Wednesday, April 01, 2015

In Defense of Labels...

Somewhere along the way -- I'm guessing in the late 1980s -- it became declasse to "label." Probably as a response to things like the Civil Rights Amendment, the Equal Rights Amendment, and various minority groups gaining more and more equality. So the days of rich white men "labeling" women and minorities (with stereotypes and false prejudices) were numbered, and the act of labeling people was considered a vestige of a more primitive time.

Naturally, since people are stupid, anti-labeling wasn't relegated to the negativity of racism, gender politics, sexual orientation, and class warfare, but to other walks of life. "You don't have to put a label on it" started to apply to other things, like internal feelings, people's personalities, and the arts. And while this is admirable to a certain extent, it suddenly became not okay to label anger "anger," and an asshole "an asshole." Every emotion was a complex bundle of stimuli from one's biological makeup and their upbringing. And people who were clearly scumbags were "more complex than that" and nice people "once you got to know them."

Fine, I am willing to look at the complexity in human nature and refrain from boiling a complex system of nerves and electric brainwaves down to a glib, reductive sound byte that doesn't tell the whole story. 

There is something a bit chilling, even, about the way we label things like politics, where every politician that makes an appearance on television has (R) or (D) after their name, as if they are sorted into one of two camps. This kind of information used to be instructive, so as to indicate a person's political bent. But now, since the tail wags the dog, the (R)s and (D)s are actually a kind of badge that a politician has to live up to. If you are, for example, a REPUBLICAN IN NAME ONLY, you are probably human garbage, worse than a (D) and unworthy of having the blessed (R) before your name. Instead of forming an ethos and then picking a camp, your camp picks your ethos for you. 

This is very troublesome and yet it's a topic for another day. For today I speak to you of labels in music. And I don't mean record labels, nor Parental Advisory labels, but rather genre and subgenre labels that I think are absolutely crucial to one's enjoyment and understanding of music itself.

One of the most annoying things that I can hear from a modern musical artist is "I don't want to put a label on my music." You hear this from people like Kanye and Madonna, and you usually hear it after they have built up a nice little career staying in their lane, doing the kind of thing they're good at, right before they veer off into some weird direction. So in order to prevent himself from being labeled exclusively a "hip hop artist," Kanye has to do things like make songs using Auto-Tune, or with Bon Iver, or make all his SNL appearances look like undergraduate performance art pieces. 

But you know what I like about Kanye? When Kanye is doing things like "Through the Wire," or "Gold Digger," or "O.T.I.S." Do you know what those songs have in common? They are soulful, they use breakbeats and traditional hip-hop samples, and they don't add in pretentious bullshit.

But Bill, you are probably saying, Kanye is a capital-A artist, and he has the right to make any kind of music he wants to. And you're absolutely right. What he doesn't have the right to do, in my humble opinion, is continuing to carry the flag of hip-hop (and "hip-hoppers," if people are still using that term) when he is making watered-down, cross-bred music that has nothing to do with the music I grew up listening to.

Kanye is a perfect test case here, because he started out as a regular Chicago rapper, hanging out with Common and John Legend and the Roots, making what those of us in the know very condescendingly call "real hip hop." But the problem is that in the last 15-20 years, Kanye, as big a megastar as he's become, has completely abandoned the aesthetic of what hip-hop used to be. And he's taken the entire hip hop industry with him!

So instead of Kanye making different types of songs and calling it "branching out" from hip-hop -- into soul, pop, electro, what have you -- the stuff that he does now is considered the New Hip-Hop. 

And it stinks.

I want no part of this new hip-hop. There are a couple of good, new artists out there that I like well enough -- Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, Action Bronson, Chance, Pusha-T (sometimes) -- but they are really exceptions to the rule. They are putting out what we'd call "boom bap" hip hop, which is the kind of shit I want to hear. The rest of the current class (guys like A$AP Rocky, Wale, Gucci Mane, Wiz Khalifa, to name a few) are doing things that are very popular, but to me it all sounds like utter garbage. 

Which brings me to my original point: I need labels.

I used to be a true expert on hip-hop and hip-hop culture. Though I grew up in a suburban/college-educated setting, I was an absolute omnivore when it came to rap music. (And my memory is so shitty that I can legitimately say that I've forgotten more about rap music than most people ever knew.) But today, I am no expert. And part of the reason is that I don't have the time nor the energy to sift through all the bullshit that passes for "hip-hop" these days to get to the stuff I want. And that makes me sad.

