Best Pictures: The Complete List Reviewed and Rated
It's perhaps common knowledge that the Academy Award Winning "Best Pictures" are, in retrospect, not really the Best Pictures in their respective years. The Academy's tastes seem to be conservative artistically, and liberal politically, and only certain types of films are ever given serious consideration (for example, however brilliant it may be, a comedy has little or no chance, and it's helpful if a film doesn't have too much action). In addition, Academy voters are moved by political considerations, advertising campaigns, and personal connections that are lost on viewers who look at their choices many years later (for example, it seems fair to ask now, "Weren't there any other films in 1931 better than Cimarron (like City Lights)?"
A great example of how the Academy's choices tend to look off-base is the year 1933. The winner that year was Cavalcade, a film which looks fairly stiff today. Yet, released in that same year were Duck Soup, King Kong, and Lady for a Day, films which no one needs to make allowances for today.
Leonard Maltin once said that film lists of the greatest films, such as the ones done by the American Film Institute, are largely a celebration of ignorance. Many people, even filmmakers, have not seen most of the true film classics, and are really familiar only with recent releases, which explains why The Court Jester was rated the number 98 comedy film of all time, while There's Something About Mary was rated number 27, several places in front of City Lights. "I don't think I'm a voice crying in the wilderness," Maltin said, "when I make the claim that Charlie Chaplin might possibly be a greater filmmaker than the Farrelly brothers."
The advantage of the following reviews of all the Best Pictures is this: I have actually seen all the movies! In addition, I'll give you the added courtesy of noting how many times I've seen each film. I do this for the sake of honesty, because when a reviewer is dealing with 70-plus films there are invariably going to be some he has seen only once, while others ten times, and some he has seen last month, while others 20 years ago. Some reviewers, I think, really rely more on other reviews than their own impressions.
I'd like to think my reviews are as objective as possible, but our impressions of a film are influenced by so many factors (where we saw it, who we saw it with, how it related to what we were going through at the time, etc.) that the true quality of a movie can be become somewhat hazy over time. I think the movies we most often misjudge are the ones we see when they're first released. The hype of the experience and the often unshakable enthusiasm of the crowd often colors our memory of a film, and when we see it years later on video we're rather shocked by how trite or empty the film really was. The best movies are timeless, but mediocre movies age very quickly. When you are a kid and watch the opening credits of Shaft, you might think he was really cool; when you see it again 20 years later, all you can focus on is that his propensity for jaywalking is practically pathological.
If you see a movie in the wrong environment, or with the wrong person, it can color your impressions to a horrible degree, and I hope I'm not guilty of that here. To illustrate, I once asked a girl if she had ever seen the original Night of the Living Dead.
"Oh, yeah, I saw it with old boyfriend," she said, "We were just cracking up and making fun of it the whole time. It was so stupid we just couldn't stop laughing."
I didn't tell her this, but I thought it was tightly-directed and rather powerful--something's wrong when it becomes difficult to distinguish between Night of the Living Dead and Plan 9 From Outer Space.
I believe in absolute standards, not in wishy-washy relativism. Movies, regardless of style and subject matter, are well-made or not well-made to varying degrees, and I think that they are capable of being accurately rated and compared. With this in mind, bear in mind that I'm yet another flawed viewer (as I'm sure you'll easily believe), and many of my ratings may very well be wrong.
The first Best Picture I ever saw was probably The Sound of Music, while the last was in late 1999 when I finally saw The Life of Emile Zola. (I saw American Beauty after that, and from that point on I've been able to see them as they come out.)
Below I'll list each Best Picture, the amount of times I've seen it (as of 9/1/02) and give it my rating, as well as a review, perhaps cursory in some cases.
But enough introduction. Let's Roll Film...
Wings (1927/1928)Times Seen: 1 (though I own it!)Rating: **1/2
The first Best Picture is one of the most unworthy of its award, though the film is not without interest. The love interest plot is corny and loaded with awkward coincidences, but the flying scenes are interesting. I particularly like the poignant little scene with Gary Cooper in his film debut. Overall, however, the film is rather unmemorable, and pales in comparison to the many great films of 1927/1928, such as : The Crowd (my choice for Best Picture), The Last Command, Sunrise, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Napoleon, The Docks of New York, The General, The Kid Brother, The Circus, Steamboat Bill, Jr., The Cameraman, Pandora's Box, all of which (though a couple I haven't yet seen) are superior to this film. Wings is not even as good as The Big Parade, which came out in 1925.
The Broadway Melody (1928/1929)Times Seen:1 (though I own it!)Rating: **1/2
Another film that is interesting mostly for historical reasons, although, once again, it is not without interest. The novelty of sound pervades the film, and if you use your imagination you can feel what it was like for the movie audience to see and hear all the singing and dancing. It didn't surprise me that most of the production numbers are silly and uninteresting, but it did surprise me that the dramatic aspects of the story are as good as they are. 1929 was not a good year for movies, because of the recent advent of sound (technically this award was for 1928/1929, but I'm not sure how the years were divided). I think we could certainly find worthier pictures (Applause, Hallelujah, The Love Parade) even in 1929.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-1930)Times seen: 4-5 ( I own it)Rating: ****
The first Best Picture that is a true classic that has stood the test of time. Lewis Milestone, who directed another great (yet overlooked) war drama called A Walk in the Sun in 1945, really opened up the film away from the static early sound style, liberally moving his camera and making the war scenes extremely realistic. The story of a callow, patriotic German, who goes to war thinking it's a great heroic adventure but comes to realize that it's brutal, senseless, and all about survival, seems very modern, and the ending scenes pack a powerful punch.
Cimarron (1931)Times seen: 1Rating: **1/2
This is one of the weakest of all the Best Pictures, and in retrospect should not have won (City Lights would be my choice). It's not really bad, or uninteresting, but it's awfully creaky, and the performances (especially Richard Dix as the dynamic man of the West) are pretty shaky. It's the sort of epic saga, covering a number of years, that the Academy always seems to love, often at the expense of true quality. Nice land rush scene, although in terms of atmosphere (and everything else) I think a similar movie of 1930, The Big Trail (John Wayne's starring debut) is superior.
Grand Hotel (1932)Times seen: 1Rating: ****
The Grand Hotel is a place where "nothing ever happens," but we learn that that's far from true. It's neat to see both John and Lionel Barrymore in the same film, and if you're only familiar with Lionel from It's a Wonderful Life, you get to chance to see what a fine actor he was, and how sympathetic a character he could be. We're also treated to Greta Garbo in her definitive "I vant to be alone" persona, playing an aging ballerina. Definitely worth seeing.
Cavalcade (1933)Times seen: 1Rating: ***
Like Cimarron, this is an epic style film, tracing the life of an English family from 1900 to 1933, and includes the family's participation in such events as the Boer War, the Titanic disaster, and, especially, World War I. It's sad and affecting, somewhat better than Cimarron, yet still rather stiff and old-fashioned.
It Happened One Night (1934)Times seen: 7-10Rating: ****
This is one of the greatest movies ever. Capra's skillful hand makes it seem very real and believable, so that it would be quite a contrast to see this after watching Cimarron or Cavalcade. A spoiled heiress (Claudette Colbert), running away from her father, is tracked down by a tough-talking reporter, a true man of the people (Clark Gable). They go on a long bus ride together and fall in love, but there are a few complications before the final curtain. The "Man on the Flying Trapeze" scene, the Hitchhiking Scene, the Walls of Jericho scene, and Gable's interview with her father where he demands to be reimbursed for his expenses are all classics. This is a must-see film.
