The Movies That Should Have Won Best Picture, 2017-1977

I’m going to tell you what movie should have won the Oscar for Best Picture every single year I have been alive.  As you know, my opinions are always correct.

Here is how we’re going to do this.  For each year, I’ll tell you what movie won, whether or not it was a good choice, and what movie I would have voted for.  A few explanatory notes:

  1. The “year” I am assigning movies to is the year the movie came out. They hand out the Oscars in the winter of the FOLLOWING year; so, the Oscars awarded to movies released in 2016 were handed out in March of 2017.  I am referring to those movies as “2016.”
  2. Just because I would have voted for a different movie does not mean the movie they chose was a bad choice.

Let me explain #2; you and I may disagree on whether the 1994 Best Picture Oscar should have gone to “Pulp Fiction” or “Forrest Gump.”  If it happens I think it’s Pulp Fiction and you think it’s Forrest Gump (or vice versa) I disagree, but that doesn’t mean I think you made a bad choice; in fact, BOTH are great, worthy movies, and there’s no way I can argue with a straight face you made a bad choice.   Heck, “The Shawshank Redemption” would be a good choice too.  If on the other hand you think “The Little Rascals” should have won, that’s a bad choice.  I mean “good” and “bad” choice in that sense.

Let’s go:

2017

WON: “The Shape of Water”

GOOD CHOICE? It’s too early to say

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Get Out” or “Dunkirk”

It’s too early for me to say for sure what I thought the best movie of 2017 was, but I am confident I will never think it was Shape of Water.  It was a better pick that “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri,” though, which I thought was garbage.

 

2016

WON: “Moonlight”

GOOD CHOICE? Absolutely.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Moonlight”

It’s nice to start with one I agree with.  I am alone in my family on this, but here’s my position; I think “Moonlight” is a masterpiece of modern cinema.  I honestly believe it to be one of the twenty greatest films of my lifetime, just a work of stunning genius.   In my opinion the Academy got it totally right.  Best movie of the decade so far.

Well, after two minutes, anyway.

 

2015

WON: “Spotlight”

GOOD CHOICE? No.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

I have nothing AGAINST “Spotlight,” but there isn’t anything ambitious or new about it.  It’s a straightforward newspaper drama, and wouldn’t feel out of place as a straight to HBO movie, or a play.  I picked Mad Max but honestly I didn’t think Spotlight was one of the five best movies; fine arguments could have been made for The Revenant, The Martian, Inside Out, The Big Short, and others.  It was a strong year in movies.  I’ll go with Fury Road, but The Big Short was one hell of a movie, too, and is rather topical, and The Revenant was quite something as well.

One of my pet theories is that if you wanted to give Best Picture to the best picture, you’d have to wait at least five years, preferably ten, before deciding who to give it to; the movie lasting, holding up, is a strong measure of its quality.  I absolutely guarantee that in ten years no one will remember Spotlight.  Hell, it’s been two and I barely remember it now.

 

2014

WON: “Birdman”

GOOD CHOICE?  Well, maybe.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Whiplash” or “Ex Machina”

The contenders in 2014 are all so different it’s hard to compare them.  I concede “Birdman” is a directorial delight and a hell of a technical achievement, but the story isn’t very appealing.  I spent most of the movie wishing all the characters would get hit in the head by a falling light like the guy did right at the beginning.  I did not see Boyhood, which is the choice of anyone who did see it.

“Whiplash,” one of my wife’s all time favourite movies, and “Ex Machina” are interesting movies in that they have limited casts and scopes.  As movies, though, holy crap they’re good.  Both are very, very cleverly designed and shot.  You don’t need huge, sweeping epic vistas or incredible CGI to be  avisually brilliant movie.  (Actually, Ex Machina won the Oscar for special effects, but it wasn’t in your face about it.)

 

2013

WON: “12 Years a Slave”

GOOD CHOICE? Yes.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “12 Years a Slave” or “Gravity,” depending on my mood.  Maybe “Her.”

It’s become (uncomfortably) common to read people saying “12 Years A Slave” only won because of some sort of liberal guilt.  I was actually really, really surprised at how clever, innovative, and technically proficient the movie was.  It was much better than I had been led to believe, and I’d argue it’s a better movie than at least half of all Best Picture winners.  “Gravity,” a totally different movie, was just as good, and it’s a shame one of the other could not have been released in a weaker year.  “Her” was shockingly good.  This was, again, a very strong slate.

Also nominated was “Captain Phillips,” which really shouldn’t have been – but NOT nominated was Tom Hanks for that movie.  I will tell you here and now than Tom Hanks in the last five minutes of that film puts on the best acting performance I have ever seen a human being do.  Is he ineligible for Oscars or something?  Why have they forgotten about him?  He hasn’t been up for an Oscar for seventeen years.  Did he piss someone off?

