Thursday, December 30, 2010

1978: The Deer Hunter

Michael, Steven, and Nick leave their small Pennsylvania town and their lives as steelworkers and recreational deer hunters to fight in the Vietnam war.  And everything they know is turned upside down.

This is probably the most interminable and confusing disturbing movie I've ever seen, including The Godfather Part II.  Once again, I felt like I was missing something, because this film made absolutely no sense to me, especially the pacing.  The first hour (literally) consists of Steven's wedding, its reception, and a hunt.  Then suddenly they're in Vietnam and are somehow captured.  The scene during which they're prisoners drags on and on, a few more things happen very quickly, and then without any transition suddenly one of them is back home.  The scenes that drag increase the tension, which I'm sure was intentional, but it's overdone to the point that it just gets really annoying.  When time skips ahead, you're left wondering, "But what about what was just happening?"  I kept hoping that we would go back to it later, but that didn't happen.  There are several story points that were never resolved for which I can think of no logical explanation.  I have to wonder if the filmmakers just over-estimated an audience's ability to fill in plot holes, or it's not supposed to make sense, or it would make more sense if I was watching it in 1978, or the filmmakers just messed up.  But if that were the case, I don't think this film would have won 5 Academy Awards.  I think it was probably intentionally confusing to make the point that life and war are chaotic, but that knowledge doesn't make this film any easier to watch.

I did appreciate the performances of both Christopher Walken and Robert De Niro, at least in the scenes that I actually understood.  However most of the three hours I spent watching this I was trying to figure out how what was currently on the screen related to the previous scene.  I hate to feel this way about a movie, and part of me wants to watch this again at some point to see if I understand it better then, but the rest of me says that I can live a long, happy life without ever revisiting this film.  The things I actually got out of it are incredibly disturbing, which I'm pretty sure was the point of the movie, so at least I grasped that concept.  But as for the story and the pacing, not so much.  I can't tell you very much about other aspects of filmmaking that went into this movie because I was so distracted by the confusing storyline that I missed them.  I don't want to advise people not to watch this film because obviously some people really like it, as it's #135 on the Internet Movie Database's Top 250.  I'm just not one of those people.

Coming up next: Kramer vs. Kramer

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

1977: Annie Hall

Alvy Singer and Annie Hall are two New Yorkers searching for love and the meaning of life.  They can't decide whether they're better off together or apart, so they break up and get together again multiple times, all the while being philosophical and entertaining, as characters in Woody Allen films tend to be.

I find this film very interesting because it's mostly made up of vignettes that are not in chronological order, which gets a little confusing until the viewer realizes that chronology isn't essential to the story.  The best aspects of this movie are how the characters interact with the audience and each other, and the clever little jokes that are distributed throughout the film.  I find myself not really caring what the characters do, but having fun watching them nevertheless.  This is a very weird position to be in as a movie-watcher, especially when you know it's intentional.  Woody Allen is a brilliant comedic filmmaker, which this film demonstrates with its dialogue and structure.

That being said, I don't think Annie Hall is his best film.  I didn't find it as intriguing as Crimes and Misdemeanors, or as amusing as Love and Death.  I don't understand what is so amazing about this movie compared to other Woody Allen films, but for some reason this is the one that gets recognized.  I guess I should just be glad that any of his films won Best Picture, since comedies hardly ever win.  This is certainly not a typical Best Picture Winner, and it's a fun break from serious dramas.

Next: The Deer Hunter

Sunday, December 19, 2010

1976: Rocky

One of the contenders for heavyweight boxing champion has broken his hand and won't be able to fight.  So the reigning champion decides that as a publicity stunt he's going to pick an unknown club boxer to fight him for the title.  He randomly chooses Rocky Balboa, who has nicknamed himself "The Italian Stallion."  Rocky is pretty much a bum who fights occasionally, works for a loan shark on the side, and is beginning to develop a relationship with a shy pet store worker named Adrian.  Rocky doesn't know that this fight is a publicity stunt, so he gives his all to train for the championship.

At its surface, this may look like a typical rags-to-riches story, and to some extent it is, but it's more than that.  Rocky doesn't care about publicity or renown or money; he just wants to prove to himself that he can do something significant.  It's interesting to me that the writer, Sylvester Stallone, who was then relatively unknown, insisted on playing the lead role himself.  Apparently he, like Rocky, wanted to prove to himself that he could do it.  And now everybody associates Sylvester Stallone with Rocky, and it's difficult to imagine anyone else playing the part.

This is a well-told, inspirational story with a great cast, a fabulous script, intriguing characters, a magnificent soundtrack, and an epically intense boxing match.  Even if you're like me and know absolutely nothing about boxing, I think it would be hard not to enjoy this movie.  You can't help but like Rocky and want him to win the fight and the girl (he only wins one of them, unfortunately, but that makes this movie a little less predictable, which I also like).  But of course, Rocky also wins the hearts of Americans, the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the chance to make five sequels, so it all works out.

Up next: Annie Hall

Saturday, December 18, 2010

1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Randle P. McMurphy was in jail, but there is some question about his mental health status, so he is sent to a state mental institution for evaluation.  While there, McMurphy creates as much mayhem as he can, stirring up the other inmates and waging war against cold, calmly dangerous Nurse Ratched.  It becomes clear that he isn't mentally ill, but the mental hospital decides to accept him anyway.  McMurphy is proud of himself for beating the system, but he soon discovers that some places are worse than prison.

I think this is one of the most profoundly disturbing films I've ever seen, especially towards the end, which I won't spoil for you in case you haven't seen it yet.  It's a very uncomfortable story, but it's told extremely well.  The character development is fantastic; every minor character has clearly defined traits, and the main characters are utterly fascinating.  McMurphy isn't a very nice guy, and I probably wouldn't like him normally, but one can't help preferring him to Nurse Ratched, who is pretty much inhuman.  The dialogue is very realistic, though the profanity is a little excessive.  The camera work and editing are brilliant, making an uncomfortable story even more so with an unusual amount of close-ups.  I literally backed away from the screen a few times.  This isn't a fun film to watch, but it's powerful and very well put together.

This is the second of three films to win all five major Academy Awards (the first, if you don't remember back that far, was It Happened One Night in 1934).  Louise Fletcher certainly deserved her Best Actress Oscar for her brilliantly eerie portrayal of Nurse Ratched.  Jack Nicholson is an amazingly talented actor, and his performance as McMurphy is one of his best.  Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director were equally well-deserved, in my opinion.  This film is certainly well worth watching, but not if you're in the mood for a feel-good movie.  I guess it's kind of fun to recognize some of the patients, like Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd when they were younger, and there are a few upbeat scenes, but mostly this film will just make you glad that you're not under the control of Nurse Ratched.

Coming up next: Rocky

Monday, December 13, 2010

1974: The Godfather Part II

This, the only Best Picture winning sequel of a Best Picture winner (so far), further develops the story of the Corleone family from two different angles.  Part of the film goes back in time to see the young Vito Corleone begin his life in America.  The rest of the film picks up several years after the first one left off to show Michael Corleone's rise to power in a rapidly changing world.

I have heard this film called the best sequel ever made, but personally I thought this movie was totally inferior to The Godfather.  While the first movie told an intriguing story in a fascinating way, this one tells an okay story in an almost completely incoherent manner.  The jumping back and forth between Vito's story and Michael's story could have been very interesting, but I expected them to relate to each other more.  I felt like the editors just put scenes in at random, so that there was very little cohesion to the story.  Maybe this was done intentionally, to symbolize the lack of organization in so-called "organized crime," but it's very confusing, and makes this film difficult to watch.

Of course, I'm perfectly open to the possibility that I missed something.  That was how I felt throughout most of the film: like I was missing something.  Maybe in a few years I'll watch it again and it will all make perfect sense, but after watching it the first time, I am utterly baffled.  Mostly, I was disappointed because the first movie was so great that I expected this one to be better than it was.  But there were a few aspects that I liked.  Robert De Niro does a tremendous job as the young Vito Corleone, especially considering that his character almost exclusively speaks Sicilian.  He also won Best Supporting Actor, which is interesting because Marlon Brando won Best Actor for playing the same character in The Godfather.  I wish there were more scenes in this film from the Vito storyline and fewer about Michael, who was really getting on my nerves by the end.  Some of the story and character development was really good, don't get me wrong, but again, it was all very confusing.

