Thursday, February 10, 2011

Best Picture...Probably Not

by Conroy

Does this statue have any value?
The 83rd Academy Awards ceremony is still over two weeks away, but I want to be the first to write that this year's winner of the Best Picture oscar was not the "best picture" released in 2010. Now as you're no doubt thinking, I don't possess any powers that let me see the future. I'm making this claim because the odds are in my favor. The Academy has a long history of not awarding the most (or one of a few) deserving films with the best picture honor. I don't find this all too surprising, as I've written before, it takes time, many years, to fully evaluate a work of art.  Even so, the Academy seems to be especially poor at identifying the real best pictures, sometimes they aren't even close. The scales dropped from my eyes back in 1998, when one of the finest films of recent memory and universally acclaimed - Saving Private Ryan - didn't win.

To illustrate this point further, below I've provided a long list of the Best Picture winners, and those films that were more deserving. Before we get to the list, allow me a quick diversion.

We Get Awards Because We're So Great
This blogger finds the whole award circuit to be ridiculously self-important. The entertainment industry is of course populated by self-centered egoists, and that includes the "talent" and the management, so we shouldn't be surprised by the indulgent adulation we witness at these events. Every year you hear some pompous celebrity, Sean Penn comes immediately to mind, that declares how "important" peer-sponsored awards like the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) are...please, don't these people know that no one cares? But I guess the glamorous movie elite will take any excuse to get dressed up and strut before the cameras, get interviewed by fawning "reporters", and adored by our celebrity-obsessed culture.

The Academy Awards, sponsored by the official-sounding Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, have a reputation for being a cut above the rest. In truth, the "Academy" is just made up of movie professionals...certainly no big deal there. The Academy doesn't release an official list of members, that information is far too important to share with the public. We don't want Academy member lobbied by producers or hounded by the press to support one film over another - can you imagine the scandal!?

For the record, I don't watch the Academy Awards, or more accurately, I barely watch them. I certainly don't waste my time with any other awards ceremonies. They're too long, with far too much celebrity worship. If they aren't even going to name the best pictures them I'm not going to waste my time. I do love movies however, and like so many of us, I appreciate high quality films. I'm sure many share my frustrations that the most public forum for honoring real cinematic quality if so often wasted. Which leads to the list...

Best Picture...Probably Not
Let's avoid evaluating the recent Best Picture winners, if it takes time to understand a genuinely impactful movie, then we should avoid the last say, ten years. Also, just to demonstrate the consistency of poor Academy choices, I'll present a 25 year span - 1975 to 2000. Witty and insightful commentary is provided where I felt compelled to comment (also some summary stats at the end):

1975 Best Picture - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. A marginal winner in my book, I don't love this film, and it's a little insulting for people with actual mental disabilities, but it is still a good movie. The other candidates from 1975 are Jaws and a film I love, Picnic at Hanging Rock.

1976 Best Picture - Rocky. I really like Rocky, re-watchable, very entertaining, genuinely moving in parts. Almost certainly the best thing Sylvester Stallone has ever done. The scene during the championship match when Rocky gets up after being knocked down and apparently out, urging Apollo Creed to come and fight is one of the great moments in any film. That noted, Taxi Driver could have easily won and is almost certainly a better film. The film is effective and off-putting the first time you watch it, and it's only gets better with subsequent viewings.

1977 Best Picture - Annie Hall. No arguments and no other contenders. This is Woody Allen's masterpiece and one of the finest movies ever made.

So far, so good, the Academy has done a pretty decent job...that ends now...

1978 Best Picture - The Deer Hunter. This movie is wildly over-rated. It jumps around (and I don't care if that's intentional), silly in many ways - the Russian Roulette is over-the-top and unrealistic. The prelude to Vietnam is way too long. We should view The Deer Hunter looking back from Michael Cimino's later monster flop, the unwatchable, Heaven's Gate. The Deer Hunter is self indulgent, overwrought, and unbelievably bleak, not a good film. The real best picture from 1978 has to be the amazing Days of Heaven. A movie I find magical, and one that Terrance Mallick has never come close to matching.

1979 Best Picture - Kramer vs. Kramer. Sure this is a good film, but the Academy was aware that 1979 saw Apocalypse Now, Alien, and Being There, right?

Better than Raging Bull...not a chance.
1980 Best Picture - Ordinary People. The best picture was not one of the best movies ever - Raging Bull, or even The Empire Strikes Back, The Coal Miner's Daughter, or The Elephant Man, but Ordinary People. What the can it not be Raging Bull!?

