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

Sunday, August 22, 2010

1938: You Can't Take It With You

Okay, so I have to admit that this film does get a bit cheesy and ridiculous at times, but in the best way possible.  And it's happy and uplifting, which is more than can be said for many of the films on this list.

In a nutshell, the message is that friends are more important than money, and if you don't like what you do for a living you should quit your job.  It tells the story of a family that basically does whatever it wants: making fireworks, throwing giant darts, constantly doing ballet all over the house, that sort of thing.  The most normal member of the family falls for her boss (he's played by Jimmy Stewart, so who can blame her?) who comes from a snooty, rich background, so naturally his parents greatly disapprove of her family.  Hilarity ensues when the two families get together, but some serious life lessons manage to find their way into the story.  Basically, it's a happy film, but it makes viewers think about their priorities.

Poor Lionel Barrymore was in lots of pain and almost completely crippled from arthritis, but that didn't stop him from giving a fabulous performance as the carefree, hermonica-playing grandpa, who conveniently sprains his ankle so he has an excuse to use crutches.  Jean Arthur's performance was fantastic, as usual.  And then there's Jimmy Stewart.  Words cannot express how much I love Jimmy Stewart.  So I guess to a certain extent I'm prejudiced in favor of this film because I love its stars, and I love Frank Capra as a director, but I thought it was really good.  Maybe not quite as good as It Happened One Night, but close.

I can't believe I've already made it through 11 films!  I'm almost out of the '30s already!  But of course, the 1939 winner is almost 4 hours long, so that might slow things down a little bit.

1937: The Life of Emile Zola

This film's title is very misleading.  True, it covers Emile Zola's life from his struggling youth to his death, but that's not its main focus.  The majority of the film is dedicated to Zola's fight for the freedom of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who has been wrongly convicted of treason.  But it shouldn't have been done any other way.

I thought this was going to be more like The Great Ziegfeld, with time passing at a steady pace through a famous man's life.  Instead, Zola went from starving youth to successful, renowned author relatively quickly, and I thought, is it over already?  But no, it was just setting up his backstory.  The young Zola was obsessed with presenting the truth at all costs, but the older Zola thought his work was done and he could retire in peace.  Then he hears of the cover-up involved in the Dreyfus case, and his old yearning to present the truth returns.  Even when all of France is crying out against him, Zola never stops fighting for truth and justice.  That may sound cheesy and cliche, but the way this movie presents it, it's not.  Part of it is Paul Muni's performance as Zola, particularly in the courtroom scene, but the film wouldn't have worked without Joseph Schildkraut's fantastic performance as the incredibly likable, unfortunate Dreyfus.  Zola could have been as devoted to the truth as possible, but if the audience didn't care so implicitly for Dreyfus and his wife (played magnificently by Gale Sondergaard), the film would not have been nearly as effective.  Thankfully, the Academy reconized this and called Schildkraut the Best Actor in a Supporting Role that year.

Before watching this, I knew absolutely nothing about the real Emile Zola, so I have no idea how accurate this film is.  There is a disclaimer at the beginning saying that some of the characters' names have been changed, and some of the characters and events are fictitious, but I'm not sure which ones they are.  I find it ironic that a film about a man dedicated to the truth doesn't seem to care if it portrays the truth or not.  Nevertheless, this remains a powerful film.  The pacing is a little odd, but it works.  The writing is at times a bit melodramatic, but again, it works.  Parts of it are very depressing, like many other films on this list, but at least it provides hope, unlike Cavalcade.

Next up: You Can't Take It With You

Saturday, August 21, 2010

1936: The Great Ziegfeld

Okay, first of all, this film was WAY too long!  They could have definitely cut out some of the show and focused more on the story.  There was no reason for it to be three hours long.

To a great extent - much more than necessary - this film is made up of moving scenery and beautiful girls in exotic costumes.  Yes, it tells a story, but the story keeps getting interrupted by the Follies.  I did like that Fannie Brice and Ray Bolger played themselves, and I thought the giant moving staircase was pretty cool.  Obviously, I understand why they needed to include Ziegfeld's shows in a biopic about Ziegfeld, but those scenes just went on and on.  The film could have easily been at least a half hour shorter.

The story itself, when the filmmakers decided to focus on it, was well-told.  I'm not sure exactly how accurate the film really was, but it was certainly believable.  The characters were well-developed, and I enjoyed the cast immensely.  Luise Rainer's fabulous performance deservedly won her the Best Actress Oscar that year.  Frank Morgan was wonderful, although I can't see him without thinking of the Wizard of Oz (the same was true for Ray Bolger).  I never would have cast Myrna Loy as Billie Burke, but I was surprised by how well it worked (I shouldn't have been; it's Myrna Loy after all).  What I didn't like was waiting two hours and fifteen minutes for her to show up!  She got second billing, and she's barely in any of the film.  What's that about?  William Powell was very good, too, but as far as his 1936 films go, there is really no comparison: My Man Godfrey should have won the Oscar over this film.  And it wasn't even nominated!  Go figure.

