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!
30) From Here to Eternity, 26th Academy Awards, directed by Fred Zinnemann
What should have won: Shane
Worth noting: There’s not another strong contender from this ceremony, although some of you out there must be in favor of Roman Holiday.
Towards the end of the film, our two couples in From Here to Eternity are having eerily similar conversations. Warden and Karen are fighting because Milt never put in his application to be an officer, which would be his ticket away from his superior and Karen’s husband, Dana Holmes. Later on, as news of the attack on Pearl Harbor has come through and Prewitt, badly wounded but obstinate as ever, has decided to return to the base, Alma about loses her mind. What has the army ever done for you? she cries. What did it ever do but treat you like garbage? Warden and Prewitt are different men, but the army has profound meaning to both of them. I couldn’t be an officer, Warden tells Karen, not after having seen how awful they are as a species. I love the army, Prew tells Alma. I’m a thirty-year man. The army, and the career they’ve built in the army, has given both men a meaning in their lives which anchors them. Warden is referred to by one character as “the best soldier I’ve ever seen.” Prewitt, who is AWOL for days after having killed the local sergeant of the stockade in a knife fight, has only that one sin as a soldier on his dossier. Otherwise, he stands up to his own standards of morality while never disobeying an order made to humiliate or break him for maintaining those standards. Being a soldier in From Here to Eternity is a sucker’s game, and the men understand it. The unofficial theme song of the film is “Reenlistment Blues,” which is played so frequently that it appears to be the only song besides “Taps” that’s made its way to Hawaii by 1941. While the movie, in the end, comes down pretty solidly on the side of believing in the army’s ability to make men and provide a potentially lifelong purpose, it still gives more of its runtime to what’s badly wrong with the military life.
Shane is an unusual movie because some of it is truly exceptional and some of it is really unlikable, and I can’t think of many other movies that are polarizing within themselves. Brandon deWilde plays Joey, the one child in this movie, and Joey is difficult to stomach even for those of us inclined to tolerate child actors from the ’50s. Not only is Joey one of the whiniest little munchkins to ever smear the screen, I’m not really sure what function his character is meant to have other than for us to open ourselves up to the godlike Shane. I don’t think we need the help! This is Alan Ladd next to Van Heflin at his least hair plugs, and I’m pretty sure we would have barnacled ourselves to the gunslinger who knows that God has given him a terrible advantage over other men. Shane may not like to shoot anymore, but there’s a great barroom brawl in this movie that may not be equaled until Frank Vincent tells Joe Pesci to go home and get his fucking shinebox. In his first encounter with the frontier gangsters, Shane holds in his temper when one of them sneers at his soda pop (for Joey, of course) and throws his drink on the newcomer. (That man is played by Ben Johnson, of all people, who we’ll meet again later in this post.) On his next trip to town, Shane orders two drinks: the first goes on Calloway just as Calloway’s went on his, but the second goes right in Calloway’s face. It’s in scenes like this—wonderfully choreographed, in beautiful color, and charged with action—that we get the measure of the taciturn stranger, and those scenes outweigh Joey, and From Here to Eternity, in my calculus.
29) Chariots of Fire, 54th Academy Awards, directed by Hugh Hudson
What should have won: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Worth noting: Reds is, as I am so fond of saying, ninety minutes of one of the best movies I’ve ever seen and ninety minutes of forgettable falling action. I still would have taken it for Best Picture that year.
Even in 1982, when Chariots of Fire won Best Picture, my understanding is that it was a surprise. It is not a particularly deep movie, nor is it filmed in an exceptional manner. (Hudson’s direction is very good, and there are moments where he chooses slow-motion or a different perspective than one would expect; he also isn’t rewriting any textbooks with this movie.) Compared to the enormous star power of the movies it went up against, this is basically a movie of British character actors who had been culled from stage and supporting screen roles. The biggest names are John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson, who have minor antagonistic roles. What Chariots of Fire has going for it is twofold. First off, it has a basically perfect score, and I really don’t think I can overstate how important Vangelis is to this movie. Aside from the theme, which I’ve linked to below because why wouldn’t I, the rest of the soundtrack fills the movie with buzzes and synth yawns and beautiful melodies all the same. Vangelis’ music emphasizes the agony of God’s displeasure as well as the thrill of God’s approval, both of which the principals must face up to.
