war movie

Worst Best Picture: Is All Quiet on the Western Front Better or Worse Than Crash?

all quiet on the western front

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 1929-1930 winner All Quiet on the Western Front. Is it better than Crash?

Just about all of the first 15 Best Picture winners are serious, but none of them are serious like this one. All Quiet on the Western Front is the original war movie, and its message is the message of every great war movie that followed it: “war is hell, don’t go to war.”

There are no names you’d know associated with it. No one involved in it has gone down in popular film history. It’s just a lone, strange piece of culture that is notable only because it’s a filmed version of a classic novel and because it’s one of the 86 “best” movies of all time. It holds up that end of the bargain well, its a monumental achievement that’s extremely watchable in 2014. It’s the story of young German boys who enlist for various reasons at the start of World War I. The film opens on their time in school, where a teacher gives a rousing speech about the need to prove oneself and the glory of fighting for country and for honor. They drink the Kool-Aid and they’re off to the front.

Every war movie has to decide what it wants to say, but I can’t think of any other one that is as determined as this one to say exactly one thing. Surely Full Metal Jacket doesn’t paint a positive view of war, but All Quiet on the Western Front is relentless. The boys fall under a brutal superior who tells them they are going to die. They meet older, seasoned soldiers who tell them they are going to die. They go to the front and then a bunch of them immediately die. Every single scene serves only that purpose: to dissolve the myth that war is anything other than the systematic killing of a generation of men by another country’s entire generation of young men.

This really can’t be overstated. A mortar lands in the open space near their trench early on in the movie and the camera holds on the removed hands and arms that are left holding on to barbed wire after the explosion. It’s a grisly shot, but for 1929 it seems unthinkable. It is striking 90 years later, but considering what the audience in 1929 thought of that is something I can’t even do. I suppose it may have been less shocking to some of them, considering that nearly four million Americans had just been to World War I. It’s hard to say.

There are too many war movies on this list. Humanity is obsessed with our most complete way of ending ourselves, and we tend to reward people that make us consider it in new light. All Quiet on the Western Front will mess with you if you watch it now, and I think that’s really all it takes to win an Oscar for a movie like this. It’s worthy of the honor beyond the shock value. There’s not really a lot of gore, most of the shocking scenes are reveals of character deaths off screen or tense moments in trenches and wilderness. None of the characters are particularly memorable, but many scenes stand out. I’ll never remember his name, but the man who loses a foot and asks his friends that “it hurts, what happened to it?” because he doesn’t know, yet, is ice-cold. In another scene, a man who charges a trench ready to kill anyone in it is forced to rethink his brutality when he’s stuck in that trench with the dying man all night. They’re human moments, and while they may come off as heavy handed to some viewers, they really work for me.

The Best Part: It’s the brutality of war, played out on screen. No one can walk away from this movie and say “yep, mow down an entire generation of men and we’ll fix all the problems.” War is complicated, but All Quiet on the Western Front takes a very “this can’t be your answer” approach.

The Worst Part: In one scene, the soldiers gather around to eat during a lull in combat and they discuss the causes of war. It’s the kind of scene that works well in literature, but when you’re forced to actually watch something that philosophical, you have to deal with the fact that people don’t talk like that. No one is sitting at Arby’s with their friend talking about the nature of absolute truth. Through the rest of the movie everyone deals with concepts through specifics, which always works, so the one time someone strikes up a “big conversation” with everyone about the “why” of war, it feels a little out of place.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Both movies want you to really think about a stark concept and both of them don’t want you to get distracted by characters. It’s effective in All Quiet on the Western Front, because it keeps the roster general. It doesn’t matter who these people are, because this experience will be true for all people. Crash doesn’t have that crutch, so it ends up giving too-brief back stories for everyone. I suppose a few connections are made that are the higher points of Crash (families love each other, cool, cool) but for the most part, no one is ever elevated to the point that I forget they’re Brendan Fraser or Sandra Bullock.

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

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 From Here to Eternity Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: complex

image source: complex

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 1953 winner From Here to Eternity. Is it better than Crash?

From Here to Eternity is about the big things that happen to us when we’re obsessed with our own lives. It’s a war movie, to a degree, but it’s mostly about how people can ignore a war. The entire film takes place in the few months just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Much has been said about that time, but the most fascinating part of this movie is that it never comes up at all. People go about their lives and try to do their best in the military, but there are no foreboding scenes about “what might happen” or the upcoming events. It’s dramatic irony at its best: we know that none of these problems matter because all of these people are about to die, but they care because that’s what people do.

