8:30 a.m: First curve ball of the day: my preferred butcher doesn’t have pork neck bones for the gravy. Suggests spare ribs instead. What the hell.
8:45—9:15 a.m.: Get list of all Best Picture winners, paste into Word document, open other word document, re-figure-out how to work with two document windows simultaneously, rank Best Picture Winners according to both personal preference and secret rule book issued to Old School (as in “non-Vulgar”) Auteurists, as if I even know the difference any more. Who can tell the dancer from the dance, yo.
9:18 a.m.: Go out for more supplies. Tally up my total of Oscar Best Picture Winners. Second curve ball of the day: I realize I have 89 Best Picture whereas that Buzzfeed piece everyone’s so agitated about only ranked 85. Da fuh? Did I repeat some? I guess we’ll find out as the day progresses.
10:00 a.m.: Put my Rolling Stones albums in the disc changer—for some reason, early-middle Stones, starting with or around the UK Aftermath, is my default gravy-making music—and start slicing up the garlic in, yes, the Goodfellas razor blade style. I really AM in the tank for Scorsese.
10:10 a.m.: Another curveball: As a grateful recovering alcoholic, I forgot to get wine for the gravy. And the corner licka store isn’t open. So I have to schlep over to Scotto’s. While I’m there I might as well get a big-ass Tupperware thingie, as today I’m going to do what I’ve never actually done in all my years of making gravy: I’m gonna strain it before I put it in the fridge. An experiment. Good thing I have nothing to do all day, except make gravy, and rank all the Best Picture Oscar winners.
12 noon: Okay. The onion and garlic are in, the wine is in, the spare ribs are in, I went out and bought a spoon holder, there’s nothing to do but stand, sit, simmer and stir for three hours. Let’s get this Oscar assessment party started.
That’s right, Argo. My list, I can do whatever I want with it. Eat it, 2012!
But seriously: obviously it is ridiculous to assert that this is the WORST Best Picture winner ever. It is, however, entirely arguable that it is the least deserving. Start with the smarmy Hollywood self-congratulation, add the give-with-one-hand/take-away-with-the-other politics, fold in the Jack Kirby snub…”And that’s just for starters,” as Telly Savalas used to say.
“Cimarron’s not that bad,” my friend Ed Hulse (Portly And Distinguished Film Historian, we used to call him at Video Review) likes to say. Ed REALLY likes Westerns. Anyway, I did due diligence and watched this for a Premiere magazine “Worst Oscar Winners” piece and to tell you the truth I don’t remember a thing about it.
87: The Broadway Melody
In the high eighties the distinctions aren’t all that cost effective, so now that I think about it, this early talkie musical snoozer might be WORSE than Cimarron! Sorry Cimarron.
Now this one’s DEFINITELY worse than Cimarron. Whereas I don’t remember much of Cimarron, I definitely remember starting to lose the will to live about twenty minutes into watching this, again doing the due diligence thing. Not recommended. (God, I sure am inputting “Cimarron” a lot.)
85: Around the World In Eighty Days
Okay, now we’re out of the ‘30s and into the ‘50s. This white elephant, a particular bete noir of Sarris’ if I recall correctly, is the sort of thing that made people think the Eisenhower administration was dumb. S.J. Perelman admirers feel as bummed out to be reminded of this as Joan Didion fans are to be reminded of Up Close And Personal. Makes It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World look like Love And Death.
84: The Greatest Show On Earth
This ill-advised foray into circus life for Cecil B. DeMille has a lot of attractive-seeming elements—great train crash scene, a really weird Jimmy Stewart performance—that one is apt to approach it from a “how bad can it be?” attitude. It’s bad.
83: The Great Ziegfeld
I love William Powell more than the next guy but Jesus H. [lapses into coma]
Man, we watched this the other night and it HAS NOT AGED WELL. And the shot with the Iranian guy with the gun and the American flag subtly secreted in the background oh lord. My wife and I blame it for ruining our weekend. And we dare you to…no, we don’t dare you, that’s hostile, we implore you, for your own safety, keep away from this mess. All that goodwill Paul Haggis built up with me in that Scientology book, shot.
12:20 p.m.: The gravy’s lookin’ pretty good. Sounding good, too—nice steady simmer.
Last couple of years I used a slow cooker to make gravy and while it turned out fine this year, in prepping a Sunday lasagna dinner, I felt that using the slow cooker would mean I wasn’t working hard enough. So I thought I’d go the whole watched-pot hog, do the San Marzano tomatoes. I’ve got to say that there’s something viscerally/spiritually satisfying about closely watching over the whole process.
