I've never really been into the celebrity gossip or the "best dressed/worst dressed" obsessions that drive many people to watch the Oscars. I've also never been one of these "I turned it off when they got to Best Set Design" people. If some of the jokes or the musical numbers fall flat, no big. I watch the show for one reason and one reason only: I love movies. Period.
I don't really remember the individual Academy Awards telecasts. A few highlights over the years stand out. I remember Bob Hope's edgy Gerald Ford material that flew way over my head, David Niven's streaker comeback line that did not fly over my head, Johnny Carson equating the Oscars with the Iran Hostage Crisis by announcing, "We are now on Day 39 of the Oscar Telecast", Robocop chasing Pee Wee Herman, Robin Williams when he was still fresh, Jack Palance's not-actually-all-that-funny one handed push ups, being outraged that Billy Crystal stole the inserting himself into scenes from the Best Picture nominees gag from the MTV movie awards, Jon Stewart's satirical political style Oscar attack ads and Steve Martin's massively underrated turn as host of the Academy Awards in 2001 ("Movies are so violent now. I saw Gladiator with a nine year old boy and all he kept saying was 'Who are you? Where are my parents'").
That's only just a few things over 35 years.
What I do remember well, though, are the movies. I have seen every movie that won Best Picture from when I started watching the Oscars at least once (plus many of the earlier ones as well, of course). In some cases, it was a lot of years between seeing, say, a One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest win the Oscar and seeing the actual movie. Thanks to the Home Video Revolution of the 80's and a bunch of free evenings, I managed to fill in all those gaps.
Having seen so many Best Pictures over the years, it's become pretty obvious to me that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has very specific criteria and preferences for what constitutes the "Best" in cinema. Some of the movies they chose are very good, some are overrated and many are between the two. The Oscars are no more the arbitrators of quality cinema than the Independent Spirit Awards or The American Film Institute or the jury at The Cannes Film Festival or even the Razzies.
That being said, here are my random two cents on each and every Best Picture since I started watching The Academy Awards way back in 1976.
Am I ever glad I didn't have to cast an Academy ballot that year. The other Best Picture nominees were Barry Lydon, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville and Jaws.
There has not been a sports movie made in the last three and a half decades that does not owe a debt of gratitude to....
The original Rocky is a solid film that still holds up.
So good, in fact, that Sylvester Stallone has remade it five times.
Woody Allen is better known today for his output of repetitively themed more-miss-than-hit movies and, of course, the very public scandals surrounding his personal life. Sadly, those things now overshadow the genius of the man in his heyday. Between Annie Hall in 1977 and 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody did the bulk of his best work.
Annie Hall has an almost perfect blend of amazingly well written comedy and a very real sense of poignancy. It's a combination that Woody never really pulled off again. I also love his anything goes approach to film making. In Annie Hall, he throws in everything from fourth walling to animation to Marshall McLuhan cameos to highly subjective flashbacks to the use of subtitles to portray his character's inner thoughts.
Annie Hall is up there with Airplane! and Monty Python and The Holy Grail as one of the comedies from which I can quote verbatim off the top of my head.
I remember being incredibly incensed that this movie beat out Star Wars for Best Picture. That is, until I actually I saw Annie Hall.
The SNL parody was titled Kramer vs Godzilla. The Family Guy bit was Kramer vs Predator. My version would be Kramer vs Mad Dog Vachon (it's a 1970's Canadian wrestling joke, folks, keep up with me here).
Kramer vs Kramer is one of those small character driven dramas that the Academy favours when it's not favouring big scale epics. This Dustin Hoffman-Merly Streep vehicle beat out both Bob Fosse's brilliant semi-biographical musical, All That Jazz and Francis Ford Coppola's colossal masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. So I ask: is this film now considered a cult classic? Has Kramer vs Kramer seen subsequent re-releases, a making-of film made 15 years after the fact, a re-edited redux version and a best selling commemorative three disc Blu-ray edition?
