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My Year at the Oscars - Academy Award Best Picture Winners Ranked Pt. 1

Introduction to the series

In 2014 I decided to watch every Best Picture winner in one year.  That is roughly 12,000 minutes of movie, or 8.3 days.  Some of them were incredible classics I couldn't believe I had never seen, some of them were previous favorites I had been watching for years, and some were extremely questionable decisions made by the Academy.  You win some, you lose some, but these are all technically winners so they deserve to be ranked!

I know for a fact I'm not the first person to rank all 87 movies (see, Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, Indiewire and pretty much any site that is dedicated to reviewing or discussing movies), but my opinions were formed over the course of a year.  I figure that if you haven't seen Ordinary People since 1980 but you watched The Hurt Locker yesterday, you might prefer one to the other just on basis of memory.  With all of the movies watched in a 365 day period and my 21st century equivalent to pen and paper ready to write notes after each, I believe that this is a very accurate ranking from My Year at the Oscars.

Note: At the time, "Birdman" had not won, but it still counts since I saw it in 2014.

Pt. 1: #87 - #66

This is the biggest batch of movies I will be doing at once. Part 2 will be 65 through 51 (Friday 1/29/16), Part 3 will be 50 through 36 (Friday 2/5/16), Part 4 will be 35 through 21 (Friday 2/12/16) and Part 5 will be the top 20 (Friday 2/19/16).  Might as well get the worst of the best out of the way first.  

#87: The Greatest Show on Earth

Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Release Date: January 10th, 1952
Ceremony: 25th
Wins: 2 (Best Picture; Best Story)
Nominations: 5 (Best Director; Best Costume Design, Color; Best Film Editing)

The worst of the best truly lives up to its reputation, and I am with those who believe it was the Academy's way of honoring Cecil B. DeMille's incredible career (well, incredible minus this film).  The Greatest Show on Earth plays out less like a film and more like a documentary about the circus with 50's grade sexual tension interspersed throughout.  If the random narration over raw footage of the circus and crowds cheering was cut out, this likely could have competed as a short film.  Jimmy Stewart as the clown is the lone highlight here.  That being said, it's a bit ironic that the most exciting scene in this movie is a train wreck.

#86: Cimarron

Director: Wesley Ruggles
Release Dates: January 26th, 1931 (NYC Premiere); February 9th, 1931 (US)
Ceremony: 4th
Wins: 3 (Best Picture; Best Writing, Adaptation; Best Art Direction)
Nominations: 7 (Best Director; Best Actor - Richard Dix; Best Actress - Irene Dunne; Best Cinematography)

It really isn't hard to see why Cimarron was impressive when it was released.  For it's time, the makeup work and the extended timeline had to have been a sight to see.  In terms of watching it 85 years later, the acting is overdone, the pacing is deplorable and the story is mediocre.  The biggest narrative problem comes down to the main character and his wife. He is frequently not present and when he is, he does things such as ignore his wife and spend time defending other women in court, yet his wife remains inexplicably loyal with no real reasoning given.  Just one small example of why some films stand the test of time and this one did not.  

#85: The Broadway Melody

Director: Harry Beaumont
Release Date: February 1st, 1929
Ceremony: 2nd
Wins: 1 (Best Picture)
Nominations: 3 (Best Director; Best Actress - Bessie Love)

On one hand, the 2nd Best Picture winner was worthy of recognition as the first full sound musical.  On the other hand, The Broadway Melody could have really used a better story, script, actors, etc. so its legacy as such would be easier to appreciate.  Some movies from the late 20's/early 30's have become timeless, but this one is so full of unrelatable drama and jokes that either fall flat or make little to no sense more than 80 years later.  What makes later musicals that won iconic (particularly the great musical run of the 60's) was the unforgettable songs, and I walked away from this without humming a single tune. 

