The Best of the Best

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What does a best picture make? Believe it or not, since my last post I've knocked two more 'best picture' nominees off my list - Inglourious Basterds and Avatar. During the snoozy (but explosive) last quarter of Avatar, I found myself thinking about what makes a best picture. Namely, what made Titanic work over Avatar? In the blue war epic department, why would Braveheart win over Avatar?

I finally narrowed it down to the finally criterion that every Oscar voter out there should have on their bedside table while watching their screening copies - especially with this year's 10 best picture nominees for 2010.

A Great Story - if your movie has a one-of-a-kind story that captures a number of the other categories, you've got it made. This criteria does reflect strong showings in the other points I'm about to make.

A Wonderful Script - The best films have smart screenwriting and will often nab both awards (although lately smaller indie films will snag the screenwriting in lieu of the best picture nod. See: Juno).

Standout Performances - Whether an ensemble showing or a runaway winner with a totally talked up performance (who will generally take home the trophy), the best stories and scripts only function when the casting is right, and the acting is great.

Social Relevance - An oft overlooked element, but a critical one. Whether it's a period piece or a modern day interpretation of real life, the silver screen needs to represent what the audience wants to see - whether they know it or not.

Visual Glory - Never forget the importance of strong visual appeal in a film that might be lacking in the actual acting / writing department. Movies that are simply too beautiful to turn away will still score some Oscar nods (like Memoirs of a Geisha), and the best films almost always have a beautiful element of cinematography, set design, and costume to them.

Emotional Appeal - Different than social relevance, today's movie-goer is looking for one of two things: to be braindead, or to be swept away. Movies with emotional appeal are often socially relevant so the two go hand in hand, but a movie with no soul will never walk away with the top honour.

True Adaptation - I hesitated putting this in, but I think it's pretty important. Whether adapting a real life event (Titanic), a piece of fiction (Lord of the Rings), or a life experience (Juno), we want movies to resonate as real and true to our hearts and minds, however much we also want a fantastical escape from the world.

Revolutionizing Moviemaking - This is where James Cameron happens to excel. He has singlehandedly changed the film industry in many more ways than your traditional, consistent filmmakers have - through merchandising, through music, through special effects, through changing the rules as to how long a movie can be for audiences to not only sit through it once, but multiple times.

I'm not saying every Best Picture winner actually has all of these things. But taking a quick sample of the last decade, let's examine! Note the years refer to the films that were the best in 'that year'. Technically speaking some of these films (o most notably Million Dollar Baby) were released in the year they were given away, but they're considered of the last 'film year'.

2008 - Slumdog Millionaire
This is an example of social relevance and emotional appeal reigning supreme. The little movie that could was very much a reflection of its actual storyline - Slumdog was an underdog going in, but it reflected what audiences wanted to see: dreams coming true, against all odds. It was a feel good story with a pop culture element (albeit a slightly outdated one in North America) and plenty of romance, tension, and adventure that seemed a world away, yet somehow relatable. Aside from that, it had a great script, and solid if slightly indistinguishable performances given the unknown cast (name me three stars of it if you can), plus the emotional story of the three children in the film and their real-life struggles also helped propel this movie to the win, if little else.

2007 - No Country For Old Men

The Coen brothers are masters of a great story, plain and simple. Great stories include great pacing, great tension (and an emotional appeal - who wasn't choking on their heart in this film?), and in this instance, a very true adaptation (however much it may piss people off in the final scene). Also at play here was a particularly solid breakout performance by Javier Bardem, and some powerful visual impact if understated next to a technological or period wonder.

2006 - The Departed
I'm personally of the belief that the performances of the wide, diverse cast (including Martin Scorsese at the helm) are what helped this movie win. Every single person was bang on, every single scene was incredibly tense and electric, and the story - although familiar - seemed impossibly spun, yet still shocked at every turn. This was a movie about story, emotions, and performances beyond anything else.

