By John H. Foote
In the 10 years of Oscar winning Best Pictures, since the beginning of the second decade of this New Millennium, I have agreed with the Academy’s choice for Best Film just … ONCE.
Going through the years, I took a look at what stronger choices might have won, and why the Academy went the route they did. Why THAT film above all others? There is always a reason, make no mistake. Often it is political within the Academy, but a reason always exists. It should not. The award should go to the best, the singular greatest achievement of the year, a film for the ages. History has shown that often it does not.
Interesting footnotes, five times the Best Director Award went to Mexican filmmakers, one of them consecutively, and two Best Picture winners were directed by black filmmakers, who did not win Best Director. After a 30-year career directing some of the very finest American films, Spike Lee was finally a Best Director nominee for BlacKkKlansman (2018) and won his first Oscar for his screenplay to that film.
Steven Spielberg directed four Best Picture nominees but was nominated for Best Director just one time. Shameful.
In 2019 a foreign language film won Best Picture and Best Director, which was more a slap in the face to Netflix than anything else. When the streaming company got into the movie making business and began challenging for Oscars with Beasts of No Nation (2015) it was just the beginning. In 2019, Netflix had two Best Picture nominees and frankly the year’s best film with The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s brilliant, melancholy film about the killing of Jimmy Hoffa. Resonating much deeper, the film is a profound study of getting old, being alone and the consequences of your life choices.
Understand folks, just Best Picture is being discussed.
2010 – THE KING’S SPEECH
The King’s Speech was a beautifully acted, directed and written film, no question and audiences loved it much to the joy of disgraced studio mogul Harvey Weinstein. Four Academy Awards including Best Picture, though? Deserved? No. Among the films it bested was the for the ages masterpiece The Social Network, David Fincher’s sublime study of the creation of Facebook and fallout of good friends. Actor Jesse Eisenberg, just remarkable as Mark Zuckerberg, did the finest work of his career thus far, capturing everything about Zuckerberg that mattered. Intelligent, sharply written the film captures the need for instant information and gratification among our youth. No film better captured the essence of the times. A strong argument could also be made for Best Picture, Actor, Director, Supporting Actress, Screenplay Adaptation and Cinematography wins for the Coen Brothers masterful western True Grit. Both The Social Network and True Grit were better films than The King’s Speech, each the sort of films for the ages Oscar winning Best Picture winners should be, but often are not.
2011 – THE ARTIST
The entire film is built on the gimmick of being a silent film set during the time in history when sound was coming to the movies. So many silent screen giants found themselves out of work when sound emerged, and actors spoke. Some simply could not manage it, others had dreadful sounding voices, other had learned to act for the camera in an expressionistic style which just did not suit dialogue. George (Jean Dujardin) is a hugely popular silent screen star in the style of Douglas Fairbanks, but he refuses to direct his latest film with sound. The results ruin him and his career. There are moments the film is giddy with pure charm and energy, beautifully acted by Dujardin and the rest of the excellent cast. That said the gimmick wears thin because the film becomes predictable and you can see where we are headed long before it takes place. The best film I saw in 2011 was The Descendants, which also should have won George Clooney the Oscar that went to Dujardin. A very funny but often heartbreaking film about loss, grief and forgiveness this was the years best film. You have to hand it to Harvey Weinstein, in turning a well-liked little lark into an Academy Award winning Best Picture. Sound vaguely familiar?
