All Best Picture Winners, Ranked: The 2000s

Are the 1990s my favorite decade for movies? I’ve always considered myself partial to the 1930s, but in writing these posts, I’ve discovered that the 1990s are the only decade in which I’ve actually seen every single Best Picture winner. With the dawn on the new millennium, sadly, my enthusiasm for the Oscars started to wane, and as I look over the list of winners for this decade, I see that every single year except 2003 brought a movie I love substantially more.

So let’s get started:

2000: Gladiator [Good]

In a lot of ways, this Russell Crowe-starring sword-and-sandal epic about a military general reduced to a slave’s status and his thirst for revenge against the tyrannical Emperor Commodus is a tighter, grittier, less sprawling, less offensive Braveheart. It certainly holds up better as entertainment, with Crowe’s Maximus a powerfully sympathetic protagonist and good supporting performances by Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, and Connie Nielsen. Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Commodus is a bit polarizing, but having seen 2005’s Walk the Line, I have to give Phoenix credit for his astonishing range. (Movie I Love Substantially More: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.]

2001: A Beautiful Mind [Good]

Russell Crowe is back, this time playing a mathematical genius battling (and often losing to) schizophrenia. He’s quite good as John Nash, but it’s actually Paul Bettany, as Nash’s college roommate, who captures my heart and my imagination here. (Bettany hasn’t had quite the career I would have wished for him, but he’s great in everything I’ve seen him in.) Yet even though I’m putting the film in the Good tier, I haven’t felt much need to revisit it in subsequent years — unlike the Movie I Love Substantially More, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which I’ve rewatched many times.

2002: Chicago [Good, but Not for Me]

As a fan of musicals, I should eat this up, right? It does have plenty going for it: catchy songs, great choreography, and first-rate acting/singing/dancing performances from Catherine Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah. Yet the story, of an adulterous housewife (played by Renee Zellweger) with showbiz aspirations who is put on trial for murdering her lover, is so thoroughly cynical, with not even the slightest hint of any genuine sentiment as its characters use and abuse each other without conscience, that it alienates me. (Movie I Love Substantially More: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I’m also partial to Minority Report, one of the few Tom Cruise vehicles I actually enjoy.)

2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [God-Tier]

Director Peter Jackson has made some regrettable missteps since he wowed the world with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, but these three films — and I consider this award honors all three films, since they tell a single story, just as J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels did — are still the gold standard for fantasy filmmaking. Those who dislike fantasy fiction, on both page and screen, probably wish that Lost in Translation, or Mystic River, or Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (which I did love) had taken the prize. But as a long-time fan of both fantasy in general and Tolkien in particular, I love, love, love these films, even though I acknowledge their flaws (most notably the rewrite they did on the character of Faramir, played by David Wenham). Not only are they wonderful films to swim in, but they also offer a break from the harsh, acerbic tone of so many acclaimed films of this period. Heroes do exist, and it’s pure pleasure to see them so powerfully realized on screen.

2004: Million Dollar Baby [Okay]

It’s been said often that Clint Eastwood’s boxing drama is actually two films. The first two-thirds is a triumph-of-the-underdog feel-good movie, with poor girl Maggie (Hilary Swank) punching her way towards greater self-esteem and a found family (Eastwood as her coach, Morgan Freeman as his right-hand man) far more loving and supportive than her loathsome biological clan. Then the movie does a hard pivot and transforms into a dreary, depressing meditation on quality of life and the relative rightness of euthanasia. Had it continued on its original path, it would have been solidly in my Good tier. But the last third had me banging my head (metaphorically, of course) and shouting that “this was not what I signed up for!” I felt betrayed, and I still do when I think about it. A far more tonally consistent portrait of despair is this year’s Movie I Loved Substantially More (and should have won Best Picture, darn it!), Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator.

(Note: despite my dislike of the twist, I have to acknowledge Million Dollar Baby as the last Best Picture winner of the decade to feature a female protagonist. We’re heading back into No Woman’s Land; the next female-led film to win the top prize will be 2017’s The Shape of Water.)

2005: Crash [Never Seen]

Favorite Oscar-bait movies of the year: Capote and Walk the Line.

2006: The Departed [Good, but Not for Me]

Martin Scorcese is hit or miss with me. Just two years earlier he won my allegiance with The Aviator, a biopic of tormented genius billionaire Howard Hughes, and I’ve enjoyed his costume dramas The Age of Innocence (nominated for Best Picture but doomed to lose in the year of Schindler’s List), Gangs of New York (in spite of the miscast Cameron Diaz), and Hugo. But I’m far less enthralled by his movies with contemporary or near-contemporary settings, in which there’s no fascinating window into the past to make the dark, uber-gritty violence and emphasis on the baser side of human nature more palatable. Still, this drama of organized crime and police corruption in Boston is well-made and well-acted, so I can’t argue it didn’t deserve the award, especially since the Movie I Loved Substantially More, Guillermo del Toro’s dark but ultimately humanistic fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth, didn’t have a shot.

2007: No Country for Old Men [Never Seen]

I have no interest in this film. This was, in my opinion, a rather weak year for movies, at least judging from what I’ve seen; Juno, Away from Her, and Ratatouille are probably my favorites.

2008: Slumdog Millionaire [Good, but Not for Me]

This dark but ultimately triumphant story of a young Indian Muslim man who faces down both class and religious prejudice to win a fortune and the girl of his dreams is one of those satisfying blends of grit and sentiment that I love to see win Oscars. But this film didn’t quite land with me. I couldn’t help noticing that while protagonist Jamal (Dev Patel), his older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), and even the game-show host (Anil Kapoor) were all interesting and compelling characters, Jamal’s love interest Latika (Freida Pinto), the only female character of any significance in the film, gets no substantial development beyond her function as love interest. Love stories in which one character has a personality while the other (usually the woman) remains a shadow are a pet peeve of mine. A more satisfying romance, and the Movie I Love Substantially More, is Pixar’s WALL-E.

2009: The Hurt Locker [Good, but Not for Me]

I remember this movie being a well-made film; I admired it when I saw it, but nothing about it has stuck. This year I have three Movies I Loved Substantially More: An Education, Inglorious Basterds, and Up. Inglorious Basterds would have been my choice for Best Picture.


Book Report: Ithaca

How much do we know about Hera, wife of Zeus and queen of the gods in ancient Greek myth? If we know her at all, it’s probably best as the most cheated-on of all divinities. Unable to hold her powerful “Lord of the Thunderbolt” husband accountable, she takes out her anger on the various nymphs and mortal women he dallies with and, quite often, their offspring as well (e.g. Hercules, or Heracles as he’s known in Greek — ironically, the name means “glory of Hera”). She also helps bring about the downfall of the great city of Troy after Prince Paris snubs her in the famous beauty contest, the prize being an apple labeled “For the Fairest.” These myths paint her as a shrewish rage-a-holic, the ancient equivalent of the modern-day “Karen.”

Yet in her novel Ithaca, Claire North gives us a very different Hera, a Queen and a champion of Queens. Through her all-knowing eyes we watch Penelope, Queen of Ithaca and wife of Odysseus, cope with the encroachment of grasping, quarrelsome men eager to win her hand, along with an invasion of “pirates.” To deal with the pirates — in reality the henchmen of Andraemon, the most vicious of the suitors — she oversees the training of the women of her island into an effective fighting force. As if that were not enough to handle, she must also play host to the children of the recently murdered King Agamemnon, the slightly-out-of-his-depth Orestes and the cold, vengeful Elektra, who believe that Clytemnestra, their mother and Agamemnon’s murderer, is hiding on Ithaca (They’re right.) Hera herself plays little active role in the proceedings, but North’s decision to tell the story from her perspective proves a stroke of genius. With her sharp, wry, ultimately sympathetic voice, the queen of the gods becomes an embodiment for our rooting interest in Penelope, the women who serve her, and even Clytemnestra. Plus, I love her sense of humor. Hoot-bleeping-hoot.

