ReelReviews #107: 1960s Best Picture winner: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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MARCH 6, 2017 SCREENING: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)

 

Ah, the motion picture epic.  Lawrence of Arabia has it in spades and is one of the finest examples of “larger than life” movies from that era:  it’s running time is nearly four hours, and includes an overture, an intermission (I watched the movie over two nights and turned it off at the half way mark the first night, unaware that the movie would have done it by itself in ten minutes and announced the Intermission), lush gorgeous color film, huge action sequences,  and a cast of now critically acclaimed A-list actors (most notably was Peter O’Toole, who was an “up and coming” actor at the time). Lawrence of Arabia had everything going for it.

 

Why it is then, that I didn’t care for this movie?

 

Simply put, I found this movie unengaging. For me, it was a classic example of “lots of sound and fury, signifying nothing” To be fair, certain scenes were memorable for me, and I liked some of the dialogue exchanges (for example, in response to T.E. Lawrence noting that Arabs are associated with the dessert, Prince Feisal quips: “No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.”) The problem for me, however, is that these enjoyable portions of the movie didn’t add up to anything particularly interesting.  The film has a lot of plot twists and interesting characters, but in order to pay attention to what’s happening, you have to be drawn by the story (and to be fair, the story of a impeccable British officer being assimilated into Arab culture and basically becoming one of them IS by nature a very cinematic premise for a movie), and I felt Lawrence of Arabia wasn’t able to accomplish that. It dragged on and on and on, and I just found myself waiting for the movie to finally end.

 

One issue I had with Lawrence of Arabia is that in spite of its timeless look and beautiful big budget filmmaking, it’s very much a product of its time. Apparently much of the controversy about T.E. Lawrence is that the real life figure was possibly gay and attracted to Arab men, but the film has nothing to do with that rumor and its difficult to find the movie version of him interesting in spite of Peter O’Toole’s excellent performance. The Arab characters in the movie are almost exclusively played by non-Arabs, and sometimes very obviously British actors, using eyeliner and mascara to look the part in spite of having blue eyes and other unlikely Arabian features (Hispanic actor Anthony Quinn even apparently wore a false nose for this movie) . For what it’s worth, most of their acting was excellent, but I felt more realistic actors could have been cast in those roles.

 

Lawrence of Arabia is not a “bad” film, it’s just not a film that appealed to me in spite of everything it had going for it. To me, it was a wasted four hours of my life that I’ll never get back, and made me wish I had chosen to watch The Sound of Music (another 1960s Best Picture winner I have never seen) instead.  Apparently, such filmmaking giants as George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone, and Steven Spielberg have all cited this movie as some type of masterpiece that inspired them to become filmmakers. All I can is that truly shows that movie reviews are subjective, as I can’t think of a single thing I felt the movie contributed to cinema, no matter how polished and expertly made it was.

 

In one word: Bland.

 

**   out of ****

 

ReelReviews #106: 1920s Best Picture winner: Sunrise (1927)

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MARCH 5, 2017 SCREENING: SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927)

 

Here’s a little trivia that most people probably aren’t aware of: there were actually TWO “Best Picture” winners at the first annual Academy Awards ceremony in 1929—and it wasn’t because of a tie-vote.  “Wings” and “Sunrise” won for different reasons, in two SEPARATE “Best Picture” categories (one was for “Outstanding” Picture that got the most favorable response from audiences, and the other was for “Unique and Artistic Picture” that was deemed would have the most impact on history). The “Best Picture” winner that everyone remembers that year is the “popular” one:  Wings.   “Sunrise”, though remembered as a classic silent film, is not often remembered as the Oscar winner for Best Picture.  As the forgotten winner of the two “Best Picture” winners that year, I decided to give it its due and check out the movie.

 

“Sunrise” had the more difficult task at winning me over, since it is basically a romantic melodrama, whereas Wings was an action-adventure historical epic with some romance thrown in a subplot.  “Sunrise” also was complicated in that its plot contains material that is very unbelievable and requires the audience to suspend disbelief. Most notably, we have to buy that the husband in the movie would be driven by a sudden impulse to try and murder his wife, and he’d come to his senses, and eventually she’d forgive him and they’d live happily ever after. In spite of all that, Sunrise started off with a slow build and sucked me into its world so well that by the time of the ending shot (naturally, it was a sunrise coming up over the mountains) and ‘THE END’ roll credits scene, I felt compelling to give this 90 year old silent movie a standing ovation at 2 o’clock in the morning.

