My current Top 5

My current Top 5

3/30/2011

Number 64: Marty (Best Picture Ranking)

Prior to Marty, Best Picture winners were On the Waterfront, From Here to Eternity, The Greatest Show on Earth and An American in Paris and after Marty came Around the World in 80 Days, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Gig and Ben-Hur – it’s rather surprising to find a little, innocent and good-hearted love-story as the champion of 1955.

Marty is a little movie that depends on the two central actors. It doesn’t have any action scenes, no impressive score, no lush cinematography – it’s as little as a movie can be. This makes Marty a rather difficult movie to judge – it presents the love story between two lost and lonely souls in the most captivating and heart-warming way and there is so little happening that, basically, little could have gone wrong. But does that mean that it achieved its goal perfectly? Not really. Even though it didn’t take any risks and always played it safe, there are still some problems in the production.

Marty was Hollywood’s early journey into the world of realism – maybe because it deals with the simple problems of simple people but Marty never lets the viewers forget that this is still Hollywood’s version of realism. A realism in which a woman like Betsy Blair is considered a ‘dog’ and in which two people still fall in love in one night. But there is a fairy-tale like core in Marty that helps it to make this whole story believable and touching without overly romantic. And this is thanks to Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair who both inhabit their parts with dignity and a moving honesty. Especially Ernest Borgnine is the pillar that carries Marty – basically, he is Marty. Not just the character but also the movie. He perfectly displays his character’s worries and desperation, his feelings of being worthless while at the same time keeping a strangely cheery inside, as long as he is around people he is comfortable with. Betsy Blair may not be more than the object of affection but her quiet portrayal and her chemistry with Borgnine that is never sexual but always remains an innocent first step of falling in love become the emotional centre of the story.

Apart from these two actors, Marty unfortunately doesn’t offer a lot. The subplot with Marty’s brother feels more distracting than anything else and in a movie that offers so little plot, every problem in the structure becomes much more obvious than it usually would. And so it feels very constructed and forced that Marty’s mother, who always wanted her son to find the right woman, changes her mind about this just exactly the same night Marty finally meets his right woman. This may bring some drama to the plot before the end but it feels like a cheap trick that doesn’t work with the overall tone of the story.

Whenever Marty focuses on Borgnine and Blair, it shines. Otherwise, it looses that special touch and often feels strangely empty. It can be a little jewel when it wants to be and it’s refreshing to see such a small film take home the Oscar but at the same time the whole concept of two people falling in love without anything else isn’t enough to carry Marty to a higher position in this ranking.

3/29/2011

Number 65: Kramer vs. Kramer (Best Picture Ranking)

Like Terms of Endearment, Kramer vs. Kramer is a movie that depends almost completely on its actors. Both of these movie are never able to leave a certain feeling of ‘TV-movie’ behind them and its mostly the performances that carry it to a higher level. In the case of Terms of Endearment, this only succeeded in parts and while the performances were impressive, the overall movie left much to be desired. Kramer vs. Kramer on the other hand actually managed, despite certain obstacles, to leave a much bigger impression – maybe because of a very engaging and captivating plot that might have been presented in a TV-movie, too, but still feels rather timeless and significant.

As mentioned, Kramer vs. Kramer most of all lives from its ensemble. Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry are the emotional core of the story and to watch their relationship develop during their time alone is almost magical. Meryl Streep, too, shines in her part as a young wife and mother close to a mental breakdown. Jane Alexander should not be forgotten for her wonderful performance as a supportive neighbor and friend.

Overall, Kramer vs. Kramer benefits from the fact that even though it tells a story that may lack originality, it’s still a story that offers plenty of opportunities and Kramer vs. Kramer chose very wisely. The whole concept of a mother leaving her family is much more unusual than a man saying goodbye forever and the following story is carried wonderfully by Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry who are both so natural and relaxed in their work. Of course, sometimes the movie seems to worship the character of Ted Kramer a bit too much – he’s a single father who has to handle his job and his child; I am sure there are millions of people in exactly the same situation and they never get a movie made about their sacrifices. But overall, Robert Benton made the wise decision to keep the personal tone of the story for the entire running time – Kramer vs. Kramer never feels like a comment on society or like an attempt to be more meaningful than it really is, instead, it always remains a close story about the break-up of a marriage and the consequences for everyone involved.

Scenes like Ted running to the hospital with his son in his arms, Joanna saying goodnight to her son before she leaves him or the whole trial are very memorable and help to keep the flow of the story intact. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep also thankfully never appear to try to steal the show – instead, they are very natural and almost reserved in their work. It is no surprise that these two were honoured by the Academy since they carry the movie (to different extents). Like Terms of Endearment, Kramer vs. Kramer probably wouldn’t even be remembered today without the performances it contains but Kramer vs. Kramer managed to let these performances become part of its overall quality while the performances in Terms of Endearment overshadowed everything else.

Kramer vs. Kramer is an impressive and memorable movie that manages to be both moving and provoking – and while most of this is owed to the work from the actors, the screenplay and the direction were also able to capture the small, quiet moments of a small, quiet story beautifully.

Number 66: Around the World in 80 Days (Best Picture Ranking)

Another movie that is usually considered one of the worst winners in this category but I have to admit that Around the World in 80 Days provides some terrific entertainment, even though it still has various flaws which bring the overall quality down.

Considering the possibilities that Jules Verne’s novel offered, Around the World in 80 Days surely did many wrong turns. A lot of times, the movie unfortunately focused on too unimportant details and protracted the movie unnecessarily. And yes, at various moments, the whole production becomes a huge bore, which is certainly shocking considering that this is a story of endless opportunities. Right from the start, it all takes a rather slow turn – Passepartout beginning his job, all the scenes in the Reform Club, the long moments until they finally start. Not even David Niven and Cantinflas can save the movie at these early scenes, especially since these two actors also lack too much life and energy for this production. The story begins to improve once these two are up in the air, even though here, too, the whole movie takes too much time to celebrate its own glory – endless sequences of shots from the air give already the first impression that Around the World in 80 Days was made in a different time and for a different purpose. This movie not only wants to entertain, it wants to be as big as possible, showing audiences in America as much of the world as possible. While this may be a noble effort, the whole concept of almost never-ending shots of different landscapes, cultures, events is far too static, far too self-concerned to really work. Was it really necessary to include 5 minutes of flamenco dancing and what feels like 1 hour of bullfighting? Maybe audiences in 1956 were thrilled to see these figureheads of exotic cultures but even they must have felt a slight boredom at one point. Also not really working anymore are the famous cameos – while it may be nice to see Frank Sinatra playing the piano, this is just another aspect that doesn’t serve the story and only makes the movie longer than it had to be. In fact, it’s rather shocking that a movie that tells about a journey around the world in 80 days could have been half as long as it is – not because of a lack of plot but simply because a good 50 percent of the movie feel superfluous.

Okay, I really complained a lot so far, so maybe Around the World in 80 Days deserves some praise now. Well, I have to say that after the duo leaves Spain and the trip really begins, the whole movie improves very quickly. Also David Niven and Cantinflas become much more relaxed in their parts and later Shirley MacLaine also feels like a breath of fresh air. The interstations in India, Hong Kong, Japan and the USA are terribly entertaining (for the most part) and its in these scenes that the movie actually manages to put the characters in the foreground instead of the story or the scenery. In a lot of scenes, Around the World in 80 Days offers some exciting, original and hilarious images and story lines and it’s in those scenes that the whole movie suddenly comes alive. If the whole production had been able to maintain the excellence that it shows during the crossing of the Atlantic or the journey on the train, it would have been a very deserving winner of this Oscar. As it is now, Around the World in 80 Days is a mixed bag that often becomes too spectacle for its own good but it also manages to offer some grand entertainment, brought to life by a cast that, once they warmed up, carries the story wonderfully.

3/28/2011

Number 67: The Sound of Music (Best Picture Ranking)

There it is. Surely one of the most famous and beloved movies of all time – well, in some countries. It seems that in America, every child grows up while watching Maria and the van Trapp children singing their way through Salzburg. Overall, The Sound of Music is probably not just an ordinary movie but rather a true phenomenon. On the imdb-forums (I don’t post there but they are always good for a healthy laugh) people treat it as some kind of religious revelation, going so far that people who dislike it can’t have a soul…

Well, maybe I am a little party-pooper, but the sugar-coated, overly-wholesome The Sound of Music simply isn’t my kind of movie. But: I warmed up to it quite a bit. When I saw it the first time, it wasn’t really to see it for its own sake – instead, I wanted to find out what all Americans were so obsessed with. And initially, I placed it at the end of this ranking, but it managed to climb up some positions because, even though it’s not my kind of movie, I don’t want to deny that it succeeds in being what it wants to be – good, old-fashioned entertainment.

