Better than the Oscars: 10-6

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!

 

10) 12 Years a Slave, 86th Academy Awards, directed by Steve McQueen

What should have won: The right movie won.

Worth noting: Remember when all those people liked American Hustle? Good gravy, I am glad the David O. Russell phase we all went through is over. Seriously, though, Her is at least interesting.

One of the lessons I’ve learned about Best Picture winners while writing all this, which I suppose I knew already but never could put so succinctly before, is that they are driven by actors. Great directors help in the search for gold, but for every Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, or Orson Welles who were shut out of Best Director, there is a Tom Hooper, John G. Avildsen, or Michel Hazanavicius who has one on his mantel. In the past decade, no movie has made that so clear as 12 Years a Slave, which features a remarkable and somehow underrated leading performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor and brilliant cast of supporting actors doing some of their best, most naked work: Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti…it’s a long list. There’s a reliance, too, on actors whose most memorable work is from television. Sarah Paulson and Taran Killam are unrecognizably evil; Michael K. Williams is haunting in a very small part. Ironically, the greatest missteps in 12 Years a Slave are acting related. Michael Fassbender, whose work in Hunger and Shame is the acting equivalent of watching a human being flay himself so he can put his skin on you like a jacket, never does strike the right tone. Compared to Ejiofor, Nyong’o, and Paulson he sounds false. And then of course there’s the presence of Brad Pitt as a Canadian who helps Solomon get a letter to the right people. Pitt does perfectly well in the part, which is not the issue; I also think the notion that 12 Years uses a Hollywood-friendly white savior narrative to get Solomon back to his family is patently bizarre, seeing as Samuel Bass is a real guy and this movie is based on a real people. As I’ve noted above, 12 Years a Slave has more recognizable faces than any movie this side of Love Actually; the movie simply can’t handle an A-list icon like Brad Pitt, who I remember drew me out of the movie and kept me out of the movie for his entire time on screen. (I honestly think they could have overcome that by telling Pitt he could have any kind of facial hair besides the beard he appears to have chosen.)

Steve McQueen, on the other hand, was beaten out for Best Director by Alfonso Cuaron, which is only going to sound more ridiculous the further we get from 2013. I feel like I talk about this all the time, but the negative reviews of 12 Years a Slave blame McQueen to the exception of anyone else for what doesn’t work. Even Adam Nayman, who I really respect as a critic, wrote:

Three movies into his second career as a feature filmmaker, McQueen has leveraged his obvious skills as an installation artist into becoming the modern master of a certain kind of set piece—the literal show-stopper, in which the movie grinds to a halt to beg our applause.

I think that’s an incredibly cynical way to view scenes like the one where Solomon tries desperately not to suffocate while grasping for the least friction in the mud with his toes. Maybe McQueen had some quotes that an outsider like me doesn’t get to hear, but calling it “artistic exhibitionism” is a little rich. Is it artistic exhibitionism when Martin Scorsese sends Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco through every inch of the Copacabana and doesn’t cut once? Is it artistic exhibitionism when Bela Tarr makes a seven hour movie with an average shot length of two and a half minutes? Is it artistic exhibitionism for Stalker to be shot in high-contrast brown until the three men reach the Zone? If your answer is “No” to any of those but “Yes” to what happens in 12 Years a Slave, I think we have to get into the guts of what you’re really arguing about. That scene stands out for me in 12 Years a Slave because it pulled feelings out of me I don’t often have when I watch movies, and while Ejiofor deserves a great deal of credit for the scene, McQueen is the reason 12 Years a Slave has a leaden fist.

 

9) The Best Years of Our Lives, 19th Academy Awards, directed by William Wyler

What should have won: It’s a Wonderful Life

Worth noting: I’m a sucker for Olivier doing Shakespeare and a sucker for Allied World War II propaganda, so sure, why not Henry V?

