In December, when I was writing my resolutions for 2013, I wrote down that I wanted to focus on broadening my cinematic culture, and I had a goal of watching at least 100 movies this year. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to keep this endeavour outside the pressure of resolutions, and kept a books and exhibitions goal instead. Still, the idea stuck in the back of my mind, and finally I decided to join Letterboxd (a kind of Goodreads for movies) and set out to record all the movies I remembered seeing.
It was discouraging. While the total number didn’t seem too shabby (around 600 movies, that I remembered at least) there were gaps almost too embarrassing to mention (“What do you mean, you’ve never seen Casablanca?”). The site has a wonderful feature: lists. Never-ending lists that users can create and follow. I discovered this one, of the Academy Awards Best Picture winners, and realized I had only seen 15 out of 84 (85 now). Of course, being the list-obsessed person I am, I immediately panicked and set out on a watching spree.
Today, I finally watched the 85th movie of the list.
After having watched some absolutely amazing movies, many mediocre, and some truly terrible ones, I came to several conclusions, the most important of which is, an Academy Award for Best Picture is not, and never has been, an indicator of quality. Instead, it’s a highly skewed portrayal of what’s been done in terms of Hollywood cinema, which means that it’s useless to get frustrated when, year after year, a particularly good foreign or independent movie fails to get recognized. When you look at the list of winners, it’s hard to get surprised or affronted anymore. In fact, there are some trends that are so noticeable that you can practically guess when a movie is going to be an Oscar contender.
Some of the trends I noticed:
Wings (1927), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Cavalcade (1933), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Gone With the Wind (1939), Casablanca (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), From Here to Eternity (1953), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Out of Africa (1985), Patton (1970), The Deer Hunter (1978), Platoon (1986), Schindler’s List (1993), The English Patient (1996), The Hurt Locker (2009), Argo (2012).
The most obvious trend in Oscar winning movies is war – mostly contemporary or fairly recent wars, such as the First and Second World Wars, the Vietnam War or the Iraq War. These might serve as a backdrop that affects the character’s lives (Cavalcade, Mrs. Miniver, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, Schindler’s List, Argo) or the movie’s main characters might be soldiers directly involved in it (Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front, Patton, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, The Hurt Locker). It shows the Academy’s preference for realism and staying on top of current events and their effect on the US or, to a lesser extent, Europe.
Cimarron (1931), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Gone With the Wind (1939), All the King’s Men (1949), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), In the Heat of the Night (1967), On the Waterfront (1954), West Side Story (1961), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Midnight Cowboy (1969), The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), Rocky (1976), Annie Hall (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978), Dances With Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992), Forrest Gump (1994), American Beauty (1999), Chicago (2002), Crash (2005), No Country for Old Men (2007), Argo (2012).
It should come as no surprise that a lot of the movies that win in the Best Picture category deal closely with the social and political realities of the United States of America. From westerns (Unforgiven), to the fight over the frontier (Cimarron, Dances With Wolves), to the troubles of immigrants and their descendants (The Godfather, West Side Story, Rocky), to movies that deal with specific cities (again, West Side Story, Midnight Cowboy, Chicago), or with racial tensions (Crash, In the Heat of the Night, Gentleman’s Agreement), there are many movies that specifically cater to US audiences, even if some manage to transcend their site-specificity and appeal to non-US viewers.
The Broadway Melody (1929), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Going My Way (1944), An American in Paris (1951), Gigi (1958), West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Oliver! (1968), Chicago (2002).
Self-explanatory. Generally, these are historically inspired stories with musical and choreography pieces, the grander the better. While some surprised me for their efficiency (West Side Story was particularly vivid), others were a bit insipid (Chicago, The Great Ziegfeld), and some, I’m sorry to say, were downright terrible (Gigi, An American in Paris, The Broadway Melody). Unfortunately, most of them felt like regular movies with songs thrown in for good measure, instead of truly exploring the musical potential, but there were enough good movies (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) to make me want to keep giving musicals a chance.
The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Cavalcade (1933), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), How Green Was My Valley (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Ben-Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), A Man for All Seasons (1966), The Godfather (1972), The Godfather II (1974), Patton (1970), Ghandi (1982), Amadeus (1984), Chariots of Fire (1981), The Last Emperor (1987), Schindler’s List (1993), Braveheart (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Million Dollar Baby (2004), The King’s Speech (2010).
Biopics that feature real or invented characters. These comprise some of the best and worst Best Picture winners. When done well, biopics can be terrific (The Godfather, Patton, Ghandi, Amadeus, The Last Emperor and Schindler’s List were all amazing) but there’s a danger of getting so wrapped up in the character or the situations that you forget to tell a good story, which makes the movie flat or uninteresting (Mutiny On the Bounty, A Man for All Seasons, Chariots of Fire and to some extent, Lawrence of Arabia). To boot, these are almost always nearly three hours long, which fits some movies but not others, and only contributes to the sense of self-aggrandizing and pomposity that some of them show.
Too many to list. It’s easier to list the exceptions: It Happened One Night (1934), Gone With the Wind (1939), Rebecca (1940), Mrs. Miniver (1942), All About Eve (1950), Gigi (1958), West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Terms of Endearment (1938), Out of Africa (1985), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), The English Patient (1996), Titanic (1997), Chicago (2002), Million Dollar Baby (2004).
As I was watching Out of Africa, it suddenly struck me that I couldn’t remember many other female protagonists. I set out to make a list, and to be fair I also included the movies in which a male and a female protagonist share the same importance (for example, I left out Annie Hall, which, despite its title, is really all about Woody Allen’s character). The reality is rather depressing, but not surprising considering that this is what happens with the majority of the movies that come out of Hollywood.
The Broadway Melody (1929), It Happened One Night (1934), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Marty (1955), Gigi (1958), Tom Jones (1963), The Apartment (1960), Annie Hall (1977), Shakespeare in Love (1998).
I have to admit, I was surprised to see so many romantic comedies had won the Oscar. With the exception of Shakespeare in Love, this trend seems to have disappeared after Annie Hall, but before that they were rather ubiquitous, even if their quality was somewhat questionable (I’m looking at you, Marty, Gigi and Tom Jones).
The Broadway Melody (1929), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), All About Eve (1950), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Chicago (2002), The Artist (2011).
Show business loves movies about show business. A minor trend, which I hesitated to include here, but it gets more noticeable if you factor in the rest of the nominations – but that’s a subject for another post.
Notably absent from the winning movies, with a few exceptions, are: non-English language films (some, like The Last Emperor or Slumdog Millionaire, are in English and one other language), animated movies, documentaries, science fiction or fantasy movies (The Lord of the Rings is the only exception – Hamlet might be considered a fantasy movie, but since it’s based on a classic play, I’m not sure it counts), horror or terror movies (the ones that come closest are Rebecca, the only Hitchcock movie to win Best Picture, The Silence of the Lambs and No Country for Old Men, but they’d be better described as thrillers), and non-Western focused movies (Slumdog Millionaire, Ghandi and The Last Emperor are the exceptions).
So what will I do now that I’ve finished watching all the movies in one list? Start another list, of course. I chose the IMDB Top 100 (as of December 2012), of which I’ve seen 53. Needless to say, I have higher hopes for this list, since it aggregates the collective tastes of a huge part of the internet audience – although I can’t understand how The Shawshank Redemption ranks higher than The Godfather.
Are you a movie fan? Feel free to add me on Letterboxd!