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Worst Best Picture: Is Green Book Better or Worse Than Crash?

Image result for green bookimage source: universal pictures

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2018 winner Green Book. Is it better than Crash?

It’s been another year, which means another challenger has come for the throne of worst movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture. This year’s offering is Green Book, which draws comparisons to Driving Miss Daisy and Crash and a hundred other movies that people don’t think fondly of anymore. The critics largely loved it and the audience score on most review websites is through the roof. It’s a safe look at a complicated topic that doesn’t challenge the audience enough to upset them, which seems like what most people want from a movie. It did what it was supposed to do and the people who vote on Oscars said it was the best thing that came out last year as a result.

It’s very rare that people remember the also-rans when they think about a lukewarm winner. Most people would agree that the 1996 Oscars, where The English Patient beat Fargo, got it wrong, but that’s an exception to the rule. Most retroactive duds (GladiatorBraveheartThe Artist) are movies that people generally agree shouldn’t have won, but not situations where something was clearly “robbed.”

This year has a similar feeling. Most people seem to agree that Green Book is a weird choice, but it’s hard to find consensus for what should have won. Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star is Born are the movies regular, non-Oscar-voting people liked. I liked Black Panther but felt like I was missing something since I haven’t seen the other fifty-five movies in the expanded universe. I thought A Star is Born was exactly what it wanted to be, and most of my criticisms for it (“overwrought” keeps springing to mind) would be read as positive feedback by the people that made it. I hated Bohemian Rhapsody and I think it’s a genuine insult to everything else nominated that it was included in any category for any reason, but that seems to be part of the joy of the Oscars. You’re going to hate something that they nominate and that ire is part of the experience.

Vice is a messy disaster with one strong performance, which also seems to be something the Academy wants to include every year. BlacKkKlansman is great and fairly universally loved, which would make one wonder why it didn’t get more fanfare at the Oscars if the reason weren’t so obvious. Roma is a beautiful, excellent film that seems to have been undone by distribution battles behind the scenes about if Netflix “is a movie company,” which the average viewer couldn’t and shouldn’t give a damn about, but says so much more about how the Oscars work than what makes a good film.

My personal favorite movie of the year was The Favourite, which is too weird to win. I knew that when I saw it, but the recent win for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) gave me hope. I also loved Shoplifters and Sorry to Bother You, neither of which had any real chance to be in this category. Those three, Roma, and BlacKkKlansman round out my top five of the year.

So why Green Book? Everyone is talking about Crash and Driving Miss Daisy because the comparisons are so obvious, but I’m surprised I haven’t seen a comparison to Spotlight. There’s a disparity in quality (Spotlight is great, even with some distance now) but they’re both films that look at something we think we’ve confronted as a society, but haven’t really reckoned with. Green Book tells us that everything gets better if bad people spend time with good people and Spotlight tells us that putting the truth out in the world changes bad to good. We want to believe these things and we hope they happen, but does that match reality?

What makes Crash so frustrating an experience isn’t that it tackles racism, it’s that it does it so poorly. The characters are poorly drawn and the challenges people face are so extreme that the small realities of the world that make up bigger problems don’t show up. In Crash, a man is pushed so far that he walks up to shoot a child in broad daylight, attempts to do so, and then walks away without consequence. We aren’t given time to consider the events that led to this choice or the things that happen as a result. We’re told that someone has “changed” but the most pivotal pieces are left out in exchange for the visual conflict.

Green Book does the same damn thing. We get tiny moments where the fear, the hopelessness, and the dual nature of Don Shirley, the jazz pianist at the center of Green Book, are on display. These never rise to the top of the action, however, and we spend more time on big, visual, obvious moments. Green Book is over two hours long but spends mere moments on sexuality. The choice to do it at all, but to limit it to one scene that then does not inform anything after it, comes at the cost of those obvious choices that are always less interesting.

Mahershala Ali is fantastic as Shirley and won the Best Supporting Actor award for his performance. It’s telling that the point of the whole experience, the complicated life of a celebrity facing the harsh reality of the American South in the 1960s, is “supporting” the big, loud, folded-over-pizza-like-a-taco-eating Viggo Mortensen. Both performances make the thing go, and it wouldn’t have won without both of them, but it’s really most of what you need to know about Green Book that we spend more time at a hot dog eating contest than we do talking about the actual problems behind the problems.