Since this is a musical, the first question has to be: what about the songs? I admit that they are a mixed bag for me. The melodies, as expected, are all catchy but the actual execution of the songs is mostly disappointing. When the nuns discuss about Maria during their song and the Mother Abbess dramatically declares ‘She’s a girl!’, it’s one of many, many, many moments in The Sound of Music that are unintentionally funny. ‘Edelweiss’ could have been a nice moment if Christopher Plummer wouldn’t sound so awful. ‘Climb Ev’ry mountain’ is presented rather boring while ‘Do-Re-Mi’ is too exaggerated (and features what must be the worst costumes in any movie ever). I think, the opening number, ‘Sixteen going on Seventeen’ and ‘The lonely Goatherd’ might be the best musical numbers overall.

I have already mentioned Christopher Plummer, but, of course, The Sound of Music completely depends on Julie Andrews who gives probably her most famous, but also her best performance as the singing nanny Maria. Her spirit, her seriousness in a silly part, her voice, her ability to brighten up the screen, fit perfectly to the role and she obviously works very hard to make the movie work. But I have to admit that my personal favourite is probably Eleanor Parker as the Baroness – maybe because I can understand her so well when she wants to send the children to a boarding school. In a weak year like 1965, she could have easily taken a nomination for Supporting Actress (which was wasted on Peggy Wood who, to be honest, did nothing in The Sound of Music – not even singing). In my review for Going my Way, I have already mentioned my aversion to ‘annoying movie children’ – well, The Sound of Music offers plenty of them. Personally, I can’t relate to those kids who are supposed to be such little brats but start crying at the dinner table and even themselves offer their reason for their misbehaviour – how else would they get their father’s attention?

The plot in The Sound of Music constantly changes from implausible to officious to acceptable. The first part of the movie which focuses on Maria, the Captain and the family, has some nice moments and is almost loveable in its innocence but it’s hard for such a family-oriented and sweet-natured movie to include such a serious topic as the rise of Nazism and the whole combination of wannabe-thriller, sentimental drama and over-the-top comedy that follows doesn’t really rise to the occasion. (And I know that every movies has a lot of mistakes and I won’t hold my following complaint against The Sound of Music, but I still want to say how much the ending annoys me when the family escapes to Switzerland by crossing the Alps – the boarder to Switzerland is probably 200 miles west of Salzburg. The only country they reach by crossing the Alps is Germany and I am not sure that they want to end up there…)

Well, as I said, it’s not my kind of movie but I don’t want to deny that it does feature some entertaining performances, offers some nice songs and knows how to portray a sweet and innocent story without becoming too saccharine. It is captivating in parts and provides some wonderful entertainment but I am not sure I would consider it Oscar-worthy.

Number 68: Patton (Best Picture Ranking)

Patton was one of the last Best Picture winners I saw and somehow also always the one I anticipated the least – I don’t know why since it won an astonishing seven Oscars and features one of the most celebrated performances of the last century. But somehow I always thought that this was not the kind of movie I would truly appreciate – and, to an extent, I was right.

Considering the just mentioned 7 Oscars, it’s surprising that Patton is probably among the least discussed winners ever – nobody ever complains about it while nobody ever seems to happy about it either. In fact, every discussion about Patton is always dominated by one aspect – the central performance by George C. Scott. Is this justified? Yes! In fact, I am sure that George C. Scott alone is responsible not only for his own Oscar win but for ever other Oscar Patton received, too, and he is also alone responsible for bringing Patton on position 69 in my ranking (this may sound like a negative thing since 69 isn’t too high but I think one single performance can only do so much for the quality of a whole film so it’s actually quite an achievement). George C. Scott is pure dynamite on the screen, creating a character that is truly larger-than-life while always constantly developing his inner characteristics, too. He is not only completely believable but also deliciously entertaining and, being onscreen for almost every moment of this 3-hour-epic, perfectly able to carry the whole story on his shoulders. All this makes Patton the kind of movie that should be remembered for having received a well-deserved Best Actor award, and maybe some technical Oscars, too – but Best Picture seems like a slight exaggeration.

As I said, the technical aspects of Patton are impressive. All the battles, especially in Northern Africa, feel very authentic and overall, Patton manages to make history alive in front of our eyes. But – here comes the b-word – Patton, even though it has one of the most unconventional characters at its centre, never manages to become more than a big, expensive, conventional biography. And not even an overly good one. Even though the movie obviously worships Patton and tells his life during World War II, I still never have the feeling that it really tells me anything about him that I couldn’t find out by checking his Wikipedia-page. In fact, I even had to do that a few times because Patton may worship its central character but it somehow never explains why he deserves such a big, long and elaborate movie about him. I learn that he was an important general and he loved to fight and obviously made a big impact on the enemy but somehow Patton fails to really present itself as a movie about this man. I am also always surprised when Patton is described as an ‘anti-war’ movie since its main character, its plot and its direction constantly state the opposite.

I also strongly dislike all the scenes with the German officers (even though I am happy that they actually cast actors who sound German, unlike other movies or TV-shows, like Scrubs or The Simpsons) because their dialogue is so horribly contrived (how many times do they need to analyze the character of Patton?) and everything about those scenes so fake that they alone are enough to deny Patton the Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Patton has impressive battle scenes and features a great performance at its centre and I also won’t deny the excellence of various technical aspects. But it feels unnecessarily elongated at various points and not even George C. Scott can save the production from almost being crashed by its own exaggerated monumentality.

Number 69: Braveheart (Best Picture Ranking)

1995 was probably one of the weirdest years in the race for Best Picture. Somehow, Sense and Sensibility and Apollo 13 failed to receive nominations for Best Director, making Mel Gibson and his historic epic about William Wallace’s fight for Scottish Independence the only real possible choice (Academy members surely wouldn’t vote for a movie about a talking pig). Since then, Braveheart usually tops a lot of lists concerning themselves with the worst winners ever and Mel Gibson’s off-screen personality in the last years surely doesn’t help the legacy of his big winner. Personally, whenever I watch Braveheart, I always expect to hate it tremendously but I constantly end up thinking ‘Well, it’s not great but it’s not that bad either’.

On the plus side, Braveheart features a cast that maybe isn’t too praiseworthy but ever member still does the best he/she can with their material. Mel Gibson may not be a great actor, but, like Charlton Heston, he knows how to carry a movie like this. Patrick McGoohan is a nice addition as the psychopathic King of Britain and both Sophia Marceau and Catharine McCormack add some dignity to the whole proceedings with their lively and emotional performances.

Most importantly, Braveheart is a movie that knows how to entertain. It’s the kind of movie that somehow doesn’t make you care about historical correctness, about stereotypes lurking behind every corner or about simplification of complicated plots – while these faults are always visible, Mel Gibson somehow achieved to put them in the background and concentrated on simply telling the story. He obviously also had a lot of help – the technical aspects, the cinematography, the costumes, the art direction all help to create a certain believability of the story. Special credit goes to James Horner for his wonderful score which may not be truly fitting to the movie but he still created some haunting melodies (but it’s painfully obvious that he copied it two years later for Titanic).

Of course, Braveheart isn’t perfect. Even though Mel Gibson is a gifted storyteller, he still lacks various talents for presenting a scene whenever it doesn’t feature the detachment of body parts. As I mentioned, all the stereotypes might not really bother in the flow of the story, but they are still almost shocking once the movie is over. Mel Gibson’s universe only knows black and white, good people or bad people and if they are bad, they are REALLY bad. Then there’s the infamous scene of the King throwing the lover of his son out of the window – which apparently was always a popular moment with the average cinema audience. Personally, I surprisingly didn’t consider it to be that insulting since the King is obviously more crazy than homophobic but, considering Mel Gibson’s own attitude, it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The fight scenes are obviously the highlight of the movie and it’s nice to see a movie that gives you the feeling that actual people are running along on the screen instead of CGI-creations (but the cuts between the two armies running towards each other made me laugh out loud since it took them for what feels like 1 hour to finally reach each other). But the fight scenes also represent the general problem of Braveheart – everything somehow works as long as you don’t think too much about it. The fight scenes are definitely impressive but it’s never clear what Mel Gibson wants to express – there isn’t a single moment in Braveheart in which he proclaims ‘war is hell’ but he obviously sees the necessity of war but one can’t help but feel that the constant display of killing, of blood, of axes being hit in somebody’s head wants to glorify violence more than anything else.

