Worst Best Picture: Is Spotlight Better or Worse Than Crash?

Spotlight

image source: npr

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2015 winner Spotlight. Is it better than Crash?

Doing this feature yearly now has changed the way I think about Best Picture winners. I watched the first 86 over the course of a year and tried to consider the necessary context of each film’s release before judging it. Wings, the first winner, is a silent film that feels intolerably long at times and fascinatingly specific at others. Judged against modern film with no perspective, it doesn’t fare very well. It’s only with the context of the day that you begin to understand why the pathos of some scenes worked for those audiences.

This is the second year that I’ve not only watched the movie as it came out, but I also saw the Oscars themselves and all of the other nominees when they were new. That removes the struggle of context because the context is “right now.” We all know this world and we don’t have to use any caveats when describing a movie’s merits or failures now. They just are what they are.

Last year I wrote about how history would judge Birdman (still not using that whole title) and it’s honestly tough to say. Alejandro Iñárritu won his second consecutive Best Director award for The Revenant and seems to have solidified “divisive” as a term that needs to be used when talking about him. Personally, I still think Birdman is outstanding but I think The Revenant was the worst movie up for Best Picture or Best Director this year. I think I know how people felt last year now. Sorry y’all had to go through that, now that I’m in your camp.

Mumbling, screaming, bear-fighting movie aside, this was a strong year for Best Picture nominees. You have your necessary “slight” movies about good people doing (mostly) good things in Bridge of Spies and Brooklyn, you have your surprise nominations for movies for people who don’t necessarily watch the Oscars in Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian, and you have your capital-I Important movies in RoomThe Big Short, and Spotlight. There really aren’t a lot of bad choices there. History will correctly remember these Oscars as the ones mired in exclusionary selections, but at the very least the exclusionary movies they picked were all good ones.

Spotlight seemed inevitable in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. When a movie is nearly universally acclaimed, I always like to go to the reviews that demand that “nearly” adverb. There are 11 negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and the common thread seems to be that the acting isn’t up to par. Spotlight wasn’t nominated for either lead acting category and Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo lost in both supporting categories, but the film demands the nebulous “ensemble cast” descriptor. No one performance dominates the film (though if I had to pick one, I’d go with Ruffalo) because it’s about the story they’re all telling. They don’t matter; the truth does. That could be a sentence used to describe a very sanctimonious movie, but in this case I mean it in a positive way.

Spotlight doesn’t need a lot of description. A group of reporters gather accounts of sexual abuse by priests of children in Boston. It’s a true story, so it’s no spoiler to say that they publish the truth and the city (and country, and world) is outraged. We’re still in this. We still know this and we often feel confused or powerless to help in situations like these. There isn’t an easy answer here and the movie isn’t designed to offer one. It’s the first step — the spotlight, get it — in highlighting a problem. That scope works for this narrative and I think that’s why it’s such a success. They set out to tell one specific part of an important, true, huge story and they nailed it.

Let’s close this year on one more discussion of context. I’ve heard a lot of discussion about how recent winners will be remembered, and indeed that was the main detracting argument about Birdman. I don’t know if people in the future will understand Spotlight and our context. It’s strange to watch a movie like Gentleman’s Agreement or The Life of Emile Zola now because they require you to step outside of yourself and your world. Spotlight isn’t timeless, but I don’t know that it needs to be in order to be great. Great film needs to make sense in the now, first, and Spotlight definitely does that.

The Best Part: Mark Ruffalo loses his mind towards the end of the movie because he’s frustrated about the progress of their story. He wants to do more and he wants to find the answer for how you “fix” the whole situation. There isn’t one. Everyone on the Spotlight team serves as an audience surrogate at some point or another in Spotlight, but no one nails the emotions the movie instills as much as he does in that moment. It’s an outstanding choice to contain the “anger” of the team to that moment, as well. They’re always driven, but that’s the only time it all overflows and becomes unproductive anger. How many of us would only be capable of unproductive anger in that real-life job?

The Worst Part: This is tough for Spotlight. While I don’t think it’s a perfect film, I don’t think there’s any one thing I didn’t like or would change. I think Room should have won Best Picture, so I’m tempted to go with “not enough time trapped in a room that inflicts psychological and biological terror.” In all seriousness, if I have to pick something I suppose it doesn’t really complicate the newsroom staff very much. Most of the heroes are solely heroes whose greatest faults include drinking beer after work and not sleeping enough. I don’t even know that making them complex figures would make this a better movie, but it’s something I noticed.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The difference here is an ocean. Spotlight is several magnitudes better than Crash. One interesting comparison here is the ensemble cast idea. Both movies lack a true “lead” but they play this different ways. Crash is all about how people enter and leave each other’s lives while Spotlight is about working as a team. Both kinds of ideas can work with an ensemble cast, but you’re only as strong as your weakest player. Spotlight doesn’t have a bad performance. Crash probably has a good one, somewhere, but after 88 of these I’m fairly convinced that it does not have a good anything.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of AfricaSchindler’s ListGandhi | Ben-HurThe Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Best Picture vs. Best Director: Is The Life of Emile Zola Better than The Awful Truth? (1937)

The Awful Truth

Alex Russell

In 2014 I watched every single Best Picture Oscar winner in an attempt to find the absolute worst of them. I found it: Crash. Most movies that win Best Picture also win Best Director. In fact, from 1927 to 2014 only 24 movies won the Oscar for Best Director without also winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Did any of those 24 deserve both awards? This is Best Picture vs. Best Director, in which we examine the few films to not win both awards and try to determine why the honors were split those years. Today’s movies are The Life of Emile Zola (Best Picture) and The Awful Truth (Best Director), the winners from 1937. Which is the better film?

The Best Director film: The Awful Truth, an intensely silly screwball comedy full of divorce and remarriage goofs. Irene Dunne and Cary Grant can’t stand each other anymore and go to absurd lengths to avoid talking about their failing marriage. When Grant’s character is caught in a lie about going to Florida (he got a fake tan and sent fake letters home to mask his true whereabouts) the couple is unable to continue their lies. After an extremely silly scene where Dunne pretends to be Grant’s drunk sister and what passed for an exciting car chase in 1937, the characters run out of ways to distract each other and must confront the difficult truth of a marriage that may or may not be what they both really want.

The Best Director director: Leo McCarey, who won another Best Director award in 1944 for Going My Way. That movie also won Best Picture, but it’s a fairly sentimental musical vehicle for Bing Crosby and arguably not as good as The Awful Truth. Both movies reveal a very positive director who wanted to highlight the goodness in the world. That makes McCarey very different than his peers at the time and an odd Oscar winner in general. The Academy rarely rewards a light touch.

The Best Picture film: The Life of Emile Zola (read the Worst Best Picture entry here), which I ranked #61 on my list of every Best Picture winner. It’s one of the only movies on the list I watched twice, though that was mostly because I found it impenetrable the first time. The movie tells the story of Emile Zola’s response to anti-Jewish sentiment in his time, but in 1937 the director was afraid to use the word “Jew” even once. As a result it’s left up to the audience to understand what’s being talked about. Some of the storytelling works (a character is given a gun and frankly told to shoot himself to avoid an ugly trial) and some doesn’t (the first 20 minutes is spent defining Zola as a freedom fighter, but he mostly comes off as annoying and self-aggrandizing) and the movie feels uneven at best. It’s brave for 1937, but it doesn’t hold up well.

The Best Picture director: William Dieterle, who was never nominated again and was eventually a casualty of the McCarthy era. His career was defined by bio-pics and the only one to really be rewarded critically was Zola.

