Sunday, June 26, 2011

2010: The King's Speech

Bertie stammers when he speaks.  Unfortunately, he is also the son of King George V of England, which means that not only is he required to speak publicly, he must do so on live radio.  He tries everything to get rid of the stammer, but nothing works until his wife finds Lionel Logue, an unconventional Australian speech therapist.  Although Bertie and Lionel get off to a rough start, they eventually develop a strong friendship.  Slowly but surely, Bertie's speech begins to improve, which becomes even more crucial as his older brother seems determined to abdicate the throne, leaving Bertie to become King George VI.

This was the first Best Picture Winner to be announced after I started this blog, and I was thrilled that it won because I had already seen it and loved it.  I think it's a spectacular story told extraordinarily well with a fabulous cast - what more could one ask of a film?  The characters are so real, so relatable, so human that they always make me cry, not because the film is particularly depressing, but because it's just so moving.  To turn a story about pre-World War II British royalty into something relevant to a modern everyday American like me is no easy task, but the makers of The King's Speech manage it effortlessly.  Every aspect of filmmaking works together to achieve this, especially the cast.  Colin Firth is so utterly convincing as Bertie that I almost forgot that he doesn't actually stammer in real life.  He so thoroughly deserved his Best Actor Oscar that it would have been a crime if he hadn't received it.  And his entire supporting cast - especially Helena Bonham Carter as his wife and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel - all develop their own complex characters while strengthening Firth's portrayal of the main character.  Almost every actor in this film is well-known for several other roles, but that doesn't detract from the strength of this story, nor are their famous names the film's only draw.  Because at its core, The King's Speech isn't just about a speech or a speech defect; it's about friendship and overcoming obstacles, which are two things that everyone can relate to.

So, when it comes to The King's Speech, I love the story, I love the characters, I love the cast, the soundtrack, the lighting, the script, the camera movement and angles, and pretty much everything else.  The one flaw I've found is that although the film takes place over several years, none of the characters really seem to age, which is especially noticeable in the king's young daughters.  But that's quite trivial in the grand scheme of the film, which on the whole is absolutely spectacular.

And on that note, I have completed my watching and blogging of all the winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture!  Well, so far, at least.  I may be back with some analyses of my favorites and least favorites, and I'll possibly continue this with future winners; I haven't really decided yet.  I also have some ideas for other movie blogging projects, which may or may not come to fruition on this account, so stay tuned if you want.  I know this hasn't been the most successful blogging venture ever, since very few of the people I told to check out my blog actually did, but while I greatly appreciate those of you who have been keeping up with it, I mostly did it for fun rather than to obtain followers.  For those of you who are just discovering this after the fact, feel free to look back and leave comments; I'll probably respond.  As of right now I have exactly 1,000 page views, which is not very significant considering how many of those were mine, but I think it's really cool to end on a round number like that.  Overall the project's been really fun and I'm glad I did it.  So thanks for reading, and I'll quite possibly be writing again before too long.

Next Best Picture Winner: only time (and the Academy) will tell

Saturday, June 25, 2011

2009: The Hurt Locker

When the leader of an elite bomb-disarming squad in Iraq is killed in an explosion, he is replaced by Will James, whose new subordinates soon discover that he acts as though he is addicted to putting himself in life-threatening situations.  While Sanborn and Eldridge just want to get the job done and get out as quickly as possible, James takes his time, savoring the adrenaline rush.  War is a drug.

Although this film may seem similar to a lot of other Best Picture Winners (i.e., it's a depressing war movie), it's actually very different.  For one thing, as of when I'm writing this, it's the only Best Picture Winner to have been directed by a woman (Kathryn Bigelow).  It also has a very documentary-ish feel to it, as if someone just came in with a hand-held camera and started filming the bomb squad.  While the shakiness is fairly dizzying and headache-inducing, it definitely contributes to the sense of realism, as well as the portrayal of the chaotic nature of war.  Unlike many war films, which try to show the insignificance of individuals on the battlefield, this film shows the immense importance of three individuals, who quite possibly have the most dangerous job in the world.  This ultimately makes the film a character study of different types of people trying to stay alive against all odds, rather than a series of explosions and violent deaths.  This movie is intense not just because of special effects, but also because we are genuinely concerned that James's recklessness will get them all killed.

That said, I don't think I'll be watching this movie again any time soon because, while I thought it was very well done and intriguing, it was way too intense for me.  Unlike James, I do not thrive on adrenaline rushes, and would much rather be able to relax a little during movies.  In this film, you never know when an unexpected explosion or sniper is going to come out of nowhere, so even the scenes when they're not going on a mission are filled with tension and suspense.  This gives a very good idea of what war is really like, which I'm sure was the goal, but it doesn't make it something that can be watched over and over again.

And last (for now, anyway) but certainly not least will be: The King's Speech

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

2008: Slumdog Millionaire

Jamal Malik is doing very well on the Indian version of the quiz show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"  So well, in fact, that officials believe that he must be cheating.  How else could an uneducated 18-year-old from the slums answer such difficult questions?  Through a series of flashbacks, the audience and the police are shown not only how Jamal knows the answers, but also what his life was like and the reason he wanted to go on the show in the first place.

This film is very well done.  Scenes from the present and the past are edited together perfectly.  What the filmmakers decide to show, and when these events are shown, gives a very good idea of what happens in Jamal's life without spoon-feeding it to the audience.  Some things aren't perfectly clear, but you can pretty much always at least infer what's going on.  Life is confusing and messy, and that is certainly portrayed in this film, both by the story itself and by the way it is told.  There are a lot of oblique camera angles, which also add to the feeling of chaos.  Plus, this film has amazing character development.  I would think that it would be very difficult to keep the characters consistent throughout the  movie, especially since the main characters are each played by three different actors, but somehow they manage it.  Jamal is Jamal, whether he's a little kid speaking Hindi, a young teenager speaking broken English, or an 18-year-old answering questions on a TV show.  Jamal is also an extremely likable character, which is another reason I really enjoy this movie.

It might not sound that interesting to watch a film about somebody going on a game show.  But that's not actually what this movie's about.  It's really about what happens to different people when they are put in difficult circumstances.  Jamal and his brother Salim grow up together in the slums, but they turn into extremely different people.  Salim becomes a gangster, while Jamal spends his whole life trying to find a way to live happily ever after with a girl named Latica.  As the film concerns poverty in India, it is inevitably quite depressing, but because Jamal never gives up hope, it's impossible to walk away from this film not smiling.  Although that may have something to do with the Bollywood dance during the credits.

My one major complaint about this movie is that the subtitles when they're speaking Hindi are really difficult to read.  This may seem trivial, but it's very frustrating because a lot of what they say is crucial to understanding the plot.  But all that - and some of the disturbingly depressing subject matter - aside, I think this is definitely one of the better Best Picture Winners.

Following this: The Hurt Locker

Thursday, June 16, 2011

2007: No Country for Old Men

A man happens upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong, consisting of several dead bodies, a truck full of heroin, and a suitcase full of two million dollars.  He decides to take the cash, but unfortunately, someone wants it back.  And that someone just happens to be a really creepy psychopath armed with a bullet-less but deadly gun.

I'm sorry to have to say it, but I absolutely hate this movie.  It's mostly a string of pointless violence, and I just don't find those kinds of films entertaining.  Javier Bardem does a really good job of being creepy, but his character is so profoundly disturbing that it's difficult to appreciate his talent.  I do have to say that Tommy Lee Jones has a really amazing speaking voice.  During his scenes, I could tune out the disturbing, pointless plot and focus on how awesome his voice sounds.  And yes, this movie is so awful that the only positive aspect is Tommy Lee Jones's voice.