 

2012

WON: “Argo”

GOOD CHOICE? Meh. 

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Life of Pi”

Not every year has an equal number of great movies.  They are not evenly distributed.  2012 had lots of very good movies but few I’d say “That was a classic.”  Any one of 7 movies in 2015 was better than any movie in 2012.

If the Academy had picked the very best movie in every single one of its 90 shots at this, it would still not be the 90 best movies ever, for this reason.  The 90 best movies ever are not perfectly spread over 90 years.  So sure, I’ll pick Life of Pi, but mainly because I have reservations about every other movie too.

 

2011

WON: “The Artist”

GOOD CHOICE?  No.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “The Cabin in the Woods”

Tell me I’m wrong… again, what movie in 2011 was really GREAT?  Nothing.  Lots of good movies but… I mean, maybe Moneyball was flawless, but I’m a baseball fan and even I don’t fawn over it.  “The Artist” isn’t going to hold up well and would have had no chance in a stronger year.  “The Cabin in the Woods” is one of the best movies you’ve never seen.  See it.

As for “Moneyball,” as you might or might not know, it’s based on a book by Michael Lewis, a business writer who knew little about baseball.  Lewis’s books have also been turned into two other Oscar-nominated movies; “The Blind Side” and “The Big Short.”  What I find interesting about this is I read all these books and never once thought “this would make a great movie.”  Lewis is an outstanding writer, but none are, shall we say, cinematic stories.  And yet they all made fine movies.

 

2010

WON: “The King’s Speech”

GOOD CHOICE? Sure.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: Probably The King’s Speech

We’re back to a strong year; in addition to the winner, you’ve got True Grit, Toy Story 3, Inception, The Social Network, and Kick-Ass. among others.  There is nothing absolutely spectacular about The King’s Speech but for what it is it’s a perfect movie, a good story perfectly told and perfectly acted.  The more experimental movies this year, like Scott Pilgrim, took more chances but had more failures.

 

2009

WON: “The Hurt Locker”

GOOD CHOICE? Holy shit, no

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Inglourious Basterds” or “Up”

The big battle this year was between Hurt Locker and Avatar, whose directors were divorced from one another.  “Basterds” is stupidly great.  “Up” – my God, I cried like a baby.  A worthy choice.

The Hurt Locker was a bad choice and everyone knows it, but let’s leave that aside; isn’t Avatar a weird thing?

As I am sure you know, “Avatar” is the top grossing movie of all time in raw dollars; adjusted for inflation it’s number 2.  It’s ahead of Star Wars, or Titanic, or Jaws.

Without looking it up, can you name three characters from “Avatar”?  (“The blue chick” doesn’t count.)  I can’t, and know no one who I would count on to be able to do so.  Do you know anyone who’s really a huge Avatar fan?  I assume some are out there but I know exactly none, and when I did a Google search for “Avatar fans” more than half the top hits weren’t related to this movie.  The other top grossing movies are cultural phenomena that provided pop culture touchstones everyone knows; if I say “Frankly, Scarlet, I don’t give a damn” or “I’m the king of the world!” or “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” everyone knows what I mean.   I can’t even remember a quote from Avatar.  Star Wars, incredibly to me, is slightly under Avatar in box office gross even adjusting for inflation, and Star Wars is so popular people call themselves “Jedi” on census forms.  Yet “Avatar,” for all the sensation it made at the time, is largely forgotten.  Isn’t that odd?

 

2008

WON: “Slumdog Millionaire”

GOOD CHOICE? Yes

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “WALL-E,” but Slumdog Millionaire was great, too.

2008 was the last time the Academy only have five Best Picture nominees, and the snubs to The Dark Knight and WALL-E are why.  The nominees included The Reader, Frost/Nixon, and Milk, perfectly good films but not remotely as interesting as either of the snubbed movies.   Hell, “Kung Fu Panda” and “Iron Man” were better, too.

The predictions at the time were twofold.  The positive prediction was that more popular films that were getting squeezed out by snotty Oscar voters, like The Dark Knight and WALL-E, would finally get Best Picture nods.  The negative prediction was that this would reduce the quality of nominee.  What’s fascinating is that neither has happened.  Most Best Picture nominees are still less popular films, and big budget movies are increasingly UNLIKELY to get nominated.  Conversely, however, the quality of nominees is, if anything, better, because it’s less likely now that a truly great film will miss the cut, and the year’ best nominated film is often nominated, which only happened once before.

I have watched WALL-E with my little girl maybe 25 times.  I enjoy it just as much every time.  It’s a flawless, beautiful, magnificent work of cinema.

2007

WON: “No Country for Old Men”

GOOD CHOICE?  A very good choice.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: No Country, sure.

