There are some years when it seems that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has only a few movies worthy of Best Picture to choose from. And then there are those years when they are so many great films released that I imagine choosing a winner for the Best Picture award would be very difficult. Sadly, those years don't come around very often, but they do come around.
One of those years was 1939. Just consider the movies nominated for Best Picture: Gone with the Wind, Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, and Wuthering Heights. And these weren't the only great films released that year. This was also the year that Beau Geste and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex were released. Indeed, it is a mark of how good 1939 was that a classic like The Wizard of Oz did not take the Academy Award for Best Picture. Looking back, perhaps it should have, but then it was released the same year as Gone with the Wind, not only a classic but an outright blockbuster. Today The Wizard of Oz probably has more importance as a pop culture artefact than Gone with the Wind--I doubt there is anyone over the age of five in the United States who has not seen the movie at least once. But in 1939 Gone with the Wind was a juggernaut that could not be stopped. Indeed, for literally decades it would be the highest grossing film of all time.
Another great year for Best Picture nominees was the year 1975. That year such classics as Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest nominated. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, although looking back I think that perhaps it should have gone to Nashville. Altman's classic was one of the truly great films of the Seventies, and, as good as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was, it wasn't as nearly as good.
The next great year for Best Picture nominees followed hot on the heels of 1965. Nineteen seventy six saw a particularly good crop of movies. And while one could debate if One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is better than Dog Day Afternoon or Jaws (but not, in my mind, Nashville), I think there can be little doubt that the weakest picture won the award in 1976. That year saw such classics as All the President's Men, Bound for Glory, Network, and Taxi Driver nominated, yet somehow the Best Picture award went to Rocky, a good movie in my mind but not Best Picture material. I can only figure that the votes were divided among the stronger pictures (let's face it, I have to admit that I have problems deciding if Network is a better film than Taxi Driver or vice versa) in a such a way that Rocky won through a plurality of votes. I certainly hope so. I would be sorely disappointed if a majority of Academy members honestly thought Rocky was better than Network or Taxi Driver!
Sadly, the cinema has not seen a year quite as good as 1976 ever since. Of course, considering that before 1975 the last really great year for Best Picture nominees was 1939, this should not be surprising. Sadly, the number of great pictures released in any given year is going to be somewhat limited. And even more sadly, not every truly great picture is going to be nominated for Best Picture. Indeed, a case in point is this year, when Pan's Labyrinth failed to get a Best Picture nod. Between the fact that only a few very great movies are released each year and the Academy sometimes failing to nominate them, I doubt we'll see years like 1939, 1975, and 1976 again.