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