Finding new hip-hop songs and artists used to be one of the legitimate thrills of life in my teens and 20s. I have tapes upon tapes upon tapes that I would collect from record stores. I could recite entire albums front to back (still can in some cases). I was able to tell which rapper was with which clique, who hard worked with whom, who had beef, etc. And my knowledge of the intertexuality and meta nature of the music itself -- arguably the thing that drew me to it in the first place -- was peerless; the Venn diagram of popular culture and rap lyrics was always a fascination with me, and still is.

It goes without saying that this applies to other genres of music too. I'm not saying that I have to be married to one genre of music or another -- I have around 1,500 albums and the selection is eclectic. But I definitely need labels not only so I can explore the stuff I might like, but to prevent myself from wasting my time with shit I hate.

A good example of this is country music: as a rule, I will always say "I fucking HHHHHAAAAAAATE country." And for the most part I do: country music that is on the radio or being given awards on Sunday night television can eat my shit. If you like it, that's fine, I will not waste one second of my precious time on earth listening to that rubbish. 

But there are a couple country-ISH things that I don't mind listening to. I enjoy the southern guitar pickin' of John Fahey. I like bluegrass and fiddle music quite a bit. And if it's folk, it can turn a bit country and still be okay. I don't like twang, I don't like slide guitar, and I hate the sentimental story-song. 

As mentioned before, there is a subgenre of rap and hip-hop informally known as "boom bap," a term coined by either KRS-ONE or Q-Tip ca. 1993. And boom-bap is miles way from (and streets ahead of) the kind of rap that is popular today. 

If I am going to take a chance on a new hip-hop album, I need to know about it. Back in 1991, you could take a chance on a tape at Camelot records based on one video you saw on Yo! MTV Raps the day before, and probably 80% of the time or better, you would have yourself a solid album. Now, that is impossible. I haven't found a wall-to-wall great hip-hop album since maybe Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein, in 2001! To try and buy a hip hop album today, in 2015, would be a fool's errand. 

But when I know that the album isn't just a rap/hip-hop album, but a Boom Bap album, I can give it more of a listen. Not because I need to pigeonhole my tastes, but because I know that a boom bap album will have the elements that I like: breakbeats, soul samples, kick-drums on the 2's and 4's, clever punchlines, call-and-response refrains rather than repetitive 8-bar choruses. This is what I like, and I have the right to like it.

So whenever someone says "Hey man, it's music, don't try to label it," I'm going to make a mix tape for them in which I put nothing but binaural drone, ambient street sounds and Yoko Ono's screeching and tell them to be more open-minded about their musical tastes.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Academy Award Corrections: On the Fives

When your intrepid blogger last left you, he was wasting a great deal of time thinking about movies from long, long ago, as an overreaction to a podcast he was listening to. Now, since this past year's Academy Awards have completed -- and buoyed by the discovery of the wonderful Letterboxd website -- he is in list mode again, ready to revisit cinema of the last 50 years, ten years at a time. This time, we are going to explore the fives.

Like last time, I'm only going back as far as the 1960s, for a couple reasons: 1) I don't really know much about cinema before 1960, with only a passing familiarity with some of the works of Billy Wilder and Akira Kurosawa, mostly. (I don't have much of a grasp of the other auteurs of that era.) 2) Let's face it, since only 14 movies came out every year back then, it was hard for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to screw it up. Yes, the Academy notoriously snubbed Citizen Kane in 1941 in favor of the middling, forgotten How Green Was My Valley, but they got a lot right. Even the 19th Academy Awards snubbed It's A Wonderful Life in favor of The Best Years of Our Lives, which, minus all the sentimentality, is a superior film!

Again, this is a kind of combination of my own personal tastes and the longevity of the films in question. I will show you the movies that were nominated in 1965, 1975, 1985, 1995 and 2005, and then the ones that should have been nominated for each year. I will pick movies that were legitimately "Oscar Worthy," both in quality and scope. (I won't throw in any obscure nanobudget indie flick and stomp my feet that it somehow got overlooked; you know what movies are "Oscar movies" and ones that aren't, even if the ones that aren't are generally superior films.)

