My current Top 5

My current Top 5

4/28/2011

Number 38: Ordinary People (Best Picture Ranking)

In 1980, Robert Redford showed a talent for dark drama that had not been visible in his acting performances so far when he directed Ordinary People, a simple but fascinating tale of a family that used to be a role model for the typical ‘perfect American family’ but is slowly breaking apart after the oldest son dies in an accident at sea.

Ordinary People is filled with two kind of characters – those made fascinating by the actors and those made fascinating by the writing. In the middle is Timothy Hutton, giving an unforgettably powerful performance as the younger, surviving son whose own guilt for what happened and inability to connect with emotionally distant mother led to a nervous breakdown. His win for Supporting Actor is clearly category fraud but at the same time I can’t help but be incredibly happy that he did win an Oscar, no matter what category – his performance is certainly among the best ever awarded by the Academy.
Timothy Hutton gave an exceptional performance of an interesting yet ultimately ‘expected’ character. Mary Tyler Moore on the other hand gives a performance that benefits a great deal from the fact that her character is a never-ending enigma – the cold, emotionally unavailable mother has been done before but seldom has she been so human and yet so robot-like at the same time. It’s a case where the character is ultimately much more interesting than the actress bringing her to life but Mary Tyler Moore still adds a lot to Beth herself, too, and doesn’t let her performance be dictated by the screenplay. Judd Hirsch gives a very appealing performance that constantly brings a surprising amount of warmth into the cold structure of the story. Donald Sutherland may have been the only leading cast-member not nominated for an Oscar but he, too, does outstanding work as a confused father who is caught between his wife and his son.

The movie gets most of its energy and effect from the cast but they never overshadow the intriguing plot. Robert Redford directs this small story with a lot of skill and dignity. It’s a story that is driven by the characters and their interactions and Redford never tries to interrupt this wonderful flow. The picture made the smart movie to begin the story when the perfection that Beth so desperately wants is already destroyed – after the death of her first son. That way the viewer is thrown right into the tension of the story but at the same time it is not hard to imagine that, yes, Beth once achieved this level of perfection in her life. Now, her most obvious characteristic is her inability to communicate with her second son – is she blaming him for what happened or is she blaming him more for his inability to cope with his own feelings, or better, hide his own feelings since his problems, his need for a psychiatrist only destroy her family’s façade? Would she maybe even have preferred him to die instead? Again, the character of Beth is one of the most fascinating one to speculate about and the relationship between her and Conrad is the movie’s biggest success. But apart from that, Robert Redford and Timothy Hutton know how to make Ordinary People a story that is both about  Conrad’s family but also just about Conrad – his attempts to start his life anew provide the movie with some unforgettable scenes, especially at the end with Judd Hirsch.

Again, it’s a simple story but underneath it turns out to be a very unique and haunting story that is both intellectually and emotionally appealing.

4/25/2011

Number 39: Oliver! (Best Picture Ranking)

In my review for Gigi I wrote that there are two movies in this ranking that seemed positively weird to me the first time I saw them – those two were Gigi and…Oliver! There is something about Oliver! that seemed so…awkward, strange, over-the-top, weird and even more. But somewhere along the ride, I began to find more and more respect for this musical. Oliver! creates its own world and what may seem strange and odd in the beginning became more wonderful with each viewing. I know that this is one of the most disliked winners in this category but for me, Oliver! can consider itself fantastic.

What pleases me so about this movie is the sheer spectacle that is brought to the screen. Oliver! is one of the few movies where you can always look at every corner of the screen during the musical numbers and discover something new. The choreography makes sure that everyone on the screen knows what to do and there is always going as much going on in the background as in the foreground. ‘Consider yourself’, ‘It’s a fine life’ and especially ‘Who will buy’ are wonderfully executed musical numbers that, unlike most other movie musicals, don’t want to fascinate with a certain choreography in the center but rather overwhelm the viewer with the sheer size that fills every part of the frame.

The weakest part of Oliver! is, ironically, Oliver himself. The character and the actor who portrays him. As a character, Oliver is so awfully passive – I know he’s only a little boy but it’s a rather frustrating movie experience if the central character gets pushed around constantly without ever doing anything for his fate himself (okay, he went to London, I give him that). And why Mark Lester, a boy who could neither act nor sing, was cast in this part will forever remain a mystery. Sure, he looks like every grandmother’s dream but seriously – there must have been somebody else. But apart from Mark Lester, the cast in Oliver! is top-notch. Ron Moody is extremely amusing as Fagin while Oliver Reed provides the darker moments of the story with his threatening portrayal of Bill. As Nancy, Shani Wallis steals the show and would certainly have been a deserving winner of this year’s Supporting Actress Oscar. And considering how much I usually dislike children in movies, Oliver! does its best to change my opinion with the members of Fagin's gang – especially Jack Wild is pure delight.

Of course Oliver! the musical is not Oliver Twist. Since this is a musical, everything has been made more amusing, more entertaining, less dark and disturbing but I still think Carol Reed deserves a lot of credit for maintaining a lot of darkness in this movie. Especially in the second half, the more serious tone of the story begins to cover the cheerfulness from the earlier parts. The number ‘Oomh-Pah-Pah’ is maybe my favorite in the whole movie since the tension of the situation wonderfully underlines Nancy’s desperate attempts to help Oliver escape.

I can totally understand why so many people dislike Oliver! nowadays – I used to be among them. But somehow, the unusual style of the movie, that used to disturb me in the past, now fascinates me more and more and the wonderful spectacle, the catchy tunes, the surprisingly dark plot mixed with many witty moments create a strong and wonderfully entertaining movie musical – at least for me.

Number 40: How Green was my Valley (Best Picture Ranking)

Surely no other Best Picture winner is remembered as much through the movie it beat at the Oscars as How Green was my Valley which seems only exist today as the movie that can be blamed for taking the Oscar that should have gone to Citizen Kane. But like so many other Oscar winners that are usually hated because of the ones they beat, How Green was my Valley is an actually wonderful winner, too.

It tells the story of a simple family that lives in a mining town and how time brings a lot of changes into the quiet valley and their quiet lives. How Green was my Valley is a sometimes very slow movie and some parts of the story are clearly superior to others but John Ford created an almost poetic beauty in his images and in the characters that it becomes the kind of movie that may often seem like ‘nothing too special’ while you are watching it but it leaves such a strong impression that you can’t help but become more and more fascinated.

The story is told by the voice-over of a grown-up Huw Morgan who tells about his life, the life of his parents and his siblings. As a young boy, Huw is played by Roddy McDowell who gives a remarkable child-performance that seems to understand both the realism and the sentiment that forms this movie. In the parts of the parents, both Donald Crisp and Sarah Allgood deliver extremely strong and unforgettable performances. Donald Crisp lives up to all the expectations that the voice-over creates in his character – he seems wise, gentle and loving without ever appearing like a character who is idealized in retrospect. Sarah Allgood’s speech to the townspeople is one of the greatest moments in the movie and even though she doesn’t reach the level of excellence that Jane Darwell showed one year earlier in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, her strong-willed, stern but ultimately loving mother is a wonderful creation. Walter Pidgeon gives probably the greatest performance of his career and it’s wonderful to see him being allowed to shine in his role without being overshadowed by Greer Garson. Maureen O’Hara is extremely touching as Huw’s unhappy sister.

How Green was my Valley seems overshadowed by the sentimental feelings for better times but it’s actually a much more realistic and practical look in the past than expected – Huw’s voice talks about the old times gone by with regret but the movie shows that the times in the village were never really simple and only Huw’s cognition as a child seemed to have prevented him from seeing this. Evil gossip, unhappy love, inhuman working condition, a village torn apart by hate – all these things existed in the village all the time and if the past seems like a better time to us now it’s only because we tend to forget all negative memories.

How Green was my Valley beautifully combines the structure of the plot with gorgeous visual support – some of the images that John Ford creates almost look like paintings. The birth of a child with the shadows on the wall, the wounded workers coming up from the mine or the women look up to the mine at the end are only some of this overwhelming images. But How Green was my Valley never puts style over substance and offers various intriguing and thought-provoking plots like the discord between Huw’s brothers and their father over the work at the mine, the almost tyranny of a few religious men over the people in the village or the marriage of Huw’s sister to a rich man despite her love for somebody else. The only flawed storyline is Huw’s life in school which is rather exaggerated and the fact that Huw decides to leave school and work in the mines also sends a rather wrong message for my taste.

Citizen Kane may be the movie everybody today talks about – but the Academy has still no reason to be ashamed of this selection for Best Picture.