Overall, it always surprises me to put Braveheart this high in my ranking but it manages to entertain and impress various times while covering its flaws quite nicely.

3/25/2011

Best Picture Ranking so far...


So, the movies from position 83 to 70 have been ranked. Once again, they were:

83. Cavalcade
82. Cimarron
81. Rain Man
80. Going my Way
79. The Broadway Melody
78. The Greatest Show on Earth
77. Terms of Endearment
76. Forrest Gump
75. Grand Hotel
74. Gladiator
73. Rocky
72. A Beautiful Mind
71. Chariots of Fire
70. Crash

What do you think so far? Do you agree? Disagree? What movies do you hope will be next? What movies would you have hoped to rank higher?

Number 70: Crash (Best Picture Ranking)

There’s a scene in Bullets over Broadway where Tracey Ullman’s character tells David Shayne that she does not understand her character because she suddenly seems to mouth the playwriter’s philosophy – this is basically a perfect description of Crash in which every character at every moment speaks Paul Haggis’s thoughts on racism in today’s society. Crash, the upset winner of 2005, is a deeply flawed picture which I always expected to rank among the bottom of this list but it also has some strangely satisfying moments which helped it to achieve position 70.

Right at the beginning, Crash becomes almost unbearable as every character continuously talks about racism, about blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians etc and none of these characters ever become true persons but rather they all sound alike and act alike while delivering one unnatural line after another but thankfully Paul Haggis was able to mix certain traces of awfulness with various interesting observations and scenes. Most importantly, he is able to create that important balance in an ensemble film like this – none of the stories overshadows the others, Paul Haggis keeps a strong flow and slowly develops each story, to various degrees of success.

As I have said at the beginning of this ranking, I don’t want to write detailed, long reviews about the movies now and keep those for my analyses of specific years and so I won’t comment on all the various storylines right now, just the ones that stayed in my mind the longest. First, there is Sandra Bullock as the hysterical wife of a politician who feels unsafe in her own house (but has no problem with her Mexican maid). Sandra Bullock usually gets praise for her dramatic turn but I think most of her work here is too ‘obvious’ (I even had a dream once where I met Sandra Bullock and made fun of her ‘I had a gun in my face’-speech…she was not amused). I also think the whole ending of her story is completely ridiculous as she finally learns a valuable lesson when her maid is the only one who helps her after she fell down the stairs – how nice but maybe the fact that her maid gets paid to do this diminishes the revelation…Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton give probably the best performances and both of their characters are actually interesting and display the consequences of racism. Matt Dillon was the only one singled out for an Oscar but he is rather bland.

Overall, Crash mostly suffers from obvious moments while it shines in quiet moments. Manipulative scenes like the car crash or the shooting (that scenes annoys me to no end – two parents think that their daughter is shot and instead of, I don’t know, seeing how bad she is hurt they simply break down crying with dramatic music in the background?) are almost laughable but other moments or ideas work very well. The idea that a black police chief can’t do anything against a prejudiced white cop because than he would have problems with his white superiors, a woman grabbing the arm of her husband when she sees two black men, another black man trying to ‘be as white as possible’, people from different cultural backgrounds all thrown together by the ignorance of others, the ongoing question how much racism is really in everyone of us – yes, there are themes, questions, moments that work but Paul Haggis’s script and direction lack any subtlety in a movie that desperately needs it to work. Instead, he went over the top too many times, hit the audience over the head with his messages. And Crash has also one of the worst endings of any Best Picture winners – it’s like ‘oh, look a car crash! How funny! Oh look, the black woman who accused Matt Dillon of being a racist is racist herself! How funny!’ Yes, as I said, this is a deeply flawed picture in its execution but what saves it from being a disaster are the ideas behind it – it’s a movie that makes you look for its positive aspects while throwing its flaws into the audiences’ faces. A more skilled director, a better screenwriter could have tackled all the themes better and in the end, Crash certainly isn’t a masterpiece in any way but it’s also not the mess a lot of people claim it to be.

Number 71: Chariots of Fire (Best Picture Ranking)

When Loretta Young presented the Oscar for Best Picture of 1981, it became quite obvious which nominated movie was her favorite as she congratulated ‘tasteful filmmakers’ for showing that reality was not only violence or swearing but also heroism, inspiration and romance. Chariots of Fire, the upset-winner that night, was certainly the kind of movie that the old-fashioned part of Hollywood would love to honor. It’s based on the true story of two young men, one Christian, one Jewish, who run at the 1924 Olympics. Harold runs out of the urge to fight against anti-Semitism while Eric feels the presence of God whenever he is running. This certainly sounds as noble as it can be and director Hugh Hudson does his best to present the whole story as harmless, uncontroversial and sublime as possible. The outcome is a movie that does feature some interesting aspects and elements but is too slow, safe and uninspired at the end.

One of the major problems of the movie are the two central characters and the actors who portray them. Neither character does ever really become the main aspect of his storyline, they both remain extremely thin and underdeveloped and, unfortunately, also the two actors Ben Cross and Ian Charleson lack any kind of personality or screen presence – some star power would have been needed to raise those characters above mediocrity. But also the supporting players are strangely uninteresting and pale – secondary characters like Harold’s girlfriend or Eric’s sister seem to stay in the background even when they are the center of attention which is mostly the fault of the script that never develops any of the characters.

Another major problem of the movie is the theme itself – running. Considering that this is the focus of the story, the movie doesn’t truly know how to project it. The dilemma is the simple fact that some people running along a raceway lacks any real possibility for exciting cinema – so some endless reprises in slow-motion with dramatic music are necessary to even highlight this whole sport in any way but this doesn’t change the fact that, at too many moments, the whole subject of the story seemed to have overstrained Hugh Hudson. Compared to other sports, like boxing, running doesn’t seem to qualify for a cinematic event.

Speaking of dramatic music: The most famous aspect of Chariots of Fire is, of course, Vangelis’s legendary score. A couple of young men, running along a beach, accompanied by synthesizers and a piano – an iconic movie moment. But watching this scene, it’s almost shocking how little the score actually works within the presentation of the scene. There is almost a disharmony between Vangelis’s score and Chariots of Fire and a lot of times it feels as if there was no other reason for the use of this particular score than the need to do ‘something different’. In some later scenes, the music blends together with the movie better but once the novelty has worn off, little excitement remains.

But besides all these problems, Chariots of Fire does present some special moments that prevent it from being a true failure. The use of Gilbert and Sullivan is a rather nice touch and the training sequence, accompanied by ‘For he is an English Man’ is put together expressively and is probably the only moment of the movie when Hudson really captured the joy and the seriousness that these two men feel when they run. And while Ben Cross and Ian Charleson never really impress on their own, their succeed in their scenes together and make the ‘backstage’-story aspects of Chariots of Fire much more interesting than the Olympics themselves.

Overall, Chariots of Fire is a surely interesting concept but unfortunately the realization is often too bland and unimaginative and needed a better cast and more developed characters to impress.

Number 72: A Beautiful Mind (Best Picture Ranking)

A Beautiful Mind is the Hollywood-version of the life of John Nash, a brilliant mathematician and economist who suffers from schizophrenia and delusions. Director Ron Howard is a capable man, no doubt about that, but A Beautiful Mind perfectly shows what happens when a director tackles a serious theme that is too challenging for him and tries to cut out all rough edges until almost nothing but a schmaltzy feel-good story remains.

Just like in Gladiator, Russell Crowe again turns out to be the most rewarding aspect of the story. His performances brilliantly captures the confusion, the terror, the genius, the social awkwardness, the self-assurance and the doubt of his character without ever falling into the trap of ‘gimmicking’ his way through A Beautiful Mind. Jennifer Connelly is a little less successful as his supportive way – especially in the first half of the movie, she lacks the needed charm, poise and gentleness to make it believable that this woman could get John Nash out of his emotional shell. But she still improves in the second half of the picture, but mainly because it gives her the opportunity to run the expected gamut of emotions of the suffering wife – at the end, it’s standard work from a talented actress. Ed Harris is adequate but unremarkable and nobody else in the cast ever truly gets an opportunity to shine.

