The Beginning

          

I decided to start this project in the first week of April 2013. At this point in film lore history, the world has seen several hundred thousand films produced, filmed, screened, dissected and shelved. The goal of this project is to focus on the best of the best: the top 503 films ever nominated for the coveted “Best Picture” Award at each year’s culminating Academy Awards gala.

There have been, of course 86 “Best Picture” winners; most recently, and surprisingly to some, is Ben Affleck’s “Argo.”

But this pantheon of excellence as deemed by the politics of their day includes over 400 other films that have fallen short, just missing the chance to be etched into history as the film that best captured the hearts and minds of the eager filmgoer. This is where this project comes in: I will track down a copy of each and every film whose title has ever been spoken aloud last on the night of the award. I’ll watch it and report back with a brief commentary; a review of sorts.

Down to it: I did a quick statistical analysis to know where I stand – how much work I have ahead of me. As of April 9th, 2013 I have seen 94 of the 503, a little over 19%. Now, considering how many awful fantastic movies I’ve watched (including, for some reason, several viewings of Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room”) I’m proud of this number. For the purposes of this blog, it gives me a nice place to start. Here’s where I stand:

MovieData

Obviously, growing up watching movies in the 1990s, 2000s and now 2010s has skewed this data toward more recent years. Also take into account that before the number of nominees was standardized to 5 in 1944 (and then expanded again to at least 9 in 2009) the Academy granted an arbitrary number of nominations. Several explanations for this include

  • Apathy for the standardization process (seems unlikely – the stiffs who ran this industry were quite the curmudgeons)
  • More thoughtful pre-selection process (lessens the dramatic impact of the winner, though the awards weren’t broadcast to the general public until the 25th awards in 1952. This also seems counter-productive to holding an “awards” ceremony with “nominees” rather than just assigning the superlative award at whimsy.)
  • There just wasn’t enough of a sample size to fully warrant so many nominees (though we’ll see in a minute that I could be completely wrong about that – I haven’t seen anything nominated before 1939)

The last one seems the most likely to me: with each passing year and more and more creative ideas and funding working together with advancing technology, it probably just didn’t make sense to include more than the consensus, “I guess these will do.”

I am fascinated with the way movies were made in the late 1920s and 1930s, however, and I cannot wait to dissect films from this bygone era of depression and what I can only surmise is quite literal art. We’ll see if I’m right about that one.

Of the 94 films I’ve seen, only 25 actually won their year. The rest of my list films are filled with ones, as I was going through, I was surprised didn’t win their year. Network (1976)? Citizen Kane (1941)? It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)? All considered classics – some of the best of all time. And they didn’t win the “Best Picture” award; the question that begs is: what does the the award really mean?

Other movies I’ve seen are on the list by happenstance: Auntie Mame (1958) is a fantastic adaptation starring the wonderful Rosalind Russell in both the stage and screen versions. My parents showed me this film several times when I was a young Sklar; I continue to marvel in its nonparallel storytelling and dated but relevant social critique. Double Indemnity (1944) is probably my favorite film – a classic (understatement) noir tale set during a time of wild uncertainty. The film stars Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck and is directed by Billy Wilder, who would go on to win an oscar 16 years later with the Jack Lemmon-starring The Apartment (1960). I first saw this movie at summer camp when I was 15. Amadeus (1984, winner) was a non-bizarro bizarro take on a historical drama and I watched this one twice abroad, where I had a full hard drive and no Internet. F. Murray Abraham is stunning in his role as Salieri; he’s relatively unheard from since.

I want to pick out three films in particular to highlight the general trend of my somewhat capricious film-watching career:

  • Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) – this is the most recent film on the list I have watched. The film pairs James Stewart and Frank Capra together in what seems to have been a magical pairing. This is very ardent and direct commentary on corrupt political system that pervades the minds of even the best men. The style seems to be an accurate reflection of the storytelling methods of its time: limited set changes, direct speech and linear storytelling. Stewart’s impassioned final tirade (masqued brilliantly in the guise of a filibuster) helped launch him and Capra into the pantheon of their day. I am sure this kind of movie is sought after and ultimately rejected today; the long form narrative is difficult to sell to the attention-deficit public.
  • The Graduate (1967) – I will argue that this is the first truly “modern” film on this list and it was a quick shift from the 1965 winner (The Sound of Music), whose attributes include a highly polished Rogers & Hammerstein production, black-and-white motifs (right vs. wrong, good vs. evil) and a “G” rating so that even a film primarily about Nazi conflict could appeal to the pristine soul of an 11-year-old. The Graduate is a non-linear provocative film denouncing convention, objectifying sex and drugs and had highly questionable motifs, wherein several clearly established lines between good and evil, etc. are blurred. It was a true reflection of the youth culture; the same 11-year-old is now 13, likes “Aftermath” by the Rolling Stones and is fascinated (and turned on) by Mrs. Robinson. It also had a kick-ass soundtrack.
  • Forrest Gump (1994) – This movie is fantastic; perhaps the finest and most compelling and complete story in half a century. It follows Tom Hanks (in what would become back-to-back “Best Actor” nods along with Philadelphia (1993)) as Forrest Gump, a remarkably good and lucky man as he follows the only thing he ever truly wants, his childhood crush, through wacky trials and self-defining tribulations. Though this particular story arc is heartwarming/breaking, it is ultimately a wonderful MacGuffin for the other relationships he makes along the way. It is because of these chance meetings that it becomes clear to Jenny that Forrest is the best man for whom she could ever have hoped; and then she dies. The ending scene is tragically beautiful and stars a young Haley Joel Osment as Forrest and Jenny’s young boy as he hops on the school bus Forrest once did; as the bus pulls away, we see the new story re-unfold instantaneously through Forrest’s eyes and the hope he has for his young boy, as both a foil to his incompetencies (as he sees them) and as a compliment to all the love he felt for his late wife.

That being said this movie should not have come even close to winning the “Best Picture” award in 1994. In its most competitive year since 1976 when Rocky also mysteriously claimed this award (over Network and Taxi Driver, not to mention All The President’s Men), Forrest Gump beat out both Pulp Fiction and Shawshank Redemption, both of which are widely considered masterpieces of genre. Shawshank might actually be the only other movie within 50 years that tells a more compelling story than Forrest Gump, and it happens to have been made during the same calendar year. Go figure. There’s also not a lot to be said about Tarantino that won’t sound like a broken record, but of the eight MAJOR films directed by Q himself, this is his magnum opus; it also happens to be one of the most non-linear films ever made (see: Memento).

Yes, we can talk about Lincoln as the most boring biopic; we can talk about animated film’s role in the modern zeitgeist. We can moan about Avatar’s Fern Gully ripoff….but in 3D. There’s even room for SO MANY MUSICALS. But you really only want to hear about Good Will Hunting and how much better it is than Titanic.

Next Week: Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)

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