Stay tuned for The Life of Emile Zola (oh, dear, another biopic, should I be worried?)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

1935: Mutiny on the Bounty

This is one of the best films about moral dilemmas that I've ever seen.  Generally, there are good guys and bad guys, and the good guys defeat the bad guys and everything's happy.  End of story.  Not in this film.

Captain Bligh is definitely an evil man, taking delight in torturing and practically starving his crew.  I was expecting Fletcher Christian and the other men to overthrow him, sail the ship home, and live happily ever after.  But it's not that simple.  The mutiny doesn't come at the end of the film; it comes in the middle.  Bligh survives and returns, determined to find the mutineers and bring them to justice.  The men may be heroic because they overthrew a tyrant, but they committed a crime, and they must either die or spend the rest of their lives in hiding to pay for it.

This film was very disturbing, but I liked it.  Apart from the scene in Tahiti, which was necessary to a certain extent but went on way too long, the pacing was good, and the story was engaging.  The performances were all magnificent and thoroughly convincing.  Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone were all nominated for best actor, and it's disappointing that none of them won because they were superb.  But Clark Gable just looks wrong without a mustache.

Coming up next: The Great Ziegfeld

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

1934: It Happened One Night

This was the first film on the list that I'd actually seen before I started this project, and I must say that I did not at all mind having an excuse to watch it again.  This is 1930s romantic comedy at its best!

Heiress Ellen Andrews has run away to get back to the man she's eloped with, of whom her overprotective father greatly disapproves.  On the bus she ends up sitting next to Peter Warne, a newspaper reporter who has just lost his job, and who thinks Ellen's story is just the leverage he needs to get it back.  Of course they end up falling in love, but that's pretty much the only predictable thing about this film.  The snappy dialogue alone is enough to keep it interesting, without even taking into account all the hilariously disastrous situations they get into.  Then there's the amazing chemistry between the film's stars, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.  While this era was filled with romantic comedies, many of which are incredible, it would be difficult to find a more perfect example of the genre than It Happened One Night.

Not only did this film win Best Picture, it was also the first of only three films to date to win all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress.  As far as I'm concerned it deserved all of them.  Gable and Colbert are fabulous.  The writing is impeccable.  It is put together wonderfully.  Maybe I'm biased because I love old romantic comedies like this, and if you're more into war films you might not agree with me that this is the best film on the list so far.  Still, if you're only going to watch one 1930s romantic comedy in your life, you could do much worse than It Happened One Night.

Next up: Mutiny on the Bounty

Monday, August 16, 2010

1932/1933: Cavalcade

So basically, this film follows one family through historical events from 1900 to 1933 ("present day").  Sound familiar?  The premise is a lot like that of Cimarron, except this film takes place in Britain rather than Oklahoma, and this film covers a lot more historic events than Cimarron.  In some ways it reminded me of Forrest Gump, the way they become entangled with history, except this was not nearly as well done.

The beginning of this film is so boring that I was tempted to stop watching it.  Then it starts to get a bit more interesting, then it gets boring again, then it gets somewhat interesting, and by the end it's just super preach-y.  The only things that remain consistent throughout the film are the melodramatic performances and cheesy writing.  And if that's not bad enough, this movie is extremely depressing!  Once it gets to World War I, it's all about how humanity is in a downward spiral towards degradation, and the main characters hope we can recover, but it seems doubtful.  It's depressing enough earlier in the film when the jovial servant turns into a raging alcoholic and dies in the street, or when the "good son" and his new bride decide to honeymoon on the Titanic, but I was expecting it to end happily.  Oh, no, sorry, we're going to show really depressing images of people being shot and dying superimposed with soldiers marching for 10 minutes, and, by the way, the other son dies right at the end of the war, and his mother has no hopes for the future.  I'm so glad next year's winner is a comedy; I don't know how many more depressing war films I can take.

I don't want to make this out to be a horrible film, because there were some aspects that were very interesting.  While on the whole I didn't like the depressing message, I thought it was fascinating from a historical standpoint.  This film was made in 1933.  A lot of people were very depressed and discouraged with the world in 1933.  Generally, Hollywood tried to cheer people out of the Great Depression with happy endings and uplifting messages.  The makers of Cavalcade had the courage to create a film out of what was on a lot of people's minds.  They didn't do it very well, in my opinion - at least, they could have done it much better - but the fact that they even tried was probably why they won the award in the first place.  Also, this is the third winner to emphasize the horrors of war, which I guess the Academy really likes.

