Better than the Oscars: 60-56

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!

 

60) Shakespeare in Love, 71st Academy Awards, directed by John Madden

What should have won: The Thin Red Line

Worth noting: Elizabeth has Cate Blanchett giving what is probably the most powerful performance by anyone in mainstream English-language cinema that year.

Shakespeare in Love is a nice little movie that, since it won Best Picture in March of 1998, has become a centerpiece of two different scandals with totally different stakes. The more important is that Shakespeare in Love winning Best Picture at the 71st Academy Awards is almost certainly the finest Harvey Weinstein hustle, one which took place while he was also at the height of his illegal, unethical, and indisputably evil behind the scenes campaign of terror aimed at the actresses trying to maintain their careers. (Vanity Fair has a good piece about the way this Oscars ceremony and his misdeeds aligned.) The less important, and probably the more talked about around water coolers, is that Shakespeare in Love has taken a How Green Was My Valley-type role in denying Saving Private Ryan, in this analogy standing in for Citizen Kane, the statuette. Saving Private Ryan was made by Hollywood’s most famous director with Hollywood’s most famous star about World War II. Shakespeare in Love is a period love story by and about Brits. Perhaps this is overly stereotypical, but Saving Private Ryan is a very masculine movie in the same vein as Braveheart and Gladiator. Shakespeare in Love fails to be gory or “cinematic” enough, and I’m sure that the romantic aspects probably market better to women than to men. In FiveThirtyEight’s fascinating rundown of how the disproportionately male voting electorate of sites like IMDb is, Saving Private Ryan is a real standout. If only men voted on IMDb, it would be the 25th movie in their top 250. If only women voted, it would be 70th. The average ranking of Saving Private Ryan by men is 8.6; the average ranking of Shakespeare in Love by men is 7.1. For women, those numbers are 8.1 and 7.3, respectively; it’s also worth noting that over 700,000 men have voted for Private Ryan, while fewer than 200,000 people total voted on Shakespeare. The funny thing is, both Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love have a 92% Fresh rating from critics. (Just to reiterate what you probably know: this means 92% of critics found the movie in question “good,” not that their average rank of the movie was like, an A-.) The How Green Was My Valley backlash, such as it is nearly eighty years later, appears to be mostly about quality. The Shakespeare in Love backlash, as far as I can tell, is gendered. Who would have guessed that this movie would have become so controversial in ways so far outside its scope?

The first irony is that Shakespeare in Love, as a movie, is enjoyable and even a little safe. An awful lot of the movie is playing on our inside joke with history, as it were. “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” is the worst offender, although Shakespeare convincing Ned Alleyn Mercutio is the hero or that weird, four-years-too-early nod to Twelfth Night are pretty groanworthy too. The plot also goes more or less as you’d expect once you hear that Gwyneth Paltrow spends time crossdressing to perform in her lover’s breakout play, down to that one kid saying “bubbies,” which has the be the most offputting term for the female bosom that I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear. Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow are not usually my cup of tea, but they make an attractive enough couple; I think Fiennes’ performance is particularly interesting because as far as I can tell he kickstarted the recent trend of “cast a presumably homely historical figure with someone sexy.” The joy of Shakespeare in Love is in the slice-of-Britain cast we get (famously Judi Dench and pre-heartthrob Colin Firth, but also Tom Wilkinson, Imelda Staunton, Rupert Everett, Mark “Arthur Weasley” Williams, Jim “Carson from Downton Abbey” Carter, Simon Callow, Martin “Doc Martin” Clunes, you get the picture). Geoffrey Rush is cast beautifully as the mousy businessman Henslowe; this is far and away my favorite Ben Affleck performance, playing the totally ridiculous Ned Alleyn in his ridiculously wooden way. Even if it’s nothing special, it’s a fun movie. There are, as I’ve argued at some length already, worse winners.

