End of year “best of” lists and awards come in many forms. Some, like the National Board of Review, are issued at small press events. Others, like the Oscars, rival national elections or the Super Bowl in terms of spectacle. Then there are the Golden Globes, which is really just a chance to watch your favorite celebrities get drunk.
For those of us scholars of “best of” lists, there is much debate regarding who generates the best “best of” list. A priori, one would assume that the Academy wins here, hands down. After all, the jury is the nominees’ peers, and isn’t our judicial system based on the idea that a jury of one’s peers are in the best position to render judgement? Conversely, the NBR is a group of pretentious New Yorkers with no particular authority to judge movies. So, over the past 25 years, who has made the best choices in choosing the best movie of the year? (I ignore the Golden Globes since they select two “best” movies each year – one for comedy or musical and one for drama).
Looking at these two lists side-by-side the NBR clearly has a preference for smaller budgeted, “serious” movies while the Oscars have a preference for large budget spectacles. In this respect, the form of the ceremony follows the content of the ceremony. When the Academy chooses Braveheart, Titanic, Gladiator, or The Return of the King the NBR chooses Sense and Sensibility, L.A. Confidential, Quills, and Mystic River. In cases like these the NBR has usually selected the better movie. Though Quills is not particularly good, it is better than Gladiator.
Additionally, the Oscars have a tendency to select movies on timeless topics like Shakespeare in Love (Art! Costumes! Love!), Crash (Racism! LA!), The King’s Speech (British! Costumes!), 12 Years a Slave (Racism! Costumes!), La La Land* (Love! LA!). The NBR is more focused on movies that are of the moment: Good Night, and Good Luck (censorship during Bush’s Presidency), Up in the Air (joblessness during the Great Recession), The Social Network (obvious), Zero Dark Thirty (killing bin Laden), Her (digital love).
If the NBR has one problem in its movie selection that the Academy does not have it is in trying a bit too hard to prove itself by selecting art house movies. Shine, Gods and Monsters, Quills, The Hours, and A Most Violent Year are all good movies. And, having the NBR recognize them is great because it draws attention to often overlooked films. But, few outside the NBR would argue that these are the best movies of their year.
With all the differences between the Oscars and the NBR, it is interesting to note the five movies on which the two organizations agreed upon: Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, American Beauty, No Country for Old Men, and Slumdog Millionaire (although Gump shared the NBR win with Pulp Fiction). Given how infrequently the Academy and the NBR agree with each other, one would expect these five to be inarguably great films. But only Spielberg’s and the Coen Brothers’ films are worth repeated viewing.
So, which is the best “best of” list? As you might recall from last Oscar season, I presented my own thoughts on the best movie in each of the last 25 years. My list does not overlap much with either the Oscar or the NBR picks. But, if I were to re-watch all the movies on either of these two lists I would vastly prefer to revisit the NBR films than the Oscar winners. Not only would I get to avoid a repeat viewing of Forrest Gump, Gladiator, Chicago, and Crash I would get to re-watch Mad Max: Fury Road. The choice of Mad Max as the best movie of 2015 is indicative that while the NBR might not always pick the best movie, they at least always pick interesting movies. And that, to me, makes the NBR list the best “best of” list.
We all know La La Land is going to win Best Picture this year.
Jeff Michler is a PhD economist living and working in Zimbabwe. When not debating theories of economic growth he enjoys reading and discussing television and graphic novels with a gin and tonic in hand.