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Worst Best Picture: Is The King’s Speech Better or Worse Than Crash?

The King's Speech

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 2010 winner The King’s Speech. Is it better than Crash?

The toughest job The King’s Speech has is convincing the the audience that it’s rough out there for the King of England.

The premise is amazingly simple: The king has a stutter, but he has to give a speech to rally England against Hitler. This is a movie that was up against Inception for Best Picture in 2010, and it’s hard to imagine two movies farther apart on the “complicated” spectrum. If anything, The King’s Speech feels even simpler than that boiled-down plot. It doesn’t always suffer from starkness, but it’s almost entirely devoid of supporting characters, solo scenes, or anything else that would distract from the absolute brass tacks of one man teaching another man to enunciate.

King George VI (Colin Firth, who won an Oscar for the role) starts the movie as just a mere prince, and the movie opens with him speaking to a massive assembled crowd. He cracks and can’t do it, and thus a conflict is born. He understands the importance of public speaking, but his brash older would-be-king brother is next in line anyway. His brother ascends and descends the throne, and there’s your ballgame: George has to learn to speak publicly.

His wife (played by Helena Bonham Carter, who was also Oscar-nominated for the role despite really not getting enough to do) enlists the Australian Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, nominated as well) to work a miracle. I mention the “‘Australian” there because it’s always remarkable how often a movie about high class British society has to remind the world that you can turn anything into an excuse to belittle someone.

Firth said after filming the movie that it was somewhat of a challenge to fully return to normal speech after affecting the stutter for the role. It’s a remarkable performance, to be sure, and it really sells the “journey” of the character. Rush is mostly there for Firth to bounce off of, and everyone else in the movie is barely there at all. There’s a particularly — this is the only word for it — distracting performance by Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill which just comes off as intensely weird. Firth is intense and Rush is light-hearted, but that’s all we’re sure of. The movie isn’t always sure what to do with everyone else.

The movie’s “awesome” in the way that all movies about British royalty are big and flamboyant. A lot of the criticism for The King’s Speech centers on how the movie doesn’t deal with Britain’s role in appeasement with Germany leading up to World War II, but aside from the two main leads, it doesn’t really take time to do much of anything. It’s hard to see where they’d find the screentime.

The Best Part: The final, titular speech is great, sure, but the real gem is the lead up to that. Just as King George VI is finally finding his voice, Logue is found out to be a self-trained speech therapist. Their conversation in Westminster Abbey is superb. I don’t know what kind of person would take my word on this but just watch one scene, but if that’s you, get to it.

The Worst Part: At one point Helena Bonham Carter (when she’s still just a duchess) appears to Logue to ask for his services. She wants to be discreet about asking for treatment for the Duke of York, and he clearly has no idea who she is. Later in the film — though at this point she is the new queen, I suppose — Logue’s wife is speechless upon running into her. In both scenes Carter’s character is who she needs to be in the moment, but in neither scene is the movie interested with why characters react that way to her. It’s a slight complaint, but it’s the kind of thing that makes the characters so strange in this movie. No one cared enough to spend time on those little details, which is odd. Maybe I just love Helena Bonham Carter?

Is It Better or Worse than CrashYeah, this one passes the test as better than Crash. It’s a powerful movie even the second time around. It made me consider this, as well: What movies will be remembered as “the greats” from this era? Everyone will always list The Godfather and Casablanca as legends of a previous era, but what does the 2010s have? It already feels weird that this and The Artist made that list. I have to think that 30 years from now if someone asked about The King’s Speech someone would remember it as a “powerful” movie more than a “great” one, but there’s certainly no shame in just being something worthy of note.

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 |

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: Daily Mail

Worst Best Picture: Is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Better or Worse Than Crash?

Frodo_and_Sam_at_Mt_Doom

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 2003 winner The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Is it better than Crash?

You’re not supposed to read comments online. Everyone knows that. I try not to, but I had to see what people hated about one of the most decorated Best Picture Oscar winners of all time.