Tempting as it would be to say that I merely dislike the genre - as I said for The Silence of the Lambs - I don't think that's true.  I do enjoy suspense thrillers, most of the time.  But not when they consist of random scenes of a creepy guy killing nice people with an air gun thing.  Those scenes don't make up the entire film, but there are way more of them than necessary.  At least during the scenes with Tommy Lee Jones, who plays a sheriff who's trying to catch Javier Bardem's character, the audience can relax a little because they know no one is going to be brutally murdered.  But even those scenes are depressing because he's basically talking about how the world is going down the drain and we're all doomed.  That part reminds me a lot of Cavalcade (the Best Picture Winner of 1932/33).  Come to think of it, this movie is pretty much a combination of Cavalcade and the end of  The Departed, neither of which, as you may recall, I thought very highly of.  "The world's going to hell, and let's kill a bunch of people randomly."

I will never understand why this movie won 4 Academy Awards, is in the top 250 on imdb, or has been lauded as the Coen brothers' best film.  This is the second time I've seen it, and I hope that I will never have to sit through it again.

Next: Slumdog Millionaire

Thursday, June 9, 2011

2006: The Departed

New cop Billy Costigan goes undercover to try to catch notorious mob boss Frank Costello, but Costello has spies of his own in the police department.

Most of this movie is pretty good.  The dramatic camera angles and lighting perfectly enhance the suspense of an already intriguing story.  The performances are brilliant, which is only to be expected with such talented actors as Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, and Leonardo DiCaprio (even though he still kind of looks like he's 14).  The characters are so real that one can't help feeling for them, even the bad guys.  The dialogue has way too much profanity, but it kind of adds to the character development (although using the f-word a quarter of the number of times they did would have been too many).  And as soon as the characters are established, the audience is hooked.  Who's going to be found out first?  What's going to happen next?  It's so intense in parts that it's almost unwatchable, but never quite crosses that line until the end.

I'm just going to be blatantly honest: I think the end of this movie is stupid.  I'm sure there's a very good reason why it ends the way it does, but it seems to me like the filmmakers couldn't think of a good ending, so they just decided to kill everyone.  After two and a half hours of buildup, we're left with, "And pretty much everybody gets shot, the end."  Seriously?  I guess the point is that you shouldn't get involved with the mob, and I understand that it makes sense for people to die in this situation, but it kind of happens out of the blue.  Since the story is so perfectly orchestrated up to that point, it's incredibly disappointing to be left with the feeling that no one could come up with a good way to end it.

So if I had made this movie, I would have held back on the profanity and put more effort into the ending.  But I didn't.  And the vast majority of this film is extraordinarily well-done, and I'm sure that modern action-thriller fans love it.  But it's not going on my list of favorite movies of all time.

Coming up: No Country for Old Men

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

2005: Crash

A bunch of random people in Los Angeles have different interactions throughout the course of a couple of days, during which time they all confront their own personal issues with racism.

The idea behind this movie is fascinating.  It shows racism from multiple perspectives without condemning any particular person or group of people; everyone is equally to blame.  This idea transfers to film quite well; it's easy to switch back and forth between people facing very different, yet ultimately quite similar, situations.  As a whole, it's a really depressing movie, as the implication is that we'll never be able to work out our differences and overcome the terrible problems that are caused by blind hatred and prejudice.  But this film does a really good job of showing that all people are more complex than they seem, even if they appear to be just fulfilling stereotypes.  So maybe films like this one will eventually motivate people to change things.  I don't know, but I hope so.

The thing that I like the most about Crash is that all the characters are very realistic.  They all have multiple layers, and each is unique.  Some learn more from their experiences than others.  By the end of the film, some of their problems are resolved, but not all of them.  These characters have their own complete lives; audiences get the feeling that they're only seeing brief snapshots.  So often, movie characters' lives seem to begin and end with what we see on screen, but that's definitely not the case here.  It's also interesting how most of the characters aren't particularly likeable, but one can't help sympathizing with them all because their flaws are what make them seem so human.

There were other aspects of this movie that I didn't like as well.  There's way too much profanity for my taste (although I guess that, too, contributes to the sense of reality).  And as necessary as it is to discuss racism's continued presence in our society, this gets a little old after a while.  It's as if the filmmakers are trying to say "Racism is bad and it's still around" in as many different ways as possible in two hours.  The whole thing is just a little too preachy.  It's not very hopeful, either, because it presents racism as a problem that has no solution.  Overall, I think it's a well-made film with good character development and an important message, but, like Million Dollar Baby, it's not a movie that I want to watch over and over again.

Next up: The Departed

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

2004: Million Dollar Baby

Maggie Fitzgerald is a nobody from nowhere who wants to be a boxer.  Frankie Dunn is an old boxing trainer who insists that he doesn't train girls.  But Maggie's persistance wins him over, and, with the help of a former-boxer-turned-gym-caretaker named Scrap, Frankie turns Maggie into a world-renowned boxer.

This movie is extremely well-made.  The casting is brilliant; Hilary Swank is a perfectly relatable Maggie, and Morgan Freeman is simply amazing, as always.  But this is pretty much Clint Eastwood's project - he stars in, directs, produces, and even composes music for this film.  And it comes together beautifully.  It's kind of a dark story, so many scenes take place at night, when there's only a single shaft of light.  The mood created by the cinematography is somber yet hopeful, which perfectly complements the story.  From the lighting to the soundtrack to the character development, and everything in between, one couldn't ask for a better-crafted film.

While this movie is incredible, it's also excruciatingly painful to watch.  I will never understand why people consider boxing matches entertaining.  I wince at every punch, even though I know it's not even real.  And then the climax is heart-stopping.  This is the second time I've seen this film, and it was much more painful than the first time, since I spent most of it anticipating the horrible things that I knew were going to happen later.  This is a fabulous film, but it's definitely not one that can be watched over and over again.

Stay tuned for: Crash

Saturday, May 28, 2011

2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Frodo, Sam, and Gollum continue into Mordor with the One Ring of Power, while everyone else prepares for an epic battle of good versus evil in Gondor.

As I mentioned in my last post - a month ago - I read the books and watched the first two movies before watching this one.  Mostly, I'm really glad I did, because if I had just tried to watch this knowing what I knew about The Lord of the Rings a couple of months ago (basically nothing), I would have been completely lost.  But part of me is kind of sad that I read the books first because I ended up spending most of the movies arguing with the screen, shouting things like, "What?!  It's not supposed to happen like that!"  Which is almost exactly how I watch the Harry Potter movies, so I should have known better.  Why is it that modern Hollywood takes good, epic adventure stories with strong characters and turns them into big fight scenes with intense visual effects?  They take some scenes that are briefly important to the story and draw them out and dramatize them, while other equally important scenes with less melodramatic potential are shortened or eliminated entirely.  I'm going to try to talk about this movie without comparing it to the book the whole time, but I just had to get this out.  The books are infinitely better than the movies.

Looking at this movie alone is difficult to do.  It's not just the third installment of a trilogy; it's more like the third part of one long story.  So just watching it on its own would make absolutely no sense.  I think it's probably the best of the three, but I honestly believe the main reason it won Best Picture is because all three were nominated and this was the last chance for one to win.  It tells a good story about overcoming evil, but it's extremely hard to follow that story.  All of the quick switches between subplots are dizzying, and none of the characters are developed enough for the audience to really care about them, with the possible exceptions of Frodo, Sam and Gollum.  Their scenes are the most interesting part of the movie; everything else just gets really old really fast.  Many of the fight scenes drag on and on until I lose interest, and then suddenly something completely unrelated is happening and I feel like I've missed something.  The dialogue is really difficult to understand, particularly when Gandalf speaks in his soft, fading old man voice, which further contributes to the confusion.  The main reason I think people like this movie is the visual effects, which are admittedly pretty awesome.  Still, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, I don't watch movies for the special effects; I watch them for the characters and the story, which are both somewhat lacking in this movie.  It's mostly just a big battle, with a few interesting scenes stuck in.

So all in all, I didn't think this movie was much to write home about.  Lord of the Rings fans the world over will hate me for saying that, but I think it's a shame that Tolkien's masterpiece was reduced to a bunch of visual effects.  That's one blogger's opinion at least.

