Five For FRiday: Oscareality, Optimistically

The 84th selection of Academy Awards will be unfurled this weekend, the ceremony helmed by cutting-edge youthcentric comic Billy Crystal.  Movie obsessives all, FR are all too aware that the Academy so often, with regard to Best Picture, gets it wrong (ahem, “…Craaash!” <bizarre two-handed Nicholson finger-point>).  In a stunning diversion from wiseassery, however, this week your boys highlight those halcyon moments wherein the Academy actually got it right.  Yeah, dawg–OSCAR FEVER!  Or something like that.

Tyler: The Hurt Locker

The year Hurt Locker was nominated for Best Picture, the drama was thick.  Kathryn Bigelow, Locker director, happened to be the ex-wife (and past, post-divorce collaborator) of the auteur behind her film’s main competition, JAMES CAMERON’S Avatar.

I’d seen Avatar under ideal circumstances, midnight-screening, opening-night, packed house, friend of FR Josh at my side, down at the IMAX facility within Chicago’s Navy Pier.  (Though, full disclosure, having temped a convention at Navy Pier in the past, and being one who finds the entirety of the Pier a ludicrous commercial affront to all good things Chicago has to offer, I may have been a few meager percentage points off my game.)  But the movie was awful.  Absolutely ludicrous, even by sci-fi standards, and–most criminally–boring.  Josh fell asleep.  I tired of the 3D effects, as their best application came within five minutes (the rotating-dorm-or-whatever scene).  We left as the credits rolled, wondering why the hell we’d bothered to squander even more than the usual multiplex extortion to endure such nonsense.  Of course, because James Cameron sold his soul to the devil at some crossroads in the past, the flick became the biggest-grossing box-office draw of all time.  Even with Cameron’s prior victory for Titanic (a film I greatly admire) under his belt, along with the Academy’s propensity to spread the love around, ignoring candidates should they be prior winners, the favorite heading into Oscar night was Weird Blue Alien Dances With Wolves.

This wouldn’t necessarily have bothered me so much, as–as noted–the Academy so often gets it wrong.  But The Hurt Locker had knocked me on my ass.  Not only did it introduce to me to personal-god/titan-of-surging-testosterone Jeremy Renner, it was one of the finest, most devastating films ever made about the ugliness, the human cost of soldiers in battle.  Non-political, more than willing to point out that the men in boots don’t give a fuck about the cause, it essayed to perfection the effect that fighting a war in any respect takes a toll on those who man the guns.  Losing their understanding of romantic human connection, they either break, or become addicted.

My then-lady went to bed early, but I’m pretty sure I woke her the hell up when I cheered out loud at Locker‘s glorious victory.  The industry in which I plan to work sure gives me fits sometimes.  But that night, it made me smile.

Travis: Annie Hall

Star Wars broke new ground, but Annie Hall is just about perfect.

Nathan: It Happened One Night

All I ask is that the Academy choose the best film among their own nominees. To actually expect them to choose the best movie of any given year is simply too much to ask.

So, It Happened One Night isn’t Frank Capra’s best movie by a long shot (that distinction belongs to It’s a Wonderful Life or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), it’s not the best 30s screwball comedy (that goes to either Trouble in Paradise or The Awful Truth), and it’s not even remotely the best movie of 1934 (that goes to Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante). But scanning over the other Best Picture nominees from 1934, it’s apparent to me that the Academy was in a good frame of mind.

It’s not often that the Academy chooses to honor a comedy for Best Picture, but, as we’ll see below, they get it right when they do.

Tyler: The Apartment

My first collegiate film course (“Intro To Film Studies”) was taught by a professor out of central casting, all grandiose assertions, titty-tough grading and very particular attire.  As a scholar of horror and comedy, not to mention a contrarian, he mixed films into the curriculum that, at the time, seemed ludicrous.  Alien (awesome, but huh?), Broken Blossoms (fuck that Birth Of A Nation shit, apparently), Car Wash (??) and so on.  Other friends who took the course (many of whom dropped out) found the instruction standoffish, and I remember myself scoffing when I was told that he’d told a student something like “American Beauty is nothing.  The Apartment did all those things forty years ago.”  Psshaw!  I’m eighteen, American Beauty came out like two years ago, what an arrogant fool, this “professor!”

Years later, the professor is one of my true mentors.  Also, he was right.  Fuck American Beauty, that movie sucks (and would very possibly have made my list had we gone bitter and Fived “Movies that DIDN’T deserve Best Picture”).  The Apartment did, in fact, do all those things forty years prior–to far, far greater effect–and is now only one of my favorite films of all time.  You disagree?  Shut up and deal.

