In the latest edition of our conversations, Matt and I bring friend and former roommate of the podcast Josh aboard to talk about my recently completed “Better than the Oscars” project. We did chat about it, though we predictably spread the conversation a little wider than my ranking and write-ups. What follows is a lightly edited conversation.
Tim: It is a very exciting occasion here at the Conversations…desk? I dunno what the verbiage is here. For the first time, Matt and I are going to do some extra crowding of an already crowded medium with our friend and only podcast guest, Josh.
Matt: Say hi, Josh.
Tim: It’s sort of early for a couple of us, but the excitement is there, I promise.
Today our subject is awkwardly personal. It’s summer, which means that for me it’s time for some movie-related ranking and writing project, and I’ve just finished the “Better than the Oscars” series which makes a goal of ranking all the actual Best Picture winners and then choosing which movie from the nominated field should have won. I haven’t had to explain the ground rules in a hot minute, so this feels a little odd to me, but I do want to emphasize that when I pick a “should have won,” it’s not the movie I think is the best picture of the entire year necessarily. It is the one that’s the best out of the five or ten or eight movies that were nominated for that prize. And I guess unless y’all have some questions about the way this is set up (though this project is definitely more straightforward than last year’s), maybe this is a good time to talk about what we mean when we talk about “Best Picture.”
Matt: I have one question right quick that I think is worth clarifying. I think I got to the answer after I started reading the series but it took me a minute to figure out. You’re ranking based on the “What Should Have Won” category, whether it’s the same or a different movie, and not how big the disparity between “What Should Have” and “What Did,” right? I’m pretty sure the former, but I wasn’t positive several weeks ago and maybe someone else like me (an idiot) might get caught there.
Josh: I thought it was being ranked on the worst to best “What Did”
Matt: A third option! I am an idiot!
Josh: Like, Tim hates Crash, and so it’s the last one. Lowest ranking.
Tim: Josh is right about how the list is ordered, and he’s right about my feelings for Crash, too, so I’d say twenty points for Gryffindor. I am glad this is coming up because I knew it was slightly vague. But yes, the ranking is for Best Picture winners solely, and something I’m thinking about arranging in a list form is a quickie “Best Should Have Picture,” where Brokeback Mountain is way higher than 90th.
Josh: I think according to Pottermore I’m a Ravenclaw…
Matt: You’re probably a Gryffindor.
Tim: I knew as I said the meme there would be an inaccuracy in the house. But yeah, the simplest interpretation of the ranking is the winner. Ranking by disparity sounds absolutely demented and I almost want to go do it now.
Josh: That’s because you’re crazy and trying to ignore the fact that work starts back way too soon.
Matt: Disparity! Do it!
What if I tried this with the Grammys? I reckon I would die.
Tim: That one makes my brain hurt.
Matt: Anyway, more logistics we need to cover?
Josh: I’m set on logistics
Tim: I think that was the big one! And I’m going to answer my own question from up top, although I think it more or less goes without saying. The Oscars may occasionally nominate movies from countries where English is not the primary or official language, but really they are for movies from the United States, the United Kingdom, and I guess Canada, though offhand I can’t think of any Canadian movie nominated outside the Foreign Language category. Australia too. Sometimes they will muddy their own waters by nominating a movie from a foreign country, and in doing this project I was surprised at how many movies have been nominated for something like Cinematography or Adapted Screenplay which aren’t Anglo-American. But like, some people care very much about the words “Best Picture” and then we have to talk about why A Separation didn’t win in 2011 or something like that, and I just want to say that Best Picture, to the Academy, means Anglo-American and if rest of the English-speaking Commonwealth wants to play, they can.
Matt: They really need to admit they mean Anglophone.
Tim: They mean Anglophone and then they nominated Amour for Best Picture less than a decade ago, and it’s just so confusing.
Josh: Out of curiosity, how many of the films on this list are made by predominantly people of color? Either American or any other nationality?
Tim: Out of the Best Picture winners, Josh, or out of the fields I was working with?
Josh: Best Picture nominees
Tim: It’s small. Vanishingly small. And overwhelmingly African-American or, in the case of Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Daniel Kaluuya, Black British.
Josh: That was my thinking. Any Latino American films? Or Asian American films?
Tim: For the former, you have in recent years Best Director wins by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Alfonso Cuaron, and Guillermo del Toro, who are all Mexican, and there’s been a fair bit of press about that. (Worth noting that out of the four Best Director wins they have, two of them have won Best Picture, which is historically low but also not weird at all given the tack of the past ten ceremonies or so.) Ang Lee is…oof, I don’t want to say he’s the only person of Asian descent to win Best Director. I’d have to look that up.
Matt: I think he might be though…
Tim: He is, just looked. And historically, Asian-Americans or Asians show up when you’re making a film about World War II, in which case you have many Japanese actors. Hollywood has also been fairly interested in Japanese directors. Kurosawa did very well at the Oscars all things considered, and I just reminded myself that Hiroshi Teshigahara was nominated for Best Director for Woman in the Dunes fifty-odd years ago, and I would have loved to see that movie beat The Sound of Music for Best Picture. (It wasn’t nominated.) To go a long way around answering your question, Josh, you probably have a better chance to be nominated for or win Oscars if you’re a person of color if you’re not American.
Josh: And then of course the people we’ve brought up here have been all directors. If we were to narrow the field to, say, films in which director, screenwriter, majority of cast, and maybe producers were all people of color? Would there be any films on the list?
Tim: All? No, definitely not.
Josh: Moonlight sticks out in my mind, as does 12 Years a Slave, as being close.
Tim: Moonlight has the cast and the creative team, but the producers were white, as I recall. Though Moonlight definitely comes about as close as any winner in history to having that kind of makeup.
Josh: Cool. I was just curious as to what the Best Picture landscape looked like from that angle, and you know more about these things, so I don’t have to look it up if I just ask here.
Tim: Lol. What you’ve said reminds me of something that I learned about while I was looking stuff up while I was writing my Gandhi bit. Every white British director wanted to make that movie. I don’t mean everyone in the ‘80s was clamoring for it, but that Gandhi had been a serious interest for most of them going back to the 1950s. There are a lot of Oscar movies which are really interested in race, or colonialism, or any number of related issues. But they are largely produced, directed, and/or written by white people, for sure. Not to pile on Emma Stone because I know she got flak for it when it happened, but that was a reason why her highlighting of Greta Gerwig for Best Director felt odd to me at the last Oscars…I absolutely understand why Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson are business as usual, but Jordan Peele and Guillermo del Toro are exceptions to years of exclusionist history in their own right. Stone’s not wrong, but she wasn’t totally right about stuff either.
Josh: That’s another question I was going to get to: Films in which the main creative minds are female. Director, Writers, Cinematographer, what have you. Producers if possible. How many of those are in this Best Picture conversation?
Tim: Director is still limited to Lina Wertmuller, Kathryn Bigelow, and now Greta Gerwig. Cinematography is still just Rachel Morrison, I think. Producers are hard to track for me, though I’d guess there are a lot of movies made since the ‘70s that have multiple producers of whom one is a woman. Maybe that’s too far back. Writers historically tend to be men too, although there are some great women screenwriters who are noteworthy: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is the tops, and she was instrumental in those Merchant and Ivory movies, for example. But the place where women get Oscars short of acting and costuming is for editing.
Matt: …..you stole my point.
Josh: Which point was that?
Tim: There’s an Arrested Development joke I want us all to remember while we’re here. I think Matt is thinking about Prawer Jhabvala.
Matt: Absolutely. To the Arrested Development joke and Jhabvala. Also Thelma Schoonmaker.
Josh: Ok, cool. I’m caught up. Now what’s the joke?