Did the right movie win Best Picture? Likely, based on the standards of what “Best Picture” has come to mean. The Awful Truth is more watchable in modern standards, but in the historical frame of 1937 it’s just a pretty good version of a standard film. Screwball comedies were common and even though The Awful Truth has some memorable moments it doesn’t take any risks. The Life of Emile Zola is a more deserving Oscar winner. For its time, it shows a lot of daring as a film and displays a man who risks his status for a cause he believes in. It’s the uncommon case of a less watchable story but a more impressive accomplishment in film-making.

Just for the hell of it, are either of them worse than CrashBoth of these movies feature characters undergoing enormous challenge and triumphing, though at the cost of something dear to them. Cary Grant is embarrassed time and again in The Awful Truth and (much more dramatically) Paul Muni’s Zola risks everything to defend a man unjustly accused. For as dramatic a tone as Crash insists upon, the stakes are never that high. No one risks learning or losing anything. They all just grow increasingly disgusted with their world until the story reaches a bow-tie ending.

Best Picture vs. Best Director Archives: The Greatest Show on Earth vs. The Quiet Man (1952) | Wings vs. Seventh Heaven (1931-1932)Hamlet vs. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)An American in Paris vs. A Place in the Sun (1951)The Life of Emile Zola vs. The Awful Truth (1937)

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Best Picture vs. Best Director: Is An American in Paris Better than A Place in the Sun? (1951)

A Place in the Sun

Alex Russell

In 2014 I watched every single Best Picture Oscar winner in an attempt to find the absolute worst of them. I found it: Crash. Most movies that win Best Picture also win Best Director. In fact, from 1927 to 2014 only 24 movies won the Oscar for Best Director without also winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Did any of those 24 deserve both awards? This is Best Picture vs. Best Director, in which we examine the few films to not win both awards and try to determine why the honors were split those years. Today’s movies are An American in Paris (Best Picture) and A Place in the Sun (Best Director), the winners from 1951. Which is the better film?

The Best Director film: A Place in the Sun, which is a retelling of the Theodore Dreiser novel An American Tragedy. Montgomery Clift (who plays the pacifist lead in From Here to Eternity) starts out as a humble worker in his uncle’s factory but reveals himself to be a “climber” over the course of the story. He starts dating one of his peers (Shelley Winters, who is beautiful but like many supporting women of the era is treated as lesser even though her sole negative quality seems to be that she’s not Elizabeth Taylor) and his life is working out well. His downfall begins as he gains some success at work and gets invited to events where he meets a more beautiful, high-society woman (Elizabeth Taylor, who is Elizabeth Taylor) and falls in love. Clift’s character George decides that he has to be rid of his lesser girlfriend so he can marry Elizabeth Taylor. He begins to act shifty and you’d expect his girlfriend to notice, but she still follows him out to a secluded lake for a romantic getaway. Things take an unexpected turn (or two, or three), but the dark heart of man is a powerful thing.

The Best Director director: George Stevens, who won a second Best Director Oscar in 1956 for Giant. The two movies couldn’t be more different. It makes you really consider the concept of “style” for a director, since Giant is a massive undertaking that looks at the long life of one person and A Place in the Sun is a much quieter look at a man’s soul.

The Best Picture film: An American in Paris (read the Worst Best Picture entry here), which I ranked 67th on my list of every Best Picture winner. It’s a silly musical about an American’s romances and art career (kinda) while he’s in Paris. Gene Kelly is a star in it, but the whole thing doesn’t really hold up. Your experience may vary if you can appreciate the 16-minute ballet that closes the film. I cannot.

The Best Picture director: Vincente Minnelli. Liza Minnelli’s father directed two musicals that won Best Picture: Gigi and An American in Paris. They’re both classics (though some critics consider Gigi as a disaster in retrospect), but they may not be for everyone. I found Gigi somewhat charming and more interesting than An American in Paris. They’re both okay.

Did the right movie win Best Picture? No, but I don’t think the right movie from 1951 is either of these. History remembers both of these movies as classics, but 1951 was the year Brando played Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. It didn’t win for Best Picture or Best Director, but even stranger it took home three of the acting awards but not Best Actor. Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter are all superb, but it’s bizarre to see how close the Oscars came to the sweep and that the denial came because Brando didn’t win for one of the greatest roles in history. Of these two, A Place in the Sun is the stronger film. That makes all these awards even stranger, in retrospect.

Just for the hell of it, are either of them worse than CrashOh, no. An American in Paris isn’t for me, but it’s mostly harmless. Critics consider a lot of the character elements in A Place in the Sun differently now than they did in 1951, and while the movie deserves rethinking to a degree it’s still a great watch. Depending on your perception, Clift’s character either slowly reveals his true self or he degrades over time. Either viewing strikes me as correct and I think the dour ending really sells who Clift either always was or has become. There’s lots to consider in whichever view you take.

Best Picture vs. Best Director Archives: The Greatest Show on Earth vs. The Quiet Man (1952) | Wings vs. Seventh Heaven (1931-1932)Hamlet vs. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)An American in Paris vs. A Place in the Sun (1951) |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Best Picture vs. Best Director: Is Hamlet Better than The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? (1948)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Alex Russell

In 2014 I watched every single Best Picture Oscar winner in an attempt to find the absolute worst of them. I found it: Crash. Most movies that win Best Picture also win Best Director. In fact, from 1927 to 2014 only 24 movies won the Oscar for Best Director without also winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Did any of those 24 deserve both awards? This is Best Picture vs. Best Director, in which we examine the few films to not win both awards and try to determine why the honors were split those years. Today’s movies are Hamlet (Best Picture) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Best Director), the winners from 1948. Which is the better film?

The Best Director film: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which everyone knows at least for the “stinking badges” line (which isn’t actually exactly that, but you probably know that, too). It’s so much more than a memorable line. One of the best films on either of these lists, Sierra Madre is a serious look at men who feel the world owes them more than what they’ve got. Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) teams up with two other men (Tim Holt and Walter Huston, the director’s father) to search for gold in the mountains of Mexico. They luck out after relatively few setbacks and are rewarded with small personal fortunes. It’s enough to split three ways, but that logic only holds up until it’s dark out and you’re alone with your thoughts. Do you really have to split it? Don’t you deserve it all? How well do you really know these other guys, anyway?

The Best Director director: John Huston, who was nominated for the award four more times. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was his only win. Like seemingly every other great director on the list, he was married a number of times (five) and has famous offspring (Anjelica Huston). His name may not be one you immediately know like some others on this list, but he fits right in with the other drinking, smoking madmen who made great art in the 40s and 50s.

The Best Picture film: Hamlet (read the Worst Best Picture entry here), which I ranked 81st on my list of every Best Picture winner. I was pretty brutal to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in my first viewing, largely because I disagreed with the choice to play up Hamlet’s sexual feelings towards his mother. It might benefit from a rewatch, but I can’t imagine sitting through three more hours of those two actors inches from each other’s faces.

The Best Picture director: Laurence Olivier, who directed only a handful of movies despite being one of the greatest actors of all time. I recently watched the insane The Boys from Brazil and he nearly saved even that disaster. He was marvelous in Hitchcock’s Best Picture winner Rebecca. He was an iconic Shakespearean actor, but he seemed to only want to direct a few works. I haven’t seen his Henry V or Richard III, so as a director I can only judge his Hamlet. I judge it harshly, but more for the directing choices than for his performance, which is exactly what you’d expect from an actor of his stature.

Did the right movie win Best Picture? No, though I’m harder on Hamlet than the average viewer. I don’t like the interpretation of the play and that distorts my ability to judge any other part of the film, but it’s a lesser piece of art than Huston’s adaptation. I haven’t read the original The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but I have to imagine it’s closer to the film than Hamlet. There are comparisons to be made beyond that, but the most important thing to comment on here is how impressive Bogart is. He’s one of the greats for a reason, and he plays Dobbs with such darkness right from the start that it fills the viewer with unease. His portrayal sells the message of the whole picture, and I think that, on top of so much else, deserves the nod.

