What makes a best picture?

I’m sure it’s been done before, but with last night fresh in our memory, I wondered if folk would like to discuss what they expect in the best pictures of the year.

Now, I’m not a film student. In fact, I’m probably a pretty superficial consumer of movies. So for me, the best movies are essentially those I consider most entertaining. That doesn’t just mean happy, feel-good movies. I can be entertained by a movie that makes me think of things differently than I had previously. Also, I’m not overly impressed by a bunch of CGI.

For me, the best pictures on last night’s list was the Martian. Good writing and acting, the story held my interest, and succeeded in taking me to another place. Second for me was likely Brooklyn. A very solidly told story.

Here’s where I show my ignorance or superficiality - so many of the best movies - and so many of all movies released - impress me as quite dark. And I perceive enough unpleasantness in the world around me, that I don’t often feel the urge to pay money to expose myself to more. The Revenant. i acknowledge the phenomenal accomplishment. But it was all just so angry and ugly. Sure, those are real emotions, but not what I generally wish to spend my $ on. Spotlight and Big Short - explaining stories I already know, and find extremely unpleasant. Well, the reporters were impressive, but the damned church just keeps rolling along.

Didn’t see Mad Max and Room. Probably will, but at no time that my wife and I were thinking about seeing a move, did we feel in the mood for that sort of subject mater/energy.

Bridge of Spies, Big Short, and Spotlight - I thought all were fine movies. I was happy to spend my money and time watching all of them. Just didn’t impress me as all that incredible. I don’t know. Maybe they WERE the “best” pictures of the year, and I’m just disappointed that they did not impress me as “great” pictures. Not sure I can come up with a list of pics I saw that I thought ought to have been on the list.

Please accept this as an opportunity to educate me as to what I might appreciate about these “best pictures.”

Well, everyone’s choice of best picture is going to be idiosyncratic.

For the Academy, they’re looking primarily for movies that seem important – because they deal with tough or dramatic issues. This pretty much rules out most comedies, but that’s common to most awards. It also puts action-adventure films at a disadvantage. You can have a good time and enjoy a movie, but unless there much more than just the action and adventure, it’s not going to get the academy’s nod.

There’s some reasoning about this, since other forms of art tend to favor more serious themes. If Shakespeare’s tragedies had been lost, then no one would bother with his comedies. Dickens is still a popular author today because he dealt with serious themes; Wilkie Collins, a contemporary, is only known to aficionados (Read The Woman in White). Collins had great stories, and did deal with some social issues (he’s pretty feminist for a man of the 19th century), but there is clearly less depth than Dickens.

Thanks. That’s a good point.

Roger Ebert used to say that the quality of a movie lies not in what it’s about, but in how it’s about what it’s about. That is, great movies both have “something to say” and they say it in a new, thoughtful, inspiring, and/or unconventional way.

So, for example, take Mad Max: Fury Road. At it’s heart, it’s a 120-minute car chase. But it was exceptional in terms of how the filmmakers crafted the car chase:

  • strong feminist and environmental themes
  • creative world-building and attention to detail
  • cohesive, internally consistent storytelling
  • satisfying character arcs
  • amazing stunts and F/X
  • a blindfolded albino bungeed to a speeding wall of giant speakers playing thundering rock and roll riffs on an electric guitar that shoots flames from the neck. Really, who does that?

Or to take a quieter film and actual Best Picture winner: one imagines there are many ways to make a movie about the Catholic Church sex scandal. But Spotlight manages to make shoeleather journalism gripping and suspenseful. And, at the same time, it has those intimate moments that really put human pain and emotion on the events that occurred. Think of the interviews and quiet conversations that the Keaton and McAdams characters had with the survivors and the emotional impact that had on the movie. There have been many pressroom movies but not too many that can make us so personally invested in the outcome of a newspaper article.

Disabled protagonist = Best picture

IMHO, the Academy looks for primarily “social conscience” – that’s self-justification, movies are “serious” dealing with social issues and not just money-making fun.

Man - just watched the latest Mad Max. Uh, I can acknowledge the accomplishment, but having trouble considering it a “best picture” candidate.

In order to win the Oscar for Best Actor, the character needs to be at least one of the following:

A) Evil.
B) Gay.
C) Retarded.
D) An alcoholic country singer.
E) A famous historical figure.
F) A seasoned & popular actor who’s never won an Oscar before (covers Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, and most recently, Leo DiCaprio.)

Okay - thought (too much) more on it overnight. I guess I can reconcile something as a “best picture” even if it was so much not to my tastes.

A lot of what goes into making a movie is technical, and Mad Max was definitely an achievement in that area. I guess that I found it so - ugly - is a testament to how well it was put together. Was not terribly impressed by the acting or the story - but others obviously feel differently.

And I’m not a fan of the frenetic editing. So often things happened, and I wouldn’t know exactly what had happened. It seems you are just supposed to go along for the ride, and either re-watch, of research the backstory.

This sort of phenomenon often strikes me as curious. Because I was actually a pretty big fan of #s 2 and 3 - as was my wife. (Never cared for #1.) Now this one gets so much more acclaim, and we came close to turning it off more than once. May have to watch the earlier ones, to see how they hold up in our eyes. Of course, the other factor is that our tastes have undoubtedly changed over the intervening decades.

I know the old trope about all happy families being boring and the same. But, man, I really don’t need as much ugliness (sorry to not have a better word) for entertainment as pervaded so many of this year’s nominees. Yeah, I know that challenge can reveal character, etc. Don’t know the answer.

To me, it’s basically a combination of all of the other awards. A Best Picture will not necessarily have the best acting, or directing, or story, or cinematography (though it often will): That’s why we have all those other awards. But it will have very good acting, and directing, and story, and cinematography, and all the rest.

I think that’s a really good rough description. I think it provides a useful framework to analyze and compare quite disparate works.

If I may add one bit of vagueness, to me there is a sense that a movie must “transport” me to whatever setting - whether it be dystopia, Mars, Boston of the 2000s, or Brooklyn of the 50s. Not sure if that factor breaks down when applied to present day films. In such films, I think there is an additional burden on the actors, to make their concerns, motivations and choices believable.

I’m not sure Mad Max succeeded for me in this respect, simply because there seemed to be too many implausibilities/impossibilities for me to really accept it. But that may well be just me. I often have that difficulty in SF/fantasy. Even if I accept some completely foreign universe, that universe - and the way people act within it - must make sense to me.

Personally, I go based on three rankings:

  1. Entertainment
  2. Quality
  3. Depth

The best picture should have the highest average of these three values combined.

Spotlight - 7, 7, 5 -> 6.3
The Big Short - haven’t seen
Bridge of Spies - haven’t seen
Brooklyn - haven’t seen
Mad Max - 8, 7, 3 -> 6
The Martian - 7, 5, 2 -> 4.7
The Revenant - haven’t seen
Room - 5, 8, 7 -> 6.7

So of the films I’ve seen, Room was the best. Though, I wouldn’t say that this is a year of greats. Room was very good, but really, I’d like to see a best picture film exceed 7.5 at least (and ideally 8).

I’m with you. I saw maybe 2/3 of the Best Picture nominees this year, including the three mentioned above, and the only one I consider a must-see is Room. I loved The Big Short and really liked most of the rest, but none of them were great (IMHO).