Counting down the best decisions over 40 years of the Best Picture Oscar.

Originally published in Mondo Magazine – March 10, 2010.

The Oscars are a fickle, fickle business. Whichever picture emerges at the end of the night is gauged not only as the preference of the select few voting Academy members (and, somehow, the Three-6 Mafia) but, as the years pass, the picture that best defined an encapsulated the year that was.

It’s not always about picking the best film, as other factors contribute to which film ends up as the last one standing. The social and political mood of the voters comes into play as sometimes does the track record of the filmmakers and where it stands within the canon of their work.

Sometimes it’s a matter of a film that just struck at the right time (American Beauty,Ordinary People), sometimes it’s about giving someone their due (The Departed,Unforgiven) and sometimes, it’s just a film that’s too big to ignore (Titanic,Return of the King).

It’s what makes the Oscars a tricky barometer of cinematic history and what makes Oscar prediction a slippery science. When it goes wrong, the idiocy of an aging group of voters gets heinously exposed (RockyCrash) however, when it goes right, you get the lasting films and smart choices that at the very least make a lot of sense in hindsight… like picking The Hurt Locker over Avatar!

With that in mind; I give you the 10 best choices of the last 40 years.

10. 2007
Winner: No Country for Old Men
Also-Rans: There Will be BloodJuno,Atonement

At the bottom of the list primarily due to not having much time to age, the Coens’ moment of triumph comes in at number 10 due largely to strength of field and the absence of somewhat tough decisions that had to be made by the Academy over the last decade.

Many of the films that preceded it in the decade were either runaway victories (The Departed), poor choices (Crash) or both (A Beautiful Mind).

There were whispers going into the ceremony that Atonement may have been primed to knock No Countryfrom the lead it had held all through the awards season, but instead the Academy chose a deep film by long overdue auteurs and went against tendencies by picking probably the darkest winner of the last 10 years.

9. 1992
Winner: Unforgiven
Also-Rans: A Few Good MenScent of a WomanThe Crying Game

It’d been 61 years since the Academy chose a true Western as best picture.

(I’m trying my best to forget Dances with Wolves ever happened and it’s a different type of western thanUnforgiven).

Maybe the reason Clint’s masterpiece resonated so much was its revisionist stance exposing the violence of the genre with not-so-subtle shots at the violence of the day. It was an easy choice to finally give Clint some statues, but it wasn’t a film that everyone could immediately embrace and the Academy deserves props for not taking the Oscar bait offered by some contenders that have not aged nearly so well.

8. 1987
Winner: The Last Emperor
Also-Rans: Fatal Attraction,MoonstruckBroadcast News

A funny little year ’87 was. The Academy embraced what, in hindsight, looks like pretty populist fare in Fatal Attraction and Moonstruck, to say nothing of the suddenly relevant Wall Street. Amidst all this comes a patient, gorgeous epic in The Last Emperor. Not the easiest film to love. Still the Academy goes for the effort of a genius (Bertolucci) over the films that the audiences embraced and made sure that it didn’t fade away as easily as it otherwise might have.

7. 2003
Winner: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Also-Rans: Mystic RiverLost in Translation

I tried to avoid this. I really did.

In 2003 I was outraged – incensed – that this film won. I loved Mystic River and thought, still think, that they picked the wrong piece of the trilogy to heap praise upon. Especially so much praise.

However, six years later, I realize that that’s not the point. The Academy did not want to repeat its error in never giving Star Wars the big prize and there just wasn’t a film with enough love to even contemplate giving the big prize to anything else.

It’s not my favourite film of 2003, and not even my favourite of the trilogy (Fellowship, if you’re asking) but this trilogy earned its Oscar and luckily, the Academy obliged it with one, despite missing the best of the three films.

6. 1982
Winner: Gandhi
Also-Rans: E.T.TootsieThe Verdict

Before I launch into the winner, I feel it necessary to point out that 1982 ranks among the single greatest years in cinematic history. It’s right up there with 1939 and 1953 in sheer volume of classic films. You can add Sophie’s Choice,Blade Runner and The Thing to the above list of films to begin to see what I mean.

Now on to Gandhi.

