The Wizard of Oscar

An idea struck me.  It was a very clever idea, but a task quite daunting.  I have long been a film buff and have long been obsessed with the Oscars.  I love trying to see every nominated film from each year and the ride it takes me on.  I love having the perspective from having seen every film involved and being able to agree or disagree with the choices made for the awards.  Sometimes I agree with who the Academy chooses to give the Oscars to, but sometimes I don’t.  I love predicting who will win and I love complaining about who should have won. 
This brought me to my idea.  The idea is that I will try to watch every Best Picture nominee from the inception of the Academy Awards in 1927.  As of 2009, there are 479 films that were nominated for Best Picture.  I have seen 175 or about 37% of all of them, but with this project, I deem it only fair to re-watch those films.  This could take years.
The plan is to watch one year’s nominees at a time.  This won’t happen with every movie for every year, but for the most part, it is the fairest way to view these films with a critical eye.  I will put myself in the moment of each year as if I were watching all of them during their time.  I will try to apply the thoughts and events of the day to those films.  I will consider why each film was nominated for that time.  I will also give my opinion on if the Best Picture winner should have actually won and if not, which film.  And if there was a movie from a certain year that wasn’t nominated, but I felt it should have won, then I will discuss that as well.
This will be a slow process.  I am saying that out front because I do not want to burn myself out on this.  I’m not giving myself a schedule to go by because I don’t want to get stressed.  This will be a fun, yet difficult project.
I have identified every nominated movie and where I can find those movies (Netflix, Library).  However, there is one main hurdle I have already encountered.  There are 48 movies, spanning 21 separate years that I cannot locate.  In those cases, I will watch what I can and try and not get too upset if I still am unable to watch those films.  I will do what I can with what I can get and try and keep my head up.  Chances are, if a film is unavailable, then it’s probably not the best.
I hope some of you will keep up with my progress and enjoy my blog.  I will start with 1960 and go in no particular order.

1960 Oscar Nominees and Winners

Winner: The Apartment
– Elmer Gantry
– The Alamo
– Sons and Lovers
– The Sundowners

The Apartment **** out of ****

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Jack Lemon, Shirley MacLaine
Wins (5): Picture, Director, Original Screenplay (Wilder), Art Direction Black & White, Film Editing
Nominations: Actor (Lemon), Actress (MacLaine), Supporting Actor (Kruschen), Sound Editing, Cinematography Black & White
The Apartment is Billy Wilder’s best film.  The film is written very well and the acting proves that point.  The Apartment is serious, but you laugh with it.  It’s comedic, but with dark undertones.  The film never takes itself too serious.  It takes us to the dark side briefly without selling out its lighthearted tone.  It also helps that the chemistry between MacLaine and Lemon is perfect.  The Apartment is completely timeless in every aspect; from script to cinematography, from direction to fashion.  In 50 years, people will be watching this film and appreciating it just as much as I am now and as the public did 50 years ago.
Favorite Scenes/Shots
There are a few scenes that standout to me, mostly those that take place in the closed space of the apartment where Joseph LaShelle’s cinematography really stands out.  One of the more entertaining scenes shows a sick Baxter, after double-booking his apartment, at work as he tries to take his temperature and restructure his entire calendar at the same time.  A little over the top, perhaps, but that’s Jack Lemon (see Glengarry Glen Ross).  Another favorite of mine is in the end; the camera moves parallel with Fran as she runs down a New York sidewalk towards the Apartment.  Her head is back and short hair blows in the wind as she runs and smiles with the sweeping score playing in the background.
Elmer Gantry  **** out of ****

Director: Richard Brooks (not nominated)
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy, Shirley Jones
Wins (3): Actor (Lancaster), Supporting Actress (Jones), Adapted Screenplay (Brooks)
 Nominations:  Dramatic/Comedy Score
Elmer Gantry is a religious man, but he’s also a drunkard and a fornicator. Elmer shares drinks and dirty jokes with the patrons of a bar one minute and then jumps on his soap box, preaching to his drinking buddies the very next. But Elmer is a hypocrite. In fact, he’s a traveling salesman who’s overly sincere and wears a constant smile that wouldn’t waver if you slapped him in the face with Gutenberg’s Bible.Elmer, whose manner is somewhat Kramer-esque.  Elmer manages to sneak his way on to a passenger train of a revival group led by the famous, Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons).  Elmer schmoozes his way on to her good side. Sharon sees right through him, but still takes quite a liking to Elmer.  Burt Lancaster gives a great, Oscar winning performance. The writing and directing of Richard Brooks (based on the Sinclair Lewis novel) are great, yet subtle, allowing for the performances and the film itself to shine through.  LuLu Baines (Shirley Jones) plays a prostitute in the town where the revival is being held and a past victim of Elmer’s womanizing.  She is in the film very put was nominated for Supporting Actress.  Elmer Gantry is a study of those money-hungry individuals who see a church as a thing to exploit or a way to make money. It is a character study on a very clever, very flawed individual who knows his Bible and, as the film leads us to assume, truly believes what it says. However, he doesn’t seem to care enough to apply it to his own life. Unlike most character studies, our main character changes little from beginning to end, yet he manages to accomplish quite a lot.
Favorite Scenes/Shots
Elmer Gantry slowly strolls down the aisle between pews of a packed, attentive audience, shaking his Bible, sweating, red-faced and, with a forceful eloquence, shouts his angry sermon and demanding repentance. This is the best scene of the film and reminiscent of Paul Dano’s sermon in P.T. Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” Gantry slowly walks just feet in front of the camera, which rolls backwards as he goes forward as if he’s coming after us, the viewers.

