academy awards

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

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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.

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

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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

Worst Best Picture: Is Terms of Endearment Better or Worse Than Crash?

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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 1983 winner Terms of Endearment. Is it better than Crash?

The Motion Picture Association of America debuted the PG-13 rating in the summer of 1984. In the decade before that, movies were all rated G, PG, R, or (very, very rarely) X. Whatever you think of the MPAA and the rating system, watching a movie prior to 1984 shows the need for PG-13. Terms of Endearment, a PG-rated movie, has two direct orgasm jokes in the first 15 minutes. It’s the first of what I can only call a lot of same. It’s a movie about personal interactions. Some interactions get blue.

Terms of Endearment won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1983. Of the four other nominees, history best remembers The Right Stuff and The Big Chill. After looking at everything that was nominated across the board, history’s list also needs to include WarGames, Flashdance, and Return of the Jedi. All-in-all it’s not a bad year for film, but it definitely feels absolutely and completely 1980s.

The tone is set early: Albert Brooks dies. The legendary comic plays (off screen) Emma’s (Debra Winger) father and Aurora’s (Shirley MacLaine) wife. His funeral scene is accompanied by the “opening theme” of absurd jaunty music. Tone is a big part of any movie and music is a big part of tone. It’s astounding how much this element doesn’t hold up. The movie was nominated for Best Original Score, but I can’t remember the last time music was this distracting — oh wait, it was Crash.

The music reinforces the “period piece” nature that every movie takes on after a few decades. The central narrative of Terms of Endearment is the story of Emma and Aurora. Aurora is the straight-laced mother who can’t let go of her daughter and Emma is the caged daughter who doesn’t really want to be free. She marries a man named Flap (Jeff Daniels, who looks young) right out of high school and carries out a marriage her mother Doesn’t Approve Of, moves to Iowa, and has three children.

There are a lot of places this plot could go from there. The average movie would force the mother to learn that she was too hard on the daughter and force the daughter to realize that running away from control only hurt her worse. Terms of Endearment, a movie from more than three decades ago, is ahead of even today as it subverts that hacky expectation.

Flap and Emma play house for a bit, but they can’t change the fact that they got married right out of high school. When people get married right out of high school it goes one way or the other: this one goes the other. This isn’t surprising, though the fact that no one ever questions that Jeff Daniels is playing a guy named Flap definitely is. Was Flap a name in 1983? We don’t have all the facts in, but we’re monitoring this story closely.

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

The two stay on the phone through the whole movie, which is another 80s-shock device. In the time before cell phones, it is clearly supposed to be weird that Emma and Aurora are on the phone moments after sex or early in the morning. Aurora’s last words to Emma on her way to Iowa are about the phone bill. It helps sell the seriousness of the mother-daughter relationship. These little touches do more than any overwrought dialogue ever could.

The other side of mother-daughter is Aurora. She starts the film as someone who is visibly upset that people won’t let her say she’s 50 at her birthday party (she’s 52, her doctor reminds everyone). The hacky thing to do here is to transition her into a wild woman by the end of the movie. She begins an odd relationship with her ex-astronaut neighbor Garrett (Jack Nicholson at his absolute most Jack) that includes doing donuts in a convertible on the beach (reluctantly) and having sex for the first time in a decade (also reluctantly).

This is the very first non-Crash edition of this, so I’m still setting overall rules. All of these should be considered to have a spoiler warning on them. These are supposedly classics, all of them, and you should have either seen them or accepted that they may be spoiled for you when you read this.

The third act of Terms of Endearment is intense. Her doctor uncovers something troubling and suggests that Emma needs treatment immediately. She does well enough to go to New York City with her childhood friend at first, but then she rapidly goes down the proverbial tubes. Emma has cancer and Emma is dying.

This movie won Best Picture because it manages to be funny even though it’s the story of a woman whose mother never lets her go. It’s the story of a woman who dies after having an imperfect life that she never really has control over. She makes some final decisions (which has an odd feeling of “we should be so lucky in this world”) and then dies.

It’s a powerful movie before Emma ever gets cancer. It deals with individual loss of love. It deals with loneliness around others. It deals with the ways we all choose to just get the hell by when we end up somewhere (or someone) we just can’t get away from.

The cancer third act feels like another movie; it’s another episode of a show that you already like with people you already know. Acts one and two are funny and real in equal doses, but act three is a full-on reality haymaker that never gets maudlin. They deal with Emma’s dying and death with grace. It feels like a real person is dying, and the greatest trick of Terms of Endearment is that it stops being just a really great story at just the right moment.

The Best Part: While the obvious nod should go to Emma’s goodbyes to her friends and family in the hospital, I want to give this to a scene where she visits her mother during the depths of her despair about her marriage. She leaps into waiting arms and then discusses her extramarital activities with her mother in bed over coffee. The movie establishes the relationship between the characters so well that this scene feels sweet rather than weird, and that’s an accomplishment.

The Worst Part: The “theme” plays over and over in this movie and it is never appropriate. As Emma is just about to be hospitalized forever, some Super Nintendo-type funky jazz plays. It’s distracting at best.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashMuch, much, much better. This movie may as well have been the reason I started doing this. There’s no better thing to say about Terms of Endearment than that the distance between it and Crash is not measurable by the tools we have in today’s world. It is a theoretical distance, measurable only in the abstract.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash

 Image credit: IMDB

Worst Best Picture: Is Crash the Worst Oscar Winner of All Time?

