Oscar’s 2007 Best Pictures



The First Oscars Banquet

By Roderick Heath

It may surprise some people to learn that the pinnacle award of the Oscar evening, Best Picture, wasn’t given out amongst the first Oscars. In 1927, two awards were given, one for “Outstanding Picture,” to William Wellman’s Wings, and “Best Unique and Artistic Picture,” to F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise. The following year, The Broadway Melody became the first actual Best Picture, receiving an award, then, that one might describe as a balance of those two previously cited qualities—standard of production, and artistic merit. It’s a vital point to remember in contemplation of the award, establishing that it is never merely about either the mechanics and economics of filmmaking, or the artistic purpose animating it. The Oscars were established basically as an exercise in personal aggrandizement by Louis B. Mayer and his fellow studio cronies. But, if there’s anything more boring than the self-admiration of Hollywood, it’s the guy who whinges about it all the time. Like it or not, they soon became a fixture of the industry and, ultimately, a major cultural event—the most famous, widely seen, widely known film awards in the world, the eye of the cinema storm. Lately, more people have commented that Hollywood has become essentially divorced from the mass market it otherwise services with such felicity in giving out its awards. If the Oscars were honest about the audience it tries to satisfy, they would more resemble the MTV Film Awards and give out Oscars for Best Explosion. Only the French give prizes to four-hour-long movies shot with handheld cameras about crack addicts with epileptic children, and magic-realist fables about flying goats that represent the history of Uzbekistan.


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Best Picture is a vote of emotion more than of either the mind or the hip pocket, although success in filling the latter is never a negative. It’s an award that admires force of effort and appeal to the senses and feelings rather than originality, ideas, or provocation. It’s passed, nonetheless, through many phases. It has looked relevant and inspiring, if one surveys the general excellence of the winners of the 1970s—The French Connection, The Godfather I & II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter. It can also look blind and cowardly, as in the ’60s, with victories for bloated musicals outweighing some choice films, or, indeed, for most of the last decade, arguably the worst in the award’s annals. By my reckoning one great film has taken the prize since 1993—Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, not exactly an intellectual feast, but a true triumph of cinematic vision, standing tall above dribbling, clichéd dramas (American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind, Million Dollar Baby, Crash); substandard efforts by auteurs (Gladiator and The Departed); dim-witted romantic epics (Braveheart, The English Patient, Titanic) and glib showbiz put-ons forgotten five minutes after watching them (Shakespeare In Love, Chicago). If I never saw half of those films again, I wouldn’t give a damn. Perhaps the defining year for the modern Oscars was 1994. Three quality nominees—Quiz Show, The Shawshank Redemption, and Pulp Fiction—and the entertaining, popular Four Weddings and a Funeral. All were beaten by Forrest Gump, a globulus pustule of soft-headed nostalgia and ill-focused satire. Truly, stupid is as stupid does. Still, there were days when the Best Picture had self-respect as an award. It didn’t always go to films that were the best of its year, or even amongst the 10 best of the year, but then, the Academy isn’t composed of clairvoyants who could predict that shifts in taste would herald a tacky little genre film like The Maltese Falcon and a rambling, bizarre experimental epic like Citizen Kane over the refined, artful sentiment of How Green Was My Valley.


Gentlemen’s Agreement

It’s surprising in retrospect how many good films have won the award (in case you’re wondering, I’ve seen 69 of the 79 winners), like the run in the mid ’50s of From Here to Eternity, On the Waterfront, Marty—small, black-and-white, human-interest films at the height of Hollywood’s most gaudy, absurd period. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), one of the first major films since WWII to suggest warfare wasn’t necessarily endless heroism and moral rectitude, made a fitting partner to the mighty 1930 winner All Quiet On the Western Front. Two other 1950s winners are virtually pop-art and post-modern: An American in Paris and Around the World in Eighty Days engage with a host of cultural ideas, celebrating and satirizing them all at once, and being colourful and fun whilst doing it. Admire the guts in rewarding a film as entertaining as Casablanca (1943). For all its hectoring moments, the intellectual dexterity and solidity of the character drama in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) makes Crash looks childish. The Life of Emile Zola (1937) wimps out of mentioning the issue at its core—anti-Semitism—but its study of the self-importance of the militarists and politicians behind the Dreyfus Affair is so corrosive it still feels relevant.


