academy award

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

moonlight.jpg

image source: pitchfork

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 2016 winner Moonlight. Is it better than Crash?

In the days and weeks after this year’s Oscars, it seems like there’s only one thing to talk about: that final award. People will write tons of posts about the botched delivery of the Best Picture award as La La Land was mistakenly announced before Moonlight correctly won the award.

That will last for a little while. These two won’t be tied together forever, though it’s easy to forget that since we’re in the moment. When you look at the other 88 movies on the list, you realize that these movies will be remembered despite what they beat. We’ve decided that the Academy Award is our benchmark for greatness, or memory, or both.

If for no other reason, that’s why Moonlight had to win. We aren’t in agreement over if the Oscars point out our best or our most memorable or what, but we all seem to agree that they’re important. La La Land has been divisive for a number of reasons, but it’s a pretty good musical that a lot of us can’t see ourselves in. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play “down and out” characters that really aren’t and lament failures that many of us would see as successes. They’re beautiful, talented, and surrounded by support. In a future where we’re increasingly dealing as a people with groups being marginalized and the cruelty of humanity, it doesn’t ring true that a message of “maybe 100% of your dreams won’t come true but that’s the worst that could happen” should be the moral of our Best Picture.

I liked a lot of what this year had to offer. Arrival is a new, if flawed, take on something that’s been done too many times. Jackie is a shocking portrayal of a story we all know. Manchester by the Sea is crushing, Lion is inspiring, and 20th Century Women is heartwarming in ways I didn’t expect.

But it all comes down to the contrast between the two big ones: La La Land and Moonlight. I really liked La La Land, but I’m still thinking about Moonlight. It’s the three-part story of Chiron, a character locked inside himself. His mother is abusive and addicted, his friends are mostly absent, and his closest confidant is a drug dealer who may or may not really have a heart of gold. It’s the kind of story we don’t see very often because in a lot of ways it’s one we don’t want to think about. It’s a story about survival in the face of absolutely nothing going right.

I won’t break the entire film down because it’s really about watching the growth. Chiron is a boy, then a teenager, then a man, but he’s always quiet and worried. No matter who he talks to, you can see his character playing mental defense during every conversation. His mother offers no relief, his friends have their own challenges, and Juan (Mahershala Ali, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance) is supportive and personable, but represents risks in his own way. Chiron can never let his guard down and the movie feels tense even in small victories as a result.

I’d be remiss to not mention that Chiron struggles with his sexuality. It’s a film about race as much as it is about sex, and while it isn’t shy or concerned about either topic, it’s told through Chiron’s eyes. His character obscures much of our view of his world, which allows the whole thing to unfold for us just how it would for someone going through it. We see hate and anger just as we do solitude and a mixed sense of finding yourself. It’s a lot to unwrap.

You should see both of them and you probably will. La La Land is going to be talked about for years and it deserves it. It’s a catchy, flashy musical with good performances and a slightly more complex message than I’m letting on, but it’s tough to compare it to Moonlight. In 1964 My Fair Lady beat Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and in 1951 An American in Paris beat A Streetcar Named Desire. All four of those movies are classics, but it highlights how strange it is to classify musicals in the same category as everything else. We just don’t often think of them like that, though the Oscars force us to do so.

The Best Part: The adult version of Chiron styles himself “Black” and drives a long distance to meet an old friend at a diner. The scene is longer than you’d expect and it plays with the idea of expectations. After so much time with both characters we think we know what’s going to happen, so the surprise of what does happen is all the sweeter. I remember pivoting over and over again in my head as I watched it and it surpassed everything I came up with.

The Worst Part: Naomie Harris said that she was worried about the portrayal of Paula, Chiron’s mom, as she’s introduced as just an abusive crack addict. Her performance definitely elevates the role and the arc is more interesting than previous iterations of this character type, but if I had to pick something it’s the initial version of Paula. It’s necessary for Chiron’s development as a character, but in a world full of people we’ve never seen before it can be odd to see a character type that’s been done so much.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Now that I’ve been caught up for a few years and am writing these yearly, it feels even more ridiculous to approach this question. The only nominee this year that had a real shot at dethroning the king Crash was Hacksaw Ridge, which made me mad in so many ways I can’t even begin to describe them all. Moonlight is a difficult, dark, sad movie that offers few moments of respite, but I still think it’s more realistic than Crash. They both tread the same waters and deal with the same fears, but Moonlight does so with respect.

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 | Moonlight

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.

Advertisements

Worst Best Picture: Is The Apartment Better or Worse Than Crash?

theapt

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. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1960 winner The Apartment. Is it better than Crash?

