(This is the last part of a series looking at the Best Picture award through the years. Parts I, II, and III.)
In comparing the critics, the Academy and IMDB, I find that, with few exceptions (e.g, West Side Story, Crash, Braveheart) the critics and IMDB are in large agreement while the Academy is more often the outlier. That’s not entirely surprising, given that the Academy judges films in the moment while IMDB voters, for any year before about 1998, have the verdict of history on their side. Their ratings are reflective of the critic’s and historian’s opinions. If you look at the immediate judgement of IMDB — the last ten years, you’ll find some questionable favorites (The Dark knight Rises) but also some times when I think IMDB, even in the moment, did a better job than the Academy. Inception was a better film than the King’s Speech. Intouchables, from what I’ve heard, is better than The Artist. Batman Begins was better than Crash. Eternal Sunshine was better than Million Dollar Baby.
In short, I think my tendency to use IMDB ratings to judge films is justified provided one accounts for the biases it has. It is certainly less biased than the Academy.
Overall, however, I think while the Academy’s performance has waxed and waned, most of its picks aren’t horrific. I’ve sorted the Best PIcture winners into four categories:
Agreement: This is where the IMDB, the critics and the Academy all picked the best picture or the winners are neck-and-neck. Clearly, the Academy did its job. In this category, you would have All Quiet on The Western Front, It Happened One Night, Casablanca, The Lost Weekend, The Godfather, the Sting, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the Deer Hunter, Amadeus, Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, The Return of the King, the Departed. That’s 15 out of 85. I have seen all of those films except The Lost Weekend and agree with IMDB and history.
Defensible: There is some disagreement but the film has a place in the conversation as the best pic of the year. Generally I look for something rated at least an 8.0 on IMDB, in the top five and with either IMDB or the critics agreeing. Any film that makes the AFI top 100 or similar lists is defensible. In this category, you have Mutiny on the Bounty, You Can’t Take it With You, Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, Best Years of Our lives, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai, Ben-Hur, The Apartment, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music, In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy, Patton, The French Connection, Rocky, Annie Hall, Gandhi, Platoon, Rain Man, Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, Braveheart, Titanic, American Beauty, Gladiator, Million Dollar Baby, No Country for Old Men, A Beautiful Mind, Million Dollar Baby, No Country for Old Men. That’s another 31 films where the Academy’s choice is defensible. That’s 46 of 85 years where I would say they did their job. So about half the time. I have seen all of these films except You Can’t Take it With You and generally agree with the verdict.
Meh: A good film, by not a great one. Probably got swept up in some hype. There are better films that could have been recognized that year. There’s a bit of play in this one as a few of these are probably seen as bad picks by some. Ordinary People over Raging Bull is regarded as a bad choice now, but IMDB still regards Ordinary People as a good film. I’m trying to be a bit objective here and leave my opinions out. But the way I see it, the “meh” picks are: Wings, Grand Hotel, the Life of Emile Zola, How Green Was My Valley, Mrs. Miniver, Going My Way, Gentleman’s Agreement. Hamlet, All the King’s Men, An American in Paris, From Here to Eternity, Marty, My Fair Lady, A Man for All Seasons, Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, the Last Emperor, The English Patient, Crash, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo. That’s 25 years where the Academy muffed it. I expect some of the recent titles like Crash to eventually slip down into the bad category.
I’ve only seen ten of the “meh” films, actually, which is why I’m relying as much as I can on critics and IMDB. Does that mean I can’t judge them? Perhaps. My priority when it comes to watching old films is to watch ones I have heard are good or ones I know I will enjoy. For the sake of completeness, I will eventually watch all of the Academy winners and will post on Twitter if I think history and/or IMDB got it wrong. But it will be slow. The limited time I have for movies is better spent on things like Frankenstein than Grand Hotel.
Bad: Generally, this is reserved for films that rate below a 7.0 but special mention will be made where even a good film nudged out a classic, especially if it was for stupid reasons. The designation of a film as a bad choice is almost entirely objective, based on IMDB ratings and historical consensus. This is because I have only seen five of these to completion and bits of others. As I said, I’m still working my way through the Best Picture winners. And Best Picture winners that history has judged poorly are very low on the priority list. Sorted from the biggest difference between the IMDB rating of the Best Picture winner and that of the film historically regarded as the best, the worst pictures are: Driving Miss Daisy, Oliver!, Around the World in Eighty Days, Chariots of Fire, Shakespeare in Love, out of Africa, Tom Jones, Chicago, Gigi, The Greatest Show on Earth, the Great Ziegfeld, Cavalcade, Broadway Melody and Cimarron. That is 14 years where the Academy completely stunk up the joint, picking a mediocre picture while classic went unrecognized.
