Hollywood’s holy grail is winning best picture at the Oscars but that famous title doesn’t guarantee any film will be considered an eternal masterpiece.
So much so that there are a clutch of bottom-shelf recipients about which the Academy’s only excuse can be it seemed like a good idea at the time.
1. Rain Man (1989)
An otherwise undistinguished road movie that established the unfortunate formula of uplifting message + disability + bizarre star performance = Oscars success.
Should have won: Dangerous Liaisons.
2. The Artist (2012)
A gimmick movie from a creative team that has never been heard from again. A raw demonstration of the power of Harvey Weinstein to transform minor productions into Oscar winners.
Should have won: Midnight in Paris.
3. Crash (2006)
A decent urban angst film that Academy members reached for in desperation rather than give the statuette to a gay love story.
Should have won: Brokeback Mountain.
4. Driving Miss Daisy (1990)
More a Hallmark movie-of-the-week than Oscar-worthy. This film espoused the dubious message that all black and white Americans need to do to understand one another is drive around the south together. Paved the way for Green Book’s jaw-dropping 2019 win.
Should have won: Crimes and Misdemeanors.
5. A Beautiful Mind (2002)
Followed Rain Man’s formula and coasted to success on the buzz surrounding Russell Crowe (pre-phone throwing). Completely sanitized its subject’s complex, often unattractive history as well.
Should have won: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
Then there are the top-shelf winners from the last half-century which just get better and better over time:
1. The Godfather (1973 Academy Awards)
A flawless gangster epic with too many classic set pieces to count. Introduced a squadron of young actors (Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall) who dominated motion pictures for decades.
2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1976)
A gripping character drama anchored by an iconic actor at the top of his game (Jack Nicholson) and a forgotten actress who was wickedly superb (Louise Fletcher). But look at the field it beat: Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville. Has there ever been a stronger field of nominees?
3. The Godfather: Part 2 (1975)
Better than its predecessor? I don’t think so, but many do. Michael Corleone’s continued rise explores the violence and corruption at the heart of American politics.
4. Annie Hall (1978)
Woody Allen’s masterpiece is the Casablanca of romantic comedies. Every performance, every scene and every line of dialogue is perfect.
5. The Silence of the Lambs (1992)
A white-knuckle thriller that in its own way is a masterpiece of restraint, featuring unforgettable performances from Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins and Ted Levine. One of only three films (alongside Cuckoo’s Nest and It Happened One Night) to win the Oscar’s sweep of all ‘Big Five’ awards.
6. Schindler’s List (1994)
Steven Spielberg elevated the war epic into a moving exploration of the power of personal conduct in defeating evil. Gave us an equally unforgettable Seinfeld episode – ‘You were making out during Schindler’s List!’
7. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2004)
There was no surer thing on earth than the success of this magnificent epic on Oscar night. When Aragorn delivers his, “But it is not this day” speech you’ll want to enlist and slaughter Orcs yourself. Tied for winning the most Oscars ever (11) with Titanic and Ben Hur.
8. No Country For Old Men (2008)
The Coen brothers put the quirky crime techniques they had employed for Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996) through a very dark filter to produce a violent Tex-Mex thriller that also muses eloquently about inescapable fate and atonement.
9. Unforgiven (1993)
Clint Eastwood revitalized an exhausted genre with a brutal, lyrical Western meditation on the consequences of killing.
10. The Departed (2007)
Perhaps not among the top ten on raw merits, the Academy awarded its ultimate accolade to Martin Scorsese’s labyrinthine cops and robbers saga partially in recognition of a body of work that included gems like Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990). It was the right call.
Roll on Oscars No 92.
The Academy Awards will be broadcast live on Seven at 12pm on Monday February 10.