Comedies don’t win Best Picture. Seriously, look at the list. Scroll through the last 30 or so. The Hurt Locker. Schindler’s List. No Country for Old Men. I mean, Gladiator definitely is funny at times, but I wouldn’t say the people behind it were making a comedy.

That’s what makes The Apartment so strange. It’s a Jack Lemmon movie and it is very clearly just a “vehicle” for his comedy. He plays sick and stuffs Kleenex in every pocket he has. He frantically flips a Rolodex and uses the 1960s version of a phone tree. He does everything but full-on pratfall to sell how funny he is in the first half hour and it works, it works, it works.

You first recognize that there’s something special about this movie through Jack Lemmon himself. He’s playing C.C. Baxter, the put-upon drone at Company X. Baxter wants to get promoted on his merits, but he’s figured out that middle management would rather screw secretaries in his isolated apartment than look at his figures. Thus, the game is on.

Baxter doesn’t condone anyone’s illicit activities — the movie has a couple of obvious, untouched asides where he openly condemns adultery — but he wants this job and it’s hard to say no. He’s only rewarded once their boss catches wind and decides to use the company retreat for himself. The trouble (well, rest of the trouble)? The head honcho’s girl is the one Baxter is in love with. The boss won’t leave his wife for her and she won’t love Baxter because she’s torn up over the boss. What’s a guy to do?

There have only been two black-and-white movies to win Best Picture since The Apartment. There are only two in those more than five decades: Schindler’s List and The Artist. As the last true black-and-white Best Picture from the days where it wasn’t an aesthetic choice, you’d expect the movie to be dated. The comedy suffers more than the universal theme.

The tricky part about comedy is always that it becomes dated. That’s just the reality of the genre. At one point a character says, angrily, “Live now, pay later! Diners Club!” It’s pretty clearly a slogan of the time, but it solidifies The Apartment in 1960. One of the main characters is an elevator operator, but what locks the movie in another era is that weird Diners Club line and a handful of others like it.

Does that matter? No, not as much as it could. It’s easy to see how that line works in context. It’s easy to guess at what a shrieking woman ordering a Rum Collins in a terrible bar is supposed to represent. It’s simple enough to forgive these little steps away from what we know to enjoy the line “That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.”

It’s a comedy, but it’s weirdly dour. Baxter takes it hard when he realizes that the cost of getting the promotion means he can’t be taken seriously at work, but no one takes anything harder than the poor elevator operator. After just about an hour of mostly comedy and setup, she downs some sleeping pills and tries to kill herself in Baxter’s apartment. It has to happen to drive the plot and the movie eventually does a good job of supporting this as a choice her love-muddled mind makes, but it’s such a sharp tonal shift.

Later in the movie Baxter tells the story of when he tried to kill himself with a gun because he was torn up about love, but he says he shot himself in the knee. He’s nursing someone who recently attempted suicide back to some semblance of health and he doesn’t know what to say. It’s the kind of real, sad gesture that we all hope we would make to try to help in some way. It’s not perfect, but it’s human.

The movie slowly works backwards from the suicide attempt to explain what makes the character tick, but it never really gets there. It’s easy to blame the 1960 release date on why Shirley MacLaine’s character doesn’t get any agency or reason to live outside of the powerful married man she loves, but a movie willing to deal with the reality of suicide this directly should be able to sustain a more rational and powerful female lead. The role earned MacLaine a Best Actress nomination and she absolutely plays it well, but it is hard to watch the movie in 2014 and not want to pull her into the future, where women in movies are allowed to matter. This movie needs the Bechdel test badly.

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.

I really tried to find a way to compare this to Crash, but I just don’t see anything they have in common. The 1960 Best Picture The Apartment is about as respectful of women as the 2005 Best Picture Crash, I suppose. It’s just that one of them is a sad reminder of a “simpler” time and the other is from the 1960s.

The Best Part: Sick Jack Lemmon, clearly. Through the first 20 minutes of the film Jack Lemmon’s character is sick, designed to show the physical toll that not having his own apartment is having on him. His sick antics are the same as watching an experienced actor play a convincing drunk — but sick is harder. You feel pity for him and it sets up the entire movie. Bonus: It clearly draws the line of good and evil. Only good guys get colds.