#84: Dances With Wolves

Director: Kevin Costner
Release Dates: October 19th, 1990 (Uptown Theater); November 9th, 1990 (US)
Ceremony: 63rd
Wins: 7 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Original Score; Best Sound; Best Film Editing; Best Cinematography)
Nominations: 12 (Best Actor - Kevin Costner; Best Supporting Actor - Graham Greene; Best Supporting Actress - Mary McDonnell; Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design)

The first thought I had at the end of this movie was, "that was ONLY three hours long?"  Dances With Wolves did deserve recognition for some of the technical aspects, in particular, the cinematography which was absolutely beautiful.  And really, the story isn't half bad.  There is just no excuse for it being told over any longer than an hour and a half.  Kevin Costner's nomination for Best Actor is also very strange to me, as his voice over narrations sounds like he was reading the script for the first time.  Overall, this is just a mediocre film that was technically sound enough to mask most of its faults, of which there were plenty. 

#83: Around the World in 80 Days

Director: Michael Anderson
Release Date: October 17th, 1956
Ceremony: 29th
Wins: 5 (Best Picture; Best Writing, Best Screenplay, Adapted; Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture; Best Cinematography, Color; Best Film Editing)
Nominations: 8 (Best Director; Best Art Direction, Color; Best Costume Design, Color)

There are some interesting and unique moments to Around the World in 80 Days, but in the end, it comes off an extremely long episodic bore.  I had high hopes when the protagonist pulled ice off of a mountain peak from his hot air balloon to chill his champagne, but all hope was lost when it quickly turned into a "comedy" based solely around exploiting global stereotypes at a glacial pace.  That being said, the scope and amount of manpower required to film this movie still remains impressive to this day.

#82: Cavalcade

Director: Frank Lloyd
Release Date: April 15th, 1933
Ceremony: 6th
Wins: 3 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Art Direction)
Nominations: 4 (Best Actress - Diana Wynyard)

Cavalcade is another film that just hasn't aged well.  It is quite evident watching this film that it was directly adapted from the stage, and the overdone theatrical acting seals is fate.  What really defines these early movies are the moments and concepts that remain impressive and Cavalcade does have a few, including the Titanic scene and how the plot of the film is ocassionally furthered and summarized by New Years celebrations throughout the years.  Sadly, there isn't much to talk about at New Years, because not that much actually happens.  

#81: Crash

Director: Paul Haggis
Release Dates: September 10th, 2004 (TIFF); May 6th, 2005 (US)
Ceremony: 78th
Wins: 3 (Best Picture; Best Original Screenplay; Best Film Editing)
Nominations: 6 (Best Director; Best Supporting Actor - Matt Dillon; Best Original Song - "In The Deep")

Crash in concept: "Hey, let's summarize racism in two hours by creating a bunch of characters with little to no depth that are easily lovable or hatable. Then, through a course of events that rely more on coincidence than plausibility, let's make them suddenly not hate the ethnic groups that they've spent their entire life hating, all over a course of two days".  Sure it's well-acted, and there are a few decent moments of insight, but at the end of the movie it is just too hard to ignore how much of it was unbelievable.  It's the brochure equivalent of "Why Racism is Bad", in a movie.

#80: Out of Africa

Director: Sydney Pollack 
Release Date: December 18th, 1985
Ceremony: 58th
Wins: 7 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Original Score; Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction; Best Sound)
Nominations: 11 (Best Actress - Meryl Streep; Best Supporting Actor - Klaus Maria Brandauer; Best Costume Design; Best Film Editing)

The cinematography, the score and the acting (for the most part) are all incredible.  It is an 80's historical epic through and through, but that is both praise and criticism.  There aren't adequate words to describe how slowly this movie moves and how little you end up gaining from it.  By the time you finally reach the end you just feel horrible for everyone involved in the story, and more than that you've just been told a story with very little direction or point. I just couldn't wait to get Out of Africa.  But, those shots of landscapes from a plane sure are pretty, right?