The best Coen Brothers movie ever, by a mile and a half, is “Fargo,” but they got the Oscar for this one.  They have made a lot of awfully good movies and it was inevitable they’d win Best Picture sooner or later.  It may not be their best movie but it was the best movie anyone made in 2007.

 

2006

WON: “The Departed”

GOOD CHOICE? No.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Children of Men”

2006 for me is the hardest year to choose a Best Picture.  There are many very, very good movies, but they’re all great and difficult to compare.   “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Apocalypto,” “The Prestige,” “Ratatouille,” and others, but in the end the one that sticks with me is “Children of Men,” a haunting and remarkable sort-of-sci-fi movie, Alfonso Cuaron’s first truly great work.

I mean no disrespect to the great Martin Scorsese, but “The Departed” is a piece of shit.  It was not one of the 50 best movies of 2006.  It’s a truly boring story, it’s 40 minutes longer than it needs to be, and… I mean, the movie feels like it wasn’t Martin Scorsese who made it, but rather that it was made by a computer program called “Martin Scorsese Movie For Windows 10.”  I’m glad he finally got an Oscar but they gave it to him for the wrong movie.

 

2005

WON: “Crash”

GOOD CHOICE? Ha ha ha ha ha ha

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Munich” or “Brokeback Mountain”

Sometimes a Best Picture choice seems reasonable at the time, but then years later you think “huh, that was an odd choice” because the years pass judgment on art, and so today it seems really silly that movies like Kramer vs. Kramer won Oscars.  How long that period of time’s judgment is depends on the case, and on the cultural and cinematic zeitgeist of the intervening period.

In the case of “Crash,” it lasted approximately twelve minutes.

 

2004

WON: “Million Dollar Baby”

GOOD CHOICE? Yes.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “The Incredibles”

I again have to point out that just because I would have voted for a different movie that doesn’t mean I think the movie they picked was a bad choice.  I’d still vote for “the Incredibles” but “Million Dollar Baby” was an outstanding movie and I can’t objectively argue it was the wrong choice.

Fun trivia fact; you know how the movie industry is centred in Hollywood, in Los Angeles?  “Million Dollar Baby” is the first movie ever set in LA to win Best Picture.  I’m not kidding.  In over 75 years, it was the very first.  Look it up.

How many of the best animated films of all time have been made in the last twenty-five years?  I would guess 98 percent of them.  “The Incredibles” isn’t Pixar’s best movie – but it’s a flawless deconstruction of superhero films.  It’s funny, thrilling, visually appealing, has one of the best movie soundtracks of the 21st century, and is thought provoking.  It is absolutely better than any Marvel superhero movie, full stop, with the arguable exception of “Iron Man.”    There are some great animated films before the Pixar age, sure, like Dumbo or the Lion King, but how many do you think “that might have been the best movie made that whole year”?  None, really.  Pixar has AT LEAST five movies I think were Best Picture quality, and almost no bad ones.  Even the pretty good runnerup studios have produced some absolutely Grade-A movies; Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs?  Rango?  Shaun the Sheep?  Kung Fu Panda?  Just terrific.  Hell, I thought “South Park” was a great movie.

 

2003

WON: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”

GOOD CHOICE? Terrible.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Kill Bill Vol. 1” or “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”

In my opinion, “Return of the King” is the worst movie to ever win Best Picture.  I realize this is not a common choice, but I think that’s because people merge the film in with the first two movies in the series – Fellowship of the Ring, which was a magnificent movie, and The Two Towers, which was very good.  The fact is though that this one really sucked; go watch it, with an honest eye, right now, and you’ll see.  It is a remarkably disjointed mess of a film with no clear tone, no direction, and very little logic.  The special effects have not held up well.  Everyone seems to be in a rush to get things over with, but, paradoxically, the movie feels like it’s nine days long.  The “You bow to no one” scene was lovely, and other than that it was just a series of poorly connected SFX shots.

What movies were better, you ask?  I’m glad you did, because there was Kill Bill Vol. 1, 28 Days Later, The Italian Job, Monster, Mystic River, Seabiscuit, Finding Nemo, Love Actually, Big Fish, Master and Commander, City of God, Lost in Translation, and a few more I haven’t thought of.

 

2002

WON: “Chicago”

GOOD CHOICE? I don’t think so.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Spider-Man” or “Catch Me If You Can”

I don’t like musicals and I don’t know why people like them.  Well, okay, I loved “Moulin Rouge!” but for the most part musicals leave me totally cold.  I remain, to this day, absolutely baffled as to why anyone thought Chicago was the best movie of 2002.  I’m not saying it was a bad movie, not at all; it was very competently done.  I just don’t get the appeal.  But that’s me.

