The following is from my series of Oscar Best Picture rankings, as well as my strongly worded suggestions for what should have won from among the nominees. For an introduction to the project, click here. For a way to vote on some Oscar-related ideas, click here. If I’ve written a review on any of the films below, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!
65) The Life of Emile Zola, 10th Academy Awards, directed by William Dieterle
What should have won: The Awful Truth
Worth noting: What remains of Lost Horizon is good-not-great, but I have a sense that the film as it was originally shown packed more of a punch.
The first scene of The Life of Emile Zola puts Zola in a frozen garret with his roommate, Cezanne. The painter is steadily painting away at portrait, wearing a blanket like a shawl. Zola is significantly less serene, running around the room, pulling books down from the shelves and filling their little stove with the pages. Cezanne opens the window to let some of the smoke out, but Zola objects: he’ll take the risk of asphyxiation as long as he’s warm. Given the means of Zola’s death, this functions as a nifty in-joke for the audience, but it also makes Cezanne into Zola’s better half. Later in the movie, after both men have become great successes, Cezanne decides to cut his visit at the Zola house short when Emile starts showing him vases. You’ve gotten fat and rich, Cezanne says, who is as lean as he was in the sad one-room apartment. An artist should be poor. Years later, even years after the conclusion of the Dreyfus case, Zola is visited by Lucie Dreyfus, bearing enough evidence to suggest that her husband was framed. At first, Zola refuses; earlier in the evening he had received a letter which virtually guaranteed him entry into the French Academy, the ultimate sign that he had made it after years of blistering work and struggle. It’s only after he sees the painting by Cezanne from their impoverished days that he decides to go through Madame Dreyfus’ papers and create “J’accuse!” from it. (There should be more movies about the Dreyfus affair, by the way. Or maybe pop anthems.)
It’s not a terrifically nimble decision by the movie, but what I like about it is how quickly Zola becomes addicted to his own comfort. In one scene, he is challenged by a censor at his workplace and then gets fired almost immediately. He insults his boss, who has himself grown a little chunky, and vows that he will continue on in his scathingly idiosyncratic fashion. The movie quickly shows us that his success has made him effete and pampered, and ultimately posits, once he puts himself in danger of a jail sentence for libel, that this man of the people can only be their champion when he is in danger himself. There are a few too many speeches in the film, but on the whole it’s an effective piece, and Muni is a more than adequate Zola.
What The Life of Emile Zola lacks is joy, though, and The Awful Truth is a joyful movie. When Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are backstabbing each other or putting roadblocks in the other’s way, the movie is terrifically funny. (Ironically, Ralph Bellamy probably wins the “funniest moment” contest when he dances whatever insane dance he tries out.) Good screwball comedies are difficult to work out because they require one lover to do something wicked to another, and the line between “this is pleasingly off-the-wall” and “this is gaslighting” is painfully thin. Twentieth Century has the latter problem, for example; at the end you really just have to feel sorry for Carole Lombard. Because the pranks and hijinks are pretty balanced in The Awful Truth, we never have to feel too guilty about enjoying the situations Lucy and Jerry get each other into. Both of them have been unfaithful, and both of them are going to do their penance through a parade of serious social embarrassment. Jerry finds a way to make all of Dan’s hick bouquet wander into Lucy’s sinuses; Lucy, who tricks the family dog into choosing her during a custody fight, later finds a way to horrify Jerry’s fiancee’s family with a proto-Wiig performance at a party. The awful truth that we first learn is that Jerry and Lucy deserve each other, but by the end we’ve come to believe that the two of them may have been made for each other as well. It takes every ounce of Grant and Dunne’s shared charm, which is a ludicrous amount, but it’s hard not to root for them when they choose to roll back the divorce.
64) The Shape of Water, 90th Academy Awards, directed by Guillermo del Toro
What should have won: Phantom Thread
Worth noting: I was rooting for Get Out to win at the Oscars in the hopes that it would set off a new day in Hollywood, but then again, Easy Rider wasn’t even nominated. We still have time for the revolution.
