Previously on the Oscars: Ranking the 2014-2018 Best Picture Winning Films

A man who dresses up as a bird, a fish-humanoid creature, the Boston Globe, and an individual struggling to survive in a rough environment while trying to hide his true sexuality: What do all of these have in common? If you answered that “each was a focal point of an Oscar-winning best picture that came out since the founding of the annual ‘Sylvester Oscar Challenge,’” then you are good at reading blog titles, probably already know me, and are right on the money!

While the changing of the seasons from summer to fall is always exciting, avid moviegoers are already gearing up for the most wonderful time of the year: Oscar season. It’s that glowing time of year filled with amazing movies, memorable moments, and no shortage of controversially subjective interpretations along the way. Nearly any film from any genre depicting any time period can walk away with the grand prize (even if we’re pretty good at reading the Academy)

 There is no better way to illustrate the variation in winners than to examine the past four best picture winners.  “Birdman,” “Spotlight,” “Moonlight,” and “The Shape of Water” all bring their own special element to filmography, and could not be more different from one another if they tried.

With the majority of this year’s best movies yet to come, now is the perfect time to reminisce and submit my personal rankings for all of the aforementioned best picture winners.

#4 - “The Shape of Water”

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Yes, I get it: the idea of a woman having sex with a fish sounds like a far-fetched and pretty gross idea at the outset. It took me a while to move passed that as well. But once you do, you realize the film analyzes an impressive number of nooks and crannies. It urges us to look beyond others’ imperfections, to show compassion for people, and most importantly: stay open-minded to how others operate around you.

The aesthetics of this film are nothing short of gorgeous: the deep shades of greens and blues in both setting and costumes make it look vintage yet surreal; the cinematography showcases the vibe and tone very well, the score from Alexandre Desplat is hauntingly beautiful, and the action scenes do not disappoint.

Acting performances were solid across the board. As the main character, Sally Hawkins did a great job portraying all kinds of emotions without expressing a single word. Although Octavia Spencer did not veer out of her comfort zone in this role; she portrayed a caring coworker well. Richard Jenkins also came across as a compassionate, sympathetic supporting character.

All of these performances received nominations at the 2017-2018 Oscars, with the exception of one role that I felt deserved more respect: Michael Shannon as the evil mastermind. He showcased all of the necessary traits a quintessential villain needs to possess: intimidating, powerful, shocking, assertive, and outright psychotic. He made you root for the protagonists and created all kinds of nervous tension while on screen for the viewers.

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One issue that did emerge, though, was the lack of real development behind the fish creature. Why was the government wasting so much time and money on this project? Why did they know so little about this creature? If they know so little, why was the security detail of the facility the equivalent to a local shopping mall, but without the motorized scooters? These nit-picky details prevented it from placing higher on this list, along with the indisputable fact that an episode of “Hey Arnold” summarized the plot of this movie in four boxes. The resemblance is uncanny.

In all seriousness, “The Shape of Water” ranks fourth on this list because—with the other three movies—I could recall, on a dime, powerful scenes that stuck with me even years later. When I was searching for movie moment magic for “The Shape of Water,” I came up with… well… nothing really. It was a good film, just not as memorable as the others. 

#3 – “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

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Without a doubt, “Birdman” is one of the most hit or miss films among people who saw it. For many in the art community, it was a masterpiece featuring one-of-a kind cinematography; superb acting from Emma Stone, Edward Norton, and Michael Keaton along with a drum-centric score that perfectly set the tone and tempo of the film.

For others, reviews ranged from “I ended up falling asleep because I had no clue what was going on” to “this is the worst movie I have ever seen” to someone yelling at me repeatedly throughout the movie: “Michael… Let’s go home… This movie SUCKS.”

Some of the reviews I mentioned were rather harsh. To be fair to them, the first time I sat through this movie, I thought to myself during certain scenes, “this clearly has some great symbolism behind it that many artistically gifted people will catch onto right away, but all I see right now is a dude imagining himself flying around in a bird costume and it is super weird.” “Birdman” as a film is dark and pretty . . . uhh . . . out there. But it offers a gripping thrill-ride filled with so many great moments from start to finish.

All elements considered, it is not even the overtly (sometimes unbearably) artistic nature of “Birdman” that ranks it third of the four movies for me. The cinematography work of Emmanuel Lubzeki was nothing short of brilliant, making the film look like it was shot all in one take, Emma Stone showed she was ready for the next step in her career with her amazing monologue about her father’s fight to stay relevant in society, and the interior voice in main character Riggan Thomson’s head all spoke to me on a personal level.

In my mind, “Birdman” ranks at its current position because of its uninspiring, overarching themes. Two big struggles stick out in this film: 1) remaining relevant despite the image that forms from becoming a famous movie star, and 2) combating harsh critics who enjoy tearing people down. With respect to the former, the Oscar-winning film from 2011, “The Artist” covered the theme with extreme depth and breadth in a superior way. With the latter: let’s just say that the writers of Disney Pixar’s “Ratatouille” might be a little upset.

Seriously, watch this review from “Ratatouille” character Anton Ego, then watch or re-watch “Birdman,” then try to tell me with a straight face that director Alejandro González Iñárritu did not use not use that scene in some way, shape or form as inspiration for “Birdman.” Go ahead . . . I will wait. This list is not disappearing anytime soon.