The Godfather Part III was nominated for Best Picture in 1990, but it didn't win, so I won't be including it in this blog.  However, the first two movies have intrigued me enough that I think I might have to watch it anyway.  Hopefully it will be easier to follow than this one.

Next up: One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

1973: The Sting

Johnny Hooker is a small-time con artist who accidentally cons a man working for big-time criminal banker Doyle Lonnegan.  When his partner is killed for this, Johnny vows to get even by swindling Lonnegan with the help of major con artist Henry Gondorff.  What unfolds is one of the most well-told stories ever created on film, which I was thrilled to have an excuse to watch again.

The plot twists are so intricate and unpredictable that it takes more than one viewing to fully appreciate them.  Certain scenes could be interpreted several ways, and it's up to the audience members to draw their own inferences, which may or may not turn out to be correct.  The script and character development are phenomenal.  Robert Redford and Paul Newman are unsurprisingly fabulous as Hooker and Gondorff (and they're also ridiculously good-looking, which doesn't hurt).  Every aspect of filmmaking is utilized perfectly to tell this fascinating story in the best possible way.

With a premise like this, one might expect a heavy, depressing movie, like The Godfather.  But the tone of this film is decidedly upbeat, in a mischievous way.  This is greatly aided by the soundtrack, which consists entirely of ragtime music.  What an extremely odd choice by the filmmakers, since the film is set in the mid-1930s, and ragtime was most popular in the 1900s-1910s.  I really want to know how they came up with that.  But whatever their reasons, the film wouldn't be the same without the soundtrack, which works remarkably well to complete this absolutely amazing film.  Seriously, this is one of the best, and currently most underrated, movies to win this award.  If I had to change one thing, it would be Robert Redford's character's name.  It's difficult not to chuckle when everyone refers to him as "Hooker."  But other than that, this is one of the closest things to a flawless film I've ever seen.  And it actually won 7 Oscars, so kudos to the Academy.

Next: The Godfather Part II

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

1972: The Godfather

Don Vito Corleone, the patriarch of a crime family, is getting old, but he holds New York City in the palm of his hand.  He gets people to do things for his family and friends by making them offers they can't refuse.  He is generally feared and respected, until he angers his rivals by refusing to start backing the narcotics business.

Surprisingly, I had not seen this movie before, even though it is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made.  To fully appreciate it, I think I'll need to watch it again, probably several times.  But my first impression is this: I love the way the film was made, but I really don't like the story.  It's profoundly disturbing the way everyone just kills other people without thinking about it.  They all just consider it part of their business to hold a gun up to someone's head.  I know it's supposed to be unsettling; that's the point.  But that doesn't make it any more enjoyable to sit through three hours of disturbing storyline.

That being said, the movie is put together magnificently.  The framing of the shots, the editing, and the score unite perfectly with the script and performances to create a true film masterpiece.  There are some great scenes, particularly toward the end of the film, that I call "great" not because of what they portray, but how they portray it.  In addition to Best Picture, this film also won Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Marlon Brando, who plays Don Vito Corleone to perfection, despite the fact that it's really hard to understand him.  Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, and James Caan were all nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but they lost to Joel Grey for Cabaret.  This is something that makes me angry: a mediocre film like Gigi won nine Oscars, while this epic, classic film only won three?  But Cabaret, which took most of the Oscars in 1972, is also a really good movie, so I guess it's not the Academy's fault that two stellar films came out the same year.

When I first started watching The Godfather, I fully expected to conclude that it was overrated, at least a little bit.  But after finishing the entire film, even though I didn't particularly like the story, I have to concede that it's one of the most well-done films I've ever seen.

Stay tuned for: The Sting (and afterwards, The Godfather Part II)

Friday, November 26, 2010

1971: The French Connection

Two New York City detectives are trying to uncover a narcotics smuggling ring.  This is made complicated by the fact that their superiors don't really take them seriously, and even more so when the bad guys do everything they can think of - which includes shooting at detectives - to avoid getting caught.

There isn't a whole lot of dialogue in this film; it's mostly the detectives observing people and then chasing them.  This works for the most part, especially with the intriguing camera movement and editing techniques that the filmmakers use.  However, some of the observing scenes drag on a bit too long, and I found my mind wandering several times, almost to the point where I lost track of the story completely.  When there is dialogue, it isn't really that great, so it's kind of nice that there isn't much of it.  The chase scenes are really intense and well done, and there are a few other very good scenes that make this film worth watching.  Gene Hackman plays his role very well.  Fernando Rey is really good, too, especially considering he's a Spaniard playing a Frenchman.  But by far my favorite thing about this film is the score.  The background music throughout the entire movie perfectly enhances the action on screen, and even makes some of the mediocre scenes far more interesting.  At some points, I think anyone listening to the music without even watching the screen would be able to tell what is going on, and I applaud Don Ellis for composing such a remarkable score.

As a whole, I didn't really like this film that much.  The aspects of filmmaking that I usually look for in a superb movie - story, dialogue, character development, etc - are about average at best.  But other aspects - the soundtrack, camera movement, and certain outstanding scenes - are done so incredibly well that I think this film deserves its reputation as a classic.  I'd say it also deserves to be called a Best Picture, though certainly in an unconventional sense.

Up next: The Godfather

Thursday, November 18, 2010

1970: Patton

General George S. Patton, Jr is one of the most controversial heroes in American history.  This film follows him through Europe during World War II, where his primary goal is to defeat the Germans, but his sharp tongue and confrontational manner help him make plenty of enemies among his allies.

The first thing I have to say about this film is that George C. Scott does an absolutely fantastic job of portraying General Patton.  Scott manages to make audiences like him and dislike him simultaneously, which perfectly illustrates the controversies surrounding Patton himself.  This could have been just another war film, but it isn't, thanks to the complexity of its title character and the depth that Scott brings to that character.

There are times when this film drags a bit, and I think it could be significantly shortened.  But the character development is superb.  Even characters who are never seen, like Eisenhower, have clear objectives and distinct personalities.  The filmmakers made an interesting choice in deciding to give us glimpses of the German perspective, which is very effective, especially since they're actually speaking German.  And this film has more than its characters to recommend it.  The camera angles are extremely well thought out, the soundtrack is perfect, and the special effects are actually quite good, even by today's standards.  This movie manages to combine explosions with a good storyline, and I appreciate how rare that is.

This is by no means my favorite Best Picture Winner.  I found it hard to follow and rather tedious at times, and it was definitely on the long side.  But there were other parts that I really liked.  On the whole I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I was going to, particularly since I knew very little about General Patton prior to watching this.  While I'm not entirely sure how historically accurate this film is, it definitely conveys the idea that there are multiple sides to every story, especially this one, so there is no way to make a historical film that will satisfy everyone.  Basically, I liked this film but I didn't like it, which I think is a perfectly appropriate reaction to a film about such a controversial historical figure.

Next Best Picture: The French Connection

Sunday, November 7, 2010

1969: Midnight Cowboy

A young, naive, handsome Texan named Joe Buck moves to New York, hoping to become a hustler.  He is thoroughly unsuccessful, but he meets Ratso Rizzo, a sickly crook who agrees to be Joe's manager.  While trying to make ends meet in an unheated condemned apartment, the two misfits develop a powerful friendship.

While I enjoyed watching the main characters' relationship evolve, I really didn't like the majority of this movie.  For the most part, it's one of those weird, artsy, hippy sex movies, which just really aren't my thing.  But there were moments when I thought, "This is actually kind of good."  Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman both gave stellar performances, but I think without them this film would have little to recommend it, at least for me.  The film techniques were very interesting, but I also found them distracting.  And I didn't like the story very much either.  I kept wanting to yell at Joe, "If this isn't working, get another job, you moron!"  But I did find the end of the film moving.  The last five minutes made some of the earlier bizarre stuff worth sitting through.

This is the only X-rated film to ever win Best Picture, although the rating was changed to R in 1971.  Some of the subject matter is pretty scandalous, but today's audiences wouldn't think twice about most of it.  This movie is certainly interesting, but I don't think I'll be watching it again any time soon.

