Was 1971 the greatest Best Picture lineup ever? The American Film Institute certainly must think so -- in its original presentation of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time, two of these films made it in: A Clockwork Orange and The French Connection; in the 10th Anniversary reassessment, The Last Picture Show joined them. At least one of these choices is wrong, in my opinion -- and you won't wait long to hear which of them it is!
And what of today's crop of Best Picture nominees? Will they one day be added to the list of Greatest Films of All Time? Certainly there are early arguments to be made in favor of Birdman and Boyhood, both uniquely consructed and executed. And I'm sure history will correct the perceived snub against Selma -- though, hey, being one of the eight movies named Best Picture of the Year is no slight, you know what I mean?
Oh, Lord, eight pictures. How ever will I compare each of them to 1971's crop of five?
The American Tale
I suppose Iraq could make a tale of a sniper, and I know there's that Seven Up series of films from Britain that document a group of people from childhood through...well, ongoing. And Lord knows every country has its take on small town living. But the slacker musing/iMac using/Obama loving of Boyhood; the blind patriotism unsettlingly ignoring the moments of doubt, along with the overseas vengeance, of American Sniper; and the village existence that is physically easy to leave but mentally and emotionally always there, trapping you, keeping you in a place where the cinema is the symbol of a dying town, as in The Last Picture Show. These concerns, and the execution thereof, are, I think, uniquely American.
The Jerk-As-Genius Appeal
"He's unlikable but maybe he's right!" the film screams. And maybe it's true! Maybe the biggest assholes in the room...are the brightest assholes in the room! The guy who hates sandwiches and doesn't like jokes might be the one who brings down the Nazis (The Imitation Game). The teacher who physically and verbally abuses his students is the only one able to bring out the untapped potential in the truly talented (Whiplash). The cop shouting racist epithets, bedding barely legals, and randomly shaking down people he just doesn't like, is more dedicated to seeing justice done than anyone else working in the system (The French Connection). They're uncompromising, but dammit, they get results.
The Historical Romance
Admittedly, The Theory of Everything is much more of a biopic, more micro, than Nicholas and Alexandra, which not only explores the devoted marriage of Russia's last royal family, but how that effected the rest of their Empire, until it finally crumbled. Theory of Everything is not about crumbling empires, but strengthened wills that fight back against the undefeatable...and defeat it. In one film, an entire world that has been granted to the central couple is taken away; in the other, the couple itself builds its own world. Really, what a fascinating double feature it would make -- even if it got a bit long.
The Auteurist Work
The director's thumbprint is on every single aspect, and not just because they also contributed to the screenplay. For some, this gets in the way of the film, as the director's confident choices appear to mesh uncomfortably with their intent; for others, it all goes together beautifully, the Auteur Theory made perfect, and all the more beautiful because the director refused to compromise. For Birdman, it resulted in an Oscar; for A Clockwork Orange, it resulted in infamy and immortality; what, then, will it yield for Selma? Time will tell, but there is no doubt that each film is unflinching in its vision. Iñárritu, du Vernay, Kubrick -- no need to specify with first names, we know immediately who you're talking about.
The Non-Drama with Technical Prowess
Not to say that it's all fun and games, necessarily, but it's certainly a respite from the often more dour work in the category -- and the craft elements are so specific, so impressive, that they alone make the case for its being here. This year, we were blessed with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I consider the best of Oscar's nominees -- movingly-written, superbly-designed, and with a soundtrack that is delectable to the ears. In 1971, audiences were blessed with Fiddler on the Roof, another movingly-written, superbly-designed, musically-orgasmic motion picture which I consider...ah! But you'll just have to wait and see, won't you? After the jump, please....