Friday, April 28, 2006
Nothing will ever be the same
UPDATE: Matt has posted details about the memorial services in NY as well as some great photos of Jennifer here. Matt has requested that you use this post on his site to talk about Jennifer's life and not to dwell on the tragedy and I urge you to so there or here or both. On a more trivial note, I hope to compile the delayed best best picture survey next weekend, so I've set a new deadline for ballots and comment as midnight Friday CDT.
In regards to Jennifer, the urge finally stuck me to ramble on a bit about what Jennifer Dawson meant to me.
I first met her in fall of 1985, when she was a sophomore and I was a junior at the same high school. It was at a pizza place following a football game where many of us went and she was present with my good friend Troy and her friend Kim, who had all gotten to know each other from their drama class.
The pain is so deep and so personal right now, I don't want to go into too many details of the past 21 years, but since this is a film/culture site, I felt I should take note of how many things will never be the same from this moment on based on the influence she had on my life.
I'll never be able to see any part of The Rocky Horror Picture Show again without recalling the many midnight screenings of it we attended together. The same goes for Pink Floyd's The Wall, which I imagine will affect hearing the music alone as well.
Jennifer introduced me to Raymond Carver's short stories, long before Robert Altman molded them into Short Cuts. We shared a love of early Billy Joel and John Irving and she really is the one that led me to delve deeply into the Beatles. Not that I plan to see any versions of them, but Barefoot in the Park and The Runner Stumbles will also bring her to mind.
I still have the bottle of nonalcoholic wine and fake flowers that she brought to the high school lunch table for my birthday, but I'm afraid to even look at them.
Needless to say, without her, I would have never known Matt Zoller Seitz or their great kids Hannah and James. My grief is unbearable at this time and I can't even imagine what they are going through. Thank God I hated the movie version of The Cider House Rules because otherwise it would remind me of seeing the stage version of the novel with Matt and Jennifer at the Atlantic Theater Company.
I can't imagine tuning in to the latest Sopranos episode come Sunday night and being able to pay attention because I so connect the show to Matt and Jen, who first loaned me their tapes of season 1 when I lived in New Jersey without HBO.
When I was in N.J., I was welcomed into their Brooklyn home many a time, which you can see in detail in Matt's directing debut Home.
I'll spare you the details on the circumstances, but I'll always connect the one true Manchurian Candidate with her as well as Crimes of the Heart. Hell, just the site of Sandra Bernhard may be too much, remembering seeing her show on Broadway with Jen when another friend visiting in New York had to cancel out at the last minute.
On the other hand, some cultural items have already proved beneficial. TCM aired The Graduate tonight, which I also relate to Jen, and just lying there with it on in the background did soothe me to a couple hours of sleep.
My equally devastated friend Dave said that he'd always imagined that he would see Jen again at my funeral and I truthfully wish I could have been able to oblige him —
this shouldn't haven't turned out this way.
Jennifer has been a major part of my life for so long that it seems to me as if an era has ended for me — and I don't want to face the new one. With the exception of my grandmother, no one I've known longer has ever left me like this.
I'm through rambling for now — it's getting too difficult to see what I'm typing through my tears — and I want this post to serve as a launching point for people to share their thoughts about Jennifer's life, not the tragedy of this week.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
Thursday, April 20, 2006
Riding the trail alone
By Edward Copeland
Sam Peckinpah was 37 when he made Ride the High Country in 1962 after nearly a decade of television work, mostly on Westerns, and one other feature film. Since that is the genre that Peckinpah is most widely identified with, it seems only appropriate that was the genre that gained him cinematic notice. Within Ride the High Country though, you could see themes that would reoccur throughout Peckinpah's filmography aside from the obvious Western touches.
Starring Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, who were 64 and 57 respectively when the film premiered, their characters of aging gunslingers foreshadowed the gang Peckinpah would assemble seven years later in his seminal Western, The Wild Bunch. Scott portrayed Gil Westrum, the shadier of the pair, and McCrea played Steve Judd, an ex-marshal committed to his own moral point of view, who team up with young upstart Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to work for a bank paying for gold claims in a California mining town. Along the way to the town, they come across Elsa, a young woman (Mariette Hartley in her film debut) frustrated with life on the ranch of her moralizing father (R.G. Armstrong) and eager to hook up with Billy Hammond (James Drury), a man who promised to marry her and one of a clan of slimy brothers working in the mining town. Needless to say, complications ensue.
On the road to the town, Heck develops a lustful interest in Elsa that nearly leads to rape, but which is nothing compared to what happens when she finally hooks up with Billy and agrees to become his bride, despite the fact he clearly intends on sharing her with her brothers (particularly the odious Henry played by future Peckinpah regular Warren Oates in one of his earliest feature films). The assaults on Elsa foreshadow what Peckinpah will depict in his greatest non-Western, Straw Dogs, in 1971. Gil and Steve see the trouble that Elsa has gotten herself into, but only Gil is willing to bend the law to save the girl as Steve continues to insist that they must be bound by it. On top of that, as they move to return the girl to her home, Gil and Heck have other plans for the bank's money.