2012 – ARGO
In 1976, a little feel good movie called Rocky, won Best Picture over three of the greatest American films ever made. All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver, masterpieces all, were bested by a low budget Cinderella story with enormous heart. How similar was 2012! Audience pleaser Argo, without the benefit of a Best Director nomination for Ben Affleck, wins Best Picture over Kathryn Bigelow’s searing drama Zero Dark Thirty, a taut thriller focusing on the CIA’s search for Osama Bin Ladin, and the raid that saw the Navy Seals assassinate him and Steven Spielberg’s superb historical drama Lincoln, both superior films. Dealing with the escape of the Iran hostage crisis, Affleck’s film is an excellent political thriller, but it is not for a second a stronger work than either Zero Dark Thirty, an electrifying document of history, or Lincoln, a magnificent study of President Lincoln’s war to end slavery. Bigelow’s film, Zero Dark Thirty, was an intense study of how one obsessed woman found where Bin Laden was living, presented it to the CIA and then waited impatiently for action. Jessica Chastain brought a quiet, unspoken fury to her role as Maya, the operative who finds Bin Laden and tells the Navy Seal team, “you’re going to kill him for me.” Superbly acted, directed, shot and edited, it was without question a masterpiece. Lincoln was a reverential, stately film about a certain period in the life of the doomed President. As the Civil War comes to an end, Lincoln is aware he needs to push through the bill to abolish slavery, using all his wiles as a politician to make this happen. Superbly crafted, the film is built around the astonishing performance of Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln. One of Spielberg’s finest films, I would have tied this with Zero Dark Thirty for Best Picture and Best Director wins. Argo benefited enormously from the fall out of Affleck’s snub for a Best Director nomination, as Hollywood rallied around the film, and its director. The fact he and Bigelow were both DGA nominees but snubbed by the Academy was lost on no one. Suffice to say the Academy screwed up much in this year.
2013 – 12 YEARS A SLAVE
12 Years a Slave is a very honourable choice, a handsomely created, powerful film with heartbreaking performances all based on historical fact. Steve McQueen directed the film with an eye on authenticity, allowing audiences to experience slavery in the South as they never had before. But more, there was such an ugly contempt for black people by most of the whites in the film, no undercurrent, this hatred blazed right out front. Chiwetel Ejiofor is superb as a free man living in the North, kidnapped from his family and sold into slavery in the South where he is forced to do back breaking work or face the whip. A good film, no question, but not a great one. For that look to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, an energetic, stunning film about the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort. Having slipped effortlessly into his seventies, Scorsese directs like a rock star, filling the film with an explosive energy all anchored by a ferociously brilliant, career best performance from Leonardo Di Caprio. brilliant support from Margot Robbie and Jonah Hill add to the films flavour, but this is Di Caprio’s film, his finest work. The film, actor and director were robbed of Oscars, as this was possibly the finest film, not only of the year, but the decade.
2014 – BIRDMAN
With Tootsie (1982) this might be the finest film ever made about the art, the craft of acting. Michael Keaton portrays a former superhero movie star (how ironic) who wants to be a real actor bringing a play to Broadway, which he is also directing. Ceaselessly in motion, the camera never stops moving, courtesy of Alejandro Iñárritu, a gifted Mexican filmmaker who collected the first of two consecutive Academy Awards for Best Director for this film. No question Birdman is terrific, bolstered by exquisite performances from a never better Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone, all Oscar nominees. For me, the years best film was the original, soaring comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by the great Wes Anderson. Ralph Fiennes gives a perfect performance as Gustav, the fussy, droll, often graceful and ferociously loyal (to all his underlings) manager of the once classy hotel of the title. It is typical, quirky Anderson, filled with great supporting performances, wonderful design, excellent score and Fiennes, the beating heart of this comic masterpiece. Fast paced, a wonderful comedic farce, it never stops moving and is superbly entertaining. A stunner.
2015 – SPOTLIGHT
Though superbly directed and written, Spotlight has a terrific narrative, as well as fine performances from a fine cast, but did it feel like a great film? I saw the film in 2015, again about a year later but have not thought about the movie until this moment. Based on true events, a group of Boston journalists uncovering corruption of the sexual kind within the Catholic Church, the film was undeniably powerful. It was again, a very good film, but not a film for the ages which is what I believe an Academy Award winning Best Picture should be. The Revenant was such a film. Bold, brilliant, a daring and magnificent film about a man’s journey back from near death in the wilderness of the 1600’s. Leonardo Di Caprio was superb as Hugh Glass, a tracker for fur traders who after being viciously mauled by a mother grizzly, he is abandoned by the two men ordered to care for him. After murdering his son, they toss him in a shallow grave to die, but instead he pulls himself out and crawls, then walks back to the fort where he will encounter the man who meant to kill him. The film won Oscars for Di Caprio, the dazzling ultra realistic cinematography and best director. Again, a shocking loss that deserved to win Best Picture. A motion picture masterpiece.