4/24/2011

Number 41: Titanic (Best Picture Ranking)

Titanic is among a few Best Picture winners that aren’t only celebrated movies but a true phenomenon – surely everybody old enough in 1997 still remembers how big this movie became and how it tied Ben-Hur as the most honored movie by the Academy ever. I still remember that I saw this in cinema once (surely very unusual since almost everybody I know saw it multiple times) and it was the first time ever that, while watching a movie, I started to analyze it a bit, something I had never done before – up to this point in my life, I only watched a movie without thinking too much but I still remember how I was the only one not laughing at Billy Zane’s character’s remarks about Picasso since I thought it was such a cheap trick by Carmon to make him look stupid since the audience already knows he is wrong. This is surely not a revolutionary observation but, as I said, for me it was a pretty big deal and it was also the first time I actually complained about a screenplay in my life – too limited, too much silly dialogue, too simple. But: despite all the problems of the movie, I still loved it – it seems that even most movie critics back then had the same reaction. After that, I went through the phases probably a lot of viewers went through, too: the first time I saw Titanic again after that I still enjoyed it. Then, years later, I wanted to watch it again – and found it unbearable. The plot became even worse for me and I turned off the TV after 10 minutes because I thought everything about it was just horrible. Well, now I watched it again for my ranking and found that, by now, I have turned back – I don’t love it as much as I used to when I was younger but I also don’t hate it anymore as I did when it was ‘cool’ to hate it. By now, I think that Titanic is a terrific spectacle that has obvious flaws but these flaws somehow work perfectly fine in the context of the film

The problems with James Cameron are that he has an undeniable talent for big epics, for visual style and for overwhelming the audience without burying them in special effects. But at the same time, he has no talent for writing believable characters, for developing a plot or even for natural dialogue. The love story between Jack and Rose could not be more banal – the evil mother, the freedom-loving, spirited daughter, the evil fiancée, the poor but smart and wonderful guy. It’s all as one-dimensional as possible and again, James Cameron has no feeling for classes or for different characters – as much as he is an expert with technical aspects, he has no talent for human emotions. But the strange thing about Titanic is – somehow it still works. The simplicity of the plot that used to bother me so much is still the movie’s biggest flaw but James Cameron has the advantage that, even though he might be bad at writing, he is still a ‘good bad writer’ – meaning that it, for some strange reason, still turns out to be just right. Somehow, the love story simply works, the obstacles for Jack and Rose captivate the viewer and their fate becomes almost as tragic as the sinking of the ship itself. James Cameron both harms and benefits the plot – he has the talent to turn the average level of his own work into a fulfilling and satisfying experience thanks to his ability to present this average level as something truly worthwhile. The cast of Titanic works fine but not great in any way. Kate Winslet does the most with her material and her natural charm helps her immensely. Leonardo DiCaprio too often looks like a 12-year old boy but he, too, contributes to the success of the story very much. Gloria Stuart provides some nice moments at the older Rose but nobody else truly stands out – expect for Billy Zane who tops the limitations of his character with an over-the-top and almost unbearable performance.

So, why does Titanic work so well even so it shouldn’t? The screenplay is borderline-bad, the actors are mostly only adequate – but under the direction of James Carmon, it all becomes strangely fascinating. He may not know the limitations of his writing but he knows how to present it on the screen to the greatest effect. Of course, the main reason for Titanic’s success is the atmosphere – the amazing art direction, the costumes, the cinematography, the score, even Celine Dion’s voice at the end somehow just feels right at this moment (but I can’t stand that song at any other moment). And the sequence of the sinking is still one of the most thrilling and shocking action scenes ever filmed.

Titanic is not perfect – but it perfectly gives the illusion of being very close to it. It’s an unforgettable roller-coaster ride of emotions during which James Carmon very well knows how to involve the audience as much as possible. That way the story of Jack and Rose and the story of the Titanic become truly unforgettable – maybe also because of the noticeable flaws but mostly because of the overwhelming spectacle and its touching heart.

4/22/2011

Number 42: The King's Speech (Best Picture Ranking)

For some reason, the newest winner always seems to be the hardest to judge – the season is still fresh in one’s mind, all the different opinions and critics about the movie are all around the Internet. And the year of 2011 probably saw one of the strangest awards season ever. The Social Network so clearly dominated the race from the first day, winning basically every award under the sun and seemed destined for a sweep right up to the Oscars. But suddenly the three most important guild awards went to The King’s Speech and all of a sudden it became the overwhelming frontrunner and expectedly won the Oscar for Best Picture. All this basically guarantees a backlash of royal proportions – basically, the backlash has already begun even before the Oscars were handed out and it can be expected that The King’s Speech’s reputation will rather suffer from the Oscar win than benefit. Well, when all is said and done, every movie has its share of fans and opponents – and I am glad to be on the fan-side of The King’s Speech.

Set in England during the 1930s, The King’s Speech tells of Prince Albert who suffers from insecurity and stammering. And unorthodox speech therapist and his supportive wife do his best to help him but soon more problems arise – his older brother refuses to become King to marry a divorced American and the self-doubting Prince Albert becomes King George VI who must now must overcome his stammering to rally his nation in the war against Nazi Germany. 

The King’s Speech is a wonderfully entertaining and touching movie that tells a story that is both simple and grand, private and public. Tom Hooper tells this story in a very simple and old-fashioned way and The King’s Speech is certainly no revolutionary achievement in style but everything in it wonderfully serves the main aspect – the screenplay. From the costumes to the art direction to the score, everything beautifully and discreetly underlines the main plot and comes from the background to highlight the foreground. In the foreground, The King’s Speech is most of all an actor’s movie – and they all deliver. In the center is Colin Firth, giving a first-class performance as the stammering and unconfident man who is suddenly thrown into a life that was not meant for him. It’s a beautiful and extremely moving portrayal that deservedly took home the Oscar. Matching him is Geoffrey Rush, giving a performance that constantly shifts between flamboyant and subtle, and provides the movie’s most amusing moments. Helena Bonham Carter has a more quiet part that could easily get lost behind Firth and Rush but she, too, gives a powerful performance that gets the most out of her clichéd part. Besides these three main actors, the rest of the cast is also delivering wonderful performances. 

The King’s Speech mostly gets its advantages from following the character of Prince Albert overcoming his fear and stammering to rise to the occasion of a difficult time. It’s a story that easily inspires the viewer but could also turn extremely kitschy with just a few wrong steps. But The King’s Speech thankfully doesn’t take any wrong steps and constantly keeps an atmosphere that both entertains and touches the viewer without overdoing it in any direction. It’s a movie that finds just the right tone for small themes like friendship, loyalty and love and big themes like war and the change of history. Maybe it’s all old-fashioned – but it’s still done extremely well.

Number 43: Mutiny on the Bounty (Best Picture Ranking)

After John Ford’s The Informer had won Oscars for Scoring, Acting, Writing and Directing, a win for Best Picture must have seemed like a logical choice – but the winner was Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty, the movie version of the famous…well, mutiny on the Bounty.

The movie tells the story about the cruelty and inhumanity that happened on the ship, especially by the Captain, and which ultimately led to uproar by the crew. The movie does a great job in portraying the tension on the ship and how obedience is slowly turned into the opposite. It demonstrates how the traditions that have shaped the command structure are strong enough to maintain order for most of the journey despite all kinds of ill-treatments until the members of the crew won’t accept it anymore. For some parts, most of the crew members are presented in rather two-dimensional ways but the three leading actors are constantly the ones who redefine the tone of the movie and serve as its different voices. On the one side is Charles Laughton as the acerb and merciless Captain Bligh, on the other side is Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian, the man who starts the mutiny. In the middle is Franchot Tone as Byam who doesn’t think much of Bligh’s leadership but who also believes in duty and the indefeasible power of the Captain. All three actors do fantastic work in their parts. Charles Laughton is probably the one who steals the show as he is basically flawless in bringing the unlikable sides of his character to the screen while always showing Bligh’s sense of self-importance which has come from his role as Captain. Clark Gable gives a typical ‘Clark-Gable-performance’ in which he uses his screen personality to form a character that fits him just right. For some reason Franchot Tone’s performance has gone down in history as the reason why the Supporting Oscars were installed since his was a clear supporting role that managed to be nominated in the leading category – well, nothing could be further from the truth since his part is undoubtedly equal to Gable’s and Laughton’s and probably even lager. His character serves as the middle ground in the story, a man torn to both sides. And not only his character is of equal importance, but Franchot Tone also easily holds his own against his co-stars and gives a very memorable performance that peaks in his final speech before the court.