With all these story strands, Peckinpah tells the story with amazing efficiency, clocking a running time that is barely more than 90 minutes. He also creates some astounding visual vistas, making his film debut in CinemaScope and failing to blow the chance as some first-timers do.
There also is something interesting in the violence in the film, given that violence is the first word that comes to mind when most people mention Peckinpah. Granted, he couldn't get away with things in 1962 that he'd be able to do later, but he is extremely cautious with it. In fact, one scene of a violent attack occurs completely offscreen where you can hear it, but you don't see it and you never see the end result.
There certainly have been better Westerns than Ride the High Country and Peckinpah would go on to make much greater films, but it's interesting to watch to see parts of the foundation being formed for Peckinpah's later films.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
Monday, April 17, 2006
When both she and the pictures were big
By Edward Copeland
Until I sat down to watch the DVD of 1928's Sadie Thompson, which brought Gloria Swanson her first best actress Oscar nomination (one of the original trio of best actress nominees in Oscar's inaugural year), it never occurred to me how little of Swanson I have actually seen. Before watching this film, the only things I'd seen Swanson in were Sunset Blvd., Airport '75 and an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies.
Sadie Thompson marked my first encounter with Swanson in her silent glory when she truly was a superstar much as the Norma Desmond she would portray in Sunset Blvd. In fact, in 1928, Swanson was so powerful that she was one of the few women to have their own production companies — Sadie is credited as a Gloria Swanson Production.
Written and directed by Raoul Walsh (who also plays a pivotal role), Sadie Thompson was an adaptation of Somerset Maugham's short story "Miss Thompson," which had been turned into a stage success and already had one film incarnation prior to this one. It would later be remade as a talkie called Rain in 1932 starring Joan Crawford and again in 1953 with Rita Hayworth in Miss Sadie Thompson. The only two versions I've seen are the Swanson and Crawford ones and the contrast is fascinating, not only because the story is the same but because of the differences when one film's actor can use their voice and one cannot. Sadie Thompson also is interesting because much of the film's final reel has been lost and for the DVD, it has been re-created using still photos and, in one sequence, lifting footage from Rain and removing the sounds. Watching Swanson in silence though really emphasizes the power she had in the silent era. You can see some of the flamboyant gestures she let Norma use 22 years later, but she has true power, spark and humor playing the good time girl who becomes the object of a preaching moralist out to save her soul and protect society from the likes of her. (Are we sure who the Beatles wrote "Sexy Sadie" about?)
It's really almost pointless to try to compare Sadie Thompson and Rain since the silent versus talkie depictions change the equations entirely. Crawford is probably just as good in the 1932 version, but she gets dialogue to almost make it an unfair fight. However, even with these differences, it is easy to compare the worth of the actors playing the moralists in the two version.
Lionel Barrymore in the silent version is all sinister, so much so that when the film's climax arrives, it really seems out of character. In contrast, Walter Huston's performance in the 1932 film is more fully realized. While he is still the villain of the piece, he's still unmistakably human so his ultimate fate seems like a natural progression.
Even with the cobbled-together final minutes, Sadie Thompson is worth a look, especially for Oscar completists. Rain is just as good and comparing the two films is a fascinating thing to behold. I saw Rain first — and a long time ago — but I'm not sure the order matters and the Sadie Thompson DVD includes the final minutes of Rain as a bonus feature. Sadie is probably more important, if only for a look at the power that Gloria Swanson once wielded in Hollywood, especially for those of us who know her only as Norma Desmond or as herself slumming on The Beverly Hillbillies or hilariously dictating her memoirs into a tape recorder on the doomed jetliner in Airport '75.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
Saturday, April 08, 2006
The Boys in the Bank
By Edward Copeland
Believe it or not, that was the original title for Dog Day Afternoon, according to Sidney Lumet's commentary track on the great new two-disc DVD release of the 1975 classic. Let's all be thankful that better minds prevailed. I've mentioned before my affection for Dog Day Afternoon and about films that you can watch over and over again. With the new DVD, that sentiment is proven true once again.
One can really measure the draw of a movie, no matter how many times you've seen it, when you are listening to commentary tracks (even good ones such as Lumet's) but find yourself straining to try to hear the movie's dialogue instead. That held true with the recent DVD release of Lumet's Network and it's equally true with Dog Day. It's such a good thing that the cheesy suggested title which played off the landmark gay play and movie The Boys in the Band was abandoned, because the revelation of that aspect of Dog Day is one of the greatest moments of this alternately comic and tragic tale. It may seem old hat today, but imagine the shock it produced back in its original release. Re-visiting the movie, aside from appreciating its great watchability once again, I was struck by what a great run Al Pacino had in the early to mid-1970s. In an extra on disc 2, there is a promotional "making of" short that was filmed during the filming of Dog Day Afternoon. Lumet says how Pacino's acting always is honest and never produces a false moment. Sigh ... woe that that didn't remain the case throughout Pacino's career. Could Lumet have said that if he'd been able to see into the future and catch a glimpse of Scent of a Woman?