Tim: The one where Tobias is listening to the recording of himself saying ridiculously sexual things in regular conversation and then says, “Tobias…you blowhard!”
Josh: Thanks. I only ever watched the first season, and I’m not sure I finished it. I will one day.
Matt: 20 points from Gryffindor.
Tim: Yeah, Matt is stealing my point now, which is his right. Thelma Schoonmaker has a really good case as the greatest film editor of all time. Film editing wasn’t introduced as a category until the 7th Academy Awards, but Anne Bauchens was one of the first three nominees for it, she won it outright at the 13th, and there are other women who have been winning that for ages. People sort of got used to the idea of women working off the set, for reasons I’m sure we all don’t like, but that’s why editing has probably been as fruitful for women as any other single movie job. Maybe we’ve missed the historical moment where that creates a generation and more of great women directors, but it’s certainly interesting. Also, Josh, how have you not finished at least seasons 2 and 3?
Matt: Defend your honor, Josh.
Josh: I just sort of…stopped watching. I think I got really busy for like a week and never went back to it. I have a few TV series that fall in that category.
Matt: Gob does not approve.
Josh: I don’t approve either.
Matt: Sadly, editing isn’t a category people tend to talk about either. Few people are clamoring over the great editors out there. Which sucks, since that’s where women have tended to make a mark and because that’s really important to the movies!
Tim: Film editors are to film directors as light-hitting up-the-middle infielders are to baseball managers.
Josh: What an analogy.
Matt: I’m here for it.
Tim, I was going to rag on you for not getting P.T.A. another best picture, then I realized The Master wasn’t nominated. Secondly, and related, what are some of the most egregious omissions?
Josh: Was it really not? That surprises me. And I too am interested in that second question.
Tim: So first off, that 85th ceremony was an absolute mess. I think a significant reason people keep saying cinema is dying is because the Oscars are filled to the brim with these forgettable movies, and like, one of the interesting things you find is that the interesting movies are there, but they are down the ballot in some weird category.
Josh: I suppose we will get to examples of this if we ever get around to talking about your list.
Tim: Probably right.
Josh: To postpone that a little longer, though…what do we do with movies that are interesting for their impact on their genre, but simply not “Oscar” type movies. I’m thinking at the moment of John Wick, which sort of changed the action genre. Certainly has impacted every “true action” film made since.
Tim: Josh has acquired the wisdom of the Internet since the last time we talked. Offhand, at least in terms of Best Picture wins/nominations, westerns are high on this list. I think if you count No Country for Old Men as a western, there are five which have won Best Picture and three of them have been in our lifetimes.
Josh. Jeez. Ok, now how about straight action? Shoot-em-up types?
Matt: And what about Shoot ‘Em Up?
Josh: I do love that movie, in a self-indulgent, guilty pleasure, carrot eating way. By which I of course mean that I always think to myself “Man, if I just ate more carrots my eyesight would be so much better.”
Tim: Shoot ‘em ups are sort of rarer, and Shoot ‘Em Up sadly absent, although if you want to incorporate disaster movies as straight action, the ‘70s were just nuts for ‘em. Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, etc. Every now and then you get a picture like The Fugitive that makes some ruckus. Horror movies and romantic comedies don’t get a lot of play, but I do want to mention that The Exorcist was one of the favorites at the 46th Academy Awards and that Annie Hall won the whole shebang at the 50th. Thrillers are probably as underrepresented as any—thinking about Vertigo specifically—but Rebecca, if that counts, won at the 13th, Silence of the Lambs is famous for winning with style, and so on.
Josh: See, that’s the kind of broad analysis I like.
Tim: Maybe I should start some Wikipedia pages. The lesson is that if people recognize that a movie is exploding a genre, they’ll nominate it. Get Out is a good example here, actually. The problem is that the Academy has never been good at figuring out when a movie is exploding a genre.
Josh: No one had an immediate response to that, so does that mean we get on with the list?
Tim: We can if y’all would like. I guess this would also speak a little to Matt’s question about egregious misses.
Matt: I would like that.
Tim: So, clarifying: do you mean movies that weren’t nominated at all, or just movies that weren’t on the Best Picture ballot?
Matt: Weren’t on the Best Picture ballot. I’m now interested in what got a goose egg in terms of nominations, but Best Picture is the thing for now. Just for everyone at home, my example, The Master, received three acting nominations and nothing else. I don’t like any movie in the 85th Oscars Best Picture pool more than The Master. A couple are close but not hot on the heels. So situations like that, where a film sticks out to you as absolutely worthy of nomination (if not also the win) and just isn’t there.
Tim: So you have touched on a reason I formatted this list the way I did, which is to say I spent last summer working on a “Best American movies” list and if I went into the past and swapped out nominees I would have done basically the same thing this summer. So I have Life of Pi as the replacement for Argo, but The Master would have been there had it been nominated. The two great historical examples are 2001, which was not nominated in the year Oliver! won (and as I figured out, out of that group of five Oliver! is the best of the bunch) and Vertigo, which wasn’t nominated in the year that Gigi won. Do the Right Thing wasn’t nominated in the year that Driving Miss Daisy won, which, I dunno if the universe gives out middle fingers to people, but if it does that’s the primary case study.
Matt: I forgot about that one. Woof.
Tim: It’s really bad.
Josh: Can I just interject: a) I agree, that’s bad, and b) I appreciate how many times “woof” and “oof” show up both in Tim’s writeups and in this conversation. That’s all.
Tim: “Woof” is a favorite of mine…sort of implies to me that human language is insufficient.
Matt: My ears literally perked up at the thought of talking about the insufficiency of language.
Josh: Which is apt, since the human ears ability to “perk up” is an evolutionary holdover from when we had mobile ears, as a dog does. Full Circle! Back to movies now.
Tim: The Searchers wasn’t nominated. Hitchcock didn’t get a Best Picture nomination for any of his movies after the ‘40s, which is when most of us would say they started to get good. Chaplin is basically absent, which, yes, because his heyday is before the Oscars, but Modern Times and especially City Lights would have been welcome. Mulholland Drive is nowhere to be found…
Matt: Has a Lynch film ever been nominated? No, right?
Tim: Pretty sure The Elephant Man was.
Matt: Ah, right.
Tim: Which is in its own way the weirdest Lynch movie to nominate for Best Picture.
Matt: If, by fiat, you got to go back and nominate a film in any year to win which would it be? I’m sort of hoping for a personal favorite here rather than a “duh” moment like 2001, but I won’t actually stop you from the latter.
Tim: This is a twofer for what I wanted to mention, actually, so let’s go with this. If you go back into the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, the movies that everyone remembers are definitely not synonymous with Best Picture nominees. I would love to go back to the 6th Academy Awards, where the ambitious-then, forgettable-now Cavalcade won, and give that Best Picture win to Duck Soup.
Matt: You would pick a musical. Not that I don’t like the choice.
Tim: Ain’t picking it because it’s got the songs. Though honestly any movie that has the lyric “All God’s chillun got guns” deserves immortality.
Josh: Hot take: NRA’s new slogan: “All God’s chillun got guns”
Matt: I’m convinced it would be already if those people watched the Marx Brothers.
Tim: Oh, also now that we’re thinking of musicals, Topsy-Turvy wasn’t nominated at the 72nd Academy Awards, and that movie is not only one of my all time favorites but is about a million times better than American Beauty.
Josh: I noticed you really don’t like American Beauty. I mean, not Crash levels, but still.
Tim: In my write-up, I said it was a “movie of the moment” in the sense that once its historical moment was over it no longer mattered or had any sort of interest. I would encourage anyone reading this who hasn’t seen American Beauty in a few years to either a) never see it again or b) rewatch it, but think about how vapid you would think these people and their problems were if they were doing it two years after 9/11 instead of two years before.
