Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Powerful Performances, Hope Found in Precious

Some movies are made to entertain us; to do nothing more than make us laugh, feel good, or astonish us. Some movies are made to teach us something (most of these prefer a smack on the head over an encouraging nudge). And then there are those movies that are made purely about a way of life; for some people these are fairly relatable, but for others they are an insight into an experience they will never know. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is a movie that falls under the final category.

The film, in case you’ve been living in a hole since November, concerns a teenage African-American girl who is obese, not yet out of junior high, pregnant with her second child, and living in Harlem in the late 1980s. Oh, and her children are the result of an occasional raping by her father – which is, of course, no secret to her mom. Does the story sound depressing enough yet? Well, you’ll be happy to know that the first child has Down ’s syndrome. The main character, Claireece ‘Precious’ Jones, is also lucky enough to have the most vitriolic, apathetic mother in film history (played by Mo’Nique).

I went into Precious expecting something akin to the weight and sincerity of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, with imagery that’s only half as horrifying as that film’s. On the other hand, when one looks at the film’s pedigree (that it’s executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry) one could expect the African American community’s equivalent of Crash, an overbearing message movie. I’m pleased to report that Precious falls into neither of these extremes. Instead of a film that is depressed and hopeless, it’s a film with hope, levity, and possibility. Instead of brushing with broad strokes and thin characters in order to hammer a point in your head like a railroad spike, Precious is full of living, breathing characters and doesn’t concern itself with a Message.

Sorry to say, Precious is not the depressing night at the movies some of you might’ve been hoping for or heard it was.

Yes, there is a wealth of grim, disturbing scenes wherein Precious’s mother, Mary, berates and beats her quiet, obedient slave of a daughter. And there is one rape scene (don’t worry; it doesn’t get as graphic as you might think). But our heroine’s life comes upon some happy moments when she secretly attends an alternative school after being expelled from her previous school for being pregnant. Her class only has about five other students, but they all eventually bring enjoyment to each other’s lives while improving their own individual situations through education. This may sound a little too pat, but it works well in this film and avoids the cliché of most urban school films. The reason: these scenes are within a social-realist film where every character avoids caricature and feels less like a character and more like a real person.

And there are some surprises in that regard. Let’s run down the list: Mariah Carey, star of 2001’s Razzie gem Glitter. She plays the welfare office worker that Precious is ordered to “get her ass” to see. This is no two-minute novelty cameo; Carey inhabits this pivotal role just as well as any faceless character actor and is almost reason enough to see this movie. Carey’s Mrs. Weiss needs to interview Precious about her home life in order to sign off the check Precious is assigned to get each week (or is it month? The movie never makes it clear). You can guess where that leads.

Paula Patton, who I’m not familiar with beforehand, plays Precious’s teacher with the unlikely name Blu Rain. This could’ve been the African American equivalent of Edward James Olmos’s Mr. Escalante from Stand and Deliver, which was about a real teacher. The fact that Patton doesn’t and becomes just as real – if not more so – is amazing. Ms. Rain realizes that not all of her students will succeed, but after Precious and Ms. Rain become privy to each other’s personal lives she pushes Precious to excel. There are a couple really moving moments between Ms. Rain and Precious that are well-earned and avoid after-school special schlock.

Mo’Nique has earned most of the buzz for her performance as Mary, mother of Precious. You wonder why Mary nicknamed her daughter ‘Precious’, because she treats her as something she regards in the lowest esteem. In fact, that is the effect Mary has on Precious, low self-esteem. Mary calls her fat, lazy, bitch, dummy – it gets a lot worse. This is the woman you hear yelling on the other side of your apartment wall, but rarely see. You rarely see her, because Mary seems to rely on welfare to pay for her busy schedule of watching TV, sleeping, smoking cigarettes, eating, and bossing around and berating Precious – all from her recliner. I’m pretty sure I only saw Mary in two scenes outside her poorly lit apartment. Mary is the kind of character whose actions you dread in almost every scene. She will go from benign foul-mouthing to being suddenly by your side, swinging a pan at your head. I won’t tell you the dread I felt each time a child was in this woman’s arms. Mo’Nique delved into some really dark and psychologically messed up places for this role, as the climactic monologue makes all too clear. It is incredible, because this isn’t a comic actor stretching her dramatic chops to show off. A performance this dimensional about its maliciousness is a lock for the Best Supporting Actress of 2009 for any awards ceremony.