While the documentaries on disc 2 are quite interesting and illuminating, they do repeat a lot of the stuff Lumet talks about in his commentary (or vice versa, depending on which order you watch them in.) There were quite a few nuggets of trivia that I didn't realize. Penelope Allen, who plays the blonde, brash chief bank teller, was a surrogate mother to Pacino. When he left home in his teens to pursue acting, Allen and her husband took him under their wing and he lived with them for several years. For Sopranos fans, there's a "don't blink or you'll miss him" moment where Dominic Chianese appears as the father of Pacino's character. In another Sopranos connection, Judith Malina who plays Pacino's mother, just appeared in Sunday night's episode as the widow Barone. One thing I don't think I ever consciously realized about Dog Day Afternoon and Network (what a helluva one-two punch Lumet produced in 1975 and 1976) is that neither film has a musical score. Both are so involving, they don't need one to emphasize points. I wish more films would take that approach. Certainly, music can enhance many movies, but often they just step on the drama as in the worst of John Williams or just about any Terence Blanchard score on a Spike Lee movie.
Another thing that the two films have in common, aside from Lumet and their greatness, is that both are really products of their time. Both are loaded with 1970s references that will probably fall flat with young viewers today. Could anyone under a certain age know what Pacino's character is referring to when he starts yelling "Attica! Attica! Attica!" It's one of the most cited moments in film history and I bet most young viewers don't have a clue what it means (and anyone who sees Saturday Night Fever without first seeing Dog Day Afternoon must be doubly puzzled). The other thing that I learned from the DVD is how much of the movie came out of improv sessions. Lumet says he doesn't usually like improv, but he went with it on this one, allowing all the characters and bank hostages to basically devise their own characters (even to the point of insisting that the actors and actresses wear their own clothes). This probably contributes to its rewatchability — it seems fresh because a lot of it isn't just recitation of dialogue from a script.
In addition to one of Pacino's finest performances and the great work by Penelope Allen, the movie contains the finest acting given by John Cazale in his tragically short but amazing career made up of a mere five features that all were nominated for the best picture Oscar (and three of them won!).
On top of those fine actors, Dog Day Afternoon boasts an astounding ensemble that includes Charles Durning, James Broderick, Chris Sarandon (who earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination) and even Carol Kane and Lance Henriksen in tiny roles. If you've never seen Dog Day Afternoon, don't miss the opportunity to watch this solid DVD transfer. I don't think you'll be disappointed. Its humor, pathos and humanity remain undimmed by the 30+ years that have passed since its initial release.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
Lean was so much better when he was lean
By Edward Copeland
The legend has it that David Lean was so scarred by Pauline Kael's brutal take on his 1970 movie Ryan's Daughter that it kept him out of the director's chair for more than a decade, until he returned with 1984's A Passage to India. Alas, Kael's review was not included in her collection For Keeps, so I've never read it in all its glory and her only comment in 5001 Nights at the Movies is that it is "Gush made respectable by millions of dollars tastefully wasted." I don't know if the legend is true, but having recently watched Ryan's Daughter for the first time, I have to think that Kael did Lean and audiences a favor because as he became epic obsessed, his greatness diminished, especially when compared to his earlier, smaller and brilliant films.
Something happens when great filmmakers get the bloat bug and it's a shame that more can't go back to small after they've gone gargantuan (Peter Jackson, I'm looking in your general direction). Don't get me wrong — I love Lawrence of Arabia — but for me, that's the only one of his big pictures that really works (though A Passage to India is passable enough). Even Lawrence lags in the second half, but Bridge on the River Kwai doesn't hold up well and I found Doctor Zhivago damn near interminable aside from Rod Steiger's great performance.
However, I'm here to discuss Ryan's Daughter which is the biggest epic crime committed by Lean — forcing a simple (though dull) tale of a love triangle into a three-hour format because by 1970, that's the only thing he knew how to do. There also is a side diversion into early IRA stuff, but it seems present only to pad out the running time which was padded as it was. Robert Mitchum suffers through a less-than-convincing Irish accent as his new bride (Sarah Miles) suddenly decides to take up with a British soldier, prompting a Scarlet Letter-ish outcry from the townfolk, who also blame her for ratting out an IRA soldier.
As one would expect, the film is pretty — including many shots of raindrops falling off leaves during a love scene that Terrence Malick would love — but pretty images alone do not a good movie make. The real embarrassment of the film is the Oscar-winning performance by John Mills as the village idiot which may well be the worst Oscar-winning performance I've ever seen — and that says a lot. Hidden somewhat beneath makeup, Mills' character basically has two expressions: fear and glee, though I guess you could argue that is one more expression than Charlize Theron could muster under her Monster makeup, thought at least Theron had the help of being able to speak. This all seems so tragic to me when you look back at Lean's early filmography, which holds up so much better than what he made once the epic bug bit him.
1942: Co-directed with Noel Coward, In Which We Serve is a dramatic and touching story of a British naval ship with some haunting images that I don't dare spoil for those who haven't seen it.
1945: Lean produced the fluffy Blithe Spirit, which is worth watching if only for Margaret Rutherford's absolutely brilliant comic performance.