It would be possible for that to diminish the film, but it doesn’t. The performances are so tight that it’s easy to forget that the time and the setting mean that you already know everyone here is doomed. Whether you can look past that or not will determine how much you enjoy the film’s narrative, but you can’t ignore the greatness. It’s an enormous achievement, even if it’s not one that comes up on the list of “greats” as often as other Best Pictures.

Everyone is entangled, which helps to distract from the unstoppable reality of World War II. Private “Prew” Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) joins up with the other enlisted men on Oahu and does not want to continue his famed boxing career. His superiors demand that he does, and the struggle of violence vs. non-violence is on. There’s a quiet symbolism here, and Clift’s character definitely speaks to an America that was strong enough to engage with anyone, but would rather not utilize that strength, if possible. When the company’s Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober) threatens an extreme punishment, his second-in-command Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster, who is outstanding even among so many great performances) offers that they should merely try to break his spirit rather than court-martial him.

Thus the stage is set. People continually try to push Prewitt into fighting, but he won’t strike back. The last time he boxed he blinded a man, and now he’s hung up his gloves for good. The metaphor might sound a little strong in this description, but it’s subtle in the film. Prewitt would rather endure a difficult life than use his strength to hurt a man, but he’s forced into action when his best friend Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra, who won an Oscar himself for what should feel like a weirder role than it does) is brutalized by a superior. Prewitt has to find a way to balance his principles with protecting his friend, and the twain shall never meet.

There are also two beautifully drawn love stories: Prewitt meets a working girl (Donna Reed, who also won an Oscar for her role) in a gentleman’s club and struggles to begin a relationship with her and Warden starts a full-on criminal affair with his superior’s wife (Deborah Kerr) that has its own issues. Both relationships are honest in a nontraditional way, and they have a sense of reality that a lot of movie romances don’t have. They also both are doomed by circumstance as much as by World War II, which plays again into the main idea here: the things you’re working so hard to control might be out of your hands.

Then, as in all war movies, the war comes. You know it’s coming, but no one else does, and neither you or the cast will be ready for it when it happens.

The Best Part: Sinatra’s sad, defeated Maggio is a powerful character, and he’s insanely likable because he’s Sinatra. Lancaster steals the show and his relationship with Deborah Kerr is the iconic part of the movie, but it’s such an odd sensation to watch Frank Sinatra in a movie about Pearl Harbor. Hard to pick between them.

The Worst Part: While it’s important for the narrative that Sinatra and Clift’s characters be ganged up on, some of their antagonists are a little one-note. Ernest Borgnine plays the particularly brutal head of the stockades, and I can’t say I’m a fan of his performance. He’s largely drawn as just “a bully” which seems too simple, based on the motivations around him.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s a top-10 film on this list of some of the greatest films of all time. It’s a powerful metaphor about strength vs. demonstrated power and war. It’s an amazing achievement featuring some of the greatest actors and actresses of its day. It cannot be recommended highly enough. Don’t see Crash. I was going to make a joke here about a bad scene in Crash, but I couldn’t decide between the extended fart joke subplot or the country music discussion. Pick neither. Watch From Here to Eternity.

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

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 The Hurt Locker Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: fanpop.com

image source: fanpop.com

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 2009 winner The Hurt Locker. Is it better than Crash?

The 82nd Academy Awards are especially memorable for me. It was the first year I watched the entire broadcast of the event, and I can tell you right now that is almost always a mistake. The actual 3+ hour event of the Oscars is generally brutal — it was even more brutal before Twitter offered up a much more interesting barrage of dumb jokes about it — but the 82nd one had a twist: Avatar was nominated for a truckload of things.

People ask me if there’s a way anything could be worse than Crash to me. If Avatar had won, this whole damn thing would be about that. Avatar is a horrible, horrible movie.

Just like Crash, the message of Avatar is read through a megaphone. Both movies are insulting and simple; both movies have no regard for subtlety at all. 50 years from now, people will be more embarrassed by Avatar than Crash, in a just future. We’re count on you, future people, to hate a movie where blue cat people tried to save the world from the evils of progress. Progress bad! Trees good! An environmental message does not necessarily tank a movie, but anything that sacrifices character and depth to be sure you aren’t missing The Big Picture has failed at a basic level.