If Ithaca has a fault, it might be a lack of sympathetic male representation; while this lack makes narrative sense, I can see how it might be off-putting for some readers, as the same situation would bother me if the genders were reversed. Men in this story range from despicable abusers (e.g. Andraemon) to neurotic would-be heroes (e.g. Odysseus’ son Telemachus), all of them having one trait in common: a deep and unbridled contempt for women, the natural result of the misogynistic culture in which they have been raised. Kenamon, the only male visitor to Ithaca to treat Penelope with any respect, hails from Egypt, a society far more enlightened where gender roles are concerned; he is painted sympathetically, but his role is too small to offset the impression of the male characters in general as arrogant, violent misogynists. The worst thing about them, for me, is how predictable they are. In any given situation, they will choose the cruelest, most hurtful course available to them. In many ways, Telemachus is the cruelest, since he’s the only one for whom Penelope actually cares and therefore in the position to hurt her the most deeply. Throughout the story, Penelope, a woman of wit, resourcefulness, and courage, shows herself to be up to every challenge until the end, which shows her broken by the actions of her unloving son. (For a kinder Telemachus, give Madeline Miller’s Circe a look. So many brilliant authors these days are turning their hands to fascinating feminist retellings of the old myths, and it makes me glad all over.)

Yet the menfolk create chaos, the driving force of this narrative are the bonds between women, some strong, some tenuous, some hostile. Hera observes the friendships forged by the martial training with delight; she’s far less patient with those women who withhold support from their sisters (e.g. Telemachus’ nanny Eurycleia, a poster child for internalized misogyny). Hera’s own complicated relationships with her own stepdaughters, goddesses Athena and Artemis, also come into play, a good portion of loathing with a welcome dash of understanding and even winking admiration. Best of all, each woman in this network of relationships, even with the smallest page time, is an interesting and complex figure who could easily be the heroine of her own story.

Five out of five stars.

All Best Picture Winners, Ranked: The 1990’s

1990: Dances With Wolves [Good]

I have one major gripe with this film, and it’s not “It’s not Goodfellas,” It’s that Kevin Costner, the director and star, is a poor narrator in a heavily narrated movie. When he’s simply playing Civil War veteran John Dunbar, who journeys west and ends up building a life among the Sioux, he’d decent. But he should have found a way to leave the narration to someone else (like, maybe, Graham Greene?). Still, the other major players — Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant — all give outstanding performances. The real MVP is John Barry, whose lush, sweeping score delivers an emotional punch.

1991: The Silence of the Lambs [Good]

Some movies I enjoy while I’m watching them but start to sink in my estimation as I reflect on them (case in point: 1997’s Titanic). This movie made the opposite journey. When I first watched it, I found its ice-cold tone off-putting, but since then, my respect and admiration for it has grown. While fellow nominee Beauty and the Beast and the un-nominated Fried Green Tomatoes might remain my sentimental favorites, this year’s winner hits my feminist sweet spot for being the only female-led Best Picture winner other than All About Eve to focus on its protagonist’s work life rather than her love and/or family life. In order to capture a serial killer, FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) must seek help from a notorious murderer (Anthony Hopkins) imprisoned in an asylum. Hopkins’ Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter might get the bulk of the attention from fans, but the story belongs to Clarice, as she uses all her courage and resourcefulness to rescue a young woman from the serial killer’s clutches. If you enjoy a smart nail-biter with super-high stakes, this Best Picture winner is for you.

1992: Unforgiven [Good]

William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a mercenary with a dark past, is hired to avenge a prostitute’s murder and defend the women of a bordello from the bullying minions of powerful “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman); Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris offer stalwart support. A much grittier vision of the Old West than Dances With Wolves, it’s a disturbing meditation on violence and redemption.

1993: Schindler’s List [God-Tier]

Steven Spielberg’s best film (thus far) remains, after thirty years, among the top five finest pieces of film making to emerge in my lifetime. I’m one of those strange folk who has seen this film more than once; I’ve used it to teach Film Analysis to my students, and each time I show it I feel its impact afresh. How can I keep doing that to myself? It is, without question, a dark and disturbing film, a chilling glimpse into the horrors of the Holocaust, a lesson in what happens when human beings are reduced to livestock. Yet it offers a glimmer of hope, symbolized by the tiny flame on the melted-down candle at the opening. The story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German businessman who transforms from a self-involved profiteer of slave labor into a protector of his Jewish workforce, it highlights the power of empathy to change and save lives. Neeson, at this point in this career a brilliant actor, brings cunning and charisma to his complicated role, and Ben Kingsley (as Schindler’s manager and mentor) and Ralph Fiennes (as a mad, monstrous Nazi commandant) give faultless supporting performances. Once you’ve seen it, it will not leave your mind.

1994: Forrest Gump [Okay]

This frequently disparaged Best Picture winner is far from terrible, though it’s nowhere near as good as fellow nominee The Shawshank Redemption. Tom Hanks and (especially) Gary Sinise are quite good, Alan Silvestri’s score is lovely, and many scenes are genuinely moving. But the parts are stronger than the whole, which may be why the movie gets far less attention these days than Shawshank or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. (Gary Sinise would have been a fine choice to win Best Supporting Actor, but that went to the equally-deserving Martin Landau for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.)

1995: Braveheart [Aged Like Milk]

Treating it as a joke when the vicious King Edward Longshanks (Patrick MacGoohan, who’s quite good) hurls his homosexual son’s lover from a tower window to his death would not, and should not, be acceptable today. Yet even omitting this off-putting homophobia from the equation, Mel Gibson’s overblown, historically inaccurate vanity project just isn’t very good, though MacGoohan and a number of other supporting players give a good account of themselves. One of the most notable examples of the Academy’s preference for male-led projects over female-driven ones is their choosing this film to honor with the Best Picture award rather than Ang Lee’s and Emma Thompson’s exquisite screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which has aged like fine wine. The charming Babe would also have been a better choice.

1996: The English Patient [Personal Favorite]

Of all the winners I’ve placed in this tier up to this point, this one is my guiltiest pleasure. Backlash to its win began almost immediately, even before Seinfeld stepped in to make it fashionable to loathe it. Although I’m hardly ashamed to hold an opposite opinion to any character played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, I realize this movie has notable flaws, and I’d even acknowledge that the Coen brothers’ Fargo would have been a better choice for Best Picture. But I still find myself swept away by this unpopular winner whenever I watch it, thanks largely to its cinematography, its score (courtesy of underrated Gabriel Yared), and the two characters played by Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche, in whose fates I find myself invested.

1997: Titanic [Okay to Good]

My husband says it best: the movie really picks up once the ship hits the iceberg. Everything involving the sinking is top-level film-making, and it’s hard not to feel the tragedy as the massive ocean liner disappears beneath the waves while the surviving passengers watch from their lifeboats. The cast also includes some memorable figures, especially Kathy Bates’ Molly Brown, Victor Garber’s doomed shipbuilder Mr. Andrews, and Jonathan Evans-Jones’ bandleader Wallace Hartley, who provides perhaps the film’s most genuinely poignant moment when he tells his fellow musicians what a privilege it’s been to play with them that night. (Evans-Jones is primarily a musician, not an actor, but his is the face that stays with me.) Yet the bulk of the movie is taken up by the rather shallow and clumsy romance between Kate Winslet’s discontented patrician and Leonardo diCaprio’s starving artist. Both excellent performers, Winslet and diCaprio give it their all, but they fight a losing battle against the cliche-ridden screenplay. Both have gone on to do much better work and win Oscars of their own.