Next: Million Dollar Baby

Thursday, April 28, 2011

2002: Chicago

More than anything else, Roxie Hart wants to be famous.  When Fred Casely promises to get her an act in Vaudeville, she is perfectly willing to have an affair with him...until it turns out that he was lying about his connections.  So she shoots him.  Then she gets successful lawyer Billy Flynn to build up her defense by making her famous.

By far the best aspect of this movie is the way the musical numbers are woven into the story.  So often in musicals - in fact, almost always - people break out into song for no apparent reason whatsoever.  In this movie, most of the songs are in Roxie's imagination.  She is so obsessed with show business that in her mind she turns everything that happens into a big musical number.  Shots of what she imagines are interspersed with shots of what is actually going on, often ironically, such as when Billy Flynn is first introduced.  Roxie pictures him as a man who only cares about love, when clearly all he cares about is money.  The flawless transitions between Roxie's dream world and her reality are what make this movie intriguing and set it apart from other musicals.

Other than that, I really don't care for the message this movie portrays.  It paints a very sad picture of our society, implying that the justice system is all about who can give a better performance, and life is all about who can get ahead.  It's odd how most of the important characters are so unlikable, yet we cheer for them just the same.  Part of this is due to the performances, particularly the spectacular Catherine Zeta-Jones, who won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Velma Kelly, the once-famous murderess from whom Roxie steals the spotlight.  I also think it's interesting that many of the actors and actresses cast in this musical were not famous for their singing talents, yet I believe they all did their own singing.  Anyway, the only character I really find likeable is poor Amos Hart, Roxie's husband, who just wants to take care of her and love her, and whom she treats despicably.  But he ends up with nothing, while the two murderesses get to be famous and Billy Flynn gets a bunch of money.  It's really a sad story, but it's presented as an upbeat, colorful musical.  Also, the costumes are way too revealing for my taste.

But somehow, overall I like this movie.  I think it's mostly the music and the whole imagination/reality juxtaposition, but there's also some pretty good dialogue, and the story is interesting, albeit far from the crime-never-pays, good-guys-always-win movies of which Hollywood was once so fond.  Of course, those kind of movies don't win Best Picture too often.  I think, for the most part, Chicago deserves to be on this list.

Next is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and here I have a confession to make.  The reason I've done so little Best Picture watching this month is because I was frantically trying to finish reading The Lord of the Rings before I had to watch the movie.  So I'm planning to watch the first two movies first, and then watch the third one and blog about it.  Bear with me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

2001: A Beautiful Mind

This film tells the (mostly) true story of John Nash, who is socially awkward but mathematically brilliant.  At first he just wants to discover a mathematical breakthrough that's enough to get him published, but he soon learns that his mind can be put to much greater use.

I went into this movie knowing very little about it, and I think that's the best way to see it.  Very rarely do I get to watch a film without having already formed some kind of opinions about it.  If you haven't seen it yet, and don't know anything about it, my best advice is to stop reading and go watch the movie first, because I don't want to influence you.  It's definitely worth watching, so you won't be wasting your time.

For those who have already seen it, or just decided to ignore my advice from the last paragraph, I'll elaborate.  I think this movie is incredible, from nearly every aspect imaginable.  It's a fascinating story to start with, and it is told with a brilliant sense of reality that is almost ironic.  Everything from the script and soundtrack to the sets and lighting come together perfectly to form a truly remarkable film.  But I think the best aspect of the film is Russell Crowe's performance as Nash.  After having just seen him play a very different character in Gladiator, I can't help but marvel at his versatility as an actor.  He definitely should have won another Best Actor Oscar for this.  At least the Academy recognized Jennifer Connelly for her understated performance as Nash's wife, and Ron Howard for directing this masterpiece, but I don't understand why Crowe didn't win.  I know they probably wanted to give someone else a chance, but, come on, Tom Hanks won two in a row in the '90s!  How could they give Russell Crowe the award for Gladiator and not for A Beautiful Mind?  He was way better in this!  Oh, well.  He won a Golden Globe and several other awards.  The Oscars aren't everything.  Says the person who's watching all the Best Picture Oscar winners.

This is the kind of film that challenges audiences intellectually, and I often don't like those because they're too confusing.  While this movie is a bit confusing, it's still really easy to follow, which is nice.  In a way it's very disturbing, but not compared to many other Best Picture Winners.  Mostly it's about love and math, which I think is pretty awesome.

Next up: Chicago

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

2000: Gladiator

An aging Roman emperor unofficially appoints army general Maximus to turn the government back into a republic after his death.  However, the emperor's son Commodus kills his father in order to become emperor himself.  He then orders the slaughter of Maximus and his family when Maximus refuses to swear allegiance to him.  Maximus manages to escape death and eventually returns to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge on Commodus.

As far as gruesome, epic, disturbing films go, this is one of the better ones.  Maximus is a very sympathetic character, so the audience actually cares what happens to him.  This turns what could have been a bunch of random bloody fighting into powerfully meaningful scenes.  Though I don't like all the violence, it's not too difficult to look past the gore and focus on the characters, especially the contrast between Maximus and Commodus.  One is courageous and fights for the chance to avenge his family's death; the other is a disturbed maniac who craves love and power, which no one wants to give him.  You can't blame Marcus Aurelius for preferring Maximus over Commodus, despite Commodus's insistence that it's his father's fault that he's the way he is.  To a certain extent, Commodus may have a point, but I think he's basically just evil.

While this isn't really my type of movie, I can appreciate that it's well-made.  The soundtrack and special effects are mind-blowing.  The script is very good, although the dialogue is at times difficult to understand.  And, of course, the intense fighting scenes are filmed and choreographed very well.  I personally find it very difficult to get past the fact that it was good entertainment to watch people kill each other, although I guess people still kind of do that today.  Of course, it's usually fake now, but on the screen it looks real.  In ancient Rome they didn't have television, so actually killing people was the next best thing, I guess.  It's all very disconcerting to me, which was probably the point of this film.  I think a lot of people like it because they think the fight scenes are cool, which is sad because it means that we are still entertained by watching people kill each other.  Between the evilness of Commodus and the whole idea behind gladiators, this is one of the most disturbing films I've ever seen.  But in my opinion it is made watchable by the character development, which, as you've probably noticed if you've been following this blog, is something that usually makes or breaks a movie for me.

Stay tuned for: A Beautiful Mind

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

1999: American Beauty

The Burnham family is falling apart.  Lester fantasizes about his teenage daughter's friend while his workaholic wife has an affair with her leading real estate competitor.  Their daughter is having a relationship with the new next-door neighbor, a drug-dealer who likes to videotape everything and has an abusive father.

For some reason, this movie has received tons of praise from critics, and is on most lists of the greatest films ever made.  I found it postively disgusting, with very little to recommend it.  The last five to ten minutes are by far the best part, but even that doesn't make up for the rest of the movie, which is mercifully short for a Best Picture Winner.  It's all about people doing whatever they want with no concern for consequences or how they are affecting others.  None of the characters are at all likeable or relateable, at least to me.  All they do is have sex, do drugs, and freak out because they hate their lives.  Maybe if they actually did something worthwhile their lives wouldn't be so pathetic, but that never seems to occur to them.

There are some very artsy camera shots that are kind of interesting for a while, but then they just get super cheesy.  Like the rose petals that float around whenever Kevin Spacey is fantasizing about the teenage girl.  That might be kind of intriguing, but it's overdone and gets really boring.  There are also some cool little plot twists, but they would be way  more effective if I actually cared about the characters.  I often found myself rolling my eyes at the screen, which is not something I often do when watching a movie, especially one with a reputation like this one has.  At the end, I was pleasantly surprised with how well-done that part was compared to the rest of the film, but I think I was more relieved that it was finally over.  How this movie beat The Sixth Sense I'll never know.  When I watched The Sixth Sense for the first time, I immediately had to re-watch it.  After seeing this movie for the first time, I never want to have to sit through it ever again.