Finally, we have Precious herself, played by Gabourey Sidibe. It’s impressive enough that this is the first time Sidibe has ever been in front of the camera, but that this is her first time acting ever is shocking. This movie works as well as it does because of this incredible debut performance. Precious is a large presence with a bit of her mom’s attitude, but thinks so little of herself that she wishes she were somebody else completely. She has fantasies about being a skinny, white starlet or living a much more glamorous lifestyle with “one of those BET music videos”, because her life of daily emotional and physical trauma tells her she’s worthless and unlovable. Sidibe doesn’t play this amateurishly; she’s as nuanced and poignant as any seasoned actress. She doesn’t overdo the broken talk, illiteracy, anger, deviousness, pain, yearning, or joy. No, she plays it all as if she is Precious and we’re watching a documentary of her life. This is the most astounding performance I saw by a female from 2009 and I can say sight unseen that it blows that sassy blonde Texan savior out of the competition for snagging an Oscar. In fact, the possibility of a white actress winning for a crowd-pleasing feel-good role over a debut as stunning as Precious by an African American is too offensive to consider.

It should be noted there are small momentary flaws in Precious that exist when one puts some thought into it (why wouldn’t someone take a dropped newborn immediately to a hospital?). But they in no way hurt the film or its overall effectiveness. And the film has a certain ambiguous quality as to what happens after Precious walks out of the welfare office in the end. I’ll avoid being specific so as to avoid spoiling what little can be spoiled about this film.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is one of those films that will make your life’s hurdles seem insignificant by comparison. It is a film that gives us a peek at the lives of those we’re too comfortable with our PTAs, fast food, and warm holidays to pay any mind. Precious is someone that each of us has passed on the street and ignored or quietly mocked. And that is why many people staring at the Red Box, looking for a good movie for the weekend will overlook this film.

Push yourself to give this great addition to African American cinema – and truly one of its year’s best films - a look. At times, it will move you. At others, it may shock you… but it will also occasionally make you smile.


8/10

Should you see it?  Rent

Precious: Based on the Novel by Sapphire will be on DVD and Blu-Ray on March 9th.

CORRECTION: Bullock's character in The Blind Side is from Memphis, TN - not Texas. Apologies.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Remember That Movie: The Italian Job

I was recently reminded of this 2003 remake of a late ‘60s caper film, this one starring Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron. But all I could really remember was that it existed and it served as a great advertisement for Mini Coopers, those half-pint Euro-cars that could fit in your bedroom. Apparently, there was a reason for this, because there really isn’t much else to remember from this film.

The Italian Job, directed by F. Gary Gray (Law Abiding Citizen, Be Cool), is about a group of professional thieves who get betrayed by one of their own and seek to get back what they deem is theirs. Mark Whalberg stars as Charlie and Donald Sutherland is John Bridger, the retired leader of the group who is passing the torch to Charlie, the son he never had. The rest of the troupe includes Seth Green, the tech specialist; Mos Def, explosives expert; Jason Statham, the charismatic hunk; and Edward Norton, who doesn’t appear to specialize in anything. Charlize Theron plays Stella, a professional safe-cracker who works for the law, but has a connection to Charlie’s team. If you watch closely, you’ll also see appearances by 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit and your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man!

Edward Norton, usually excellent in everything he does, is as crooked as his moustache. He turns coat, ambushing the team, killing one of their own, and running off with their gold. The team of thieves regroups and searches for Norton, preparing to steal the gold back. Of course, the job isn’t easy so Charlie enlists Stella’s help.