There are 15 negative reviews for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King on Rotten Tomatoes. One review says that the epic story of orcs, hobbits, and elves lacks “believability.” One calls it racist. One says it “lacks substance.” None of these are actually reviews of the movie, they’re reviews of the book masquerading as movie reviews. They are all written from a perspective wherein the reviewer either isn’t aware of the wildly popular source material or doesn’t care. All 15 are varying degrees of mad at Peter Jackson for supposedly making “The Lord of the Rings” idea up, and they all seem to believe he shouldn’t have bothered.

Whenever you can’t stand something that everyone likes it can be easy to entrench yourself. All 15 reviewers there saw a movie that made a billion dollars and tied Titanic and Ben-Hur as the most decorated Academy Award-winning movie of all time. They saw this movie, they hated it, and they demanded the world know of their hate. Awards and box office totals aren’t the only measures of a good movie – Crash won three Oscars and made nearly 100 million dollars and the entire point of this series is to prove that it is a very specific kind of awful movie – but it is easy to see how those 15 people had to swing for the fences.

The final Lord of the Rings movie went up against Lost in Translation for its Best Picture award. The contrast there is interesting, and I have to wonder if there’s a bigger possible disparity between “loud” and “quiet” in two movies. The Return of the King was a slam dunk in many ways, especially because its award seemed like destiny after A Beautiful Mind and Chicago beat the first two installments.

It’s a strange experience to rewatch it in 2014. It’s very hard to avoid the Lord of the Rings movies in our world. There has to be some broadcast law about one of them being on TNT or FX every single day. I sat down and watched it again and was left with a feeling of great contentedness. I was glad to see that a movie I remembered as a masterpiece held up. It’s strange at times and wonderful in unexpected ways at others, but it is a mammoth achievement of filmmaking that deserves the accolades it gets.

I also briefly considered exploring how Faramir’s attempts to earn his father’s respect parallel the attempts of Terrence Howard’s character in Crash, but then again, life is way too short to think about that even long enough to finish this sentennnnnnnnc ugh ugh ugh ugh.

The Best Part: The fight at Minas Tirith feels huge and important, and the shifting perspective from inside and outside the castle walls makes it feel more like a fully realized fight. There are multiple “starts” to the fight that all allow for different discussions of heroics and bravery. There’s nothing to not like about how the whole thing is handled, and the most fascinating part of it is just how early it happens in the movie. There’s an entire hour of “climax” after Minas Tirith, but it’s in that battle that the movie won its Oscar. Watch something like Troy try to do the same thing and you will gain more respect for it.

The Worst Part: It’s tempting to call this the length – the unextended version is well over three hours – but it’s more just the ending itself. The movie is great at pacing until it absolutely is not, at all. This is especially telling because the actual end to the novel has even more than the movie does. It seems like if they had already decided to cut off a big part of the ending, then what’s the harm in going even farther?

Is It Better or Worse than CrashCrash has no hobbits in it, so of course it is a lesser movie. No, but really, it’s possible to consider The Return of the King an oversized popcorn movie or to judge it on length. It’s also worth discussing to question if it represents the source material completely; there’s a lot left out that some viewers might see as worthy of inclusion. Whatever stones you turn over to try to pick apart the best of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, though, you will not find a problem that helps you compare it to Crash.

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 |

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

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

1987_iconic_picture_platoon

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 1986 winner Platoon. Is it better than Crash?

If someone asked you to see a movie about the evils of war and the dual nature of man with regard to good and evil, you might be on board. If someone told you that movie had Charlie Sheen at the center, you would need to ask what year it was.

Charlie Sheen’s career is a curious one. A few years back people were going to Charlie Sheen live shows just to see what he’d do. He went crazy in public and everyone gawked at it because mental stability is razor-thin. Everyone is afraid to lose their mind. Everyone is fascinated to watch it happen to someone that, apparently, no one really wants to help.