Next up: Gladiator

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

1998: Shakespeare in Love

Will Shakespeare has promised several people to give them a new play called Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter.  There's just one problem: he's experiencing the worst writer's block of his life.  Then he meets and falls in love with the gorgeous Lady Viola, and the words begin flowing from his quill.  But to complicate matters, Lady Viola is engaged to somebody else, and she's also disguising herself as a boy so she can play the lead in Shakespeare's new show.  As Will and Viola's relationship evolves, so does the play he's writing.

I think this is probably the most surprising Best Picture Winner so far.  It actually borders on romantic comedy, and the Academy is usually loath to honor films of that genre with this award (with a few earlier exceptions).  It's barely over two hours long, and it was also nominated against such depressing, well-made war films as Saving Private Ryan and Life is Beautiful.  One can't help but wonder: what in the world possessed the Academy to call this the Best Picture of 1998?

I don't know the answer for sure, but I have a few theories.  It might be the incredible chemistry between the film's leads, Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes.  Or the fabulous performances by the talented supporting cast, including Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, and even Ben Affleck.  Perhaps the Academy was blown away by the glamorous costumes or the witty dialogue.  They might have been intrigued by the story within the story, and the effective manner in which the film showed Will's play and life mirroring each other.  Or maybe they just got tired of all the overly depressing movies, and decided this was the year to go in a completely different direction.

Whatever the reason, I'm glad this film won.  Not because I think for a moment that it deserved the award more than Saving Private Ryan did, but because it's much better than I expected, and I probably wouldn't have watched it otherwise.  There was way too much sex in it, but that's pretty much my only complaint.  I've read Romeo and Juliet so many times, and seen so many versions of it on stage and screen, that it was very fun for me to watch the original idea evolve into what it eventually became.  The way the story comes together is truly brilliant, and I don't think you have to be too familiar with Romeo and Juliet to appreciate that.  Making 16th-century characters relatable to a 21st-century audience is no easy task, but these filmmakers managed it with ease.  This is an entertaining film, and while I'm still kind of confused as to why it's on this list, I think it's well worth watching.

Coming up next: American Beauty

1997: Titanic

Jack Dawson is a poor artist who wins a boat ticket to America in a poker game.  Wealthy Rose DeWitt Bukater feels trapped with her unloveable fiance and snobbish mother.  Jack stops Rose from committing suicide, and they fall for each other.  But their love is doomed from the start, by a combination of Rose's determined fiance and a pesky iceburg.  This is all told through the eyes of Rose as a 100-year-old woman to a crew searching for the legendary diamond that disappeared with the Titanic.

It may seem kind of pointless to sit through this three-and-a-quarter-hour movie because obviously, everybody knows how it's going to end.  If there's anyone in the world who doesn't know this already, let me spoil it for you: the ship sinks.  This movie broke so many box office and award records that it's easy to dismiss it as over-rated.  Maybe it is, a little bit.  But somehow, for those three hours and fourteen minutes, the filmmakers manage to transport viewers to the night of April 14, 1912.  As the film shows, it's one thing to talk about the mechanics of the ship sinking; it's quite another to actually experience it.  The movie uses its brilliant script to set up well-developed, realistic characters for us to get attached to, and then lets the disaster strike.  With mind-blowing visual and audio effects, we feel as though we are actually struggling to avoid the ice cold water right along with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.  That, I think, more than anything else, is why this film has gotten so much hype: it truly brings history to life.  Many other movies, especially Best Picture Winners, have attempted to achieve this, but very few pull it off as well as Titanic does.

The best part about watching the movie this time for me, though, was having a group of friends there to watch it with me.  This provided both a distraction from how depressing the story was and new insights into plot points.  And of course, singing along with Celine Dion during the credits is only truly epic if you have other people there to join in.

Despite the fact that it's difficult to sit through this whole movie, the soundtrack, script, characters, and special effects make it well worth your time.  And although some of its records have since been broken, I am confident that this movie's appeal to a wide audience will make its reputation go on and on.

Next: Shakespeare in Love

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

1996: The English Patient

During World War II, a horribly disfigured man is rescued from a fiery plane wreck and treated by American medics in Italy.  When it becomes apparent that he is going to die soon, a nurse decides to stay behind and look after him in an abandoned monastery so he doesn't have to be constantly transported with everyone else.  Through a series of flashbacks, the mysterious patient's complex background slowly (very, very slowly) unfolds.

There are aspects of this movie that I really like.  The way the tormented man's memories are interspersed with scenes of his present suffering is very well done, for the most part.  There are some really good lines of dialogue, and most of the characters are well-developed and intriguing.  Also, Ralph Fiennes's makeup in the scenes that take place after the plane crash is very convincing.  However, there are several aspects that I have issues with.  I really enjoy Juliette Binoche's performance as the nurse, but I wish that she had more screen time.  Way too much of the movie is devoted to love scenes between Kristin Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes.  The story is difficult to get into at first, then it picks up and actually becomes captivating for a while.  But then, pretty much out of nowhere, there are a whole bunch of boring sex scenes, bringing the story to a grinding halt, and it takes a long time for it to regain momentum.  We get the point: they're having an affair.  We don't have to see every moment of it.  We want to know if he's really a German spy.  Once again, the movie could have been a lot shorter.  Then the end, when it finally comes, is kind of abrupt and disappointing, considering all the buildup of intrigue surrounding the main character.  I also find it annoying that the character who's supposed to have lost his thumbs is obviously using his thumbs in all the long shots.

Watching this movie confirmed that my fears have been realized: I have now reached the point in which every Best Picture Winner contains excessive nudity.  Can I please go back to the '40s?  The movies are still about the same war, but they've gotten longer and more vulgar.  And while I'm ranting let me just ask Kristin Scott Thomas's character (I think her name is Katherine): why would you even consider having an affair with Ralph Fiennes when you were married to Colin Firth?

Following this: Titanic (long, depressing, nudity...)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

1995: Braveheart

When the King of Scotland dies without an heir, the King of England claims Scotland for his own.  He sends his soldiers to oppress the Scottish people because he feels like it, and the Scotsmen can't do anything about it because they are horribly outnumbered and too caught up in fighting amongst themselves.  That is, until the British mess with William Wallace.  Intelligent, bold and determined to win freedom at all costs, Wallace bands his people together to resist the British tyranny that has been thrust upon them.

I'm not really sure how I feel about this movie.  On the one hand, the story is pretty interesting, many of the characters are inspiring, and the whole thing is very epic.  On the other hand, it's just a bunch of random fighting that drags on and on.  It's almost three hours long, and could easily have been less than two.  I understand that the fighting is necessary to the story, but it doesn't take long for a whole bunch of stabbing, spearing, whacking, ax-wielding, arrow-shooting, and manly war cries to get really old.  I do like the costumes, hair and makeup, and how they show a tremendous contrast between the poor Scotsmen and the wealthy noblemen of both Scotland and England.  I even like the Scotsmen's random blue war paint that is never explained.  However, it annoys me how easy it is to kill the English, but when Mel Gibson gets stabbed in the heart or clubbed by about a dozen soldiers, he's absolutely fine.  I'm just sure.

In true Best Picture Winner form, this movie is incredibly depressing and disturbing.  Wallace's whole vendetta against the British starts when British soldiers kill his new wife for fighting back when they try to rape her.  The British king is basically evil incarnate, not caring who has to die as long as he expands his territory, and there's a father of a Scottish nobleman who's pretty vile as well.  So this film can be seen as an intriguing character study contrasting men who are motivated by power with those who are motivated by freedom.  But mostly I saw it as a long, gory, grusome nightmare that would not end.  This film will not be going on a list of my favorites, although I am not at all surprised that it is on this list.

