In 90 years of the Oscars, film making has certainly become a refined art. However, the techniques, special effect capabilities and swelled budgets haven’t necessarily improved the quality of the films – at least in my mind.
Here are my top Oscar-winning movies of all time.
1. Gone with the Wind (1939)
This is one of the most epic movies ever made. Over three hours long, it was crafted to have an intermission and an overture lead-in. The movie was hyped from the time the book was optioned by David O’Selznick. Finding the leading lady to play Scarlet O’Hara was like the reality show of the era, with many leading ladies of the time (Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins) auditioning for the role. It eventually went to little known English actress Vivien Leigh. The film is a sweeping saga set in the south during the American Civil War. The film not only won Best Film but also Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel), Best Director (Victor Fleming), Best Screenplay (Sidney Howard), and three more Oscars. Gone With The Wind is one of those films I’ve seen many times as I can’t resist tuning in whenever I see it playing, and although I think I’ll only watch a scene or two, I get sucked in and watch it all. The story is big and easy to identify with – juvenile, misplaced love – it’s sumptuous and an incredible spectacle, especially for the time. The scene of the injured soldiers at the train station is unforgettable, and the cast is perfect. And 80 years later, it still stands up.
Among the films it beat in 1939 were Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Wizard of Oz, and Bette Davis’s Dark Victory.
2. Casablanca (1943)
Another classic that is more than 75 years old this year, Casablanca is one of the most perfect movies about WWII, set far from the action and released during the war. The story revolves around Ilsa and Rick, former lovers who are brought together when Ilsa, accompanying her freedom-fighting husband Victor, stops in Casablanca on the way to their next battle. The love between Rick and Ilsa is rekindled and there is double-dealing, dodgy characters, and a sinister war in the background to contend with. This is arguably Humphrey Bogart’s most famous role and the song he requests with the famous line, “Play it Sam, you played it for her, you can play it for me,” As Time Goes By remains a classic. The writers gave the film sharp unsentimental dialogue, and there are so many good lines that exist beyond the film, starting with Rick seeing his lover, who left him in Paris, come to his bar in Casablanca:
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” And the ending when he sacrifices for his love and finds himself stuck with the gendarme Louie, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
It’s not just the lines, it’s the delivery. Bogart and Ingrid Bergman excel in this. , and Ingrid Bergman is stunning and her wardrobe would not seem out of place today – it’s classy and classic.
The biggest film this beat to the Oscar in 1943 was For Whom the Bell Tolls.
3. All About Eve (1950)
Is there anything Hollywood loves more than a film about Hollywood? Strangely the other top contender in 1950 for the Oscar was another film about Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard. All About Eve is a clever film about ageing actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) who takes on ingenue Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) who is there for her, all the time, everywhere, and starts assuming her life. It is not a new story and has been done several times since. The class of this film is in the cast – George Sanders, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill and Thelma Ritter. The film looks great, reeks of old Hollywood and lines are memorable. “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” – Margo Channing. The screenplay is a winner and this film stands the test of time (and is b&w).
4. My Fair Lady (1964)
For me, unless the film can be watched multiple times it’s not as classic as it should be. My Fair Lady is faultless, and I’ve watched it many times. It’s based on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, with music written by Alan Jay Lerner (lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music). The story centres on Eliza Doolittle, an uncultured young flower seller with a broad Cockney accent, whose transformation into a lady of society is is the subject of a bet by Professor Henry Higgins. It is a great story of transformation and the ethics of playing with other people’s lives. There was a little controversy over the casting of Audrey Hepburn as Eliza who was originally created on Broadway by Julie Andrews. Rex Harrison was popular as Henry Higgins, Stanley Holloway as Alfred P Dolittle, and Wilfred Hyde White as Colonel Pickering. It was a great musical before it became a great movie. Again, the film is a great visual beauty and the songs are showstoppers – particularly Get Me To The Church on Time, With a Little Bit of Luck, Wouldn’t it be Loverly, and I Could Have Danced All Night.
Films it beat in 1964 – Mary Poppins, Zorba the Greek, and Dr. Strangelove.
5. The Sound of Music (1965)
An absolute must. Another musical and in consecutive years. The 60s were really the decade of the musical – and great ones too. The Sound of Music is epic, and for Julie Andrews, somewhat made up for the part she lost to Audrey Hepburn in the previous year’s Oscar winner, My Fair Lady. Julie Andrews will own her part as Sister Maria forever. She plays a young nun who becomes governess to a wealthy Austrian naval commander, a widower. He rules his six children very strictly. They have seen a long line of governesses and are not looking forward to their new one, but she is perfect. The kids get on with her, the father falls in love with her, and then the Nazis come and the family must escape over the Alps to Switzerland. There are many songs in between and it’s an almost flawless film. The cast is strong, Julie Andrews is paired with Christopher Plummer as Captain von Trapp, Eleanor Parker is wonderfully imperious as the Baroness, his former love interest, and Richard Hayden is great as Max, their friend
This year the competition included Darling, Dr. Zhivago, and Ship of Fools.
6. The Godfather (1972)
A perfect film, better than the Mario Puzo book that the movie was based on. This is the genesis of all ensuing Mafia stories, films, and television shows. “I’m going to make him an offer can’t refuse”, the horse’s head in the bed, swimming with the fishes, and going to the mattresses – all started with the Godfather. It’s an epic and has three chapters. I find it difficult to choose between Godfather I and Godfather II as my favourite – they are the most classic of family sagas. The sins of the father are certainly visited upon the sons. The society is sophisticated, the rules are well known, and the roles clear. This film revolves around the head of the family, Don Corleone, who is preparing for the next generation to take the helm of his business. His youngest son Michael has just returned from the war. He has not wanted to be a part of the business but is dragged in and thus his life and future are set. A great cast led by Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, with Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, and Robert Duvall.
This beat Cabaret and Deliverance.
7. The Godfather II (1974)
Missing Marlon Brando but featuring Robert de Niro as a young Don Corleone, this film goes back to the early days of Corleone in America and how he rises to become the Don. Italso continues the adventures of Michael Corleone in the 1950s as he attempts to expand the family business into Las Vegas, Hollywood, and Cuba. I think this is equal to the first Godfather. The cast features Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Talia Shire, and John Cazale. Again directed by Francis Ford Coppola, it’s a saga worth continuing.
A particularly strong year at the Oscars – Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, and the Towering Inferno.
8. Schindler’s List (1993)
This is the film to watch about the Holocaust. It’s a big film, with no expense spared, no message withheld. The cast features Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson in probably their best roles. The film centres on Polish businessman Oskar Schindler, who saves many Jews through his business. Fiennes is the Nazi Commandant and Ben Kingsley appears as Itzhak Stern. Directed by Steven Spielberg, this was the film he had to make. Although he had passed on it several times previously, he attacked the project with passion when the time was right. It won seven Academy Awards (out of 12 nominations) including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. To Spielberg, the black and white presentation represents the Holocaust itself: “The Holocaust was life without light. For me the symbol of life is colour. That’s why a film about the Holocaust has to be in black-and-white.” It doesn’t pull punches and for me is the last film in 25 years to be a truly best picture.
Honourable mentions to some big and beautiful films of the 80s must go to – Chariots of Fire (1981), Amadeus (1984), and Out of Africa (1985). And a personal favourite of mine, but perhaps not truly a best picture for the ages – The Artist (2011).