The following is from my series of Oscar Best Picture rankings, as well as my strongly worded suggestions for what should have won from among the nominees. For an introduction to the project, click here. For a way to vote on some Oscar-related ideas, click here. If I’ve written a review on any of the films below, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!
35) My Fair Lady, 37th Academy Awards, directed by George Cukor
What should have won: Dr. Strangelove, etc.
Worth noting: Mary Poppins is a more enjoyable musical comedy than My Fair Lady and doesn’t feel half so regressive.
The separation between My Fair Lady and Gigi, two basically identical movies which won Best Picture six years apart, is primarily in the actors. The songs are better in My Fair Lady too—the best numbers of Gigi wouldn’t be top-five in My Fair Lady—but you can’t overstate the difference between Louis Jourdan’s languid performance in Gigi against Rex Harrison’s fiery one in My Fair Lady. Harrison had at this point already turned “disdainful” into an art form, but his performance as Henry Higgins is truly the Mona Lisa of condescension. The ghost of Maurice Chevalier is no competition for the bombastic post-peak Stanley Holloway; the things that make Leslie Caron so great are largely elided in Gigi, which means the gap between her and Audrey Hepburn is fairly slight. Gigi lives in this bizarre world that musicals don’t often thrive in: it’s neither fun nor sad, which makes it difficult to react to. My Fair Lady is just heaps of fun, especially when it does make its way out to supporting characters. My favorite song from My Fair Lady, although it’s hardly as iconic as some other offerings, is Freddy’s “On the Street Where You Live,” one which gives us some time with the lad who really should have ended up with Eliza. (It also allows us to relive “And I never saw a more enchanting farce/Than the moment when she shouted, ‘Move yer bloomin’—”) Alfred gets the musical’s two catchiest tunes, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” both of which keep an eye on the life that Eliza is leaving behind with her accent. The latter in particular is especially worthwhile, as it comes as close as the movie can to making a former dustman’s life look entertaining, completing the circle of bourgeois entry that Eliza began when she said “Garnh!” in front of Higgins on a wet night.
My Fair Lady really wouldn’t be such a bad Best Picture winner, but it did manage to steal the award from one of the funniest movies ever made. There are layers upon layers within Dr. Strangelove, a veneer of boyish silliness (“Merkin Muffley” or “Bat Guano” somehow eclipse even “Jack D. Ripper” and the title character for sheer offensive dumbness) masking a pretty harrowing satire which can be painted over with Peter Sellers’ outrageous Dr. Strangelove performance, culminating with the sheer perfection of a man emerging from his wheelchair and screaming, “Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!” All it takes to end all life on this planet, Dr. Strangelove argues, are people roughly as dumb as the folks in the cubicles near yours. There can never be enough failsafes to protect us from the military higher-ups who are desperate to actually use one of their bombs outside of a test environment, or from the weak-minded politicians on both sides who are easily led by the ridiculous opinions of the people around them. In the former case, Ripper stands out when he says, “Today war is too important to be left to the politicians,” a point of view that should terrify any peaceably minded person. The latter is far funnier, as when President Muffley must explain how it is that some bombers have broken into Soviet airspace with the intention of releasing their payload. “Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it?” he says to his Soviet opposite number, “Dmitri.” The survival of the world’s population is basically a matter of luck one way or another, but the world’s elite have their own plans: cram as many women into a bunker as they can with them, mate, and pop up once most of the radiation has thinned out. Maybe if this had been a musical comedy as well, it might have been able to win the big prize.
34) One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 48th Academy Awards, directed by Milos Forman
What should have won: Nashville
Worth noting: An incredible field where they picked the worst movie of the bunch, so honestly any of Jaws, Barry Lyndon, or Dog Day Afternoon would work.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a masterpiece of creating place, building a flat world of whites, off-whites, and beiges which are like a split-level starter kit in the abstract but in practice make the movie’s loony bin a frightening place. It looks cold in there all the time, aided of course by the heavy coats and hats the men wear when they get out of the building, but even inside it coolness pervades every bed frame and pane of glass. People like Chief and Harding and Frederickson walk slowly on the ward, as if it’s too painfully cold to move any faster. It’s the best thing about the movie, which lacks bite. Other than Chief’s very loud decision to escape at the end of the film, there are few moments of real pathos in a movie that really ought to be more moving than it is. Jack Nicholson is working very hard in this movie to get us to feel for him and his fellow patients/inmates, and that charisma certainly shines through. I have always had a soft spot for his sporting moments, as when he plays basketball with Chief or tries to organize enough people to watch the World Series or, of course, takes the gang on a fishing trip. But his hellbent “fight the man” bit has not aged terribly well, and while Louise Fletcher’s appropriately icy Nurse Ratched is every bit the strong performance now as it was then, I just have a hard time getting into the pair of them as a titanic stand-in for good and evil. It’s a movie which has the pretensions of a much greater metaphor than it knows how to wrap itself around, and one can feel it struggling to do so every time Nicholson and Fletcher are in the same room together. Like so many other great American literary works adapted to film, the movie struggles because it cannot really incorporate its narrator’s thoughts into the film; Chief Bromden is the most interesting person here, not R.P. McMurphy, but the movie does not make him much more than a watcher until the end.