Next up: The English Patient

Saturday, March 12, 2011

1994: Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump is not smart, and many people call him stupid, but he tries not to let that get him down.  As he goes through life, he witnesses many historic events - actually causing some of them - and ends up becoming very successful financially.  But the only thing he really wants is for Jenny, his childhood best friend and the love of his life, to settle down with him.

I absolutely love this movie.  It's a touching story told remarkably well, with perfectly developed characters and witty dialogue.  Forrest's narration throughout the film helps put an entirely new perspective on familiar situations, which makes this movie unique.  Tom Hanks is positively brilliant as Forrest.  His costume and haircut help create the image, but Hanks makes the character real.  He thoroughly earned his Oscar.  And of course there's the rest of the cast.  Gary Sinise is amazing in his intense portrayal of Forrest's commanding officer, "Lieutenant Dan,"  who loses his legs in Vietnam.  Sally Field, while she's not in too many scenes, is the perfect Mama for Forrest, and Robin Wright gives a heartbreaking performance as the troubled, messed up Jenny.  It's fun to see a very young Haley Joel Osment make an appearance as well.

A lot of people say this film shouldn't have won Best Picture because The Shawshank Redemption was better.  I can't speak to that because I haven't seen The Shawshank Redemption yet, but I will say that Forrest Gump is a really, really good movie, and it's also uplifting, so I was more than happy for an excuse to watch it.  Forrest is one of my favorite movie characters ever.  He's so incredibly likeable and adorable that I have to think the world would be a better place with more Forrest Gumps in it.  Naturally, it doesn't hurt that he's played by Tom Hanks, who is one of the most fabulous living actors.  This film combines great characters with good acting, a fascinating premise, an intriguing script, and a fantastic soundtrack.  If The Shawshank Redemption is better than this, I can't wait to watch it someday.  And that's all I have to say about that.

Next: Braveheart

Thursday, March 10, 2011

1993: Schindler's List

After the Germans take over Poland and force the Jews into ghettos, a Nazi named Oskar Schindler decides to take over a metal factory that makes pots and pans, appointing Jewish accountant Idzhak Stern to run it for him.  In order to maximize his own profit, Schindler hires Jewish workers because they are the cheapest.  While he is initially only concerned with making money, eventually Schindler decides to do everything he can to keep his workers, even when he ends up having to spend everything he has made.  In the process, he saves the lives of 1,100 Jewish people, pretty much single-handedly.  And yes, this is based on a true story.

Long, disturbing and depressing don't even begin to describe this movie: it's over three hours long and about the Holocaust.  But a more moving and well-made film would be difficult to find.  It's powerful and very real, not only because the audience presumably knows that the depicted events actually happened, but because the filmmakers take us there and help us relate to the characters.  While the film's primary focus is on a few main characters, there are several supporting characters who are equally important to portraying the message.  Schindler's List isn't about 1,100 Jews; it's about individuals.  Each life has worth and meaning, which goes along with the whole premise that one person can make a world of difference.

The depth that is given to the character of Oskar Schindler is incredible.  I think it would be tempting, in a film like this, to portray him as an extraordinary hero who saved people out of the goodness of his heart.  Instead, he is - or at least, begins as - a selfish, greedy, adulterous Nazi.  He could very easily have turned out like the film's villain, Amon Goeth, whose idea of a good time is standing on his porch and shooting at Jewish prisoners who walk by.  But Schindler is disgusted by the killing, and eventually his entire world view shifts, so that by the end he is furious with himself for not saving more people.  Schindler insists at one point that war brings out the worst in people, but in his case, it brings out the best.

In addition to the character development and the way the story unfolds, which are phenomenal, virtually every other aspect of this film is fantastic as well.  The soundtrack, dialogue, camera angles, and lighting are brilliant.  The choice to film primarily in black and white greatly aids the portrayal of the dark, harsh reality that the characters are facing.  When occasional colors are used, like the red of a little girl's coat or the flame of a candle, they stand out, giving them emphasis that adds to the meaning of the story in ways that would not have been possible if the whole thing had been filmed in color.  The acting is all superb, led by Liam Neeson's incredible portrayal of Schindler.  Ralph Fiennes is fittingly horrifying as Goeth (it's a toss-up whether he's more creepy in this or in the Harry Potter movies), and Ben Kingsley plays a very convincing Itzhak Stern - which is even more impressive when you recall that he also made a convincing Gandhi in a different Best Picture Winner.  And of course, Steven Spielberg's direction brings the whole film to life.

I apologize for the length of this post, but it's difficult to do this movie justice in a few paragraphs.  Far from being just another long and depressing Best Picture Winner, this film epitomizes the long and depressing Best Picture Winner.  This is what all those other long and depressing films I've watched were striving for.  Some of them got closer than others, but I can't think of any that are quite this good.

Coming up next: Forrest Gump

Sunday, February 27, 2011

1992: Unforgiven

One night in a Wyoming brothel, two men get angry and disfigure a prostitute's face with a knife.  The police chief, Little Bill Daggett, lets them off with a fine, which prompts the prostitutes to offer a $1,000 reward to whomever kills the two men.  When reformed outlaw Bill Munny, who is a widower supporting two kids, hears of this, he teams up with his former partner and a young wanna-be outlaw to track down these men for the bounty.  But Little Bill Daggett is determined to prevent other people from taking justice into their own hands, by any means necessary.

I was kind of confused by this movie, just because it didn't seem like a Best Picture.  I didn't think it was bad, it just wasn't as good as I thought it would be, since it's on practically every list of best western films ever made.  On the one hand, it's an intriguing commentary on the darkness that is present in everyone, though it manifests itself in different ways.  On the other hand, there is an inordinate amount of swearing, shooting, and beating people up, which I really didn't like.  The character development is pretty good, especially for Munny and Little Bill.  However, I was disappointed with how little screen time was given to Morgan Freeman's character (Munny's partner), and I thought the prostitutes were a little too one-dimensional.  Gene Hackman does a fabulous job in his portrayal of the creepy but still somewhat likeable Little Bill, which won him a deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  Clint Eastwood (who plays Munny) and Richard Harris (who plays another man attempting to collect the reward) also gave really good performances.  So there were certainly aspects of this movie that I liked, but overall the story is too dark and disturbing to be enjoyable, and I don't think it was nearly as interesting from a technical standpoint as some of the other distubing Best Picture Winners (such as Silence of the Lambs).

I am eagerly anticipating this evening's Academy Award ceremony, since it will give me another film to watch.  All I can say is I hope The Fighter doesn't win Best Picture because I don't want to have to watch it again (it was really good, but the story was way too painful).  Regardless of which film wins tonight, the next film I'll be blogging about is: Schindler's List (oh, good, a depressing war movie)

Friday, February 25, 2011

1991: The Silence of the Lambs

In order to gain insight into an at-large serial killer, known as "Buffalo Bill," FBI-trainee Clarice Starling is assigned to interview an incarcerated serial killer, Doctor Hannibal Lecter - aka Hannibal the cannibal.  Lecter agrees to provide information about Buffalo Bill, as long as Starling tells him about her personal background, which she has been strongly advised not to do.  Getting Lecter to talk becomes even more urgent when Buffalo Bill kidnaps the daughter of a U.S. Senator, and Starling becomes desperate to find her before it's too late.

This is without a doubt the creepiest movie I have ever seen.  Granted, I haven't seen too many horror movies - Hitchcock is about as scary as I'm comfortable with - but this has to be one of the most disturbing films ever made.  This movie was extremely difficult for me to watch (and what was I thinking, starting it so late at night?) and I really wouldn't recommend it to anyone who doesn't like horror films.  That being said, it's an extraordinarily well-made film, so I can understand why it's so highly acclaimed, particularly by people who like this genre.  I noticed some truly brilliant camera work, and I probably would have noticed more if I hadn't been so caught up in the tension and suspense.  This is not a film to watch when you want to relax.  It's mercifully just shy of two hours, but it feels much longer because of the suspense, and I was incredibly relieved when it was over.

