During Oscar season, it’s always fun (at least for me) to go back and look through history, at Best Picture Oscar winners of year’s gone by. Some of these movies age like fine wine, others curdle and wilt from our collective consciousness over time.
So here’s a little reindeer game for you: ranking the Best Picture Oscar winners in different decades. Let’s start with what is probably the most difficult of all the decades, the 1970s. Difficult because this was the turning point in American cinema. Difficult because all of these films, deserving of the Best Picture statue or not, are truly wonderful and important – at least, in the sense that movies can be important. Here goes nothing…
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Not that Robert Benton’s domestic drama wasn’t insightful, emotionally compelling, and wonderfully acted. It’s not a bad film, but the fact that it kicks things off at number 10 speaks more to the decade than this specific movie. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, who both won Oscars for their respective performances, elevate this divorce story above any sort of TV of the week melodramatic dreck. And watching the evolution of Hoffman’s Ted Kramer as he learns to be a real father is a marvelous arc. And yet, still, it’s the tenth best film from the incredible slate of 70s Best Picture Oscar winners.
Of all the game-changing pictures in this list and this decade, Patton feels like a relic of a bygone era. Franklin Schaffner’s picture is a large, sweeping epic, with a powerhouse turn from George C. Scott as the controversial General. And beyond Scott’s stirring speech in front of the massive American flag, what do we remember? It’s big Hollywood scope and jingoistic bravado feel like a different film from a different decade. Which makes sense, given the fact it was the first Best Picture of the new decade. The revolution hadn’t quite grabbed hold.
The Sting (1973)
Nestled in between the Godfather winners is a small story about two con men and double crosses stacked on top of each other. The Sting is probably the most fun 70s winner to rewatch, because the intricacies of David S. Ward’s screenplay are a marvel. And Newman and Redford are, as always, fantastic to watch play off each other. Throw into the fold a crusty villain in Robert Shaw, and George Roy Hill’s story sings.
Annie Hall (1977)
Annie Hall remains Woody Allen’s crowning achievement, still atop an incredible career of massive achievements… and maybe just as many missteps. Here, the chemistry and comedic timing between Allen’s Alvie Singer and Diane Keaton’s title character is sharp and manages to hold up through decades of comedy evolution. Keaton is something special here, winning Best Actress, and the way Allen played with the medium influenced not only comedies moving forward, but the entire process of storytelling in cinema.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Michael Cimino’s harrowing Vietnam picture was truly a staple of the experimental nature of 70s cinema. It was also the most controversial Best Picture winner of a tumultuous decade, drawing the ire of Jane Fonda, who took issue with the problematic characterization of the Vietnamese soldiers. And they are bloodthirsty savages here, seen mostly in the iconic roulette scene – which came under fire for being entirely fabricated. But there is no denying Cimino’s passion, his confidence, the control he has on this movie, and the heartbreaking performances he pulls from Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Oscar winner Christopher Walken.
Like its titular character, Rocky defied all the odds in March of 1977. It beat out Network, Taxi Driver, and All the President’s Men to win Best Picture, shocking the world. Any of those films deserved the win, but the heart and soul of Rocky set it apart from the other, more myopic examinations of American society. America wanted a feel good story, and they got one in Sylvester Stallone’s boxing drama.
The French Connection (1971)
William Friedkin’s razor sharp crime drama changed cinema back in 1971. The urgent, documentary style filmmaking introduced a new style for American movies, and the energy Friedkin injects into each and every moment here is touch to match. Gene Hackman, who won Best Actor, manages to bring us in and care about Popeye Doyle, despite the fact he’s a racist cop who hasn’t much use for legalities as he tries to chase down European drug dealers. And let’s not forget that car chase, one of the best of its ilk.
The Godfather (1972)
Francis Ford Coppola was one of the pioneers of the American New Wave, and he announced his presence with an epic exploration of the Italian mafia. At the time, The Godfather seemed destined to fail, the dark shadows of Gordon Willis building a dreary world steeped in dread and crime. Three Oscar wins later, and it was clear that Coppola’s vision was true. The Godfather has too many unforgettable performances to count, and it singlehandedly redefined an entire genre.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Milos Forman’s psyche ward drama, based on Ken Kesey’s novel, is a sharp indictment of society fighting against the system. Who’s really crazy? It doesn’t seem R.P. McMurtry (Jack Nicholson) is really the one who’s insane here. One of only three films to win the Big Five (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay), Cuckoo’s Nest is often times hilarious, fun, sometimes maddening, occasionally infuriating, and forever an unforgettable allegory for the way society functions.
The Godfather, Part II (1974)
All the cool kids like to say The Godfather Part II is better than the original. And this time, the hip thing to do is probably the correct thing to do. The original is a game changer, but its sequel manages to expand an already fascinating epic examination of Italian-American criminals. The dueling storylines between Michael Corleone and his painful downfall, and the rise of his young father Vito (Robert De Niro) in the early days of the 20th century, are on equal footing as far as dramatic thrust is concerned. There is not a false note here.