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)Times seen: 1Rating: ***
I confess I haven't seen this in over 20 years--Laughton is sensational in the archetypal role of Captain Bligh, and Gable makes an excellent Fletcher Christian, although I don't think there is very much historical accuracy here. Is this better than The Informer, The 39 Steps, or A Night at the Opera? I doubt it, but I really should see it again.
The Great Ziegfield (1936)Times seen: 1 ( though I own it)Rating: ***
The (long) life of Broadway impresario Ziegfield, covering his career in the standard Hollywood biographical format, though with many large-scale (and not that impressive to me) production numbers. I can't quite figure out how Louise Rainier won Best Actress for this, and in retrospect it is clearly outclassed by Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Dodsworth. Nice ending scene
The Life of Emile Zola (1937)Times seen: 1Rating: ***
Another standard biographical film, but with a great performance from Paul Muni. Overall it's superior to The Great Ziegfield, and I don't really prefer it to The Story of Louis Pasteur, a similar film which won Muni the Best Actor award for 1936. (It's difficult to believe that Muni is the same actor who played the tough, original Scarface in 1932.) I might be accused of being a Capra addict, but Lost Horizon is probably a more deserving film, and if foreign language films were given any consideration in 1937 The Grand Illusion would have been a serious contender.
You Can't Take It With You (1938)Times seen: 2Rating: ***
Have I gone mad? This is a Capra film that I don't think was worthy of its Best Picture Award! I do enjoy the film, and it's great to see Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur team up, but I think Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskind made some poor choices in adapting and opening up the play, and it's such an excellent play that I really can't say that this is a definitive version. The Lady Vanishes is my choice for Best Picture for this year, but I do love Bringing Up Baby, which probably had no chance being a comedy, and Angels With Dirty Faces, which probably had no chance, being a melodrama. The electric chair scene from the latter film is my favorite scene from this year in the movies. Rocky died yellow.
Gone With the Wind (1939)Times seen: 4-6Rating: ****
A true critic loves to condemn films that are as popular as this one. I guess I'm not a true critic, because I enjoy this one from beginning to end. The soaring music, Clark Gable's first interactions with the family, the burning of Atlanta--it's all great stuff. 1939, however, was probably the greatest year in American Film, and I would not choose this over Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or The Wizard of Oz. It was nice that Robert Donat's fine performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips was recognized this year, but this year was so good that a great film like Of Mice and Men is practically considered second tier. On a side note, it's fun to see Ward Bond as the suspicious Union General toward the end of the film--Bond is the man who, Zelig-like, managed to get himself a part in some of the greatest movies of all time. He's the bus driver in It Happened One Night, Bert the cop in It's a Wonderful Life, a detective in The Maltese Falcon, and he shows up in Bringing Up Baby, The Long Voyage Home, The Grapes of Wrath, They Were Expendable, My Darling Clementine, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, and Rio Bravo (I guess it helped that he was a friend of John Wayne and John Ford!).
Rebecca (1940)Times seen: 2Rating: ***1/2
Creepy atmospheric Hitchcock is very well done, although perhaps not typical Hitchcock, and not his very best work. It's a mystery with some nice twists and turns, although I prefer the similar Suspicion from the following year. Despite my devotion to Hitchcock, I really think John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath was a more deserving film for this year, and, if comedies were not completely ignored by the academy, I think Howard Hawks's frenetic His Girl Friday would have been a contender as well--it's the best screen version of the classic Hecht/MacArthur play, The Front Page.
How Green Was My Valley (1941)Times seen: 1Rating: ***1/2
I remember this as a good movie, although my memory of the details is a little thin. It's the travails of life in a Welsh mining town, and the owner's son is interested in courting the daughter of a humble, but proud worker, among other things. Directed by John Ford, the film is touching and believable, and features the always terrific Maureen O'Hara.
Mrs. Miniver (1942)Times seen: 2Rating: ***1/2
This flag-waving patriotic film, about the steadfastness of the people of a typical English town during World war II, is still very moving and affecting. Greer Garson, who shone so brightly in her film debut three years earlier in Goodbye Mr. Chips, also commands the screen in this performance. She's captivating throughout, as when she holds off a downed German flier, reads Alice in Wonderland to her children while bombs fall all around her, or when convincing the local noble lady to perform a truly noble deed. The film has a couple of surprising twists, and the pastor's sermon in the end is still stirring and powerful, long after the war has ended. It's interesting that Miss Garson claimed to be 34 at the time the film was made, although she looks like she could be a couple of years younger, and it seems odd that she's supposed to have a 20-year old son. In fact, she was actually 38 when the film was made, and after the film wrapped she married the 23-year old actor who plays her son! (The marriage lasted only a few years.)
Casablanca (1943)Times seen: 5-6Rating: ****
Most film fans are familiar with this tale of doomed romance during World War II. This film is perfectly executed--if you reflect on it, the story isn't obviously great, and it certainly doesn't seem like it should be a slam-dunk classic. It has little action, and even the classic lines wouldn't necessarily grab you on the printed page. However, the perfect casting of Bogart, Bergman, Greenstreet, Lorre, Henreid, and Rains and the always spellbinding direction of the underrated Michael Curtiz (Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels With Dirty Faces, etc.) turns this into a never-to-be-forgotten classic. The bitterness of Bogart, the intensity of his relationship with Bergman, "As Times Go By," and the airport scene are, of course, classic; however, perhaps my favorite scene is when the Nazis are singing their German songs in front of the depressed bar patrons, and Victor (Paul Henried) suddenly decides to lead everyone in a rousing chorus of La Marseillaise, and the crowd drowns out the obnoxious Germans with their passionate enthusiasm. Truly a great moment.
Going My Way (1944)Times seen: 1Rating: ***1/2
I must admit that I've only seen this film once, and that was over 20 years ago. As I recall, the story concerns young, "hip" priest Crosby crossing metaphorical swords with old-timer Barry Fitzgerald. Crosby gets the kids to sing a fine rendition of "If You'd Like to Swing on a Star," among other things. I remember thinking it was a really good and heartwarming movie, but I'll have to see it again to really be able to see whether Crosby deserved the Best Actor award. 1944 was a good year in our war effort, but not such a good year for movies, although I believe Double Indemnity, Laura, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero would give this film a run for its money, although, admittedly, I have seen all of those films much more recently.
The Lost Weekend (1945)Times seen: 2Rating: ***1/2
This is an excellent film that is just the kind that Academy Voters like best--a serious film about a social issue (in this case, alcoholism). Ray Milland's descent into an alcoholic haze is truly frightening, and he well-deserved his Best Actor Oscar. The film is striking for it's no-holds-barred realistic approach to the subject. Billy Wilder was a truly great filmmaker, and he was successful in a variety of genres.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)Times seen: 2Rating: ****
I love this realistic drama about a small group of soldiers returning to their hometown after serving in World War II, one of whom has lost his hands (real-life sailor Harold Russell, who won the Best Supporting Actor in this, his one and only performance--it's the second greatest one-time-only film performance in history, behind Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc), one of whom was a senior officer, and one of whom was a bomber pilot. Although they meet for the first time on the plane home, the three have an unbreakable bond--they share the extreme difficulty of returning to normal life. Director Wyler was himself a returning veteran, and everything feels very real, and is very touching. Ironically, despite my great admiration for this film, I would have given the Best Picture Award to It's a Wonderful Life, as well as the Best Director (Frank Capra), Best Screenplay (Frank Capra et al), and Best Actor (James Stewart) awards.