1998: Shakespeare in Love [Good]

Everyone said the Best Picture Oscar this year was Saving Private Ryan‘s to lose, but then Miramax mogul and all-around garbage human being Harvey Weinstein spread some money around among Academy voters, and this historical-speculation romantic comedy walked away with the prize. So runs the prevailing narrative, at any rate. Yet while Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama is a powerful film, I find this winner charming, with strong performances from Joseph Fiennes as struggling young playwright William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Rush as a theater manager who has trouble keeping up, Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth (earning an Oscar that should have been hers for Mrs. Brown the year before), and a host of awesome British character actors as Shakespeare’s company of players. Ben Affleck, as a popular actor whose ego Shakespeare must stroke, is the weak link, feeling more like a LARP-er who wandered onto the set. But while it’s become popular lately to dislike Gwyneth Paltrow, here I like both her and the character she plays. (Cate Blanchett’s performance in Elizabeth should have won Best Actress, though.)

1999: American Beauty [Good, but Not for Me]

A lot of first-rate craftsmanship went into this drama of a disaffected suburbanite (Kevin Spacey) stricken with lust for his daughter’s cheerleader friend. But “White Male Malaise: The Movie” failed to resonate with me, as I couldn’t find a single character with whom to sympathize, except maybe the catatonic neighbor played by Allison Janney, clearly a victim of abuse and neglect. Most irksome was the movie’s insistence on demonizing Spacey’s wife (Annette Bening) for, among other things, playing Broadway show tunes — disparaged by Spacey as “Lawrence Welk s**t” — at dinner. Sorry, movie, but if I want White Male Malaise, I’ll just play “It’s Quiet Uptown” from Hamilton. 1999 wasn’t the best year for Oscar-bait films. It’ll be more remembered for The Phantom Menace and Stanley Kubrick’s sudden passing…

Ranking Best Picture Winners: The 1980s

It’s become clear that I won’t manage to finish this blog series before March 12, the date of this year’s Oscars. I still have a good many years to get through. But I’ll keep it going till I’ve brought my rankings up to the present, because hey, it’s fun.

1980: Ordinary People [Good]

Fans of Martin Scorcese resent this film’s winning Best Picture in the same year that Raging Bull was nominated, but Robert Redford’s directorial debut is nonetheless a well-acted, well-crafted, and thought-provoking family drama which eschews sentimentality. Timothy Hutton plays Conrad Jarrett, whose survivor’s guilt after his brother’s death has driven him to attempt suicide and who now is striving, with the aid of sympathetic psychiatrist Judd Hirsch, to escape the burden of his mother’s (Mary Tyler Moore) icy hatred. Moore’s Beth Jarrett ranks with Gladys Cooper’s nasty Mrs. Vale from 1942’s Now, Voyager among Cinema’s Most Toxic Parents, and Donald Sutherland also turns in an effective performance as the paterfamilias torn between his loyalty to his wife and his love for his suffering son. A smart, tasteful melodrama for grown-ups.

1981: Chariots of Fire [Personal Favorite]

This winner is often dismissed as “boring.” When my husband and I watched it together, he found the lack of conflict disappointing, and I can’t say he’s wrong; there is no central tension, no clearly identifiable antagonist. Instead, it’s more of a snapshot of a time and place, Britain the years 1919 through 1924, when the fabled roar of the Twenties was muted as the country was trying to move out of the shadow of a devastating war. It concerns two track athletes as they train for the 1924 Olympics, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Jewish Oxford student who confronts anti-Semitism with a determination to “run [the bigots] off their feet,” and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a Scots missionary who puts this work on hold to train and must deal with his family’s disappointment. Both actors turn in admirable performances, as does Ian Holm, as Abrahams’ coach and mentor. But here again is a case where my love of Masterpiece Theatre and my interest in 19th and early 20th century British history sell me on a movie that not everyone is going to like.

1982: Gandhi [Okay]

So I’m a Masterpiece Theatre fan who loves historical dramas; if that predilection sold me on Chariots of Fire, just why didn’t this one click with me? The fact that it’s at least an hour longer than 1981’s winner might have something to do with it. Ben Kingsley is not to blame; his performance is flawless, and his Best Actor Oscar deserved. But in the years that have elapsed between my first and only viewing of the film and now, what I remember most about it is its ponderous pace. I wonder if I might feel differently if I saw it again.

1983: Terms of Endearment [Good, but Not for Me]

Finally, the streak of male-dominated Best Picture winners comes to an end. Ironically enough, if I’d had the deciding vote, the award would have gone to yet another male-dominated film, The Right Stuff. James L. Brooks’ mother (Shirley MacLaine) – daughter (Debra Winger) comedy-drama should have been a slam-dunk for me, yet I found their characters shallow, self-absorbed, and regrettably unengaging. The last half, in which Winger battles cancer, picks up a bit, but the first hour struck me as a cast of narcissists knocking against each other, and I couldn’t find a reason why I’d want to spend time with them. I suspect Brooks’ style just isn’t to my taste; I’ve seen three of his films — this one, Broadcast News, and As Good as It Gets — and of these, only Broadcast News sorta-kinda landed with me.

1984: Amadeus [God-Tier]

In every way but one (the lack of a sympathetic female figure I can root for), this movie seems to have been designed for me, a feast for my historical-drama-loving eyes, ears, and heart. It tells the story of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), court composer to Emperor Joseph II, who enjoys a life of prestige in late 1700s Vienna until a brash young genius named Mozart (Tom Hulce) comes to town. Salieri is all too aware of both Mozart’s gifts and his own lack of them; as this awareness becomes torture, he sets out to destroy the “obscene child.” A sharp and insightful study of the nature of genius, the movie is brilliantly acted all around, with Abraham earning a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the haunted mediocrity. Also, it follows the “show, don’t tell” principle when it comes to Mozart’s gifts, as it’s scored entirely with the wunderkind’s compositions.

1985: Out of Africa [Okay]

This was the year I fell in love with Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, seeing it three times in the theater between late 1985 and early 1986. I didn’t see Out of Africa until some months later, and I finally knew enough to be legitimately angry that it took Best Picture away from Spielberg’s film. Out of Africa should have worked for me, as it’s one of the few highly-regarded movies to tell the story of a female creative, author Karen Blixen, a.k.a. Isak Dinesen (Meryl Streep), and the years she spends running a farm in Africa and her doomed love affair with a British adventurer (Robert Redford). The raw material for greatness is there. But like Gandhi, it suffers from pacing issues, particularly in its last third, when it becomes increasingly episodic. The Color Purple is also a lengthy film, with a runtime of two hours and thirty-four minutes, yet I felt invested in every minute of it and afterwards felt the delicious melancholy that comes from having followed a beautifully made historical drama to its end. Out of Africa, however, lost me as it began to ramble, and by the end I felt only relief that it didn’t go on any longer. One point in its favor: a stunning John Barry score.