Frank Capra never met a happy ending he didn’t like, because why eat corn flakes when you can eat Frosted Flakes instead? William Wyler, on the other hand, had a way of making movies that never really felt happy at the end even when the ending was genuinely positive. Roman Holiday lets Audrey Hepburn’s princess in on the job Gregory Peck was doing on her, and it ends with a gentle smile, no trace of ire, and a sense that both Ann and Joe have missed out on a wonderful opportunity. Mrs. Miniver is a movie which is certain that the United Kingdom will fight on against Hitler and keenly aware of how many lives it will cost. Jezebel gives Bette Davis’ Julie a chance to redeem her life but she will almost certainly lose it in the process. And so on. The Best Years of Our Lives is part of that tradition, too, although it is almost certainly one of Wyler’s happiest endings. Homer and Wilma get married; Fred and Peggy make up; Al has earned Millie’s respect rather than her pity. But it takes so long to reach this point where everything looks like it’s going to come out right, and there is so much suffering which has to to be fought. Not one of the three men who catch that flight to Boone City is ready to adapt to civilian life, and Boone City, frankly, isn’t ready for them to come back. What makes The Best Years of Our Lives so incredibly special is that it’s an actual feel-good movie that makes you earn it while never dousing you in the gasoline of misery along the way. (This is why I don’t understand people who say that like, Schindler’s List is a feel-good movie.) The world is hardly crashing down around these men who have dealt with so much worse in the war. But their problems are real, and their confusion and sadness is real, and so our emotions are real, too. I’ve written extensively about issues I have with the movie, but it may genuinely be one of the three or four great feel-good movies ever made in this country.

The best, though (you can see where this is going), is It’s a Wonderful Life. The fact that the movie’s most famous scenes, and that its exciting alternative history plot take place on Christmas Eve saved the movie from oblivion, but it also fooled us all into thinking that we should watch this movie at Christmas and leave it on the shelf through the other seasons of our lives. I could watch this movie once a month. Jimmy Stewart entirely in type before his hair went gray combats with Lionel Barrymore entirely against type, and the most powerful scenes in the movie to me are the ones that earn the pain before that glorious “Auld Lang Syne” sendoff. Long before Clarence arrives to change the past to eliminate George Bailey from history, the movie gives George Bailey several opportunities to fundamentally change his life. That George does the right thing in each situation—namely, protecting the town from the ravages of unbridled capital at his own personal risk—means that there is a wrong thing to do in each situation. He could have gone to college, or on his honeymoon, or worst of all given up on Mary and let her marry someone else. Each time he bears up under the pressure he adds another lump of sadness into his soul the way some people put sugar cubes in their tea. That George is redeemed by the people he assumed had forgotten him has probably elicited tears as much as any other sequence in cinema.

 

8) Amadeus, 57th Academy Awards, directed by Milos Forman

What should have won: Amadeus is the most consistently successful picture of the year, because…

Worth noting: If they’d just cast an Indian as Godbole in A Passage to India, you’d be reading about it here; if they’d just held back from playing “Imagine” at the end of The Killing Fields, I’m not as sure it’d be a better movie than Amadeus but it’d be a conversation.

Amadeus is in the same category as The Aviator and Reds for me: it’s a movie I love so much, and which I came to for the first time as a young person, that I have a hard time figuring out if it’s as good as I think it is. I usually err on the side of caution, so maybe Amadeus ought to be higher. There are good reasons to think that I have undervalued it here, too. Dating back to his Czechoslovakian movies, Forman had a wonderful sense of social custom and what one has to do to step over the line. Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball, although totally different sorts of comedy, both understand that the system people live in has the power to browbeat them into conformity. In Loves of a Blonde, a very crowded bed becomes the vehicle for a mother to hilariously correct her son’s behavior; in The Firemen’s Ball, the humor of the story comes from how utterly clueless those firemen are to the type of people they’re throwing a party with. Late in the movie, after a series of thefts from a table of prizes, one of the firemen gets up to make a speech. We’re going to turn the lights off, and anyone who took something from that table can put it back and no questions will be asked. It goes exactly as badly as you think, and it’s perfect.

Amadeus finds humor in those zones, leaning into the tension of a man trained to write the highest music for the greatest nobility and clergy in Europe who feels far more comfortable banging his landlady’s daughter and writing comic opera for the hoi polloi. Mozart has to pardon himself in front of the emperor more than once—I am a vulgar man, he says at the very height of his self-understanding, but my music is not—and finds himself at the mercy of men like Salieri who have the power to eliminate him like a bowel movement from this highest firmament of Viennese society. Thus the humor opens the door to tragedy, which walks in wearing a highly theatrical and highly unsettling black costume. Salieri is fascinating because he is ruled by spite above all else, and although he is probably the person in Vienna, maybe even the person in Europe who can most appreciate Mozart’s God-given brilliance, he is also the one who hates it the most. F. Murray Abraham deserved the Best Actor statuette he won over Tom Hulce. Hulce would be more difficult to replace, but Abraham is on screen longer, and in a case this close I’d rather have the starting pitcher who threw thirty more innings. Amadeus is one of those really special movies that has room for just about everything, and while the version that debuted in 1984 runs for about 160 minutes, they go by in a flash. (Like the Lord of the Rings movies, the scenes they add onto the DVD are so good that they make that version more definitive.)

