The Best Movie Ever: Best Picture

Every year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences gets together, dresses up, and awards a single film the distinction of “The Best Motion Picture of the Year.” There have been 86 Best Picture winners in Oscar history, but that’s not good enough for The Best Movie Ever.

This week, the CraveOnline film critics – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold, Fred Topel and Brian Formo – are presenting their picks for The Best Best Picture Ever. Joining them is special guest Luke Y. Thompson of Topless Robot, who’s going to start us off… old school.

Luke Y. Thompson:

I was hugely tempted to say No Country for Old Men, mainly for the way it essentially flips off all its predecessors, and arguably the majority of Academy members, in both title and theme (“Hey, old people! You’ve gotten really pathetic at what you do! Try to save the day, we dare ya! You’ll fail!”). But in the end I think I have to go for one that establishes, rather than deconstructs: Wings, the original Best Picture winner, set the template for every “Two Guys Go to War, Love the Same Woman” movie since, from the Korean hit Taegukgi to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor.

It’s a cliché to say that they don’t make ‘em like this any more. It’s more accurate in the case of Wings to say that you can’t. William Wellman wanted to make a biplane movie, so he got real planes, had his actors actually get up there and fly them, under the direction of – and starring – actual World War I veterans. The end result is a sense of realism you nowadays have to pay hundreds of millions to NOT attain.

Style aside, however, the substance was strongly pre-Hays Code, spotlighting the trauma rather than the glory of the returning hero. You can’t exactly call one of the earliest epic movies a deconstruction when it’s still in the process of constructing our very notions of what a war movie can be, but I dare Hollywood to end one of its current films with the hero gleefully and obliviously machine-gunning his best friend to death because he mistakes him for a bad guy. Oops – is there a statute of limitations on spoilers for a movie nearly a century old?

More important than all of that, however, is a much more simple thing. It’s a silent movie that’s over two hours long, and it never taxes the patience of my modern, ADD email-checking sensibility. That’s a great movie.

Witney Seibold:

Easy: Casablanca.

Okay, so it’s actually not so easy. Of the 85 films – soon to be 86 – to have won the Best Picture Oscar, there are at least a dozen film school must-sees, and about 25 legitimate cinema classics. I know that on Oscar night, we often don’t feel that the Best Picture really was the best picture, but in some cases, the Academy is remarkably astute, and actually does make the right call. Remember, even though they chose to award Crash that one time (a sad night for us all), they also thought to give the award to The Godfather. And All About Eve. And Gone with the Wind. And It Happened One Night. And The Silence of the Lambs. And On the Waterfront. And Ben-Hur. And West Side Story. And more and more and more. Worthy candidates all. So narrowing “the best” down to one classic film was actually a harrowing process, as I admire many of these films for being legitimately great, or exemplary of the Best Picture imprimatur. What’s more, I personally enjoy them all.

But one film remains an unofficial pinnacle in my mind, so I may as well make it official. I apologize for skewing so obvious, but Michael Curtiz’ 1943 wartime romance is, well, still one of the best films of all time. It’s a moving, funny, romantic, rollicking entertainment that, perhaps surprisingly, hasn’t aged a second; you can sit the average 14-year-old down in front of Casablanca, and they’ll still dig it. The movie still plays. It’s astute and mature, yet still possessed of an appealing longing. It has tense scenes with guns, intrigue, and Peter Lorre squealing his head off. It’s been endlessly quoted and referenced because the script is still amazingly tight. It’s the kind of movie Hollywood always tries to make, and only succeeds at maybe once a decade.

Casablanca is often held as one of the best movies of all time, often vying with Citizen Kane for the #1 spot. This is not something I’m willing to argue. Best Best Picture is Casablanca. The easy way out, perhaps, but not incorrect.  

William Bibbiani:

All Quiet on the Western FrontGone with the Wind. Casablanca. Mrs. MiniverThe Bridge on the River Kwai. Ben-HurWest Side StoryLawrence of Arabia. The Sound of Music. The Godfather. The Godfather Part II. Platoon. Schindler’s List. Titanic. The Oscars actually have a pretty good track of picking, if not the best, then certainly the biggest and most “important” movies of any given year. Which is why even though those films are all, more or less, impressive achievements, I find myself gravitating towards the film that stands out the most and yet, in a weird way, feels the most important of all: The Silence of the Lambs.

It really is necessary to tip one’s cap to the Academy for presenting The Silence of the Lambs with not just Best Picture, but Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay as well. (It’s one of only three films to sweep the “Top 5” categories.) Partly because I’m a bit of a ghoul: it’s still the only Best Picture winner about cannibalism, human flesh suits and severed heads in a jar. But mostly because it’s arguably the only Best Picture winner about women, as a whole, and their experiences living in a world dominated by men who respond to them sexually and with innate condescension. (But if you want to retort with All About Eve, I won’t fight you.) It speaks volumes that the only male character in the film who isn’t misogynistic is the iconoclastic sociopath. Granted, it was written and directed by men, but The Silence of the Lambs still plays as a powerful indictment of the way men still treat the female gender, and the way that those with more complex gender identities are demonized, sometimes resulting in genuine demons, and of many varieties. 