The second irony is that The Thin Red Line, for my money one of the three best American movies of the past twenty years, was also nominated for Best Picture that year, and while an army of normies complains about how Saving Private Ryan got jobbed, the fact that The Thin Red Line lost is truly grievous. I’ve made the argument in writing at least twice on this blog already and once on a podcast about how great this movie is, so I won’t go into my (well-rehearsed) song and dance. The short version is that The Thin Red Line is uniquely beautiful not just for a war movie but for a movie in general, that it is made with complete excellence in the technical areas (including what might be Hans Zimmer’s best score), and that its ensemble cast full with “do I know him?” faces is the point of the movie. No film has ever understood what kind of dehumanization war puts soldiers through so completely, for the officers (save one) of The Thin Red Line would sacrifice their enlisted men for another tenth of a percent chance of mission success or solely for their own vanity in equal proportions. It entirely disposes of the premise that war is ennobling, a premise that many other American war movies run up to and hug like it’s a happy puppy. (I mean, yes, Saving Private Ryan, but honestly pick 95% of the movies about World War II made in this country and it’s still true.) The horror of the movie is that only luck saves one man and kills another; the salve in the movie is that the natural world that soldiers will destroy in black clouds of smoke has endured for millennia and will do so for more millennia. There’s a moment in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where the children drink the sweet water of the uncharted ocean, and they compare it to drinking light itself, finding themselves so full after having a few sips that they couldn’t possibly have more. That’s the experience of The Thin Red Line: it’s merely sublime.

 

59) Wings, 1st Academy Awards, directed by William A. Wellman

What should have won: If we’re going by the rules of the time, it’s Wings. We finally have a chalk result!

Worth noting: Two of the three most interesting movies of the year, Sunrise and The Crowd, were in the now defunct “Unique and Artistic Picture” category, which they certainly were.

Wings would, from a purely technical perspective, be a remarkable movie if it had been made decades later. (Something we don’t talk enough about is that heavier-than-air manned flight was less than twenty-five years old when Wings came out, and we were already making movies in the air.) Ninety-plus years on, the scenes of dogfights and plane crashes are remarkable and thrilling and most of all, quite real. It’s easy to get sucked up into the drama of aerial combat, the deadly magic of bullets firing and flimsy wood-and-canvas plans spiraling through the clouds. Wings fails to be high drama, which ultimately works against it; its scenes on the ground are largely melodramatic and fail to match up to the action in the skies. The innovation is almost entirely up top; the plot of two guys in love with the same girl, but of course the one who’s losing out on that girl should have the sense to pick up the girl who’s crazy about him. In short there’s too much of that, although there is a nifty little twist right at the end of the film which we can see coming but remains effective. (I realize the movie is old as heck, but I won’t spoil it given how underseen it is.) I also wonder if the movie’s antiwar perspective (expressed in a scene in which parents blame the war for the death of their child and not the person who did the shooting) is muted a little by how breathtaking the flights of these little biplanes are. In any event, Wings was a strong choice for the first Academy Award for “Outstanding Picture,” even though history now remembers much more fondly two of the movies in the “Unique and Artistic” field. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans rightly won that category. It’s certainly very funny in retrospect…usually, the Oscars can’t even get one Best Picture right, but on a May evening in 1928, they got two correct. Go figure.

 

58) Midnight Cowboy, 42nd Academy Awards, directed by John Schlesinger

What should have won: Z

Worth noting: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was this year. That’s kind of an entertaining movie.

There’s an awful lot of potential in Midnight Cowboy that the movie never quite realizes. It has a pair of strong performances in Jon Voight’s hick halfwit and Dustin Hoffman’s worldly fool. It has scenes of genuinely affecting poverty; the part of the movie that stands out most for me, even more than “I’m walkin’ here!”, is the completely dilapidated apartment where Ratso coughs his guts out while Joe can do nothing for him. John Schlesinger brings the tail end of the British kitchen sink to America, stylizing it a little more (the color sure helps) and meeting the more psychedelic and hard drug elements of the Yankee zeitgeist head-on. There’s a lot that works, and yet it never does hit home. I found an emotional roadblock in the film because there’s no way into the characters except to watch them like we would watch animals at the zoo. Hoffman’s performance as Ratso is the best thing Midnight Cowboy has going for it, but Ratso is so loathsome that it’s difficult to feel sympathy for him even while he’s expiring on a bus to Florida. Voight’s Joe is a kind of Texan Barry Lyndon, but unfortunately there’s no outside cast of cutthroats and rogues fascinating enough for him to play off. It’s a movie that one wants to like—and in terms of offbeat buddy movies from this year, I’d rather have Midnight Cowboy than Butch Cassidy—but it slides off the mind a little too easily.