Ordinary People marks the heralding of Robert Redford's directing career. And it's quite the heralding too. My personal favourite sequences are the emotionally charged therapy scenes between Judd Hirsh and Timothy Hutton. At the time I remember being really annoyed that every other person I knew was saying stuff like, "Mary Tyler Moore is so amazing. She can play comedy and drama too."
Um...yeah...it's called be an actor, there, folks.
Throughout most of the 80's and 90's there were an innumerable amount of parody running bits that always used this music...
Another fave of the Academy is the Dark Horse Horse Underdog Outsider Upstart. These are usually independent or foreign films that are, as is often the case, also British. In this case, Chariots of Fire is both. I remember it being quite the upset back in the day. I don't even want to talk about all the money I lost in my college Oscar Pool.
Chariots of Fire beat out Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the greatest escapist movies ever made and Warren Beatty's Reds, one of the most underrated films of all time.
The Vestibules "Gandhi" (or, if you prefer Windy by The Association): "What movie won the Best Picture? Everyone knows it's Gandhi!"
I remember one of the Montreal morning deejays complaining the day after the Oscars, "So Ghandhi won Best Picture. Geez! Why do the Oscars always like the artsy stuff."
I'm sorry? Ghandi? Arsty stuff? K, pal, you might wanna steer clear of Bergman, Goddard and, for that matter, just about anything in the "foreign film" section of your local Blockbuster.
I remember it well. The TV was on the background while I was working under a serious deadline for a major undergraduate paper when Terms of Endearment won Best Picture. Yep. I recall the moment, not the paper.
Jack Nicholson and Shirley Maclaine really made this movie for me. James L. Brooks has long since lost his shine but Terms of Endearment is still of the best films of its kind ever.
Time for the character driven sweeping epic to get some Academy recognition. Out of Africa boasts beautiful aerial cinematography, one of John Barry's best scores and great acting from Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.
Besides that, though, it must say that the rest of it left me cold, which is weird because it's about Africa where it is hot.
Platoon is the other Vietnam War movie to win Best Picture. It was also part of a massive Hollywood trend of movies about the war, many of them quite revisionist. To this day, I never miss a new Oliver Stone movie, despite his frequent hammer-over-the-head approach to directing. Actual 'Nam vets say that Platoon is the most realistic film about the war. True enough. The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now both employed a great deal of artistic license with historical events.
Nonetheless, I do have issues with the use of Adagios over scenes of weary, battle-worn soldiers; Peter Weir did the same thing, to much greater effect, in Gallipoli five years earlier. And, sorry, but no matter how many times I see it, I still do not believe a single of word of Tom Berneger's "Let me tell you about death..." monologue.
Not necessarily Bernardo Betrolucci's best work (Last Tango in Paris anyone?), The Last Emperor is a film that has stayed with me over the years. Two of my personal favorite things about this film are David Byrne, Ruyuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su's worthy-of-owning-the-album score and the fact that Peter O'Toole plays a rare non-drunk role.
The Vestibules parody sketch at the time was an ad for The Rain Man Pocket Calculator featuring the voice of Hoffman's character, Raymond Babbitt. We kept that one in the live show for years.
Driving Miss Daisy is a quintessential example of those Academy favored small character driven film with social and/or political overtones. Another popular opinion about this movie was voiced by a friend of mine I saw it with, "Nothing happens!".
Personally, I can watch anything with performances this good. Even Dan Ackoryd got a nomination out of Driving Miss Daisy.
I admire where Kevin Costner's heart was but, I remember even back in the day finding Dances With Wolves really simplistic. I also had a hard time understanding why Kostner's supposedly pacifistic character seemed to have absolutely no issues with introducing fire arms to the Native Americans; an act that would surely lead to an escalation of their conflict with the white man and ultimately the massacre of Kostner's adopted people.
Dances With Wolves also smacks of that patriarchal attitude found in films like To Kill a Mockingbird, Lawrence of Arabia and even the Zorro movies. That attitude being that it's up to the good white people to stand up for the oppressed minorities 'cause, after all, they could never possibly do so for themselves.