What makes the choice so impressive is the competition. There are so many choices, how do you get the right one? E.T. was heartwarming, Tootsie was certainly unique, but Gandhi is the kind of classic epic that they just don’t make any more. A simple, straight-forward and sweeping biopic, the likes of which we haven’t seen since David Lean.

It may not rank among a lot of all-time lists, but pulling the film that was most impressive at the time and having it stand up more than 25 years after the fact as a good choice among so many other good choices proves that the Academy can get it right every now and then.

5. 1971
Winner: The French Connection
Also-Rans: A Clockwork OrangeThe Last Picture ShowFiddler on the Roof

This has to take the title as one of the most violent years in cinematic history with A Clockwork Orange,Dirty Harry and Straw Dogs all coming out within a month of each other. It was the year that really got the maverick decade rolling and the Academy went for a fresh, fast film featuring a director in Friedkin and an actor in Hackman that would contribute heavily to one of the freest and most incredible decades on celluloid. It was the right choice at the right time and the film remains an action classic.

4. 1993
Winner: Schindler’s List
Also-Rans: The PianoThe FugitiveIn the Name of the Father

And sometimes it’s just academic. This was simply too good a film to ignore and they’d been trying to find reasons not to give Spielberg an Oscar sinceJaws. Perhaps this was such a great choice because Spielberg didn’t give them one to make.

3. 1974
Winner: The Godfather Part II
Also-Rans: ChinatownLennyThe Conversation

After narrowly missing an epic gaffe (more on that later) The Godfather got its propers. It’s the only true sequel to win the top prize for a reason.

Somehow, it still didn’t quite clean up… including the inexplicable Art Carney-as-best-actor choice over Pacino, Nicholson and Hoffman at the top of their game!

The sequel took home six Oscars, including Coppola rightly getting a win for directing and De Niro taking supporting actor basically at gun-point.

However, what it comes down to is that they did better with the sequel than they did with its predecessor and still managed to throw Chinatown’s stellar script a bone. The races were far more wide open in ’74 (just ask Carney) than they were in 1972 and yet, the sequel still won just about every tech award it was nominated for on top of taking home some of the top prizes.

Maybe in hindsight this should’ve been one of those runaway years. At the end of the day, though, what matters is that they recognized an improbable sequel and that they didn’t use it to set a precedent for future follow-ups.

2. 1991
Winner: The Silence of the Lambs
Also-Rans: JFKBugsyBeauty & the Beast

The Academy did something in 1991 it had done only twice before.

It gave Best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay to the same film. But what makes The Silence of the Lambs stand above its predecessors (It Happened One Night and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, FYI) is not only the content of the film, but its improbable rise.

Before you get to those top awards, there’s no precedent for the film to clean up like that. JFK and Bugsyhad each won a pair of tech awards, so it was had been a quiet night for Hannibal & co. Not to mention that the film had lost the top prize at both the BAFTAs and Golden Globes.

Yet, still, one of the most horrific best pictures to date came out on top, despite being released on Valentine’s Day of the year before. A bold choice, and (clearly, in hindsight) the right one.

1. 1972
Winner: The Godfather
Also-Rans: Cabaret,Deliverance

Easy one… right?

Nope.

This year is the stand-alone example of why I would love the AMPAS to release the voting results, even if it meant a moratorium of 40 or 50 years before releasing the totals. This one was close.

By time the big award was being teed up, the audience had to have been waiting for the coronation ofCabaret just so they could start partying. Yes, it and The Godfather had each taken a lead acting statue by that point, but apart from that, it was heavily weighted in the musical’s favour. Bob Fosse beat Coppola for director and Joel Grey beat Pacino, Duvall and Caan for supporting actor helping amass the eight awards (including editing, cinematography, sound and more!) that needed only that last one to complete a dominant year.

Then something strange happened… It lost.

A film that is now widely viewed as one of the greatest ever won only three awards that night; best adapted screenplay, best actor and – somehow – best picture. At the time, the crowd had to be stunned. In hindsight, they somehow avoided what may have gone down as their greatest mistake. Wouldn’t you like to see how close those races were? Certainly, almost 40 years after the fact, those numbers could do no harm.