Another kind of movie I don’t like are comic book movies, in part because they make a hundred of them every year, and they’re all the same, but the fact is that “Spider-Man” was an absolutely fabulous movie, the best of its kind in modern times, in my opinion.   “Catch Me If You Can” is equally wonderful.

 

2001

WON: “A Beautiful Mind”

GOOD CHOICE?  Not really, no.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Fellowship of the Ring”

In retrospect “A Beautiful Mind” is really quite a dull movie.  Again, it’s not bad, but in a year with “Memento,” “Moulin Rouge!,” the first LOTR movie… they could have done better.

I think “Ocean’s Eleven” is a masterpiece and I’d love to have voted for it, but “Fellowship of the Ring” – I don’t think a movie has ever amazed me more.  I was absolutely floored; I couldn’t believe someone had made a movie like it.  I told everyone to go see it.  I went back three times.

In many ways, “Fellowship” was the first comic book movie.  I know it’s not from a comic book, but it was a film made by a fan of high concept popular fiction, made FOR fans of high concept popular fiction.  It was, to be blunt, the first truly geek culture movie, and it was one of the best of its type, made with the budget it needed and by people who loved the source material and wanted to do right by the fans.  Today, movies that serve the fans of nerdy source material are a dime a dozen, and they’re digging into B-list comic book heroes like Black Panther and Ant-Man just to find new topics for movies.  It’s easy to forget that twenty years ago, this just was not a thing.  For a guy like me who grew up geeky in a day and age where that wasn’t cool, when all it got you was beaten up and you had to dig pretty hard to get to the stuff you liked, this was a hell of an experience.

 

2000

WON: “Gladiator”

GOOD CHOICE?  Not really.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Traffic”

I liked Gladiator when it came out.  A few months ago we caught it on cable and I was surprised at how unimpressive it really is.  Like a similar but better movie, “Braveheart,” the movie expends most of its originality and art in the first act and is pretty paint-by-numbers after that; I was genuinely shocked at  how much of the movie consists of one scene after another shot at a flat angle, in an interior, where Joaquin Phoenix is mean, and then you see Russell Crowe brooding that he can’t do anything about it, and then Joaquin, and then Russell, etc. etc.  It’s not really much of a story in the second half.

“Traffic” was a towering masterpiece and its failure to win Best Picture was a huge, huge fumble.

 

1999

WON “American Beauty”

GOOD CHOICE?  Christ, no

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “The Sixth Sense”

When “American Beauty” was coming out, they put posters up in the theaters with blurbs from critical reviews on the poster saying what a masterpiece it was.  This was a month or two BEFORE RELEASE, mind you.  Who the hell had reviewed the final cut?  I knew it was pretentious Oscar bait before I saw it, and holy shit was I right.   It wasn’t half as good as “Galaxy Quest.”

Having said that, looking at the other movies, this was one of my hardest calls.  1999 brought us some absolutely perfect and truly important movies.  ”The Matrix” gets better every time I watch it, as does “the Sixth Sense,” and either is a worthy choice.  “Fight Club” was terrific.  “The Iron Giant” will make a robot cry.  All worthy, and most not even nominated.

 

1998

WON: “Shakespeare in Love”

GOOD CHOICE?  Not great

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Saving Private Ryan”

This was a pick a lot of people were dismayed by.  I think it was a bad choice, but it wasn’t the WORST choice, not by a long shot.  “Shakespeare in Love” was a very, very good movie, quite deserving of praise.

“Saving Private Ryan” is twenty years old now, and yet it remains the absolute gold standard of the portrayal of realistic combat in film.  I ascribe a lot of credit to a movie based on originality and whether it changed movies, or our perception of them, and this movie totally changed our perception of war movies.  After you have watched the shocking, stomach-churning horror this movie hits you with, every war movie you’ve seen before seems like it was made by children.  Even since then only a few movies have ever come close.  I walked out of this movie exhausted and sombre, and that was Spielberg’s intention.  Well done, sir.

1997

WON: “Titanic”

GOOD CHOICE? Sure, why not.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: I guess “Good Will Hunting”?

A wild sensation at the time, this pick has been largely snickered at since.  Hey, it’s a simple story, but it’s pretty well done.  I don’t see another movie that year that clearly got robbed.  Lots of folks would go with “LA Confidential” but I have never understood why that disjointed mess of a story got so much love.

 

1996

WON: “The English Patient”

GOOD CHOICE? No.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Fargo”

“Fargo” is one of the best movies ever made, and “The English Patient” is now almost totally forgotten even by the people who were in it.

 

1995

WON: ”Braveheart”

GOOD CHOICE?  Sure.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Toy Story”

1995 was a REALLY good year for movies.  “Braveheart,” “Toy Story,” “The Usual Suspects,” “Apollo 13” “Sling Blade,” “Heat,” “Clueless,” and “Get Shorty” would all have been contenders for Best Picture in some years.

