There’s a little awards ceremony happening this weekend that recognises emerging talent in the film industry, colloquially referred to as the Oscars. If you know about film, you might have heard of it? In celebration of this grand occasion, I’ve compiled a list of my favourite winners in the Best Picture category.
Unflinching, visceral filmmaking at its most powerful. 12 Years a Slave not only proved cinema as an art form of great integrity, but one of absolute necessity. Unlike 2005 Best Picture winner Crash, which despite being a good film, I felt was awarded the honour for all the wrong reasons, 12 Years a Slave thoroughly earned it’s place in a long and prestigious history. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so exhausted and shaken by a film, and if that’s not testament to it’s power, I’m not sure what is. The films it was up against that year were artistically adventurous (Her, Gravity, Nebraska), topically risky (The Wolf of Wall Street) and ideologically important (Dallas Buyers Club). But 12 Years a Slave was all of that combined. And then some. See full review here.
I’ve unashamedly harboured a profound, undying, unsinkable love for Titanic ever since I saw it at the age of 12, and became promptly besotted with Jack and Rose’s love story. Though with hindsight, it’s a little dated and yes, long, to me it represents everything momentous that cinema can achieve. In all it’s vastness and awe-inspiring production design however, the detail is never lost. We are with Jack and Rose every step of the way – engulfed, submerged and utterly lost in their tragic adventure. Every time I watch it (going on 14 times), I somehow think (SPOILER ALERT) Jack might just cling on this time slash Rose might just have the sense to budge over. At the time of it’s release it was the most expensive movie ever made, and continued to drown in superlatives as it bagged 11 Oscars and became the highest-grossing film, only to be ousted by another James Cameron blockbuster: Avatar. I’m a romantic at heart, and Titanic taps into that notion. Oh sure, it’s corny and melodramatic and I’ll never not find it ridiculous just how many times Jack and Rose are forced back down into the lower decks. But I’ll also never regret investing 3 hours in a film that is so epically, painstakingly and beautifully constructed.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Who can fail to fall in love with Forrest Gump? In the unravelling of his story director Robert Zemeckis has created one of the most enduring, universal and magical films of its time. Indeed, of all time. The only other two real contenders that year were Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption, but both took their time in receiving the same level of acclaim as Forrest Gump. It was the out and out winner if just for its sheer ability to touch even those irredeemably, unfathomably cynical.
This has crept in above the likes of Casablanca, The Godfather Part II and The English Patient because though it’s not a cinematic artefact, the creme de la creme of its genre, or a sweeping love story, it is an expertly-crafted and thoroughly terrifying psychological thriller that manages to incite fear some 20 years after its initial release. (Seriously, look at the picture to the right and tell me your spine isn’t shivering). Taking a leaf out of Hitchcock’s book, Jonathan Demme cranks up the tension to an unbearable degree as Clarice Sterling is forced to make an unlikely ally in Hannibal Lecter in order to capture spine-chilling, serial-killing Buffalo Bill. In blending the macabre with the masterful, Demme creates a film that simultaneously has you hiding behind a blanket/your hands/an unwitting companion and not wanting to tear yourself away.
Dances with Wolves (1990)
A somewhat nostalgic selection that recalls Sunday afternoons spent with my father watching movie classics (Field of Dreams, The Last of the Mohicans, The Great Escape, e.t.c). Traversing the American landscape with an astute and beloved eye, Kevin Costner is at his peak as both actor and director. As Lieutenant Dunbar immerses himself in the Sioux tribe – learning of their customs, language and traditions – we too are invited along to both marvel at, and sympathise with, the Native American people. It’s an ambitious and visionary piece of filmmaking that recalls and subverts the forefathers of its genre; at once romanticising the great open plains, but never falling back on racial polarisations or dichotomous stereotypes. Set during the American Civil war at a time of savage conflict and bitter rivalries, Dances With Wolves proved itself to be an antidote to the era’s brutalities – an elegiac saga, but one charged with passion and appreciation for its subject. A sublime, spectacular story and a Sunday afternoon well-spent.
Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise as the polar opposite Babbitt brothers provide two compelling performances, in a sincere road movie of sorts. Thought-provoking without being didactic, Rain Man fostered a changing of societal perceptions towards autism, encouraging people to embrace savants rather than alienate them. Arguably simplistic and sentimental, this film is nevertheless illuminating, heartfelt and frequently hilarious. In a year that pitted it against Working Girl, Mississippi Burning, Dangerous Liaisons, and The Accidental Tourist, where the others are entertaining, Rain Man is enduring. I’ve been trying to correctly guess the number of cocktail sticks in a box ever since.
Ordinary though it may seem, therein lies the charm of Robert Redford’s suburban family drama. Searingly intimate, there are times this portrait of the unravelling Jarrett family feels more like a documentary. There are no sublime special effects or mind-boggling technical feats, Redford simply harnesses the power of the two greatest tricks of cinema – acting and storytelling. As the various foibles and conflicts of the characters are explored, Redford displays astonishing restraint, nuance and assurance, coaxing Oscar-worthy performances from his cast. The death of a son may have been dealt with repeatedly in cinematic terms, but perhaps never so extraordinarily. (Though it has to be mentioned, this was the same year Martin Scorcese’s boxing masterpiece Raging Bull was nominated and in both the categories of ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Director’ I am surprised it didn’t win – had it, it would’ve most definitely earned a place on this list).
Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)
Another humdrum family drama elevated by the standard of acting delivered within. This time Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep play a sparring couple in a bitter custody battle. Technically, there isn’t too much that warrants our curiosity, but when a relatively un-outstanding story manages to engage its audience and tug on your heartstrings, well then attention is deserved. Even the kid playing the kid is fantastic. What’s more, is that it’s quite unique in that it’s the mother who leaves the family in search of freedom and fulfilment and the father who’s left behind to pick up the pieces and juggle his family and a career. I also found myself not taking sides as dramatically as I had expected. Kramer Vs. Kramer fleshes out all of its main characters beautifully, in a way that’s believable and touching and doesn’t encourage you to pass judgment, but rather to empathise with a complex and painful decision. Despite the havoc that divorce wreaks, the film is a hopeful one, and all the better for it. Though I would still advise you to keep a box of tissues nearby.
This is one of my all-time favourite films; let alone whether it was nominated, or succeeded to make good on that nomination. The Sting is irresistibly cool and seductive cinema at its finest, what’s more, it pairs up Robert Redford and Paul Newman, who in my eyes can do no wrong. It’s Chicago in the 1930s and the pair are con-men making their mark for the ultimate swindle. It’s sizzling, energetic storytelling – a crime caper in which the two leads are the kind of bad you root for regardless. There’s poker, period costume and laughs aplenty; its old-school razzle-dazzle Hollywood at it’s most bewitching.
The Godfather (1972)
No ‘all-time favourite’ list would be complete without The Godfather. This sumptuous family saga is what the words ‘timeless’ and ‘classic’ were made for, and Francis Ford Coppola achieved a feat that little do – he made a film dripping with both style and substance. Immersing himself in the sinister, yet loyal trappings of the Corleone family, he created the mother – or godfather – of all organised crime films. He defined a genre. As youngest son Michael Corleone resists his calling, with brutal consequences, the underbelly to the gangster world is unveiled in all its horse-beheading glory. With a magnificent cast that includes Marlon Brandon, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino, Coppola manages to both engage his audience – and dare I say it, elicit their sympathy – whilst simultaneously explicating the rampant violence as vengeance mounts upon vengeance. Transcendent, explosive filmmaking; an offer you’d be imbecilic to refuse.
And there you have my list. Disagree at your behest. I could certainly have made an argument to include On The Waterfront, American Beauty, No Country For Old Men and The Artist, but these are the films I visit time and time again; for inspiration, for nostalgia, for pure enjoyment. This year’s nominees are:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Find out this coming Sunday which one will take home the historic accolade. I’ll be live-blogging every win, every false smile, every J-Law stumble right here.