Next Best Picture: Patton

Saturday, November 6, 2010

1968: Oliver!

Oliver Twist is an orphan who is sold from the workhouse to a funeral parlor, from which he runs away to London to seek his fortune.  There he falls in with a group of criminals who want to turn him into a pickpocket.  When he is brought to court for stealing, and proven innocent, the man who accused him takes pity on him and offers to care for him.  But the criminals are afraid that Oliver will turn them in, so they have to steal him back.

The story itself is quite interesting, which explains why the book is considered one of the greatest classics in English literature.  But this movie does a really good job of turning a fascinating story into two and a half hours of boredom.  The pacing is terrible.  Important events happen in the blink of an eye, and then the story comes to a grinding halt for irrelevant 15-minute musical numbers.  The philosophy of this film is: if something bad happens, sing about it; if something good happens, sing about it; if nothing happens, sing about it.  And it helps if you sing in an inconsistent Cockney accent while pretending to have a fit...I mean, "dancing".

I can tell that this film is trying to make a statement about how easy it is to become swept into debauchery if you don't have anyone to care for you, but it's almost impossible to take that statement seriously with all the random singing and awkward dancing going on.  Some of the songs are pretty good on their own, but they drag on and on, and often have very little - if anything - to do with the story.  The performances are okay, but not the best.  The kid who plays Oliver is cute, but his acting skills are not that great, and his singing voice is too high, too soft, and very difficult to understand.

I am appalled that this film won six Academy Awards.  It's entertaining from a "Let's watch a movie to make fun of it" standpoint, but from a "Let's watch a classic Best Picture" standpoint, it's thoroughly disappointing.

Next up: Midnight Cowboy

Thursday, November 4, 2010

1967: In the Heat of the Night

When Officer Sam Wood finds a wealthy white businessman's murdered body in the middle of the street in Sparta, Mississippi, the strange black man in the train depot is immediately arrested.  Wood takes the prisoner to Chief Gillespie, who eventually discovers that this particular black man is actually a homicide expert from Philadelphia named Virgil Tibbs.  Tibbs's chief asks him to help Gillespie solve the case he was initially arrested for.  After a lot of hesitation on both men's part, and several false arrests, they ultimately learn to work together to solve the crime - or, to be more accurate, Tibbs works on solving the crime while Gillespie works to keep Tibbs from being lynched.

This is one of the best films about racism I've ever seen.  Every character in the film makes assumptions about other characters based on race.  Wood and Gillespie assume that Tibbs is a murderer because he is a strange black man.  Tibbs assumes that Gillespie won't accept his help because Gillespie is a white, Southern man.  But the film his hopeful about racial reconciliation.  The initial disdain Gillespie feels toward Tibbs gradually turns to respect as he discovers Tibbs's talent.  The two men develop a relationship that might even be called friendship.  The way this unfolds is far more interesting to the viewer than who killed the businessman, though the murder investigation is always on the characters' minds.

I think Sidney Poitier is a brilliant actor, and this is perhaps his finest role.  And the way he says, "They call me Mr. Tibbs!" ensures that that line remains on lists of greatest movie quotes.  Rod Steiger is perfect as Gillespie, and very deservedly won Best Actor.  The two of them work together incredibly well, and that's why I love this movie.  If you just look at the murder mystery part, this is a pretty good film.  But add racial issues in the 1960s South, Sidney Poitier, and Rod Steiger to the murder mystery, and it becomes a great film.

Coming up next: Oliver! (and, yes, the exclamation point is part of the title)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

1966: A Man for All Seasons

King Henry VIII wants to divorce his first wife and marry his mistress.  When the Roman Catholic Church won't grant him a divorce, the king declares himself in charge of religion in England so he can grant himself one.  But he demands the approval and support of Sir Thomas More, a very religious and almost shockingly non-corrupt man.  To speak out against the king would be treason, but Sir Thomas cannot make himself lie, so he says nothing.  His silence angers the king, and others in power, more than anything he could have said.

I must admit that I found this movie a bit hard to get into at first.  The beginning was mostly different groups of people having the same conversation: the king wants to get divorced, but the Church won't let him.  Then I thought, oh great, it's a film about somebody saying nothing, how fascinating can that be?  After a while, I answered myself: surprisingly, very fascinating.

I'm not sure how historically accurate this is, but at least in the film, Sir Thomas More is portrayed as one of those courageous, heroic men who are never appreciated until after they're dead.  At first everyone seems to like him, but once he takes a stand against the king - even though he insists that with his silence he is taking no stand - he finds himself alone.  The only people who will speak to him urge him to take an oath supporting the king's divorce and remarriage.  But his refusals make the audience feel for him passionately, and cheer him on even though they know it is hopeless.  Paul Scofield's performance is magnificent, and greatly contributes to the effectiveness of this film.  He embodies Sir Thomas More.  His portrayal of the innocent, virtuous, loyal man who refuses to become corrupted is thoroughly moving and convincing, and it won him a much-deserved Best Actor Oscar.  The other performances in this film are also very convincing, but most of the other characters are unlikeable, while Sir Thomas is one of the most likeable characters in any film I've seen.

This film is not full of action or war scenes, but the more subtle war of wills keeps it interesting and engaging, at least after the first few minutes.  And if nothing else, it's worth watching because of Paul Scofield.

Next: In the Heat of the Night

Friday, October 29, 2010

1965: The Sound of Music

Maria wants to be a nun, but she keeps getting into trouble at the abbey, so the Reverend Mother sends her to become a governess for Captain Von Trapp's seven children.  After the children play some tricks on her, Maria manages to gain their respect and love by teaching them to sing.  Even their stern father softens when he hears his children singing Maria's songs.  But this is Austria at the end of the 1930s, and when the Germans take over, Captain Von Trapp is expected to join the Nazis, something he will not allow himself to do.

I know there are some people who don't like this movie, but I can't understand why.  Despite a few semi-cheesy lines (and the fact that it's three hours long), I love this film.  The songs are fun and beautiful, not to mention deeply ingrained in our culture (does anyone not know the Do-Re-Mi song?); clearly Rodgers and Hammerstein at their best.  The character development is superb: one would think seven children would be easy to get mixed up, but each has his or her own distinct personality.  Then there's the incredible chemistry between Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer as their characters find themselves unintentionally falling for each other, and the beautiful framing of every shot.  All this combines with a powerful, moving and uplifting story to make a positively inspiring and entertaining film.

The beginning of this film gives me chills.  It starts with aerial shots of gorgeous green hills, while the sound of wind blowing is heard.  The picturesque aerial shots continue as birds begin chirping, and music gradually fades in.  There are some shots of quaint houses and buildings before we return to the hills, and one particular hill, on which Julie Andrews is walking.  The music swells, she twirls around and sings, "The hills are alive with the sound of music!"  I believe that this is the closest any film has ever gotten to capturing pure joy.

I may be biased in favor of this movie because I love Julie Andrews so much, but she's definitely not the only reason I like this film.  I'm also very glad that The Sound of Music won Best Picture because it further proves that a film doesn't have to be extremely depressing to be deep or Oscar-worthy.

Coming up next: A Man for All Seasons

Thursday, October 28, 2010

1964: My Fair Lady

Eliza Doolittle is a poor but good-hearted girl who sells flowers on the streets of London and speaks with a Cockney accent.  Henry Higgins is an independent professor of phonetics with little regard for anyone's feelings but his own.  Merely for the fun of it, Higgins makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering that in six months he can teach Eliza to speak and act like a proper lady.  So begins one of the most famous musicals ever created.

There are a lot of things I love about this film, and only a few that I dislike.  The songs are wonderful, and I often find myself unintentionally singing along.  But unlike many musicals, My Fair Lady is not good merely because of its songs.  Even if you ignore the music, it's a fascinating story with a witty script, unforgettable characters, and a fabulous cast.  Though I detest Henry Higgins (and urge Eliza not to go back to him, but she never listens to me), I think Rex Harrison is magnificent in the role.  Gladys Cooper is hilarious as Henry's mother, Stanley Holloway is perfect as Eliza's alcoholic father, and Wilfrid Hyde-White is very likeable as Colonel Pickering.  But I must say that as magnificent of an actress as Audrey Hepburn is, she isn't the perfect choice for Eliza.  She is good in the dramatic scenes, but most of her singing is done by Marni Nixon (who is once again uncredited).