81: You Can’t Take It With You
Cast and director and source material and all that notwithstanding, this one’s kind of a frantic mess, huh?
80: The Artist
Cloying, winsome, kinda dumb, technically slack. Other than that, fine.
79: The King’s Speech
When I initially reviewed this, I actually wrote that Hooper’s wide-angle excesses helped keep the movie interesting. I can really be a cockeyed optimist some times.
78: Slumdog Millionaire
Hmm. I’m not sure I’ve actually seen this.
Rob Marshall is a very talented choreographer.
76: The Greatest Show On Earth
Ah! See! I did repeat one. See #84.
75: The Life of Emile Zola
The apogee of the “distinguished” studio biopic back in the day, this day being 1937. I liked Paul Muni better in I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang. Everybody else does too.
74: Mutiny on the Bounty
Legendary Laughton performance aside (Gable’s good too but bear with me) this thing’s got Thalberg Prestige written all over it, a particularly bad thing with this kinda story line if you ask me.
73: Chariots of Fire
A remarkably decrepit “distinguished” film, all attempts to contemporize the subgenre notwithstanding.
The movie that introduced the world to Ben Kingsley while also showcasing maybe about one-tenth of his range. Watchable.
71: A Man For All Seasons
This movie also infuriated Andrew Sarris: Oh wait, now that I’ve gone and gotten out my copy of The American Cinema (leaving the kitchen for a minute) it’s worse than I thought: “It is the payoff films—High Noon, From Here To Eternity, The Nun’s Story and A Man For All Seasons—that most vividly reveal the superficiality of Zinnemann’s personal commitment. At its best, his direction is inoffensive; at its worst it is downright dull.” That’s Fred Zinnemann, by the way. Andrew’s just warming up: “his true vocation remains the making of antimovies for antimoviegoers.” Whoa. Anyway there’s some people who’ll react to a dis of this movie by insisting that Paul Scofield gives the greatest performance ever given by anyone ever, and he is pretty good. What are you gonna do. The script is pretty highly regarded by some, too.
Man, this gravy is reducing a lot faster than I thought it would. I better go out and get some more tomato puree.
1:00 p.m.: Moving along nicely. The smell of the pork flavor is starting to emerge. Soon the wine will have cooked off and I’ll be able to taste it.
70: Out of Africa
Very pretty, weirdly dramatically moribund. And this seemed to be almost universally acknowledged at the time it got its Oscar. Awards sure are strange.
69: American Beauty
Speaking of movies I fulsomely and egregiously overrated on their initial release, this. I’m still fond of it on some levels but its honors bespeak of the fact that it’s exactly the sort of thing an academy would deem “edgy.”
68: Dances With Wolves
No, don’t slink away. Not EVERYBODY was embarrassed by this movie, it made a shit-ton of money. The screenwriter gets a point or two in my book for the shout-out to Exene Cervenka in his acceptance speech.
Carol Reed: What Happened?
66: All The King’s Men
Who’d have known that the only useful thing about the utterly misbegotten Steve Zaillian remake or re-adaptation of the novel or whatever you want to call it would be making this blustery mostly-mess look so much better?
65: Rain Man
“Interesting” story, good star power, moves right along, but a little opportunistic, no?
64: Forrest Gump
Hating on this movie has gotten so common, so conventional-wisdom, that I’m ALMOST ready for unreconstructed Robert Zemeckis lover Dave Kehr’s R.Z.-as-Voltaire read of the movie. It will go down easier, I bet, if I don’t watch the movie again first.
63: The English Patient
I’ve recently concluded that The Good German is a much, much better refutation of Casablanca than this movie. So there.
62: A Beautiful Mind
Russell Crowe is really good in this. In every other respect, though, this might be the most “Huh?” Best Picture Winner of all.
Really great battle scenes—it’s pretty clear Mel studied Kurosawa for real before laying this out. Little heavy on the gay-bashing and masochism though. Was there a Scottish lobby working the voters or something?
I was entertained.
59: Shakespeare In Love
The moving story of a pedigreed starlet willing to do nudity and her fateful affair with a Prince look alike in Elizabethan dress. Hence, a film for the ages.
58: Driving Miss Daisy
The good liberal movie good liberals love to hate. On the other hand, the legit theater isn’t exactly brimming with opportunities for senior-age white women and middle-aged African American males, so go right ahead and picket the next live production you find. As for the movie, it really IS well-performed, and Bruce Beresford’s an extremely able director who does not falter here.