This is the third and last (so far) movie to win all five major Academy Awards (the previous two, as I mentioned when I blogged about them, were It Happened One Night in 1934 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975).  Anthony Hopkins's career-defining performance as Hannibal Lecter is fabulous, and would be fun to watch if he wasn't so creepy.  It would have been a crime if he hadn't won Best Actor for this.  But his performance alone is not enough; Jodie Foster completes the film with her portrayal of the sympathetic Starling.  Their characters' interactions, especially with the camera angles filming them, are by far the best parts of the film, albeit very creepy.  The scenes of Buffalo Bill scattered throughout, while they may be necessary to the story, are not nearly as good.  Overall, I'm going to give this movie a trembling thumbs-up and then forswear horror films forever (with the exception of Alfred Hitchcock).

Side note: I have to point out that Beauty and the Beast was also nominated for Best Picture of 1991, which made it the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture.  To this day it remains the only animated film to be one of five Best Picture nominees (Up and Toy Story 3 were nominated after the Academy randomly decided to go back to ten nominees).  While I can see why the Academy thought that Silence of the Lambs was better from a technical standpoint, I would rather watch Beauty and the Beast any day.

And the winner for 1992 is: Unforgiven

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

1990: Dances with Wolves

During the Civil War, Lieutenant John Dunbar is sent to protect a small fort on the frontier from "hostile Indians".  When he arrives, he finds the fort deserted, but remains there on his own.  He eventually encounters a band of Sioux, and is surprised to discover that they are friendly, harmonious people.  Soon he befriends them and begins to learn their language.  The Sioux, though suspicious of him at first, grow to accept him, and refer to him as "Dances with Wolves" because of a loan wolf that follows him around.  But inevitably, more white people appear and start encroaching on the Sioux territory, and John Dances with Wolves Dunbar has to choose which path to take.

I had never seen this movie until today, and my first impression is that this is definitely one of the most moving and well-made Best Picture Winners.  Kevin Costner - who co-produced, directed, and starred in it - was clearly very invested in the story.  It's an extremely well-told and fascinating story, so much so that I found myself disappointed when it was over.  This is really saying something, as it's three hours long (and you know how I feel about excessively long movies).  Dances with Wolves doesn't feel too long because it's so engaging.  It has really good character development, as well as intense action scenes - including an epic buffalo hunt - adventure, and romance.  Really, what more could you want from a film?

A significant portion of the dialogue is in the Sioux language, which significantly aids the believability of the story.  So often in westerns that have American Indians, they all conveniently speak broken English, which contributes to the image that they are inferior, as they can't even speak properly.  In this film, the Indians are seen speaking in their own complex language, and the white man feels inferior because he doesn't know what they are saying.  Some of the Sioux characters learn a little English, but Dances with Wolves becomes almost fluent in their language, which is the way it should be; he is the stranger in their land, so he learns their customs, rather than forcing his on them.  Besides the obvious fact that the portion of history which this film depicts is sad, the movie is even more depressing because it stresses that if more white people had been open-minded like Lieutenant Dunbar, all the oppression and bloodshed need not have happened.  But not all of the film is depressing; the middle, when Dances with Wolves is becoming incorporated into the Sioux society, is actually very uplifting and happy.  So, yes, I guess you could argue that this is another long, depressing epic Best Picture, but it's better than most.  In my opinion it's right up there with Gone with the Wind as the best of the epics.

Following this: The Silence of the Lambs

Saturday, February 19, 2011

1989: Driving Miss Daisy

Daisy Werthan is a stubborn, elderly Jewish widow living in Georgia.  Her son hires a good-natured, only slightly younger black man named Hoke to be her chauffeur, despite her insistance that she doesn't need one.  To say that the relationship between Hoke and Miss Daisy gets off to a rocky start is a major understatement, but as the years pass they grow to respect and depend on each other.

This film has such a nice, sweet story that I'm surprised it actually won Best Picture.  There is no war, no epic journey, no disturbing storyline, not even a love story: it's just the developing friendship of two people going about their daily lives.  And it's only 99 minutes long.  But everything about it is done incredibly well, from the catchy soundtrack and witty script to the makeup and costumes that effectively convey the passage of time.  And then of course there are the incredibly phenomenal performances by both Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman.  Both are highly talented performers on their own, and they go together magnificently.  Jessica Tandy won a thoroughly deserved Academy Award for Best Actress, and she still holds the record for the oldest winner of a competitive Oscar.  Morgan Freeman was nominated for Best Actor, and I think it's sad that he didn't win.

Driving Miss Daisy does make a statement about racism in the South, but it doesn't shove it down your throat.  At its heart, this is a film about friendship, and a very good one at that.  I am so glad that it won Best Picture, and I wish more films like this would win.  Actually, what I really wish is that more films like this were made in the first place.

Up next: Dances with Wolves

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

1988: Rain Man

Charlie Babbitt is struggling to keep his business afloat when he learns of his estranged father's death.  He travels from Los Angeles to Cincinnati for the funeral and learns that his father essentially cut him out of his will.  After digging a little deeper, Charlie discovers that the money was left to his autistic brother named Raymond, whom Charlie didn't even know existed.  Livid that his father left $3,000,000 to someone who doesn't understand the concept of money, Charlie kidnaps Raymond, hoping to get half of the money.  On the road to Los Angeles, Raymond nearly pushes Charlie over the edge with his insistence to stick to his old routine and his inability to communicate effectively.  Slowly, Charlie begins to overcome his annoyance and frustration with Raymond and learn to appreciate his brother for the person he is.

First of all, I just have to say that I don't normally like Tom Cruise because I find him extremely annoying.  However, in this movie, that kind of works because Charlie starts out as such a jerk, so you're not really supposed to like him.  I enjoy this movie anyway, since Dustin Hoffman's incredible performance as Raymond definitely makes up for Tom Cruise's obnoxiousness.  From his flat, emotionless voice to his unfocused gaze and nervous mannerisms, Hoffman flawlessly embodies his character.  The developing relationship between the two brothers enfolds wonderfully onscreen, but it wouldn't be nearly as powerful if it wasn't believable.  Dustin Hoffman makes the story seem real.  He really is an extraordinarily talented actor, and I like that he's been in three Best Picture Winners, all in different decades and as three incredibly different characters.

Rain Man's story keeps moving at a steady pace and is engaging.  The character development is superb; Raymond's mannerisms are consistent throughout, which contributes to the believability, and Charlie is also consistent, though he thankfully becomes much less of a jerk by the end.  It is powerful to watch the bond that forms between the two incredibly different brothers.  This is a touching story that is not incredibly depressing, which is a nice change of pace. 

I do find it interesting that Dominick and Eugene, another really good film about the relationship between a developmentally-disabled man and his brother, was made in the same year as Rain Man.  For some reason, Rain Man was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four, while Dominick and Eugene wasn't even nominated for any.  Not that Rain Man didn't deserve awards, but Dominick and Eugene should have at least been nominated for something.  So my recommendation is to watch both Rain Man and Dominick and Eugene, and then decide for yourself which is better.  Feel free to leave thoughts in the Comments, so I know that someone is actually reading this.

Stay tuned for: Driving Miss Daisy (the last PG-rated Academy Award Winner to date)

Friday, February 11, 2011

1987: The Last Emperor

Pu Yi is crowned Emperor of China in 1908 at the age of three.  He spends his sheltered childhood locked in the Forbidden City while his country changes drastically.  As a young adult, he is kicked out of the Forbidden City and eventually becomes a puppet emperor for the Japanese in Manchukuo.  After World War II, he is imprisoned for helping the Japanese.  The film alternates between scenes of him in prison and flashbacks of his earlier life.

While this film is in some ways a fairly typical Best Picture Winner - that is, it's ridiculously long and incredibly depressing - it also stands out from the rest.  The story itself is interesting, but the way it is told makes it positively mesmerizing.  The contrast between the colorful Forbidden City and the drab prison beautifully illustrates the fall of the emperor, but it also has a touch of irony because even in the Forbidden City he is a prisoner.  Poor Pu Yi is never free; he is always either told what to do, or is manipulated into thinking he wants to do what is really benefiting others.  Like I said, it's a sad story, but it's put together remarkably well.  The cinematography and story combined are more than enough to make this film worth watching.

