Monday, April 9, 2012

A Battle Royale

I recently blogged very briefly about The Oscars, and during that I mentioned the idea of having a “Best Picture Tournament” where I very scientifically determine the BEST Best Picture winner of the past 20 years.

By “scientifically” I mean “based on my own very special criteria that varies by the day, and generally boils down to my personal taste.”, but I realize that my just saying so doesn’t make for a good read, so here’s my thought process..

The Movie Enema (aka The First Eliminations)

The criteria for this level of elimination comes down to this: How does the winner compare to the other movies nominated that year? If the movie shouldn’t have won its own year, it is immediately disqualified. Seems fair right? Glad we all can agree…

Titanic, 1997.
Look…I could write a whole blog about why this is the worst movie ever made. I probably have. This is an unpopular opinion, but it doesn’t make me wrong. Let’s talk about Titanic for just a second… Bad script? Yes. If someone tried to make the argument that they were going for period camp… I could possibly get behind it if everything else wasn’t taken so seriously, or if for that matter, it wasn’t about a horrible tragedy, which isn’t exactly fertile ground for campiness. Manipulative? Yes. Any time you show old people embracing in bed as the ship goes down… there is literally no purpose behind that other than to make people cry. Bad acting? Yes. Sorry Leo fans… he’s just not good in this one. Flawed premise? I just can’t get past the part where the old lady drags all of those people out there to search for the big diamond, and she had it with her the whole freaking time. I can’t get past it. That lady would have gone overboard.

It’s all too much to take. And it’s the worst movie ever made because the actual quality, when compared to the overblown opinion people have of it, creates the largest gap between reality and perception. That’s what makes it bad. If people accepted it for just being a fun (as fun as trivializing the deaths of hundreds of innocent people can be) spectacle, I’d have far less issue with it. In this case, it was a Best Picture winner, beating more deserving movies like L.A. Confidential and Good Will Hunting, both of which had better stories, better acting, and better writing. L.A. Confidential, had it won, might have made a run in this tournament.

Shakespeare in Love, 1998
I could go on about this one too, but I won’t. I’ll simply say… In 50 years people will be talking about one of the nominated films from this year as being among the greatest films ever made. That movie isn’t Shakespeare in Love.

Saving Private Ryan was so definitively a better movie in nearly every way.

The only edge I’d give Shakespeare is with Tom Stoppard’s very clever script.

Saving Private Ryan revolutionized war movies (a longtime anchor genre in film history). I know this doesn’t really mean a lot to many people, but Steven Spielberg made war movie that makes every war movie made prior to it seem watered down in comparison, I think the most amazing thing about it is that you’re never once thinking “wow… that was gratuitous” (as opposed to a movie like… The Passion of the Christ where I spent most of it thinking “Wow… that was gratuitous”).

I’ll also say that when you have a movie about a war, where the actual veterans of the war view it as a historical document rather than an entertainment, you’ve got something important on your hands. Sometimes (Not always) historical significance needs to be considered. Especially when compared to something as silly (albeit entertaining) as Shakespeare in Love.

A Beautiful Mind & Chicago, 2001 and 2002 respectively.
These two movies are grouped together, because they’re out for the same reason. They beat the first two Lord of the Rings movies for no reason aside from the fact that the Academy was “holding back” to reward LOTR after the 3rd installment. That’s a terrible reason.

There’s nothing particularly wrong about A Beautiful Mind or Chicago. They feature great production values, and excellent performances. In fact, I believe Russell Crowe should have won Best Actor for A Beautiful Mind, and NOT won for Gladiator (another day, Muchacho… Another day…). Chicago was being touted as the return of the big movie musical (except that nothing since then has been as good, and then they stopped again.) They’re both really good… I’m not denying.

Sorry, though… Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers are both JUST as amazingly crafted as their Oscar-Winning brother, The Return of the King. Some would argue that they’re more tightly edited, since everyone seems to point out the silly multiple endings of ROTK. If you stated that Two Towers was the actual best of the 3 movies, I’d have a tough time disagreeing.

Million Dollar Baby, 2004
This is a tough one for me, because I like Clint Eastwood (more on that later), and Hilary Swank was definitely great, as was Morgan Freeman. Million Dollar Baby is a really excellent movie. This just happened to be a year where there were a ton of excellent movies out there, and if I’m being honest, I don’t think it was the best one.

In fact, I’d say that it was the 3rd or 4th best of the nominees, overall.

