As you know by now, The Shape of Water won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2017. But read this post before you rush to a theater to see it. Or, if you’ve already seen it, claim that it’s among the best movies ever.
Business Insider offers a ranking of Best-Picture winners in “All 89 Oscar Best-Picture Winners, Ranked from Worst to Best by Movie Critics“, which covers releases through 2016. (This year’s Best Picture award is for a film released in 2017.) Business Insider bases its ranking on critics’ reviews, as summarized at Rotten Tomatoes.
The Business Insider piece doesn’t help the viewer who’s in search of a better film than those that have been voted Best Picture. A post at Political Calculations takes a stab at the problem by offering alternatives to the five worst-ever Best-Picture awardees. But the alternatives are limited to films that were nominated for Best Picture for the same five years.
Three years ago, in the wake of the Academy Awards for 2014, I posted “Another Trip to the Movies“. There, I showed that of the 88 films which had then earned the Best-Picture award, only 14 were in fact the highest-rated among U.S.-made feature films released in the same year.
I based my comparison on ratings given by users at Internet Movie Database (IMDb). IMDb user ratings aren’t a sure guide to artistic merit — as the latter is judged by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), or by movie critics. But members of AMPAS and movie critics are notoriously wrong-headed about artistic merit. The Shape of Water exemplifies their wrong-headedness:
This Guillermo del Toro film has gotten rave reviews from critics, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 93%, and lots of awards-season buzz. And while some elements of the film are praiseworthy, … the film turns out to be little more than a collection of manipulative and ludicrous set-ups for social-justice lectures lacking any nuance or wit. The Shape of Water assumes its audience to be idiots, which makes this the kind of painful and unoriginal exercise that is all but certain to win awards throughout this winter in Hollywood….
… The Shape of Water never allows the audience to get the message of tolerance from the central allegory of the love between Elisa and the creature. Instead, del Toro and the writers fill up every square inch with contrivances and lectures.
And those lectures come with all of the subtlety of a jackhammer. Giles lost his job in the advertising business for unexplained reasons, but which seem to be connected to his sexual orientation. He tries to reach out to a waiter at his favorite diner, who rejects him just as the waiter also gets a chance to demonstrate his racism by refusing service to a black couple, both of which are completely gratuitous to the film or to Amphibian Man’s fate. Shannon’s Strickland spouts religious nonsense to justify cruelty, and sexually oppresses his wife in another gratuitous scene, sticking his gangrenous fingers over her mouth to keep her from expressing pleasure…. The bad guys are the US space program (!) and the military, while the most sympathetic character apart from the four main protagonists is a Soviet spy. Strickland dismisses Elisa and Zelda as suspects, angrily lamenting his decision to “question the help,” just in case the class-warfare argument escaped the audience to that point. Oh, he’s also a major-league sexual harasser in the workplace. And so on. [Ed Morrissey, “The Shape of Water: Subtle As a Jackhammer and Almost As Intelligent“, Hot Air, March 5, 2018]
If The Shape of Water is your kind of film, you’re at the wrong blog.
In any event, IMDb user ratings are a good guide to audience appeal, which certainly doesn’t preclude artistic merit. (I would argue that audience appeal is a better gauge of artistic merit than critical consensus.) For example, I have seen 10 of the 14 top-rated Oscar winners listed in the Business Insider article, but only 5 of the winners that I have seen are among my 14 top-rated Oscar winners.
The first table below lists all 91 of the Best Picture winners, ranked according to the average rating given each film by IMDb users. The second table lists the 100 features given the highest average ratings by IMDb users. (The list includes films released in the U.S. through 2017 that have been rated by at least 3,500 users, which is the approximate number for Cavalcade, the least-viewed of Oscar-winning pictures.) Only 16 of the 91 Oscar-winning films (highlighted in red) are among the top 100. (Lawrence of Arabia would be among the top 100, but IMDb categorizes it as a UK film.)
In short, there are many Better-Than-Best Pictures to choose from.