This exercise serves a few purposes: it is a check on the Academy, it is a survey and snapshot of the best of film in any given year, and it is (to me) an interesting look back at what films were part of "the zeitgeist" and which ones stood the test of time. Here goes!

1965 ACADEMY AWARDS (38th Annual)

The Actual Nominees:
  • The Sound of Music (Director: Robert Wise) (WINNER)
  • Doctor Zhivago (Dir.: David Lean)
  • Darling (Dir.: John Schlesinger)
  • A Thousand Clowns (Dir.: Fred Coe)
  • Ship of Fools (Dir.: Stanley Kramer)
Okay I'm gonna be straight up with you here: The Sound of Music is the only one of these movies I've seen. I know that I am supposed to have seen Dr. Zhivago, but it's like four f*cking hours long, and I haven't had the gumption. I've actually never even heard of the other three, but here are the summaries: Ship of Fools is about a bunch of people on a Nazi-era boat bound for Germany; Darling is about Julie Christie acting like a Kardashian; A Thousand Clowns sounds like a sitcom, where Jason Robards has to put on a charade to make it look like he would be a good legal guardian.

I am not off to a strong start, but to be fair, this was back in a time when there were separate categories for "Art Direction Black & White" and "Art Direction Color." And really, none of the movies from that era are memorable. In fact, these are the nominees I know of (read: not necessarily seen) from 1965, barely a decade before my inauspicious arrival on this planet: Cat Ballou (seen it), Othello, The Pawnbroker, A Patch of Blue, Marriage Italian-Style, Von Ryan's Express (haven't seen 'em). Mind you, these are the ones I've heard of; I couldn't tell you anything about any one of them.

Because of this, I will leave the 1965 nominees as-is, pleading ignorance and hanging my head in shame.

1975 ACADEMY AWARDS (48th Annual)
The Actual Nominees:
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Dir.: Milos Forman) (WINNER)
  • Barry Lyndon (Dir.: Stanley Kubrick)
  • Dog Day Afternoon (Dir.: Sidney Lumet)
  • Jaws (Dir.: Stephen Spielberg)
  • Nashville (Dir.: Robert Altman)
Now that's more like it!

Not only was 1975 a very good year for film -- a great year I'd say -- but it's a moment in time. All five of the directors on this list are heavyweights, and each a true auteur. Each example is perhaps the perfect example of each director's style, too, if not their best films individually. Just look at this list, encased in primordial amber for our edification.

One Flew was Milos Forman's American coming-out party, and his first American iconoclast. (Celebrating outsiders and rule-breakers would become Forman's calling card in the coming decades, with Amadeus, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, and Man on the Moon.) Barry Lyndon is a slow, plodding, brooding Kubrick film, indicative of his style. Dog Day Afternoon taps into the angst of hot, sweaty NYC, circa 1975, right in Lumet's wheel house. Jaws would foretell a string of huge special effects Event Pictures by Spielberg in the four decades after. And Nashville might be THE consummate Robert Altman film, mixing huge ensembles, a wandering camera, and politics into a satirical tapestry. I watched Nashville for the second time shortly after 9/11, and let me tell you, it holds up in the 21st century better than ever.

Okay, having said that, Barry Lyndon is a dud: it's a boring film that was nominated strictly because it is an "achievement" and had Kubrick's name attached; it's out.

But what's going to replace it? Funny Lady? Tommy? The Sunshine Boys? The Man Who Would be King? I'm having a little trouble finding a suitable replacement. I'm tempted to throw something like Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore in there, but that might be just because I am biased toward Marty Scorsese. Instead, I'm going to pick a wild card.

The 20/20 Hindsight Nominees:
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Dir.: Milos Forman) (WINNER)
  • Nashville (Dir.: Robert Altman) (My Runner-Up)
  • Dog Day Afternoon (Dir.: Sidney Lumet)
  • Jaws (Dir.: Stephen Spielberg)
  • Swept Away ... by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August (Dir: Lina Wertmuller)
So, Cuckoo's Nest still holds up as the best movie of the bunch, and one of the best movies of the last 40 years. Jack Nicholson is amazing, as is Louise Fletcher, who is fascist evil personified. The characters are incredible, the climax heartbreaking, and the coda exhilarating. Jaws and Dog Day Afternoon are products of their time and place, but no less worthy of a nomination.

