Better than the Oscars: 90-86

The following is from my series of Oscar Best Picture rankings, as well as my strongly worded suggestions for what should have won from among the nominees. For an introduction to the project, click here. For a way to vote on some Oscar-related ideas, click here. If I’ve written a review on any of the films below, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!

 

90) Crash (2005, 78th Academy Awards), directed by Paul Haggis

What should have won: Brokeback Mountain

Worth noting: Good Night, and Good Luck – Still George Clooney’s best movie, and one of those exceedingly rare modern movies that uses black and white to effect without becoming a self-important distraction.

 

In Vulture’s oral history of how Crash was made and summarily made Best Picture, Paul Haggis said something that tells you everything you need to know about the movie:

 I wanted to understand the experiences of living in different areas of Los Angeles after getting used to only the whiter parts of town. L.A. is so segregated, but no one ever talks about it.

Seriously, this is an all-timer of a bad take. I assume Haggis was in a coma when the Watts riots happened, when NWA became prominent, when Rodney King was beaten, when O.J. Simpson was tried, etc. A film, like any text, does not necessarily take on the opinions or beliefs of its author; there are ways to interpret a text which downplay authorial influence for the better. But Crash, which is probably the worst movie I’ve ever seen, is entirely made of its creators’ idiocy. A series of coincidences, which might have been ghostwritten by Charles Dickens on greenies, unfold. It turns out that a racist cop doesn’t let a black woman burn to death in her overturned car, all the while loving his ailing dad: does it redeem him? It turns out that not-racist cop still gets an itchy trigger finger around black people: does it damn him? (The answer is, whoosh, that they’re both bad people.) A black man believes firmly that he oughtn’t to be stereotyped based on his race, though he’s a criminal: does he have a point? The entire movie is based on these questions. There are like, thirty characters and all of them are complete non-entities. One of them says the name of the movie in the first three minutes, which is the first sign that something is terribly wrong with this picture. Nor are there really any stakes, since the whole of the movie is this tremendously trumped up, slightly-baked-college-freshmen-at-1:00-in-the-morning-after-the-third-week-of-Philosophy-101 situational game. Even if the mayor’s wife realizes that the only person who’s always been there for her is her Hispanic maid, so what? After you’ve decided that a rooster doesn’t lay eggs and thus wouldn’t roll on either side of a canted roof, the joke is over and you move on to something more lasting. People have been saying that television has become more like the movies in the past fifteen years; when the movies become Very Special Episodes of TV, I don’t think that’s returning the favor.

Brokeback Mountain is, on the other hand, all the things that Crash is not. It is intensely personal, rarely stepping outside the lives of four individuals and truly honing in on just two. What’s the most moving moment in Crash? Say that it’s Michael Pena hugging his daughter after an Arab shop owner, driven to murderous rage (sure), decides to shoot the guy who he believes didn’t fix his store’s locks adequately. His daughter, just young enough to believe that she has a magic garment able to protect her from bullets, runs in front of her father: the bullets, it turns out, are blanks. It’s a moment which has no fewer than three scenes building entirely to this conclusion, and building only to this conclusion, which loses the majority of its affect when it turns out that Paul Haggis had a snake in a can the whole time. Compare that to one of a dozen scenes in Brokeback Mountain. Think of the hallucinatory, maybe-it’s-real, maybe-it’s-not scene where Ennis translates a bizarre car accident to the far more likely murder of Jack Twist. (The farther we get from Brokeback, I feel, the less it matters that Ennis and Jack are having sex with each other; cut three minutes of film and this movie would be as chaste as Brief Encounter.) Think of the way that he finds that shirt in Jack’s closet, so many years after the fact. Think of the tremendous hurt that Alma realizes again and again as Ennis, again and again, indulges himself with Jack while pushing her further away. Brokeback Mountain is a beautiful movie as well, one of the most visually pleasing films of the century. Certainly it has an advantage over Crash based on its plot, but I think the difference between Ang Lee’s eye and Paul Haggis’ counts for something too. Instead of indulging in the weak pseudorealistic tendencies of the camera in Crash, the vast majority of Brokeback Mountain points, shoots, and fires straight for the heart. The most iconic sequences of Brokeback Mountain take place on a mountain or a stunningly faded white house. But for every dark alley of Crash, there’s some seedy bar or a crowded trailer or a messy house to go with it. If it has something in common with Crash, it’s that both films are indelible; Crash just happens to be indelible for the wrong reasons.

