Best picture winners can never be completely forgotten, but name recognition is not the same as love or respect. In the light of film history, most past winners look sad and safe, artistically and politically bland, pedestrian in their approach and bloated in form. A movie like “Driving Miss Daisy,” for example, doesn’t embody what was excellent about cinema in its year (1989). It does quite the opposite: It immortalizes its era’s most obvious misconceptions – about art, movies, human relationships, even the truth itself.
Yet in any given year, there is usually one movie that constitutes an artistic breakthrough. That movie is rarely the most technologically innovative (like, say, “Avatar”), because nothing dates faster than technology. And it’s usually not the most popular, because popular movies tend to be people pleasing, and when that becomes the main priority, a good deal of honesty goes out the window.
A breakthrough movie is rather one that, through form, content or both, is so intriguing and arresting and in some cases infuriating that everyone has to have an opinion about it. Sometimes it’s a film that heralds a new direction, that looks like the start of a possible trend or movement. Often, it’s a film strongly guided by a singular directorial vision. “Citizen Kane” is what happened in cinema in 1941. Not everybody liked it, but it’s what happened that year, and look how it’s lauded today.
The same could be said for “Apocalypse Now,” which is what happened in cinema in 1979. Or “Bonnie and Clyde,” which is what happened in 1967. Not everybody liked those either. It’s all very nice when a movie is good enough to like. These were great enough to hate, which is better.