Just for the hell of it, are either of them worse than CrashNope. Hamlet is harder to sit through and it’s certainly less interesting, but the “interest” when you’re talking about Crash is morbid curiosity. I still think about that scene in Crash where a guy almost kills a kid in the street in broad daylight and then no one does anything about it. I think about that scene a lot.

Best Picture vs. Best Director Archives: The Greatest Show on Earth vs. The Quiet Man (1952)Wings vs. Seventh Heaven (1931-1932)Hamlet vs. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Best Picture vs. Best Director: Is Wings Better than Seventh Heaven? (1927-1928)

Seventh Heaven

Alex Russell

In 2014 I watched every single Best Picture Oscar winner in an attempt to find the absolute worst of them. I found it: Crash. Most movies that win Best Picture also win Best Director. In fact, from 1927 to 2014 only 24 movies won the Oscar for Best Director without also winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Did any of those 24 deserve both awards? This is Best Picture vs. Best Director, in which we examine the few films to not win both awards and try to determine why the honors were split those years. Today’s movies are Wings (Best Picture) and Seventh Heaven (Best Director), the winners from 1927-1928. Which is the better film?

The Best Director film: Seventh Heaven, a story about love and war. You can apply that sentence to almost every movie in the 20s and 30s, but there are few you can entirely describe with it. Seventh Heaven is about absolutely nothing else. Diane (Janet Gaynor, who won the first Best Actress award for the role) is a poor street girl in pre-war France. Diane’s ticket out of poverty is her rich family, but when they return and ask her and her sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell) if they have been good, Diane must be honest and say that they have not. Her family leaves immediately and Nana whips Diane (literally whips her, with an actual whip, for real) in the French streets. It’s all designed to start the Diane character as low as possible, but since it happens in about three minutes the result is very jarring and upsetting, and not in the way it’s intended. Diane is rescued by Chico (Charles Farrell) and they slowly fall in love after merely pretending to be married to avoid the police. Then Chico goes to war. Can love triumph in wartime? Will Diane be safe from her murderous sister? Did families really abandon each other after exchanging two sentences in the 20s? You’ll have to watch to find out!

Two Arabian Knights also won for Best Director (Comedy Picture) in 1927-1928, but it’s out of print as far as I can tell. This is also the only year they awarded two Best Director awards, and the dramatic version feels like the correct predecessor to today’s Best Director award.

The Best Director director: Frank Borzage, who won two Best Director Oscars in his life. After the inaugural Seventh Heaven, he won in 1931-1932 for Bad Girl. I really want to save my thoughts about Bad Girl for that post, but it’s enough to say that this one is significantly less bizarre through modern eyes. Borzage was one of 14 children and one of only eight to survive childhood. That certainly explains the bleakness in both movies.

The Best Picture film: Wings (read the Worst Best Picture entry here), which I ranked 63rd on my list of all the Best Picture winnersWings is mostly a historical footnote as the only silent film to win Best Picture. It plods along by modern standards, but it’s a little more watchable than most of the other first 10 winners. There’s a compelling love story in it and the combat is exciting. Unexpected characters die and it lacks some of the predictable nature of many early films. I can’t honestly recommend it unless you want to watch “the first Best Picture winner” for exactly that reason, but there are very watchable chunks throughout and you could do much worse.

The Best Picture director: William A. Wellman, who flew in World War I and seems to have hated actors even more than the average director in his era. He worked for three decades after Wings, but you’re unlikely to recognize much in his filmography. There are worse things to be known for than directing the first Best Picture, though.

Did the right movie win Best Picture? Yes, though it may depend on what you want from a movie. Wings is a technical marvel, and though it looks dated to modern eyes it still seems impressive given the era. There’s something in Wings for a modern audience, then, and that just isn’t true in Seventh Heaven. Chico and Diane are non-characters who don’t establish personalities very well. Chico brags that he’s remarkable, but he does so by saying things like “I am a most remarkable man!” While every movie has to be judged through the lens of time, that feels pretty lazy even for 1931. You may find Seventh Heaven sweet, but by the conclusion it’s full-on soap opera and it’s way too much.

Just for the hell of it, are either of them worse than CrashNo, but they’re both much less watchable. Both Seventh Heaven and Wings drag a lot and you’re likely to find them boring if you watch them today. That said, it’s not a good sign when the movie with a murderous, mindless alcoholic with a whip doesn’t have the least sympathetic character in it. The contemptuousness of Crash drags it beneath even other dark stories about the heart of mankind.

Best Picture vs. Best Director Archives: The Greatest Show on Earth vs. The Quiet Man (1952)Wings vs. Seventh Heaven (1931-1932) |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Best Picture vs. Best Director: Is The Greatest Show on Earth Better than The Quiet Man? (1952)

The Quiet Man

Alex Russell

In 2014 I watched every single Best Picture Oscar winner in an attempt to find the absolute worst of them. I found it: Crash. Most movies that win Best Picture also win Best Director. In fact, from 1927 to 2014 only 24 movies won the Oscar for Best Director without also winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Did any of those 24 deserve both awards? This is Best Picture vs. Best Director, in which we examine the few films to not win both awards and try to determine why the honors were split those years. Today’s movies are The Greatest Show on Earth (Best Picture) and The Quiet Man (Best Director), the winners from 1952. Which is the better film?

The Best Director film: The Quiet Man, the story of Sean Thornton (John Wayne) and his move to Ireland to recover his family’s land. Thornton is a boxer from Pittsburgh, and even as a fish out of water story it’s still really damn strange. John Wayne is John Wayne all the time. He’s a hard-drinkin’, no backtalkin’, absolutely-no-bullshit American who rides a horse everywhere and punches men who are rude to women. He buys the land by outbidding the cartoonish Squire Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) and then tries to marry Danaher’s daughter Mary Kate. Danaher is a big, absurd bastard who feels stung by the loss of property and he refuses Sean’s request. They disagree loudly in pubs for about an hour. Mary Kate is barely consulted and mostly just stews and screams at Sean, but the real trouble sets in when Sean discovers that customs are different in Ireland. Some of it is a reasonable source for culture clash comedy, but some it is more along the lines of “Why won’t this crazy lass just marry me… after all, I’m John Wayne!”

The Best Director director: John Ford, who won four Best Director awards in his career but only won Best Picture for the disappointing How Green Was My Valley. Apparently was a bit of a lunatic.

The Best Picture film: The Greatest Show on Earth (read the Worst Best Picture entry here), which I ranked 74th on my list of all the Best Picture winners. A lot of lists rank it even lower than that and it feels tremendously dated. It’s the story of five people who fall in and out of love with each other as they try to run a travelling circus. Jimmy Stewart runs from the police as Buttons the Clown, though he’s actually a murderer (kinda, it’s tough to explain). Charlton Heston grimaces and barks at people when they fail him. For 10 actual, real-life minutes a group of men take down a circus tent. There’s a literal trainwreck. It’s a really tough watch these days.

The Best Picture director: Cecil B. DeMille, the first person to direct a full-length feature film in Hollywood. A legend among legends. Made The Ten Commandments. Less of a lunatic, if only by default. Apparently the biggest circus fan of all time.

Did the right movie win Best Picture? Nope! The Greatest Show on Earth is a genuinely bad movie for a ton of reasons, but chief among them is the pacing. While primarily a love story, Greatest Show often takes time to feature 20-minute circus acts. It’s nearly three hours long and feels even longer. I am not at all kidding when I say there is a scene where the narrator explains the process of taking down and folding a circus tent and that scene is 10 minutes long. The Quiet Man is a very strange movie, but it’s tighter and has more to say. It’s also remarkably funny even today. The climactic brawl gets to Looney Tunes-levels of absurdity as the participants stop to have a beer in the middle of a fistfight, but the performances are solid and the stakes feel real. The tone goes all over the place, especially with regard to poor Mary Kate, but the result is definitely worth your time.

