Best vs. Greatest Picture
This was a stellar year for movies, which makes for stiff competition in the 85th Best Picture Oscar contest. But what if an award was given not once every year, but once every ten years? What if the competition wasn’t just among films made in a particular year, but among all films made since the beginning of the art form? And what if the award wasn’t for the “best” film of all time, but the “greatest”?
Every ten years since 1952, the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine publishes the results of its Greatest Ten Films of All Time poll, with the number one film deemed the greatest of all time. Citizen Kane had been the winner for 60 years, until Orson Welles was knocked off his perch last year by Alfred Hitchcock’s surreal tale of obsession–Vertigo–starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. How did this happen? Some speculate that the un-named film critics who participate in the poll suffered from a case of Kane fatigue, and that, beneath the groundbreaking techniques Citizen Kane introduced to the art form, the film is quite cold. Vertigo, by contrast, is quite hot, as Stewart’s obsession about a woman he thinks is dead borders on necrophilia. Once accused of being a cold and calculating filmmaker, Hitchcock finally let his hair (what little he had) down with Vertigo.
The irony, as pointed out by Richard Brody in his Sept. 5, 2012 New Yorker article “Praising ‘Kane,’” is that Citizen Kane isn’t Welles’s best film. That distinction probably goes to either The Magnificent Ambersons or Touch of Evil. But Kane is his greatest film because it liberated the art form. After Kane, cinema was never that same again. By the same token, Vertigo isn’t Hitchcock’s best film (most would say Rear Window is), but it is the film in which Hitchcock liberated himself and graduated from master craftsman to great artist. It’s not surprising, then, that neither film won the Academy Award for Best Picture. In 1941, Citizen Kane lost to John Ford’s excellent How Green Was My Valley. Vertigo wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. The Vincente Minnelli musical Gigi won it that year (1958).
This distinction between “best” and “greatest” can be applied to this year’s Academy Awards. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is the likely winner for Best Picture (although some see Argo as a dark horse), and it deserves to win. Lincoln represents Spielberg at the top of his game as a craftsman, and Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln is one of the great screen performances of all time. But it does nothing to further the art form. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, has a feeling of greatness about it. It shakes up the medium. The based-on-real-events tale of a female CIA agent’s relentless pursuit of Osama bin Laden holds up a mirror to America’s war on terror without judging us. But the mirror Bigelow creates is so sharp and life-like that many people did not like what they saw. (Thus, the unfounded controversy that the film suggests the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” lead them to bin Laden.) The moral ambiguity of the film is too much for some people.
After the killing of bin Laden, the female agent, Maya, (played with incredible conviction by Jessica Chastain) is flown back to the United States on a military carrier. Tears stream down her face. They are not tears of sadness. They are tears of exhaustion and lack of closure. They are America’s tears. When the pilot asks her where she wants to go and she answers “I don’t know,” Maya speaks for all of America. Bin Laden is dead. Where do we go from here? No one knows.
I suspect it will take years, perhaps decades, for the world to understand Zero Dark Thirty and appreciate its greatness. So, come Sun., Feb. 24, celebrate Spielberg’s well-deserved Best Picture Oscar for Lincoln, but keep in mind that one of the other nominees might end up some day on that Sight and Sound list of greats.