In Search of Best Picture

Nigel Druitt

An avid Flickcharter since 2009, Nigel is a self-described fanboy whose Top 20 is dominated by the likes of Indiana Jones, Frodo Baggins and Marty McFly. Nigel is the Canadian arm of the Flickchart Blog, but try not to hold that against him. You can find him on Flickchart as johnmason.

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11 Responses

  1. Travis McClain says:

    Nigel, I would strongly argue that the definition of “Best Picture” has nothing to do with what’s the most popular with audiences, nor should it. The nature of the award is meant to recognize the most skillful work of art in the medium. Art is always subjective, of course, but there is a difference between a film intended simply to entertain us, and a film meant to appeal to something higher, or deeper, within us.

    Batman is easily my favorite movie from 1989, and it never fails to entertain me despite countless viewings over 21 years. But even I would balk at the notion that it was the Best Picture of 1989. It didn’t set out to address any social injustices, isn’t meant to inspire us to pursue any lofty goals for ourselves or our communities and doesn’t even really present us a tale of overcoming adversity. In short, it does not aspire to be anything more than mere entertainment. In that, I think it was a resounding success. But “Best Picture” should be about more than that level of superficial enjoyment.

    This isn’t to say that high art can’t be–or shouldn’t be–entertaining. The Bridge on the River Kwai is about overcoming tremendous adversity, the resolve of the human spirit and will and the value of loyalty. It’s also packed full of fist-pumping moments of triumph, quotable dialog and the sheer scale of the production–including the staggering climax–is the stuff that we pay to see on the screen.

    Oh, and for what it’s worth, The Two Towers is easily my favorite act of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. That siege was epic.

  2. Gouka Ryuu says:

    There are a few things I want to point out here. First, the way nominations work is pretty much anyone in the Academy can nominate Best Picture. But, they have to weed that down to 5, now 10, nominees. Second, the Academy is rather conservative, but even beyond that a lot of this is looking back in hindsight. It is one thing to back and say they chose wrong, but we are dealing with a massive voting body that is deciding in the “now.” In my opinion, while i do love the oscars, I would rather have a largely overlooked film be vindicated by history than be noticed, become a best picture winner, and than be known only to film buffs and as a piece of trivia.

  3. Nigel Druitt says:


    I can see your point. It makes a lot of sense, too. I suppose it comes down to how you view the movies. For me, movies will always been entertainment first, art second. I also acknowledge that they can absolutely be both: The first one that comes immediately to my mind in my Top 20 is Children of Men. I can understand the Academy having loftier goals than just awarding a film for being entertaining. And fortunately, most of the time, they really don’t give Best Picture to a film that is just forgotten in a couple of years.

    But heck, I think The Lord of the Rings is art, too. As you said, completely subjective. (Oh, and don’t get me wrong; I love The Two Towers. Helm’s Deep is awesome. I just like the bookends – especially Fellowship – better.)

    Still, I’d look at The Hours in particular. Admittedly, I’ve not seen it, but it was definitely the lowest-ranked Best Picture nominee I came across in that decade. And it was chosen over Catch Me If You Can (which was recognized for Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken). Then, how many movies are considered better than Chicago?

    Obviously, hindsight is 20/20. I just find it interesting. My main point here was that, when you bring everybody’s opinions together in a place like Flickchart, the cream of the crop is going to rise to the top. (Yeah, Travis; even Inception.) ;)

  4. Nigel Druitt says:

    Gouka: All very good points; you’re absolutely right.

  5. Travis McClain says:

    The Lord of the Rings counts as “high art,” given all the nuance and detail that Tolkien put into the novels. Even the expanded versions truncated and glossed over things, but I think the essence of the stories was still properly conveyed. Remember, Tolkien was responding to turn of the century tumult ranging from industrialization and World War I. There are some brilliant allegories, for anyone willing to look beneath the superficial layer of fantasy action/adventure.

    I would also argue that the cream of the crop does not, in fact, rise to the top when an aggregate is consulted. Rather, the most popular movies are shown to be, well…popular. Think of it this way. Let’s say we were to consult Europeans in the early 17th Century whether the Earth revolved around the sun, or vice versa. Galileo is making waves with advancing the notion of the latter, but is met with resistance. Should science defer to the majority? Popularity changes, depending on who’s setting the trends.

    Of course, we’re discussing art which does not lend itself to the same kind of verification as does science. We must continue to view art with a critical eye; place it in its proper context, learn its lessons. Hindsight is only a liability in that voters don’t have it for the ballot at hand. They are, however, capable of considering the works of a given year in the context of the pantheon of great films. Put simply, the singular winner of the Best Picture award may be controversial, debatable, etc. But if you expand your view to look at the films nominated for the award, what emerges is a really solid catalog of great films. Take a look:

  6. Nigel Druitt says:

    So “popular” does not necessarily translate into “good”? I don’t know that I buy that.

    I certainly don’t mean to imply that all movies nominated for Oscars are not “good” movies; heck, it’s not like I’ve seen them all! In fact, I’m sure they probably are. (You know, except the ones I’ve seen that I don’t like!)

