For several years now I’ve wanted to undertake a year-long viewing of all of the Best Picture Winners in order. There are numerous blogs and lists that rank the Best Picture winners, but that is something I’m not really interested in. Comparing a CGI-infused fantasy epic based on a best-selling trilogy to a World War II drama centered on “the problems of three little people” is ludicrous at best. To say it’s like comparing apples and oranges doesn’t even apply here because at least those are both fruits; it’s more like comparing houses to cars. All of the films on the list are Best Pictures, but that is where the comparison ends. To simply rank Lawrence of Arabia, It Happened One Night, 12 Years a Slave, and All About Eve in relation to each other doesn’t consider the history, innovations, and competition of any particular year. When we throw in the politics of the time, both on a national scale and within the industry itself, the exercise becomes even more pointless.
What I’ve always wanted to do is to watch the winners in order to try to grasp the history of the development of film as an art, to see the changes in opinions from year to year, to witness both technical and stylistic innovations as they occur. This doesn’t mean that I won’t be critical and point out when I think that the Academy got it wrong. But even this last statement brings up an issue. Every year, people are upset or even outraged when their choice doesn’t win in a particular year. I have film buff friends who think a comedy should never win because it is some kind of “lesser” form than drama. I have others who think winners should always be grand, sweeping epics, and still others who think that these epics are simply eye-candy that overshadow the smaller, quieter character-driven films that should win. So who’s right? All of them. Who’s wrong? All of them. The Academy is not a single entity, but is made up of individual people. And different people like different things. That’s why there is such a range of genres represented.
This range brings me back to my point about the futility of comparing winners from different years. It’s also futile to compare films in a given year. How do we decide between My Fair Lady and Dr. Strangelove, Cabaret and The Godfather, Birdman and Boyhood? These films are completely different genres that are trying to accomplish completely different things. They rose to the top in a given year and then had to compete against each other. One will win and the other will lose. But what does it mean to “lose” in the Best Picture category? To quote Spielberg, “In a moment, one of these ten movies will join a list that includes On the Waterfront, Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, and The Deer Hunter. The other nine will join a list that includes The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, The Graduate, and Raging Bull. Either way, congratulations, you’re all in very good company.” To lose Best Picture still means the film in question was nominated for Best Picture. Hundreds of good films were not. Each year, a group of people with varied tastes, interests, and politics will vote for their personal favorite among those nominated. And one will emerge as the Best Picture at that specific moment in history.
I will not be ranking these films. I will attempt to watch them with fresh eyes and comment on what the film is doing that makes it one of the greatest films ever made. I’ve seen the majority of them already, many of them several times, some only once. But there are a few that I have never seen. As I go along, I’ll throw in trivia and a little history about the awards and the ceremonies. First up, the 1920s.