Category Archives: Best Picture Winners

Winners of Academy Award for Best Picture.

Review: Unforgiven

Director: Clint Eastwood
Year: 1992
Score: 7.5/10

For the ten months between the release of Unforgiven in August 1992 and the release of Jurassic Park in June 1993, this was cinema's most inglorious toilet death.

For the ten months between the release of Unforgiven in August 1992 and the release of Jurassic Park in June 1993, this was cinema’s most inglorious toilet death.

Touted as Clint Eastwood’s anti-western, to me this thoughtful film came across as a regular western but one with a clear message: that behind all the bluster and mythologising and storytelling, the Wild West was a harsh, violent world full of cruelty and injustice. The acting is excellent all around (though Eastwood himself doesn’t do a whole lot with an admittedly unflashy lead role), the exteriors are beautifully shot, and the music is quite nice. Some of the events seem to happen a little too easily, but that’s easy to overlook. The line “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it”, used to great effect in a climactic scene, was later reused in The Wire, and I think of it often. Overall, it’s a quality film, probably my favourite of those Eastwood has directed (caveat: I haven’t yet seen Flags of Our Fathers or Letters from Iwo Jima), but I wouldn’t say it deserved to win Best Picture. Having said that, looking at the other films released that year, I’m not surprised it did win, and I’m hard-pressed to pick a better winner; perhaps Glengarry Glen Ross, Malcolm X or The Crying Game? There was also a little animation by the name of Aladdin…

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Review: Million Dollar Baby

Director: Clint Eastwood
Year: 2004
Score: 7/10

Seems like a pretty silly idea to label this so transparently... surely the Brits would raid it?

Seems like a pretty silly idea to label this so transparently… surely the Brits would raid it?

Generally speaking I’ve not been a huge fan of the movies Clint Eastwood has directed; I tend to appreciate the craft of them but find them heavy-handed or dramatically unsatisfying. For the first 90 minutes of this one I thought it was turning out to be a rare exception, but then the final half hour happened and I must now add it to the pile. Hilary Swank and Eastwood himself are excellent, Morgan Freeman slightly less so (though it may be that I’m simply tired of over-used and oft-ridiculed Freeman narration). It’s so difficult to talk about (and in my case criticise) that final half hour without spoiling anything, but here goes: to the extent that it told us anything about the relationship between Maggie and Frankie, it was unnecessary since by that point we already knew that he cared about her deeply, thought of her as a surrogate daughter, and would always stick by her, and that she had nothing in her life but boxing and him. And to be honest, I was enjoying the story a lot more before the Thing I Shan’t Spoil happened. There is some of that trademark Eastwood heavy-handedness too, such as Maggie’s story about her father having to put a dog down, and some themes expressed far too unsubtly in narration. Side note: horrible though the characters are, it’s great to see Riki Lindhome and the great Margo Martindale as Maggie’s sister and mother.

Review: On the Waterfront

Director: Elia Kazan
Year: 1954
Score: 7.5/10

As this is so clearly Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the movie was made in 1954, I've written to Wikipedia to inform them of the inaccuracy of their claim that Van Damme was born in 1960.

As this is so clearly Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the movie was made in 1954, I’ve written to Wikipedia to inform them of the inaccuracy of their claim that Van Damme was born in 1960.

Powerful drama about personal responsibility in the context of waterfront union corruption. The film is justifiably best remembered for Marlon Brando’s Oscar-winning performance, one that still holds up six decades later for its intensity, dynamism and depth of feeling. Apart from Brando, there are some other good performances, most notably Eva Marie Saint and Karl Malden. The famous car scene (“I coulda had class… I coulda been a contender… I coulda been somebody…”) is as moving as you’d expect, though it’s more understated than I’d been led to believe from my previous exposure to snippets out of context. The story is fairly predictable, as is the romance, but it’s still quite effective. Elia Kazan’s direction is nothing flashy, though it won him a second Oscar.

Review: West Side Story

Director: Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins
Year: 1961
Score: 7/10

Somehow a simple message delivery very nearly turns into a gang rape. What the hell is wrong with these guys??

Somehow a simple message delivery very nearly turns into a gang rape. What the hell is wrong with these guys??

This musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet is pleasant enough, transposing the familiar story into the world of local and immigrant gangs on the streets of New York. The songs are a mixed bag, with some duds and some real winners, but none as memorable as those in some other musicals I’ve enjoyed in the past. Interestingly, I only recognised one song – ‘America’ – which suggests the rest haven’t reached the level of pop culture ubiquity so many songs from other musicals have. The beginning and ending are strong; the long middle is uneven, often brought up or down by the relative quality of the songs. The central romance is easy to get swept up in, helped by the charisma of the young leads, Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, and the chemistry between them. Considering the setting and everything it’s supposed to represent, I could have done with more of New York itself; it often felt like I was watching Generic Place With Xenophobia Story rather than an actual West Side Story. It won many Oscars, including Best Picture; I wouldn’t call it a deserving winner, though to be honest I haven’t seen enough other 1961 releases to make a definitive call.