Tom Jones

Two bookend winners of the ‘60s, The Apartment and Midnight Cowboy, ravaged and buried official fantasies about what modern life was about. Teenage radicals had little look-in, but found surrogates in the political and emotional confusion of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the unfettered sexuality of Tom Jones (1963), and the righteous stand of A Man for All Seasons (1966). And yeah, a lot of indifferent winners, some dire ones, some that just didn’t age well, like Mrs. Miniver (1942) or The Lost Weekend (1945) or Rain Man (1988). The Greatest Show on Earth (1953) remains a carnival barker yelling in your ear for two-and-a-half hours. Cimarron, 1931’s champ, is numbingly creaky compared with Frankenstein or The Public Enemy. Kramer Vs Kramer (1979) laid down the template for an entire generation of Hallmark channel productions. Gandhi (1982) begins as a stirring drama and finishes up as Great Interviews Gandhi Gave to Impressed White Guys. Rocky (1976) was a great film in and of itself but it was still outclassed by several other nominees. Who the hell cares about Driving Miss Daisy (1989) or has even seen Cavalcade (1933)?


The Greatest Show On Earth

To a large extent the indie revolution, in relieving Hollywood from the responsibility of making the more artistically viable films, has deeply wounded the Best Picture prize. The industry has almost abandoned mid-budget dramatic films that used to be the mainstay of the Best Picture, fragmenting the scope of the Best Picture by defining it as a crown awarded an establishment on its members and its friends. Likewise, alternative cinema can reject the necessity of selling itself to a mass audience that used to make for films of artistic worth and great public appeal, like the works of Billy Wilder, William Wyler, and David Lean. It is all too easy for modern Hollywood to freeze out the more radical fare offered up by outsiders, and difficult for films without the huge clout of public love and the money that generates, as well as the backing of powerful studio chiefs, to take the prize. This is why the pre-packaged drivel of a Paul Haggis can easily best the efforts of a Paul Thomas Anderson. And yet, this year, each of the high-budget nominees is considered an “independent” production. This designation means virtually nothing in such a context. Indie means something different today than when it meant Jim Jarmusch, black-and-white 16mm stock and bad sound. Yet it also means everything.

Juno, the most “indie” of these indies, isn’t exactly a Dardennes Brothers film. This story of a pregnant teen is only radical to anyone whose concept of family life is still defined by The Donna Reed Show. A late charger, Juno has attracted an audience mainly delighted by its Gilmore Girls-style TV-was-my-babysitter dialogue, and the fact that it’s the one li’l-folks tale amongst this otherwise foreboding, socially critical bunch.


Atonement is the lone blast of the familiar Oscar-bait prestige picture, an adaptation of a best-selling novel with literary cred and a period English setting. Problem is, it’s a densely layered study of perspective and artistic and moral duty that essentially performs a suicide bombing on its third-act resolution—not exactly the way to becoming a heart-tugging, easily beloved romantic classic. Imagine Titanic if it was revealed at the end that Rose made up the whole idea of Jack and got into the lifeboat with her mother.

No Country for Old Men
similarly explodes its own familiar elements. This counts more in No Country’s favour, however, in giving its audience all the chills and thrills of a thumping crime drama before delivering a solemn, rule-breaking finish, without which it would be a shoot-‘em-up with a pretentious title. The favourite for the award, No Country similarly possesses literary cred as an adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and would finally crown the Coen Brother’s rambunctious career as Hollywood’s resident, acceptable eccentrics.

Michael Clayton
is another thriller with pretensions, in this case ’70s style corporate paranoia, and the closest thing to a solid, safely built, liberal message picture. In another year, it might have had a better chance, but it’s got too many capital-A Artists competing with it this year.


There Will Be Blood, generally regarded as the most ambitious and most messy of the nominees, could be mistaken for a contemporary remake of Giant until seen. It’s unlikely to win, and most likely to become the future Taxi Driver, Citizen Kane, or The Conversation—an eccentric, cultish, polarizing effort that may just stick around longer than its rivals.

Three of the five film’s directors are feature-film rookies—Tony Gilroy’s first feature, and Jason Reitman’s and Joe Wright’s second—and only Anderson’s fifth film. Times sure have changed when such untested directors are responsible for Best Picture nominees; John Ford had 84 directorial credits before gaining his first nomination and the Coen Brothers can now be considered the old guard. Whatever the individual merits of these nominees, it’s a roster that promises the Best Picture award has caught up with the recent acting nominations in embracing new talent, and points a way out of the swaggering mediocrity of most of the recent winners.