The Alamo **1/2 out of ****

Director: John Wayne (not nominated)
Starring: John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey
Wins (1): Sound Editing
Nominations:Supporting Actor (Wills), Dram/Com Score, Song, Cinematography, Film Editing

John Wayne turns out to be a pretty decent director with this film.  The cinematography (William H. Clothier) was one of the better things about the movie.  Anything with wide open landscape always helps but one can definitely tell that some thought went into the shooting of this film.  The Alamo is a typical Western film that one might find coming out of the 50’s and 60’s.  The genre hasn’t really survived since then, except for a few obvious films (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Unforgiven, No Country For Old Men).   In my opinion it’s the times that changed, and not the Western.  Back then, a good Western with shootouts, dames and saloons seemed to be just what the doctor ordered.  Things are different now.  It’s a realism thing.  Being a Western, some things are naturally exaggerated.  However, since The Alamo was based on an actual event, one would assume that we would get a little more reality out of the deal.  But again, this was 1960, not 2010.  1960 had different notions and needs.  Perhaps escapism was the purpose back then.  The Alamo (film) notoriously created myths regarding the actual events that took place and the heroes that participated in them.  The film focuses on Davy Crockett (John Wayne), Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark) and William Travis (Laurence Harvey), three of the more familiar names in history and their apparent struggle to both get along with each other and hold off the Mexican army from going further into Texas.  Being a Hollywood film in the early 60’s, naturally the actual story is altered to become more interesting, but I think that the real story itself would’ve been fine.  The film could’ve been just as entertaining and even more fascinating if it were more honest.  It didn’t need the fluff.  The film is too long and takes quite a while to really get going.  Characters are introduced and not developed.  Scenes exist for no other reason than to further acknowledge the existence of Davy Crocket and Jim Bowie.  And there are too many speeches.  The score doesn’t match the tone of the film.
Favorite Scenes/Shots
However, the last 25 minutes of this film were extremely emotional.  In setting up for the final battle scene, where the soldiers all but know they will not make it out alive, we hear an appropriate dramatic score and see various scenes of soldiers sitting in quiet recollection or exchanging thoughtful words.  In one moment, Crocket and Bowie are sitting against the wall in the evening before the final battle.  Bowie asks Crocket what he’s thinking about to which Crocket replies, “Not thinking, just remembering.”  I completely buy into the fact that this would be how people would spend their final moments of life if they knew they probably would not live.  The last 25 minutes of the film are by far the most real.  Nothing is fabricated here.  It’s all sincere; full of great acting and great lines.

The Sundowners  * out of ****

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov
Wins: None
Nominations: Director, Actress (Kerr), Supporting Actress (Johns), Adapted Screenplay (Lennart)
The Sundowners is a lame film set in Australia about the Carmody family who roam the Outback in search of different odd jobs.  Things seem to happen for no reason.  Effects occur despite the fact that there may have been no cause.  Reactions take place without there being neither an equal nor an opposite action to put it into motion.  Actors laugh at sad things and the audience doesn’t laugh at all.  All of this must be chalked up to bad writing, even though it got an Adapted Screenplay nomination.  Not only that, but the story has no flow.  The film never goes anywhere but the characters are constantly on the road.  It’s editing is choppy.  Zinnemann made great films like From Here to Eternity, High Noon & A Man For All Seasons, but this one should definitely be left off of that list. Being “epic” and set in Australia, one would think that the film would find a way to grab nominations for Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Editing and Original Music, but The Sundowners received no such nominations.  Movies on as grand a scale as The Sundowners attempts to be, must grab some of these nominations, especially given that the film was a Best Picture nominee.  Deborah Kerr and Glynis Johns managed to take nominations for Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively.  Isobel Lennart was nominated for Adapted Screenplay for her efforts in turning the book into a movie, which seems a regrettable effort now.  Fred Zinneman, who won four Oscars in his career, managed to find himself nominated for director.  So I have watched this film in 2010 and did not like it, but I have to ask myself, “How was the film relevant in 1960?”  Was it the fondness of the actors by the public that earned the film its nomination?  Was it Zinnemann’s track record of making so many great films that it came to the point where he just had to throw something together in order get nominated?  Was it the fact that it showcased the Outback, which gave the audience a rare glance at this foreign land?  Perhaps, but this film does not stand the test of time.  The Sundowners…Australian for suck.
Favorite Scenes/Shots: None.  There were no good scenes in this film