    Taste is so subjective, you’re obviously going to find people who think that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was better than The Hurt Locker. But even though it did about 30 times more box office, it ranks much lower than the Best Picture winner. (I haven’t seen Revenge of the Fallen, but it was just an example that came to mind.)

    Sure, “popular” movies have risen to the top, but I believe they are GOOD popular movies. It is not fair that some great movies that didn’t find their audience don’t get the proper recognition, but I still think the highest-ranked movies on Flickchart represent good movies.

    And, of course, there are going to be plenty of people who don’t agree with that. Not every movie is for everyone; what movie is?

  7. Nigel Druitt says:

    Look at the highest-grossing film of all time: Avatar only manages a #153 in the global rankings. It’s that high because everybody’s seen it, but there’s nowhere to go but down from there.

  8. Travis McClain says:

    The argument about popular =/= good is predicated on basic economics. The supply of a movie that will find a large audience is, almost inherently, one that is diluted for the masses. Rarely have we seen artistic works succeed commercially on the order of a Transformers movie. The Passion of the Christ comes to mind, as does the recent Black Swan (which just cleared $100 million, I’m told).

    I was once curious what, if any, relationship there was between box office success and the Academy Awards so I created a spreadsheet of the top ten movies for the year and the major category nominees. There were an awful lot of money-making movies that the Academy felt did not merit recognition, and an awful lot they nominated that didn’t crack the top 10. I don’t think it’s just to maintain a sense of elitism or to be contrary.

    Oh, and I still haven’t seen Avatar. It was way too long for me to see in a theatre, and I simply haven’t cared enough to get around to it on DVD/Blu-ray. I’ve heard, though, that once you get past the pretty pictures what remains is a recycled, generic eco-story that Dances with Wolves did better.

  9. There are a few other aspects to bear in mind when you’re considering the box office take.

    For one, ticket sales don’t have a perfect correlation with viewer endorsement of the movie, even by the people who bought the tickets; obviously you buy before you’ve seen the thing, so the ticket’s more an indication of *belief* that the movie will be good. (Films like Avatar and even Twilight got a lot of repeat viewings, though, which is a post-hoc endorsement.)

    Studios are of course good at aligning the planets to generate the belief necessary for you to blow $10, sight-unseen. Trailers, sponsored reviews, and big names are independent of the quality or content of the movie itself. The more tickets they sell in the opening weekend (by withholding press screenings if they know it’s terrible), the more sales they can get without bad word of mouth derailing things.

    Oh, and then there’s the fact that the movie theater is just conducive to certain kinds of movies, namely blockbuster action, dumb comedies, and other stuff that’s fun to see with big groups of people. If everyone watched movies in mopey little art houses, things might be different.

    Lastly, because of the group dynamic and the fact that more goes into the “theater experience” than purely what’s on the screen, ticket sales are more often an indication of acceptability, I think, than excellence. I’ll look through our numbers to verify this, but I’d venture that *most* movies that excel at the box office have a smoother popularity distribution, meaning fewer peaks and valleys than artier fare.

    My last point nods to Travis’s comment about dilution, although I don’t think that’s an indispensable or “inherent” conclusion; studio propaganda techniques, films that successfully and without dilution target particular demographics with near-complete saturation (like Pixar), and movies that genuinely speak to a larger cross-section of viewers are also plausible recipes for box office success (or hybrids of any of them).

    To what extent each of those indicates a good movie is up to the individual, but “box office success” is a smokescreen for a lot of moving parts.

  10. Nigel Druitt says:

    Travis: You’re right about Avatar. (Though, I must confess: I’ve liked it better on repeat viewings – hated the 3D – and I’ve never seen Dances With Wolves.)

    Jeremy: Wow. Just wow. :)

  11. Travis McClain says:

    Jeremy makes a lot of good points. One thing that I thought about in the course of an entirely different conversation yesterday was the correlation between Twitter activity and the box office of a given movie. Last year, I think it was, someone published an article demonstrating that Twitter could actually be used to predict the success of a movie’s opening. I mention this in the context of demonstrating that word of mouth is taking on a new form. We’re no longer reliant upon the critics on TV and our own newspaper to offer thoughts about a movie. Now, we can read the reactions of people who post their thoughts from their phones while the end credits are rolling. I live in the EST time zone, but if I see a movie during its midnight release you could know whether I liked the movie or not before your west coast midnight screening even starts.

    The scale of this kind of influence isn’t lost on the studios, either. The first “promoted” Twitter trending topic was “Toy Story 3.” I don’t know what it cost Disney, but given that the movie made a ton of money I think a case can be made that pushing it on Twitter was a smart decision. Looking at all the promoted movies since then, I think it’s clear to the rest of Hollywood that Twitter is an important part of a marketing campaign.

    We’re still taking the word of others that we will like a given movie, but now we’re taking the word of people with whom we have a correspondence. I know that if Nigel sees the next Star Trek movie before I do and he says that it’s the best one yet, I can think of the fact that he and I have very comparable taste (our top three Treks are the same, even if our rankings differ). That means more to me than, say, Peter Travers, whom I suspect only sees Star Trek movies because that’s his job. And thanks to the Internet, I can know if Nigel likes it theoretically before he leaves the theater.