A lot of good movies win the Best Picture Oscar. As do a lot of bad ones. And instead on harping on the best and crappiest of the lot, I thought it’d be fun to highlight 10 films that bucked the trend with their Best Picture wins and, perhaps, paved way for movies similar to them.
I think Schindler’s List is a perfect film, but it certainly didn’t change the Oscar game by winning an award everyone knew it was going to win anyway. Point is, this isn’t a list of the best films that have won the top prize, but rather the ones that broke the most barriers, for better or worse.
The Lost Weekend (1945)
I honestly have no idea how Billy Wilder got The Lost Weekend made, let alone took it all the way to a Best Picture win. The film (which, for the record, is a masterpiece of American cinema, and, for my money, the finest film Wilder ever directed) tells the story of a hopeless, conniving alcoholic going on an epic binge. It’s the downfall scene from Shame, except tamer and spread over an hour and 40 minutes.
It also proved that Best Picture winners didn’t have to be needlessly sentimental. They could convey pain, and them some.
Marty was clear evidence that the film that took the Academy’s highest honor didn’t have to be dead serious, overtly funny, painlessly long, or impressively epic. Rather, they could just be a simple story about a simple guy who falls into simple love.
The Apartment, Annie Hall, hell, even Driving Miss Daisy should all give credit to Marty.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
This one kind of goes without saying. In fact, much like The Lost Weekend, I’m still stunned Norman Jewison was able to get a film in which, among other things, a black man slaps a white man, released in the late ‘60s. He did, and it secured Oscar glory. Well deserved Oscar glory, that is.
It’s important to note that In the Heat of the Night broke multiple barriers; its Best Picture win not nearly being the chief most important one.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
In late 1968, Jack Valenti banished the Hays Code from controlling film ratings and fought for the MPAA to take over. The next year, an X-rated movie won the Best Picture Oscar for the first time.
I’m a rather outspoken critic against the MPAA, but there are times when it is necessary (and appropriate) to relent. Had the MPAA never taken control of film ratings, Midnight Cowboy would’ve never won Best Picture (or, quite frankly, have been made). This film’s big Oscar win is arguably the most significant in the Academy’s history. It paved the way for the geniuses that would denominate the ‘70s. We’re still reaping the benefits of this one.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Can you name me another sequel that has won Best Picture after its predecessor had pulled off the same feat?
That’s reason enough to include it here. But the fact that the film broke all the damn rules and still pulled it out just cements its inclusion.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
The Deer Hunter was by no means the first war film to win Best Picture, but it was the first to win for depicting a war as unpopular as Vietnam.
More so than any other film I’ve ever scene, The Deer Hunter captures the true hell of war. It doesn't glamorize the soldier or romanticize the battle, it shows that if you go to war, you come home fucked up. If you come home at all.
The Deer Hunter is one of my top five films of all time, which, incidentally, makes it my favorite Best Picture winning film. This didn’t change the game so much as it completely rewrite it.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
If The Silence of the Lambs proved anything, it's that you didn’t have to break the bank with giant landscapes and epic stories to nab the top prize. Creating an entertaining, amusing, scarier than hell contemporary thriller was enough to get you there.
Now, granted, the next seven films that won Best Picture were all period piece epics, but The Silence of the Lambs opened the door for smaller (worthy) films in a way that many would be thankful for later.
American Beauty (1999)
The crop of flicks produced in the year 1999 was game changing enough, and the fact that so many of them were made independently from major movie studios only cemented the fact that indies were here to stay.
American Beauty was a $15 million dollar ass kicker that fused the notions of strict comedy and heavy drama together seamlessly. I often see this film on lists of the Worst Best Picture Winners of All Time, which I really do not understand. But any way you look at it, it’s impossible to deny the indie stamp American Beauty has left on the Best Picture Oscar.
A few Best Picture winners had proved what Crash solidified – you don’t have to be the best, you just have to be. Rocky, Dances with Wolves, Shakespeare in Love and countless others demonstrated that even if you are up against far superior films, critical acclaim and public opinion can be outweighed by the powers that be.
Crash is by far the most drastic example of this. It’s win baffled damn near everyone, from the man who presented the Oscar to the people who accepted it. But make no mistake: Crash’s win changed the Oscar landscape indefinitely. It proved that anything can win. Period.
The Artist (2011)
Was The Artist my favorite film from last year? No, not at all. In fact, it didn’t even grace my Top 15 of the year. No matter, its win proved that openness isn’t dead. You can make a black and white silent film starring no one anyone has heard of, and still come out on top.
Director Michel Hazanavicius fought tirelessly to get this film made, and you have to respect him for sticking to his vision. In my opinion, The Artist was certainly up against far better films, but when it won, I was upset in the slightest. There’s nothing wrong in proving the underdog right.