I have not seen the original, but apparently the remake incorporates two key elements from it: 1) use of the mini-coupes as getaway vehicles and 2) changing the traffic lights to create a traffic jam. That may be great for the small percentage of people who have seen and remember the original Michael Caine flick, but here it comes off more like “Gee, aren’t these cars cool?” product placement.

This caper is fluff all around. The jokes are light, the stakes are light, and the characters are light. The banter flies around the team, but instead of hilarious it falls flat every time. The film seems to try to hit the action beats, but instead of awesome they’re bland. And the scenes where the team sneaks into Norton’s mansion and works their magic are mildly interesting instead of intense. Norton’s villain is more Snidley Whiplash than menacing rival. Sure, he kills a couple people, but I never believed for a second that he would get the upper hand or that the main characters were in any real danger. And there’s a Ukrainian nasty that’s thrown in (also a page from the original) and feels unnecessary and unjustified.

It is enjoyable being in the company of this cast, especially Charlize Theron who steals every moment she’s on screen and who’s presence is sadly lacking in theaters these days. But unless you’re looking for a breezy, forgettable way to waste an hour and a half The Italian Job will only rob you of that time.

5/10

Should you see it? Skip

The Italian Job is available on DVD and Blu-Ray now.

The Lightning Thief Lacks Spark

He’s a boy who discovers he’s got an unusual heritage. He’s the target of many villainous creatures. He becomes the newest recruit in a school for special kids like him. And he becomes the star in an extraordinary sport.

No, we’re not talking about Harry Potter. Meet Percy Jackson, the latest of many run-of-the-mill Potter wannabe’s. The one defining trait of The Lightning Thief and the rest of the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series is it is steeped in Greek mythology.

Percy is a young man (high-schooler in the film, younger in the book) who is discovered to be the half-man, half-god – or demigod – son of Poseidon, god of all things aquatic. Percy is suspected by many in the Greek God posse to have stolen Zeus’s lightning bolt. Some want the bolt to satisfy their own control issues. Others want to help Percy return the bolt to its rightful owner and prevent war among the gods. Percy is quickly whisked away to Camp Half-Blood, a safe haven that trains young demigods to become better fighters and discover their potential in whatever abilities their bloodlines bestowed upon them. Percy discovers his best friend, Grover, is actually a satyr (half-human, half-goat) who is assigned to protect Percy no matter what. And Percy makes fast – if wary – friends with the camp hottie, Annabeth, who is a descendant of Athena, Goddess of wisdom and tactical strategy. Percy decides to leave camp to save someone close to him from the Underworld, home of Hades, and possibly clear up this lightning bolt business. Therefore, the trio assembles and is tasked with traveling across the United States in search of magic pearls that will allow them safe return.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is directed by Chris Columbus, who faithfully directed the first two Harry Potter films. In those films, Columbus took the time (some say injuriously so) to build the world of Hogwarts and the characters within the Potter universe, including Potter himself. One would think that would be promising for a property that is an inferior cousin to the Potter series, perhaps resulting in something superior than its source. Not so, it turns out. It’s as if Columbus heard the criticisms of his Potter films and decided to not only alter the story this time around, but also reduce character development to its most meager extent.

The script, written by Chris Titley (Cheaper by the Dozen, Scooby-Doo), trades in the episodic and coincidental plot of the novel for what feels like a video game quest. Percy must find X object and beat the boss creature in order to move on to the next environment. As a result, the villainous characters never really resonate. Uma Thurman plays Medusa and Steve Coogan is Hades. Rosario Dawson is having the most fun as the disgruntled wife of Hades, Persephone (who was not in the book). Rick Riordan’s novel, while transparent, takes the time with each of the villains. Titley’s script can’t be bothered with much rising tension and cuts to the chase. Thurman and Coogan try to bring presence to their roles, but fall short simply because their characters lack even the slightest bit of… well, character. Characters were either deleted or skimmed and key story points were altered. What little was good about, in truth, a mediocre book is changed and very little improvements are made to offset those changes.