The other thing Chariots of Fire does well is its solid grasp of religious identity and how it changes the adherent. Neither Harold Abrahams nor Eric Liddell have much of an imprint on history, relatively speaking, but the film manages to find great power within them by seeing them through religious lenses. Abrahams seems largely indifferent to his own Jewish background, although no one else returns the favor. For him, the only god is victory and the only way he sees to worshiping this distant, forbidding deity is through running. His devotion to that god is greater than anyone else’s, in the end; in a time when amateurism was unironically prized, he stretches the definition of the word to its limits by training with a professional coach. Religion, even if it’s self-made, can be obsessive. Or it can be unpretentious and serious, as Eric Liddell’s interpretation of faith is. It follows the rules scrupulously; it also takes joy in itself, as when Eric tells his sister that God made him fast and thus, he rejoices in it. Both Harold and Eric live by religious codes which makes them kooky to more neutral observers, but they only ever have to make sense to the faithful.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is another movie about religion, in its very unusual way, even if Indiana Jones himself dismisses the occult aspects of the Ark when Brody wonders openly if it’s something which oughtn’t to be looked for at all (Indy uses the word “bogeyman”). In the end, it turns out that all of Indiana’s troubles in trying to find the Ark before the Nazis, stealing it back from the Nazis, and so on, were basically pointless. In recent years this has become a fairly loud critique of the film, although I don’t see it as a problem at all. Indiana Jones is bailed out by the bogeyman, and as unsatisfying as that must feel to some moviegoers who want their heroes to have all the right counters to all the evildoers, I can’t help but like it. What happens in the end—Indiana wants something very badly, fights for it to come true, and comes up short when God intervenes—is essentially what one might call an answer to prayer. There’s an unexpected humility in those final scenes which argue that the power outside oneself is where most of the solutions lie. Also: if Indiana Jones won the Ark back in a shootout or something similarly prosaic, there would be way fewer Nazis getting their faces melted off, and that’s just unacceptable.
28) It Happened One Night, 7th Academy Awards, directed by Frank Capra
What should have won: Chalk, I’d say.
Worth noting: The Barretts of Wimpole Street deserves more attention than it gets anymore, but it’s too static and talky to compare to It Happened One Night.
For more than forty years, It Happened One Night was the only movie to win Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay at the Oscars. What I find really wonderful about this movie, more than its awards tally, is how lived-in it feels. For a movie from the early 1930s, even once sound was the rule and not the exception, It Happened One Night manages to cleverly work around its microphones and rambles around effervescently. Trap Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in a little room together? Just fine: the two of them fill the room with their frantic running about, Gable’s prurient manner of getting dressed, a blanket (“the walls of Jericho”) to partition man and woman, and enough breakfast bickering to fill a season’s worth of sitcom. Somehow this works even better on a bus, where there really isn’t anywhere to go, and yet Capra and Robert Riskin decide to have a singalong to pass the time, or a hilariously forward seatmate for Ellie, and in either event it’s goofy enough to want more. Alas, nothing gold can stay, and the end of the movie—where Peter must contend with the belief that Ellie is going to her fiance after he’s fallen for her, and Ellie must run away from her wedding day—is sort of a letdown after the sheer calamity of the opening salvos. All the same, it remains a fun movie after eighty-five years or so, and it’s one of Capra’s best all-around efforts.
I wanted to put The Barretts of Wimpole Street above It Happened One Night, but in the end I couldn’t pull the trigger. For one thing, I’m not sure it’s significantly better than The Thin Man or the original Imitation of Life, both released in 1934 and nominated for Best Picture. For another, there really is something electric and exciting about the sheer energy of It Happened One Night, which at its apex lives at a blistering pace. Barretts, unfortunately, features Norma Shearer as a basically immobile Elizabeth Barrett, which of course the real woman was, but it does place a lot of conversations in a single room while Elizabeth lays down and whichever gentleman is in the room is just sort of near her. Fredric March is a very active Robert Browning, though the part doesn’t suit him particularly well, and he may be the only miscast person in the film. Charles Laughton, on the other hand, does the best acting of anyone in either It Happened One Night or Barretts. As Edward Barrett, Elizabeth’s father, he is the strictest martinet and the most passive-aggressive manipulator, ramrod straight in posture; he outdoes a soldier in a similar pose at one point in the movie. He has forbidden any of his children to marry, which seems a little ridiculous, but it turns out that he does so out of an unexpected beneficent impulse; this moral and unbending man believes himself to be a sex addict, although no one uses words half so indelicate, and he refuses to allow any of his children to follow in that unhappy mold. It’s a shocking moment for the film, but there’s not enough power diffused through the rest of the movie to topple It Happened One Night.
27) Schindler’s List, 66th Academy Awards, directed by Steven Spielberg
What should have won: The Piano
Worth noting: The Remains of the Day is one of the great movies ever made…so is The Piano. This one is tough! And it hurts my feelings!
1993 was such a year for English-language cinema, filled to the brim with a diverse set of fascinating movies from aging directors feeling out their maturity as well as exciting entries from directors who would become household names themselves. Here are the Best Picture nominees from the 66th Academy Awards, from largest number of nominations to smallest: Schindler’s List, The Piano, The Remains of the Day, In the Name of the Father, The Fugitive. If I were to redo that Best Picture slate, it would look more like: Short Cuts, The Piano, Naked, The Remains of the Day, Jurassic Park. Even so, that leaves out not just the aforementioned movies but strong contributions like The Age of Innocence, Dazed and Confused, Sleepless in Seattle, Groundhog Day, Philadelphia, Shadowlands, Gettysburg, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Orlando. And somehow Schindler’s List won Best Picture, and Steven Spielberg won Best Director; if the Academy took a vote right now, I would bet a whole lotta M&M’s that Schindler’s List would win again.