Travis: The Apartment

Billy Wilder’s dark comedy was the first winner in the 1960s, and the fact that people are still trying and failing to imitate it to this day shows not only its influence but its continued emotional relevance. Plus, it’s just funny.

Nathan: No Country for Old Men

Zodiac, for my money, is easily the best picture of the new millennium so far. The AMPAS didn’t even recognize it as a possible best picture for 2007. Shame, shame.

But without the foresight to choose Fincher’s deliberate and captivating masterpiece, they managed to pick the next best thing. No Country for Old Men is the most unlikely of Best Picture winners. It’s dark as a Texas cavern (based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, so…), it had no star power (Brolin and Bardem have come into their own since, but no one knew who they were at the time), and it didn’t even have a discernible score to pep you up at all the right moments. And as if those decidedly un-Oscar qualities weren’t enough, the movie has no lame political agenda, no famous person that its based on, and it was directed by two of the most idiosyncratic people in recent Hollywood history. Finally, No Country for Old Men was up against wunderkind P. T. Anderson’s equally dark, but far more obviously ambitious There Will be Blood, a movie that included the type of scene chewing performance by Daniel Day Lewis that the Academy seems to love. How on earth did the they choose the right movie? Trying to figure out what the Academy was thinking in 2007 is nearly impossible for my brain to process right now.

Their choice means that generations of people will be exposed to No Country and they’ll be better off for it. The film is a textbook on creating suspense, how to handle violence so that it can still actually shock, and how to create a movie with symbols and metaphors that doesn’t drub the audience to death with some lame image/representation substitution code. It was a fantastic choice.

Tyler: The Departed

I maintain a devoted and unpopular opinion that The Departed may well be Martin Scorsese’s best movie.  Some part of me can’t resist the thought that all the necessities–Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation Of Christ, even GoodFellas–still remain no match for the complex, late-era, populistic success that is Departed‘s foray into sexual, familial, and criminal complexity.  As with all great “Marty” films, it is violent, quote-heavy, rich with music, complex with religious and rhetorical themes.  For some reason, though, I hooted and hollered when Departed won Best Picture.  To this day, it only improves upon each viewing.  Yes, ol’ Jack was let loose, allowed his most unhinged performance since Tim Burton’s Batman.  But that’s kinda the point.  Should you know how The Departed concludes, too, such behavior meets its just desserts.  And that’s some forty-five minutes before the flick concludes.  The elevator scene?  My Lord.  I’ve scarcely been so shocked, sitting in a theater, in my life.

Travis: The Godfather Part II

Even in a stacked year (going up against The Conversation and Chinatown), the second and best part of the great gangster epic still holds up, and deserved the accolades then as now.

Nathan: Annie Hall

To the average person, my next two entries will look like acts of deliberate contrarianism. And while I welcome the controversy and discussion that can be had from these picks, I want it known now that I agree with myself here.

Everybody loves Star Wars. I love Star Wars. It was a humongous box office hit and it revolutionized the world of special effects. Today people scan over the 1977 nominees and wonder what on earth Annie Hall was and how on earth it could beat out Star Wars. And when people actually do sit down to see Woody Allen’s breakthrough comic masterpiece, they often ask what the big deal is and feel that Star Wars was obviously robbed.

In order to understand why the Academy would choose the quirky comedy with a tagline that read, “A Nervous Romance”, we need to supply some historical context. The 1970s were the halcyon days of adult filmmaking in Hollywood. Yes, there was an actual 35mm porn industry that died in the next decade, but that’s not what I’m referring to. Look over all the Best Picture nominees for the 70s and you will find yourself confronted with a treasure trove of mature, thought-provoking films. Here’s a list of my personal favorite nominees, excluding the actual winners: Five Easy Pieces, M*A*S*H*, The Last Picture Show, Cabaret, Deliverance, American Graffiti, Cries and Whispers, The Exorcist, Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, Jaws, Barry Lyndon, Bound for Glory, Network, Taxi Driver, and Apocalypse Now. Many of the other nominees aren’t too shabby either. So, despite its popularity and ground-breaking techniques, Star Wars was (rightly) viewed as a children’s film, not something worthy of being called Best Picture. You can fault the Academy for that logic, but you at least need to understand that the ’70s mindset wouldn’t have permitted a movie like Star Wars to win an award as prestigious as this. And bear this in mind: Star Wars didn’t win, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a better movie in my opinion, didn’t even get nominated.