57: My Fair Lady
Great songs, appealing performers (unless you know a lot about Rex Harrison’s personal life and have taken it to heart), absolutely leaden direction.
I watched this a few years ago with the “Milos Forman: What Happened” idea in mind, and was surprised and relieved to discover, lack of surreal touches and New Wave fragmentation aside, it wasn’t at all an “out of character” film for him. It’s just not in the top echelon of his work, I guess. But if you look at it without quailing at its length or thematic emphasis on Stupid Classical Music, it’s good stuff.
55: Terms of Endearment
Come on. James L. Brooks, Larry McMurtry, all of that. If American cinema had a domestic De Sica (albeit one without the wartime sensibility), Brooks was it for this picture.
54: Ordinary People
Like everyone else I’m terribly upset that it beat Raging Bull, whose immortality this loss did not affect a whit, and also yeah middlebrow bourgeois psychotherapeutic clichés but there are some career-high performances here, so let’s just take a deep breath. Wanna rap about it?
53: The Sound of Music
I played Captain Von Trapp in Seltzer School’s 1972 production of this musical, and Max Detweiler in Jefferson Township High School’s 1977 production of same. I love this movie. If you have a Sound of Music problem I feel bad for you, son. I’ve got 80-something Oscar problems but The Sound of Music ain’t one.
Good speeches, looks pretty spooky. Hinges on an absolute misinterpretation—“could not make up his mind” my foot—but it gives good Shakespeare for the most part.
51: Silence of the Lambs
Long after there are no more Oscars any more, this will be cited as the only motion picture featuring a Fall song on its soundtrack to ever win the Big One.
50: In The Heat of the Night
Pioneered the “look at all these people sweating” genre that A Time To Kill so adroitly picked up on.
A silent picture, as you may have heard. Production value, a good tough directorial signature courtesy of William Wellman, great action scenes. Don’t let anybody tell you different.
48 Mrs. Miniver
Its utility value has, yes, been decreased by the fact that World War II isn’t going on anymore, but give yourself over to this picture and it will have its way with you.
47: Going My Way
Robin Wood would tell you The Bells of St. Mary’s, the sequel, is the better film, and he’s not wrong, but in my book a Leo McCarey/Bing Crosby collaboration has nothing to not recommend it.
46: The Lost Weekend
Kate Aurthur, who wrote the Buzzfeed piece that indirectly inspired this one, is taking a lot of heat for it in the comments and in the Twittersphere and elsewhere, and as someone who reveres or just likes a lot of the movies that come in for her disdain in the piece, I understand the pain of the howlers. But Ms. Aurthur and I have some mutual friends, and I’m assured that she’s a good egg, and I believe those assurances, even as I recognize, whenever I happen to read her writing, that we don’t have a whole lot in common in terms of taste and sensibility. And as a grateful recovering alcoholic, I do wince as the “you will laugh watching it” assurance in her entry on this film—it seems a little presumptuous. I haven’t had much patience to the “alienating to contemporary sensibilities” condemnation critics so readily tar movies with, for one thing. Still. This is a Buzzfeed article we’re talking about here. We are not, for better or worse, Buzzfeed people here, so why get so bothered. Also: Nick Tosches hates this movie, too, partially because he’s very much higher on Charles Jackson’s book, and then because he thinks the movie’s an egregious piece of Hollywood hackwork. So go tell HIM he’s full of shit. And finally, the bat really IS bad. That said, I’m pretty fond of the picture.
45: Gentleman’s Agreement
Sure it’s dated, but thanks to Kazan’s commitment—and Peck’s—it’s got more sting than you’d expect.
The Academy’s perfunctory bow to the “small film.”
43: Tom Jones
The Academy’s perfunctory bow to the New Wave film. That’s just how much the actual New Wave confused the Academy.
42: West Side Story
There’s a lot wrong with this movie. For instance, Natalie Wood playing a Puerto Rican girl. But—she’s Natalie Wood! All of your other complaints have pretty much the same kind of answer. Live with it.
MINNELLI POWER MISE EN SCÈNE POWER CHEVALIER POWER FUCK THE HATERS
40: Midnight Cowboy
Still quite the actors’ showcase. In other respects almost as dated as that Zola movie.
39: The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
The Academy’s perfunctory bow to the AICN/Badass Digest film.
38: West Side Story
Aha! ANOTHER redundancy. What an idiot I am.