Sons And Lovers  ***DID NOT SEE***

Director: Jack Cardiff
Starring: Trevor Howard, Mary Ure
Wins (1): Cinematography (Freddie Francis)
Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor (Howard), Supporting Actress (Ure), Adapted Screenplay (Lambert), Art Direction, Cinematography


Psycho **** out of ****

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
Wins: None
Nominations: Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Leigh), Art Direction Black & White, Cinematography Black & White

What can be said about Psycho that hasn’t already been said?  Psycho should be studied as a brilliant showcase of cinematography and storytelling.  Every bit of every scene was shot for a purpose.  The film is a perfect example of efficiency.  There’s not a single shot or line in the film that should or could be removed.  There’s no telling how many lines of dialogue are left unsaid due to the fact that Hitchcock was able to communicate the suspense and tone to the audience with the camera alone.  Psycho seems to be the go-to film horror reference.  It is the godfather of everything horror although the film itself is more suspenseful.  It’s easy to think of dozens of films that were inspired by Psycho.  I can understand how, in its time, the film was shunned.  People probably didn’t want to award such a shocking film like that even though, in hindsight, it’s one of the greatest films ever made.

Favorite Scenes/Shots:
The whole film, but to just mention a few I would have to say the seen with the cop pulling Mariane over and then letting her go.  The same cop following her and then getting off on another exit.  We see this through Mariane’s rearview.  The same cop showing up to the car dealership and parking across the street, leaning against his car and just staring at her until he finally starts walking towards her.  Renders the whole buying a new care virtually useless, but it’s too late.  The camera speaks volumes to the audience just by it’s cuts and pans.  The numerous camera shots of the cash keep us on edge, making us think it will be forgotten or left behind.
I have seen Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier & Jean Simmons, but not for the purpose of this project.  In my opinion, Spartacus does not deserve to be nominated for Best Picture in 1960.  I find it both slow and interminable.  It’s better than The Sundowners, but that’s not saying much.  I can see how it’s a classic; it’s epic and has a great cast, but I just really don’t like it.

Should Have Won:   The Apartment
Left Out:                    Psycho
The Apartment rightfully won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1960.  The Sundowners should have been left out without question.  Instead, I would have nominated Psycho.  That seems to be the only big snug for this year.  Rumor has it that it was actually the heavy campaign of The Alamo, that got it a nomination and kept Psycho out, but I see The Sundowners as the clear weak link here.  Without having seen Sons and Lovers, I would have to keep it in.  

127 Hours

Without having seen most of the films among those Oscar frontrunners (True Grit, The King’s Speech, Black Swan, etc.) 127 Hours is the movie of the year at the moment.  If we can expect this level of moviemaking from the rest of the films, then this year could turn out a decent one for movies.  I realized that 127 Hours had potential to be one of the best this year, but wasn’t at all looking forward to seeing it.  The idea of impending doom can be too much for me.  Movies that center around one torturing idea can very easily become over-exploitative as far as I’m concerned. 

127 Hours is the film adaptation of the autobiography of Aron Ralston called, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, documenting Ralston’s mountain climbing expedition in which he was trapped for over five days when I boulder fell on his arm. 

Boyle doesn’t exploit the fact that Ralston is trapped.  In fact, he very tastefully adds his style that makes the film both enjoyable to watch and relatable for the audience.   We don’t just see a guy stuck for 5 days.  We get to know him.  We become him.  Danny Boyle directs the film without necessarily harping on the idea that a person is trapped under a boulder.  He doesn’t take the easy route and shock us with the literal details that so many other directors would.  There’s no unnecessary suspense stemming from the fact that Ralston is stuck.  That would be too easy.  Boyle takes us inside Ralston’s mind.  We know the thoughts that he keeps going over (if he had only grabbed that last Gatorade bottle of out the truck) and the songs that get stuck in his head (Scooby Doo).  In as true a way as possible, the audience almost feels the pain (at least mentally) and despair that Ralston is going through.  It is Boyle’s genius in directing that makes this film as great as it is.  I thoroughly enjoyed it even though I knew eventually what was coming.  Instead of making a bloody and gory amputation scene reminiscent of so many horror films, Boyle preps the audience so that the inevitable decision becomes a final road to freedom.  It is a necessary sacrifice in order to live.  Expect to see a Directing nomination for Boyle.
James Franco plays Ralston and should not only receive a best actor nomination, but as far as I’m concerned (and I haven’t seen Firth in The King’s Speech) should win the Oscar outright. 

Boyle and Simon Beaufoy adapt the book to screen, A. R. Rahman returns to compose this very unorthodox (much like Slumdog) score as does cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle.  All of these individuals won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 for their categories and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see every single one nominated.

Danny Boyle has always been a good director.  As for me, 127 Hours takes me to a completely new level of Boyle-appreciation.  He goes right up there on the list of directors of whom I await year after year for their next film like: Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Tarantino, The Coens, the recently added Joe Wright and Darren Aronofsky and until recently removed, Clint Eastwood.

127 Hours **** out of ****

Twitter: citizen_craig