or dialogue the camera alone should engage and climax. This movie accomplishes exactly that.
However, despite brilliant performances and top notch visual presentation, its plot is quite ordinary, and although The Help is very light-hearted in concern to its racism, that is a superior plot with exactly as remarkable performances.
5.) Slumdog Millionaire – The 81st Academy Awards – February 22, 2009
This is a loveable and all-around charming film whose only true competition was the vibrant and bronze-toned novel-feel Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I would say that the two films are equal in performance, artistic merit, and storytelling—and I would have been pleased with either to win Best Picture. The film speaks for itself, as does its award.
4.) The Hurt Locker – The 82nd Academy Awards – March 7, 2010
Although Inglorious Basterds probably should have taken this particular year’s Best Picture award, and certainly for original screenplay (as there is no plot to Hurt Locker), the film tells its story of a soldier in such a human and natural way that at least has the merit of a Best Picture nominee.
There is an astounding sense of constant suspense and isolation throughout, and more-so allows the best window into the psychology of a soldier off-shore since Full Metal Jacket. The latter being superior, of course.
3.) The Departed – The 79th Academy Awards – February 25, 2007
Martin Scorsese finally picks up his Academy Award, despite the gallon of blood in his thrilling, unrelenting crime drama. Scorsese is a filmmaker who understands film, a walking library of cinema, who knows how to appreciate and how to present it.
One of the few all-star casts to perform perfectly together, this vicious Oroborous cycle of death is tragic but wholly enveloping, intriguing and unapologetic. This film absolutely deserves its rewards, and will definitely stand the test of time.
2.) No Country for Old Men – The 80th Academy Awards – February 24th, 2008
First of all, I’m a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, and I can safely say that this film is one of the greatest interpretations of literature in cinema. There is a supreme balance of character, and the execution of the story’s crime is akin to Fargo. The personality and ferocity of the Coen Brothers was exactly what No Country needed.
The violence was handled in a real way, and instead of attempting to replicate McCarthy’s voice, instead imposed their own successfully and smoothly. With a humor to boot that the novel never truly addresses, the film manages to tackle nearly every theme the book does, a feat rarely accomplished—though it may help that book is in its nature very cinematic already, much the way Michael Crichton writes.
An incredible meditation on violence, the nature of violent people, and the psychology of those that oppose them, this film is as profound as its source material and deserves both its Best Picture award and to claim repeat viewings. This is an expression of the true depth and potential of film, and is vastly entertaining all the while.
1.) Million Dollar Baby – The 77th Academy Awards – February 27, 2005
It pains me that The Aviator did not take Best Picture, when it is one of Scorsese’s best, one of the best biopics ever created, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s greatest performance, in my own personal opinion. And yet, although Clint Eastwood revealed his political positions (you celebrities should really never do that, you lose viewers), here I must grant the greatest Best Picture winner of the last decade to Mr. Eastwood.
An outstanding performance by Hillary Swank opposite Eastwood acting as his usual self, this inspiring and yet tragic story can be as touching and as humorous as it is crushing and dishearteningly truthful. This film constantly reminds you that it is alive, and of the value of life even in struggle. In its smallest moments, this movie has meaning, and will tug your heartstrings. It is valuable morally, emotionally, and cinematically.
And so concludes the list—what are your predictions for the Oscars? Favorite nominee for Best Picture? I suspect that Lincoln has a special seat reserved at Best Picture, while my personal favorites are Life of Pi and Django Unchained. I’ll join you this Sunday!