With the 2015 Academy Awards coming up next month (Feb. 22), it seemed as good a time as any for NUVO film critic Ed Johnson-Ott and I to take a look back at the last half-decade in film — and specifically the last five Best Picture winners.

Sam: I guess I'll start from the beginning with 2009's The Hurt Locker.

It’s the lowest-grossing film to ever win Best Picture. It's interesting that this year, another Iraq War drama, American Sniper, has a chance to win as one of the highest grossing.

To me, these films have a similar appeal, as they both take a poignant look at a man finding a new normal in an environment that is anything but. Both are portraits of a soldier whose safe home feels like a foreign land after immersing himself in an adrenaline-soaked atmosphere.

The Hurt Locker competed against Avatar, which is essentially an Iraq War allegory with its story of a US military expedition largely for natural resources in a foreign land. It's interesting that The Hurt Locker's Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director over Avatar's James Cameron — her ex-husband.

The Hurt Locker and Avatar are somewhat political, but they're both transporting mood pieces as well, immersing viewers in vivid worlds. In The Hurt Locker, you can practically feel the desert sun beating down on you and the sand whipping against your face.

Ed: I guess I thought less about the politics in the movies and more about the politics within the Academy. The majority of Academy members are actors, and a great many of the members are old white guys. They don't like to vote for films that are too light, too freaky or too obscure. The Hurt Locker and Avatar were just about their only viable choices that year.

As you said, both films immersed viewers in well crafted environments, but Avatar was stuffed with CGI, while The Hurt Locker had a more down-to-earth look, so to speak. Politics aside, I think that's why it won. It was the safest choice for the Academy mindset.

Sam: The film that won the next year, The King’s Speech, seemed to be the safe choice as well.

Ed: Right. It was an inspirational story with enough swearing to make it seem authentic. It had lots of British accents, and Academy voters are very impressed with British accents. They sound classy and more than anything else, the Academy wants to be classy. The King's Speech was right up its alley.

Sam: I've always found it fascinating that The King's Speech competed against The Social Network, as one film is about an influential figure who struggled to communicate while the other is about one who made communication all too easy, alienating his friends in the process. Maybe The Social Network was too dark and cynical for the Academy.

Ed: It was also filled with young people, and the Academy is filled with old white guys.

Sam: I just think the Best Picture winner should be edgier, a film that taps into the zeitgeist, that puts its finger on the pulse of viewers at the time. The Social Network has an immediacy and relevance that The King's Speech doesn't have.

It's ironic that the next Best Picture winner is an even more old-fashioned piece of work — 2011's black-and-white silent film, The Artist.

Ed: I loved when The Artist won, but I thought The Descendants was a shoo-in. And I was stunned when Argo beat Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook. Hell, Lincoln was filled with old white guys, and it was actually deserving!

Sam: To me, only one scene in Argo makes an emotional, Oscar-bait impact: the sequence in which a diplomat distracts two Iranian security guards with storyboards for the titular fake film — a rousing reminder of film’s power as a universal language. But, in terms of dealing with that theme, The Artist is far more powerful.

Ed: And, of course, the scene to which you refer in Argo was followed by a chase scene that didn't happen in real life.

Sam: Apparently, for my school paper, I chose Django Unchained as the film that should have won over Argo, which is ironic considering 12 Years a Slave won the next year.

Ed: It's hard to imagine a Quentin Tarantino film winning Best Picture. He scares the shit out of old white men.

Sam: I appreciate Django Unchained for the way it holds a funhouse mirror up to history. 12 Years a Slave, of course, isn't wrapped in the same popcorn packaging.

Ed: It's tough to watch 12 Years a Slave, but it makes a powerful statement.

Here's something to think about. When they compile a list of great film 20 years from now, will any of these five winners be on it?

Sam: I don't think the Oscars really determine the most remembered films anymore, especially with the increase in Best Picture nominees. But I think The Hurt Locker might have staying power as well as The Artist for making the old new again — which is essentially what we're doing by looking back at these films! 


Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.

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