Review: 12 Years a Slave

Director: Steve McQueen
Year: 2013
Score: 9/10

Spoiler alert much?

Spoiler alert much?

There were a lot of reasons I was looking forward to this, but two are worth mentioning: the trailer used some of my favourite music from The Thin Red Line (my second favourite movie ever), and David Simon raved about it. Thankfully I wasn’t disappointed. It truly is one of the very best films of 2013, and consequently it took home the Best Picture Oscar; though personally I preferred Gravity and Her, I was fine with this outcome.

A singular, visceral experience, it’s immensely powerful, particularly towards the end. Steve McQueen shows great precision, pathos and nuance in his direction. It’s one of the best cinematic explorations of injustice and suffering I’ve seen. Telling the story of a kidnap victim rather than one of the countless other slaves he finds himself amongst is an interesting and ultimately fruitful window into the broader issue of the immorality of slavery; we focus on the personal hardship and tragedy of this one man, but in doing so cannot help but recognise the wider injustice around him.

The supporting performances from Michael Fassbender (who performed so well for McQueen in Shame) and Lupita Nyong’o are excellent, and Paul Giamatti does well in a small role requiring him to be a racist arsehole, but it’s Chiwetel Ejiofor who shines brightest in a powerhouse lead performance. Indeed, were it not for Matthew McConaughey’s sterling work in Dallas Buyers Club, I would have handed the Best Actor Oscar to Ejiofor in a flash. Also look for Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire) in a role that basically amounts to a cameo.

This is the kind of movie that I imagine many prospective viewers are apprehensive about watching; it looks like it will be unpleasant, perhaps the cinematic experience of eating one’s greens. I’d say this: it certainly is unpleasant at times, but it’s also deeply moving, uplifting, and full of meat to go with the greens.

Review: The Sting

Director: George Roy Hill
Year: 1973
Score: 7.5/10

Very entertaining caper has some nice twists and turns and a cast of characters you just want to see in action. The idea of a whole room full of people who are all in on a con, all basically acting, all working in concert to execute the sting, seemed inherently novel and interesting to me. The stars, Robert Redford and Paul Newman, are solid.

Review: The Artist

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Year: 2011
Score: 6/10

Quite a disappointment. The first half hour is great – I was immediately drawn in by the unique style, the clever homages to the silent film era, and the surprising sense of fun – but then it starts to drag and never really recovers. The second half commits the cardinal cinematic sin of being boring. Jean Dujardin is quite good but Bérénice Bejo is even better.

Review: Kramer vs. Kramer

Director: Robert Benton
Year: 1979
Score: 9/10

Brilliant drama exploring what happens to a work-focused, inattentive father, and his young son, when his wife abruptly walks out on the family. Superb performances from Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, and Justin Henry is also quite good as the little boy. The movie strikes a balance between simply telling its story and thoughtfully examining the broader questions at play in terms of parental responsibility, family law, what it means to be a parent and love your child, and the devastation that divorce causes. It’s deeply moving and has some very emotional moments, but it never feels exploitative. I loved both of the French toast scenes. Entirely deserving of its Best Picture win (even in a year that also saw the release of both Apocalypse Now and Alien) and several other major Oscars.

Review: Out of Africa

Director: Sydney Pollack
Year: 1985
Score: 7/10

The third Best Picture winner I watched within a space of about two weeks (the other two being Chariots of Fire and Kramer vs. Kramer), and the second featuring Meryl Streep. She’s brilliant in this, and her romantic interest Robert Redford is quite good as well. It’s refreshing to watch a romance in which the two central figures are both so likable; you want to see them together because you want them both to be happy. However, I must say I enjoyed the first half more than the second; this is one of those cases where the anticipation of romance turned out to be more enjoyable than the romance itself. Still, it’s a nice movie that’s worth watching for Streep’s performance and the sumptuous visuals (plus, if you go for that sort of thing, the romance).

Review: A Man for All Seasons

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Year: 1966
Score: 7.5/10

A Man for All Seasons

Excellent work here from Susannah York. She conveys Meg’s constipation convincingly.

A very British costume drama recounting the last few years in the life of Sir Thomas More and the events leading to his execution for treason. Paul Scofield is excellent, reprising the same role he’d played on stage and painting a complex portrait of an admirable, deeply principled man. The rest of the star-studded cast is impressive too. It’s by no means a balanced account – More is our clear hero and Cromwell a scheming villain – but as a drama it works. I can think of only two things that would have lifted it higher in my estimation: a more nuanced depiction of Cromwell (and More’s opponents generally), and more of an emotional payoff in the final stretch (despite the drama and tragedy of More’s fate, I didn’t feel particularly emotional about it).