The Academy’s not-at-all perfunctory bow to the “Remember When We Knew What The Hell We Were Doing Militarily” film.
36: The Sting
A last gasp of love for studio cinemacraft, amiable diversion division.
All right, enough of this nonsense, I’m starting to look bad. (“Starting?”) See #52.
Marty, with boxing.
ESPN’s answer to Apocalypse Now.
32: Million Dollar Baby
As implicitly promised, here’s where my shameless auteurist bias really waves its freak flag.
31: The Last Emperor
Poetic, tragic, ravishingly beautiful. A little self-infatuated. Not really that long.
30: Ben Hur
Cheesy and self-important, yes, but also a remarkably assured and technically breathtaking mega-production.
29: From Here To Eternity
What matters here is less direction or even story than a cast that’s almost literally a collection of icons, each signifying a different mode of anxiety (Lancaster, Kerr, Clift, Sinatra, Borgnine, Reed). A magnificent cinematic encapsulation of sorts.
28: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
The not-even-incidental sexism in this ode to anarchy rankles like crazy—it did then, too. But Forman’s choreography of the boy’s club is just undeniable.
OK. Gravy is pretty much ready. Now for the strain and to check out the yield. Fingers crossed.
3:00 p.m.: Well as you can see the strain yielded a pretty smooth and colorful result and I’ve got to say it’s pretty tasty too. Largely out of frame is a tomato-splatter mess I've got to mop up ASAP.
As some of you might have inferred, I’m making lasagna again. For Sunday dinner. And no, it isn’t an Oscar party. My Lovely Wife and I wanted to have a few friends for dinner, and we gave them some optional dates and the consensus was this Sunday. These friends aren’t Oscar people, so it’s likely Claire and I will be tuning in late, if at all. Last year we didn’t see the ceremony because we were vacationing in Iceland. My thing is, if you really aren’t overly concerned about Oscar ceremonies, telling the world this over and over seems a counterintuitive action. Anyhow. I haven’t eaten all day, except for nibbles at the pork ribs I used to flavor the sauce, so let’s get the top 27 over and done with, okay?
27: The Departed
Oh the incredible irony that a movie its director, one of our greatest living filmmakers, had so relatively little personal investment in, would gain him these industry honors.
26: The Deer Hunter
I may be overrating this, I know. I just can’t ever shake the majesty of its first hour.
25: Kramer Vs. Kramer
I read how this movie is now unacceptable because sexism and I’m not going there, not here. My high esteem for it comes from its being the one Best Picture winner that most resembles a Truffaut film, stylistically.
Love it or hate it, it’s Cinema, as I learned watching it in a theater with a 90-year-old woman who didn’t speak a word of English, and no smart remarks about my dating proclivities.
The last title that I accidentally reproduced when making this list. Don’t make me beg you, people, how many times can I say I’m sorry for my sloppy work?
22: The Hurt Locker
21: Schindler’s List
While I agree with Kubrick’s caveat, I can’t see how American culture could have handled this subject better.
I cannot tell a lie: Like Crash, it features of a shot in which a character is framed within portentous distance of a hanging American flag. Unlike Crash, it is a very good movie.
19: Gone With The Wind
Also Because Cinema, and the art White America has earned, and the unusual result of that intersection.
18: An American In Paris
Complaining about the characterizations in this is about as useful as complaining about the characterizations in The Gang’s All Here. Or Un Chien Andalou even.
17: Grand Hotel
Watched this on the new Blu-ray and was pleasantly surprised at how sprightly it remains. Will always be a sentimental favorite because it’s the only movie I ever saw screened at Paris’ Cinema MacMahon. Suck it!
Because Curt Bois plays the pickpocket.
15: The Bridge on the River Kwai
Because without it, no The Geisha Boy.
14: All Quiet on the Western Front
Because it’s not that stodgy.
12: It Happened One Night
Because Claudette Colbert.
11: The Apartment
Yeah, I’m getting pretty tired of the “because” device too.
10: Annie Hall
Not just a great romantic comedy but still a pretty damn sturdy metamovie.
9: No Country For Old Men
Not just a great thriller but still a pretty damn sturdy metamovie. Oh crap, you see what’s starting to happen.
8: Lawrence of Arabia
7: The French Connection
6: All About Eve
5: How Green Was My Valley
4: The Best Years of Our Lives
Eat it, Raymond Chandler!
3: The Godfather
2: On The Waterfront
1: The Godfather, Part II
You have been reading “Ranking Best Picture Winners While Making Gravy.” Thanks and have a great weekend.