What could have been a gripping story turned into a clichéd and predictable movie in the hands of Ron Howard. In a movie that is obviously very proud with itself for its visual presentation, Ron Howard actually lacks every sort of talent for bringing the problems of John Nash to life – the scenes of his illusions are very by-the-numbers and, what’s probably the most shocking aspect of the movie, A Beautiful Mind barely makes the problems of his sickness concrete. Yes, Ed Harris surely makes John Nash’s life a living hell but there are parts in A Beautiful Mind when one has to wonder what’s the big deal about his illusions – after all, he gets a great friend with whom he can talk about everything. Everything in this movie is too simple for its own good.

Considering that this is a movie about John Nash, A Beautiful Mind still doesn’t do a lot to really show who he is. Of course, A Beautiful Mind wants to put his personal problems in the foreground but the question is, why was the character of John Nash needed to make such a movie? Obviously to also present his professional achievements but A Beautiful Mind barely deals with those – yes, there is a montage that shows how he develops his economic theory but A Beautiful Mind never really explains what John Nash did that was so important and groundbreaking.

Unfortunately, especially the second half of the movie which should be the emotional heart of the story since if shows how John Nash got over his problems lacks any clear focus and jumps too often between being a domestic drama or a thriller and also never brings it message across. Without Russell Crowe, and to an extent Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind would lack any emotional or intellectual aspect since all those come only from these two actors.

A big plus of A Beautiful Mind is the wonderful score which is both hunting and touching and helps to achieve a lot of effects that Ron Howard could never bring across otherwise.

It’s an interesting story, no doubt about that, but almost everything in A Beautiful Mind appears like an easy way out – as if everyone involved was worried that any complexity could turn the audience away. It’s the kind of movie you can watch one time and be moved but every new viewing will only makes its flaws more visible.
A mixed movie that does feature some wonderful scenes, one great and one good performance, a wonderful score and a basically interesting story that unfortunately suffers from too many banalities in its realization.

YOUR Best Actress of 1954

Here are the results of the poll:

1. Judy Garland - A Star is Born (33 votes)

2. Dorothy Dandridge - Carmen Jones (21 votes)

3. Grace Kelly - The Country Girl (16 votes)

4. Jane Wyman - Magnificent Obsession (7 votes)

5. Audrey Hepburn - Sabrina (4 votes)

Thanks to everyone for voting!

3/22/2011

Number 73: Rocky (Best Picture Ranking)

Before I saw Rocky for the first time, I really didn’t know what to expect. By now, Sylvester Stallone has such a bad reputation as an actor and Rocky with all its sequels always seemed to me like a copy of Rambo with all its sequels. The fact that, at one time, Sylvester Stallone was a serious, Academy-Award-nominated actor and that the original Rocky was actually a big hit with audiences and critics alike is so perplexing to me that it still surprises me when I think about it.

Anyway, like so many Best Picture winners Rocky has both admirers and opponents. For me, it’s not as bad as I expected it to be but I don’t want to give it too much praise either.

From what I understand, movie goers appreciated the Cinderella-like story and found a lot of warmth and inspiration in this classic underdog-story while other critics like to dismiss Rocky as ‘schmaltz’. Personally, I am on neither side because I really don’t consider anything about Rocky inspirational and I also don’t find anything ‘schmaltzy’ in it – mainly because, while I appreciate realism in a movie and don’t need characters I specifically like, I still need characters I care about and Rocky fails to offer me this. Rocky, Adrian, Paulie, Mickey and Apollo are all characters that lack any sort of reality, depth or plausibility but instead are the results of Sylvester Stallone’s average talent for screenwriting and an ambitious yet unspectacular cast. All this makes Rocky neither inspirational nor schmaltzy for me because John G. Avildsen and Sylvester Stallone lack the necessary talent for a truly inspirational, touching, engaging story and instead create an atmosphere in Rocky that makes it hard to even care for any of the characters. I like that I can enjoy traces of realism in Rocky and, yes, the majestic score, the training montage, the atmosphere of the boxing matches make the ambition and desire of the main character believable but Rocky always remains a rather technical movie without the necessary human story (for me at least, even though most fans of the movie would say exactly the opposite).

It’s not just the problem that the characters are underwritten by Stallone even though he constantly tried to turn them into more, the acting itself is also rather average, especially for a movie that scored four acting nominations. Stallone tries too hard to be Marlon Brando but his limited range prevents him from really balancing all the aspects he wants Rocky to portray but I still give him credit for managing to mix a certain element of sensitivity into his tough guy. Talia Shire is less successful as she manages to overact in her attempt to underact and sometimes makes her Adrian appear like Ingrid Bergman’s Greta Ohlsson – her shyness and awkwardness is too exaggerated and very often the chemistry between her and Stallone doesn’t work either. Both actors obviously try to do the best they can but it too often feels like two average actors trying to impress with their supposedly great but ultimately limited method acting. Burgess Meredith may take the acting crown in Rocky even though I am still not too crazy about him and both Burt Young’s performance and his character still make little sense to me.

I also strongly dislike the way Stallone lets the main plot begin – Apollo Creed wants to fight some guy and picks Rocky because he likes his name? That’s it? Overall, the whole plot too often feels very constructed and lacks a certain natural flow. It’s a simple story about simple people and I do appreciate that, besides the main plot, the movie found some little, more believable moments like Rocky talking to a young girl on the street. And the final scenes are also finally the moments when the story begins to touch my heart – the realism of the boxing fight combined with the, thankfully, not fairytale-like ending and the hug between Rocky and Adrian let the movie end on a high note. Ultimately, Rocky is neither as good nor as bad as usually said – it’s a movie that has its moments but its status as a legendary classic is rather perplexing to me.

3/21/2011

Number 74: Gladiator (Best Picture Ranking)

Gladiator was the first anticipated and then celebrated return of those historic epics from the 50s like Quo Vadis? or Ben-Hur. But being a movie of the year 2000, it was even more a spectacle than its predecessors, dropping religious themes and instead focusing on the gruesome battles in the Colosseum.

There is certainly a lot going on in Gladiator – it has a more than competent cast, special effects, an obviously big budget to spend on costumes and the scenery. Inside is the rather simple tale of the desire for revenge, coupled with greed for power, madness and the ability of the rulers to distract the people with the infamous combination of ‘bread and circuses’. But basically all signs of a real plot get buried under the fight scenes in the arena that Gladiator presents as its most valuable aspect. Because of this, I won’t deny that Gladiator is entertaining but it suffers mostly from the fact that it wants to be more than pure entertainment because whatever morality or deeper story Gladiator thinks it contains get constantly sacrificed for the sake of the battle sequences. Gladiator seems to want to accuse the people of Rome for being blind supporters of the bloody spectacles in the arena but it presents these battles in a way that never becomes any sort of statement but as pure entertainment for the audience at home and in the cinema. It could be that it wants to make the audience in the cinema a part of the crowd in the arena but all the blood, the fighting, the feeling of victory rather wants the audience as a part of the fighters, feeling the tension and enjoying the killing. It’s a strange presentation as the movie uses exactly the violence for the same reason it accuses its characters of.

Besides that, the banality of the dialogue and the fact that it constantly puts blood and death at its own center so willingly makes its attempts to appear more serious almost embarrassing. Gladiator is entertaining but nothing more. If it hadn’t tried to be, it might have gotten a better position in my ranking but it fails too often by trying to be more.

The acting in Gladiator is surprisingly strong for such a movie. Russell Crowe’s Oscar win may be debatable but he does know how to carry this story and his combination of sensitivity and strong masculinity makes his a strangely compelling performance. From beginning to end, he is the movie’s strongest asset. It may not be a character performance but it’s a star performance on a very high level. Joaquin Phoenix walks a thin line between good and bad and while there are many who think that he crossed this line too often, I think he perfectly portrayed the insanity of his character without overdoing it. Connie Nelson delivers some nice emotional moments as ‘the woman’ and Oliver Reed and Richard Harris add some welcome experience to the project (on a personal note, it’s so annoying to see German actor Ralf Möller since he uses his minor part in this movie to still present himself as a German who made it in Hollywood and since the year 2000, he starts every public appearance with the words ‘I just talked to Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott’ but, of course, I won’t let my opinion of this annoying guy influence my overall opinion on Gladiator).
The Oscar win for Special Effects is probably the most baffling of its wins since the recreation of ancient Rome couldn’t look more fake. High praise goes to Hans Zimmer for his wonderful score which has already achieved the status of a modern classic – deservingly.

