Montana Jones

Montana n: A state of the northwest United States bordering on Canada. Admitted as the 41st state in 1889. The fourth largest state in the union, it includes vast prairies and numerous majestic mountain ranges.
Syn: Treasure State, Big Sky Country, Last Best Place.

Jones n: slang. An addiction or very deep craving.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Best Picture

It is my pleasure to report that I have completed a great quest. I have watched every single movie that has won the Oscar for Best Picture. Well, that is not quite 100% true. I have not been able to locate the first winner, Wings (1927-1928); and Cavalcade (1932-1933) is mysteriously absent from Netflix. So except for those two films, I have seen every Best Picture from The Broadway Melody in 1929 to Slumdog Millionaire the winning film from 2008. Good enough, the quest is over.

I have been on this quest for about 15 years. It was around 1993 or so that a girlfriend of the time passed the meme on to me. The girlfriend turned out to be a flake, but the idea of watching all these movies has stuck with me. Before the internet it was slow going, I went through a bunch of video store memberships scouring out the old movies sections and wondering where in the hell was I going to find all of these films. The age of Netflix has made this particular quest much easier, and I would have completed it sooner if it were not also a cornucopia of time-consuming entertainment.

I have learned quite a bit about movies, American history, and perhaps even myself in the process. The biggest and greatest thing I have learned is:

The Academy Sucks

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences started the awards to recognize excellence of professionals in the film industry. I'm sure that there was a little self-promotional interest in creating the awards as well. Awards are voted on by Academy members, mostly film professionals, with actors currently the largest voting bloc. And frankly, their taste in movies sucks.

I can't really speak to some of the older awards, because I have never seen the other nominees. But of contemporary films, especially those released in my lifetime, I have a broader selection to compare with and I would not have chosen most of the winners.

For example, in 1979 Kramer vs. Kramer beat Apocalypse Now. Raiders of the Lost Ark lost to Chariots of Fire in 1981. And from 1983, which film would you have given the award to, The Big Chill, The Right Stuff, or Terms of Endearment? Other big losers include The Shawshank Redemption, Goodfellas, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Star Wars.

To be fair, some of the losers that are highly regarded had some pretty tough competition. The beautiful Doctor Zhivago lost to The Sound of Music in 1965. That one could have gone either way and I would have been pleased with the choice. In 2003 the films nominated for best picture included Seabiscuit, Mystic River, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and Lost in Translation. You can pretty much throw a dart while blindfolded and hit a winner on that list. It was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King that took the prize that year. And if you are interested in a year with some serious competition, look back to 1939. The nominees that year included The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Of Mice and Men, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The winner that year was Gone with the Wind. What a great year to be a connoisseur of cinema.

A few years with a tough decision to make does not let the Academy off the hook though. In 1941 both Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon were nominated and lost the award to How Green Was My Valley. In 1946, It's a Wonderful Life lost to The Best Years of Our Lives. Dr. Strangelove lost to My Fair Lady in 1964. The Academy has picked wrong far too many times for me to trust their judgement.

The worst of the best

Don't let that "Best Picture" title fool you, many of the award winners downright sucked. Here are some titles notable for being the worst of the Best Picture list.

Hamlet (1948). Great source material does not always make a great movie. This film was a stinker. Every last line, even the funny bits, were delivered as slowly and dramatically as possible. Imagine, if you will, having William Shatner performing each part with the greatest dramatic intensity he can muster. "Rozencrantz! And! Guildenstern! Are! Dead!"

Tom Jones (1963). A completely empty headed tribute to misogyny. A good for nothing philandering bum of a hero can do no wrong, while the many women he philanders with can do no right. This film is the poster child for how to hate the hero.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989). So the good natured black chauffeur has lots in common with the stick up her ass Jewish white lady he drives around. You don't need to sit through the entire boring film to get this point. This film has no high points, interesting visuals, memorable scenes, or even much to think about.

And my absolute least favorite, worst of the best, most gawdawfull Best Picture ever: Around the World in 80 Days (1956). This film was nothing but a huge circle jerk of ego stroking for the hollywood hipsters of the day. Let us forgive all the racist moments in the film and all the blatant ethnic stereotyping. It was the 50's; they didn't know any better. This film was awful because it was boring as all fuck. This film was awful because the characters were cliché driven and had no actual development to them. This film was awful because it started with some wonderful source material and was re-written to be clever; and by clever I mean bad. And there was a reason that this awful film won. Apparently everybody who was anybody in Hollywood that year had a little cameo role in it. I recognized Frank Sinatra as the piano player in the San Francisco saloon, but that was about it for my recognizing the parade of who's who. A modern audience can certainly tell that lots of important people make an appearance in the movie, constantly throughout the entire film the camera will linger a little too long on some person in the background or someone with a bit part in the scene. That I can name only one of those people a half century later indicates to me that they were merly self-important. The films nominated that year included The Ten Commandments, The King and I, and Giant. This stupid movie won because half the Academy appeared in it.