Just for the hell of it, are either of them worse than CrashNo. The Quiet Man is a pretty good movie — even if John Wayne is supposedly an Irish guy from Pittsburgh in it.

Best Picture vs. Best Director Archives: The Greatest Show on Earth vs. The Quiet Man (1952) |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: the new yorker

image source: the new yorker

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2014 winner Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Is it better than Crash?

People loved or hated Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I’m in the moment, right now, in 2015, and damn people are polarized on this.

For the people that hated it, there are two main things about Birdman (that’s all we’re calling it from here on out, deal with it) people are saying in the immediate aftermath of its win:

  1. Boyhood should have won!”
  2. “People are going to hate this in 10 years!”

10 years gives enough perspective, no doubt. The last five winners from 10 years ago: The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (still good), Chicago (still good, but eh), A Beautiful Mind (oh, dear), Gladiator (oh no what happened), American Beauty (well…) Those are dated movies at best, even though it’s a rough half-decade for the Academy.

This year is not a down year. Selma, The Imitation Game, Whiplash, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Still Alice, and, yes, Boyhood, are all great movies. Any of them (and I include Still Alice in that list, defiantly, despite not being nominated for Best Picture) would make a suitable Best Picture winner for 2014. The Academy gave it to Birdman, though, so we’re here talking about the story of Riggan Thomson.

Riggan (Michael Keaton) is the former star of the “Birdman” series. It’s a not-at-all-veiled take on Keaton’s time as Batman, and it does make me wonder who else they had in mind if Keaton turned them down. Dean Cain? Anyway, Riggan wants to regain some respect in the world after a series of “popcorn” films, and he chooses to do so by putting on a play that’s based on a Raymond Carver story.

Riggan perceives himself to have superpowers. He levitates and controls things with his mind, but only once in a way anyone else can see. It’s left up to the viewer if this is actually supernatural, but it’s heavily implied that Riggan just thinks that he’s an exceptional person. It’s built into the entire world of Riggan Thomson: he sees himself as magical — or at least special — in a way that mere mortals aren’t. The only power he exerts is that of excellence, it just happens to manifest itself as telekinesis as a means to achieve his desires.

The entire movie is designed to look like one continuous shot, and that combined with the magical powers and the subject of “actor acts in a more serious acting thing” sets Birdman up to be some risky material. It’s not difficult to see why people hated it, and it’s especially interesting that it drew the inspired (but down-to-Earth) Boyhood as a foil. The two movies could not be more different, and it will be fascinating to see people connect the two forever.

What matters in Birdman isn’t the flash, though, it’s the theme: failure. Riggan hates himself and consumes himself in a play that he views as credible to claw back his image from a career he sees as bereft of credibility. The dots are easy to connect, but the situation is complicated by Mike (Edward Norton) who is brought in to replace a less qualified actor. As the co-star (and in the world of Birdman, the more esteemed actor), Mike steals the show. He’s “edgy” and “raw” in a way that the world can’t view their favorite fictional superhero. Mike cares (or is seen to care) about the art itself. He cares to the point of total rebellion and absurdity when he freaks out during the preview because his gin has been replaced with water. Riggan can’t perform his act of “art” in the face of someone he views as actually sincere, and he’s stunted as a result.

That leads to the real discussion of Birdman: is this just another movie about movies and people in movies? The Artist (and to a lesser extent, Argo), carry the recent discussion of Best Picture winners that are just Hollywood all proud of itself, and that’s a valid criticism. I don’t agree with it, because I think it’s a much smarter look at how Riggan views himself than how he fears acceptance as an actor. When Birdman the character talks to Birdman the man in a way he can’t ignore, when he actually dares him to look at himself and ask deep down what he will really do to prove to himself that this all matters…

… the moral is yours to decipher. If you see this as a bad lesson and the sad events of a sad man, well, I can’t say I think that interpretation is wrong. For me, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — terrible, awful title and all — is the story of coming to terms with oneself. Most of us don’t do it as dramatically as Keaton does, but most of us weren’t Batman.

The Best Part: Emma Stone, who elevates what could be a stereotypical performance into something that would be a strong contender for Best Supporting Actress any other year. Not here, though, because Patricia Arquette was awesome.

The Worst Part: Probably Edward Norton, who plays “awful” a little too successfully. The play-within-a-film and the “love is absolute” stuff, plus the fight… if anything ages poorly, it’ll be his over-the-top performance.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? From here on out, this will be a yearly installment, as I hope to update this right after each Oscars. Is it important to keep up this museum? I say it is because now we have the rare chance to talk about movies without any lapse. This is what it is now. Will people hate this in 10 years? They might, but in 2015 it seems to be a 50/50 split between people that liked Boyhood‘s honesty and people that liked the lies of Birdman. They’re different movies, and like many of the other movies on the list, it’s not an easy call which should win. Birdman or Boyhood would easily trounce Crash, and I almost wish they’d made this difficult with American Sniper.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of AfricaSchindler’s ListGandhi | Ben-HurThe Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Is Crash the Worst Best Picture of All Time? All 86 Best Picture Winners, Ranked.

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Alex Russell

Over the course of 2014, I watched every single movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture, from Wings to 12 Years a Slave. I started from the hypothesis that none of them could possibly be worse than Crash. When I first made that statement I’d only seen a handful of them, but my disdain for Crash was strong and my desire to test my theory was even stronger. I could only safely call Crash the worst of them all if I’d seen every single one.

There are 86 of them, and they total 11,866 minutes, combined. That’s a little under 198 hours, or roughly 8 and 1/4 days. I did not consider how big of a task just watching them would be, much less writing about them. That said, it was a fun journey. It took me an entire year. I’ve now done the research and I’ve got all the data I need to say this:

Crash is the worst Best Picture winner of all time. Period.

They aren’t all bad, though! Just because Crash is a hopeless look at a forsaken world through the eyes of stiff, unlikable robot characters is no reason to not run down the list and see what’s worth your time. I started this year saying that I wouldn’t do that thing where I ended this with a list, but lists are fun and I spent more than eight days watching these damn movies. Now, you get a list. We’re going in order of worst-to-best, and I tried to hold my criteria here to just the abstract of “best.” That said, this list is only my list, so it’s a good thing I’m also right about everything. When you watch all 86, you get to make a list. Disagree in the comments.

Thanks for reading all year! If you missed any (or all of ’em) you can click the links to read each individual writeup. Spoilers are very rare and only used when there’s no other way to talk about the film, but you’ll enjoy each more if you’ve already seen the subject matter.

(You may also want to check out Buzzfeed’s version. It isn’t my favorite site, but their list was invaluable in deciding when to watch a “good” or a “bad” one, and it’s a much more critical look at the list.)

86. Crash

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“At one point, a character shoots a kid. The kid doesn’t die (because the gun is filled with blanks) and then the family walks away and leaves the shooter standing in broad daylight. If you shoot at my kid, we’re at least going to have a conversation.”

85. Cimarron

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Cimarron is an unmitigated disaster of a film. It’s slow, it’s weird, it’s boring, and it’s dated. There is absolutely no reason to watch Cimarron in 2014 aside from a desire to watch every Best Picture winner. This movie isn’t even fun to hate.”

84. Around the World in 80 Days

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“There is no larger narrative beyond “go around the world.” David Niven bets a bunch of stuffy British people that he can go around the world in 80 days. There you go. You can skip it now.”

83. The Artist

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“There was a campaign around the release of the movie to nominate the dog for Best Supporting Actor. I love dogs. In the spirit of a piece where I compare pieces of cinema, this would mean equating Robert De Niro with a dog.”