A little cheat with my fifth pick: Swept Away... was technically released in Europe in December 1974, but as far as the Academy goes, there was no way it was released in the United States until 1975, which puts it on the list. If you've never seen Swept Away, it was (very loosely) the template for the 1980s Kurt Russell-Goldie Hawn comedy Overboard. But Swept Away is less concerned with misunderstandings, chicanery, and hijinks, and is more concerned with socio-sexual dynamics, eroticism, and political commentary. It's an absolutely fascinating (and pretty damn hot!) social experiment that asks the question, what happens when your social status is stripped away, and there is no one else around?

1985 ACADEMY AWARDS (58th Annual)
The Actual Nominees:
  • Out of Africa (Dir.: Sydney Pollack) (WINNER)
  • The Color Purple (Dir.: Stephen Spielberg)
  • Kiss of the Spider Woman (Dir.: Hector Babenco)
  • Prizzi's Honor (Dir.: John Huston)
  • Witness (Dir.: Peter Weir)
Full disclosure, again: I've never seen Out of Africa, and although I'm sure it's a fine film, it is the very definition of Oscar Bait. You never see Out of Africa on "best of" lists, such as the AFI's 1998 "100 Years ... 100 Movies" list, which famously featured a ton of schlock. (Although it did include Fargo, which it later removed in 2007 to include The Sixth Sense and f*cking Titanic.) I will take a leap and guess that Out of Africa will not be my favorite film of 1985 when I finally do see it, which may be never.

The other glaring oversight on this list is Prizzi's Honor, and the reason it's an oversight is because it is an absolutely awful, incompetent pile of cinematic garbage. This had to be some kind of lifetime achievement nod for John Huston, because it is roundly awful, in acting, direction and script. Jack Nicholson looks absolutely foolish in this movie.

Great movies that could have been considered:
  • Back to the Future (Dir.: Robert Zemeckis)
  • Brazil (Dir.: Terry Gilliam)
  • Ran (Dir.: Akira Kurosawa)
  • Blood Simple (Dir.: Joel Coen)
Laugh all you want, but Zemeckis won an Oscar for Forrest Gump less than a decade later, so he has the pedigree. Plus, Back to the Future, while slight, is one hundred and fifty-four times better than Prizzi's Honor.

The 20/20 Hindsight Nominees:
  • The Color Purple (MY WINNER)
  • The Trip to Bountiful (Dir.: Peter Masterson) (My Runner-up)
  • The Purple Rose of Cairo (Dir.: Woody Allen)
  • Witness
  • The Kiss of the Spider Woman
I am not convinced that The Color Purple is the best movie of 1985, but I can tell you this, the first time I saw it, I started it very late on a weeknight. I found the entire thing very compelling, if a oppressive. But at the end -- and if you've seen it, you'll know why -- I sobbed uncontrollably for twenty straight minutes. That counts for something.

The most enjoyable film of all of these is The Trip to Bountiful, which also has the best performance of the year, and one of the best ever, by Geraldine Page, a wily elderly who tries to sneak her way back to her hometown. 

And The Purple Rose of Cairo, though not one of Woody Allen's "important" works, is one of his most entertaining, and surprisingly poignant. Witness and Kiss of the Spider Woman, as different as can be, are both worthy entries.

1995 ACADEMY AWARDS (68th Annual)
The Actual Nominees:

  • Braveheart (Dir.: Mel Gibson) (WINNER)
  • Apollo 13 (Dir.: Ron Howard)
  • Babe (Dir.: Chris Noonan)
  • Il Postino (The Postman) (Dir. Michael Radford)
  • Sense and Sensibility (Dir.: Ang Lee)
1995 was a problematic year for a lot of reasons, not the least of which were that three pretty undeserving films were nominated right in the middle of a transformative decade of film.

Il Postino/The Postman is a very cute story, but a year removed from Four Weddings and a Funeral, a cute story is really a throwaway pick. Ditto Babe, an adorable tale, but hardly one that is worthy of the bald guy. Sense and Sensibility, while ticking off all the boxes of Oscar Bait, has resonated almost not at all in the last twenty years.

Great movies that could have been considered:
  • Casino (Dir.: Martin Scorsese)
  • 12 Monkeys (Dir.: Terry Gilliam)
  • Seven (Dir.: David Fincher)
  • Smoke (Dir.: Wayne Wang/Paul Auster)
I am not including two movies in this list that some people love: Tim Robbins's Dead Man Walking and Rob Reiner's Aaron Sorkin's The American President, both high-concept liberal polemics, which -- even to a tree-hugger like me -- have no place in cinema.