There’s a scene towards the end where our main characters get in serious trouble with the police. The resolution comes through trickery, as they reach out to one of the most powerful men in the American government. We want to believe in a word where that’s an option, where even the racists are basically good, just products of their time, and where the government will fix it, they just might not know it’s broken just yet. Again, this doesn’t match reality and it certainly didn’t in 1962, and even if that is a true story, it’s not an experience that feels genuine the way it is presented. It’s also a strange resolution to put on screen in a movie like this, where the larger suggestion is that the “hearts and minds” of the world need to change, not the system.

Finally, I always like to consider how this will feel years from now. Recent winners (with the exception of Birdman, which I know I’m in the minority on) seem to have picked up momentum even after their wins, which makes this all the more surprising. Roma really feels like the right choice here to me just a few weeks after the award, though really a few things should have beat this. It feels like that will remain true for years to come, though maybe we won’t remember any one movie as better so much as Green Book as bland.

Green Book runs from the reality of our world, which means most people liked (or at least didn’t hate) it. That’s usually not Best Picture material. Mediocrity and a misunderstanding of the zeitgeist should be enough to damn an effort like this, but it isn’t because we’re so hungry for good news. Most movies nominated for Best Picture don’t offer us good news. This won because we want this, but we should want so much more. Here’s hoping that more complex stories return to the fold next year.

The Best Part: Mahershala Ali’s performance is exceptional. At every point, even when the surrounding cast feels ridiculous, he feels real. Even if you’re totally unfamiliar with the story and the setting, you feel like this performance is of a real person who may have really been like this. The accuracy is of course a source of great controversy, so this is less about how true-to-life it is and more about how specific the choices are and how the result feels like a lived-in, experienced person.

The Worst Part: Anyone who saw the final ten minutes of Green Book and voted it as the best movie of the year should be required to write an essay about their decision. The Favourite ends on one of the most striking, memorable shots of recent memory, and the warm, feel good, everything-is-fine-now Green Book ending feels like such a wasted opportunity to say something more.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Crash offers a bleak world that is redeemed along the way mostly by happenstance, but not even really redeemed in the end. Green Book shies away from bleakness with platitudes and a spit shine on reality that turns out isn’t how it really happened, which we don’t want to believe. Green Book is a better experience, but both movies show the deep cracks in this process and highlight how afraid the Academy is to make a choice that actually means something.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the NightAn American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of Africa | Schindler’s List | Gandhi | Ben-Hur | The Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight | The Shape of Water | Green Book

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

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

image source: the telegraph

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2017 winner The Shape of Water. Is it better than Crash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the NightAn American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of Africa | Schindler’s List | Gandhi | Ben-Hur | The Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight | The Shape of Water

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

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

moonlight.jpg

image source: pitchfork

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2016 winner Moonlight. Is it better than Crash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of AfricaSchindler’s ListGandhi | Ben-HurThe Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight

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

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

Spotlight

image source: npr

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 2015 winner Spotlight. Is it better than Crash?

Doing this feature yearly now has changed the way I think about Best Picture winners. I watched the first 86 over the course of a year and tried to consider the necessary context of each film’s release before judging it. Wings, the first winner, is a silent film that feels intolerably long at times and fascinatingly specific at others. Judged against modern film with no perspective, it doesn’t fare very well. It’s only with the context of the day that you begin to understand why the pathos of some scenes worked for those audiences.

This is the second year that I’ve not only watched the movie as it came out, but I also saw the Oscars themselves and all of the other nominees when they were new. That removes the struggle of context because the context is “right now.” We all know this world and we don’t have to use any caveats when describing a movie’s merits or failures now. They just are what they are.

Last year I wrote about how history would judge Birdman (still not using that whole title) and it’s honestly tough to say. Alejandro Iñárritu won his second consecutive Best Director award for The Revenant and seems to have solidified “divisive” as a term that needs to be used when talking about him. Personally, I still think Birdman is outstanding but I think The Revenant was the worst movie up for Best Picture or Best Director this year. I think I know how people felt last year now. Sorry y’all had to go through that, now that I’m in your camp.