Yes, Gladiator is the result of the work of various very talented people and its as big as it can be while still leaving enough room for the actors to carry the story instead of being overshadowed by it. All this prevents it from being a soulless epic but it never turns into more than good, 2-hour long entertainment. Recommendable, but hardly praiseworthy.

Number 75: Grand Hotel (Best Picture Ranking)

Grand Hotel follows the footsteps of Going my Way and Terms of Endearment as Best Picture winners that aren’t bad in any way but simple too unremarkable to compete for a higher position. Yes, the ensemble of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Lionel and John Barrymore and Wallace Berry has not lost its fascination – back then and today it’s exciting to watch these stars engage in betrayal, love, crime and romance in Berlin’s best hotel. But while I enjoy watching these stars from Hollywood’s golden area I always think that I only enjoy it because of who they are – and not because of who they play or what they do.

At the end of the day, my main problem with Grand Hotel is similar to that of Terms of Endearment – in this soap-opera from the 80s, I enjoyed nothing apart from the performances. In this soap-opera from the 30s, I enjoyed some of the performances and most of all, the actors (I make a difference between actors and performances because the level of admiration varies between them – the perfect example is Greta Garbo who is, as always a fascinating screen presence and it’s thrilling to hear her deliver the simple but iconic line ‘I want to be alone’ but, to be honest, this is one of her weakest performances and sometimes she is downright embarrassing. The complete opposite is Joan Crawford whose normally not my favorite but this is one of the most natural and compelling performances of her career).

The doorman of the Grand Hotel exclaims that nothing ever happens but, of course, Grand Hotel wants to make it clear that there is actually a lot happening – if you get to look behind the closed doors. And while I can imagine that it was gripping to look behind the closed doors of Greta Garbo and John Barrymore, the whole movie simply has lost a lot of its luster and once you look past the concept of the star ensemble, there isn’t much remaining.

Greta Garbo’s often too artificial portrayal prevents her to really connect with the audience at the beginning but she improves vastly during her conversations with John Barrymore and their scenes find an innocent and captivating core of two lost, aimless souls who find their lives improved by their unexpected encounter.
Wallace Berry does the best with this thin material but his character always remains underdeveloped and he lacks the presence and the personality to raise his storyline. Lionel Barrymore, bless his heart, certainly gives Kringelein a lot of heart but his constant wondering, awing and complaining makes him very annoying very soon. Joan Crawford easily takes the acting crown in this ensemble but very often even her performance cannot save her character’s lack of depth and interest.

Overall, Grand Hotel doesn’t always know to balance and handle its various story lines in a way that could constantly keep the audience’s attention but instead feels to have constructional defects too often.
Grand Hotel gets most of its benefit from the personality of its actors and some of the performances while the story lines range from dreary to almost engaging. It’s a completely logical choice for the top prize given the time and the newness of star ensembles like this but 80 years later, life is mostly gone from Grand Hotel.

Number 76: Forrest Gump (Best Picture Ranking)

Forrest Gump is probably one of the most interesting winners in this category. Like Rain Main, it can definitely be considered a modern classic – who doesn’t know about life and the box of chocolates, Forrest running or the flying feather? It’s critical acclaim combined with huge financial success should, by all accounts, make this one of the most popular Best Picture winners. But as beloved as Forrest Gump seems to be by moviegoers, the Internet is usually less kind. And I am no difference.
I don’t judge Forrest Gump on its competition at the Oscars. To be honest, I probably haven’t seen Pulp Fiction in 15 years and barely remember it. But even on its own, Forrest Gump is a movie that, for me, is far for perfect. And even far from very good.

First of all, I have to say that I hate Tom Hanks. Yes, I do. Mr. Perfect, Mr. Nice-Guy, the All-American noble everyman. But for some strange reason, his performance is probably still the only aspect of Forrest Gump I truly appreciate. I certainly don’t like the character but I won’t deny that Tom Hanks created something unique and powerful here. I would have thought that watching Tom Hanks playing this simple-minded character for two hours would annoy me to no end, but I am constantly surprised how well he actually carries this picture.

So what is it that makes me put this movie so low in my list?
There are a variety of reasons.
I think what bothers me most is the simple presentation of everything – the glorification of the character of Forrest who (literally) runs through life without ever realizing what he is doing, the simplification of matters like child abuse and war, the denunciation of Jenny and everything she stands for and so on. At the end of Forrest Gump, I always feel like the people who spend so much time running with him through the USA until he finally stops and goes home, leaving them alone and confused – I, too, feel as if I followed him for no particular reason. There is so much happening in his life but it’s all superficial, almost drowning in its own pretentiousness. It seems that everything that is happening in Forrest’s life is thrown together without really ever thinking about why is presented in this way, why the plot goes there and what it ultimately means. The scene when Forrest gives a speech to talk about his opinion on war symbolizes it best – the microphone goes off and his words can’t be heard. It’s an easy why out for a whole movie that wants to say a lot but always goes quiet whenever it actually shouldn’t be.

The whole concept of Forrest meeting famous people may be amusing at the beginning but at some point it becomes weird. Why is Forrest meeting John Lennon? The scene serves no purpose other than remaining the audience that somehow every celebrity Forrest meets dies a gruesome death. And the simple fact that Forrest is the one responsible for the exposure of the Watergate-affair – what’s that about? Forrest is presented as such an important figure to the national history of the USA but the screenplay and the direction only throw these things in as cute jokes.
I also don’t know what to think about the fact that Forrest Gump proclaims that he was a born soldier – do you serve your country best when you don’t have a thought of your own? Does Forrest ever know why he is Vietnam? Do the movie makers even know?
I also strongly dislike Forrest’s work on a shrimping boat. He is unsuccessful so he prays to God and God answers by destroying all the other boats and putting all these men out of business so that Forrest can get rich? Seriously? Maybe I am interpreting too much but the fact that his success is supported by a Gospel choir leaves little room for interpretation…
This all may seem as if I am too focused on a couple of little problems but they represent a whole array of problems that constantly arise during Forrest Gump.
And while I usually love soundtracks put together of well-known songs, in Forrest Gump it all simply feels like a desperate attempt to cover up its own emptiness by throwing as many recognizable events, sounds and sights at the audience as possible.

Of course, there have to be some positive aspects or it would have been lower in my ranking. Well, besides Tom Hanks I do enjoy Sally Field as his mother even though I again blame the movie for touching a subject as controversial as a mother sleeping with a man to get her son a place in a better school without addressing it in any way. Robin Wright Penn does the best with her part but her whole character’s arc is sometimes too insulting for words. Does Jenny really believe that the audience in a strip clubs wants to see her perform ‘Blowin in the Wind’? Does she have to face her tragic fate at the end so that the audience knows that its better to lead a life without thinking or questioning anything like Forrest?
While I think that Forrest Gump is a movie that is very often almost offending despite its attempt to be as harmless as possible, it does also have some successful moments. Forrest and Jenny meeting in Washington is a beautiful moment and the reunion between Forrest and Dan Taylor at the end is also quite touching (and Gary Sinise does some good work in an underwritten supporting role). Most of all, it’s the simple story hidden behind the grand exterior that works – Forrest’s undying love for Jenny. This human core of the story works while everything that is constructed around it doesn’t.

I have a lot of problems with this movie and it may seem surprising that I rank it before some other movies but I admit that it also works in some parts and gives some surprisingly touching moments.

3/16/2011

Number 77: Terms of Endearment (Best Picture Ranking)

Terms of Endearment is the sentimental story of a stormy mother-daughter relationship that is marked by happiness and tragedy. Like Going my Way, Terms of Endearment falls in the category that I call ‘good, but unremarkable’. Overall, I think the movie does not have much going for it. The stories are nice but nothing that couldn’t be done in an average TV-movie and the ending feels rather forced, as if the movie makers didn’t know how to come to any conclusion and thought ‘Hey, let’s throw in some cancer!’ Apart from that, there is a catchy soundtrack and some funny moments and I won’t deny that James L. Brooks knows how to manipulate the audience – no matter how many times I watch this movie, at the end my eyes are always wet. So, why do I rank this so low? It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, it’s touching and charming. Well, yes, it is all this but a lot of movies achieve this and Terms of Endearment never really leaves this aforementioned feeling of being an average TV-movie behind it. And even the sentimental or comedy aspects of the story don’t come from a brilliant script or clever direction, but at the end, there is only one aspect in Terms of Endearment that is truly outstanding and carries the whole production: the acting.