The little kid who plays the three-year-old emperor is adorable, and John Lone gives a magnificently understated performance as the adult Pu Yi.  Joan Chen, who plays his wife, is both gorgeous and a really good actress.  I thought it was interesting that the British tutor was played by Peter O'Toole; it's as if the filmmakers thought they needed at least one big-name Hollywood star to get people to see the movie.  No offense to Peter O'Toole, but I'm pretty sure the film would have done just fine without him.  I also think it's kind of weird that an Italian directed a movie about Chinese history, but somehow it works.  And I'm pretty sure all the Asian characters were played by Asian actors, which is great compared to Best Picture Winners of previous decades (Around the World in 80 Days, anyone?).  So while The Last Emperor is long and depressing, it's definitely worth watching, especially for people who know at least a little bit about China in the first half of the 20th century, or who want to get to know more about it.

Next up: Rain Man

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

1986: Platoon

A young American named Chris Taylor volunteers to fight in the Vietnam war and discovers that it's a lot more complicated than he expected it to be, especially because his two commanding officers seem more concerned with fighting against each other than against the Viet Cong.

This is one of those movies in which developing the story takes up about 20% of the film, and the other 80% is made up of explosions and death.  It seems like a pretty accurate representation of the horrors of war, which was obviously the purpose, so from that viewpoint it's a success.  And I must admit that a lot of the camera work, especially toward the beginning of the film, is very effective.  The sound and visual effects are pretty cool, and the cinematography is very good as well.  Still, it's not a movie I ever need to watch again.  I know it's important to understand that war is messy and chaotic, but I've seen other movies that portray this same message and still manage to maintain an interesting storyline.  This film's story dies in the middle, and then it's all about shooting people and blowing things up.

I am fully aware that there are people who like watching this kind of movie, but I'm certainly not one of them.  I know they were trying to make a point about war, but I just can't get into movies that rely on explosions to keep people interested.  I need to have a story to follow or my mind wanders.  So no offense to the people who made this, because it's not bad for what it is, but it's just not my thing.  Also, I must thank the filmmakers for keeping the length down to two hours because I don't think I could have taken much more than that.

Next: The Last Emperor

Saturday, January 22, 2011

1985: Out of Africa

A wealthy Danish woman named Karen marries a baron with little money, and they move to Kenya initially to start a dairy, but they ultimately decide to grow coffee.  However, the Baron is more interested in leaving on business trips and being unfaithful to his wife than farming, so Karen is left to run the plantation.  This is not very successful, as the natives have predicted, but Karen endures her hardships by falling in love with a big game hunter named Denys.  Unfortunately, this relationship even turns into a hardship when Denys refuses to settle down with her.

There were some aspects of this movie that I really liked, but not quite enough to make up for the aspects I didn't.  Meryl Streep is, of course, fabulous, and Robert Redford is always fun to watch.  The cinematography is probably the best thing about the film: there are many gorgeous shots of breathtaking scenery, and the whole movie is very visually appealing.  But the story drags a lot.  There are many promising side-stories - Karen's developing relationship with the natives, issues with growing coffee at that elevation, the other British people that live nearby, etc - that are brushed over in favor of love scenes between Streep and Redford.  And then toward the end, we have to hear them have the same argument over and over: yes, we know, Meryl Streep wants him to marry her, but Robert Redford wants to remain a free spirit.  We don't have to hear about it six times.

This is yet another example of a really long, depressing Best Picture.  Unlike Amadeus, which is long but keeps moving the story forward at a pretty good pace, I think this film could have easily been much shorter.  In the last 45 minutes, I kept thinking it was about to end, but it just kept plodding on and on and on.  I was starting to think that it never actually finished, but just kept going forever.  Thankfully, that was not the case.  As beautiful as the cinematography is, and as much as I like the lead actors, I got really tired of this film, and I was relieved when it was over.

Coming Up Next: Platoon

1984: Amadeus

All Salieri wants is to compose wonderful music to glorify God.  His talent is enough to earn him a position as court composer to the emperor of Austria, but it is nothing compared to that of a vulgar, goofy, conceited little man named Mozart.  Salieri is furious with God for bestowing an amazing gift on such a creature.  He is torn between his love for Mozart's work and his hatred for the man himself.  Eventually, Salieri devises a plot to murder the great composer, whose funeral would be Salieri's comeback.

I had never seen this movie before, and I was certainly missing out.  It is absolutely phenomenal.  The soundtrack alone is mindblowing, and the story presents a fascinating character study.  The structure is brilliant.  The film begins with Salieri as an old man who tries to kill himself after confessing to the murder of Mozart.  The whole story unfolds through flashbacks as Salieri "confesses" to a priest.  But I think the most incredible thing about the story is how relateable it is to audiences in any time period.  There have always been majorly talented people who are jerks in real life that others both admire and loathe simultaneously.  We sympathize with Salieri because we agree: the music is amazing; the man is contemptible.  This fascinating story is made thoroughly believable by both the lead actors: F. Murray Abraham (who plays Salieri) and Tom Hulce (Mozart).  Each is so convincing in his role, and gives such a tremendous performance, that it is difficult for me as a viewer to root for one over the other.  They were both nominated for Best Actor, and Abraham won, which is rather ironic since he played the self-proclaimed patron saint of mediocrities.  Personally, I think they both deserved to share the Oscar, for, as amazing as the score and story are, this movie would not be nearly as fantastic without the proper actors for these complex roles.

If I had to say something negative about this film, it would be the length.  I apologize for constantly griping about this, but I don't see why movies have to be two and a half hours long to win Best Picture.  Of course, the problem with shortening this film is that pretty much everything in it is essential to give the full effect.  Like Mozart says when his music is accused of having "too many notes," everything is there because it needs to be.  I don't think anything should be cut out, but I'd find this movie (and many others on this list) a lot easier to sit through if it wasn't quite so long.

Next Best Picture: Out of Africa (which is a minute longer than Amadeus)

Monday, January 17, 2011

1983: Terms of Endearment

This film centers around Aurora and Emma, a mother and daughter who argue constantly about almost everything.  Emma marries a teacher named Flap, of whom Aurora disapproves, and has three children, of which Aurora also disapproves.  Then Aurora falls in love with the womanizing ex-astronaut next door and becomes a little more bearable, about the same time that Emma, suspecting Flap of being unfaithful, begins an affair with a banker.  Eventually, Emma finds out that she has cancer, which changes all the characters' perspectives on life.

I found this movie very annoying, and at first I didn't like it at all.  It's very smutty.  I generally don't mind a few sexual references in a movie if they're needed to enhance the plot, but all the sex in this film gets really old really fast.  That's all Emma and Flap do, and then when their relationship fizzles out it's because they're sleeping with other people.  And of course there's Aurora and the astronaut.  If the characters aren't having sex, they're talking about it.  But once Emma gets sick, the film turns a corner and becomes much more watchable.  It's interesting to see how everyone's priorities change when it's a matter of life and death.  I guess to a certain extent the beginning is necessary in order to appreciate the end, but I don't think it needs to be quite so excruciating.  My brother came in when the movie was half over and watched the rest of it with me, and he thought it was really good, and he can't understand why I didn't like it that much.  My overall impression is that this is merely an okay film with a pretty good ending.

Apparently some people really like Terms of Endearment, though, because it was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 5, including Best Actress (Shirley MacLaine as Aurora) and Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson as the astronaut).  Shirley MacLaine's character is really obnoxious, but I agree that her performance is fabulous.  Jack Nicholson, however, is really creepy (as usual), and I have no idea what Shirley MacLaine's character sees in him.  This film's screenplay also won an Oscar.  All in all I don't think the script is anything special, but there are a few fabulous lines here and there, which I'm pretty sure is the reason it won Best Adapted Screenplay.  So I can't truthfully say that I hate this movie, but it's not my favorite by any means.  It definitely didn't deserve to beat Tender Mercies for Best Picture, but nobody asked me.