That same year, Lean directed the absolutely sublime romantic classic Brief Encounter whose influence has resonated through the ages in forms as diverse as the play turned movie Same Time, Next Year and the schlock novel turned movie The Bridges of Madison County. It also features great performances by Trevor Howard and the now nearly forgotten Celia Johnson.
1946: Lean made the first of his two great Dickens' adaptations, Great Expectations, and for my money it remains the best film version of a Charles Dickens novel ever put on screen. It also contains a John Mills performance worth praising as Pip. (Mills also gave a memorable early performance in In Which We Serve).
1948: Lean scored another win with Dickens, this time with Oliver Twist. Despite the usual criticism of the Fagin character that accompanies all versions of this tale, Alec Guinness is positively brilliant in the role.
Admittedly, I haven't seen his works between 1949 and 1954, but in 1955 he made the bittersweet Summertime with Katharine Hepburn as a spinster finding romance in Venice — and after that, it was epics all the way and I think, aside from Lawrence of Arabia, film lovers are the ones who suffered the most by his conversion to the HUGE. I picked on Peter Jackson earlier about this, but I think it could be applied to Martin Scorsese and others as well. Imagine if Scorsese stepped back from his epic phase and went back to a smaller type of film that made his reputation in the first place. I don't know if The Departed will be that film — but I can hope.
As far as Ryan's Daughter goes, if you haven't seen it, despite the deluxe 2-DVD treatment it has recently received, save your time.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
In praise of South Park
By Edward Copeland
I'm digressing from my usual film focus to sing the praises of television's South Park, which amazingly grows more assured and more satirically biting the longer it goes on — and Wednesday's night's episode was a supreme example and the best of this season's new offerings so far. This episode aired the same day the series won its first prestigious Peabody Award for being a show that "pushes all the buttons, turns up the heat and shatters every taboo. Through that process of offending it reminds us of the need for being tolerant." Always the rebel, they quickly produced a promo for Comedy Central simultaneously promoting their win at the same time they mocked the idea that they deserved a Peabody through quick clips of some of its edgier and more scatalogical moments.
The series faced somewhat of a controversy before this latest season began when Isaac Hayes, who voiced the character of Chef, announced he was leaving the show because of "religious intolerance." Of course, he had no objections in the past when the show would skewer Catholicism, Mormons, Muslims and just about every other religion under the sun, but when they made fun of Scientology and Tom Cruise in a brilliant episode last season, it was too much for Hayes, also a practicing Scientologist. It also was apparently too much for Comedy Central, which has refused to re-air that episode since. The show dealt with the issue of Chef's departure in the premiere episode, substituting the "Super Adventurer Club" for Scientology and being generally hilarious — even to the point that they emphasized that Chef/Hayes wasn't to blame, the crazy religion was. This week, South Park went further, creating a premise that was firing at so many targets at once that the mind would positively boggle if you stopped laughing long enough.
The main story emphasized the climate of fear of reprisals of angry Muslims, taking the riots over the Danish Muhammad cartoons as its launching point. However, on top of that, they layered the censorship of their own program by substituting as the cartoon threatening to set off Muslims as Fox's Family Guy. On top of that, they included dead-on parodies of Family Guy and on-the-mark criticism of how bad that show is. (My favorite: a reputed al-Qaida tape by al-Zawahiri where he is supposedly saying, "and the writing isn't that good.") The townspeople of South Park, seeing a way to protect themselves from the oncoming attacks, pick the only method they can think of: they literally bury their hands in sand.
Personally, I was late in coming to South Park. When it first became a phenomenon, I couldn't get into it because I found it hard to understand some of the dialogue. However, when South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut hit theaters in 1999, I became a permanent fan. It's amazing how Trey Parker and Matt Stone's satire becomes even more on the money (and timely) as the series goes on. When I did catch up with older episodes, it's no contest. South Park is one of those rare series that gets better with age.
Contrast that to The Simpsons, which used to be the high-water mark for animated television comedy but for the past few seasons has been so lackluster, that I finally gave up watching it. I admit it — I'm a sucker for anything that frequently makes the case for freedom of speech, especially when it's funny, not preachy and even when it comes from potty-mouthed animated kids.
Cheers to South Park, Parker and Stone. Keep it up.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
Saturday, April 01, 2006
And the losers are...
BLOGGER'S NOTE: Here are links to other posts related to this survey: the also-rans and the number of ballots they made, the films that got no negative votes and my 10 worst list ballot.
Boy, I didn't realize how many people hate musicals. No wonder the genre pretty much died (though I'd like to blame the number of votes cast against them on the awful aftertaste Moulin Rouge left in people's mouths. I also was struck about how the same list of 78 movies could evoke polar-opposite reactions. Self-Styled Siren said, "Unexpectedly, in going over the Best Picture list the Siren discovered that with the exception of Going My Way, which just makes her gag, there wasn't a single winner so bad she could derive no pleasure from it." In contrast, Ken Ridge said, "A best picture should enter the pop culture zeitgeist and stay there forever. The winner should be able to stand up to repeated viewings. None of (these) manage this." Still, others found a middle ground. Louis said, "Reading through the list of Best Picture winners, I was struck by how much mediocrity dominates the Academy's choices. There are really only a handful of greats, and since the early '80s — well, "mediocre" is putting it kindly for most of them." Dan Callahan concurred, saying "Going over the list, I was surprised by how many films are simply inoffensive, not good, not bad. But there have been some real clunkers in the last 16 years." Enough with the preamble — here are, based on 107 ballots, the 20 best picture winners that received the most points for the worst best pictures of all time.
