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Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked

Consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives.

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Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked
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It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2018.


Crash

92. Crash (2005)

Crash is set in Archie Bunker’s world, a nostalgic land where race is at the forefront of every consciousness during every minute of every day, where elaborately worded slurs are loaded into everyone’s speech centers like bullets in a gun, ready to be fired at the instant that disrespect is given. The characters are anachronistic cartoons posing as symbols of contemporary distress. “I can’t talk to you right now, Ma,” says Don Cheadle’s cop, pausing mid-coitus to take a phone call. “I’m fucking a white woman.” “Holy shit,” another character exclaims. “We ran over a Chinaman!” “I can’t look at you,” Matt Dillon’s cop tells a black female paper-pusher, making like Peter Boyle’s character from the 1970 white-man-on-a-rampage melodrama Joe, “without thinking of the five or six qualified white men who could have had your job.” Dyno-miiiiiiite! Paul Haggis’s depiction of a world where everyone’s thoughts and words are filtered through a kind of racist translator chip—like a Spike Lee slur montage padded out to feature length—and then spat into casual conversation is ungenerous, because it depicts every character as an actual or potential acid-spitting bigot, and it’s untrue to life, because it ignores the American impulse to at least pretend one isn’t a racist for fear of being ostracized by one’s peers. Matt Zoller Seitz

What Should Have Won: Munich


Cimarron

91. Cimarron (1931)

As pre-code spectacles go, Cimarron is something of a big-budget exercise in experimentation, though not in the sense that it actually produces anything innovative. Director Wesley Ruggles helms a script spanning 40 years to create what’s meant to be eye-catching spectacle; the film’s story, which spans 1889 to 1929 in Oklahoma, begins with a restaging of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, a sequence that uses 47 cameras to cover some 40 acres of land. From there, heavily theatrical acting styles and overwritten dialogue define most scenes, as Yancey (Richard Dix) and his family try to turn Osage County, Oklahoma into a tenable place to live. Certainly, if only for the fact that it was an early sound western, Cimarron would have been a new audio-visual experience for audiences at the time. Today, and not least because of its racist characterizations, it’s little more than an eye and ear sore. Clayton Dillard

What Should Have Won: The Front Page


Out of Africa

90. Out of Africa (1985)

Out of Africa is the worst of the bloated, self-important best picture-winning pseudo-epics. It attempts to merge the sweeping visuals of Lawrence of Arabia with a Gone with the Wind-style story. But director Sydney Pollack is neither David Lean nor David O. Selznick, with the interminable result shellacked to the highest of glosses by John Barry’s syrupy score. Out of Africa depicts Danish writer Isak Dinesen’s (Meryl Streep) time growing coffee in Kenya. “I had a fahhhhhrm in Ahhh-frica,” says Dinesen seven times in the first scene, highlighting the aural act of violence that is Streep’s accent. This is one of the actress’s busiest performances, a full-tilt deployment of her entire arsenal of tics; a scene where Dinesen fends off a hungry lion with a whip sees the actress chewing as much scenery as the animal. Meanwhile, Robert Redford coasts by on his looks and Klaus Maria Brandauer smirks like a syphilitic Cheshire Cat. Whenever Pollack gets visually stuck, he cuts to a sea of dark brown African faces staring at the screen in confusion—an overused, racially suspect punchline. Out of Africa’s biggest sin is that it immediately evaporates from memory, as if one’s brain were committing a mercy killing. Odie Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Color Purple


A Beautiful Mind

89. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

If the cartoonists at Hanna-Barbera wanted to quickly convey the extent of a cartoon character’s world travels, they might cut from a shot of, say, Huckleberry Hound walking before the Eiffel Tower to a shot of the pooch prancing before Big Ben. In A Beautiful Mind, a film that doesn’t lack for the laziest of short cuts, a young John Nash (Russell Crowe) sits at his desk while special effects morph the exterior of a Princeton dormitory to accentuate the changing seasons: leaves drop, snow gathers and melt, birds chirp. Throughout the film, such hacky artistry is in service not for bringing us closer to the reality of the mathematician’s life, but for implicating us in a circus act. Imagine, for a second, the fascinating possibilities of having simply shown Nash talking to dead air for the duration of the film. Doesn’t quite sound like a potential Oscar winner, and so Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman decided to articulate schizophrenia’s grip on the mind with a bunch of swirling digital numbers and cutesy imaginary encounters. The film is, through and through, quintessentially cornball. If it’s impossible in retrospect to believe that A Beautiful Mind’s first half is supposed to depict the world as hallucinated by a master mathematician, that’s because the film’s comprehension of mental duress is fundamentally jejune, the stuff of shock tactics as imagined by connoisseurs of Dead Poet’s Society, or the most earnest believers in a cliché I always wished had made it into Roger Ebert’s Bigger Little Movie Glossary: Crying While Sliding One’s Back Against a Door. Ed Gonzalez

What Should Have Won: Gosford Park


Braveheart

88. Braveheart (1995)

Braveheart substitutes polished aesthetics, quotable speeches, and superficially bravura camerawork for a genuine examination of historical legend, while its would-be woozy romance remains trapped beneath the weight of both its unmerited running time and overly orchestrated sense of tragedy. Never have the Dark Ages appeared so plasticine and manicured as they do through Mel Gibson’s panoramic lens, nor has any single image of the director’s career been more encapsulating than that of William Wallace, the 13th-century warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England, his limbs outstretched in a Christ pose just before his final gutting. In this final moment of masochistic glory, Gibson and Wallace become one, a man of fire and passion ready to kick your ass into complacency. Rob Humanick

What Should Have Won: Babe


The Broadway Melody

87. The Broadway Melody (1930)

Philosophically speaking, Sunrise was the first film to win the award associated with the qualities we now associate with the best picture category, in a year in which the industry tossed The Jazz Singer an honorary award rather than make the field of silents compete against it. In its second year, Oscar embraced the future with both hands, and thanks to The Broadway Melody’s win we have a case study for how technical innovations are occasionally anathema to artistic expression. Exactly the sort of clunky apparatus that Singin’ in the Rain decades later gently mocked, the film’s every shot announces itself as the result of a compromise made to sync image with sound, with neither of them being done any particular justice. A deluge of movie musicals would soon flourish thanks to the advent of sound: Gold Diggers of 1933, Love Me Tonight, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, all of them as dizzyingly innovative and effortlessly entertaining as the shallow, melodramatic The Broadway Melody is frozen. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: In Old Arizona


Around the World in 80 Days

86. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Oscar has awarded expansive tedium more often than not, but even by those pitiful standards, Around the World in 80 Days is a specialized case. Adapting a Jules Verne novel but framing the entire proceedings as a reactionary pre-Space Age paean to days gone by, producer-impresario Mike Todd’s dick-swinging epic is regressive in every conceivable way. From David Nivens’s entitled superciliousness as Phileas Fogg to Cantinflas’s shameless mugging as Fogg’s lackey manservant, Passepartout, from their rescue of Shirley MacLaine’s Indian princess (admittedly less cringeworthy than, say, Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed but still rough to watch) to a William S. Hart-era Wild West shootout between white folks and whooping Native Americans, the entire enterprise distills the world’s entire history of cultural appropriation into an endless amusement-park ride. And even that would have some contemporary worth as an eye-popping reminder of shifting attitudes if it were at least watchable. But no, it’s three-plus hours of vacation slides you found in your grandparents’ attic. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: Friendly Persuasion


Shakespeare in Love

85. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

As is true of a great deal of the films that have been adorned with the best picture Oscar in the past two decades, John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is a thunderous mediocrity, a beautifully costumed and designed mess, as ultimately amiable as it is nonsensical. The greatest voice the theater has ever seen, the author of an unequaled canon that serves as inspiration for nearly all narrative works in the modern age, William Shakespeare is here portrayed by Joseph Fiennes as an egotistical cad—a loathsome, unrepentant scoundrel and bum who’s capable of uttering “Damn, I’m good!” after finishing the first act of a play he’s weeks late on. Indeed, the screen’s contempt for its chief architects remains as potent and unyielding as it is largely thoughtless and despicable. Hollywood has never been very comfortable, or perhaps capable of, depicting great writers successfully—or, for that matter, taking their struggles seriously and their triumphs sincerely. As Shakespeare in Love unfolds, the penning of Romeo and Juliet is seen as near-accidental, spurred by the Bard’s misguided lust for a costume girl. And yet, as the film proceeds through its weedy narrative, focused mainly on the romance between Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the first production of Romeo and Juliet, the unenviable task of believing that Shakespeare was a genius of tremendous insight and imagination, despite the production’s eager insistence that he was simply a jealous coward stricken with luck, becomes an exhausting exercise of imagination. Chris Cabin

