Movies

Is Badlands the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

In 2013, Criterion interviewed Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, and Jack Fisk about the production of Badlands. It’s all worth watching, but the standout comment is when Sissy Spacek says “things were different then.” She’s talking about how audiences received the movie in 1973 and how they never laughed, even at moments she expected people to laugh at. Spacek says people laugh now because they live in a different time. The 70s were harder, meaner, and people saw this film about the 50s in the 70s and reacted accordingly.

You have to put yourself in the space a movie came out in to really approach it honestly, but you also live in your own time. Badlands is about a string of murders that really happened in 1958. It was released in 1973. Sissy Spacek was commenting on it in 2013. We’re in 2021, now. You might be in another time when you read this. On a long enough timeline all of those times are the same, but you know that that they aren’t. When you watch an older movie, you have to watch it through a different lens. Parasite and Wings both won Oscars, but you owe it to Wings to judge it differently.

This isn’t to say that Badlands doesn’t hold up in 2021. It absolutely does. It’s so many movies at the same time: a love story between two unlikely characters, a road movie with no real destination, a true crime drama, and, in a way, a monster movie. Martin Sheen as Kit Carruthers is a dashing rogue, sorta, but he’s mostly a terrifying force of nature who upsets everyone he meets, if he doesn’t outright murder them.

Kit Carruthers is based on Charles Starkweather, a real murderer who killed people with his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. Caril becomes Holly Sargis in Badlands, with very little changed other than the names. There are details different between the true events and the film, but it never really matters beyond the start of the plot. In real life Charles Starkweather murdered Caril’s family and waited for her, in the film he murders Holly’s father in front of her. It’s a really critical difference because it gives us a look into how Holly is going to respond to what comes next.

The shooting itself is horrific. Kit goes wide-eyed during an argument with Holly’s father and asks him “suppose I shot you, how’d that be?” Holly’s father doesn’t think he’s serious and turns his back, which proves to be a huge mistake. So many movies would use this moment to show us Holly in grief, with a big scream and a panic attack. Or, maybe, they’d show her as cold-blooded and have no reaction, thus establishing her as a psychopath and someone we needn’t feel sorry for when it all goes bad. Badlands does neither. Holly asks if he’s going to be okay or if he needs a doctor. Kit says no, and that he’ll be back later. He goes as far as to tell Holly she can call the cops if she wants, but that it’ll be bad for him if she does.

It’s all matter-of-fact. Dad had to die because he wouldn’t allow them to be together. Both of them want to be together, so this is just what came next. Holly doesn’t like her life and Kit seems to open a door into another one, so she steps through. She cries and she wanders around the house smoking, unsure of what she should do but also not nearly bothered enough by this disaster. Kit tells her he found a toaster. It’s a funny line, but it’s also a look into who he is. He’s mad at the world, but not in the way we’re used to seeing murderers mad at the world. This isn’t for justice, necessarily, it’s just what has to happen.

Kit’s character is entirely in the look. Martin Sheen says they tried to get him to wear a cowboy hat and it didn’t really work, which seems obvious when you watch the performance. He’s James Dean, or at least he thinks he is, and the look is everything. Holly tells us who she is through voiceover, which would be jarring in a lesser film. We don’t get to see much that would tell us how she feels or what she wants, and “tell don’t show” isn’t a saying for a reason. Voiceover is sometimes a crutch, but Terrence Malick lets Holly tell us things we couldn’t have any way of knowing. When she ends the film telling us what happened to her, we feel conflicted about her role in all of this. Without the voiceover she seems aimless and bored. With it, she confirms that she’s doing all of this of her own free will, but also that she hasn’t really interrogated why she’s doing it or what it’s going to look like before it happens. She’s here, but not.

In that special feature from 2013, Jack Fisk says “our lives may be meaningless or they may be perfect, it’s hard to tell.” He was the art director for Badlands and he put things in drawers that the audience would never see, just to keep the actors in the space they need to be in for characters to feel real. Fisk fell in love with Spacek on the set and they later married. He went on to do design for several masterpieces, including There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Mullholland Drive. He’s a legend in the field, but Badlands stands out especially. The look of the movie has to do a lot of heavy lifting with main characters that say very little, and Badlands is beautiful. We’re in the open wilderness for a lot of the movie and it’s easy to get lost in the background in the best way possible.

The real magic trick of Badlands is how you feel about Kit and Holly. Kit is an unrepentant murderer. Holly is a passenger, but also signing on for all of this every day until she decides it’s boring. Still, you don’t find yourself in the space you’d usually be in for a movie like this. Kit isn’t scary outside of the actual murders, as crazy as that sentence is to consider. I found myself viewing his victims with a sense of dread, knowing that they were doomed but not always immediately connecting their death to Kit’s decisions. It’s what makes this all more complicated than a cheaper, easier take on this same idea, like Falling Down.

Kit tells us why he’s doing this, sorta, but it isn’t what matters. What matters is the scenery and the passage of time, which makes Holly’s narration all the more beautiful. We’re Holly, just waking up every day and getting back in the car. Nearly everyone involved here went on to make bigger (definitely) and better (maybe) things, and they left their touch on this story in a way that rewards successive viewings even though you know where it’s all going the first time you see Kit fire that shot.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes. Journey to Italy hinges on your ability to believe the turn at the end and it asks you to look at some beautiful scenery to get to that turn. Badlands isn’t about journey or destination. It’s about what happens, sure, but it’s not as simple as that. Martin Sheen says it’s still the best script he’s ever read and it’s not an overstatement. There’s nothing you need to unpack or examine. It’s just what it is, which is so much scarier to contend with than a motive.

Is it the best movie of all time? I think, so far, it is! I liked Badlands a lot when I saw it first but I loved it when I had time to think about it. It’s beautiful to watch and a little terrifying to consider. You could examine Kit in a number of ways but what’s actually on the screen doesn’t tell you much about why all this is happening. It also doesn’t really ask you to figure it out. Bruce Springsteen wrote “Nebraska” for Nebraska because he saw Badlands and wanted to explore why Kit does what he does. It’s something to create a murder story that’s “haunting” but it’s altogether more complicated to make something that mixes that terror with the mundane.