1981 Best Picture - Chariots of Fire. Consider the great films from 1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat, Das Boot, Gallipoli, The Road Warrior, Thief. This is starting to make no sense.

1982 Best Picture - Gandhi. No way. Blade Runner...E.T....Tootsie...Sophie's Choice...these movies were screened for the Academy right?

1983 Best Picture - Terms of Endearment. A few adjectives: sappy, sentimental, melodramatic. How about Scarface, Tender Mercies, The Right Stuff, and Risky Business?

It gets worse in 1984 and 1985, except those years sucked in movies maybe there really were no better choices....

1984 Best Picture - Amadeus. Worthy when considering the competition. Though I still say The Bounty with a young Mel Gibson is way under-rated.

1985 Best Picture - Out of Africa. This year really did suck!

1986 Best Picture - Platoon. Valid, though my choice would still be Aliens, perhaps the best sequel not named The Godfather, Part II. By the way, 1986 saw the best movie featuring Hannibal Lector, Michael Mann's Manhunter...absolutely better than The Silence of the Lambs (see below).

1987 Best Picture - The Last Emperor. When is the last time anyone ever sat down and watched this movie? Better picks, hold on, much better picks: Wall Street, Full Metal Jacket, No Way Out, Broadcast News, and don't laugh, a movie that gets better and better with age, Predator.

1988 Best Picture - Rain Man. Flawed, but okay. The only other possible choices are Working Girl and The Last Temptation of Christ.

1989 Best Picture - Driving Miss Daisy. Drive me to a better movie ("whoa, Conroy, spare us the awful puns") like Born on the Fourth of July, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Glory, and the under appreciated Scandal.

1990 Best Picture - Dances With Wolves. Is this the most over-rated recent film (see next entry)? I couldn't understand the praise this film received when it came out (and I was 10) and I still can't. Hello, Goodfellas! Also, Avalon, Awakenings, The Hunt for Red October, Internal Affairs, Misery, Total Recall. I mean it when I write that all of these films are better than Dances With Wolves...definitely better.

Winner: Most Over-rated Film
1991 Best Picture - The Silence of the Lambs. Okay this is the most over-rated recent film. Anthony Hopkins is so over-the-top, he's a caricature. Compare to Brian Cox's menacing Lector from Manhunter. And the whole student FBI agent story - never happen. This is a solid, professional piece and no more. How about JFK (a film that demonstrates how effective propaganda can be; total fiction but as good as film-making gets), Terminator 2 (a rare sequel superior to the original).

1992 Best Picture - Unforgiven. Easily the best film.

1993 Best Picture - Schindler's List. One of the best movies ever made. A rare instance of truth on film and should be required watching for every child - a lesson of what people can do to one another.

1994 Best Picture - Forrest Gump. Wait, did I already declare another movie the most over-rated? This sentimental, unbelievable, gimmicky movie can't stand up to Pulp Fiction (Academy, hello!), Quiz Show, The Shawshank Redemption, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. I mean come on, Pulp Fiction has become a landmark of modern film, and it never gets old!

1995 Best Picture - Braveheart. Way too many missteps in this movie, especially when they weren't needed. I absolutely prefer the Scottish of Rob Roy. Not to mention the great Apollo 13 (one of the few movies to glamorize engineers - my day job) and the brilliant Heat. There was also Sense and Sensibility, Casino, Nixon, Leaving Las Vegas, and The Usual Suspects. (1995 was a great year for good films.)

1996 Best Picture - The English Patient. I admit that I do like this movie. Fargo and Sling Blade are better though.

1997 Best Picture -Titanic. The ship sinking was impressive, but like Cameron's later Avatar, what the f**k happened with the story! God does it suck. The characters keep saying each others names, when their in the same room and the scene hasn't changed...the old lady throws a priceless jewel to the deep and a dead guy she barely knew 82 years earlier instead of giving it to here family members...don't get me started, I could go on all day. Please watch L.A. Confidential, Contact, Good Will Hunting, or even Cop Land instead.

"Can you believe we beat Saving Private Ryan!'
1998 Best Picture - Shakespeare in Love. Not Saving Private Ryan...Shakespeare in did this ever happen? It was unbelievable then, it's far more unbelievable now. Gweneth Paltrow in drag - and we're supposed to buy that? As I stated above, this is the poster child example demonstrating the the Academy doesn't know what the hell it's doing. Oh by the way, there was also A Simple Plan, The Thin Red Line, even Ronin and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.