 

Sunrise has some great direction, cinematography, art direction, and acting from its silent screen actors (Janet Gaynor and the lesser known George O’Brien put in some excellent performances as a sort of “everyman” and “everywoman” average couple). However, where it really shined and rightfully deserved to win “Unique and Artistic Picture” was its use of sound – yes, sound in a “silent” movie.  The Blu-Ray noted that the film was acclaimed for its new “Fox Movietone sound-on-film system”, which I had never heard of and which became obsolete only a year or two later when actual sound movies began to be released. What it meant is that although the movie was indeed filmed without sound and has no dialogue scenes, there was a system used in post-production to synchronize sound effects and music with the entire movie. Since NONE of this sound was recorded live as the movie was being made, they did a truly amazing job and brought the movie to life: cars honk, crowds jeer, and people at an amusement park cheer, thunder roars, and key moments of the movie are underscored with sweeping music cues.

 

Likewise, for a drama, the film is sure to include some fun moments of humor to break up a lot of the tension and provide a more diverse range for the movie.  This becomes more common in the third act of the movie, especially a very funny sequence with a runaway piglet that still holds up 90 years later.

 

“Wings” most likely deserved its Best Picture win as well (disclaimer: I haven’t seen “Wings”), but since Sunrise was not competing with it, I can safely say that Sunrise, more than any other past “Best Picture” I evaluated during the 2017 Oscar season, certainly deserved its win for “Unique and Artistic picture”. It is excellent on all levels, and has stood the test of time.

 

*** ½ out of ****

 

ReelReviews #105: 1990s Best Picture winner: Unforgiven (1992)

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MARCH 4, 2017 SCREENING: UNFORGIVEN (1992)

 

At last, I arranged a screening of Unforgiven. This iconic early 90’s movie is a rare example of a “Best Picture” winner that was actually pretty mainstream and popular with the general public, at least as far as Westerns go (the previous year’s winner, Silence of the Lambs, was likewise an unusual Best Picture winner because it was popular and a horror film).

 

Unforgiven has been described as a “revisionist western” and a “eulogy to the western genre”, apparently because of its treatment of its source material.  Well, it certainly did not end the western genre, as anyone who’s seen The Hateful Eight (2015) can tell you.  Those who described Unforgiven that way may have been referring to the way the film takes the “anti-hero” treatment established by Clint Eastwood’s earlier westerns to the extreme here.  There are no “good” characters in this movie, and a lot of the scenes with Eastwood’s character referencing the “old days” seem to work on another level and are self-referential to his own career in westerns.  While Unforgiven did not kill off Westerns, it was indeed Eastwood’s final Western movie to date, and he’s unlikely to break that streak now that the actor is in his mid 80s.

 

I enjoyed Unforgiven, which was a very difficult feat for the film to achieve, given that I generally avoid Westerns and Unforgiven was deliberately made to be as bleak and depressing as possible.  The cast contains a slew of earlier Oscar winners:  Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, etc., and they create some very memorable characters here. The basic story is about Eastwood and his two companions seeking out two men to assassinate as revenge for those characters beating and mutilating a young prostitute.  Without giving away too much of the plot, the film’s message is basically that killing will not bring peace of mind and will just result in more killing. This simple concept is done in a very compelling and grounded manner, so much so that the execution of the two scumbags (which occurs in different scenes) is done in a sloppy manner (for example, one is killed while reliving himself in an outhouse).

 

Gene Hackman, who plays the local sheriff and symbol of law enforcement, ends up ironically being the most “evil” character in the film, after he arrests and tortures Morgan Freeman’s character to get information about Clint Eastwood.  Freeman’s first appearance in the film to me seemed to be a token attempt to add forced “diversity” to a Western movie, but his role in the story turned out to be well written and pivotal to the film.

 

With its soft opening and ending coda appearing on screen, Unforgiven has a strange “storybook” type of quality for such an ugly and dark movie. While it’s not the kind of film I would want to watch a second time, and some parts seemed to drag or go off in a random direction, most of Unforgiven is very compelling and cinematic.  I’m not sure if it’s the “Best Picture” of 1992 only because its fellow nominees like A Few Good Men and Scent of a Woman were also solid movies in my mind. But what it is, Unforgiven can be forgiven for the aspects of I didn’t like. It’s a first-rate movie.

