The Academy Awards are almost upon us and, as always, the category for Best Motion Picture of the Year is extremely contentious, both among critics and the general population. If time has taught us anything about the films that are chosen as the best of their year, one thing is for sure, many people will not be happy with the winning film.
While there have been many Best Picture winners that have stood the test of time and gone on to be recognized as some of the greatest ever made, there are many more that went without recognition, only to be later seen as masterpieces. On the other hand, many Best Pictures winners have been held in lower regard since their big wins or have even been completely forgotten by the general public and critics alike. For most, time is the greatest test for a piece of art’s quality and influence, as many movies considered to be the greatest have gained stature through reevaluation and come to be viewed as masterpieces in film over long periods of time.
There are many reasons why a film is chosen as Best Picture by the Academy Awards, some of which are explored here. But the criteria for a film to be recognized as one of the best ever is far more natural and organic. Its selection is the result of true quality and artistic value, rather than any political choice by audience members. Whatever may win Best Picture this or any year, the real best movie of the year will not be truly known until years or even decades from now.
While this is by no means a complete list, the following films are often seen as the best of their years and many are in the pantheon of greatest films of all time. For the sake of film criticism, the following movies are the ones often held in the highest esteem for their respective years, so personal favorites and cult classics like Blade Runner or The Big Lebowski are not in contention in this entry, although these movies are easily some of the best of their respective genres.
Where does one even start with this one? Even back in 1998 it was clear to most people that Shakespeare in Loveshould not have won Best Picture. Anything else should have won. Not that this little romantic comedy is a bad movie, but there were clearly countless movies that were better that year. Most importantly, Saving Private Ryan was and still is the best film from 1998. Director Steven Spielberg is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures of filmmaking. His works range from fun romps for kids to big ideas on historical events. It doesn’t get much bigger in Spielberg’s catalogue than Saving Private Ryan¸ which is much darker than a lot of his work while still containing the hope and sentiment that he is known for in his career. It’s the kind of movie that can and should be seen by anyone with an appreciation for war films.
The fervor and love that propelled James Cameron’s Titanic to become the highest grossing movie of all time is the same reason why it won Best Picture in 1997. It’s an enormous movie and a technical marvel for the time, but it’s not a film that should be entered into the canon of greatest films. That same year director and writer Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke debuted, and of all the movies of 1997, this is the one I would hold up as the greatest of the year. Not only that, it’s easily one of the best animated features of all time. But Best Picture never goes to animated movies, which is why Beauty and the Beast’s nomination in 1991 is a huge moment for animated movies. That movie understandably lost to Silence of the Lambs. But Princess Mononoke is not only beautifully drawn, but striking in its ideas and artistic mastery of the medium.
The English Patient winning Best Picture in 1996 is representative of the bias that Academy Award voters often have toward period pieces. The real best movie of 1996 is The Coen Brothers’ Fargo – a witty and dark crime film that blends black humor with gasp-inducing violence. It refuses to pull punches and it doesn’t seek to be anything other than its wholly original self. The film is anchored by the Frances McDormand as pregnant Minnesota Police Chief Marge Gunderson, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress. She’s fantastic, just like every other actor in Fargo, who gamely play along with the film’s biting but not cruel take on the fallibility of people and the violence we can resort to in desperation. It’s one of the Coens’ best, and that’s really saying something.
Let’s get this out of the way fast. Forest Gumpis not a good movie. Plenty of people like it due to the sentimentality it produces in viewers and the strength of star Tom Hanks’ performance. But it’s nothing more than a series of vignettes that undercut any real message at all. Interestingly, writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is also a series of vignettes that do not necessarily create anything more than a stylish and entertaining piece of entertainment. However, it’s a masterfully done film that really had a major impact on the course of cinema. Tarantino’s deft blend of pop culture references and filmmaking that is deeply rooted in the composition of other films still manages to create a shocking and wild story here. This may be when his style worked best and nothing had quite been done this way before.
Simply put, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is not just the best film of 1990, it’s one of the best films of all time. You definitely cannot say that about Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. What Dances With Wolves does have going for it is the central message, which is meant to expose the dark acts committed against Native Americans and the true humanity of this oppressed people. The Academy Awards have been known to elevate a film to Best Picture status based on ethical, moral, or artistic message alone, even when the quality of the film does not stack up to the competition. Goodfellas is just one of the many Scorsese films to be snubbed for film awards, but in the end, the film’s consistent love by people of all tastes is the testament to its true quality. Move over The Godfather, this is the greatest crime film of all time.
Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Arkis one of the few popcorn movies you will see proclaimed as the best movie of a year on this list. That said, there are so many reasons why Raiders has endured for decades. Chariots of Fire is a solid film that tells the true story of Eric Liddell, who went from Olympic runner to Christian missionary and eventually died for his beliefs. That’s a powerful story that should be told. That alone has merit. But we’re talking about expertly crafted and influential movies that have come to define their year and even cinema as a whole. That’s Raiders, not Chariots of Fire. You could say that the universal love for Raiders of the Lost Ark and its lack of nominations is the beginning of the Academy Awards’ stubbornness against viewing greatness in blockbusters. That’s a shame, because some of the best movies are some of the most widely loved.