 

7) No Country for Old Men, 80th Academy Awards, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

What should have won: There Will Be Blood

Worth noting: The fact that There Will Be Blood came out in ’07 has saved you from having to read my attempt to defend the honor of Atonement, so that’s a lucky break for you.

The No Country for Old Men-There Will Be Blood matchup at the 80th Academy Awards, looking back on it, was something really special, like the aforementioned 19th Academy Awards but for people who can use a computer by themselves. Almost three-quarters of the Oscar ceremonies have capped their Best Picture nominees at five, and this group had both depth and greatness at the top. Atonement, Michael Clayton, and Juno were all nominated, Since 2008 Michael Clayton has grown in critical admiration, while if we had a redo we would lose Juno for Zodiac and really have some ruckus. But barring 1976, which had Taxi Driver and Network among the nominees, no five-movie field has had a stronger pair.

That No Country and There Will Be Blood seemed like they were linked at the time and to some extent remain linked now makes them particularly interesting. In 2007, No Country more or less waltzed to the big prize. In 2018, They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? has it ranked the twenty-first best reviewed movie of the 21st Century ahead of A Separation, Uncle Boonmee, and The Turin Horse. The other great choice from the ceremony, There Will Be Blood, is ranked fourth by the same metric behind only In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Drive, and Yi Yi. (Hunger is ranked seventy-sixth, which means the world needs to catch up to me or I’m seeing ghosts.) Last summer I put There Will Be Blood fourteenth on my list of greatest American movies and No Country for Old Men fiftieth. On the whole, and certainly this is the case without recourse to my own work, it appears that No Country won the battle and that There Will Be Blood is winning the war.

The question of why that’s the case really is fascinating, because it deals with the unpredictable ways movies age; in 2007, No Country simply had more good reviews than There Will Be Blood and carried off the majority of the prizes, but by now I’d say that There Will Be Blood is the superior picture basically by consensus. I’d guess that a great deal of it has to do with the way that Paul Thomas Anderson’s career has continued to take off while the Coens have become increasingly idiosyncratic. Anderson followed up with The Master, a movie which is spectacular in totally different ways than how There Will Be Blood is spectacular; the Coens followed up with Burn After Reading, a movie which I adore, believe is badly underrated, and would not put in the same ballpark as The Master. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood is still singular ten years later, while Javier Bardem’s performance in No Country is excellent but not singular. I know that when I ranked There Will Be Blood more highly than No Country for Old Men last summer, I did so largely on the basis that Anderson’s movie was significantly more ambitious, and set its sights on a topic more specifically baroque (the mind of American capitalist sprawl) than the Coens’ film about the shades of evil it considers. It doesn’t hurt that I would also give the edge to Jonny Greenwood’s eclectic, musing score, or to Robert Elswit’s excellent (and legible) photography. Last of all, I wonder if there’s a reason that There Will Be Blood has an edge unfairly given. There’s been some pushback, at least by casual fans you find on the Internet, against Ed Tom’s difficult monologue at the end of No Country. If that really is coming to the mainstream, that’s unfair at best. I’d say is a better ending even than the marvelous finish There Will Be Blood boasts.

 

6) Gone with the Wind, 12th Academy Awards, directed by Victor Fleming

It’s a little shameful to me that in two summers filled with movie ranking projects, I have not done a single bracket. I see now that it’s all been building up to the “Miracle Year,” 1939 is rightly considered one of the great years in American movie history, and given the ten-movie field it boasted it may be the deepest field in Best Picture history. (Incredibly, although I’ve written about some of these movies individually on this blog, I have never devoted a full-length post to any of them.) The bracket is going to be NFL playoffs style. Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz are the first two seeds, and will receive a first-round bye; the higher-ranked movie will go up against Oz. Are you ready for some football?!

