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Worst Best Picture: Halfway Through the List, Let’s Revisit Crash. Is it Really that Bad?

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Alex Russell

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

I just wanted to find an excuse to watch all the Best Picture winners. That’s all this was supposed to be, and now it is breaking me. Crash is winning. How did we get here?

There are 86 movies that have won Best Picture, though technically some of them won before it was called that exactly. The point is that there are 86 movies that The People That Make Such Decisions have said are the best of the best. There are other ways to watch 86 of the supposed greatest movies of all time, but there are no other ways to think about Crash, the 2005 winner, every single week for a year.

It’s an inane project to compare the other 85 to Crash — clearly — but it serves a purpose to me. It forces my hand. It’s much easier to give up on something when you don’t have to represent yourself publicly. For that reason, these are sometimes just for me. No one really cares what I thought about Mrs. Miniver or You Can’t Take It With You, I don’t have any delusions about that. What I do have is a need to see all 86 of these damn movies in 2014, and the way to do that is to have a space to come talk about each one. Hopefully I’m doing so in a way that’s interesting, albeit it Crash-filled. You be the judge of that.

The point is this is the halfway point. At the bottom of the page you’ll see 43 links to 43 articles about 43 movies. Some of them, like It Happened One NightMidnight Cowboy, and Kramer vs. Kramer, will stick with me for the rest of my life. Some of them, like Amadeus, Shakespeare in Love, and The Last Emperor, are already beginning to fade in my mind. As with any list of things, it is not a perfect summary of greatness in film history.

But is that the rub with the entire project? Has anyone ever said “these are the best?” I’d argue that they have, even though some of them have rightfully faded from memory. You have to get real deep in film history for anyone to care about Cavalcade or Grand Hotel, both rightfully so, but on the flip side some modern films on the list, like The Silence of the Lambs and No Country for Old Men, are instant classics. The list must be considered to at least be a summary of what people found great at the time, and thus can be used as a functional canon for what has constituted a “great film” over history.

So why in the hell is Crash on there?

None of the first 42 other movies came close to Crash. I hated The Artist, I was bored by Shakespeare in Love and A Man for All Seasons, and I can’t wrap my mind around the inherent strangeness of You Can’t Take It With You, but none of those came even close. They all have merits, and after watching Crash again last night, I still contend that Crash has none.

The weirdest part is that this is a divisive opinion; not everyone hates Crash. It’s certainly the movie that comes up the most in lists of the worst, but it’s by no means considered a “bad movie” on its own. The hate seems to have come from people putting it on a list with Casablanca and The Godfather.

I originally felt that way. I thought Crash was a little dumb, but not offensively so. It’s only after spending so much of my free time considering what Crash is and what it hopes to be that I feel a real hate for it, like an embittered ex-spouse. We are having a prolonged, public divorce and I never loved you, anyway, movie about racism.

After 43 straight posts about it, I got worried that I was losing touch with the source material. Rewatching it unearthed some new feelings, which I will now share with the class:

  • The very first scene of Crash opens with a car crash, where a white woman asks an Asian woman if she noticed her “blake lights” instead of brake lights. It sets the tone early, in the way that a fire will eventually be a pile of soot. It is completely unnecessary.
  • It’s moments like “blake lights” that make you wonder just how worried the writers of Crash were that people would miss their DEEP AND COMPLICATED MESSAGE about racism. There are films on this list that talk about race better than Crash. Some of them are six decades older than it. That is inexcusable.
  • “Hey Osama, plan a jihad on your own time” is said in scene two of Crash. I’m not going to go scene-by-scene, but you have to understand that these things happen essentially while there are still credits rolling on the screen. It feels like a tonal suckerpunch. You haven’t even had time to understand this world yet, but you already know that everyone is terrible all the time.
  • Ludacris enters the movie with a monologue about not getting offered coffee while eating spaghetti. This may be the best part of the movie, because no one ever addresses that these things are incongruous. When I was 15 I had to find a fancy dish to add some specificity to a short story I was writing and I went with something insane — turkey parm, I think — the point is that any decent editor would fix that, but they left in this insane coffee/spaghetti pairing. No one has ever had coffee with spaghetti.
  • The general direction for the acting in Crash seems to have been “no, even angrier.” Everyone is mad at everyone for every reason. This is supposed to feel “gritty” and “tense” but it feels “forced” and “ridiculous.” People treat the attempted murder of their children with less malice than a door not closing right.
  • Tony Danza. Don’t watch Crash, but if you do, watch it just for the scene where Tony Danza confronts Terrence Howard about someone not sounding “black enough.” Within the narrative of the movie it’s supposed to feel racially uncomfortable, but Tony Danza is a little too silly for how shameful this is supposed to be. It also happens after a much more intense white vs. black racial interaction with Terrence Howard, but this breaks him. Maybe being berated by Tony Danza is the most shameful thing possible. I take this back.
  • Don Cheadle does a good job with a complicated role. They make him say some really stupid things because Crash was written without an editor (“can’t talk mom, I’m having sex with a white lady” is hall-of-fame-bad) but he’s a tragic figure that I actually really connected with this time around. Great job doing more with less than less.
  • Brendan Frasier is married to Sandra Bullock and their storyline is terrible. Sandra Bullock may play the least compelling character in film history in this movie. Every single line she says is supposed to establish that she’s a terrible racist, but everyone is a terrible racist, so she just seems to be some kind of sociopath.

We have 43 movies to go. There are some classics on the remaining list, like The Deer HunterWest Side Story, and The Godfather II. There are also some famous duds, like Around the World in 80 DaysCimarron, and Dances With Wolves. All 43 will be compared to Crash. All must be judged. We came here to find something worse than Crash. So far, the task has been unfinished. I’m going back into the breach.