The Shape of Water tries really hard, and I guess that’s the nicest thing you can say about it. It’s that person you knew in high school who was a member of eight different clubs and had a leadership post in half of them, and then s/he got into Princeton just like s/he always planned. Whether or not that helped grow your high school friend as a person or not is up for debate, but the college admit came through just the same. The Shape of Water puts all of its many ingredients into the bowl at the same time, mixes them all up, and the end result is a fairy tale inspired Cold War social drama with the intersectional concerns of the present day. Two out of three and I think this is a genuinely interesting movie. All three and the movie is a chore of virtue, Sunday school with a twenty million dollar budget. The fact that the movie has lots of individual elements that work—Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, the color scheme, the special effects, the cat-eating scene, the key lime pie, the black-and-white dance number, the bathroom full of water—but it never turns them into more than a preachy “We can do better by one another” kind of story. I don’t try to guess why movies win Best Picture all that much given how little insight we have into the Academy of the past and the membership of the present, but this film, which has a number of crowd-pleasing moments and concepts, seems to have hit just enough sweet spots to land the top spot. In the future, I expect that The Shape of Water will probably be remembered, if it’s remembered at all, as the kind of messy movie that dodged the Get Out zeitgeist.
No one will talk about Phantom Thread in the future when they talk about Best Picture snubs, I don’t imagine, but this was the best movie nominated for the prize. Phantom Thread, a movie about the strong-willed woman who collides with a maniacal dressmaker, finds the act of creation to be one fraught with trouble as soon as it’s opened to other people. Reynolds opens up a little bit to Alma over breakfast, uses her as a dressmaking muse, screams at her over dinner, is poisoned by her at breakfast, and ruins a dress he already hated through her machinations. Before Alma, Reynolds cycled through women that Cyril would have to dispose of and then moved on with his life. During Alma, he is forced to interact with another person with a shred of the intimacy that most people give the person checking them out a grocery store, and the result is explosive. In its own way, it’s the curiously realistic version of Eliza and the Amphibian Man: a basically normal woman is forced to reckon with the inhumanity of the man she loves. The solution in Phantom Thread is to make Reynolds as human as possible, and doing so requires him to be made frail and weak; it means a hallucinatory illness which pushes him to the edge of his own perception of what’s real. Watching Reynolds collapse in on himself because of the first self-doubt he’s felt in decades is exciting. Watching Alma watch him and make her own plans to exploit that self-doubt for what she wants is its own powerful experience. And, of course, watching Paul Thomas Anderson document their experience is always a pleasure. Even if Phantom Thread is closer to Punch-Drunk Love than There Will Be Blood in the grand scheme of Anderson’s oeuvre, there’s a craftsmanship in the close-ups and the claustrophobia that The Shape of Water doesn’t quite reach.
63) Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, 87th Academy Awards, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
What should have won: Boyhood
Worth noting: There’s an alternative past where The Grand Budapest Hotel gains just enough buzz to steal the big prize, and it wouldn’t have been a bad choice at all, and a generation of hipsters would have taken to the streets and sipped on rooibos in happy solidarity.
There is one interesting thing about Birdman, and that, famously, is the way it’s made. The illusion that there are no cuts in Birdman—although you don’t have to be a genius to figure out where they are—is what sells the film. It has tour de force qualities because most movies wouldn’t imagine hiding every single of its cuts the same way most people don’t imagine trying to live to 200. But here’s a movie that succeeds at that premise. It sprints around a theater almost exclusively, privileging the backstage area where people are more free to speak their minds and vent their emotions. It goes outside of the theater for a few moments, including one totally bizarre trip to a bar where Riggan has it out with a critic who has it out for him, but for the most part it stays in those small spaces lit like baby discotheques, hiking us up and down stairs and throwing us through corridors. It’s cool, I guess, but I wonder how Birdman would meaningfully change if it had cuts like any other. This isn’t Rope, where the real-time feeling matters and the pretense of a single take is atmospheric. This is the sort of technical brilliance that impresses a certain type of callow viewer, but the imposition of the technique is so weighty that it drags attention away from the characters. Birdman really does fall short with those, and it’s hard to tell in retrospect if the failure is in the writing of the characters themselves (which is my take) or if the failure is in the distracting technical aspect (which is not my take, but is certainly reasonable). In any event, Riggan is a comic figure who believes his life is a tragedy in the making, a believer in his own acting ability who is best known for a superhero movie and who wants to put things right. Usually these characters are ripe for satire, but the movie is a little scared to get there with him. It’s pathetic that Riggan is getting into a fight with a critic, but the movie sides with him by making the critic an unreasonably unfair person. Mike waltzes in with his boozy, cocksure attitude and starts pulling the rug out from under Riggan’s feet, but even if his points are probably valid the movie sides with Riggan, who sees Mike as a fraudulent interloper. The women in Birdman—played by four of our better contemporary actresses in Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Emma Stone, and Amy Ryan—talk and do like the person who wrote them had only heard of women before. There’s a lot of sizzle in this movie; there’s a dearth of steak.