1986: Platoon [Good, but Not for Me]

This movie deserves credit for putting Willem Dafoe, one of the most consistently awesome actors working in Hollywood, on the map. He and Tom Berenger play sergeants, Dafoe a wise mentor and Berenger a psychotic bully, who contend for the soul of a G.I. (the problematic Charlie Sheen) in Vietnam. Of director Oliver Stone’s oeuvre, I find this film the most palatable, for Stone’s greatest weakness is his tendency to show female characters as either sex objects, whiny wet-blanket wives (e.g. Sissy Spacek in JFK), or soulless harridans (e.g. Cameron Diaz in Any Given Sunday), and Platoon evades this flaw by including no notable female characters whatsoever. But my revulsion for Sheen — whose real-life doings have made it impossible for me to watch him in anything except maybe Eight Men Out, where his role is small — outweighs my admiration for Dafoe, so I won’t be revisiting this movie anytime soon.

1987: The Last Emperor [Never Seen]

At some point I do need to sit down and watch Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic biopic of Chinese Emperor Pu Yi (played as an adult by the charismatic John Lone). But I agree with those critics who note that, for full impact, this movie should have been made in Chinese rather than in English.

1988: Rain Man [Good]

Neither Tom Cruise nor Dustin Hoffman is among my favorite actors — again, real-life doings are a factor — but I have to give credit where it’s due: they both give strong performance here, as an upwardly mobile young man and the autistic brother he never knew he had, whose care he must take over. The movie itself is a smart, moving dramedy. It always makes me smile to see a heartwarming film take the top prize over its “edgier” competitors.

1989: Driving Miss Daisy [Uhhhh…]

This is among the more controversial Best Picture winners of the decade. I admit I was charmed by it when I first saw it, thanks largely to the engaging performances of Jessica Tandy (as the title character, an upper-middle-class Southern lady who also happens to be Jewish) and Morgan Freeman (as her African-American chauffeur). But time hasn’t been kind to this film, as critics have observed that Freeman’s character is only really seen and understood in relation to Tandy’s, which creates an awkward-to-21st-century-eyes dynamic. Is Miss Daisy, the white woman, the best person through whose eyes to witness the gradual fall of Jim Crow in the South, from the late 1940s to the then-present? Is her perspective a valid one, and what do we learn from seeing her story told? These questions offer me food for thought. My main issue with the movie these days is that it seems, in my memory, a little too glossy, a little too “pretty,” for the time and place in which it’s set.

Ranking the Best Picture Winners: Entering “No Woman’s Land” (1966 – 1979)

In 2019, when the female-led historical drama The Favourite was nominated for Best Picture, some Oscar handicappers warned that this film was the longest shot of all, because, generally speaking, “movies about women don’t win Best Picture.” (Movies about women have won Best Picture for the past two years in a row, but that’s another post for another day.) Prior to 1966, this wouldn’t have been much of a predictor. The winners for 1965 and 1964, The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady, both featured female lead characters; Lady‘s main competition, Mary Poppins, also starred a woman. Maria from West Side Story can be considered a co-protagonist, with a character arc of her own; despite my problems with her, the same might be said of the rather dim Fran Kubelik in The Apartment. Gigi and All About Eve took the prize in the 1950s; the 1940s saw the triumphs of Mrs. Miniver and Rebecca. 1939’s Gone With the Wind may have aged like milk, but it’s still clearly a woman’s story, and its detractors often cite another female-centered movie, The Wizard of Oz, as the movie that should have won Best Picture that year. It Happened One Night‘s Ellie Andrews, like Maria and Fran Kubelik, is a co-protagonist. Even mediocre winners The Broadway Melody and Cimarron are female-led. So just where did this idea that “movies about women don’t win Best Picture” come from?

I suspect it springs from the general adulation given to the period I’m about to cover, the late 1960s through the 1970s. Film buffs love these years, heaping loads of praise on their Best Picture winners. I can understand were the love comes from, since this time period saw the fall of the Hollywood studio system and, along with it, the infamous Hays Code that imposed heavy restrictions on classic-era films, especially where sex and language were concerned. (True, many great films were made during the years the Code was in force, but they were great in spite of the Code, not because of it.) The most acclaimed movies from the late 60s and early 70s touch on subjects that would have been unthinkable under the Code. New York gigolos (Midnight Cowboy), mob families (The Godfather Parts I and II), traumatized war veterans (The Deer Hunter), call girls (Klute), and homicidal taxi drivers (Taxi Driver) could now have their stories told with unflinching realism; a veil was lifted off those areas of society that the Code had kept hidden, and fascinated audiences responded then and have been responding ever since. Yet the new freedom came with a dark side. Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, originally published in 1974, cites the period in which she was writing as the worst yet when it comes to female representation. The Best Picture winners of this time period reflect this: between 1966 and 1983, not a single with a female protagonist took home the top prize. The only female characters in those winners substantial enough to warrant a Best Actress nomination for their performers — Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Beth Jarrett from Ordinary People (1980) — were villains, each in her own way a reflection of male anxieties about second-wave feminism. Accordingly, I have more Never Seens from this period than from any other Oscar era.

Now to take a deep breath and dive into specifics:

1966: A Man for All Seasons [Personal Favorite]

As someone who grew up with PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, I have a distinct weakness for British historical dramas. (This will come up again.) I love the aura. I love the costumes. Most of all, I love the acting. Paul Scofield, primarily a stage actor, gives a master-class performance as Sir Thomas More, the good friend and advisor of Henry VIII who lost his head when he opposed Henry’s breaking with the Catholic Church to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. The real More was far less upright, by modern standards at least, than the stalwart man of honor depicted here, but the story of the tension between conscience and politics remains strong and relevant. Leo McKern also acquits himself brilliantly as the villainous (in this movie, anyway) Thomas Cromwell, as does John Hurt in the small but noteworthy role as treacherous weasel Richard Rich. This film rarely gets much attention these days, but if you’re a fellow Masterpiece Theatre fan, you shouldn’t miss it. (Avoid the Charlton Heston remake.)

1967: In the Heat of the Night [Good]

Here we have our first example of a movie that could never have been made thirty years earlier. Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia detective sent down South to help in a murder investigation. In one scene, a bigoted white man slaps him in an attempt to “put him in his place.” Poitier had made it known that he — or rather, the character he plays — would not take that slap without giving it back with interest, and indeed that’s just what happens; audiences in 1937 would be shocked and even disgusted, but nowadays, the scene inspires cheers. A gritty, intense, well-acted crime drama (Rod Steiger is also very good as the Southern small-town sheriff) that I need to watch again.

1968: Oliver! [Good, but Not for Me]

This big-budget musical may seem painfully old-fashioned alongside such films as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but for what it is, it’s well done. The performances are good; the songs are catchy and well-staged; best of all, with the exception of Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes, all the adults in the cast have the skills needed for musical roles. (Sykes’ big number, “My Name,” was cut from the film. but Reed is so strong in the role that it’s one instance in which I can forgive the powers-that-be for giving him the role.) Yet I put it in the “Not for Me” tier, because the movies I designate as “Good” are nearly all ones I can enjoy rewatching, and I’ve never felt that compelled to revisit this film. David Lean’s 1948 film Oliver Twist tells Charles Dickens’ story much better.

1969: Midnight Cowboy [Never Seen]

1970: Patton [Never Seen] I do enjoy the rousing theme song.

1971: The French Connection [Never Seen]

1972: The Godfather [Never Seen]*

1973: The Sting [Never Seen] — Of my Never-Seens from this period, this is the one I have the most interest in seeing at some point because I like its director, George Roy Hill. He’s the man behind two of my favorite coming-of-age films, The World of Henry Orient and A Little Romance. (This will air on TCM in March as part of its annual “31 Days of Oscar” campaign.)