The Best Part: Don Cheadle.

The Worst Part: Sandra Bullock. Or Brendan Frasier. Or Tony Danza. Or Matt Dillon. Or the writing. Or the editing. You pick.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It is Crash. It is terrible.

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 |

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.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Gravity is a space film. It is also the winningest movie of the 86th Academy Awards, bringing home seven Oscars. It deserves every single one. It took me half a year to actually watch this, which is strange considering how I prioritize my media consumption mostly by putting anything that involves spaceships on the top of the pile. What I watched when I finally got around to it was a sparse, tightly-woven film about what happens when something minor goes wrong in an extremely hostile environment. Gravity is devastating in its simplicity. After a fairly brief intro period, there is only one character, and her only enemy is the title of the movie – the force of gravitation.

Gravity’s great! It keeps you from flying off the face of the Earth! Wonderful! However, if you are in orbit, your relationship to gravity becomes markedly less benevolent. Orbit amounts to controlled freefall. In orbit, you are falling at an exact velocity and an exact trajectory that maintains you or your craft in a circle around the planet. At the end of the day, you are still just falling, so if anything at all goes wrong, your orbit will turn into a more everyday type of fall, and you will catch fire and burn to death in the mesosphere. In addition to the falling problem, Earth’s gravity keeps an impressive amount of space debris in a cloud around the planet (19,000 discrete pieces over two inches). It’s fine if it’s just sitting there, but if it or you is moving fast, there is a significant collision danger. The International Space Station orbits at around 17,000 mph. Imagine getting hit in the face with a professionally-thrown baseball (90 mph). Now imagine one or many baseball-sized things hitting your orbital craft at 200 times that speed. This is basically what happens in the first fifteen minutes of Gravity.

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Each white dot is something that could kill you

The initial destruction caused by space debris leaves Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) completely alone in space, desperate to find a way back home. Well, a survivable way back home. If she lowered her standards, she could get home by simply pushing off in the general direction of Earth. In addition to the general destruction of devices and networks meant to keep humans alive in low Earth orbit, communications satellites are also down, which means Stone is alone not only physically but psychologically. With absolutely no communication with Houston and the nearest human being about 200-300 miles straight down, Bullock’s character becomes the most isolated individual in human history. This isolation and Stone’s lopsided struggle with a hostile and decaying environment combine to make one of the cleanest, most perfect pieces of suspense fiction of the past few years.

With only one main character bouncing around in a terrifying situation she neither asked nor prepared for, all the the viewer’s chips are in one pot, so to speak. In Aliens, everyone around Ripley just dies and dies and dies, and that only serves to ramp up the tension for Ripley’s own survival. In Gravity, you only get one, and if you break it, that’s it. From almost the beginning of the conflict, this dynamic forces a stronger level of investment in the character and results in a higher level of terror. The total focus on one character also allows the deep exploration of that character’s psyche – she talks to herself because there is no one else to talk to, and she talks about her daughter, her life, her hopes, and her fears. Following her on her journey from space installation to space installation in her desperate quest to survive is one of the most enjoyable narrative achievements of the past year.

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Probably the best-done female character in all of science fiction

Gravity is billed as a science fiction film, and an interesting question is why? There is no futuristic technology, no aliens, no psychic powers or mutation. This film uses no technology that does not exist, so why is it science fiction? SF is about more than the future, time travel, and warp drives. It is about technology, the changes engendered by it, and the relationship of humanity to it. One of the best science fiction novels out there, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, has at its core cryptography and information science. The science fictional aspects of the book focus on a well-developed technology that has existed since time. It specifically explored its use and misuse in WWII and the 1990s. As the pace of change and technological development increases, science fiction becomes more and more just normal fiction. It is not the milieu into which we project our imaginations, but the milieu in which we live. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the life the grandfather led was the life the father led was the life the son led. My grandfather started a family when color television was a pretty swell new thing, my father started a family when personal computers could process text, process numbers, and play Snake, and now I’m living in a world where this single machine on which I am typing gives me access to more information than I could process in my entire life, videophones are a reality (FaceTime and Skype), people walk around with mobile computers in their pocket more powerful than the NASA computer that sent men to the Moon, medical professionals can literally print human organs, and human beings temporarily live in space. We cannot escape from SF as the basis of many of our stories because the future arrived yesterday, and continues arriving yesterday every time the sun rises. It is simple to build an entire narrative from the basic theories and problems of space habitation as they exist now.

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Pictured: the OS mission control used during the Apollo 11 flight

Cuarón built Gravity on the theory of gravitation (sure) and the problem of the Kessler syndrome. I’ve already discussed the problem of orbit as a controlled fall, but the Kessler syndrome is a very real concern of space agencies today. Basically, there’s so much crap floating around above us that one little explosion or impact could cause an ablation cascade, wherein the fallout from one event then collides with and destroys other objects, the fallout from which then collides with and destroys more objects, on and on until everything upstairs is well and truly fucked. NASA’s main concern with this possibility is that it could take out many of our satellites and render space unusable for generations, but in Gravity, this ablation cascade directly threatens the main character’s life. Bonus: due to gravity, she gets to deal with 17000 mph debris circling around the Earth and returning for another hit every 90 minutes! The danger, isolation, and unknowability of space come to the fore in this film. Terror in the face of the unknown or in the face of forces much larger than we could control or comprehend is a main theme of SF. Gravity shows us that we do not need to go to Alpha Centauri to find those forces – one of them exists right here, keeping our feet firmly glued to the ground.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.