The Aviator should have won. This is the DiCaprio Epic that stands out for me. His performance is great. Scorsese’s direction is great. The Cinematography (by the same guy who just won for Hugo) was beautiful. It’s an interesting story, about an interesting guy, featuring several high profile performances of a high quality. It’s a period piece. It hits all the buttons. It’s a great movie.

Oh, and if the Aviator doesn’t win, Sideways should have. Or Finding Neverland. I see the arguments against Finding Neverland as being the most valid. They took pretty significant liberties with the actual person of James Barrie, and glossed over a good bit of the strangeness of him. I guess if you’re making a Biopic of someone, you should probably be truthful. Either way, I readily admit it never fails to make me cry. Also, and this may be blasphemy coming from a Disney fan, but this is Johnny Depp’s greatest performance of the past 10 years. Jack Sparrow is a close second.

If you realllllly pushed me, I’d concede that if you put Million Dollar Baby, Finding Neverland, and Sideways in a hat and pulled out one winner, I’d be fine with any of the three, but The Aviator is clearly the best of the bunch.

Crash, 2005

I won’t even dignify this with discussion. Brokeback Mountain should have won. Perhaps it’s become a bit of a punchline for homophobes everywhere since then, but this was Heath Ledger’s true break-out film. He was phenomenal in it. It’s a great movie. Sorry.

Slumdog Millionaire, 2008
I really don’t get why everyone loves Slumdog Millionaire so much, and in fact… it sure seems like there really isn’t all that much love for it. Nobody really talks about it anymore, except for Aziz Ansari, and he only mentions it as part of a joke about how awesome it must be to be white.

I really believe that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a better choice, ultimately, even if it was a little long, and the weird framework surrounding Hurricane Katrina was…well.. weird. Brad Pitt gave my favorite of his performances. Cate Blanchett was equally excellent. The story was appropriately sweeping, the effects were always effective and never too showy. There were parts of great emotion, and humor, and pathos. Interestingly, I think I like it more on 2nd and 3rd viewing than I did on the first. It really grows on me the more I’ve seen it.

The Kings Speech, 2010
I’m just going to chalk this one up to the apparent yearlong blow job to the United Kingdom. We may as well have just re-upped as a colony, since the Brits made the Oscars their bitch this year.

I’ve seen most of the TEN films nominated this year, and of them, here are the ones I thought were better than The Kings Speech:
The Social Network, Toy Story 3, and True Grit.

The Academy seems to have a thing against Aaron Sorkin, so The Social Network had an uphill climb. If you couple that with the idea that The Social Network was very much a film of NOW (in that it’s not timeless), it seemed unlikely to win. I think sometimes, when convenient, the Academy takes it upon them to give a nod to posterity, and I’ll grant that The Social Network wouldn’t age well, necessarily. Except that it’s amazingly written, and expertly acted. Toy Story 3 was a sequel (strike one) and animated (strike two). True Grit was a remake of a beloved John Wayne movie, and if there’s anything Hollywood loves as much as the British? It’s old Hollywood. As evidenced by The Artist. Oh… that brings me to…

The Artist, 2011
If there’s ever been a movie designed to win an Oscar in today’s environment, it’s The Artist. It’s… French, which is sort of the “in” thing (See: Midnight in Paris, Hugo, and War Horse which all at least in part take place in France). It romanticizes old Hollywood, which is like sweet, sweet kitten blood for the aging Academy voters. It features a cute dog. It features a handsome French star that eliminates the language barrier by never speaking.

I’m not saying The Artist is bad. In fact… I’d not say any of the movies I’ve mentioned are actually bad, except for Titanic. I just think it’s a silly, trivial movie that happened to find the exact perfect atmosphere to flourish. Probably the most telling thing is that it may have spoken to voters in some way, but generally it didn’t speak to audiences equally. It’s one of the lowest grossing Best Picture winners ever. (even adjusted for inflation). So… what deserved it more? The Descendants and Moneyball definitely. Probably Hugo, too, though I didn’t see it.


So there we go. I’ve already eliminated 9 of 20 eligible movies and we’ve barely broken a sweat.

Elimination Number Two. (Too Easy)

My next “weed-out” involves Best Picture winners who rightfully beat the movies it was up against, but weren’t as good as another un-nominated movie that came out that year.. I’ll grant this opens up the discussion, potentially to a huge number of movies, so I’m limiting the “other movies” to ones that were nominated in at least one other category.