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Alex Russell

On March 5th, 2006, America watched the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences award Crash the Academy Award for Best Picture. I didn’t personally watch the 78th Oscars, but I like a good movie as much as the next person. A few years later, I put Crash on my Netflix queue (back when people still had a Netflix queue for discs) and I waited.

Crash came. I watched Crash. I did not like Crash.

I still remember watching it on a tiny TV in a kitchen in Memphis. I remember wondering what I was missing and what everyone else had figured out. I watched the climax twice to try to pull out whatever beauty that other people saw in it. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.

History has not remembered Crash fondly. It tops a number of lists of “worst” Oscar winners ever. Now that we’ve had plenty of time to crown other winners and compare them to Crash, we’ve got enough time before it and time after it to ask this question:

Is Crash the worst movie to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture?

With Argo last year, there are 84 other choices. We’re going to check them all.

In 2014, we’re going to watch every single movie that has ever been named best of the year. We’ll compare all of them to that most-hated-of-them-all Crash. Future editions of this feature will explore one of the other winners and then compare it to Crash, but we’ve gotta start somewhere.

We’ve gotta rewatch Crash itself.

I bought Crash with actual, real money. It turns out that it’s cheaper to buy the damn DVD than to get it any other way online. So now I have this shame capsule, forever. Some part of me wants to justify this purchase as “research materials” or “sources” or “self-inflicted punishment” The truth is that I had to know if it was as bad as I remembered it. I’ve actually only seen about 20 or 30 Best Picture winners, and for all of them I am going to revisit them completely. Crash can be no different.

The first thing you notice when you watch Crash is just how quickly it is… stupid. Calling a movie “stupid” is a simple criticism that should generally be reserved for much more base subject matter, but Crash starts off with an onslaught of some of the most asinine and insulting dialogue ever put to film. The first five minutes has dozens and dozens of slurs. You are struck, as a viewer, at how this not only isn’t the best movie of 2004, but how it barely feels like a movie at all. It feels more like a play written in a creative writing class full of teenagers. It is relentless with its message, and it assumes that you, as a viewer, will forget what it means to say if it ever stops saying it for one second.

For those of you who have not seen it, Crash is about racism. A handful of people in Los Angeles interact with the classic “other” stereotypes that they are most afraid of until they are all connected by a shoestring plot. Everything that happens in the movie serves to “challenge” the viewer. No one is “good” and no one is “bad,” everyone is just afraid of the “other.” Black people get pulled over and are mistreated by white people. A Chinese man gets run over by black people who essentially leave him to die. A white lady feels threatened by a Latino who is fixing her lock. There’s no reason to delve into the specifics of the plot. It is enough to know that Crash really, really wants you to think about what you think you know about racists. Surprise, everyone is racist at all times, to everyone.

It becomes a challenge to find any character with any redeeming qualities. People don’t act like people, they act like stand-ins for evil ideas. You know when you read an obvious allegory and someone’s name is like, Charity, or Hope or something and you roll your eyes because the author thought you were so stupid that you might not understand anything not spelled all the way out for you? Crash is worried you will miss the forest, the trees, and the ground. It’s shocking people aren’t wearing T-shirts that list the themes they represent on them.

In one of the opening scenes, Ludacris carjacks the Defense Attorney of Los Angeles. He does this after giving a long speech about how he felt discriminated against when he didn’t get enough coffee with his spaghetti at an Italian restaurant. You can accuse me of leaving out parts to make that sound absurd, but then you’d have to see Crash, wouldn’t you?

Is Crash all bad? No, not by a long shot. There are actually some decent scenes in the second act of the movie, but they are all shattered by these interjected lines. Every time some tension develops or a conflict goes somewhere, someone all but screams a slur at the camera. It robs the movie of any authenticity. This gets especially meta when one of the characters on a movie set hears from Tony Danza that a black character isn’t “authentic” enough. It’s clearly supposed to make the recipient of the message uncomfortable, but it is not something an authentic person would say. The movie is evil and calls this “normal.” If you want to make a movie about how no one is truly good or evil, you can’t make everyone evil all the time. There’s no baseline. It’s sci-fi without rules.

Some special attention needs to be given to the music. Nearly every “important” scene where two stories intersect has this weird Gladiator-style choral music over it. The effect is that even when a scene is in danger of getting to a good place, it takes you out of it. It happens every time the movie gets really, really proud of itself. It never happens deservedly.

If it was just some movie that came on TBS on a Saturday afternoon you would watch five minutes of it, snap back into yourself, and turn on some other horrible movie. The biggest sin of Crash is that the people who tell us what the good movies are say it was the best of them. It should just be a forgotten, weird piece of 2004. It’s not, though, and that’s why we embark on this journey.

The Best Part: There’s an OK scene with Terrence Howard. He does OK in one scene where he gets carjacked. That scene immediately becomes one of the worst of the movie when cops with shotguns stand down after they are asked real nice.

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

Honorable mention for worst goes to Sandra Bullock, who plays a completely useless character that does not drive any element of the plot. I’m not anti-Sandra Bullock, but whoa. To call her “misused” implies that they made an attempt. They did not.

Next time we’ll be back to compare Crash to another movie. We will not stop until we have done our due diligence. We’ll answer this, once and for all: what is the Worst Best Picture?

 Image credit: IMDB