What Should Have Won: The Thin Red Line


Gladiator

84. Gladiator (2000)

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw a string of duds almost inexplicably become critical and awards darlings, suggesting that mainstream cinema culture was undergoing some kind of intellectual regression. And with the release of Gladiator at the start of the millennium, it didn’t appear as if such deterioration was going to slow down any time soon. Directed by Sir Ridley Scott on depressing autopilot, the film displays none of the technically nimble artistry of such classics as Alien and Blade Runner. The overstuffed production meanders through knotty character dilemmas and rote attempts at Shaekepearean esoterica in as bland a manner possible. All the better to elevate Russell Crowe’s Maximus to the level of the grandiose, and in the most suspect and laughable of ways. The man is a walking vacuum of personality who the film believes to contain multitudes, and the kicker is how Gladiator, with Maximus taking a moral stand against the brutal culture of ancient Rome and his befriending of an African slave, is viewed through the lens of modern political correctness. In the film’s key scene, a gruesome gladiator battle, Maximus righteously screams, “Are you not entertained?!” But the presentation of the scene is as unironic as a crowd-pleasing ESPN highlight reel, or a pep rally pretending at moral conviction. Wes Greene

What Should Have Won: Traffic


The Greatest Shot on Earth

83. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

As far as tributes to vagrancy and animal abuse go, mid-century American cinema has done worse. But even taking into account Hollywood’s then-emerging neo-gigantism, it’s shocking how much effort The Greatest Show on Earth goes into missing the forest for the trees. Cecil B. DeMille, then regarded as Hollywood’s undisputedly great showman, setting his sights on the big top spectacle of P.T. Barnum ought to have been the ultimate “best of both worlds” proposition. But the allowances modern audiences still grant to DeMille’s products of their time—crediting his ability to sustain momentum through grandiose running times, or his balanced eye for scope—lay down and die in the face of this monstrosity, alternately leaden and corny and neither in the right moment. In the same sense that James Stewart’s mysterious clown never removes his makeup, anyone exposed to this film today will spend 152 minutes with Emmett Kelly’s expression frozen on their own face. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Quiet Man


American Beauty

82. American Beauty (1999)

A black comedy with a curious opinion of its characters’ repellent behaviors, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty is also tone-deaf in its belief that the struggle is real for white, wealthy suburbanites. The Burnham clan and their neighbors aren’t so much people as they are often offensive caricatures that exist only to service screenwriter Alan Ball’s anti-conformist message-mongering. American Beauty’s most famous scene, in which Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) explains to Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) that a plastic bag floating in the wind is the most beautiful thing in the world, is emblematic of the jejune self-aggrandizement that, like Ball’s litany of leaden ironies, abounds throughout the film and works to dubiously sentimentalize the characters’ pathologies. Indeed, this is a film that sees only beauty and nobility in transgression, as in Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, after yearning to bed his teenage daughter’s friend (Mena Suvari), retreating to his corner upon learning that the girl is a virgin. One walks away from American Beauty believing that if its makers could blow themselves, they would. Greene

What Should Have Won: The Insider


Argo

81. Argo (2012)

There seems to be a general, taken-for-granted assumption in criticism—or film culture more broadly—that the most unassuming films manage to index complex political and social truths if only by virtue of their unpretentiousness and eagerness to entertain. So it seems fair enough to assume that such cheery popcorn flicks could prove equally insidious in their inconspicuousness. Argo feels like such a film: well-acted, competently directed, and sufficiently entertaining, yet all the more troubling as a result of its breezy pleasures. The problems emerge early, with the history of Iran in the 20th century and especially the events leading to the hostage crisis of 1979 laid out in detailed storyboards. In doing so, Argo effectively—and, perhaps, self-consciously—passes the buck of fealty to the operations of cinema. But regardless of whether or not Ben Affleck’s tone-setting meta-gesture—which winkingly acknowledges that this is the film version of a “declassified true story” (as the film was obnoxiously marketed)—is intentional, it’s undoubtedly irresponsible, even cowardly—a cheap escape hatch for Argo and Affleck to tuck-roll through any time questions of the film’s veracity come to bear. The film is a wet dream of buccaneering American foreign-policy intervention, attempting to absolve its responsibilities for accuracy (or even decency) in its slight, simple story of Affleck’s all-American hero whose pluck and gallantry would be for naught were he not also a repentant dad, eager to return home to his half-estranged son. John Semley

What Should Have Won: Zero Dark Thirty

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