2016 – MOONLIGHT
The biggest surprise winner of the decade, as it was expected La La Land would sweep the awards. Moonlight was an unflinching look into the world inhabited by a gay young black man, raised partially by a kindly drug dealer, beautifully portrayed by Mahershala Ali, won an Oscar for Supporting Actor. While the film has greatness in it, the more complete film was Manchester By the Sea, a profoundly moving film about the depth of grief and inability to overcome staggering personal emotional wounds. In one of the screen’s greatest performances Casey Affleck is shattering as a young father trying to overcome the horrific grief that has him locked in despair. Affleck deservedly won the lions share of critic’s awards to go along with his Academy Award for Best Actor. Beautifully directed and written, with a stunning supporting turn from Michelle Williams, this was the best film I saw in 2016.
2017 – THE SHAPE OF WATER
The absolute right choice. Movie perfection. Bold, daring, romantic, haunting in every way and a masterpiece. A modern-day Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) with modern touches right up to and including the superhero genre. Doubt me? Watch how Del Toro shoots the rise of the creature after healing itself from gunshots. He looks like Michael Shannon describes him, “a god”. Sally Hawkins suggests the great performances of the silent era, a beautiful merging of body language and facial expressions to create a sweet, brave, deceptively strong woman. Brilliant on every level, boldly merging science fiction fantasy with a love story, elements of Cold War thrills and some superhero elements, there is even a magnificent big band Astaire/ Rogers sequence…and the Best film of the year. No argument.
2018 – GREEN BOOK
Spike Lee angrily shouted his dismay when this film was announced as the Academy’s choice for Best Picture. I loved the film, in particular the performances of the great Viggo Mortensen, Oscar worthy, and Mahershala Ali who won his second Oscar for supporting actor in three years. The two men elevated each other throughout the film, challenging one another like great jazz musicians. The film was a sensation at TIFF where it won the Audience Favourite Award, and received strong reviews through awards season, but no one really thought it would win a Best Picture. Now I loved Green Book, a beautifully crafted film about tolerance, a very moving account of an unlikely friendship. But the years best? Sorry, no. For me the finest film I saw in 2018 was Damien Chazelle’s exquisite character study space epic, First Man, about Neil Armstrong and the first moon walk. Stunning visual effects, filmed from the point of view as the astronauts, the sense of claustrophobia is overwhelming, but the realism gives the film a startling majesty. Scored perfectly, with mesmerizing performances from Ryan Gosling as Armstrong and Claire Foy as his wife, the Academy shamefully snubbed the film.
2019 – PARASITE
History was made when the much-loved South Korean film won four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best International Film and Best Screenplay. A worldwide love-in seemed to take place for Parasite and though there had been beloved International Best Picture nominees in the past, nothing compared to this. That said, something insidious seemed to be happening within the Academy. Was Parasite really the year’s best film (it was not) or was its win more about shooting down Netflix? The streaming giant got into the movie making business in earnest in 2015 and in 2018 very nearly won Best Picture for Roma, which did win three awards, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Screenplay. In 2019 legendary director Martin Scorsese went to Netflix to make The Irishman when every major and minor studio turned him down. The result? A magnificent melancholy exploration of the consequences of a life of crime, the pain of being alone when your family abandon you and your friends die off. Old age is bad enough without being surrounded by ghosts and deep regrets of the life you chose to live. Reuniting Scorsese with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, the film is a masterpiece in its study of the murder of Jimmy Hoffa portrayed with bombastic fury by Al Pacino. Nominated for ten Academy Awards, I think there were more Academy members voting for Parasite in a move to prevent The Irishman from winning the awards it so richly deserved. The Irishman is among the finest achievements of Martin Scorsese, an instant classic and absolute masterpiece. Parasite? Seriously?
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.