With the 86th Academy Awards now in the record books, it’s fair to notice that the Academy’s choices don’t always make sense in hindsight. For example, in 2002 “Chicago” beat “Gangs of New York,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “The Hours” and “The Pianist” for Best Picture.
The Online Film Critics Society, a professional association for online film journalists, historians and scholars, recently polled its members as to how they’d rank the motion pictures that have won Best Picture Oscars since the Academy Awards began handing out the award 86 years ago. Monday, March 3rd, the OFCS announced the results. This writer is a member of the OFCS and participated in the selection process.
The critics polled showed a marked preference for older films. The top 20 are virtually all classics, and for the most part, not that recent. Only 2007’s “No Country for Old Men” was made in this century.The top twenty are accompanied by selected capsule reviews by OFCS members.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece, “The Godfather,” was ranked number one by the OFCS voters. Id Film writer Michael Pattison notes:
“Coppola’s epic, a saga which is primarily interested in family values but disguised as a riveting gangster drama, still shines today as a superlative work. One of those rare occasions when the film belongs to nobody in particular, neither on the screen nor off it, ‘The Godfather’ is collaborative cinema par excellence...All performers have much to work with. Indeed, the strength here comes in the writing: a Shakespearean sense of plot and purpose, with all its loose-ends tied up in a dramatic final shift—the montage sequence that juxtaposes religious indoctrination with the results of Michael’s willing shift from mild-mannered Ivy League war vet to ruthless killer.”
Number 3 on the list is “The Godfather, Part II,” about which 215 Magazine’s Piers Marchant says:
“In the sad legacy of sequels – a category of entertainment as generally frowned upon as novels by famous actors and Emerson, Lake & Palmer – there are precious few champions able to prove a convincing counter-argument to their very existence...To follow [‘The Godfather’] up, you have to be audacious – which II clearly is – and you have to be compelling entirely on your own merits, which it accomplishes shockingly well.”
In between those two, 1943’s World War II romantic drama “Casablanca” sits at in the number two position. About that enduring classic, this writer is quoted:
“‘Casablanca’ has some of the best movie dialogue ever written. Probably no movie ever made has more quotable, and repeated, lines, although with all due respect to Woody Allen, Rick never says ‘Play it again Sam.’ Bogart’s performance is a monument to the proposition that the best movie acting happens behind the eyes. Rick is laid back and laconic most of the time, although he’s deliberately brusque, even rude, to people of whom he’s contemptuous and Casablanca holds more than a few of those. But with Bergman’s Ilsa he conveys both longing and the resentment of the spurned lover simultaneously and often without saying a word. ‘Casablanca,’ which was shot virtually entirely on soundstages and back lots at Warner Bros., has a memorable look. Okay, Casablanca’s in the desert and fog isn’t likely, but who wants to change that scene? Cinematographer Arthur Edeson’s Rembrandt lighting is fabulous, even if the rumors that some of the shadows were actually painted on the set walls are true. It should be noted that black-and-white seems to look better on the big screen. Doesn’t everything?”
In fourth place is one of the least-known movies on the list - F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise,” which as Filmcritic.com’s Christopher Null writes, “is probably one of the most underseen of Oscar winners, having the misfortune to be black & white, silent, and made by a German director – a triple death blow to modern audiences,” also noting that “it is one of the most elegant of all the Oscar winners.”
The only other director to have two movies in the top 20 is David Lean, whose “Lawrence of Arabia” is ranked at number five, and whose “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is number 15.
The screwball comedy, “It Happened One Night,” made in 1934, and which won Clark Gable his only Oscar, is number six. Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” which beat out “The Goodbye Girl,” “Julia,” “Star Wars” and “The Turning Point” for Best Picture in 1977, is number 8.
Genre films, not often recognized by the Academy, nonetheless made the OFCS’ top 20 of the best of the best. The thriller “The Silence of the Lambs” was the number 11 pick of the online critics, and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” was number 19. Clint Eastwood’s dark 1992 western “Unforgiven” tied for 13th place with Milos Foreman’s 1975 adaptation of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The cops-and-drug runners classic “The French Connection” came in at 17. The crime drama “No Country for Old Men” is ranked 15.
Some of the best-known and biggest movies didn’t rank all that high. Number 86, at the bottom of the list, is Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” a bright and colorful Valentine to Ringling Bros. that launched the career of Charlton Heston. (Although he almost invented Hollywood singlehanded, “The Greatest Show on Earth” is the only movie he directed in his entire career to win Best Picture, and DeMille himself never won Best Director.) “The Sound of Music” was ranked 58, and “Titanic,” despite its mammoth box office and record-tying 11 Oscars, only 54. The 1959 remake of “Ben-Hur,” which also starred Charlton Heston, and with which DeMille was not involved, fared better, coming in at 45.
How did some of the most recent Best Picture winners fare? 2010’s “The King’s Speech” was ranked at 64 by the OFCS membership. “The Artist,” winner of the 2011 Best Picture winner, was 49. Last year’s winner, “Argo,” came in at 51. The most recent Best Picture winner, “12 Years a Slave,” ranked a very respectable 23.
The entire list, with commentary is available on the website of the Online Film Critics Society, at www.ofcs.org.