Round One

(3) Stagecoach v. (6) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Stagecoach wins this one in a walk. In a competition between two movies which exemplify a particular stratum of American malarkey, Mr. Smith is undoubtedly the malarkier of the two, nor does it have the saving grace of “reinvented a genre.” Certainly there’s a lot to like about Mr. Smith, beginning with the Jimmy Stewart performance which is every bit as important to his star persona as George Bailey. In my own artless American way I also believe just a tinge in the sequence where Jeff wanders around the capital, taking in the symbols of the national character. I don’t believe in the smarmy little kid and the old man who hang around in the Lincoln Memorial, but Jeff Smith knows just enough about America and the myths of America to be inspired by them and so little about America the actual country that going to the Senate bumfuzzles him entirely. There are good supporting turns from Jean Arthur and Claude Rains, too, but on the whole this is merely a solidly made movie which defines “saccharine.” Stagecoach is the movie equivalent of the Lincoln Memorial: it represents a sort of American metahistory which has, full circle, become culturally true because of movies like Stagecoach. The roles of the western, both positive and very negative are expressed in detail: the well-meaning drunk professional, the beautiful prude, the ex-Confederate, the empathetic prostitute, the meek naif with a big heart, the young outlaw, the servile Mexican, and so on. They’re all here in Stagecoach, a movie which set the stage for John Ford to become John Ford.

(4) Ninotchka v. (5) Wuthering Heights

This one is way tighter, but Wuthering Heights makes it through because it makes it to the end far more evenly than Ninotchka does. The front-facing three of Wuthering Heights—William Wyler, Merle Oberon, and especially Laurence Olivier—are each marvelous. Wyler does not overplay the setting too much, as must be incredibly tempting to do as a shortcut. The Penistone Crags are appropriately rugged for their purpose, and Wyler finds the confusion in the comfort that Heathcliff and Cathy, wrapped around each other, take at that holy spot. He uses landscape shots every now and again, but always as a way to emphasize distance or speed, such as when we get a wide shot of the moors while Heathcliff is hauling butt on horseback. It’s the indoors which feel close; at Thrushcross Grange, much of the key scene where Heathcliff returns from America wealthy and comes to the Grange to tell Cathy about it is shot at a different level than the actors are standing. The scene would be awkward enough without that added touch, but Wyler’s command of the camera forces us to squirm a little more than we might want to. Olivier and Oberon together are affecting; Olivier by himself is marvelous, stern and sexy and stony without Cathy in his arms and tender when she is with him.

Ninotchka has what Wuthering Heighs doesn’t have at all: laughter. I don’t think I laughed once during Wuthering Heights, but Ninotchka is unseemly with laughter. (The problem with Ninotchka, and the reason why it’s being edged by inches in this matchup, is that the movie ultimately gets around to resolving its plot via the return of Ninotchka to the USSR. There’s not enough laughter to hold the film up.) When Garbo is called upon for humor, she acquits herself beautifully. Upon meeting Leon’s manservant, Ninotchka, she assures him that the Revolution will free him one day. “Go to bed, little father,” she tells him, a line so unexpected that I may have actually screamed with laughter; it’s then topped with what was already the line which would define her career: “We want to be alone.” Ninotchka has criticisms of virtually everything in Paris: the effete and wasteful hats (“It won’t be long now, comrades”), the cost of hotel rooms, the fancy fare at restaurants, and most of all the lecherous noblemen. Melvyn Douglas is one of my favorite cinematic louches, and Ninotchka may be his supreme performance. While playing a funny and conventional straight man, he is dwarfed by Garbo against type. On the whole, though, I rarely think of her as the primary vehicle for them. Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach, and Sig Ruman are a trio of Soviet officials who are swayed by the joys of capitalism like tumbleweeds are moved by the slightest breeze. It is their folly that brings Ninotchka to Paris in the first place; not sure exactly who is being sent from Moscow, they go to the train depot and look for likely types. There’s one, they say, but the man gives a Nazi salute to a woman, who returns it. “No, that’s not him,” Ruman’s Iranoff says, and the joy of the movie is emphatically in that line: maybe Stalinism and Nazism don’t like each other much, Wilder and Brackett write, but they sure are hard to distinguish.