The movie’s flaws are mostly the scene on the tropic island. It’s nice to see the men have fun on the beach and enjoy the company of the native girls but these scenes harshly interrupt the tension that Lloyd had been building up to these moments. If those scenes had been better they might have served an important role in the picture and emphasized the sharp contrast to the life on the ship but as they are written and presented they mostly feel too out-of-place.

Mutiny on the Bounty works best during all the scenes on the ship. Lloyd perfectly creates a sense of injustice and knows how to get the viewer emotionally involved in the battle of wills that is going on. At the same time, the character of Bligh, even though clearly presented as the villain of this piece, never feels exaggerated or limited and Charles Laughton’s performance helps to make his view on the matter just as understandable.

The historical facts may be more than inaccurate but Mutiny on the Bounty is still a very strong presentation of the typical ‘fight against tyranny’-theme.

Number 44: The Departed (Best Picture Ranking)

Considering how over-due Martin Scorsese was not only for an Oscar for Best Director but also for Best Picture, I was afraid that The Departed might be a well-made but ultimately average crime thriller which only took the top prize as a compensation by the Academy. Well, I was glad to learn that I was wrong.

The Departed tells the thrilling story of two men – one is a member of a crime gang and works undercover at the police, the other one is a cop who works undercover in the crime gang. When both discover the other’s existence, they must work hard and careful to expose the other one’s identity before being exposed themselves. Considering that this is a Martin-Scorsese-movie, the story offers a lot of violence but also intelligent character development that keeps the viewers' attention and interest the whole time.

A lot of the credit goes to the outstanding cast. Leonardo DiCaprio has probably never been better than as the undercover-cop who must constantly fear for his life and his identity. Matt Damon isn’t on the same level but he also plays his part with much dedication and his natural charm helps him easily to create a character that is both appealing and off-putting. I never thought that I would ever hear the words ‘Academy Award nominee Mark Wahlberg’ but Marky Mark leaves a memorable expression as the foul-mouthed, hot-headed cop and makes his character much more three-dimensional than the writing allowed him. Martin Sheen adds a lot of dignity to his part and is able to develop the whole relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio in just a few scenes. And special credit goes to Vera Famiga, stuck with an underwritten and banal part that only seems to exist as a sex toy for the two guys but she survives all this with a very layered and human performance. The only weak link in the cast is, surprisingly, Jack Nicholson who seems to have become a parody of himself by now and sleepwalks through this role with all the typical ‘Jack-Nicholson-tics’.

The biggest success of The Departed is that Scorsese constantly keeps the story going and never lets the viewers or the characters truly catch a break. The dynamics of the plot create a wonderful atmosphere and scenes of brutal violence contrast effectively with more quiet moments. The fate of the two central characters becomes extremely captivating, especially Leonardo DiCaprio wonderfully shows how his character seems to come closer and closer to a nervous breakdown. It’s not a very deep story that tackles any social issues but it’s a crime thriller on a very high level in which the characters drive the story instead of the other way around. Special mention must also go to the fantastic use of music.

Scorsese certainly knows what he is doing here and The Departed constantly shows us that few directors have such a talent for this genre than he has. Okay, the final shot of the movie may be one of the worst in his career and is about as subtle as a plane crash but overall, The Departed is a gripping and fascinating look at two characters caught up in extreme circumstances.

4/20/2011

Number 45: Dances with Wolves (Best Picture Ranking)

Today, Kevin Costner’s saga about the old West suffers from a bad reputation since he has never done anything else after his praised directorial debut that came even close to the same level of excellence and because he was another actor-turned-director who made Martin Scorsese wait for his first Oscar. Going into Dances with Wolves, I didn’t know what to expect since I usually don’t care for Westerns or Kevin Costner and so was pleasantly surprised that Dances with Wolves is actually a pretty terrific movie.

First, the not so good: Dances with Wolves is a clear product of the early 90s and focuses too much on the stereotype of the ‘noble savage’ or spiritual awakening away from civilization. Also, at certain moments, the movie goes on forever and especially the love story between Costner and Mary McDonnell harms the quality of the movie since it is impossible to overlook the fact that, in a movie that concerns itself with a lonely white man and his life with a Sioux tribe, it was still possible to find a white woman he could fall in love with and it also doesn’t help that the two actors lack the necessary chemistry and are so completely uninteresting when they are together. Kevin Costner also tends to simplify too many points in his story – the aforementioned image of the ‘noble savage’ contrasts sharply with the two-dimensional presentation of the soldiers or the ‘bad’ Indians.

So, Dances with Wolves is not flawless but I give Kevin Costner a lot of credit since he clearly has an eye and the talent for such a grand epic. As a leading man he is satisfying even though not remarkable – his voice-overs may be the best part of his performance. Mary McDonnell is always much better whenever she doesn’t have to play the ‘woman in love’ but most of the supporting players steal the show here. As a director, Kevin Costner may sometimes be too concerned with the length and scale of his movie but he does have a certain instinct for timing and the flow of the story. Underlined by a truly magnificent score, a lot of the scenes of loneliness, of slow meetings, of hunting or of true friendship become both entertaining and touching. The story often lacks subtlety but it’s still a powerful farewell to a lost time and culture.

It’s mostly the almost poetic beauty that Costner captures in his movie that serves as its biggest success. It’s to his credit that he gives the story time to develop, the whole movie constantly feels as if it wants to say ‘no need to hurry’ and, in this case, this is a welcoming approach. Yes, sometimes the story feels overdone and overproduced, simplified and limited but at the same time there is something about it that makes it seem ‘just right’. It’s a captivating balance between a small, personal story and the grand scope in which it is set.

Number 46: In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture Ranking)

Racism was omnipresent at the Academy Awards in 1967 with In the Heat of the Night and Guess who’s coming to dinner winning several awards. In the Heat of the Night was also the Academy’s choice for the Best Picture, beating out such classics as The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde. It tells the story of two cops, one black, one racist, who must work together in a small, Southern town to find the murderer of an important, wealthy business man.

In the Heat of the Night is a movie with a very strong and powerful central story – unfortunately surrounded by a lot of mediocrity. In the middle are the two outstanding performances by Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. Both actors play the opposite spectrum of human characters and Steiger’s loud and sometimes slightly exaggerated work contrasts wonderfully with Poitier’s understated and restrained performance. The dynamic between these two actors is the motor that keeps the movie going and turns into one of the most interesting relationships ever seen on the screen. It’s easy to see why Rod Steiger won the Oscar since he gives a very domineering performance and his character is also given the bigger arc (that scene in the living room is one of the highpoints of his career) but Sidney Poitier is the unsung hero of this piece as he provides the connection to the audience and has to create a character that is neither too perfect but also clearly superior to his surroundings. So, it’s the development of the relationship between this racist and loud cop from the South and this black, intelligent man from the North which is the main reason why In the Heat of the Night works as well as it does. From their first confrontation scenes to their last goodbye at the train station, both actors perfectly handle their material without overdoing the dislike or the sentiments that could have destroyed the realism.

In the Heat of the Night is a movie that seems to combine two stories in one – one about racism and one about a murder. Both stories are supposed to be intertwined but they actually vary in their quality. In fact, the movie excels in the scenes that hint at the open or hidden racism in the town while the search for the murderer always feels like a last-minute attempt to spice things up. The movie wants to be a traditional ‘Whodunit?` but it gives no time to a clear presentation of the case, to suspects or motives and because of that the end feels rushed and forced into the storyline. During the second half of the movie, when the attentions shifts a little more over to the question of possible suspects, the movie loses a lot of its energy and fascination. Apart from Lee Grant who gives a very moving and memorable performance as the widow of the murdered man, the whole supporting cast from In the Heat of the Night also brings the movie down. I am willing to believe that stereotypical people like them truly exist but it’s the task of a movie to present a more balanced picture. All the cops from the police station make Officer Wiggum and his team from The Simpsons (I can’t believe I am mentioning The Simpsons for the second time in this ranking now) look like true professionals while the various suspects are incredibly over-the-top. In the Heat of the Night wants to be a movie about a murder case and the role of racism but ends up as movie about the role of racism disturbed by an unsatisfying murder case.

Right from the beginning, the use of music and cinematography seems to indicate something very modern but the feeling of the ‘60s’ that dominates the film gives it a rather dated tone from today’s point-of-view. Yes, In the Heat of the Night has many flaws but at the same time it managing to be an incredibly powerful (who can forget the scene when Poitier slaps the suspect?) and gripping experience.

4/19/2011

Number 47: Wings (Best Picture Ranking)

There is always some debate about the silent classic Sunrise whenever there is talk about the first Best Picture winner but the Academy officially lists Wings as the first winner in this category.

