Movie Awards season is in full swing, and I’ve discovered a pleasant time-waster on YouTube: watching videos made by young cinephiles, entitled “I Watched Every Best Picture Winner” or some variation thereof. I’m always fascinated to learn what these movie buffs think of the winners from the Pre-Code and Code Eras; I’ve found, to my delight, that many of them have opened their hearts to these films of long ago. I also can’t help but admire their dedication to their project. “I’ve watched every Best Picture winner” is more than I’m able to boast, though I have seen quite a few of them. The Academy being the flawed organization it is, these young folks have forced themselves to sit through some real stinkers. And they’ve inspired me to come up with my own assessments of this roster of Award-winning films.
For my ranking, I’ve come up with my own Tiers:
Never Seen [NS] — I just haven’t sat down to watch it yet.
Never Seen, Want to See [NS/WS] — It’s in my To-Watch pile.
Never Seen, Never Will [NS/NW] — This tier is for films that, while they may be beautifully made and brilliantly acted, aren’t on my To-Watch list because their subject matter and/or characterizations don’t interest me.
Not for Me [NFM] — I understand why it won, but it doesn’t appeal to my own personal taste.
Aged Like Milk [ALM] — This movie is dated to the point where it’s almost painful to watch.
Personal Favorite [PF] — I love these movies, even though they’ve gotten substantial backlash after winning Best Picture. While other films made in that same year may have been technically better and more influential overall, these movies have my heart.
Okay [O] — I don’t hate them, but neither do I love them. They’re just… okay.
Good [G] — Even if another movie made the same year might have been more deserving, these movies are solidly Good, and most movie fans agree. Some of these are double-tiered with Personal Favorite.
God-Tier [GT] — Beyond dispute, this movie deserves the Award.
For the one and only time, Best Picture was divided between two films, William Wyler’s epic World War 1 bromance Wings [G] and F. W. Murnau’s tone poem about the restoration of a failing marriage, Sunrise [GT]. Both are excellent introduction points for movie buffs who haven’t yet seen any silent films and want to know what they’re like. After finishing them, you might feel the just-around-the-corner advent of the talkies was almost tragic.
1929: The Broadway Melody [NS]
This movie ranks near the bottom of almost every Best Picture ranking. Based on commentary I’ve read and clips I’ve seen, I’m pretty sure this movie, one of the earliest all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing pictures, won the award due to its novelty, not its quality.
1930: All Quiet on the Western Front [GT]
In 1930, directors and actors were still trying to figure out talking pictures, yet somehow this movie emerged, and even more remarkably, it has barely dated at all. While most films around this time suffered from Stationary Camera Syndrome, this faithful adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s powerful novel looks great, and the lack of musical score, a problem with many early talkies, actually works to this film’s advantage. No other film made that year is even on the same level.
1931: Cimarron [NS]
What I’ve read and seen of this film suggests to me that if I were to see it in its entirety (and it is veeeeery long) it would belong in the Aged Like Milk tier.
1932: Grand Hotel [O]
It’s been a while since I’ve seen this one, but it’s left very little imprint on my memory. From what I can remember, the Barrymore brothers — dashing John, tragic Lionel — are both quite good. But I couldn’t tell you the plot of this one if you threatened me with torture.
1933: Cavalcade [O]
This one isn’t easy to track down; I was lucky enough to find a copy at my local library more than a decade ago. It tells the story of two British families, one gentry and the other servant-class, from 1900 to the early 30s, and it does feature one masterful stroke of blackest humor: the older son of the gentry family and his wife, on their honeymoon aboard a passenger liner, wax lyrical about their moment of perfect happiness, declaring they’ll never be this happy again — and then the camera homes in on a life preserver reading TITANIC. I’ve got to give it some credit for that. Yet as drama, this movie fails. The death of this young man and his wife makes no visible impression on their parents, nor does the younger brother appear to regret the loss of his sibling. When the younger brother is subsequently killed in World War 1, his death is given a little more attention, but not much more. If characters’ loss makes little to no impact on the surviving characters, how is it supposed to impact its audience? The same year’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is both more thought-provoking and more emotionally powerful, in short, more deserving of the award.
1934: It Happened One Night [G, PF]
This charming romantic comedy, still easily among the top five romcoms ever made, has a few detractors here and there, but it still holds up, thanks to Clark Gable’s and Claudette Colbert’s sparkling chemistry and Frank Capra’s note-perfect direction. This movie rescued its studio, Columbia Pictures, from bankruptcy and set Capra on the road to success, as he’d direct a string of hits through the rest of the 1930s and on into the 40s. (Ironically, his masterwork, 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life, was also his first big box-office flop.)
1935: Mutiny on the Bounty [G, PF]
Oh, this movie. The only thing that keeps it out of God-Tier is that I’ve heard some critics suggest that either Captain Blood or Top Hat should have taken the prize, but while I adore both those films, I’d still give the top honor to this compelling and brilliantly acted drama about a crew of sailors driven to desperation and, in the end, mutiny by their tyrannical captain. While the sequences that take place in Tahiti, where the men experience days of bliss that contrast sharply with their life aboard ship, might raise a socially conscious 2022 eyebrow or two, I find the performances of Charles Laughton (as the relentless bully Captain Bligh), Clark Gable (as mutiny leader Fletcher Christian), Franchot Tone (as idealistic, naive Midshipman Roger Byam, over whose soul Bligh and Christian do pitched battle), and Dudley Digges (as tipsy, tragic ship’s surgeon “Mr. Bacchus”) keep it from being dated. Laughton’s performance in particular would be a contender even if he were nominated for Best Actor against today’s best.