In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1946 winner The Best Years of Our Lives. Is it better than Crash?
The Best Years of Our Lives is the best movie on this list that you’ve never heard of. It’s loads better than Crash. This could be the shortest one yet, but I’m going to try to convince you to go watch a movie from 1946.
The film is about three men returning to Smalltown, USA after World War II. They have a hard time readjusting to civilian life: Fred can’t get a job good enough to impress his wife, Al can’t seem to return to his job at the bank, and Homer has much, much bigger problems than both of them.
Homer is played by Harold Russell, and it’s important to note that Russell received two Oscars for his portrayal. Russell, like his character Homer, lost both hands in World War II. The result is a captivating performance that would be played now through special effects. The choice to have an actor who actually knew the experience and could be shown as he really was — as war really was — is the cornerstone of the film.
Homer returns to his girlfriend and they must confront his new life with hooks for hands. I don’t want to rob Homer’s storyline of any surprise, but it’s beautiful right up to the big reveal and his choice about how to engage his world after such a big change.
Al and Fred have parallel storylines that both involve love and work. They represent the difficult job market post-war, even for veterans, and the struggle of returning to a relationship as a different person. War changes everything, but The Best Years of Our Lives is interested in a part too often unexplored: the life at home.
You should see it to focus on the struggles involved and the timelessness of this cycle: America goes to war, America sends Americans, Americans come home from war, America doesn’t know what to do with the war or the Americans. We’re a country obsessed with the idea of war, but we’re not always one that knows what to do with everything that goes into that. We already weren’t in 1946, and you should see this movie just to be shocked by how relevant it all feels.
The Best Part: This has to go to Harold Russell. His character is compelling beyond the hooks for hands detail, but it’s obviously the most interesting detail in the movie. You really have to see it.
The Worst Part: Everyone in the movie, right down to the bar owner at the bar where they all drink, gets a full backstory… except for Fred’s wife Marie. She’s young and impulsive and thus has no time for her husband’s difficulties in finding a job. I suppose the message is “some people are just awful, even to good people” but that’s hardly a message worth focusing on. Some depth to make her complicated rather than just evil for evil’s sake would be nice.
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s not spoiling anything to say that our heroes do have one run-in with a guy who challenges their “heroics” and says they fought in a meaningless war. That’s a standard scene for any war movie, but it’s surreal to see it done with regards to World War II. It’s hard to imagine a time when anyone could tell a World War II vet to their face that Hitler wasn’t really all that dangerous, and it’s stranger still to watch it happen. The timelessness of the situation, though — that bravery is often a challenged concept — is what keeps the movie fresh 60+ years later. Crash is not fresh now, and it’s at least in color.
Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives |
Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @alexbad.