Round Two

(1) Gone with the Wind v. (5) Wuthering Heights

You can see the problem here, yeah? Gone with the Wind is singing “Anything you can do, I can do better” and then turning on a lawnmower so you can’t hear Wuthering Heights retort lyrically. Wuthering Heights is in austere black and white, while Gone with the Wind is radiant, fantastical Technicolor. Literary adaptation? Wuthering Heights is a million times better than Gone with the Wind, but Gone with the Wind has the better screenplay. Leading actress? Merle Oberon plays a woman desperate for financial security, but, uh, that’s Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara on the other line. Leading actor? Laurence Olivier has a more nuanced performance in his role than Clark Gable has in his, but that’s also Clark Gable at the giddiest height of his powers, personifying an ubermensch out of his proper time and place who finds himself able to shift heaven and earth by feet when the woman he loves wants them moved by miles. It’s one of the great performances of mighty capability mixed with effacing impotence. As much as Heathcliff and Cathy snarl at each other’s dreams, there’s no one scene in Wuthering Heights that has the electricity of the drunken Butlers late one night. Rhett tells Scarlett he could crush her head in one hand. “Take your hands off me, you drunken fool,” Scarlett says in her best George Taylor voice, and the scene ends with what we are meant to assume is marital rape. The scene is neither enjoyable nor pleasant, but it is powerful; it gets to the heart of the evil seeping through all the walls of Scarlett’s replacement for Tara.

(2) The Wizard of Oz v. (3) Stagecoach

(If Dorothy had a stagecoach, who would ride shotgun? I imagine it’s the Scarecrow, but maybe you like the Tin Man’s facility with weapons.)

Honestly? My heart says Stagecoach, my brain says The Wizard of Oz, my heart says that a song isn’t enough to prop The Wizard of Oz over a movie as taut and thrilling as Stagecoach, my brain says that’s a pretty out-of-character thing for my heart to say, and then it retorts that it’s not the song that pushes the movie over the top but its relentless commitment to pushing Dorothy on at all times. She is rarely at rest; always something nips at her heels or interrupts her journey. But Stagecoach, my heart replies, works on much the same set of circumstances: the journey is the thing, and the characters are, despite their own stereotypical backgrounds, given as many chances to grow with less guff about the lessons learned on the way. Watch The Wizard of Oz again; it may be the most beloved family movie ever made, but it holds up perfectly well for adult viewers.

Round Three

(1) Gone with the Wind v. (3) Stagecoach

Funny enough, but two of the complaints I typically have about both of these movies are not canceled out by one another, precisely, but it levels the playing field. I would argue that Gone with the Wind is more racist than Stagecoach, though I don’t think it’s by some incredible margin. Both pictures focus on white characters and read people of color as basically nonexistent without their superior white foils. Gone with the Wind has the classic American racist eye on African-Americans, who are either obsessed with serving white interests at the expense of their own or represent the threats of integration, miscegenation, and rape. Stagecoach has the original American racist eye on Native Americans (specified here as the Apache, which if nothing else makes sense geographically), finding them dishonest, dangerous, and most of all unconcerned with fair play. The people on the stage never really do want to come to terms with why the Apache would attack white people at all other than ascribing it to some venality in the Apache mindset. Neither one of these movies gains a progressive advantage over the other in terms of race. If there is an advantage to be had, it’s for Stagecoach, which has that fundamental mistrust of the rich that so many John Ford movies have. There are two villainous white men in Stagecoach: one is the man who tries to execute an honor killing on a pregnant woman, and the other is the banker embezzling money. Ten years after the Great Depression began, bankers were no longer the ignoble species in films that they had been in the early Depression, and frankly movie plots were worse for it. Bankers are great villains. Heck, they should be the villains in our movies at present, too.

Gone with the Wind is probably the better choice here, ending Stagecoach‘s fabulous run to the final. When push comes to shove, Gone with the Wind manages to replicate the quality of Stagecoach or exceed it, but is two and a half times longer. Claire Trevor and John Wayne have not, to be the best of my ability, inspired the ardor of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable’s fans in Gone with the Wind. As stirring as Ford’s naturalistic use of Monument Valley is in Stagecoach, it does not eclipse some of the best scenery ever put on a movie set or, for that matter, some of the best scenery ever burned down on a movie set. And maybe it’s my East Coast sensibilities, but the myths of America shine through ever so much more in Gone with the Wind. It’s more ambitious, which I appreciate; it’s the difference between making a movie about Ragnarok (the actual one…) and making a movie about the minor heroes of Midgard.

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