Gentlemen's Agreement (1947)Times seen: 2Rating: ***
This is a film that really hasn't stood the test of time. It's a noble attempt to condemn the practice of anti-semitism, but it feels far too enamoured of its own nobility. Despite the presence of Kazan behind the camera, and Peck in front of it, the "message" is presented in a heavy-handed manner, and although there are many good scenes, and it's not dull, watching this film still feels a bit like taking medicine.
Hamlet (1948)Times seen: 1Rating: ***1/2
An excellent version of Shakespeare's play, although still somewhat static and stagebound, although not so much as Olivier's overrated version of Henry V. There are four other versions of the play on film, and in my opinion the Russian version by Kozintsev is the best, although I admit I've only seen it once. I've actually never seen the 1969 version with Marianne Faithful, although reputable sources tell me it's weak. Of the two 1990's versions, the Zeferelli version (with Mel Gibson) is clearly superior to the Branaugh version, which suffers from a variety of peculiar casting and interpretation decisions, not to mention the stubborn insistence on filming every word of Shakespeare's longest play. I would rate the Olivier version and the Gibson version about the same--Olivier is the better actor, but Zeferelli is the better director (his versions of Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew are certainly two of the top five film adaptations of Shakespeare.) I think that this film, good as it is, should have lost to The Treasure of Sierra Madre for Best Picture, and a case could be made for Humphrey Bogart over Olivier as Best Actor, although their performances are obviously very difficult to compare.
All the King's Men (1949)Times seen: 1Rating: ***1/2
Admittedly a film about which I can remember very little, other than the ending. The hitherto unheralded Broderick Crawford surprised everyone with his excellent Academy-Award winning performance of a character based on Louisiana Governor Huey Long. The chief rival to this film was Letter to Three Wives, which is an excellent, possibly superior film. The oddity of the awards in 1949 was that Joseph Manciewicz won both Best Screenplay and Best Director for Letter to Three Wives, yet the Picture itself did not win. Manciewicz would get some measure of redemption the following year. Another Best Actor candidate this year was John Wayne in the fine Sands of Iwo Jima, his only nomination other than his winning performance in True Grit in 1969.
All About Eve (1950)Times seen: 1Rating: ***1/2
Manciewicz followed up his success with Letter to Three Wives with this memorable comedy/drama set in the world of Broadway theater. The dialogue really sparkles in this film, a favorite with homosexual viewers, probably because of the presence of gay icon Bette Davis at her cattiest. It's creepy how starstruck Eve plots to take over Broadway Star Davis's life. Nice appearance by Marilyn Monroe, in one of her earliest appearances, as a babe from the "Copacabana school of dramatic art." Monroe also appears in The Asphalt Jungle, made in the same year, and probably, along with the great Sunset Blvd, the chief rival to this film (although I do think this was the deserving winner). George Sanders won the Best Supporting actor award for his performance as a cynical Broadway critic, and he gave perhaps the most memorable acceptance "speech" in academy history--he simply took the statuette, bowed deeply, and then left the stage without saying a word!
An American in Paris (1951)Times seen: 1Rating: ***
Admittedly, this is a movie I've only seen once, and many years ago at that. I enjoy Gene Kelly very much, who acts and dances without any trace of fruitiness, and the story is cheerful and charming. My main recollection, however, is of a seemingly interminable ballet number with Leslie Caron. Overall, I don't think this compares very favorably to Singing in the Rain, which came out the following year, and possibly did deserve the Best Picture Oscar. I would have voted for Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, with The African Queen a near second, as Best Picture in this year.
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)Times seen: 1Rating: ***
I am certainly not one of those who denigrates Cecil B. de Mille. The 1956 version of The Ten Commandments is one of my all-time favorite films, and the lack of subtlety in his films is usually made up for by a strong sense of the dramatic. One might think that something like Samson and Delilah, for example, is a movie I would denigrate, because it constantly threatens being cornball, but it's also a movie that you don't easily forget. This particular film has its good points, and is certainly boosted by the presence of Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart, but it's way too long, and is more like a cheesy circus documentary than a truly dramatic film (one feels that the film could be quite powerful with about 30 minutes of cuts). I do enjoy the surprising throwaway cameo appearance by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (but now I've ruined the surprise!). Overall, not a deserving film, and I'd cast my vote in this year for either High Noon, or Singing in the Rain (it's difficult to judge between such disparate films). A Place in the Sun is also a very powerful film from this year.
From Here to Eternity (1953)Times seen: 3Rating: ****
A worthy winner, this film shares many attributes with its closest rival, Stalag 17, both being semi-realistic World War II dramas. From Here to Eternity takes place in Hawaii just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the sometimes Soap Opera-ish (though excellent) drama all has its pay-off with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Montgomery Clift is great at playing a lonely, tortured individual (see also Red River and A Place in the Sun), and Burt Lancaster provides a solid center to the film, as the efficient NCO who, uncharacteristically, has an affair with the bored wife of an officer (Deborah Kerr, who joins with Burt in the classic make-out in the surf scene). Frank Sinatra, Ernest Borgnine, and Donna Reed provide memorable support.
On the Waterfront (1954)Times seen: 2Rating: ****
This gritty, realistic film is as powerful today as when it was made. While the performances in this film get the most praise, the most fascinating part to me are the conservative values that are displayed. Director Kazan was vilified (then and now) because he spoke up to the House Un-American Committee and named names of communists working in the film unions. This film is his subtle yet powerful answer to the jeers he received, because it's about how one man is brave enough to speak out against a corrupt and criminal union. In other words, individual moral courage is what's needed to clean up our corrupt society. In tune with that theme, this film features one of the most powerful clergyman ever seen in a film, the priest played by Karl Malden, who insists that Christ is on the waterfront too, and encourages Brando to finally turn the tables on nasty union boss Lee J. Cobb (a great villain). There are few other films (Angels With Dirty Faces is another one) that portray clergymen as anything other than a bunch of simpering milquetoasts. "I could a been a contender, I coulda been somebody" is a classic movie speech.
Marty (1955)Times seen: 2Rating: ***1/2
This is a small, simple film that leaves a great impression. It's about how a couple of "dogs" (Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, who's not really a "dog") meet and become a couple, despite some hitches along the way. I love how they meet. Marty, a Bronx butcher, is convinced into going to a dance, even though he's shy and unpopular with women, and after he's told his "ma" that she has to face the factshe's an ugly man, and he'll probably never get married. When he arrives at the dance, he feels awkward and out of place. Suddenly a guy comes up to him and asks him for a favor. It seems the guy agreed to go out on a blind date, and got stuck with a "dog." Would Marty be willing to take her off his hands? "No," says Marty, "that wouldn't be right." Marty watches what happens, as Clara, the "dog," is abandoned by her date. She realizes she's been deserted, and heads off to the balcony, upset. Marty screws up his courage, walks out with her, and says to her, "Excuse me, Miss, would you like to dance?" She turns around and sinks crying into his arms. When I first saw this scene it really hit home to me (perhaps because I was in high school, and the dance situation seemed all too realistic!). Ernest Borgnine definitely deserved his Best Actor Oscar, and I think the picture was worthy as well, in what was actually a fairly weak year for movies. Like On the Waterfront, this movie feels very real.
