TV Break – Oscar Winning Films

Just for a bit of variation on this blog, I thought I’d share something non-television related, although still tenuously connected enough to justify its presence. This was originally posted on my website where you can find reviews of all the films I watch when I’m not watching tv.

Some people make resolutions to give stuff up that’s bad for them or do more stuff that’s good for them, but I learnt long ago that I was no good at that kind of thing, so to avoid the inevitable sense of failure that would set in by the 3rd week of January, I started setting more realistic challenges for myself. Several years ago it was to watch 100 films and since then I’ve kept up a steady diet of film watching trying to catch up on what I felt was a backlog of proper film watching and reviewing. For 2011 I set myself the challenge of catching up on Films which had won the Oscar for Best Picture. I completed my task on time, although it’s taken me two months to do the write up.

There have been 83 Best Pictures. Unfortunately 6 of them don’t seem to be available on dvd in the UK, so I’ve only been able to watch 77, but I’m still considering that ‘done’. It’s taken me so long to write this summary though that The Artist has added an 84th to list, but I can’t be bothered to update all the data. Here’s a list, the links go to the reviews on my website, the missing links are films that I watched before I started putting reviews online. Or you can just read through all the reviews in one place here.

1928 – Wings (Not available)
1929 – The Broadway Melody (Not available)
1930 – All Quiet on the Western Front (6/10)
1931 – Cimarron (Not available)
1932 – Grand Hotel (5/10)
1933 – Cavalcade (Not available)
1934 – It Happened One Night (5/10)
1935 – Mutiny on the Bounty (5/10)
1936 – The Great Ziegfeld (6/10)
1937 – The Life of Emile Zola (Not available)
1938 – You Can’t Take It With You (8/10)
1939 – Gone with the Wind (8/10)
1940 – Rebecca (9/10)
1941 – How Green Was My Valley (6/10)
1942 – Mrs. Miniver (6/10)
1943 – Casablanca (6/10)
1944 – Going My Way (6/10)
1945 – The Lost Weekend (7/10)
1946 – The Best Years of Our Lives (8/10)
1947 – Gentleman’s Agreement (7/10)
1948 – Hamlet (5/10)
1949 – All the King’s Men (8/10)
1950 – All about Eve (9/10)
1951 – An American in Paris (6/10)
1952 – The Greatest Show on Earth (6/10)
1953 – From Here to Eternity (5/10)
1954 – On the Waterfront (5/10)
1955 – Marty (7/10)
1956 – Around the World in 80 Days (No review)
1957 – The Bridge on the River Kwai (6/10)
1958 – Gigi (5/10)
1959 – Ben-Hur (6/10)
1960 – The Apartment (7/10)
1961 – West Side Story (4/10)
1962 – Lawrence of Arabia (4/10)
1963 – Tom Jones (Not available)
1964 – My Fair Lady (6/10)
1965 – The Sound of Music (7/10)
1966 – A Man for All Seasons (6/10)
1967 – In the Heat of the Night (7/10)
1968 – Oliver! (4/10)
1969 – Midnight Cowboy (6/10)
1970 – Patton (7/10)
1971 – The French Connection (5/10)
1972 – The Godfather (7/10)
1973 – The Sting (7/10)
1974 – The Godfather Part II (No review)
1975 – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (7/10)
1976 – Rocky (8/10)
1977 – Annie Hall (7/10)
1978 – The Deer Hunter (5/10)
1979 – Kramer vs. Kramer (7/10)
1980 – Ordinary People (7/10)
1981 – Chariots of Fire (6/10)
1982 – Gandhi (6/10)
1983 – Terms of Endearment (6/10)
1984 – Amadeus (6/10)
1985 – Out of Africa (5/10)
1986 – Platoon (5/10)
1987 – The Last Emperor (6/10)
1988 – Rain Man (5/10)
1989 – Driving Miss Daisy (5/10)
1990 – Dances With Wolves (5/10)
1991 – The Silence of the Lambs (No review)
1992 – Unforgiven (5/10)
1993 – Schindler’s List (8/10)
1994 – Forrest Gump (No review)
1995 – Braveheart (8/10)
1996 – The English Patient (7/10)
1997 – Titanic (5/10)
1998 – Shakespeare in Love (No review)
1999 – American Beauty (8/10)
2000 – Gladiator (No review)
2001 – A Beautiful Mind (7/10)
2002 – Chicago (8/10)
2003 – The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King (8/10)
2004 – Million Dollar Baby (7/10)
2005 – Crash (8/10)
2006 – The Departed (7/10)
2007 – No Country for Old Men (6/10)
2008 – Slumdog Millionaire (8/10)
2009 – The Hurt Locker (6/10)
2010 – The King’s Speech (8/10)

So what did I think?
The rankings I use are pretty arbitrary, but broadly speaking 1 is catastrophic, 2 is awful, 3 is miserable, 4 is bad, 5 is meh, 6 is ok, 7 is good, 8 is very good and 9 is excellent. The Oscar winners include 3 films rated as bad and 2 rated as excellent and a reasonably even distribution between the two extremes to give an average (mean) of 6.4 which is a resounding but uninspiring ‘ok’.

I compared those numbers to the rest of my film ratings my review database (640 reviews at time of writing dating back to 2003) to see whether Oscar winners were broadly better or worse. As you can see from the graph below the distributions of ratings is almost exactly the same.

Graph to show distribution of ranks for Oscar winners compared to all other films

But shouldn’t Oscar winners be better than ‘normal’ films? Well when I think about it there are a few reasons that this may be a false assumption.

