How will we remember the film that wins the top prize at Sunday’s 90th Academy Awards? We all have our favorite Best Picture winners, but others have been more controversial. Cinephiles still complain that “2001: A Space Odyssey” wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. (Instead, “Oliver!” garnered the honor.) “Pulp Fiction” fans are still angry “Forrest Gump” won over Tarantino’s game changer. Then there was the “Dances With Wolves” win over “Goodfellas,” not to mention the “Crash” crowning in 2005.
Film critic, screenwriter and script coach Oktay Ege Kozak argues that some of the Best Picture winners don’t get the love they deserve compared to go-to greats like “The Godfather” or “Lawrence of Arabia.”
To remedy this, Kozak names what he considers the five most underrated Best Picture winners, ahead of this year’s award ceremony.
1. “Sunrise,” directed by FW Murnau, 1927/28 winner
“Sunrise” is a bit of a controversial pick, because “Wings” is still considered to be the first official Best Picture winner. However, the first Oscars actually split Best Picture into two awards, one for Outstanding Picture, which “Wings” won, and one for Best Unique and Artistic Picture, which went to F.W. Murnau’s grand melodrama, “Sunrise.” This implies that, while “Wings” was an impressive production, “Sunrise” was artistically the better film. One of the pioneers of German Expressionism, Murnau liked using the off-kilter aesthetic and optical effects of the style on intimately human dramas, infusing them with a dream-like aura that accentuates the characters’ emotional state.
“Sunrise” begins as a gripping thriller about a small-town man who’s convinced by a city woman to kill his wife. The second act effortlessly transitions into a character-driven drama after the man fails in his mission. He spends the rest of the day with his wife, trying to atone for his sins as they embark on a tour of the city, miraculously reigniting their romance in the process. Think of it as a silent version of “Before Sunset.” Murnau manages to extract stunningly intricate performances from his actors while barely relying on title cards for exposition. “Sunrise” is one of the best films of the silent era.
2. “The Lost Weekend,” directed by Billy Wilder, 1945 winner
Before Billy Wilder’s harrowing and brutally honest drama about a frustrated and disillusioned writer’s seemingly unwinnable fight against his crippling alcoholism, alcoholic characters in Hollywood were presented as amusing and quirky party animals. Wilder changed the game by not shying away from the cyclical self-destructive nature of addiction, using visual motifs that focuses on circular imagery, going as far as undercutting his deviously upbeat ending by running the opening shot backwards, which ensures that the first frame and the last frame of the film are the same.
Ray Milland plays the writer in one of the greatest male performances in film history. His put-on charm and desperate pleas just to get his next fix should be painfully familiar to those who have ever dealt with loved ones who struggle with addiction. Over 70 years after its release, “The Lost Weekend” is still the most emotionally engaging, blunt, and even-handed film about the nature of alcoholism.
3. “Hamlet,” directed by Laurence Olivier, 1948 winner
From Franco Zeffirelli’s hunky Mel Gibson version to Kenneth Branagh’s sleep-inducing unabridged epic behemoth, film history is riddled with adaptations of Shakespeare’s most famous play, making it hard to pinpoint the best version for the five people left on the planet who are still unfamiliar with it. Laurence Olivier’s bare bones take on the tragic tale of the titular Danish prince with substantial daddy issues is the one they should flock to.
Anyone who knows anything about Olivier and his regular troupe of actors wouldn’t be surprised that his Hamlet contains the finest performance of the play ever put on film. What’s surprising is how technically focused and precise Olivier’s direction is. By employing a minimalist production design, he keeps the audience’s attention on the performances at all time. The stark and gorgeous black and white cinematography perfectly captures the internal gloom of the protagonist. “Hamlet” is an appropriately dour yet rousing adaptation, still the best in a sea of many.
4. “Marty,” directed by Delbert Mann, 1955 winner
If you’re bummed out by this avalanche of solemn dramas, let me give you some well-earned respite via this indelibly charming and instantly lovable dramedy about the burgeoning romance between a lonely New York butcher and a socially awkward schoolteacher who fall in love despite the defiance of their cynical, superficial and judgmental social circle. The great Paddy Chayefsky’s touchingly humanist screenplay is very light on plot, with an intense focus on the inner lives of his protagonists as they discover each other during a long night. Similar indie dramas that are light on plot, that put their entire narrative weight on character and dialogue are very common now, but back in 1955, such a film not only being made but winning the coveted Best Picture prize was an eye-opener for filmmakers who wanted to tell intimate human stories without having to resort to superfluous eye candy and sensationalist premises. The natural chemistry between Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, who respectively play the butcher and the schoolteacher, will melt your heart.
5. “Million Dollar Baby,” directed by Clint Eastwood, 2004 winner
Among the many think pieces discussing a controversial second act break and a heartbreaking character choice that follows it, many critics and film buffs lose sight of how remarkable a melodrama “Million Dollar Baby” is, on par with the best works from genre greats like David Lean, Nicholas Ray, and Douglas Sirk.
Clint Eastwood’s trademark efficient and assured execution of Paul Haggis’ gut punch of a script is propped up by a (so far) career-best performance by Hillary Swank as a furiously determined working-class boxer who rises up in the ranks with help from a grumpy coach with a painful past, portrayed with subtle empathy by Eastwood. Thanks in part to a shocking ending that nevertheless doesn’t compromise from its vision for the characters, it’s time for “Million Dollar Baby” to be placed alongside iconic boxing dramas like “Rocky” and “Raging Bull.”