Around the World in 80 Days (1956)Times seen: 2Rating: ***
This lightweight, overblown film is definitely one of the weaker Best Pictures, and is notable mostly as the first film to feature extensive cameo appearances (Buster Keaton, Red Skelton, etc.). David Niven is charming in the lead role, and the film is memorable, but it is really not as good as the similar, and more frequently maligned It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Definitely my pick for Best Picture in this year would be Cecil B. de Mille's The Ten Commandments, a masterpiece of unsubtle, stylized, sentimental, yet ultimately mesmerizing filmmaking. It was a good year for Yul Brynner, who won the Oscar for The King and I, and was featured in The Ten Commandments.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)Times seen: 5-7 (I own it)Rating: ****
Classic movie of British prisoners being forced to build a bridge in World War II Burma, complicated by the heroic stubborness of their Colonel, who insists that the Japanese follow the "rules," and by a team of commandoes that are determined to blow up the bridge. Alec Guinness is terrific as the enigmatic, though ultimately admirable Colonel, who refuses to let he and his men be treated like dogs by the Japanese commander, whose own well-developed sense of honor just can't be reconciled with the British code of honor. Having read the book, it's interesting to note that the film undercuts the philosophical view of the book, perhaps unintentionally. The writer of the novel, Pierre Boulle, was a communist, as were the two blacklisted screenwriters. In the book, British Colonel Nicholson's insistence on following the rules of war, is ultimately considered foolish--in fact, his western civilization point of view turns him into a bigger fanatic than the Japanese. Despite the fact that the screenwriters presumably shared Boulle's perspective, the film seriously undercuts this point in several ways. In the film, the Colonel's insistence on following the rules actually makes him a champion of civilization over brutality, and his approach to building the bridge, and building it well, seems justified. In the memorable finale of the film, his confusion during the commando raid is understandable, given his single-minded focus on the bridge, and when he realizes, almost too late, that he's interfered with the commando raid, he proceeds to blow the bridge up himself (which does not happen in the book). Apparently, on further review, there is meant to be some ambiguity over whether he actually intends to blow up the bridge, or simply falls on the detonating plunger by accident, but I've never come across anyone who felt that he didn't willfully blow up the bridge, doing his duty in destroying what he felt it was his duty to construct with integrity.
Gigi (1958)Times seen: 2Rating: ***1/2
A pretty-good musical about a girl, trained to be a mistress, but who ends up a wife. The real highlight of this film is Maurice Chevalier, who sings "Thank Heaven For Little Girls," and "Ah Yes, I Remember It Well." Louis Jourdain and Leslie Caron are the romantic leads. Although I've seen it twice, and believed it was excellent both times, nothing really stays with me from this film except Chevalier, and the film's resolution. In hindsight, would anyone pick this ahead of Vertigo? Well, I'm sure some would--it is an enjoyable film.
Ben Hur (1959)Times seen: 5-7Rating: ****
Probably the greatest biblical movie ever, this is also the all-time leader in Academy Awards (11). It's been somewhat denigrated by critics in recent years, and there are a surprising number of evangelical Christians who have not seen it. Nonetheless this remains a powerful film, and the great director William Wyler's greatest achievement. Perhaps its lukewarm reception in Christian circles is due to the fact that it's not literally taken from the Bible. Ironically, that makes General Lew Wallace's achievement in writing the book, and Wyler's in putting it on the screen, all the more impressive. This is the story of the imaginary Judah Ben Hur, a wealthy Jew, lifelong friend of a leading Roman soldier, who is falsely accused of a crime and sent away as a slave, only to return as a great charioteer. His story intersects neatly with the story of Christ. While the Chariot Race and the Sea Battle are often mentioned as highlights (which they are), my favorite scene is early on, when the beaten and dying Ben Hur, being forced marched off into slavery, enters a Jewish town, dying of thirst. The other prisoners are allowed to drink, but the Roman Commander forbids anyone to give Ben Hur water. Meanwhile, a carpenter, who we quickly recognize as Christ, walks over toward the well. In a powerful show of subtlety seldom seen today, Christ's face is never seen (which I believe was done in the 1926 silent movie, which I've longed to see for some time). While everyone else cowers away in fear, Christ coolly walks over to the well, scoops up a drink, and gives it to Ben Hur. When Ben Hur drinks the water, and looks into the face that we never see, his dead hopes revive, and he is given the courage and energy which sustains him through the rest of the story. When the Roman Commander sees that someone has defied his orders and given Ben Hur a drink, he is furious, but then Christ simply straightens up and looks at him. The expression on the soldier's face changes from anger to confusion and shame, simply by looking into Christ's face, and he hurriedly orders everyone away. This is perhaps my favorite scene in any movie. If you haven't seen the film, you'll also be touched by the scene later on when Ben Hur tries to repay Jesus for that precious cup of water. Truly a great film.
The Apartment (1960)Times seen: 2Rating: ***1/2
The great Billy Wilder, who came up with such classics as Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot, and others, finally got a well-deserved Best Picture award for this film about schlemiel Jack Lemmon, who, in a bid to get ahead in his company, loans out his apartment to philandering executives. Along the way he falls in love with Shirley Maclaine, an office worker having an affair with the boss (Fred MacMuarray, brilliantly cast against type as he was in Double Indemnity). It's an excellent movie; however, although Wilder should have gotten the Best Picture Award earlier (1944 and 1950), there's no way this film should have beaten out Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which should have swept the awards this year.
West Side Story (1961)Times seen: 2Rating: ***1/2
West Side Story is one of the best movies ever made by a two-director team (King Kong is another such movie that springs to mind). Ironically, the two directors (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins) couldn't stand each other, and failed to acknowledge each other when they won the Academy award for Best Director! Most of the credit for "opening up" this stage play should probably go to Wise, and there are many interesting shots and cinematic tricks which keep the film from feeling stagebound. Essentially, West Side Story is a musical version of Romeo and Juliet, set in 1950's New York City, and the Montagues and the Capulets are now the Jets and the Sharks, Puerto Rican and White gangs. The music is terrific, and although some might snigger at the dancing gang members, it's a worthy and powerful film.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)Times seen: 8-10 (I own it)Rating: ***1/2
This is a fascinating epic, especially in thew way the hero seems to deteriorate mentally and morally as the movie goes along. The true story of T.E. Lawrence, the British officer who led the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I, the film is justly famous for its outstanding visuals. I warn you not to show it to anyone who has attention deficit disorder, however, as its long takes of camels loping across the desert might drive them over the edge. There are many terrific scenes--my favorite is Peter O' Toole's (Lawrence) initial encounter with Omar Sharif. This is a haunting, beautiful film, certainly worthy of the Best Picture award, although To Kill a Mockingbird is a solid rival.
Tom Jones (1963)Times seen: 3Rating: ***
One of the more overrated films of all time, this is faithful to Henry Fielding's classic novel in incident, but completely misses the point of the book. Fielding's 18th century novel is a comic masterpiece, but it has a clear moral point--lack of prudence and youthful exuberance can get a young man into a lot of trouble. The movie, on the other hand is about a swinging 18th century playboy, and is really more about the swinging London of the 60's than about any point that Fielding was trying to make. The "modern" filmmaking style, complete with helicopter shots, jump cuts, and looks into the camera, doesn't really serve the period story, and now makes the film look dated--a 1960's time capsule. As just one example, at one point Tom discovers that a woman he slept with may actually be his long-lost mother. In the book Tom responds to this with absolute horror, and when he finally finds out it isn't true he resolves that he's got to be more prudent in his behavior. In the movie he doesn't really respond at all, and the whole thing is treated as a leering sex joke. Oddly, the film won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, even though the screenwriter didn't appear to understand the book, and was only capable of this comic-book quality adaptation.
My Fair Lady (1964)Times seen: 5-7Rating: ****
This is one of my favorite musicals, perhaps abetted by the fact that it was the first play I ever attended. This is a light-hearted musical version of Shaw's Pygmalion, and I really enjoy the music. I especially love how Rex Harrison, who can't really sing, manfully forces his way through the songs, relying strictly on energy and personality. Of course, Audrey Hepburn couldn't sing very well either--I had a friend in school whose Aunt, Marni Nixon, actually sang for Hepburn. I remember hearing this fact as a kid, and being shocked and amazed that they could do such a thing. Marni Nixon dubbed the singing in a number of movies, and I believe you can see her as one of the nuns in The Sound of Music. Speaking of which...
