Better than the Oscars: 15-11

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!

 

15) On the Waterfront, 27th Academy Awards, directed by Elia Kazan

What should have won: (through clenched teeth) They picked the right movie from this bunch. But boy, this is the wrong bunch. Just among movies nominated in other categories but not for Best Picture, I think we could make a better all-around top five: Rear Window, Forbidden Games, The Earrings of Madame de…, Sabrina, A Star is Born.

Worth noting: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is too uneven to seriously challenge On the Waterfront, but maybe when I’m older, grumpier, and more iconoclastic I’ll write that post about how the barn raising party is a more interesting scene than “I coulda been a contendah.”

On the Waterfront, no matter where you place it in your Best Picture hierarchies, is one of the best-acted movies among that group; in fact, the acting is so much better than the rest of the film that I think it’s easy to overrate the picture a little bit. On a recent episode of The Lowe Post, Zach Lowe criticized the propensity we have to think that because a basketball player is all-offense and no-defense that the offense must be especially good. On the Waterfront is quite a bit better than that—it’s better than Jabari Parker, in other words—but there are certainly many aspects of the film which leave us wanting. I’ve never been sold on the editing in the film, as I detail in my original post, and the film’s great patience in developing its characters is not immune to anticlimax; I like Eva-Marie Saint and  I still don’t really understand what she’s doing in this movie. And as much as I usually try to judge a movie solely on what appears on the screen, so much of the film’s subtext relies on Elia Kazan’s role as friendly testimony for HUAC. Kazan sympathizes with Terry, as we do, but we sympathize with Terry because he wants to live an honest life and cannot do it surrounded by the present cast of dishonest men; if Kazan wants to explain away his role as a McCarthyite stool pigeon through the story of longshoremen, he has another thing coming. It creates double vision in the movie, for On the Waterfront truly does side with the working class and historically Elia Kazan threw in his lot with the Johnny Friendlys of the world.

But the acting, as always seems to be the case in Kazan, still works extraordinarily well. For my money, Terry Malloy is just below Stanley Kowalski in the Marlon Brando firmament. Perhaps his most underrated skill as an actor was his ability to turn in an odd-sounding or corny phrase into an absolute classic. In fact most of his best lines are like that: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “STELLA!” and “I coulda been a contender” are dangerous at best for even the finest of Brando’s muscular contemporaries. Paul Newman and William Holden couldn’t have made those work. Burt Lancaster had too much dignity for that much abasement. Rock Hudson was too quiet. James Dean probably could have taken a whack at “I coulda been a contender,” but might only have had “STELLA!” on a good day. Of Brando’s peers, only Monty Clift could have thrown himself at “I coulda been a contender,” but the fact remains that his pecs weren’t as big as Brando’s. Surrounding Brando are no-names or small-names who make themselves fitting scenery. Karl Malden and Rod Steiger give the best performances of their careers in support, and while I like Lee J. Cobb better in other pictures, he is as much the center of this movie’s orbit as Brando for sheer gravity.

 

14) Annie Hall, 50th Academy Awards, directed by Woody Allen

What should have won: Star Wars

Worth noting: There’s really not a good third option this year, unless you’ve got a thing for The Turning Point, I guess.

Let’s call Annie Hall a romantic comedy, and let’s call Star Wars a “blockbuster from an original screenplay.” Forty years later, Annie Hall and Star Wars, which are genuine game-changers within their genres, are like parents living long enough to bury their children. The romantic comedy has moved to television, especially streaming television, and a movie like Netflix’s Set It Up is noteworthy not because it’s a really great flick but because it so happily lives in the ’90s despite its present-day setting. The blockbuster is more important than ever, but it’s important that the blockbuster have its plot more or less cribbed from another source. Once again, television has the prime example in Game of Thrones, but in the glut of superhero movies based on Marvel or DC properties we have witnessed the longest wringing of a wet mop in recorded history. Even the relatively original properties (including Star Wars, but I have Pirates of the Caribbean in mind here because a ride seems less focused on a narrative than decades of comic books) are so deep in their sequels that the original property feels terribly distant. The romantic comedy, happy ending or otherwise, is fading as a popular form like disaster movies or cowboy pictures or screwball comedies faded; the original blockbuster has been adapted into submission. (I’m not even going to get into Woody Allen’s possible guilt, because that’s a whole ‘nother issue.) The thing about parents burying kids is that someone else will end up burying the old folks. At this point I’ve written about an awful lot of Best Picture winners that have basically fallen out of the public imagination. Annie Hall may become Twentieth Century in the near future: revolutionary, popular in its day, and little remembered by casual movie watchers. Star Wars is an even more interesting movie because the people who were fans when it first came out are in their fifties and more; meanwhile, the fanbase is eating itself over The Last Jedi, which gave neckbeards a natural enemy to succeed Hillary Clinton. Like Christians who have read their favorite Bible verses in devotionals without reading their Bibles, so much of the Star Wars fanbase has cherrypicked what they love about the movies while leaving out what doesn’t seem to fit in their cosmology.