Mumbling, screaming, bear-fighting movie aside, this was a strong year for Best Picture nominees. You have your necessary “slight” movies about good people doing (mostly) good things in Bridge of Spies and Brooklyn, you have your surprise nominations for movies for people who don’t necessarily watch the Oscars in Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian, and you have your capital-I Important movies in RoomThe Big Short, and Spotlight. There really aren’t a lot of bad choices there. History will correctly remember these Oscars as the ones mired in exclusionary selections, but at the very least the exclusionary movies they picked were all good ones.

Spotlight seemed inevitable in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. When a movie is nearly universally acclaimed, I always like to go to the reviews that demand that “nearly” adverb. There are 11 negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and the common thread seems to be that the acting isn’t up to par. Spotlight wasn’t nominated for either lead acting category and Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo lost in both supporting categories, but the film demands the nebulous “ensemble cast” descriptor. No one performance dominates the film (though if I had to pick one, I’d go with Ruffalo) because it’s about the story they’re all telling. They don’t matter; the truth does. That could be a sentence used to describe a very sanctimonious movie, but in this case I mean it in a positive way.

Spotlight doesn’t need a lot of description. A group of reporters gather accounts of sexual abuse by priests of children in Boston. It’s a true story, so it’s no spoiler to say that they publish the truth and the city (and country, and world) is outraged. We’re still in this. We still know this and we often feel confused or powerless to help in situations like these. There isn’t an easy answer here and the movie isn’t designed to offer one. It’s the first step — the spotlight, get it — in highlighting a problem. That scope works for this narrative and I think that’s why it’s such a success. They set out to tell one specific part of an important, true, huge story and they nailed it.

Let’s close this year on one more discussion of context. I’ve heard a lot of discussion about how recent winners will be remembered, and indeed that was the main detracting argument about Birdman. I don’t know if people in the future will understand Spotlight and our context. It’s strange to watch a movie like Gentleman’s Agreement or The Life of Emile Zola now because they require you to step outside of yourself and your world. Spotlight isn’t timeless, but I don’t know that it needs to be in order to be great. Great film needs to make sense in the now, first, and Spotlight definitely does that.

The Best Part: Mark Ruffalo loses his mind towards the end of the movie because he’s frustrated about the progress of their story. He wants to do more and he wants to find the answer for how you “fix” the whole situation. There isn’t one. Everyone on the Spotlight team serves as an audience surrogate at some point or another in Spotlight, but no one nails the emotions the movie instills as much as he does in that moment. It’s an outstanding choice to contain the “anger” of the team to that moment, as well. They’re always driven, but that’s the only time it all overflows and becomes unproductive anger. How many of us would only be capable of unproductive anger in that real-life job?

The Worst Part: This is tough for Spotlight. While I don’t think it’s a perfect film, I don’t think there’s any one thing I didn’t like or would change. I think Room should have won Best Picture, so I’m tempted to go with “not enough time trapped in a room that inflicts psychological and biological terror.” In all seriousness, if I have to pick something I suppose it doesn’t really complicate the newsroom staff very much. Most of the heroes are solely heroes whose greatest faults include drinking beer after work and not sleeping enough. I don’t even know that making them complex figures would make this a better movie, but it’s something I noticed.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The difference here is an ocean. Spotlight is several magnitudes better than Crash. One interesting comparison here is the ensemble cast idea. Both movies lack a true “lead” but they play this different ways. Crash is all about how people enter and leave each other’s lives while Spotlight is about working as a team. Both kinds of ideas can work with an ensemble cast, but you’re only as strong as your weakest player. Spotlight doesn’t have a bad performance. Crash probably has a good one, somewhere, but after 88 of these I’m fairly convinced that it does not have a good 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 | 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

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 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 Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: the new yorker

image source: the new yorker

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 2014 winner Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Is it better than Crash?

People loved or hated Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I’m in the moment, right now, in 2015, and damn people are polarized on this.

For the people that hated it, there are two main things about Birdman (that’s all we’re calling it from here on out, deal with it) people are saying in the immediate aftermath of its win:

  1. Boyhood should have won!”
  2. “People are going to hate this in 10 years!”

10 years gives enough perspective, no doubt. The last five winners from 10 years ago: The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (still good), Chicago (still good, but eh), A Beautiful Mind (oh, dear), Gladiator (oh no what happened), American Beauty (well…) Those are dated movies at best, even though it’s a rough half-decade for the Academy.