In this context, the world saw Woody Allen break the mold that had been set for romantic comedies into a million pieces. Nothing like it had been made before and, though people have tried to emulate it since, no one has even come close. Drawing on his own comic genius, the French New Wave, autobiography, and even Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Allen created the ultimate modern romance – sweet, dysfunctional, neurotic, and, finally, heartbreaking.

Tyler: The Silence Of The Lambs

I first saw Lambs on a Christmas night when my sister had the flu, and our parents wanted us to see a fantastic movie, no matter how young we were, regardless of the subject material.  I was riveted then, and each screening since reminds me how much depth exists in Jonathan Demme’s finest film (with the very possible exception of Rachel Getting Married).  Pay close attention, and you will find not only a parable about the pitfalls of women working in a mancentric world, but also an essay on the cannibalistic nature of modern America.  (Keep your eyes out for evocations of the American flag.  It won’t take much effort.)  On top of all that, it is a thriller of utter suspense, grotesquerie, inner strength, and persistent search for the truth.  And, on top of all that

“Quid pro quo, Clarice.”

Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor based on roughly fifteen minutes of screentime.  He deserved it.  The Silence Of The Lambs is one of the most addictive, riveting movies ever made.

Travis: Unforgiven

Clint Eastwood’s defining directorial effort, this revisionist western about a man whose only talent is killing is one of the best films of the 1990s and one of my all-time favorites, a depressing and tough watch that, nevertheless, is something I cannot turn off if I happen upon it flipping through the channels. The only other nominee that year I could see sharing space with it was The Crying Game; it surely deserved to beat out A Few Good Men and (gross) Scent of a Woman. Hooah!

Nathan: How Green Was My Valley

If we can set aside the “greatest movie of all time” label that has been assigned to Citizen Kane through years of polls and canonical compilations, we will discover a film that is actually wildly entertaining, acutely funny, technically daring, beautifully acted, and pretty damn worthy of all the lofty praise it so regularly gets. I admire and enjoy Citizen Kane a great deal, but if I were forced to live the rest of my life without either Kane or How Green Was My Valley, I’d throw Kane to the fire as though it were that useless Rosebud sled.

Because Kane has become “the greatest movie of all time”, How Green Was My Valley, one of John Ford’s most powerful films, has been forced to hide in Welles’ shadow, despite having won the Best Picture award for 1941. Unfortunately, people are missing out on the beautiful, small epic tale of an Irish coal-mining family that is broken down bit by bit by the economic and social circumstances that surround them. Always concerned with the disassembly of the nuclear family, this is probably Ford’s strongest expression of one of his most recurrent themes. This scene alone, which is only one small example of the film’s aesthetic beauty, catapults How Green Was My Valley into the ranks of all time great movies.

Welles, who viewed Ford as his mentor, master, and superior, wouldn’t begrudge the Academy and I’m sure he wouldn’t begrudge my judgment here.

Tyler: The Godfather/The Godfather Part II

A touch of a cheat, of course.  But the Godfather films serve not only as brilliant filmmaking, among the finest of all time, but as a strange, compulsive comfort to almost everyone I know.  Should you have the day, be flipping the channels, and find I or II on whatever cable channel at whatever moment brandishes the rights, you will stop flipping the channels.  You will sit, addicted, for hours, by the saga of the Corleones, their sepia-toned descent from criminal honor into criminal savagery.  Should the broadcast be a marathon, you may end up watching the movies twice-over.  The first Godfather begins with the immortal line, uttered behind a black screen, “I believe in America.”  I can think of no other film that unites every American I know in outright, rapt adoration.  The Corleones are a family to all of us; even as they commit unspeakable acts, we feel warmed in watching their saga.  There’s not only violence (Sonny at the tollbooth), there’s humor (“Michael, why don’t you tell that girl you love her?  ‘I love you sooo much,  if I don’t-a see-a you soon, I’m-a gonna die!'”).  There’s conscience (Tom Hagen), familial anger (“I’m your older brother, Mike, and I WAS STEPPED OVER!!”), genuine insight (“YOU CAN ACT LIKE A MAN!!”), desperate fame (Johnny Fontaine), true love (Appolonia).  Marital betrayal (“…is it true?  Is it?”  “No.”), not to mention betrayal of the country by way of perjury before Congress.  Al Pacino back when he was terrifying; De Niro in his youth, embodying Brando, performance brilliant, brutal.