Terms of Endearment gives showcases to Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow and two extremely talented child actors. If this movie didn’t possess such a strong ensemble, nothing would work as well as it does.

This may sound as if great acting isn’t enough for me. Don’t get me wrong, great performances are, for me, the most important aspect of a movie and it really raises the quality of Terms of Endearment but when I judge a whole movie, I just want something more. Sophie’s Choice or Monster are also movies that offer true tour-de-forces from the actors but that doesn’t make them better movies overall. And apart from the acting, Terms of Endearment doesn’t offer more. The ending of the story is only so heartbreaking because Debra Winger has showed such realism in crafting a very human character, the comedy only works because Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson are two veterans who sparkle together. Personally, I get all my emotional connection from the performances and not from the story. That’s why I can easily praise the acting in Terms of Endearment but barely anything else.

The movie simply lacks a certain feeling, it’s interesting while it lasts but, apart from the performances, it doesn’t stay. Most movies make me praise a performance in connection with the picture or as a part of the overall vision, but when I think of Shirley MacLaine’s ‘Give my daughter the shot!’ or Debra Winger’s goodbye to her children, I only think of the actors but never of the movie they are in. One could say that these performances should be in a better movie but on the other hand, these performances make this movie what it is. Without this strong cast, I doubt that the Oscars or the critics had really noticed it because there is so little to notice.

I appreciate certain aspects, the way Debra Winger and Jeff Daniels create a strong realism as a tense couple while Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson do more comedy while also remaining surprisingly human. The movie knows how to always keep a balance between being real and exaggerated, between comedy and drama. So, yes, Terms of Endearment is certainly recommendable and I don’t want to complain about its win. Actually, even though my ranking is only at position 77, we now already enter the area of movies I appreciate much more than those mentioned so far. Like Going my Way, Terms of Endearment doesn’t do anything wrong but it’s never really special either. I appreciate it for giving a very talented cast the opportunity to shine but it just needed some more interesting aspects besides that.

Number 78: The Greatest Show on Earth (Best Picture Ranking)

When Mary Pickford opened the envelope at the Academy Awards in 1953, she wasn’t the only one completely surprised by the winner inside – The Greatest Show on Earth was and still is considered a major upset and constantly tops various lists covering the worst Oscar winners ever.
As you can see from the position in this ranking, I don’t disagree with the usual dislike thrown at this circus show – but I am still somewhat torn. Yes, this movie is not Oscar-material – not even by a longshot and even a nomination is already ridiculous. But: as a movie itself, as pure entertainment, this is actually surprisingly good. I don’t mean that The Greatest Show on Earth is great – there are many, many flaws in this picture but when it works, it really delivers. The ‘trapeze fight’ between Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde might be one of the most thrilling moments in any Best Picture winner I have seen (well, since I am afraid of heights, this might have added some suspense for me) and DeMille brought a true spectacle to the screen in every sense of the word. Unfortunately, he often overdid it – The Greatest Show on Earth sometimes takes itself far too seriously which is very problematic considering it’s such a trivial picture. In various voice-overs, DeMille talks about the circus and its artist with welcome respect but at the same time he sometimes sounds so solemn as if he was talking about the President of the USA.

The Greatest Show on Earth is about a circus – but not just about an ordinary circus but rather the most spectacular circus you will probably ever see. There’s not one area in the middle but three and the whole tent seems to be about as long as the racing arena in Ben-Hur. Yes, DeMille clearly fulfilled his purpose – to bring the movie audience as close to the spectacle as possible. So, it you want pure entertainment, then The Greatest Show on Earth is definitely one of the most recommendable Best Picture winners. But don’t try to look closer at it or a lot of the experience will be ruined. This is also the reason why, at the end of the day, The Greatest Show on Earth most certainly is among the weakest winners in this category.

First of all, there is hardly any plot. Or to put it better: there is actually a lot of plot since various subplots are handled and put together but none of them ever even reaches the level of mediocrity. There’s Gloria Grahame and her jealous elephant trainer, Betty Hutton caught between Charlton Heston and Cornel Wilde and James Stewart hiding a dark secret as a cheerful clown – all of these storylines remain very superficial, which works in this kind of movie, but seriously: the plot is always of secondary importance and everyone in this movie knows it.
So, what about the actors? Do they at least lift their material? Well, some do. James Stewart and Gloria Grahame (much more impressive here than in her Oscar-winning turn the same year) easily take the acting crown and actually deliver quite good performances and if they had gotten Oscar nomination, I don’t think I would have complained. Charlton Heston is dependable as always which means he isn’t great but he does what he has to do. Cornel Wilde adds some charm and charisma and gives his performance a playfulness that works very well in the context of the film. Betty Hutton…ah, Betty Hutton…she gets the questionable honour of delivering one of the worst performances that I have seen in any of the Best Picture winners. From her horrible-sounding singing of ‘Come to the circus’ to her shockingly awful line-deliveries, her performance is one big mess that even manages to distract from a movie that isn’t very good to begin with. Of course, she is stuck with a horrible character whose purpose is very often to just state the obvious – DeMille doesn’t seem to think much of his audience as he constantly make sure that even the most obvious plot parts or events are commented on and explained once again.
As successful as some parts of the show are, DeMille also overdid too much here. Some circus numbers go on forever and if that wasn’t enough, he also throws in various parades that seem to last for 10 minutes. The movie wants to be a spectacle but even in a spectacle, sometimes less is more.
The famous train wreck at the end obviously suffers from dated special effects but it actually still manages to be thrilling and can easily compare to modern disaster movies.

So, The Greatest Show on Earth offers a lot – fun, excitement, a feast for the eyes and the ears (and Bing Crosby and Bob Hope also visit for a second) but it neither fulfils its own purpose with perfection (for a movie that wants to entertain, it often does quite the opposite) nor is this the kind of movie that should be associated with an Academy Award. It has its moments but is too weak compared to most other movies in this category.

3/15/2011

Number 79: The Broadway Melody (Best Picture Ranking)

I would have liked to see the audience of The Broadway Melody on opening night – they probably ran out of the theatre, covering their bleeding ears. No, not because of bad singing or horribly quality but simply because – there is SOUND! And not just a bit but a lot! Right in the first scene, the movie makers throw sound at the audience from all directions. It’s an agency and there are people talking, singing, making noise, playing music instruments – so that even the last row of the theatre will get it.

Okay, now let’s get serious. The Broadway Melody gained its place in movie history by being the first talkie, the first musical and the second movie overall to win the top prize from the Academy. And the question is: why?
I won’t lie to you – I was entertained by The Broadway Melody. In parts. Bessie Love gives a surprisingly modern and fresh performance and her sassy characterization made me chuckle more than once – now, if she only had had a better part because The Broadway Melody surely doesn’t allow her to go too far.

The movie suffers from various problems which don’t have anything to do with the transition from silent pictures to sound – actually, it made the change rather competent and never appears to be a ‘first try’ in this new technique. But with all the excitement over the possibility of actually having people talk and sing, somebody seemed to have forgotten the story.
The Broadway Melody is mostly proclaimed as a musical even though musical numbers are rare – and very often it’s just the same song, repeated over and over again. It combines the classic ‘backstage-story’ of newcomers trying to find success in show business and an obligatory love triangle which feels very dated today. Both aspects of the story have its share of problems.
The backstage-story most of all suffers from a gigantic problem which, for some reason, nobody ever brings up – the fact that the Mahoney-sisters are awful. Their number 'Boy Friend' which they repeat again and again and walk across the stage awkwardly makes you wish for the good ol’ times when movies were silent. Most other musical numbers also lack live and creativity but the number 'Wedding of the Painted Doll' is actually really good. During the second half of the story, the musical sequences become rare as the movie begins to focus on the love triangle between the two sisters Hank and Queenie and Eddie, played by Charles King. Unfortunately, the story soon loses luster – mostly because of the dislikeable characters. Eddie is engaged to Hank but spends the whole movie lusting over her younger sister Queenie without ever feeling bad about it. Queenie on the other hand is clearly attracted to him, too, but doesn’t want to ruin her sister’s life and so begins an affair with an older business man. From this moment on, Hank and Eddie spend the rest of the whole movie being angry at Queenie while she is angry at them. This all results in the same conversations again and again, repeated just as often the main musical numbers.