Uma Thurman and Pierce Brosnan – as Chiron, a centaur that seems to head Camp Half-Blood – are the stand-out adult characters. However, they pale in comparison to Bellatrix and Dumbledore of the Harry Potter series. That said, the three leads – Logan Lerman (Gamer) as Percy, Brandon T. Jackson (Tooth Fairy) as Grover, and Alexandria Daddario (The Babysitters) as Annabeth – are impressive, but not given nearly the depth of those in that other fantasy film series. This is a shame, because they seem capable of pulling off something better if given the opportunity this film failed to present. In fact, Brandon T. Jackson’s Grover turned out to be one of the better improvements over the source’s groveling and whiny sidekick.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief’s biggest problem, however, is it tells the audience everything and shows nothing. It rushes through every character moment to get to the adventure. So, it tells the audience right off the bat what the story’s conflict is. It tells who Percy is, including what his challenges (or gifts) are, and who his father is. It tells the audience that Joe Pantoliano’s Gabe is a drunken louse of a step-father. And it tells us that Grover eats aluminum cans. But it never says why any of these things are the case or gradually introduces them. This is The Lightning Thief’s biggest crime and why it comes nowhere close to the quality of even one Harry Potter film.

What aims to be fantasy wish-fulfillment for every ADHD kid who feels different or freakish ends up being a trifling whim. The Lightning Thief introduces us to something that could’ve been different with its integration of Greek mythology and fantasy action. But thanks to weak direction and a script that failed to build upon its mediocre source, all the energy is stolen from a promising new franchise.

4/10

Should you see it? Skip

Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief is out now in theaters.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Oscar picks

So, now that I recently dismembered the Academy Awards, I'll put out there my picks for who should win a few of this year's Oscars.

I admit, I haven't seen everything that is nominated (only 6/10 Best Picture nominees).  But I've kept up, read, and heard a lot about each of them, so my opinion is a resulting conglomerate of what I've seen and my impressions based on those things.  So, here's my first (and sometimes 2nd) choices:

Best Picture:  The Hurt Locker or Inglorious Basterds
    Anybody who's seen these films can understand these are the two greatest films of the year.  While Inglorious Basterds is probably the slightly better film since it has more to it than what's on the surface, I'm more partial to The Hurt Locker.  But these two are the most solid of the 10 picks.

Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow or James Cameron
    Who can argue against Kathryn Bigelow's work in The Hurt Locker?  I wouldn't be too bothered about James Cameron getting the directing kudos simply because he worked his ass off creating new technology and working the camera more than he has in his career.  He achieved quite a lot and should be proud of his hard work.

Best Actor: Jeremy Renner or George Clooney
    Now, everyone is saying that Jeff Bridges is a lock for this award.  I have not seen his performance, so I don't know how well it stacks up.  But nobody I saw last year compared to Jeremy Renner's understated wild man.  George Clooney is a close second with his performance in Up in the Air.

Best Actress: Carey Mulligan or Gabey Sidibe
    I haven't seen any of the nominated performances.  But a process of elimination and common sense leaves it to these two.  Meryl Streep gave good, but unexceptional performance as an idea of Julia Child.  Helen Mirren is practically a dark horse.  Everybody is talking up Sandra Bullock's performance in the feel-good hit The Blind Side.  But does it honestly measure above an African American illiterate and sexually-abused teen who dreams of a better life?  Or a young woman who is intellectually seduced by her teacher in the 1960s?  Mulligan and Sidibe are practically new to acting (Sidibe had never acted a day before stepping in front of the camera for Precious).  The fact that they gave such lauded performances with such little background is impressive enough to win the award.

Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
    Hands-down the obvious choice.  His Hans Landa is the Sherlock Holmes of 2009... if Holmes worked for the Nazis and spoke four languages fluently.  There isn't a craftier, more brilliant (if dangerous) character nominated than this one.

Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique or the Up in the Air women
    Mo'Nique's role as the vitriolic mother in Precious is tailor-made for Oscar - especially when played so out-of-left-field by someone like Mo'Nique.  The only competition with any weight to them is Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick from Up in the Air.  They both brought so much dimension to that film and its main character that it's a shame they can't both be awarded in some way.

Best Original Screenplay: Inglorious Basterds
    I've seen 3 out of 5 of these films.  With its prolonged scenes of brilliant dialogue, intriguing characters, and endless movie references, Inglorious Basterds is the top dog here.

Best Animated Feature: Up or Fantastic Mr. Fox
    Again, I've seen 3 out of 5 of these films.  Up has the Pixar pedigree - and is one of the most touching and thrilling films of 2009.  Fantastic Mr. Fox is unique and hilarious - and underappreciated.  Both are the better picks.

Best Visual Effects: Avatar
    I usually don't pay this award much attention.  But this year it goes without saying that Avatar had the best visual achievement.


So, for what it's worth, those are my thoughts on the Academy Award nominations.  Oscar will very possibly prove itself to lack any credibility and give Avatar and The Blind Side top honors.  But we'll see.

Film Faves: 2009

Welcome to my first edition of a new feature called Film Faves.  In this feature, I will list my favorite films of a given year and talk a bit about why each is a favorite. 

Now, every time somebody tries to create a top ten list of movies there's always those "honorable mentions", those films that just barely got edged out of the group.  Well, I thought I'd cut down on all that and instead of listing 10 movies of each year, I'll list 12!  A dozen films from each year; sometimes easy, sometimes... not so easy.

Now, unlike my feature The Best of the Decade, this is not to be taken as a serious, unbiased, objective statement on movies.  This is a favorites list, not a best-of list; the films I enjoyed and gravitate to most.  So, let's have some fun!

2009

12. Where the Wild Things Are

This was a rare entry in the children’s movie genre; it was quiet and understated, and avoided talking down to kids and being cloying. It also had a very indie aesthetic to it, sort of the Sundance version of a fantasy film, if you will. I wasn’t as overwhelmingly moved by the film as I was with the trailer, but I did find so much to appreciate and love. The story was excellently fleshed out into something unique that was less directed at children as it was about what it’s like being a child. It’s a children’s story for older kids and adults. I took my 10 year-old to it and he was able to pick up on the creature’s metaphors for Max’s emotions and personalities. And Max Records is a treasure, avoiding the typical cutesy and precious angle on the story’s nuanced emotions. He is every boy you see playing in your local playground. I truly enjoyed this underappreciated gem.


11. Avatar
 I've gotta say right off: I found the story completely predictable the whole way through. And there were about four or five lines of dialogue that fell flat. But this was the only film last year that I saw twice at the theater (once at a real IMAX screen). That’s because this movie rose above its flaws to become one of the most rousing, most enjoyable times I had at the theater. There are decent arguments about the film’s lasting appeal, but for now I can’t help but marvel at its CGI; the detail of the Na’vi is incredible (from pulsing veins and tendons, to the texture of the skin). Pandora is just eye-candy at its purest and greatest.  And I'm a sucker for great sci-fi battle scenes.


10. Up in the Air
 This was all about the performances for me. George Clooney continues to validate his status as a star, channeling something akin to Cary Grant. And Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are both equally intriguing and avoid playing second fiddle to Clooney.  Jason Reitman scored again with a story that is timely and open to interpretation.  We rarely see a film this classy these days.


9. Star Trek
 This was simply a blast! Yes, if you think about the villain’s story and the continuity-altering storyline too much it shows its share of cracks. But Star Trek doesn’t allow you to think about it while you’re watching, because it is non-stop fun! I went into most of last year’s summer blockbusters with mild interest and this one impressed and surprised me the most. I am looking forward to the sequel to this reboot.