With that said about One Flew, I am not going to try to convince you here that Nashville is a better choice for Best Picture that year, because I’m already on the record saying that it’s the best of all American movies, and I’ve linked to that argument above. Here’s my thesis:
Nashville is the greatest American movie because it is the most successful at adapting itself to several genres and excelling within each. It is the greatest American movie because it has direction, acting, and technical work at the highest level. And it is the greatest American movie because it ends better than any other American movie.
I think that if we got to go back and revote on old Best Picture winners as a culture, Jaws would win in an absolute landslide, and I wouldn’t feel bad about it. For refining the American blockbuster formula after The Godfather introduced it, Jaws is a truly historical movie, and of course it holds water as a great thriller still. Dog Day Afternoon is probably no better or worse on the whole than One Flew, but both movies are so invested in their leads’ performances, and I’d rather have Pacino than Nicholson in this instance. Barry Lyndon is about as far from One Flew as you can get, but it is shot so gloriously that even its more or less limited emotional pull stands up well against movies better than One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
33) Unforgiven, 65th Academy Awards, directed by Clint Eastwood
What should have won: Howards End
Worth noting: The field really narrows after these two movies, but The Crying Game is working a lot harder to say something interesting than A Few Good Men, which is sort of the cinematic equivalent of kicking a field goal on when you’re on the three-yard line.
Unforgiven is Clint Eastwood’s best movie by a significant margin, as predictable as any of his other directorial entries while still maintaining a fun enough plot to keep us invested. It benefits from Gene Hackman’s portrayal of the pragmatically sinister sheriff, Daggett, and his final showdown with the aging gunman English Bob. That sideshow is necessary to build the stakes of the ultimate Daggett-Munny battle that Unforgiven builds up to, but it’s also the one place in the movie that we can reflect on how this story wants to put itself in contrast to others like it. Daggett tells English Bob’s biographer the untold half of the old gunman’s legend, which is news to the bookish yet intrigued writer. The storyteller, Beauchamp, is drawn to power. When it appears that the power belongs to an aging sharpshooter, Beauchamp is as much on English Bob’s hip as his revolver is. When it becomes clear that Little Bill is mightier, Beauchamp rapidly sloughs himself off of the imprisoned, humiliated man he rode into town with. The people who write the history, the movie argues, fall in with the powerful, and it’s a point of view that most westerns are only willing to state tacitly. It’s far and away the most interesting part of the movie even if Unforgiven doesn’t do much with that information; it sees Beauchamp primarily as a floodlight for Little Bill’s venality instead of a statement on the way we understand the winning of the West, and we can tell because Unforgiven is more revenge fantasy in its final half-hour than it is thoughtful meditation on “Print the legend” historiography. So it goes.
Howards End is another movie which thinks about how history comes about, although its willingness to make that the center of the film—to show how the smallest events have unthinkably huge results—makes it a significantly more compelling movie than Unforgiven. All of the characters in Howards End find themselves in thrall to some force outside themselves, and often as not that force is born of carelessness. Helen doesn’t even look at the umbrella she’s picked up before she leaves with it, never dreaming that it could belong to someone who really can’t afford to waste money on a new one. Henry throws around financial advice to people with the lightness that only bankers can, but refuses to take responsibility for what might happen if someone actually follows that advice. Ruth, who is as well-intentioned as any of the people in the story, does not fully appreciate the magnitude of leaving a note behind after her death that she wants a relative stranger to inherit her house. Small judgments, chance meetings, and thoughtless actions have longer shelf lives than anyone in the movie is willing to confront. There are an awful lot of nice people in this movie who have no conception of the train wreck that they’re about to live through or, in one case, die from outright. It may not be the movie that The Remains of the Day is, but Howards End absolutely deserved Best Picture in ’92.