As a movie, Schindler’s List does enormously well. I would place Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes’ performances at the very top of the performances Spielberg has elicited from his actors. I’ve written before that Schindler’s List is a completely unforgettable movie, which is one of the most important qualities than any flick can aspire to. It has one of the better scores of the year, though I’d place it below Jurassic Park, The Piano, The Age of Innocence, and perhaps even the heavily curated mixtape of Dazed and Confused. I think Janusz Kaminski’s black and white photography is needless and showoffish, especially when a girl in a red jacket appears to blow the illusion off the relative colorlessness of the film, but there’s no denying its technique. There’s greatness in Schindler’s List, but there is a tear in the fabric that lets all the cold wind inside, and one that cannot be fixed simply by patching up the coat at that. Its portrayal of the Holocaust is simply too gentle and optimistic. The rescue of the Schindler women from the death camps is a great relief for the audience, and of course it ought to be. But it brings the internal logic of a fairy tale far too close to the Holocaust, which deserves more seriousness and gravity than Schindler’s List is willing to give it.
The Piano is a superior movie to Schindler’s List because it beats Schindler’s List on its own turf. Kaminski won Best Cinematography, but it cannot compare to the gritty, overpowering blues of The Piano. Schindler’s List won John Williams Best Original Score, but that score doesn’t have any piece of music as ghostly and rich as “The Heart Seeks Pleasure First,” Michael Nyman’s theme for the film. As good as Neeson and Fiennes and Ben Kingsley are, they fall short of Harvey Keitel in a surprisingly good performance, Sam Neill in a surprisingly evil one, and Holly Hunter in what is probably the finest acting performance of the decade. I draw the line at saying Jane Campion should have won Best Director—Robert Altman for Short Cuts was still out there, after all—but I would absolutely take her work on The Piano over Spielberg’s in Schindler’s List because she’s made a movie that is every bit as indelible as Schindler’s List. The Piano is so adroit with its plot, barring one significant flaw that brings about the denouement, and that plot is surrounded with great density. The sexual politics of Ada’s interactions with Alasdair and Baines are intriguing and vital; her relationship with her daughter, as well as her in-laws, forces us to consider the relationships women have with one another as well as the ways that women are impressed upon to force other women to conform. The lush rainy setting fills the whole world with mud that must be a part of everyone’s sheets and socks and tablecloths at all times. And at the center of it all is this piano, wonderful and symbolic and utterly out of place.
26) The French Connection, 44th Academy Awards
What should have won: The Last Picture Show
Worth noting: Remember when I said that I couldn’t believe Dr. Strangelove was nominated for Best Picture? Should have saved that for A Clockwork Orange.
The French Connection is never a movie that was fun, per se. It’s suspenseful, sure, and I’ll get fired if I don’t mention the scene where Popeye obliterates a regular joe’s car in an attempt to keep up with a gangster who has hijacked a train. But these scenes are few and far between in the film, which I don’t even think is a problem. This movie isn’t “fun” because too much of this movie ice skates on whatever frozen (and probably carcinogenic) amalgamation polluted the sidewalks of ’70s New York. It isn’t Miami or Los Angeles or some other sunlit fantasy land where you can substitute pleasure for work. There is nothing else for Popeye Doyle but his work, and in his exact time and place that makes him a maniac. The relationship between Doyle and Charnier is not unlike that between an unrequited lover and his intended, although Charnier is all the worse as a target because he works to make Doyle’s obsession with him absolutely foolish. (In Cloudy, his partner and good friend, we even get a sidekick who can encourage his buddy to knock it off and fall in love with someone who will have him. As it usually happens in this sort of movie, Cloudy’s good sense is rejected.) It spurs Doyle on, makes him increasingly reckless, turning a cop who was already irresponsible into one who is positively trigger-happy. Watching him lose what little self-control he had left is compelling, certainly, but it isn’t entertaining. If it were, the movie would lose whatever heft it has.
While The French Connection was hardly a bad selection for Best Picture, The Last Picture Show was almost certainly a more deserving winner. Unlike Schindler’s List, which refuses to commit to its photography choice and thus cheapens the effect of the “timeless” black and white, The Last Picture Show feels like a movie which could only have been black and white. Even though it is set just twenty years in the contemporary past, the distance between 1951 and 1971 in America could fill a century of history, and yet the people of 1950s Anarene live more or less like one would expect people in a 1970s Anarene would. There is extinction in the air; you can smell it when the old-timers harangue Sonny about the high school football team’s poor performance, and how if Sonny lives like they do he will undoubtedly harass some whipper-snapper about the high school football team in 1990. From the get-go, Bogdanovich makes this place look like the surface of Mars, windswept and ugly and cold. There is some romance, albeit a toxic one, in the collection of teenagers who swim nekkid together in an indoor pool, or perhaps in the kind and pathetic way that Sonny and Ruth cling to each other despite their age difference and the incredible scandal that would result if it came out that a player was cuckolding his coach. In The Last Picture Show, people cling to things because there is precious little else to hold onto. Jacy clings to the idea of being the prize girl of this little section of Texas; Duane clings to the idea of being able to hold her; only Sam the Lion lets go, and he only gets off the hook because he dies. At its best, The Last Picture Show knows something about how regular hopeless folks live, and does not try too hard to make a Hollywood story out of it.
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