Nonetheless, for those keeping score it's Westerns with negative Native American portrayals: 20,438, Westerns with positive Native American portrayals: 1.
The Silence of the Lambs was the first horror movie to ever win Best Picture. I remember having many debates with my friends as to whether the end of the film was meant to be scary or funny. Am I allowed to say both?
Hannibal Lector and cannibalistic themes in general saw a brief but large spike in improv show suggestion popularity around this time.
Followed by way too many sequels and prequels.
For me, The Outlaw Josey Wales is Clint Eastwood's best Western as a director. Unforgiven comes in second, Pale Rider third and High Plains Drifter rounds out this very specific category at number four.
I remember many critics had issues with film's alleged endorsement of violence as a means of resolving conflict. I think that's missing the point. Not surprising, though. Existentialism has never really played that well in mainstream popular culture.
My favourite stand-up comedy line used by comics when a show isn't going so well: "You people are looking at me like you're watching Schindler's List."
Still used to this day.
Forrest Gump is a classic example the way Best Pictures often work: critically acclaimed, popular, successful and very entertaining at the time of its initial release. However, is it really one of those classic films that people keep coming back to years later?
Life is like the box of chocolates line, you keep hearing jokes about the same scene over and over again.
Braveheart is one of the earliest signs of Mel's Gibson's gradual descent into madness.
Personally, I always preferred this version of the William Wallace story:
BTW, the MTV Movie Awards were doing this shtick a good two years before Billy Crystal started doing it at the Oscars. Just sayin'.
In The English Patient, Willem Dafoe plays an Anglo Montrealer in the 1940's who uses the French pronunciation of "Laurier street". He also says the name of his native city as "MON-treal". I also love that the Nazi interrogator has to say to him, "You're a Canadian spy working for the Allies". I guess that line is there 'cause American audiences might be unsure about what side a country that shares the same continent with them might have been on during World War II. Despite all those awful horrible glaring mistakes, The English Patient still won Best Picture.
It's fashionable to bash Titanic these days (and even those days, really). I saw it in the first few days of its release. None of the "highest grossing", "greatest movie ever" hype has really kicked in it yet. I had no issues with any of that. I found the whole three hours really emotionally engaging (well, minus the Celine Dion song over the closing credits).
James Cameron is the master of making the most basic simplistic stories come to life with incredibly entertaining results (Hello Avatar!). He is also able to master both the technical and emotional elements of a film with equal aplomb.
Still, Titanic is no True Lies.
According to the film, Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night as a means of sublimating his lost love for Viola , played by Gwyneth Paltrow. However, there was a 16 year gap between the time when Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet and the time when he wrote Twelfth Night. Man, that Billy dude sure carried the torch for Gwyneth for at long time, huh?
On the surface, those may sound like picky pedantic critiques. It wouldn't be the first time I've heard such a response to my opinions. However, if I'm thinking about those things and not focusing on anything else during the film's crucial third act, then there's definitely a problem there.
But, hey, any behind-the-scenes story about one of the greatest playwrights of all time and I'm there, no matter what.
One of the things I really liked about Shakespeare in Love was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead playwright Tom Stoppard's contributions to the screenplay. His distinctive stamp abounds in much of the dialogue. Ben Affleck's portrayal of a pompous poltroon of an Elizabethan actor kinda started to turn around my opinion of the guy.
American Beauty is, among other thing, a film of character studies fleshed out by some freakin' amazing actors. There's also beautiful cinematography and that always beguiling plastic bag blowing in the wind stuff.
That being said, I've seen the film a few times now and, I gotta say, I'm still not sure why we're supposed to be sympathetic to Kevin Spacey's character. While his wife, played wonderfully by Annette Bening, certainly has many flaws, really let's face it, the guy is unnecessarily cruel towards her. That and, yeah, yeah, yeah, we get it already: Mena Suvari is hot.
Hollywood returns to the old school historical epic movie making of Ben Hur and Spartacus. This time around, though, they've got CGI effects that Cecil B. DeMille would have considered Divine Intervention.