What else do you all have in mind? This is en route to be the shortest conversation we have ever had despite the addition of a buddy.
Josh: It’s already 6 pages…and we haven’t really talked about your list at all.
Tim: This is an excellent point…six pages tends to be the warmup. I want to come clean and say that despite my best efforts, I have still not seen…Wings, The Broadway Melody of 1929, Cimarron, The Great Ziegfeld, and Around the World in 80 Days. Broadway Melody and Cimarron are not very available at all. And I’m absolutely not going to pretend I’ve seen all the nominees. But part of the reason this list took a long time for me to punch out in terms of writing relative to the list I did last year is because you don’t want to miss a movie from the nominees if you can find it somewhere…I spent ages with that 1949 ballot before I finally ran into A Letter to Three Wives, for example, which I think is clearly the cream of the crop among the Best Picture nominees at the 22nd Oscars.
Matt: No Country For Old Men is seventh here. It was, what, 50th on last year’s list?
Tim: On the nose. Though I did try not to be super dogmatic about the list last year, because if you read these two lists literally, I have either dropped Annie Hall a lot or raised The Best Years of Our Lives a lot. But there’s definitely overlap.
Matt: So what’s causing the shift with No Country? I remember talking to you as recently as a year ago and you being super down on that movie. You have There Will Be Blood as the should have won for that year, which yes, but No Country is rising in your ranks and I’m intrigued.
Tim: I dunno that it’s moved a lot for me, honestly. I think the biggest difference here is the context. Like, just looking at the Best Pictures I’ve ranked fifteen to twenty-five, the American ones are probably off the list of 100 or sniffing around in that weird 100-125 area that I hate. If I were to do that list again (and I might in a couple summers), maybe Marty or All About Eve makes a push for the top 100, but I don’t think right now that I would drop No Country all the way off my top 100. I’ll also mention that out of the movies ranked 1-25, I’d qualify…counting…five as British movies and two of them as quintessentially “international” but definitely not American first and foremost.
Matt: You do get Coen’s a win for Fargo, which is right but comes at the expense of a movie I like and desperately wish were better still.
Tim: I think I snuck ‘em a win for A Serious Man too. Before I respond to that, I do want to mention that while No Country is not a movie I’ve shifted a lot on—that’s a hard movie to think about anyway—there are definitely some movies that I’ve watched for the first time or the first time in a long time and have moved on. Rocky was higher than I was going to put it originally. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, I strongly encourage you to watch it like the other ones don’t exist. Marty is an absolute joy, too, and I didn’t have high hopes for that.
Matt: Not to go too inside baseball, but I remember No Country not being on the Better Than AFI list until fairly late in the game.
Tim: You remember my life better than I do. Yeah, No Country replaced the Orson Welles movie Touch of Evil, which is a great movie and which crossed a line of good taste, in my humble opinion, in the way it darkens up Charlton Heston and Marlene Dietrich to play Mexicans/Mexican-Americans. It wasn’t a huge problem in the end, so right now I’d say No Country higher on my standing Better than AFI list than it would be if I did it today, but I think I did the right thing sneaking it in there even via a weird situation. Did you want to talk about The English Patient slash the nicest Oscars?
Matt: Always. I hasten to add Burn After Reading should have been nominated and won at the 81st.
Josh: You think Burn After Reading should have won? I like it, but not winning.
Tim: Milk was the right answer that year if WALL-E isn’t nominated, but Burn After Reading is tremendously underappreciated. It’s one of the only good movies we have about the American security state post-Iraq/Afghanistan.
Matt: If Milk weren’t that year I would have been serious, Josh.
Josh: Hey, to each their own. I do love Brad Pitt’s dancing. And it makes you completely forget about Clooney and Pitt in the Ocean’s movies.
Tim: I think we need to troll Josh more to incorporate him. I think putting English Patient seventeenth is higher than most people would.
Josh: No, I’m just biding my time. I’ll bring Forrest Gump up in a bit. And I agree regarding English Patient.
Tim: Knew you would. I am a great believer in The English Patient’s technical elements. John Seale is a very strong DP, it has a great score, and above all Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas have a wordless, old-fashioned kind of chemistry. Makes me sweat a little just thinking about them. One of the reasons movies from the ‘40s and ‘50s are occasionally quite sexy is because it’s mostly insinuation, which is to say it’s mostly imagination. The English Patient gets that. What I would also like is for The English Patient to do imperialism to the extent that the novel does, but if it did it would be four hours and no one would have seen it and then people like me would have gotten it from the library and written rapturous blogs…I’m liking this alternate history more, actually.
Matt: I love that alternate history. But Fargo is the right answer for that year. I’m hurt that two movies I like so much run into each other like that.
Tim: And that hurts me too because I think Secrets and Lies is just a smidge below Fargo…it’s so close. There are several years in this set of rankings where there were very few movies I cared about at all, and then all three of those squoze together at the 69th Academy Awards.
Matt: That’s sort of what I was hoping this would lead to (after talk of Fargo and Secrets and Lies, if you wish). What were some of hardest years to decide?
Tim: This is a very good question. Here’s a weird one: 55th Academy Awards. The winner that year is Gandhi, which is a good movie. I had the devil’s own time trying to decide between Tootsie and Missing, which is just not a great pair of movies to decide between because you couldn’t have chosen a more different pair. (Unless it’s Annie Hall and Star Wars at the 50th, which I wrote about.) I ended up choosing Missing, but that was a tough call.
Matt: Of course, Tim’s favorite director also has a movie nominated that year.
Tim: It took me a second to figure that one out. Yeah, Spielberg doesn’t come off well in this set of remakes. The guy couldn’t even get Jaws to go because of Nashville standing in the way. Actually, I’m glad that came up because there are a couple of years where I think the Academy picked the absolute worst choice they had out of a list of decent movies. 1975 (48th, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) is on that list. For sheer disparity, 1979 (52nd, Kramer vs. Kramer) has to be mentioned, because the difference between that movie and Apocalypse Now has to be the most vast of any winner-nominee.
Matt: See, you’re on your way to the disparity ranking.
Tim: Here’s another one: the year after. 53rd Academy Awards picks Ordinary People with Raging Bull on the board, famously, but they also could have picked Tess or The Elephant Man or even Coal Miner’s Daughter. Those top two choices were tough for me that year. And one last one: 59th Academy Awards for 1986. Platoon wins, but I had the devil’s own time picking between Hannah and Her Sisters, The Mission, A Room with a View, and Platoon itself.
Matt: Does it follow that the Academy couldn’t keep up with “New Hollywood” then?
Tim: For all the press they got, and for all the nominations they did rack up in terms of acting and directing and so on, the number of great New Hollywood films that won Best Picture does not match, no. And the ones that did get close/win are The Godfather movies, Jaws, The Exorcist, and so on. They’re the ones that made the most money. If you think Star Wars belongs, then throw that on the pile. Aside from that 1971 upset of The French Connection and The Last Picture Show and the 1978 win for The Deer Hunter over Coming Home, where they managed to pick the wrong movie both times, there’s not much for them.
Matt: Speaking of the Godfather films, I was glad to see you didn’t get cute with those years.
Tim: It was so tempting. And my write-ups reflect that, I think…I spent a lot of time talking up Chinatown and Cabaret. Part of that is that no one needs me to tell them why the first two Godfather movies are so good.
Matt: The write ups do reflect that. And Chinatown and Cabaret are movies I would have loved to see win in most other years.