The Sound of Music (1965)Times seen: 7-10Rating: ****
This is a great, very familiar musical. It's opening shot is legendary, and I think people know it so well that there's not many original comments I can add. (However, I'll indefatigably give it a try!) Christopher Plummer always kind of rubs me the wrong way when I watch this film--there's something vaguely creepy and sinister about him (of course, in later years he's made a career of being a villain). I'm also troubled by the fact that he's a former Austrian sea captain in 1938, and Austria lost its coast in 1918, which would imply to me that his character should be at least 50, if not much older. Plummer looks fortyish to me. On another note, I'm always amused by Maria's song "I've Got Confidence," which she sings as she leaves the convent to become a governess. It's a great song, but the idea that she "has confidence in confidence alone" seems a little absurd coming from someone who's in training to be a nun. Hey, I've got an original idea for you, Maria: prayer!
A Man For All Seasons (1966)Times seen: 2Rating: ****
This is a great historical drama about 16th century man of principle Sir Thomas More. More was a friend of King Henry VIII, but when the King wants Thomas to approve of his shenanigans with Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas refuses to go along. This film's power comes from the fact that it's about moral courage, and we really feel for Sir Thomas's dilemma. Great dialogue, and fine performances from Paul Scofield (Thomas), Robert Shaw, John Hurt (his earliest film appearance that I know of), and even Orson Welles. If you like this film (which I think every right-thinking person should), you will also enjoy Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968).
In the Heat of the Night (1967)Times seen: 4Rating ***1/2
A black man from Philadelphia (Sydney Poitier) is sitting in a lonely Southern train station when he is picked up as the chief suspect in a recent local murder. He has aroused suspicion simply because he is black and is carrying a lot of money. As it turns out, he is a police detective named Virgil Tibbs, and he is soon assigned to help the redneck local sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve the crime. Although the premise sounds like it could have been dangerously politically correct, the movie is actually quite powerful, and not just a good-intentioned time capsule piece (unlike Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for example). Rod Steiger is particularly good as the sheriff (he won the Best Actor Oscar), who eventually develops a respect for this black man he's been forced to associate with. I've read the book, which is far more simplistic in its portrayal of Virgil Tibbs as the epitome of all virtue and wisdom. The movie makes Tibbs a much more realistically-drawn character. My favorite line is when the sheriff is driving Virgil to the mansion of a rich white man, and they drive past the black folks working in the cotton fields. "None of that for you, eh Virgil?" says the sheriff, breaking the silence. Much has been made of the fact that Bonnie and Clyde should have won the Best Picture Award this year, and that this film was a safe, "old-guard" choice. While I agree that Bonnie and Clyde is the better film, this film is not that far below it. Another fascinatingly original movie made in this year is Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It was definitely not an "old-guard' movie, and I find its directing, at least, to be more original and exciting than Arthur Penn's in Bonnie and Clyde.
Oliver (1968)Times seen: 3Rating ***1/2
This musical version of Dickens' Oliver Twist is excellent, but perhaps a bit unmemorable. I like the music, and it has good performances, but I'm not sure that it does justice to the outstanding source material.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)Times seen: 2Rating ***1/2
Cowboy Jon Voight comes to New York City to be a gigolo, and teams up with Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), but his dreams don't exactly come true. I like the opening song, and the performances, but I don't think the film has held up incredibly well. It benefited in its time from the novelty of the new freedom in depicting sex and swearing, but, like most films made in the first 10 years of the MPAAA rating code system, its reputation has far exceeded its actual merits. I realize this contradicts the theory of a popular film book, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," which argues that the 1970's was a golden era of filmmaking. I couldn't disagree more. Because you could actually show extreme violence, sex, etc. these movies were considered "edgy" in their time, but when you look below the superficial "edginess" you see that actual content is often lacking. As an example, I recall that when Blazing Saddles came out the sight of an old woman swearing was considered uproariously funny. Now that we're used to that sort of thing, however, the humor is mostly lost on us, much like our response to the first sound films, where we can no longer get a thrill from hearing a whistle blow, or hearing an egg frying. I'm not sure what I'd suggest in place of this film for Best Picture in 1969. John Wayne won the Best Actor award for True Grit, but I don't think that film is without flaws either. In fact, it's not even the best western of this year, as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Once Upon a Time in the West also came out in 1969. I strongly recommend the latter film.
Patton (1970)Times seen: 4-5 (I own it)Rating ****
This excellent biography of the "blood-and-guts" World War II general came out, interestingly, at the height of the Vietnam War, and provided an interest contrast to the contemporary sensibilities. A great performance by George C. Scott, some good dialogue, and an outstanding dramatic score highlight the film.
The French Connection (1971)Times seen: 3Rating ***
Gene Hackman is Popeye Doyle, a tough New York detective trying to break a French narcotics ring. Despite the film's great reputation, that was about all I could remember, other than the spectacular car chase under the elevated train lines, as I hadn't seen this in 20 years. I recently saw it again ,and I see no reason to change my rating--it's definitely an overrated film. About 3/4 of the film consists of suspensefully edited stakeouts, and despite the fact that Hackman is a great actor and won an Academy Award for his performance, he really doesn't have that much acting to do. The characters simply don't have enough screen time to be very well developed. The plot really isn't that great either--they discover the "French Connection" strictly by accident, and they don't apply a lot of brainpower to capture the criminals. The ending of the film is very bizarre. The editing is impressive, but this does not qualify as a work of genius.
The Godfather (1972)Times seen: 3Rating ****
A classic film that really is almost worthy of its reputation (it's maybe in the top twenty for me, but many people claim it's the best movie ever). Marlon Brando's performance has been rightly celebrated, but Al Pacino is really the anchor of the film. Great final shot.
The Sting (1973)Times seen: 2Rating ****
Great atmosphere (with a great ragtime score) and nice, twisting plot make this a memorable movie experience. Robert Redford and Paul Newman are both good, but I especially enjoy Robert Shaw as the slimy villain. It's too much of a standard caper film to be truly great, but it's well worth seeing. I can't think of what else I would give the Best Picture award to in this year.
The Godfather, Part 2 (1974)Times seen: 2Rating ***1/2
Although I've often read the opinion that the sequel to The Godfather is better than the original, I simply can't agree. It's an excellent movie, but not unusually exceptional. Al Pacino is great as Michael Corleone, but I think that Robert DeNiro as young Vito Corleone (and his interactions with the white-suited Italian crime boss) is the most memorable aspect of the film. I'm not sure if the flashback sequences and the modern-day sequences are very artfully intersected--it almost feels like two different films. This was a worthy Best Picture winner, however.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)Times seen: 3Rating ***1/2
Another excellent movie that nonetheless can't quite make it up to the level of "outstanding." Jack Nicholson is great as the not-so-crazy mental patient, and Louise Fletcher is perhaps even more memorable as the coldly sadistic nurse. I love the scene where the mental patients are arbitrarily denied the privilege of watching the World Series, but Nicholson pretends that the game is on anyway, and the patients all excitedly gather around and enjoy his play-by-play, much to the consternation of Nurse Ratched. Also, there's a memorable Basketball game where "the Chief" finally comes to life. Although the picture is perceived to be told from a liberal perspective, I agree with the main tenet of the story, which is that life is meant to be lived, and lived to its fullest. A healthy environment can sometimes do more to heal mental illness than an army of doctors and nurses.