I guess I said all that because it’s a way to avoid the real problem of Annie Hall versus Star Wars, which is that no Academy Awards ceremony puts forth the silliness of judging one movie against another in this fashion like this 50th iteration does. One wishes for Star Wars to win “Outstanding Production” and Annie Hall to win “Unique and Artistic” like it was still 1928, or for a Picture/Director split. Also, let’s be real: if the spiritual equivalents of these two movies were the frontrunners for Best Picture in three or four years, most of us would probably stan for the Annie Hall descendant. What Annie Hall has going for it is a very good script and a quirky structure that frequently subverts our expectations. The latter is more appealing in the abstract than the absolutely straight-arrow work Star Wars does with its plot. The characters are more complex in Annie Hall, and the way they are built requires much more dexterity. (By the way: if one more fan of Star Wars says the words “hero’s journey” on the Internet again, I’m going to make like Alvy Singer, pull Vladimir Propp and Roman Jakobson out from behind a display, and give them leave to beat that person with their fists.) Annie Hall is a deeper movie, but Star Wars is a satisfying one, maybe even uniquely satisfying. Nor is it totally empty; Woody Allen and Diane Keaton aren’t acting on a different plane than Harrison Ford is, and Star Wars is still one of the great leaps forward in visual effects. And when it comes down to it, Annie Hall is sort of a drag once Diane Keaton starts singing. That’s enough to make the difference in this humble, slightly confused evaluation.

 

13) The Bridge on the River Kwai, 30th Academy Awards, directed by David Lean

What should have won: They picked the right one again! I love getting to the top of this list!

Worth noting: I would have to go back and look at Witness for the Prosecution again, but it’s got a great twist. (12 Angry Men is, at this point, a good classic movie for people who think that ’80s blockbusters are the apogee of cinema.)

For ten years, from the 24th to the 33rd Academy Awards, ten different men won Best Actor, and seven and a half of them are classic American he-men: Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, William Holden, Marlon Brando, Ernest Borgnine, Yul Brynner (the whole “born in Russia” thing docks him half a point), Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster. Just typing that list gave me more chest hair. And then, at the 30th and 31st ceremonies, a pair of slim, versatile Englishmen won the statuette. Alec Guinness’s Colonel Nicholson—and David Niven, who would have been Nicholson if like, Stanley Kramer had directed this movie—is the ultimate counter to tough-talkin’ beefcake, a martyr wearing a cilice of self-denial and received pronunciation. Ironically, Guinness will always stand out most for his wonderful comic roles, but it’s this humorless soldier serving a colonial life sentence he got the big prize for. He’s marvelous in the role, which goes without saying by now.

Most of the movie’s best scenes, either for pathos or sheer horror, are highlighted by Guinness’ performance. Once he’s out of the hotbox, he goes about building a perfect bridge for the Japanese in sequences which befuddle his men as much as they befuddle us in the audience. The payoff is a wild-eyed Nicholson who takes off his hat outdoors, the scandal, and mutters to himself, “What have I done.” He is also at the center of the movie’s most moving scenes, even when we think he’s crackers. Nicholson, his voice husky, bears up for a dinner meeting with Saito; he speaks quietly to Saito again once the bridge has been completed, or perhaps it’s really to himself. The bridge is, we can tell, the single accomplishment of his career that he expects to outlive him. It’s a moment that has to be acted with such enormous precision, balancing enough quiet pride that we empathize with him alongside the disgusting collaborationist mindset that this pride has engendered. For all of that, though, Guinness is in this movie less than you’d think. William Holden’s Shears is the protagonist of the film and its top-billed star, and I’d guess that Jack Hawkins, who fills up the second half of the movie, has nearly as much as screen time as Guinness. Bridge on the River Kwai needs Shears’ desperate attachment to life and Warden’s pragmatically suicidal approach to duty to act as counterpoints The most taut scene of the film, as well it ought to be, is at the end of the picture. Holden, Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, and Geoffrey Horne all share time with the bridge and the exposed wire, but it’s Guinness who ties the whole thing together. The scene quite literally revolves around his discovery of the wire, his protection of the bridge, and his return to sanity: there is an arc of commandos who close in on and ultimately kill Nicholson.

 

12) All Quiet on the Western Front, 3rd Academy Awards, directed by Lewis Milestone

What should have won: All Quiet is still one of the great war movies, and a clear best option for this ceremony.

Worth noting: The Big House has its heart in a similar place, though the execution isn’t quite at the same level.

