Friday, March 14, 2014

Unearthing the VFX Oscar Elite: My List of the "Best" All-Time Visual Effects Films

This week my longtime friend and film historian Paul Booth sent me an email with a fun request: "I would love a Top 10 Visual Effects films you feel I need to see."

If this question isn't "film geek" bait, I don't know what is. A list of the "best" visual effects movies is of course entirely subjective, and there are many ways to create one. Past Academy Award winners for "Best Visual Effects" seems like a great place to start, and there is a place for the highest-grossing movies as well.  Since this year's Academy Awards had a Best Visual Effects shoo-in (Gravity) which was also a strong contender for Best Picture, I thought I would replace my email reply with a blog post that took a closer looked at these films.

Before I continue, however, ask yourself this movie trivia question: "What films have won the Academy Award for both Best Picture and Best Special/Visual Effects?" I discovered the answer while creating my list.


To start making my list, I wanted to start by looking at "hard" data, so I looked up the past winners of the Academy Award for Visual Effects. It is worth noting that the category underwent an evolution over the years: its name changed to reflect the gradual eclipse of visual effects over special effects, starting as "Best Special Effects" in 1939 but becoming "Best Visual Effects" in 1978. In some years the award wasn't given out at all. After I reviewed the list of 74 winners, I cross-checked them with the Best Picture winners and nominees from the same years, of which there were 22. Finally, when typing up the list, I added notes for movies that especially relied on a fully-digital or practical principal character, to show how common that complicated effect has become. These last two notes were only made offhand, and are not 100% complete.

Best Visual Effects (or equivalent) and Best Picture Oscar Winners and Nominees:

pink = Best Picture nominee
red = Best Picture winner
d = principal digital character
p = principal practical character

2013: Gravity d
2012: Life of Pi d
2011: Hugo
2010: Inception
2009: Avatar d
2008: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button d
2007: The Golden Compass
2006: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest d
2005: King Kong d
2004: Spider-Man 2
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King d
2002: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers d
2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
2000: Gladiator
1999: The Matrix
1998: What Dreams May Come
1997: Titanic
1996: Independence Day
1995: Babe
1994: Forrest Gump
1993: Jurassic Park
1992: Death Becomes Her
1991: Terminator 2: Judgment Day
1990: Total Recall
1989: The Abyss
1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
1987: Innerspace
1986: Aliens
1985: Cocoon
1984: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
1983: Return of the Jedi p
1982: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark
1980: The Empire Strikes Back p
1979: Alien
1978: Superman
1977 ("Best Visual Effects" from this year onward): Star Wars
1976 ("Special Achievement in Visual Effects"): King Kong
1975 ("Special Achievement in Visual Effects"): The Hindenburg
1974 ("Special Achievement in Visual Effects"): Earthquake
1973 NO AWARD GIVEN (More on that here)
1972 ("Special Achievement in Visual Effects"): The Poseidon Adventure
1971 ("Best Visual Effects"): Bedknobs and Broomsticks
1970 ("Best Visual Effects"): Tora! Tora! Tora!
1969 ("Best Visual Effects"): Marooned
1968 ("Best Visual Effects"): 2001: A Space Odyssey
1967 ("Best Visual Effects"): Doctor Dolittle
1966 ("Best Visual Effects"): Fantastic Voyage
1965 ("Best Visual Effects"): Thunderball
1964 ("Best Special Effects"): Mary Poppins
1963 ("Best Special Effects"): Cleopatra
1962 ("Best Special Effects"): The Longest Day
1961 ("Best Special Effects"): The Guns of Navarone
1960 ("Best Special Effects"): The Time Machine
1959 ("Best Special Effects"): Ben-Hur
1958 ("Best Special Effects"): Tom Thumb
1957 ("Best Special Effects"): The Enemy Below
1956 ("Best Special Effects"): The Ten Commandments
1955 ("Best Special Effects"): The Bridges at Tokyo-Ri
1954 ("Best Special Effects"): 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
1953 ("Best Special Effects"): The War of the Worlds
1952 ("Best Special Effects"): Plymouth Adventure
1951 ("Best Special Effects"): When Worlds Collide
1950 ("Best Special Effects"): Destination Moon
1949 ("Best Special Effects"): Mighty Joe Young
1948 ("Best Special Effects"): Portrait of Jennie
1947 ("Best Special Effects"): Green Dolphin Street
1946 ("Best Special Effects"): Blithe Spirit
1945 ("Best Special Effects"): Wonder Man
1944 ("Best Special Effects"): Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
1943 ("Best Special Effects"): Crash Dive
1942 ("Best Special Effects"): Reap the Wild Wind
1941 ("Best Special Effects"): I Wanted Wings
1940 ("Best Special Effects"): The Thief of Baghdad
1939 ("Best Special Effects"): The Rains Came

While it has lately looked like films with great visual effects go hand in hand with Best Picture nominations, there were three 10+ year droughts in Oscar history where no film was nominated for both awards. Moreover, only five times in 74 years did the same film win both awards, and four have been in the last 20 years. To put that into perspective, Walt Disney won four Academy Awards in one night.

So once again, the list of the "VFX Oscar Elite," containing the epic powerhouses that managed to buck the odds to win for Best Picture and Best Visual Effects is as follows:

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Forrest Gump

One fantasy film and four historical films, with two set in ancient Rome.  Three share the all-time record for most wins by a film. None of the them share any directors, producers, or actors (as far as I could tell upon first glance). It is an interesting group of five films that, prior to doing this research, I did not know had this fact in common. After searching the Internet for a bit, no other website seemed to mention this specific list either, so I assume this is not a well-known or commonly-discussed piece of trivia. What's more, now that the last six years of the Academy Awards have all contained a film that shared nominations for Best Picture and Best Visual Effects, we might be due for another film to join the ranks of this VFX Oscar Elite very soon (keep this in mind when making your Oscar picks next year!).