1974: The Godfather Part II [Never Seen]*

1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [Never Seen] — I’ve read the book. That’s all I need. Stories meant to extol freedom and nonconformity shouldn’t come with a side of misogyny.

1976: Rocky [Never Seen] — but I have seen Saturday Night Live‘s Angel, “Every Boxer’s Girlfriend from Every Movie About Boxing, Ever,” so I feel like I’ve kind of seen it. (Aside from Matt, my husband: “there’s more to it than that, but it does give you the general idea.”)

1977: Annie Hall [Never Seen] — The title doesn’t fool me. Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall is not the protagonist or even a co-protagonist. Woody Allen’s the star.

1978: The Deer Hunter [Never Seen]

1979: Kramer vs. Kramer [Good]

This is the first Best Picture winner I actually saw in the theater when it was released. I was ten, and I could connect with the story of a father (Dustin Hoffman) struggling to raise his son after his wife (Meryl Streep) leaves. It holds up pretty well in my memory; I appreciate the movie’s refusal to cast Streep as a one-dimensional villain and instead giving her a point of view we can sympathize with, even though her screen time is too limited to earn her Best Actress consideration. (She did win Best Supporting Actress, however.) Still, the thing I like best about this movie is something we still see too rarely on the big screen: the friendship between Hoffman’s character and that of Jane Alexander, an actress who has never gotten the attention she deserves. Both single parents in the process of getting over divorces, they forge a bond that never slips into romance.

*My husband has been suggesting that he show me these one of these days. But his patience for epic films has kind of been limited these days.

Ranking the Best Picture Winners: 1960 – 1965

1960: The Apartment [Good, but Not for Me]

Another “little movie that could,” The Apartment is Marty’s darker cousin; again, we have two underdogs, bruised and battered by life, who find solace in each other, but the tone is much more acerbic, as its plot would suggest — an aspiring junior-level exec (Jack Lemmon) lets his married boss (Fred MacMurray) use his apartment to conduct extramarital affairs, but when Lemmon learns that his crush (Shirley MacLaine) is one of MacMurray’s many conquests, he starts to have doubts about the arrangement. The movie charts his journey toward becoming a mensch, a man of honor, and Lemmon’s performance engages our sympathies. But the standout among the actors is MacMurray, who brings the detestable, slimy boss to life with craft and charisma. Nonetheless, I can’t name this film among my favorites. I’m not wild about MacLaine, either her character or her performance. She’s cute, naive, and deeply damaged, but while her flaws are interesting, I kept wishing she had a few more observable strengths to balance out those flaws. Lemmon’s character has much more substance.

1961: West Side Story [Good]

One of the best big-screen adaptations of a Broadway musical hit, I put this one in the Good tier because, for me at least, its strengths — powerful songs, amazing dancing, scorching performances by Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, and George Chakiris — outweigh its flaws — the miscast romantic leads (Natalie Wood tries, and mostly succeeds when she’s not pretending to sing, while Richard Beymer is just plain flat and wooden) and the extreme suspension of disbelief required to accept the young men as violent, dangerous street toughs. This movie is a classic for a reason, but I actually like Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake just a little better.

1962: Lawrence of Arabia [Good]

Like 1959’s Ben-Hur, this movie is massive, with its sweeping desert landscapes and majestic score. It is also, unlike Ben-Hur, quite well-acted, with all its players, from Peter O’Toole (as Lawrence) to Alec Guinness to Anthony Quinn to Arthur Kennedy to the always-reliable Claude Rains and Jack Hawkins. But for some reason, it doesn’t have the same emotional resonance for me as the same year’s To Kill a Mockingbird or The Miracle Worker. I think I need to watch it again. Some movies don’t take firm hold of my memory and win my full appreciation until I see them a second time, and I think this might be one of them, not in spite of its grand scope but because of it.

1963: Tom Jones [Aged Like Milk]

As a work of literature, Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, one of the earliest of the form, still holds some academic interest; those interested in studying the history of the English novel should give it a look. But as entertainment, its value depends on your level of tolerance for seeing an innocent young heroine put through hell for pages on end. My tolerance for such a thing, particularly when it’s presented with a light-hearted tone, is small to nonexistent. In this film adaptation, Albert Finney is charming as the roving rogue who hops from one willing lady’s bed to another, but watching poor, lovely Susannah York go from being held prisoner by her father and aunt until she agrees to marry a man she doesn’t love, to nearly being raped at the instigation of an older rival, is downright painful. There were much better films in 1963; It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World would have been a more amusing choice, and Lilies of the Field a more moving one.

1964: My Fair Lady [Good]

Another successful Broadway-to-Hollywood adaptation, My Fair Lady preserves Rex Harrison’s stage performance as Henry Higgins for posterity. He’s wonderful, as are Wilfrid Hyde-White, as his kinder best friend, and Stanley Holloway, as a Cockney rogue. But like West Side Story before it, the movie suffers from a casting mistake: Audrey Hepburn, whom I otherwise love, should never have been chosen to play Eliza Doolittle. She’s not terrible by any means, but Eliza should have set the screen on fire, and Hepburn just doesn’t have the energy that Broadway’s Julie Andrews would have brought to the role. (The growing frequency with which actors who could neither sing nor dance were cast in musical roles would soon bring about the downfall of the classic Hollywood musical). This movie was a favorite of mine when I was younger, but while I still respect and admire it, I don’t enjoy it quite as much as I used to, thanks primarily to Hepburn’s casting and some pacing issues.

1965: The Sound of Music [Uhhhhh…]

This movie is one of the most polarizing Best Picture winners of the classic era; people either adore it or deplore it, and I have friends and loved ones on both sides of the issue. I’m, well, caught in the middle. The movie does have its distinct virtues. Julie Andrews (as novice nun turned governess Maria) and Christopher Plummer (as her employer, Captain von Trapp) both give excellent performances, and they’re ably supported by Richard Haydn and Eleanor Parker. Some of the songs suffer from the over-familiarity that breeds contempt, but others (e.g. “Edelweiss”) are quite lovely. Yet too many moments involving the children either border on the saccharine or cross right over. While the adults in the cast give their all, a bit too much depends upon the children. Moreover, when the movie takes a darker turn in the last act, the tonal shift doesn’t work. So I can’t come down too strongly on either side. When the subject comes up in conversation, I just offer a vague, noncommittal nod.

Ranking the Best Picture Winners: 1951 – 1959

1951: An American in Paris (Good, but Not for Me)

I had to create a new Tier for this one: winners whose quality I acknowledge but that failed to land with me, for reasons that have as much to do with me as they do with the films themselves. This musical, directed by Vincente Minelli and starring Gene Kelly, has so much going for it, from the gorgeous Gershwin tunes to Kelly’s energetic dancing to Oscar Levant’s wisecracks to the extended ballet sequence at the climax. Yet I can’t help noticing how 1950s gender roles figure into the script. Leslie Caron, as Kelly’s love interest, is charming, but her role is so underwritten that “charming” is just about all I can say about her; meanwhile, Nina Foch’s “bad girl” is presented as a lustful schemer who needs to be taught her place. (This aspect of the film stands out in contrast to 1952’s unnominated Singin’ in the Rain, in which the female lead, played by Debbie Reynolds, has a personality and a point of view, and Kelly’s character actually helps her fulfill her career ambitions.) So even though I recommend it heartily to those who love musicals with excellent singing and dancing, I can’t say I love it.

