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!
50) Dances with Wolves, 63rd Academy Awards, directed by Kevin Costner
What should have won: Goodfellas
Worth noting: …there’s really not a good choice among The Godfather Part III, Awakenings, or Ghost, so we’ll go with the sequel because sequels are trendy now.
If Shakespeare in Love is the most reviled Best Picture winner of modern years by the fact of what it’s supposed to have snubbed, then Dances with Wolves is a fairly close second, and it really did win an award it oughtn’t to have won. All the same I can see the appeal of Dances with Wolves, an honest-to-goodness revisionist western with its heart in the right time zone. The fact that the best place it can find to put its heart is some old-fashioned noble savage mythology is troubling, but watching the movie again I don’t get the sense that “White Man: The Superior Indian” is the right tagline for the picture. At no point is Dunbar made to seem superior in any respect, really, to his Sioux hosts; like T.E. Lawrence in another movie which is racially insensitive but stops short of active racism, his most important contribution is that he has guns. Dunbar is initially defensive in his early encounters with the Sioux, but quickly realizes that courting a fight amounts to suicide; he chooses to try diplomacy, and it’s in his honest attempts to learn about the Sioux that the movie gains its emotional strength. Not all of it is thrilling, and the movie benefits significantly from some really incredible location footage that most movies not set in the Dakotas can’t draw from. But in the final conflict, where a small group of Native Americans ambushes Union soldiers to free Dunbar, it’s quite clear who the heroes of the piece are. In the future, maybe after everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, we might even get a mainstream, Best Picture nominee about the Sioux in the 1860s without having to include Kevin Costner. (Could we start with a Crazy Horse biopic? Would that be so terrible?)
Goodfellas is an undisputed classic, and according to the great human beings over at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?, it may well be gaining in historical acclaim. As it nears thirty, it has basically cemented itself as Scorsese’s third-best movie and a worthy contender for greatest American gangster flick even compared to the first two Godfather movies. This may be more controversial, but it may even be the darkest of Scorsese’s inky oeuvre. Raging Bull recognizes that Jake LaMotta is uniquely twisted because everyone in the movie gets it but him. The Wolf of Wall Street spends too much time on Jordan Belfort’s downfall and arrest not to recognize that crime doesn’t pay full dividends. Casino is so nihilistic that I have a hard time even watching it. (That’s big for me!) Goodfellas is special, though. It has the bloody-minded characters of Raging Bull, the gangland, drug-infused murders of Casino, and the indictment of the American Dream from Wolf of Wall Street. There is no target too big or small for Goodfellas to find the evil festering within, whether it’s Karen’s “I was just married to the guy, what could I do?” defense to Paulie’s “I knew better” defense to Henry’s “I just wanted to skip the line” defense. What’s absolutely extraordinary about Goodfellas, from this perspective, is that it is a blast to watch. People always talk about the tracking shot through the Copacabana as a revolutionary piece of camerawork, but that ignores why it hits home as a viewer: following Henry and Karen through the bowels of the nightclub is a lot of fun! It’s exciting, and you see a whole bunch of people doing a whole bunch of things, and there is sound and color and noise, and most importantly, when the camera moves you move with it. Henry helped a whole lot of us believe that we wanted to be gangsters, too.
49) Terms of Endearment, 56th Academy Awards, directed by James L. Brooks
What should have won: The Right Stuff
Worth noting: I hate-watch The Big Chill occasionally, and I can’t help but find it alluring.
Terms of Endearment is a little much for me, although I realize this is probably not a consensus opinion. The movie has me, with some reservations, throughout the majority of it. I can take or leave Jack Nicholson in this movie, but Shirley MacLaine is pleasingly frosty (even if it’s the only note Aurora has that’s interesting), and even when they’re yelling at each other Debra Winger and Jeff Daniels have chemistry. I also like the that the movie does not overly concern itself with making anyone a saint. Flap mercilessly cheats on Emma, but that doesn’t mean Emma must suffer in silence; she finds a lover of her own, Sam, and leads something of a separate life. Things are ticking along…and then Emma winds up with cancer and what was already a little syrupy becomes maudlin. “Give my daughter the shot!” and that angry pre-grief thing that Emma’s oldest son does are ways to end the movie because there’s not an obvious concrete ending for a movie so invested in slice-of-life scenes. Love Story rightly gets hammered for killing Ali McGraw, but at least that fit into the movie’s ethos. Terms of Endearment is smarter throughout, but giving your heroine cancer as a way to tie the loose ends together screams that they were out of ideas. Maybe this is because I’m staring at James L. Brooks’ name, but I can’t help but feel that Terms of Endearment would have made a better two or three seasons of television than a movie. Emma and Aurora deserve to have their relationship, which genuinely is the heart of the picture, built on over the course of more time. And we the viewers deserved to watch Danny DeVito do his best to court Shirley MacLaine eleven times per season.