#79: The Lost Weekend

Director: Billy Wilder
Release Date: November 16th, 1945
Ceremony: 18th
Wins: 4 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor - Ray Milland; Best Screenplay)
Nominations: 7 (Best Dramatic or Comedy Score; Best Cinematography, Black-and-White; Best Film Editing)

I'm sure that in 1945, this film was exceedingly powerful, and a look at alcoholism that wasn't common in that day and age.  But 70 years later, the situations the protagonist manages to get himself into through his drinking problems are borderline silly.  Ray Milland is the best part of this movie, and while he definitely overacts the part, he seems nonchalant in the role compared to the rest of the cast, who in their on-screen sobriety frequently seem more drunk than he does.  The Lost Weekend is just a forgettable, quite lackluster Best Picture winner. 

#78: How Green Was My Valley

Director: John Ford
Release Date: October 28th, 1941
Ceremony: 14th
Wins: 5 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actor - Donald Crisp; Best Black-and-White Cinematography; Best Black-and-White Art Direction - Interior Decoration)
Nominations: 10 (Best Supporting Actress - Sara Allgood; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Score of a Dramatic Picture; Best Sound Recording; Best Film Editing)

It took a bit of thinking about where to place this film, since it has such a strong ending.  There are a lot of disjointed episodes through the first hour and a half that don't necessarily add to the film, but suddenly bits and pieces begin building up to a dramatic and truly wonderful ending.  If only the rest of the film was as good as the last 20 minutes, it would be considered a true classic.  It could really use this reputation, since How Green Was My Valley is forever known as the movie that somehow beat out both Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon

#77: Gentleman's Agreement

Director: Elia Kazan
Release Date: November 11th, 1947
Ceremony: 20th
Wins: 3 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actress - Celeste Holm)
Nominations: 8 (Best Actor - Gregory Peck; Best Actress - Dorothy McGuire; Best Supporting Actress - Anne Revere; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Film Editing)

Gentleman's Agreement is another movie that just seems like a film of its time without staying power. Elia Kazan is a great director for actors, and the acting is for the most part quite exceptional (minus a few side characters).  The problem with this film is that the story and the situations very quickly become over the top and unbelievable.  It is a movie about the subtleties of society, yet the characters chose to beat you over the head with their points.  

#76: Ordinary People

Director: Robert Redford
Release Date: September 19th, 1980
Ceremony: 53rd
Wins: 4 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actor - Timothy Hutton; Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay)
Nominations: 6 (Best Actress - Mary Tyler Moore; Best Supporting Actor - Judd Hirsch)

Robert Redford, being an actor himself, made this movie what it is: a well-acted drama.  Seriously, Timothy Hutton should have been nominated for (and won) Best Actor, since he is the main character and is breathtaking in the role.  Mostly, that would have allowed a deserving (and actually supporting) Judd Hirsch to win.  Outside of the acting, Ordinary People is a movie dealing with complicated issues that aren't all resolved, while wanting the viewer to wonder about other things that seem vaguely obvious.  Sure it's emotional, occasionally touching and beautiful, but it's just done so in such a straightforward manner, it was hard to rank it higher.    

#75: Driving Miss Daisy

Director: Bruce Beresford
Release Date: December 13th, 1989
Ceremony: 62nd
Wins: 4 (Best Picture; Best Actress - Jessica Tandy; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Makeup)
Nominations: 9 (Best Actor - Morgan Freeman; Best Supporting Actor - Dan Ackroyd; Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design; Best Film Editing)

The 80's, for the most part, was a time of great acting and average films.  Driving Miss Daisy has a reputation of being one of the worst winners, and while it's certainly not the best, it isn't a bad movie by any means.  The problem is that sentimentality can go a long way towards making a good movie, but not a great one.  The acting, while stellar, can't save this film from being a movie where not a lot happens as it slowly circles the drain of boredom.  The charm and heart-wrenching moments throughout just aren't enough to completely distract the viewer from lack of plot depth. 

