best picture

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

The Awful Truth

Alex Russell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Place in the Sun

Alex Russell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Alex Russell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seventh Heaven

Alex Russell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Quiet Man

Alex Russell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worst Best Picture: Is Midnight Cowboy Better or Worse Than Crash?

midnight

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 1969 winner Midnight Cowboy. Is it better than Crash?

Midnight Cowboy has the distinction of being the only movie rated X to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture. The story of the rating system in American film history is a little absurd. I talked about that a little bit with regards to Terms of Endearment, a really brutal movie with frequent sex scenes and more frequent “adult situations,” getting a PG rating in the early 80s. Still, “X” jumps right off the page. It makes you wonder just how raw Midnight Cowboy could be.

We’re definitely in a different world in 2014. This isn’t an “X” movie, but damn it’s a tough one. Midnight Cowboy is the tale of Joe Buck’s (Jon Voight) plan to leave Texas and be a male prostitute in New York City. He’s a hayseed of the highest order, but his character really shines because he has the depressing trait of “assumed street smarts.” Joe thinks he’s figured out all the angles in every situation, and that’s the worst thing to think when you haven’t at all.

He hooks up with Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman, who is excellent), a conman who lives in a condemned building. Joe tries to convince people to have sex with him for money and Ratso tries to convince Joe that he’s more than he seems. Joe is immediately unsuccessful and “moves in” to Ratso’s hole-in-the-wall.

It’s a story about hope and image. Both men think they have the tools to make it in the world, they just need the shot. Ratso needs a guy like Joe that he can “manage” and Joe just needs “customers.” Ratso won’t stoop to shining shoes like his old man and Joe won’t go back to washing dishes like he did in Texas. They want more for themselves, reality be damned.

We all want a little more for ourselves, and you’ll be missing the forest if you pay too much attention to the sex in Midnight Cowboy. It’s certainly a movie about sex, but the sex doesn’t matter. The main thing going on in Midnight Cowboy happens when two people shiver and get sick in an old tenement house because they can’t swallow their pride. The main thing is that we all know that guy who could get it together “if he could just make it to Florida.”

You don’t need to go to Florida. You need something else.

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

The Worst Part: As much as I want to make this about a downright stupid Andy Warhol storyline (sigh), it has to be the entire handling of homosexuality. This movie is from 1969, and that’s a definitive year in gay history in America. Midnight Cowboy came out a month before Stonewall, and it’s a movie about a guy from Texas being scared of being gay. It’s tough to discuss without spoiling it, but Joe frequently finds that he can make a living in NYC as a prostitute, but he’ll have to sleep with men. He’s not willing to – which is not the problem – but the anger and the weirdness of the way they deal with it in the most explosive year in gay history in America is very strange. I can’t fully condemn a movie from more than four decades ago for not handling gay issues head-on. I can be weirded out by hearing Dustin Hoffman say a gay slur about twelve times in a row.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? We’re across the country in Midnight Cowboy, but we’ve got the same kind of “gritty city” story. The NYC of Midnight Cowboy is a sad, angry, lonely place. It’s not dissimilar to the LA that Crash wants to talk about, but this is 1969 New York City. It’s the city before they took all the porn out of Times Square. It’s the bad old days, the days talked about in really good and really bad literature. It’s a piece locked in a time that doesn’t exist anymore, and the grit is there to explain what “1969” is to the audience. Crash, as I’ve said before, exists in a mythical 2005. Racism is extremely real, but as the story of anywhere real in 2005, Crash is a bad destination movie.

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

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 Wings 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. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1927 and 1928 winner Wings. Is it better than Crash?

The story of movie history isn’t the story of how we got to 12 Years a Slave any more than it is how we started with Wings, the first Best Picture winner. Different movies achieve immortality for different reasons. Wings was the first Oscar winner, back before they even called them that, but is it anything more than that?

It’s surreal to watch Wings in 2014. I try to keep the time period a movie is from in my mind when I watch it, but that’s not the challenge here. Rain Man is a fantastic movie that someone spilled 80s all over; Wings is pure 1927. It’s the only true silent movie to win (The Artist doesn’t count and should be ignored), for starters. A two-and-a-half hour silent movie seems like it would be a tough sell in 2014, but it’s worth exploring the first Best Picture.