1952: The Greatest Show on Earth (Not for Me)

This overblown spectacle’s winning Best Picture is one of Oscar’s biggest WTF moments. I saw it once, but so little of it stayed with me that it’s practically a Never Seen. Making matters worse is that perhaps the strongest, most enduring movie of that year, Singin’ in the Rain, failed to be nominated. Which of these has given cinema buffs the most pleasure over the years?

1953: From Here to Eternity AND–

1954: On the Waterfront (Never Seen)

I have the least to say about these films than any other winners I’ve talked about so far. Most of my Never Seens I’ve deliberately avoided for a specific reason, perhaps a dislike of the subject matter, or bad word of mouth, or a dislike of one or more of the actors. But with these, I honestly don’t know why I haven’t gotten around to seeing them yet. I can’t comment further on them.

1955: Marty (Good)

This film is almost certainly the least “splashy” Best Picture winner of the lot, with its minimal budget and short runtime and overall earthy quality. It’s not challenging or thought-provoking; it doesn’t have anything especially profound to say. It’s just a small, sweet film, a love story of two underdogs played by Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, made at a time when Hollywood hadn’t forgotten how to make high-quality small, sweet films. Those who sneered at last year’s winner CODA for being a “feel-good movie” probably won’t like this one either. But if you’re like me and you relish movies that can make you feel good without insulting your intelligence, give this one a look.

1956: Around the World in 80 Days (Never Seen)

Even though I like David Niven, I believe I can spare myself the awkwardness of watching Shirley MacLaine playing an Indian princess.

1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai (God-Tier)

When a British POW officer (Alec Guinness) orders his men to build a bridge, at the behest of his Japanese captor (Sessue Hayakawa), that will be a marvel of British engineering, is he a traitor? This brilliantly acted World War II drama builds to a collision between Guinness and Hayakawa and a team of demolitionists (led by William Holden and the underrated Jack Hawkins) intent on blowing up said marvel of British engineering. It’s one of those admirable films that provoke thought by presenting a situation in which no one is wholly good or wholly evil, and each perspective is given time and attention.

1958: Gigi (Okay-to-Good)

At one time, this film would have found a place in my Personal Favorites tier, thanks to its clever Alan Jay Lerner/ Frederick Loewe songs and its dazzling turn-of-the-century setting; plus, my twentysomething self thought Louis Jourdan was hot. I still enjoy a number of the performances, particularly Hermione Gingold as the grandmother of Leslie Caron’s titular heroine, and the scene she shares with Maurice Chevalier, in which the two of them sing, “Ah, Yes, I Remember It Well,” is a poignant highlight. Yet I’ve come to think of this film as the reverse of 1955’s Marty; where the latter is a triumph of low-budget sincere storytelling, the former has all the high-budget gloss and glamor with little of the heart. It’s a spectacle that I can enjoy when it’s on but that leaves little impact on my emotions.

1959: Ben-Hur (Okay-to-Good)

What was I just saying about “spectacle that I can enjoy when it’s on but that leaves little impact on my emotions”? That description applies equally to this film. At the time when it took the top prize, “sword and sandal” epics set in ancient Rome, often at or near the time of Christ, were in vogue, and this was one of the biggest; everything about this movie is huge, from the sets to Miklos Rozsa’s dramatic score (which, I must confess, I love). But it’s not the best of its genre. For those looking for a historical epic with a Christian theme, 1956’s Quo Vadis is better acted, with Leo Genn and Peter Ustinov in particular giving superb performances; the only performance in Ben-Hur that I find holds up is that of Jack Hawkins, as the Roman commander whose life Charlton Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur saves. Those just interested in a glimpse of ancient Roman history should find 1961’s Spartacus more enjoyable; despite its long runtime, there’s always something interesting going on, and with the exception of a miscast Tony Curtis, every performance is strong; Ben-Hur, by contrast, has significant lulls in its action, and you feel its overlength. I did enjoy seeing the film on the big screen at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre some years back, but when I went into the lobby I caught sight of a group of young people having a ball taking turns mimicking Heston’s hammy performance. I guess that shows how well the film holds up…

Ranking the Best Picture Winners: 1945 – 1950

The time has come for me to bid a fond farewell to my favorite era of cinema history, the 1920s through the end of World War II. It wasn’t the best era; after all, the repressive Hays Code was in play for much of it, and while modern cinema could stand to be a lot more inclusive, particularly in welcoming and supporting directors and screenwriters who aren’t straight white men, it’s certainly more inclusive than, say, 1933, when an actor like Morgan Freeman, instead of crushing it in important roles in films like The Shawshank Redemption and Million Dollar Baby, would have been lucky to find extra work in King Kong. Also, three of my five favorite classic films of all time — To Kill a Mockingbird, Singin’ in the Rain, and It’s a Wonderful Life — come from this postwar era. Yet for some reason even I don’t quite understand, I find the movies of the 20s and 30s more purely fascinating than anything more recent, perhaps because through them I can look back at a time when the overall aura of cinema was one of glamor rather than grit, of magic rather than realism. Adieu, my shiny, glitzy Hollywood. We’re heading into darker territory.

1945: The Lost Weekend [Never Seen]

This dramatization of an alcoholic’s descent into madness has been called the most depressing Best Picture winner to date. This hasn’t made me especially eager to see it. Eventually I might, if curiosity compels me.

1946: The Best Years of Our Lives [Good]

I can’t quite put this film in God-Tier, because It’s a Wonderful Life came out the same year and should, I believe, have won Best Picture. The triumph of Best Years at the Oscars may have owed a lot to the film’s timeliness — it tells the story of the difficulties of three veterans (Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell) to readjust to civilian life after the War — as well as Wonderful Life‘s dismal box office showing. Yet on its own merits, this film is very good indeed, well acted by all parties, including Myrna Loy as March’s patient but not passive wife, Virginia Mayo as Andrews’ shallow wife who loses all interest in him the minute she sees him in civilian clothes, and Teresa Wright as March and Loy’s sweet. smart daughter, toward whom the unhappy Andrews is drawn. Veteran Russell, who lost his hands in combat, earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as a young man with the same injury, and his scenes with Cathy O’Donnell, as his loyal fiancee who senses him pulling away from her, are both heartbreaking and (ultimately) heartwarming. The only problem, quality-wise, that I have with the movie is that it takes its own sweet time getting started. If you can make it through the first thirty minutes or so, your patience will be rewarded.

1947: Gentleman’s Agreement [Not for Me]

It’s with regret that I come at last to the first of the Best Picture winners I actively dislike. I’ve seen it once, and have no intention of ever seeing it again. The premise is strong — as research for an article on anti-Semitism, a journalist (Gregory Peck) pretends to be Jewish so he might experience the bigotry first-hand — and some of the performances are solid, including Peck, John Garfield as his best friend, and Celeste Holm as a glamorous, whip-smart magazine writer. But every bit of credit this movie earns is completely undone by an infuriating, shameful cop-out ending that I can’t discuss in detail without Spoilers. I can only tell you that it still makes me angry every time I think about it, even though it’s been more than two decades since I watched it. In all the years before or since, I can recall no other movie so utterly ruined by a conclusion that (although I can’t find positive proof) must surely have been studio-mandated. I include this article for the curious; its view of the movie is far more tolerant than mine, but it does go into detail about my problems with it.

