Several years ago, I was challenged to list my all-time 100 favorite movies. But you had to get all the way down to No. 12 to find one that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences thought was the best of the year ("Lawrence of Arabia").
So, with the Oscars coming up Sunday, I decided to figure out which of the 92 best picture winners are my favorites. It seemed like an easy job, given how often I think voters get it wrong. (If "Nomadland" prevails this year, it will be the first time I agree with voters since "No Country for Old Men" a dozen years ago.)
I was wrong.
It's easy to rule out lousy winners, from recent ones such as "Crash" and "Green Book" to all the way back to the earlier "Cavalcade" and "The Life of Emile Zola." Oscar too often has settled on something stiff and socially relevant ("Gentleman's Agreement"), or big and clunky ("The Greatest Show on Earth") or deadly earnest ("A Man for All Seasons").
When in doubt, the Oscars almost always pick a blowhard "Gandhi" over a zippy "Tootsie," and a turgid "How Green Was My Valley" over a playful "Citizen Kane." Throughout the history of the awards, you won't find many best picture winners you'd describe as "fun." Although that's not a requirement for a movie to be excellent, obviously, it doesn't hurt.
Still, looking at the anointed list of 92, I found myself with about 20 titles I absolutely love, not the seven I was hoping to narrow it down to. That meant great ones just missed my list, including two of the humanity-in-the-midst-of-war dramas that often bask in Oscar's glow. One is Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," which was great but I've never wanted to revisit it. The other is "The Best Years of Our Lives," a classic I recently re-watched and loved although I was bugged by a couple of supporting performances.
I had to cross off "It Happened One Night," too. I love that a romcom actually won best picture, but I prefer several other screwball comedies that didn't get anywhere near a little gold guy. "Ordinary People," "Casablanca" and "Rebecca" also just missed getting on my list. How crazy is it that the one time Oscar noticed an Alfred Hitchcock movie, it wasn't even one of his best? Similarly, I wish Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" or "Some Like It Hot" were honored, which I like even more than his "The Apartment." Or Bong Joon-ho's "Memories of Murder," a darker and better thriller than "Parasite."
Enough lamenting, though. Here are seven movies that are among Oscar's very best. Let the disagreeing begin!
"Lawrence of Arabia" (1962)
It's the kind of best picture that can set my teeth on edge. It's not only big, long and "important," but also sexy, witty and visually spectacular. Movie experiences often blend together but I will never forget the only time I've seen "Lawrence" on the big screen. It was at the Heights Theater, in a gorgeous 70 millimeter print with virtually no one else in the theater, Peter O'Toole's skin seemed to glow, Maurice Jarre's stirring music sucked me into the thrills of the story and David Lean's vigorous images blew me away.
"The Godfather"/ "The Godfather Part II" (1972/1974)
Francis Ford Coppola says the saga is one movie, so we'll consider them that way. Like a lot of people, I have a slight preference for "Part II," which has the advantage of being able to dive in without needing to tell us who all these people are, but you can't go wrong with either.
"The French Connection" (1971)
My list tilts toward outliers that aren't the sort of weighty movies that Oscar usually chooses. William Friedkin's roller-coaster ride is one of the most purely entertaining films ever to win the big prize, so full of energy and humor that you have to wonder how it triumphed. (It probably helped that it feels like it belongs to the future, unlike competitors "A Clockwork Orange," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Nicholas and Alexandria" and "The Last Picture Show.")
"All About Eve" (1950)
Another how-did-this-one-get-past-the-Important-Police winner, the glitteringly mean comedy from Joseph L. Mankiewicz (younger brother of "Mank" protagonist Herman Mankiewicz) breaks most of the Oscar "rules." It's not full of itself. It's set in New York's theater world rather than Hollywood. It's much more interested in women than men. It doesn't want to make you cry. Plus, it has one of the best-ever ensemble casts, making it a masterwork.
"No Country for Old Men" (2007)
The best picture honor often goes to a movie whose director is overdue for recognition even if it's not the person's best work (think Martin Scorsese's "The Departed"). But this is a case of great filmmakers who won for a career peak. St. Louis Park natives Joel and Ethan Coen had been on Oscar's radar for more than a decade, since "Fargo," and they continue to do great work but nobody will complain if this lean, suspenseful melodrama turns out to be the best thing they ever make.
It's tempting to kvetch about the years when the best picture award came down to two contenders and voters picked the worse one ("Crash" vs. "Brokeback Mountain," "The King's Speech" vs. "The Social Network") but here's one they got right. Even in just a few years, "La La Land" has settled in as a sweet little jewel that takes interesting chances but isn't all that memorable, whereas "Moonlight" feels even deeper, more insightful and more prescient than it did when it was released.
"The Silence of the Lambs" (1991)
This one's another movie that breaks unwritten Oscar rules. It dared voters to forget it (released in February, it's the only best picture in the past three decades that came out in the first four months of the year). It's a genre movie, arguably the only horror film ever to win. And it doesn't feature a single easy-to-embrace character. But, like "No Country," Jonathan Demme's classic is so expertly made that rules don't seem to matter.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367