Jack Nicholson leads in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Jack Nicholson leads in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Image: Supplied

With the 96th edition of the Oscars set for Sunday, it’s worth looking back at the history of the Academy Awards that remain the jewel in the crown of Hollywood’s accolades, despite diminishing ratings for its live TV broadcast. Here are three picks from the 95 winners of the Best Picture Oscar — classics irrespective of their awards success, and still offer plenty for film lovers decades later.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — Buy from Apple TV +

Czech director Milos Forman’s American breakout film was the passion project of legendary Hollywood actor Kirk Douglas, who had bought the rights to Ken Kesey’s seminal novel years before. Produced by Douglas’ son, Michael, the film achieved critical, commercial and Oscar success, winning five statues including the coveted Best Picture award in 1975.

Based on Kesey’s own experiences working in a Veteran’s Hospital in California in the 1960s, the film is set in a state mental hospital. It’s an allegory of the battle between the establishment and the rebels of the younger generation through the story of what happens when anti-establishment wisecracker Randle P Murphy (played with memorable aplomb by Jack Nicholson) arrives and begins to sow chaos, leading a revolt against the steely eyed order imposed by nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).

Though it’s not, as in the novel, told from the perspective of Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) — a change that infuriated Kesey — the film offers a tender portrait of its motley crew of misfits who become, under Murphy’s tutelage, the heroes of the battle between the old order and the new. In the post-Watergate era of mistrust of authority and government, Forman’s delicately handled and darkly humorous approach, struck a chord with viewers who were disillusioned by the death of 1960s idealism and the rise of Richard Nixon’s ultraconservative “silent majority”, as well as the war in Vietnam.

Forman, himself a disciple of 1960s radicalism, had lived through the brief, brutally crushed attempted 1968 revolt against Soviet authoritarianism in his homeland and proved the perfect choice for directing the film. It remains a memorably anti-authoritarian statement, held together by excellent performances and dedicated, finger-flipping enthusiasm by its cast.




Casablanca — Rent or buy from Apple TV +

Over eight decades since its aching World War 2 romance slipped into the hearts of movie audiences around the world, Michael Curtiz’s low-budget, low-expectation screen adaptation of the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s remains as adored as it ever was and is still the most universally loved Best Picture winner.

Humphrey Bogart is perfectly cast as cynical Moroccan cafe owner Rick, sitting out the war as best he can but unable to escape its long shadow and the memories he still holds of his Paris romance with Ingrid Bergman’s Ila. When she reappears in his life, now romantically involved with a courageously square-jawed resistance fighter, Rick is forced to make some difficult and life-altering decisions. By the end of the film, we’re dying to know whether he and his beloved will make it somehow, out of all the madness of war.

Filled with a memorable supporting cast of eccentric characters and a slew of quotable lines that are now an indelible part of our lexicon, it’s a film that on paper perhaps shouldn’t have worked. The central plot is too messy, the middle is bogged down by a long flashback to Paris. However, Curtiz somehow manages to rally the troops and seamlessly draw us into this highly imagined and exotic vision of a Casablanca that never existed.

Its final scene, which leaves everything and the fate of everyone hanging, was revolutionary for the time. It remains one of the most memorable endings in the movies — often referenced and imitated but never equalled.

As a wartime thriller, it’s average. As a love story between two aching, lonely characters in search of meaning in an uncertain age, it remains a classic and a peak moment in the history of Hollywood’s golden age.




12 Years a Slave — Netflix

It’s not the type of film you necessarily want to re-watch but Steve McQueen’s 2013 brutal stare into the abyss of American slavery isn’t easily forgotten.

Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a moving performance as Solomon Northup, a free black man in the 1840s North, who through a series of terrifying circumstances, finds himself kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. 

Written by John Ridley and adapted from Northup’s own account, what follows is a gruesome reckoning with America’s unspeakable past; it refuses to let you look away and forces a confrontation with the realities of slavery, unmatched before or since.

As an upset of previous slave-era films, in which there was often still space for “good whites”, to save the day, McQueen’s film offers a far harder truth and bitter assessment that’s closer to the historical reality. He paints a bleak, but unflinching portrait of the cruelty that human beings are capable of and which sowed the seeds for so much of America’s still deeply divisive and unreconciled racial attitudes and prejudices.


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