1999 Best Picture - American Beauty. I'm not even sure that American Beauty is a good movie, let alone best picture! This movie is awkwardly cynical, it's characters are improbable but at the same time we know everything about them (they're retread composites) almost immediately. Rubbish. Boys Don't Cry, Fight Club, Election, The Sixth Sense, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Virgin Suicides are all much superior, and I would be willing to bet much more often watched.

2000 Best Picture - Gladiator. What, a standard action film loaded with silliness (I'm sure a lot of Roman Emperors fought slaves in the Colosseum) is the best picture? No. Try Traffic, instead.

Okay so 26 years and I would generously say the Academy picked the real Best Picture 9 times (35%) and that's if you count One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Rocky. They got it wrong the last seven years of this survey, and if we count from 1978 the percentage falls to just 6 of 23.

So I'll declare again, in two weeks time we're likely to not have awarded 2010 best movie.


  1. Conroy,

    You're right on the money about the worthlessness of award ceremonies. What a waste of time! I do have to take exception to your comments about The Deer Hunter, Dances With Wolves, and Silence of the Lambs. Those are great films. Sure The Deer Hunter was bleak, but it was a statement about the Vietnam War, it was intended to be bleak. Both DWW and SOTL (excuse the abbreviations) are deep and entertaining. I will check out Manhunter though to compare. I'm sure it's better than the other "Hannibal Lector" movies (boy did the movie Hannibal suck!).

  2. I also like The Deer Hunter, Dances With Wolves, and Silence of the Lambs. But it gets much worse, because I like Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Titanic, and Gladiator, too. I'm NOT saying these are great movies, or even good ones.

    Nor am I saying that they were better than the competition (I also much prefer Rob Roy — one of my favorite movies — to Braveheart). I'm just saying that I enjoy these movies, despite their flaws.

    Are they "great" movies? I have no idea. Which leads me to Conroy's main point, that the Academy probably won't pick the true best movie. I agree. How could they?

    By the way, my personal pick for this year is The King's Speech, which I thought was a great movie, but I wouldn't be too surprised if The Social Network won (though I didn't care it).

    I liked Inception less than The King's Speech, but it's a movie I'll see again, whereas I'll probably never see The King's Speech again. This suggests to me that a movie can be excellent, but not worth watching more than once, strange as that sounds. Perhaps that's the case with The Last Emperor. I wouldn't know; I've never seen it.

  3. The Man,

    Your comments touch on a larger point, one that I alluded to in this post and previously when identifying the "best" songs from 2010, and that is: What makes a work of art, be it film, music, literature, etc., superior? I noted in this post that it takes time to determine the value of any art, something I absolutely believe, but there is more, and the subject deserves to be discussed in a separate post. I intend to tackle that subject soon.

  4. Conroy,

    I'm looking forward to it. (By the way, I agree with you about the importance — the necessity — of time to the evaluation of artistic merit.)

  5. I was prompted by this post to re-watch Amadeus for the first time in years. I can say now, emphatically, that this was not the best picture of 1984. I think the Academy gets blinded when they see actors dressed in elaborate period costumes. And the story framing and narrative structure of having an ancient and crazed Salieri retell the story of Mozart is so hackneyed.

    Other, much better, candidates from 1984: How about little seen Mel Gibson movies, The Bounty and The River?

  6. I agree that the Social Network was not the best movie of the past year. A little bit of research and you see that the story is largely fiction, which was disappointing. However, the real story of Mark Zukerberg is not so full of twists and turns.

    I really liked the King's Speech and Black Swan. I even liked the remake of True Grit.

  7. Well the King's Speech won Best Picture. We
    'll have to wait to determine whether it was the 'real" best picture from 2010, but it was the choice of The Man and several readers of this blog.

  8. Well it seems the editors at Yahoo! agree with many of my judgments on what movie should have won best picture over the past generation. Take a look at their choices (in pictures):

    They have a couple of picks from the last 10 years (including this year), which as I've stated is probably too soon to judge.

