Better than the Oscars: 40-36

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!

 

40) The Sting, 46th Academy Awards, directed by George Roy Hill

What should have won: Cries and Whispers

Worth noting: Sorry, The Exorcist. This would be fairly open-and-shut if they hadn’t decided to randomly nominate Ingmar Bergman at this ceremony.

While the New Hollywood was probably at the apex of its studio clout, The Sting won Best Picture behind two legendary Hollywood stars, a fairly orthodox director, and production on a backlot. Same as it ever was. As a retro joint, The Sting is also more than passable, and at times genuinely entertaining piece. It has the look of a past that will never hold, symbolized by that unexpected merry-go-round Gondorff is taking care of. There are some gents in this movie who belong in the getup of the times. Aside from Robert Redford’s pinstripes and Paul Newman’s general chic, Robert Shaw carries his suits impeccably; I rather like Charles Durning, who would have been a blast from the past in any era, somehow, in his crumpled hat and sweeping coat. My inclination is to say there’s too much Redford and not enough Newman, but part of what makes Gondorff far more interesting than Hooker is his mystique, the sense that he is the human manifestation of “I may have taught you everything you know, but I didn’t teach you everything I know.” Hooker may believe that he’s a smooth operator, but it becomes abundantly clear that without the help of someone to take care of him, either a mentor like Luther or a business connection like Gondorff, he is careless at best and even a little reckless. Even when Gondorff is relying on Hooker to manage his own significant end of their con, he cannot leave him unsupervised, and the fact that Gondorff plans so far ahead for his junior partner says everything about the older man’s caution and the younger man’s implicit trust in the world around him. This is a long way of saying that Newman’s performance anchors the movie, but that Redford’s fills it.

The Sting is a fun movie, complete with its little twist at the end to ensure we all go home happy, but as I’ve mentioned in a very long conversation, Cries and Whispers has an argument for “greatest movie ever made,” and on those merits not even a true American classic like The Exorcist can hold a candle to it. It would be easy to make a stakes-based argument, though I would stop short of saying that one movie is better than another because of its genre. The degree of difficulty is entirely different though, the difference between preparing a pencil sketch and a sculpture. Bergman assembles a plurality of his greatest collaborators basically at the height of their powers—Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, Erland Josephson, Harriet Andersson, and of course Sven Nykvist—and brings his flawless eye for composition of a shot to all of it. In a bloodred house, Agnes is dying a pale death, wasting away in her bed from cancer, and doing so mostly on her own. The existential fear of death, of disappearing entirely in a lonely faint buzz amplified only by the sheer physical suffering it will take to do it, is more monstrously conveyed in this movie than in any of Bergman’s others; the distance and shallow cruelty, the loathing of other people due to a darkness in oneself, may be equaled in Winter Light or Persona but I doubt it. Cries and Whispers is atmospheric and haunting, memorable in images that make their way behind your eyes as you’re blinking or falling asleep for weeks after the fact and each time imbued with the power to move. The fact that it stays within a person for so long puts it within a rare elect.

 

39) The Silence of the Lambs, 64th Academy Awards, directed by Jonathan Demme

What should have won: Beauty and the Beast

Worth noting: JFK is probably my favorite movie nominated this year, but heaven knows that’s a mess in a way that neither Silence of the Lambs nor Beauty and the Beast are.

To me, if you’re going to rate The Silence of the Lambs highly, you have to be rating more than Anthony Hopkins’ performance or Demme’s strong but hardly revolutionary direction: you have to believe that the story is especially good, and I’ve never found that to be the case. Does anyone think that Clarice Starling and Jack Crawford’s mission to track down the serial killer who has kidnapped a senator’s daughter is much more engaging than your average SVU episode? The scene where only Starling manages to stumble into Buffalo Bill’s hideout is a serious letdown, somehow even more anticlimactic than the sight of a bunch of federal agents rushing in there and pinning Bill to the ground would have been. He follows Clarice through his night vision goggles with the sort of deliberation that does not befit a movie with the gritty aspirations of this one. Gene Siskel, rather famously, found the movie’s insistence that we pull for Hannibal Lecter basically immoral, and rejected the movie on that basis. “Immoral” is sort of a strong word, though someday we’re all going to remember The Silence of the Lambs as the Gone with the Wind of transphobia. My contention is that the scenes between Hopkins and Jodie Foster are great. They’re a highlight of taut dialogue, the sublimated chess match of any conversation brought into stark relief where we might see it most clearly. (Certainly that’s more interesting than the “It’s, uh, super dark, and people can be like, really bad” critique of Silence of the Lambs.) Foster is crucial to those scenes, too, because she’s the reason that Hopkins’ performance is not awfully campy. She brings a total seriousness to the role that makes those famous lines about fava beans and Chianti into more than a Cormanesque cannibal exploitation bit. As sad as it is that her win for Silence of the Lambs denied both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis Best Actress wins for Thelma and Louise, Foster certainly had to do a lot more work than Hopkins for this film to work.