“Braveheart” was a great movie, but this is one of those years that in retrospect it’s kind of obvious what they should have picked.  Aside from being a wonderful movie, “Toy Story” is one of the most IMPORTANT movies ever made; if it had failed, the wave of computer animated movies, a wave that includes a lot of really great films, either would not have happened or would have been significantly held up.   On top of that, of course, it’s an absolutely sensational movie.

Since the New Hollywood revolution, I’d argue the IMPORTANT movies, in terms of their effect on the history of movies themselves, are:

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – First true, popular New Hollywood film

The Godfather (1972) – Greatest of the New Hollywood films, redefined all crime films to come

Jaws (1975) – First “blockbuster” film in the modern sense; created summer blockbuster season

Star Wars (1977) – The most important movie ever made; created modern cross-media fiction franchises and movie marketing tie-in businesses

Jurassic Park (1993) – Modern CGI effects become effective and popular

Pulp Fuction (1994) – Rise of independent cinema as a major force

Toy Story (1995) – Creation of computer animated film; animated film taken very seriously

Note that few of these critically important films are true “drama.”  Really only the Godfather.  The Oscars like dramatic fare.  “Serious” movies.  Logically, however, there is no good reason for that; in terms of moviemaking proficiency, a family movie or a comedy or an action movie can be just as well directed, acted, filmed, edited, and decorated as a drama.  It can be just as original, as daring, as creative.

 

1994

WON: “Forrest Gump”

GOOD CHOICE? Yes.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Pulp Fiction”

Again, I’m not saying Forrest Gump was a bad choice; it was a truly great movie and is pretty heavily wedged into popular culture now.  “Pulp Fiction” was, however, just as good and definitively more important in terms of opening up the floodgates of independent filmmaking.

 

1993

WON: “Schindler’s List”

GOOD CHOICE?  Duh.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Schindler’s List.”

Who is the most important person in movie history?

A strong argument can be made for Steven Spielberg.  Spielberg’s career has spanned four decades of absolutely critical, central movies.  He’s made careers, redefined our culture in a hundred ways.  His mix of popular movies and great movies is absolutely without compare.

In 1993 there were two Spielberg-directed films, “Schindler’ List” and “Jurassic Park.”  They were monumental achievements, and totally different films.  If you can find a director in all of history with that kind of double play in one year, let me know.  The former is one of the greatest movies ever made, and the latter was a pivotal event in blockbuster history, and they were both awesome.  Any other director alive would kill to make two movies that good in their whole lives.

Schindler’s List should be required viewing for all students.

 

1992

WON: “Unforgiven”

GOOD CHOICE?  Yes.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Unforgiven.”

Clint Eastwood could have made this movie long before he did, but chose not to – according to some accounts, because he wanted to play the lead and felt he wasn’t old enough when he first got the script.  This was a great decision; I think the movie would have not been quite as good if he’d made it when he got the script in the early 80s.  The movie required a mature, balanced, nuanced approach that 80s movies generally didn’t have, and it was perfectly made by the older, wiser Eastwood.

 

1991

WON: “The Silence of the Lambs”

GOOD CHOICE?  Yes.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “The Silence of the Lambs.”

1991 was the first time an animated film, “Beauty and the Beast,” was nominated for Best Picture.  I have never understood why that was the one that made it, or why then.  It’s a great movie and all but I wouldn’t say it was way better than a number of other animated films, and there was no shortage of good movies that year.   I mean, was it better than The Addams Family?  Barton Fink?  The Commitments?  Cape Fear?  How odd.

 

1990

WON: “Dances with Wolves”

GOOD CHOICE?  I’m not sure.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Goodfellas”

At the time I thought Dances With Wolves was awesome, and apparently so did a lot of other people, because it made a ton of money and won many awards.  It was a technically outstanding movie and extremely well acted.  However, its star has fallen a lot since then, largely due to, in my opinion, two things:

  • People got tired of Kevin Costner, and
  • White saviour movies got tiresome, too.

The convention of trying to sympathize with a non-white ethnic group by having them joined and/or helped out by a white person is one that, thankfully, isn’t very popular anymore and is seen as patronizing and passively racist.  I don’t want to see those movies anymore and I’m actually a white guy.  But I’m not sure that should be used to slag the quality of a movie made 26 years ago.  The movie is not overtly racist; it is made with as much consciousness and awareness as it could have been.  More to the point, its cultural values have little to do with its quality, and it really is awfully good.  And yeah, it IS a white saviour movie, but at least someone in 1990 gave a shit about the American Indian.