82. Dances with Wolves

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“Race is challenging, and a lot of people refer to movies like this as “Oscar bait” because they try to tackle the topic. They may be right, but winning the Oscar and being remembered fondly are different accomplishments. Dances with Wolves is just too hamfisted.”

81. Hamlet

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Hamlet is not the story of a man who wants to have sex with his mother and can’t decide if he should kill his stepfather, or at the very least it is not that in that order, but if it has to be that to Olivier he has certainly succeeded in making what he wanted to make.”

80. The Great Ziegfeld

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“There’s really no draw here. It’s deeply, deeply boring, maybe beyond the abilities of anything else on the list. It would feel long at half the length, and there’s nothing to really sink your teeth into.”

79. Cavalcade

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“Lines are stepped all over, characters are never established, and huge diversions from the plot are common. That last one is the strangest trend about early Hollywood: everything made the final cut, no matter if it mattered for characterization, or the plot, or neither.”

78. Gladiator

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Gladiator may be the only Best Picture winner that has absolutely nothing to say. There are worse movies, to be sure, but there aren’t any that attempt to do less.”

77. The Broadway Melody

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“It’s real, real dated, y’all. The sexual politics of the love triangle (and fourth member, who gets added late in the film) will anger modern viewers, and there just isn’t all that much going on outside of that.”

76. Driving Miss Daisy

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“The journey isn’t “mean racist lady” to “nice old lady,” it’s “mean old lady who hates Morgan Freeman” to “somewhat less mean old lady who loves Morgan Freeman.”

75. Braveheart

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“There are two kinds of “bad” Oscar winners: there are the Around the World in 80 Days kinds that are genuinely bad and win inexplicably and there are the Driving Miss Daisy and Gladiator kinds that seem fine at the time and almost immediately crumble upon future examination. Braveheartis that second kind. You see it on a list of Best Picture winners and just say, “Really? Okay.””

74. The Greatest Show on Earth

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“The problem here is that no one ever asked the question “is 90 minutes of circus footage too much?” It really, really is, but in a world that includes some truly awful movies with Best Picture on their DVD box, you shouldn’t hate The Greatest Show on Earth. You just shouldn’t watch it, either.”

73. Grand Hotel

“This is old Hollywood at its old-Hollywood-est. It’s a crazy story that likely works well as a play but doesn’t make a ton of sense as a film.”

72. How Green Was My Valley

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How Green Was My Valley isn’t bad, but it’s a relic. It doesn’t really make sense anymore. It fills you with sadness for a people you can’t help. For an economy that has already bottomed out. In America we bemoan the death of our industrial cities, but How Green Was My Valley will put it in perspective: it has been thus for a long damn time.”

71. The Last Emperor

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“It’s a really full movie — I would like to go into his wives and opium and pregnancy, but that part of the movie drags a bit — and it can be tough to watch as a result. The payoff is good, but the movie could have benefited by being more judicious with the editing.”

70.  You Can’t Take It With You

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“The family argues with the IRS over income tax, which is fine. Then they… make unlicensed fireworks and set them off all over their house in the middle of the city. Okay, cool, 1938. Whatever you say. I guess that’s a thing now. Then, a man in a silly mask runs up from the basement to scare the police so they can go back to their xylophone song.”

69. Tom Jones

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“The joke consistently is that Tom Jones is in love, but he’ll just sleep with this woman in this patch of tall grass anyway. Comedy is in doing something so many times that it’s funny, then not funny, then hilarious, but I was pretty damn tired of Tom Jones the guy and Tom Jones the movie by the end of it.”

68. Shakespeare in Love

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“There is absolutely nothing in Shakespeare and Love that is challenging or interesting. It’s just a series of events, well told and well acted, but not one that really engages.”

67. An American in Paris

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““Risky” is as nice of a word as I can use to describe the ending. I hate this ending. I hate, hate, hate it. It’s not spoiling it to say it ends with a “daydream” sequence that plays out as a ballet. I know it’s iconic and it’s exceptional and dazzling and all that, but it’s exactly what people think of when they say they “hate musicals.””

66. A Man for All Seasons

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“The setup of the story of Sir Thomas More’s undoing is an interesting part of English history, but it’s not a very fascinating thing to watch. This thing wakes up like it doesn’t want to go to school in the morning. It’s almost 40% of the way into the movie before anything “happens” in a sense.”

65. Mrs. Miniver

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“The entire movie is “climax” but my least favorite dramatic scene is a flower competition, and I would write more about it, but it’s a flower competition.”

64. Going My Way

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“The ideas of a religion wanting to appeal to a new generation and the old generation being afraid to try new tactics still resonates all these decades later. The theme of giving way to your future is still universal, but the way it happens in Going My Way feels a little dumb towards the end.”

63. Wings

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“If Wings has a claim to fame beyond the first Best Picture Oscar, it’s two million dollars worth of plane combat effects. They’re impressive (to a degree, don’t expect much) considering what they had to work with in 1927. The conventions of silent film mean that you’re going to watch a lot of flying time, so at least it’s well done.”

62. Forrest Gump

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“Saying there are “problems” with Forrest Gump is putting it mildly, but they are all intentional problems. The camp factor of Gump is off every chart, even the chart they invented to show things that are off of charts.”

61. The Life of Emile Zola

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“I had to watch The Life of Emile Zola twice to really get it. It’s one of the shorter Oscar winners — almost none of them clock in at under two hours — but it’s still an unbelievable slog to watch in 2014. It’s a courtroom drama that mostly happens outside of the courtroom and it’s an exploration of race that never mentions race at all.”

60. Gentleman’s Agreement

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“There are scenes that are a little obvious – a man in an extremely classy restaurant at one point starts a fight with Gregory Peck’s friend just because he’s Jewish – but for the most part, it’s a surprisingly reasonable critique of a difficult topic.”

59. Mutiny on the Bounty

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“It’s not perfect, but judged among the other 1930s winners like You Can’t Take It With YouCavalcade, and Cimarron, it starts to feel very special. It works in a modern setting, though it would need some tightening to work now.”

58. Amadeus

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“The most important conflict of the film is that Salieri can’t handle Mozart at all. It’s a compelling conflict, but it centers on Salieri’s shortcomings compared to the great composer. Maybe this is crass, but it’s definitely a bit difficult to feel for a guy whose main failing is that he kinda sucks compared to Mozart.”

57. Out of Africa

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Out of Africa has been rethought mostly because a 161-minute movie with (and this is a stretch) 2.5 characters is tough to pull off. Redford’s acting seems like it comes from many decades earlier, and it’s really hard to see how he got so much praise in the 80s for this one.”

56. The English Patient

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“The two great crimes of The English Patient are that it focuses on the wrong things and that it beat Fargo, a much better movie.”

55. Ben-Hur

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“Even the director of the film went on the record to say he was unhappy with Heston’s performance. The film was the most expensive film ever made, so you have to wonder if at some point they didn’t just decide to make an epic around him and hope it worked.”

54. Titanic

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“The dialogue in Titanic is awful. At one point Billy Zane’s character is asked about Picasso and he says “He’ll never amount to a thing, trust me.” Little garbage jokes like that are scattered through this thing, and I just can’t stand them.”

53. Rocky

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“It’s not the chilling tale of Taxi Driver and it’s not the risky parable of Network, but it’s fine. Rocky shouldn’t be what we have as the history of 1976, but it’s no huge insult to its betters, either.”

52. Gigi

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“There’s no place in modernity for a two-hour explanation of why you don’t have to put on the red light, and if there is, there isn’t a place for it to pretend that it’s one of history’s great romances.”

51. Chicago

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Chicago is also supposed to be fun, and I was definitely surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. The songs are catchy and the dancing is flashy and it has Taye Diggs. Are you going to tell me you hate Taye Diggs?”