Up to that point, Beauty and the Beast may well have been the greatest animated feature ever made in this country, and while its somewhat sticky sweetness makes it harder to advocate for in rooms full of adults than the movie where a guy chews off his guard’s face and then wears it (which probably says more about adults than we’d care to think about), it’s no more or less subtle than The Silence of the Lambs. Indeed, there are a host of surprising similarities between the two movies: a bright but inexperienced woman is thrust into a situation where she must learn to play on the monster’s terms in order to get what she wants. Truly, there’s more to work with in Beauty and the Beast, which believes that the monster can be humanized once again and thus integrates the monster fully into the story rather than stapling him on because that’s the most interesting part. The addition of Gaston as a foil to the Beast lends the film a more effective structure for characterization as well. Simple as it is, Belle’s rejection of convention (which would have been unanimously praised by her village, including her father) allows us to see both paths she might take, including the adventurous and unpredictable one she ultimately chooses. Indeed it helps make her a more tolerant person; in “Belle,” what we get is mostly a criticism of small-town life, where by the end of the movie she has vastly changed her perspective on how to interact with those unlike herself.

 

38) The Hurt Locker, 82nd Academy Awards, directed by Kathryn Bigelow

What should have won: A Serious Man

Worth noting: Inglourious Basterds is a hair behind A Serious Man for me, partly because I think Serious Man will age better and partly because, as we’ll see, A Serious Man has a tonal command that is more impressive to me than some of the great scenes in Inglourious Basterds or The Hurt Locker.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are shaping up to be the first American wars without a host of good movies behind them since the brief Persian Gulf War, but before that you have to go back to Korea, and before that you have to go back to the Spanish-American War, fought when the cinema was still a kid. (There’s a good argument that the two American movies with the strongest Korean War connections, M*A*S*H and The Manchurian Candidate, outstrip any narrative movie made about boots on the ground in the War on Terror.) I think The Hurt Locker is going to go down as the only really good movie about the war, and that says something about our interest in the war as a culture. It does do an awful lot right in its mirroring of our own sensibilities about the war. It has little interest in geopolitics and a great deal of interest in the boys in desert camo; there’s flimsy bombast for days; its protagonist, rather like the president, is allergic to that wonderful piece of advice, “Wait and see.” The casting of Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty as the actively reckless IED-defusing specialist, his cautious and disenchanted second, and the kid whose innocence cries out for him to be hideously blown up is still potent. You can’t get through a review of the movie (or the 82nd Oscars, for that matter) without stepping over some praise for the movie’s technical side, but this movie works primarily because the tension between Renner and Mackie is only met with the tension we feel when James puts others in danger to feed his druggie thrill-seeking. There is such justice at the end of the movie, when all of his braggadocio and swagger is eliminated when he cannot save a man who has been made into a suicide bomber against his will. Renner, who has been a nightmare of a human being for going on two hours at that point, sells the shame he feels as he sees the countdown clock going and he tries to tell that man, No, I can’t do it, I can’t save you.

There was no way that A Serious Man was going to win the Oscar for Best Picture that year—as shallow as the Best Picture field seemed to me then, having whiffed on some of the best movies of the year, a top five of The Hurt Locker, Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, Up, and A Serious Man still leaves out worthy flicks like Precious and Up in the Air—and yet there’s a good case to be made that A Serious Man is the best of the bunch. We’re still waiting on that first great movie based on a Philip Roth novel, and while A Serious Man is an original story, it’s the only really good movie I’ve seen that reminds me of his work (probably because Roth and the Coens are indebted to the story of Job). Larry Gopnik has the same kind of helpless frustration within him that characterizes so much of Roth’s comic work; from the get-go he is tugged at by situations which to him (and then to us) feel totally absurd. He is absolutely blindsided by the divorce proceedings that his wife wants to bring forward; she may want to be divorced, but the thought of it has never entered his head. He is blackmailed, either quite badly or quite effectively, by a student who has failed his Physics exam. His rabbis are too young, too cryptic, or too distant to comfort him. His children’s inattention to him, their concerns primarily with the occupation of the bathroom and the angling of the TV antennae, is unpalatable but somehow makes more sense than anything else going on in his life. The film is, for all of the troubles in Larry’s life and all the danger that the end of the movie foretells, incredibly light. It’s the sort of movie which prizes balance, pivoting from a pair of stylized car crashes to long monologues about mysterious dental messages with marvelous understated deftness.

 

37) Gandhi, 55th Academy Awards, directed by Richard Attenborough

What should have won: Missing

Worth noting: It’s a very difficult choice between Tootsie and Missing, so much so that I wouldn’t blame you at all if you had them flipped in terms of quality.