In the Godfather duology (there was a third?  C’mon, no, there wasn’t.  Stop fuckin’ around.  There wasn’t a third one.  That would’ve been terrible!), there exists everything regarding the lustful, aggressive, dream-based, complex society that is American life.  And, on top of it all, it’s beautiful.  The cinematography is Renaissance-worthy; the story keeps us riveted, no matter how aware we are of the sad, sad end.  We all know it all so well, but that doesn’t matter.  Roger Ebert, film critic extraordinaire, put it best some years ago, in his revisitation of the first of Francis Ford Coppola’s two finest films, unleashing one of my favorite lines of film analysis of all time:

“Familiar as I am with Robert Duvall, when he first appeared on screen I found myself thinking, ‘There’s Tom Hagen.'”

That, dear readers, is a Best fucking Picture.  Or two.

Plus, don’t we all want Italian food after witnessing all those sumptuous spreads?  Come.  To.  Papa.

Travis: The Deer Hunter

Unlike Unforgiven, this unflinching Vietnam drama is not a movie I ever care to sit through a second time, no matter how great it is. Jane Fonda of competing (and far inferior) Vietnam movie Coming Home derided The Deer Hunter for “glorifying the Vietnam War.” I kinda wonder what movie she watched.

Nathan: The Apartment

If there ever were a flawless comedy, it would be Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. He’d made other great comedies before (The Seven Year Itch, Sunset Boulevard, The Major and the Minor), but The Apartment is an absolutely perfect blend of sentimental comedy, acid cynicism, and social commentary. It would take a master at the very top of his skills to pull off a movie as perfectly balanced as this one, and also manage to make a story of opportunistic careerism loveable. I suppose it has something to do with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, but The Apartment is flawless as far as I can tell.

Though many other notable films from around the world were released in 1960 (La Dolce Vita, Rocco and His Brothers, Peeping Tom, Psycho, Le Trou, The Young One, The Virgin Spring, and Sergeant Rutledge), The Apartment represents the end of Hollywood’s golden era for me. Instead of embracing the new wave of film auteurs from across the seas, the Academy, unbeknownst to itself, managed to give the best possible sendoff to the greatest epoch in film history. Given that the Academy tries to represents Old Hollywood even today, 1960 was their finest moment.

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10 thoughts on “Five For FRiday: Oscareality, Optimistically

  1. This was one of the most difficult Fives I’ve had to boil down, having seen every Best Picture winner ever. Also-rans: Casablanca, You Can’t Take It With You, Lawrence Of Arabia, Schindler’s List, Grand Hotel, It Happened One Night, Patton, The Best Years Of Our Lives, In The Heat Of The Night, Annie Hall, Unforgiven, The English Patient, No Country For Old Men, Million Dollar Baby. I’m still torn about including Godfather Part II, as it faced off against Chinatown, one of my favorite movies ever, but…it’s Godfather Part II.

  2. Other favorites I had to leave out, due to equally fantastic competitors: The Bridge On The River Kwai, which beat 12 Angry Men; All About Eve, beating Sunset Boulevard; The English Patient, knocking off Jerry Maguire; Million Dollar Baby, topping Sideways.

  3. “I maintain a devoted and unpopular opinion that The Departed may well be Martin Scorsese’s best movie.”

    Definitely unpopular with me. The necessities aside, I’d still take Mean Streets, After Hours, The Age of Innocence, Casino, and Bringing Out the Dead all ahead of The Departed.

  4. I had a pretty easy time with this one, but I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a runner-up list. I greatly admire The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, Casablanca, Rebecca, Midnight Cowboy, Patton, The Godfather, and Amadeus.

    While Tyler holds the unpopular and unreasonable opinion that The Departed is Scorsese’s best movie, I hold the wildly unpopular opinion that The Godfather Part II is the equivalent of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; a filling for the middle, not good enough on its own and lacking the energy shown in The Godfather. Plus it went up against Chinatown and The Conversation!

  5. I’ll go Mean Streets as my favorite Scorcese. I’ll go Cape Fear as my least favorite “Scorzezzy” that I’ve seen. (see terrible trailers for Cape Fear for pronunciation)

    Still, for any flaws I as a Hong Kong movie homo with a DVD of Infernal Affairs in my collection might see, the Departed still deserved to win Best PIcture that year.

    Random anecdote: I did not see the Departed in the theater, and at the time I saw it in my apartment on DVD, I lived below a very “active” couple who always did their business in evening hours. In thinking of the Departed (among other movies I watched on Netflix after getting home from work) I’ll always associate squeaking bedsprings and moans with pausing because I couldn’t make out the dialogue anymore.

