And so the great Oscar Race is upon us. If industry analysts – rather like the ones here at CraveOnline – are to be believed, come Monday morning The Artist will be the 84th Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, joining such films as Crash, Driving Miss Daisy and The Greatest Show on Earth on Hollywood’s list of the greatest movies ever made. What do those three films have in common? None of them belong on anybody’s list of “the greatest movies ever made.”
The Oscars are, as cynics are ever so keen to point out, basically a popularity contest. But let’s be fair: many of the Best Picture winners are genuinely some of the greatest movies ever made. This week on Five Great Movies we’re going to take a look at five of the very best Best Pictures. Not necessarily the top five, but rather just five films that were utterly worthy of winning the top award, and a place amongst Hollywood’s upper echelons of quality productions. Your favorites probably didn’t make our list, which were compiled largely out of personal preference. Leave your own picks in the comments below and let the bickering begin.
Gone with the Wind (dir. Victor Fleming, 1939)
Gone with the Wind is, simply, one of the great movies. You can accuse the film of racism if you want – and what did you expect, since it’s about the losing side of the Civil War – but it’s not as pervasive as you might think. Hell, the recent Oscar-winner Crash wallows in more negative cultural stereotypes than Gone with the Wind does. More than that, Victor Fleming’s film exemplifies the iconic Hollywood epic: a clash of individual wills, set against the backdrop of broad historical conflict. The human drama is elevated by the surrounding circumstances, and the surrounding circumstances are dramatized on a personal level by the character dynamics. It’s a simple approach, but dear God in heaven, does it make for exceptional drama when done right. And Gone with the Wind does it right. It won Best Picture over Stagecoach, Of Mice and Men, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Wizard of Oz, and it totally deserved to.
Based on Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gone with the Wind is a nearly four-hour epic, but you’d never know it. The hours fly by as Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh, who beat out over 1,400 actresses for the part, and won an Oscar for her performance) stubbornly ignores the advances of the arrogant Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) as the Civil War looms in the background. Scarlett’s a stuck-up aristocrat who learns harsh life lessons as the war, and its ugly aftermath, tear her family down, force her into loveless marriages and finally into the arms of Butler, only to realize too late that she does, indeed, love him after all. Butler’s response is as iconic as it was salacious, at least in the censorship-heavy days of the Hays Code: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Alright, it sounds like an episode of Downton Abbey when you boil it down to the essentials. As it plays out, the lush Technicolor cinematography and truly outrageous set pieces – including a roaring inferno that seems an almost impossible feat without modern special effects – make Gone with the Wind a feast for the senses, and one of the most dramatic romances in film history. It wasn’t the first Hollywood epic, but has come to personify the genre in the decades that followed, and get this: if you adjust for inflation, it made twice as much money as Avatar.
Mrs. Miniver (dir. William Wyler, 1942)
Lots of great Best Picture winners have been set on the battlefields – The Hurt Locker, Platoon and All Quiet on the Western Front among them – but only Mrs. Miniver actually had a lasting impact on an actual war itself. Why did Winston Churchill claim that Mrs. Miniver did more for the war effort than “a hundred battleships?” Because it’s a brilliant f*cking film, that’s why. There’s a reason it won Best Picture over The Pride of the Yankees, Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Magnificent Ambersons.
Mrs. Miniver stars Greer Garson, who won an Academy Award for her performance, as Mrs. Kay Miniver, a British housewife whose life – like everyone else’s – is turned upside-down by the events of World War II. American audiences, many of whom weren’t convinced that the war in Europe was worth fighting (believe it or not), were captivated: they expected the front lines to be rife with event and tragedy, but Mrs. Miniver drove home the disturbing truth that families, women and children were being bombed in their own homes, not unlike the homes of everyday Americans. It’s a propaganda film, pure and simple, but under the uncanny direction of William Wyler and an ensemble cast of stiff upper lip thespians, the suspense is harrowing. The only thing more gripping than the film’s centerpiece, in which a downed Nazi pilot holds Mrs. Miniver hostage in her own home, is the gut wrenching finale, which could reduce even the world’s biggest d*ckhead to tears.
Backstage gossip, accurate though it was, has made Mrs. Miniver a strange film to watch: Garson fell in love with and eventually married co-star Richard Ney, who played her son. Their on-screen chemistry is obvious and, in retrospect, a little creepy. But it doesn’t ruin the legacy of a film that roused Americans to support the European war effort like no other.
Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942)
Nobody seems willing to dispute that Casablanca is one of the greatest films of all time. Not once they’ve actually seen it, anyway. Director Michael Curtiz, who also helmed such classics as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Mildred Pierce, adapted the unproduced (!) play Everybody Comes to Rick’s with Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in tow, crafting an iconic romance that plays just as well today as it did back in the 1940s. No, really, it’s damned near perfect. It wasn’t the strongest year for Best Picture nominees – most of Casablanca’s competitors are largely forgotten – but even if the competition were stiffer this would have been the film to beat.