Wings is the story of two boys who love the same gal, Sylvia. They both want to date her, but she only likes one back. The other guy’s cute friend is into him, but he’s only got eyes for Sylvia. I had to look up Sylvia’s name because she’s in about sixteen seconds of this movie. The boys go off to World War I, plucky female friend goes off to drive an ambulance in the war, and Sylvia presumably dies of Spanish flu, or something. Everyone kinda forgets her. It’s weird. The movie is unbelievably long, but that’s the end of that plotline, let’s go to war.

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

The main characters — Jack and David — are completely nondescript. They both love America, flying, this possibly dead woman, and just about nothing else. Wings is a patriotic movie before it is anything else, and it too often is willing to forego any interesting characterization to sell that patriotism. Of particular interest is a German-American character played to be incompetent and useless. He consistently mucks up simple tasks and has to demonstrate that he belongs in the war because he has an American flag tattoo. The creators of Wings knew that people wouldn’t buy him any other way.  The third or fourth time that happens, though, you start to wonder if this might have even been too long for people in 1927.

Clara Bow got top billing on Wings. She was a movie star of the highest order, and her portrayal of the rough-and-tumble “best friend/love interest” for Jack is as close as the movie gets to “interesting characterization.” It never quite gets all the way there, but she at least gets to drive an ambulance around and tell Jack that he’s brave and strong. Hoo-boy, that sentence really tells you where 1927 was at, doesn’t it?

The Best Part: Wings is not especially worth your time in 2014, but if you decide to watch it you’ll end up with a compelling movie. It’s way, way too long (largely because it feels totally unedited) but it eventually turns out an interesting climax that is somewhat surprising.

The Worst Part: Jack and David get some leave from the military and go to Paris to get drunk on champagne. They’re called back to provide needed air support, but Jack is too drunk to remember what the military is. Internet tells me that Charles “Buddy” Rogers, the guy that plays Jack, had never been drunk before the scene. To create a realistic portrayal, they just got him drunk in real life. It comes through like that, and it’s as hard to watch as any real-life drunk. Clara Bow eventually shows up to try to get him to go back to war, which helps, but the scene ends with Jack seeing “bubbles” everywhere. The mixture of a real drunk person on screen and some terrible bubble special effects creates a really, really bad scene.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashThe discussion of race in Wings is one of “real” Americans. The German-American is hated because he is not “authentic.” The women are hated because they are not men. Men are hated because they are not “real soldiers.” The world of Wings has no room for diversity, and it’s roughly as interested in a positive message about diversity as Crash is. But there’s 78 years between Crash and Wings, and honestly, I felt like Wings was a little more progressive. The only message of Wings is “be a man, fly a plane!” Crash would be improved by being just about that.

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

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 Shakespeare in Love 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. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1998 winner Shakespeare in Love. Is it better than Crash?

While most Western storytelling owes an indirect debt to Shakespeare, there are two Best Picture winners that are directly Shakespearean: 1948’s Hamlet and 1998’s Shakespeare in LoveHamlet will have to wait.

The whole point of watching all 86 Best Picture winners is to gain an appreciation for nearly a century of film history. I wanted to see where film had come from and to watch that transformation through the films that the Academy had deemed “the best” every year. It’s not a perfect science for a number of reasons — taste chief among them — but it’s as good as guide as any.

hated Crash when I saw it. I hated it so much that I thought that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I remembered it and I bought it to watch it again. It was worse — much, much worse — and thus this began. This is the 25% mark. We’re 23 down, 63 to go. Shakespeare in Love, a movie often called romantic but forgettable, seems as good as any for a benchmark.

Shakespeare in Love is the story of young Shakespeare trying to write what would eventually become Romeo and Juliet. He struggles, he falls in love with a woman who is promised to a man she does not love, and he finds his muse through a secret love affair. It’s a fine movie, the same way that waffles without butter and syrup are still fine.