  9. There are a few notes I would like to make about your commentary -
    1. Award shows are ridiculously over-watched and over-rated. Celebrities cannot find enough reasons to celebrate themselves.
    2. Don't underestimate the power of a good pun - in my opinion they are not used enough and are good for a laugh.
    3. While Braveheart may have its historical flaws, one should not forget to look at the bigger message behind the film.
    I admire your love for movies (and your knowledge of such a variety as well). Just a final thought - now that we know The King's Speech has won best picture, do you still agree that it is not the best picture of 2010?

  10. Anonymous,

    I'm glad you find award shows and celebrity worship as silly as I do. The fact that TMZ, Entertainment Tonight, and Access Hollywood are so popular is not a credit to American society.

    It's funny, I use puns occasionally and usually feel obliged to apologize. This shouldn't be so, but I guess it's just the historical use of puns as a "low" form of comedy.

    I do want to clarify that I like Braveheart and appreciate the message behind the film. I just think it could have been conveyed without the historical distortions (William Wallace was a brigand) and narrative improbabilities (Wallace impregnating the queen), etc.

    To you final question. Is the King's Speech the best movie of 2010? Well, I can't say...not yet anyway. I'll agree with The Man that it's much superior to the drastically over-rated The Social Network. Ask me again in five years (and after I've watched all of other noteworthy films from last year).

  11. Not having seen all of the Best Picture nominees myself, I cannot say if The King's Speech is actually the best picture of 2010. With that aside, I am really interested to hear your thoughts about Black Swan. Would you be willing to post on this movie after you see it? I am interested on your take.

  12. Anonymous,

    My sister was really impressed with Black Swan. I haven't seen it, but will soon, hopefully (as soon as I can get it through Netflix). I will post my initial thoughts in this space once I've watched it.

    Thanks for taking an interest in my views. The Man and I appreciate all of our reader comments.

  13. Hi Anonymous,

    I'm glad to see you enjoyed Conroy's post. Just to give you my two cents on Black Swan. I saw it in the theater and was captivated. It's a darkly tense psychological thriller; a harrowing melodrama; a spellbinding fantasy. It showcased Aronovsky's obvious skill at getting underneath your skin (no pun intended, for those who've seen the film) with characters whose obsessive drive to achieve artistic perfection leads them to madness and self-destruction. It reminded me a bit of the movie Carrie, because of the raw intensity of its central character, Nina; her strangely exclusive and intimate relationship with her mother; the film's tense, eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere; and its use of standard horror-film devices (I jumped out of my seat at least once).

    It was also beautifully filmed in terms of lighting and mis-en-scene; it was attractively cast, with nuanced and compelling performances; it was stylish, tense, gracefully danced, claustrophobic, filled with emotional and physical pain, and elegance; it had a great soundtrack, too; and the overall structure of the film was well-balanced: the beginning set the tone and established a central theme that culminates in the final moments of the film.

    Some might think it was overwrought, melodramatic in the pejorative sense, clichéd at times. Maybe. But I loved it. I'll definitely see it again.

    The King's Speech, which I saw after Black Swan, was my pick to win the Best Picture Oscar, and I guessed right. I thought it was a fresh, eloquent, engaging, and humorous buddy film about an important man trying to overcome an inner obstacle, and through this process of overcoming, he learns friendship and truth, gains the inner strength he needs to lead his nation. But as I tried to indicate in my earlier comment, I'm a skeptic when it comes to ranking movies on a linear scale in terms of absolute relative merit. I think that how a person reacts to a work of art is subjective; and their judgments, if they choose to make them, are personal; they are matters of taste. Non disputandum de gustibus.

    I will, however, accept the judgment of time with respect to very old works, where consensus has more or less been established. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is great literature, whether I like it or not. It has passed the test of time. Movies are much more recent, but the same basic principle applies. Citizen Kane, for instance, is a classic (and it didn't win Best Picture). Explaining all the reasons why I accept the test of time would require an extensive treatment. But one reason thing that time gives us the ability to make more comparisons. And by comparing more films, we can better evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. The strongest ones will tend to survive, probably because they possess some universal quality that speaks across cultures, a quality that deals directly with human nature, the human predicament. But I'll have to leave a fuller discussion of that interesting question for another day.

    Thanks for all the comments everyone!

  14. Anonymous,

    I hope you enjoyed The Man's review of Black Swan. I'll still give my two cents after I watch it.