1948: Hamlet [Never Seen]

Laurence Olivier was a gift to classic cinema, but this big-screen adaptation of what many consider Shakespeare’s greatest play is so heavily truncated that I’ve never felt the driving need to see it. Again, maybe one day.

1949: All the King’s Men [Okay]

I’ve seen this one, but I have clearer memories of the Robert Penn Warren novel on which it was based — a fictionalized account of the career of crooked Louisiana politician Huey Long, called Willie Stark in the novel and film — than I do of this movie. I don’t remember hating it especially, but it hasn’t stuck with me. Its fellow nominee, military drama Twelve O’Clock High, which features a stronger and more complex Gregory Peck performance than Gentleman’s Agreement, has made a far more lasting impact on me.

1950: All About Eve [Good]

Here I come to another Best Picture winner with a disappointing ending, though not (as with Gentleman’s Agreement) an infuriating, movie-ruining one. This cynical study of life in the theater, narrated by the deliciously cynical George Sanders as a poison-pen critic, tells the story of a renowned actress at the top of her game (Bette Davis) betrayed by an ambitious young upstart (Anne Baxter). Sanders, Davis, and Baxter are all superb, as are Celeste Holm, as a playwright’s wife and Davis’ best friend, and Thelma Ritter (who is never not amazing) as Davis’ dresser. In most respects, thanks not only to the performances but to the razor-sharp dialogue, the film hasn’t dated at all. Yet in one aspect, it’s sadly a product of its time: it asks you to accept that Davis’ marvelous diva Margo Channing, realizing that she’s getting on in years and soon won’t be able to play the leading roles she’s used to, would give up Broadway and happily settle down to a life of domestic bliss with the director she loves (Gary Merrill). Sorry. Not buying it. Margo the housewife wouldn’t be Margo at all; she’ll be the queen of a community theater group in less than a year.

Oscar’s Animation Snub

I must interrupt my regularly scheduled “Ranking Every Best Picture Winner” series; I will post the next entry in that series soon, to close out the 1940s, and I still hope to have the series finished by March 12, when the 95th Academy Awards ceremony will take place, but since my previous entry, this year’s Oscar nominations have been announced. I have some thoughts.

This year finds me, on the whole, pretty happy with the nominations. Everything Everywhere All at Once was my favorite movie of the past year, so I’m glad to see it get plenty of love in multiple categories, especially in Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, and Best Actress. The Banshees of Inisherin was also a compelling watch (my husband called it the most honest movie he’s seen this year), and Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Barry Keoghan, and Kerry Condon all gave spot-on performances that deserve the Academy’s recognition. Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans felt a bit more like standard Oscar-bait fare, but then I love standard Oscar-bait fare as long as it’s good, which this film was. I confess I didn’t enjoy the much-lauded Tar, but then, I don’t think “enjoyment” is very high among that film’s goals; those who enjoy movies with an icy tone of clinical detachment would find much to admire in it, and Cate Blanchett’s performance in the kind of “arsehole genius” role men have gotten to play for years is admittedly a tour de force. I haven’t seen All Quiet on the Western Front or Women Talking, but I’m eager to do so; the subject matter for Triangle of Sadness doesn’t exert much of a pull on me, but I’ve seen and heard nothing that would lead me to believe it doesn’t deserve its place among the Best Picture nominees.

Yet every year brings a little something to regret. Like many, I’m not pleased to see Viola Davis denied a Best Actress nomination for The Woman King; even those who criticize the film for its historical inaccuracies cannot find fault with her performance. As much as I liked Michelle Williams’ luminous performance in The Fabelmans, her role is more supporting than leading, so Davis would, in my opinion, have made a better choice for the lead actress category. I’m also sorry to see Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery left out of every category except Best Adapted Screenplay; even Janelle Monae, whom many critics named as a strong contender, failed to score a nomination. But my greatest regrets involve this year’s animated features being shut out of all categories except Best Animated Feature, even though Alexandre Desplat’s gorgeous score for Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is richer and more memorable than John Williams’ weak entry for The Fabelmans, and both Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (my second favorite movie of the year, and my husband’s favorite) would have been more deserving of recognition for Best Adapted Screenplay than Top Gun: Maverick.* It’s become increasingly clear over the last few years that Academy voters feel a Best Animated Feature award is all the recognition animated films really deserve, even if they’re among the year’s very best. Too many Academy voters can’t even be bothered to watch them.

The tendency of Hollywood’s movers and shapers to relegate animation to its “lane” was never more apparent than at last year’s Oscar ceremony, when Amy Schumer, who caught a lot of (deserved) grief for her lackluster hosting job, quipped that she hadn’t watched any of the Best Animated Feature nominees except Encanto, and that one only “because I have a toddler.” Making matters worse was the choice of Halle Bailey, Naomi Scott, and Lily James — actresses who have played (or in Bailey’s case, will play) Disney princesses in the live-action remakes of animated classics — to present the award for Best Animated Feature, rather than anyone known for their work in the medium of animation. Just how grave a mistake this choice was became even clearer when these ladies started to talk, and revealed pretty clearly that they have little to no interest in, or admiration for, animated films. Their presentation speech revolved around the joke that children watch these movies over and over and over and over, much to parents’ weary dismay. The idea that any adult might enjoy an animated movie on its merits as a piece of storytelling lies beyond their comprehension. Phil Lord, one of the producers of 2021’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Tweeted that they were basically “position[ing] animation as something that kids watch and adults have to endure.”

This misguided notion most often meets with two responses, both of which I agree with. The first is that, as Guillermo del Toro points out, animation is not a genre of film but a medium through which a wide variety of stories can be told, and as such it should not be forced into some narrow pigeonhole. The second is that dismissing animated movies as children’s entertainment ignores the existence of films like last year’s nominee Flee, as well as Anomalisa, Mary and Max, Waltz with Bashir, Persepolis, and the magnificent, heartbreaking The Tale of Princess Kaguya, all of which are geared toward more mature audiences; these are the kinds of movies that animation-ignorant Academy voters don’t watch, the result being that the Best Animated Feature Oscar is almost always awarded to a Disney, Pixar, or Disney/Pixar release. And anime has delved into many films not intended for children nor families- but that list is too long.

But there’s a third response that I hear far less, and that I feel deserves an airing. Let’s concede that many animated films are indeed “family entertainment,” designed to please an audience of all ages. The best of Dreamworks’ films, like the How to Train Your Dragon and the Kung Fu Panda trilogies, can be described this way, along with most of Disney/Pixar and even the works of Irish studio Cartoon Saloon (with the possible exception of The Breadwinner). Yes, youngsters are going to want to watch these movies, maybe even repeatedly. And I have to ask: why is that a bad thing?

A review of the first Minions film, released back in 2015, made a distinction between it and Pixar’s Inside Out, arguing that while the latter was a family film in the truest sense of the word — a movie that would touch and intrigue child and adult viewers alike — the former was merely “a kids’ film that adults will tolerate.” The live-action Disney princesses and those who share their views fail to understand this distinction. They see all animated films in the same light that the reviewer sees Minions, because they don’t comprehend just how much skill and ingenuity go into crafting a story that can honestly resonate with audiences of all ages. Renowned theologian and SFF author C.S. Lewis once stated, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally — and often far more — worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” I would argue that the same logic applies to movies. Well-told stories have value and should be honored, regardless of their presumed target audiences. This is why my husband and I, child-free unless you count our beloved tuxedo cats (and they have no say in what they watch, but Demelza does enjoy “Star Trek Discovery” for Lieutenant Tilley), hurried to the theater to see Inside Out almost as soon as it was released. It’s why when we were waiting in line to see Toy Story 3 in IMAX, almost everyone in line with us was a millennial who had grown up with the first two films and were now eager, as twentysomethings, to reconnect with the Andy’s-Room gang.