I mention all this because it really felt foregone at the time. The Oscars had returned to a 10-nominee Best Picture category at the time, but most of the movies didn’t feel like they had a shot. An Education is a solid film but no real contender, District 9 is interesting but not the kind of movie people reward like that, and as much as I liked Up in the Air and A Serious Man, they just didn’t feel like movies for the ages.

I’m never any good at judging what will win. Maybe The Hurt Locker was the obvious choice. I jumped up and down in a hotel room when it won, half because it beat Avatar and half because it’s actually very well done. It hits a lot of the typical Oscar high notes: war film, film about a contemporary problem, moral questions. It is everything you’d want out of an Oscar winner, so why does it feel strange on the list?

Mankind is never good at immediate judgement of history, it’s kinda the nature of the beast. The Hurt Locker is about a small group of bomb disposal specialists that have to respond to reports of explosives around Iraq during the Iraq War. We’re not ready to talk about that yet. World War I and World War II certainly have their films on this list — and lots of them came out RIGHT around both conflicts — but this one is different. We want to view people who put their lives at risk for the greater good in a solely positive light, but everyone is complicated. Jeremy Renner’s character can’t figure out if he wants to live or die on the job or to stay in Iraq or go home, and that complication mirrors our difficult understanding of what is going on in the world. We’re not sure if all of this is necessary or a good idea, and the character aren’t either. They get up and go to work because they have to,  but they aren’t sure that’s how this all should be.

A war movie that solely glorifies war is a bad war movie, and The Hurt Locker passes the test because it does as much to make you rethink the experience as The Deer Hunter. It’s not a screaming mess of “stop all the fighting and love one another” because it’s realistic. We need to do some soul searching about how we feel about war and the people who fight it. This movie is a good start.

The Best Part: Jeremy Renner is incredible in this. The entire movie is a series of brief, loud moments surrounded by long periods of quiet, but a particular scene where Renner and another soldier have to stake out a position with a long rifle with a scope is particularly tense. The exciting bits are exciting, but they work because they are buffered by enough time to let it all build back up.

The Worst Part: There is a thread of the plot where everyone is concerned that a well-liked Iraqi boy may have died. Jeremy Renner at one point goes into the city to look for him and breaks into an Iraqi professor’s house. There’s definitely a need to show “normal” people in Iraq, but I don’t know how well this scene accomplishes that goal.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It is better. Both movies want to lock their current worldview in amber and show generations in the future what their time was like. I’ve said it before, but I just don’t know what Crash adds to the conversation. The Hurt Locker may make you mad in a productive way, and at the very least it will complicate your view of what you think you know. The idea of people doing such a tense job also having to keep their personal relationships with each other up in the middle of a literal war zone? Yikes, yikes, yikes. It won’t be for everyone, but The Hurt Locker could not be said to be uninteresting.

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

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 Mrs. Miniver Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: nicksflickpicks.com

image source: nicksflickpicks.com

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 1942 winner Mrs. Miniver. Is it better than Crash?

If Patton is the story of people who choose to make war their entire life, Mrs. Miniver is the story of people who don’t have a choice about it. It’s an entire movie about the homefront in war. It focuses on events at home — both mundane and not — and how they are complicated by the ridiculous nature of war. Cavalcade and The Best Years of Our Lives are also about that, but they’ve got much different messages than Mrs. Miniver.

This one is entirely about suffering and liking it. In another setting, a movie about being resilient in the face of strife on this scale would be a tough sell. A movie about the British resistance at home during WWII, though, we’re comfortable with that story. The entire international perception of England was changed by WWII. It is taken as fact that the British are tough and can handle the worst without complaint. It’s just one of those “things” now, and Mrs. Miniver was an important part of that myth-making.

There’s nothing going on in Mrs. Miniver other than the war. Men decide they need to go to war to protect Britain and the women need to stay home and be brave and true and good. It’s full on propaganda, but it’s distinctly Western propaganda (and Allied, I suppose, which is an even easier sell) so an American audience may not feel as manipulated. It’s just two hours of bad things happening and good people staring into the middle distance while they wonder how they’ll move on.

