Is Winning an Oscar a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

Part of 10 series: Hollywood & Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru Academy Award-winning Film

If the professionals don’t always get it right, what hope do we mere mortals have?

by Gary David Stratton, Senior Editor

Choosing the best film for use in teaching students worldview, ethics, theology or politics is a maddening process. I started out using only Academy award-winning films. However, I quickly ran into a problem. While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences works extremely hard to select the one “truly great” film each year worthy of the Oscar for “Best Picture,” they weren’t always the films that had deeply impacted the stories of my students.

Which led me to an important question: Do the Oscars always get it right? You wouldn’t think so looking at the award’s history. Arguments are legion. Nearly every year is controversial in one way or the other.

Some Oscar winners are loved in their day, but don’t wear well over time. There are few today who would argue that Shakespeare in Love (1998) was an enduring great, yet it won over Spielberg’s epic WWII classic, Saving Private Ryan.  The 1968 musical Oliver certainly endearing, but not nearly as enduring as 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Ironically, it is hard to even imagine a musical winning today.)

Other Oscar winners have “outside the film” appeal that may not always be a genuine indicator of the films greatness. Hurt Locker (2010) was a great film, but would it have won if Katherine Bigelow wasn’t the first woman director in recent years to be in a position to win? (Or, if Katherine’s ex-husband James Cameron, director of Avatar, hadn’t alienated many in the academy by his “I’m king of the world” Oscar acceptance speech for Titanic.)

Some films are too far ahead of their times to even receive a nomination for Best Picture, but are now recognized as all-time greats.Citizen Cane (1941) is near the top of most “All-Time Great Films” lists, but lost to the long forgotten How Green is My Valley. Hitchcock’s cutting Vertigo is still watched in film schools, while only the most die-hard fans ever watch 1958 winner Gigi. The Matrix (1999) couldn’t even garner a nomination forBest Picture, yet few doubt that it will be studied as a classic for years to come.

Other great films lose Oscars simply because they are up against other greats in the same year. Forrest Gump’s (1994) cutting-edge technology and stellar acting from red-hot Tom Hanks garnered a much-deserved Best Picture Oscar. However, it is hard to argue that Gump’s Oscar was more-deserved than the two arguably better films of the same year: Pulp Fiction, and Shawshank Redemption.

The truth is, the public-relations-driven, artistically myopic, and sometime overtly political nature of both the studios and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences often make Oscars an unreliable measure of true greatness.

Last year was no exception. The battle between front-runners, The Social Network, and The King’s Speech was fraught with controversy. So much so, that many thought we might see a surprise spoiler, such as The Black Swan, The Fighter, True Grit, or even, Toy Story 3, win the day. We didn’t.

King’s Speech won going away.  But will it wear the test of time? 

If the professionals don’t always get it right, what hope do we mere mortals have? But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I’ve never tried a reader’s poll before, but now that Two Handed Warriors is approaching 1000 readers, I thought we’d try.

Vote for your choice for this year’s Best Picture, on the right side of page. Next weekend I will post the result along with my own picks.


Next post in series: High Culture, Pop Culture: What about FIlms with ‘Deep Culture’?


What is Your Favorite Oscar “Snub” and/or most “Poser” ?