By the way, in case you were wondering, there were no stuttering characters in this film, so I guess that breaks that pattern.

Next film on the list: It Happened One Night (thank goodness)

1931/1932: Grand Hotel

Business tycoon Wallace Beery wants to finalize a merger; terminally ill Lionel Barrymore wants to enjoy his last remaining days as much as possible; Baron John Barrymore and stenographer Joan Crawford both want money; and fading ballerina Greta Garbo just wants to be alone.  This film is all about how their stories and objectives become intricately entwined at the Grand Hotel in Berlin.  Beyond that, though, this is merely a film about different types of human beings, and what they will do to achieve their goals.

Sounds simple enough.  But look again at the names I just mentioned.  This is a star-studded cast if ever there was one.  Generally my experience with such films is that they're either fabulous or terrible; either the film makes the stars shine, or the film is so bad that it has to rely solely on starpower.  This was definitely one of the former cases.  They didn't seem like hams putting on a show; they seemed like real, thinking, feeling human beings.  Greta Garbo was thoroughly convincing both when she was depressed and when she was lovestruck.  John Barrymore was likable and pitiable, so that even when he tried to steal from the other characters, no audience member would have condemned him.  Joan Crawford was also pitiable, but also strong enough that she didn't need pity.  Wallace Beery was pretty much the villain of the film, but even he could be empathized with.  And Lionel Barrymore.  Oh my goodness, Lionel Barrymore.  What an incredibly talented, versatile actor.  He never disappoints, and this may have been one of his best performances (I haven't seen enough of his films to know for sure).  A lesser cast could have made this film mediocre, but they pulled it off splendidly.  The script, plot, and actors were a perfect combination.  The effectiveness of this film depended on the believability of its characters, and these actors pulled through.

"Grand Hotel, always the same: people come, people go. Nothing ever happens."  This line is spoken both at the beginning and the end, but thankfully it isn't true, or the film would be really boring.  The premise may sound boring, the first few minutes may even seem boring, but the bulk of the film is anything but.

Coming up next: Cavalcade

Saturday, August 14, 2010

1930/1931: Cimarron

While there were several things I didn't like about this film, I must say that it was well-done and effective.  But it's definitely not my favorite movie, and I was definitely not a fan of Richard Dix's hair.

The main thing that bothered me was that the two main characters, Yancey and Sabra Cravat (what kind of names are those anyway?) are at opposite extremes when it comes to priorities.  Yancey is very concerned with Indian rights, which is good, since he's pretty much the only one.  However, he treats his wife Sabra miserably.  He keeps leaving her to go off on adventures for years at a time, without ever contacting her while he's gone.  One time, he comes back after being gone for five years, and the first thing he does is go to court to defend the unfortunate woman who stole his land claim at the beginning of the film.  Now, of course, that is the gallant and chivalrous thing to do, but he totally ignores his wife, who had to take over his business when he just disappeared for five years!  But she, on the other hand, doesn't seem too upset about the way her husband treats her, or even about how ridiculous his hair looks; she's more upset that he cares too much about Indians and defending that woman.  Their priorities were totally screwed up, but I'm pretty sure that was the point (except for maybe the hair thing), so the fact that it made me so upset means that this was a very effective film.

My favorite aspect of this film was the way it showed the passing of time.  It started in 1889 and went all the way up to "present day" (i.e. 1930), and it kept skipping huge chunks of time.  The actors, particularly Irene Dunne, did a tremendous job of changing their demeanor as they got older and more mature, and I also liked the way certain minor characters kept recurring and evolving.  I'm pretty sure that that really helped this film win the award, and I applaud the Academy for recognizing this highly effective technique.  Basically, the story bothered me, but I liked the way it was put together.

I also think it's very interesting that both The Broadway Melody and Cimarron had a supporting character with a stutter.  So far, half the Best Picture winners have had a stuttering character; every second one.  Interesting pattern; I wonder if it will continue.  Is there something about a stutter that makes a film Oscar-worthy?  Or is it mere coincidence?  Perhaps we shall see.

Next on the list: Grand Hotel

1929/1930: All Quiet on the Western Front

Only the third best picture winner and already the second about World War I.  The war had only ended 12 years previously, so a lot of audience members could probably relate.  Even today, it remains an incredibly powerful film.

There were so many wonderfully put together scenes and sequences.  From the very first, incredibly disturbing scene where a teacher is convincing his teenaged students to go out and die for their country, I knew this was going to be a strong, haunting film.  I was not remotely disappointed.  The boot sequence was especially powerful, as was the shot where the camera moved backwards through a trench as the enemy attacked, clearly portraying the chaos that ensued.  The ending gave me chills (see picture): a clip from earlier in the film of the new recruits looking back is superimposed with a shot of a graveyard.  The End.

