Saturday, October 29, 2011

On Which is the "Best" Picture [2006]

I want to say something pointed about the moment at this year’s Oscars that had everyone murmuring. You remember: Jack Nicholson, unable to keep his prodigious eyebrows from rearing up in shock, reading “Crash” on the Best Picture card.

I love Crash. Watching it for the first time was a more stirring film-going experience than any in recent memory. I have, since the beginning of Oscar season, been urging everyone I know to see this superb and important film. I do not, however, think that it should have won Best Picture. Brokeback Mountain should have won that award.

At the turn of the millennium it was in vogue for every major film organization, critic, and magazine to publish a list of the 100 Greatest, Best or Must-See films of all time. These lists varied in selection, ranking, and style, but what they all had in common was a tacitly understood responsibility to represent the full spectrum of film history. Let’s face it, if anyone really made a list of American films based on the quality of filmmaking in a vacuum, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Steven Spielberg would each have three or four films on it. Instead, the American Film Institute, Roger Ebert, and all the others understood that their catalogues needed to not only list great films, but serve as crash courses for interested film neophytes, so that anyone who had never moved beyond Pirates of the Caribbean could begin with these introductory 100 films and not sell themselves short of any aspect of American film history. After all, there have been a lot more great directors than Hitchcock, Wilder, and Spielberg.

Similarly, the roster of Best Picture winners through history should read not as a simple measure of each year’s best-made film, but as a road map to the cinema’s most important moments. Crash may be a superior film, but Brokeback deserved an acknowledged place in film history.

The Academy has made mistakes before. Citizen Kane, arguably the most influential film ever made, lost to How Green Was My Valley? in 1941––and try to find Valley on a Greatest Films list today. Kramer vs. Kramer won over Apocalypse Now in 1979, and in 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn’t even nominated. More recently, Shakespeare in Love beat out Saving Private Ryan in 1998; and I personally consider it a travesty––or maybe just a depressing testament to American escapism––that Chicago won over Roman Polanski’s Holocaust masterpiece The Pianist in 2002.

The thing that all of these losing films have over their winning competitors is that they are still talked about and imitated today. Kramer vs. Kramer may be a wonderful film, but Apocalypse Now is the most influential Vietnam movie ever made, and one of the most popular of all war films. People still hush at the recollection of Ryan’s opening D-Day assault, while most people haven’t seen Shakespeare in Love since it came out in theaters.

Brokeback Mountain, like The Pianist, is a profound and serious look at a moment in history that still resonates today, and it deserved a spot in the honorable spread of film’s diverse and courageous topics. Other films have dealt with racism before––in fact, Spike Lee’s incomparable Do the Right Thing was shut out of a Best Picture nomination in 1989––and the makers of Crash will make more films in the future. Brokeback, meanwhile, is a pioneering achievement, and a landmark that deserved to be honored.

originally published in the Whitman College Pioneer.

1 comment:

  1. Although I'd argue if you're going to take into account inflation, you should also acknowledge changes in theatrical culture. Not only did Gone With the Wind receive three theatrical re-releases, it was also trotted around the country for years after its original release and played countless times at local theaters. A contemporary movie could never expect to spend months at top billing in theaters, let alone years. Which I believe only indicates the impossibility of gauging - at least fairly and accurately - our most "successful" movie.