 

*** out of ****

ReelReviews #104: 2010’s Best Picture winner: The King’s Speech (2010)

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MARCH 3, 2017 SCREENING: THE KING’S SPEECH (2010)

I choose this film to screen for the “Best Picture” winner of the present decade by default:  2016’s winner hadn’t been announced yet, I didn’t want to see Spotlight from 2015, and I had already seen Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, Argo, and The Artist, so that left the first year of the decade as the only film left.  Was it worth it?  In some ways, yes, but following up Driving Miss Daisy with The King’s Speech is not recommended, as these films both come out the biggest contenders for  the “Quietest and Most Boring Best Picture winner” category.

The King’s Speech is an overall good film and solidly made picture, so I will actually start with the biggest problem I had with the film: Colin Firth simply is nothing like King George VI, and the film revolves around him.  His acting performance in the film is adequate (though not deserving of the Best Actor award he received, IMO), but the filmmakers should have gone with another actor that could truly capture the essence of how George VI looked, sounded, and behaved.  Oddly enough, Helena Bonham Carter seems like an odd choice to cast as George VI’s wife (the future Queen Mum during Elizabeth II’s reign), but she looks and sounds remarkably like the Queen Mum during the 1930s, and the child actresses playing the queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret also bear an uncanny resemblance to their 1930s counterparts. Only Firth as George VI sticks out like a sore thumb in this period drama.

The story of a man thrust unexpectedly into the spotlight as King when his brother abdicates is compelling in its own right, and makes for good drama. When the fact he has to speak for the entire nation during World War II is part of the real life narrative, and the film centers around the fact that (unbeknownst to his subjects) he’s a chronic stutterer and is not capable of delivering a public speech, the film has the potential to be quite riveting. However, The King’s Speech is not about high drama or incredible stakes, just about being down to earth and true to history, so much of this conflict is shown in the most mundane and low-key way it can be. This is NOT a flaw of the movie – as the I appreciated the movie’s grounded and approach and attempt to be true to history – but it does make it difficult for a viewer to be engaged by the movie. Oddly enough, it also might make for the example of the mildest “R rated” movie ever, as the film’s “R rating” is almost entirely due to the King uttering a series of F-bombs during his speech training, but this was done more for mild comic relief as he does it to naturally control his speech patterns, rather than start screaming obscenities during a heated emotional argument.

Geoffrey Rush is the real star of the movie, in the thankless “supporting role” as George VI’s speech trainer (who appears to have failed at his duties during numerous points of the film, but ultimately becomes a close friend of the King and an invaluable source of moral support) The very Australian Rush is an underrated actor who is better at playing the quintessential British person than many of the actual British people on screen with him.  The King’s Speech is a very British drama at heart (as an American, it’s hard to empathize with the idea that the useless figurehead monarch of the U.K is the “symbol” of its people) and it is Geoffrey Rush, not Colin Firth, who ultimately gives it that British flavor.

The King’s Speech is a very good, well made film, and certainly deserved some kind of recognition at the Academy Awards. But it’s definitely not my kind of movie.

 

*** out of ****

ReelReviews #103: 1980s Best Picture Winner: Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

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MARCH 2, 2017 SCREENING: DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)

 

Driving Miss Daisy is the ultimate low key movie. It’s easy to see why it’s the kind of film that would win an Oscar, but it’s no Sophie’s Choice or Kramer vs. Kramer type movie that markets itself as an TEAR JERKER MELODRAMA or an HISTORICAL EPIC. Rather, it’s a quiet film about the cultural changes in the deep south from the 30s to the 60s, as shown through the eyes of an elderly white lady and her earnest black chauffeur.

 

The film is almost entirely driven (no pun intended) on character interaction and dialogue between the two main characters.  Dan Aykroyd plays a supporting role as the son of the title character, who has his own life to worry about but functions in this film as a plot device to move the story along (for example, Miss Daisy crashes her car at the start of the movie, prompting Dan Aykroyd to find a chauffeur for her) Given that this movie was made in 1989, it likely started Aykroyd’s transition from mainly comedic roles to mainly drama roles, and it certainly made Morgan Freeman a household name, as it was one of the three iconic movies he starred in that year (the other two were Glory and Lean On Me).  Freeman and Jessica Tandy (as the title character) have to play their characters over several decades, and do so quite convincingly through the help of old age makeup.