This year is not a down year. Selma, The Imitation Game, Whiplash, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Still Alice, and, yes, Boyhood, are all great movies. Any of them (and I include Still Alice in that list, defiantly, despite not being nominated for Best Picture) would make a suitable Best Picture winner for 2014. The Academy gave it to Birdman, though, so we’re here talking about the story of Riggan Thomson.

Riggan (Michael Keaton) is the former star of the “Birdman” series. It’s a not-at-all-veiled take on Keaton’s time as Batman, and it does make me wonder who else they had in mind if Keaton turned them down. Dean Cain? Anyway, Riggan wants to regain some respect in the world after a series of “popcorn” films, and he chooses to do so by putting on a play that’s based on a Raymond Carver story.

Riggan perceives himself to have superpowers. He levitates and controls things with his mind, but only once in a way anyone else can see. It’s left up to the viewer if this is actually supernatural, but it’s heavily implied that Riggan just thinks that he’s an exceptional person. It’s built into the entire world of Riggan Thomson: he sees himself as magical — or at least special — in a way that mere mortals aren’t. The only power he exerts is that of excellence, it just happens to manifest itself as telekinesis as a means to achieve his desires.

The entire movie is designed to look like one continuous shot, and that combined with the magical powers and the subject of “actor acts in a more serious acting thing” sets Birdman up to be some risky material. It’s not difficult to see why people hated it, and it’s especially interesting that it drew the inspired (but down-to-Earth) Boyhood as a foil. The two movies could not be more different, and it will be fascinating to see people connect the two forever.

What matters in Birdman isn’t the flash, though, it’s the theme: failure. Riggan hates himself and consumes himself in a play that he views as credible to claw back his image from a career he sees as bereft of credibility. The dots are easy to connect, but the situation is complicated by Mike (Edward Norton) who is brought in to replace a less qualified actor. As the co-star (and in the world of Birdman, the more esteemed actor), Mike steals the show. He’s “edgy” and “raw” in a way that the world can’t view their favorite fictional superhero. Mike cares (or is seen to care) about the art itself. He cares to the point of total rebellion and absurdity when he freaks out during the preview because his gin has been replaced with water. Riggan can’t perform his act of “art” in the face of someone he views as actually sincere, and he’s stunted as a result.

That leads to the real discussion of Birdman: is this just another movie about movies and people in movies? The Artist (and to a lesser extent, Argo), carry the recent discussion of Best Picture winners that are just Hollywood all proud of itself, and that’s a valid criticism. I don’t agree with it, because I think it’s a much smarter look at how Riggan views himself than how he fears acceptance as an actor. When Birdman the character talks to Birdman the man in a way he can’t ignore, when he actually dares him to look at himself and ask deep down what he will really do to prove to himself that this all matters…

… the moral is yours to decipher. If you see this as a bad lesson and the sad events of a sad man, well, I can’t say I think that interpretation is wrong. For me, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — terrible, awful title and all — is the story of coming to terms with oneself. Most of us don’t do it as dramatically as Keaton does, but most of us weren’t Batman.

The Best Part: Emma Stone, who elevates what could be a stereotypical performance into something that would be a strong contender for Best Supporting Actress any other year. Not here, though, because Patricia Arquette was awesome.

The Worst Part: Probably Edward Norton, who plays “awful” a little too successfully. The play-within-a-film and the “love is absolute” stuff, plus the fight… if anything ages poorly, it’ll be his over-the-top performance.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? From here on out, this will be a yearly installment, as I hope to update this right after each Oscars. Is it important to keep up this museum? I say it is because now we have the rare chance to talk about movies without any lapse. This is what it is now. Will people hate this in 10 years? They might, but in 2015 it seems to be a 50/50 split between people that liked Boyhood‘s honesty and people that liked the lies of Birdman. They’re different movies, and like many of the other movies on the list, it’s not an easy call which should win. Birdman or Boyhood would easily trounce Crash, and I almost wish they’d made this difficult with American Sniper.

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)

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.