There were several films that pleasantly surprised me and other films that disappointed me. At the time I started this exercise, I hadn’t seen 42 of the 86 films that at that time had won Best Picture. Birdman won when I was roughly half way through. Some notable pleasant surprises were A Man For All Seasons, which I put in my top 10 favorite Best Picture winners; The Best Years of Our Lives, which is textbook technical filmmaking with a captivating story; The Greatest Show on Earth, which had a much better story than I anticipated it would; Ben-Hur, which I’d always heard was a great film, but it was even better than I was expecting; and Crash, which is the type of film I generally dislike, but had such powerful performances from the actors and had such a gut-wrenchingly emotional ending that I was greatly moved by it.
Some notable disappointments are Gentlemen’s Agreement, this Gregory Peck film should have been powerful, but was all talk and too preachy; Chariots of Fire, a film that I went into with low expectations, and I was still disappointed; The Broadway Melody, which was the first “talkie” to win, and I was expecting a more complete film than the one I saw; The Life of Emile Zola, which was otherwise a good film, but missed out on an opportunity to be great by blowing off the social issues within the story; Driving Miss Daisy, a film that came close several times to being very dramatic, but then would back away for fear of making things uncomfortable for the characters.
One of the best things that happened for me while I was watching these films was my re-exposure to films that I swore I’d never see again, or at the very least had no desire to see again. I’m talking about films like Platoon and Schindler’s List which I saw in the theater when each one came out. I’m also talking about The Deer Hunter, which I saw when I was in college. All of those films scarred me on my initial viewings of them, and I never wanted to put myself through watching them again. Then I had to for this exercise, and I was dreading each film as they approached. Then, without exception I realized after watching each of them that they were all brilliant. With the benefit of time, maturity and a film degree I can now see that all of those films scarred me precisely because they were great films that did exactly what they needed to do. I would certainly re-watch any of them now at a heartbeat.
On the same note, this project also forced me to watch films that I either had always wanted to see but never gave myself the time, or otherwise wouldn’t have been interested in seeing. The aforementioned A Man For All Seasons is one of those films. I can’t imagine a scenario where I would have just come across that film, thought that it looked interesting and watched it. It wouldn’t have happened, and I’m sure that there are many people out there who have never seen that film, perhaps don’t know it exists, and even if they do know it exists they have no desire to see it. Well this exercise made me see it, and I couldn’t be happier that it did, because I was missing out on a great film for no other reason than my own ignorance. I can’t recommend that film highly enough. If you haven’t seen it, find a copy and see it as soon as you can. The Best Years of Our Lives was another film like that. Yes, I’d seen the title on the AFI top 100 list, but I still had no real hard desire to see it, again due to my own ignorance. But it’s a powerful and extremely well-crafted film that deserves your attention.
There were also the films that I had always wanted to see but had never gotten to like Ben-Hur, Patton, The Bridge on the River Kwai, All Quiet on the Western Front, All About Eve, From Here to Eternity, and Midnight Cowboy. All of these films were great in their own way, and I feel like I have a better understanding for the language and history and craft of filmmaking for having seen them. They all are exceptional films with great stories, powerful themes and stirring performances that will leave you wanting more from each one that you see. They’re films that, while you’re watching them, you don’t want them to end because they’re giving you such a great storytelling experience.
I tried looking for trends, but there weren’t a ton. Two of the first three winners used World War I as a back drop. World War II played a big part in several winners in the 40’s and 50’s. Also, starting in 1956, four straight winners were shot in CinemaScope or some other widescreen format. All four of those films were also in color, and the streak of widescreen color films would be broken by The Apartment in 1960, but at least two of those four films beat out what would prove historically to be more deserving pictures that were in black and white. One other interesting trend was between 1958 and 1968, five of the eleven winners were musicals.
I ended every blog by answering the question, “Did the Academy get it right?” About half the time the answer was no, and some times that was due to my personal taste and other times that was due to which films have stood the test of time and become classics, or at least remembered as great films. One thing that quite often put the answer in context was the time it was released and what was happening in society and around the world. For instance, one of the great Oscar mistakes was in 1944 when Going My Way beat Double Indemnity. I think most people would watch those two films today and come away thinking that Double Indemnity was the superior film. But coming to the end of World War II and on the heels of the Great Depression, it’s not surprising to see why the former won over the latter. Double Indemnity is the purest of film noir. It’s a film about bad people doing bad things that end badly for them. It has a downer of an ending where the anti-hero gets his comeuppance, but we still don’t feel good about it. Going My Way is a musical with Bing Crosby where he plays a priest who saves a failing parish by turning local street kids into an alter boy’s chorus. The day is saved and everyone feels good at the end. With that context, it’s not surprising at all that a feel-good film like that would be rewarded with the Oscar for Best Picture.
And as the project went along, I found myself also carving out time to watch as many of the nominated films that I hadn’t seen as well. I knew if I was being bold enough to determine the worthiness of the winner, then I also had to see as many of the losers as possible. Many of them I had seen at various points of my life, but many I had not. A lot of the earlier films were too difficult to find, but it became easier to do as the project wore on. I must say that knowing all of these films now has enriched my life. Not because I was watching movies, per se, but because I was exposing myself to stories. If you want to be a storyteller, then you need to know a lot of stories. If you want to be a filmmaker or a writer or a producer, these are all films that you should know and that you should know well.
Overall this was an enlightening and fascinating project. Most of all, however, it was entertaining. With a few exceptions even the films that shouldn’t have won were still fine films. I would recommend doing this exercise to anyone who is interested in movies and wants to take a walk through the history of American cinema.