8. I Love You, Man
 Easily, the funniest comedy I saw last year (no, I haven’t yet seen The Hangover). No movie said more about man/man friendships (or spoke truest to me) than this one. But, then again, I am a lot like Paul Rudd’s character. And who wouldn’t want Jason Segel as a friend, anyway?


7. The Hurt Locker
 Of the two greatest films I saw of 2009 (the other being Inglorious Basterds), this was the one I enjoyed the most. I have no doubt that Kathryn Bigelow has made her finest film with The Hurt Locker. It in no way moralizes or takes sides on a particular war. It simply gives the viewer an insight into the kind of problems soldiers face in war and three different ways it affects them. Jeremy Renner was fantastic as a commanding officer who’s got some serious thrill-junkie issues underneath the surface that will some day lead to his demise.  This should win at least half of the Oscars it's nominated for.


6. Zombieland
 While it may lack the heart and character-development of its predecessor, Shaun of the Dead, this film is still a lot of fun. More of a comedy than a horror, this film is all about the joys of killing zombies – and the rules one must abide by in order to survive. Pure escapist fun.


5. Up
 There were plenty of animated movies that I enjoyed last year, but I have to rank this one as my favorite. Greatly detailed, beautifully presented, plus a funny and touching story with grand adventure mixed in. And probably the only animated film of the last year to truly move me – twice.


4. Watchmen
 My fiancée and I are fans of the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, so when we saw the first trailer for this film, we went nuts and re-watched it, frothing in anticipation of the film’s release. This was perhaps the most geek-tastic experience I had this year at the movies and only because director Zack Snyder worked so hard at being true to the source (unlike those behind X-Men Origins: Wolverine). Now, it was not perfect (a couple music queues hurt the experience a bit), but the overall experience was spectacular. And it got even better with the Director’s Cut (only one music queue still stung – the sex scene – and the film lacks levity, which can make it a difficult watch). But there is no way this film could’ve been pulled off any better.  Dark, ultra-violent, lengthy, layered, and based on a property little-known by the masses - I'm thrilled this movie exists.


3. Paranormal Activity
 Up until now, Arachnophobia was the scariest movie I’d ever seen (seriously, spiders are stay-up-all-night scary!). And then this movie came along and scared me more than any other film I’ve seen my entire life.  Each time the shot changed to that night-vision green, I was literally on the edge of my seat, uncertain if I could handle what would happen next. This movie plays on elements of home invasion, loss of control, and sells the idea that demons are much more dangerous than ghosts. Some people weren’t affected by this, but it affected me and I had a great time for it (as did the friend who went with me).


2. District 9
 So, the circumstances in which I saw this film (which I won’t go into) wasn’t so great. But this was the smartest alien-related sci-fi film I’ve seen in years. The apartheid parallel was a great story device. And the movie just flew by for me; not a single boring scene. This, Moon, and Paranormal Activity were great examples of how you can do so much with very little money (admittedly, District 9 had the bigger budget of the three with $30 million). Of the year’s sci-fi films, this was the closest to perfection.  I can’t wait to see this one again.


1. (500) Days of Summer
 All right, anybody who knows or works with me should not be surprised that this is my favorite film of 2009.  After listening to the /Filmcast interview the director, Marc Webb, and glowingly review the film, watching the trailer, and buying the soundtrack, I was already in love with this movie – before I had even seen it!  Why?  Because so few romance movies are this smart, have this much heart in it, music that serve the story so well, characters this believable, and look at love and relationships in such a way that this film did.  Not only was the story effectively told in such a way as to convincingly convey Tom’s (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) perspective – and how he blinded himself to reality – but there were really great devices that were used to execute the story (musical number, split-screens, non-linear editing) that you won’t find in any Nicholas Sparks, Garry Marshall, Kate Hudson, Sandra Bullock, Stephanie Meyer, Jennifer Lopez, or (I’m sorry) Jennifer Aniston film.  Smart, funny, well-acted, and wholly relatable – this is the best romance movie I’ve seen in a long time and I love it.


