As we're just about to embark on another Awards Season (with Wednesday's announcement of the National Board of Review's picks for the year), its worth commenting on the importance of film awards in general. Everyone who loves the Oscars seems to realize that they're best appreciated when not taken too literally as acknowledgement of the best artistic acheievements of the year. With that said, what merit do they have? My opinion of the Awards season in general is that the Oscars are best at acknowledging movies that were either the cultural landmarks of each year (Gone With the Wind, Platoon, Titanic) or movies that were made against-all-odds (nominee Star Wars, Dances With Wolves, nominee Little Miss Sunshine). The critics, particularly the New York Film Critics Circle, acknowledge the best artistic achievements with not as much concern for epic scale or production backstory (such as the New York Critics picks: Five Easy Pieces, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Mulholland Drive) [although the New York Critics have awarded quite a few epic productions through the years].
If taken together, all these groups do provide a shortlist of movies for the filmgoer to see that have historically been the best films of the year. Take for example just the winners of the Best Picture Awards in 1974:
National Board of Review: The Conversation
New York Film Critics: Amarcord
National Society of Film Critics: Scenes From a Marriage
Golden Globes: Chinatown (drama); The Longest Yard (comedy or musical)
Academy Awards: The Godfather, Part II
And even when none of the groups pick the films that are later acknowledged as the best of their year, even that becomes something of interest. Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles are certainly considered two of the very best film directors of all time and yet both made what many consider among their greatest films in 1958, Vertigo and Touch of Evil, respectively— neither of which got awards attention.
Where did it all begin? Michael Gebert's The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards points to Photoplay magazine (and its Medal of Honor award) of the 1920s as among the first award-givers out of the kudos gate. Trade publication Film Daily polled hundreds of film critics for its annual top ten which started in 1922. The Oscars were first given out in 1929 (for films released between August 1927- July 1928).
The first film to sweep the top prizes and numerous groups since the inception of the Academy Awards appears to have been director Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front. It won the Oscar for Best Picture, was voted one of the top ten Best (American) films by the National Board of Review (they did not distinguish a #1), received Photoplay's Medal of Honor Award, and topped Film Daily's poll of the ten best films of the year.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930): Story and camerawork are first rate in this important antiwar classic which is flawed only by the limitations of early talkie technology.