#74: Terms of Endearment

Director: James L. Brooks
Release Dates: November 23rd, 1983 (U.S. Limited); December 9th, 1983 (U.S. Wide)
Ceremony: 56th
Wins: 5 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actress - Shirley MacLaine; Best Supporting Actor - Jack Nicholson; Best Writing Adapted Screenplay)
Nominations: 11 (Best Actress - Debra Winger; Best Supporting Actor - John Lithgow; Best Original Score; Best Film Editing; Best Sound Mixing; Best Art Direction)

Jack Nicholson, as he is known to do, steals the show for most of this movie.  Once again, this is a case of the typical 80's winner: great acting, mediocre movie.  Terms of Endearment bothered me because of how disjointed it felt for long stretches.  You see extended glimpses of a particular life event, then huge parts of the characters lives are explained through 30-second phone conversations.  While touching, sentimental, heartfelt and all those other great descriptors for the family tragedy dramas the decade of MTV and synth pop seemed to love so much, they don't make up for a mediocre movie with turtle pacing.

#73: The Great Ziegfeld

Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Release Dates: March 22nd, 1936 (Los Angeles); April 8th, 1936 (USA) 
Ceremony: 9th
Wins: 3 (Best Picture; Best Actress - Luise Rainer; Best Dance Direction)
Nominations: 7 (Best Director; Best Story; Best Art Direction; Best Film Editing)

People love to hate this movie, but just as some movies are exemplary of their time, I believe this is one of the best examples of early Hollywood extravagance.  Is it overacted and too long?  Absolutely.  There is no need for multiple 5+ minute tap dance routines and no amount of charm from the protagonist can truly save the film, particularly when most of his conversations lead nowhere and are irrelevant to the story as a whole.  But watch the staircase scene, if nothing else, and tell me that The Great Ziegfeld isn't at least an impressive relic of its time.

#72: A Man For All Seasons

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Release Dates: December 12th, 1966 (USA); March 1967 (UK)
Ceremony: 39th
Wins: 6 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor - Paul Scofield; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Cinematography, Color; Best Costume Design, Color)
Nominations: 8 (Best Supporting Actor - Robert Shaw; Best Supporting Actress - Wendy Hiller)

This is definitely a British stage play, and the adaptation carries on as such.  Paul Scofield is great and really saves the film from being utterly boring.  The major problem I had with A Man For All Seasons was that it requires the viewer to come in with more knowledge than you would expect for a historical drama that is meant to tell a story, not just expand upon already known facts.  I always research and read up on the subject matter after watching a historical film, but this time it was less to broaden my knowledge and more to understand what I had just spent 2 hours watching.  

#71: The Life of Emile Zola

Director: William Dieterle
Release Date: August 11th, 1937
Ceremony: 10th
Wins: 3 (Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor - Joseph Schildkraut; Best Writing, Screenplay)
Nominations: 10 (Best Director; Best Actor - Paul Muni; Best Story; Best Score; Best Art Direction; Best Sound Recording; Best Assistant Director)

The Life of Emile Zola is a relatively straight-forward biopic that, for the most part, is actually quite good for its day and age.  It tends to drag in places and focuses on some boring aspects for a long time and some interesting aspects not nearly long enough.  Similarly, there are lengthy speeches throughout, some well-written and enticing and others wordy snooze-fests.  With a slightly altered focus and some editing, this might have been one of those classic movies that everyone talks about, but as it is, it's one of the more average winners. 

#70: Braveheart

Director: Mel Gibson
Release Date: May 24th, 1995
Ceremony: 68th
Wins: 5 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Cinematography; Best Sound Editing; Best Makeup)
Nominations: 10 (Best Original Screenplay; Best Original Dramatic Score; Best Sound Mixing; Best Costume Design; Best Film Editing)

With Braveheart, you are forced to take the good with the bad.  The good, such as some of the more epic fight scenes and memorable lines (screams?), usually stand out above the bad.  But the acting and the excessive length do not help this movie at all.  Many of the battle scenes go on for far too long, but once you get back to the dialogue you're already ready for another battle scene to start.  

