5. A Man for All Seasons (1966)
On the surface A Man for All Seasons feels like a slow moving pre-Elizabethan English costume drama. But if you take a moment to look deeper, you will find a rich story, with wonderful performances and fantastic production values. A film which was both a box office success and a critically acclaimed darling that dominated both the 39thAcademy Awards and the 19th BAFTAs.
Paul Scofield plays Sir Thomas Moore, the nobleman declared a heretic for not recognizing Henry VIII’s creation of the Church of England. Scofield brings a richness to his portrayal of Moore that imbues the character with both moral high ground, as well as sympathetic understanding. And not to take away from his subtly brilliant performance (a performance we think of as one of the most deserving Lead Actor wins of all time), it’s Robert Shaw, as King Henry VIII, who is too often overlooked.
Playing a character that was born to rule half the known world, a statesman with the mind of a scholar and the temperament of a five-year old, Shaw makes his Henry the VIII different from most portrayals of the stout monarch while permeating him with the same rough exterior the King was known for.
In doing so Shaw manages to turn in one of the more truly underrated performances in the history of Best Picture winners, yet he is best remembered by general audiences as the brash (and often over-the-top) Quint from Spielberg’s Jaws.
Much like Chicago, Driving Miss Daisy and especially Amadeus, A Man for All Seasons showed just how much more life a film could bring to a stage production. The intimate nature of the theatre was blown out to new proportions once adapted to the screen. No longer confined to the commercial stage, the film took full advantage of the larger outdoor spaces, more elaborate costumes and intricate recreations of 16th Century English country estates.
All of this paid off, as the film took both Cinematography and Costume Design at the Oscars and Best Photography and Production Design at the BAFTAs. On top of all this, A Man for All Seasons walked off with not only Best Picture but also a second Best Director award for Fred Zinnemann
A Man for All Seasons was the fifth highest grossing film of 1966, pulling in just over $28 million (almost $210 million when adjusted for inflation) an extremely impressive number when one considers the subject matter and source material.
And RottenTomatoes proves that the critical response wasn’t solely isolated to the late ‘60s as modern audiences have given the film an 86% on the review aggregate website. Finally, the BFI places A Man for All Seasons at #43 on their list of the Top 100 British films coming just above (a personal favorite) Black Narcissus.
A Man for All Seasons, while being set during the late 1500s to the early 1600s, manages to tell a timely tale of political ambition, the importance of free speech and the justness of law and order. So what can it be? How is this film an underrated movie? Well, much like Driving Miss Daisy, A Man for All Seasons is remembered for being less than the sum of its parts.
Audiences look at the movie for what it is simply on a surface level; rarely, if ever, delving further into what makes the film timely and poignant to this day (especially in regards to political ambition). What most, at first glance, take as a stuffy English period piece, is actually a heartfelt drama that examines the human experience, picking it apart with a fine toothed comb, yet remains a criminally under-seen movie to this day, Best Picture or not.
4. Wings (1927)
For well over eighty years, Wings was the only silent film to have won the top prize at the Oscars. Of course, all that changed when The Artist (which itself is slowly becoming underappreciated the more time passes) took the two biggest categories at the Oscar ceremony. Nevertheless, Wings does (and always will) hold the distinction of being the very first Best Picture recipient as well as the only winner from the era of silent cinema
Yet, when it comes right down to it, there seems to be a definite lack of viewership of this WWI aviation gem. Admittedly 1927 was a terrific year for film (we think Sunrise, winner of Best Production – a category which no longer exists – was far superior) but that shouldn’t discredit what Wings accomplished.
Some of the practical effects are honestly jaw-dropping, even by today’s standards, and although the story does lack the emotional pull and thematic resonance of say, All Quiet on the Western Front, there’s no denying that it was a labor of love for director William A. Wellman.
Being the oldest Best Picture winner shouldn’t be a detriment to the movie itself. Silent cinema has become so passé that even those with genuinely great stories have mostly become lost to time.
The rare exceptions (Nosferatu, Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Charlie Chaplin’s first three full length features, to name a few) still have their fans, for sure, yet because there is such a small number of silent film lovers (even within the cinephile community), Wings has become one of those films more recognized for its title than its story and unbelievable technical achievement.
Indeed, Wings uses some beautiful camera techniques (inventing more than a few along the way) to tell the story and pushes the medium forward as much as any of the more well-known silent classics. For example, the scene in a French café where the camera glides through tables and chairs as if they’re intangible, two characters sit at a far table as the camera pans towards the couple (a feat which was incredibly difficult with 1920s technology), settling beside them.
In a terrific example of juxtaposition, Wellman contrasts the horrors of WWI with slapstick comedy by having our hero (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) uncontrollably hiccupping bubbles, which then proceed to float away. The shot lasts for less than one minute, yet remains one of the most inventive shots in the entire film.
