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!
80) The Broadway Melody (1929, 2nd Academy Awards), directed by Harry Beaumont
What should have won: Alibi
Worth noting: One is inclined to believe that The Patriot, a Lubitsch-Jannings collaboration, would be a more likely winner than either of the movies listed here—alas that most of the movie is missing, which means we may very well never see the entire thing again.
The beginning of The Broadway Melody is showoffish partly for its own sake, I suppose, but I think there’s also a fair bit of joy in the sound design. A man walks past various groups in practice rooms, each blaring away at their own song. Voices, guitars, clarinets, saxophones, pianos, each one scrambling to the top of the pile, each one bouncing off the other even while out of the camera’s focus. It’s the cacophony of 1929, a designed wall of sound to thrill the viewer. It still packs a wallop today, in fact, before everyone settles down and listens to Eddie sing his song. It’s sort of a downturn from there, really. Everything you’ve ever read about the plot is true, as it really does seem to exist only to provide a thin narrative structure which will allow the film to intersperse song and dance in the meantime, and even those songs and dances are not particularly thrilling. (If they really wanted to focus on the numbers, then they would have done better not to use a plot in which a guy is engaged to one woman but ultimately marries her sister. More like The Broadway Melody of 1729, amirite?) Some of the technical stuff that they do is really quite interesting—a woman tap dances on point, for example—but it tops out at interesting. That tap sequence is really something of a stand-in for the movie at large, which revels in its sound and the fact that everyone can hear those swell voices and the delicate tapping of feet on the hardwood. On the whole, though, it’s proof that while making plays into movies is often as not a fool’s errand, making vaudeville into movies is almost certainly self-immolating.
The acting in Alibi might be worse than the acting in The Broadway Melody, which is really saying something. The performers are universally wooden, their lines spoken as if someone were still whispering them from outside the shot. As woeful as it is, though, one gets the sense that Alibi has genuine ambition. The Broadway Melody is content, really, to let you hear “Give My Regards to Broadway” in your cinema for the first time. It glories in the buzzing muddled conversations of many. Alibi finds something meaningful to do with its newfound sound. It lets us hear a massive line of convicts marching in step, thumping along to their cadence; later on that same thumping will appear in the line of dancing girls onstage in a nightclub. Everybody is on some line, Alibi finds, and each person has to stick to theirs to get along even if it leads to a cell or cold comfort. Chick Williams, a recently released criminal, secretly marries a high ranking police officer’s daughter, promising her (and her extremely disbelieving father) that he’s gone straight. We are led to sympathize with the young man, who certainly seems on the up-and-up: and then we watch him shoot down a cop when a burglary he’s leading goes awry. From there, the film takes on a distinct cat-and-mouse quality, even though the only real mouse here is Joan, the unfortunate woman in love with her husband and simultaneously duped by him. Cops prove to be cops, even to the end. Some are shot down after working undercover; others look like they’ll get some serious extrajudicial revenge. And the crooks prove to be crooks, too, as Chick manages to escape the police one last time only to clamber onto a rooftop, jump, and fall to his death. Man’s leap, it seems, exceeds his grasp. Like The Broadway Melody, the seeds of the modern genre can be divined within the picture. Alibi is simply more ahead of the curve than its competitor, and it is a far more rewarding picture to watch now.
79) Out of Africa (1985, 58th Academy Awards), directed by Sydney Pollack)
What should have won: Witness
Worth noting: The Color Purple is absolutely full of remarkable performances, I think its heart is in the right place, and Steven Spielberg (yes, I get he was the one with the cachet to do it) was for sure the wrong director.
Before we do anything else: “I bless the rains Out of Africa!”