The Silence of the Lambs is also, it cannot be emphasized enough, a damn near perfect movie. The nuanced characters are legion, the suspenseful misdirections are have earned their countless rip-offs, and intelligence permeates every frame. It is not a film for stupid people, and yet it can be viewed as a straightforward thriller and worshipped on that level too. It is a film that shocks and awes, but uses those impeccably entertaining storytelling devices as a delivery system for a remarkable, inescapable, perpetually relevant message about gender inequality in modern times. For all the perfectly valid hubbub raised year after year about minority under-representation at the Academy Awards, films about the female experience too often get the short shrift too. 

The Silence of the Lambs is one of the rare moments in Oscar history when the Academy voted not for the biggest film on the ballot, and not for the smallest, but for the most insightful and ingenious. To quote Hannibal Lecter, “Yeah… that was good.”

Fred Topel:

So many years of Oscar history represent some all time classics of cinema, and admittedly my viewing history is a little spotty prior to 1970. Even with the likes of The Godfather, Casablanca, and Gone with the Wind, I still have another favorite. 1999 was a particularly tough year to single out in film, since a valid case could have been made for Fight Club winning Best Picture that year, or Toy Story 2 for that matter. I still supported American Beauty as a highlight of an extraordinary year that also included Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, The Sixth Sense and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Also some other movies that other people liked a lot too.

American Beauty was a monumental achievement of a film, a hard-hitting drama about the underbelly of suburbia with equal attention to all generations of different families. It may seem like a product of its time, the frustrated late ‘90s, but having watched it recently, I guarantee you it still holds up. The themes of putting on a façade, giving up said façade to chase your happiness, and finding beauty in unexpected places are all profound themes. 

It features the quintessential Kevin Spacey performance. It wasn’t his first or last time playing a picked-on middle-aged man, but it’s the one where he nailed it. Annette Bening is also great; they’re each kind of terrifying in their own ways. For young talent, it was a real discovery of Mena Suvari and Wes Bentley in breakout roles, and a touching way to see child star Thora Birch grow up. The film gets to the heart of intense conflicts with a light touch, and underlines its lofty ideals with tragic poignancy.

The worst Best Picture winner ever is Forrest Gump, not least because it beat Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show and Shawshank Redemption. The second best Best Picture winner would be Annie Hall. There, I said it. 

Brian Formo:

Hi. My name is Brian and I am a list whore.

Ever since stumbling upon Ed Gonzalez’s immense Top 10′s list at Slant Magazine, about 8 years ago, I’ve been maintaining a non-definitive list of my top 10 films, performances, cinematography, etc each year since 1939. I know. It’s silly. It’s like my own personal Academy Award list, with 13 of the AMPAS categories chosen for each year (and unchosen – you think the Academy might appreciate an eraser occasionally?). 

As fruitless as an evolving list such as this might seem, it comes in handy this Oscar season for answering “Best Best Picture Winner” for CraveOnline

Opinions are like assholes, everyone’s got one. Rarely do an Oscar Best Picture Oscar winner top my own lists. It just doesn’t align that often. In fact, only one Oscar Best Picture winner did I place as the  best film of its respective decade. So this wasn’t a Sophie’s Choice situation of choosing between two. No. The Best Best Picture winner for me is No Country for Old Men. Yes, it’s even better than the same year’s There Will Be Blood (which is also one of the best films of that decade). 

Why? Because There Will Be Blood’s ending seemed to only fulfill its title. No Country for Old Men had the perfect ending to match its title. I know many more people liked the ending of Daniel Day-Lewis yelling about drinking a milkshake, and were baffled by Tommy Lee Jones’ disillusioned descriptions of a dream over his morning milk as the ending of Country, but to me, it was note perfect. This is the most complete Coen Brothers film. They’ve tackled the nasty bedfellows that greed and violence make before and on multiple occasions. But with No Country they made a much bigger statement of when greed at all costs became not just a generational identity but a national identity. No Country is a time capsule. It’s set in the 1980s but it could’ve been set in 1909 around the murders that Jones’ dad had described before. The world isn’t any darker of a place, it just can get more difficult, or darker, the less things align to your beliefs. Regardless of whatever your beliefs are. In the 1980s the interstates meant you encountered more. Now it’s the internet. All forward movement confronts people’s views and our viewpoints keep expanding. So there’s even more and more darkness we’re aware of.

How the Academy signed off on a multiple homicide, cold, low on dialogue film is a miracle to me — but they’re largely older guys. They probably don’t understand a generation that “quit saying ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am'” and “have green hair and bones in their noses.” I’m glad they can’t erase the fact that they awarded the Coen Brothers for an existential neo-western, dressed up as a pulsing thriller.

And the Coens push this murder ballad to the edge. But they take a step back instead of going overboard. The most important murder happens to a character that we’d spent most of the movie with. He wasn’t even killed by a character that we’ve followed on a rampage across the southwestern highways. No it was random. Off screen. A small blip of newsprint. It’s here that No Country reveals that its plot never really mattered. Money fades. News fades. A lot of folks don’t like the ending. Especially since the film is so tightly wound with suspense for the first hour. Jones’ speech at the end about a dream with his dad and “something about money” dismisses everything exciting about the film. Then he “woke up.” Then you’re forced to go out of the theater. And age.

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