They’ll move on because they’re British and because they must, is the message, and it’s told again and again. There’s no real reason to watch this in 2014. You’ll get everything you need from any particularly badly written history book. The bombing of London is one of the iconic domestic tragedies of our time and a movie about the bravery and difficulty involved in surviving it is nothing to roll your eyes at, but at one point the entire family reads Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland under a staircase and it’s just a ton. It’s heavy and it should be, but other than the patriotism, there’s no there there.

The Best Part: The titular Mrs. Miniver captures a German soldier in her garden and they have a terrifying conversation in her kitchen. She makes him a meal at gunpoint before getting his gun away from him. This scene is either the greatest or worst part of the movie, and it probably depends on what you want Mrs. Miniver to be. If you want to marvel at strangeness, look no further.

The Worst Part: The entire movie is “climax” but my least favorite dramatic scene is a flower competition, and I would write more about it, but it’s a flower competition. Right before it there’s an unexpected death and right after it there’s a bombing. You can skip the flower competition. Please skip the flower competition.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I hate to say it, but I’m only 100% sure I’ll never watch Mrs. Miniver again, of the two. I’m going to watch Crash again this week for a rewatch, but I feel no need to watch Mrs. Miniver again. I got it. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s one-note and it’s fairly repetitive. Crash is much worse, to be sure, but only because there’s not really that much in Mrs. Miniver to love or hate. If you boiled down any movie to three words you’d be missing nuance, but I don’t think you miss anything with a three-word summary here: British people endure.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | 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

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 Patton Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: oscars.org

image source: oscars.org

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 1970 winner Patton. Is it better than Crash?

I’ll say this: this was the easiest movie on the list to pick out a picture for.

Patton is dramatic, funny, and challenging. It’s a sweeping view of one part of one person, but it’s by no means simple. George C. Scott won — and refused — an Oscar for his portrayal of General George S. Patton, and I’m not sure anyone has ever done a better job of portraying a character.

It’s a character, for sure, because it’s such a thin version of a person. Patton doesn’t care about anything aside from military conquest. He can’t keep control of his troops because he keeps screwing up basic stuff, but he’s a brilliant tactician on the battlefield. He, like so many of us, can’t do the dumb things he’s gotta do every day — like, well, not piss off Russia — to get to the part of life that he cares about. He just wants his troops to follow him, unwavering, to battle. He cares about conquest and victory in a very romantic sense. He’s a warrior-poet, emphasis on both, and he needs his story told in blood.

What makes it work so well is that it isn’t a sort of un-Full Metal Jacket. It’s still not a very rosy view of military life or battle, it’s just a more complicated view of the men who care about such things. Patton isn’t the everyman and he isn’t supposed to be a suggestion of the proper way to feel about patriotism or war. He’s supposed to be an over-the-top view of the military. He’s what we’d all be if we actually gave ourselves to work. He’s too far gone.

War movies are almost always the story of why we shouldn’t go to war. Those are fine — many on this list are more than fine — but Patton wants to talk about George S. Patton more than war. It’s about how we love our heroes when they’re being heroic, but we don’t want to deal with the things that keep those people human. We want them to go back into a box until there’s more heroism needed. George C. Scott’s Patton wants to keep being heroic all the time, and when he runs out of villains to find he starts constructing them himself.

The Best Part: Maybe it came across here, but if there’s any doubt I shall put it to rest: GEORGE. C. SCOTT. Go watch the first 10 minutes of Patton. It’s the iconic “pep talk” scene in front of the giant flag. Go do it, right now. Don’t even read the rest of this section first. I could put anything here, because no one is reading it, because you are watching the first 10 minutes of Patton. I’m gonna put my Social Security number here.

The Worst Part: I hate to keep coming back to length. A good third of Best Picture winners are 2.5 hours or longer, and most of them definitely don’t need to be. Patton doesn’t sag under the weight of 170 minutes, but it’s impossible to not mention. It’s supposed to feel enormous, like the full weight of the man’s struggle against the system he so didn’t understand, and it does. It just wanders a little bit toward the middle; there’s some especially repetitive scenes of Patton losing his shit and losing his army that don’t add to anyone’s understanding of the General himself.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Patton, if nothing else, is the triumph of George C. Scott. He’s exceptional in Dr. Strangelove, but he’s all-time great, here. It would not be unreasonable to say that this is possibly the greatest single performance on the list, and this is one hell of a list. There are flaws with Patton, to be sure, but none of them come from Scott’s consistent, terrifying performance. He sells you on a difficult concept: that a man who loves war, and only war, is more than a monster. Exceptional art challenges the viewer, and Patton does. I’m not even going to talk about the other movie right now.

