I’m really quite pleased with myself for finishing with the 85 films that have so far won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I’m sorry I had to skip 1933’s CAVALCADE, since I was interested in seeing one of Noel Coward’s serious pieces, but it is unfortunately unavailable on any kind of home video. It seems there has been little to no demand for it – a regrettable indicator of how well the production has aged.
I thought a good way to start processing the project as a whole would be to offer my recommendations of one movie per decade that I think should definitely be watched. This is going to be a long one, folks, so stay with me.
It’s not hard to choose a film for this decade, because, well, there are only two movies to choose from. That said, I think WINGS is still one of the best movies of the whole Best Picture lineup. It’s a gut-wrenching, raw depiction of survivor guilt, of the power of friendship, and of the impact of WWI. These days we’re more accustomed to films about the second World War, but the battle scenes in WINGS remind us of just how devastating the first World War was. WINGS is long for a silent film, clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, and at times the battle sequences can feel relentless, but stick with it. It’s also got some of the great names of early Hollywood, including Clara Bow and Gary Cooper.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Academy tends to go for dramas, rarely honoring comedies with so much as a nomination. With that in mind, I think it’s important that people watch one of the few true comedies to win this award. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is one of the great screwball comedies of the 1930s, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. It has a famous scene in which Colbert’s character successfully flags down a car for a ride by lifting her skirt to show her shapely leg, and features a running joke about the walls of Jericho. It’s funny, trust me. And it’s just plain fun.
It’s hard to choose a movie from this decade to recommend above all the others. In a decade with REBECCA, CASABLANCA, MRS. MINIVER, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES… well, it was an amazing decade for Best Pictures. Probably that’s part of why the 1950s movies were rather disappointing – lots to live up to! However, I’d have to recommend THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES for the 1940s. It was a constant surprise for me. We tend to think of movies from the 30s and 40s as heavily edited versions of reality, but THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is a challenging and honest look at the difficulties that veterans have in adjusting back to civilian life. Alcoholism, the pushing away of friends and family who mean well but don’t understand, and other self-destructive habits come into play. It’s widely recognized and honored for its use of an actor who was actually a double amputee, Harold Russell. I simply can’t say enough good things about this film.
Kind of a letdown after the 1940s, but this is not to say that the films from the 50s are bad. It’s just not as stellar a decade overall. For the 1950s, I’d recommend MARTY, starring Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair. It’s a quiet little movie, showing the everyday struggles and neuroses of ordinary people who are not remarkable in any way – not especially smart, not especially beautiful or talented. Just kind, simple, ordinary people. There are early shades of what, twenty-five years later, would be recognizable as the style of Woody Allen, though MARTY is nowhere near as obsessively neurotic. Neither does it feature Allen’s distinctive New York Jewish style of humor. MARTY is a conversation movie, driven by dialogue and characters thinking out loud rather than by action or complicated plotlines.
Oh, this just has to be LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. The great epic films of the 50s and 60s are lots of fun, and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is at the top of the pile. Peter O’Toole’s bright blue eyes give his portrayal of T. E. Lawrence a visible sort of obsessive recklessness, while Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif as the leaders of the Arabian forces are noble, determined, and definitely NOT Western. Maurice Jarre’s glorious score perfectly matches the sweeping landscape of Arabian desert. A long film, yes, but it’s more than worth the time.
Okay, I know it’s kind of predictable, but: THE GODFATHER. Every so often, a film comes together with all perfect parts. Casting is brilliant, writing brilliant, design and cinematography and directing and music, all brilliant. As I mentioned in my review, the GODFATHER trilogy is what got me started on this whole project in the first place. It’s cultural literacy, really. These movies are quoted and referenced endlessly, from the famous horse head in the bed to the lines about making someone a deal they can’t refuse or “leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”
Another decade where it’s hard to choose just one, but I have to go with my old friend AMADEUS. Glorious music, of course, but also an interesting look at the effects of greed, envy, jealousy, guilt, and arrogance. It explores the way you can work and work for something and still never really get it the way others can for whom it comes naturally. AMADEUS shows the sense of betrayal that can come from a deal with God that goes awry. Also, F. Murray Abraham is a genius.
It’s an incredibly difficult film to watch, but SCHINDLER’S LIST is unparalleled in its position as a cinematic masterpiece. Ralph Fiennes’ extraordinary evil is balanced by the dedication of Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern. The driving motion of the film therefore comes from the evolution of Liam Neeson’s portrayal of the profiteering Oskar Schindler. He begins the film looking to make easy money, and ends overwhelmed by guilt and grief that he didn’t do more. Much like visiting the Holocaust Museum in DC, I finished this movie not so much sad as feeling frozen and pale, but it is an unrivaled production.
We all know what I’m going to say here, right? LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING. I mean, it’s a great story with wonderful acting, incredible visuals, and just an all-around great movie. One thing that I love about the trilogy as a whole is the use of the miniatures for filming. The level of detail created for the multi-level Minas Tirith, for instance, is amazing, and blends filming of physical miniatures with CG elements beautifully. I was skeptical that anyone could really do justice to Tolkien’s creation, but I think that Peter Jackson did it as well as we could hope.
Like the 20s, there aren’t many to choose from for this decade yet. And much as I like THE ARTIST, I think I have to vote for THE KING’S SPEECH. It’s another one of those movies where everything just fell into place and worked perfectly. I think Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth are great together, and it’s always nice to see Helena Bonham-Carter in a relatively normal role (as opposed to, say, Bellatrix of HARRY POTTER fame) to remind us how talented she is. THE KING’S SPEECH doesn’t contest the established historical narrative about Britain’s entry into WWII or how it dealt with the Abdication Crisis, but it’s sometimes nice to leave a film feeling inspired rather than depressed about humanity.