You can watch Badlands on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or on Amazon for $2.99 You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Journey to Italy the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I don’t know if you can “spoil” a romantic film. The lovers are in love. We need to establish that to talk about this one because the ending is critical to any discussion of the merits of Journey to Italy.

Thirteen minutes before the final frame of Journey to Italy, one of the lead characters tells the other they want a divorce. It’s a firm, final statement after over an hour of misery that was very obviously leading to this moment. It’s not a “spoiler” to tell you this and it’s not surprising when it happens. If anything you feel relieved in this moment, as it is said that no divorce is ever really sad because it means two people are finally honest with each other.

The last ten minutes or so whip away from the direction the entire movie has been heading and the characters reconcile, very nearly literally at the last second. “Are you suddenly getting sentimental? Listen, Katherine, we’ve been honest with each other up until now, don’t let’s spoil everything,” George Sanders says to Ingrid Bergman in a traffic jam as they try to leave Italy to head home and get divorced. There are roughly 200 seconds left in the movie when this line is delivered. “I despise you,” she says, and she shakes with fury at the lack of romance, the lack of passion he displays even in the face of this nuclear option. They have a change of heart, incredibly, and that’s that.

The first time I watched No Country for Old Men I had to leave the room during what I thought was a slow moment but turned out to be the ending. It blew me away because I expected something else. That’s a masterpiece and a movie I’ve seen a lot since, but it was really shocking that they chose to end with a quiet moment in a kitchen with some ends still loose. Journey to Italy does not appear to be a movie that would give you the same kind of whiplash, and yet, here it is.

Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy is part of the Italian neorealism movement. The charm is intended to be everyday stories about everyday people, where you can see yourself and the world you move around in outside. It’s the story of Katherine (Bergman) and Alex (Sanders) trying to unload some real estate and get out of Italy after a brief vacation. They’re leaving as soon as they get there, with an opening driving scene to set this up as a road movie but some frustrated conversation about laziness and sloth to establish that this is not a fun trip.

Alex is deeply unlikable. I mean deeply. He hates Katherine, it seems, and Rossellini goes to great lengths to make sure we understand that he works all the time and he’s a big bore. There’s a fun scene where he tries to get more wine from an Italian woman because he “isn’t used to all these sauces” but aside from that, nearly every line he says is an insult or a deflection. Sanders never really sells him as a leading man, but he’s got an impossible task given how negative the character is.

Katherine is more interesting. She talks about a poet who passed away and wanders around museums and landmarks in search of something, anything, that might connect her to the world. She finds it to varying degrees. We spend most of our time with Katherine after a few scenes to establish their crumbling marriage. If there’s any joy at all in Journey to Italy, it’s in these moments of Bergman trying to understand this strange place with so much history.

Crowds and critics hated it in 1954. It was recut several times and also released as Voyage to Italy and several other names. Rossellini said that people tried to sell it as a commercial film and didn’t understand it. A.O. Scott said in The New York Times that even the leading actor didn’t seem to understand the point, and he said that as part of a quote from Sanders about audiences not understanding it! No one seems to “get” this movie enough for the judges of what is great. It’s become a masterpiece now and French critics at the time said it was a turning point in cinema.

I think this is a test. There are classics that you aren’t going to like and there are some you will. If you watch everything on the great lists, you will be influenced by their placement on said lists and you will inflate them, invariably. But sometimes you watch something that’s “great” and just don’t click with it. It’s frustrating and it tends to make you think the problem is with you. But I don’t think so.

I don’t like Voyage to Italy and I think the ending is absurd. Every critical analysis I’ve found of it has to grapple with that. Critics call it “surprising” or, yes, even “absurd.” These characters don’t just not love each other, they hate each other. They have nothing in common and we have no reason to suspect that they feel any tenderness at all. I have to assume this is the point and it’s a grander statement about how we deal with each other and how we live our lives. I’m certain I don’t “get it” enough for A.O. Scott, but it left me tremendously cold.

The coldness is interesting, though. It’s remarkable to work through a story that seems predictable and then to swerve at the last second, even well beyond what any reasonable viewer would consider the last second. I don’t buy it at all, and I’m fascinated that it seems like you’re supposed to. If the point was that this is a beautiful lie, that would be something. But I’m not sure it is. It’s all part of a kind of filmmaking that doesn’t care much for traditional plot. Almost nothing happens, but almost nothing needs to. It’s a feeling more than a story.

One critic I saw suggested rewatching the movie after you know that love wins out and finding how the characters come to that conclusion. This feels like work, but I tried. I still don’t see it and I don’t know that it’s there to be seen. I’m interested in the feelings that Rossellini wants me to feel, but I can’t help but feel like the love story that it’s all grounded in is a little too weird. I know that’s not the point, but it’s hard not to see the movie happening in the middle of all of this ennui.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Husbands and Journey to Italy have a lot in common. The people are miserable and they travel to try a change of scenery to improve their circumstances. In both cases, interestingly, the people who need change the most seem to know this isn’t going to work. These are physical movements but they are disconnected from the emotional shifts that will actually address what’s wrong. Neither film is for me, but I do think Journey to Italy will stick with you longer and is more interesting to consider.

Is it the best movie of all time? It is really interesting that audiences didn’t like this until critics told them it was important. That’s not unheard of, obviously, but I think it’s really noteworthy in this case. People watched this and didn’t like the people or the story they acted in and that, usually, is that. But with Journey to Italy, we’re told that this is seminal work and it’s important in all these ways and you’ve got the paper of record saying even the people who don’t get it don’t get it in some secondary, additional wrong way and it all turns into something more. I think it’s okay for film to be challenging and for you to have to work to love something, but I don’t think the work pays off in this case. It’s worth seeing to see how it makes you feel, but I don’t think it’s the unquestionable, perfect time capsule that the critical consensus seems to think it is.