1960s, British cinema, Commentary, Foreign

Look Back: The Evolution of British Film Realism and the Free Cinema



Look Back In Anger

By Roderick Heath

You could argue—at least the pervert in me would—that the British New Wave kicked off with Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein, in the same way Vadim’s trashy Et Dieu…crea la femme gave the French New Wave its start by proving commercial viability and reinvigorating a moribund industry. You can at least trace the beginning of Brit pop culture as an individual, powerful force from that point. Of course, the whole “angry young man” thing was a very large influence. Most of the “angry young men” were writers—John Osborne (with his plays Look Back In Anger and The Entertainer), Alan Sillitoe (the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and long story Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), David Storey (the novel This Sporting Life)—who were of the generation that had been drafted into the Second World War, gained status and experience in their temporary socialisation of British society as well as a college education, but found themselves deeply frustrated, as the whole country did, in the post-War malaise. But the “angry young man” phrase, whilst piquant, is unfocused. One could easily argue Doris Lessing was a member of the group—most of the same influences were on her; socialism, WW2, social misplacement, with the added details of being a colonial (Rhodesian) and female. Other Angry Young Women might include Shelagh Delaney, who wrote the play A Taste of Honey—later, a signal Free Cinema film—and Lynn Reid-Banks, who wrote The L-Shaped Room.


Night Mail

Broadly, most of these writers stood under the long shadow of the social realist side of D. H. Lawrence, with his depiction of class and sexual struggle as fatally intertwined, which is why in, say, Look Back in Anger, Johnny Porter’s social frustration dovetails with his taste for taking upper-class girlfriends and treating them like rubbish. The chief difference between these British and the Beats is that where the Beats were spiritual in their highest form, the Brits were most deeply concerned with social relations. It’s important to remember that this creative output had strong roots in what had been bubbling away under the surface of British cinema and the culture, in general, for a while. Documentary-style realism had long been an aspect, due to the long shadow of the John Grierson-produced 1930s documentaries such as Night Mail; Robert Flaherty; and the war-time master Humphrey Jennings. These were huge influences on directors like Michael Powell, who with such pre-Pressburger films as Red Ensign and The 49th Parallel showed the indelible influence of documentary makers, and David Lean, whose sequences for In Which We Serve, like the opening ship-building montage, are entirely in the Griersonian style. The British war-time film industry learned many important lessons from the docudrama approach. Whilst the ’50s Ealing comedy style and the slick Sidney Box comedies at Rank eventually displaced this legacy, David Lean melded it with a good yarn-spinner’s instincts and an ability to utilize Hollywood gloss, and Powell and Pressburger abandoned it almost entirely.



Brit-grit survived in the dry, hype-lacking style of many cheap thrillers and quota quickies, beginning with Carol Reed’s high-class thrillers Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man; through films like Ronald Neame’s The Golden Salamander, Robert Hamer’s The Long Memory, Roy Ward Baker’s The October Man. Basil Dearden is an unfortunately neglected figure; with The Blue Lamp (1951), Pool of London (1951), Violent Playground (1958), Sapphire (1959), Victim (1960), and Life for Ruth (1962), he specialised in strong, entertaining, but stiff and sententious melodramas that dovetailed with “burning social issues” (racism, homosexuality, teenage hooliganism). Dearden’s best films are the gleefully cynical The League of Gentleman, which purposefully casts veterans of the war films such as Jack Hawkins, Richard Attenborough, and Roger Livesey and trashes their images, and the marvelously weird hipster version of “Othello”, All Night Long (1962), where the characters are all jazz musicians. There were also quite a few interesting working-class melodramas, closest in spirit to pre-War Warner Bros. works, including several Stanley Baker was involved in (Violent Playground) and Cy Endfield’s Sea Fury, and his rip-roaring Hell Drivers—all of which sported a gritty milieu, corny moralising, a reek of verisimilitude, and a smattering of sticky-magazine sexuality, perhaps best seen in Hell Drivers when Baker French kisses Peggy Cummins in a workshed as a truck motor throbs.


The Guns of Batasi

John Guillermin, a talent eventually bound for Hollywood, directed interesting films in a similar style. The delirious Never Let Go (1960) is a thriller that pits Richard Todd’s anxious ex-war hero, now a loser salesman, against evil crime boss Peter Sellers, in his first and possibly last completely serious role, terrific as a peculiarly London sadist Bob Hoskins would be proud of. This film ends as a kind of contemporary High Noon, and as well as broadening Sellers’ resume also featured as a teddy boy car thief young pop star Adam Faith, thus possibly initiating what would be the future convergence of pop music and the movies in Britain. Guillermin later directed the interesting satire The Guns of Batasi (1964), with Richard Attenborough as a martinet sergeant who is finding his ethos of Army, Queen and Country outmoded in an African country undergoing revolution. This film bore strong relevance to the general end-of-Empire strain of the era’s cultural concerns. It would be fair to say, however, that dry visual realism matched to formula stories was part of what the Free Cinema was waging war against. They wanted realistic life stories, honest portrayal of sub-bourgeois lifestyles, and a visual rhetoric that had poetry and personality. The strong literary influence on the British Free Cinema was perhaps its most significant difference to the French New Wave, which was notable for being the first generation to take its styles, stories, and points of interest more from previous movies. The Free Cinema represented the British cinema being annexed by a larger cultural movement.


Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

There is in some quarters an impression that the Free Cinema was strongly bound to the theatrical moment in the UK. Perhaps because Osborne and others had found in the adventurous, government-funded stage an ideal testing ground for new ideas. This, and the fact that almost all the young actors began on the stage in a vanguard of talent including Albert Finney; Tom Courtenay; Susannah York; Corin, Vanessa, and Lynn Redgrave; Peter O’Toole; Michael Caine; Alan Bates; Richard Harris; and Robert Shaw. You could argue Richard Burton was one of this group, in his roots and generation clearly, though his Old Vic training and swift Hollywood triumph took him right out of their sphere; but he got to come back to them just once when he starred in the film of Look Back in Anger (1959), which was also the cinematic debut of director Tony Richardson, who had helmed the piece on the stage. Richardson had also made short films already and contributed to Sequence magazine, which had also seen contributions from Lindsay Anderson and others, in the same way the Nouvelle Vague crew had written for Cahiers du Cinema, and was tributed as helping change the entire discourse on cinema in Britain. Indeed, most of the Angry Young Men were swiftly embraced and celebrated by the mainstream after a short period of woozy disorientation (in Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit, in 1957, there’s a line where a journalist discusses his new story with the priceless purpose of “tearing into Angry Young Men, or ‘Sex in the Coffee Bar'”). A few of their champions, like Laurence Olivier, were old-school figures.


A Taste of Honey

Look Back in Anger was accompanied by another opening salvo, Room at the Top, directed by Jack Clayton, a product of the studio system who had risen up the ranks at Denham Studio and made an Oscar-winning short in 1956. He wasn’t really one of the visionary generation, and the film, though solid and featuring excellent performances from Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret, lacked the pungent emotion and style that marked the best Free Cinema works. Clayton did go on to make what would become a standard refrain for a Free Cinema director after an early, contemporary, gritty work—the revisionary adaptation of a classic. In his case, Clayton brought an unimaginative literalism to versions of The Turn of the Screw (The Innocents, 1961) and The Great Gatsby (1974). In 1960, Tony Richardson directed the film of Osborne’s The Entertainer, which provided the film debuts of both Albert Finney and Alan Bates. Three years later, Richardson and Osborne collaborated on another signal project, their cheeky adaptation of Tom Jones that brought Oscar-crowned glory to this ragged mob. Richardson had, with Osborne and Harry Saltzman, formed Woodfall Films, and for a time Richardson was a powerful force. After The Entertainer he made, in swift succession, A Taste of Honey (1961), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Tom Jones, and The Loved One (1965) before busting out with awkwardly received works like his ambitious hip epic The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and the odd but interesting Ned Kelly (1970).


This Sporting Life

Other major figures included Karel Reisz, a Czech-born film writer and maker of short films and documentaries who made his debut with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), which featured the formidable star-making performance of Albert Finney. Reisz then went on to make his weird version of Night Must Fall (1964) a not-very-good melding of old-school theatrics and modish new wave cinema tricks (whip-pans, handheld camera, overexposed sunlight scenes), the Swinging ’60s classic Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (which also made stars of David Warner and Tony Richardson’s young wife Vanessa Redgrave), and Isadora (1968). Reisz also produced the core masterpiece of the “kitchen sink” genre, Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life. Based on David Storey’s novel, it had similar themes to the previous films of the genre (and similarities with Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, 1961), but achieved a genuinely nightmarish intensity in its study of a macho man’s impotency in dealing with life; Anderson managed the best fusion of directorial stylisation that communicates deep personality linked with a feverish sense of time and place.


Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Anderson was the most intellectually formidable, the most talented, the most British (and least happily so), the most rootless of his generation. It was largely his influence that had kicked off the Sequence scene; he was a multi-award-winning documentary maker throughout the ’50s, as which he was a profound influence on directors like Ken Loach and Stephen Frears; and his work in the theatre was vast (John Gielgud was eternally grateful to him for bringing him into the modern stage). He directed the surrealist, satirical Mick Travis trilogy, If… (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973), Britannia Hospital (1981), and a tremendous filmed-theatre version of Look Back in Anger (1980) (all with Malcolm McDowall). Ironically, Anderson is probably most recognisable playing, along with Gielgud, as one of the Oxford don snobs in Chariots of Fire (1981). Bryan Forbes had begun as what Michael Caine tried to avoid, a cleaned-up player of working class skivers. To earn extra dough, he started rewriting scripts (he told a story about how he had littered a rewrite of The Black Shield of Falworth with “forsooths” and “verilys”, expecting to be fired, but instead was rewarded with more work) and then scripting and finally broke into directing with Whistle Down The Wind (1961), and followed it up with two important New Wave works, The L-Shaped Room (1962), about a pregnant woman’s difficulties, and the intense thriller Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). Later, he adapted James Clavell’s prison camp drama King Rat (1965), which stirred much irritation from the Australian RSL for telling the truth about the POW camps, the black comedy The Wrong Box (1966), and, much later, the witty, very ’70s thriller The Stepford Wives (1975).



