The Best Years of Our Lives – An Appreciation

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I’ve been wrestling with this realization for a while now, so I think I need to just come out and admit it.

The Best Years of Our Lives is my favorite movie.

It wasn’t always this way, which is why this confession is so difficult. For the last decade or so, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) has held the top spot, and for that time it’s been pretty much immovable. But no more. After re-watching Best Years afresh last a couple of weeks ago, I’m ready to come to terms with the idea that Wilder’s romantic dramedy – which, make no mistake, is a magnificent movie and should be seen by everybody – has been usurped. Times change, people change, and I guess I’ve changed. All things must pass away.

I’m not really sure how this happened. The first time I saw William Wyler’s 1947 masterpiece (also about a decade ago) it didn’t make much of an impression. It was just after I had gotten hooked on classic movies (somewhere in my late teens/early 20s) and I was trying to fill as many gaps in my knowledge of the established Hollywood canon as possible. This was a Best Picture Oscar winner and highly regarded, so I figured I should see it sooner or later, but at just under three hours and with no real action to speak of it felt like something to be endured rather than enjoyed. And sure enough, this story of World War II veterans struggling to adjust to life at home didn’t grab me immediately like some of my favorite classics – say, the Hitchcocks or the Wilders – and never spurred the kind of passion they did.

And then something funny happened. Years passed and something about it stayed with me, something I could never quite put my finger on, and whenever I remembered it I felt a kind of warm affection. So I watched it again, and again, probably three or four more times over the years. And every time it grew deeper and more resonant, to the point where just thinking about it was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Watching it again recently on blu-ray, it finally dawned on me. This is my favorite movie and I’m not ashamed of it. The truth has set me free.

With this year’s Oscars upon us, I thought I might use the opportunity to take another look at Best Years and examine why I consider it to be one of the Academy’s best-ever choices for its highest distinction. While so many other Best Picture choices now look curious if not downright head-scratching (especially more recent ones like Gladiator and The Artist), The Best Years of Our Lives is a jewel that just won’t tarnish, and feels as fresh and alive as it ever has.

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