You can watch Journey to Italy for free on The Criterion Channel or HBO Max or Amazon. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Husbands the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I feel like I should say this up top: I have not seen everything John Cassavetes has made. That seems to be an outlier position. There are a lot of directors like this, but if you like anything he’s made, you love everything. My first introduction to him was in Le Tigre’s “What’s Yr Take on Cassavetes,” a song where the band screams alternating takes of “genius” and “misogynist.” I apparently didn’t feel like that was enough to investigate further.

John Cassavetes directed twelve films. I suppose that eventually I will try to see all of them. That’s the mark of influence, to some degree, that you occupy enough of a space in the canon that people want to learn what you made and why you made it. Husbands was the first one I saw and it really, really surprised me. I mean several things by that.

The plot first: Three men go to a funeral and process the death of their fourth best friend. This was personal for the director, as he lost a friend early. Statistically, this isn’t uncommon. You can probably relate to this, maybe even in exactly the same terms. The film opens with the aftermath and the uncomfortable response all three men have to death and what comes after for those who live. They wander New York and get drunk. They play basketball, in a scene that sticks with me more than most of the rest of the movie. They want to keep the night going, not just out of a joy of being together, but out of a fear of returning to their own lives.

There are several ways to view this. Grief is complex, and a response like this isn’t even a strange one. It gets more complicated as they return to regular life and explode in various ways. There is some extremely uncomfortable and extremely long emotional and domestic abuse. We’re led to believe that this is a reasonable reaction. These men deserve their anger and their wildness and their response. I think any critical review of Husbands has to reckon with what Cassavetes intends these scenes to say. That’s what Le Tigre wants you to think about, too.

Time said Husbands was “the best movie anyone will ever live through” and Roger Ebert famously said “seldom has Time given a better review to a worse movie.” The Guardian drew a comparison in their review to John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, another story where men say they would be doing great if all these terrible women would just let them live. Your ability to enjoy the motives behind Husbands will depend largely on what you think Cassavetes thinks of his main characters. It’s called Husbands, after all, but the relationships are deeply strained and get worse, mostly through aggressive, impulsive actions.

Even if you’re willing to view this as a critique, solely, on these actions, you have to contend with more than two hours of film. The distributor removed 11 minutes after release as audiences were walking out, but that’s even after the director removed over an hour of what he wanted to include. I wouldn’t wish that original cut on my worst enemy, because the finished product still feels like one of the longest movies I’ve ever seen.

Most of the “film paper” reviews of this movie talk about the choice to include a 25-minute segment in the first act of the film. The characters show up to a bar and host a long, long singing contest and then throw up in a bathroom. There’s really no other way to say it. It has to be the longest vomit scene in anything that has a Criterion Collection release. There’s speculation that it’s real and that the actors were really drinking to create the effect, but I’m less interested in that aspect and more in the director’s choice. Cassavetes really, really wants you to feel like you’re in this bar bathroom and you’re uncomfortable with these characters. The singing contest is more than ten minutes, with extended pauses and realistic, awkward exchanges. The bathroom scene feels true-to-life for a blackout experience in a tight-squeeze bathroom. It’s impossible to not feel the experience when it works, but it’s so long, so very long, that it’s impossible also to not feel like you’re watching a movie that wants you to feel the experience.

This is my second review in a row saying a movie “feels long” but Husbands is designed to do just that. Cassavetes wants this to feel like a wandering mess, or at least I hope he does. It fits the tone of the story he’s telling and the improv-feel of the dialogue (whether it’s scripted or not) tells us a lot about these three men and how afraid they are of what comes next.

The nicest thing I can say about Husbands is that it’s interesting. The choices here are surprising and the result is a movie that feels intentional and deliberate at every step of the way. The things I don’t like feel like things I just don’t like, not failures of filmmaking or screenwriting. I bought into the sadness and the angst of these men until they lost my sympathy and the story fell off a cliff for me after that. I will admit that might be the point, but it spends so much time making that point that it doesn’t matter for me what the aim here was in the first place. It’s all lost in the experience over time.

By the time the trio makes it to London to have a final hurrah, things feel even less critical. It’s winding down even before the climax, which is compelling in a sort of “bold choice” way but certainly not as a viewer. I don’t think I would suggest to anyone that they see Husbands, but I would want to talk to anyone who watched it right away. Responding to grief by running away is familiar territory for classic film, but the nihilism of Husbands doesn’t build on the premise. It just spends a lot of time drunk in a bar or drunk in London, hoping things will get better without doing any of the work necessary to get there. If the time was compelling to watch the lesson wouldn’t matter at all, but it just isn’t.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No. Battleship Potemkin is groundbreaking and drags a little bit for a modern audience, but that’s a result of the march of time. Husbands drags on purpose to make you suffer. People walked out at the time, so this isn’t some modern view that can’t process what the director intended. I do think there’s something here, but it’s surrounded by the kind of tissue that needs to be cut out. The performances are fascinating and the best part of the film, but it all strings together so oddly that it never really works.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. Husbands is more fun to reflect on than it was to experience. Maybe after I finish every Cassavetes movie I’ll be able to understand the galaxy-brain approach and why you need ten minutes of confused vomiting, but I don’t think even then I would elevate this beyond an interesting oddity.

You can watch Husbands for free on Amazon (if you have Prime). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Battleship Potemkin the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Battleship Potemkin is a tricky movie to evaluate. It’s been almost a hundred years since it was released and it doesn’t really resemble what we consider film today. To call it “bad” given its place in the history of cinema would be a scorching hot take, purposeless except to force a reader to the comment section. To call it “good” seems equally difficult, as it’s missing a tremendous amount of what a movie needs to contain to engage a modern audience.

The difficulty with a lot of early cinema is that it very often feels like pushing vegetables around a plate. There is a lot to love in the early days of filmmaking, but it’s really silly to pretend that even a stellar movie like M isn’t just a little bit boring. You run the risk of sounding like some kind of idiot if you say that, but I’d argue that you should be willing to meet the movie where you’re at just as much as you need to meet it where it is in the historical context.

Battleship Potemkin is the story of a Russian mutiny on the battleship Potemkin. The real mutiny happened in 1905 and didn’t exactly happen like this, but that doesn’t really matter. The film was created as propaganda, though that carries a connotation that I don’t intend. It’s a simple story of how starving sailors will rise up and demand a better life, which turns into everyone rising up for the same reason. Joseph Goebbels famously said that it would work as propaganda on anyone who had no existing beliefs. Starvation is an easy bad guy to understand.

The movie is short at roughly an hour, but again, it’ll feel long to a modern viewer. It’s repetitive, as it really does just want to drive that one idea home. It’s the story of class, with obvious villains who have to appear obvious in a silent film to an audience that would bring their own convictions and understanding to the visual representations. It certainly worked differently on audiences in the 1920s, but even now you’ll understand who is good and who is bad. You’ll also understand why, though, because it’s all about obvious things everyone deserves. When the guys in the nice clothes demand the guys in less nice clothes eat rotten meat, it does not matter what you bring to the proverbial table. You get it.

You have to get it. It has to not just work right away, but to smash through what you feel. It’s shockingly violent, with multiple innocents dying at the hands of an oncoming, faceless, evil force. The evil force is “right,” technically, legally speaking, but that’s what revolution is all about. Battleship Potemkin needs to be unambiguous, but to break down your feelings that government, order, society, all of that, is working. When the sailors rise up, there is no assurance that people will go with them and rise. The people do, then they are put down, then another boat joins their cause. This is the story of revolution, the movie tells us, and it will be difficult but it will work.

The story is really powerful. You don’t know, going into the ending, what will happen. I’m going to “spoil” this movie from the year William Jennings Bryan died, but another battleship nearly fires on the rebellious Potemkin and then doesn’t. Disaster is averted and the revolution, for now, is intact.

This would have been the most shocking outcome to the audience at the time. Of course, this is about a real event, so maybe not, but the reminder that rising up works (at least temporarily) is always a revelation. It’s easy to get stuck in what you’re doing, both macro and micro, and the triumph of the movie is the climax selling this idea as a really significant win. Nothing happens, which turns out to be a huge thing.

Sight & Sound does a list of top movies voted on by directors and Battleship Potemkin is on the most recent top 100. The Gold Rush is the only film older than Battleship Potemkin on the list. It was compiled in 2012, but still only four movies from 2000 or later made the cut versus seven movies from the 1920s alone. Film history is obviously going to be something directors want to preserve, but it is a controversial and complicated idea when you get into it. Were we better, as a people, at making films a hundred years ago?

Of course not. But it is easier to be revolutionary when history has fewer firsts, of course, and Battleship Potemkin treads new ground. Everything owes to this, but it’s not just that this was first. It was undeniable, which is why it endures. The three things that happen are all gripping and told in a way that an audience would never have expected, but it’s hard to shake the modern narrative expectation a hundred years later that there should be more than three things. Is that on us, as viewers? Sure, to a certain extent, but we are who we are.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so, but this really stretches the definition of “better.” What Ever Happened to Baby Jane ushered in a new genre, sure, but not in the way that Battleship Potemkin created a whole language for filmmakers. Every reviewer will feel differently about this, but I think you have to judge a movie both by the context it was created in and the context of present day. It’s why The Birth of a Nation isn’t great, not that you need me to tell you that. It may have been capital-I Important but it’s racist trash that was even racist in the context of the day. Battleship Potemkin isn’t “canceled” or whatever, it’s just a tougher watch in a year that starts with “2” than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but it’s possible that it was the first “great” movie that’s still something you could enjoy in a similar way today. A lot of early cinema can feel impenetrable, leaving you with the sense that jokes or knowing looks meant something to audiences then that you can’t access now. If you watch Battleship Potemkin tonight, you’ll basically have the same experience that audiences did originally. You won’t react the same way, but that’s not the movie’s fault. That’s the march of time, the development and improvement of recorded sound, and, probably, some people will tell you, your inability to truly “get it.”

You can watch Battleship Potemkin on The Criterion Channel or HBO Max or Vudu. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is What Ever Happened to Baby Jane the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Trailers were very different in the 1960s, which is how we come to the marketing strategy for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane before release in 1962. An ominous voice explains that this is a horror picture and it features Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as we’ve never seen them before. Strangely, the narration cautions that viewers need to know that before they decide to see it, and then demands further: “We beg you, as the tension builds to the screaming point, as shock after shock assaults your senses, try to remember that this is only a motion picture. Try and remember!”

This is a big claim to live up to, especially the insistence that we might forget this isn’t a real event. Once you take in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, though, you begin to understand why this was the angle. The stars really hated each other, famously, and the professional conflict was so rich that it spawned an entire season of television more than four decades later.

Feud was supposed to be a series of individual seasons of feuds between famous figures. It was cancelled after one season, so it exists as a standalone eight episodes called Bette and Joan about the production of and response to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I watched it before I saw the film, and I do think that’s the order you should do it in if you haven’t seen either one and are going to watch both. Susan Sarandon is particularly good as Bette Davis, despite the big shoes to fill. Jessica Lange gives a quieter, maybe more convincing, portrayal of Joan Crawford. It’s all kinda true and probably real and maybe this is something, is the vibe you get, and as long as that lens stays it holds together.

It’s hard to divorce the film from that context. These are two of the biggest stars in film history at the end of their careers, playing characters well past the end of their careers, and it is deliberately metatextual. I don’t know how much intent you can assign, but Davis and Crawford knew that their performances as washed-up characters would be read as commentary on their respective places in Hollywood. Davis went much bigger with a much crazier role and ended up nominated for an Oscar, but even with that, this is the end for both of them. They had to know that was a possibility.

Roger Ebert spends an entire paragraph of his review of the film debunking a story about one actress kicking the other hard enough to require stiches during production. It’s time swell spent, because there is a lot more discourse about how this got made than there is about what actually got made. I realize this a long runway at this point, but it’s necessary because what is on the screen isn’t as important as what happened around it. By marketing the movie this way, the studio co-opted decades of film history and fan appreciation for two legendary performers. It must be reckoned with before you even talk about the plot.

Bette Davis plays “Baby Jane” Hudson, who was a child star that couldn’t translate success into adulthood. Joan Crawford is her older sister Blanche, who was jealous as a child but grew into a star with a higher ceiling. Blanche’s career is cut short by a car accident that leaves her paralyzed and we open with her under the care of the very drunk, very sad “Baby Jane.”

There are a lot of places to take that opening and most of them aren’t good. The go-to from more modern film is probably Misery, another bedridden piece of tension driven by a maniac’s unwillingness to release their “captive.” Both films look at different causes for mania, but it’s hard to not see one in the other, depending on which you’ve seen first. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane really hammers home the fact that “Baby Jane” is jealous and furious with her sister and that she is never going to let this go.

The word you will find in reviews of this movie is “camp.” Nearly everyone calls it campy because of Bette Davis’ makeup and her choice to play “Baby Jane” at 11/10 the entire time. She screeches half of her lines and somehow escalates her already way-too-big performance into even more during the climax. By the end of the movie, she’s barely human. It’s a really risky set of decisions and it really is fairly exhausting to watch.

Crawford’s fear, however, feels very real. When you get lost in the conflict, it’s in the moments that Blanche is alone, scheming, trying to find a way out of a room she knows she can’t leave. The conflict between the sisters (on and off screen) is the hook, but I think the struggle is more fascinating when “Baby Jane” is an off-screen threat.

The secondary characters force Crawford and Davis to advance their rivalry, but mostly it’s the two stars. The climax is anything but predictable, but it’s also not really the point. The ending is ambiguous, as much because that’s a more compelling choice as it is a choice that doesn’t really change the experience. The journey is generally more important than the destination, but it’s especially true for a movie that depends on rising tension as much as this one.

I was generally surprised by what What Ever Happened to Baby Jane turned out to be, given the world around it. It’s much more suspenseful than the “camp” legacy would suggest and Crawford especially turns in a performance that I think is worth seeing. Bette Davis risked more, to be sure, and she is rightfully the one who got the credit, but just like in the dramatic representation of Feud, the quieter choice seems harder to pull off. You need both or you don’t have a monster movie, though, and that’s certainly what this is. The best bits are in the middle, which is bittersweet as a commentary on Crawford and Davis as well as the film itself, but that’s how most things go. It’s also fascinating to see what comes after, for people who are willing to envision an “after.”

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I do think this is a better movie than Aguirre, Wrath of God. Both feature a mad, boiled-over main character who rages at everyone else. Aguirre is even bigger than Baby Jane, mostly because of circumstance and the sword and armor he’s got, but both of them would probably handle each other’s circumstances the same way. These are two similar character studies, but the focus in Herzog’s film on only the character study, with nothing else, limits what that movie can say.

Is it the best movie of all time? Yep, on this short list of three so far, I think so far What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is the current best movie of all time. I don’t really care for the twist ending, which isn’t giving anything away to say, and I really like Roger Ebert’s point in his review that the premise here is a little thin. Why do these people live together and why is “Baby Jane” in charge, given how she barely is able to move around in the world? It doesn’t matter for the panic to feel real, but it would for the thing to hold together completely.

You can watch What Ever Happened to Baby Jane for $1.99 on Amazon. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Aguirre, Wrath of God the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

It is nothing new to say that the making of Apocalypse Now was a story to rival the movie itself. The cult around how complicated it was and how messy the experience has deepened the mythology of the story and it’s something you have to grapple with as you watch it. It’s one of the greatest movies ever made, no doubt, and the legacy is both the production and the result.

The Academy Awards winners for the year tell a different story about legacy. Apocalypse Now won for cinematography and sound, but the big prizes mostly went to Kramer vs. Kramer. Both are classics, but it’s a bizarre contrast, especially widening the scope to other heavily honored films in the same ceremony such as Norma Rae and Being There. You couldn’t deny Apocalypse Now, but it certainly didn’t fit in with everything else.

Apocalypse Now is the story of Heart of Darkness, a Joseph Conrad novel about going down a river and finding nothing good. It’s much, much more complicated than that, and the internal struggle that comes with external forces is the through-line from the classic novel to the war film. There’s a point between the two, however, and it is Aguirre, Wrath of God.

The creation stories behind Werner Herzog’s 1972 film certainly rival the stories you know about Brando losing his mind in the jungle. The director supposedly (depending on who you ask) threatened his star with a gun and famously screamed at him before most takes to keep his manic performance consistent. There are dozens of stories you could choose to tell the saga of Herzog and Klaus Kinski and I am not familiar enough to give a full summary. It’s enough to say that they were difficult with each other and it comes through on the screen.

What could you say about this performance that would do it justice? I suppose we start with the similarities, as this is another movie about going down a river and being forever changed. Francis Ford Coppola said that it was a huge influence on Apocalypse Now, which is really obvious when you see it, but since they both owe credit to the original novel, saying “influence” gets complicated. All three stories are about the journey of man and the inevitability of that journey’s power over a certain kind of person.

Impossibly, Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) is the craziest character of all three stories. If you’ve only seen Apocalypse Now you might take issue with that, and I’d definitely understand. But you really need to see this to believe it. I don’t find it even one percent difficult to believe the stories about the production, because Kinski seems like he’s about to lose it, possibly in real life as well as his character, from start to finish.

We live in a world where Daniel Day-Lewis sets the modern standard for this kind of tightly wound, powder keg performance. The tight shots in There Will Be Blood give you the sense that this man might come through the screen to attack you at any moment. There’s no zombie or alien that could rival the fear of those moments, the unblinking, sweating Daniel Plainview contemplating his next move.

I don’t have a way to prove this, but I’m guessing he’s a big fan of Aguirre, Wrath of God. Klaus Kinski plays the titular Aguirre, a Spanish conquistador who is part of an expedition to find the fabled city of El Dorado. I don’t need to tell you this, but El Dorado does not exist. You know that, because you’re in the future, and this is a pretty dumb idea, but it’s impossible to not think about that over and over as you watch this. From the opening text, you know that these people will not succeed in their goal. That’s a stark difference from most journeys, where someone might experience at least a mixed success.

The film opens with the crew lugging cannons and other equipment over a mountain and through the jungle. It’s a miserable time and it’s clear that these people have been through a lot. The party splits in two, supposedly to go down the river with a small group to see if this is even possible. Aguirre joins the expedition and starts to establish command. He’s manic, to say the least, but he’s a powerful presence that the others get behind. It’s all doomed, because of course it’s all doomed, but Aguirre’s machinations continue even as the odds get smaller.

When you look at the performances that won Best Actor Oscars in the early 70s, they all look like this one. There’s Patton and The Godfather and this is right up there, at least in intensity, if not in craft. Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog supposedly disagreed on how Aguirre should be played, but Herzog won out by screaming at Kinski right before every take and filming after he calmed down, but only slightly. The result is a mixture of fury and discomfort. Aguirre distrusts everyone, hates everyone, and yet, needs everyone. He has to hold this whole thing together, in a way, but he can’t stop shaking and bellowing long enough to do that effectively. Even once you realize where this is going, you can’t stop watching him twitch and agonize. Maybe he can will this into happening, after all?

It’s not a perfect film. I have a sick obsession with reading negative reviews of classics, and most of them for Aguirre, Wrath of God take issue with the performances and the production. Most of the other actors don’t get much to do, so they don’t really develop beyond their reaction to Aguirre’s madness. And it’s certainly true that if you don’t find Kinski’s ravings interesting, there is just about nothing here for you. The budget was small and the result is a sort of “forced realism” with no effects and long, difficult passages where the cast really does go through jungles or through tough river terrain. Maybe that sells the experience to you and maybe it frustrates you. It’s a matter of what you want from a movie like this.

I think it’s all worth it, no matter what, for the performance. I’ve found myself coming back to it just for that, even though the journey isn’t necessarily worth following all the time. The ending is something else, too, and while you can guess about how successful it all is, you certainly can’t guess how it ends. You should power through the scenery for that alone.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It’s probably crazy to compare a Werner Herzog epic to an anime about dream magic like Paprika, but they both do have similarities. Both are “inspirations” to some degree for better known films (Apocalypse Now and Inception) and both are about main characters realizing a truth about themselves (though that’s maybe debatable in Aguirre’s case). I think both movies suffer a little bit with pacing, but Aguirre even more than Paprika, so I’ll give the nod to Paprika.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I don’t think so. It’s pretty shaggy, even at 94 minutes. It’s worth your time and I really can’t say enough about Klaus Kinski’s truly crazy performance, but nothing else really stands out for me. It’s a great experience as a film but it doesn’t last, so I don’t think it rises to the level it needs to to be “best.”

You can watch Aguirre, Wrath of God for free on Amazon (if you have Prime). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Paprika the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Where do you start on search for the greatest movie of all time? The temptation to start with Citizen Kane or something similar is strong, but I am going to start with an anime. Wait, c’mon, stick around. I promise, this is all about something you’ve seen. No, really! Just read to the end.

I’m more comfortable talking about things I don’t like than things I do like. I spent a year watching every single movie that ever won Best Picture at the Oscars just to dunk on Crash, which I still think is the worst movie to ever win the Academy’s most prestigious award. Crash opens with a discussion of coffee and spaghetti. I really can’t get into it here, you can read my 90+ part series if you want to know more.

Crash is not the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I grant that title to mother!, which makes me mad to even stylize that way, but director Darren Aronofsky insists that it is lowercase and ends in an exclamation because that symbolizes the climax. I am not going to spend much time on it, but the audience in the theater when I saw it literally laughed and booed at mother! and they were right to do so. It’s a disaster and a divisive allegory that may not be the worst movie ever made, but it’s certainly the experience I enjoyed the least. Aronofsky says it’s about environmentalism, but that seems like an impossible reading of a movie about the power of creative people and how they misuse it. I could spend forever on this, but I’ll just leave my cards on the table and say that’s the bottom of the barrel for me.

I mention it because I think Darren Aronofsky is a great director. Pi is haunting, even all these years later. Requiem for a Dream is a masterpiece. But I want to talk about Black Swan.

Black Swan is a movie about ambition. You’ve probably seen it, but even if you haven’t we aren’t going to spend much time on it. It’s about a ballerina trying to reach professional heights and the fears and challenges that come along with that journey. It deserves a lot more space, but this is all an introduction to another movie. It’s not even an Aronofsky movie! What are we doing?

Black Swan is not a shot-for-shot remake, but it borrows really, really heavily from the anime Perfect Blue. You can watch YouTube essays if you want to know more, but it’s enough to say that Perfect Blue is a horror movie about a star reaching for more and finding the journey more complex than anticipated. It’s definitely not a “rip off” or anything, but it’s clear that Aronofsky saw Perfect Blue and made his own version. He says that’s not what happened, but you can watch for yourself. Black Swan is an excellent movie and I don’t personally think it matters that he got some inspiration from an anime, but he seems to be pretty touchy about it.

This is how we get to Paprika. Satoshi Kon directed both Perfect Blue and Paprika, among other movies and series, and he was asked about the similarities in major Hollywood fare and his movies somewhat often. You can look up his reactions, but it seems to me like he always acknowledged the similarities but didn’t seem to care. Quentin Tarantino has made an entire career out of “homage” which can border on “theft” and directors seem to do the same thing to Kon.

Inception steals some images directly from Paprika. Several content creators have done a better job than I could do proving it, but the most striking is a scene where Elliot Page approaches a mirror and ruins the illusion of the dream in Inception. This is directly, exactly, lifted from Paprika, where it happens for the same reason. Does that matter? It’s weird, to be sure, especially if you’ve seen Paprika first.

I hated Inception when I saw it new. It felt impossible to follow and it felt deliberately messy. I rewatched it this year and liked it a great deal more, but it still feels like it forces you to look really closely at the magic eye drawing it presents and it doesn’t necessarily reward you for “getting it” so much as it does string you along. I am finding myself less and less interested in what Christopher Nolan has to say as a filmmaker, but even with that caveat I think Inception is better as an action movie than it is as a puzzle.

Paprika, then. It’s an anime from 2006, from Satoshi Kon, who also made Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers, and Millennium Actress. Paprika is about a technology that allows people to go inside dreams. Inception is deeply concerned with the “how” and spends a tremendous amount of time making sure you follow how it’s all possible. Paprika doesn’t give a damn. Put this headset on, it’s time for a parade.

I think that’s why Paprika works. It’s enough that we buy that this is possible because some handwaving, technical explanations from science-types tells us it’s possible. That’s how it would actually work, anyway. We wouldn’t need someone to take us in a dream and tell us a long story about the physics of dreams, we’d just see it on Twitter and accept it. Paprika spends more time on the experience and ends up being a more enjoyable film as a result.

Christopher Nolan clearly saw Paprika. Both movies are about going in dreams and solving a problem. Both movies are about getting lost in an experience. Both movies are about the hero being the one person who can navigate this impossible, mysterious space. But it all kinda ends there.

Inception is dark and horrible. Everything is black and gray. Everyone has an assault riffle and everyone works for a shady military organization. Everyone has a tie. Everything is Extremely Serious All The Time. That’s Christopher Nolan’s whole aesthetic and it seems to be working for him, Tenet excluded.

The character Paprika in Paprika is the dream avatar of our main heroine and it works exactly like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Inception. The difference is that she seems to be still having fun with it, transforming into multiple forms and dancing around in a red shirt and constantly smirking through the dreams she invades. The tone isn’t all that different in the two movies, but the presentation couldn’t be more different. The nightmare in Paprika isn’t a train crashing through a city block, it’s a parade of frogs and statues that sings a happy nonsense tune. It’s dire, obviously, but what fun!

If Inception has a message, it seems to be that dreams are sacred. Our characters muck around in someone else’s experience and are forever changed. Paprika also wonders if this is something we all should be doing, but finds a slightly different answer. Satoshi Kon isn’t Christopher Nolan, but you probably got that from the box art. I recommend you watch both. It’s a better transformation than Aronofsky was able to make, at least.

Paprika is all about the visuals. It’s an explosion, from start to finish, and the logic behind it never really matters all that much. We learn about the bad guy late in the narrative and his motives never go beyond surface level. It’s all about what you see and how they render it. Anime can tell a story, obviously, but it is best when it does so in a way that live action cannot. The medium matters here and I think it’s a great first watch even if you’re not the kind of person that would normally watch something like this. Christopher Nolan certainly did.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It is the first one. In future entries, we’ll answer this question, starting with Paprika.

Is it the best movie of all time? It is the first one we’ve looked at, so yes, for now, Paprika is the best movie of all time.

You can watch Paprika on Amazon for $2.99, at the time of this writing. You can also watch Inception for free on Amazon (if you have Prime). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

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

Image result for parasite movieimage source: NBC

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 2019 winner Parasite. Is it better than Crash?

I am going to start here with the hottest take that I have: I think this is the best Oscar winner for Best Picture in 25 years. Moonlight and No Country for Old Men have strong cases, but I think this is still it. On a night with plenty of bad choices, the Academy got it right, out loud, and named Parasite Best International Feature Film, Best Director, and Best Picture.

The Academy has been under fire, correctly, for a lot of bad decisions lately. You can feel in their press approach and the Oscars itself that they want you to love them and they want to figure out what you want them to do to earn that love. The Academy tried to float an idea for “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” this year and got laughed at so hard they gave up.

All of that is what makes Parasite so weird. The Academy is famous for getting it close to, but not exactly, right. They understand the problem, often, but then offer as a solution something that doesn’t fix the problem. This year, they offered up a million jokes about the systemic problems of their membership instead of addressing them head on. How, in that space, did they award the first non-English movie (other than The Artist, a technicality and a bad movie) Best Picture?

I’ve been doing this a long time at this point. I’m going to take some space to talk about everything else up for this award in 2019 before we get back to the main course. Tarantino served up one of the better versions of what he does, but like Scorsese, it was more of what he does. They are both all-timers, but when Parasite won Best Director, Bong Joon-ho quoted Scorsese at Scorsese. He told him that he was an inspiration and that Tarantino had championed him when no one else in America did so. It’s a torch-passing like no other.

The other six are stranger fare. Little Women is a truly emotional, extremely beautiful rethinking of a classic film. It’s honestly really sad that it didn’t get more fanfare, but I may be biased by the fact that Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird would have been my pick for Best Picture last year. 1917 was this year’s Dunkirk and it was fine. The Irishman and Marriage Story and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood were all excellent movies that didn’t go very far below the surface and that seems to be the problem, come award time. Jojo Rabbit struck me wrong, though I get it, and Ford v Ferrari seemed to be a movie for someone I’ve never met. Both made well, clearly, but not for me. Joker deserves another graph.

I want to talk briefly about Joker. I didn’t like anything I saw this year less than Joker, but even that is better than Crash. That took the drama out of these Oscars for me, as I always hope there will be another American Sniper or Hacksaw Ridge where they nominate an actual bad movie that might win. But still, Joker, while not an actual bad movie, does preach a horrible message. I honestly can’t tell from his award speeches if he’s gone all the way off the deep end, but the movie that Joker steals everything from is a better movie. The King of Comedy is a legitimately great movie and it’s the same thing, but the message is don’t do this. I wonder, seeing him at these award shows, if our anti-hero understands that’s what it’s supposed to be.

But despite it all, the best movie that came out this year won the award. It really does not happen that often, which you only need look back over the last ten years to realize. How many of these ten did you like?

  1. Green Book
  2. The Shape of Water
  3. Moonlight
  4. Spotlight
  5. Birdman
  6. 12 Years a Slave
  7. Argo
  8. The Artist
  9. The King’s Speech
  10. The Hurt Locker

Most of what was nominated this year is better than everything there, with the exception of Moonlight. I harp on this because that’s what makes it so amazing that this year happened.

Parasite is the story of a down-on-their-luck family that acts as other people to inject themselves into a rich family. It is the kind of movie that demands you come in knowing just that, which makes it hard to write about. In previous years I’ve wanted to spend time breaking down the successes and failures, but I don’t think Parasite allows for that.

I told a friend recently that I’ve never seen anything that went somewhere I expected less or was impressed by more and I stand by that. I think Parasite is the kind of movie you will never forget and I cannot believe that this group — the group that picked Crash — got this right.

There will be much said in the coming weeks. In trying to guess the backlash, I am guessing people will say that it has no heroes. I don’t know and don’t honestly care what will come out as a response to this movie, because this is a rare time that the premise of this blog is silenced. We spend a lot of time shouting and judging when they get it wrong, but after so much noise and a very strange, senseless Eminem concert, tonight, they got it right.

The Best Part: Parasite’s ending is the best ending of any movie on this illustrious list. My jaw very literally dropped when it happened and I would do you a disservice to say more.

The Worst Part: I thought about this a long time. If I had to pick something, 132 minutes does feel long. There’s really only one major theme in Parasite, so the fact that they made their point and then made it again and again does feel somewhat unnecessary, but this feels a little like nitpicking.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The premise of this article is crushed under the weight of this movie. We have come to the point that a Korean drama about class has won Best Picture. I do not want to talk about Crash in that space.

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 | Parasite

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 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.

Worst Best Picture: Is The Shape of Water Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: the telegraph

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 2017 winner The Shape of Water. Is it better than Crash?

Last year nine movies were nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, but it felt like it had to be either La La Land or Moonlight. The debate raged between a risky, but better, choice about characters we don’t usually see and a musical about the people who vote vote for the winner. Looking back, it’s shocking that the better choice prevailed.

This year’s race felt more wide open. With the notable exceptions of the dreadfully boring Darkest Hour and the Spielberg-at-his-most-Spielberg The Post, anything had a real shot. You could even make a case for the way, way out-there Phantom Thread, which feels more like the quiet winners of the 1980s.

The Shape of Water will probably be remembered as a weird choice, but was it? As people wrote thinkpiece after thinkpiece about the potential shock of a Get Out victory or the similarities of frontrunner Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to all-time bad Best Picture choice Crash (which we’ll get back to later), it should have become obvious. Nobody didn’t like The Shape of Water.

Forgive me that sentence construction, because I think it’s the best way to put it. Lady Bird was my favorite movie of the year, but it certainly isn’t a movie for everyone. Somehow, the movie where the woman falls in love with the fish is the movie for everyone. It’s a love story unburdened by the societal complexities of Call Me By Your Name (mostly because no one can talk) and a science fiction movie that doesn’t challenge the audience to face their internal racism like Get Out. Director Guillermo del Toro says he set the film in the Cold War to let audiences think about the story without thinking about how they’d feel about it being real, today. It’s an interesting technique, and it allows for the movie to be political without feeling divisive.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute cleaning woman who is charming in a universally positive way. She’s not exactly “quirky,” so the audience loves her from her charming dance on the way to work through her entire (very, very intimate) daily routine. We like her. We might also like Tom Hanks in The Post, but that’s because we like Tom Hanks. In this case, we like Elisa.

Elisa’s friends are underappreciated, overworked, and similarly easy to like. Her world is fine, but not what she wants, until she meets a kindred spirit in a mysterious, magical fish creature who is secured to a tank in a scientific complex.

It’s important to step back here. I wouldn’t call The Shape of Water accessible, considering it includes a detailed, specific description of how the main character has sex with the fish creature, but it’s absolutely likable. I think that, combined with the risk del Toro took to ask the audience to see this in the first place, is the secret to this Oscar victory. It’s going to be too weird for most people, but if you see it, you’ll like it. That’s what the Academy should be rewarding in the first place, even if there were ways to accomplish the same task I’d rather have seen them go for this year.

It’s a love story and a heist movie disguised as something much stranger. Almost everything I’ve read about it emphasizes the weird factor, but I maintain that this is a traditional story and that’s why we like it. So many movies are interested in going deeper on character motivations or challenging us to love bad people, but del Toro wants us to want the lead character to be happy and fall in love. The way he draws us along that normally straight line is what makes The Shape of Water “weird,” but the destination still feels familiar.

The Best Part: Michael Shannon is the difference for me between this being good and great. His character is one-note, but he’s so dedicated to the crazed, right-wing, high-and-tight mentality of the era that he gives a generic villain some depth. Best Supporting Actor was a tough race this year and Richard Jenkins earned his nomination here, but it will be some time before I forget Michael Shannon’s performance.

The Worst Part: I hate the ending. No one else hates the ending, but I’m fine with that. I have to expect that distance will endear me to the ambiguity, but not yet.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s better. It’s not the best choice this year, but it’s a beautiful story and it’s risky enough to deserve to be on a list of 90 cinematic accomplishments. While we’re talking about this, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has taken a lot of flack lately and has drawn a ton of comparisons to Crash. I enjoyed Three Billboards and you can read 89 other versions of this to see if I liked Crash, so I’m biased, but I think these comparisons are bizarre. I wish it had won to give me more space to discuss it, but Three Billboards is every bit as rough around the edges, but it spends so much more time punishing its racists. The main hot take seems to be that the racist cop in Three Billboards gets redeemed (like in Crash), but Three Billboards walks him through a journey to learn anything, even a slight, not-nearly-enough thing, and Crash ends with a single, unrelated event that cures a character completely. Nothing up for the award this year was worse than Crash, but we’ll certainly keep looking.

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

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.