I really think that Julie Andrews should have been cast as Eliza Doolittle, a role she originated on Broadway, because she could actually handle that type of singing.  Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway were in both the original Broadway cast and the film, but the filmmakers decided not to cast Julie Andrews because she had never been in a movie before, and they were afraid she wouldn't be able to handle the transition.  Instead, she was cast in Mary Poppins and won the 1964 Oscar for Best Actress.  So I guess it all worked out well for her, and I can't imagine anyone else as Mary Poppins, but I still would have liked to see her play Eliza Doolittle.  Oh, well, Audrey Hepburn did a fine job.

Despite the Julie Andrews thing, and the fact that Eliza goes back to Henry Higgins even though he always treats her like dirt, for the most part, I thoroughly enjoy watching this film.  As far as musicals go, it's one of the best.

Next: The Sound of Music (speaking of Julie Andrews...)

Monday, October 25, 2010

1963: Tom Jones

In 18th century England, Tom Jones is abandoned as a baby, but Squire Allworthy takes him in and raises him as his own.  When Tom grows up, he falls in love with Sophie Western, but is still far from objecting to other women.  His escapades eventually lead Squire Allworthy to throw him out, forcing Tom to embark on a series of adventures that all seem to end up in a woman's bedroom, or prison.

This is an extremely silly and bizarre movie.  It seems very Monty Python-esque, except the humor isn't as good.  And while I love Monty Python, I don't consider it Best Picture material.  I have no idea why Tom Jones won this award.  There are a few aspects that I like: the occasional character-audience interactions are well-placed and amusing, and some of the jokes are quite funny.  The end is pretty good, in a ridiculous sort of way, but it's hardly worth wading through the rest of the film.  Many of the scenes drag on far too long, and it becomes tiresome to watch the same thing happen over and over again.  Tom meets a pretty woman.  He sleeps with her.  He gets chased away.  He meets another pretty woman, and it happens all over again.  I have just spoiled approximately 3/4 of the movie.

While I didn't particularly like the bulk of this film, I can see how it would be entertaining to a certain audience.  I wouldn't call it a bad movie, but I really don't think it deserved to be called the Best Picture of 1963.  I think that Lilies of the Field is a much more profound and important film than Tom Jones.

Next year's winner: My Fair Lady

Saturday, October 23, 2010

1962: Lawrence of Arabia

Using mainly will-power, a British officer manages to achieve feats which no one else is willing to try, uniting Arabian tribes to overthrow the Turkish Empire.  For a time, the Arabs all love him and manage to put aside their differences to support him.  But despite his success, he leaves Arabia disillusioned and friendless.

This movie tends to rank very high on lists of the best films ever made.  The cinematography is quite remarkable, and the extreme long shots of the vast desert are at once picturesque and daunting.  Peter O'Toole is fabulous as the title character.  A lot of the important Arabs are played by Caucasian actors, which is quite annoying, but for the most part they do a good job pretending to be Arabian.  The story is engaging, interesting, and inspiring, at least for the first half.  After the intermission, I think the film loses some of its steam.  Lawrence is always a little strange, but in the second half of the film he becomes mind-bogglingly inconsistent.  One minute he's determined to take Damascus; the next he would rather slaughter a bunch of Turks.  He wants to go home, then he wants to go back to the Arabs, then he wants to do something else.  I feel like this must be one of those films that has to be watched a few times before everything makes sense, but frankly I don't think I'll be able to re-watch this any time soon.  I don't mean to imply that it's not a great film; it is.  But it's also very long, very disturbing, and very uncomfortable to watch, not to mention somewhat confusing, though I think I might have understood it better if I was more knowledgeable about the situation in the Middle East during World War I.  All in all, I perfectly comprehend why this film receives praise, but I think it might be overrated just a little bit.  But maybe I'll watch it again in a few years and find that my opinion has changed.

Coming up: Tom Jones

Thursday, October 21, 2010

1961: West Side Story

This updated, musical version of Romeo and Juliet set in New York City tells the story of two rival gangs: the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.  Tony is a co-founder of the Jets, but he is becoming disillusioned with the gang life.  His best friend Riff convinces him to go to a dance, where he meets Maria.  It's love at first sight, but it turns out that Maria's brother Bernardo is the head of the Sharks.  This doesn't bother Tony or Maria, but it really bothers everyone else.

While this story is incredibly depressing, it's also incredibly good.  They took a classic tragedy about how meaningless hate ruins lives and modernized it, introducing racism and gang warfare.  Even if the story wasn't as powerful and moving as it is, this would still be worth sitting through for the music.  The songs are fantasic, and the score is positively awe-inspiring.  And then there's the dancing.  Even the fight scenes are dances: magnificent, intense, perfectly-choreographed dances.  A lot of times, Broadway musicals lose some of their magic when they're transferred to the screen.  Granted, I never actually saw West Side Story on Broadway, but I think this must be one of the exceptions.  The filmmakers used the camera to enhance the storytelling of the dances, rather than letting it limit the audience's experience.

Of course, I don't mean to imply that this film is flawless.  Natalie Wood was a wonderful actress, and a very good dancer, but she was not Hispanic, let alone Puerto Rican, which I thought made her an odd choice for Maria.  She also did not do her own singing, which is not at all unusual, but they could have at least given Marni Nixon screen credit.  Also, a lot of the acting in this film seems forced, but that's probably because the primary focus in casting was to find people who could handle the intense dancing.  So, despite its shortcomings, this film deserves to be called a classic, and it certainly deserved to be named Best Picture of 1961.

Next up: Lawrence of Arabia

Friday, October 8, 2010

1960: The Apartment

C.C. Baxter works for a big insurance company, where he is very popular...because of his apartment, which is a very convenient place for his co-workers and bosses to have their extramarital affairs.  In return for handing over his key (and hardly ever being able to go home), Baxter receives several promotions.  He considers this a fair trade until he falls for an elevator girl named Fran Kubelik, and finds out that she's in love with the married big boss, who has been using Baxter's apartment.

I don't like the beginning of this film very much.  I find it disturbing that all those men think nothing of cheating on their wives, and throwing poor Baxter out of his own apartment.  But it definitely gets better, and by the end I decided that overall I liked it.  Jack Lemmon's always fun to watch, and he's the perfect Baxter.  Shirley MacLaine is also good as Fran (at least she's not pretending to be Indian, like she did in Around the World in 80 Days).  And Fred MacMurray is perfectly slimy as the boss she's in love with.  This movie is also full of really good comedic writing, which is the mark of a good Billy Wilder film.  And while at the beginning the story seems very anti-feminist, it gets better by the end.

This is definitely a transitional film.  It is the last Best Picture Winner that is entirely in black and white (Schindler's List is mostly black and white, but it has some color).  This movie also provides a great example of Hollywood's shift in the 1960s.  Production codes were loosening, soon to be abandoned entirely in favor of the rating system, so the subject matter of films was changing.  The innuendos in films of the past few decades were being replaced by more explicit material.  I don't think this film would have been made even a few years earlier, and if it had been attempted, many of the lines would have been censored.  Calling this film explicit is almost laughable by today's standards, but I'm sure it shocked some people in 1960 (though not as much as Psycho, which should have at least been nominated for Best Picture).

Stay tuned for: West Side Story

Thursday, October 7, 2010

1959: Ben-Hur

This classic tells the epic story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman living during the time of Christ.  When Judah, his mother, and his sister are wrongfully convicted of a crime, he vows revenge on Messala, his former friend who has condemned them.  After surviving three years as a slave on a Roman ship, Judah gains his freedom and returns to compete with Messala in an intense chariot race.

Two things would make me like this film better: if it was a little shorter, and if someone else played Judah Ben-Hur.  For as long as it is, it's surprisingly not boring, but there are a few scenes that could have been cut down a bit.  And I'm not sure what it is about Charlton Heston that irks me so much, but I can't stand him.  When I watch this film, I have to keep reminding myself to be on his side.  But other than that, it is a very good film.  A lot of people only watch it for the chariot race, but the rest of the film gives the chariot race meaning.  The character development throughout the movie is very well done.  I also really like the way Jesus is portrayed in the film.  His life intersects with Judah's several times, but we never see Jesus' face clearly, nor do we hear his voice.  I thought that was a very interesting choice by the filmmakers, and it works well.