89) The Artist (2011, 84th Academy Awards), directed by Michael Hazanavicius

What should have won: The Tree of Life

Worth noting: The Descendants – This was not exactly the strongest year in nominees; The Descendants is unnecessarily treacly, but it’s a fair enough entry from Alexander Payne.

 

Another dizzying contrast here, but this time in terms of ambition. As much as we like to talk about Cloud Atlas as an ambitious movie around these parts, The Tree of Life wins the prize. Say what you will about the dinosaurs, the narration, the supersize themes (the counterpoint between grace and nature), but this is a movie that swings for the fences in an entirely different stadium. There’s a scene in which a dinosaur essentially refuses to eat one that is clearly vanquished, that may never get up again anyway; it walks away, and then out of the blackness falls an enormous meteorite. It’s not perfect, but it is an arresting interpretation, totally unforgettable once you’ve seen it. On top of that, this is a movie with powerful acting from its major performers—I am very much invested in Jessica Chastain’s performance in particular—and the trademark Malick photography. I’m not sure that I would even call this film as beautiful as Days of Heaven or The New World, but even second-tier Malick, a term that I use very cautiously, blows away the competition for aesthetics.

The Artist is a movie entirely without ambition, a silent movie which sees the old style of moviemaking as quaint, something that must be outgrown as symbolic of the arrogant foibles of the protagonist. If this an homage to silent movies, which is certainly what the buzz about the movie suggested, then it’s all sizzle and no steak. Certainly silent films had ambition, and while expecting a latter day Cabiria or Greed is obviously unfair, how about a movie that wants to have the visual grandeur of Wings or the drama of The Lodger or the emotional heft of Sunrise? The Artist is smarmy, self-satisfied, as if the great silent pictures were little more than soft-shoe and bobs. Jean Dujardin and Bernice Bejo have their own charms, but they are placed there as if that charm is enough to be interesting. (Thank heavens La La Land didn’t win, or otherwise I’d have to write something basically identical in a little while.) The only member of the cast that’s true for is, of course, Uggie, who might honestly have won this movie Best Picture on his own. Scratch the surface of this movie, to borrow from Klara Novak, and you’ll find a handbag instead of a heart and a suitcase instead of a soul. The movie certainly expects us to identify, or at least care about this valiant man trying to hold back the tides; we know this because it makes the film’s only woman character of note into said fellow’s biggest fan, and she goes out of her way to build up a man who really ought to be let down. Perhaps The Tree of Life has a strong flavor, one that isn’t for everyone, but The Artist is so cloying that one has no choice but to spit it back out.

 

88) Argo (2012, 85th Academy Awards), directed by Ben Affleck

What should have won: Amour

Worth noting: Life of Pi – An absolutely stunning film, miraculously beautiful, anchored by an extraordinary performance from a newcomer.

 

I seriously considered Argo for the absolute bottom spot on this list before I saw Crash, but the ending saves it. The first time I saw the movie—even knowing, as everyone knows, that the American diplomats would get out of Iran safely—I was a little tense. I’d compare it to the tension I get watching Apollo 13, another movie that has a bunch of tension despite its popularly known historical ending. The magic of editing made it feel extremely urgent, like at any moment the plane might be stopped because a bunch of Iranians might get onboard and pull the Yanks off the flight and that would be curtains for everyone. This, at least, worked. And then I thought about the rest of the movie and decided to plop it third from the bottom. Pat Sajak doesn’t enjoy Before and Afters as much as everyone in Argo appears to enjoy “Argo fuck yourself.” I had forgotten that Tony Mendez has a family, which I think proves how important that saccharine little subplot was to the effectiveness of the film. And it’s stunning in a very bad way that the movie reverts to the same screaming horde of brown people attacking scared, innocent honkies that wouldn’t have been out of place one hundred years before. Maybe we’re lucky there wasn’t a cliff for Kerry Bishe to throw herself off of.

