Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Aged Oscars

If you don't know anything about the movie business, then you probably think the Oscars are some kind of true measure of a film's quality. Oscar-winning films are Good By Definition; there is no higher film award in the world than to win an Academy Award. I don't want to say "I know better" because, well, I was happier when I thought the Oscars were an accurate measure of quality. It's better that I know the truth, although only in the way that broccoli is better than ice cream.

In reality, the Oscars are a gigantic advertising stunt for the Hollywood film industry. Presumably corruption-free (PriceWaterhouseCoopersVoldemortBeeblebrox is apparently trustworthy), the Oscars give us insight into the current, collective tastes of the members of AMPAS. It's not a bad first step for identifying the Best Pictures that are produced, but it's hardly the be-all, end-all.

To date, 77 films have won the Oscar for Best Picture. I've seen all of them. This isn't by accident; I made it a project back in college (when there were a measly 72). I've kept up since then, and have managed to see each Best Picture winner, before it won, since Unforgiven (1992). Some of the BP winners hold up. Some don't.

We can ignore the first ten years of Oscar history, because, frankly, Hollywood hadn't really figured out the talkie-as-art-form yet. 1939 was the obvious turning point. Since then, most of the Best Picture flicks have been pretty good, but there are some stinkers (granted, this is from the point of view of someone born long after most of these movies were released):
  • How Green Was My Valley (1941) - One word: Treacly. My dad calls it Al Green Was My Valet.
  • Mrs. Miniver (1942) - Wartime hoo-rah propaganda, but otherwise, it's a soap opera.
  • Going My Way (1944) - Treacly blah. Bing Crosby is not really believable as a priest, but maybe that's just the cynicism talking.
  • Hamlet (1948) - Olivier's version is long and boring and staid. I think this is why Shakespeare movies had such a bad name among high school students for so long. It's the cinematic equivalent of asparagus. Good for you, but kids just don't appreciate it. And Branagh's version is a lot more interesting to watch. Hell, so is the Mel Gibson version. Or the Ethan Hawke version.
  • An American in Paris (1951) - Or An American In Traction, as we call it. It's charming but stupid and not within shouting distance of being worthy of Best Picture.
  • Marty (1955) - Also known as Stempel's Bane. It's short and cute and otherwise kinda forgettable.
  • Around the World in 80 Days (1956) - This movie has no story. It's just a bunch of random set pieces in colorful locales featuring lots of celebrities. Apparently the novelty was enough to win it Best Picture over Giant and DeMille's 48th version of The Ten Commandments.
  • Tom Jones (1963) - I think the Academy foresaw the imminently debaucherous years of the late 1960s, and decided that Tom Jones would make a good enough sacrifice to the gods of lewd behavior.
  • Oliver! (1968) - Cute, and a musical (which earns it bonus points pre-1970), but come on! This was a better film than The Lion in Winter? Than Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet?
And then, suddenly, in 1969, everything changed. Because Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture. I don't think it's quite that great of a movie; certainly plenty of memorable lines, scenes, and characters, but I think it won partly because of its relative shock value. It was rated X to begin with, but re-rated R in 1971, and these days it'd probably toddle on the borderline of PG-13. But if you look at the Best Picture winners since Midnight Cowboy, the one consistent factor is that (virtually) none of them contain any of the silly froth that you'd see in movies like An American in Paris or Around the World in 80 Days.

In fact, since then, only two comedies have won Best Picture (The Sting, 1973, which is arguably not really a comedy, even though it has plenty of funny dialogue -- the situations are not funny; and Annie Hall, 1977), and one musical (Chicago, 2002). Everything else: drama. The zeitgeist changed somehow. I blame Vietnam.

And of course, as time has progressed, some films have been revealed as brilliant, underappreciated gems, and previously glorified movies have fallen by the wayside. It's not reasonable, today, to say that How Green Was My Valley is a better film than Citizen Kane. It's not even better than The Maltese Falcon, which was up for Best Picture the same year.

But this process continues apace. In 1994, Forrest Gump won Best Picture... but Pulp Fiction contributed a lot more to the development of cinema. The Shawshank Redemption is more widely loved. Ed Wood is technically superior, and provides much deeper insight into the main character. In my worthless individual opinion, all three movies were more enjoyable than Forrest Gump. (For what it's (unscientifically) worth, Groundhog Day has the same 8.0 rating on the IMDB as Schindler's List. Ever wonder if Oskar Schindler would have eventually learned to make ice sculptures with a chainsaw?)

They oughta hold a ten-year-retrospective Oscar ceremony each year. Now that we've had ten years to look back, what were the best films of 1995? Was Braveheart really better than Toy Story? Heat? It's had less impact (though been parodied more) than Se7en. What's your vote for the best film of 1995?