This was a really good year for films.  I'm slightly surprised that neither North By Northwest nor Some Like It Hot was nominated for Best Picture, since those are both excellent, highly acclaimed movies.  They're also more fun to watch than Ben-Hur, especially since they have nothing to do with Charlton Heston.  But I'm not at all surprised that this film won because in years when there are a lot of good films to choose from, the Academy almost always picks the long epic (see 1939).  And, much as I hate to admit it, this film definitely deserved to win.  If I could get over my dislike of the star, I would enjoy it a lot more.

Next film: The Apartment

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

1958: Gigi

Young Gigi is being trained by her grandmother and great-aunt to become a courtesan.  Rich playboy Gaston is bored with the world.  He is also slowly falling in love with Gigi, but it takes him a long time to notice.  Then when he does, he's not sure how to show it.  Gaston's uncle is glad he's not young anymore, as long as it doesn't prevent him from chasing after young women.  They all sing random songs, and everything turns out all right in the end.

I find this film incredibly disturbing, especially since it's disguised as a happy musical.  Maurice Chevalier does a good job, don't get me wrong, but I find it creepy for a film to open with an old guy singing, "Thank heaven for little girls."  Maybe that's just me.  But the fact that Gigi's relatives want to send her off to get her heart broken by a notorious playboy makes me cringe.  Beyond the disturbing storyline, I guess the film's okay.  The performances are good, except Leslie Caron seems a little old to be playing a schoolgirl.  Most of the songs are excellent, or at least have clever lyrics, but if they had to dub Caron's singing, couldn't they at least get someone who sounded a little like her?  The sets and costumes are vibrant, and there are some interesting camera angles.  Still, I think this film was overrated.  I definitely do not think it deserved to win nine Academy Awards.  But maybe the films of 1958 were particularly bad.  I don't know.  This film isn't terrible, but it's not great either.

Next: Ben-Hur

Sunday, September 26, 2010

1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai

It's 1943.  Colonel Nicholson and his men are in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp in Burma.  They are expected to build a bridge, and after some clashes with Colonel Saito (the Japanese officer in charge of the camp), Nicholson decides that they are going to do a really good job.  He wants this bridge to be something his men can be proud of, and something that will be a tribute to the British Army, ignoring the fact that it will be used to help the enemy.  Meanwhile an American named Shears, who has managed to escape from the camp, is asked to return with a small party to blow up the bridge.

This film is spectacular.  The story is fascinating, the character development is superb, the performances are fabulous, the shots are framed beautifully; it's just amazing.  Alec Guinness never ceases to amaze me, and his portrayal of Nicholson won him a much deserved Academy Award.  The movie's kind of on the long side, but it's never dull.  I also love that, while it's about World War II, it's fundamentally about different kinds of people and how they react to desperate situations.  Nicholson, Shears, and Saito all have different ideas of what it means to be a soldier and follow one's duty.  They demonstrate three sides of a dilemma that many people, soldiers and civilians alike, have to face.  All the characters are believable, which is extremely important in a great film.  It's a good, effective, powerful movie: just what a Best Picture should be.  I also noticed that the Japanese soldiers appeared to be played by Japanese actors, which was refreshing after the last film I watched.  Anyway, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a classic, and it's one of those classics that I think everyone can appreciate.

Coming up next: Gigi

Saturday, September 25, 2010

1956: Around the World in 80 Days

Based on the book by Jules Verne, this film, as its title implies, is about people who attempt to go around the world in 80 days (a world that is almost entirely populated by Caucasians with varying shades of makeup who are conveniently fluent in English).  Phileas Fogg - a prim and proper, obsessive-compulsive Englishman, who may or may not have robbed a bank - decides to prove to the members of a gentleman's club that this feat can be accomplished.  Bets are placed, and Fogg sets off around the world that very day, along with his new valet Passepartout.

So this film is definitely not my favorite Best Picture winner.  I think it deserved the award more than The Greatest Show on Earth did, but only slightly (funnily enough, there was a circus scene in this film, but it was very brief).  David Niven is a perfect Phileas Fogg, so he's fun to watch.  But a lot of the "action scenes" go on way too long and are really boring, like Passepartout fighting the bull or the Indians chasing the train.  It certainly didn't need to be three hours long.  Also, this may come from watching the film more than 50 years after it was made, but I felt that it insulted my intelligence.  Did the filmmakers really expect me to believe that the sets were real?  Did they really expect me to believe that white people in makeup were members of different races?  I find it disturbing that Shirley MacLaine even tried to pass for a princess from India, especially since she didn't really have any dark makeup on.  Audiences might have gone for it in the '50s, but not today.  This is definitely not a timeless classic.

By far my favorite aspect of the film was all the cameos, some of which I didn't even pick up on until the credits at the end (which were some of the coolest ending credits I've ever seen, I must admit).  The ones I did catch were very fun to spot: Peter Lorre, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Glynis Johns, and many others.  If I ever see this film again, it will be to look for the cameos that I missed.

Next up: The Bridge on the River Kwai (oh, good, I thought it was about time for another depressing war movie)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

1955: Marty

Poor Marty.  He's 34 years old, not very attractive, and all his brothers and sisters are married.  Everyone says, "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?  When are you going to get married?"  Then he meets Clara, who has just been unceremoniously dumped by a blind date, and they start talking.  He really likes her, but now everyone who was begging him to get married suddenly wants him to stay single.

This is the shortest Best Picture winner ever, and in my opinion it's the perfect length.  It tells a story, it makes a statement, and it doesn't spend a half hour showing people eating popcorn at the circus (okay, so I still haven't gotten over The Greatest Show on Earth...I don't know if I ever will).  I really liked this film because it's about normal people facing normal problems, but it never gets boring.  Ernest Borgnine is wonderful as the friendly, down-to-earth title character, which is ironic because two films ago I just saw him as the evil stockade sergeant beating up Frank Sinatra.  Borgnine definitely deserved his Best Actor Oscar for this role because he played it spectacularly.  I cannot picture Marty being played by anyone else.

It also makes me really happy that this film won Best Picture because it's not super profound, or super long, but it's still thought-provoking and entertaining.  I haven't come across too many films as simple and well-made as this one.  In short, this is one of the movies I hadn't seen before that make me really glad I decided to watch the Best Picture winners.

The next film on the list is Around the World in 80 Days, which is three hours long (maybe they were trying to make up for this film only being an hour and a half)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

1954: On the Waterfront

Terry Malloy could have been a boxing contender, but he threw a fight for mob boss Johnny Friendly and is now a bum on the waterfront, which is totally controlled by Johnny and his sidekick, Terry's brother.  Terry feels guilty about sending a potential squealer to his death, especially when he falls in love with the dead guy's sister, so he starts having second thoughts about working for the mob.

This is one of those films that I've been meaning to see for a long time but never got around to until now.  I definitely need to watch it again at some point because for the first twenty minutes or so I was extremely confused.  But once I finally caught on, I was hooked.  This film has already been praised to the skies by film critics and historians and viewers alike, but at the risk of being superfluous, I'll tell you what I liked about it: pretty much everything except the premise.  I'm not really into mobster films, so at the beginning I didn't think I was going to like this one much.  But this is not just another mobster film.  This is a film about people making difficult choices.  All the characters are believable, and the casting was brilliant.  Of course, I can't say anything about Marlon Brando that hasn't been said already, but suffice it to say that I now understand why so many people think he was one of the best actors ever.  He won Best Actor for this film, and it would have been a crime if he hadn't.  Eva Marie Saint and Rod Steiger both gave fabulous performances, especially since they were playing opposite him (she won Best Supporting Actress; he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor).  And Karl Malden was, as always, a magnificent supporting actor (he was nominated for an Oscar, too).  The performances alone could have made this film great, but it's the performances combined with everything else that makes it a timeless classic.

