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