Other observations:
  • By cementing the category's modern name, Star Wars literally changed the category of "Best Visual Effects."
  • It does not seem to be as easy for Peter Jackson's fantasy movies to win Best VFX any more. Despite the Lord of the Rings movies winning Best VFX Oscars every time they were nominated, Peter Jackson's movies have not won the award since Return of the King collected both the Best Visual Effects and Best Picture awards in 2003. 
  • By and large, The Academy has not seemed to "snub" any great visual effects movies for its nominations. The field seems to be more of a meritocracy than others. Although, The Dark Knight Rises recently missed nomination in 2013.
  • Speaking of 2013, Life of Pi won in perhaps the Academy's most competitive year, beating out The AvengersThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Prometheus, and Snow White and the Huntsman. 1999 was also a year with a big rivalry between The Matrix and Star Wars: Episode One (no Star Wars prequel ever went on to win the award).
But enough about arbitrary and subjective things like artistic awards. Let's move on to something concrete:

Box Office Performance

Skipping any that were fully-animated, I took a look at the top ten highest-grossing films of all time (domestic, then worldwide) and saw how they lined up with the above Oscar-winners:

light blue = Best VFX nominee
blue = Best VFX winner
red = Best Picture nominee
pink = Best Picture nominee/Best VFX winner
purple = Best Picture winner/Best VFX winner

Top Ten Highest-Grossing Movies of All Time - United States

1. Avatar
2. Titanic
3. Marvel's The Avengers
4. The Dark Knight
5. Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace
6. Star Wars
7. The Dark Knight Rises
9. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
10. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (awards status currently unknown)
11. Pirates of the Caribbean - Dead Man's Chest

Top Ten Highest-Grossing Movies of All Time - Worldwide

1. Avatar
2. Titanic
3. Marvel's The Avengers
4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
5. Iron Man 3
6. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
7. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
8. Skyfall
9. The Dark Knight Rises
10. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

  • None of the top ten highest-grossing films have been both nominated for and lost the Best Picture and Best Visual Effects categories.
  • Directors who have remained consistent standouts over the years include: Michael Bay, James Cameron, David Fincher, Peter Jackson, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Gore Verbinski, and Robert Zemeckis.
  • We love ourselves some aliens and comic book heroes, don't we? No wonder those movies keep getting made.

Making My Final List

After discovering those five movies that won Oscars for Best Visual Effects and Best Picture, I knew I had to give special consideration to them, and they required a good reason if they were not to be included. In the end, however, I decided to drop Forrest Gump, because its effects, while undoubtedly clever and well-executed, were not enough of a spectacle in the movie to make a "best Visual Effects movie" list, with all that has been released since 1994. Gladiator was removed because its effects also weren't quite as impressive compared to other top VFX films. As a side note however, what is uniquely great about movies like Forrest Gump and Gladiator are their timeless visual effects that pushed the limits of the available technology, without being so overly ambitious that their quality and believability suffered. Ben-Hur I omitted because it was released back in the special effects era, and its visuals are what a game developer might politely call "last generation." Titanic is a classic movie with great effects, but for diversity's sake, I only included one James Cameron movie.

For the replacements, I weighed factors like accolades, spectacle/believability, timelessness, historical significance to the VFX medium, and memorability/entertainment level. Three over-the-top juggernauts seemed like appropriate choices to showcase what the limits of current technology can do. Although it wasn't in the league in terms of box office, Life of Pi was chosen for its similarly ambitious and beautiful effects. A Christopher Nolan movie needed including as well, even though he commonly relies on practical technology for shots that seem like they would be digital (the rotating hallway set in Inception is a great example of this). David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button also achieved a powerfully touching performance by a digital character, winning his visual effects team an Oscar, along with a whopping thirteen Oscar nominations (including Best Picture). The Matrix and Empire Strikes Back are both entertaining classics with watershed effects that have aged very well over time.

So after weighing all those factors, I came to my final list (in order of release date):
  • Life of Pi
  • The Avengers
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  • Inception
  • Avatar
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  • The Matrix
  • Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
A pretty safe list, and of course, he's already seen them all (d'oh!). Expecting that though, I made a couple of back-up lists. Other than the Academy Award winners and the tip-top box office grossers, here is a select a list of "Best Visual Effects" also-rans whose visual effects have stood the test of time:

Apollo 13, Blade Runner, District 9, Harry Potter films, Iron Man 1 and 2, Jurassic Park 2 and 3, The Matrix 2 and 3, Minority Report, Pearl Harbor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the Star Wars prequels, Transformers 1 & 2, War of the Worlds

And here's list of fun ones, although some effects might not have held up as well over time:

Back to the Future 1 and 2, Ghostbusters, The Fifth Element, Jason and the Argonauts, Jaws, Planet of the Apes, Skyfall, Starship Troopers, and on and on...

So that's it. I hope all this helped put these movies in a new light. What makes up your top ten list of visual effects movies?

Hat tip to these online articles, which helped prevent films from slipping through the cracks of my memory: Den of Geek's Top 50 Movie Special Effects, Erin Whitney's 13 Jaw-Dropping Visual Effects in Movies, and Chris Agar's 8 Movies That Revolutionized Hollywood's Visual Effects

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