No. 20: Chariots of Fire: Or as Mark Smith calls it "Chariots of Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz......." (A thought echoed by Richard Christensen). The last true surprise best picture winner, unless you count Crash, it didn't merit much love, with many citing how much better its competition was and how boring this movie was. As Ken Ridge summarized, "It won , which means Atlantic City, Reds, On Golden Pond and Raiders of the Lost Ark lost. I barely remember seeing Chariots once, and have never watched it again. Was it the music by Vangelis? Reds and Raiders are classics. Atlantic City means more today with the knowledge of what Atlantic City became. On Golden Pond has two charming final performances by legends and Jane's abdominal muscles." I myself rewatched Chariots a few months ago, seeing it for the first time in its proper aspect ratio — it didn't help. It was just as dull as I remember — and I still want to know how it won costume design for white shorts and business suits.
TOTAL POINTS: 116
No. 19: Rocky: Says Self-Styled Siren, "There is a noble American tradition of boxing movies — and this is the one that gets the Oscar?" I think the real reason for its presence here is exemplified by Peter Vogt who said it "was OK at the time ... but compared to everything else nominated, stinker!" I think that's what really is behind its high ranking among the worst: it is ridiculous that it beat All the President's Men, Network and Taxi Driver, but the film itself isn't really bad, though it also has had its quality diluted by Sylvester Stallone's endless sequels to it (and he's planning another one!) Still, Richard Christensen labels it, "Chunky with cheese."
TOTAL POINTS: 125
No. 18: Rain Man: "Piercing and lovely for the first hour. Then they go to Vegas and it turns into just another gleaming, shitty '80s movie," Matt Zoller Seitz writes. I think that pretty much sums it up, but what really wears on you after awhile is Dustin Hoffman's performance, which the late, great Pauline Kael so aptly labeled as "Dustin Hoffman humping one note on a piano for two hours and 11 minutes." I think that about sums it up as well as can be summed up, though Kael did take the whole Hollywood industry to task as well in the summation of her review, writing "If moviemakers don't risk shaking up audiences and making our nerves tingle, they're likely to fall back on hauling an autistic savant to Las Vegas, duding him up and teaching him how to kiss."
TOTAL POINTS: 127
No. 16 (tie): The English Patient and Out of Africa: It seems somehow appropriate that two best picture winners involving Africa and airplanes should tie. As Self-Styled Siren said of Out of Africa, "Easily the most boring Oscar winner I have seen." As for The English Patient, it seems to me that most people fell for the effusive praise heaped on this one when it first came out but the moment that a Seinfeld episode punctured it for the bore that it really was, everyone woke up. Sure, there were good performances and some nice moments, but in the end, has anyone felt the need to go back and revisit it? The same can be said for Out of Africa.
TOTAL POINTS: 132 EACH
No. 15: Shakespeare in Love: Tiffany Leigh categorizes this win as "Miramax willing a bad movie to victory with marketing." The marketing part is especially true, but I wouldn't call this a bad movie. Gwyneth Paltrow shouldn't have won best actress, but the script itself is clever. As Self-Styled Siren rises to the film's defense, describing it as "a marvelous romantic comedy, with a fresh and clever script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (one of the Siren's favorite playwrights). But because it beat Saving Private Ryan, people dump all over it." I agree that is probably the reason — though I still prefer Private Ryan of their nominees. I also think it's indicative of a lot of the ballots I received: recent films overwhelmingly dominate the picks, either by virtue of being better remembered or by many voters having not seen older winners at all. Needless to say, this survey is not scientific.
TOTAL POINTS: 141
No. 14: The Sound of Music: The hills are alive with the sound of people who hate musicals. Sure, The Sound of Music is saccharine, but I was surprised by the level of dislike the movie merited. Mark Smith admits, "OK, I've never seen this all the way through, but my mother used to sing 'Do-Re-Mi' all the time and I generally hate musicals, especially about rich brats wearing cute little bow ties. I just KNOW that it's not for me." Richard Christensen, after placing Chicago higher on his list with the comment, "I don't like musicals," wrote of this one, "Did I mention that I don't like musicals?" Self-Styled Siren is more specific: "If it weren't for the Austrian Alps, Christopher Plummer (who called it "The Sound of Mucus") and Eleanor Parker (about 20 times more appealing than Julie Andrews, though her part is too short and usually cut to ribbons for TV showings) the Siren would not be able to sit through this. When Parker, as the Baroness, silkily mentions boarding school, can you honestly say you don't wanna holler, 'Amen'?"
TOTAL POINTS: 155
No. 13: Chicago: Speaking of musicals taking a hit and overreliance on recent winners, here comes another one. Anne Thompson writes, "Screenwriter Bill Condon's fantasy conceit was brilliant, and rookie director Rob Marshall trained his cast well, but his mise-en-scene was irritatingly staccato. I'd have liked to see what Bob Fosse would have done with it. And I can't wait to see Condon's Dreamgirls." While Chicago was another example of Harvey Weinstein's marketing prowess, I certainly found it watchable enough and the Kander & Ebb score is great. It's too bad they hadn't found someone better than Richard Gere to play Billy Flynn. Oh, well. Besides, except for the possible exceptions of Roman Polanski's The Pianist or Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, I'm sure happier that it won instead of the interminable The Hours of the bloated The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, though admittedly Gollum might have been a better choice as Billy Flynn than Gere.
TOTAL POINTS: 157
No. 12: Oliver!: Consider yourself hated — and no one seems to want more, though I'm sure Josh R might rise to its defense in the comments section. Personally, I think it is OK. I was surprised that no one who commented on Oliver! mentioned the non-nominated 2001: A Space Odyssey as a reason for hating it. Ellen O'Neill wrote, "The exclamation point in the title alone should disqualify it from Best Picture." Odienator, who ranked this as his worst best picture, said, "My ears still hurt. If The Third Man didn't prove that Carol Reed knows nothing about music, Oliver! put an Oscar winning exclamation point on the end of the sentence. There's a reason why the title has an exclamation point in it, as in THIS IS A LOUD EFFIN' MOVIE!" My own note: I love the music in The Third Man.
TOTAL POINTS: 159
No. 11: Driving Miss Daisy: Here is another one that I think is fine, but not great, but seems to attract a lot of venom. Peter Vogt dismisses it as "step 'n fetch meets old Jew. Racist, bigoted... boring. ESPECIALLY in the year of Do the Right Thing." You won't get any argument from me that Spike Lee's masterpiece was the best of 1989, but I wouldn't go so far about Daisy. Odienator calls it, "Crash for the 1980s. If I were Hoke, that's exactly what I would have done with Miss Daisy's car." Mark Smith has a simpler reason for disliking it: "Just because of Dan Aykroyd."
TOTAL POINTS: 161
No. 10: American Beauty: As I've mentioned before, I thought this movie was great when I first saw it, but it has weakened with each subsequent viewing. I have to wonder if the inverse is true and explains why recent titles dominate this list: The disgust is fresher in people's minds, so they forget how much worse other earlier ones were. Tiffany Leigh thinks that American Beauty "would have been better on HBO and called Six Feet Under." I do have to disagree there — at least American Beauty is done in about two hours, whereas Six Feet Under went on long past the time it was worth watching.
TOTAL POINTS: 170
No. 9: A Beautiful Mind: This didn't make my list, but it came close. For me, once the film's conceit is revealed, it becomes like a Ping-Pong match: Nash is sane, he's not, he's sane again. As Matt Zoller Seitz so aptly put it, "Quite bad. Somehow its innate belief in its own decency makes it worse." I guess they felt the need to make it up to Ron Howard for not nominating him for directing Apollo 13 (though I'm not sure why they felt that way). The most memorable moment of A Beautiful Mind for me came not from the film itself, but from the Oscar ceremony when Howard's name was announced and losing directing nominees Robert Altman and David Lynch were seen hugging in the audience as if they were saying to one another: "I knew they'd screw us again, but for Opie?"
TOTAL POINTS: 186
No. 8: Dances With Wolves: Again, I have to defer to the great Pauline Kael whose dissection of the film that beat GoodFellas remains one of my favorite reviews of hers of all time. "Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head," she wrote. Kael goes on later to say, "There's nothing affected by Costner's acting or directing. You hear his laid-back, surfer accent; you see his deliberate goofy faints and falls, and all the closeups of his handsomeness. (The Indians should have named him Plays With Camera.)" Imagine if you will how much better the movie might have been if Costner's role had been played by a real actor. The early scenes, where he is supposedly suicidal, are downright embarrassing. Not only is it a travesty that this film beat GoodFellas, it's even more disturbing that GoodFellas was the only good nominee for best picture that year, where the Academy's other choices were Awakenings, The Godfather Part III and Ghost. I guess we should be grateful that they didn't go with Ghost. I'll give Pauline the last word on this one: "(Costner's) the Orson Welles that everybody wants — Orson Welles with no belly."
TOTAL POINTS: 190
No. 7: Gladiator: Richard Christensen wrote, "Even Russell Crowe couldn't save this turkey; tons of money for CGI, zero bucks for a decent script." Matt Zoller Seitz goes further writing, "Aspires to be Spartacus by way of The Godfather, but its production values, moral intelligence and strong cast can't overcome a certain trash-and-flash factor. Ridley Scott
directed it, but brother Tony's spirit hovers nearby." For my money, this is by far the worst and most senseless of recent Oscar winners for best picture. It used to be a given that without winning at least a screenplay Oscar or a directing Oscar, best picture was off-limits. Gladiator managed to win without either and then Chicago repeated the feat two years later. I hope this isn't a trend — what is the point really of picking a best picture which Academy members didn't think was deserving of either writing or directing. Even The Greatest Show on Earth got a motion picture story prize. Perhaps Barbara Schwartz Brus sums it up best: "it was trite and superficial, a true dick flick."
TOTAL POINTS: 206
No. 6: Braveheart: Freedom! — from more overwrought epics like Mel Gibson's effort. What does it say about the competition for best picture in 1995 that the best film was about a talking pig? Odienator writes, "A brave heart makes a shattered eardrum, a sore ass, and an upset stomach. Featuring Oscar winning makeup by the Sears paint department." Josh R went further in comments in the original thread about this survey writing, without naming the movie, "Brokeback may not inspire the Academy too much, but they sure have no problem with ugly gay stereotypes, particularly scenes intended to cause laughter when weak swishy-boys are tossed off balconies and the like. I often wonder if it's too late to revoke a certain Australian-born actor-director's US citizenship."
TOTAL POINTS: 226
No. 5: Titanic: I've always argued that Titanic would have been a much better film if it were silent, where you could just admire the technical aspects of the film without being burdened with that god-awful dialogue. Ellen O'Neill said, "The worst script in the history of the world should not be so honored." At least the Academy had the foresight not to nominate the screenplay. Mark Smith dismisses the movie as "another snooze." Richard Christensen remembers his silent plea while watching it, "After an hour and a half, I was like, will somebody please sink this tub?" I will rise to the movie's defense on one point: Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were so much better than this film deserves. To me, the moment that exemplified its silliness is when Billy Zane is chasing the pair around the sinking ship with a gun. Oh no — I hope he doesn't shoot them, then they might drown. Did James Cameron really need to add that absurdity to the already dramatic tension of a sinking ship?
TOTAL POINTS: 243
No. 4: Around the World in 80 Days: At least not all the top vote getters were made since the 1980s. This one is legendary in its badness and everyone was in the mood to pile on. Self-Styled Siren says the movie "wears out its welcome, despite David Niven and the wonderful scenery. Of the cameos, only Charles Boyer and Ronald Colman actually play their parts, as opposed to popping onstage to milk applause." All it could inspire out of Peter Vogt was "crap crap crap crap crap." Anne Thompson sums it up with a mere three words: "Crude, rude, episodic." Matt Zoller Seitz calls it "A deal memo in Technicolor." However, I think I like Tiffany Leigh's description the best when she labels it, "The Cannonball Run of its day."
TOTAL POINTS: 284
No. 3: The Greatest Show on Earth: "As much as I don't like musicals, I REALLY don't like circuses," Richard Christensen writes. Odienator intones, "Clowns...I hate clowns..." Matt Zoller Seitz writes, "Makes the circus seem boring." Tiffany Leigh labels it, "Irwin Allen without the natural disaster." Still, as bad as it is, others do appreciate aspects of it like I do. Self-Styled Siren writes, "This one, bad as it is, gives the Siren a small pang because she does enjoy it. It's most entertaining, in an Ignatius J. Reilly sort of way. Still, when she remembers C.B. DeMille's voiceovers, the ludicrous plot and Betty Hutton warbling "Come See the Circus," she has to list it." Craig P adds, "actually so bad it's kind of fun."
TOTAL POINTS: 292
No. 2: Forrest Gump: "I had to go to the dentist, it was so saccharine," Peter Vogt wrote. Richard Christensen decries it as "a cynically manipulative weeper." I've never quite understood the disdain for this picture, which seems to stem from a political point of view people superimpose onto the film more than what is present in the film itself. Jen admits having mixed feelings about including Gump on her list saying, "I love Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump and Matt and I can still crack each other up just by saying "I got to pee" or reciting the different ways to prepare shrimp... but the movie's clumsy attempts at profundity completely sunk it for me." In comments on one of the survey's threads, Matt Zoller Seitz explains his evolution on Forrest Gump: "The first time I saw the movie, I didn't know quite what to make of it. Was it a spoof or straight-faced comedy-drama-fable? A satire of conservative heartland tendencies, or an endorsement? The second time I saw it I had a knee-jerk liberal reaction and felt it was pandering to the Silent Majority that thought the counterculture was the root of all evil. After more viewings I still go back and forth and I doubt I will ever settle on an either/or interpretation of any single element. The movie is either way shallower than its adherents think, or much deeper than haters want to admit. (Zemeckis is often hard to draw a bead on. He's so exuberant yet so cold, and he holds his cards very close to his vest.) But in the end, I think the bare minimum we can ask of a movie is that it withstand multiple viewings and diverse readings, and by those criteria, Gump is a good choice as Best Picture." As Wagstaff commented, "how anyone can deny that it was a well crafted, entertaining movie and instead deserves the ten worst treatment is beyond me."