Tiger blood and whatever aside, Platoon is Charlie Sheen in Oliver Stone’s manifesto about how war is hell. He joins a huge cast that also includes Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, John C. McGinley, Keith David, and Tom Berenger all yelling at each other about how best to handle being left in Vietnam with no clear purpose. It’s certainly about Vietnam, but it’s also about how adversity changes a person. The titular platoon is divided into two camps. One follows Dafoe’s by-the-book approach of not murdering and raping people, the other sides with the crazed Berenger and his apparent plan to save the village by destroying it.

This may sound odd, but there’s an awful lot of actual war in this war movie. People who watch Full Metal Jacket for the first time are often surprised that the entirety of the scenes and quotes they know all happen in the first half hour or so. All of Full Metal Jacket‘s cultural cache happens before they even get to the damn war. Not so with Platoon. Oliver Stone makes a deliberate choice to keep the camera on the violence. Over and over, the cast is thrust into the jungle to get shot at again. It’s a two hour movie and at least a full hour of it takes place with gunfire in the background.

The effect is very real: War is everywhere, and when you are at war, doubly so. It makes for an uneasy viewing that constantly drills home what Oliver Stone wanted to say: Do not ever romanticize this. He’s said that he made the movie because he felt that too often audiences were only presented with positive and heroic portrayals of war.

Platoon is a brutal movie. When McGinley’s character saves himself during a firefight by hiding under dead bodies, it is both frightening and sad. The Vietnam War is never an easy subject to discuss in American history, but the general consensus seems to be that it was at the very least a damned shame. Platoon is essential viewing to understand the American experience, and whatever you think of Oliver Stone’s personal politics, this movie’s only agenda is tough to debate.

The Best Part: For sheer memorability, the scene where McGinley covers himself with a body to survive stands out. The firefights are so arresting that even 30 years later they still create a sense of anxiety and dread. Forrest Gump‘s ‘Nam is very similar, but it doesn’t feel like it matters. This feels real — too real — and the movie hums because it scares and depresses the viewer.

The Worst Part: Berenger’s character is a brutal villain. War movies often only show one side of a conflict, so it can be tough to discern a “villain” in the classic sense. In this movie, it’s definitely him. He tries to sow dissent through violence and threats. He reacts to someone saying that he should cool down by burning down a town. He’s the violence in all of us wrapped up into one scarred up guy. If there’s an issue with him, it’s that he’s never really explained. He’s left as this uber-asshole, just a guy who wants chaos for chaos’ sake. Those people assuredly exist, but he could be deeper with some motive.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It can be tempting to just say that Platoon is good and Crash is not, but it’s about the whyPlatoon stirs the pot by forcing Americans to watch one of their greatest nightmares on camera. Crash stirs the pot by demanding that present day is worse than we admit. War and racism are both complicated and both bad, but we’re on board for that. The challenge is to find something new to say, and Platoon does. The “good” guys in Platoon are still burning down a town and at war. They’re still racists and violent lunatics — they’re just less so than their counterparts. Platoon introduces shades of grey into what war does to a person. Crash suggests that shades of grey are just what we pretend exist because we won’t open our eyes. Both are negative messages, but one is without hope, and that’s just not interesting. It’s not the pessimism that dooms Crash, it’s how damn happy to be “right” about its message that does.

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 |

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

Worst Best Picture: Is A Man for All Seasons Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: the guardian

image source: the guardian

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 1966 winner A Man for All Seasons. Is it better than Crash?

Country music is an unbeatable source for stories about divorce. Tammy Wynette sang the classically-sad “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” in 1968, a song about the then-revolutionary idea that women also experience sadness in a divorce.

It must have been going around, because just two years earlier two films obsessed with divorce were nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Man for All Seasons. The former is the better movie. Woolf? is a rager of a film, the story of four people’s lives finally going over the falls of madness and sadness at the same time over one night of debauchery and delusion. The latter, A Man for All Seasons, is the quiet story of a man sticking to his principles up until the point that they send him to his death.

