Well, Best Picture is the star of this show, perhaps the first and foremost accolade for a film to earn. This category, more than any other, is meant to define the filmmaking industry as a whole. In spite the layers and layers of stereotypes for what this category favors, the 506 nominees in this category cover an astonishing array that I can’t even condense into one of my usual run-on sentences. So here’s a list of two nominees per decade, just to sample the staggering range of films that contribute to the definition of a Best Picture nominee:
- 1930s: The Thin Man and Grand Illusion
- 1940s: The Ox-Bow Incident and Double Indemnity
- 1950s: Father of the Bride and Marty
- 1960s: Dr. Strangelove and Mary Poppins
- 1970s: The Exorcist and Taxi Driver
- 1980s: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Fatal Attraction
- 1990s: Beauty and the Beast and Pulp Fiction
- 2000s: Moulin Rouge! and District 9
- 2010s: Inception and The Tree of Life
For all of its considerable blind spots and prejudices, this is nevertheless a remarkable cross-section of film history. Given it’s supposed importance, of course this category has been scrutinized every which way (Best Director overlap, box office bumps) and retooled a number of times during the first twenty and last five years. For what it’s worth, I love it whenever the field of nominees is expanded beyond the typical five, widening the spectrum to The Blind Side as well as Amour and aspiring to the “cross-section” goal, while also virtually guaranteeing that everyone will passionately agree and stridently disagree with one choice or another. While I cherish the rare slate that I can admire in its entirety (1939, 1975, 1979), the truth is that I’m more excited by the fact that most years present me with a clunker as well as a brilliant work, since it demonstrates that the category is working when it comes to representing an array of opinions and tastes. As long as there is a Ghost to offset Goodfellas, or a Cries and Whispers to counterbalance American Graffiti, then the system is working beautifully.
This is one of the categories that I’ve pursued more actively than others, making a point to see rare films like The White Parade and Trader Horn, or neglected ones like Quo Vadis or Nicholas and Alexandra, because of their designation. Still, that’s only gotten me as far as 436 of 506 of the nominated films, leaving me with 70 films to go. Almost all of these films are significant in one regard or another, whether for their spectacular box-office success (Airport), or for their overweening ambition (The Alamo), their artistic achievement (The Thin Red Line), social message (The Defiant Ones) or sumptuous craftsmanship (Anthony Adverse). I’m looking forward to films with sizeable critical cache (Z, The Magnificent Ambersons) and those with none at all (One Foot in Heaven, Doctor Dolittle). Most of all, perhaps, as usual I gravitate back toward World war II, and especially the trio of unseen 1942 nominees: The Pied Piper, 49th Parallel, and Wake Island, to further illustrate how the narrative of the war was playing out at the very height of the conflict.
(NOTE: For the purposes of this category, I cast a wide net, including the “Best Unique and Artistic Production” winner and nominees from 1927-28).
All in all, Best Picture is a treasure trove of films I know about and care about seeing. However, I plan to save this category for last, whittling it down as I close out Director, Acting, and Screenplay, and finally tackling the 19 films that stand alone in this category. Part of this is a curiosity about the movies that were great enough in their sum, but not in their parts, to earn a Best Picture nomination without the usual above-the-line accolades. (I should note that I’m still debating whether to save The Magnificent Ambersons for last, in spite of the fact that it also merited a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Agnes Moorehead, or go with Ruggles of Red Gap, whose sole nomination was for Best Picture) The end of this category will be an epic relief and a poignant farewell, but it won’t be coming for some time yet!