John Schlesinger perhaps ended as the most accomplished and successful of the group, though he had some noisy clangers to his credit. Schlesinger, like many of the others, had a diverse background across radio, TV, film, acting (which he claimed to be not very good at) and directing BBC documentaries. He made a feature documentary, Terminus (1961), about Waterloo Station that won him attention, and his first feature was A Kind of Loving, about a young couple (Alan Bates and June Ritchie) in a small coal mining town who have to marry when she gets pregnant. It’s a classic kitchen sink drama with a clean, bold style, promising but much of a muchness. Schlesinger then adapted Keith Waterhouse’s novel Billy Liar (1963), and Darling (1965), which together made a star and Oscar winner of Julie Christie. Darling bore interesting thematic similarities to some other films before it, a kind of hip morality play not so far from a film like Val Guest’s tartly ironic, if plastic, The Beauty Jungle (1964), the tragedy of a young woman (Janette Scott) bent on a professional career who gets talked by Ian Hendry’s smooth publicist into becoming a model, and finds herself addicted to the attention but swiftly discarded. Schlesinger later made his majestic version of Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), an of course, Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971), extend and deepen the Free Cinema’s concerns and stylistics.


Poor Cow

Desmond Davis, a TV director and cameraman on several New Wave films, made a nice little stab in the Free Cinema mould with the fine but little noted I Was Happy Here, featuring Sarah Miles as a discontent housewife married to flashy, stiff-necked businessman Julian Glover, reminiscing about her idyllic teenaged romance in her seaside home town. Davis unfortunately made few films, though he did direct two flavourful entertainments in the early ’80s, the camp classic Clash of the Titans and the Sherlock Holmes TV movie The Sign of Four. Ken Loach, before making the accomplished Kes, also essayed embryonic films very much in the Free Cinema vernacular (for those with the mistaken impression Kes appeared without any trial runs) in Cathy Come Home for TV and his debut film Poor Cow (1967), based on Nell Dunn’s novel, in which Carol White’s Joy flirts with prositution after her husband (Terence Stamp) is imprisoned. A fair first film, it lacks the strong dramatic spine that Loach became more adept at, but established right away that his influences were chiefly Free Cinema, documentary, and determinedly individual. When did the Free Cinema end, and when did it transmute into the Swinging ’60s? One could point to films like Morgan and Georgy Girl as transitional works, films with a melding of humble realism and a more knockabout, humorous character. Maybe the most crucial is A Hard Day’s Night, a film, which, like the rock band it celebrates, is a melding of the old, the current, and the futuristic. It sits squarely in the free cinema mould with its handheld cameras, natural lighting, real settings, portraying with exactness the tawdry scenes of railways stations and naff TV studios its heroes romp through, and yet it also ruptures it, subverts it, by its mockumentary status; it’s faking its realism, it drops into pure fantasy and surrealism when it feels like it.


Bloody Sunday

Around this time British cinema also was benefiting from the cross-pollination of directors from other countries coming there to work. Such temporary and permanent cultural exiles as Joseph Losey (with the freaky apocalyptic drama These Are the Damned, 1961), Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski, Richard Lester, John Huston, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jerzy Skolimowski, Fred Zinnemann, Silvio Narizzano, and Sidney Furie, were making their mark or about to. It’s interesting to note that where most of the above directors deliberately went all-out to prove their talents across a variety of styles and art forms—Richardson from The Entertainer to Tom Jones, Schlesinger from Darling to Far from the Madding Crowd—to take claim of the general cultural legacy as well as creating their own, their progeny began splitting firmly into separate camps. You had men like Ken Loach who moved relentlessly back towards dry, documentary, stringent realism in look and feel (often enforced by low budgets) and a plush stylist like Ken Russell, yet they both owed their beginnings to the same mentors, role models, and TV training. Only a few, like Stephen Frears, retained adeptness for playing every side of the fence. In the modern line-up of British talents, like Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy), you still see their influence.