Welcome back to my chart ranking the Best Picture Winners from Worst to Best, this time we tackle numbers 70 to 56.
70. The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Just like with the previous entry on the list, Cimarron, The Life of Emile Zola isn’t a particularly terrible movie but it’s just one that looks quite old-fashioned by today’s standards. At the time I’m sure the film felt quite revolutionary but today it plays as quite a basic paint-by-numbers biopic. However the film isn’t without its charm thanks in part to the brilliant Paul Muni as the titular Zola as well as Oscar winner Joseph Schildkraut as the wrong Alfred Dreyfuss. There are also some gripping moments in the film, most notably in the trial scenes, but these are few and far between in a film that feels very dated indeed.
69. Wings (1927/28)
Dated is also an adjective I’d use to describe the first ever Best Picture winner, Wings a film that wouldn’t probably be remembered at all today were it not for its place in history. To give its due Wings does boast a fine central turn from silent screen icon Clara Bow as well as some compelling aerial sequences which are quite impressive given the restrictions of the time. However, a lot of the scenes are laughable by today’s standards with an odd scene in a Paris nightclub being a particularly notable example. As a Brit my other problem with Wings is that it essentially tells us that American was wholly responsible for winning the First World War and it was this overly patriotic sentiment that really put me off Wings and as a result it was a film that I never felt comfortable watching.
68. Cavalcade (1932/33)
Another film from the early days of Oscar, Cavalcade is the third film in a row that really hasn’t stood the test of time although I quite enjoyed some elements of it. Based on a Noel Coward play, the film is basically a recap of the early 20th century and features some major historical moments including the sinking of the Titanic and the First World War. Although there are some impressive sequences, the battleground set piece being a particular example, my main issue with Cavalcade was that it was just quite depressing. There was no light and shade during the film and instead one death without any character really being allowed to enjoy life. The film closed with a character singing the ’20th Century Blues’ which kind of sums up the mood of Cavalcade and was possibly the major reason that it doesn’t have a higher placement on this list.
67. An American in Paris (1951)
Vincente Minnelli and Leslie Caron’s other musical collaboration reaches higher than Gigi partly due to its snappier pace and partly due to its more savoury overtones. The presence of Gene Kelly also brings a vigour to the film whilst memorable numbers such as S’Wonderful and I Got Rhythm accompany some well-choreographed sequences. While An American in Paris looks and sounds fantastic, there’s nothing much going on underneath the surface to really justify its title as Best Picture Winner. A fun and entertaining ride it may be but An American in Paris feels more like a bunch of musical sequences stapled together with a flimsy plot than a fully-realised film.
66. Chicago (2002)
The same can basically be said about Chicago, a film that boasts some enjoyable musical sequences and is incredibly well-designed. Chicago is a little higher on the list due to the fact that the subject matter is a little darker and some of the songs, most notably the ‘Cell Block Tango’, do push the envelope. There are also some fun performances from John C Reilly, Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones none of whom take things too seriously. But therein lies the problem with a film that is enjoyable while you’re watching it but doesn’t really stick with you long after the end credits have begun to roll.
65. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
I think a lot of people have an issue with Shakespeare in Love’s Best Picture win due to the fact that it allegedly won the prize due to some underhanded campaigning. However, on balance, the film isn’t that bad and continues our theme of well-designed films that are fun to watch but don’t have much else going for them. I personally feel that Shakespeare in Love comes to life during its final sequences however it’s the journey there that proves problematic. The major issue I had with the film was that a lot of the characters were either underwritten or unlikeable making it hard to sympathise with any of their plights. Shakespeare in Love is a film that appears to be a deeply cultured piece but is actually a rather flimsy comedy dressed up to look like something more. Unfortunately for us, the Academy seemingly can’t tell the difference and therefore Shakespeare in Love still goes down in the history books as the Best Picture for 1998.
64. Going My Way (1944)
Another easy-going movie that isn’t particularly poorly-made, Leo McCarey’s movie essentially plays as a star vehicle for Bing Crosby. Crosby won an Oscar for playing musical priest Chuck O’Malley who tries to turn things around at a failing parish. As you would expect from a film featuring Crosby there are plenty of musical sequences and by the end of the movie I grew quite tired of them. In fact the only bit of depth the film contained was in the character of the older priest played by that year’s Supporting Actor winner Barry Fitzgerald. In fact it’s because of Fitzgerald that the film is as high on this list as it is as without him this would simply be a film full of Crosby’s choral hijinks.
63. Oliver! (1968)
Of all of the Best Picture winners so far Oliver! is the one that I’m finding hardest to rank due to the fact that it’s a film I’ve had a soft spot for since childhood. To its credit the musical sequences, most notably Who Will Buy and Reviewing the Situation, still hold up today and are a joy to watch. The performances, with the exception of the far too cherub-like Mark Lester, are engaging and the final third is absolutely compelling due to its dark tone. I would’ve quite like for the rest of the film to be as dark as its final chapter as I feel that it would’ve been better as a result. Ultimately Oliver! does feel more old-fashioned than some of the other musical winners but it’s still a film that I get plenty of enjoyment from.
62. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
We’re getting to that part of the list with films that don’t have a great deal wrong with them but at the same time don’t really stand out all that much. A Beautiful Mind is a case in point as it’s a solidly made biopic from the wonderful Ron Howard but I found it to be rather unremarkable. The film itself is also fairly uneven and is also rather pleased with itself due to a twist that I saw coming a mile off. Thankfully there are a few highlights most notably the Oscar winning turn from Jennifer Connelly who lights up the screen every time she appears. I also wasn’t personally taken with Russell Crowe’s performance and didn’t think that he particularly made John Nash that sympathetic. But overall I can’t say that A Beautiful Mind is a bad film by any stretch of the imagination it’s just a film that lacks any real wow factor.
61. Rain Man (1988)
Rain Man is one of a number of Best Picture winners whose quality has been bolstered thanks to its leading performers. In the case of Rain Man I felt that both Best Actor winner Dustin Hoffman and especially Tom Cruise did their best to raise the quality of Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass’ iffy script. Throughout the film I thought that Morrow and Bass used Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt’s autism as a plot device to further the rather flimsy story. Thankfully Hoffman’s performance transforms what could be a two-dimensional character into somebody who you both believe in and want to sympathise with. Meanwhile I thought that Cruise had the harder job of making the unlikeable Charlie into somebody you want to root for but I believe he more than managed. Although it’s heavy-going and mawkish at times I feel the performances, alongside the fantastic score and cinematography, transform Rain Man from an average film into an above average one.
60. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
The theme of cast members bolstering questionable material continues into our next entry as I personally thought that Frank Lloyd’s version of Mutiny on the Bounty was all about the performance from Charles Laughton. Laughton’s turn as the monstrous Captain Bligh was fantastic and whenever he was on screen the film was utterly compelling. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the story, there’s a large part of the film where it’s left to Clark Gable and Franchot Tone to anchor the movie and they don’t do as good a job. In fact, as soon as the Bounty gets into Tahiti the film’s pace starts to lag and only gets going again in the final moments. The film did have other admirable qualities, especially the exterior location shots, but ultimately this was Laughton’s show and it was just a shame that he wasn’t on screen throughout the entire picture.
59. Braveheart (1995)
Braveheart was one of those films that I’d heard some awful things about and therefore I think my expectations were particularly low. Imagine my surprise then when I quite enjoyed Mel Gibson’s Scottish epic despite the director’s rather hammy turn as William Wallace. What I enjoyed about Braveheart was the way in which Gibson reinvented the historical epic by throwing in a few contemporary twists especially during the battle scenes. Though the characters may have been a little too broadly drawn I can’t say I wasn’t taken with the majority of the film. Unfortunately the final ten minutes undid most of what I liked about the rest of the film as Wallace’s prolonged execution scenes felt like a rather distasteful way to end what was a fairly entertaining picture. Whilst it may not have deserved it’s Best Picture win I do think Braveheart is one of those films that has been painted as worse than it actually is which probably has more than a little to do with the director’s bizarre personal problems over the past few years.
58. The Deer Hunter (1978)
I do feel that expectations also altered my enjoyment of The Deer Hunter, a film that I went in believing to be one of the best of all time. In its defence it does boast some stunning cinematography and a trio of fine performances from Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep. Although it was Walken’s breakout role that everybody remembers I feel that The Deer Hunter contained one of De Niro’s best performances as he underplayed the role beautifully. The problem I have with The Deer Hunter is that it feels quite self-indulgent and at three hours I feel that director Michael Cimino could have edited down the film a lot more. The first act of the film was especially baggy with a number of scenes adding nothing of value to the rest of the story. The final scenes in which the characters sung ‘God Bless America’ was also a little much for me and I also found it a rather clunky way to end the film. Whilst the positives of The Deer Hunter more than outweigh the negatives I don’t feel it’s a film that deserves to be held in the high esteem that it is today.
57. A Man For All Seasons (1966)
Throughout this journey I’ve encountered quite a few films that are well-designed, technically proficient and wonderfully acted but have still lacked a certain quality that allows me to fully immerse myself into what’s happening on screen. A Man For All Seasons is certainly one of those films as I enjoyed all aspects of the film from the stunning costumes to the use of exterior locations. A Man for All Seasons also contains a number of superb performances namely those from Paul Scofield, Robert Shaw, Wendy Hiller and a scene-stealing Orson Welles. At the same time, as the film is based on a play, I found it to be rather static and I don’t believe that director Fred Zinnemann took full advantage of the cinematic medium. Although it’s a film that I appreciated greatly I can’t say I ever fully relaxed myself into A Man For All Seasons and that’s why it’s placed on the lower end of the list.
56. In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Like a few films that have already cropped up on this list, In the Heat of the Night is a film that probably won the Best Picture due to its less-than-subtle message rather than anything to do with it being the best movie on release that year. In fact the film wasn’t even the best Sidney Poitier nominated picture in 1967 as he also featured in the superior Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. I do feel that In the Heat of the Night’s strongest attribute is Rod Steiger who is absolutely tremendous as the prejudiced Police Chief Bill Gillespie. It’s Steiger’s strong screen presence which allows the film to be as compelling as it is I felt that In the Heat of the Night’s central mystery was fairly weak. Although it was a fairly solid drama In the Heat of the Night was another film that never really blew me away or showed me much about why it deserved that year’s Best Picture prize aside from the top turn from Steiger.
I’ll return next time to countdown numbers 55 to 41.