 

1989

WON: “Driving Miss Daisy”

GOOD CHOICE? No.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Do The Right Thing” or “Field of Dreams”

1989 was a weird year in movies, with few traditional Best Picture candidates that were any good.  In terms of trying something different, my two choices stick out.  Do the Right Thing is a bit more crisply directed and filmed; Field of Dreams is better edited.

 

1988

WON: “Rain Man”

GOOD CHOICE? I guess so.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Die Hard”

Die Hard?  Yeah, Die Hard.

Die Hard is the best action movie ever made.  It’s perfectly constructed every way, brilliantly written, beautifully shot, and perfectly acted.  Alan Rickman’s performance is worth the price of admission.   It is the absolute masterpiece of action movies.

It is easy to forget this, but in the 80s there was an absolute wave of action movies; for a variety of reasons, that’s when big action spectaculars really hit their stride.  Until 1988, the standard formula was that an invincible superhuman guy would beat up the bad guys.  Arnold Schwartzenegger was becoming the hero of heroes, but you also had sly Stallone, Chuck Norris, Steve Seagal was on the scene, and some lesser lights in terrible knockoffs.

Bruce Willis in 1988 was knows as a comedic actor, from “Moonlighting.”  The idea of him being an action star was bizarre; he was not the first, second, third or eighth choice for the role.  His casting affected the entire movie; John McClane is not a superhero.  He spends most of the movie injured, frightened, and running away.  The effect is glorious; rather than worshipping the hero, the audience identifies with him.  It makes the movie a zillion times better.

The best action movie of the 1980s prior to this, “The Terminator,” is great for exactly the same reasons; the heroes are vulnerable, ordinary people desperately trying to avoid a seemingly inevitable doom.

 

1987

WON: “The Last Emperor”

GOOD CHOICE? No

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Full Metal Jacket”

Honestly, I found The Last Emperor just interminable.  I know it won a bunch of Oscars but do you really remember anything about it apart from the fact it LOOKED great?  The movie was about twelve hours long and really didn’t have a great deal of characterization.  But, being a big, historical epic drama, it was a shoo-in.

I had a lot of trouble choosing a movie in 1987.  “Fatal Attraction” is amazing.  “Empire of the Sun” was great.  “Raising Arizona” is often cited as one of the greatest comedies ever made.  I didn’t want to choose “Full Metal Jacket” because the Academy gave Best Picture to two Vietnam movies before this, but… I mean, it’s just a wonderful, original, memorable, haunting movie.

 

1986

WON: “Platoon”

GOOD CHOICE? Yes

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Aliens”

In 1986, America was still just eleven to thirteen years out of the Vietnam debacle, depending where you start your stopwatch.  I am writing this in 2018, 32 years later, and a lot of things have happened since then and now Vietnam isn’t the last bad thing in American consciousness anymore.  At the time, though, it was a terrible, gaping wound in that nation’s psyche.  It was the first war the United States ever really lost, and the cost to them was horrific – if you think the Iraq War was a terrible mess, consider that Vietnam killed more than ten times as many Americans.  It was a war that divided their country to an extent we’re only beginning to see again now with Trumpism and its evil fellow travellers pulling the country apart again.  If you visited the Vietnam memorial in DC, you were assured to be in the presence of more than a few men openly weeping at the sight of the names of their lost brothers.

Vietnam War movies were a big deal then, a cathartic experience, and many were quite good; both this and “The Deer Hunter” won Best Picture, plus you had Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July, Good Morning Vietnam, First Blood, and Hamburger Hill.  There were lesser known, but excellent, films like Bat-21, 84 Charlie MoPic, Return of the Secaucus Seven, and there were shitty action movies too.  The general point of most of them except the shitty action movies was that war was insane.  They served their purpose and started drying up in the 90s.

I suppose it seems weird I’d choose “Aliens” over “Platoon,” then, but “Platoon” was not really a whole lot better than a lot of the other movies I have named.  It was a very good movie and a very personal one, made by a man, Oliver Stone, who’d served in Vietnam and felt he had to make movies about it, but it’s just not spectacularly great.  Aliens – which, of course, is metaphorically meant to remind you of Vietnam movies – is the best movie of its type, as scary and intense as any thriller ever made.  It was just better.

The other candidate, to my mind, is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” an even less serio movies but wonderfully hilarious and memorable.  It gets a little pointlessly preachy (and inexplicably screws up time a bit) before the funny, heart-racing end, so isn’t perfect enough for me, but it was a close call.

Another candidate was “Manhunter” – a crime drama that features the first appearance in a movie of our old friend Hannibal Lecter, though he’s not played by Anthony Hopkins and isn’t a starring character.  It is a wildly underrated, absolutely stunning crime movie, and worth your time.  “Red Dragon” with Edward Norton was a remake of this film.