If one were to look at Wings from a contextual point of view, it would be easier to appreciate it for what it is – an adrenaline-pumping, edge of your seat war epic that happens to have a very sweet and romantic throughline. More so than anything however, at one point there’s a really quick shot of Clara Bow’s breasts (though some have posited that it is just a skin-colored brassier).
To consider the idea, in 1927, that “It Girl” Clara Bow would (or for that matter could) show off her bosoms means you’re reliving a pre-Hays Code Hollywood and makes you realize that watching Wings is like watching a part of history that would soon cease to exist.
3. The King’s Speech (2010)
Before you jump to the comments section to start The Social Network rants, hear us out. The main argument as to why The King’s Speech is one of the most undeserving winners of recent memory, is quite simply that it bested our generation’s most honest and poignant reflection of social communication and commerce – the single most important film of this decade. We’re all well aware of the hyperbolic vitriol that was spewed at Tom Hooper’s regal biopic immediately following its win in early 2011.
Thousands of film lovers across the world took to chat rooms, message boards and mainstream media to ridicule the Academy’s safe and utterly uninspired choice. But the Oscars are seldom a reflection of the film community’s taste – no one should have been surprised by The King Speech doing well at the Oscars, least of all those who paid attention to the precursors (the movie won a PGA, DGA, SAG and BAFTA during the race).
In true internet fashion, the more time passed the more The King’s Speech became an easy target for film snobs – once again berating the mentality of the stodgy, old, white (mostly male) Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “One of the worst wins in Academy history” was splattered everywhere. That hatred seemingly intensified so much so, that now five years later, we’re still talking about how undeserving The King’s Speech was of being crowned Best Picture.
And it’s that exact behavior that has somehow managed to taint the collective memory of how good the movie actually is. So unfortunately this inclusion has more to do with people’s unwarranted whining than the public perception of The King’s Speech, a movie with an 88 Metascore (from Metacritic), a 95% RottenTomatoes rating and which globally has made twice as much money as The Social Network.
Sure, there is something to be said about the average age of the Academy’s membership being far greater than the age of the average Facebook user — and why The Social Network wouldn’t speak directly to them — but to make that argument is to dismiss The King’s Speech for all of its wonderful individual achievements.
The performances, including Colin Firth (winner), Geoffrey Rush (nominated) and Helena Bonham Carter (nominated – doubly impressive when you consider the actress was simultaneously playing both The Queen Mother and Bellatrix Lestrange), were all stellar. The screenplay is top notch writing, that handles the subject matter deftly and with an innate sense of humor.
It’s a deeply detailed movie, richly deserving of all its technical nominations. Cinematographer Danny Cohen uses the framing of each shot to express the characters’ psyches. Meanwhile Eve Stewart and Judy Farr beautifully incorporate their production design into Cohen’s vision, working in conjunction to convey a sense of oddly intimate isolation in King Edward VI and those around him.
2. Mrs. Miniver (1942)
When discussing Best Picture winners Mrs. Miniver isn’t a movie one thinks of first. In fact, most casual moviegoers have never even heard of the movie. This isn’t wildly shocking; given how many of the Best Picture winners from the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and even ‘50s are now forgotten in the collective consciousness.
Consequently, Mrs. Miniver typically places near the bottom half of any fully ranked Best Picture winners list and for the more hardened movie buffs, 1942 is a year which belongs to movies like The Magnificent Ambersons, Bambi, Saboteur, Now, Voyager, Yankee Doodle Dandy and even Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People. On IMDb it’s only the 10th most popular title from 1942 and on RottenTomatoes countdown of all the Best Picture winners, it currently sits at #58.
All this is a massive shame. Mrs. Miniver was the highest-grossing movie of its year, the second movie ever to be nominated in all of the acting categories, as well as Directing and Screenplay (winning 70% of those – a feat shared only with From Here to Eternity) and yet today is remembered only as just another ‘40s melodrama with large hats, not to mention Greer Garson’s infamous acceptance speech when she won her Oscar for Lead Actress. A speech which, for some bizarre reason, has now become innately associated with the quality of the movie.
Obviously had Casablanca been released four weeks earlier, Mrs. Miniver wouldn’t be on this list at all. In fact, we think it’s safe to say that if most of the Best Picture winners were up against Michael Curtiz’s masterpiece, they’d lose. But we think Mrs. Miniver should be considered a classic as much as Casablanca. Mrs. Miniver shows the realities of WWII even more capably than Casablanca and does so all while being set at the epicenter of the war.
Recent research has led us to believe that the movie, directed by William Wyler (who happened to have been born in Germany) was made as a kind of propaganda film, designed to lure Americans out of their isolationist policies, into joining the war effort and helping the struggling Europeans.
Thankfully the movie never feels like propaganda. Perhaps this was because William Wyler, privy to what was happening in his homeland, felt like it was his duty to try and help in any way he could and he did so with a light touch. Which feels appropriate for a movie dealing with a family and their fall from grace during one of the darkest times in European history.