On the other hand, Z is an absolutely unforgettable movie, one that leaves you breathless and moved and afraid. Costa-Gavras makes, in the sense of dread that the viewer feels for the oppressed, a procedural Battle of Algiers for Greece. It seems implausible that so many things can go wrong for the left, who are asking for little more than the basic right to speak freely or for their suits to be heard or for transparent justice to be done. But when Yves Montand goes down, struck with a club wielded from a moving vehicle, that dread begins to build; even if he was losing his faith in his cause, as the leader is painted, he is still a symbol of hope. We watch him assassinated in clear view, and we almost immediately hear that he was killed by a drunk driver. The lies are brazen in Z, and the progress in uncovering even the simplest of them requires the serendipitous presence of a nosy photographer and the tireless professionalism of a straitlaced bureaucrat. Z is a warning to its viewers, one part Tom Paine and two parts castor oil. Even when Jean-Louis Trintignant’s magistrate collects the evidence to show that the leftist leader was murdered by the right-wing government, the epilogue makes it clear that change will be slow to come: the right-wing government covers up again, with more murders and jail sentences, and is ultimately replaced with a military coup. There’s not an ounce of uplift in Z, but there’s enough rage and bile to make a fiery, branding cocktail.

 

57) Chicago, 75th Academy Awards, directed by Rob Marshall

What should have won: The Pianist

Worth noting: Literally every nominee that year was more interesting than Chicago, which is a perfectly solid movie, but because all of you remember that The Two Towers and Gangs of New York were nominated that year, I’ll go ahead and throw The Hours into this spot, a movie which certainly outdoes the novel it’s based on and has as many good performances as one can hope for in a picture anymore.

By my humble reckoning, here are the best scenes from each of the five movies nominated for Best Picture at the 75th ceremony:

Chicago: “Cell Block Tango”

Gangs of New York: the Battle of the Five Points (the first one, definitely not the second one)

The Hours: Laura Brown gets a hotel room and tries to decide what to do

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: the Evenstar sequence

The Pianist: a resigned Szpilman plays Chopin’s Ballade No 1 in G minor

 

The Pianist, in my opinion, is the best movie of the nominees and also has the best scene of the nominees. It’s one of the most heartbreaking and exhilarating five minutes you can hope for, pared down to the relative simplicities of color, light, exhaustion, finality, and memory. The entire movie leads up to this single scene, and the payoff is extraordinary.

The “Cell Block Tango” scene is a great one on its own merits! It’s a seriously stylish bit of filmmaking, and while most of the musical numbers in Chicago emphasize the whole “All the world’s a stage” bit the movie is doing, “Cell Block Tango” leaves the stage more or less out of it and focuses on black, blue, red, and just once, white. Within the movie, only “Mr. Cellophane” comes close to “Cell Block Tango” for lighting and performance. (I apologize for the link before, but I figured you’d rather have subtitles and the full frame than a weird series of close-ups. Also you’ve definitely seen this a million times.)

But where the best scene from The Pianist has the best scene from Chicago is the emotional pull. “Cell Block Tango” is a rapture of choreography and movement, and I can’t help but feel that our emotions after seeing it are about the movie’s veneer instead of the movie’s vitals. There’s an awful lot of movie after “Cell Block Tango,” and very little of it builds on whatever connection we’ve made to the six married murderesses of the Cook County Jail. In other words, Chicago takes the performance angle a little bit too far with this number, which is an outlier within the film because it doesn’t do much to advance the plot. Chicago is not an homage to nor a descendant of those ’50s MGM musicals, where the songs and dances were basically stapled onto a story, and for that reason “Cell Block Tango” is a little empty compared even to an inferior number like “We Both Reached for the Gun” or “All I Care About.” Szpilman’s plight as one of the last living Jews in Warsaw and his desperate attempts to keep living in a world without reason or kindness make us feel for him; never before or again will there be a jar of pickles in a movie that I develop an emotional attachment to like it’s a cat. Being found out by a Nazi officer after so much suffering—and being sent to the piano for what appears to be his last performance—is overwhelming.