This one is tantamount to robbery. Raging Bullis a film that shows the power of acting, directing, cinematography, writing, and every other aspect of film. Ordinary People has continued to be applauded by critics for its intimate and realistic take on a disintegrating family. No disrespect to what first time director Robert Redford did here (which may be a reason why it won Best Picture), but Ordinary People can’t stand up to Raging Bull when both films are reevaluated in the scope of film history. While Martin Scorsese has been lauded for many of his movies over the decades, Raging Bull is the director firing on all cylinders, with Robert De Niro putting in his best performance of all time for a film that is blisteringly violent and piercingly symbolic. Raging Bull is stunning no matter how many times you watch it.
Science fiction really gets no love one it comes to major film awards. But no one can doubt that Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of the greatest of the genre. It’s more than just an outer space adventure or a terrifying horror film, it’s truly a powerful film that sees everything from direction to set design to score to cinematography working in perfect unison to wring every ounce of terror from the story. Kramer vs Kramer is a well-made movie that tells of the toll of divorce. Yes, it’s more relevant and realistic than Alien. But if very different films must be compared, it should not be based on relevance alone. That being said, Alien is a film that still grips audiences decades later and helped inform a large swath of science fiction films, even until today. That’s the power of great moviemaking.
Does this one need any explanation? Who cares about Oliver!, a musical take on the story of Oliver Twist? Even if it’s a well done movie, there is nothing lasting or influential about it. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a monolith in the landscape of filmmaking. You don’t even have to like this movie to know its importance. Kubrick is known for his huge visions that result in enormous movies filled with meticulous details and often confounding themes. It’s why he is easily one of the most studied directors of all time. And 2001 is likely his most studied film. It’s unwieldy, it doesn’t conform to the norms of Hollywood filmmaking, and it isn’t easily likeable. But it’s the powerful creation of an artist with clear and deep vision. That deserves honor.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is a film that has been seriously reappraised over the years and was even commonly looked down on by critics at the time. People saw it as pointlessly violent and ugly. But there’s real beauty in the craft that went into this humongous epic, pitting three men against one another for fortune and glory. A Man for All Seasons was easily the most loved film of the year at the time, winning most everything for its story about the war over the creation of the Church of England. But there is little that this film did in the broader scope of moviemaking. As further proof of the power of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly¸ Sergio Leone’s Western epic is now frequently listed by critics and directors alike as one of the greatest films ever made.
This is where we touch on the fact that the Academy has little to no interest in nominating films that were not made in the United States of America or Britain. Ben-Hur is one of those old Hollywood epics that are fun to watch once or maybe twice in your life just to take in the scope of the production and the charm of the era. But Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is a highly influential film that stuns in its intimate power. Not only that, but it was one of the most powerful films of the French New Wave. Really, Ben-Hur and The 400 Blowsare films that sit on opposite ends of the spectrum of moviemaking, with the former being a big and blustery epic and the latter being an introspective and focused character piece. That’s not to say that one genre is inherently better than the other, but The 400 Blows is filmmaking at its finest.
By all accounts, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time due to its groundbreaking cinematography, layered themes in acting, writing, and directing, and unconventional narrative structure. This is a film that has stood the test of time and continued to make waves in film. That being said, critics simply did not understand Vertigoupon its release. It’s a challenging film due to the true meaning of the story and the detective mystery at the center being at odds with one another. But Hitchcock was making something spellbinding, using amazing performances by Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak as well as mesmerizing new filmmaking techniques to create a fever dream of a world. Gigi, like most musicals, was confoundingly loved by the Academy and then quickly forgotten by most.
The farther back in time you go with Academy Award winners, the more mindboggling some of the choices get. It could be understandable that the scope and expense that went into Around the World in 80 Days is what landed the Best Picture award for the film. But what about John Ford’s The Searchers? This is a truly epic movie that features John Wayne’s finest performance, spectacular cinematography, and a captivating story about obsession and racism that is layered enough to cause consistent reevaluation over the decades. Westerns never get much love in fil, awards, but critics and film enthusiasts the world over know that The Searchers is something quite special. Plus, the film’s final shot is easily one of the greatest ever on film.
Writer and director Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane may be the most influential film ever created. His techniques and creative approach informed filmmaking at a vital stage in time. The medium was thriving, but nothing had been made like this movie before. Welles’ movie has been noted as being groundbreaking in cinematography, storytelling techniques, makeup, special effects, set design, sound, score, and editing. That’s basically every category that receives nominations in the Academy Awards. Personally, I find the film to be boring by modern standards. But the influence of Citizen Kane must propel it into the canon of the all-time greats. I believe How Green Was My Valley is about a colorblind man living in the Grand Canyon. I may be wrong about that.
Charlie Chaplin is one of the most influential figures in the early days of filmmaking. His craft and artistry in the Silent Era of Film cannot go without being given huge credit by anyone who understands filmmaking as a whole. The works he made are still funny, touching, and resonant, even though they are worlds apart from what movies are like today. City Lights may be the pinnacle of his career, as it combines everything that made his films great and speaks to what is special about movies as a whole. People speak of the auteur theory in filmmaking as something that rose in the ‘50s and ‘60s. You could say Chaplin was the first auteur, far before it was understood. Grand Hotel was a star-powered vehicle. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But time has given rise to City Lights true power, while Grand Hotel quickly diminished.