In the hundred or so years since film was invented and turned into a multi-billion dollar industry, plenty of ink has been spilled over lists and articles about just who has been the best – the best director, the best actor, the best musician – like humanity can’t get enough out of figuring out the most superior of our own self-importance. The Hollywood awards season seems to last the entire year, with a multitude of industry-based awards shows dominating the blogosphere and newsprint each and every month, culminating in the very pinnacle of cinematic artistic achievement, The Academy Awards. Each year, golden gongs are handed out to those folks judged by others folks to be the best in their category at what they’ve done that year. Whether those awards are warranted or not isn’t the point of this article; here, we’re going to spotlight the very best of the best – the best Actors and Actresses, the best Directors, the best Films, even the best cinematic advances of the Modern Age. What do I mean by Modern Age, you ask. Simple. Hollywood’s boom times of the 30’s and 40’s, at least prior to the War, are known today as the Golden Age, and the three decades after that could be termed the Bronze Age – with a shift into color film, multi-channel stereo and the re-invention of the Hollywood “blockbuster” away from biblical epics and sweeping melodramatic romance. The 80’s, however, when you look at films produced at that time in a reflective mood, represents a shift both artistically and stylistically in the medium of film to such a degree that I think a new “age” of Hollywood could be coined: the Modern Age. An epoch of cinema between 1980 and 2010, 30 years of both massive successes, and epic fails. The Greatest of the Modern Age series attempts to distill the best of the Modern Age into a series of opinion-based lists, and we hope you enjoy (if not disagree with) our work.
It’s a convoluted title, isn’t it? Greatest Best Picture Oscar Winners Of The Modern Age. Makes your eyes curl just reading that title. Since the early part of the 20th Century, the Hollywood-based Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has evaluated all the films released in a calendar year and awarded the most worthy with a little statuette – now commonly known as an Oscar. Each and every year, film fans and bloggers around the world sit in judgement for themselves, and weigh in on the Academy’s choices as well, to determine whether their taste in film is the same as the Academy members’. More often than not, it seems, we – bloggers – are in the minority. This years ceremony, for example, left the film many considered to be 2011’s best, Drive, out in the cold. In 1997, Saving Private Ryan famously won Steven Spielberg his second Best Director gong, but lost the Best Picture award to Shakespeare In Love – a fact I still haven’t found time to forgive the Academy for. In 2008, the stunningly popular Batman film, The Dark Knight, was overlooked for a Best Picture Nomination – a fact which led to the Academy opening up the number of Best Picture nominations possible: from 5 to 10.
With the passing of time, many a Best Picture winner has not quite stood up in the years since. At the 62nd Academy Awards, in 1989, Driving Miss Daisy won against competition like My Left Foot, Field Of Dreams, and Born of the Fourth Of July. Miss Daisy is a better film than Oliver Stone’s searing indictment of the Vietnam War and the US’s treatment of veterans? No doubt many bloggers could make arguments for many of the films which missed out on the big gong, only to stand the test of time down the track. Here, regardless of whether each film deserved to be awarded the winner, we look at the 32 potential inclusions to this list, and pick the ten best. The full list of Best Picture Winners (and the films they beat) can be found at Wikipedia, here.
Equaling Ben Hur’s record-setting 11 Oscar wins (a feat achieved by Return Of The King only a few years later), James Cameron’s epic about one of the greatest maritime disasters ever remains as mystifyingly schmaltzy and bafflingly popular even now, some 15 years after it debuted. One part melodrama, another part rip-roaring adventure and all-parts blockbuster, Titanic became the highest box-office earner of all time (until Cameron broke his own record with Avatar in 2010) and set the benchmark for epic effects driven features. It launched the career of Kate Winslet, reaffirmed the talent of Leonardo DiCaprio, and drove music retailers insane with the chart success of Canadian warbler Celine Dion’s screeching “My Heart Will Go On” – a track which itself won Best Original Song…. a feat you’d say was perhaps even stupider than “It’s hard out here for a pimp” a few years later.
Ben Kingsley strode into the realm of cinema giants with his portrayal of the tiny Indian man who broke his country free from English rule during the early part of the 20th Century. Directed by Richard Attenborough, who himself won a Directing Oscar amongst the 8 the film received during the ceremony, Gandhi is massive film-making of a kind not seen since the digital effects age swept the need for thousands of extras to fill a background aside. Kingsley owns this film outright, his portrayal of a man many folks did not really understand both fascinating and affecting, and had it not been for his central performance, there’s little doubt Gandhi would have been the worse for it.
Oliver Stone’s blistering take on the horror and sadness of the Vietnam War is – to my mind – yet to be equaled. This, coupled with his reflective look in Born On The Fourth Of July, is an example of how film can change people’s perceptions of war and its impact on man. The soldiers who fought in the Second World War were sent off as heroes, a lot of them seeing the conflict as their chance for glory (especially since many of them had fathers or family who fought in the first World War), yet those who fought in Vietnam returned home to be seen as belligerents, as if they’d wronged Western Society by taking part. Stone, himself a Vietnam Veteran, brought the true horrors of that conflict into stark contrast with public perception, and in a single stroke, changed forever the way we filmed war.