So… let’s see… We can now eliminate:

Braveheart, 1995
Sorry Mel Gibson, but even though I prefer your film to the other Best Picture nominees, I found at least 2 other movies that each are better than Braveheart. I have to believe the Academy was totally on crack this year, because here are some of the movies that were nominated for at least one Oscar, but not for Best Picture…

Toy Story (!!!!) I know… It’s an animated movie, so it stood about as much a chance as I did, but if you consider it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay (that’s a huge one), and if you also consider it was the first major Pixar release, which maybe makes it more of shame in retrospect since Pixar who has completely owned the animated feature category unlike any other group in any other category. How the Academy couldn’t recognize a revolution in animation and storytelling is beyond me… I don’t know… Being a Walt Disney fan, I think a lot about animation and its evolution… Maybe it should have won something like those Seven Dwarfs statuettes they gave Walt when Snow White came out.

The Usual Suspects. This movie has one of the greatest endings in the history of movies. It also boasts an acting Oscar for the previously lesser-known Kevin Spacey. Oh, and it has about 20 great scenes. Also… One super awesome slo-mo coffee cup.

Many people would also argue Casino was better, and I won’t stop them, even if it’s not my favorite.

Honestly, this came out in a period of 2 years where I paid very little attention to The Oscars. Maybe it’s because I was a teenager, and it wasn’t cool or whatever, but I just wasn’t all that aware of what was happening… I don’t know what it was about Braveheart that captured everyone’s attention. Just seems like 1995 was a good year for movies, just not nominated ones.

Gladiator, 2000
I’ll admit that if taking in just the field of Best Picture nominees, Gladiator takes it hands down. However, to this day, I can’t understand how Almost Famous didn’t get nominated. It won for Best Original Screenplay, and had 2 acting nominations in the same category. Almost Famous is one of my favorite movies of the past 10 years, as I discussed in more detail on my January 2010 post where I talked about my favorite movies from that decade.

One could potentially champion O Brother Where Art Thou? As another more deserving film, but I won’t. I love it, and it makes me laugh, but it’s got a lot of problems.

The Departed, 2006.
Wha????? That’s right.
I love The Departed, but there are two movies from 2006 that I believe were clearly better.

Pan’s Labyrinth. Somehow the Academy decided that a win in the Best Foreign Language category somehow makes up for the insane slight of not putting it up for the big award. It’s an absolutely engaging, amazing story with beautiful imagery, haunting cinematography, spectacular acting and art direction, and one of the most indelibly creepy performances of all time (Sergei Lopez as The Captain).

Children of Men. When I wrote that blog about the best movies of the “Aughts”, I proclaimed this one the best. It wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, which is a total joke. I can’t really even get into the many, many reasons. It’s got an intriguing story. Excellent performances. My favorite soundtrack of any movie ever. One of the most insane tracking shots ever filmed. Then a whole other insane tracking shot that would take the title if not for the first. It’s really got everything. It’s emotional, political, lyrical, fluid. To this day, I don’t understand how it wasn’t nominated. Until I get an answer, The Departed’s win gets a big fat asterisk.

That about wraps up round two.
So… we now have a more manageable field of films to work with…The Semi Finalists are:

  • Unforgiven
  • Schindler’s List
  • Forrest Gump
  • The English Patient
  • American Beauty
  • The Return of the King
  • No Country for Old Men
  • The Hurt Locker

To be continued… maybe next week? I’m not sure, but I do need to come up with a more clear set of criteria to start eliminating these final eight movies, all of whom were the deserved winners in their respective Oscar races.


Annie said...

Ok, Daniel, seriously. The only people I know who loathe Titanic as much as you also loathe Justin Bieber and Hannah Montana. Just admit you don't like it because of it's popularity, which you don't think is warranted. You pick it apart literally harder than any other movie. It's not as bad as you think--It's that all of the things about it that you don't like are amplified by the fact that you just hate it. If it was the best fucking movie on the planet, you still wouldn't like it. It is so not about the movie for you.

Like, have you seriously already forgotten how fucking AMAZING those special effects were then?

When it's everybody else? That means it's you, man.

It honestly wouldn't bug me so much if you didn't pick it apart under this ruse that it's a bad film when your ire has nothing to do with the merits of the film. (yeah, noooone of those movies in your final 9 have any manipulative scenes? Come ON. And while the constant "Rose!" "Jack!" is obnoxious, it's not like some glaringly awful dialogue. Even Dwight quotes it.)

The Original Burly Faux Hispanic said...

Two words: Fabriz- and io. Name any other Best Picture winner with a character (and performance) that bad. He's the Jar-Jar Binks of Academy Award winning movies.

Annie said...

It's all a part of the character! The man is actually the best* actor in the movie.


**when I was 12