32) Slumdog Millionaire, 81st Academy Awards, directed by Danny Boyle
What should have won: Milk
Worth noting: Even though Hugh Jackman sang that even he didn’t see The Reader in his opening monologue/song, he should have.
The star of Slumdog Millionaire has faded some in the decade since it won Best Picture, and I get the reasons why. I can appreciate an argument about cultural appropriation (even if I’m not sure I agree with it) and this movie; there’s something relentless about the movie that’s more music video than tonally useful. The movie’s score, which was absolutely everywhere and totally brilliant, is no longer in our ears. (You can have “Jai Ho,” and I’ll take “Latika’s Theme,” which is closer to the emotional heart of Slumdog anyway.) As much as Slumdog gets into the underworld of Mumbai, it also has a recklessly optimistic view of the world that plays out as a teenager uses his past to answer celestially aligned questions on a game show. For all of its energy, it really does drag once we get into the world of Jamal and Salim once they hit adulthood and Latika becomes less a character in the story than a prize for Jamal to take home. But there’s a story in there that’s worth hearing, I think. Jamal has lived through enough, and the detritus of his life is (through Destiny, according to the movie) the stuff which can liberate him from his chai wallah life at a tech company. It’s appealing! It’s powerfully at odds with the slum that he comes from, the rough orphaned life lived on the rails and on the run from a man who was this close to blinding him with acid. It’s ultimately bridged by Salim, who is an antagonist as much as a wise caretaker for his younger brother. Madhur Mittal is good in that role, but the movie doesn’t use his character as fully as he might. It would be a different movie if Salim were the protagonist and Jamal’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire? appearance were the sideshow, but it would probably be a better one.
Milk is nearly as sweet in some places as Slumdog Millionaire, although we know from the very beginning of the film that Harvey is going to be murdered (assuming, of course, that we didn’t know that already), just as we know that Jamal will win those twenty million rupees. It’s an essential difference in the films, and one that favors Milk’s equally rapid pace: like Hamilton of Hamilton, Harvey Milk acts like he’s running out of time. There is no destiny which is going to push forward his political platform, even if the people he represents are feverishly in favor of legal guarantees for gay rights; fate will not intervene to ensure that John Briggs and Prop 6 are defeated. He puts the megaphone in his hand and, in his words, tells his crowds what they’re feeling. Milk is a fairly standard biopic, but sort of like Singin’ in the Rain is among the best of that classic Hollywood musical form, so too is Milk an exemplar in what can be done with a biopic. It rolls along with key events in a person’s life, but unlike the average biopic, Milk does not spend too much time explaining what key moment inspired Harvey. It gives us a line of dialogue—”Forty years, and I haven’t done a thing that I’m proud of”—and extrapolates from there, hitting the highest ceiling that such a movie can.
31) Moonlight, 89th Academy Awards, directed by Barry Jenkins
What should have won: I think it’s chalk, and I think it’s very close.
Worth noting: I have Arrival as an extremely close second this year.
Moonlight doesn’t always work, and a lot of it feels overworked long before we actually see it on screen. (Arrival is probably my favorite movie of the nominees from this year, and like Moonlight it has issues that keep it from being a stronger movie. Like Moonlight, Arrival is an extremely strong atmospheric picture, one that has a great command of tone throughout; like Moonlight, Arrival has sequences that I find tiring. I like to imagine there’s a better way for that movie to reach its denouement than Michael Stuhlbarg deciding that trying to shoot down the aliens is the right idea, and it goes without saying that the linguistics in this movie are, uh, nutso.) I wish to heaven that Naomie Harris had not been cast in this movie, because she is deeply inauthentic in a role that was already a stereotype. (She feels like she escaped from Crash.) There are moments in Little and Chiron’s stories which feel unoriginal as well, down to Chiron’s transformation into a liability in the eyes of his school and the cops. But on the whole, these are outweighed by some of the most memorable and beautifully made moments in recent American cinema. Little receives a swimming lesson from Juan; Chiron and Kevin share an intimate moment on the beach which turns out to mean less and more than either one of them can predict; Chiron figures out what chairs are good for; Black eats a special meal under Kevin’s watchful eyes. Moonlight is a slow movie, and those scenes are allowed to unfold powerfully, without interruption or the sound of a metronome in our ears. An entire movie like that would be a classic. A movie that incorporates those scenes as part of a larger, less moving narrative is Best Picture-worthy, at least. It’s a movie that forces you to sit through the credits not because one is dying to see the full list of people working on it, but because one is forced to ponder over it immediately. It is, in fewer words, the kind of movie that one hopes the Academy continues to reward.