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…


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