It was obvious right from the start that the themes War and Musical are right up the Academy’s taste. In their second year, they awarded the mediocre The Broadway Melody while Wings, a saga about combat pilots during World War I, took home the Oscar in the Academy’s first year. Wings also has the honour of being the only silent movie to ever win the top prize – which sets it apart from all the other movies in this ranking. But while it is rather difficult to compare performances from silent movies with those from talkies, a comparison of the movies themselves is not quite so impossible.

Wings is a movie that easily impresses with its most celebrated asset – the fighting scenes. All the air battle scenes are still thrilling to watch even though they sometimes suffer from the limitations of movie making in 1928. A lot of times the planes are only little black dots, hardly recognizable, and the written titles have to inform the audience about what is going on. Still, most of the time the battle scenes are still as impressive as everything that can be seen in modern movies and later, the whole scope of the war is enlarged when airships and ground troops add the picture. From the cinematography that perfectly captures the atmosphere of the air battles to the use of editing, shadows and close-ups, the fighting sequences in Wings are easily among the most impressive ever captured on film.

Wings is not an anti-war movie. It’s a patriotic story that underlines the greatness of American soldiers (during all the written titles, the American soldiers are always referred to as ‘we’ while the Enemy is always ‘them’). Unfortunately, there was also the need for a plot which is also the biggest weakness of Wings. The love-triangle between two best friends who fight together and a girl from their hometown simply doesn’t work and constantly brings the movie down. Richard Arlen and Charles Rogers do very good work in their parts but Clara Bow, strangely first-billed despite being of secondary importance, is too exaggerated, even for a silent movie, and has basically nothing to do apart from being ‘the woman’. Later scenes in a Parisian bar seem to go on forever – Wings shines during the war sequences but fails in the development and presentation of its main characters. Wings may also be the only silent movie in which the written titles become annoying very soon – there is such a constant harshness in their tone, not just during the war scenes but also before; I never thought written titles could feel so exaggerated but here, they do.

But Wings is surely an exciting movie and improves vastly whenever the story focuses back on the main action. The last part of the movie in which one of the two friends ends up in a German plane puts a moving end to this story without feeling manipulative or corny. And the scenes in the hometown, especially with the family of one of the two heroes, are done very beautifully and build a stark contrast to the wide, light and open shots of the air battles.

Personally, I would have preferred Sunrise to be the first official Best Picture winner since it’s an unforgettable masterpiece and superior to Wings in every way – but this doesn’t mean that Wings isn’t a deserving winner itself.

4/18/2011

Number 48: Slumdog Millionaire (Best Picture Ranking)

Slumdog Millionaire won basically every award in sight during all the ceremonies leading up to the Academy Awards and so it was no surprise when it took home an astonishing 8 Oscars. And it’s not hard to see why this movie became such a phenomenon – it’s a moving story told in a very unique style and mixes heartwarming moments with shocking images.

In the middle of the movie is a young man named Jamal who is a contestant in the Indian version of Who wants to be a Millionaire? – and seems to know too many answers considering that he is a poor, uneducated man from the slums. Step by step it is revealed via flashbacks that he knows the answers because of certain events in his past and that he isn’t in the show to win any money – instead, he hopes that by appearing on TV, he will be able to reunite with Latika, the love of his life. Sounds all like a fairy tale and Slumdog Millionaire certainly is – it mixes the brutal realities of life in the Indian slums with the make-believe story of a poor man who, just by luck, is able to win a lot of money and the heart of the woman of his dreams.

The biggest success of Slumdog Millionaire is that it was able to make this fairytale-like atmosphere believable. The fact that Jamal can answer all the questions because of incidents in his part might be a bit exaggerated but it’s acceptable (even though it does stretch credibility a bit too much that the questions fit perfectly to his life in chronological order – but hey, it’s a fairytale!). The early flashbacks are the scenes that not always work – the riot in the slums and later the scenes when the children become beggars certainly show the horrible life in the slums but the exaggerated editing and cinematography in some moments distract too much from the seriousness of the topics and often threatens to turn the whole movie into a MTV-clip (but the scene with the eyes is truly shocking). The movie benefits the most when the grown-up actors play the central parts and Slumdog Millionaire begins to focus more on the love story and the relationship between the two brothers. In regards to the actors, 2008 was one of the years when the Academy Awards made much more sense than the BAFTAs and decided to ignore all the actors. Dev Patel has a goofy charm and is able to carry his sequences but his limited talent is too obvious in various scenes. Freida Pinto is certainly lovely to look at but that doesn’t hide the fact that she has nothing to do in her underwritten part. Actor Anil Kapoor annoyed me to no end during the awards season in 2008 and his unlikable portrayal of the game show host lacks much credibility.

What probably is the highlight of Slumdog Millionare are the last twenty minutes which are truly movie magic at its best. The call on the phone, the answering of the final question, the scene at the train station are touching beyond words. But even before that, Slumdog Millionaire is a memorable and unique experience. The whole concept of the TV show, the flashbacks, the love story may sometimes be overdone but it all fits together beautifully. It’s a movie that shouldn’t be taken too seriously as a portrayal of modern India but it succeeds as a modern fairytale (okay, enough with this word!). There is something irresistible about the way Danny Boyle combines all the times and places of the story while keeping the central plot intact. It’s not a flawless movie but it achieves the illusion of being so. Maybe that’s the best way to describe it – a piece of magic that inweaves with reality in front of our eyes and for a moment we can forget that it’s just a trick before some of the flaws become invisible. It’s a movie that is easy to enjoy and easy to be impressed by since the plot, the technical values, the score, the heart-warming qualities all come together so easily.

Number 49: You Can't Take it With You (Best Picture Ranking)

Today, this winner of the Best Picture Oscar is rather forgotten but in 1938, it was popular enough with the Academy to not only win the top prize but also a third Director win for Frank Capra. The movie tells about the eccentric and unusual Sycamore family and their complete opposite, the snobbish and wealthy Kirbys. When Alice and Tony, two young members of these different families, fall in love, things start to get complicated.

You Can’t Take it With You is another one of those typical Capra-comedies. There is a little craziness, a little humor, a little love, a little pathos, a little class differences, a little social messages and the realization that you don’t need money or power to lead a happy, fulfilled life.

The biggest danger that You Can’t Take it With You faced was the central Sycamore family. Every single one of them is presented as eccentric and different as possible. It’s clear that the writing feels very forced in these moments and the script was constantly wondering about how it would be possible to even top those eccentricities with another one. There is the good-hearted and wise Grandpa, the head of the family and maybe, apart from Alice, the most normal member of the family (even though he has some weird ideas about taxes which are also one of the major flaws of the movie since the whole family doesn’t care to pay taxes but they don’t seem to have a problem with living in a country that provides them with everything they need). Then there is the rest of the family: Penny who wants to write a novel and keeps constantly talking and changing the topic at the same time, Essie who dances the whole time, some other relatives who build things in the cellar, a Russian friend who comes around very often and so on (but: the Sycamores are conventional enough to have black servants…). So, all these characters could very easily have become very annoying very soon but miraculously never do. The concept of the Sycamore may become a bit old after a while but all the actors constantly keep up a refreshing and engaging play and that way turn their scenes into very amusing and entertaining moments. On the other side, the characters of the Kirby family may be (apart from Tony) too two-dimensional but Edward Arnold gives a very moving and multi-dimensional performance as the rich man who learns his lessons. In the center of the movie are Jean Arthur and James Stewart who both may be playing the ‘straight’ characters but they actually, too, put a lot of comedy and craziness in their work and that way never get lost in the proceedings – their scene in the restaurant is absolutely delightful.

Like every Frank Capra movie, You Can’t Take it With You is a little too overdone in its message and a little too forced in its attempt to mix social themes with entertainment and the whole solution of the story seems to take a too easy way out. But it was the talent of Frank Capra to always make this work – he has the ability to create movies that could easily be criticized but somehow are simply too pleasing, inspiring, heartwarming but also thought-provoking. His movies always present a combination of themes that shouldn’t work but somehow end up working just right. You Can’t Take it With You is certainly not Capra’s best picture and certainly not his best comedy but it’s refreshing, entertaining and memorable.

Number 50: Out of Africa (Best Picture Ranking)

Out of Africa is one of those big epics that the Academy loves to honor – breathtaking shots of exotic landscapes, a sweeping score, a doomed love story. But: these types of movies usually only get attention from the Oscars if they are done well. And Out of Africa certainly is. Lead by Meryl Streep and her Danish accent, Out of Africa tells the story of writer Karen Blixen – a story of a farm in Africa, an uncaring husband and a tragic love affair.