 

1985

WON: “Out of Africa”

GOOD CHOICE? No.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Back to the Future”

“Out of Africa” was a surprise choice at the time and it has not aged well.  I’m not a populist, but I cannot help but notice it scored at 58% on Rotten Tomatoes, a score at which you really should not pay to see a movie.   The film is very, very dull, very slow, and vaguely racist.

“Back to the Future” is one of the best movies ever made.  I cannot name 25 better movies, ever.  I am absolutely serious when I saw it’s every bit as good a movie as Saving Private Ryan, or The Shawshank Redemption, or Chinatown, or Casablanca, or Raging Bull.  I am not kidding around.   It’s that good.

  1. The movie is perfect. It is one of the rare movies that is absolutely without a single flaw.  Every scene moves the story effectively to the next scene; the movie is not one minute shorter or longer than it needs to be.
  2. The movie is one of the best paced movies ever made. Despite being a wacky comedy/action movie it navigates the pace perfectly, alternating excitement and frenetic energy with jokes, downtime, and characterization in perfect harmony.
  3. The movie looks amazing; it’s beautifully shot, perfectly edited. The use of color, especially in contrasting 1985 with 1955, is lovely.
  4. The script is perfect. The manner of speaking is perfect for all characters.   Not one line of dialogue is wrong or wasted.
  5. The acting is perfect. Michael J. Fox puts on as good a performance as anyone ever has in an action movie; he completely inhabits his character’s absolute panic and helplessness and confusion.  Christopher Lloyd is hilarious.  Tom Wilson is hateful.  Lea Thompson was robbed of an Oscar for what is one of the best comedic performance I have ever seen.
  6. The music is perfect.
  7. It’s got a million great jokes.
  8. It’s exciting.
  9. It has aged AMAZINGLY well. It could have been made last month.  This is, for a comedy over 30 years old, a truly incredible thing to say – the fact that the movie deliberately makes reference to elements of 1985 pop culture makes it almost miraculous.  If you watch 1980s comedies they are sometimes painfully, almost offensively, dated; you’ll cringe from time to time at jokes even in great comedies, like Airplane!, Caddyshack, or Vacation.  You never cringe watching Back To The Future.  It’s as fresh and good as it was the day it was released.

If you pressed me to name the best movie of every DECADE, for the 1980s I think I’d pick Back To The Future.

 

 

1984

WON: “Amadeus”

GOOD CHOICE?  Why not.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “The Killing Fields”

I first saw Amadeus when I was 15 or 16 on VHS and found it boring.  I saw in ten years later and loved it.  Kids are stupid.

Still, “The Killing Fields” was a more compelling movie.

As you may know, Dr. Haing Ngor, an actual survivor of the Cambodian civil war, won an Oscar for his performance in The Killing Fields, despite never having acted in a movie before.  He deserved it, but anyway, how many people do you think have won Oscars for their first movie?  Would you believe NINETEEN?  It’s true.  The last was Lupita Nyong’o, just a few years ago for “12 Years a Slave.”

 

1983

WON: “Terms of Endearment”

GOOD CHOICE?  I guess so.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: Beats me

I don’t remember this movie, though I saw it a million years ago.  No other movies in 1983 strike me as better choices.

 

1982

WON: “Gandhi”

GOOD CHOICE? Meh

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: Hmmm.  Maybe E.T.?

Above I basically gave up on 1983 because honestly it looked like kind of a mediocre year in movies.  1982 though, holy moly, just all kinds of movies I love:  “The Thing,” “E.T.,” “Poltergeist,” “Tootsie,” “Das Boot,” “Blade Runner,” and more.  “Gandhi” was good but it’s much, much too long.  Ben Kingsley was astounding, though.

As I wrote that just now I was reminded that both “Blade Runner” and “Das Boot” have very famous “Director’s Cuts” editions, which are invariably the same movie with way more scenes added back in that were edited out of the theatrical release.  I have watched a dozen or more such movies, and in every single case, without exception, the director’s cut was inferior to the theatrical cut, often by a huge degree.  Every single Director’s Cut was too long and poorly paced as compared to the theatrical version.

On my old DVD of Pulp Fiction, there is no director’s cut, but there is an added feature where you can individually watch deleted scenes.  Every one has an introduction from Quentin Tarantino in which he explains how much he loves the scene and thinks the actors were wonderful… but that it had too be cut ‘cause it just wasn’t needed.   He knew what the director’s cuts tell you; you have to get to the damn point.

 

1981

WON: “Chariots of Fire”

GOOD CHOICE? No

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

I was mulling over this today.  “Raiders” is the kind of movie a guy like me loves so I spent some time trying to convince myself I was wrong in wanting to choose this.  In thinking about it it occurred to me that the score from Raiders is just incredibly memorable and everyone knows it (in fairness the soundtrack from Chariots of Fire is pretty well known, too, albeit not as good) and then I thought hey, that’s a bad reason to pick it.