Rocky (1976)Times seen: 2Rating ***1/2
Certainly this film has it's flaws, but its ability to move an audience cannot be denied, and it sticks in the mind far longer than more "sophisticated" films. Of course, people's memory of this film do become obscured by the bigger budget sequels (Rocky III being the best), and the fact that Stallone, who was essentially unknown at the time of this film's release, went on to become, in general, a cartoonish action hero. (Although Stallone wrote the script for this, his writing would never get up to this level again.) Apollo Creed, the genial yet egomaniacal champ (patterned after the latter-day Muhammad Ali) is a memorable character. This is not the best boxing film ever (see Body and Soul, The Set-Up, and Requiem for a Heavyweight), but it is an excellent film, and I feel it did deserve its Best Picture award.
Annie Hall (1977)Times seen: 3Rating ***1/2
Before I talk about this film, I'd like to talk about Star Wars, which is my choice for Best Picture this year. Although to some this might seem to be a "low-brow" pick, it has to be conceded that Star Wars was one of the most influential films ever made, as well as one of the most entertaining. In contrast to the opinion of others, I think that Star Wars (i.e., "A New Hope") is easily the best film in the still-running series, and the reputation of this film suffers because of the mere presence of all the sequels. One of the joys of the original was the feeling that you came in to the middle of something spectacular and wonderful, and not after a series of pedestrian "prequels." I thought that calling this film "Episode IV" was a brilliant touch at the time--it let your imagination fill in what happened before and after. Because of the sequels, we tend to think of it now as only part of the story, when it fact it stands up beautifully on its own. I think the prequels and sequels played much better in our imagination than in their actuality.
Although some people consider Close Encounters of the Third Kind, also from this year, as one of the greatest movies ever, I consider it one of the most overrated movies ever--but perhaps I should put those comments in another article. As for Annie Hall, I think it's a good film, and it does fairly successfully combine the earlier, funnier Woody Allen with something deeper and more thoughtful. However, I think the film also contains the seeds of Allen's ultimate destruction as a filmmaker--the self-indulgent, self-absorbed, foreign-film-plagiarizing, whiny, urban, New York-centric stuff that would render him largely irrelevant as a filmmaker by the time of Stardust Memories a few years later. (Of course, Allen's films are still considered great in New York and any other place were pretentious urban liberals hang out, but he no longer plays in Peoria like he did at the time of Bananas). All that being said, I do think this is a fairly good film, and there are many funny moments in Allen's on and off relationship with the equally eccentric Annie Hall. Still, I think the film is generally overrated.
The Deer Hunter (1978)Times seen: 1Rating ***
Although I've only seen this once, and forget a lot of the details, I do remember my feelings about it quite well. The movie is about three hours long, and the first hour seems rather bloated, random, and dull. Once the action moves to Vietnam, things start to get riveting. At the time the film came out, two of the complaints from liberals were that it made the Viet Cong look evil (I'm sure they were all saintly), and that there is no record of "Russian Roulette" competitions taking place in Vietnam (which misses the point that the scenes are dramatically effective, and are plausibly in the realm of what "might have happened"--no one would mistake this film for a painfully researched documentary). Overall the film is good, but its bloated length (it would be a better film with about an hour of cuts) and self-indulgent moments were actually a precursor to disaster, for Director Michael Cimino's next film, Heaven's Gate, would be a bloated, self-indulgent, budget-busting disaster that would effectively destroy the United Artists studio. Cimino would never again direct a good film.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)Times seen: 1Rating ***1/2
This is a good film about a father that has to take over as a single parent to his son when his wife suddenly leaves to "go find herself" (Meryl Streep, in one of her earliest roles). At first, the father (Dustin Hoffman) is rather clueless how to take care of his son (which allows for some comedy), but soon builds a relationship with his son like he never had before, so much so that when his ex-wife comes back and wants custody he is willing to battle it out in court with her, regardless of what it takes or how much it costs. In some ways the film is like a high-quality TV movie, but it's very well done.
Ordinary People (1980)Times seen: 1Rating ***1/2
This is an excellent film, but the fact that I've only seen it once indicates that I'm not that into serious dramas about dysfunctional families (for whatever reason!). The movie is an impressive directorial debut for Robert Redford (it's still his best film as director), and I think Mary Tyler Moore is a particular standout as the emotionally distant mom who is secretly repulsed by her younger son (because she always favored his older brother). A powerful film, but not something you would rent for a fun night at the movies.
Chariots of Fire (1981)Times seen: 3Rating ***
I think this is a good-but-not-great film, which is surprising because one of the themes of the story (a Christian track star chooses to be true to his faith rather than compete on the Sabbath, which he believes is wrong) is something I really admire and is rather refreshing (talk about standing up to Peer pressure, and that's "Peer" with a capital "P"!). I just believe that both plots (the Jewish runner Abrahams plot, and the Christian runner Liddell plot) could have been handled even more dramatically. The whole thing has kind of a leisurely, Masterpiece Theatre kind of pace. The portrayal of the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) as a sort of hapless twit is quite amusing, and it's hard to get that theme music out of your head even if you want to. On a strange-but-true trivia note, Harold Abrahams never won another race after he took the 100 meters in the 1924 Olympics. Also, Eric Liddell died a martyr in China during World War II, and his margin of victory in the 400 meters would not be equaled until Michael Johnson's Olympic performance over 50 years later.
Gandhi (1982)Times seen: 1Rating **1/2
This is the kind of film the Academy loves to reward, a long, sugar-coated biography of someone it's politically correct to admire. The film is not bad, merely unmemorable. Ben Kingsley does give an excellent performance in the lead role. The first part of the film is the most interesting, as you learn that Gandhi was not always a man in a loincloth, but as the movie goes on it turns more and more into a politically-correct waxworks show (I'm not sure if the British would have ever had an Empire if they were the complete idiots shown here). Oddly enough, I've heard from more than one source that if you met Gandhi in real life the first thing he would ask you is if you'd had a good bowel movement recently--apparently he was rather fixated with that subject. His scatological obsessions are discreetly avoided in this film. There is a film I saw a couple of times as a boy about the assassination of Gandhi, called Nine Hours to Rama, which as I recall is a pretty interesting film for those who are interested in seeing related films on this subject. The ending of that film is unforgettable--I forget how Gandhi ends.
Terms of Endearment (1983)Times seen: 1Rating ***
This film's pretentious title has always put me off (why not call it "Words of Love"?), and when I saw it (in the theater) I thought it was a decent movie, but not at all worthy of its hype. The romance between Shirley Maclaine and Jack Nicholson is amusing, and the Debra Winger parts are touching (as I recall), but this is a another movie where the details really didn't stick with me. Perhaps it's worth another look. I'm not sure what film I'd recommend from this year instead. I think Robert Duvall gave a terrific performance in Tender Mercies (for which he won the Best Actor), but that film, though great on atmosphere, is a little too meandering to be considered terrific.
Amadeus (1984)Times seen: 1Rating ***1/2
Out of all the Best Pictures from the past 20 or 30 years, although some critics seem to rate this film as one of the weaker ones, but I think it's an excellent film. Perhaps I just enjoy the sheer theatricality of it, and the entertainingly contrasting characters. This is the story of Mozart, who is portrayed here by Tom Hulce (in a fine performance), as sort of a naïve goofball--tactless, heedless, and wacky, but blessed with an unbelievable natural talent. The court composer, Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, also excellent), is a person who has dedicated his life to music, and done all the right things, but is infuriated when he sees that no matter how hard he tries he can never attain the musical brilliance of the thoughtless Mozart. There are some weak spots (as I recall, the actress who plays Mozart's wife is not particularly good, and the film is perhaps too long), but there are many fine moments (such as when Mozart, after overhearing Salieri's latest composition just one time, sits down at the piano and plays an improved version of it, commenting "it's quite simple, really"). Jeffrey Jones is also a standout as the Austrian Emperor, who remarks that the problem with Mozart's music is there are "too many notes." Jones also played the memorably flustered principal in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Perhaps the most influential film of 1984, although it wouldn't have been noted at the time, was The Terminator, although I don't think it could unseat this film as Best Picture, even in 20/20 retrospect.