Amour, on the other hand, is very much burned into my brain. It is one of the great horror movies I’ve ever come across, one that could conceivably happen to all of us someday. An old woman has a stroke and her old husband has to take care of her. Then she has more. Anne was a pianist at one time, was still very involved in the musical world around her, and then all of a sudden her stroke takes her right hand from her. She loses the ability to express herself in language when she had been so crisp and precise for, presumably, her whole life; all that’s left is “Hurts! Hurts!” Georges struggles on as best he can, doing the little things around the house, bathing her, trying to make her comfortable, helping her exercise, pushing her to finish meals. All the same, this is a battle he lost when he decided to marry Anne, when he tethered himself to her. Anne must know it. He figures it out. This relationship, this long-term, reasonably loving relationship was always going to end in minor tragedy. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are absolutely perfect. Riva is truly special in this role, the last pearl in a chain of difficult and heartbreaking parts going back to the 1950s. Her performance is entirely vulnerable and shameless; it is a brave performance, which is a phrase used so often that we’ve lost the real meaning of it. It’s also a surprising entry from Michael Haneke, whose other films are so violent and bleak that Amour, which is merely crushing and bleak, stands out as almost normal. There is no little bird impaled with scissors in this movie, no home invasion, no rape with the mother on the other side of the door. Amour has a simple and direct thrust, directed with all of the power that Haneke habitually brings to his films.

Also, one last tip: when the (non-American) movie in a foreign language gets nominated for Best Picture, that’s probably the real winner. We’ll talk about this more later on in the series, but it’s more or less tried-and-true by now since it first happened with Grand Illusion at the 11th Academy Awards.

 

87) American Beauty (1999, 72nd Academy Awards), directed by Sam Mendes

What should have won: The Insider

Worth noting: The Sixth Sense – It’s really hard to overstate how big this movie was when it came out, which I know because I was an elementary schooler and I actually heard of this one.

 

I’ve railed against the “movie of the moment” before—I’ve said “I can think of few items of faint praise more damning than ‘this is the movie we need now,’ with all its implications that we won’t need it later.” That was a fairly positive take on the idea, in the sense that we devalue a movie by assuming that its greatest value is in how transparently connected it is to the current political climate. But sometimes a movie really is a movie of the moment, one that looks utterly ridiculous once that moment passes. American Beauty, like Fight Club, looks at the little pink houses of the 1990s and throws out big words like “non-comformity” and wonders why we want these material things, man, instead of learning how to live for something that like, really matters. How silly and small the people of American Beauty are! Lester Burnham, who decides he’s not going to be a corporate shill any longer, decides he’s not going to rely on his own hand for sexual fulfillment, decides that his wife is henpecking him to death, decides to fantasize about his teenaged daughter’s cute friend, decides that he probably shouldn’t have sex with her. (The movie makes the fact that he pulls away from Angela after kissing her into this moment of personal growth, which, uh, that’s a pretty low bar.) In short, Lester is supposed to become a man again, a real man, and doing so requires him to take control over his situation even if the means he uses are, in the end, totally ludicrous. Lost in America was the last word on American Beauty more than a decade before American Beauty; watching Lester “drop out” like he’s the sardonic hero of the situation is laughable, but not in the way Alan Ball means. The Burnhams are all victims of suburbia in this iteration, but it’s hard to view people with their wealth and overall security as anything but clowns without an audience. Ricky’s plastic bag in the wind is emblematic of the entire movie: you can probably hypnotize yourself into believing that there’s something remarkable in it, but look, it’s still a plastic bag in the wind.

The Insider has a significantly more interesting track on victimhood. Jeffrey Wigand is a major part of the problem as a former employee of Big Tobacco, complete with non-disclosure agreement, but becomes something of a martyr once he decides to provide information in a deposition which technically violates his NDA. Deciding to do the right thing after years of being involved with the wrong thing means that he pays the piper in enormous lump sums. He teaches high school, quite a comedown after his ritzy corporate salary. His life, and the lives of his wife and children, are put in danger. His wife leaves with the kids. Never one to react calmly to a situation, Wigand’s temper flares more and more powerfully as he comes to blame CBS, not without cause, for leaving him out to dry after his tell-all interview with them leaves him at the end of his rope. Russell Crowe was Kirk Douglas for about a decade: capable of hugely engrossing performances but typed in the popular imagination for a single gladiatorial beefcake role. On the other side of Al Pacino as the man was already well into his shouty decline, Crowe is like a pot rumbling its lid with boiling water and steam. He is so calm in front of his class, talking up chemistry, clearly engaging them. In virtually all of his other scenes, his face suggests a week-long migraine, his voice rasps and barks. As an entire movie it lacks the energy of The Last of the Mohicans or the skill of Heat, but in a fairly weak year, The Insider would have been a strong choice for Best Picture.