There is absolutely nothing in Shakespeare and Love that is challenging or interesting. It’s just a series of events, well told and well acted, but not one that really engages. I didn’t get into The Artist, but I saw how someone could. I’m not entirely sure how someone could be swept away by Shakespeare in Love. It’s a film without challenges.

I’m loathe to invoke the odious “chick flick” as a term, and I won’t, but this movie feels like it’s just attempting “heart.” It feels like someone telling you to feel “warm” rather than making you feel warm. I was a sucker for the warmth of It Happened One Night, so I’ve got red blood in my veins. You don’t have to have Clark Gable to make me care about a love story, but man, this one just feels hollow. It certainly isn’t bad, but then again, it isn’t much of anything.

The Best Part: The acting is all over the map in this one, but Judi Dench is phenomenal as Elizabeth I. She gets in most of the movie’s best lines, which is good, because it would be a shame to waste her. I also like Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of the female lead, and I haven’t really liked her in anything other than The Royal Tenenbaums.

The Worst Part: A movie about Shakespeare is obviously going to have to use some Shakespearean plot devices, but the scene where a man must portray a female servant to gain knowledge of someone’s plans is as subtle as an aircraft carrier. Gender swapping is a crucial part of the movie, and that’s fine, but still… eh. The whole movie just seems to have this lack of effort surrounding it, but I may be heavily influenced by the weirdness of Ben Affleck in the whole deal.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashForgettable is better than horrible. I cannot imagine what would cause Shakespeare in Love to be someone’s favorite movie, but I would want to know. If Crash is anyone’s favorite movie, that’s an entirely different story. That needs to inspire some kind of quarantine area situation.

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 |

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 Driving Miss Daisy 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. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1989 winner Driving Miss Daisy. Is it better than Crash?

I was a history major in college. In every good discussion of race through American history, someone always mentioned that context was king. It’s easy to say “times were different and people were worse,” but you have to be able to put yourselves in some historical shoes to really get it. It’s not just about America’s troubling past, it’s about why people believe what they believe and act like they act.

A movie like Driving Miss Daisy does a lot of “what” without a lot of “why.” It’s a story you probably know to some degree: Morgan Freeman drives an old white lady around. That’s basically it. The old white lady (Jessica Tandy) in question is also Jewish, which I wasn’t aware of going in, but most of the “otherness” of the movie is all in white vs. black.

I gave it away in the intro, but if you had to guess what year a movie about an older black man driving an older white woman around as they learn about cultural differences and how to overcome them came out, would you have said 1989? The year the Berlin Wall reopened? That’s the craziest part, to me. The movie spans a few decades around the 50s and 60s, which helps to complicate the “should I feel this gross watching this?” element of it all.

It’s not a racist movie. The duo talks about MLK. They experience racial violence and are disgusted. They get stopped by racist cops. They share experiences over most of the twilight of their lives. It’s not racist, but it’s… awkward.

There’s just not a lot going on here. The lesson seems to be that if you’re already not racist in Georgia, you won’t be extra racist to Morgan Freeman. It just feels so unnecessary and so hokey outside of a few genuinely touching moments. It’s not quite sunny enough to feel as surreal as Gigi but it certainly is on-the-nose enough about race to feel at home on the shelf with Gentleman’s Agreement. The journey isn’t “mean racist lady” to “nice old lady,” it’s “mean old lady who hates Morgan Freeman” to “somewhat less mean old lady who loves Morgan Freeman.”

Watching this in 2014 is weird, but not for the same reason a lot of these are weird. With this one you just start to wonder what people will think about 1989 that people then needed this movie. It’s a well done buddy movie with an interesting pairing — James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury are playing the duo now, and man, what? — but it ends up feeling pretty slight compared to some movies on this list.

The Best Part: The near-universal love for Morgan Freeman is deserved. He’s pretty spectacular in this role. He’s warm and hopeful, but he’s also a complete character. He’s loyal to the characters he’s sided himself with, but he’s not above making a play for a raise through leverage. He’s fascinating, and he’s what saves this from being a full-on weird relic.