    Regarding The King's Speech, I also thought it was a really good movie. Unlike The Social Network, a bit of research reveals that the events depicted in the film are largely accurate. The details of the relationship between King George VI (Bertie) and Dr. Logue (Lionel) are certainly embellished, but I like their interaction and the culmination of their relationship at the final speech was really effective. The depiction of King Edward VIII was eye-opening, and from all accounts, pretty close to the mark.

    Further, the final speech, which we know will go well, is delivered with great suspense. The audience is actively rooting for the King to succeed. When he does, it's quite gratifying. The music, shots of listener's faces, including those who know of the King's difficulties, and growing confidence of the King and Logue's hard work all make the scene classic.

    Will it hold up over time? We'll see. Remember that the effectiveness of Apollo 13 has never faded despite the fact that we know what will happen in the end. It goes to show what good writing, acting, directing, and fairly close adherence to the facts can lend great suspense and weight to film adaptations of real historical events.

  15. Anonymous and The Man,

    I promised to give you my impressions of Black Swan. I'll keep it short because The Man provided a rather comprehensive review of his impressions.

    I liked the movie. I was engrossed but on edge the entire time (as my sister noted, many elements we taken just far enough to really unsettle you). I am particularly sensitive to what is termed "body horror". This movie, like many of Aronofsky's films, was loaded with body horror. I wanted to look away more than once.

    The movie was dark - literally - there were very few scenes (or none) set outside during the day. The madness of Nina grew was very effectively conveyed and wonderfully acted by Ms. Portman. Together, these elements heighten and reinforce the claustrophobia and paranoia.

    Now the movie was melodrama, ridiculous (at least when it comes to real mental illness), too obviously symbolic. (For an art lover, I am surprisingly ambivalent about symbolism.) I'll watch to movie again, I think it will reward multiple viewings, but I don't think I'll declare it the best movie of 2010 (with the caveat that time will tell).

  16. Conroy,

    Thanks for the excellent movie reviews. I especially like the term "body horror." I'd never heard that before. I hadn't consciously realized your point about Aronofsky's films being loaded with body horror. But that's true. It's part of what makes his films so disturbing and hard to watch. When his characters aren't drilling into their skulls, or sticking needles into their veins, or allowing themselves to be torn apart by shards of glass, they're tearing their own skin off. Yuck!

    For me, the body horror film that most readily comes to mind is The Fly (the '86 remake). The first part of that movie is quite good. More recently District Nine did the same thing, but slightly better in my opinion. Body horror was also used effectively in the The Machinist, a psychological thriller with Christian Bale playing a deeply disturbed man, so gaunt, emaciated, and haggard that he's hard to look at. (Apparently, Bale dropped down to 121 lbs for the film.)

    As for symbolism, I'm sure it won't surprise you to hear that I like what Orson Welles had to say about it:

    "I hate symbolism. . . I never use it. If anybody finds it, it's for them to find. I never sit down and say how we're going to have a symbol for some character. They happen automatically, because life is full of symbols. So is art. You can't avoid them; but if you use them, you get into Stanley Kramer Town."

  17. The Man,

    Yes, The Fly (remake) and District 9 are great examples of body horror. I saw The Fly when I was real young and for some reason was fairly numb to it's gruesomeness back then. Now I think the movie's whole reason for existing is to show us as disgusting a physical transformation as possible. I turned Distric 9 off (or more accurately changed the channel). No story, no matter how interesting, is worth see the main character (1) vomit, (2) leak a black oily substance from body orifices, (3) pull his fingernails off, (4) develop black blotches over his body, I could go on, but just writing this is disturbing me.

    Other examples of body horror: The Thing (1982 remake - which I like), Alien (the chest-bursting scene is still incredibly effective), Scanners, and Cabin Fever (I had to walk out of the room when I knew some horrible things were about to happen to the skin of one of the female character). But body horror is really popular in horror/sci-fi films. I seem to be getting more sensitive to it as time goes on.

    As for symbology. It seems intrinsic to western art. Perhaps this is worth a discussion in a future post.

  18. Black Swan had the same exact ending as The Wrestler! And both showed self inflicted awfulness by the main characters. Aronofsky needs to show that he can make a different type of film.

  19. Good point, Anonymous. On a certain level, they did have the same ending. What about The Fountain? Have you seen that? I wonder if it had any body horror in it. I heard it was awful, and it wasn't successful commercially. In fact, at the time, some thought it might ruin Aronofsky's career because it was not just bad, it was expensive. Then he came back with The Wrestler, which did very well, as did Black Swan. Maybe he figures, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."