Gladiator also marks director Ridley Scott's return to greatness. Scott's films, unlike James Cameron's, are often technically and visually incredible but not always emotionally engaging (this does actually work for Mr.Scott in the case of movies like Alien and Blade Runner). In Gladiator, Scott deftly combines the two elements seamlessly.
I still use the opening battle scene to show off my 6.1 DTS Dolby Surround Home Theatre System (just not when anyone his home downstairs).
Russel Crowe again. I don't know about you but I saw the twist in A Beautiful Mind coming early on. I mean some of that stuff Ed Harris talks about sounds pretty loony tunes right off the bat. Notice how if you have not seen the film, none of that is a SPOILER ALERT?
Well, okay...there's animated features, the High School Musical movies (if they count) and the recent film version of the Broadway musical Hairspray but, still, you get my point.
I know it speaks more to the Bob Fosse musical on which the movie is based but many of the songs off of the Chicago soundtrack are still on my iPod.
I think it's clear to everyone by now that the Academy wasn't just awarding the Oscar to Peter Jackson for Lord of the Rings: Return of the King but for the whole LOTR Trilogy. I must confess that I've never been able to stick with the original Tolkien books despite many attempts. As a result, I don't have as many issues with these films as many of my fellow geeky friends do.
I liked all three movies, if that's okay, guys.
The Two Towers was my personal fave (and I'd also like to take this opportunity to give a big shout out to Peter Jackson's underrated King Kong remake).
If nothing else, you have to hand it to Jackson for breaking the long standing Oscar barrier in the SF/Fantasy genre.
As far as Return of the King goes, I'm with Billy Crystal when he said, "11 Oscar nominations. One of each ending.".
Once again, Clint Eastwood confounds mainstream popular culture with his own brand of existentialism. Hilary Swank won her second Oscar for Million Dollar Baby. Ironically, she was fired from the cast of Beverley Hills 90210 because she "couldn't act."
I've just lost all respect for Beverly Hills 90210.
Crash is The Most Overrated Best Picture Ever. People I know who live in LA tell me that race relations in the city are even worse there than they way they are depicted in this film.
However, a series of ironic coincidences does not a movie make.
I prefer the David Cronenberg version.
The Departed is a remake of the great Hong Kong movie, Internal Affairs, but there are many many examples of great directors unable to pull the remake feat off.
Jack Nicholson's best performance since The Shining.
The Coen brothers enter Stanley Kubirck territory in their most audaciously perplexing film yet. They pull off that great film ending thing that previously only Kubrick had been able to make work. Which is to say, ending the film in a place when the audience is least expecting it ("What? Huh? Closing credits? Now?") .
One of the more intriguing theories I've heard is that Javier Bardem is Death; not the character, the actor.
The Independent Foreign Outsider Best Picture strikes again. The screening of Slumdog Millionaire I attended had many people walking out during the now infamous blinding of children scene. Oddly, if all those people would have stuck with it, they would have seen a feel good movie of the year ending that puts most Sandra Bullock vehicles to shame. You really gotta hand it to Danny Boyle and his ability to reinvent himself with almost every film he makes. I remember really liking the film the first time I saw it. I haven't seen Slumdog Millionaire since it came out so I can't really comment on the fashionable critical backlash it is now enduring. I will say this though: how weird is it that the Indian Police are willing to torture people for allegedly cheating on a TV game show?
That aside, Hurt Locker is an interesting film that doesn't really take sides in the pro-Iraq War vs anti-Iraq War debate. It examines the life of one man who, to quote the opening on-screen text of the film, is "addicted to war". As far as its political stance on the war goes, well, you could be Toby Keith or you could be Noam Chomsky and still get a message that supports your viewpoint from The Hurt Locker. That, in and of itself, makes The Hurt Locker great filmmaking.
Well, I predict...anyway. The Social Network that kind of film that the Academy traditionally loves: a small character driven film with topical social/political overtones. Plus, now that we all know Facebook alone was responsible for the recent revolution in Egypt, the movie is oh so much more relevant...
Feel free to call me a dummyhead if it turns out I got that wrong...but only once.