Oscar-winner Sidney Pollack brought all this to life with a lush and sometimes a little overproduced movie that obviously enjoys its own length and opulence. Out of Africa does never really uses its screen time to explore the characters since the story itself is rather simple and the characters go through an unsurprising and expected arc but instead the movie uses every opportunity for long shots of the African landscapes, for a slow growth of a new love – to sum it up, Out of Africa takes time to develop more quiet and little moments, to show a love affair embedded in the African environment. That way it becomes the kind of movie that can easily bore a lot of viewers while captivating the others.

Meryl Streep gives a beautiful performance as the central character, a woman who finds herself in Africa. Out of Africa thankfully doesn’t focus on her love life completely but takes just as much time to show her own inner growth, her fight for her farm and her way of life. Robert Redford gives an adequate performance and he is nice to look at but never truly achieves a level of greatness but the chemistry between the two actors works just right. Interestingly enough, even though Out of Africa is usually remembered as a love story, the whole movie never truly feels like a typical romance – the love between Karen and Denys appears more intellectual than physical, their long talks or the famous hair-washing scene only underline that the attraction between those two seems to be both deeper but also more superficial at the same time than most other movie-love stories. On the one hand, there seems to be a deep spiritual connection between these two souls but for some reason they never truly seem to belong together. It’s a love that appears ‘meant to be’ but fleeting at the same time. Because of this, Out of Africa’s approach to this clichéd plot is rather refreshing and prevents the whole concept from becoming too schmaltzy and from dominating the movie in any way. The love between Karen and Denys never feels like the main reason for the movie’s existence but Out of Africa always lets Karen’s other feelings and determinations shine, too.
In the supporting role of Karen’s husband, Klaus Maria Brandauer gives an intriguing portrayal of an unlikable character.

Out of Africa truly manages to capture the feeling of an exotic and unknown country and keeps a nice balance between the plot and the characters on the one side and the technical values on the other. It also doesn’t concern itself with too serious topics – themes like war, the colonies, the supposed superiority of the Europeans over the natives are never truly touched which works well in the context of the way the film is presented.

Overall, it’s a beautiful and engaging picture that tells a simple story in an opulent way.

4/17/2011

Number 51: Gigi (Best Picture Ranking)

There are two movies among the Best-Picture-winners which I found positively strange and awkward the first time I watched them. Gigi is one of those (the other one hasn’t been mentioned yet). As you can see, my opinion has obviously changed by now even though Gigi is still one of the most unusual movies in this category.

The Academy was certainly in the perfect mood for Gigi in 1958 and turned it into the biggest winner ever, awarding it 9 Oscars, breaking the record of Gone with the Wind, From Here to Eternity and On the Waterfront. Certainly an impressive achievement (even if it was broken only one year later when Ben-Hur took home 11 trophies) but it’s not hard to see why Gigi swept the technical awards. The whole movie is just gorgeous to look at, from the opulent art direction to the splendid costumes and the beautiful cinematography. Of course, some wins may have been slightly exaggerated – there is nothing too remarkable about Gigi’s editing, especially because it sometimes makes the annoying mistake of showing a certain action (like a person opening a door) only to show the exact same thing after a cut from another angle. The score of Gigi may not feature any true, well-known classics like other musicals but most of the songs are still delightful – ‘It’s a bore’, ‘The night they invented Champagne’, ‘Say a Prayer for me tonight’, ‘I don’t understand the Parisians’, ‘She is not thinking of me’, ‘I remember it well’ or the title song ‘Gigi’ are both endearing and clever. Then there is the infamous ‘Thank heaven for little girls’ which is maybe the biggest flaw in Gigi – it’s hard to say if people in 1958 really appreciated the sight of an old man singing about little girls while smilingly watching a maybe five-year old girl next to him but by now it’s only scary. This also leads to the fact that the character of Lachaille and the performance by Maurice Chevalier should have been left on the cutting room floor – in 1958, he may have been the most praised cast member but his aging womanizer has not aged well, in more ways than one.

Apart from Chevalier, the cast of Gigi is actually pretty terrific. None of them was nominated for an Oscar which does make sense since none of them truly stands out but the chemistry is just right and all actors know how to balance the silliness of the plot with a more dramatic approach to their characters. Leslie Caron in the title role is much more charming and appealing than in An American in Paris and makes Gigi a true dreamer, a little crazy, a little naïve, scared and insecure but joyful and happy, too. Louis Jordan is very loveable as Gaston who thinks that he must lead a life of pleasure and love affairs but soon finds out that he wants nothing more but a loving relationship. Hermione Gingold is also a joy to watch as the exhausted, overprotective but also misguided grandmother while Isabel Jeans often steals the show as Gigi’s aunt who collected kings like other people stamps.

The most unusual thing about Gigi is easily its plot. The story of a young girl that is brought up to become a mistress certainly sounds rather tasteless but at the same time it’s a clever story of young people rebelling against the plans of the elders. Gaston does not want to lead the life of Lachaille while Gigi lacks all the ‘talents’ to become the mistress of a rich man. Obviously, there are a lot of elements in the story that seem to come right out of My Fair Lady – considering that the people behind these two musicals are the same and My Fair Lady was a huge hit on Broadway while Gigi was filmed, this is not surprising. The fact that, in the end, Gigi and Gaston ruin the plans of everyone around them by falling in love makes the whole story much more clever and three-dimensional than it is usually given credit for. In some ways, Gigi is constantly presenting rather annoying or disturbing themes but then turns around and shows a different or modified view and so opens them up to new interpretation.

Overall, Gigi is certainly not for everyone and the lightness, the strangeness of the plot and the characters make it easy to understand why there is a large amount of dislike in regard to this winner but there is a lot to enjoy in Gigi and even more to find out.

Number 52: The Life of Emile Zola (Best Picture Ranking)

The Life of Emile Zola doesn’t enjoy a very high reputation among Oscar followers so I was prepared for the worst when I gave it a first try and was surprised how great I actually considered it – an opinion strengthened by a second viewing.

The movie tells about the life of French author Emile Zola and particular his involvement in the Dreyfus affair. The Life of Emile Zola is obviously not a high-budget production – the sets often don’t look fully convincing and a lot of shots seem to come from a B-movie but the story and particularly the actors raise the whole concept and turn The Life of Emile Zola into a very interesting and surprisingly effective motion picture. In the middle is Paul Muni, again playing a real-life person, who wonderfully catches all the aspects of the young and the old Emile – especially his big speech in court is an unforgettable moment in which the importance of the words and the performance of the actor work in perfect harmony. Joseph Schildkraut won himself a well-deserved Oscar for playing the ill-fated Alfred Dreyfus – his performance is both haunting and moving and he makes the most of his little screen time. It’s surprising to see the usual scheming and evil Gale Sondergaard in the standard part of the loyal and suffering wife but she, too, got the most out of her material and perfectly hid her usual manipulative screen presence behind the face of a worried woman.

Overall, The Life of Emile Zola tries to mix a lot of social issues into one picture, from the poverty in the streets of Paris to inhuman working condition right to the betrayal of Alfred Dreyfus by his superiors – and surprisingly, this works very well. The balance between a commentary on society and entertainment constantly works and the movie offers a strong combination of moving, provoking and thoughtful scenes and ideas. It’s the classic theme of a few people against the machinery of the government, against an overpowering enemy. The fact that the people of Paris are turned into a one-dimensional mob that seems to be a easy manipulated and ready to riot the streets as the citizens of Springfield in The Simpsons is unfortunate but it somehow works to emphasize the fight of Zola for justice.

What works also very well is that The Life of Emile Zola does not only focus on the Dreyfus affair but is more interested in the youth and early work of Zola, too. The scenes with a young prostitute whose story inspires him to write his first book create a fitting entrance to the story of Zola’s life. Later, he is also thankfully never turned into a saint and he only reluctantly begins to involve himself in the case of Alfred Dreyfus – but once he is convinced of his innocent, he fights as hard as he can. The scenes in the courtroom may be too simple in some ways – it is always clear who are the good and who are the bad guys, there is nothing in between but again, the movie somehow makes it work and it’s both gripping and devastating to watch Zola fight for justice.

Most of all, The Life of Emile Zola shows how a few people can use their power and influence over the people and the press and turn them into almost mindless marionettes who are wiling to believe everything they are told. Like Gentleman’s Agreement, The Life of Emile Zola may be more admirable for its ideas and ambitions rather than its actual execution but The Life of Emile Zola benefits from a stronger story and a tighter presentation. And the final scenes of Joseph Schildkraut, his reaction to his freedom and his appearance before the army are extremely moving.