One of the dirty little secrets is that for all the laudable elements of Terms of Endearment’s screenplay, The Right Stuff has a better one. Like Terms of Endearment, it shifts between two lightly connected plots, but Stuff has the drop on Terms because it has an ending in mind. Chuck Yeager decides to take a trip as high and far and fast as he can in the F-104, basically a miniature rocket with little wings stapled on for decoration. His voice echoes in the hangar. We’ve seen him do this before; he’s punched holes in the sky at interval throughout the movie, proving again and again that he has “the right stuff.” In Houston, a famous fan dancer takes the stage at an enormous Texas barbecue in honor of NASA’s big move. As she performs, the Mercury astronauts and their wives look on, a little sad, a little awed. They begin to look at each other, too, recognizing that the world has changed immeasurably in just a few years; they were nobody test pilots, and now some of them have been in space and all of them are among the most famous and admired men in America. The dance continues. “Clair de Lune” plays on, mournful and unpretentious compared to the synth-heavy marches that populate Bill Conti’s marvelous score. And then we return to Yeager, a man never considered for the space program and who wouldn’t have joined if he were. He can see through the glass, reflecting in his visor, the very edge of space, and his eyes open wide to take in the sight. The movie continues from there, including a fiery crash and a goofy little moment for Gordo Cooper, But it’s a sign of Kaufman’s ability to wed two pieces of the same narrative with incredible technical and emotional force in this underappreciated movie, one that is sarcastic and hilarious and moving and awe-inspiring.
48) Titanic, 70th Academy Awards, directed by James Cameron
What should have won: The Full Monty
Worth noting: L.A. Confidential is far too smug for its own good, but it is a great cop movie.
Everyone with a movie blog must have a few movies they find difficult to write about because it’s hard to separate feeling from analysis. I bet those people have a hard time figuring out how to write about their favorite movies. It’s not that simple for me, because I know that Titanic is smoke, mirrors, and projection, because I don’t even like Titanic that much, and yet every few months I get this urge to pop my DVD in and watch a movie I basically know by heart. I congratulate it for a framing device that’s fairly bold—imagine going to a studio executive and saying, “I’d like to make a basic teen romance, and I need enough money to buy a small European country to do it so it can be set on the Titanic”—but there are literally no surprises in this movie. Every beat is a beat we have seen or felt somewhere before in some other story, and at no point does Titanic play with those conventions in an interesting way. Girl is engaged against her will, boy sees disenchanted girl, boy falls for girl, girl falls for boy, boy and girl must fight to love each other, car sex, boy sacrifices self. I just don’t understand why it works on people, including me, and I don’t understand how it’s worked on people for twenty years now. If I had to choose something, I would chalk it up to the special effects, which are holding up pretty well, James Horner’s very James Horner score, and the unholy charisma of young DiCaprio. Kate Winslet acts her part better, which could be the subtitle to her memoirs, but Leonardo DiCaprio puts his hooks into us with that smile, a combination of aw-shucks amiability and inviting sexuality. The only male romantic performance I feel comfortable comparing him to is Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, not because the two of them are working out of the same toolbox but because they just work on everybody. Titanic is a middle-of-the-road Best Picture, but there are only a handful of its peers which are so embarrassingly rewatchable.