All Quiet on the Western Front stands out because of how little it relies on melodrama. The previous belt holder for “Best American War Picture,” The Big Parade, uses melodrama as a turning point before ending with some awfully maudlin scenes. American World War II movies from the 1940s tend to have a similar problem; even though I wouldn’t characterize either They Were Expendable or Battleground as especially great pictures, they stand out among their peers as fairly unsentimental about combat. They tend to leave their melodrama at the door before they reach a denouement. Even the documentaries of World War II tend to be pretty slick; excepting only a few standouts from the post-WWII generation of filmmakers (The Big Red One, The Thin Red Line), World War II tends to be fairly schlocky material anymore. Vietnam is absolutely candy-coated. Comparatively, All Quiet on the Western Front is so deft at holding its sentimentality as long as it can. (The reason that the film isn’t higher on this list is because while the movie is pretty hard-boiled, most of the actors don’t seem to have gotten the message. Lew Ayres is alas, a little too matinee idol for the movie.) The film ends, for heaven’s sake, with our protagonist reaching out for a butterfly and thus exposing himself to enemy sniper fire; it doesn’t have to be subtle, but it absolutely saves its melodrama. Earlier chances for something Romantic or meaningful are rendered ashen. Paul takes a furlough home only to find that the war that has changed him at the soul level has only served to make his fellow countrymen behind the front more foolish. The teacher who whipped Paul and his buddies into a frenzy for enlistment is doing the same to the next crop of teenagers. Old men in a cafe with their maps in front of them are sure that the German army can still push into Paris when they are mere months from the abdication of the kaiser. A buddy is shot and badly hurt; when it becomes clear that he will no longer be able to wear his good boots, the vultures begin circling. All Quiet on the Western Front kills off, maims, etc. a whole bunch of Paul’s friends; each one of their situations is ultimately reason for disgust rather than tears. It’s a tremendous accomplishment for a movie that would land like a mortar on the movie firmament if it had been released yesterday.

 

11) The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, 76th Academy Awards, directed by Peter Jackson

What should have won: It’s Return of the King, weirdly enough. I know. It’s not really what I was expecting.

Worth noting: Master and Commander is still an incredibly underrated movie, and I cannot wait for it to be 2043 so we can all reevaluate it together along with other questionable decisions like, “Boy, that was a lot of pollution and now giraffes are extinct!” and “Did every movie need a colon?”

I remember reading somewhere that if you think about Lord of the Rings as a single movie (a pretension I usually don’t care for, although I think I’d make an exception here which I’ll explain in a sec), the fact that its ending is the length of a Game of Thrones episode is not an issue. For a movie which has gone on eight-plus hours, taking forty-five minutes to an hour to finish seems appropriate given the scope of the thing. My sympathy to the “It’s one movie!” business is that Lord of the Rings really is a single story in a way that other trilogies (the Before movies, any Star Wars trilogy, Toy Story, The Godfather, whatever) aren’t. In your regular trilogy, time elapses between films, or new twists in a sequel weaken the standalone nature of the first picture. But Lord of the Rings was filmed all at once, each movie leads into another, and the overall effect is less “Aragorn is doing his thing over here and Frodo is doing his thing over there” but “This is what would happen if the American Revolution were made into a nine-hour epic.” Return of the King is easily the worst of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, yet still very good on its own merits and part of something truly exceptional if it gets to borrow some merits from its predecessors. It went eleven for eleven on Oscar night, which is probably overkill unless it’s a reward for what is probably the last great epic film of its kind. (Heck, there’s a fair argument that if the Academy hadn’t been baffled by Mystic River, of all things, they could have given Viggo Mortensen a nomination for Best Actor or Sean Astin one for Best Supporting Actor. Then it probably goes 11-13 for Return of the King, but it would be fairer on the whole.) The only challenger for its throne, so to speak, airs on HBO, and the failure of the three Hobbit movies, a trilogy relegated to afternoons and late nights on AMC and TBS, is probably more instructive than the vast success of the Lord of the Rings movies.

Master and Commander, another one of that “final specimens of its species” type, is not all that far off in quality from Return of the King, although it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it would have won Best Picture. In my estimation, insofar as Academy Awards have runners-up, Mystic River was the second-place movie because of Clint Eastwood’s devil magic; Lost in Translation, arguably the best-remembered English-language movie of 2003, would have been a distant third. (Two nominations from that ceremony make me wonder at what might have been. What if City of God, which earned Fernando Meirelles a Best Director nod, and Pirates of the Caribbean, which earned Johnny Depp a Best Actor nod, had been nominated instead of Mystic River and Seabiscuit? Would they have stood a chance? Certainly they’re more deserving pictures than the alternatives.) And yet…Master and Commander had just one nomination fewer than Return of the King, and while it got hammered by its epic peer it is probably the more enjoyable movie to sit down and watch by itself today. Master and Commander is frequently thrilling, especially if you’re into the whole Napoleonic naval battle business, but even if that’s not your cup of tea the film has other options available to you. There are classical duets courtesy of the captain and his best friend, the surgeon; there is constant intrigue and scuffling below decks. Above all there is a trip to the Galapagos where most movies wouldn’t dare to place that kind of interlude, and yet it works beautifully in the flow of the film.

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