The first thing that struck me when compiling this list is that the writing style and approach to film criticism in The Times has evolved decade by decade over the 95 years of the Academy Awards. As interesting and insightful as Edwin Schallert and Philip K. Scheuer were, they often viewed film as an event rather than art. Some reviews gave almost as much space to what happened at the premiere as to the film itself.
The contemporary age of film criticism began in the 1960s when the baton passed to Charles Champlin. I prefer the sensibilities of the modern critics: Champlin, Sheila Benson, Kevin Thomas, Kenneth Turan, Betsy Sharkey and Justin Chang. Also, their reviews don’t contain that many spoilers. (Of course I can be biased as I’ve worked with all of them.)
The second aspect that struck me is that when our critics first took the films that would go on to win Best Picture, they generally loved the films selected by the Academy. In some cases, they bravely predicted the Oscar. The only real exceptions were “From Here to Eternity” (1953) and “Titanic” (1997).
In his review, Schallert said From Here to Eternity had “rough, gruff, brutal appeal,” it made the military “look their worst,” and that the famous beach scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr “excited the screen.” to sizzle and almost go overboard.” (In the 1950s these were taken as criticism.)
Turan’s takedown of Titanic is one of my favorite reviews linked here, although I disagreed with pretty much everything he wrote. As usual, Turan made no compromises and left no doubt about his opinion on the film and the filmmaker.
There are also many gems to be found in our reviews of these Oscar winners. My favorite was from 1978, when Champlin first spotted some of the brightest screen talent in The Deer Hunter.
The two films that won in the 1920s were Wings (1927), a WWI silent film, and The Broadway Melody (1928-29), the first “talkie” to win.
First Academy Awards: May 1929 for 1927-1928 publications
Duration: 2 hours 19 minutes.
Stream: Canopy: Included | Prime Video: Rent/Buy | Apple TV+: Rent/Buy
The spectacle of the season!
“Wings” adopts this designation. It is huge, imposing and sometimes downright monumental. It’s a bewildering mix of almost bewildering effects, sound, and action that’s second to none.
The image dramatizes the plane. There is perhaps no other object that could be mechanically linked more perfectly to the present.
The war is the background, but although there has been a war image upon a war image, this is tied to the character of its aerial panorama.
An enlarged screen is used. Backstage there is the incessant staccato drone and rat-tat-tat in imitation of flying craft. Before the vision there is a dizzying, dizzying movement. The massive and overwhelming double effect literally lifts you from your seat in the theatre. Eye and ear are addressed with a force that is unnerving – the simulation of machine gun fire, screeching shells, thundering explosives. It is a sensation unparalleled in the world of appearances. (Continue reading) – Edwin Schallert
1929: “The Broadway Melody”
Second Academy Awards: April 1930, for publications from 1928-1929
Duration: 1 hour 50 minutes.
Stream: Prime Video: Rent/Buy | Apple TV+: Rent/Buy
Say it with song, dance and harmony. This is the new screen language. Rhythmic, spirited, pathetic and upbeat, The Broadway Melody will make you believe, even if you don’t believe it.
This is a picture! It’s an eye opener and an ear opener. It’s straight off the grid with the latest in sound development and, oh, what a wow!
Ten minutes of it tells the story, here’s something absolutely brand new! It’s easy to say that it’s the best talkie yet. In fact, it is a revolutionary step. (Continue reading) – Edwin Schallert
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