The Full Monty is about as far away from Titanic as it gets, sort of the Platonic ideal of Hollywood puissance against indie magic. At its heart, it’s probably about as corny as Titanic, too; a divorced Sheffield father who can’t seem to get on his feet again after getting laid off decides to enter the lucrative world of male stripping in order to maintain visitation with his son. That’s cheesy. It’s also a surprisingly big heart. Robert Carlyle, Mark Addy, and Tom Wilkinson play three losers who have all but lost hope. Gaz is this close to losing contact with his son, who he genuinely loves and wants the best for; Dave is overweight and scared that his wife, Jean, has lost interest in him; Gerald, a former supervisor at the factor, has been out of work six months and still hasn’t broken the news to his wife. Practicing a pretty shady excuse for a striptease—aided by the promise of nudity, i.e. “the Full Monty,” which needs to get its due as an unequaled euphemism—gives them a purpose. Gaz showcases more initiative for this venture than he’s done for probably anything else in his life, where Gerald, who has the experience of dance classes, tries to turn himself into a choreographer. It’s a movie which is willing to throw its hat in the ring for serious issues, as it begins with a promotional video for Sheffield from the ’70s and then immediately shows us the wreck of a factory in the present day. It’s also a movie that is totally willing to have two grown men make garden gnomes fight each other, à la Punch and Judy, in order to distract another grown man during a job interview. It is a movie that makes the flying belt of a male stripper into a potentially dangerous search-and-destroy missile for the eyes of other male strippers. It is a movie which shows us a person trying to kill himself, objecting to being rescued, and then banging on the door of his car when he’s shut in with the carbon monoxide. In short, The Full Monty is just dangerously funny. It may not be as grandiose as Titanic, but it’s a more discrete skill for sure.
47) All the King’s Men, 22nd Academy Awards, directed by Robert Rossen
What should have won: A Letter to Three Wives
Worth noting: Battleground feels muddled every now and again, but it’s not scared to let its soldiers, fighting the unexpected fight at the Battle of the Bulge, show their fear.
The best scene in All the King’s Men is the one that the movie needs most. Willie Stark, a candidate for governor intended to split the rural vote to benefit the other man, gets wise to how he’s being used only after he’s told by a political operator, Sadie Burke, that he’s been taken for a ride. The result is a night of drinking for a man unused to liquor, and when he gets up on stage to make his stump speech, still reeling from his first hangover, he ends up breathing fire. He excoriates everyone, mostly himself, although he does not spare the fat men in short ties who convinced him to run nor the “hicks” like him listening to his speech. His voice is newly rough, a great change from the pleasant rumble he used in his home. At the end of this long, improvised speech, he gives the hicks some free advice:
Well, I’m standin’ right here now on my hind legs. Even a dog can learn to do that. Are you standin’ on your hind legs? Have you learned to do that much yet? Here it is! Here it is, ya hicks! Nail up anybody who stands in your way!
They don’t take that advice until the next election cycle, but when they do, it propels Willie Stark to the governor’s mansion, and the Stark they send is not the do-gooder self-trained lawyer who thought he could change a basically honest system. Like a tiger that has tasted human flesh and decided it likes that, Willie knows what winning is like. His basic inclinations are still noble—the centerpiece of his platform is a state of the art hospital which will treat any citizen of the state for free—but his means are those of a dictator, and his cult of personality is a dangerous tumor on the health of the state. The movie is never as good again after Stark takes the governorship, and unfortunately that condemns most of the movie to B- territory. Maybe it knows that Stark must be felled with the swiftness with which he rose, and it’s just putting off the inevitable. Or, more prosaically, John Ireland is just the wrong guy for Jack Burden, the conflicted narrator of the piece. Compared to Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge and even Joanne Dru, who leap into their mucky characters, Ireland plays Jack as a man so conflicted that he appears quietly bewildered. He is the hole in what is otherwise a very strong cast.