Tim: Coppola probably should have won Best Director for the first one, but my little iconoclastic heart loves that Bob Fosse won Best Director at the 45th. (It is very weird that Cabaret, Lenny, and All That Jazz came out in the same years that Coppola’s four ‘70s movies did.)
Matt: That’s delightfully strange.
Josh: That’s a thematic disparity if nothing else. Also I’m glad we mentioned Apocalypse Now, but I don’t have anything to add other than I love it and it’s the best war movie.
Tim: One of the worst things we can do as neutral observers of the Academy Awards is think of the Academy like it’s fifteen people in a smoke-filled room, which is what happens when people say Eddie Murphy didn’t win for Dreamgirls because the Academy “punished” him for Norbit. But I genuinely think that Apocalypse Now may have lost because all of the press about that movie for multiple years was “It’s going down a Philippines-sized drain” and no movie, not even one of the greatest movies ever made, busts through that much conventional wisdom in a couple months.
Matt: Not to mention all the injuries/illnesses on that set.
Josh: And the fact that Coppola almost killed a couple actors. And Brando showed up looking like an overweight California surfer, who then wanted to kill Dennis Hopper for who knows why exactly, and yeah there was a lot that happened on set that people definitely knew about at the time and shortly afterwards.
Tim: I have an answer to your Dennis Hopper query…at that point in history everyone wanted to kill him. I’m pretty sure that Papa John Phillips threatened to do so around the time Hopper married Michelle Phillips, who of course divorced him eight days later.
Matt: Mark off your bingo square for “Tim mentions the Mamas and the Papas”
Josh: Dennis Hopper unpopularity aside, this Apocalypse Now talk brings me to another somewhat tangential topic that I want to briefly ask your thoughts on. Films that are acclaimed, but in which the cast and/or crew suffered horrendously (or just suffered a lot) in order to produce what we now think of as so great.
Tim: Silent epics are a great way to die if you’re an extra or a stunt man. I’m not sure that there are any movies on the scale of Apocalypse Now which have that issue, but there are certainly some. Ellen Burstyn blames a back injury on being yanked too hard by a special effects guy egged on by Bill Friedkin during The Exorcist. And there are a bunch of cases where people get on set, get sick or get hurt, and then get replaced right quick. Arthur Kennedy plays the journalist in Lawrence of Arabia, but they’d originally cast Edmond O’Brien in the part who came to the desert and promptly had a heart attack.
Josh: Well and I think of Shirley Duvall in The Shining, Janet Leigh in Psycho, any of the craziness that pervaded the sets of most Coppola/Kubrick/Hitchcock films, etc.
Tim: A great many of the great directors are known for being the worst people in the world, especially to the other folks on set. David Lean belongs in this category too. There are ways to be a great director and not to be an absolute sick person, but I think a lot of control freaks get into directing and then have that romanticized for them as “This is how it’s done” and, voila, misogyny.
Josh: So, one movie that may or may not have been nominated, I don’t remember now, which sort of gets into this idea of terrible people bringing out greatness is Whiplash.
Tim: (Nominated for Best Picture at the 87th Oscars, lost to Birdman.)
Josh: The question being whether great musicians would have become truly great if they hadn’t been pushed by mentors who were nuts and horrible. So in a similar vein, would some of these great movies have been great without the antics (and abuse?) of the directors? It’s a depressing question to which the answer should be “abuse isn’t necessary to make a great movie,” but Whiplash takes that question very seriously and makes me start to take it seriously as well. I don’t know that that says about me.
Tim: The way it’s framed in the movie, Fletcher says that the next Charlie Parker “would never be discouraged,” and because I’ve already written about this I’m going to quote myself for efficiency: “By thinking that his methods can only bring a Charlie Parker to the top rather than keeping Charlie Parker from never reaching his potential, he has absolved himself of all wrong-doing…It’s a line of thought that also paints him as an agent of destiny: that a Charlie Parker can be brought out by someone like me, yet will remain undiscouraged by someone like me.” So in other words, no. I think you may not necessarily get what you want if you are more collaborationist in nature—here’s the “control freak” thing again—but there’s also no guarantee that you get what you want by harassing and screaming and abusing. What stands out to me is that a movie set is a workplace, and that no one should be abused anywhere, obviously, but we have laws about it specifically to protect people at their jobs.
That got dark really fast.
My turn to ask questions of the good folks here?
Matt: I say yes.
Tim: That’s a quorum or something.
Josh: I say yes too, so now it’s unanimous.
Tim: Lemme think of a question. Uh…
Tim: So I was trying to think of a way to get there, but let’s put it like this for discussion purposes: What are the movies that I have totally whiffed on?
Josh: So here is where I can bring up Forrest Gump and my other comments. Really just King’s Speech is my other one. And I’ll broaden that to the 80-76 list. Some of these seem particularly low, especially when compared to some of the movies above them. King’s Speech, for example, when set next to Braveheart and Gladiator. Now, you both know of my love for the latter two films, but are they better than King’s Speech? As films? They are certainly way less historically accurate, which I know isn’t a huge deal in weighing the greatness of a film but still!
Matt: (Josh is mentioning historical inaccuracy before he gets to Forrest Gump. I’m excited.)
Josh: As for Forrest Gump, I just love that movie unabashedly, despite what I acknowledge are its many flaws, most of which you covered nicely in your take on it, though with more Baby Boomer hate than I might have included.
Tim: I think my biggest complaint about The King’s Speech is that it’s, I dunno, a mid-2000s Lexus with no engine in it. It looks fine, it has a number of really good performances, but there’s no point to that movie. There are no stakes. Not only is “Will the king of England overcome his stammer for two minutes” not compelling, but this is a historical drama where we’re pretty sure England’s gonna come out of this whole World War II thing, if not in one piece, then definitely on top. It’s a movie that risks absolutely nothing from a perspective of moviemaking, performance, writing, story…
Matt: It’s an incredibly on the nose example of toxic obsession with well-off (royal), powerful, white men. We know how the movie will end and the journey there isn’t compelling. I don’t care how the freaking King of England might struggle. Which I don’t mean to belittle the struggle itself, but that it has to be communicated via that subject.
Tim: To your very good question, Josh, of how it compares to Braveheart and Braveheart II: Gladiator, one of my goals especially in the bottom half, which I think is made up of movies no better than mediocre, if the movie had a skill or a niche somewhere, then that bumped it up. Gladiator has some very good action sequences, and its action sequences are better than Braveheart’s, and that was basically good enough to get it to 69th. Weirdly enough, The King’s Speech actually rose about ten spots in my preliminary rankings to the final ones. And for Gump…I feel like Josh and I understand each other at this point. Tell me if I’m misrepresenting you, but I think you’re more willing to be inspired by a movie than I am. Or more willing to accept that as a central premise of the film than I am.
Josh: I cannot lie, it is true. It’s why I like Gladiator and Braveheart as well. Life is Beautiful is another one I like for that reason. The King’s Speech as well, but that is in part also influenced by my love of history and seeing it presented at least moderately accurately.
Tim: I don’t know if this makes me a less likable person, but I am annoyed by inspirational movies. The first movie that came to mind for me that is inspirational and that I like is Babe.
Josh: Chariots of Fire is pretty high on your list…
Tim: I think Chariots of Fire is very much underrated in its editing, particularly. I think you get serious points for having (deep breath) the second-best movie music ever. It’s got very good performances. And I will always praise a movie that treats religious experience seriously and without histrionics, which I think Chariots of Fire does pretty well. Eric Liddell is something of a broken record, but there’s nothing bogus about his faith. Ian Charleson deserved another fifty years.
Matt, which movies have I done poorly with? Or perhaps merely done wrong?
Matt: I feel like, with the King Speech still in mind, this is the part where I yell Black Swan and then run away.