There’s something ironic about the first Best Picture winner of the new millennium being a story about Ancient Rome. Ridley Scott, a master visualist and dynamic storyteller, brought the glory, majesty and horror of pagan Rome to life in a way we’d never seen – especially not in previous genre films like Ben Hur. Russell Crowe didn’t just chew the scenery, he swallowed it, regurgitated and swallowed it again, with his muscular, iconic portrayal of a betrayed Roman general who ends up in the Gladiator system, fighting for his life each time he goes into the ring. The use of digital effects to enhance and expand the astonishing practical sets, as well as Scott’s now familiar cinematic style, brought gritty realism to a world we’d only really seen in clean-cut Hollywood spectacle productions during the 50’s and 60’s. And it gave us the famous line: “at my signal, unleash hell!”.
If somebody had come to you and said they wanted to make a film about an imbecile interacting with major events in US history set to a rockin’ soundtrack from the era, you’d have waved them off as a lunatic. Robert Zemeckis, well before he replaced actual people with computer generated avatars, helmed this loving postcard to a bygone era of American history, filled it with iconic moments and music, and put Tom Hanks in the middle. Hanks, as the titular Forrest Gump, won an Oscar for his work in this, as did the editing and effects (among others), while the film became emblematic of a time when the world was heaving with social, political and moral unrest. Gump, whose lack of intelligence is outweighed by the size of his heart, goes through his life seemingly oblivious to the tide of events sweeping his nation – the issues of the day, including race relations, the space program, the Vietnam War, the onset of the computer age, free love and hippies as well as a love story through the decades with Gump’s obsession with his Jenny, Forrest Gump encompassed so much that made America great (or bad) and made audiences feel good about it. As a pure film, Forrest Gump is a superb achievement.
The film which gave voice to the plight of the American Indians, Dances With Wolves is still one of the best films of the early 90’s. Kevin Costner, who both directed and starred in this project, was rewarded for his personal tale of a US cavalryman living with Indians at a time when their race was being persecuted and driven out of their homelands. Some felt Costner’s heavy-handed subtext on Indian history was detrimental to the films standing in years since; however, as a piece of epic, sweeping entertainment, and as a moving story about a man trying to “find himself” out in the wild west, Dances With Wolves remains a class act all the way.
Returning to the genre which made him famous, Clint Eastwood’s western masterpiece is a moody, unsettling, claustrophobic work of art. Featuring a blistering performance by Gene Hackman (who won an Oscar for it) as The Bad Guy, Little Bill, and some wonderful use of landscapes and sound design to assist in the melancholy story of men seeking redemption for their past, Unforgiven is a powerhouse film from a director at the top of (or nearing it, at the very least) his game. While Eastwood would go on to more success later with Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, his low-key approach to this story, and his development of the characters over the action, ensure Unforgiven is truly a classic in every sense.
One of only three films in history to win the Big Five Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay), Silence Of The Lambs remains a sizzling horror/thriller film to this day. Its iconic moments, from Anthony Hopkins’ now infamous ad-lib “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti…. fpfpfpfpfp”, to Jodie Foster’s blind scrabbling through the dark while serial killer Wild Bill hunts her down with his gun drawn, are now cultural touchstones in cinema. Directed with a sure hand by the late Jonathan Demme, The Silence Of The Lambs opened the 90’s up to a new breed of psychological horror, and three sequels later, still hasn’t been topped.
Equaling the massive 11 Academy Award wins record set by Ben Hur and Titanic, Return of The King swept the pool at the Oscars for 2003. Peter Jackson’s epic Lord Of The Rings trilogy had strode to the top of the fantasy mountain, and reigned supreme at both the box-office and critical acclaim; it was up to Return Of The King to do what no other fantasy film in history had ever accomplished – win Best Picture. Thankfully, it did. To say Peter Jackson achieved the impossible, nay – the insurmountable – with his work on all three films, especially the crucial third one, is one of history’s great understatements. Epic, sweeping, emotional and revolutionary, Return Of The King is genuinely a monumental film achievement, and one I doubt will ever be equaled.
Steven Spielberg famously got his first Oscar for directing with this film, a film which went on to win 7 Academy Awards (among them, Best Original Score to John Williams, and Best Cinematography to Janusz Kaminski) and brought into sharp focus (again) the plight of the minority groups persecuted by the Nazis during World War II. Searing, heartbreaking and hopeful, Spielberg’s testament to the triumph of human spirit in the face of exceptional indignity is still one of the most powerful films of our time, if not one of the most agonizing of all time. It’s a film you cannot help but be moved by. And considering he made this back-to-back with Jurassic Park – two completely different films if ever there were – is even more astonishing.
Think we’ve got the wrong films here? Wanted Crash to appear in the list? Thought we made an error leaving Braveheart off the list? Leave a comment in the section below and vent your spleen!!
See more of our Greatest Of The Modern Age series, as well as a whole bunch of other Top 10 lists, at our archive page here!
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