Considering that this is a movie that wants to show all the hard work that goes into being a star, the movie takes a rather perplexing attitude towards Queenie who becomes a star in her first number by standing motionless on the stage. When all the others tell her how great she was, it does feel a bit…weird.
The most amusing aspect of the movie are probably the clearly gay costume designer and his fight with the clearly lesbian woman backstage. Okay, maybe not amusing but rather…surreal?

Overall, The Broadway Melody does provide some entertaining moments and performances – if only the story itself had been more captivating. The ending is actually very surprising for the time but this doesn’t stop the fact that, overall, The Broadway Melody has not aged too well.

Number 80: Going my Way (Best Picture Ranking)

It’s maybe surprising to see this movie so far down on my list. Going my Way is the kind of movie barely anyone talks about, a forgotten winner in this category but at the same time hardly anyone seems to have a problem with it. It’s a sweet and innocent story about priests, singing children, men fighting for their country – basically everything the Academy was looking for at the end of World War II.

I thought for a long time about this movie and its position in my ranking because on the one hand, it is kind of cruel to put it so low because there isn’t anything I dislike about it – but there is also almost nothing I do like.
I think that Bing Crosby’s performance is the best aspect to explain my opinion: he is nice, he is harmless, he doesn’t do anything wrong – but that doesn’t mean that he is great in any way. And this is basically also true for anything else about Going my way. Everything is just so…unremarkable. Okay, there is Barry Fitzgerald – he gives a wonderfully charming and amusing performance as the old, stubborn priest and he is definitely the shining part of this movie. But apart from him, nothing ever goes beyond being ‘adequate’.
The story itself is so incredibly sugar-coated and done in the most innocent way that could never offend anyone but if you don’t care for singing children and a kind-hearted priest, then you are lost with Going my Way.

I very often don’t care for children in movies – my friends and I always complain about ‘the annoying movie-kids’, as well call them – and Going my Way does provide a couple of them. It’s just hard to appreciate when a movie tries to present some kids as good-for-nothing troublemakers but two minutes later they sing soprano with Bing Crosby.
The movie also fails to captivate the audience with a secondary plot about a young girl and her boyfriend, mainly because the two actors are incredibly pale and because…it’s just not interesting.
The better parts of the film involve Bing Crosby and Rise Stevens as an opera singer who used to be in love with him. Their scene in her dressing room, in which she talks and talks without knowing that he became a priest, is done very beautifully and especially the look on her face when she finally realizes provides the movie finally with some more intriguing moments that hint at more beyond the sugar-coated surface.
The chemistry between Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald is also very engaging and in their scenes, a lot of the sentimentality works, mainly because Barry Fitzgerald knows how to be sentimental without appearing to be. The whole theme of the movie unfortunately very often gets lost – Going my Way seems to want to present the struggle of modernity vs. traditions, of new ideas vs. old thinking but these aspects never truly develop.
Since Going my Way is about singing children – what about the music? It’s mostly done very nicely, Bing Crosby’s voice is one that is somehow always exciting and boring at the same time and the kids do a good enough job. But am I the only one who is almost angry about the lyrics of ‘Swinging on a Star?` The most captivating moment comes when Rise Stevens performs as Carmen but it’s hard to credit Going my Way for Bizet’s music and I find it also rather strange for how long this opera sequences goes on.

As I said, it’s hard to criticize the movie in any way because there is nothing that’s really bad about it (and it’s again a step up from Rain Man) but at the same time it’s just not good either.
It’s an adequate, sentimental story with mostly adequate performances and an adequate direction but too often the movie becomes paper-thin and loses its focus. I just expect more from a movie that won 7 Oscars.

3/14/2011

Number 81: Rain Man (Best Picture Ranking)

Rain Man is a movie that definitely has its share of admirers and one might even call it a modern classic since the plot, the performances and various scenes have become an integral part of movie history. Personally, I simply think that it’s a movie that is not for everyone…at least of all, me. It’s that combination of annoying characters, Dustin Hoffman’s monotonous performance, Tom Cruise’s usual stuff, an uninteresting plot and a kitschy solution that keeps me from enjoying it.

I know that people can probably find a lot of inspiration and warmth in watching Tom Cruise change from a cold-hearted, money-grabbing yuppie into a caring and loving brother but personally, I couldn’t care less, because the pairing of these two central characters makes it impossible for me. Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman lack the necessary chemistry for this story and both actors seem more concerned with their own work instead of creating a believable relationship. I understand the point of Dustin Hoffman’s performance and I am sure that he portrays his character in the right way but he can’t stop me from sensing a constant awareness in his acting, an arrogance in his acting choices that constantly wants to draw attention to himself. I have seen other movies with autistic characters who felt real and believable but Dustin Hoffman is too often like fingernails on a blackboard.

I am also never sure what the movie wants to say – is Raymond some kind of supernatural superhero? Is his autism supposed to be great because he can count quickly and learn all the names in the phonebook?
The direction of the story lacks too much imagination for such an imaginative story – Levinson doesn’t seem to be able to decide if he wants to be over- or underwhelm the audience and so keeps pushing in both directions, often at the same time. Rain Man is also not an overly serious drama but it isn’t a comedy either – again, Levinson wants it both but it takes some skill to handle these two aspects. In the case of Rain Man, this concept failed completely since the movie makers try to get most of the comedy out of things that lay the dramatic foundation. This lead to the fact that the dramatic moments are never as gripping as they could be (the only really affecting moment comes when Charlie and Raymond talk in the bathroom about their past) while the comedy moments feel rather awkward and out-of-place.
The whole story of Rain Man feels incredibly forced and not like a true flow – Charlie kidnaps his brother, conveniently his girlfriend leaves, conveniently they can’t take the plan…bingo, a road-trip that gives Charlie the time to discover his inner softie.

I am also incredibly annoyed with the only female character in the story whose purpose I still haven’t figured out. She’s angry with Charlie for treating his brother so badly – and leaves? Only to come back later and to share an awkward scene with Raymond in an elevator? The fact that Valeria Golino almost sleepwalks through her performance doesn’t help the credibility of the character either…

The movie wants to create the comfortable aura of ‘feel-good’ while touching your heart and make you feel like it made you think but it’s all too superficial and poorly constructed. It also wants to create too much magic in the character of Raymond as if the audience couldn’t have accepted him otherwise but that way the whole story loses its concept and everything is lost once they get to Las Vegas and the story makes one mistake after another.

The movie does have some good moments and an interesting concept and it is a vast improvement compared to Cimarron and Cavalcade but still possesses too many problems to get a higher position. 

3/11/2011

Number 82: Cimarron (Best Picture Ranking)

Another early winner, another movie title with a ‘C’, another big epic – and another big disappointment. I’ve said in my review of Cavalcade that it was a close race for the last place in my ranking – and Cimarron was always a hot contender because there are more things that bother me about this movie than in Cavalcade but I decided that Cimarron also has some positive aspects that helped it to ‘reach’ number 82.

So, let’s start with the good things: first, unlike Cavalcade, Cimarron is more successful in being what it wants to be – a Western. It manages to create a sometimes even interesting atmosphere which is mostly helped by the wonderful production values – especially the Art Direction is fantastic and the way the movie presents the slow change from uncivilized outback to a big city is overall very impressive. As for the acting – the movie mostly suffers from the same problems as Cavalcade which means a lot of dated and over-the-top performances but the characters still become more memorable and distinctive. Irene Dunne made the wise choice to underplay her part to the maximum and that way became the only performance that is still worth seeing 80 years later – too bad for her that her character is the most uninteresting of the whole movie.
And, of course, what’s easily the most lasting aspect of the story is the opening sequence, the land rush in Oklahoma in which apparently hundreds of horses and carriages race across the prairie. The scene itself doesn’t really feature anything remarkable from a technical point-of-view but the cameras capture the spectacle thrillingly. And the movie even has a very unusual following scene when a woman pretends that her horse broke its legs and asks Yancey Cravat, the hero of the picture, to shoot it – only to steal his own horse moments later. It’s a highly promising beginning to what appears to be a gripping story – but the downfall begins right away.

