Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Year II - 1974

The second year we plan to look at is quite possibly the strongest Best Picture lineup in Oscar history. Of course, looking at the list in alphabetical order, you’ll notice which one seriously does not deserve to be there! Stay tuned for write-ups and thoughts on the nominees within the next week or two.

And the Nominees Were...

  • Chinatown
  • The Conversation
  • The Godfather Part II
  • Lenny
  • The Towering Inferno

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Overlooked 1983

When it comes to the Oscars and films that were snubbed, sometimes you have to take into consideration when it was actually eligible, especially when it comes to snubbed foreign films. For example, many people may say that Ozu’s Tokyo Story was the best film of 1953, but it wasn’t released in America until the 1970s. Or if you look at it another way, many Academy members are just biased towards non-English language films competing for Best Picture. Many feel they should just stick to the Best Foreign Language Film category. I mention this because the first overlooked film of 1983 is a non-English language film, despite receiving a slew of other nominations.

• • • • •

Fanny and Alexander

Nominated for 6 Oscars: Best Director (Ingmar Bergman), Best Original Screenplay (Ingmar Bergman), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Anna Asp, Susanne Lingheim), Best Cinematography (Sven Nykvist), Best Costume Design (Marik Vos-Lundh), and Best Foreign Language Film (Sweden).

Oscar Trivia: The film won four Oscars - Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography, Best Art/Set Direction, and Best Costume Design

Mini-Review: Fanny and Alexander is a classic; the culmination of a celebrated director's brilliant career. In the film Bergman sums up the themes of a body of work in which the director often brought audiences to the edge of the abyss and invited them to contemplate the void; and here, using a child as his stand-in, Bergman illustrates very clearly how it is that this void found its genesis and why it can never quite be filled. The difference is that the dilemma of existence in Fanny and Alexander is shown through a child's eyes (Bergman seldom used children elsewhere) and it's suffused with the magic of childhood curiosity and discovery.

Not only does Bergman manage in Fanny and Alexander to capture the flavor and atmosphere of a Swedish town circa 1907, he also expertly reveals events as seen through the eyes of a child without any wordy dissertations on doctrines, and makes a powerful statement against religious zealotry. The results are quite frightening.

Many passages are indelible; I'll never forget, for instance, the children's rescue from the bishop's home, a logically impossible sequence but a seamless fantasy on the screen, or Alexander's encounter with the madman and the inscrutable tragedy that follows.

Just a magical movie in all aspects.

Score: ***** out of *****

• • • • •

A Christmas Story

Nominated for No Oscars

Oscar Trivia: Melinda Dillon, who played Ralphie’s mother/Mrs. Parker, is a two-time Best Supporting Actress nominee for 1977s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1981s Absence of Malice.

Mini-Review: Since this is essentially a children’s movie and a holiday one at that, it was no surprise that it was snubbed by Oscar. In fact it wasn’t much of a hit upon its initial release. Only through being aired on television during the holiday season has it gained the following it currently has.

It’s such a charming and lovable Christmas film. The cast is wonderful--especially Darren McGavin (who I think deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination), Peter Billingsley and Ian Petrella--the laughs are nonstop if rarely subtle, and the whole thing deserves to be a Christmastime classic. It just never gets old, even if TNT plays it 24 hours on Christmas Day.

Score: ***** out of *****

Monday, October 30, 2006

Best Picture 1983

What better year to start with then the year of my birth?

And the Nominees Were...

  • The Big Chill
  • The Dresser
  • The Right Stuff
  • Tender Mercies
  • Terms of Endearment

• • • • •

The Big Chill

Nominated for 3 Oscars: Best Picture (Michael Shamberg), Best Supporting Actress (Glenn Close) and Best Original Screenplay (Lawrence Kasdan, Barbara Benedek)

Oscar Trivia: Writer/director Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill (with three nominations and no wins), was noted most of all for its ensemble cast/acting.

The film’s sole acting nomination for Glenn Close marked her second consecutive nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category. Her first in 1982 was for The World According to Garp. She would receive a third Supporting Actress nomination in a row the following year for The Natural, and be nominated again in lead in 1987 (Fatal Attraction) & 1988 (Dangerous Liaisons) with no wins to date.

Mini-Review: It’s easy to see why the film was up for Best Picture. It was one of the most popular films to come out that year (commercially, but also one that had any sort of critical merit) and was something of a pop culture phenomenon, too. And while it has strong acting by its ensemble (nobody really stood out above the rest, though) and a series of classic rock and soul tunes, it can’t completely overcome a superficial screenplay.

It’s the ultimate 1980s baby-boomer movie, presenting the definitive representation of the rising yuppie archetype and all its traits: from running shoes, jogging, camcorders, and Motown, to baby-fever, self-analytical narcissism, and guilt-ridden upwardly mobile lifestyles. That said, it’s never boring and wonderfully acted as I said, yet is finally undone by its refusal to deal honestly with the serious issues it raises; director/co-writer Lawrence Kasdan chooses instead to end virtually every scene with a cheap punchline. In the end, the film doesn't amount to much, except to provide a good opportunity for the fine ensemble cast to show off their talents.

