What Is A Best Picture Winner Anyway?

This wasn’t initially the plan, to try to watch every movie that ever won Best Picture, then write a piece dissecting what that even means during the week leading up to the Oscars. It started when I saw a tweet about “the most recent movie to win Best Picture that I haven’t seen.” So, at that moment, I decided I would watch mine, which was, at the time, Shakespeare in Love, a movie I’ve avoided kind of out spite because of the whole Saving Private Ryan thing. A movie that turned out to be completely fine, but for the life of me I still don’t understand how it won Best Picture. But, then, as you probably realize, every time I took a “most recent Best Picture winner” off the board, another one replaces it. And that new one would taunt me until I watched it, too. It’s a funny thing, because that feeling of not understanding how this movie won Best Picture? Yeah, I had that a lot. When I started this my most recent Best Picture winner I hadn’t seen came out in 1998. As I type this, the most recent Best Picture winner I haven’t seen is Cimarron, which came out in 1931. [Update: I am now to The Broadway Melody.] Before the Oscars air on Sunday, I will have seen them all.

When you watch as many Best Picture winners as I have in this short amount of time, it starts to become like a word that you say to yourself over and over again until it sounds alien. Where you can’t help but question everything about what these movies are supposed to represent, what it means they won Best Picture, and why I was even doing this in the first place. When I started my attitude was, “Surely I’ve seen most of these already.” Yes, technically that was true. Come Sunday there will be 93 winners and, yes, even before this, I had seen most. At first it would fill huge gaps. For instance, after I watched Ordinary People*, I got to skip the entire decade of the 1970s and head straight to Oliver!.

*Now, I had seen Ordinary People before. When I was six years old my mom wanted to see it and instead of getting a babysitter, or leaving me with my grandparents, she took me with her. At this point in my life, to the best of my memory, I had seen two movies in a theater: The Empire Strikes Back and Any Which Way You Can. I was under the impression all movies were either set in space or featured a fun-loving orangutan. Ordinary People is neither set in space nor features an orangutan. Ordinary People plays much better now as an adult than it did when I was six. Also, my rule became that if I hadn’t seen a movie since I was a little kid, I had to watch it again.

As the years got older, the movies I got to skip because I had already seen them got less and less frequent. And I was starting to realize that there was probably a reason that these were the Best Picture winners (35 to date and 39 when it’s all said and done) I hadn’t seen. Namely, either they weren’t very good or they are incredibly long. (With a few notable exceptions.)

There does, historically, taken as a whole, seem to be a certain type of movie that wins Best Picture. But what is a Best Picture winner anyway? At its most distilled, it’s a movie that a finite group of people liked the most during a set period of a few days without the guide of any historical context. And there’s no doubt another movie could have easily won if that same vote was taken a month earlier or a month later. No one in their right mind would ever argue that each one of these movies are the best movies from each individual year, yet they get to have that title for eternity. The Greatest Show on Earth, a movie about the circus and not much more other than a pretty cool train crash scene, is not a better movie than High Noon, a meditation on heroism and violence. It’s not even close. The Greatest Show on Earth is the Best Picture from 1952 and nothing will change that.

Historically, movies that seem to win Best Picture fall into a few categories. There are obviously the epics, which take place over a long period of time, and started winning these things in the early 1930s, like Cavalcade. Eventually, starting around Gone With the Wind, these added the aspect of “shooting outside,” which gives us beautiful landscapes to look at that people still like today, as we saw in Nomadland just last year. So much so that even a movie like Gone With the Wind is going to win Best Picture. A movie, rewatching today, isn’t simply littered with offensive stereotypes “of the time,” but has a distinct point of view that the Old South was great until the Yankees showed up and ruined everything. (This is another movie I had not seen since I was a little kid. I was expecting some not great stuff, but I did not remember this was an almost four-hour lecture about the merits of the Confederacy.)

War movies are popular, especially if they are a metaphor for a current war, even though the war being depicted is another war in the past. Though, it was interesting during World War II how many Best Picture winners were about a war that, then, no one yet knew the outcome. Casablanca obviously (a movie, for the record, I’ve seen many times before), but also Mrs. Miniver, a movie that will, from now on, be the answer to, “What movie surprised you the most?” I had avoided Mrs. Miniver because I had assumed it was about “London high society.” And there’s some of that in the first act, but that’s by design. I had no idea Mrs. Miniver is a full-on war movie. From the revelers in London bars assuming Germany was bluffing, to the horrific bombing of London, to a recreation of Dunkirk only two years after the actual events occurred, Mrs. Miniver has a lot of eerie parallels to the events we see today in Ukraine. It’s a fantastic film and, alone, was worth doing this project. (I will add, William Wyler’s other Best Picture winner from this era, The Best Years of Our Lives, is also terrific. But that didn’t come as a surprise.)