The Life of Emile Zola is not among the most celebrated winners in this category and it’s easy to see that one can find it dull and lifeless but, for me, it’s a strong and well-made drama.

4/15/2011

Number 53: Ben-Hur (Best Picture Ranking)

The mother of all epics, winner of a record 11 Academy Awards, the true definition of the word ‘spectacle’ – Ben-Hur has certainly achieved a legendary reputation and even 50 years later, it’s still a must-see for movie fans everywhere. Is it a flawless classic? Certainly not but it provides a lot of fascinating moments and scenes.

The title role is famously brought to life by Charlton Heston. His is a curious performance. On the one hand, he could be compared to Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind since both of these actors carry a massive production and a huge epic basically alone on their shoulders. Does that mean that both performances are on the same level? Again, certainly not. Vivien Leigh brought complexity, fire and energy to her part like no other actress could have and she also had the ability to keep Gone with the Wind alive and interesting for the entire running time. Charlton Heston plays a much simpler character, driven by desire for revenge, while not always being able to keep the movie on the ground and often getting lost in the production and his performance also cannot prevent a certain slowness that haunts Ben-Hur from time to time. But Charlton Heston’s performance is also curious for another reason: as long as one focuses on the movie itself, Charlton Heston is very serviceable, even good, but the moment one puts all the attention on his performance, his overall lack of charisma and acting talent become suddenly very obvious. It’s an interesting case of a performance that works perfectly fine in the context of the film but seems strangely insufficient judged on its own (Jane Fonda in Coming Home is another example for me). Hugh Griffith won an Oscar for playing an Arab sheik and the question is: why? He is entertaining and provides some laughs but fails to be either impressive or memorable, especially compared to the stand-out performance from Ben-Hur by Stephen Boyd who should have been the one walking away with an Oscar (at least he won a Golden Globe). His is a supporting performance that dominates the whole movie and steals every scene while never feeling dominant or attention-seeking. None of the female performances in Ben-Hur impress very much.

The overall story of Ben-Hur seems to be the predecessor of Gladiator – the story of a man who seeks revenge for the sorrow brought to him and his family. Ben-Hur is mixed with various religious themes – in fact, people on imdb even ask if a non-religious person can enjoy this movie. Well, I have to say that the religious motives don’t bother me – until the end when it all becomes too much. The birth of Jesus at the beginning or Ben-Hur meeting him are done rather beautifully and somehow religion perfectly fits into this big epic without appearing to be propaganda. Only at the end, the screenplay and William Wyler exaggerated it – after the chariot race the whole movie develops a feeling of ‘should be over in 5 minutes’ but it goes on for over another hour and the crucifixion of Jesus and the sudden healing of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister seem to come from another movie altogether. This long, overdone ending period of the movie is also the reason why Ben-Hur didn’t get a higher position. But before this downfall, Ben-Hur is a pretty terrific epic.

The story works just fine and never feels unnecessarily long but instead all characters and the plot get their chances to develop themselves quite nicely. Charlton Heston may have not been aware of the gay undertones in the story but, to be honest, the only way to make his first scene with Stephen Boyd more gay would have been to let them have sex right on his desk. The later scenes on the galleys are also thrilling and the whole plot constantly flows along without any interruptions. Of course, the highlight of Ben-Hur is the famous chariot race – and it’s one of the few scenes in movie history that is as good as its reputation. From the magnificent opening score to the sensational race, this is a magnificently done action sequence that a movie like Gladiator could only dream of.

Overall, a strong and memorable epic that maybe won a few Oscars too many but entertains wonderfully.

4/13/2011

Number 54: The French Connection (Best Picture Ranking)

The French Connection is another rather unusual winner in this category since it doesn’t concern itself with war or some social problem, it’s not a musical or a groundbreaking epic – it’s simple an almost old-fashioned crime film about two cops and their fight against heroin smugglers. What’s probably the reason why this movie works so well is the fact that this old-fashioned story is combined with a modern, thrilling, fast and gripping execution.

Thanks to the central character of Jimmy Doyle, The French Connection is also not a traditional good guys vs. bad guys story since Doyle is a loud, foul-mouthed, brutal and feisty cop who is willing to take all measures necessary to fulfil his tasks. Gene Hackman burns up the screen in this part and his Oscar win is also rather unusual since his character, like the movie itself, doesn’t follow the usual ‘formula’ to win an Oscar but Hackman is a true force-of-nature on the screen. It’s maybe debatable if he gives a truly great performance but he creates a truly fascinating character. Roy Scheider gives dependable support while the remaining cast members play their parts satisfactorily.

The French Connection is a movie that constantly sacrifices the whole to focus on its parts – a wise choice since the plot, while inserted nicely into the overall picture, lacks real structure and development. That’s why The French Connection benefits mostly from the way it presents certain scenes, how it focuses on the action and how it creates suspense. Such memorable scenes are Doyle following a smuggler to a subway station and then trying not to be noticed by him, Doyle being shot at and then following the guy in one of the most famous car chase scenes ever until he shots him in the back, Doyle and Russo raiding a bar or the surprisingly dark ending. In some ways, The French Connection is similar to An American in Paris as a triumph of style over substance but The French Connection comes out as the winner since its plot goes definitely deeper than the superficial love story in An American in Paris.

The French Connection benefits from its technical values and its ability to present a lot of scenes in a very captivating way while letting Gene Hackman (and to an extent Roy Scheider) provide the necessary human emotions. It’s a crime thriller on a very high level and never loses its tempo or its suspense while allowing the central characters to shine more than expected.

Number 55: The Lost Weekend (Best Picture Ranking)

After his Double Indemnity failed to win any Oscars in 1944, Billy Wilder was back one year later with The Lost Weekend, a grim tale about two days in the life of an alcoholic, which won Oscars for Best Picture, Direction, Screenplay and Actor. A story about addiction and alcohol from the 40s seems to be in great danger of appearing dated and flawed from today’s point-of-view but Billy Wilder’s shocking tale still gives a surprisingly honest and disturbing look at the inner life of writer Don Birnham and how his drinking affects not only himself but also the life of his brother and his girlfriend. Even though some parts of the movie suffer from exaggerated melodrama, The Lost Weekend is a very strong and memorable winner in this category.

Most of all, The Lost Weekend depends on the work of Ray Milland who, up this point in his career, hadn’t been truly able to show his acting abilities. But here, he delivers a stunning tour-de-force of a man who knows that he is slowly walking into his own self-destruction but is unable to stop it. Ray Milland makes Don needy and appalling, charming and strangely appealing at the same time while showing how his desperateness for a drink takes over his whole body more and more, turning him into a shaking, hopeless mess. This is certainly one of the most deserved wins the Best Actor category has ever seen. Apart from Ray Milland, the movie is filled with standard performances which are neither bad but neither remarkable either – apart from Jane Wyman who shines in the obligatory ‘worried but supportive girlfriend’ part.

The Lost Weekend is a succession of experiences that happen to Don while his brother, who usually watches over him, is out of town. The movie tries to combine the fictional story of Don with a documentary-like account on the life of an alcoholic and shows Don hiding the liquor in his bags and later in his apartment, getting money from anyone he can (even stealing it from a woman in a bar) until he finally wakes up in a hospital. The Lost Weekend works particularly well because it didn’t try to turn Don into a character who is a victim of circumstances but instead shows how aware he actually is of his problems and how willingly he lies and cheats – his addiction has taken over his life but Don is still in a position to recognize this himself even if he is too weak to stop it. This creates a rather open ending to the story and it would be believable to see Don either drinking again or ending for good.

While the direction of Billy Wilder doesn’t seem very special, it is still to his credit that a movie about a single person, working his way from one drink to another is not only shocking but also thrillingly entertaining. Of course, there are some flaws – the scene when Don visits an opera and suddenly all the singers on the stage turn into trench coats with liquor hiding in their pockets is involuntarily funny and even worse is the infamous scene when a drunk Don starts to hallucinate about a bat and a mouse in his apartment – the bat couldn’t look more fake in a homevideo and the fact that the whole scene had already been predicated by a male nurse in the hospital gives the whole plot a sudden artificiality that is more disturbing than haunting.

Overall, The Lost Weekend is not flawless but is still very strong in its honest and observing moments when the viewer follows the character of Don on an unsettling and alarming route.

4/10/2011

Number 56: A Man for all Seasons (Best Picture Ranking)

For a while it seemed as if no movie from 1966 would truly be inside the Academy’s comfort zone – until A Man for all Seasons opened, the story of Sir Thomas Moore who refuses to endorse the marriage of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn out of his religious feelings until he is beheaded in the end for staying by his principles. Based on the stage production of the same name, A Man for all Seasons is expectedly a very wordy movie and offers little true action – but thankfully the dialogue and the plot are presented very smartly and the talented cast helps perfectly to bring the story to live.

