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.

No comments: