Month: March 2019

Worst Best Picture: Is Green Book Better or Worse Than Crash?

Image result for green bookimage source: universal pictures

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 2018 winner Green Book. Is it better than Crash?

It’s been another year, which means another challenger has come for the throne of worst movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture. This year’s offering is Green Book, which draws comparisons to Driving Miss Daisy and Crash and a hundred other movies that people don’t think fondly of anymore. The critics largely loved it and the audience score on most review websites is through the roof. It’s a safe look at a complicated topic that doesn’t challenge the audience enough to upset them, which seems like what most people want from a movie. It did what it was supposed to do and the people who vote on Oscars said it was the best thing that came out last year as a result.

It’s very rare that people remember the also-rans when they think about a lukewarm winner. Most people would agree that the 1996 Oscars, where The English Patient beat Fargo, got it wrong, but that’s an exception to the rule. Most retroactive duds (GladiatorBraveheartThe Artist) are movies that people generally agree shouldn’t have won, but not situations where something was clearly “robbed.”

This year has a similar feeling. Most people seem to agree that Green Book is a weird choice, but it’s hard to find consensus for what should have won. Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star is Born are the movies regular, non-Oscar-voting people liked. I liked Black Panther but felt like I was missing something since I haven’t seen the other fifty-five movies in the expanded universe. I thought A Star is Born was exactly what it wanted to be, and most of my criticisms for it (“overwrought” keeps springing to mind) would be read as positive feedback by the people that made it. I hated Bohemian Rhapsody and I think it’s a genuine insult to everything else nominated that it was included in any category for any reason, but that seems to be part of the joy of the Oscars. You’re going to hate something that they nominate and that ire is part of the experience.

Vice is a messy disaster with one strong performance, which also seems to be something the Academy wants to include every year. BlacKkKlansman is great and fairly universally loved, which would make one wonder why it didn’t get more fanfare at the Oscars if the reason weren’t so obvious. Roma is a beautiful, excellent film that seems to have been undone by distribution battles behind the scenes about if Netflix “is a movie company,” which the average viewer couldn’t and shouldn’t give a damn about, but says so much more about how the Oscars work than what makes a good film.

My personal favorite movie of the year was The Favourite, which is too weird to win. I knew that when I saw it, but the recent win for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) gave me hope. I also loved Shoplifters and Sorry to Bother You, neither of which had any real chance to be in this category. Those three, Roma, and BlacKkKlansman round out my top five of the year.

So why Green Book? Everyone is talking about Crash and Driving Miss Daisy because the comparisons are so obvious, but I’m surprised I haven’t seen a comparison to Spotlight. There’s a disparity in quality (Spotlight is great, even with some distance now) but they’re both films that look at something we think we’ve confronted as a society, but haven’t really reckoned with. Green Book tells us that everything gets better if bad people spend time with good people and Spotlight tells us that putting the truth out in the world changes bad to good. We want to believe these things and we hope they happen, but does that match reality?

What makes Crash so frustrating an experience isn’t that it tackles racism, it’s that it does it so poorly. The characters are poorly drawn and the challenges people face are so extreme that the small realities of the world that make up bigger problems don’t show up. In Crash, a man is pushed so far that he walks up to shoot a child in broad daylight, attempts to do so, and then walks away without consequence. We aren’t given time to consider the events that led to this choice or the things that happen as a result. We’re told that someone has “changed” but the most pivotal pieces are left out in exchange for the visual conflict.

Green Book does the same damn thing. We get tiny moments where the fear, the hopelessness, and the dual nature of Don Shirley, the jazz pianist at the center of Green Book, are on display. These never rise to the top of the action, however, and we spend more time on big, visual, obvious moments. Green Book is over two hours long but spends mere moments on sexuality. The choice to do it at all, but to limit it to one scene that then does not inform anything after it, comes at the cost of those obvious choices that are always less interesting.

Mahershala Ali is fantastic as Shirley and won the Best Supporting Actor award for his performance. It’s telling that the point of the whole experience, the complicated life of a celebrity facing the harsh reality of the American South in the 1960s, is “supporting” the big, loud, folded-over-pizza-like-a-taco-eating Viggo Mortensen. Both performances make the thing go, and it wouldn’t have won without both of them, but it’s really most of what you need to know about Green Book that we spend more time at a hot dog eating contest than we do talking about the actual problems behind the problems.

There’s a scene towards the end where our main characters get in serious trouble with the police. The resolution comes through trickery, as they reach out to one of the most powerful men in the American government. We want to believe in a word where that’s an option, where even the racists are basically good, just products of their time, and where the government will fix it, they just might not know it’s broken just yet. Again, this doesn’t match reality and it certainly didn’t in 1962, and even if that is a true story, it’s not an experience that feels genuine the way it is presented. It’s also a strange resolution to put on screen in a movie like this, where the larger suggestion is that the “hearts and minds” of the world need to change, not the system.

Finally, I always like to consider how this will feel years from now. Recent winners (with the exception of Birdman, which I know I’m in the minority on) seem to have picked up momentum even after their wins, which makes this all the more surprising. Roma really feels like the right choice here to me just a few weeks after the award, though really a few things should have beat this. It feels like that will remain true for years to come, though maybe we won’t remember any one movie as better so much as Green Book as bland.

Green Book runs from the reality of our world, which means most people liked (or at least didn’t hate) it. That’s usually not Best Picture material. Mediocrity and a misunderstanding of the zeitgeist should be enough to damn an effort like this, but it isn’t because we’re so hungry for good news. Most movies nominated for Best Picture don’t offer us good news. This won because we want this, but we should want so much more. Here’s hoping that more complex stories return to the fold next year.

The Best Part: Mahershala Ali’s performance is exceptional. At every point, even when the surrounding cast feels ridiculous, he feels real. Even if you’re totally unfamiliar with the story and the setting, you feel like this performance is of a real person who may have really been like this. The accuracy is of course a source of great controversy, so this is less about how true-to-life it is and more about how specific the choices are and how the result feels like a lived-in, experienced person.

The Worst Part: Anyone who saw the final ten minutes of Green Book and voted it as the best movie of the year should be required to write an essay about their decision. The Favourite ends on one of the most striking, memorable shots of recent memory, and the warm, feel good, everything-is-fine-now Green Book ending feels like such a wasted opportunity to say something more.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Crash offers a bleak world that is redeemed along the way mostly by happenstance, but not even really redeemed in the end. Green Book shies away from bleakness with platitudes and a spit shine on reality that turns out isn’t how it really happened, which we don’t want to believe. Green Book is a better experience, but both movies show the deep cracks in this process and highlight how afraid the Academy is to make a choice that actually means something.

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 Slave | The 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 GodfatherCasablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the NightAn 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 | Hamlet | Braveheart | 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 Africa | Schindler’s List | Gandhi | Ben-Hur | The Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight | The Shape of Water | Green Book

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.

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