In preparation for the 87th Academy Awards this Sunday, I’m going to recommend a previous Best Picture winner for each genre—pointing out a few winners along the way that I don’t recommend. Some fudging was in order if I wanted to get a film for each of my own loosely defined categories, so fudge I did.
Recommended: The Sound of Music (1965), obviously. Hollywood’s adaptation doesn’t follow history very well, for which reason it is still unpopular in Salzburg despite—or perhaps because of—tourists who assume “Edelweiss” is Austria’s national anthem. But Americans love it and always will. Whenever people express surprise that I (of all people) could love a musical, I simply remember my favorite things: the Alps, Julie Andrew’s voice, and Captain von Trapp ripping the Nazi flag in half.
Not recommended: The Return of the King (2003). Large swaths of The Fellowship of the Ring do Tolkien proud, but that was just about the last decent homage Peter Jackson paid to the books until Riddles in the Dark in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure. I’m not saying it’s wrong to watch The Return of the King as a family, I’m just saying it’s wrong to watch it and not make fun of it.
Recommended: Braveheart (1995). Told you I fudged. But seriously, while this amazing film isn’t what most people think of when you say “romance,” notice how the quest for freedom is ignited by a love story as William Wallace realizes that tyranny that steals our brides and murders our wives must be fought at the national level. It’s a stupendous film, no matter where you stick it (just not for young kids). You could throw all the best-picture winners in a competition and Braveheart would have a clear shot a taking home the Oscar of Oscars.
Not recommended: Titanic. Woe is me, what a stodgy, indecent, dishonest melodrama. (Also rhymes with Avatar.) Please drown early, you smarmy love story.
Fun & Farce
Recommended: The Sting (1973). It’s been around for over forty years and is still one of the smartest, most charming and enjoyable movies I know. Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Robert Shaw are phenomenal. If you like heist movies (who doesn’t?), go for this the next time you’re in the mood for Ocean’s Eleven.
Not recommended: No other Oscar winner that I know much about really fits this category besides maybe Forest Gump, which doesn’t appeal to me enough for me to find out whether I’m right for ignoring it.
Action with a Brain
Recommended: Gladiator (2000). I’ll say again what I said in defense of putting Maximus on my Best Heroes list. Gladiator tries in some ways to be a revenge story (due to conflicting goals in various screenplay drafts), but ultimately, it’s about a noble pagan who gives Christians something to imitate: a man who is masculine without being cheesy; a man who endures hell yet remains true to his family and country, all without taking the descent into bitterness. The story, muscular and compelling on a Ben Hurian scale, also boasts Joaquin Phoenix’s unhinged sadist Commodus (one of Hollywood’s master villains) and a brilliant score which established Hans Zimmer as the new sound of film music (though John Williams will always be Hollywood’s Bach). The movie is just big. Production, big. Violence, big. Impact, big. Awesomeness, big. One of my top ten.
Not recommended: The Silence of the Lambs (1991). For some reason, I was under the impression that people avoided this movie because it was rough the same way Braveheart or Schindler’s List is rough—kinda grisly, but good for you. Turns out they were avoiding it because it’s just gross. God knows there are plenty of real monsters in the world, but the storytellers here take a twisted delight in creeping us out with two horrific (and made-up) villains in a world where justice is always too slow and being good is never as thrilling as being bad.
Recommended: Schindler’s List (1993). Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust drama is pretty darn spectacular despite its faults (a bit slow, some needless nudity/sexuality, and a spot of sentimentalism). Oskar Schindler, an unlikely hero whose moral complexity (inconsistency?) made him perfectly suited for his role as devious, double-crossing savior, is the only Nazi to be buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. He deserves this movie. So do the Jews he saved.
Not really recommended: No Country for Old Men (2007). This is one of my favorite movies I disagree with, so I have to admit I can’t really not recommend it. I just can’t recommend it flat out. Sort of depends on what you’re going for. The story is compelling, the dialogue smart and real, the characters likable and textured. You could learn a lot as a writer, observer of humanity, aspiring director, and all that. But you probably wouldn’t like the movie for entertainment purposes. In this story, good is good, evil is evil, but good is also weak, and evil gets away with it. The only thing that might shut down villainy (and the bad guy is nothing if not pure villainy) is pure accident; there’s really no point to crusading against the world’s wrong. It’s a postmodern conclusion to an otherwise engaging (and technically brilliant) film.