A Man for All Seasons is the story of the end of Sir Thomas More, the man who refused to sanction Henry VIII’s divorce… mostly because it involved Henry VIII usurping the Pope and creating a new religion for the entire nation. More stands his ground as the last reasonable man of God in his world, and he’s pretty much right. His only crime is refusing to give the King what he demands, but in his day that’s about the worst you could do.

It’s the story of principles and the lack thereof. More is played as a saint right up until the end. His antagonists scream at him and threaten him and call him an idiot. More takes it all in stride — though he does imply that they’re all going to Hell, so, well, maybe let’s put “stride” in quotes — but he really handles it well until the court scene at the end. He refuses to give a slimy guy named Richard Rich a job in his court over and over because he sees him as disloyal and opportunistic. When Rich perjures himself to send More to death and More loses his damned mind on him, it’s really a popcorn moment in a pretty dry drama about principles and honesty. It’s weird, but it’s awesome.

I’m just going to come out and say that this movie did not blow me away at first. It feels capital-I Important, for sure, but it doesn’t really get going until the second act. The closing court scene is rousing, but there’s a ton of setup to get there. Everyone is very serious — I mean, the King’s killing folks — but even in the context it gets to be a bit much.

Paul Scofield, though! I’ll admit to not being up on my Paul Scofield knowledge, but he’s apparently in rarefied air: He died one letter short of the EGOT. His performance in this movie is amazing. He earns the hell out of his Best Actor award in 1966 for his portrayal of Sir Thomas More, and beats Richard Burton, Alan Arkin, Michael Caine, and Steve McQueen for the honor. If you aren’t going to invest the full two hours to watch Scofield’s fall, you should do some YouTubing for the courtroom scene at the end at the very least. He shines extremely brightly in a movie that’s not necessarily one for the ages.

The Best Part: A crazy, drunk-off-his-ass looking Orson Welles! He plays Cardinal Wolsey, the brief boss of Sir Thomas More. I say brief because he has two scenes: He shows up and yells at More and then gets hauled off to die immediately in prison. The movie’s cast may be largely unknown to the average modern viewer, but it’s impossible to miss Orson Welles. He looks enormous in Cardinal robes and it’s impossible to imagine that he lived for two more decades after this performance. It’s amazing.

The Worst Part: The setup of the story of Sir Thomas More’s undoing is an interesting part of English history, but it’s not a very fascinating thing to watch. This thing wakes up like it doesn’t want to go to school in the morning. It’s almost 40% of the way into the movie before anything “happens” in a sense.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s absolutely not an unremarkable movie, but it feels like an odd choice for Best Picture. Crash seems a ridiculous choice. It seems absurd that it would even be thought of in a positive light in the first place, much less the most positive light. A Man for All Seasons maintains all of the gravitas that won it Best Picture all those years ago, but it doesn’t feel essential. It does feel good, though, so it’s several magnitudes better than Crash.

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 |

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

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

video-artist-anatomy-articleLarge-v2

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 2011 winner The Artist. Is it better than Crash?

There are 228 reviews of the 2011 Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. 224 of them are positive. The people have spoken: The Artist is apparently fantastic.

It’s also a slog to watch, and not just because it’s a silent movie made in the last five years. There’s no problem with the artistic choice to make a silent movie the better part of a century after the end of the artform. That much is ambitious and that much is why Moneyball and The Help and everything else that year had absolutely no chance against it.

It’s not “boring,” though that criticism might show up on a lot of personal reviews of The Artist. It’s the story of a silent film star on top of the world who gets dethroned by a young, unknown starlet. They coexist at the top of their game for a while, but she is willing to make movies with sound and he decidedly is not. Sound comes, audiences leave silent films in the dust, and our poor hero refuses to change with the times. Oh, and there’s about 75 minutes of dog tricks. For real.

The Artist made me feel like a teenager in an art gallery. It gave me the feeling of being able to recognize that something is “important” but not being able to pry out why everyone else is fawning over it. The grandeur of the silent film era and the nostalgia for a time gone by is easy to understand. The film pours this on thick as it opens with the cast waiting for an audience to clap after watching a zany sped-up silent film. Everyone loves it, silent movies are just movies, and time is frozen in the Greatest Generation of cinema.

The switch from silent films to “talkies” has a nice effect in the film as the main character starts to actually hear sounds in his life. It’s a neat element of the “silent film about the end of silent films shot after the end of silent films” movie, and it’s a bright spot in a movie that doesn’t take any other risks at all.

The climactic scene of the silent film star burning his original reels carries some heft to it, but it’s almost impressive how slight the entire film feels. This is one of film history’s greatest shifts — and there are scenes where a guy tries to burn down his house and shoot himself — but it embodies the campy feel of a silent movie so strongly that no one ever gets a chance to matter. No one learns any lessons, though they do grow. They grow for no intended reason, however, so the moral is apparently something akin to “just wait and life will work out, even if you try to burn down your house.”

Even if you buy it into it as a period piece (which you must, apparently) it is just such a slow movie. It’s only 100 minutes long — insanely short for a Best Picture winner — but it drags from start to finish. Almost all of the film is in the window dressing, and so if you don’t get into the aesthetic you certainly won’t be wowed by the plot. You’re far better off with All About Eve – just about the same story just a few decades later in time with much, much, much more venom. You might recognize that movie as the way people really behave.

The Best Part: It’s surprisingly sweet at times. There is a very sweet moment where the leads exchange fleeting glances as the silent star walks down a staircase out of the movie studio and the young starlet ascends it. For how hamfisted most of the mugging is later in the movie, this image will persist long after the film is forgotten.

The Worst Part: There was a campaign around the release of the movie to nominate the dog for Best Supporting Actor. I love dogs. In the spirit of a piece where I compare pieces of cinema, this would mean equating Robert De Niro with a dog.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I would not suggest that it’s worse, but a lot of that has to do with genre. It’s impossible to compare a movie about the end of an era with a movie like Crash, especially because Crash insists that “post 9/11” is the era of today, tomorrow, and the century after that. The Artist is about growing out of your notions about the future and learning to adapt in a way that you still feel valid. Crash is about how any growth or development is a myth that should be responded to with distrust. You have to change in the world of The Artist. You never can — even if you try, which you shouldn’t — in Crash. How is a movie about the end of a loved artform more hopeful than anything?

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 |

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: NY Times

Worst Best Picture: Is The Silence of the Lambs Better or Worse Than Crash?

1992_iconic_actor_hopkins

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 1992 winner The Silence of the Lambs. Is it better than Crash?

I can’t be sure, but The Silence of the Lambs might be the most decorated movie in history to use the c-word twice in the first 15 minutes.

The Silence of the Lambs is all about ugliness. It’s about what we consider ugly (deviancy) and what is ugly (violent madness). It’s about how brilliance goes two different ways, but how those paths can fork out even after that.

Everyone knows the basic story: Buffalo Bill is kidnapping and killing women, Hannibal Lecter is the only man crazy enough to know how he thinks, and Clarice Starling is the only woman who can maybe find the link between the two in time. Spoiler alert or no, you know this. You know this because everyone knows this.

It’s worth bringing up here that a quest to see every single Best Picture Oscar winner means watching a lot of movies everyone already knows. Everyone knows (more or less) the story of Braveheart and Rocky and Casablanca and Gone with the Wind. It can be easy to dismiss stories that iconic with a sort of “eh, I know those, I’m good.”

You cannot do that with The Silence of the Lambs. You must not do that. You need to see Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in this movie if for no other reason than to gain new appreciation for what you think you already know. You need to replace your acting benchmarks for greatness.

The Silence of the Lambs is one of three movies ever to win “the big five” Oscar awards (screenplay, both acting awards, director, and picture) and shares that honor with It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. To keep the frame of reference for when Lambs came out, that year also saw the release of JFKBeauty and the Beast, and HookLambs was an immediate part of the pop culture landscape. Billy Crystal hosted the Oscars that year and came out in Hannibal Lecter’s trademark dolly and mask. America’s concept of the criminally insane was forever changed, both by Buffalo Bill and by Hannibal Lecter.