When they made Out of Africa Streep had already become Streep. Fun trivia fact: in that scene where they unload all of those bags Karen Blixen has brought to Africa, they used the luggage Streep already had to carry her accents around. When they made this movie, Redford had perhaps even ceased to be Redford; being fair-skinned and over thirty appears to have been a bad combination for my dude. It is a starry pairing, but one without any chemistry to speak of. The movie is over two and a half hours long; it seems to me that before making a movie that lengthy one would want to be sure that one’s actors seemed in touch with one another. Streep and Redford are recording the same song in totally different studios throughout the length of the picture. Amusingly, I’d say that Klaus Maria Brandauer, playing Streep’s halfman husband, has better chemistry with her. Bror and Karen are never in love, and when they have sex it ends very badly for her. Yet Brandauer has an energy that is missing from Redford’s typically cool performance, and I daresay it’s missing from Streep’s overly languorous work as well. There’s something of a small mammal in him, represented in those moments where he gives his wife syphilis or tells her that he’s given up the dairy in favor of coffee without telling her. He is one of those mediocre men who populate the world and who seem to weasel their way into positions of responsibility. Perhaps Denys Finch Hatton is meant to be nobler than that, the stallion rather than a mouse sniffling about in the hay. Or maybe he’s just Robert Redford, an American ostensibly playing an Englishman, talking to people about what’s so great about Africa, mourning the way that the world order will create a renewed focus on the colonization of Africa, pining for the good ol’ days. I would almost prefer bringing in Ryan Gosling so he can tell me about jazz. (I jest, obviously; what this movie really needs is David Attenborough to narrate.)
When they made Witness Ford had already become Ford. And instead of playing blindly into the star image of the film’s cash cow, Witness subverts the whip-crackin’, hyperdrive-punchin’ son of a gun by making Ford’s John Book into a basically normal human being. John Book is a good police officer and a smart one as well, but there’s nothing of the action hero in him even when the cops roll into Amish country to execute him for knowing too much about their corruption. He is the protagonist of a thriller without exorbitant thrills and a lover in a romance without consummation. (While we’re here: Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis have enough chemistry to fill a thousand beakers in this movie. It’s incredible that household objects and small plants don’t set themselves on fire when they walk around.) His gun is, in the eyes of his Amish hosts and even in the mind of the film itself, a wicked tool. When it comes time for the showdown between Book and the leader of the crooked cops, the fight is settled not with guns but with the presence of too many Amish people to kill; their mere presence forces Schaeffer to give up his fight. Where Out of Africa is laborious and heavy-handed, informed by a score filled with Mozart for class and written by John Barry for grandeur, Witness uses Maurice Jarre’s modern score, itself tinged with a sort of Baroque influence, to great effect in setting mood. Out of Africa is beautiful but What this means, in essence, is that Witness has a totally brazen approach to its genre and rewards us with a film as delicate and light as a souffle. The thriller is something of a neglected genre among Best Picture winners; I can think of few that more richly deserved that little gold statue more than Witness.
78) Million Dollar Baby (2004, 77th Academy Awards), directed by Clint Eastwood
What should have won: The Aviator
Worth noting: I have adored Sideways since the first time I saw it, although it’s certainly less deep to me now than it was when I was a teenager. All the same, watching a pair of character actors like Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church fill up the screen with their foibles is extraordinarily fun and occasionally even moving.
I’ve expended a lot of energy sorting out what’s wrong with Million Dollar Baby, but I think the succinct version is that “the movie traffics in vagueness.” There may not be a single subgenre of film which varies its character types less than the boxing movie, and Million Dollar Baby is no different. All trainers are old and figuratively/literally crusty. All fighters are gutsy underdogs, and their opponents who they meet like video game bosses at the end of the film are far superior yet flawed emotionally, lacking the mental toughness that signifies the greatness of our heroes. Frankie is never more different from any other trainer than charcoal is from jet, and that makes him boring. The movie presents the mystery of his unresponsive daughter in the full expectation that our hearts will break for him, or perhaps wonder at what happened to cause that estrangement. (Finding out that the movie’s narration is a letter to Frankie’s daughter is the stuff of children’s books, first off, and second off, is accidentally the funniest part of the movie. How long do we think this woman is going to spend reading this letter?) He mouths off at a priest because that’s what real troubled folks do. The only difference between Maggie Fitzgerald and Rocky Balboa is that Maggie’s a woman. I mean, what a sock in the jaw that is, imagining a woman trying to excel at a sport. Maggie’s dogged determination is endearing, I guess, but so was the perseverance shown by that rat dragging pizza down the subway steps a few years ago in a video that had the grace to only be fifteen seconds long. Million Dollar Baby is more than five hundred times longer and significantly less memorable. The sins of Million Dollar Baby, aside from its early ’60s politics, is that it’s safe first and dull second. In safety it gains a wide audience, and in dullness solemnifies said audience into some incomprehensible reverence.