Paul Scofield reprised his Tony-award-winning role and won himself an Oscar, too, for portraying the main character who is more concerned about his immortal soul than his mortal life. His performance is a wonderful example of how an actor can use dialogue to the greatest results and how powerful subtlety, quietness and dignity can burn up the screen. Mostly sitting in a chair and talking in a soft, controlled way that reflects the construction of the dialogue, Paul Scofield achieves the greatest possible results in a role that could have become too saint-like – everything in A Man for all Seasons wants to worship its main character but Paul Scofield thankfully never overdid this aspect in this performance (even though he is sometimes close to it) and simply focused on the single struggle of a single man. But even though A Man for all Seasons is basically a One-Man-Show, it still allows a strong supporting cast to impress, too. Robert Shaw is a wonderful scene-stealer as King Henry VIII, Wendy Hiller gives a dignified portrayal of a woman who doesn’t understand the principles of her husband, Susannah York lights up the screen as Moore’s daughter, John Hurt is immensely unlikable as Richard Rich and Orson Welles is an overpowering presence in his single scene. And even Vanessa Redgrave manages to shine in her wordless cameo.

Basically, A Man for all Seasons is an actor’s dream since it offers a lot of strong parts but the screenplay is just as responsible for the overall success of the production as the cast. Even though it provides nothing but constant conversations around the same topic, it still finds constantly new angles and new observations. Fred Zinnemann may have won an Oscar for his Direction but this may actually be the weakest point of the whole story since he gives the movie a very ‘staged’ feeling and I also can’t quite forgive him for cutting away from Paul Scofield during the only moment in the whole movie in which he finally raises his voice to his opponents. This feeling of a staged play combined with the sometimes limited plot are also the main reason why A Man for all Seasons didn’t get a higher position this ranking even it has definitely reached an impress position, nonetheless.

Overall, A Man for all Seasons has the ability to appear timeless and since it lets various characters speak on the manner of principles, it catches different views on the topic without ever appearing like a lecture. It never forces the viewer to ask himself or herself ‘How would I react in a situation like this?` but instead constantly presents the life and the fate of Sir Thomas Moore as his own choice, as his free will which needn’t to be a rolemodel for everyone else. This way A Man for all Seasons luckily never feels forced in its storytelling but, surprisingly, rather entertaining and provoking in its own way.

4/06/2011

Number 57: An American in Paris (Best Picture Ranking)

Usually considered a masterpiece and one of the best movie musicals of all time, this position in my ranking may seem a bit surprising for the legendary Gene Kelly-movie An American in Paris. To be honest, when I first started to rank the winners, it had an even lower position and there was a time when I considered it one the worst movie musicals I had ever seen. Well, my opinion has changed in some ways and by now, I do admire all the effort and technical brilliance that made it into this movie but overall, I always consider An American in Paris a triumph of style over substance.

Yes, An American in Paris is great to look at – I simply adore those Parisian sets even though they are clearly fake but at the same time there is so much love for detail and careful attention that the results are absolutely gorgeous. Costumes, cinematography and all the other technical aspects are beautiful, too. And what about the songs? As I wrote in my review for Judy Garland in A Star is Born, there was a time when I wanted my musical songs more traditional and more ‘Broadway’ and so it’s no surprise that I disliked the style of An American in Paris at first. By now, I appreciate the score much more – to some extent. It’s mostly the instrumental music that accompanies the famous ballet sequence that truly achieves a level of greatness. But also most of the songs, like ‘Our love is here to stay’, ‘Tra-la-la’, ‘S Wonderful’ or ‘Stairway to Paradise’ are extremely memorable and easy to admire. ‘I got’ may be one of the most famous songs but I have to be honest – I never worshipped a dancing Gene Kelly as much as everybody else does. ‘By Strauss’ features a lovely melody, but seriously – they are in Paris and all they could come up with is a song about Strauss and the Kaiser? And also the whole presentation of this song is rather annoying and it’s hard to understand why somebody thought it would be a good idea to have Gene Kelly use a tablecloth as a bandanna.

So, from a technical point-of-view, An American in Paris is certainly a triumph. And I didn’t even get to the ballet yet – well, I keep that for last because it perfectly sums up everything that is both good and not so good about this movie. First, let’s take a look at the cast. Gene Kelly, of course, is charming, delightful and irresistible as always. Oscar Levant and Georges Guétary give some nice support while Nina Foch takes the real acting crown as the lonely, maybe desperate society woman. Leslie Caron made her film-debut as Gene Kelly’s love interest but it was rather rocky start – while Leslie Caron is usually a gorgeous woman, in An American in Paris she has to be one of the most undesirable objects of affection ever presented in a movie. I know beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder her haircut and her teeth make her look rather like a 12-year-old boy than a woman who would make a man fall in love with her in just one moment.

It’s no surprise that An American in Paris didn’t receive a single nomination for any of the actors since they are constantly overshadowed by the movies' production values and none of them is presented with a truly challenging character. This brings me right to the biggest problem of An American in Paris which I already addressed at the beginning by calling the movie a triumph of style over substance. Because underneath all the costumes, the sets and the songs, An American in Paris is shockingly empty. I don’t mind simple plots but An American in Paris has almost no plot at all. It’s just a succession of various scenes that are loosely strung together by the central love story but it’s all so shallow and rushed that, no matter how beautiful the movie is, it negatively affects the overall quality of the picture. Characters are not developed, other are almost unnecessary and even some of the songs serve no purpose in context of the story. An American in Paris tries to be very light and easy-going but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to be empty.

The famous last sequence, the 18-minutes ballet number brings all the qualities and flaws together. It’s beautiful to look at, a feast for the eyes and ears and this scene alone is probably enough to justify the status of An American in Paris but at the same time this scene also again feels incredibly out-of-place, meaningless and unessential. Of course, not everything that happens in a movie needs to have a deeper point or must serve any purpose apart from entertaining the audience but An American in Paris doesn’t know how to keep a right balance.

It’s a beautiful and wonderful movie on the one side, empty and shallow on the other one. Still, the positive aspects manage to outweigh its flaws more often than not and helped it to achieve this position in this ranking.

Number 58: Tom Jones (Best Picture Ranking)

Another movie that is usually regarded as one of the worst choices by the Academy – but back in 1963, Tom Jones was a real sensation, winning practically every award leading up to the big night. Considering that Tom Jones is a frivolous comedy about a young man who enjoys the opposite sex, this may seem rather surprising but it mixes its plot with a lot of originality and energy, features a strong cast of British actors and knows how to entertain by (mostly) keeping a rather fast tempo.

Most importantly, Tom Jones achieves the task to never feel forced – a lot of movies that so desperately try to be different, new, original only feel extremely mannered in their attempts to do so. But somehow everything that is so unique about Tom Jones keeps a very welcome and refreshing feeling of never overdoing it. Characters looking into the camera, talking into the camera, silent movie scenes, a rhyming narrator and unusual use of score, editing and cinematography only help to create a maybe weird but still strangely captivating movie.

In the title role of Tom Jones, Albert Finney may seem like an unusual choice for a womanizing heartthrob but his easy-going, charming and uproarious performance carries the movie well and he is able to let Tom Jones be completely winning and unlikable at the same time. I was somehow convinced that Susannah York was Oscar-nominated for her beautiful turn as Tom’s love interest but the three supporting ladies that Oscar chose were others. Diane Cilento could have easily been replaced with Susannah York since she really doesn’t do a lot as the wild daughter of the gatekeeper. Joyce Redman is a step up and she brings just as much playfulness and humour to her role as Albert Finney to his. But the show-stealer is Edith Evans who could not only show a plunging neckline at the age of 75 that would put a lot of 20-year-olds to shame but who also has the wonderful talent to insert sarcasm, irony and clever wit into every remark she makes while always upholding a façade of British superiority. The scene in which she decisively chases a gangster away is a true highlight. Also Oscar-nominated was Hugh Griffith and rumour has it that he was always drunk during the filming but given the character he plays, this works very well.

Tom Jones mostly benefits from this cheerful ensemble but the story and the direction add a lot to its overall charm, too. The story itself may not be too exciting in itself and obviously the movie lacks a lot of depth or true development but Tom Jones never pretends that it wants any of these – instead, it proudly carries its lightness and unconcern. I admit, the movie not always delivers on a high level – it begins to move rather slowly after the first 30 minutes and also the last 20 minutes could have been better and yes, overall, the movie could have been shorter since 128 minutes are quite an exaggeration. But still, there is enough in Tom Jones to turn it into a curious but ambitious little movie – the surprising honesty of the hunting scene, the dialogue between Edith Evans and Hugh Griffith with all the farm animals as ‘spectators’ or the famous dinner-scene between Albert Finney and Joyce Redman.