Stay tuned for: Amadeus

Sunday, January 16, 2011

1982: Gandhi

This film follows the wise, stubborn, and courageous Mahatma Gandhi, as he grows from a young Indian lawyer in South Africa to the non-violent leader of India's quest for independence from Britain.  Though he faces a great deal of resistance, both from the British and fellow Indians who prefer a more violent approach, he remains true to his ideals and refuses to back down.  Even after independence is gained and the Hindus and Muslims start fighting, Gandhi never stops preaching that non-violent protest is the best way to effect change until his assassination.

At first glance, this may seem like just another extremely long and depressing Best Picture.  But it's actually a really good movie, despite some significant dragging in the second half.  It was very informative without becoming boring; before I started this movie I knew very little about Gandhi, and now I feel like I know quite a bit about him.  I also thought Ben Kingsley's performance as the title character was amazing.  His transformation from a westernized, British-educated lawyer in a suit and with a full head of hair to a bald, highly-regarded Indian nationalist draped in homespun cloth is truly incredible, although I think some credit should go to the costume designers.  Ben Kingsley and the costume designers (Bhanu Athaiya and John Mollo) won Oscars for their contributions to this film, so the Academy obviously agreed with me.

However, I think this film's most powerful scene is one in which Gandhi himself isn't present.  One of Gandhi's followers is speaking to a large crowd in an enclosed space, and a bunch of British soldiers just start firing at the gathered unarmed men, women and children.  The brilliant camera and editing techniques in this scene, combined with the shocking nature of the incident it portrays, make it one that I will not soon forget.  This could have been just another long, depressing biopic, but there are certain aspects, like this particular scene, that set it apart from other similar films.

Up next: Terms of Endearment

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

1981: Chariots of Fire

This film tells the true story of two British runners, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, and their journey to the 1924 Olympics.  Both are extremely talented, but come from different backgrounds.  Abrahams has had to struggle his whole life to prove that he, as a Jew, is just as good as his predominantly-Christian countrymen; but when it comes to running, he's always been the best.  Liddell, on the other hand, is a devout Christian who is using his talent to glorify God.  They are both determined to win, but when Liddell learns that the qualifying heat is on a Sunday, he refuses to run it because he must keep the Lord's day holy.

It's nice to have an uplifting Best Picture winner every once in a while.  Chariots of Fire manages to be serious and happy at the same time, and it makes me feel better about humanity in general.  This is such a good story, and it's very well-told, in a quiet, understated sort of way.  The soundtrack is at once soothing and epic, which perfectly captures the mood of the whole movie.  The buildup of anticipation before each race is brilliantly created with the use of such film techniques as slow-motion, intense camera angles, and of course the background music.  But while the races are fun to watch, I think the best part of this film is the character development.  It's inspiring to watch them stand up for their ideals in the face of adversity, especially because they are portrayed as very relatable.  Both Abrahams and Liddell are so human that one can't help cheering for both of them, even though Abrahams comes off as a little annoying and Liddell looks absolutely ridiculous when he runs.  Ben Cross and Ian Charleson are perfect for their roles, and the writing definitely helps, as does the plot structure itself.  Because the movie digs very deep into both men's backgrounds, when they do get to the Olympics the audience can fully appreciate how much it means to both of them.

I wouldn't say that this is the best movie I've ever seen - it feels a bit long, and I have trouble differentiating between some of the minor characters, which gets a little confusing - but it's definitely one of the better ones.  And I'm certainly glad that it won Best Picture to remind us that a film doesn't need to be depressing to earn the award.

Next: Gandhi

Sunday, January 9, 2011

1980: Ordinary People

Conrad has spent several months in a mental institution after trying to kill himself.  Now he's back at home and in school, but no one seems to know how to act around him.  His friends want everything to go back to normal, but Conrad still hasn't gotten over the tragic accidental death of his older brother.  His compassionate father desperately wants to help him without knowing how, while his callous mother stubbornly refuses to acknowledge him.  Even Karen, Conrad's friend from the mental hospital, doesn't want to listen to his problems.  But with the help of a psychiatrist, Conrad finally begins to look inside himself and discover what it means to live.

This is one of the most depressing movies I've ever seen, so it's not surprising that it won Best Picture.  I don't know why the Academy always favors disturbing dramas over comedies, but in this case, they made a wise decision.  I can think of few films that are as well-made as this one.  The story unfolds beautifully, with every shot providing vital insights into the characters' emotions and points of view.  The characters are deep and complex, but never inconsistent.  The details of Conrad's past aren't handed to the audience at the beginning; instead, we learn of them as Conrad rediscovers how they have shaped him.

Robert Redford, in his directoral debut, proves that he is just as brilliant behind the camera as in front of it, and most certainly earns his Best Director Oscar.  Timothy Hutton's convincing and haunting portrayal of the tormented Conrad won him the award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, which I think is kind of ridiculous as there is nothing "supporting" about his role, but at least his performance was recognized.  It's very interesting to see Mary Tyler Moore playing against type; who would have thought of her as the mother?  But it works.

I've never read Ordinary People, so I don't know how closely the film follows the book.  What I do know is this is an incredibly moving, powerful, well-made movie, but I wouldn't want to watch it over and over again because it's so depressing.  At least it's a depressing movie that I understood.

Coming up next: Chariots of Fire

Saturday, January 8, 2011

1979: Kramer vs. Kramer

Workaholic Ted Kramer comes home late one night to find that his wife, Joanna, has packed and is ready to leave him.  She resists all of his efforts to stop her, and he suddenly finds himself the sole parent of their son, Billy - a role for which he is ill-prepared.  Eventually Ted and Billy adjust to life without Joanna, though Ted's work begins to suffer.  Then, after over a year, Joanna approaches Ted saying she wants Billy back, and an ugly custody battle begins.

Divorce is painful, especially for children, and this film does a tremendous job of communicating that without becoming incredibly depressing.  Yes, it's very sad, which doesn't make it a movie I'd want to watch over and over, but it's still a fabulous film.  The dialogue is clever, the story is intriguing and realistic, and the soundtrack enhances the mood wonderfully.  Ultimately, though, I think the three best aspects of this movie are Dustin Hoffman, Justin Henry, and Meryl Streep. 

Dustin Hoffman is an amazingly talented actor, and he portrays Ted Kramer's transformation in this film perfectly.  It probably helped that he was going through a divorce in real life at the time, but whatever the reason, he did a tremendous job, and thoroughly earned his Best Actor Oscar, in my opinion.  But I don't think his performance or the film itself could have been nearly as effective if Billy had been played by a cute little kid who couldn't act.  Justin Henry is cute and can act, which is a rare combination for an 8-year-old.  His understated yet powerful performance is better than many adult performances I've seen.  He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, which makes him the youngest person ever nominated for a competitive Academy Award.  I think it's terribly sad that he didn't win.

And then there's Meryl Streep, whom I feel that I can never praise too highly (although I didn't really understand her role in The Deer Hunter - but there was very little I understood about that film).  She isn't in very much of this film, since she leaves in the first scene and doesn't return until near the end, but she is absolutely fabulous in those few scenes, especially considering that she has to cry pretty much the whole time.  I think that Meryl Streep is arguably the best Hollywood actress ever, which is a little unfortunate for her actually because people just kind of take it for granted that she's going to be amazing.  For this film, she won her first of only two Academy Awards.  I believe that the fact that she hasn't won more is a crime to rival the Best Picture choice of 1952.

Bottom line: the incredible portrayals of all of the Kramers take a film that would have been pretty good otherwise and make it a classic well worthy of the title Best Picture.  If only every film on the list was like this one.

Next up: Ordinary People