Gandhi does not make for particularly good history. (If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: if you want history, read a frickin’ book instead of relying on the movies to teach you something.) What it is, and this is no small feat over a running time of better than three hours, is deeply compelling. The best scenes in the movie are not primarily about Gandhi, though Ben Kingsley is of course masterful in this role. They are scenes which highlight the key moments in the long, arduous fight of Indian independence, scenes which depict the immense cruelty of imperialism and the inescapable evils therein. The massacre at Amritsar and especially the protest at the Dharasana salt works are painful, heartbreaking scenes which emphasize that beyond the peacenik philosophy that can be expressed in a movie like this, there is a reason for Gandhi to call for independence at all. Gandhi also places the credit for Indian independence pretty squarely on Indians rather than finding some glib way to nod to the crown or the British government or something like that. In one scene, Gandhi tells a dear friend to leave India and take another job so it will not appear to the outside world that white people must shepherd the cause. As gentle as the movie makes him, it does not shy away from scenes which emphasize the difficult, perhaps even unkind impulses of the man. So firmly does he place principle before people that he literally shoves his wife out the door when she refuses to take on an onerous task at a commune, or alternately faces real physical pain in order to continue making what are really only symbolic protests. In Gandhi, the title character believes firmly in the gesture as much as he does practicality, and that sort of idealism is appealing enough to make us take notice over a period of decades.

The other bleeding-heart political film of the field, Missing, is far less vast in scope but points the finger of blame with even more indignation than Gandhi. An American who knows a little too much about his country’s involvement in the Pinochet coup of 1973 disappears, and despite the fact that his wife is in Chile and his father comes to Chile to unearth Charlie, the government seems incapable of discovering the fate of a single, somewhat naive citizen. Our worst fears are obviously true from the beginning—Charlie Horman is certainly dead, and the CIA is absolutely complicit in it—but the film does a good job of creating significant dread along the way, tapping into the ineffective bleating of his wife, Beth, and the conservative credulity of his father, Ed. Beth, a lefty and a little bit of a flake, is certain that the American government is stonewalling her. Ed, a Christian Scientist and a businessman, can’t imagine that Americans would have any role in harming Americans. It’s that contrast in characters which opens up Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon. Spacek is as good at being petulant-while-right as anyone, and Lemmon accesses the stiff, difficult side of his acting which puts him a little against type. What becomes more and more clear to them as they understand each other more and more is that Beth is right. Eventually they receive word that Charlie is dead, and has been dead for weeks; this is followed almost immediately by a request for them to come to the embassy so someone can say they think Charlie is in hiding. The movie does not shy away from showing cruelty—one scene is basically a room of bodies that Beth and Ed poke through in the hopes of finding a familiar corpse, and another discusses how much it will cost Ed to ship Charlie’s corpse back to America—but it excels in bringing out anxiety. In the beginning of the movie, Beth is out after curfew and has to hide in a couple spots to avoid the military sweeping the streets; a white horse gallops past her like a specter. A woman is taken into custody because she isn’t wearing a dress. Gunfire erupts at random, putting Ed at the very fraying edges of his nerves. Missing is not on the same level as Z in overall quality, but for what it’s worth, it is a much sadder movie.

 

36) Spotlight, 88th Academy Awards, directed by Tom McCarthy

What should have won: Mad Max: Fury Road

Worth noting: Brooklyn is one of the best romantic movies of the 21st Century, and it kills me that I’m not talking about it here instead of Fury Road.

Spotlight is about as good as a “based on a true story” journalism movie can be, which for whatever reason appears to be the only kind of journalism movie we have left, and as such it also highlights the fairly low ceiling of such a movie. Mercifully it does not saturate us with twists and turns, especially when all of us have some sense of how things are going to turn out; it manages to maintain the surprise aspects of discovery (as when the team figures out the code for “guilty priest” in the records) without treating them like world-shaking epiphanies.. It puts the twists and turns firmly inside its people: Robby Robinson’s overdue reckoning with his historical privilege, Sacha Pfeiffer’s consideration of how her work will offend her family, Matt Carroll’s consideration of how his work will protect his family, Mark Rezendes’ introspection about how the investigation has ruined his faith for good. That Spotlight manages to keep the story of tremendous evildoing, both in what was done by priests and what was left undone by their superiors, in view with the stories of the Spotlight team is really an underrated strength. The two elements of the story in concert, the 1A and 1B of Spotlight, are the aspirations and anchors of the film.

Mad Max: Fury Road is the ultimate high-ceiling movie, and while I don’t pretend to be an expert on Australian movies, it ranks for me with the undisputed classics of the 1970s like Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock. People lament that broccoli can’t taste like potato chips: Fury Road is the potato chip with 150% of your Vitamin C packed into it. Stellar direction meets outrageous action setpieces which are augmented, not effected, through CGI. (I cannot overstate how meaningful that is.) Its politics are clear—pro-feminism and cooperation between the sexes, pro-environmentalism and husbandry—but it trusts the viewers enough to read those admirable goals without feeling suffocated by them. Even its screenplay, which I’m not sure got a lot of attention at the time, speaks to me as an intensely creative document. It forecasts aspects of linguistic change based on the needs of the society, adding in the weird cultish mantras of a culture which has come to revere Immortan Joe as a god. Fury Road is endlessly entertaining, endlessly rewatchable, and would have been the best blockbuster winner in over a decade.

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