The story takes place in Casablanca, Morocco, in the early days of World War II. American expatriate Rick Blaine (Bogart) has a popular nightclub and stays neutral in local politics despite a clientele of Frenchmen, Nazis and refugees alike. He stays alive because, as he makes abundantly clear, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” All that changes when Ilsa (Bergman), a former lover who abandoned him without explanation, comes to town with her resistance fighter husband, Victor Laszlo (Henreid). They, like every other character in the film, is looking to acquire letters of transit stolen by Lorre, now in Rick’s possession, which constitute a free pass out of Casablanca and, in effect, the war. (Such letters never actually existed in real life, of course, but do be quiet about it.) Rick has a moral and ethical dilemma on his hands: elope with Ilsa and ruin Victor’s attempts to aid the war effort, or stay trapped in Casablanca while the woman he loves runs off with the man who ruined his one great romance? And of course the Nazis are hot on his trail as well, aided by a comically corrupt police captain (Rains).
It’s a cliché, but Casablanca really does have everything: romance, intrigue, drama, Nazis, comedy, a timeless love song (“As Time Goes By,” sung by the great Dooley Wilson), and some of the greatest quotes in film history, from “Round up the usual suspects” to “Here’s looking at you, kid” to “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” to “Play it again, Sam,” even though that last one isn’t actually in the film. If you haven’t seen it, there’s just no f*cking excuse.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (dir. David Lean, 1957)
David Lean directed not one but two classic epics to Oscar glory: The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. That we’re looking at the former is merely a matter of personal preference. They’re two of the greatest films to win the Best Picture Oscar, hands down. With The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lean gave the world one of the most incredible anti-war polemics on record.
The film opens at a POW camp in Thailand, where a unit of British soldiers, led by Colonel Nicholson (Oscar winner Alec Guiness), are forced under the heel of Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), who needs the prisoners to build a railroad bridge over, oh yes, the River Kwai. But a battle of wills begins when Saito wants Nicholson and his officers to join in the manual labor, which goes against the Geneva Convention. Nicholson braves horrific torture over this seemingly innocuous issue, eventually wearing down his frustrated opponent. But Nicholson is so overcome with one-upmanship that when Saito finally relents, Nicholson actually agrees to build Saito a better bridge than ever before, just to prove the superiority of his British troops and their ideals. When a squad of soldiers arrives to destroy the bridge late in the film, they find themselves unexpectedly contending with both Saito and Nicholson himself, who is so blinded by his principles that he’s completely overlooked the fact that he’s aiding the enemy.
David Lean is famous for his epic set pieces, but with The Bridge on the River Kwai beautifully demonstrates his talent for interpersonal drama. The irony of Nicholson’s efforts and the gradual degradation of Saito’s authority are at turns comic, tragic, inspiring and disgusting. The Bridge on the River Kwai beat out another genuine classic for the Best Picture Oscar, Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, but you never hear anyone complaining about that. It’s just that good.
The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991)
It’s a sheer coincidence, we assure you, that the other four Five Great Movies this week are all about wars, and three of them about World War II in particular. Not every great Best Picture winner is about such lofty historical events, and in the interest of fairness, classics including Rebecca, The French Connection, The Godfather (and its sequel), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and No Country for Old Men were all narrowly edged off our list. But nothing could keep us from including The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme’s iconic serial killer thriller that was the third, and to date the last movie to sweep the top five Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay), besting both JFK and Beauty and the Beast for the top prize.
On the surface, The Silence of the Lambs seems little more than a high concept murder mystery. In order to bring a serial killer to justice, FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) must join forces with Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), America’s foremost serial killer in captivity. But Lecter is no ordinary monster, he’s a psychologist who defies mere interrogation, and gets inside Starling’s head as he manipulates the events to his own advantage. On that level, The Silence of the Lambs works beautifully, full of terror, unforgettable switcheroos and disturbing imagery. But Jonathan Demme’s film is more than a high concept genre thriller; it’s also an ingenious look at sexual inequality that happens to use a high concept genre thriller as a delivery system.
The rather obvious conceit that Starling is one of a mere handful of women in the male-dominated FBI is emphasized subtly through careful framing and character interactions, but placed in sharp relief by her job, to aid in the capture of a serial killer who preys on women to, ironically, become one himself. In the world of The Silence of the Lambs, and arguably the real one, women are still subjected to undue scrutiny, daily persecution, and acts of violence even as they consistently prove their worth. Practically every single male character – besides Lecter, pointedly – objectifies Clarice Starling. Even her seemingly respectable boss, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), uses her femininity to manipulate the other men in the film. In the end, Clarice Starling saves the day all by her lonesome, with only a tiny bit of helpful, and unexpectedly cordial advice from an asexual sociopath. And what does it say about society at large that only a man legitimately deemed insane seems capable of treating the female protagonist as an equal?
That’s all for this week. Join us next week for another installment of Five Great Movies!