TOTAL POINTS: 315
No. 1: Crash: Perspective. That's what I really think people need on this one. Granted, I liked the movie, but the level of bile that has been hurled at this movie sort of boggles my mind. So many ballots listed Crash as the worst of all time that I begun to suspect that Diebold was somehow tampering with the results. The movie that won best picture less than a month ago is really the worst of all time? Again, I think it has to be attributed in some cases to not having endured some of the truly awful winners of the past and to it being the freshest crime in participants' memories. I have a feeling that if this survey had been held after Gladiator won or any of many other recent winners, that that one would be the one topping the survey. Mark Smith said, "Realized halfway through that I was simply HATING it." Peter Vogt described it as "Lifetime meets Hallmark with a "are you fucking kidding me?" screenplay. Couldn't even believe it was nominated." As Josh R commented, "I still don't see why you crazy people pick on Crash so much. I mean, I can appreciate that's it not to everyone's taste, but as the worst Best Picture winner of all time? Sheesh."
TOTAL POINTS: 397
That's it, the whole thing. In the thread after this one are the point totals for the other best pictures and a ranking of the candidates by the number of ballots on which they appeared. In the thread behind that is my 10 worst list with my comments on the ones I voted for. Thanks to all who participated.
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Also-rans and the worst by numbers of votes
No. 21: Gigi (114 points)
No. 22: Gentleman's Agreement (113 points)
No. 23(tie): Cimarron (97 points)
No. 23(tie): Terms of Endearment (97 points)
No. 25: Gandhi (93 points)
No. 26: Ordinary People (88 points)
No. 27: Ben-Hur (79 points)
No. 28: How Green Was My Valley (77 points)
No. 29(tie): Kramer Vs. Kramer (72 points)
No. 29(tie): Million Dollar Baby (72 points)
No. 31: Going My Way (70 points)
No. 32: The Deer Hunter (65 points)
No. 33: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (63 points)
No. 34: Tom Jones (59 points)
No. 35: The Great Ziegfeld (58 points)
No. 36: Platoon (55 points)
No. 37: My Fair Lady (52 points)
No. 38: Gone With the Wind (48 points)
No. 39: The Broadway Melody (45 points)
No. 40: Midnight Cowboy (41 points)
No. 41: Grand Hotel (38 points)
No. 42: Amadeus (35 points)
No. 43(tie): Cavalcade (32 points)
No. 43(tie): West Side Story (32 points)
No. 45: All the King's Men (31 points)
No. 46: Marty (29 points)
No. 47(tie): Mrs. Miniver (26 points)
No. 47(tie): The Sting (26 points)
No. 49: The Lost Weekend (25 points)
No. 50:(tie) An American in Paris (24 points)
No. 50(tie): The French Connection (24 points)
No. 52: The Apartment (22 points)
No. 53(tie): Hamlet (19 points)
No. 53(tie): Patton (19 points)
No. 55: The Life of Emile Zola (17 points)
No. 56: The Last Emperor (15 points)
No. 57 (tie): Annie Hall (14 points)
No. 57 (tie): The Silence of the Lambs (14 points)
No. 59: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (13 points)
No. 60: You Can't Take It With You (12 points)
No. 61: Schindler's List (10 points)
No. 62(tie): A Man for All Seasons (9 points)
No. 62(tie): Rebecca (9 points)
No. 64: Unforgiven (8 points)
No. 65: From Here to Eternity (6 points)
No. 66: The Bridge on the River Kwai (5 points)
No. 67 (tie): All About Eve (4 points)
No. 67 (tie): The Godfather Part II (4 points)
No. 67 (tie): In the Heat of the Night (4 points)
No. 70: The Godfather (3 points)
No. 71: On the Waterfront (1 point)
VOTES PER PICTURE
Around the World in 80 Days 51
The Greatest Show on Earth 47
Forrest Gump 46
A Beautiful Mind 35
Driving Miss Daisy 34
Dances With Wolves 32
American Beauty 29
Rain Man 29
Shakespeare in Love 27
The Sound of Music 27
Out of Africa 25
Chariots of Fire 22
The English Patient 20
Gentleman's Agreement 19
Ordinary People 19
Terms of Endearment 17
Kramer Vs. Kramer 16
How Green Was My Valley 15
Million Dollar Baby 14
The Great Ziegfeld 12
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King 12
Tom Jones 12
The Deer Hunter 11
Going My Way 11
Grand Hotel 11
My Fair Lady 10
West Side Story 9
The Broadway Melody 8
Gone With the Wind 8
All the King's Men 6
An American in Paris 6
Midnight Cowboy 6
The Sting 6
The French Connection 5
The Lost Weekend 5
Mrs. Miniver 5
The Apartment 4
The Life of Emile Zola 4
Annie Hall 3
The Godfather 3
The Last Emperor 3
Schindler's List 3
The Silence of the Lambs 3
You Can't Take It With You 3
The Bridge on the River Kwai 2
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 2
A Man for All Seasons 2
All About Eve 1
From Here to Eternity 1
The Godfather Part II 1
In the Heat of the Night 1
On the Waterfront 1
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First, a salute to the best picture winners that managed to get through the entire contest without a single vote cast against them. The fortunate seven, in chronological order are:
1929/30: All Quiet on the Western Front
1934: It Happened One Night
1935: Mutiny on the Bounty
1946: The Best Years of Our Lives
1962: Lawrence of Arabia
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