The Academy Awards are, if one may offer an editorial, an attempt by the Hollywood establishment to establish a canon of films. Only one film from every year gets to join in this canon, and, extrapolating the Academy’s logic, the Best Picture winners should be a universal exemplar of what feature films are doing from within their particular epoch. Taken as a whole, the Best Picture winners should – should – represent American film history in motion.
Of course, we know that’s not the way it works. The Oscars claim to be the ultimate arbiter of American film history, but the true arbiter is time. Time tends to dictate what films are canonical, and what films are merely celebrated at the moment. The Oscars may make the correct call from time to time (their pick of The Silence of the Lambs nailed it), but it’s hype, enthusiasm in the present, or just clever marketing that makes for many Best Picture winners.
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Searching for Best Picture winners online, you’ll find this holdout. Why, for instance, is it so hard to find films like Chariots of Fire? Or even The Artist, which won only a few years ago? Online streaming services have tried to assemble a canon, but Best Picture winners are few and far between.
Luckily, we here at Crave have an eye for this sort of thing, and this installment of Now Streaming has culled the 20 Best Picture winners from the 1980s and 1990s (just to narrow down the search a little bit) and found that the following seven can be enjoyed right now.
Amadeus (Watch It Now)
The Best Picture winner of 1984 was a brilliant biopic about Mozart directed by the masterful Czech director Miloš Forman. Tom Hulce plays Mozart like a manic-depressive brat who giggles and flounces and seems blithely unconcerned with the world around him… until the world around him is a concern so intense he nearly destroys himself. F. Murray Abraham plays Salieri, the composer who could only live in a jealous rage. Of the Best Picture winners in Academy history, Amadeus is one of the more mature, complex, and just plain good.
Out of Africa (Watch It Now)
Based on a true biography, Sydney Pollock’s 1985 Best Picture winner is a 161-minute epic of romance, travel to exotic locales, venereal diseases, and death. The way proper epics ought to be. The central love story is between a married Danish woman played by Meryl Streep, and a big game hunter played by Robert Redford. Large fields, gorgeous photography, and a lot of wrenching emotions abound. To this day, you can visit the real-life locations depicted in the film in Nairobi, Kenya. If doomed romance is your bag, then the Oscars have your whistle whetted. Stay tuned for more.
Forrest Gump (Watch It Now)
Yes, yes, we know about the snubs of 1994. Forrest Gump infamously beat Pulp Fiction to the Best Picture statue, and cinephiles have not been able to shut up since. Robert Zemeckis’ sweet, schmaltzy film is divisive at best. Is it a gentle love letter to traditional American values as told via virtuosic cinematic pop manipulation? Or is it a gross, right-leaning oversimplification of American history that celebrates wealth over intelligence? One may form his or her opinion by watching it and joining the debate. One thing cannot be denied: Those special effects – that resurrected dead presidents on film – are first-rate.
Braveheart (Watch It Now)
The 1995 Best Picture winner was a bold, extensive battle epic about the life of Scotland’s William Wallace (d. 1305), played by the film’s writer and director, Mel Gibson. Gibson may be the punchline of many jokes these days, but back in 1995, he was a force to be reckoned with, and Braveheart is perhaps his best film. Gibson has always had an eye for authenticity, and Braveheart, while often straying from actual history (as many historical epics do) feels like it’s accurate, right down to the accents and battle strategies.
The English Patient (Watch It Now)
A doomed love story epic along the lines of Out of Africa, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient won Best Picture in 1996, baffling just about everyone. The film is gorgeous to look at but feels too gentle and insubstantial to stand forth as any sort of serious epic. It tells the story of an amnesiac Brit (Ralph Fiennes) who, thanks to the care of a nurse (Juliette Binoche), slowly remembers an old romance with a married woman (Kristen Scott Thomas). Like all proper love stories, this one too is doomed. The film is long, languid, and florid, and contains a certain melodramatic pleasure.
Shakespeare in Love (Watch It Now)
The comedy Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture in 1998, and many see it as an embarrassment to the Oscar canon. It’s not that bad, but it is a wisp of a film. Joseph Fiennes plays The Bard at the beginning of his career, as he is completing his new play Romeo & Juliet. He ends up falling in love with a courtly young woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) who wants to masquerade as a man to act on stage; women weren’t allowed to act at the time. The film is a trifle, but certainly enjoyable for Shakespeare fans who may get some of the Elizabethan in-jokes.
American Beauty (Watch It Now)
No piece of pop art better encapsulates the attitudes of the 1990s better than Sam Mendes’ 1999 Best Picture winner American Beauty. Not even a Deep Blue Something record will do it. In it, Kevin Spacey plays a suburban dad whose sudden midlife crisis results in an orgy of self-discovery. The ’90s angst on display may seem dated today, but it was very, very real at the time, and this movie wrecked a lot of young people, who found is stunning and profound. Check it out and let us know if you think it holds up.
Top Image: Orion Pictures
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.