If we designate the first category as an A, the second as a B, the third as a C and the fourth as a D, the Academy has earned 15 A’s, 31 B’s, 25 C’s and 14 D’s in its 85 years for a GPA of 2.55 GPA. Let’s call that a B-. But … I’m kind of surprised to find myself saying this … I think their reputation is worse than their actual performance. We have the benefit of history. We have the benefit of time. We don’t have the disadvantage of studios harassing us to hype their picture. Considering the pressure the Academy is under and the skewed distribution of the electorate, I don’t think they’ve actually done that bad a job. If you’re looking for a list of films to watch, the list of Academy Award winner is not that bad a place to start, especially in recent years where IMDB and history are still a bit uncertain.
I think the Academy is getting less relevant thanks to IMDB and the explosion of online critics. But as a historical perspective … they’re OK.
So what is the worst of the worst? As I noted in Part I of this series, I don’t think it’s illuminating to look at the first ten years of the Academy, when they were still sorting things out (even though snubbing City Lights was mind-boggling). That leaves off four pictures. I’m also going to exclude any year where the best picture of the year isn’t regarded as one of the best of all time. The Searchers is rated as one of the best westerns ever, but IMDB only rates it an 8.1 — great, but not historically so. Ignoring it was a terrible snub, but we’re looking for the absolute worst choices. That cuts out Around the World in 80 Days, Tom Jones and Driving Miss Daisy. Next I’ll cut out Oliver!, since IMDB rates it a 7.4 and the brilliance of 2001 and Once Upon a Time in The West became obvious later — a bad choice but not the worst.
That leaves us with six finalists for worst picks of all time. Of these, I have seen five and bits of the sixth. And I’ve seen most of the films they snubbed. So without further ado.
Actually, you know what? I like good numbers, so we’ll make this is a list of seven with the seventh being:
#7 – Lifetime Achievement Award: Cimarron over City Lights, The Great Ziegfeld over Modern Times and Broadway Melody over The Passion of Joan of Arc. The first decade of the Academy was terrible, far worse than we will ever seen again.
#6 – 1981: Chariots of Fire over Raiders of the Lost Ark, Das Boot, On Golden Pond, Gallipoli, Excalibur(!!) and Body Heat. Chariots is actually a decent film. But it won in a strong year over far superior films.
#5 – 1985: Out of Africa over Back to the Future, Ran, Brazil, The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Color Purple, Witness and A Room With A View. IMDB regards Better Off Dead as a better movie than Out of Africa. That’s Gen-X bias, of course. But … I’m not entirely sure they’re wrong.
#4 – 1998: Shakespeare in Love over American History X, Saving Private Ryan, The Big Lebowski, The Truman Show, Run Lola Run, Dark City, Lovers of the Arctic Circle, The Thin Red Line, Elizabeth. Yes, that’s right. SIL wasn’t even the best film that year about Elizabeth I.
#3 – 2002: Chicago over The Two Towers, City of God, the Pianist, Talk To Her, Lilya 4-Ever, The Magadalene Sisters, 25th Hour, In America, Road to Perdition, Adaptation, Minority Report, the Whale Rider, Gangs of New York, The Hours, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Far From Heaven, Dirt Pretty Things, About Schmidt, Insomnia. If you lower the vote threshold to 10,000 votes, Chicago was ranked 50th out of 184 films that year. This is not just about The Two Towers. This was a very strong year and the Academy picking a truly mediocre film. Appalling. I didn’t expect I would see this as worse than Shakespeare in Love. I originally ranked this choice #4. But the more I looked at it, the worse the pick looked. Another reason why I did this exercise. I’m aware of IMDB’s bias against musicals. Chicago was still a bad choice.
#2 – 1958 : Gigi over Vertigo, Touch of Evil, A Night to Remember, Auntie Mame, The Fly. I went over this before. Gigi is a bit of a stand-in for the snubbing of Hitch. I’m aware that it swept the awards and is regarded by many as one of the best winners. Those many are wrong. It wasn’t even close to the best picture of the year. Look beyond the number of awards it won and it’s an awful pick.
#1 – 1952: I’m probably over-correcting for my bias against bad picks in my lifetime. In time, Shakespeare or Chicago could take over this spot. But consider what The Greatest Show on Earth (the only bad pick I have not seen in its entirety) stomped on to win the statue: Singin’ in the Rain, Ikiru, Umberto D, High Noon, Limelight, The Quiet Man, Othello, the Importance of Being Earnest, Moulin Rouge, Monkey Business, Ivanhoe. Some of those are over-rated, I grant you. But in 1952, you could have wandered into a theater at random and seen a better movie than The Greatest Show on Earth.