The Worst Part: Tone, tone, tone! Of course Shirley MacLaine has to take the sleeping pills because otherwise this is the story of how bad things all work out for bad people. That’s no story, so she’s gotta try to go into that good night. The suicide attempt isn’t the problem, it’s how wacky the movie treats it.  Honorable mention to MacLaine’s brother-in-law’s character, who seems like he was a “Greedo-shot-first” level of afterthought. He may as well be screaming “Why I oughta!” instead of delivering lines.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The Apartment is about if it is more important to care about work or about love, at the most basic level. The two are often difficult to balance (see: Mad Men, all culture forever, etc) but rarely are they so at odds. This is a movie about an age-old theme that manages to put an interesting spin on it. It’s relatable and unique. It feels real, even in the most slapsticky parts. Crash offers no one of any substance and is more needlessly morbid than a movie with a 45-minute suicide comedy arc. It would be tough, even if that were the assignment, to do that.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve |

 Image credit: IMDB

Worst Best Picture: Is All About Eve Better or Worse Than Crash?

eve

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. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1950 winner All About Eve. Is it better than Crash?

There is just about nothing that needs to be said about All About Eve in 2014. It’s one of the movies that even someone with no reverence for old film will recognize as a “classic” from the list of Oscar winners. It’s a black-and-white Shakespearean-style story of betrayal and trust. Nothing needs to be said about a classic, but even though the stone has been unturned a million times I feel confident that no one has compared it to Crash.

All About Eve is the story of being replaced. Aging (for 1950, 40 is apparently “aging”) actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is at the top of her game. She’s got her name in light bulbs, she’s got a sassy maid, and she’s got love in her life. She accepts one of her biggest fans, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), as a personal assistant. Eve is the perfect assistant — maybe too perfect — and when Margo finds her dancing in front of a mirror with one of her costumes, the whole “girl next door” vibe breaks down.

If you want to read about everything that happens in All About Eve you can look elsewhere for it. Essentially, Eve tries to become the new Margo and does so. There are attempted seductions, drunken parties, and successful instances of blackmail. 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?

The high note of All About Eve is in the disastrous party where Margo first believes that Eve has come for her throne. She’s right, of course, but she plays her hand too drunk and too early. No one else in their shared life believes her, and Margo is labelled a paranoid diva. As with every relationship, the fear of something manifests it faster than anything else could. Margo is worried about Eve taking her role and so Eve takes her damn role.

The comparisons to Crash aren’t easy with this one. The best way to do it is probably with the climaxes of the two films. The drunken party where Margo unleashes the classic “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” line is too early to be a climax, but it’s definitely the defining, lasting element of All About Eve. Margo turns on the rage before the night even starts in accusing her boyfriend of trying to spend extra time with Eve. She accuses the other partygoers of trying to surround themselves with younger women. She pounds drinks and rages, unsuccessfully, in front of a crowd that includes a very young Marilyn Monroe.

The scene is lasting because it achieves the goals and goes steps further. All the scene has to do is establish that Margo fears Eve and that no one believes her. It manages to play out this paranoia and still be funny, even out of the context of a 1950 audience. One bit of wordplay, “stop acting like I’m the Queen Mother” met with “outside of a beehive, Margo, your behavior would hardly be considered either queenly or motherly!” works both as the film’s typical theater-style banter and as an actual joke. This movie about the theater manages to straddle the fine line between being “quick” and being “funny” even more than half a century later.

Crash isn’t 10 years old yet. The big scene in Crash is a car accident where some people almost die. Compared to the rest of Crash, it is filled with meaning and pathos. Compared to another movie that has the same award, it feels completely lifeless. The characters feel totally unrealized. There is no big takeaway. There is no “lesson,” for as much as the people behind Crash demanded that there be absolutely nothing but lessons.

But Crash never asked to be All About Eve, you say? It’s not fair to compare two movies from different time periods? One of the reasons very few comedies have ever been considered for the Best Picture award is that comedy is the product of a time period. All About Eve is funny, to be sure, but a lot of the “quick wit” is more “ha-ha funny” than actually funny. All of it holds up, though, because it has to. By giving a movie the title of BEST PICTURE, the statement is made that this movie will always hold up. Crash is not an accurate depiction of 2005. It already feels dated, even when compared with a movie that won the same award at a ceremony hosted by Fred Astaire.

The Best Part: The party, oh, the party. Or George Sanders, who is an absolutely amazing monster in this movie. I nearly wrote 4,000 words about if he is a hero or villain, but to hear that you’ll have to buy me five drinks and sacrifice a Tuesday night.

The Worst Part: During one scene in New Haven, two characters walk down the street away from a theater. It is the only scene in the entire movie that couldn’t have been shot today. You could shoot this scene better with a green towel and six dollars now.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashYou know how sometimes people ask you a hypothetical question, but you’re not paying attention and you think they’ve lost their mind entirely? All About Eve has one of the AFI top-10 movie quotes of all time. Crash has a scene where someone looks scornfully at someone for an attempted child murder.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump |

 Image credit: IMDB