50. West Side Story

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“It won’t be something I revisit very often, but I found myself caught up in an update of a story that I already know. That’s an accomplishment, so my bold take on West Side Story is that it’s “an accomplishment.” Really going out on a limb here.”

49. Marty

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“Clara is nothing; she almost never even speaks. She’s upsetting in a 2014 sense because she struggles in a world that can’t accept her, but she’s ridiculous even in a 1955 sense because she just seems so damn bored in her world.”

48. All the King’s Men

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“There are weird choices that keep All the King’s Men from being one of the all-time greats on the list, but Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge turn in two performances for the ages.”

47. Argo

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“Honestly, if anything is remarkable about Argo it’s that it’s awfully funny for a drama. Alan Arkin and John Goodman do a lot of heavy lifting in that department, and a bit role for Richard Kind never hurts.”

46. A Beautiful Mind

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“A lot of the “John Nash is a genius” scenes are really damn pretentious. Towards the end he goes back to Princeton to haunt the library and be around smart people, and a scene between him and a young student drives right up to the cliff before stopping. It’s not quite terrible, but man, it’s rough.”

45. Slumdog Millionaire

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“There’s something we buy as an audience about two people who met when they were insanely young and then lost touch being in love, but think about that person in your life. Think about “risking it all” for that girl or boy from the first decade of your life. People may be mad at the conceit of a game show where a boy knows all the answers — and only these answers — but I just wish there would be a love story where the people had time to actually fall in love.”

44. Platoon

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“Berenger’s character is a brutal villain. War movies often only show one side of a conflict, so it can be tough to discern a “villain” in the classic sense. In this movie, it’s definitely him. He tries to sow dissent through violence and threats. He reacts to someone saying that he should cool down by burning down a town. He’s the violence in all of us wrapped up into one scarred up guy”

43. The Lost Weekend

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“That’s the main takeaway from The Lost Weekend: the shock. It’s a movie from nearly 70 years ago, but it’s about a universal reality of humanity. We like alcohol, but a lot of us are afraid of it. I don’t think anyone could watch this and not relate to Don, or at the very least the terror of being consumed by something completely.”

42. Oliver!

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“The poverty of Oliver! is meant to be the star, really, and it is. No matter how much you steal, you have to steal more, and the thefts themselves erode your character in a way you can’t return from. Nancy is Bill’s girl (see: “As Long as He Needs Me,” the saddest “love” song) and Fagin is a career criminal (“Reviewing the Situation,” which is genuinely funny rather than musical-funny) and neither of them have any place to go, even if Bill would let them leave. The cycle contributes to the cycle.”

41. The Departed

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The Departed is the story of two moles: One is a real cop embedded into a fake life of crime and the other is a fake cop raised to infiltrate the police to protect organized crime. It provides the necessary interesting twists and it plays with the idea of loyalty and reality.”

40. The King’s Speech

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“Firth said after filming the movie that it was somewhat of a challenge to fully return to normal speech after affecting the stutter for the role. It’s a remarkable performance, to be sure, and it really sells the “journey” of the character.”

39. Chariots of Fire

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“Your typical sports movie is the story of an underdog either defeating a superior enemy or competing valiantly and losing. Chariots of Fire doesn’t exactly follow the template, but it’s assuredly still a sports movie that is about a bigger struggle.”

38. American Beauty

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“There’s a lot going on among the sad cast of American Beauty, and even for all the obviousness of the main traits of everyone involved, the gchat-status tagline of “look closer” actually works. I don’t buy the teenagers’ interactions with each other anymore, but the response of “don’t give up on me, dad” as a way to cut through Chris Cooper’s brutal discipline of his son really, really works. It’s not that he’s responding honestly, it’s that he’s figured out what his father wants to hear. Who ain’t been there?”

37. The Sound of Music

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“You know Julie Andrews. If I start one of these songs around you, you will be compelled to finish it. You can’t going to leave “Doe, a deer, a female deer…” hanging out there. You’re going to have to sing about a drop of golden sun, no matter how much of a heartless bastard you are.”

36. Rain Man

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“Cruise is an interesting choice for a villain here and honestly, a mostly-evil protagonist is an interesting choice overall. It works because there are so many sad pieces to connect in Rain Man. “Meet your brother and try to earn back the three million bucks from Dad’s will” is a pretty fantastical plot,  but “learn to live with your family and your place in it” is something much simpler to understand and believe.”

35. The Apartment

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“There are modern complaints to lob at the 1960 winner for Best Picture, but it’s a phenomenal movie. Jack Lemmon gives what I’d normally call a once-in-a-lifetime performance, but most people don’t get to have Jack Lemmon’s lifetime.”

34. The Hurt Locker

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“Jeremy Renner is incredible in this. The entire movie is a series of brief, loud moments surrounded by long periods of quiet, but a particular scene where Renner and another soldier have to stake out a position with a long rifle with a scope is particularly tense. The exciting bits are exciting, but they work because they are buffered by enough time to let it all build back up.”

33. Gone with the Wind

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“History has both been extremely kind and extremely unkind to Gone with the Wind. It’s one of the most successful, well-reviewed films in American history, but it’s a film with a Wikipedia “analysis” section that includes “racial criticism” and “depiction of marital rape.” No matter what part of Gone with the Wind you’re talking about, you’re talking about something capital-I Important.”

32. The French Connection

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“If anyone ever asks you if you’ve seen The French Connection, all you have to do is say “oh, man, that car chase is awesome!” That’s it. Maybe mumble something about Gene Hackman. Then change the subject and ask whoever you’re talking to about a neat fish you saw once. You made it out of that conversation, and I’m proud of you.”

31. Rebecca

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“It would be enough if the movie were about the struggles to replace a ghost, but it wouldn’t be Hitchcock. The first act of Rebecca touches on that topic, though, and it’s fascinating to watch the young woman walk around an enormous mansion and try to figure out how to be someone she’s never met.”

30. Million Dollar Baby

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“It’s just not possible to talk about the movie without getting into the best part, which is the big reveal of a second act. I’m not going to actually say how it ends, but it’s important to know that this movie isn’t what it appears to be, and if you don’t know what it is, for real, go watch it first.”

29. My Fair Lady

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“The film is gorgeous. It is difficult to pick one shot to express that, but the racetrack that they visit to test out Eliza’s new vocal talents is a good candidate. It’s entirely colored in black and white and touches of gray, except for Higgins himself. He wants to stand out to frustrate the crowd, and he does so in a brown suit. The idea that a brown suit, the simplest of the simple, makes people aghast is ridiculous, and that really sells just how little difference there is between everyone.”

28. Gandhi

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“It’s really a great choice to portray the man most consistently identified with “resistance” as being difficult to deal with. He’s a gifted leader and a man on a mission, but he’s also tough as hell to deal with.”

27. Lawrence of Arabia

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“O’Toole’s descent into madness is exceptional, especially the final 20 minutes before the end of part one. There are some tight closeups on him where his entire personality drifts and it’s just the face of a man capable of anything, for any reason.”

26. Unforgiven

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“Clint Eastwood can at best be called a “complicated” figure in today’s world, but his performance in Unforgiven is both terrifying and riveting, and he makes the entire thing work. Now he just needs to stop saying crazy shit to empty chairs.”

25. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

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“The fight at Minas Tirith feels huge and important, and the shifting perspective from inside and outside the castle walls makes it feel more like a fully realized fight. There are multiple “starts” to the fight that all allow for different discussions of heroics and bravery. There’s nothing to not like about how the whole thing is handled, and the most fascinating part of it is just how early it happens in the movie. There’s an entire hour of “climax” after Minas Tirith, but it’s in that battle that the movie won its Oscar. Watch something like Troy try to do the same thing and you will gain more respect for it.”