A Letter to Three Wives isn’t without its own dead zone; the Linda Darnell/Paul Douglas section may not actually be longer than the Jeanne Crain or the Ann Sothern sections, but it certainly feels that way because “working-class girl and rich businessman fight their feelings but fall in love anyway” is a plot I know they had squeezed the juice out of before 1949. And yet that plot doesn’t have to carry the movie, because there is an otherwise brisk and whipsmart episodic element to A Letter to Three Wives which makes it one of the most compelling American movies of the 1940s. It is willing to zero in on the small stakes of suburban life after the war without making a big song-and-dance out of the world around the characters. There’s no monologue telling us that the problems of three bourgeois housewives aren’t worth a hill of beans in this crazy world, because for better or worse our lives fill us up far more than the march of history outside it. The person who cuts us off in traffic has more power to harm us than the leader of a foreign country, a fact that A Letter to Three Wives knows instinctively and rushes to put into action. An ugly dress, a smashed record, and a picture on the piano become incredibly significant objects because the movie imbues them with that power. Each one puts the fear of Addie Ross, the icon of feminine grace and beauty in this happy whitebread town, into three wives who are desperately afraid that they don’t measure up to the queen bee. A Letter to Three Wives is a basically sensitive movie; it appreciates that what most ’40s husbands were inclined to call the silliness of their wives (or worse, somehow, the “frailty of women”) is not silly at all when a person’s entire self is wrapped up in such a world. If Deborah, Rita, or Lora Mae were to lose her husband, it would smash up her life beyond repair, and yet each one of them feels powerless to hold these men who live in a world so different from their own. The ending of the movie doesn’t sing, but what matters most happened in flashbacks years ago.
46) Hamlet, 21st Academy Awards, directed by Laurence Olivier
What should have won: The Red Shoes
Worth noting: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre might be a more popular choice for “should of” than The Red Shoes, and for me it really can’t get closer than the difference between these two pictures.
I feel like Patricia Lockwood tweeting the Paris Review saying this, but yeah, Laurence Olivier is a good Hamlet. If it weren’t for the unabridged Kenneth Branagh Hamlet, this would probably be the best one in English. The cuts to the original text are substantial—don’t wait around for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in this movie, for example—but the through line of the drama remains intact to real effect. The acting is strong all the way through, obviously, and as always there are some big names in small roles (Esmond Knight and Stanley Holloway show up about where you’d expect, but a pre-fame Peter Cushing is absolutely unrecognizable as Osric). There’s a good fencing match between Olivier and Terence Morgan, which is more cathartic in its activity (and intelligently so) than one usually gets. But what is shocking about Hamlet is how expressionistic Olivier is as a director, beginning with the sets which are just huge and, for the most part, geometrically spare; the ramparts of Elsinore are boxy, instantly recognizable, and somehow modern in the offing. Then there are the ridiculous close-ups he’s willing to engage in, perhaps knowing that his face can take the scrutiny. The black-and-white photography is purposeful—during the war Olivier made Henry V in color—and it’s absolutely the right choice. Every play is tough to adapt as a movie, and there may not be a play harder to do that with than Shakespeare’s talkiest, lengthiest entry. Nothing can save “To be or not to be” and its ilk from being a little dull on screen, but Olivier finds ways to incorporate voiceovers well, to incorporate an epistolary sea battle with the real McCoy, to make a genuinely unsettling ghost. The issue with Hamlet is that not only isn’t it the best movie of 1948 by a long shot, it’s not even the best British movie of the year. That honor goes, with a bullet, to The Red Shoes.
“Obsession” is a sexy buzzword for movies anymore—Zodiac is getting reevaluated largely on this basis—but any list of great movies about obsession must begin with The Red Shoes. Boris Lermontov and Vicky Page are made for each other, a fact made clear at their inauspicious first meeting when the impresario accidentally reveals to the dancer that he has scuttled her performance at a party. Why do you live? Vicky asks Lermontov. Because I must? he replies, and there is a quizzical note in his response that implies he does not quite understand where this line of questioning is going. That’s my answer too, Vicky responds, and it’s clear that she dances because some force propels her forward. It is no wonder that Lermontov falls in love with her, especially once he sees how she makes The Red Shoes into the Ballet Lermontov’s finest original offering. Vicky falls in love with the ballet’s resident composer and, knowing Boris’ policy about marriage and dancers, quits. Neither one can live from then on. The red shoes take Vicky, as we all knew they must, but it’s the change in Boris which is most powerful. In one scene, he smashes the mirror he is looking into in a shot that I’ve never seen adequately replicated anywhere else. His own life is poisoned when Vicky is away from him, but he has no choice: he must continue living. Black Narcissus is more beautiful, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is probably more thematically rich. But none of the pictures of the Archers’ absurdly impressive run in the 1940s have the trifecta that The Red Shoes accomplishes: it gets you in the gut, the heart, and right between the eyes.