The Aviator is everything that Million Dollar Baby is not, I think. It has women in it who exist outside the context of the protagonist. It is made in stupendous color, which is not by itself an indicator of quality, but the meaningfully retro photography of The Aviator has sure as heck aged better than the trendy pseudo-realism of Million Dollar Baby. It has a series of absolutely dazzling performances by people whose voices do more than one thing. Howard Hughes is not on his own any more riveting than Frankie or Maggie—he wasn’t exactly the first weird rich guy to ever live—but we are put so close to him that our eye juices just about mingle. At first, he is charmingly eccentric, setting money on fire in service of a dream. Later on he turns that into setting all of his clothes on fire when he gets dumped. Later still he locks himself in a screening room with endless footage of the desert in front of him, peeing into empty milk bottles, growing a beard, and practicing his intonation of “Come in with the milk.” Again: none of this is more interesting on its own than anything that happens in Million Dollar Baby. But by the time we get to Juan Trippe’s visit with Howard through a door, we know him intimately. We are given insight into his life over and over again: he falls for Kate Hepburn, he falls in love with flying, he falls away from Kate, he falls out of the sky. Howard has, with all of his failings and dreams and outbursts, become a fascinating person. We’ve been given ample opportunities to care for this difficult, annoying human being, and that sort of empathy is at the heart of a blisteringly fun movie which might well be in the top five of Scorsese’s oeuvre.
77) The King’s Speech (2010, 83rd Academy Awards), directed by Tom Hooper
What should have won: The Social Network
Worth noting: Black Swan was, in a pretty solid field, the most unusual film of the bunch. It frenetically bounces around between genres in a way that makes it irresistible. Bonus points for the best update by a former member of an alt-rock for a classical standard originally written for the stage in a 2010 movie.
All a-peoples agree that Colin Firth was wonderful in The King’s Speech. All a-peoples agree that Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, and Guy Pearce were wonderful in The King’s Speech. But what were they wonderful for, really? Like Frost/Nixon two years before, this is a movie that chooses a great man of the 20th Century and hones in on some small piece of his life, pointing at it like some kind of microcosm of that great man. Worse still, these movies see the microcosm as a sort of turning point in these people’s lives, which is a risible way to view any human being’s life. In the end, The King’s Speech is better than Frost/Nixon, or at least it’s more mercifully ignorant of the supposed unmanliness of Italian shoes, and yet there really are no stakes for the film. For one thing, we’re pretty sure that the British were on the winning side in World War II. For another, it’s hard to feel sympathy for anyone deluded enough to believe that God chose their family to rule (symbolically or otherwise) over a nation; George’s tongue could have gained sentience, fallen out of his mouth, and become a tabloid entity called “Jack the Licker,” and George would still have won the lottery of life. The fact that he stammers under pressure is, as the kids said a decade ago, a first-world problem of the first order. As is true in virtually every movie about the monarchy, its most interesting elements show up when there is a moment of crisis not for the people but for the monarchy itself. For that reason, Guy Pearce’s marvelously louche portrayal of Edward VIII is the best part of the movie, as it’s the only part of the movie which really threatens George’s position. Compared to becoming king when he expected to live in mostly anonymous comfort his entire life, which I’ll grant is a pretty sticky situation, giving a speech on the radio is something which barely merits a wet wipe. But the film knows what sells. It makes an erstwhile speech coach into George’s therapist, believing firmly that all we really want to see is people get their heads shrunk in front of us.
This isn’t to say that The Social Network isn’t guilty of some head-shrinking, but like The Aviator, The Social Network at least lets its people walk around outside while that happens. What we learn about people in The Social Network is often learned after someone else has shut them up. Eduardo can’t get a word in edgewise when Mark rails against his friend closing their bank account. Mark is stunned into silence basically whenever Sean Parker shows up and talking about marlins, Victoria’s Secret, or “I’m CEO, bitch” business cards; before that, only Erica from BU had shown us that kind of power. In The Social Network, silence means the same thing just about every time, but it’s striking how effective it is as a tool. Everyone in this movie has so much to say that turning the tap off for even a few moments forces a kind of uncomfortable reflection on our part as well as theirs. The Social Network is not a cringey movie, but it does have more than its share of uncomfortable moments. Mark is that terrible combination of “boundlessly arrogant” and “desperate to please,” a mixture that leads to him showing up late for a investor meeting in his pajamas simply because Sean Parker holds a grudge against the guy he’s meeting. Eduardo, as much as he’s likable and charming, is fundamentally wrong about just about everything. He’s wrong about the amount of influence he has over Mark, wrong about how big the company can get, and most importantly, wrong about who Mark will choose between him and Sean. Sean, fittingly for a guy who made his name over the Internet, is merely Internet tough. All of this comes out without anyone having to scream swear words for fun or drop the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, or any other contrived situation.