Review: Terms of Endearment

Director: James L. Brooks
Year: 1983
Score: 8/10

This movie kicked me square in the nuts; in fact, I think you’d have to be completely heartless not to be moved by the final half hour or so. There are so many enjoyable moments throughout, and some excellent work from Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Jeff Daniels and John Lithgow. Shirley MacLaine is also very good, but I spent much of the movie hating her character so much that it was hard to appreciate the performance. At times the story seems to meander, but by the end you feel every moment with these characters was necessary and worth it. (The exception is Danny DeVito, whose character seems entirely superfluous.) Well worth a watch, but have some tissues handy.

Review: Chariots of Fire

Director: Hugh Hudson
Year: 1981
Score: 6.5/10

Best Picture winner recounting the real-life story of British athletes at the 1924 Olympics. There are some powerful moments, the performances are fine, and it’s a handsome production, but ultimately it didn’t really move me and I wasn’t as invested in the success of the athletes as I should have been. Also, the first half hour felt somewhat muddled and the second half dragged (though it also contained some of the best parts). The central rivalry between Liddell and Abrahams, with their contrasting motivations for running, is handled well. Great to see (well, hear) Vangelis’ iconic theme used in its original context.

Review: Lawrence of Arabia

Director: David Lean
Year: 1962
Score: 7.5/10

It may not have been the smartest idea to pick a movie lasting almost four hours as part of a project in which I was trying to get through lots of movies! But this had been on my to-watch list for a long time so I’m glad I finally got to it. Peter O’Toole is great and his character is compelling enough to hold your attention throughout despite the length. A criticism: he was presented as an expert on Arabia with a more progressive view about Arabs and Arabian independence than all of his contemporaries, but we never find out where he got his ideas from (i.e. there’s no equivalent to the scene in Braveheart in which William Wallace’s uncle says to him, “You don’t speak Latin? Well that’s something we shall have to remedy, isn’t it?”, promising to educate him in Europe and giving us a basis for his enlightenment). Also, I wasn’t as moved by the film as I wanted to be. Still, easily the best movie I’ve ever seen featuring this many camels. And the theme music is still stuck in my head.

Review: Annie Hall

Director: Woody Allen
Year: 1977
Score: 8/10

Interesting exploration of a relationship. Allen basically plays his usual self but Diane Keaton plays a remarkably layered and genuine-seeming character, and excels in the role. It’s very good but slightly overrated (i.e. I don’t think it’s as brilliant as many others seem to). The more innovative stylistic elements are done very well and keep things lively throughout, and the script is solid but lacks the constant jokes of Love and Death and the transcendent dialogue of Manhattan.

Review: Ordinary People

Director: Robert Redford
Year: 1980
Score: 7.5/10

Intelligent, thoughtful movie about a family in strife. At its centre is an excellent performance from Timothy Hutton as the teenager recovering from the death of his older brother in an accident he blames himself for, a suicide attempt, a stay in a psychiatric hospital, and a mother who appears to dislike him. Donald Sutherland is also very good as the father, and Mary Tyler Moore is effectively off-putting in a challenging role as the mother. The scenes between Hutton and his psychiatrist are always engaging as we wait for the breakthrough we know must eventually come. It’s a small story but it has big things to say about families, relationships, grief, loss, and personal responsibility. Recommended.

Review: Crash

Director: Paul Haggis
Year: 2004
Score: 6.5/10

Arnold Schwarzenegger is somewhat flat in his cameo appearance.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is somewhat flat in his cameo appearance.

The performances are fine from the huge ensemble cast, and there are moments of undeniable power, but it’s all in service of an exploration of racial tensions so crude and unsubtle that at the end of most scenes I half-expected someone to turn toward the camera and solemnly say “racism”. The initial invisible cloak scene is quite nice, and the payoff is one of those moments. Given how much I dislike both Sandra Bullock and her character, far and away my favourite bit is her hilarious tumble. How this could have won Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain, not to mention The New World and Syriana (neither of which were even nominated), is beyond my comprehension.

Review: Amadeus

Director: Miloš Forman
Year: 1984
Score: 6.5/10

Amadeus

Looks like Salieri might actually be in a ’90s boy band.

I went into this expecting a straight biopic of Mozart; in fact, the main character is his lesser known contemporary, Antonio Salieri, played with conviction by F. Murray Abraham (who I only really know from Scarface, Louie and Homeland). Abraham won a Best Actor Oscar for this performance, beating his co-star Tom Hulce, though I enjoyed Hulce’s performance as Mozart more (yes, even with that ridiculous laugh). I watched the 2002 director’s cut which, despite clocking in at three hours, didn’t feel overlong; there’s a lot to get through, so I didn’t mind the length. It’s very well staged, with solid production values and (as to be expected) excellent use of music. My primary criticism is that Salieri’s character and story arc – which makes up the bulk of the movie – didn’t engage me emotionally or even really interest me that much. Look for a young Cynthia Nixon in a very small role, and Jeffrey Jones (the paedophile actor you’ll recognise from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Beetlejuice and Deadwood) in solid support as the Emperor.