 
Those are my favorite films of 2009.  I will continue this monthly feature, going year-by-year back in time.  That means, next month Film Faves will focus on films of 2008!  Let me know what you think.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Oh Academy, My Academy: The Fall of the Best Picture Award

Over the years, there’s been much debate over the Academy Awards’ recent picks, particularly for Best Picture. The nominations for Best Picture were extended this year from the usual five to ten, considered by most to allow for more popular fare to have a shot at being represented. The nominees for the Academy Awards were announced yesterday and the list would certainly support this theory since it includes movies like Avatar and The Blind Side. This is the culmination of what has long-been the disintegration of the award season’s integrity and merit, and in turn the regard with which the critical community and public give the Academy Awards.

The Academy Awards (nicknamed the Oscars after its statuette), first bowed in 1929. Its purpose: to honor excellence in cinematic achievements. It is considered the most prestigious award in the United States for the film industry. It upheld those beliefs consistently for the better part of seventy years. Oscar has since fallen from grace and seems to have lost the respect of the general public and the critical community. What happened? And if the Academy Awards are no longer the ultimate measure of the best film has to offer, what is?

Before we go any further, since we’re talking about something that awards the best in film for any given year, it is important to briefly discern what makes a movie the best. Well, since every film has to be taken on its own terms because comparing some films are like comparing apples to oranges, the most deciding factor must be which film best achieved what it set out to do with the least amount of flaws. Look through Oscar history and you’ll find dozens of nearly flawless films given the Best Picture honor (we’ll get more into that in a bit). The only other factor would be a film’s influence on the art; how much it contributed something new to the art form. Sometimes this takes time to understand, which is why Pulp Fiction lost to Forrest Gump. Since movies are a collaborative effort, it takes more than the performances or effects to become a best picture contender – it is greatness on the finished product’s entirety. That is why most blockbusters (Transformers, Star Trek) or character studies (The Queen, Capote) don’t earn best picture: some other film achieved more on the whole. Therefore, the aforementioned aspects must be the prevailing factors as to what makes a film the best of the year.

Moving on, if one looks at the history of the winners and nominees for Oscar’s Best Picture award, he or she will find that in its 80+ year history the Best Pictures are mostly movies that are still referenced or talked about by filmmakers and movie-lovers to this day. These are the classics, the movies that truly were the best of their years. These include:


- Casablanca in 1943 (over For Whom the Bell Tolls, Heaven Can Wait, The More the Merrier, among others)
- The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 (over Henry V, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Yearling, The Razor’s Edge)
- From Here to Eternity in 1953 (over Julius Caesar, The Robe, Roman Holiday, and Shane)
- The Sound of Music in 1965 (over Darling, Doctor Zhivago, Ship of Fools, and A Thousand Clowns)
- The Godfather in 1972 (over Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants, and Sounder)
- Gandhi in 1982 (over E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Missing, Tootsie, and The Verdict)
- Unforgiven in 1992 (over The Crying Game, A Few Good Men, Howard’s End, and Scent of a Woman)
- Schindler’s List in 1993 (over The Fugitive, In the Name of the Father, The Piano, and The Remains of the Day)
- Braveheart in 1995 (over Babe, Apollo 13, Il Postino, and Sense and Sensibility)

just to name a few. There have, however, been a few blunders on the Academy’s part in terms of awarding the most prestigious accolade to the lesser or fleeting nominee. Some quick examples include:

- An American in Paris over A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951
- The Greatest Show on Earth over High Noon in 1952
- Around the World in 80 Days over Giant in 1956
- A Man for All Seasons over Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966
- Oliver! over the completely snubbed 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968
- Kramer vs. Kramer over Apocalypse Now in 1979
- Out of Africa over The Color Purple in 1985
- the aforementioned Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction in 1994
- Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan in 1998
- and the complete snubbing of Toy Story 2, The Matrix, Fight Club, and Being John Malkovich over The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, and The Insider in 1999.

but these examples (and others) are anomalies that number in the minority for most of the award’s history. However, they seemed to have become less so over time, which is why I stopped with 1999. Enduring influences aside, the past ten years is riddled with dubious Best Picture winners. The Lord of the Rings lost two years in a row (to A Beautiful Mind and Chicago), Crash beat out the favored Brokeback Mountain in 2005, The Dark Knight and The Wrestler were completely snubbed in 2008 (Slumdog Millionaire won). And now for 2009, it looks possible that films like The Hurt Locker and Inglorious Basterds could lose to Avatar or The Blind Side. What is going on?