76) Forrest Gump (1994, 67th Academy Awards), directed by Robert Zemeckis
What should have won: Pulp Fiction
Worth noting: The Shawshank Redemption. I thought about putting The Madness of King George here, but I figured the Internet would already be mad enough at me for what I’m about to say about Forrest Gump.
One of the better American movies of the 1970s is American Graffiti, a movie which draws most of its power from nostalgia. It is just dripping with this feeling of connection to the past, missing the innocence of white America before the Cuban Missile Crisis, back when people went to drive-ins and called in songs on the radio to dedicate whatever girl they were going steady with. American Graffiti is a wonderfully made film, the kind of thing we might have expected from George Lucas if Star Wars hadn’t swallowed him up like the Sarlaac swallowed up Boba Fett, but the reason the nostalgia element is crippling is twofold. First, it is immersive. It tells a story of a single night in September of 1962, and does not venture out until its epilogue. Second, that epilogue is a cutting, even shocking way to remind people that the past turned into the present. Suffice it to say Forrest Gump fails on both counts. By putting one man with an IQ of 75 at the center of twenty-five years of popular American history, from Elvis Presley to Apple, the film becomes a hit parade rather than an album. Individual vignettes within Forrest Gump work—his time at the University of Alabama has always felt more or less honest, and there’s something enticing about his years-long run which has equal parts Elijah and the jogging craze—but the movie is too in love with its own special effects, too indulgent to stop and ask, “Do we really need this cultural signifier for Baby Boomers as well?” It’s a mess of a film, overlong and exhausted by the time we finally kill Jenny. Worst of all, the movie never gets to that point that American Graffiti gets to. It never really reckons with ’60s or ’70s other than to say to its viewers, presumably about the same age as Forrest, “You were young once, too!” Vietnam kills Bubba and takes Dan’s legs, but it’s also something that just happens to Forrest, fixed in the time it takes to be shot in the buttocks. Say what you will about Oliver Stone, but his movies never reduce the Vietnam War to this trivial moment to be checked off the list so we can get to table tennis already.
There are worse Best Picture snubs than Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction (seriously), but it’s definitely a top-five misfire. I would argue that the major difference between Gump and Pulp Fiction is mostly one of execution. Both of them play around with fairly interesting narrative structures—Forrest Gump even has a more adventurous one despite the fact that it can’t stick the landing—and both of them are interested in this idea of nostalgia in present-day culture. Pulp Fiction has Jack Rabbit Slim’s, these gangsters in outfits that would help them fit into Rififi, a boxer who’s not ready to admit he’s washed, that soundtrack of golden oldies, a samurai sword, Winston Wolf. Tarantino might be the most nostalgic man alive, but in Pulp Fiction he manages to channel everything old into something that can be new again. Watching Pulp Fiction is a little like stepping into Vincent and Mia’s shoes while they’ve slipped them off for the dance competition. It’s a wax museum we’re in, but it certainly has a pulse. It’s a pulse that’s in overdrive for the majority of the film as well, all the way through to the ending. The more I watch Pulp Fiction, the more convinced I am that the final diner scene is the best one of the film. It’s not the most quotable (though Vincent telling Jules that if he gives ol’ “Ringo” the money he’s robbed “I’ll shoot him on general principle” gets me every time), and it’s missing the surreal extra-violence that pervades much of the rest of the movie. What it has is charisma, most of it belonging to Jackson. When he’s just sitting and aimlessly pointing his gun we find ourselves really listening to Jules. He is a changed man, one who intends to walk the earth in the service of protecting others. If he ran across American, he would only have coined a phrase fit for bumper stickers.