Casino is a more intense (but lesser) version of GoodFellas; it is a paint-by-numbers remake that hits all the proper notes, but is often just too gross for its own sake. 12 Monkeys and Seven are a pair of Brad Pitt mindf*cks, and while both are riveting, neither has the appropriate gravitas for an Oscar nom. Smoke is a fantastic movie that never had a chance during Oscar time, despite its impressive cast (Keitel, Hurt, Whitaker, Channing).

The 20/20 Hindsight Nominees:

  • Leaving Las Vegas (Dir.: Mike Figgis) (MY WINNER)
  • Apollo 13 (My Runner-Up)
  • The Usual Suspects (Dir.: Bryan Singer)
  • Braveheart
  • Mighty Aphrodite (Dir. Woody Allen)
So, Leaving Las Vegas might very well be the bleakest, most unpleasant film I've ever watched. But there is no denying both the power of the story -- a man who sets out to abandon his cushy life to drink himself to death -- and the two lead performances. I don't think I'll ever watch it again, but it's a singular piece of art.

Apollo 13 is the best Spielberg movie that Spielberg didn't make. Braveheart, the ultimate winner, is a very entertaining movie, but doesn't hold up quite as well as it should have for such a runaway hit. The Usual Suspects, while wildly imperfect, has stood the test of time, and remains a showcase of great writing, excellent acting, and a terrific twist; if The Sixth Sense could get a nod in 1999 of all years, The Usual Suspects could have taken Babe's place. And Mighty Aphrodite is one of Woody Allen's most clever movies; Mira Sorvino rightly won the Oscar for it.

2005 ACADEMY AWARDS (78th Annual)
The Actual Nominees:

  • Crash (Dir.: Paul Haggis) (WINNER)
  • Brokeback Mountain (Dir. Ang Lee)
  • Capote (Dir.: Bennett Miller)
  • Good Night, and Good Luck (Dir.: George Clooney)
  • Munich (Dir.: Stephen Spielberg)
The 2005 Oscars will go down infamy as the year that Crash won Best Picture. Crash, a well-meaning ensemble film whose script contained all the subtlety of a Gallagher-sized sledgehammer, was not the best picture of 2005. In fact, I would submit that it wasn't in the top 20 films of 2005.

Capote is also a very troubling pick, as it is basically a wasted nomination, given that the film itself is no great shakes, and the real accolades should have been limited to Philip Seymour Hoffman's tour de force performance. Munich is an amazing story, but its brooding and hand-wringing prevented it from being great and from being enjoyable.

Great films that could have been considered:
  • The Squid and the Whale (Dir. Noah Baumbach)
  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Dir. Alex Gibney)
  • Batman Begins (Dir. Christopher Nolan)
Not one of the three films above had a snowball's chance in hell of being nominated for the Oscar for various reasons. The Squid and the Whale is a shoestring budget film with a very unlikable lead in Jeff Daniels; I have several friends who decry its "quirk" factor, but I think it transcends its indie-ness to become a really well-constructed movie. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is one of the best, most compelling, and most terrifying documentaries of all time; so of course it lost Best Documentary to the adorable March of the Penguins. And if The Dark Knight can get Academy consideration, why not its nearly-as-good prequel?

The 20/20 Hindsight Winners:
  • Brokeback Mountain (MY WINNER)
  • North Country (Dir. Niki Caro) (My Runner-Up)
  • A History of Violence (Dir. David Cronenberg)
  • Good Night, and Good Luck
  • Cinderella Man (Dir.: Ron Howard)
There is no doubt in my mind, especially a decade later, that Brokeback Mountain stands out as the best film of 2005. The story, the acting, the subtext, all flawless. It is everything that Crash isn't: subtle, thoughtful, deliberate. 

North Country is one hell of a harrowing journey, and I was surprised that it didn't get more Academy love, especially considering the very timely subjects of sexism and harassment in the workplace; the Richard Jenkins speech alone earned it a nomination. A History of Violence, while imperfect, has held up much better than nearly all the other nominees not directed by Ang Lee; Cronenberg is a tough sell, and his Eastern Promises just a couple years later would be equally bleak. But AHOV combines plot and mood perfectly to create a whole. 