America also got a new favorite line to do in a creepy voice (an award previously held, I hope, by anything Vincent Price ever said) with Lecter’s line about eating someone’s liver. You know the line. I’m not going to include it; I don’t even need to list it. Everyone you’ve ever met has told everyone they’ve ever met that line. The American Film Institute listed it as even more iconic than “Bond. James Bond.” in their list. It is an instantly recognizable representation of evil and madness. It’s tidy that way.

What is lost along the legacy of that line is that it is surrounded by an incredible, outstanding scene of Lecter meeting Clarice for the first time. The scene’s most chilling elements have nothing to do with Lecter saying he ate someone – they are everything else. The best part is the chill that we feel for Clarice as she tries to act unafraid. The line itself is outstanding, but it’s a blunt object at this point. The rest of the scene is all finesse in its horror. It is terrifying with opportunity, because the unaccustomed viewer knows Lecter says this one creepy thing, but they don’t know about his love of control. They don’t know that his madness manifests in creating and solving puzzles more than outward acts of terror and mayhem. He’s mostly a quiet kind of insane – but yeah, he’ll also eat your liver.

The Best Part: The meeting scene. It happens 15 minutes into the movie, but it perfectly establishes everything in the movie’s world. Clarice is inwardly strong but outwardly terrified, and that combination just might keep her both sane and alive. Lecter is defensive, but also willing to tip his hand if he thinks he needs to do so. The audience wants Clarice to hold back, but we love that she can bare herself – even though in this case it’s to a demented cannibal.

The Worst Part: This feels very, very small, but I kept noticing it. An important part of the tension of The Silence of the Lambs is about how Clarice has enemies that aren’t literal. She’s haunted by her past as much as she’s ever hunted by murderers. They handle her past well — it spawns the title — but the attempts to remind everyone that she’s a lady and ladies have it tough don’t all land. Some, like a discussion between Clarice and her boss about establishing that she’s not lesser because she’s a woman really work despite being obvious. Others, like how every single man she encounters stands too close and checks her out, are maybe too obvious.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The common thread between the two movies? Relentlessness. Lambs is about pursuit in the face of danger and Crash is about confirming or rejecting your biases. One character in Crash wants to so strongly be an anti-racist (one of the only ones in the film) and ends up shooting someone of another race before abandoning his car to hide the body. Lambs teaches that pursuit can be dangerous but rewarding, and that not everyone can pay that price. Crash teaches that all attempts to better yourself or achieve anything will be met with failure. Lambs lacks a distinct moral on purpose, Crash has a terrible moral on accident.

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 |

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 credit: Oscars.org

Worst Best Picture: Is The Last Emperor 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 1987 winner The Last Emperor. Is it better than Crash?

If you need to know what kind of year 1987 was, it was the year that Throw Mama from the Train earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Anne Ramsey (who played Danny DeVito’s horrible, angry mother) lost the award to Michael Dukakis’ cousin, who was in a movie with Cher.

That’s what the world was watching in 1987, when The Last Emperor beat Fatal Attraction and Moonstruck for the Oscar for Best Picture.

The Last Emperor is a true story, more or less, and you watch a true story differently than the average movie. The film is set in a difficult time for Asia that Western audiences will never understand the entirety of, but the basics are simple: China dethrones the Emperor (Pu Yi, the titular last Emperor), Japan invades part of China and sets up a puppet government led by the ousted emperor Pu Yi, and China throws him out again after Japan loses the war. World War II is in many ways a more complicated time in history than “good” and “bad” and thankfully, the movie doesn’t do much to paint anyone as necessarily any better than anyone else.

It’s not a movie about rightness or goodness; it’s just a movie about Pu Yi. He is born into his ruling life in the Forbidden City and sees no reason to question that he’s in charge. He grows up untroubled by the country he supposedly leads until he finds out that he’s not actually as in charge as he’s been told. He senses that the end is coming far before it does, and the movie is about the development of the kind of person who ruled everyone he’d ever met into… well, a regular person.