 

The film adds a layer of drama by making Tandy’s character a minority herself, as she is a wealthy Jewish widow in the heavily Christian south. This becomes relevant several times in the film, like one December where she finally rewards Hoke (the chauffeur character) with a present, but swears it is not a Christmas present because she is not a Christian. There’s also the drama of one scene where the neighborhood synagogue is bombed. This felt someone forced to me as a plot device to make the main character come face to face with discrimination, but Driving Miss Daisy drives homes its points so subtly that nothing in the film was a distraction or seemed awkward.

 

Like the rest of the movie, Driving Miss Daisy ends not with a bang but a whimper, as the audience is given the suggestion that Miss Daisy died at the end of the film, only to discover (from Dan Akyroyd’s dialogue) that she’s still alive and well in her 90s, but has to go to a nursing home. Hoke has a heartwarming visit with his old boss, and the film simply ends.

 

If Driving Miss Daisy has one sin against it, it’s that the film is quite simply boring. It tells a good story, an important story, and a well made story, but one which I am not compelled to ever see again. Oscar bait, indeed, but a film that does a fabulous job of hiding that behind its humble little “aw, shucks’ presentation.

 

*** out of ****

 

 

ReelReviews #102: 1940s Best Picture Winner: The Lost Weekend (1945)

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 MARCH 1, 2017 SCREENING: THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)

 

Well…well…well, here’s an interesting film. The Lost Weekend was one of the first movies to take a serious look at what was pretty much a taboo topic in the 1940s: alcoholism. Before this film, drunken characters in movies were generally played for laughs, but this film attempts to make a serious melodrama about a writer’s struggle with booze. Does it hold up today? Yes and no.

 

Parts of the film still have the same dramatic punch they had in 1945, whereas other parts of The Lost Weekend come across as dated or silly, and sometimes too heavy-handed. Strangely, the effective drama of the movie and the silly 1940s archetypes can sometimes occur in the same scene. Ray Milland’s performance in the film is quite compelling as a man who dives deeper and deeper into his addiction, and Jane Wyman (best known as Ronald Reagan’s ex-wife) is quite attractive as his co-star but not quite as compelling in this dark, bleak story.

 

The most memorable parts of The Lost Weekend occur about 2/3rds of the way in, when the character ends up in a “hospital” against his will that is actually a halfway house for addicts. The film goes into full “cautionary tale” mode and introduces a male nurse character that comes across as a bit sadistic and gleeful (and seemingly a closeted gay man) to modern audiences, and he shows the character what his future will be if he doesn’t quit drinking.  The Lost Weekend has very effective and chilling scenes about alcoholics suffering from hallucinations (“it’s always small animals” remarks the nurse) and these scenes could be lifted right out of a horror film. The music and lighting make these portions quite horrific even by modern standards (though it pales in comparison to perhaps the best known film on addiction, 2000’s Requiem for a Dream).

 

The Lost Weekend has a whole subplot about the alcoholic character planning to write a book about his struggle called The Bottle, which made me wonder if any of the story is autobiographical, since The Lost Weekend was adapted from a bestselling book of the same name. In any case, the book ends on a much more somber note, whereas the film had a sort of rushed and tacked on “happy” ending where the character is able to shake off his demons with the help of his one true love. While tacky, I thought it worked for the movie. Amusingly, many of the modern reviews of the movie noted that they could use a drink after seeing the film, or that they had to get drunk to enjoy it.

 

Perhaps quite telling, The Lost Weekend was the sole “Best Picture” winner I tracked down that has never been released on Blu-Ray. It’s only available on DVD and VHS, which seems to reflect a lack of interest in the film from today’s audiences. While it is definitely a product of its time, and has its flaws, its deserves credit for what it was trying to do, and for much of its artistic qualities.

 

***   out of ****

 

ReelReviews #101: Oscar Party! (The French Connection, It Happened One Night, Slumdog Millionaire, On The Waterfront)

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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!