Wait, what was I thinking?  Of course it’s not a bad reason.  A movie’s score is a part of the movie, just as are the directing, acting, writing, editing, cinematography.  Of course it counts.

Is John Williams the greatest composer of modern times?  Quite possibly.

 

1980

WON: “Ordinary People”

GOOD CHOICE?  Oh dear God, no.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Raging Bull” or “The Empire Strikes Back”

Ordinary People is now largely forgotten.  I did see it, and it’s a perfectly good movie but there’s lots of movies just like it.

“Raging Bull” is Martin Scorsese’s great masterpiece, and “The Empire Strikes Back” somehow improved on Star Wars, and they’re just so different and great in their own ways I don’t know how to choose.

 

1979

WON: “Kramer vs. Kramer”

GOOD CHOICE?  Nah

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Being There”

Kramer vs. Kramer seems a little trite now, especially the ending.  “Being There” is a classic and Peter Sellers was robbed of the Oscar.

The most popular movie from 1979 is probably “Apocalypse Now.”  As a former soldier and war movie fan I admit the film has some frigging classic moments, but it’s also overlong, unfocused and, at times, is really, really pretentious.  Still, it’s a hell of a vision and I admit maybe I’m wrong and should have picked it.

 

1978

WON: “The Deer Hunter”

GOOD CHOICE?  Yes

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: Anything but “Grease”

1978 was the year “Grease” came out.

I hate “Grease.”  I hate it.  I’ve seen the movie and I hated it.  I’ve seen two stage productions of Grease, and I hated them.  My sister was in one, and I love my sister and everything and she did a good job, but I hated it all the same.

I hate every song in Grease.  I hate Beauty School Dropout, Alone and the Drive In, Born to Hand Jive, Greased Lightnin’, and holy shit I hate Summer Nights.  I hate Summer Nights as much as I hate peas, and that’s a lot.  I used to sing karaoke and when someone sang “Summer Nights” they ceased being my friend.  They were dead to me forever.  I hate all the music in Grease, I hate the costumes, and I hate the story with the fire of a thousand suns.  I hate the logo.  I hate the names of the characters.  I don’t remember who wrote the original musical but holy shit, I hate them.  Every other movie eligible for Best Picture in 1978 should have shared the award but not Grease.

 

1977

WON: “Annie Hall”

GOOD CHOICE?  See below.

I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR: “Star Wars”

“Star Wars” is hands down the most important movie ever made.  It is not a close call.   No movie ever to appear on a screen has changed the world more than “Star Wars.”

(NOTE: The name of the movie is not “A New Hope.”  It’s “Star Wars.”  The movie released in 1977 didn’t have any goddamn A New Hope title.)

Prior to Star Wars, there was no such thing as a “cinematic universe” or “Extended universe” or any of that.  Sure, movies had sequels, but the idea of a movie spawing a parallel universe of movies, shows, books, toys, video games, cartoons, and the like,, to the extent that imaginary people like Obi-Wan Kenobi have Wikipedia entries as long as people who have been heads of state in the real world, was unfathomable.  The idea of a movie franchise being worth literal billions in spinoff business was not even within the realm of fantasy of the most avaricious studio executive.  Today’s world of huge billion dollar movie tie ins was just not a thing.

Star Wars created ALL that.  It was also a great movie.

Of course, it’s not just a moneymaking enterprise; it is the most commonly known movie ever made.  More people know Star Wars than any other movie.  Its lingo has entered the language; hell, “Star Wars” itself became the derisive nickname for the Strategic Defense Initiative program.  Death star, Darth Vader, “May the Force Be With You,” “Yoda” to mean a wise person, The Force, “Evil Empire,” one could go on.  People of all ages can bond over Star Wars with a greater reliability than any other movie.

A few years ago my to-be-wife and I made our daughters watch the movies.  After seeing “The Empire Strikes Back” at my apartment my to-be-wife and to-be-stepdaughter went to leave; my TBS complained that she found it boring.  My TBW was horrified, and explained the movie’s importance.  As they got into the elevator there was an older lady, perhaps 60.  My TBW, to illustrate her point, asked the lady about The Empire Strikes Back, and the lady was delighted and excitedly talked about Yoda and Luke Skywalker and the attack on Hoth and Darth Vader and Han Solo and Lando and on and on.  What other movie can you do that with so reliably?

“Annie Hall” was a great, great movie, Woody Allen’s best, and if you can try to get past the fact Woody Allen is a truly revolting turd, you can make a strong argument it was a better movie than “Star Wars.”  But there aren’t a whole lot of amusement parks with Annie Hall-themed attractions.

 

 

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