24. Midnight Cowboy

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“The sadness of the lead characters is extremely hard to handle. In one scene during the “hopeful” part of the movie, Jon Voight’s character has to ask a woman for crackers that he can put ketchup on to not starve to death. It takes a dip towards the depressing after that, but it’s still on the upswing, then! I list this in the “best” because the movie isn’t a direct arc, which is interesting. It’s a risky way to tell a story, but it’s like an actual life with highs and lows rather than one constant line up or down.”

23. 12 Years a Slave

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“His tale is gruesome, but the tale of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is even more unimaginable. To tell more is to rob her Oscar-winning debut performance, so let it just be said that her life is harder than the character described in the title of a movie called 12 Years a Slave.”

22. On the Waterfront

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“It’s a look at how difficult it is to stand up for what is right and how sometimes, it doesn’t really make sense to do that right away. It’s a complex look at what initially seems to be a simple situation, and while it’s remembered in history for Brando’s amazing line read in one scene, it’s so much grittier and tougher than that 30 seconds alone.”

21. All Quiet on the Western Front

all quiet on the western front

“Every war movie has to decide what it wants to say, but I can’t think of any other one that is as determined as this one to say exactly one thing. Surely Full Metal Jacket doesn’t paint a positive view of war, but All Quiet on the Western Front is relentless.”

20. From Here to Eternity

image source: complex

“The performances are so tight that it’s easy to forget that the time and the setting mean that you already know everyone here is doomed. Whether you can look past that or not will determine how much you enjoy the film’s narrative, but you can’t ignore the greatness.”

19. The Best Years of Our Lives

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“You should see it to focus on the struggles involved and the timelessness of this cycle: America goes to war, America sends Americans, Americans come home from war, America doesn’t know what to do with the war or the Americans. We’re a country obsessed with the idea of war, but we’re not always one that knows what to do with everything that goes into that.”

18. It Happened One Night

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“Some classics are “important” and some are good. I can’t speak to how crucial It Happened One Night is to the rom-com as a genre, but it’s a movie from eight decades ago that wouldn’t need much updating to be released this summer. It’s worth your time, even if you aren’t watching all 86 of these.”

17. In the Heat of the Night

image source: nytimes.com

“Every time I expected a heavy handed treatment of race in a situation I was surprised. Right down to the eventual physical fight where Poitier has to literally run away from racists, it’s difficult, but it’s all the better for it.”

16. The Bridge on the River Kwai

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“There’s a very Catch-22 element to this thought process that’s both darkly funny and very sad. The tone’s lighter than you might expect at times for a movie about dying in prison camp, but as the movie stops being about one thing and becomes the story of how a project galvanizes people it really walks a fine line without seeming too absurd.”

15. The Silence of the Lambs

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“You need to see Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in this movie if for no other reason than to gain new appreciation for what you think you already know. You need to replace your acting benchmarks for greatness.”

14. The Deer Hunter

image source: director's guild of america

“It’s depressing, intense, and dramatic. It’s probably too much of all three of those things, though that will depend on what you want out of The Deer Hunter. Even if you think the whole thing is too much — and some of the symbolism can’t be said to be anything but “too much” — you will get something out of it.”

13. No Country for Old Men

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No Country is less about trying to hit you with a sledgehammer over and over and more about making you wonder if anyone in the movie ever had any other choice. It’s tough to spoil and I’ll try my best not to, but No Country sees a lot of bad things happen to some good people.”

12. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

one flew over the cuckoo's nest

“McMurphy vs. Ratched is one of the all-time great psychological battles in film, and the best part is that they’re essentially working the same angles. Both of them have each other figured out, and they go to work on the other patients with the same tools of manipulation. It’s when Ratched really amps up that the movie starts to hum.”

11. Schindler’s List

Schindler's List

“It’s a heroic story and it’s told in thrilling fashion. The Nazis feel both like people and like monsters, which is a nice touch to keep some humanity about the entire experience. One of the important lessons in an atrocity is to remember that many of the “enemy” forces aren’t deranged or psychopathic, they’re standard, normal people. That’s what makes evil so insidious, and it’s an important component here. Most of the Nazis in the film aren’t cartoonish, snarling, monsters, and just as in life it’s too complicated to just pick out maniacs. You need to fear the good man who will do nothing, one of the great lessons of the Holocaust.”

10. The Godfather

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“Is it better to be strong or to appear strong? At certain points of The Godfather, they’re both valuable. One of the many messages of the movie, though, is that you have to know which is more valuable in the moment.”

9. All About Eve

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“The story is unassailable: it’s been done over and over since then, and you stand a good chance in this era to have seen a parody of it before the original. It earned a The Simpsons episode. That’s how we measure how lasting something is, right?”

8. Patton

image source: oscars.org

“Patton, if nothing else, is the triumph of George C. Scott. He’s exceptional in Dr. Strangelove, but he’s all-time great, here. It would not be unreasonable to say that this is possibly the greatest single performance on the list, and this is one hell of a list.”

7. Terms of Endearment

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“Shirley MacLaine beat out her fictional daughter Debra Winger for the Best Actress Oscar, but hot damn Debra Winger is perfect in this movie. Emma leaps into her mother’s arms after coming home for a weekend and she moves with a fluidity and liveliness that perfectly sells her character. When she’s playing a 20-something trying to act like a real adult, the movement tells it all.”

6. Kramer vs. Kramer

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“What stands out the most is the difficult line that the story walks about who the “hero” is. We spend a full hour with Ted, but Joanna tells the court the story of the Ted we never got to see: married Ted. The real answer isn’t that Ted is a good father or that Joanna is a bad wife or that Ted is a bad husband or that Joanna is a good mother, it’s much more complicated than that.”

5. The Godfather Part II

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“Pacino’s Michael Corleone, who is just trudging towards whatever is happening next. He’s the engine that drives everything, but The Godfather Part II is just as much about what the powerful can’t make happen as it is about what they can. The sadness engulfs him and he walks around both about to explode in anger and about to dissolve in resignation, and the result would be enough to carry a much, much lesser movie.”

4. The Sting

image source: theaceblackblog.com

“It’s not hilarious in that “oh, I get it” way, either. It’s a legitimate string of jokes, big performances, and absurd doubling of situations that is still funny four decades later.”

3. Casablanca

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“The love feels like love actually feels: complicated, painful, and overwhelming. Casablanca is a romantic movie and a war movie and it’s never one at the detriment of the other. It defies you to pick one of those to describe it.”

2. Ordinary People

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“Is Beth a villain, or is her response just one of the possible responses to grief? Is Calvin purely good, or do his choices with Beth show that he took a simple path through loss rather than ask some hard questions early? Does Conrad do the right thing, or does he just appear to do the right thing? There isn’t one correct viewing of Ordinary People, and though you’re likely to just say that Beth is terrible and be done with it, it’s definitely more complicated than that when you extrapolate this to your own life.”

1. Annie Hall

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“It’s iconic because of things like Keaton’s look and Allen’s writing style, and those two things still shine through as superb. Watching Diane Keaton “la-di-da” on a New York street is always going to be a wonderful moment, even if Woody Allen’s legacy is more in question now than ever before.”

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad. Image credits are available on the original posts. All uncredited images are screenshots I took myself, which is why they look worse.

Worst Best Picture: Is Annie Hall Better or Worse Than Crash?

annie hall

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1977 winner Annie Hall. Is it better than Crash?

Woody Allen is divisive, and even though he’s one of my favorite filmmakers, I can’t spend a year talking about Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson and not touch on Woody Allen. I’ve been dreading this one, and the reason it’s last is twofold:

  1. Woody Allen is probably my favorite director, and while Annie Hall isn’t for sure my all-time favorite of his films (Manhattan and possibly a few others may rank above it), I once spent a summer watching every single thing he’d ever made and I love Annie Hall like I don’t love any movie on this list.
  2. Like everyone else, I’m not sure how I feel about that. I really haven’t ever known how I feel about that.