Out of Africa (1985)Times seen: 1Rating ***
This is the kind of historical-romance-in-an-exotic-place film that the Academy loves, complete with sweeping vistas and soaring music. Unfortunately, it's not all that memorable, and after the Oscar-hype is done films like this quickly fade from the public consciousness (see also The English Patient). This is a good film, but it might be hard-pressed to crack a list of the Best 1,000 Movies of all time.
Platoon (1986)Times seen: 2Rating ***
We have now come to examine a film by Oliver Stone, the master of style without substance, and preachy, left-wing proselytizing. Many people complain that modern "Christian films" are too "preachy," and there is some truth to that, but I think the preachiest film I've ever seen is Oliver Stone's Wall Street, which is the cinematic equivalent of a dose of really foul medicine. (It came out in 1987.) Stone's JFK is perhaps the biggest movie ever made about a completely idiotic book (Jim Garrisons's "On the Trail of the Assassins," which I read back to back with "Case Closed." --let's just say the latter is a lot more convincing than the former, although the former is sort of a classic of murky paranoia.) The film at hand, Platoon, is almost certainly Stone's best, but the best parts of the film are the realistic battle scenes, and not the "message." Films about the Vietnam War from a left-wing perspective (Apocalypse Now is the classic example) always inadvertently leave me with the impression, not that the war was necessarily wrong, but that any failures were due to our sending out a bunch of self-absorbed, drug-addicted idiots to fight it (which, by the way, I don't believe was the case in reality.) This is an okay film to see once--somehow I saw it twice.
The Last Emperor (1987)Times seen: 1Rating ***
A very interesting film about the life of the last Emperor of China, who was deposed as a young boy and lived the rest of his life trying to find a place for himself. As is perhaps typical with director Bernardo Bertolucci, the visuals are more memorable then the story itself, although a story of a terrific fall from a lofty social height is always moving.. My most enduring memory of this film is of the little-boy Emperor, who is little more than a toddler, playing on the grounds of his gargantuan palace, surrounded by attentive servants.
Rain Man (1988)Times seen: 1Rating ***1/2
The performances in this film stand out more than the film itself, but they are indeed outstanding performances, especially by Dustin Hoffman as the mentally-impaired man who actually has been blessed with unusual mental gifts. This is also the first time I realized that Tom Cruise, who plays the slickster younger brother, is actually a good actor. I'll have to see this movie again.
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)Times seen: 1Rating ***1/2
This film is often dissed as being unworthy of its Oscar, but the film that is generally offered up in its place, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, is a mess of a movie that probably rates as one of the most overrated of all time. This film, about the friendship between an old white southern lady and her black servant, is touching and sweet, and though it's perhaps no all-time classic, it was still worthy of the Best Picture honor. Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman both give standout performances (even Dan Ackroyd, in a rare straight role, is pretty good).
Dances With Wolves (1990)Times seen: 1Rating ***
Kevin Costner's career highlight, this is a generally entertaining movie that swerves dangerously close to preachiness and political correctness without quite becoming obnoxious. It's way too long, and unfortunately led Costner to produce the series of high-budget, pretentious flops that he has later become known for (see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves if you want to see a politically-correct train wreck). Nonetheless, this is a pretty good film for a directorial debut.
Silence of the Lambs (1991)Times seen: 1Rating ***
This is a well-made film, and I concede that Anthony Hopkins gives a very memorable performance as Hannibal Lector, the cannibalistic serial murderer. Jodie Foster is very good too. However, this is the kind of film that just sort of leaves me feeling empty--this is just not the kind of thing I like to see, or would be particularly interested in seeing again (of course, I realize that millions of others obviously feel otherwise). Interesting, I've seen the prequel to this, Manhunter, which made very little splash when it came out. It's a decent film, though not as good as this, but it has enough similarities to this film that often the two films get a bit muddled in my mind.
The Unforgiven (1992)Times seen: 1Rating ***
Although I wish this film was better than it is, it does put a fitting coda to Clint Eastwood's career as an ambiguous western "hero," and has a properly elegiac tone, much like John Wayne's final film, The Shootist. Much has been made of the fact that this film shows violence not to be romantic, but harsh and painful, and that the West depicted here is gritty and real, but there are other films that do the same thing equally well. It's always fun (if that's the right word) to see Eastwood in a western, and although this is a good film it's not a classic of the stature of his best western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. That is a movie that truly sticks in the mind, from the title, to the theme music, to the dialogue ("If you're gonna shoot, shoot. Don't talk."), all the way to Ike Stanton's grave. It was nice to see Eastwood finally honored by the Academy, however, since for so many years his films were deprecated and lambasted simply because they were not politically correct.
Schindler's List (1993)Times seen: 2Rating ****
I've always felt that Steven Spielberg was hugely overrated. There, I said it! Until this point, his best film by far was Jaws, and he was the director of some of the most overrated films of all time, namely Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and ET. Nonetheless he scored with this film, which looks beautiful in Black and White (with the exception of the famous "girl in the red coat"), and features great acting. On some level, of course, I tend to think that this subject matter is a slam-dunk for a powerful movie, and it would be almost impossible to blow it. Nonetheless, I must tip my hat to Mr. Spielberg (as well as to the enigmatic, but ultimately heroic, Mr. Schindler), and compliment him on a powerful film that sticks in the mind's eye long after it is done. Some of my favorite scenes are when Schindler has to get his accountant (Ben Kingsley) out of the cattle car to the concentration camp ("Be more careful--think of what you might have done to my business"), the one-armed worker ("I work for Mr. Schindler"), and the trip to Auschwitz to recover his workers, especially the children, because he needs their little hands to "clean out the inside of the shells."
Forrest Gump (1994)Times seen: 1Rating ***
This is a cute, whimsical, touching film that provides a fun contemporary history lesson, as the dense but ubiquitous Forrest Gump ambles his way into many of the major news events of the past 50 years. It's sort of a cheerful, more accessible version of Zelig. Overall, the film is somewhat lightweight, but the relationship between Forrest and the girl who befriended him when he first went to school, and the evolution of their friendship, is very touching. Tom Hanks gives a terrific performance, superior to his Oscar-winning performance in Philadelphia the year before. He became the first man to win back-to-back Best Actor awards since Spencer Tracy did it in 1937 and 1938. For all its charm, the Best Picture winner this year should have been Pulp Fiction, a far more innovative and influential film.
Braveheart (1995)Times seen: 2Rating ***
I love historical epics, and this is very good, but it's not without flaws. It's overlong, and the drama often descends into melodrama--the concept that William Wallace fathered the future Edward III certainly strains credibility. One might think I would like this better, since I am a very interested student of medieval history, and have often (weirdly enough) considered that the life of Robert Bruce would make a very interesting film (he's depicted in this film, but colored a little negatively). William Wallace was a more obscure person whose time period is actually several years before Robert Bruce became prominent--the film telescopes time quite a bit, and it's probable it's stretched the facts to the point of breaking. I also object to at least one shot in a battle scene where blood clearly hits the camera lens--the breaking of the fourth wall is both distracting and inappropriate in a historical epic. Despite all this negative banter, the film is at times quite moving, and even inspiring ("Freedom!").