Tim: (checks original post) I think I did the same thing. Though I made a weirdly specific dig at Trent Reznor via Clint Mansell before I did that.
Matt: I will not abide Clint Mansell or Trent Reznor hate.
Tim: It was about Mansell’s adaptation of the finale of Swan Lake and Reznor’s of “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Very particular.
Matt: The key here is that Tim (probably reasonably) sees the good in The Social Network and I, well, don’t. So I can’t get too worked up about this one, especially since Aronofsky is a special kind of crazy. I’m glad you picked The Full Monty and Dr. Strangelove, etc. I wasn’t sure you would pick either so I had them on my mind. Might I be so bold as to suggest A Clockwork Orange should have won as well?
Tim: The 44th Academy Awards (1971): The French Connection, The Last Picture Show, A Clockwork Orange, Fiddler on the Roof, Nicholas and Alexandra. Excepting that last one, that’s a heck of a field. Josh can attest to Fiddler, as he watched that with me and witnessed all of my joy. I should have mentioned that further up when we were chatting about tough choices…Yeah, I wouldn’t necessarily fight a “Clockwork Orange should have won” take with all that much gusto, though I think Last Picture Show edges it out. Not by a lot, and if they ranked things it’d get my silver medal for that year.
Josh: Did I watch Fiddler with you the first time you ever saw it?
Tim: Oh no. Though it was the first time I’d watched the whole thing through since I was a kid.
Josh: That’s what it was.
Matt: Fiddler on the Roof would have been the fun choice.
Tim: Reader, I thought about it.
Matt: I think I’ve found the year we’d be most stubbornly opposed about, and it’s a disagreement that more or less gives the entry it’s arc. At the 39th ceremony…
Tim: (does that Palpatine face/voice) Good, good!
Matt: A Man for All Seasons and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I hear you in your post, but I put my money on Who’s Afraid (which, I will admit, does probably work better on stage anyway…based on the one staging I’ve seen, at any rate).
Josh: I have no dog in this fight, so have it out you two. Then I’m gonna bring back Social Network for a hot second to ask you both a question.
Tim: The fact that both of those are stage plays first and that I have seen neither is either useful to me reviewing the movies or hampering me. I can’t decide which. There are two movies that stand out to me which I would have called the right Best Picture if not for their last five minutes, and those are Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Lost Weekend. Who’s Afraid has some bleakness in it that reminds of the first few episodes of Mad Men, which are so grim that I had to try to get through them multiple times. It’s a strong bleakness. I like Nichols’ direction, and on the whole I think it’s probably stronger than Zinnemann’s. Who’s Afraid also has an advantage over A Man for All Seasons in that it doesn’t have any dead zones, which A Man for All Seasons has to suffer through. But the reveal at the end of Who’s Afraid is sort of a whimper after all that noise, and A Man for All Seasons saves its powder for its final sequences. Matt, I will say that I am definitely in the minority on A Man for All Seasons, and I doubt very much that other Oscar-rankers have it this high.
Matt: I’m still curious why you think the end of Who’s Afraid is so limp. Maybe I’m bringing too much literary theory to the table when I watch that movie, but to me the ending is powerful for being so quiet yet loaded.
Tim: I mean the bit about the son more than I mean the literal ending, just to clarify my position.
Matt: The bit about not speaking of his existence and George killing him by speaking it?
Tim: Yeah, that. You should tell me why I’m wrong about this.
Matt: It’s sort of a weird ending, or reveal rather, but I embrace the “world as language” implications. That movie is powerful, to me, because it wrestles with how worlds, indeed the whole world, are built and crumble via language and interpretation. That the specific family dynamic might wimper plot wise I’m less worried about.
Tim: I like that too. If I’m going to read the film in that way, though, then I don’t know what to do with the exceptionally physical aspect of the movie which I’ve always thought of as probably its strongest element overall.
Matt: Don’t be Descartes.
Tim: I’m going to be the guy who says that the movie gets more out of Honey’s vomit, and the swing in the front yard, and driving a million miles an hour to dance at an empty honky-tonk, then it does out of a linguistically built child who can be killed with words.
Josh: As someone who is relatively unfamiliar with the story, that last sentence there was a doozy.
Tim: “Honey’s vomit” has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
Josh: I was more struck by “linguistically built child who can be killed with words,” to be honest.
Tim: I suppose this is shamefully literal of me, but I think you’d have to be quite literally insane to support your own life like that, and I don’t think the movie believes in George or Martha’s insanity in the slightest. And the movie bangs on the door for two and a half hours in argument after argument and so on, and then to completely pull the rug out from under the total hopelessness of the situation by adding a new, very abstract hopelessness doesn’t seem to jibe well.
Matt: How worlds are built and their embodiment aren’t separate. I agree that the physicality drives a lot of that story (and, side note, I tend to love movies that make me uncomfortable in that way). The ending is also a reveal that they couldn’t have children, so where to turn but the intellectual?
Josh: Dogs. They could have gotten dogs.
Tim: Adoption? I mean, I know we’re both being snarky here, but the movie loses me because it is very real, and the words George and Martha use add to that reality, and then the words are actually fantasy.
Matt: Who’s going to let those two adopt?
Tim: They’re a well-off couple who own their own place…they’ll make it.
Josh: Then again, they apparently created an intellectual love child out of words…I really need to see this movie. And read the play.
Matt: I’m not convinced they cannot be violent for long enough. You’re using “real” to mean “physical” which works to a point but the real doesn’t exist separate from the linguistic/abstract construction.
Tim: I think I’d rather use real to mean “possessing some verisimilitude,” which is active in the physical and in the words George and Martha use on each other and the situations they place one another in and in the intangible memories they call upon, but which is defective in the way that two sane adults agree for a period of nearly two decades that they have a made-up child. It is interesting, and I agree with you that linguistic construction is powerful, and in practice it feels like everyone got to the 150 minute mark, said, “Wow, this movie is long and we have no way to end this with the requisite amount of climax,” and wrote out of the corner.
Matt: That limp “I am, George. I am.” works for me because I think that movie is trying to implicate viewers as it is George and Martha.
Tim: And I am with you on that. Literally the only thing pulling Who’s Afraid down is the fake kid.
Matt: I’m also not convinced on their sanity. But what I’m gleaning here is that I think the movie invites us to feel in certain gaps and you don’t feel those invitations? That’s abstract, but does that sound sort of right?
Tim: I think that’s fair. I think my invitation was lost in the mail, but that’s probably as close to a compromise as we’re going to get.
Josh: Is that it? Can I come back now?
Matt: No. We have 10 more pages of fighting.
Josh: How about we link to that further argument here.
Tim: Not now, Josh, Daddy is chain-smoking.
Matt: (That was a joke about the play)
Tim: (I have no idea who is “Daddy” in this situation.)
Matt: (The chain-smoking father doesn’t fit either of us.)
Tim: (Daddy is making another gallon of tea.)
Matt: (There we go.)
Josh: (Seriously, so much tea) But I think in any situation with parent/child language, I’m Simba and one of you is Timon and the other is Pumbaa. And I’m ok with that.
Tim: Let’s talk Social Network, Josh.
Matt: (When daddy was a young warthog)
Josh: Right, Social Network. First, Matt correct me if I’m wrong, but you are more willing to accept the work of Aaron Sorkin in general than is Tim, right?
Tim: I just literally lol’d at that.
Matt: I don’t know about that. We’re probably close to equally down on Sorkin. I talk about him less, I suppose.
Josh: Ah, ok. Then perhaps my initial impression was founded on incorrect info. Tim, it is well documented that you are not a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s work.