Boyhood has a very different kind of ambition, although it’s similarly easy to get riled up about a movie made over eleven or twelve years as it is to get hey sailor about Birdman for its editing sleight of hand. That ambition is channeled almost entirely into Boyhood’s premise, as the rest of the movie is made in Linklater’s characteristically simple, no-frills style. And what that premise does for the movie is it gives it extra power. In a normal movie, child actors replace child actors as the story progresses; in Boyhood, there really is something special about watching Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater grow up within their roles. The inherent falseness of the movies is countermanded in the way that Mason, Jr. is the same actor all the way through the story. Not all of Boyhood works at a high level; there’s a point around the time Mason starts getting into photography and vaguely considering college where the movie starts to reach diminishing returns in its boy. (College-bound Ellar Coltrane is probably the worst teen actor we’ve gotten in a Linklater movie since Wiley Wiggins in Dazed and Confused.) But what Boyhood has in bunches is a sympathy for its characters. It appreciates Sam and Mason’s difficulties growing up with a single mom with awful taste in men; at the same time it finds Olivia’s energy and belief in self-improvement to be the most admirable qualities of any character in the film. Mason, Sr. grows as a person, sometimes even to his son’s dismay, and there’s the real question of whether his value to his second family is worth the trouble he put his first one through. The movie treats its characters so evenhandedly and with the affection that one expects in Linklater. For all its smaller failings, Boyhood is undeniably soulful.
62) Grand Hotel, 5th Academy Awards, directed by Edmund Goulding
What should have won: Shanghai Express
Worth noting: The Smiling Lieutenant. When in doubt, pick Lubitsch.
There’s something rather delicious about this pairing: Greta Garbo versus Marlene Dietrich, “I want to be alone” vs. “It took more than one man to change my name to ‘Shanghai Lily’.” The thing is, I can take or leave Garbo in Grand Hotel, where Dietrich is the essence of Shanghai Express. Grand Hotel is not especially full by the standards of today’s ensemble films, which means there’s plenty of time for Garbo and both Barrymores and Crawford and Beery and so on to stretch their legs, but the movie thinks John Barrymore’s disgraced baron is the most interesting character. It’s actually Lionel Barrymore’s doomed accountant, a man who has lived this underwhelming and sad life and intends to go out in a blaze of shameless extravagance. The relationship between Beery’s critically endangered industrialist and Crawford’s sexy but professional secretary is a close second, as at the height of the Depression the film points the finger at who was most responsible for the crisis. Despite his interest, Crawford’s Flaemmchen finds a much closer and platonic bond with Barrymore’s Kringelein, seeing in a fellow proletarian the personhood that Beery’s Preysing has cast off for the sake of a better business deal. (If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: I miss that the 1930s made capitalists the villains, and we could stand to return to that point of view.) The twist is that Preysing was Kringelein’s old boss, and in one scene Barrymore excoriates Beery for the general inhumanity shown him at the factory. The socioeconomic relations in Grand Hotel are the most interesting, but they are sent to the B-plot while heart of gold scammer Baron von Geigern and fragile ballerina Grusinskaya trade soft words in the A-plot. Less is more.
Shanghai Express isn’t shy about foregrounding its political point of view; it understands the power of women without turning them into fainting saints. Shanghai Lily and especially Hui Fei have the kind of practical understanding of the dangerous world they live in that makes them alternately sly or even dangerous themselves. Neither one of them is ashamed of her past, and both of them are capable of making jokes at the expense of the pearl-clutching passengers on the train. (One woman they run into on the train says that she runs a boarding-house. “What kind of house?” Lily asks demurely, and it’s great.) Lily tries to trade herself for her onetime lover, Doc Harvey, but Hui Fei manages to save herself, her friend, and her friend’s intended with a well-placed knife. And in the end, Harvey comes back to Lily on her terms despite having been squeamish about associating himself with a woman of her profession. Its racial politics aren’t precisely up-to-date; Anna May Wong, an established star at this point, has a major role, but so does Warner Oland, who was probably more famous for playing Asian characters than Wong at this point. Shanghai Express also benefits from a runtime that is a full half-hour shorter than Grand Hotel’s, which has a couple of unnecessary lulls in the middle. Shanghai Express manages to make snappy work of rediscovering a lover, establishing stakes, and interrupting both with the threat of the civil war outside the train that threatens to derail everything which happens within it.
61) West Side Story, 34th Academy Awards, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
What should have won: The Guns of Navarone
Worth noting: Maybe The Hustler? It’s better than Judgment at Nuremberg, but that’s not saying a whole lot.
As an idea, the 1961 West Side Story is just wonderful. Romeo and Juliet, by now a timeless story, is put ahead a few hundred years and relocated to New York City. Replacing the arcane blood feuds of warring noble families is the struggle of first-generation against second-generation America. In its execution…eh? For the sake of this argument, I will even put down the frequently discussed issue of casting Russian-American Natalie Wood and Greek-American George Chakiris as Puerto Ricans (while having the wisdom to cast Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno, go figure) and focus solely on issues within the movie. The movie, despite the questions of racism at its center, basically devolves into blood feud territory just as its source material does. Although it’s popular to complain about the dubbing these days, I don’t mind at all that Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant sing for Wood and Richard Beymer, because dubbing people’s voices in movie musicals is not a dirty concept on this blog. For the insensitivity of casting Chakiris, at least he is a hugely charismatic dancer. Russ Tamblyn, though he looks about as likely to join a gang as Beymer, has enough swagger to anchor his parts of the film. Killing off Bernardo and Riff is necessary for the plot, but it unfortunately leaves us with none of the dancing that makes the movie worth the time and none of the charisma (excepting, once again, Rita Moreno) which the movie needs to entice. There’s even some adventure in Wise and Robbins’ direction in the early going, as they use tracking shots to emphasize the smooth movement of the agile gang members warning others off their turf. (One is sympathetic to the idea of a West Side Story made entirely by Robbins, whose dance sequences feel like they were lifted from a more interesting movie altogether.) The problem with West Side Story is that it is much too sappy in its second half, and the guilt falls on Tony and Maria. Maria has less to do in West Side Story than you might remember besides sing a little, dance a little, and flounce a little, and Wood only gets to do one and a half of those things with a smile that implies “angel of light” more than “fatefully endangered lover.” But Richard Beymer…years ago I read a description of him/his performance in this movie as “milquetoast,” and it’s a shuddering blow for the film to have such a boring person at its center. Songs like “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart” and “Somewhere” are standards because they are beautiful, but they need warmth in them to affect. They are uniformly cold with the plasticky faces and polyester poses of Beymer and Wood, and that drops West Side Story’s ceiling considerably. As much as any other Best Picture winner, West Side Story is ripe to be remade, and from where I’m sitting the 2009 Broadway revival of the show is a formidable blueprint for what remains rich material.
The Guns of Navarone is significantly less weighty than West Side Story. At its most basic level, Guns uses a lesser theater of World War II as a way to tell a story about secret agents and disguises and bloodshed and betrayal and all that jazz. And even if that’s not exactly earthshaking material, the movie executes it really well. The Guns of Navarone, in its early ’60s way, has all the exciting bits from Saving Private Ryan without the heavy-handed patriotic homosocial whimpering. A team of talented but badly mixed soldiers are sent to eliminate the forbidding coastal guns on a Greek island which are holding thousands of British soldiers hostage. The mission’s impossibility is proof of its importance, and so despite some necessary but fruitless carping at the outset, six men are dispatched to fight their way through the island and blow up the guns. The Guns of Navarone is proof that good acting is essential to an action-adventure film. Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn go to the fullest steely-eyed extents of their spectra in this movie, and their seriousness imparts the grandeur to the film that its plot does not lend it. Anthony Quayle and Stanley Baker, who would become essential players in half the British epics of the ’60s, introduce themselves to the genre admirably. David Niven is the token antiwar wiseacre, which becomes him well even if he’s too old for the part. Although it’s about the same length as West Side Story, Guns has none of its competitor’s sag. There are too many obstacles for the team to overcome, too many external and, it turns out, internal threats to fight through. Like The Awful Truth, The Guns of Navarone comes from a genre that is too infrequently recognized with the top prize at the Oscars; both movies, even though neither one has that “triumph of the human spirit” hokum going on, deserved better than they got.