Instead, Wyler used his actors (each one deserving of their nominations) brilliantly to bring the experience of WWII to a more personal and human level. This allowed him to capture the more emotionally gripping scenes seldom found in the otherwise glossy Hollywood melodramas of the early 1940s.
Mrs. Miniver is one of the most accurate depictions of the WWII era and the fact that it was released during the war lends it an air of poignant authenticity. It helps that the story is a fascinating character study, filled to the brim with powerful messages concerning life, death and the importance of family.
And uncharacteristically for a movie of its time, it has a rather bleak ending yet Wyler somehow instills it with both hope and humanity. It truly speaks to the understanding he had of the material. Mrs. Miniver, to this day, remains a worthy Best Picture win, one that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten in the ways that it has.
1. You Can’t Take It with You (1938)
It’s about time that this gem of a film becomes more recognized, respected and viewed. We’re not quite sure how exactly the movie got lost to the public consciousness over time; perhaps being a smaller, family-centered comedy that won the big prize the same year Gone with the Wind was released had something to do with it, perhaps it was overshadowed by Frank Capra’s first Best Picture-winning romantic comedy, It Happened One Night, from only a few years before. Whatever the case may be, You Can’t Take It with You is quite simply the most underrated Best Picture winner of all time.
Sure, the movie may have been one of the five highest grossing pictures of 1938 and, certainly, having beaten out the likes of The Adventures of Robin Hood, Boys Town, Alexander’s Ragtime Band and Jezebel makes for an impressive feat, but time hasn’t been kind to You Can’t Take It with You.
Despite being poignant for its time (the depiction of life during the Depression and the pitfalls of economics in general was characteristically brilliant for a Capra film), it still manages to feel effortlessly resonant even today. In many ways, in fact, it speaks to our current state of economic crisis more so than it did in the late 1930s.
You Can’t Take It with You, adapted from the famous stage play, allowed Capra to use his signature optimism (Capracorn as it has since come to be known) to drill home the notion that money doesn’t always make you happy.
The story is fascinatingly explored through James Stewart’s Tony Kirby, Vice President of a large company, who’s much more preoccupied with the beautiful Alice Sycamore (played to absolute perfection by Jean Arthur – and how she was never nominated for any of her Frank Capra performances is beyond us, but we digress.
However, where the story really shines is the scenes in which Alice’s family takes center stage. Lionel Barrymore plays the heartwarming, sympathetic, and good-natured grandfather Martin, the patriarch of the house which Kirby’s father, the president of the company, intends to purchase along with the rest of the neighbourhood. And of course, Martin and his large family are not so willing to give up their loving home.
Under Capra’s tender and deft direction, the Martin house becomes a near-living and breathing character. Doing a tremendous job of capturing the nostalgic feeling of the home where characters constantly come and go, in and out of rooms, Capra highlights their own eccentricities in a way that always feel natural and never once forced.
In many capable directors’ hands You Can’t Take It with You would have become another screwball comedy, one with a tight enough plot for the viewer to embrace the material. Frank Capra on the other hand created something not only incredibly refreshing but he also simultaneously and unintentionally influenced an entire genre. Ultimately, if not for You Can’t Take It with You there might not be an Addams Family television or film, nor any of the other quirky, family oriented sitcoms that came later.
Yet, despite all the Oscar nominations You Can’t Take It with You received in early 1939, we still feel it was robbed of a few more and certainly should have earned more wins. For example, Spring Byington was the only acting nominee (and should have won, along with Barrymore in his most endearing role), but nothing for Stewart, Arthur, Edward Arnold or really anyone else from the wonderful cast – not to mention the snub for its screenplay.
Somehow You Can’t Take It with You only ended up winning Best Picture and Director at the Oscars that year. The fact that it underperformed at the Oscars and has been forgotten by most moviegoers today (yet is ultimately one of the finest Best Picture winners) surely does sting, but we guarantee that if anyone were to give this beautifully written, flawlessly acted and wonderfully helmed movie a chance, they would not be disappointed.
So there you have it: The Best Picture-winning movies we feel have been lost to time – or have been argued over infinitum, to the point where their merits are far less remembered. Are these the only underrated Best Picture winners? Absolutely not. But for the most part they are the movies that are unfairly condemned or under-seen today. Other movies we considered include Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), All the King’s Men (1949), Marty (1955) and Tom Jones (1963).
Winners we hate may have their own fans for sure, but that’s the beauty of watching all of the Best Picture winners – you might have to sit through hours of boredom but eventually there’s something for just about anyone.
Plus, watching them in order (starting with Wings and ending with Spotlight), it’s awfully difficult to deny feeling film history unspool before you. If you disagree (or are just opinionated), we’d love to hear what you think should have been included (or what should have been left out) down below.