Good Night and Good Luck, a parlor trick, to be sure, is still very effective because of its timely parallels between post-war Communist paranoia and post-9/11 terrorist paranoia. It also has a terrific lead performance by the perpetually-underrated David Strathairn.

And Cinderella Man is not a "great" movie by any stretch, but it ticks off all the boxes of Oscar Bait, including the pedigree of Ron Howard. And although it is hamstrung by an absolutely horrible title, and a bad performance by Renee Zellweger, the story itself, and the friendship between Russell Crowe and Paul Giamatti are enough to put it on my list, above many of the Academy's picks.

I really enjoy these little retrospectives, even if no one else will ever read them. They make me want to get out there and revisit all of my favorite movies of the last 50 years, even though I haven't seen as many as I'd like to think. If nothing else, it proves that while imperfect, and subject to a great deal of criticism, the Academy generally gets it right. Or at least right enough.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Academy Awards Corrections: On the Fours

I was listening to the Cracked Podcast, where they talked about Year-End lists, and how they look pretty ridiculous in retrospect. They brought up the interesting idea that there should be a five-year waiting period to decide the winners of the Academy Awards. I thought this was really interesting, so I decided that I am going to look at the Academy Awards through the decades, and we can now retroactively make corrections to egregious errors.

I am only going to be looking at Best Picture, since to go through every goddamn category would be insane. I mean, do we need to correct what the best sound mixing was fifty years ago?

Also, this is going to be my own personal list, of course, but I am going to use common sense. For example, I'm not going to replace a well-known movie with some obscure indie movie that no one's ever heard of. The movies I'll be putting on the list will be an "Oscar movie," meaning that it will not only be good, but it will be something that reasonably could have been nominated, had the Academy not had its head up its ass. Also, I'm only going back to the 1960s, because anything before that is filled with a lot of cruddy, dated movies that I don't plan to ever see. Plus, there were only like 20 movies that came out per year before that, so the Academy couldn't screw it up too badly even if they wanted to.

Since 2014 just passed, let's start with the 4s:

1964 ACADEMY AWARDS (37th Annual)

The Actual Nominees:
  • My Fair Lady (Director: George Cukor) (WINNER)
  • Becket (Dir.: Peter Glenville)
  • Dr. Strangelove (Dir.: Stanley Kubrick)
  • Mary Poppins (Dir.: Robert Stevenson)
  • Zorba the Greek (Dir.: Michael Cacoyannis)
Clearly, my favorite movie of this list is Dr. Strangelove, which is one of the best movies of the entire 1960s. And nothing against the movie, but the fact that Mary Poppins is even on this list shows that there weren't a ton of heavy-hitters in '64. It might be the same reason that we started seeing a tenfold increase in fantasy-action movies after 9/11: escapism.

Great movies that could have been considered:
  • The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Dir.: Jacques Demy)
  • Topkapi (Dir.: Jules Dassin)
  • Seance on a Wet Afternoon (Dir. Bryan Forbes)
As much as I have a soft spot in my heart for Umbrellas of Cherbourg (including my hopeless crush on Catherine Deneuve ca. 1963), it would have been weird if a French pop-opera had been nominated over any of the American films listed. All five of the nominees pretty much hold up, although to me, Becket feels like classic Oscar Bait in the David Lean/William Wyler/Cecil B. Demille vein; it's got two great performances (Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton) but it's as cold and distant as a 12th Century British costume drama can be expected to be.

For my first stab at this, Oscar got it right.

1974 ACADEMY AWARDS (47th Annual)

The Actual Nominees:
  • The Godfather Part II (Dir.: Francis Ford Coppola) (WINNER)
  • Chinatown (Dir: Roman Polanski)
  • The Conversation (Dir.: Francis Ford Coppola)
  • Lenny (Dir.: Bob Fosse)
  • The Towering Inferno (Dir: John Guillerman)

Okay, this one is going to pretty much undermine the entire point of this exercise, because at least four of these movies deserve to be here, and The Towering Inferno is probably the odd man out. You can't argue with The Godfather II and Chinatown, and The Conversation is kind of a forgotten classic. (If you doubt that F.F. Coppola was the King of 1970s cinema, 1974 should prove it.)

In my opinion, Lenny doesn't hold up on repeated viewings, although Dustin Hoffman's performance is still stunning 40 years later. The Towering Inferno is notable in that it was a big budget disaster movie with two of the biggest stars of its day, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. And I'll be there was a lot of Hollywood money pumped into it, meaning that it had to be nominated.