I can’t say that I’m not going to watch Woody Allen movies anymore, because I think I’m still going to, but I can say that the experience is complicated. I think that Woody Allen’s legacy is not going to end up being a great one, no matter what part you’re talking about, and I want to be very careful in my praise for him and discussion of this movie. There are other, better places to talk about Woody Allen’s legacy. I want to be certain to not skirt the issue, but there’s nothing I can add to the discussion other than the fact that I think everyone should think very hard about the media they consume, even if they don’t mean to send a message by doing so.

Annie Hall is the story of Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), a neurotic Woody Allen-type that has been married twice before and can’t decide what he wants out of life. He’s consumed by dread about death and the purpose of life, and he can’t relax among the parts of life that bring his friends so much comfort. He famously sneezes into cocaine when it’s offered him. He just wants to stay in New York and fret and try to date until something sticks.

A criticism of Woody Allen that I think has a lot of credence is that the women in his movies can appear to lack depth. In Annie Hall, for instance, he’s married twice before he meets Annie, and neither woman really gets a ton to do. He dismisses them — one for just about nothing and another for a shared sexual problem — and that can read as misogynistic. I’ve always chosen to read it as realistic, because people aren’t very good to each other very often, and I’d argue that Allen’s Alvy Singer isn’t meant to be a positive force in the world. He’s a representation of Allen’s self, and mostly the parts of his self that he’s not all that happy about. It’s a similar problem to my generation’s reading of High Fidelity, where apparently people missed that Rob is supposed to be a pretty messed up guy, not a role model.

While a generation of men certainly views Woody Allen movies as templates for how to behave, that’s not a slam on the film. Just as you have to view Pulp Fiction without picturing the viewpoints of the 700,000 people with posters on their dorms, you have to look at Annie Hall as a piece of art. Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) has plenty to say about Alvy’s neuroses, his views on sex and death, and his ultimate treatment of women. She has agency in my viewing, and oodles of it. Her life is about her, and she’s capable of standing up to the stand-in for so many supposedly gentle, “good guys” and telling them to hit the damn bricks.

Annie Hall isn’t perfect, and subsequent viewings offer different ways to view their romance. It’s iconic because of things like Keaton’s look and Allen’s writing style, and those two things still shine through as superb. Watching Diane Keaton “la-di-da” on a New York street is always going to be a wonderful moment, even if Woody Allen’s legacy is more in question now than ever before.

The Best Part: It’s genuinely funny. People talk up the one-liners, but for me it’ll always be the lobster scene. I’ve never seen anything in a movie that’s closer to the actual high points of a relationship. Allen and Keaton make jokes as they try to live-boil some lobsters, and lines like Allen’s “Maybe if I put a little dish of butter sauce here with a nutcracker, it will run out the other side!” will stick with me forever. The real best part, though, is when they call the scene back in a future relationship where Allen can’t make the same spark happen.

The Worst Part: It’s a little preachy at times, even if you buy into Woody Allen’s style. His rants are supposed to help make the character unlikable, so they’ve always worked for me, but your mileage may certainly vary.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Annie Hall is one of my favorite movies of all time, so that should answer the question. Also, this is #86. We’ve now looked back at every single Best Picture Oscar winner to date and now I can firmly make a judgment about Crash as compared to every single other winner. Every single one is better than Crash in some way. Many of them are less interesting, but none are as purely frustrating or consumed by bad choices. The characters in Crash are abhorrent, even the “good guys,” and the message offers no hope for a better world or suggestion of how to get there. There is nothing to be gained from a viewing (or three viewings, apparently) of Crash. There’s something to be gained from every other movie on this list, even if I don’t recommend them all. Movies like Around the World in 80 Days, Cimarron, and The Greatest Show on Earth are uneven, boring, and overly long, but they all are worth discussion in some way. I do not believe there to be any good reason to watch Crash, and while that may change in decades to come as, with all movies, it is rethought, for now, it’s certainly the worst Best Picture winner of all time. I should know, because I absolutely checked.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of AfricaSchindler’s ListGandhi | Ben-HurThe Godfather Part II | Annie Hall

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is The Godfather Part II Better or Worse Than Crash?

the godfather part 2

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1974 winner The Godfather Part II. Is it better than Crash?

All the discussion of The Godfather Part II centers around a more difficult question than if it is better or worse than Crash. People want to compare it to the original, and the comparison makes me wish I were older to be able to give a first-hand answer about hype. It’s much easier to tell you how something was received if you, well, were alive to receive it. I don’t have that luxury, but what I do have is the perspective of history and the sole negative review for what many people consider to be the greatest movie ever made.

There’s no way of knowing what people will like, and it can be alienating to hate something that everyone else loves. I imagine it must have been very difficult for Vincent Canby, the New York Times critic who hated The Godfather Part II. Apparently he was something of a curmudgeon, as the list of “movies he was critical of” could be a reasonable top 10 list for all-time great films. He’s also apparently one of the all-time greats in reviewing, something that I (clearly) don’t know much about.

Canby criticizes the two stories of the sequel as not fitting together. He says that a movie shot to be dark on purpose is “so dark you wonder if these Mafia chiefs can’t afford to buy bigger light bulbs.” He criticizes Pacino for looking “glum” in his portrayal of one of the saddest men in film history facing the inevitability of a life he’s built and destroyed. I would say “glum” is a prerequisite.

It’s a little unfair to take a movie review from 1974 and pick it apart. It’s the only review from this lion of the industry I’ve ever read, and I don’t excerpt it here to point out how stupid or wrong it is. I do so because it’s always interesting what time does to opinion. A huge, huge number of the 86 current Best Picture winners aren’t even remembered as good movies, much less the best of their era. When I’ve been doing this all year, people continually ask me what I thought of movies they think won Best Picture, only to be shocked that they aren’t on the list.

This isn’t a list of the best movies of all time. It’s not even a list of the best movies each year. It works as a tool because it’s the same body of people (or at least, their contemporaries in different times) picking movies on the same criteria, supposedly. That’s precisely what the list offers us: historical perspective.

In 1974 this was likely an unpopular opinion and in 2014 it is unheard of. He’d be labelled a troll now, a person baiting clicks by titling something with an outrageous title, like, say, “Worst Best Picture” or something equally odious. In all seriousness, I use this review in lieu of talking about The Godfather Part II because it’s not important that I sit here and tell you that one of the greatest achievements of acting, storytelling, and composition is incredible. It’s important that we consider that we are all capable of being wrong — so, so, so wrong — on a long enough timeline. Reviews are still a net positive, and this guy is no worse for being wrong, but that kind of thinking will explain things like The ArtistBraveheart, and Gladiator 50 years from now, when people wonder how we were ever so wrong. We were because we are human, and art hits us all differently. This is one you should see — dark light bulbs and all — for yourself. The odds are very low (but not impossible, apparently) that you’ll be disappointed.

The Best Part: Pacino’s Michael Corleone, who is just trudging towards whatever is happening next. He’s the engine that drives everything, but The Godfather Part II is just as much about what the powerful can’t make happen as it is about what they can. The sadness engulfs him and he walks around both about to explode in anger and about to dissolve in resignation, and the result would be enough to carry a much, much lesser movie.

The Worst Part: I really struggled to find something for this space. I love the structure of telling one story inside of another one, but I guess you could take issue with it. I don’t think there are problems with this movie, as much of a cop out as that may be.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s very possibly the greatest movie on this list, even if it isn’t my favorite. If you disagree, that’s okay, but you no doubt still hold the achievement of The Godfather Part II in high esteem. If you don’t, well, I know a guy in 1974 that would love to have a drink with you.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of AfricaSchindler’s ListGandhi | Ben-Hur | The Godfather Part II

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.