He learns much of the world outside of the Forbidden City through his tutor (Peter O’Toole). O’Toole gives a surreal performance as he rides a bike around and talks about tennis and manhood. This tutor apparently existed for the real Pu Yi, but while it’s nice that the film wanted to nail this bit of accuracy it’s just a really odd performance. O’Toole has the gravitas to not ruin the tone of the epic itself, but his performance is so rushed and spotty that it seems like he feels like he has a more important movie to be in at times.

Pu Yi learns, he marries (two women at the same time), and he leaves. The army throws him out and he wanders Asia for a bit before returning to a form of his throne during a Japanese invasion. Once the Japanese are expelled by Russian troops, Pu Yi is captured and forced to tell his life story as part of his war criminal rehab. The movie uses this life story retelling as a structure for “why” we see all of Pu Yi’s life. It’s an effective technique, but the movie aims to include so damn much of his life in this telling that it ends up being something they would definitely cut into pieces in 2014. It’s a really full movie — I would like to go into his wives and opium and pregnancy, but that part of the movie drags a bit — and it can be tough to watch as a result. The payoff is good, but the movie could have benefited by being more judicious with the editing.

There’s no spoiling the end of a true story, especially a biography. Pu Yi lives to see Mao’s rise and Maoists in the streets. He is just another gardener by the end of the movie, and it’s hard to determine if he minds having lost his royal roots. China has changed. He is both better and worse off. He won’t be part of the Great Leap Forward, but he also knows what it’s like to be a real man. Such is the cost of progress.

As far as Crash is concerned, I’ve talked a ton about a particular scene where Terrence Howard’s character is carjacked. In the scene, Howard turns the attempted carjacking into a police chase through the suburbs and eventually gets into a standoff with the LAPD. The short of it is that he is disrespected earlier in the movie (a few times, once by the cops) and the scene is meant to show that he has reached his breaking point. He needs to exert control over the universe to feel like he is still the arbiter of his world. Pu Yi has the same impulse when he makes a power play as the puppet ruler of Manchukuo during the Japanese occupation.

The easy difference here is that one happened and one didn’t, but even treating them both as elements of fiction they are stark. Howard’s character risks his life to feel in control of anything in his life, even something this risky. Pu Yi sides against his home country to rule his home state, risking his life if the Chinese take the state back. Howard risks his life because his wife yelled at him. Pu Yi risks his life because his ancestral homeland has been stolen from him by the march of time. The stakes are different, which is always going to be true, but it takes some real work to understand Howard’s motivation — and I picked the best damn character in Crash. Pick anyone else and that sounds even dumber.

The Best Part: The final hour. It’s the developed arc of the life of Pu Yi. Usually a journey is more fun to watch than a result in a movie, but not this time. The first hour drags impossibly and the narrative technique of flashing back to present-day Pu Yi telling his story to an interrogator works to weave multiple parts of his life together but it does not work to make the movie feel fluid. The connective tissue feeling ends for the last hour and the film’s ambiance really takes hold. It’s immensely satisfying as a viewer when it pays off. 

The Worst Part: A lot of critical response judges the length — it’s almost three hours long — but this has to go to Peter O’Toole. In my review of 12 Years a Slave I judged Brad Pitt for his accent, but whoa. The single worst performance in a movie on this list so far has to go to the legendary Peter O’Toole in this one. He’s so clearly cashing a paycheck that he often seems to have just read from a cue card and told them “use that take or don’t, why would I care?”

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s better, but it’s different entirely. They are both arcs of development, but in Crash the development is for the worse. People essentially look at the camera to say what they’ve learned by interacting with other races and classes, and what they’ve learned is that they hated people that are different for good reason. The Last Emperor is about one man’s journey through a life he never really controls. He is born into a world he cannot change. He is neutered even when he becomes Emperor again. He lives his life and the world changes around him. His arc is his own and the arc of China, the real story of the movie, is changed with him, not by him.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a Slave |

 Image credit: AFI