    Another DVD viewing they ironically interrupted: Shortbus.

  6. I guess I also had some objection to being considered “a movie obsessive” since I don’t really have interest in movies at this point, and the idea of seeing most of the movies released now is gross to me, but since The Apartment is my favorite movie, that probably makes me a movie obsessive in some form or another.

  7. Travis – I first saw The Apartment on a pan/scan VHS and didn’t care for it. Then I saw an open air screening at Grant Park in Chicago. I wasn’t too far from the front, with the screen taking up most of my field of vision, and my mind was just blown to bits. There are days when I prefer Sunset Boulevard, but The Apartment really is pretty much flawless.

  8. Lordy be, this is gonna be one long comment.

    I took more time with this Five than I have with any in awhile. Having won a bet with a friend a few years back, who could watch every Best Picture winner (previous viewings counted) first, I’ve seen ’em all. I put down my instinctual selections on the template, and then scoured Wikipedia’s “Best Picture” page to ensure that I made the right selections. Like the crazy person I am, I wanted to be completely honest and accurate with all seven of our regular readers. Notes:

    -Full disclosure: Annie Hall was one of those instinctual selections, but when you both slipped it in, I felt a kind of obligation to mix it up a little, as we’d already gone consensus with The Apartment, my inclusion of which was non-negotiable.

    -I had to abandon any thought of Other Films Released During The Year In Question, as the vast majority of my favorite movies didn’t sniff Best Picture.

    -If there was any doubt, I cut it out. I love All About Eve, just a fabulous flick, but it ran up against Sunset Boulevard. I adore It Happened One Night, but it beat out The Thin Man. Casablanca is, of course, an all-timer, but I prefer Howard Hawks’s (essentially a remake) To Have And Have Not, which is pretty much my gun-to-head favorite film of all time. The Bridge On The River Kwai, I admire, but it competed with 12 Angry Men. Lawrence Of Arabia? Awesome, but it took on To Kill A Mockingbird. Patton v. M.A.S.H.. Annie Hall v. Star Wars. Schindler’s List (a real personal favorite, Neeson breakdown scene and all) against The Fugitive. The English Patient (I fucking LOVE The English Patient), Jerry Maguire. Million Dollar Baby, Sideways. Hell, No Country is a film I revisited just two weeks ago, and I consider it immaculate. But, as Nathan noted, There Will Be Blood is pretty considerable as well. And I even considered Titanic, but it’s tough to say they got it right when Titanic beats out L.A. Confidential.

    -In a true bout of coincidence, Nathan, the professor I describe screened for us in that class not Citizen Kane, but How Green Was My Valley.

    -Also, NM, regarding screwball comedy, no love for His Girl Friday? I know I’m a Hawks nerd, and The Awful Truth is fantastic, but come now. Plus, given said nerddom, I have a serious soft spot for Ball Of Fire.

    -Travis, I am absolutely with you. I saw The Deer Hunter for the first time as a part of the Best Picture bet. I admire it greatly. And I never, ever want to see it again.

    -Unforgiven was a tough one to leave out.

  9. Tyler – I admire what Hawks did in His Girl Friday (and Bringing Up Baby), but I find he’s taking screwball beyond the limits of healthy pacing. You don’t have enough time to actually laugh before another joke is being thrown at you. And there came a point in both movies where I adapted to the pace, became fully aware that a new joke would be coming in a matter of seconds, and became defensive about it. I’ve tried both movies twice and don’t see myself going back anytime soon. For Hawks screwball I prefer Twentieth Century, I Was a Male War Bride, Monkey Business, and Ball of Fire, which is probably my favorite Hawks movie.

    I haven’t seen every BP winner yet. I haven’t been able to work up the courage to sit through Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, or Oliver!

    The hardest title for me to leave out was The Silence of the Lambs. But seeing that Tyler already had it, I figured it was fine to let it slide.

  10. Around The World In 80 Days actually isn’t that bad, not least because it inspired a meme between myself and Friend Of FR James, that being exclaiming out of nowhere “Passepartout!” Oliver! bored me to tears, despite the fact that I played Mr. Sowerberry in an eighth-grade stage rendition many, many years ago; The Greatest Show On Earth is terrible beyond description. (Additional with-James meme: Betty Hutton’s screeching rendition of “Come To The Circus!” or whatever the hell.)

    The mere thought of Ball Of Fire, ol’ Cooper leading that group of bumbling professors through the park, makes me smile.

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