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Best picture winners that make Oscar look good

HOME THEATER : A SECOND LOOK

February 24, 2008|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

As critics have often noted, the academy does not have the best track record when it comes to picking films that stand the test of time. The list of great movies that have been edged out for the best picture Oscar is legion, from "Citizen Kane" to "Goodfellas." The current slate of nominees may look relatively robust and dud-free, but even in the last dozen years there have been plenty of what-were-they-thinking choices ("Braveheart," "Chicago," "Gladiator"). To commemorate the occasions when the academy does get it right, here are a half-dozen best picture winners (in reverse chronological order) that have not only held up over the years but can also be found in decent-to-excellent DVD editions:

"Unforgiven" (1992): Academy favorite Clint Eastwood's greatest film, this landmark neo-western revived and reinvented a genre (one that has never received much love at the Oscars: 1931's "Cimarron" and 1990's "Dances With Wolves" are the only other westerns to have won best picture). Warner's two-disc DVD ($26.98), from 2002, includes a 1959 episode of the TV series "Maverick," featuring Eastwood. Also available on Blu-ray.

"The Last Emperor" (1987): Bernardo Bertolucci's sumptuous spectacle, recounting decades of Chinese history through the life of the puppet emperor Pu Yi, was nominated for nine Oscars and won them all (including picture, director, screenplay and cinematography). It's out in a new Criterion set ($59.95) Tuesday that more than makes up for the shoddiness of the previous edition (an Artisan DVD with a notoriously murky transfer). Criterion's whole-hog treatment means a whopping four discs: the theatrical version, the television version (which, at 218 minutes, is a full hour longer) and two full discs' worth of supplements. "The Last Emperor" was the first Western production allowed into the Forbidden City, and several film crews were on hand to document the shoot; two making-of docs are included, as are interviews with Bertolucci, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, composer David Byrne and more.

"The Godfather" (1972); "The Godfather Part II" (1974): Both the first and second installments of Francis Ford Coppola's crime-family saga, emblematic of a time when the American commercial cinema dared to match entertainment with ambition, won the best picture Oscar. "The Godfather Part III" (1990) was nominated (and, along with "Goodfellas," lost to "Dances With Wolves"). Paramount's five-disc set ($49.99), first issued in 2001, contains all three films, with engaging commentary by the director and extensive behind-the-scenes material. While the transfers are substandard (due to the poor condition of the original negatives), the set, for about $30 at most online retailers, is still a relative bargain. Be warned, though, that improved editions are likely to surface soon -- a proper restoration has reportedly been completed, but Paramount has yet to announce a release date.

"All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930): Lewis Milestone's pacifist classic, based on a novel by WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque, is a sober chronicle of the horror and absurdity of war. (It also won Milestone the best director Oscar.) Last year's Universal Classics edition ($14.98), with cleaned-up sound and picture, is a marked improvement on the earlier release.

"Sunrise" (1927): For the very first Oscar ceremony, instead of a best picture prize, there was an award for "outstanding production," won by William Wellman's World War I epic (and box-office hit) "Wings," and another for "unique and artistic picture," which went to F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise," a critical success and commercial flop, often considered the greatest American film of the silent era. The first Hollywood film by the master of German Expressionism, this moody, magical tale of a married couple's estrangement and reconciliation has a fable-like simplicity and a rapturous visual poetry. "Sunrise" is not available by itself on DVD, but it's part of Fox's "Best Picture Collection" ($29.98), which includes three other winners: "How Green Was My Valley" (1941), "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947) and "All About Eve" (1950). In its second year, the Oscars did away with the "unique and artistic" category, establishing the commerce-over-art mind set that has dominated the awards since. "Sunrise," Oscar's first best picture, is still arguably the best of them all.

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