The camera work is phenomenal, perfectly capturing and enhancing the actors' performances.  The score is intense at all the right times.  It was filmed on location, which makes it seem all the more real.  The story is intriguing, albeit somewhat confusing at the beginning.  In short, this film is kind of hard to watch, and it's certainly not a fun movie, but to anyone who knows even a little bit about filmmaking, it's pretty awe-inspiring.  Thank you, Academy, for restoring my faith in you; I was getting a little worried after 1952.  At least this year, you picked the right film.

Stay tuned for: Marty

1953: From Here to Eternity

It's December 1941 in Hawaii.  Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a former boxer, is being tortured and manipulated by his commanding officers, led by Captain Holmes, who want him to join the company boxing team.  The only two people who care are Private Maggio, who is having issues with the evil sergeant in charge of the stockade, and Sergeant Warden, who is busy having an affair with Captain Homes's wife.  The only things keeping Prewitt going are his love for the army and his love for "Lorene," a "gentlemen's club hostess."  Then the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.

Okay, so it's another depressing war Best Picture.  But it's also really good.  The story is intriguing, powerful, and moving, and it has very well-developed characters.  The casting was excellent, particularly in supporting roles.  Frank Sinatra made a major comeback as Maggio, and he and Donna Reed (who played "Lorene") won Best Supporting Actor and Actress for their performances.  It's fun to see Donna Reed in a not-so-wholesome role.  I also like seeing Deborah Kerr play an American.

This film is well-done from a technical standpoint as well.  Everything was shot and framed perfectly; I particularly liked one shot of Sgt. Warden as he leans against a wall next to a calendar that tells us it's Saturday December 6.  It's so effortlessly stuck in, and it's a perfect reminder that something is coming, for viewers who are paying attention.  Little things like that make this film brilliant.  It's probably most famous for Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissing on the beach, but there's so much more to it than that.  Yes, it's depressing, but it's a well-told story, and that's what a film should be.

Next: On the Waterfront

Saturday, September 18, 2010

1952: The Greatest Show on Earth

Oh my goodness.  I don't know where to begin.  Charlton Heston runs a circus with Betty Hutton as a trapeze artist he's in love with, and lots of acrobats, animals, and clowns (including James Stewart).  Anything interesting that might have come from that is obscured by bad writing, bad editing, a cheesy narrator, too many storylines that are extremely hard to follow, and boring shots of audience members staring into space and eating junk food.  And it was two and a half hours long!

Remember when I watched Grand Hotel, and I said that star-studded films are either really good or really bad?  Grand Hotel was one of the former; this was unquestionably one of the latter.  There are some pretty big names in the cast - Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, James Stewart, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, etc - but they were not enough to save this film, especially since some of them were giving their worst performances.  James Stewart was probably the best, but he didn't have much of a part to work with.  I've never liked Charlton Heston, but I found him even more obnoxious than usual in this film.

Don't get me wrong; it wasn't the worst film I've ever seen.  There were parts that were actually quite entertaining.  But it's the kind of film you watch to make fun of it; certainly not what I would call Best Picture material.  So why did it win?  Were the films of 1952 particularly bad?  The only other nominated film from that year that I've seen is High Noon, which I think is infinitely better than this film.  Also, 1952 was the year of Singin' in the Rain, which is now considered by many (including myself) to be one of the best films ever made.  So the question remains: what was the Academy thinking?

If I had to guess, I'd say this film won because of its color and special effects.  It was certainly very bright and colorful.  I think the special effects were good for 1952, maybe, but now they're just laughable.  Watching this film is kind of like going to the circus, except instead of being able to look wherever you want, you have to see what the camera decides to show you.  And I'm sorry, but watching people eat popcorn while clearly reacting to nothing is not really what I want to look at.  So nice try, Mr. DeMille, but I'm sorry.  It didn't work.

Coming up next: From Here to Eternity (which is actually a good film)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

1951: An American in Paris

Gene Kelly is a painter with a patroness who is "stuck on" him.  Leslie Caron (in her film debut) is a clerk in a perfume store, who is engaged to somebody else.  They happen to see each other in a cafe and fall madly in love.  It's complicated, but they make it work.

In many ways, this is a fairly typical Hollywood musical of the era, but it's one of the better ones.  Most of the songs are exceptionally good, and the dancing is superb.  The writing has just the right amount of cheesiness.  The story may be hopelessly predictable, but it's not bad.  It pretty much has everything those kind of musicals are supposed to have: love overcoming all obstacles; characters who randomly break out into perfectly harmonized songs and perfectly choreographed dances (if only life was really like that); and a magic piano that sounds like a full orchestra.  And let's not forget the 20-minute dream ballet sequence: you know, the ones that have really fake sets and go on forever and have nothing to do with the story except to reiterate what the characters are feeling (even though it was pretty obvious already), that are really only there to show off the stars' dancing abilities and to look like vaudeville?  Yeah, there was one of those at the end of this film, and while Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron are really, really, extremely good dancers who are fun to watch, I think that scene could have easily been cut in half.  But maybe that's just me.  Anyway, for the most part, I really liked this film.  It's not super deep and powerful like a lot of other Best Picture winners, but that's okay because it's not trying to be.  It was made to be entertaining, and that's what it is.

Next winner: The Greatest Show on Earth

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

1950: All About Eve

Margo Channing is an aging, moody star of the stage.  Eve Harrington is an admirer, introduced by Margo's best friend Karen, the wife of a playwright.  Eve tells a sob story, everyone takes pity on her, and she becomes Margo's assistant.  Eve is humble, artless, selfless, incredibly helpful, and completely devoted to Margo's well-being...or is she?  "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night."

The other day, my brother told me that this is his favorite black-and-white movie.  I wouldn't necessarily say the same for myself, but I agree that it is a remarkably well-put-together film.  The writing is witty, the story is intriguing, the camera work is brilliant.  The film is carried forward by three strong actresses giving fabulous performances: Bette Davis as Margo, Anne Baxter as Eve, and Celeste Holm as Karen.  But they're not alone.  Thelma Ritter, that wonderful character actress, plays Margo's original assistant, and Marilyn Monroe has a small role as well.  The only male actor who really gets to shine in this film is George Sanders; Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe are pretty important, too, but they don't get to do much except shout at each other and at Bette Davis.  Still, the performances are incredible, and so is pretty much everything else.

Although this film is a little on the long side (aren't they all?) it is absolutely never dull.  It's totally unpredictable, and viewers are always wondering what Eve and Margo are going to do next.  Sometimes I find Bette Davis hard to watch (blasphemy from a self-proclaimed old movie lover, I know), but there are some scenes in this film in which I can begin to appreciate why everyone raves about her.

All About Eve was nominated for 14 Academy Awards - a record that has never been surpassed and only matched once in 1997 (guess what film) - and won 6.  One could argue that it deserved more, and maybe if they had nominated Anne Baxter for supporting actress instead of Best Actress against Bette Davis they wouldn't have cancelled each other out, but who knows?  The fact is, this is a really good movie about the lengths to which some people will go to make it in show business.  It's disturbing if you think about it too long, but you can also just watch it for entertainment.

Coming up next: An American in Paris

Sunday, September 12, 2010

1949: All the King's Men

And yet another depressing, disturbing film takes the Oscar.  This one tells the story of Willie Stark, a self-educated small-town lawyer-turned-politician, and his rise to power.  He starts with good ideas (and perhaps even good intentions) about how to reform his state and help the poor.  After a couple of failed campaigns, in which he is beaten down by more powerful political figures, he gains enough support to become elected governor.  Stark keeps his promises to build more schools and better roads and such, but he does so using graft and blackmail and other dirty, corrupt methods that he earlier condemned.  The story is told through the eyes of Jack Burden, who is initially intrigued by Willie and becomes his right hand man, supporting him until he discovers that Willie has stolen his girlfriend and wants to destroy her uncle.

While the film was well made from a technical standpoint, I didn't like it.  The beginning was very confusing, and it took me a long time to figure out if the story was about Willie or Jack.  Then, once I figured that out, I really didn't like the direction the story went.  The message of the film is disturbing, but I'm sure that was intentional, so I guess the filmmakers succeeded in making their point.  I think the shots were framed very well, and I like the way the camera angles were adjusted ever so slightly to give viewers a different impression of the characters, especially the low angles of Willie when he starts to gain power.  Broderick Crawford won an Oscar for his thoroughly convincing portrayal of Willie Stark, and John Ireland was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the tormented Jack Burden.  The film told its story well; I just didn't particularly like the story.  Part of it is that corruption, and a lot of times politics in general, really irritates me.  If you like watching dishonest people justify their corruption by pretending to be honest, this is the film for you.