The English Patient (1996)Times seen: 1Rating ***
This is a tragic historical romance, the type always adored by the Academy, but it's a little clumsy in its plotting, and rather than rushing to an inevitable conclusion, it meanders until its time is up. There are two plots that go on simultaneously, and I believe the flashback plot in North Africa is the more successful. I'll always remember the sandstorm that completely buried a truck. The winner of the big award this year should have been Fargo, an innovative, quirky film, that from its pregnant police inspector to its "ja, you betcha" view of life in Minnesota never failed to surprise (and even delight, despite the often hideous subject matter). The Academy definitely had the winner wrong this year.
Titanic (1997)Times seen: 1Rating ***1/2
This is a very powerful film, but there are parts of it I can't stand--the opening modern day scenes aren't very good, and the script has a number of glaring anachronisms (if Kate Winslet seems a little sluttish now, especially as a romantic heroine, her behavior would have qualified her as slightly to the left of a prostitute in 1912). This is a movie that could be close to a classic with some cutting, but I doubt director James "King of the World" Cameron would put up with that. Although Cameron has some big faults as a screenwriter, his directing, especially of action sequences, has always been first-class, and his Terminator films and Aliens deserve their high reputations. What's funny here is that he can't resist trying to use his classic device of topping each seeming climax with another one--he can't just have his heroes die in a horrific ocean tragedy, he has to have them being chased around the sinking ship by a jealous, gun-wielding, homicidal maniac as well! A minor quibble is that people slosh their way through the 50-degree water in the hallways of the ship as if they're hurrying off the beach in the Bahamas. I suspect a person would react rather strongly to the icy waters, and would never get so busy with their dialogue that they'd forget they were freezing. All this being said, it's still very powerful subject matter, and even though the fictional story is overwrought, the film is told with great, loving detail. I recommend that anyone interested in the Titanic should read "A Night To Remember," the classic book by Walter Lord. The 1958 British movie of the book is also excellent. It tells the story in more of a documentary fashion, and focuses for the most part on Second Officer Lightoller, who was one of the heroes of the day and survived the wreck.
Shakespeare in Love (1998)Times seen: 1Rating ***1/2
I love Shakespeare, and this is a clever, imaginative film that is especially appreciated by those of us who have studied Elizabethan drama in some detail. The film is weirdly marred by gratuitous sex scenes and unnecessary crudities, which should have the effect (I hope!) of preventing this from being seen in high schools, where it could have proved a fun introduction to Shakespeare. The theatrical jokes and references in this film are extremely witty. The character and personality of Shakespeare are aspects of this man that millions of people have wondered about, and I think Joseph Fiennes' interpretation is quite plausible and interesting. Shakespeare was a man who, of all writers in history, was most able to keep his own personality hidden behind his characters--in other words, each character seems exact, unique, and different from any other character, so that the opinions of the author are on the surface extremely difficult to discern. The one thing that most scholars can safely deduce from Shakespeare's works, however, is that he was socially conservative, so that ironically Shakespeare himself would probably object to the casual nudity in this film about his life! (Of course, few if any of the Best Pictures I've discussed can compare imaginatively to the works of Shakespeare, but perhaps I'm starting to digress.) Although I enjoy this film, I do think it was not worthy to win the Best Picture award in this year, as that honor should have gone to Saving Private Ryan. Despite my complaints about Steven Spielberg being generally overrated, I think Saving Private Ryan is his best film, and a significant achievement. In a bizarre vote, Mr. Spielberg won the Best Director award, but the picture he directed lost--a very rare occurrence in the over 70 years of Oscar voting.
American Beauty (1999)Times seen: 1Rating ***
This drama of dysfunctional suburban life has good performances, especially by Kevin Spacey, but a somewhat muddled script. It's exaggerated enough to be a satire, but clearly we are meant to empathize with Spacey and be saddened by his death. The circumstances of his death are so ludicrous that it's difficult to feel the proper degree of sadness. The killer is a type of person only found in movies: the homophobic ex-Marine who secretly aspires to be gay. This is more a homosexual's fantasy than anything else, as I don't think it's a stretch to say that there are vast hordes of people who think homosexuality is revolting without secretly wanting to indulge in it. The coincidental circumstances that makes the marine think that Spacey is gay are not even worthy of a Three's Company episode, let alone as a crucial plot point of a major film. Predictably, the gay couple next door are portrayed as the only normal people in the movie.
The mechanics of Kevin Spacey's infatuation with the cheerleader are, I think, inexpertly handled, and there really is no convincing reason as to why he doesn't have sex with her in the end. The actions of the girl as well as her language make the revelation that she is actually a virgin quite unconvincing--she comes on to Spacey far too strong. It would have been better if Spacey had lusted after her from afar, but when she finally approaches him and reveals her willingness to have sex with him, he turns her down, finally realizing that it wasn't the sex he was after--he simply wanted to live again.
My favorite scenes were at the burger place--Spacey's interview, and his confrontation with his wife at the drive-up window are classics. I believe that the film does not explicitly point out that "American Beauty" is a type of rose.
Gladiator (2000)Times seen: 1Rating ***
In a weak year for movies, this Roman epic managed to win the big prize, perhaps because a Roman epic was such an unusual type of film in 2000. It's a good, exciting film, but I don't consider it any better than The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), directed by the underrated Anthony Mann, which it closely resembles in subject matter and style. Mann's film was a box-office flop that seriously derailed his career. This film, directed by Ridley Scott, is no real improvement, and yet walked off with the Best Picture academy award, which demonstrates, if it has not already been demonstrated, that it takes years before the merit of a film can be properly assessed. Contemporary box-office results are, for the most part, a meaningless gauge. Russell Crowe makes a staunch hero, but his earning the Best Actor award is kind of amazing--there are better performances than that every year that are never nominated. Like James Stewart winning for The Philadelphia Story rather than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he was probably being awarded for his work in The Insider the previous year.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)Times seen: 1Rating ***1/2
A very clever bio-picture that combines imaginative filmmaking with first-rate acting, which somewhat obscures the fact that the subject of the film (a famed, mentally-ill mathematician) is not otherwise that interesting. Ironically, Russell Crowe did not win the Best Actor award, despite the fact that his performance carries the film, and is far more impressive than his Oscar-winning turn in Gladiator. It's simply unbeliveable that Denzel Washington beat him out for Training Day. Denzel is a great actor, and certainly doesn't embarrass himself in Training Day, but that film is simply too stupid and unbeliveable to have earned an Oscar of any kind. As for this film, I will not give anything away, but I thought the fantasy aspects of the story, which reveal the extent of Crowe's mental illness, were very expertly handled, and the plot twist, and the eerieness and sadness of it, lingers in the mind long after the film is over. A worthy Best Picture winner in an admittedly weak year.
Chicago (2002)Times Seen: 1 Rating:***1/2
I saw this musical on stage many years earlier, and although musicals are perhaps not my forte I think this film did an outstanding job of "opening up" the musical for the screen. The musical numbers were all very imaginatively presented. The clever interpolations of songs and the dreamlike shifting from fantasy to reality was very impressive. In a way this was a better directed film than The Pianist (whose Director, Roman Polanski, won the Oscar), because Polanski had better material to work with (the holocaust being inherently powerful and dramatic). Director Rob Marshall did a clever job with this film in making something impressive about material that might not be that strong in someone else's hands. I thought Zellweger, Zeta-Jones, and even Gere were all terrific. This is not a film that could be accused of being "uplifting," and although I think it was a worthy winner, I did admire The Pianist very much.