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

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 Casablanca Better or Worse Than Crash?

casablanca

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 1943 winner Casablanca. Is it better than Crash?

I’m not going to lie, it’s difficult to find something new to say about Casablanca. Fresh off The Godfather, I have to find something new to tell people about one of the other consensus picks for greatest movie of all time (G.M.O.A.T., which is not a great acronym). I think it’s this: Casablanca is one of the rare things in life that is as good as you hope it is.

We constantly expect disappointment from the supposed canon now. Just yesterday someone was telling me about a guy who wouldn’t watch Citizen Kane because he didn’t expect it to live up to the hype. I still haven’t read any of the (stop it) Game of Thrones (I know) books yet (note the yet, I said yet, you don’t have to tell me to) and I’m skeptical that they could possibly be as good as people say. None of us will take “this show is hilarious” as enough reason to watch something. We just tell people “oh, I’m sure, I’ll check it out” and then we continue with whatever we were going to watch anyway.

Is that so wrong? Do we need to be broadening ourselves on recommendations of the people we surround ourselves with or the cultural arbiters of our world? Casablanca exists as a monument to the argument that we do. The beautiful lines are still beautiful, 70 years later. The performances are incredible; Humphrey Bogart’s Rick has become one of American film’s most enduring characters, even though he didn’t win Best Actor for it that year. The love feels like love actually feels: complicated, painful, and overwhelming. Casablanca is a romantic movie and a war movie and it’s never one at the detriment of the other. It defies you to pick one of those to describe it.

I think that’s what comes through the most: it’s so many things. For the uninitiated, it’s the story of a brief period of time in Rick’s Cafe Americain, a bar/casino/nightclub/etc in Morocco in the early 40s. Rick doesn’t want to deal with the war, he just wants to drink and quip one liners to his patrons. His life of rolling his eyes at everyone’s silly “war” is broken up when his ex Ilsa shows up with her new beau Victor. It’s more complicated than all that (because it always is) but the movie depends on this triangle. It also depends on the war, but Casablanca is such a great war movie precisely because the war is never the biggest thing in any one scene. It’s not about combat, it’s about the realities of war outside the battlefield. Just how The Best Years of Our Lives is a war movie with no real war going on, Casablanca is a war movie that happens entirely in tensions between people. Oh, and a really loud version of “La Marseillaise.”

Gushing about one of the greatest triumphs in film history is a bad use of time. Let me say this, and we’ll move on to Crash: you’ve got to watch it. Just the same as I’ve got to find out about this throne and the wall and the debts and all that, you’ve got to fill in your cultural blanks. If one is Casablanca, you should start there.

The Best Part: This has to be the piano scene. Ilsa wants to hear “her song” “As Time Goes By” but Rick has banned it from his club because it pains him. We’ve all got that song. The melancholy of hurting yourself with music that’s so deeply connected to an old, beautiful time is an extremely specific emotion, but even though “As Time Goes By” is intensely dated by itself, the scene is timeless.

The Worst Part: Paul Henreid was supposedly worried that his portrayal of Victor Laszlo would typecast him as being “a stiff.” It’s a necessary character for the movie, of course, but you can definitely see where he was coming from. He’s the Scottie Pippen of the greatest movie of all time: a guy who only looks worse because he’s right next to Bogie’s Jordan.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I wrote this question and I’m offended by it. Casablanca is perfect in a lot of ways, but matched up against Crash you start to notice why subtlety is so important. Casablanca is about a tense time in a tense country, but it never feels forced. As you watch it you are aware of the political realities of the characters (like when the police look the other way for most things, but can’t ignore internationally important incidents) without people reading explanations into the camera. The meaning in Casablanca is there for you to find. Crash is a lesser movie in every way, but it’s specifically lesser in that it is so terrible about telling rather than showing. Casablanca hopes you’re smart enough to find everything in it; Crash thinks too little of you to even hide anything worth finding.

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 Godfather | Casablanca

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: rogerebert.com