Tom Jones is an enjoyable and interesting movie which may not be the height of sophistication in any way but sometimes, a little silliness, playfulness and creativity is just as good.

Number 59: The Great Ziegfeld (Best Picture Ranking)

The Great Ziegfeld doesn’t hold a very high reputation among critics or Oscar fans and is usually considered one of the weaker decision in the Academy’s history which can only be explained by its love for grand spectacles. And it’s true that 1936 certainly offered stronger and much more memorable pictures than this musical about the life of the legendary Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld – but this doesn’t mean that The Great Ziegfeld isn’t a pretty great movie itself.

Considering the length and old-fashioned story-telling, combined with various dated aspects, The Great Ziegfeld could feel like a giant bore today, but it miraculously overcomes all obstacles and still knows how to entertain on a high level. The story basically repeats itself constantly as Ziegfeld either charms a beautiful woman, produces a hit-show or becomes broke again but it’s all done with such love for detail and entertainment that it still feels surprisingly fresh and worthwhile. Of course, The Great Ziegfeld never feels like a biography – it may be about the life of Florenz Ziegfeld but it is the kind of movie that still feels like an invented story nonetheless. If never really creates the aura of actually telling something about its main character but is mostly interested in presenting his life as entertaining as possible – which it does.

In the role of Florenz Ziegfeld, William Powell is completely delightful and charming and convincingly meets all the challenges of the script – he captures the spirit of a true showman who could sell hot air to the devil, who could both have success and failures the whole time. Myrna Loy got second billing for her role as Ziegfeld’s second wife even though she only enters the movie during the last third of the running time. But she, too, brings a lot of emotional honesty to her part. But, of course, the real star of the picture is Oscar-winner Luise Rainer as Ziegfeld’s first wife Anna Held. The part lacks length, depth and almost everything else but Luise Rainer becomes a whirlwind of emotions, creating a diva full of eccentricities and insecurities, heartbreaking drama and hilarious comedy. The screen comes alive whenever she appears and she single-handedly turned The Great Ziegfeld from a mere succession of musical numbers into a moving human drama. Other secondary characters get their chances to shine, too, and Fanny Brice shows a lot of similarities to Barbra Streisand who would portray her 30 years later.

The Great Ziegfeld also offers some wonderful songs and engaging musical numbers. The famous ‘A pretty girl is like a melody’-number is a true spectacle but this is one of the few instances when everything actually becomes too big. Other numbers that focus on one or two singers impress much more.

The movie mostly shines in the time span of Ziegfeld’s life that involves Anna Held. Even the scenes that don’t feature Luise Rainer, The Great Ziegfeld still feels much more energetic and alive. After her famous telephone scene, The Great Ziegfeld begins to move much slower and even the musical numbers aren’t as captivating any more but William Powell and Myrna Loy still provide a lot of beautiful moments together.

I guess it’s this combination of human stories, brought to life by a wonderful cast, extravagant splendour and memorable musical numbers that turn The Great Ziegfeld, even if it may be rather simple underneath all the glitter, into a very engaging motion picture.

Number 60: Driving Miss Daisy (Best Picture Ranking)

Driving Miss Daisy managed to receive the acclaim of the Academy as being the best picture of the year – but apparently it wasn’t even among the five best directed. Bruce Beresford’s director snub is certainly surprising considering that the Academy has given Director nominations for much less.

Anyway, Driving Miss Daisy is the sentimental, moving and also amusing story of an old widow and her black chauffeur and how they slowly end up spending years and years together while becoming friends. Driving Miss Daisy seems mostly as a movie about racism and prejudices but these are actually themes are hardly touched and it mostly focuses on the relationship between Miss Daisy and Hog. This was a wise decision and while it is frustrating that Hog as a character is never as explored as Miss Daisy, the whole movie still keeps a nice balance between those two characters and use the, maybe, simple themes that shape their relationship as its driving force.

As a result, Driving Miss Daisy completely depends on the performances by Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman – and both are first-class. Jessica Tandy’s Miss Daisy is stubborn, determined and rather unlikable at the first look but she manages to create an overall captivating, loveable and touching character. Morgan Freeman adds humour and dignity to his role as Hog and never lets him turn into a black saint who spends his life serving a white lady but instead turns him into a full three-dimensional character. But even more important than the singular performances is the chemistry that these two actors develop since they are onscreen together for most of the time – and again, they both succeed. From their first moments that are marked by open rejection by Miss Daisy to their last moments together, the two actors both shine and create a truly magical on-screen relationship. Dan Akroyd offers some nice support (but an Oscar nomination was surely an exaggeration). And then there is even Patti LuPone (yes, that Patti LuPone!) as Miss Daisy’s annoying daughter-in-law – she’s too over-the-top sometimes but still manages to be somewhat entertaining.

Maybe it was an exaggeration to say that Driving Miss Daisy completely depends on the actors – because it has more to offer. The screenplay is extremely touching and manages to tell this small story without ever feeling empty or banal. Then there’s the wonderful, catchy score by Hans Zimmer which so perfectly accompanies the story.

Overall, Driving Miss Daisy beautifully captures the friendship between two unlikely characters without ever appearing too sentimental – all the effective moments are never overdone but only hinted it, even the final scene between Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy avoids any cheap sentimentality and feels surprisingly honest instead. Besides this, there are many other beautiful and moving scenes – Miss Daisy teaching Hog how to read at the graveyard, the two driving to the birthday party of her brother or cooking together. Driving Miss Daisy doesn’t provide any truly big moments or tackles grand themes but underneath its simple story is still hints at some greater truth without becoming preachy or sentimental.

4/03/2011

Number 61: The Sting (Best Picture Ranking)

The Sting was the feel-good winner of 1973, starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman and providing one of the most famous melodies of all time. It’s a movie that, unlike the two previous ranked winners Mrs. Miniver and Gentleman’s Agreement, doesn’t offer some important message or tackles a serious social problem but only wants to entertain and tell a good story – a goal it does fulfil, even if not completely.

The Sting gives the audience a lot of twists and turns, always coming up with new ideas and plots but the fact that it so completely depends on these twists makes it lose a lot of its appeal after the initial viewing. But thankfully The Sting also gives a lot else to enjoy – costumes, art direction, clever dialogue but most of all an inspired and entertaining cast that plays this light story with just the right touch of playfulness and charm. Robert Redford did receive an Oscar nomination for his performance but the truth is that, while all the actors know how to entertain, none of them ever reaches a level of thespian excellence – Robert Redford is charming and runs well but never more. Paul Newman’s role is rather secondary compared to Redford’s but he is much more memorable and amusing and knows how to steal a scene without ever stealing the show. The always wonderful Eileen Brennan shines with the little she gets to do and Robert Shaw is quite terrific as a mob boss.

The screenplay is witty and clever and uses the possibilities of its plot well while never trying to be more than it really is or outsmart the audience – instead, it keeps the action going quite nicely and knows when to take a new turn. Director George Roy Hill can be mostly applauded for bringing the screenplay to live with the exact right amount of playfulness and charm. The whole atmosphere of the movie also works very well – the past seems to come alive right in front of our eyes and the movie is never too funny or too dramatic but keeps an engaging balance.

Thanks to the cast and the direction it also doesn’t matter that, even at a first viewing, a lot of the storylines are already clear right from the beginning – The Sting does never truly surprise but it’s the kind of movie that manages to entertain nonetheless. Actually, the plot of the story becomes less and less important with each viewing while other aspects, little looks between the characters, certain words or simply the chemistry between Newman and Redford get more and more important.

The Sting is maybe one of the most unusual Best Picture winners simply because it lacks the usual feeling of importance that a lot of these winners have. It’s the kind of movie that maybe expected to receive a few technical Oscar but didn’t really try for the big one. This gives it a nice feeling of easiness, of being playful without being silly, of never trying to achieve more than it should.

Of course, it’s not a perfect movie and while the screenplay and the actors are far from average, the story sometimes lacks some life and makes you wonder if, even though the story serves its purpose, a little more character development or a little bit more interaction between the characters wouldn’t have been better. It’s a movie that is very easy to like and can even be admired in some parts but it’s not necessary to overrate it for being witty and charming. This wit and charm helped it to achieve this number in my ranking but the lack of various other aspects prevented it from getting any higher.