For my final Oscar column before Sunday's Oscar show, I chose a topic that is near and dear to my heart. An integral part of cinema for the first hundred years of its existence was that it could only be experienced in a movie theater. With the advent of television in the fifties and then home video in the eighties, the moviegoing experience began to dwindle, and with more access to more films at our fingertips than ever, it's become more commonplace than ever to experience a film for the first time at home. Unless you're lucky enough to live in a big city with a theater that will show older films (like The Music Box here in Chicago), it's virtually impossible to see classic films on the big screen. Chains like Cinemark and Regal do their best with their Sunday afternoon retro-features, but they're usually films from the relatively recent past.
When Gravity was released in October, the general consensus was that the only way to see it was on the biggest screen possible, preferably in IMAX. Now that Gravity is a major contender at this year's ceremony, I thought I'd look back on the top five Best Picture winners that should also be seen on the big screen. While it doesn't kill these five films to experience them at home, seeing them in a movie theater is the best possible way to experience them.
5. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Perhaps the most epic moviegoing event of my lifetime remains Peter Jackson's original Lord of the Rings trilogy. In retrospect, having only seen the films on home video over the last decade, they don't stand up the way they did on the big screen, and a big part of the reason for that is that home video doesn't really convey the scope of what Jackson was attempting to do. When the third film in the series, The Return of the King, swept the 2004 Oscar ceremony, many viewed it as a victory for the trilogy as a whole, particularly considering that in all actuality it's the weakest of the three films. But seeing it on the big screen, all the build up leading to its release and the catharsis of finishing the trilogy is still one of the best moviegoing experiences of my life. It just isn't the same on the small screen, and many of its flaws vanish when viewed on the biggest screen possible.
4. Gone With the Wind (1939)
When I was in high school I took my grandmother to see Gone with the Wind on the big screen and a film that I couldn't stand took on a new life. While there had been some epic film productions prior to producer David O. Selznick's masterpiece, Gone with the Wind was not only the biggest film to date, it remains one of the biggest films of all time. Just the scope needed for the opening title as it scrolls across the screen to Max Steiner's immortal theme is massive, and loses all of its impact on a television screen, no matter how big. While I still feel that The Wizard of Oz was the better film that year, and time has been much kinder to that film than this one, seeing it on the big screen lets you know why voters were won over by it that year, and why it remains the biggest box office juggernaut of all time (when adjusted for inflation).
3. The Last Emperor (1987)
Bernardo Bertolucci's epic story of Pu Yi (John Lone), the last in a line of emperors that ruled China, is another breathtaking visual masterpiece that can only truly be appreciated in its enormity when seen in a movie theater. While the film doesn't lose its impact when viewed on a television, it's majestic scope can only be appreciated when projected on a big screen. Vittorio Storaro's amazing cinematography complements the sumptuous production design Ferdinando Scarfiotti and the elaborate costume design by James Acheson in such a way as to make the entire film feel wholly authentic. While I do think that the so-called "TV Version" which is extended by a full hour over the original 163 minute running time is a better version of the story, I would welcome any opportunity to see either version on the big screen.
2. The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather was a film I grew up with, mainly thanks to my father's obsession with it. While I certainly know the ins and outs of Star Wars, Star Trek, Monty Python, and various other pop culture ephemera, I probably know more about The Godfather than any other film. I know the bit players, the walk-ons, the hierarchy, every line of dialogue, all of it. I say all of this because I thought I knew The Godfather like the back of my hand, and I did, until I saw it on Thanksgiving weekend 2009 on the big screen in Chicago. It felt as though I had never seen the film before in my life. Rather than saying lines along with the film or timing my bathroom break accordingly, I was mesmerized. It was as though the film could only be appreciated properly on the big screen. The cinematography came to life in a way it never had before, and the enormity of it all just washed over me, making it seem as though this was the only way Coppola ever wanted anyone to see his masterpiece. I'm not saying don't see The Godfather if you can only watch it on your television, but if you get the opportunity to see it on the big screen, take it. You will not regret it.
1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
This slot could have easily gone to the other David Lean-directed Best Picture winner Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), but not having seen that one on the big screen, I'm not as swayed by its majesty as I am by Lawrence of Arabia. This is the film that seems as if the big screen was invented solely for, and Lean showed that he was a master of 70mm. The absolutely awe-inspiring illustriousness of this film needs to be experienced on the largest screen possible. There's absolutely nothing small about this film, and the way that it transports you to the desert right alongside T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole, in perhaps his best performance) is amazing. While the recent blu-ray transfer looks impeccable, unless you have a 100" tv or larger, it can't really even begin to compete with seeing this film in a movie theater. I had the chance to see it and 2001: A Space Odyssey at Radio City Music Hall when I was a teenager, and they remain the two greatest moviegoing experience of my lifetime. If this is shown at a movie theater within 100 miles of you, it's worth the trip to see this film the way it was meant to be seen.