FEB 25, 2017 SCREENING: ‘BEST PICTURE’ OSCAR WINNERS
The last of my multiple-movies-in-one reviews (at least for a while) makes sense this time: a day before the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony, my friends and I had an “Oscar Party” at my home where we screened “Best Picture” winners from past years. I narrowed the list down to one film from each decade, and we made it thru four films that night: The French Connection (1971 Best Picture winner), It Happened One Night (1934 Best Picture winner), Slumdog Millionaire (2008 Best Picture winner) and On The Waterfront (1954 Best Picture winner).
Were those films truly the “ Best Picture” made that year, or were they even good movies? In four capsule reviews, I give my two cents on these movies.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)
This was a decent film, but one thing my friends and I noticed right away was that the sound mixing on this film was terrible! There was little excuse for this, since we were watching a pristine restoration of the film on Blu-Ray, on a big television, in my basement. The sound should have an immersive experience. Instead, much of the dialogue was difficult to make out over the music score, and the film constantly alternated between being WAY TOO LOUD and way too quiet. To our shock, this film was actually nominated for “Best” Sound Mixing (which it thankfully DID NOT win that year!) when it actually deserved a Worst Sound Mixing award. Aside from this huge glaring flaw that the made the movie difficult to watch, the rest of the film was pretty good. It took me a while to get into the story, but Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (a classic Gene Hackman role) is a compelling character and the eeeeeeeeeeeevil French drug smugglers in this movie are a worthy adversary. The French Connection was also the first R rated movie to win Best Picture (little noticed at the time since the even more taboo X rating had resulted in a Best Picture win two years earlier for Midnight Cowboy) and The French Connection lives up to its R rating: it’s definitely aimed at adults, and one the opening scenes of a man graphically being shot point blank in the face gives you an idea what you’re in for. The film had a number of scenes that are likely considered “classic” now, like the Subway chase scene, and a scene near the end where they strip a car apart piece by piece trying to find where drugs are hidden inside it. The conclusion of the film was a bit blunt and shocking but very unexpected and gutsy, living up to the film’s promise that it was “Based on a True Story”. One problem that no fault of the film itself is that it came out the same year as Dirty Harry. The French Connection may be the Oscar winner of 1971, but it simply cannot compete with Dirty Harry in terms of social impact and popular appeal with audiences. On the flip side, the G-rated Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was another such iconic film released the same year, so there was no shortage of solid films in 1971. The French Connection is definitely worth watching (and it grew on me as the film continued), but was it truly the “Best Picture” of 1971? That’s debatable.
*** out of ****
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)
Ah, the comedy film, it don’t get no respect from the Academy Awards. Only about a dozen purely “comedic” movies have won Best Picture, and this is a rare example of one. In this case, it’s a romantic comedy/road trip movie. Given the age of this film, we pretty much selected it because it was the only “comedy” option available in my pile of Blu-Ray movies, and we were worried the film’s humor would be very dated or corny and that the quality of the film would probably be muddy and difficult to watch. Boy, we were wrong. It Happened One Night had all of us in stitches from start to finish, and holds up incredibly well for a film that is over 80 years old. While Clark Gable and Paulette Goddard definitely look the part of 1930s movie stars with the hairstyle and clothing, the witty rapport they have with each other holds up beautifully and the ensemble cast in this movie was great as well. More than any other Best Picture winner (especially when this film is unfairly compared to more recent winners), It Happened One Night was certainly deserving of the honor of sweeping the Oscars in 1934, and making the history books as the first film to win all five major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay), a feat that only two films have accomplished since then. Other aspects of the film, like cinematography, art direction, and music, were also top notch and looked beautiful given the age of the film. When an all male audience is entertained from start to finish by a cheesy “romantic comedy”, you know you’ve struck gold. I highly recommend this film to anyone.
**** out of ****
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008)
Well, here’s one that got a mixed response: in a small crowd of three, two of us had a hard time trying to connect with this film, and the third person through it was really clever and engaging. Unfortunately, I was not the third person who liked it. I can appreciate Slumdog Millionaire for numerous positive things it had: a creative format, a unique premise, a great music score, and a compelling story. Sadly, I couldn’t appreciate it for anything else. The film seemingly give us a series of random disjointed scenes for much of the movie, until about an hour into the movie when we realized that all the flashbacks were relevant to whatever question the character was facing at the time. Slumdog Millionaire, like My Big Fat Greek Wedding a few years before it, benefited from good word of mouth and being the “feel good movie of the year”. As for me, I found the overall film was waaaaaaaay too ugly, bleak, and depressing to be the “feel good movie of the year”, even though it had an “overcoming incredible odds” premise of a poor uneducated man from the slums of India winning everything on Who Wants to be a Millionaire”, and a “happy” ending. Compared to the previous film, it also seems to have aged incredibly poorly for a “recent” movie, given that its less than a decade old but its hip and trendy game show that the movie is centered around is no longer in the public spotlight. Slumdog Millionaire gets a good review from me because I truly appreciate all the work that went into it and what they were trying to do, but I can safely say I did not enjoy it and it is unlikely I will watch it again. I do not believe it deserved “Best Picture” of 2008, but I’m at a loss to say what movie “should have” won the year, especially since the other four films nominated in 2008 were also seemingly undeserving of the top prize (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was my personal favorite from the “Best Picture” nominees that year, but I doubt it warranted a “Best Picture” Oscar). Slumdog Millionaire showed the slums, but it didn’t strike any gold for me.
** ½ out of ****
ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)
Meh. I was really looking forward to this movie, having never seen one of Marlon Brando’s “early” roles when he was a young Hollywood heartthrob in the 50s. I really wanted to like it. I couldn’t. As the film continued on longer and longer, I just found myself looking at my watch waiting for it to end. It has some good moments and a lot of landmark stuff to see, like Eve Marie Saint’s debut acting role opposite Marlon Brando (she’s cute in this movie and they have some chemistry, but you can tell it’s her first film). Instead of focusing on the story, I found much of the time I was distracted by Marlon Brando’s eyes. (He appears to have part of an eyebrow missing, and looks like he’s wearing mascara or eyeliner and appears strangely like a modern female drag queen “pretending” to be a macho male figure) One character, a Catholic priest that is supposed to be the voice of “moral clarity” in the film, just conveniently pops up whenever he is needed to move the story along, and I thought he actor was miscast and not convincing as a Catholic priest. The very dark and serious story of a dock worker covering up for his boss’s ties to the mafia was problematic for me because the cold blooded mafia figures are given hammy 50s dialogue and sanitized to meet 1950s guidelines. This story would have more impact if someone like Martin Scorsese or Brian DePalma had made it in the late 70s or early 80s. About the darkest it gets is a scene where Brando bluntly tells another character “Go to hell!”and when he is brutally beaten towards the end of the film (the shot of him lying in a ditch seems to imply he’s dead, but he survived, and I thought that lessened the impact) It may have the iconic line of Brando saying he “coulda been a contender”, but this film is not an Oscar contender to me.
** out of ****
As for the “Best Picture” winners from other decades? I managed to screen all of those as well, just on different nights, so each will get its own review. Stay tuned!