The movies that hold up the least well feel like movies voters voted for because either, “I’ve never seen that before,” or felt unique in some way. Movies like the aforementioned The Greatest Show on Earth, “Ohhh, the circus!,” or Around the World in 80 Days, which has no real plot and is just an excuse to show scenery. Or Tom Jones, which is kind of wacky in a modern way, but also clumsy because that form of wacky hadn’t been quite figured out yet. A more recent example of this is The Artist. A movie, I admit, in 2011 I was kind of all in on for all the reasons I just laid out, then haven’t thought about since and will most likely never watch again. The 1930s feature some good movies like It Happened One Night (a movie I had seen), but for the most part the concept of movies with sound is still fairly new, so I can see why people got dazzled by something as bad as The Great Ziegfeld.

But the most baffling winners are movies like 1944’s Bing Crosby vehicle Going My Way. It’s not bad, but there’s also nothing remarkable about it. Some of the truly bad movies winning make more sense because they fit into that “unique” category. Driving Miss Daisy has no business winning Best Picture over Do the Right Thing, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense it won. It’s a movie about race that makes white people feel good about themselves, which also seems like a key to victory, which happened again just three years ago with Green Book. (I’ve noticed movies considered ahead of their time do not win. Which makes sense because, by definition, a movie ahead of its time can’t win anything the year it came out.) But a movie like Going My Way, I can’t even begin to think of an explanation, especially up against far superior movies like Double Indemnity and Gaslight. (My only guess is, as we know today, sometimes there are votes to make up for past snubs. Unfortunately, I don’t have near the time to get into the weeds of every year’s individual votes, but I suspect some of these odd choices stem, sometimes, from something like that. (Oh, as an aside, if you put “God Save the Queen” in your movie, that has to increase the odds of winning. I can’t believe how many times I’ve heard that song over the last month.)

It’s also weird to look at the movies decade by decade. The movies that won Best Picture during the 1970s are actually a pretty good representation of what was both good and popular during that decade. A decade where both The Godfather and Rocky would both win. As opposed to the 1980s where that is not the case. As movies got more commercial, voters short-circuited a bit and started handing out Best Picture to movies that at least felt like the old epics. At least that’s the only explanation for a movie like Out of Africa, a movie that kind of tricked everyone into thinking it was important. But long epics like Gandhi (actually, not bad), Chariots of Fire, Amadeus (good movie), and The Last Emperor (also not bad) seemed to win most years. (Terms of Endearment, Platoon, and Rain Man are the kind of exceptions that broke through as good movies people were actually watching that decade.)

Which brings us to now, and, in a historical context, the last decade or so of Best Picture winners is so scattershot it feels like both a correction of the last 93 years and a microcosm. Truly deserving movies like Moonlight and Parasite feel like corrections. 12 Years a Slave could be a correction, but it’s also an epic. Argo and Spotlight kind of fill the more traditional political thriller/scandal, mainstream movie. But then we still get a movie like Green Book in there. And then there are the oddities that seemed good at the time like The Artist and Birdman. (Again, the oddities hardly ever hold up.) And, of course, with The King’s Speech we get to hear “God Save the Queen.” (I suspect a lot of this has to do with the long-overdue expansion of the Academy and we are right in the middle of some sort of tug of war that will take years to sort itself out. As we are in real life, I suppose.)

The strange thing that happens while watching every Best Picture winner is, by osmosis, you become a sort of Best Picture expert. Or, at the very least, a “buff.” (Not in the prognosticator kind of way. I have no idea what will win Sunday. But in the historical way. Movies that, before, I had only seen the title on lists, like The Life of Emile Zola, I can now explain the plot in great detail and tell you when it won. In the past, I had a hard time remembering the names of all the movies that won Best Picture. This is no longer a problem. Recently a friend mentioned that 42nd Street won Best Picture. It took me half a second to, with all authority, say that it did not. I can do this now, because I am “a buff.”

But, to answer the question that’s proposed in the title, what is a Best Picture winner? Well, sometimes it’s certainly something. And sometimes it’s actually important. But, other times, it’s definitely nothing. And only history has a say on which is which.

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