From time to time,
To see a genre film much less a romantic comedy win Best Picture seems like an unfathomable occurrence by today’s standards but Annie Hall did just that taking the win over a little movie called Star Wars. Retroactively speaking such a decision might seem outlandish given director Woody Allen’s troubled personal life and the undeniable permanence Star Wars has held in pop culture since but Annie Hall’s own impact should not be understated.
Arguably Allen’s masterpiece (all due respect to Hannah & Her Sisters) Annie Hall finds maturity in a film about emotional immaturity – it’s neurotic main lead opening the doors (for better or worse) to a new leading everyman and its titular character embodying the manic pixie dream girl that continues to be a recurring archetype in narrative storytelling.
Paving the way for the modern romantic comedy that the likes of Nancy Meyers, Nora Ephron and Richard Curtis would later bring to widespread commercial appeal; Annie Hall’s introspective wit on the nature of relationships connects with audiences some 40 years after its release. Advancements in technology and special effects may cause some films to feel dated as a result but the strength of the writing at the core of Annie Hall (with the exception of some politically incorrect barbs) ensures lasting longevity.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
A jaw-dropping filmmaking achievement of the highest caliber, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is more than just a technological gimmick. A comeback performance from Michael Keaton in a semi-autobiographical role as Riggan Thompson, an actor most well-known for playing the iconic superhero, Birdman, trying to abandon his previous persona in order to be respected as a serious actor on Broadway. Birdman is a cynical examination of fame, prestige, Hollywood, and celebrity culture in ways that are nuanced far beyond simple blind disdain. It airs its petty grievances while at the same time questioning what all of this negativity and self-importance is even worth in the grand scheme of things. The one-take illusion, on top of just being technically impressive and captivating to watch unfold, also works alongside the film’s themes by seamlessly blending the craft of film with the craft of theatre. Every aspect of the filmmaking is so meticulously choreographed and staged within this seemingly continuous shot that it requires every member of the cast and crew to elevate their game to the utmost capacity, creating a film in which every single person involved in front of and behind the camera are visibly giving 110% of their effort and commitment. For all of these reasons and more, Birdman is my favorite Best Picture winner.
I imagine that many Oscar voters saw something particularly personal about Birdman: the 2014 Best Picture winner that explores the value of art, and asks whether entertainment really has any higher meaning, whether it’s really important. It pokes fun at film critics, actors, producers, writers, calling them out for their elitism and demand for realism above all else. It’s one of those rare movies in which I learn something new every time I see it. It’s impossible to fully grasp on your first viewing alone – I’ve seen it a few times now, and I still don’t think I understand everything there is to understanding.
But even better than being among the most thematically dense movies ever made about the entertainment industry, it is also a funny, well-acted, and extremely well-made film that demonstrates the strength of the medium. It’s heartening that the Academy, which so often makes the wrong call, would get this right. And, although it’s probably not the best film ever to win Best Picture, it is easily my favorite.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Return of the King walking home with the top prize at the 76th Academy Awards marked numerous milestones for the Academy. Alongside 1959’s Ben-Hur and 1997’s Titanic, it swept the awards with 11 wins: that’s every award it was nominated for, a nearly unheard of feat and still the largest clean sweep in the Academy’s 90-year history. It stands as just the second sequel to ever win the award, and until last year’s The Shape of Water, broke the Academy’s “genre bias” as the only fantasy picture to ever win the award.
It might be easy to think that Return of the King’s win was just a compensation award – being the final film in the trilogy meant the final chance to reward Peter Jackson and company for their hard work – but there’s a sense of majesty to the movie that is so rarely captured on screen even 15 years later, and that makes the film more than worthy of the biggest prize in the industry. Jackson takes the intimate character work of Fellowship of the Ring and the greater scale of The Two Towers and combines them into a truly epic, emotionally resonant closing chapter.
Everything about Return of the King is just perfect. Jackson films the battles with not just the scope and scale of classic Hollywood epics – including impressive costumes and sets – but also groundbreaking (and still impressive) visual effects that bring Tolkien’s fantastical world to life. The relationships between each of the Fellowship’s members reach emotional highs and heartbreaking endings. Howard Shore’s score is grand, culminating in Annie Lennox’s beautiful performance of “Into the West.” It’s 200 minutes of cinematic catharsis, a film whose elegance has stood the test of time for a decade and a half, and will undoubtedly continue on for decades to come.
Beyond a mere biography, director Milos Forman’s lavish and spellbinding epic Amadeus continues to be totally and brilliantly captivating. Based on the stage play of the same name by Peter Shaffer (who also wrote the screenplay), this semi-fictionalized tale of the supreme genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his ‘rival’ Antonio Salieri, is a purely magnificent viewing experience.
With wonderful costumes, sets, acting performances, and of course the incomparable music of Mozart as a soundtrack, Amadeus is not just a tremendously fun movie, but also very moving. The unearthly talents of Mozart juxtaposed with the struggling Salieri who tries to make sense of it all is both gripping and fascinating; capped with the ultimate tragedy of Mozart’s premature death, this is a story about so many human emotions like jealousy, love, pride, and egoism. And of course, it is a story about music and its transformative power. A final scene where Mozart on his deathbed dictates his requiem to Salieri, who is furiously attempting to keep up with the scoring, is perhaps the ultimate showcase of a musical brilliance that has never been imitated.
Winner of 8 Academy Awards (including of course Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director), Amadeus is one of the best examples of filmmaking at its finest. Sadly Peter Shaffer and Milos Forman have now passed away, but like the figure they so beautifully gave tribute to, their work and this film will continue to live on in our memories and hearts.