Score: *** out of *****

• • • • •

The Dresser

Nominated for 5 Oscars: Best Picture (Peter Yates), Best Director (Peter Yates), Best Actor (Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ronald Harwood)

Oscar Trivia: A British import set during WWII, the film was written by Ronald Harwood (who adapted his own play). The Dresser had five nominations and no wins.

Albert Finney & Tom Courteney’s nominations marked the 11th time that two (or more) costars had competed against each other in the Best Actor category. It happened a twelfth time the following year with Amadeus, but hasn’t happened since.

Mini-Review: The film is an adaptation of a play and it does show its staginess, but is saved by dynamic direction from Peter Yates, its feel of authenticity, and the two stars' performances which do veer close to haminess without actually entering that terrain. Both leads are quite intense, rather extreme and theatrical (Finney probably more so than Courtenay--but maybe “larger than life” would be a better way to describe it?), and neither lets up for a second. They're a flawed, difficult duo, frequently challenging, often unlikable, actually, but they are brought to life by Courtenay and Finney in a commanding way. Interesting, then, that Eileen Atkins nearly steals the film out from under both as the stage-manager, Madge.

I also thought that this was a film that could convey even to nontheatrical people the thrill of being involved in live drama. There were a couple of scenes that get that point across, including the scene where, against his intention, supercilious Oxenby (Edward Fox) comes to the aid of Norman (Courtenay) and Her Ladyship (Zena Walker) as they throw themselves into ever greater contortions to produce storm sound effects loud enough to satisfy Sir (Finney). For every exhilarating moment like this one, however, there is also the horror of when someone misses a cue, and this, too, is depicted convincingly and as the viewers we can't help but squirm during the awkward silence that stretches on and on as Sir sits almost catatonic in the wings.

Score: **** out of *****

• • • • •

The Right Stuff

Nominated for 8 Oscars: Best Picture (Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff), Best Supporting Actor (Sam Shepard), Best Cinematography (Caled Deschanel), Best Art-Set Decoration (Geoffrey Kirkland, Richard Lawrence, W. Stewart Campbell, Peter R. Romero, Jim Poynter, George R. Nelson), Best Original Score (Bill Conti), Best Film Editing (Glenn Farr, Lisa Frutchman, Stephen A. Rotter, Douglas Stewart, Tom Rolf), Best Sound (Mark Berger, Thomas Scott, Randy Thom) and Best Sound Effects Editing (Jay Boekelheide)

Oscar Trivia: Writer/director Philip Kaufman's Mercury astronaut story (adapted from Tom Wolfe's best-selling book) of the early days of the US space program, was a box-office failure upon its initial release but managed to garner 8 nominations and 4 wins. Surprisingly (to me anyway) Kaufman was not nominated for Best Director.

The film’s Best Supporting Actor nomination for Sam Shepard marks his sole career nomination to date.

Mini Review: Director-writer Philip Kaufman's script brings a wealth of humor to a faithful retelling of the astronauts' fascinating stories, the actors fit smoothly into their roles, and the direction is well-paced and visually exciting. Caleb Deschanel’s photography is quite glorious, too, but he had tough competition from Sven Nykvist’s work on Fanny and Alexander that year. I’m actually surprised that Sam Shepard received an Oscar nomination, knowing the Academy. It’s a quiet performance with few lines, but his presence is felt throughout. The training scenes are a lot of fun, as are the actual flight scenes. One drawback for me was the fact that you never really get to know any of the astronauts. Even with the 3+ hour length, there are just too many of them for the filmmakers to give them the depth and individuality that would have really made this a much more powerful film. Though they are each identifiable, you rarely get to see what they're thinking or feeling, what makes them tick.

Score: ***** out of *****

• • • • •

Tender Mercies

Nominated for 5 Oscars: Best Picture (Philip Hobel), Best Director (Bruce Beresford), Best Actor (Robert Duvall), Best Original Screenplay (Horton Foote) and Best Original Song ("Over You" by Austin Roberts and Bobby Hart).

Oscar Trivia: It’s Australian director, Bruce Beresford (with his sole Director nomination to date), was nominated for his first American film. The film had 5 nominations and 2 wins.

Best Actor winner Robert Duvall was the only American nominee in the Best Actor line-up. Three of the others were British (Michael Caine, Tom Courteney, & Albert Finney) and one Scottish (Tom Conti).

Mini Review: I really like intimate, low-key drama’s like this. It is an episodic film and offers little in the way of action or melodrama but it gets by on fine performances (particularly from Duvall, who does his own singing, and from Ellen Barkin as his daughter), atmospheric cinematography, and spare, unglamorous writing. It was Australian director Bruce Beresford's first American film, and it bears interesting comparison with Englishman Michael Apted's Coal Miner’s Daughter (another outsider's vision of the world of country), and with writer Horton Foote's own, The Trip to Bountiful, two years later.