The Worst Part: Dan Aykroyd was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the son who hires Morgan Freeman. I’ll admit I’m sour on Aykroyd a little now because he’s become somewhat of a professional weirdo and hasn’t been in a good movie for a very long time, but he’s still downright bizarre in this movie. His Southern accent involves lots of “o” sounds, and he’s given the unfortunate task of violating “show don’t tell” to remind the audience they’re watching a movie set in Georgia. He keeps walking on screen and announcing things like, “You sound like Governor Talmadge!”

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The character of Miss Daisy is Sandra Bullock’s character from Crash, but with some sort of a lesson. I talk about this part of Crash a lot. If you’re curious, most of her part of the movie is actually on YouTubeCrash is all built on people going from bad to worse in one way or another, but only poor Sandy goes from worse to… no change at all. They don’t redeem her or punish her. She’s just left as a constant device. Miss Daisy’s character doesn’t have much of an arc, either, but at least her relationship with her chauffeur does. Once again, the world of Crash is a meaner place than a movie where two cops call Morgan Freeman “boy.”

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 |

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 It Happened One Night 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. This is intended to be mostly spoiler-free, but there may be minor details mentioned. Today’s installment is the 1934 winner It Happened One Night. Is it better than Crash?

It’s very strange to consider what has become the “canon” of romantic films. Movies like CasablancaRoman Holiday, and Annie Hall are the standards by which every portrayal of romance is judged. It Happened One Night escaped my radar for the most part, but it’s definitely a movie that is in that list of ideal films.

As I watch every Best Picture Oscar winner I am struck by how few of these I’ve actually seen. There are a ton of movies — How Green Was My Valley comes to mind whenever I look at the full list — that I am vaguely aware of, but mostly they just don’t exist in my mental database. I don’t claim to be a qualified judge of all of film history, but I do appreciate a good movie. It Happened One Night is a good movie.

Clark Gable is a down-on-his-luck reporter, and he stumbles across the biggest news story in the country when Claudette Colbert enters his life. She’s on the run from her rich father and on the way to New York to be with her new husband. There’s a reward for her return, and Gable plans to either collect or to cash in by telling her story. He’s just gotta not fall in love along the way, d’awww!

I won’t pretend I walked into a movie from 1934 expecting something genuinely sweet and funny. There are an insane number of cuts — one extremely important scene in a bedroom cuts three times in as many minutes — and some of the wackier stuff doesn’t really work. In the opening scene, Claudette Colbert jumps off of a boat to swim to Florida. A man runs into a swamp because he’s afraid. Another man is tied to a tree and left to die, and that story is just abandoned. A guy lands a helicopter at a wedding. There’s some wild madness going on in the background, but the leading couple carries the load of it well. They both give superhuman performances; they’re both interesting, memorable, and sincerely funny even by modern standards.

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

The Best Part: On their first night alone together the couple is forced to pretend to be married to avoid suspicion. It’s a very sweet scene, and it’s played with a mix of playfulness and restraint. Paired with a scene in the morning where they throw a fake fight/screaming match to convince the cops they’re actually married, it’s damned excellent. It would need zero updating to work in 2014.

The Worst Part: On the way to New York the couple hitchhikes with a guy who sings everything he says. He is completely unexplained. I cannot tell you why this man sings his sentences. At one point someone flies an “autogyro” into a wedding, and I can explain that more than this man.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashIt’s a Clark Gable romantic comedy from the 1930s. You don’t need me to write this to know it’s “a good movie.” It’s the kind of movie that makes this whole thing silly. Is it better than Crash? It has Clark Damn Gable in it. The point of this project is to explore the idea that awards and praise don’t necessarily mean a movie is “great,” but of course this one is. Above all else it’s fascinating how timeless much of it is. Some plot elements — a woman runs away and is front page news for weeks in a row — are absurd now, but the jokes all still work. It’s actually funny even in 2014. Crash was instantly dated and will get more so as time advances. This, so long as people can forget some of their cynicism for a second, will endure.

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 |

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

 Image source: Oscars.org