My tastes
I forced myself to watch Oscar winners regardless of whether they were films I would like or not (e.g. I’m not a fan of war/military films or westerns). In my general film watching though I have almost always deliberately chosen to watch because I think I might like them.

I’m not entirely sure what criteria Oscar voters use when nominating and awarding their best films, but I suspect they have a lot less consideration for entertainment factor than I do. Oscars would never name Stardust or, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs as best film, but each are each superb within their genres so get 9/10 in my rankings. Mind you, of the 31 films I’ve rated 9/10, 2 won Oscars, 10 were nominated and 4 were nominated or won the animated Oscar, so we’re not completely out of whack.

One element that can never be overcome is the context in which the Oscars were awarded, the Oscar list does not tell you what is currently thought to be the best film for each year, it tells you the film that the members of the Academy thought was most deserving of the plaudit just a few months after the year had ended. I try to be aware of this and compensate for things like ideas seeming unoriginal now when they wouldn’t have been decades ago, I’m not going to understand the full impact these films might have had at the time without a lot more time on Wikipedia.

A related issue that I can’t compensate for is that I’m a creature of my time and tastes change, this effects not just the context and impact of a film as described above, but whether I get jokes, like characters and whether the plot moves at the right pace for me. Surely I’m more likely to enjoy films that are made more recently?

Fortunately I again have the data for that (or I did after a few hours going back through my database and putting a year against every film). So I compared the rating I gave to each year’s Oscar winner (red) with the average ratings of films from each year (blue).

Graph to show comparison of ranks and ages for Oscar winners compared to all other films

There’s a lot of wiggle to the graph so I did a very very basic linear line fit (I’ve forgotten almost all the statistics I ever knew) which does show that there’s a slight increase in the ratings that I give films depending on their age, but while it’s more marked for Oscar winners than the whole pool, it’s still less than a full point of rank. A possible explanation for why the blue line doesn’t go up as much, as the green line shows I’ve watched considerably more films from recent years and I’m much more likely to have randomly watched mediocre stuff because it’s convenient. So you can either conclude that the effect of age is minimal, or that statistics can be used to show whatever you want.

Some stuff is just rubbish though
There are a whole collection of reasons why I might be less favourable towards the content of the Oscar winners, but what surprised me was the number of them that I thought were just plain badly made. If a film is good, but not to my taste I tend to be more generous and award a 6/10, but a lot of these films I just thought were badly made. Take Dances with Wolves for example – it’s beautifully shot and has an interesting story, but it’s crippled by its astronomical run time and a comically awful voice over. It should have been sent back labelled “nice idea needs some work” not awarded an Oscar. Many of the films I awarded 4 or 5 to have some sort of technical or structural flaw like this:

  • Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi, Out of Africa, Titanic – waaaaay too long
  • Oliver! – could we lose the cacophony of squeaky children and the awful dubbing of a girl’s voice for Oliver? West Side Story was also guilty of criminally awful dubbing.
  • Gigi – surely even in the 50s the core of this story about a young girl being trained as a ‘courtesan’ and old men singing “thank heaven, for little girls” would have been considered a little bit creepy?
  • Unforgiven – enunciate man! We can’t understand what you’re saying. On second thoughts, we don’t really care.

Important films
Sometimes films are the very opposite of enjoyable, they’re hard to watch and the kind of thing that you don’t want to see, but really should because they’re important. The modern epitome of this is probably Schindler’s List (1993) but again there’s examples all the way through the history of film, including some that deal with issues that in my historically naivety seem to be extremely forward thinking for the time. There was the 1930 film told from the sympathetic point of view of Nazi infantry (All Quiet on the Western Front), a 1945 film about the complete devastation caused by alcoholism (The Lost Weekend), or a 1947 one about what passive discrimination looks like (Gentleman’s Agreement), or a 1967 film demonstrating how civil rights moved at different speeds in different areas of the US (In the Heat of the Night). From an academic point of view for sociology or media studies they’re absolutely fascinating.

Stuff I actually like
After all that though, there are still a lot of films on the list that I did really like. There’ll be a lot of the highly rated films on the list above that everyone has seen and most people will find hard to dislike. But I want to highlight a few films that I may never have watched if not for this obsession.

  • You Can’t Take it With You (1938) – produced by Frank Capra and starred Jimmy Stewart, this is almost a prequel to It’s a Wonderful Life and may even be better. It’s the type of film that makes you feel better about the world.
  • Gone with the Wind (1939) – One of the ‘classics’ that I might not have bothered with because I felt myself somehow above it and put off by the 4 hr run time, but then found it really entertaining. (See also Sound of Music (1965))
  • Rebecca (1940) – a stunning example of a psychological mystery thriller, watching the plot and characters gradually unravel through beautifully subtle writing and acting.
  • The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) – a genuinely moving and surprisingly extremely funny look at servicemen returning from war to find that everything and everyone has changed.
  • All the King’s Men (1949) – a great American novel set to film with an epic scale focussed through the life of just one man.
  • All About Eve (1950) – when I saw this six years ago I described it as “very close to perfect” and “one of the best two hours of cinema I’ve seen”. This is one of the films that encouraged me to start this project, because I only picked it out of a discount dvd bin because it had won an Oscar.
  • The Apartment (1960) – a master class in how to walk the line between comedy and tragedy.
  • Rocky (1976) – a film that I was expecting to hate, but was surprised to find was not so much about boxing, but about a fascinating character.
  • Schindler’s List (1993) – a superb and beautiful film, harsh and depressing as expected, but also an amazing piece of film making.
  • Braveheart (1995) – I was anticipating a too long collection of men waving swords and making impassioned speeches in bad Scottish accents. While it was all of those things, it was also hugely entertaining to watch.

The original of this post is on my website.


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