#69: Going My Way

Director: Leo McCarey
Release Date: May 3rd, 1944
Ceremony: 17th
Wins: 7 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor - Bing Crosby; Best Supporting Actor - Barry Fitzgerald; Best Writing, Screenplay; Best Music, Song - "Swinging On A Star"; Best Original Motion Picture Story)
Nominations: 10 (Best Actor - Barry Fitzgerald; Best Cinematography, Black-and-White; Best Film Editing)

While every situation and scene in Going My Way seems to have the mentality, "how can we make it so Bing Crosby sings", this is usually a pretty good strategy.  This is another movie of moments and when it shines, usually thanks to Bing Crosby or Barry Fitzgerald, it shines quite brightly.  It is the unfortunately slow moments between these that puts it on the lower half of the list.  This movie also changed how actors were nominated, since Barry Fitzgerald was nominated as both a lead actor and a supporting actor.  

#68: Kramer Vs. Kramer

Director: Robert Benton
Release Date: December 19th, 1979
Ceremony: 52nd
Wins: 5 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor - Dustin Hoffman; Best Supporting Actress - Meryl Streep; Best Adapted Screenplay)
Nominations: 9 (Best Supporting Actor - Justin Henry; Best Supporting Actress - Jane Alexander; Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing)

If only Meryl Streep was considered the lead actress this would be right there with It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Silence of the Lambs as winners of the "big five" awards.  As it stands, the acting awards were really the most deserved awards in the film, particularly Dustin Hoffman.  Kramer vs. Kramer deals with difficult subject matter and handles it well for the most part.  Not a perfect movie by any means, but definitely an important one.  

#67: Oliver!

Director: Carol Reed
Release Date: September 26th, 1968
Ceremony: 41st
Wins: 5 (6) (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Musical Adaptation Score; Best Art Direction; Best Sound; HONORARY AWARD for choreography)
Nominations: 11 (Best Actor - Ron Moody; Best Supporting Actor - Jack Wild; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Costume Design; Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing)

What really defined many of the musicals in the golden age that was the 50's and 60's was a bulk of memorable songs, and while Oliver! has a few, it just can't stand up with the greats.  The honorary award given for choreography was the most deserved win, mostly for the opening scene of the second act ("Who Will Buy"), which remains one of the most impressive numbers in any film.  The fact that the acting is just above average outside of a couple of the leads doesn't help it much either, but it is still quite an enjoyable watch almost 50 years later.

#66: Million Dollar Baby

Director: Clint Eastwood
Release Date: December 15th, 2004
Ceremony: 77th
Wins: 4 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actress - Hilary Swank; Best Supporting Actor - Morgan Freeman)
Nominations: 7 (Best Actor - Clint Eastwood; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Film Editing)

If you take just the first two-thirds of this movie, it would rank a lot closer to the top of the list, but the last act really pulled down this film for me, no matter how tastefully done.  It goes from an inspirational sports drama to pulling at the heartstrings in a cruel way.  That being said, Clint Eastwood sure does know how to direct a movie, and all of the actors give him incredible performances.   Million Dollar Baby will be remembered for provoking a lot of debates, one of which being how to review a movie without giving away major spoilers.  I stand by the no spoilers rule 10 years later and simply recommend this film to you if you enjoy sports dramas and don't mind being so sad it makes you sick. 

Part 2 (#65-51) will be coming next Friday, 1/29/16

List so far:
87 - The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
86 - Cimarron (1931)
85 - The Broadway Melody (1929)
84 - Dances With Wolves (1990)
83 - Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
82 - Cavalcade (1934)
81 - Crash (2005)
80 - Out of Africa (1985)
79 - The Lost Weekend (1945)
78 - How Green Was My Valley (1941)
77 - Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
76 - Ordinary People (1980)
75 - Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
74 - Terms of Endearment (1983)
73 - The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
72 - A Man for All Seasons (1966)
71 - The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
70 - Braveheart (1995)
69 - Going My Way (1944)
68 - Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)
67 - Oliver! (1968)
66 - Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Written by Richard W. F. Swor


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