Well, it’s been said there are two types of great movies: the populist blockbuster and the artsy important film. More often than not, the latter is favored over the former (so much so that the former type gets completely snubbed). Little by little, we’ve seen the movies that everybody saw take home the Oscar more often than not. It started out as mostly an oddity (occasionally the Sentimental Win). But it became more than that, starting with Titanic in 1998. To be fair, Titanic is one of those movies like The Sound of Music and Lawrence of Arabia before it that was certainly popular at the time (all three were the highest grossing films of their years), but also truly epic and great for its historical appeal (who didn’t feel practically aboard the sinking ship while watching in theaters?) and overall execution. But since then, nine of the Best Picture winners were the highest or second-highest grossing films of those nominated (Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, and Slumdog Millionaire). And now this year, the highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar, is nominated for Best Picture in a year when the nominations are expanded to include popular movies. Avatar may shape things to come due to its obscuring the line between real and CGI, but it is far from flawless, which begs the question: would it have been nominated for Best Picture if the Academy hadn’t opened the category up?

It’s important to note that the Oscars began televising in 1953 with 40 million viewers, a figure it held roughly until 1991 when the ratings increased steadily; peaking at 57.25 million in 1998 (the year Titanic won Best Picture). The ratings have decreased ever since to below 40 million for most of the past decade, bottoming out in 2008 with 31.76 million viewers (when No Country for Old Men took the top honor). Even though the Oscars have been nominating high-grossing films, the public seems to be losing interest. Evidence seems to be pointing toward an emphasis by the Academy with its nominations that is less on merit and more on popularity and viewership. It is desperate to maintain its esteem as the record-keeper of what is great. So says Oscar!

But Oscar is becoming The Great Oz and critics are, like Toto, the discoverers of the man behind the curtain, with the public following after a la Dorothy. Not only are films held in higher regard losing (Brokeback Mountain) or being ignored (The Dark Knight) occasionally, but it’s been apparent for years that there’s more behind the voting than merit. Aside from some winners simply not standing the test of time, the Academy seems to favor some kinds of stories over others. A popular joke is that if you make a movie about the Holocaust, you’ll get a nomination for Best Picture (if not win a performance award). Dramas with social messages are preferred more than any other story, which is why many cited last year’s Invictus, the story of Nelson Mandela, as Oscar-bait – even Morgan Freeman expected a Best Picture nom! Also, science fiction and animation has never had a film earn a Best Picture award (Avatar may be the first). And acting or directing prizes often have political or business influence. After years of being ignored or settled with a nomination, Martin Scorsese won his first Best Director award in 2006 for The Departed; he was nominated five times previously. After being snubbed for over a decade of dramatic work, Johnny Depp earned his first nomination for his biggest blockbuster and most flamboyant role in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Due to all of this – and more – critics have lost interest in the Academy Awards as an important statement of the best in film each year. Even Oscar’s little brother, the Golden Globes, which is considered an indicator of what will be nominated (and win or lose) at the Oscars, has lost some of its luster. Last month, the Golden Globes awarded mostly movies that made a lot of money and were more popular with average movie-goers than critically lauded. While Oscar may follow along next month, trying to court those audiences who paid lots of money for its nominees and thus completing its destruction of its own self-respect, it may be too late. And all we’ll have to look to is our own humble opinions of what is the best in film.


* all data and research found on Wikipedia’s Academy Awards page and its links.