This wonderful opening is followed by a scene of a black boy sitting in a chandelier above the dining table of his masters – and, of course, he falls down just a few moments later and begins to apologize in a way that tells the viewer ‘Yes, them blacks surely is stupid, but, hey, at least them is funny!’ The whole presentation of black characters makes Gone with the Wind’s Prissy look a rocket scientist – and later, that young boy goes out during a shooting in the streets to save Carvet’s children and gets shot during the process. But don’t think anybody notices it or cares about it.

But the most unbearable aspect of Cimarron comes right in its center – in the form of both Yancey Cavet’s character and the performance by Richard Dix which may be one of the most overblown, presumptuousness and over-the-top performances the Oscars have ever seen. And all this fulsomeness is invested to create one of the most despicable and dislikeable characters in movie history but who is constantly presented as a true hero. Yancey is a man who takes his wife out in the prairie, a life that clearly doesn’t please her but don’t think he cares about it for one second. Later, he comes to her in the middle of the day to ask her to start a completely new life in another prairie – and when she can’t decide in the time span of 2 seconds, he goes without her. For five years. Yes, five years. And when he comes back, everything is back to normal. Oh, but first he goes to court to defend a woman his wife has tried to get arrested (okay, in this case, Yancey is actually on the right side but the whole presentation of this marriage, of Yancey’s carelessness for everything that doesn’t concern his life and his wishes is so aggravating that it makes you want to throw something at the TV). Later, he leaves again but he and his wife meet again for the final scene of the movie which may break a new record in awfulness and horrible line-delivery.

While Cimarron may be able to create a captivating atmosphere, the whole story itself lacks every kind of entertainment value. So, Cimarron is definitely great to look at and does have some interesting scenes. But the whole content of the story, the central character and the ridiculous exaggeration of so many aspects make it almost as unbearable to watch as Cavalcade.

3/10/2011

Number 83: Cavalcade (Best Picture Ranking)

I always think it’s much harder to decide what movie or what performance will be the last in your ranking instead of the first. There is something so cruel about putting someone or something at the last place and in a lot of cases, it actually makes the contender look worse than it really is – after all, a ranking is about comparing and a movie can still be very good even though 82 others are better. But to be honest – Cavalcade isn’t very good. It’s not even partly good.

The battle for the last place was between this one and the movie on number 82. The movie on number 82 has actually more things I dislike than Cavalcade but it also has some redeeming qualities while I fail to come up with one thing about Cavalcade that is really praiseworthy. In my Best Actress Ranking, I have already shown a tendency to dismiss a lot the earlier Oscar winners – but this has surely nothing to do with them being old, I love old movies, but I just think that in its early days the Academy simply didn’t cover itself with glory when picking the winners.

Cavalcade tells the story about the Marryot-family, rich and happy people in England before the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, and of their servants, the Bridges. Their lives are touched by the Second Boer War, the sinking of the Titanic and the First World War.
Well, what is there to dislike? On paper, it sounds like a perfect movie for me – English history, historical events, a grand epic! But the outcome is probably the most lifeless, dated, staged, uninspired, clichéd and superficial movie this category has seen as a winner – which is also the reason for the last place.

Cavalcade is unfortunately not interested in its characters but only in finding a way to combine various well-known historic events (but never uses them in any way to tell the story). All the characters keep such a distance from the viewer that none of their stories become in any way emotionally or intellectually involving. When certain characters die, it’s neither touching, nor moving nor anything else and it doesn’t even seem to bring the story ahead. Everything that happens to the characters is reduced to being part of an historical event. Of course, there are exceptions like the fate of Mr. Bridges but even that feels like an unnecessary subplot – or better, almost the whole movie feels like an unnecessary subplot. Even more, the death of characters does not only avoid to touch the story – it doesn’t even seem to concern the other characters (but it gives the almost unbearable Una O’Conner a chance for some over-the-top reactions). Cavalcade has its eyes clearly on its goals – present British history but it’s almost shocking how random and unfocused everything is forced together. Cavalcade uses its main players to present the story while remaining uninterested in them at the same time – this concept could only fail.

Another reason why the characters keep such a distance is also the simple truth – the shockingly unsatisfying cast. I haven’t been kind to Diana Wynyard in my review of her performance, but the truth is that she is still the most impressive player – to be more accurate, she is the most impressive of the adult players since the kid actors actually manage to be the only breath of fresh air. Una O’Connor gets to deliver various histrionic hysterics (no other way to put it) while Clive Brook and the actors who play the adult children are as bland and lifeless as Diana Wynyard’s laser-eyes. Unfortunately, not a single member of the cast shows any sign of chemistry with any other member of the cast. Especially the second half, that focuses more on one of the Marryots’ son becomes almost intolerable slow.

But just as much fault for the movie’s failure goes to the predicable script and the unimaginative direction. While every scene suffers from heavy-handed dialogue that might have sounded good on a theatre stage and a lifeless presentation, nothing symbolizes the problems of Cavalcade more than the infamous Titanic-sequence in which the two actors are actually forced to speak dialogue about the possibility of death and the question of regrets (these two characters aren’t Jack and Rose swimming in ice water, these are two happy people on their honeymoon). The whole scene feels so forced upon the audience as if Noel Coward and Frank Lloyd feared that only one moment of the movie could feel meaningless (in their eyes). Everything in the story is as subtle as a plane crash – Cavalcade reeks with a feeling of self-importance and superiority but all those monologues and dialogues only reveal the simple truth that, as much as Cavalcade thinks it has to say, it doesn’t say anything at all. Nothing about the time it presents, nothing about the lives of its characters, nothing about the past or the future. Cavalcade fails as a human drama because it lacks personalities, it fails as a political drama because it has nothing to say and it fails as a historic drama because it never even begins to explore the possibilities it had. Oh, and why are there so many endless, out-of-place musical numbers? It couldn’t be to extend the running time since the 110 minutes already feel like 1100 minutes…

My whole opinion of the movie might have been changed if there had at least been one, just ONE interesting aspect – may it be one performance, a certain scene, clever dialogue, memorable images. But it doesn’t offer any of that.

As it is, out of all the winners in this category, Cavalcade is the only one that gives no reason to recommend it to anyone.

3/09/2011

My Ranking of the Best Picture Winners


It's an almost historic moment at 'Fritz and the Oscars'!

Finally I will begin to cover another category -
the prestigious Best Picture!

To start this new adventure, I will post my personal ranking of all winners in this category.
My reviews will be, just as in the Best Actress Ranking, rather short and I will go into more details when I cover a certain year.

To refresh your memories, here are the movies
that wait to be ranked:

Wings (1928)
The Broadway Melody (1929)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Cimarron (1931)
Grand Hotel (1932)
Cavalcade (1933)
It happened one Night (1934)
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
You can't take it With You (1938)
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Rebecca (1940)
How Green was my Valley (1941)
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Casablanca (1943)
Going my Way (1944)
The Lost Weekend (1945)
The Best Years of our Lives (1946)
Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
Hamlet (1948)
All the King's Men (1949)
All about Eve (1950)
An American in Paris (1951)
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
From Here to Eternity (1953)
On the Waterfront (1954)
Marty (1955)
Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Gigi (1958)
Ben-Hur (1959)
The Apartment (1960)
West Side Story (1961)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Tom Jones (1963)
My Fair Lady (1964)
The Sound of Music (1965)
A Man for all Seasons (1966)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Oliver! (1968)
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Patton (1970)
The French Connection (1971)
The Godfather (1972)
The Sting (1973)
The Godfather: Part II (1974)
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Rocky (1976)
Annie Hall (1977)
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Ordinary People (1980)
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Gandhi (1982)
Terms of Endearment (1983)
Amadeus (1984)
Out of Africa (1985)
Platoon (1986)
The Last Emperor (1987)
Rain Man (1988)
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Dances with Wolves (1990)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Unforgiven (1992)
Schindler's List (1993)
Forrest Gump (1994)
Braveheart (1995)
The English Patient (1996)
Titanic (1997)
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
American Beauty (1999)
Gladiator (2000)
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Chicago (2002)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Crash (2005)
The Departed (2006)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
The Hurt Locker (2009)
The King's Speech (2010)


I have to say that I hesitated a long time before I started with these movies because usually the Academy is accused of poor choices in this category. So I was absolutely amazed how much I enjoyed this journey and how many of these movies are actually pretty wonderul. Various movies I expected in my Top 10 didn't even make my Top 20 simply because there is an emberassement of riches.

So, what are your predictions? What do you hope for?

I hope you all will enjoy this!