2005 - Crash
Now do you see why I put social relevance on here? America was still smarting from their endless bruises in Iraq, George W. had just been elected to a new term, and here was a movie that analyzed the widespread effects of terror in America that woke a few people up from their Conservative stupor. It's almost the mirror image of Slumdog in that they both relied on emotional appeal / social relevance / story to win - America was ready for the rebellious message at play here, but they wanted to settle in and be coddled a few years ago when things still weren't getting any better.

2004 - Million Dollar Baby
Another movie where performances really dominated the film - Hillary, Morgan, and Clint all turned in good peformances that nabbed them a few more trophies to go with best picture. The emotional appeal was also critical here, perhaps moreso than anything else that I've looked at so far - this wasn't a success story, it was a heartbreaking failure.

2003 - Lord of the Rings
An example of the type of epic film that Avatar is - these movies aren't about the story (granted LOTR is adapted from a story that has been oft retold since), they're about the visual appeal, the overall epicness, and revolutionizing filmmaking. The LOTR series represented huge leaps in special effects and are among the most successful at creating a wholly realized other world to delve into. Are they the fancy cousin to the popcorn action flick? Sure, but their true adaptation and revolutionary techniques make the series as a whole take home the win.

2002 - Chicago

I think performances, adaptation, and visual glory won Chicago the title in possibly the most disputed best picture of the 00's. Having seen the musical in person, the showstopping visual transformations in the film made this Broadway show reach its full potential. Add to that some major star turns for some already well-knowns (but never for this type of performing) and you've got a winner. Some people would argue Gangs of NY should have walked away with the win - but let's face it, The Departed was a better film, and it's better Scorsese be remembered for that over anything else.

2001 - A Beautiful Mind
Similar to Good Will Hunting, I think ABM won for, quite simply, a great story. The performances were good. The script was good. The film was socially relevant - wit before war. It may have not revolutionized things or changed the face of a genre (the way Million Dollar Baby challenged 'the sports film'), but it was quite simply, a good film without needing some of the more specific gimmicks that may have carried some of these other winners through.

2000 - Gladiator
More Russell! I'm not really of the same mind on this movie as others, namely the Academy. Visual glory of the historical epic really took this one to the top I guess, as the story was nothing new (I'm not a fan of the historical epic), the performances and script were pretty whatever (as with most HEpics), and well...why exactly would we have cared about Gladiators back then? The most logical explanation I've got for you is the historical epic was sort of brought up to the technological film advances we'd made by this point - Titanic revolutionized things at the end of the last decade, and other (many other) historical films were beginning to come out of the woodwork - this was one of the first.

1999 - American Beauty
Technically this movie falls in the 00's because it was given away at the 2000 ceremony, but I also wanted to include it because it's one of my fave movies of all time. Great story. Great script. Great performances. Extremely socially relevant. Stunning visual appeal. Huge emotional melodrama. And in terms of true adaptations and revolutionizing the film industry, few films have succeeded in pulling back the curtain of suburbia and making it as electric, dark, and interesting as this film does. A true best picture and a standout on this list in my opinion.

So where are we at with some of the most likely contenders this year? Up In The Air has a ton of social relevance, a good script, and some standout performances. Precious is the same thing, perhaps with more of a focus on 'story' and 'performances' than anything, although it also packs a pretty big emotional power punch. Avatar has the market cornered on revolutionizing the industry and visual glory. The Hurt Locker is finally making the world sit up and acknowledge Iraq in a way no other film has managed to (much how Crash did with domestic terror and racism). Inglourious Basterds, in my humble opinion, may not revolutionize filmmaking but it certainly challenges it. There are so many beautiful, wonderful things about the way Quentin Tarantino makes films, and that movie is perhaps all of them wrapped up in one.

I won't get into all the 'maybes', but taking a look at my list of criteria vs. the maybes, I think Oscar has its work cut out to make a solid top 10.

Till the nods are released (or I watch another Oscar film),

Britt's On

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