Josh: And yet you defend Social Network far more than, idk, literally anything else he’s ever made. With the possible exception of Sports Night. Which we should talk about more, but not here. Another time. (But for real, Sports Night has some of Sorkin’s worst female characters. In that they evince more of the faults that his most famous faulted female characters do.) So, what’s up with that? And Matt, why do you dislike it so much? Is it for Sorkin’s writing, or Eisenberg’s acting, or Fincher’s directing, or a combination of the above?
Tim: You go first, Matt. I feel like you and Josh only talk about chain-smoking.
Matt: I think Fincher does some good directing with that movie. He was a good fit. I’m not sure I have a rousing analysis of why I don’t like the movie. I watch it and don’t care. I’m not interested in Zuckerberg and his foibles and tribulations.
Josh: Much the same as your feelings towards the royal family in King’s Speech, I might note.
Matt: Yes. It’s a consistent bugaboo of mine.
Josh: You know as three privileged white guys we are kinda down on movies about privileged white folks having privileged white people problems. And yet we are also having this conversation, which is a pretty big indicator of our privilege and concern for, some might say trivial things…
Tim: I like to think of this as “fun” as opposed to “vexing.”
Josh: Tim, that’s because we are weird.
Tim: …I’ll allow it.
Matt: You’re right, Josh, but there’s a difference between a small blog post looking at these issues and a major movie worrying about Mark Zuckerberg over anything else. There are some interesting things to be done with the nature of social media and the dark spaces it creates, but the movie (which I should probably watch again) doesn’t prioritize those as much as I would like.
Tim: As much as I’m sure this movie has almost nothing to do with Mark Zuckerberg as a human being, I am very interested, especially as Facebook becomes more nefarious, to see how this movie ages with him in mind. As a movie without the hypotheticals surrounding it, I’ve always been moved by the little nod to Belle, Scrooge’s intended, who he loses when he loses his soul. That’s what The Social Network is to me.
Josh: Clearly I need to watch the movie again, bc I don’t remember that at all. And that’s one of my favorite parts of A Muppets Christmas Carol.
Tim: That’s not literally in there. I don’t want to make people think there’s a Christmasy subplot in Social Network they’ve forgotten about, except I actually do now that I’m thinking on it. But that moment where Scrooge has a chance to be a real human being and then turns his back on it is not unlike the way that Mark—and I’m with Matt here, because I’m definitely not here about this dude’s feelings—has a chance to be a real human being a few times in this movie and just whiffs on all of them.
Josh: That makes sense. I can understand that being a somewhat captivating element of the film. Also, Matt, we sort of skipped over your note on the fact that there are problems with the nature of social media and the movie doesn’t dive into that as much as it should, and I agree on the whole.
Tim: Sorry. That one’s on me.
Josh: But I do think it’s interesting that the movie shows FB starting off as an undeniably creepy ranking system, which really hits at the whole dark side of social media. Do you wish the movie had followed up that theme more?
Matt: No, I think your point was connected with mine, Tim. That Scrooge-esque moment could be something to build more around. But the individual at the center of this movie just isn’t one that interests me. Six years later when we’re realizing how dangerous, not just creepy, Facebook is I worry that The Social Network looks too insular. Which is me adding context to the critique I had when it came out, so I won’t pretend that was my exact line five years ago.
Josh: Well, but we talked earlier about movies made for particular moments, and Tim goes into several examples in his critiques of how movies age, so I think your critique of Social Network isn’t off target at all. Or unwarranted in any way.
Matt: I just meant my dislike wasn’t quite the same when the movie came out because I hadn’t yet realized the extent of Facebook’s problems. To put that differently, I’m growing more skeptical of the movie as time goes by.
Tim: (Matt and I have, as Josh alluded to, talked about how things get old. I’ll put a link here later.)
Josh: Well, we all do that. It’s one of the reasons movies like Casablanca are, as Tim said in his discussion, “a miracle.”
Tim: I think we may have some time for one more question which we hovered around earlier but never did talk about: given all of the ways that we recognize that the Oscars are weighted towards this very privileged white worldview, and in the past ten years has started to shift that direction a smidge, and that we also recognize that the Oscars are candy…what’s in their future? What will change? Let’s do it this way, maybe: What will the 110th Oscars, the ones for movies debuting in 2037, be like? [For the people at home, now’s a good time to mention that I pulled some of these questions from a poll that I made about the Oscars, which you can vote on! And should vote on!]
Josh: This is assuming that we won’t be in WW3, that no world leaders will have started a Nuclear holocaust, there won’t be a worldwide famine or disease or drought, and the ocean’s won’t have risen and drowned half of the world’s population. Oh, and that the economy won’t have totally tanked and ruined the film industry.
Tim: Oscars have survived three of those five things before (i.e. World War II, but still). The veritable cockroach of awards shows.
Josh: Like the cockroach in Wall-E! Full circle again! (We did mention Wall-E earlier, right?)
Tim: Real briefly.
Josh: Still counts!
Tim: Maybe I’ll expand the question. Predicting the future is hard, so maybe short of outright predictions, what are some things you would like to see changed about the Oscars by the 110th ceremony?
Matt: [returns from crystal ball] Avengers pt. 12 will win in 2038.
Josh: In the same vein: Disney will own 75 percent of movies.
Matt: That’s a good point. I do think a superhero movie will win best picture by then. Whether I want it to or not I don’t know, but I’m guessing that will happen. Or they’ll at least get more nominations in major categories.
Josh: Ok, here’s a serious one: I’d like to see more credit for movie making going to people of color and to women. And I’d like to see those populations in more movies. I mean, The Big Sick was basically the first American produced film with a lead of East Asian descent.
Tim: I’m going to be that guy and throw Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness out there, which was nominated for Unique and Artistic Production at the 1st Academy Awards. It’s more documentary-ish than what Josh is talking about, but The Big Sick just had better press than even more recent movies like The Namesake had. Or the classic Mississippi Masala. Mira Nair has been hanging out in this space a while.
Matt: I’m going to be the idiot who reminds everyone of Harold and Kumar. Which, to be clear, is not some great leap for identity politics.
Josh: Ok, so not the only, or the first. But how about this, a Pakistani-American who is identified as such and is a romantic lead. That’s something. Master of None is a show that does this as well. But the fact that they are exceptions to the rule is something. Anyway, a better example is one that the church organist, a fellow nerd and cinephile, brought up. He informed me that Carrie Fisher had the golden touch in being a screenwriter who could turn crappy scripts into good ones for a great many years. What I don’t know is how much recognition she got for that at the time. But given your earlier comments that the tendency in Hollywood was for the writers to be men, I’m guessing she didn’t get as much as she deserved.
Tim: People who contribute stuff to screenplays typically get less credit than anyone else, as far as I can tell. People are very defensive about getting as much credit for those as they can, and who gets credit for it is a political question. I will say that I very much second you on more representation at the Oscars, and honestly that should be the first priority…I think we will probably see an African-American win Best Director by/at the 100th Oscars.
I have three ideas in mind concerning the Oscars which I’m going to poll y’all on, I think. Here’s the first: return the Best Picture field to five movies. Would that improve the Oscars, hurt it, or no change?
Matt: Hurt, I suspect. I made a fairly inconsequential prediction above. One I’m actually invested in is genre films getting more recognition. Which they might be now. Five film fields might hurt that.
Josh: I like Matt’s point on this one. Mostly because he reminded me of the Oscars skit where Will Ferrell and Jack Black sang a song about “A Comedian at the Oscars”. For those who forgot it, it’s here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5JAPkvnyso. Anyway, I wanna see Comedies win Oscars. That’s all.