Great movies that could have been considered:
  • A Woman Under the Influence (Dir. John Cassavetes) 
  • Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
  • The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Dir. Joseph Sargent) 
  • Murder on the Orient Express (Dir. Sidney Lumet)
The 20/20 Hindsight Nominees:
  • The Godfather Part II (WINNER)
  • Chinatown 
  • A Woman Under the Influence (Dir.: John Cassavetes)
  • Murder on the Orient Express (Dir.: Sidney Lumet)
  • The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Dir.: Joseph Sargent)
The Godfather II and Chinatown are bona fide classics, two of the maybe 50-75 greatest movies ever made: they stay. A Woman Under the Influence holds up much better than Lenny does, and Gena Rowlands puts in an incredible performance.

Murder on the Orient Express and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three take the other two slots, because they are just as good as The Conversation and The Towering Inferno, and in my opinion, more entertaining. If you're going to reserve a slot for an action movie, I'd take Pelham over Inferno any day.

1984 ACADEMY AWARDS (57th Annual)

The Actual Nominees:
  • Amadeus (Dir.: Milos Forman) (WINNER)
  • The Killing Fields (Dir.: Roland Joffe)
  • A Passage to India (Dir.: David Lean)
  • Places in the Heart (Dir.: Robert Benton) 
  • A Soldier's Story (Dir.: Norman Jewison)
1984 was a good year for a lot of things, but Prestige Movies was not one of them. For every Amadeus, there were three Ghostbusters, Gremlins and The Terminator. It was a watershed year for popcorn movies and pop music ("Born in the USA," "Thriller," Like a Virgin), but when it came to Oscar Worthy Films, the Academy pretty much picked the only five that qualified, and all five meet one of the Academy's unwritten criteria

Amadeus is a period film about a tortured genius. (Mozart, heard of him?) The Killing Fields is a war/journalism picture about the horrors of Cambodia during the time of the Khmer Rouge. A Passage to India was the final film for the legendary David Lean, and it features exotic locales and Alec Guinness as an Indian scholar. Places in the Heart is a triple-whammy: it is directed by an Oscar Winner (Benton, who won the Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer five years prior); it's about the Great Depression; and it's about social issues like segregation. This movie was made to get an Oscar nod. And finally, A Soldier's Story, which is about the segregation-era American South.

Note that not one of 1984's films took place in the present day: A Soldier's Story takes place in the 1940s; Places in the Heart in the 1930s; The Killing Fields in the early 1970s; A Passage to India in the 1920s; and Amadeus in the 1820s. If ever there were a template for Oscar Bait, this one is it.

So, by default, we aren't left with a ton of replacements. Most of the other "good" movies of this year are light popcorn fare: The Karate Kid, This is Spinal Tap, Beverly Hills Cop. Even movies that might have been considered Oscar Worthy, like, say Romancing the Stone or Broadway Danny Rose or The Natural, all lacked any kind of real gravitas, especially compared to war, segregation, exotic foreign lands and mental illness.

So I'm going to leave this list alone. That isn't to say that it is perfect, or that really any one of these movies (save for possibly Amadeus) is really considered a "classic," but you can't really argue with any of them in a surprisingly weak year. Damn you, Academy!

1994 ACADEMY AWARDS (67th Annual)

The Actual Nominees:
  • Forrest Gump (Dir.: Robert Zemeckis) (WINNER)
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral (Dir.: Mike Newell)
  • Pulp Fiction (Dir.: Quentin Tarantino)
  • Quiz Show (Dir.: Robert Redford)
  • The Shawshank Redemption (Dir.: Frank Darabont)
1994 is one of the most important years in cinema history, and most people will point to Pulp Fiction as the standard bearer, since it really is the movie that changed movies. Pulp still resonates to this very day, two decades later, as proof that film can go in nearly any direction, so long as it follows the language of movies and storytelling. 

Forrest Gump gets a lot of shit, too, because by comparison to Pulp, it seems like a slight piece of pop entertainment, hardly worthy of being even uttered in the same sentence. But take a step back and remember that Gump was a phenomenon, and it is one of the most intricately and expertly crafted movies of all time, despite whether you agree with its socio-politics or its place on the Academy's pedestal.