Next up: All About Eve, another film about dishonest people pretending to be honest

Thursday, September 9, 2010

1948: Hamlet

"To be or not to be?" blond Laurence Olivier wonders as he sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean.  "That is the question."  The answer is clearly "not to be," since in this, as in most of Shakespeare's tragedies, almost all the principle characters are killed.  And they all died tragically ever after.  The end.

Hamlet, as his name suggests, is a role for hams.  While Olivier's portrayal of the title character is not nearly as melodramatic as some I've seen (cough, Kenneth Branagh, cough cough), to call it a tad over-the-top would not be untrue.  Still, overall, this film was better than I expected.  It's long and it drags a bit, but that's Hamlet for you.  I really liked the way a lot of the shots were framed, and I especially liked the camera movement.  Those, combined with the soundtrack and the fog machines, created the mood more than anything the actors did.  But all in all, the performances were good, though the casting choices were a bit odd.

For instance, the actress who plays Queen Gertrude was significantly younger than Laurence Olivier, who plays her son.  Jean Simmons, who plays Ophelia, was significantly younger than everyone else, so although she gives a delightfully haunting performance, she always seems out of place.  The actor who plays Polonius wasn't actually that old, but he seems like he's about 85 or 90.  I'm guessing this was acting, but I wonder why he played it that way, when Jean Simmons was supposed to be his daughter, and she seemed young enough to be his great-granddaughter.  It's no big deal when Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius, because he looked like he was going to die of old age soon anyway.

I was incredibly disappointed that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were eliminated from this version, since they provide the comic relief that this story desperately needs.  I was very glad, however, that the whole Young Fortinbras storyline was omitted, because I never thought it was necessary.  I think the problem is I've seen too many versions of Hamlet, so I couldn't watch this film without comparing it to the others.  Still, it was better than I expected, for the most part.

Next: All the King's Men

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

1947: Gentleman's Agreement

Philip Schuyler Green is a magazine writer who's just moved to New York.  His new boss asks him to write a series about anti-Semitism.  After desperately trying to find a good angle for several weeks, Phil decides to tell everyone that he is Jewish so that he can watch for their reactions.  He instantly notices a difference in the way people talk to him and treat him.  His new socialite fiancee, who came up with the idea for the series because she hates anti-Semitism, is in on the plan, but she and Phil soon come to realize that even anti-anti-Semitists can fuel discrimination by letting it happen.

I really, really liked this film.  I am used to watching films from this era, and they generally avoid focusing on bigotry and prejudice.  Films were almost exclusively about how white, Protestant Americans solved their problems.  Judaism was pretty much a taboo subject in 1940s Hollywood; ironic, since most of the studio moguls of the time were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.  Even more ironically, it was one of the few non-Jewish producers, Darryl F. Zanuck, who decided to make a statement with this film.  And it worked.  This film is very powerful and well-made.  The writing is fabulous.  The acting is superb: starring Gregory Peck and featuring Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, and other amazingly talented artists all giving incredible performances.  I think it helped that they all knew they were doing something profound, so they gave it their all.

Most importantly, this film is believable.  It's about real people who face important problems that no one else wants to talk about.  It makes a point, but it's not just ramming a message down our throats; it tells an engaging story as well.  I also love how it covers all sides of the issue: the discriminators, the people being discriminated against, the people who do something about it, and the people who let it happen.

This is definitely my new favorite film that I hadn't seen before embarking on this project, and it may even be one of my favorite films period.  If nothing else, at least watching the Best Picture winners has allowed me to discover this film.  And I shall follow it with the 1948 version of Hamlet (which I'm sure is another nice, short, uplifting, light-hearted movie, like so many on this list...right?).

Monday, September 6, 2010

1946: The Best Years of Our Lives

Three veterans are returning home to Boone City, USA at the end of World War II.  Sergeant Al Stephenson is a banker with two children who have grown up without him.  Captian Fred Derry is a soda jerk with a new wife he barely knows.  Sailor Homer Parrish has a fiancee whom he's afraid won't want him anymore since he lost his hands in action.  The three men barely know each other, but their similar circumstances and occasional meetings at Butch's bar tie their stories together.  Then Fred falls in love with Al's daughter, and the story gets even more complicated.

While this film is a little on the long side (it lasts about 2 hours and 45 minutes), it kind of needs to be, as it's telling three different stories.  The stories, and the way they are portrayed, are engaging and powerful.  The performances are all superb, with a magnificent cast including Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Teresa Wright.  But by far the most moving performance is that of Harold Russell, who plays Homer Parrish.  It's too bad there weren't more roles for young men with no hands, because that guy could act!  At least the Academy recognized his performance with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

This film was made when a lot of people could relate to its story, as the war had just ended.  However, even though modern audiences cannot identify with the film as much as the audiences of 1946 could, it remains a magnificently compelling movie to this day.  In many ways, it's a sad film, but it's mostly uplifting and encouraging rather than depressing.  It's definitely one of my favorite Best Picture Winners so far.

Coming up next: Gentleman's Agreement

Saturday, September 4, 2010

1945: The Lost Weekend

This is an incredibly disturbing and thought-provoking film.  It's very hard to watch, but it's also very good.

When people get drunk in movies, a lot of times it's comical, and the supporting character who's an alcoholic is funny, or at the very least harmless.  This film is completely different.  It presents alcoholism as the disease it is, with absolutely no glamour or humor.  Don Birnem would probably be a very successful writer if he wasn't addicted to alcohol.  This film portrays a single weekend, beginning with Don worming his way out of a trip with his brother and taking him through a major binge.  He desperately struggles to find money for "just one drink," but, as one bartender puts it, "One is too many and a hundred's not enough."  Don's brother and girlfriend care about him and try to help him, but he refuses their help.  As he stoops to lying and stealing for his "one more drink," audiences can't help forgetting everything else Hollywood has taught them about drunks.  It's a terrifying, horrific disease, and it's very hard to know how to react to it. 

I find it interesting that this film was made at the end of the war.  I'm sure a lot of soldiers who came home were struggling with alcoholism, so it's good that they made this film when they did.  I also read on the back of the case that this film was almost not released because preview audiences didn't like it.  I can see why; it's nothing like the escapist films they were used to.  But that's what makes it so brilliant.

Ray Milland's performance as Don Birnem deservedly won him the Best Actor Oscar.  His facial expressions alone are magnificent.  The score to this film is creepy and haunting, which greatly aids the portrayal of the film's message.  The camera work was superb: I especially liked the use of extreme close-ups and slightly oblique, low camera angles.  This film was extremely well-made, and it had a very good and necessary, albeit disturbing, message.

Next up: The Best Years of Our Lives

1944: Going My Way

It's nice to know that a film doesn't have to be incredibly depressing to win Best Picture.  This is an example of one of the more heartwarming winners.  It's also unusual in that its central conflicts don't involve romance or war (although there is a couple that fall in love and the war is briefly mentioned).

This film tells the story of an old priest who's been running a parish for 45 years.  The church is now struggling financially, so the bishop sends young Father O'Malley (aka Bing Crosby) to take over.  The two personalities clash at first, but eventually they start to get along quite well.  Father O'Malley decides to turn some of the young delinquents of the parish into a choir.  Oh, yeah, and there are a couple of women who are somewhat important to the story but are mostly there to look pretty and sing.

I'll be the first to admit that it's a bit cheesy.  It even gets a little boring in places.  But it's mostly a really good film.  It's about people helping each other and looking out for one another and singing together (obviously Bing Crosby has a lot to do with the last one).  It also says a lot about generation gaps.  The writing is as un-cheesy as possible.  The little boys are cute, even if it's very apparent that their voices weren't recorded at the same time as their images.  And Barry Fitzgerald is perfect for the part of the older priest.  If you're looking for movies that will restore your faith in human beings, this is a good place to start.