Tim: Here’s my counterpoint: it’s been nine years, eight ceremonies since they expanded the Best Picture field. There really hasn’t been much change in what’s nominated, has there? In my view I think what it’s done is ensured that a movie like Darkest Hour is nominated for Best Picture, or, in other words, we’re just getting more middlebrow dramas.
Matt: But the problem/risk we’re addressing is the same. It’s the people doing the nominating. I don’t trust them (yet) to not pick the middlebrow dramas in a field of five. If that doesn’t happen, then sure, go back to five.
Tim: Let’s use last year as an example. Say they had a five-movie field…I think that field would have been The Shape of Water, Three Billboards, Dunkirk, Lady Bird, and Get Out. Or the year before…Moonlight, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Arrival, and probably Hacksaw Ridge? I mean, you’re losing diversity, but let’s say you’re Hidden Figures and you’re the first movie out, basically. Does getting the Best Picture nod over Hacksaw Ridge do anything if you’re fifth on most ballots and you’re already raking in the good reviews and the money?
Matt: They still put “Academy Award Nominee” on the DVD jacket. Looking at this past ceremony, it means we lose Call Me By Your Name, and I’m not convinced something dumb like a Darkest Hour or The Post inclusion doesn’t happen at the expense of Lady Bird or Get Out.
Tim: I may just be the last person in the world who wants the five-picture field back. TRADITION! (Traditiiiiion – tradition! Tradition!)
Matt: (The papa is chain smoking again.)
Josh: (The papaaaaaaa – the papa!)
Tim: It’s his right as master of the house! He feeds his wife and children, says the daily prayers, and he has the final word at home!
Josh: I’m back from watching the clip of Will Ferrell and Jack Black, and now I wanna watch the clips from Fiddler. And Les Mis. Why you do this to me?
Tim: Sorry. Next question. At the very first Academy Awards, there were two categories for what might reasonably be called “Best Picture.” Outstanding Production went to Wings. Unique and Artistic Production went to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The former is a pretty great action anti-war flick, and the latter was ranked…fifth in the latest Sight and Sound Poll. Should we have five-picture fields for an Outstanding Production and a Unique/Artistic Production?
Josh: How would those be decided? What are the criteria? Because if Outstanding Production means a movie that did all of the technical aspects of movie-making right, or really well, then Ocean’s 8 gets nominated. Bc while the story was kinda weak, and none of the characters were fleshed out much, it was very smoothly shot, well lit, well edited, slick production, etc. And I’m not here for that. I enjoyed the movie, but it doesn’t get nominated.
Tim: I think that out of last year’s nominees, Unique and Artistic nods would go to Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, and Call Me by Your Name. The Shape of Water is sort of on the line. Get Out would go to Outstanding Production, though. Essentially one is for Warner Brothers and Fox and Universal and so on, and the other is for A24 and Searchlight and Focus Features.
Josh: (Where’s Disney in this? Since they do own…like 50 percent of movies)
Tim: Disney is on the Fox/Universal end of this. I mean, I’m not going full “Nestle owns everything here”…Universal owns Focus Features, but I’d give Focus their own…focus.
Matt: And there’s my worry, how quickly it would be stratified. Whether on major/minor lines or “traditional” and “unique” identity lines. Like going back to 5 in the pool, I’m interested in theory but worried what would happen in practice. Which maybe isn’t a reason for not trying it again.
Josh: Yeah, that’s what I would see happening. You end up with all of your movies written by minorities and underrepresented voices going to your “Unique and Artistic” category, and then people start calling them “exotic,” and we’re set 50 years back in moviemaking.
Tim: I dunno about that. Wouldn’t Black Panther be exactly the kind of movie for Outstanding Production? Like, this is really for people who are worried that there are more movies like Call Me by Your Name and Darkest Hour filling up the ballot at the expense of Logan or Black Panther or, frankly, Get Out.
Matt: So you think an expanded best picture lets in more middlebrow dramas but this would account for different types of movies?
Tim: I know that sounds weird, but honestly yeah. It’s because there’s more guidance about what to vote for.
Josh: Well if we’re moving that direction, why not go full Golden Globes and have a Best Comedy, Best Superhero Movie, Best Romance, Best Thriller, etc and so on?
Matt: Because the ceremony is already four hours long.
Josh: Well, that’s a practical reason. We’ve been discussing critical theory of movies. Come on. We are theory people.
Tim: This transitions nicely into my last question, and before I throw this one out there I will say a) I think it’s too late to bring back the Outstanding/Unique distinction (TRADITION!) and b) this question is broken into pieces, so it’s not really one question. The appetizer: I agree that the Academy Awards are too long, and I also think that there’s a good case to be made that there are awards that they should give out that they aren’t giving out: Second Unit Director, Casting, Stunts, Title Design, etc. Should the Academy get rid of categories, change them, add some, or stand pat?
Josh: Add categories, but get rid of the hosts for each category. And don’t worry about the host’s monologue or various bits and skits throughout. And the introductions of each award. People know what they’re watching and why. Basically streamline the whole dang show.
Tim: As much as there’s a long history of like, Bob Hope and Billy Crystal hosting, there are some Oscar ceremonies in the past that didn’t bother with an emcee and just had people announce stuff. I also think we could stand to get rid of the music performances for these original songs. Any categories stand out to you, Josh?
Josh: Stunts. Please give these people credit. Casting maybe, but then the worry becomes that it’s just a diversity contest. I want more diversity in films, but I don’t want to make that the sole purpose of casting. And maybe if we’re gonna talk about genres, then awards for genres. But then you have problems with categorizing and defining a films genre.
Tim: I kind of think Casting would be more like what SAG gives out, like, “This movie has the best acting overall” and giving some props to the person who organized it. Anything for you, Matt?
Matt: Nothing different, I don’t think. There’s a lot to do on the edges to cut time and still add categories, but the show loves its pomp. The Acting categories should recognize motion-capture.
Josh: I’d be ok with recognizing voice acting as well.
Tim: Here’s the soup course, then: just yes or no, would you like to see the voting records published by Academy member/the voting cutoffs for Best Picture? I’m pretty firmly in favor of this. Also this is probably even less likely to happen than the Outstanding/Unique distinction coming back.
Matt: Yeah, they’ll never publish voting records. Definitely the cutoffs. I’m inclined to say yes to individual voting but how much (more) backroom dealing/punishment is that going to cause?
Josh: I love transparency always, so yes please. And hopefully more transparency helps cut down on politicking. Like if our actual politicians had to wear the names of their biggest donors on their clothes. Like NASCAR. That idea comes courtesy of Robin Williams.
Matt: We know who politicians are in the pockets of. Most people don’t actually care.
Josh: Bc the politicians deny it and people believe them. Wearing their sponsors would be much more visually repulsive to voters. I think.
Tim: Last question, though this one is hard to phrase cleanly. I think all of us agree that there’s something regressive about splitting acting by sex/gender, yeah? (This is not the hard part.)
Josh: Regressive, yes. I agree.
Tim: So let’s say you have the power to reform the acting awards, of which there are four right now. You can add more acting awards, take some away, change the eligibility standards, change the criteria, whatever. What’s your offer?
Josh: Matt you go first, I need to think on this one.
Tim: I’ve actually thought about this before, so I can fill the void a little. I think my ideal system is to get rid of the Lead/Supporting system as well as the Actor/Actress system. I would still nominate twenty performances total, but there would be four winners for “Outstanding Performance.” The neat two-and-two thing would probably disappear, but I don’t think it would just result in men winning all of the awards, because I have a funny feeling that the actors are probably split about 50-50. I also think that it would help a little bit in the kind of performances that get rewarded, which definitely fall into “difficult man/woman goes ugly” far too often. Thoughts?