The Best of the Best

The Best Picture list certainly had some pleasant surprises in it for me. I have to give high marks to some very old movies. All Quiet on the Western Front, the third film to win the award back in 1929-1930, was quite good. As was Mutiny on the Bounty from 1935. Humphry Bogart proves himself to be a stellar actor in Casablanca, 1943. And I will hold On The Waterfront from 1954 up against any modern film for its high quality and excellent storytelling.

The Best Picture quest has given me an appreciation for musicals that I was not expecting. Don't overlook Gigi(1958) for its entertainment value. It's hard not to like The Sound of Music(1965); and I am now a big fan of West Side Story(1961). Even My Fair Lady(1964) had me singing along. For fun flashbacks to how your grandparents (or great grandparents) liked to be entertained, look to The Great Ziegfeld(1936). The Broadway Melody(1928-1929) can also bring a smile, but back then they apparently thought it was okay to have only one song for an entire musical.

High quality war movies appear throughout the best picture list. Platoon(1986), The Deer Hunter(1978), Patton(1970), Lawrence of Arabia(1962), The Bridge on the River Kwai(1957), All Quiet on the Western Front(1929-1930). All good stuff.

Comedy is a little lacking. You Can't Take It With You(1938) is better when performed on stage. There was Annie Hall(1977), but you have to appreciate Woody Allen to enjoy it and not everyone appreciates Woody Allen. Shakespeare in Love(1998) counts as a romantic comedy, but I think It Happened One Night(1934) is the better romantic comedy. The Apartment(1960) is my favorite comedy, but its serious side weighs down the laughs it starts with and makes it hard to identify as comedy.

The political films from the list impressed me. The Life of Emile Zola(1937), All the Kings Men(1949), A Man for All Seasons(1966). If you don't like the way things are going, politically speaking, immerse yourself in these films for a different point of view.

There are only three westerns on the list. Unforgiven(1992) is quite possibly the best western genre film of all time. No Country for Old Men(2007) just barely qualifies as western. Cimarron(1930-1931) is only interesting for the historical perspective.

Other films worth going out of your way for: Grand Hotel(1931-1932), All About Eve(1950), Midnight Cowboy(1969), The Godfather(1972), and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest(1975).

Cinema and history

Browsing through 80 years worth of films gives an enlightening view of history. The evolution of the cinematic art form is fascinating and the changing culture we live in is illustrated better than any anthropologist could hope for.

Films of the 30's and 40's relied quite heavily on dialog and conversation to move the plot forward. Alfred Hitchcock's only best picture winner, Rebecca (1940) is a perfect example. The plot has all the twists and mind games one would expect from a Hitchcock film, but they are almost entirely presented through dialog. As a modern filmgoer who is used to a more visual story telling style, I found it somewhere between a challenge to follow and a bore.

As for the film making arts, following the chronology of films through the decades is like watching a flower bloom. Each new generation of filmakers can be seen borrowing heavily from their predecessors' best moments and adding their own new ideas. Sets and locations grow more complex and far flung. Soundscapes grow richer. Camera angles and motions become more interesting. Editing and pacing become more exciting. Gone With the Wind from 1939 was an epic film, the first all color film to win Best Picture. With spectacular images, huge cast, and a sweeping story line it set a high standard for what an epic film ought to be. Compare that to a modern epic like Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King from 2003 and the old epic feels pale and slow.

Film arts are not the only historical insight the Best Picture list offers. I found myself reveling in the peek at past cultures. There was an obvious emphasis on family life in early films. Cimmarron(1930-1931), You Can't Take it With You(1938), How Green Was My Valley(1941), Mrs. Miniver(1942), The Best Years of our Lives(1946), and Gentleman's Agreement(1947) all featured entire families as the protagonist. In the modern era families have not been important since Terms of Endearment in 1983. The best a modern film can offer are the faux families in Million Dollar Baby(2004) or Driving Miss Daisy(1989); or the broken and struggling families from American Beauty(1999) and Slumdog Millionaire(2008). The individual has grown to be more important than the family over the past century.