I understand that a lot of critics are shallow, pedantic people who offer very little to society (self-deprecation is funny, right?). But where Ratatouille showed a beautiful character transformation from someone who understood the tendencies of a critic and vocalized the risks he took by giving a rave review, “Birdman” just gives a giant middle finger to anyone who uses lazy buzzwords to criticize work they do not like.  

Nevertheless, Birdman’s portrayal of critics is well-acted and dramatic, but it did not offer anything new or profound on that front. While the film possesses a distinct stylistic vibe along with immense amounts of passion, its inability to generate nuanced themes and execute them better than previous renditions of films that tackled them prevented it from topping the list.

#2- “Spotlight”

Any movie that can take a bunch of people looking through books with rulers and turn it into an intense montage scene is an automatic winner in my book.

“Spotlight”

In many ways, that one montage scene perfectly sums up “Spotlight:” thoroughly crafted, to the point, and incredibly well executed on all fronts from start to finish. The film’s ability to create horrifyingly vivid imagery from victim accounts of predatory priests will always stick out as a sign of excellent writing from Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer. It would be easy to rely upon brutal flashback cut-scenes for such emotionally charged moments, but Spotlight managed to tell an intense story without relying upon flashy camera effects or cheap plot devices. It relied upon the brutality of the scandal, along with top-notch writing and acting to tell it for them.

Going through the checklist, “Spotlight” ticks almost all of the required boxes for what makes a best-picture winner. Great acting? Check. Well written? Check. Profound takes on controversial themes? Check. Dramatic moments that lead to big time breakthroughs? Check. Sympathetic characters? Check, check and check.

Many of the themes resonate with society even years later. While crude, what the scandal illustrated was that if it took a village to raise a child, it took a village to molest one as well. The way they dissect the anatomy of fraudulent practices and show the routines people fall into unless outsiders come in and shake it up highlights the articulate truths underlying uncomfortable situations.

Although “Spotlight” does pretty much everything right, it feels like a re-make of “All the President’s Men.” However, instead of reporters uncovering Watergate, they uncover the scandal in the Catholic Church, a tragedy all too relevant even today.

“Spotlight” is extremely well done, but it took a cookie-cutter approach to filmmaking (see also “The Post”) that failed to innovate how people perceive movies, which is why it does not top the list.

#1 – “Moonlight”

“Moonlight”

When I walked out of the theater after watching “Moonlight,” there was only one word that popped into my head: WOW. It was one of those rare films that truly left me speechless. A lot of times, we see movies or segments on TV that tell us how rough life can be for individuals growing up in certain areas, but it can get preachy and people tune it out. The beauty of “Moonlight”’s narrative is that it does not come out and tell us what we are supposed to think when we leave the theater, it shows us the hardships people fight through in rough environments. You gain a whole new level of sympathy for precisely whom the filmmakers want you to feel sympathy.

Just like with “Birdman,” some people who saw the film were off-put by the “artsy-fartsy” nature of the movie. It is an aesthetically beautiful work of art, but to really analyze this film, it is important to examine it from a structural standpoint.  The way director Barry Jenkins crafted this movie from beginning to end is just pure genius. He clearly thought through what parts of the main character’s life were actually worth following and emphasizing, cast each stage of the characters appropriately, and told an unforgettable slice of life style story that will leave you wondering why life can be so cruel.

The one complaint I have with this movie is its dark tone. This is not a feel good, family-friendly movie that will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside. It is a gut wrenching, eye-opening, depression-inducing film that will remind you of life’s harshest struggles. That said, it does have one memorable heart to heart conversation that everyone should internalize. Even with this heart to heart, the movie’s tone felt disproportionately unbalanced.

While I will always remember the hilarious screw up the announcers made moments before it won best picture, I will also always remember the wow factor that “Moonlight” brought to the table for me.  For those who have not seen it, at some point, you need watch it and decide what you think. You cannot let anybody make that decision for you.

My four most anticipated movies this year:

As fun as it is to look back on previous best picture winners, this year’s upcoming films should generate no shortage of excitement. Here are four movies to watch for this upcoming season:

1. Beautiful BoyStarring former best actor nominees Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet, “Beautiful Boy” takes a closer look in on America’s opioid crisis and the impact it has on families. Given the way that fentanyl and heroin have ravished the US population over the past decade and a half, a film examining the more human costs of it all seems refreshingly relevant.

2. If Beale Street Could TalkGiven director Barry Jenkins’s recent work with “Moonlight,” I cannot wait to see how he follows it all up. His films will remain near or at the top of my most anticipated film lists for the near future.

3. First ManThe former director of “La La Land” and “Whiplash” is moving away from jazz-themed films and focusing instead on a monumental moment in history. Although it is a little ironic that Canadian Ryan Gosling will play the role of American astronaut Neil Armstrong, “First Man” looks like a giant leap forward for director Damien Chazelle.

4. A Star is BornWith Bradley Cooper making his directorial debut and Lady Gaga making her inaugural acting appearance for this film, the stars could very well align for these two in this musical reboot. I, for one, cannot wait to see how it goes.