Matt: So a pool of 20 and the top 4 take a trophy, basically? Why do you think that’ll help with the type of performance that tends to win? Couldn’t it reward more if there are a few in a year?
Tim: It could, I guess, but I just have a sense that getting rid of the Lead/Supporting distinction would eliminate the sense that we have to award a woman making herself a mess, or a guy making himself a psychopath.
Matt: What is the real distinction for Supporting? I wonder if there’s a way to make that by screen time and have an award for what we’d generally think of as scene stealers. That’s not a major or important change, just a random thought. I’m drawn to the idea of big pools, but I’m thinking through how it might go. Because they might still reward the huge physical transformations rather than, shall we say, more nuanced affair.
Josh: So I was thinking about this. What do we do with a Hannibal Lecter, who’s only on screen for 18 minutes but has such a big impact? Or, with Heath Ledger as the Joker, he won for Best Supporting, right? He is just as big a part, if not a bigger part, than Batman in that movie.
Tim: This is the biggest reason I want to get rid of the distinction, because it is entirely about buzz, marketing, whatever you want to call it, and it always has been, and it is totally arbitrary in a system that’s already way too arbitrary. This is like, annoyingly arbitrary for the reasons Josh has brought up, and also for the time requirements Matt has. The gripe about Supporting Actors is that they either are hugely important to the movie and are onscreen all the time and are just leaving the Lead nomination alone for a bigger star (Pacino and Brando, respectively, in The Godfather) or the supporting performer is on screen for like ten minutes or fewer, and how is that gonna work?
Matt: How do the nominations work in this hypothetical? Just any 20 people, or would there be certain guides/thresholds?
Josh: I am similarly curious. About the same questions. Which I think means neither of us is opposed to your hypothetical situation, we just want it fleshed out more.
Tim: In my mind you’re nominating a performance, not a person, so if you really think Meryl Streep did three Oscar-nomination-worthy roles in a year, you can nominate her for all three. (Let’s be real, this is the most serious problem with the idea I have. Not the multiple person getting nominations thing, the Meryl Streep getting multiple nominations thing.)
Matt: 3-time 2021 Academy Award winner Meryl Streep
Josh: Has a good ring to it.
Ok, but still, what if we have performances like Hannibal Lecter. Super short in the grand scheme, but super impactful and masterfully done for the short amount of time they are on screen. Does he win over someone who does almost as good a job, but not quite, for 90 minutes of a two hour movie?
Tim: The beauty of that is that they can both win, and so can two other people : p This is practically socialist.
Matt: Marx just rolled over in his grave.
Let me ask this: Look at this past ceremony and tell me which four would have won.
Josh: Oh, I like this game.
Tim: See, this is already way more stressful and exciting. Oldman and McDormand win again.
Matt: I agree with that.
Tim: And I think Janney and Metcalf both win. (Ignoring the fact that the best performance of the year by a woman wasn’t even nominated. #justiceforvickykrieps #shesakriepsshesaweirdo)
Matt: That’s the scenario I was thinking of but then wondering if they take away from each other in this scenario. I say that as someone who firmly believes Metcalf deserved an award.
Tim: I think it depends on the voting system. I think you vote for your top five with weighted preferences, and then you see what gets spit out.
Josh: I find it interesting that your two other winners are both complicated mother figures.
Matt: Ours are. I’m never sure about what the Academy might do.
Tim: I think Metcalf should have won and Janney won because the role was real meaty. I’ll tell you that my list of preferred four winners doesn’t have Janney on there.
Matt: DDL? He feels like the wildcard here.
Tim: Out of the twenty nominations, and granting that I didn’t see all of them, the ones I think I’d have liked (in no order) are Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Willem Dafoe, and…then it gets hard. One of McDormand, Chalamet, or Kaluuya.
Matt: My real qualm is that Vicky Krieps should have been nominated and won.
Josh: Dafoe? For that movie where he runs a hotel or whatever?
Tim: He got really fabulous reviews. Also, Matt did not see my hashtags up there.
Josh: I was just thinking that
Matt: No I didn’t. Preach.
Josh: Did you almost just type “sing wit me now?” Because that’s what it looked like for a second
Tim: …I thought about it real hard. I don’t know that Radiohead deserves for us to actually sing that hashtag I lifted from their ditty.
Josh:…I was quoting Little Mermaid…
Tim: I know where you were headed.
Josh: Just making sure.
Tim: Anyone have any final Oscars-related thoughts? My list, their picks, the system, anything at all?
Josh: Well, yes, but we’re at 21 pages, so no.
Tim: Don’t let that scare you. The last few have been longer than this, and if anybody actually reads this far they will be happy to have your take.
Josh: My takes would be lots of random agreements and disagreements with your list, several more thoughts on the Oscars process in general, and the presumably 20 tangents which will accompany every 5 thoughts.
Tim: Okay, so now that Josh is scattering like ants in a rainstorm, I’m going to a) ask Matt if he has any thoughts and b) ask Josh to give me five bullet points for the folks at home to ponder over their coffee.
Matt: I’m too excited for whatever comes out of Josh’s marching ants.
Josh: As well you should be. Hm. Ok.
- I think if the Oscars change their method of choosing best performances, it needs to be something like Tim’s suggestion but with more criteria. I don’t know what that looks like necessarily, maybe categorizing performances by genre or something, but…yeah.
- Animated films need to be in the consideration for Best Picture sometimes. More often than they are. A lot more often. But that’s just me.
- In 20 years or whatever it is, Disney will actually own a majority of film and television media. I think that’s just a statement of fact. I don’t know how I feel about it.
- I cannot wait to see the Oscar-nominated film that comes out of our current state in America. I mean, I can, bc it will be horribly depressing, but also it’s gonna be fascinating. Who’s gonna play Trump? And also, on the same note, I’d be happy if it’s not a movie at all, but the TV show that Cracked.com kept pretending real life was. That’d be awesome.
- The Mr. Rogers Documentary should be nominated for Best Picture. And maybe win. I haven’t even seen it yet and I believe that.
And there are my five points. You’re welcome, world!
Tim: …those were characteristic. And I’m going to ponder them over my tea probably as soon as this evening. (We didn’t even talk about the “documentaries for Best Picture” thing which is like pitchers not winning MVP.) Matt?
Matt: I’m all for documentaries making noise. I doubt that one is going to happen anytime soon. I think I’m good. You have parting thoughts? (or more 60s movies for us to fight about)
Tim: Well, first of all, it was very good to be able to talk to you simultaneously for the first time in a hot minute. I know our schedules do not frequently go together
There wasn’t an anniversary for me to commemorate this summer like there was last summer, when I did my Better than AFI Top 100, or next summer when I tackle the long-planned Better than BFI Top 100.
Matt: Oddly enough, it is close to the 50 year anniversary of The Mamas and the Papas breaking up.
Tim: …I’m trying to come up with a snarky comment combining “California Dreamin’” and “retirement home,” and I’m struggling.
Matt: Don’t talk, just listen.
Tim: I landed on Oscars basically as an organizing strategy and because I have this weird love-hate relationship with them, and part of the reason I wanted to do this project in the first place was to figure out why I even care. Months of research and writing later I don’t think I know, honestly. I have the competition of “the Oscars represent the mystique and glamor of Hollywood and it wraps me up” and “what is even the point of this ceremony except to reward middling, forgettable pictures at the expense of interesting work?” The best answer I have is that for better or worse the Oscars are part of movie history, which is a history I care about deeply. They tell us something about values and beliefs over the past ninety years, and they leave a record, my cynical comment aside, some really fine movies for people like me to catch up to. Sort of like it is in real life, our history may not be intensely flattering, but it’s us, and it’s built our presents and futures. The Oscars are a safe place to explore, and they are a great codex to dig into.