Another thing The Pianist has that Chicago doesn’t, and here’s where Chicago has a distinct but broad advantage, is that The Pianist has Roman Polanski. I think The Pianist is on another tier from any of the other movies nominated for Best Picture that year, but I am troubled that it was nominated for any Oscars at all given that Polanski has pled guilty to the rape of a thirteen-year-old. If I had the power to wipe the field clean, The Pianist would not have been eligible for awards, much less the Best Director statuette that Polanski couldn’t take home because he’d have been arrested as soon as he stepped on American soil.

 

56) The Departed, 79th Academy Awards, directed by Martin Scorsese

What should have won: (squeezes eyes really tightly) Babel

Worth noting: The Queen has the sort of pleasantly bland production values and the kind of strong performances which make it a perfectly adequate movie.

We’ve firmly reached the point in our rundown of Best Picture winners where we find fun, entertaining, diverting, and even interesting in parts. What these movies have in common is that their punches graze rather than land. The Departed has some worthwhile moments when Leonardo DiCaprio is questioning his involvement with this convoluted sting operation at all, and Vera Farmiga is a worthy opponent for him while he’s getting therapy. (I sort of miss that five year period where Vera Farmiga was getting movie work; she has such a coolness in her demeanor that I don’t think can be taught.) Martin Sheen does fine as a veteran cop who’s managed to stay honest, which is a role he’s kind of been working up to since the ’80s. But everyone else is a real chore. Nicholson’s vitality is totally absent from this movie, which is a shame given how central Frank Costello is to the picture. Matt Damon plays his part a little punch-drunk. Mark Wahlberg is in this movie, heaven help us, trying to pull off lines like “I’m the guy who does his job! You must be the other guy!” Even Martin Scorsese, who as we all know has a knack for this kind of thing, doesn’t add anything new to this crime story that we haven’t come across already. What a tired movie this is on the whole, much closer to the excesses of Casino than the energy of Mean Streets: punch, blood, rock music, remorse, do it all over again. There’s the sense that we’ve been here before, like listening to a friend tell a joke you’ve heard six or seven times already and which was only moderately funny the first time. It’s still a decent movie, but I really doubt I would be talking about this movie right now if they’d given Scorsese Best Picture/Director before, even if it was for The Aviator and not one of his more universally recognized classics.

I don’t think Babel is any better than The Departed, if I’m honest, but Babel at least has some ambition. The Departed is another gangster movie from a guy who is associated with gangster movies, based on a movie that already exists in a much better form. (I have not even entered into my calculus how annoying it is that The Departed kickstarted that endless trend of Boston movies that I have no patience for.) Babel is political and global, actually achieving on some level whatever Crash thought it was trying to achieve. The short version of the movie is “A rifle belonging to a Japanese businessman is given to a Moroccan, who sells it to a neighbor who keeps goats, whose sons shoot down an American tourist whose children are brought to a Mexican wedding.” But that elides how much time is given to the individuals from each nation and of each tribe. Instead of blandly trying to subvert our expectations in search of “depth,” Babel tries to dig into the people in each setting. Chieko has not recovered from her mother’s death, and throws herself so violently at potential solutions that it hurts us as it must surely hurt her father, too. A high-powered rifle is too cool for the poor sons of a shepherd, both of whom feel their own iniquities and inadequacies deeply. Yussef must know how wrong his flirtation is with his sister is, but also feels compelled to compete for his father’s affection; Ahmed is so clumsy and bumbling, but he has a moral inclination that shines through for us but not for those inured to his ineptitude. Amelia wants to do the right thing by being at her son’s wedding but is completely unable to work around the excesses of her job. Just about everyone is victimized in Babel, but I place her at the top of my list, given a sharp punishment for the smallest of infractions. The Departed not only doesn’t have anyone like her, but it doesn’t have anyone who can bring that sort of pathos into play.

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