The taboos of culture could play a part in that shift. The Best Years of our Lives(1946) told the tale of three servicemen returning home from World War II. One serviceman finds his wife having an affair with another man. The film tap dances carefully around the adultery like it is reluctant to admit what is going on, even though it is an important point in the plot. The couple is always referred to as having "an unhappy marriage." Even in the scene where the cuckolded husband comes home to find wife and lover together in his apartment, there is not a hint of sex anywhere in the dialog or in the visuals. Everyone is fully dressed and no one will directly speak about what is obviously going on. Compare and contrast this with the adultery and blatant sexual content in American Beauty(1999). I am disappointed in the older film for its inability to be up front and forthcoming, but comparing it to the newer film suggests that our culture may have lost something important when we shed our taboos.

The rituals of romance have also evolved over the years. In Marty(1955) Ernest Borgnine goes from dedicated bachelor living with mom to marriage ready husband material over the course of one date. This film emphasizes how very important it is to be coupled up with someone and that there is something not quite right about single men. Less than ten years later we have Tom Jones(1963) gallivanting around England and sleeping with anything that has two legs and a vagina. This film celebrates how truly awesome it is to be an upperclassman amongst poor wenches and a single guy in a world where women are the lesser citizens. And the consequences of all this philandering? None that I could see.

And how about those romantic kids in Titanic(1997)? The classic story of love spanning the gap between cultures and classes. Heartwarming isn't it? For another take on the rich girl, common guy theme, look back to It Happened One Night(1934). Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert do a much better job than their contemporary counterparts in teaching each other, and the audience, about the finer points of their respective backgrounds.

The best picture list clearly defines World War II as the greatest source of cultural change our society has seen during the history of cinema. There are eight Best Pictures that take place in and around the events of WWII. From Mrs. Miniver(1942) with its prophetic optimism about the uncertain outcome of an ongoing war. Up to Schindler's List(1993) revisiting the human crises. The war gave filmmakers a huge stable of stories to tell with fascinating and heroic characters and exotic and worldly backdrops. Patton(1970) and The Bridge on the River Kwai(1957) showed us the best and worse of our military leaders. Casablanca(1943) and The Best Years of our Lives(1946) show us the struggles of ordinary people swept up by world events and coping with the aftermath.

Prior to the war, films that emphasized entertainment and leisure such as The Great Ziegfeld(1936) or You Can't Take it With You(1938) outnumbered films with a social message such as All Quiet on the Western Front(1929-1930) or The Life of Emile Zola(1937). After the war it is as though filmmakers found a new voice to speak with. It is as though frivolous entertainment was suddenly unimportant. Movies like The Lost Weekend(1945) and Gentleman's Agreement(1947) began pointing a spotlight on uncomfortable social truths. Even films about entertainment such as All About Eve(1950) and The Greatest Show on Earth(1952) featured characters with greater depth and more complex challenges than the big screen had seen before.

The growth of a filmgoer

A lot can happen to a person in 15 years. Since I made the goal of watching all these films I have lived at six different addresses, held four different jobs and gained over 30 pounds. It is hard to point to a list of 80 movies and say it changed my life. Even so, I think these movies have affected who I am. Without this quest I would never have bothered to see most of the movies older than I am. That would have left me horribly deprived of musicals. Singing and dancing spectacles are in fact great fun.

But it goes deeper than that. I am more open minded about my entertainment in general. In forcing myself to watch some films that I would have otherwise passed over I can recognize the merits of having an open mind and trying new things. I have been able to internalize the philosophy of "don't knock it until you have tried it." From clothing styles to racquetball, the best picture list has helped me encounter the new.

I would also like to claim a better critical eye. With a wide swath of movies to compare and contrast with it is now possible for me to better recognize quality as opposed to shiny gimmicks. The movies have helped me recognize this in other mediums as well.

The list has given me an illustrated guide to the history of my culture from the past 80 years. Filmmakers have accidentally captured dozens of topics from education to fashion to personal relationships when they thought they were filming something else. Watching phenomena like racism go from blatant to scorned. Watching technology like telephones change our society; from the businessmen in Grand Hotel(1931-1932) using them sparsely, to the gangsters of The Departed(2006) making them a part of their personalities. Life styles, cities and ideas have all risen and fallen on the big screen. This map of the past creates a fabulous glimpse into the possibilities of the future and reminds us that in all things, change is the only constant.

And so it is with me. For having perused the past, I am more ready for the future. For having studied the best I can now recognize the worst. Because films are ultimately about people they give us insight into how people act at their best and their worst and even at how it feels to cross the thin line between the two. The best picture quest has left me wiser and more mature for having completed it. I can only hope my next great quest, whatever that may be, will have such a profound impact on me.

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