1994 was so good that movies like Quiz Show and The Shawshank Redemption didn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of bringing home the trophy, and they are both fantastic movies, ones that may have won the Award in any of the two or three years before and after. In fact, you have to give the Academy credit for recognizing Shawshank, a box office flop that would only gain its current cult status a few years later when it caught on via home video. The Academy looks eerily prescient here. So what do we have left?

Great movies that could have been considered:
  • The Lion King (Dirs.: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff)
  • Ed Wood (Dir. Tim Burton)
  • Heavenly Creatures (Dir. Peter Jackson)
  • Exotica (Dir. Atom Egoyan)
  • The Last Seduction (Dir. John Dahl)
  • Hoop Dreams (Dir. Steve James)
And this is, again, where the problem lies: after The Lion King, which wouldn't be unprecedented, as Beauty and the Beast had been nominated for Best Pic a few years prior, things start to thin out a bit after Ed Wood. The last four mentioned above are all, in my opinion, superior films, but they don't quite meet the Academy's criteria in most ways.

The only real turd in the punch bowl of 1994's actual nominees was Four Weddings and a Funeral, which is fine, but pales horribly in comparison to the other four nominees. The Academy really did get four of the five best films of the year. So....

The 20/20 Hindsight Nominees:
  • Forrest Gump 
  • The Lion King
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Quiz Show 
  • The Shawshank Redemption (WINNER)
I know Pulp Fiction would get the nod from most cinephiles, and it's a landmark movie, don't get me wrong. But once you get past the non-linear storytelling, it doesn't hold up quite as well as hoped. Shawshank, on the other hand, is nearly flawless, and absolutely holds up after dozens of repeated viewings.

And I'm also not saying that The Lion King is a superior film; in a lot of ways it is the kind of movie Disney would have come up with in a focus group. But when you think 1994, you think Lion King more than you think Four Weddings. Also, I think Four Weddings kind of sucks.

I'm not saying these are necessarily THE five best movies of '94, but they are a good survey, twenty years later, of what the year was about.

And finally....

2004 ACADEMY AWARDS (77th Annual)

The Actual Nominees:
  • Million Dollar Baby (Dir.: Clint Eastwood) (WINNER)
  • The Aviator (Dir.: Martin Scorsese)
  • Finding Neverland (Dir.: Marc Forster)
  • Ray (Dir.: Taylor Hackford)
  • Sideways (Dir.: Alexander Payne)
Let's get this out of the way: The Aviator and Ray have no business being on this list, whatsoever. The Aviator is an interesting, dynamic film about another tortured genius, but as a film it's far too unfocused and flawed to be considered one of the five best films of the year. Ray is just an extremely mediocre film, with Jamie Foxx doing an impressive parlor trick for 90 minutes; Ray's inclusion here is an abomination.

There were quite a few movies I liked from 2004, but wouldn't probably be on Oscar's radar, such as Palindromes, Collateral, Garden State, Layer Cake, Mysterious Skin, Friday Night Lights, A Love Song for Bobby Long and The Woodsman. So that leaves a few candidates that could have possibly been in the mix.

Great movies that could have been considered:
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Dir.: Michel Gondry)
  • Vera Drake (Dir.: Mike Leigh)
  • Closer (Dir.: Mike Nichols)
  • Bad Education (Dir.: Pedro Almodovar)
I am not as huge a fan of Eternal Sunshine as a lot of other people are, but it's about fifty times better than Ray. I think Vera Drake is a very underrated, wonderful little film. And Bad Education is criminally overlooked. Closer is basically an update of Nichols's own Carnal Knowledge -- one of the best play adaptations ever made -- three decades later. That said, here is my own list.

The 20/20 Hindsight Nominees:
  • Bad Education
  • Finding Neverland
  • Million Dollar Baby
  • Sideways (WINNER)
  • Vera Drake 
I make no bones about my love for Sideways, and although Million Dollar Baby is a fine film, it doesn't hold up nearly as well against the inexorable march of time as Sideways does.

I am looking forward to going back through the rest of the last fifty-or-so years, decade by decade, to correct the Academy's mistakes. I have a feeling that, unlike the Grammys, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences generally get it almost right. There haven't been too many egregious, "bad" films on any of these lists. (Although get ready for the year 2000, with a movie whose name sounds an awful lot like the type of confection that a candy bar is made of.)