Another very interesting thing about this film was that it was from the Germans' perspective.  American audiences were used to thinking of the Germans as enemies and the French and English as allies; in this film the roles are reversed.  And yet the horror of war surpasses all nationalities.  You don't spend the whole film thinking, "Oh, these are Germans; they're bad guys."  They were just men.  All of the whimpering, crying, and screaming helped portray them as very human, and extremely relatable.  Still, ten years later they never would have made a war film with the Germans as good guys.

I read the book on which this film is based about four years ago, and the main thing I remembered was the Frenchman in the foxhole.  A few other parts came back to me as I was watching, but I don't remember it well enough to compare the film to the book.  All I can say is that this was a remarkably well-made film about the horrors of war, 68 years before Saving Private Ryan.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

1928/1929: The Broadway Melody

Well, now I know where they got a lot of the songs from Singin in the Rain!

So, basically as I expected, this was a film about wanna-be stars trying to make it on Broadway.  What I didn't expect was for it to be as good as it was.  True, the premise has been used and re-used way too many times now, but you have to remember, this was 1929.  Films had barely started talking.  I was pleasantly surprised with the sound quality, and while it may have been restored sometime in the last 80 years, the fact remains that this film was revolutionary in its day.  The previous best picture winner was completely silent, and this film was all-talking.  The only clue that it was anywhere close to the silent era was the occasional shot of a title telling the time and place.

I don't want to imply that this film was merely good for its time because, while it's incredible for 1929, it's a pretty good movie period.  The characters were very well-developed and believable, the dialogue was mostly well-written and interesting (as long as you can get past the '20s slang that sounds hopelessly cheesy today), the songs were mostly good (the best ones showed up more than 20 years later in Singin' in the Rain), and the performances were excellent, particularly Bessie Love's.  Maybe it's just that my somewhat low expectactions were far exceeded, but I thought The Broadway Melody was one of the better films of its kind, especially since it was the first.

Stay tuned for All Quiet on the Western Front!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

1927/1928: Wings

So I just finished watching the first Best Picture winner, and all I can think is "Wow."  For the first hour or so of the film, however, that was the last word on my mind.  It was definitely hard to get into.  But the end was really good.

Basically, the film was about World War I.  Two young guys named Jack and David are in love with the same girl (who loves David, but not Jack; there's a girl-next-door type character who loves Jack but he doesn't know it until the end).  They go off to war together, and in training they get into a huge fight, and then for no reason at all decide to become best friends.  The girl they both love threatens to get in the way of their friendship, but they realize that their relationship is more important than a girl.  Unfortunately, they realize it a bit late.  Still, it was pretty touching.  After the random scene where Jack gets drunk and starts seeing bubbles everywhere (what was he drinking?) and obsessing over the bubbles (totally made me think of that fish in Finding Nemo), the movie got much better.  This film had several important life lessons in it, such as: don't let a girl who's only in two scenes get in the way of true friendship, and it's probably not the best idea to steal an enemy plane and then fly it back to your base.

Although it was the first Best Picture Winner, this film really marks the end of an era.  It was the only silent film to win this award [until 2011, that is, but I didn't know that at the time]; soon afterwards, nearly every film was a talking picture.  Like most silent films I've seen, there was a lot of over-acting (particularly the dramatic dying scenes), people's eyes looked creepy, and the titles were overly-descriptive and tried to be too profound.  By the end, though, the story was engaging enough that I was able to see past that and actually enjoy the film for what it was.  Oh, and the Gary Cooper cameo was fun to spot, although kind of depressing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Before I Begin

First of all, I've never made a blog before, so I really have no idea what I'm doing.  But hopefully I'll figure it out as I go along.

Anyway, for about eight years, I have been in love with movies, particularly old classics from the 1930s and 1940s, but I also like a lot of more recent films, too.  I have seen a ton of movies, but there are a lot of films that I keep meaning to watch but have never gotten around to it.  So that's the first reason why I'm doing this.  I also have always found it interesting how some films that I didn't think were that good won tons of awards, particularly Academy Awards, while other films I really like didn't win anything.  (Personally, I don't understand why everyone thought Ishtar was the worst film ever made; it's hilarious!)  So I decided to watch all of the winners of Academy Award for Best Picture in order, and then to write my own reviews about them.  I was going to do this just for myself, but a couple of people I mentioned it to told me to make a blog about it, so that's what I'm doing.  I haven't started watching films yet, but I hope to watch the first one (Wings) within the next couple of days.  I have already seen some of these films several times, but I'm going to re-watch them anyway.  So this will probably take a really long time, but we'll see.  I'm not setting a time limit, so it'll get done when it gets done.