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.


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