As a fifty-three year old woman, I’m drawn to films like Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, and Turning Red for the same reason I would be drawn to any film: their stories are involving and their characters engaging. But they also have something that Tar and The Banshees of Inisherin lack, something we adults in the middle years of life may value more than some folks seem to realize: hope. Many (though far from all) films aimed at adults are made by directors and screenwriters who mistake cynicism for intelligence, who think that scrubbing out sentiment and increasing despair are signs of substance. Yet the best family films offer a mix of wit and warmth that an audience can take heart from. This mix takes real craft to achieve. And it’s past time for the Academy and all other arbiters of culture to honor that craft

*I have not seen Top Gun: Maverick, but my husband has, so I’m working with the information he gave me. He is not the only one who questions the nomination.

All Best Picture Winners, Ranked: 1940 – 1944

1940: Rebecca [Good]

This was my maternal great-aunt’s favorite movie, one she watched repeatedly, and if I didn’t at least place it in the “Good” tier, I suspect her ghost would return to torment me until I developed better taste in movies. Fortunately, I can say with perfect candor that it is, indeed, good, with strong performances by Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, and especially Judith Anderson, whose diabolical character will give the viewer chills. This was legendary suspense-film director Alfred Hitchcock’s only Best Picture winner, and while it’s neither his best film nor my favorite of his films, it does bear his stamp, with plenty of flashes of the style that made him an icon.

1941: How Green Was My Valley [Personal Favorite]

Okay, I get it. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is a masterpiece. Yes, it should have been nominated; yes, it should have won. It’s a thought-provoking and pictorially mesmerizing classic, unique among films of its time, innovative in its documentary-style narrative and detached, objective tone, and burying the movie to ensure it wouldn’t receive the honors it deserved counts among the worst things the offended publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst ever did. But the film that actually won Best Picture that year should not be held accountable for the wrongs done to Kane. It deserves to be judged on its own merits, and while I can understand why some might still dislike it on those grounds — I will admit that it’s a bit thin on plot, being more a series of incidents in the life of a Welsh coal-mining family than a narrative with rising action that builds to a climax — the movie has been a favorite of mine for years. The paterfamilias played expertly by character actor Donald Crisp is, along with Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, my favorite Movie Dad, a wise, warm-hearted man, sometimes stern, occasionally flawed and stubborn but ultimately loving, and his relationship with his young son Roddy MacDowall is beautifully poignant. Walter Pidgeon (as the local minister, a friend and mentor to young MacDowall), Maureen O’Hara (as MacDowall’s older sister, who loves Pidgeon in vain), Sara Allgood (as Crisp’s wife and MacDowall’s mother, tough but flawed), and Rhys Williams and Barry Fitzgerald (as a pair of prizefighters who give MacDowall boxing lessons when he’s being bullied at school, and then later, in my favorite scene, give a “boxing lesson” to the biggest bully of all, MacDowall’s teacher) also turn in brilliant, touching performances. Alfred Newman’s superb score is the cherry on top. Call it boring if you must, but I stand strong in my affection for it.

1942: Mrs. Miniver [Okay-to-Good]

A beautiful woman with class to burn, Greer Garson was the Emma Thompson of her day, and the choice of her to portray a typical middle-class British housewife driven to heroic extremes by the advent of World War II cannot be faulted. The movie also boasts a roster of superb British character actors such as Dame May Whitty, Reginald Owen, Henry Travers, Henry Wilcoxon, and Rhys Williams (again), plus the stalwart Walter Pidgeon (again) as Garson’s husband. Nonetheless, I can’t place this movie securely in my “Good” tier because with the exception of a few scenes — among them Garson’s confronting downed German pilot Helmut Dantine and the climactic tragic air raid — the movie has somehow failed to take firm hold in my memory, even though I’ve seen it twice (and for movies in my Good tier, twice is all it takes). Those parts are more interesting than the whole. It doesn’t help that the same year boasted three other movies that have made the room for themselves in my heart and mind that this film failed to make: Pride of the Yankees (starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig), Yankee Doodle Dandy (starring James Cagney as George M. Cohan), and Random Harvest (starring Ronald Colman along with, of all people, Greer Garson, whose performance her is better, IMO, than her turn in Mrs. Miniver, even though the latter won her a Best Actress Oscar).

1943: Casablanca [God-Tier]

I’ll get the negativity out of the way first: it may be heresy to say so, but I find the love story the least interesting part of this iconic movie. Ingrid Bergman is luminous, and the camera loves her as much as Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine loves her character, but Ilsa Lund is underwritten. Though I’m pretty good at accepting each movie as a product of its time, her telling Rick, “You have to do the thinking for both of us,” does make me grind my teeth a little. (If you want to see Bergman as a heroine with some substance and complexity to her, check out Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious.) Yet this quibble doesn’t suffice to keep this film out of God-Tier. It’s a masterpiece, one I could watch again and again at the proverbial drop of a hat. (In one of my highlights of 2022, my husband and I saw this film on the big screen at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, along with a sizable audience of fellow classic movie nerds.) Aside from Bergman’s underwritten role, which she still manages to invest with a dash of charisma, everything about this movie works. The refugees from the Nazis, stuck in Casablanca waiting for the exit visas that will enable them to emigrate to the US, are played by actual refugees from the Nazis, giving the film an authenticity no remake could hope to duplicate. Every bit of casting is spot on, from Madeleine Lebeau as a desperate good-time girl in love with Rick, to Leonid Kinskey as the funny and slightly naughty bartender, to Curt Bois as the pickpocket taking every opportunity to fleece the wealthier refugees (“Vultures! Vultures everywhere!”), to S.K. Sakall as the chef at Rick’s Cafe Americain, to Dooley Wilson as jazz pianist Sam, who can stop the Cafe’s floor show by leading a rollicking singalong of “Knock on Wood” but can’t quite remember “As Time Goes By.” Paul Henried and Conrad Veidt make strong impressions as the movie’s Pure Hero and Pure Villain, as Henried leads the Cafe’s patrons in a rousing rendition of “La Marseillaise” that drowns out Veidt and his men’s comparatively feeble chorus of “Watch on the Rhine.” Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet make the most of their little screen time. And of course there’s Bogie himself, rarely seen as a romantic lead before this film and proving himself a natural in such roles. (His scruffy cynicism as a mask for a heroic nature would again serve him well in 1951’s The African Queen.) I’ve saved my favorite part for last: Claude Rains, as the Prefect of Police in Casablanca, an agent of the Nazi-tainted French Vichy government. As Rick’s frenemy, he has as much chemistry with Bogart, albeit of a different kind, as Bergman does, and over half the film’s best lines come from their exchanges, while most of the other half belong to Rains himself. Somehow he missed netting a Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year, but his turn as Louis Renault has lingered in our cultural memory long after Charles Coburn’s Oscar-winning performance in The More the Merrier has faded. Without Rains, Casablanca might still have been a pretty decent movie; with him, it’s God-Tier.

1944: Going My Way [Okay]

Most Best Picture winners from this era distinguish themselves by gravitas, wit, or some combination thereof; this movie doesn’t have much of either. I can’t think of anything objectionable about it, but that’s largely because I can’t think of much of anything about it at all, except the song “Swinging on a Star.” It failed to inspire any strong feeling in me one way or the other, which is, after all, the very definition of “okay.”