Score: **** out of *****

• • • • •

Terms of Endearment

Nominated for 11 Oscars: Best Picture (James L. Brooks), Best Director (James L. Brooks), Best Actress (Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson, John Lithgow), Best Adapted Screenplay (James L. Brooks), Best Art-Set Decoration (Polly Platt, Harold Michelson, Tom Pedigo, Anthony Mondello), Best Original Score (Michael Gore), Best Film Editing (Richard Marks) and Best Sound (Donald O. Mitchell, Rick Kline, Kevin O'Connell, James R. Alexander)

Oscar Trivia (lots): The film (with 11 nominations and 5 wins) was adapted from a Larry McMurtry novel (he also wrote the novels to which the masterpieces Hud and The Last Picture Show are based on--and of course co-wrote last years Brokeback Mountain). It was director James L. Brooks' feature film debut.

The Best Director win for James L. Brooks was an unprecedented win for Brooks - since he won three Oscars for writing, producing, and directing the film. A triple win had also occurred for Leo McCarey in 1944, Billy Wilder in 1960, and Francis Ford Coppola in 1974. He also became the fourth director to win an Oscar for his first feature.

Shirley MacLaine’s Oscar win was her first after 4 other unsuccessful attempts at the Best Actress Oscar (1958, 1960, 1963, and 1977). MacLaine has yet to be nominated again.

Debra Winger's nomination marked her second of three unsuccessful attempts at an Oscar so far (her other nominations were in 1982 & 1993).

MacLaine and Winger’s nominations marked the fourth of only five times so far that two Actresses competed against each other from the same film in the Best Actress category. Ironically, MacLaine is a part of one of the other times it’s happened (1977s The Turning Point)

For Jack Nicholson this was his seventh nomination, third Best Supporting Actor nomination, and second Oscar win after 1975s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Nicholson's win made him the first performer to win the Best Supporting Actor award following a Best Actor win (in 1975). His win made him the third winner of both actor awards - the first two actors were Jack Lemmon (in 1955 and 1973) and Robert DeNiro (in 1974 and 1980). Both of them first won a Best Supporting Actor award and then a Best Actor award.

Nicholson defeated his film's co-star John Lithgow (with his second consecutive nomination after 1982s The World According to Garp). Lithgow has yet to be nominated again.

Nicholson and Lithgow’s nominations marked the fifteenth of seventeen times that two (or more) Best Supporting Actor nominees competed against each other from the same film.

Mini-Review: I love this movie. I kind of grew up watching it. Since as far back as I remember watching films I’ve been watching this. I don’t own it or anything, but I watch it every time I come across it on TV. The film just endures and I do think it has more than just sentimental value for me.

Brooks’ script plays on our conceptions of what these types of movies should be like. It’s not your typical comedy/drama. For example, the moment when Emma is leaving for a new town with Flap and her kids, she kisses Aurora and tells Flap to "drive away slow." Now, the next logical step would have been a poignant creeping drive away. Instead Terms of Endearment takes a hard right where a left was assumed. Moments like this lift the picture above every other sentimental comedy and transform it into something better. Brooks writes some of the best dialogue around, each sentence giving new insight into the characters. Each scene - whether painful or hilarious - is written as an understandable expression of the characters. It's a tender movie (especially in its final scenes) and shamelessly honest. The movie is clever and smooth talking but its greatness lies in the fact that, at all times, it's warm. The film does not mock its characters but loves them, in the same way that Aurora deeply loves and will stand up for her daughter despite her qualms about Emma's life.

I never understood in recent years as new people discover this film the favoring of Debra Winger to Shirley MacLaine. Winger is terrific, of course, but to me it’s all about MacLaine. She had several moments when I was bowled over by how perfect she was in her subtlety and small gestures and turns of phrase - she's perfect. Both MacLaine and Winger are actually on screen together very little, but MacLaine and Winger give off a charge of seemingly organic tension, as if they love the things they can’t tolerate in each other and can’t tolerate the things the love. I feel the same for Nicholson and those that prefer the other supporting men, Lithgow and Daniels. The latter two are fine, but Nicholson has always been it for me. Even if he delivers an amusing variation on himself.

One last thing to mention is Michael Gore's score, which is lush and nostalgic. Rarely has music been so fitting for a film. He demonstrates a canny ability to create warmth and affection; it’s a beautiful companion piece to the film.

Score: ***** out of *****

• • • • •

Final Rankings: (drum roll please)

  1. Terms of Endearment
  2. The Right Stuff
  3. The Dresser
  4. Tender Mercies
  5. The Big Chill

Not a bad lineup at all, though I wish Fanny and Alexander had taken The Big Chill's spot. So, yes, it appears I agree with Oscar. Terms of Endearment was the best of the nominees.