 

86) The Greatest Show on Earth (1952, 25th Academy Awards), directed by Cecil B. DeMille

What should have won: High Noon

Worth noting: The Quiet Man – The film is as beautiful as ever, though the sexual politics have changed a mite, I think.

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Original image links back here

 

I firmly believe that the Los Angeles setting of Crash won that movie Best Picture. I think people really thought that The Artist and Argo were the best movies of their respective years, which is a sort of group hysteria scarier than St. Vitus’ Dance. And by the same token, I’m pretty sure that Joseph McCarthy and his ilk are the reason that The Greatest Show on Earth topped High Noon for Best Picture that year. The Greatest Show on Earth isn’t an uninteresting movie, but it feels longer than its already substantial two and a half hours. Everything about the movie is just enormous, from its setting to its climax to its love pentagons, and there can hardly be any intimacy when the seeming purpose of the film is to clobber the audience with its sheer size. The circus, like any other form of theatrics, does not translate with the same verve to film, and so much of this movie is based on circus routines and real-life circus personages. This says nothing about the larger body of the plot, which is unbearably soapy; teenagers have more dignity in their dating habits than the characters of The Greatest Show on Earth, swapping partners to make others jealous or to get some kind of sexual fix. This doesn’t even touch Jimmy Stewart’s turn as the OG killer clown, who shows up to treat people’s various wounds and hurts and be vaguely mysterious on the side. It’s bright and colorful, sure; Cornel Wilde’s bombast and Gloria Grahame’s sexiness are not unwelcome. But even the special effects are below the standards of ol’ Cecil B., who engineers a train crash deluxe which lacks the urgency of, say, the Red Sea parting. There are a few right notes in this movie, but it never comes to fruition; in no way does it sing. What it has going for it is an old-fashioned director who happened to be one of the major right-wing voices in Hollywood just five years after the Hollywood Ten.

High Noon, on the other hand, is the tip of an arrowhead or the point of a star. In a year where a really remarkable number of great films were nominated or awarded (Rashomon, Singin’ in the Rain, Forbidden GamesThe Man in the White SuitThe Quiet ManThe Bad and the Beautiful, Breaking the Sound Barrier, The Member of the Wedding), there’s a compelling case to be made that the Academy would have done better to scrap its original five Best Picture nominees and replace them with entirely new ones just from the films down the ballots. Yet High Noon is more than acceptable choice for the blue ribbon, and because of its allegorical content was unlikely to make it there. (I spend a fair bit of time on the technical end of High Noon in my original post, but suffice it to say that High Noon is much closer to Rashomon and Singin’ in the Rain in terms of its camerawork than it is to The Greatest Show on Earth.) In contrast with the Technicolor madness of The Greatest Show on EarthHigh Noon is shot in relatively chaste black-and-white. High Noon is less than ninety minutes long, making it very nearly a movie in real time. Both movies share romantic turmoil at their hearts, and it’s High Noon that makes its romance feel vital and really imperiled. At no point did it really matter to me if Charlton Heston would end up with Betty Hutton or Gloria Grahame. Watching a painfully old Gary Cooper prepare to leave behind a painfully young Grace Kelly, certain that he will die doing a duty that no one he knows wants him to face, is terrific. Watching Amy Kane save her husband at the cost of her principles—an action itself in Schoenberg-esque counterpoint to her husband’s dogged devotion to his own sense of right and wrong—is haunting, torturous stuff. There is a true conflict in the mind of one of our major characters which can only be resolved with blood in the dust. Leaving aside the politics of High Noon, it is a movie which genuinely forces the viewer to confront his or her own idealism: is it strong enough to sacrifice everything you believe yourself to be?

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