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