Coming up next: The Lost Weekend

Friday, September 3, 2010

1943: Casablanca

Oh, where to begin?  This film has become so ingrained in American culture that many of the lines are familiar: here's looking at you, kid; play it, Sam; of all the gin joints in all the world, she walks into mine; this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship - to name a few.  The relationship between Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund is considered one of the greatest onscreen romances of all time, despite the fact that (gasp!) they don't end up together!

While this film is probably most well-known for its famous lovers, there is actually a lot more to it than that.  Every minor character is intriguing, every plot twist thought-provoking.  The soundtrack is perfect, and the settings - particularly the contrast between Paris and Casablanca - greatly add to the film as well.  The writing is witty and clever (despite a few cheesy lines), and obviously full of catchphrases. The casting is almost too good to mention.  All of the performances are magnificent, and I can't see anyone else in any of the roles.

Though the film is dated by its World War II setting, its themes of love and patriotism still strike a chord with audiences today.  This is the epitome of a timeless classic, so it's appropriate that its theme song is "As Time Goes By."  If it seems like I'm praising it excessively, it's probably because I am, but in my opinion it deserves all the praise it can get.  The first time I saw this film I didn't fully appreciate it, but every time I've watched it since - and I believe this was my 6th time - I've noticed something new.  There are few movies that I like more every time I watch them, and this is definitely one, which is perhaps why I am praising it so profusely.  But seriously, even if it's not your kind of movie and even if you don't like it, you should watch it anyway just to improve your cultural literacy.

Next up: Going My Way

Thursday, September 2, 2010

1942: Mrs. Miniver

I saw this movie once almost seven years ago, and I remembered very little about it.  Even so, I am surprised that I didn't remember what an incredible film it is.

This film is so good that it's hard to know where to begin praising it.  The story is extremely intriguing.  It's about a small town in England that is trying to keep a semblance of normalcy during the air raids of World War II.  I was going to elaborate, but that's the general premise, and I don't know how to summarize the rest of the story without seeming incredibly long-winded.  Basically, they're normal people who try to keep a positive attitude in the face of war and death.

The performances were magnificent.  Greer Garson deservedly won Best Actress for her portrayal of the extremely likeable title character.  Her husband was played by Walter Pidgeon, which makes this his second Best Picture winner in a row.  Richard Ney and Teresa Wright are wonderful as Vin Miniver and his love interest, Carol Beldon.  Then there's Lady Beldon, played perfectly by Dame May Whitty (who will nevertheless always be "the diggy biscuit lady from Gaslight" in my mind).  And Henry Travers (aka Clarence from It's a Wonderful Life) is adorable as the train station master who names his rose after Mrs. Miniver.

I think what intrigued me most about this film is that it was made in 1942, which means the events that the film portrays were happening as it was made.  Therefore, there's no real happy ending because no one knew for sure how the war was going to end.  However, the film ends on a hopeful note.  I loved how the last title said "The End.  America needs your money.  Buy defense bonds and stamps every pay day."  Naturally, the film struck a deep chord with audiences of its day, but that doesn't make it any less profound now.  It remains an incredibly powerful, encouraging film.  Yes, it's idealistic, but that's kind of the point.  Also, it's nice to know that a film can have explosions and a really good story with decent writing.  Hollywood seems to have forgotten that.

I'm very excited because I get to follow this truly excellent film with another fabulous film: Casablanca

Monday, August 30, 2010

1941: How Green Was My Valley

This film is INCREDIBLY depressing!  It was powerful and well-put-together, for the most part, but oh my goodness, what a downer!

Basically, it's about this big family in a little Welsh coal mining town.  They start off happy enough, but then something bad happens to them, and then something else bad happens, and then another bad thing happens, over and over throughout the entire film.  Yes, there are a few good things that happen, but they either turn out bad or are immediately followed by an unrelated bad event.  Super depressing.

The beginning is kind of confusing, partly because they all have really weird names - like Angharad, Gwillym, Ianto, and Cyfartha - and there are so many brothers in the family.  But once the brothers start leaving or dying, it's easier to keep the remaining ones straight.  I think the best aspect of the movie is Roddy McDowall as the adorable little kid.  Even though bad stuff keeps happening around him, and to him, he still believes that people are ultimately good, he keeps his enthusiasm for life, and he knows that the loved ones who have left or died are still with him in spirit.  That is the only truly uplifting aspect of this film, though it is uplifting in a rather dismal way.  I love when Walter Pidgeon helps him walk again, after the doctor has said he probably won't, and the faith that they both have (some of that gets lost later in the film, but thankfully not all of it).  My other favorite part of is Walter Pidgeon's diatribe against the hypocritical deacons, but the coal mine caves in before we find out if they get the message or not.  Basically, this film just made me feel really, really lucky to not live in a Welsh coal mining town at the turn of the century.

Coming up next: Mrs. Miniver

1940: Rebecca

This movie is freaky, but in a good way.  Of course it is; it's Alfred Hitchcock.

Rich, handsome, troubled Maxim de Winter (aka Laurence Olivier) and Joan Fontaine's very unwealthy but untroubled character fall for each other and get married.  The second Mrs. de Winter (who has no other name in the film) soon discovers that, not only does she have to adjust to a completely different lifestyle than she has been used to (in a mansion with doorknobs level with her shoulders, to make her seem more insignificant), but she is also constantly being compared to Maxim's late first wife, Rebecca, whom everyone adored, none more so than the majorly creepy housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson).  Thus begins a film so full of plot twists and thwarted expectations that it must be watched several times before everything is fully understood.  Phrased differently: it's a good Hitchcock film.

This was Hitchcock's first American film (although the cast is primarily British and it takes place in England), and it was also the only film he directed that won Best Picture.  While I would not call it my absolute favorite of his films, I would definitely call it one of his best.  The story unfolds beautifully, the pacing is very good (well, okay, the intro is a little boring, and the whole movie feels a bit long, but other than that the pacing is good), and the costumes and sets perfectly complement the character development and story.

The casting was marvelous.  Joan Fontaine always seems to look upset, which was perfect for this character, since she was usually scared, worried, nervous, intimidated, or otherwise uncomfortable.  I don't know where to begin praising Laurence Olivier; he was fabulous, not that that's any surprise.  Mrs. Danvers is one of the most disturbing, sinister characters I've ever seen, so Judith Anderson must be a very talented actress, though I've never seen her in anything else.  George Sanders's voice always makes me think of a tiger, thanks to The Jungle Book, which totally worked for his role in this film.

Fontaine, Olivier, Anderson, and Hitchcock were nominated for Best Actress, Actor, Supporting Acress, and Director, respectively, but none of them won.  Of course, this was the year that Ginger Rogers won Best Actress, and Jimmy Stewart won Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story (which was also nominated for Best Picture and should have won, not because Rebecca isn't a great movie, but because The Philadelphia Story is just so wonderful), so I forgive the Academy for overlooking Fontaine and Olivier.

Rebecca is kind of an uncomfortable film to watch, but if you want a good suspense thriller, this is the perfect choice.

Coming up next: How Green Was My Valley

Friday, August 27, 2010

1939: Gone with the Wind

I think the best word to describe this film is "epic."  The first film in color to win best picture, the longest film ever to win best picture, and one of the most famous love stories ever told: this film has a lot to recommend it.  And, for the most part, it deserves all the praise it has been given.

Yes, it is painfully long, but it is never boring.  Considering that the book has over 1,000 pages, the film would have to be much longer to include everything.  Obviously, they had to cut things out.  While it might be annoying to a fan of the book that Scarlett only has one child instead of three, or that some of the minor characters are eliminated, I think that the filmmakers did a surprisingly good job of including the important parts without losing the heart of the story.

And what a story it is.  War, reconstruction, love, hate, spite, jealousy, forgiveness, tragedy, adventure, and more; this story has it all.  Not to mention the incredibly well-developed characters, who are also spectacularly cast.  Clark Gable is Rhett Butler.  Olivia de Havilland is Melanie Hamilton Wilkes.  And while I think other people could have played Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler, Vivien Leigh did an outstanding job, especially with all the onscreen crying, which very few actors can do convincingly.

But this film has more than just an amazing story.  The special effects, while lame by today's standards, must have wowed audiences in 1939.  The sets and costumes are spectacular, in dazzling Technicolor.  I love this movie, and if it wasn't so long I would watch it much more often.

Next up: Rebecca