2011 • The Artist

I intended to write this review a long time ago. I saw the movie in the theater in December 2011 with Brian Mego, and then again a couple months later with Lauren. With the latest Best Picture about to be announced here in February, I figured I’d better write my The Artist review immediately.

Having watched 1928’s Wings as part of our Best Picture project, I was interested to see a new take on a silent movie. With a title like The Artist, I went in expecting an artsy, over-my-head kind of movie, but what I was instead treated to wound up being one of my favorite Best Picture winners of recent years.

Set in Hollywood in the 1920s, The Artist was a silent movie about silent movies. George Valentin is the greatest silent actor in the industry, but “talkies” are the next big thing and he doesn’t transition well and is subsequently flushed out of the industry completely. He then loses everything he’s ever earned attempting to produce his own silent film. Meanwhile, Peppy Miller, a girl who had first appeared in a photo with George in the newspaper, has risen to fame as the biggest actress in Hollywood. Okay, I am not going to try remembering the whole plot as it has been a year, so if you’re interested here’s the synopsis. In the very end, we find out why George Valentin was unsuited for speaking roles when the film breaks the silence and features a few lines of dialogue.

As I said, the movie was silent in terms of dialogye, so we were reading the occasional flash of text on the screen. There was sound, however, just as there was in Wings, just background music. It was also in black and white, adding to the experience. I wondered if the actors really had to learn lines for the movie or not… did they want to go for realism so we could read their lips? Or did they just learn a bunch of body language instead of lines?

I laughed out loud several times, something I never expected going in. And the star of the show wound up being a dog named Uggie in real life. It was easily the most prominent role for a dog in any of the Best Pictures. I rooted for The Artist to win Best Picture and was also pleased to see it win Best Director (Michael Hazanavicius) and Best Actor (Jean Dujardin). John Goodman also was excellent in his role of a producer, and Bérénice Bejo captured the audiences hearts in her supporting role.

My opinion of the movie was very favorable. I did see it in the theater twice in a span of two months, after all. It was one of the most unique movies I’ve ever seen and ranks very high on my list.

Wrap Up: Best of the Best

The project is complete! (Aside from 1933’s Cavalcade which I promise we will get to very soon… if it replaces any of my current choices, I’ll come back and change the article accordingly.) I figured I’d hand out my Best of the Best Pictures Awards. Which Best Picture was the overall best? Which single acting performance from these movies stood out most? What about the worst?

Now we must remember that all of these movies won Best Picture and at some point in time were highly regarded. Yet looking back, some of the older movies really weren’t very entertaining. Heck, some of the recent movies weren’t very entertaining to me either (LOTR!!!)

Here are the best from each decade.

1920/1930: Grand Hotel (1932)
1940: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
1950: Marty (1955)
1960: The Sound of Music (1965)
1970: The Sting (1973)
1980: Rain Man (1988)
1990: Dances With Wolves (1990)
2000+: No Country for Old Men (2007)

The Sting 1973

Paul Newman and Robert Redford in "The Sting," 1973.

Best Best Picture: The Sting, 1973
I’m probably the only person in the world who thinks this, but I though the best was 1973’s The Sting. I called the great caper the “non-stop entertainment” and praised the acting of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. I love movies about elaborate hoaxes that end up shocking the audience. One of my ten favorite movies of all-time.
Honorable Mention: Dances With Wolves (1992), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), American Beauty (1999), The Godfather Part II (1974)

Best Actor: Clark Gable, Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935
Clark Gable is my all-time favorite actor, and he managed to steal the show in all of his Best Picture roles. But my favorite of his performances was as Fletcher Christian in the highly entertaining Mutiny on the Bounty. His performance was so over-the-top; you’d never see anything like it in today’s movies.
Honorable Mention: Clark Gable, It Happened One Night (1934), Kevin Costner, Dances With Wolves (1990), Ernest Borgnine, Marty (1955), Colin Firth, The King’s Speech (2010), Sidney Poitier, In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Best Actress: Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs, 1991
The best edge-of-your-seat thriller of the Best Pictures was The Silence of the Lambs, and Jodie Foster was amazing as Clarice Sterling. She is given this insanely dangerous assignment and attacks it like none other, facing death on a number of occasions.
Honorable Mention: Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver (1942), Annette Bening, American Beauty (1999), Greta Garbo, Grand Hotel (1932)

Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter, 1978
The Deer Hunter was such a confusing movie for me to judge; I thought it was extremely powerful and well done, yet extremely depressing. No one did a better job of depressing me than Walken as Nick, the Pennsylvania steel worker who loses his mind in the Vietnam War.
Honorable Mention: Robert DeNiro, The Godfather: Part II (1974), Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men (2007)

Teresa Wright

Teresa Wright, co-star of 1946 Best Picture "The Best Days of Our Lives"

Best Supporting Actress: Teresa Wright, The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946
If I was a young single man in the 1940s and posters of celebrities were readily available, then I’d have had my share of Teresa Wright posters hanging around my bedroom. She wowed me in 1942’s Mrs. Miniver, and again four years later. Even now that the project is all said and done, her performances in the 40s still stand out to me as best overall.
Honorable Mention: Diane Keaton, The Godfather: Part II (1974), Celeste Holm, All About Eve (1950), Mary McDonnell, Dances With Wolves (1990)

Best Director: William Wyler, Mrs. Miniver, 1942; The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946; Ben-Hur, 1959
I have no choice but to go with a “lifetime achievement” sort of award for William Wyler, who directed three classic Best Picture Winners. I imagine in the grand scheme of things, most movie buffs don’t consider either Miniver or Best Years to be among the best of the Best Picture winners, but I have them both extremely high on my list. And then everyone knows Ben-Hur is a classic, regardless of where it ranked on my list. I don’t know enough about movies to know what makes good directing, but I’m sticking with Wyler.
Honorable Mention: Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather Part I and II (1972, 1974), Robert Benton, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Kevin Costner, Dances With Wolves (1990)

Worst Best Picture: The Great Ziegfeld, 1936
Four agonizing hours of Ziegfeld showed off the lavish Broadway musicals produced by the title character in his lifetime. It was less a story and more attempts to “ooh” and “aah” a 1930s crowd. Aside from one scene involving a dog missing its spot on the Broadway stage, I was bored senseless.
Dishonorable Mention: The Broadway Melody (1929), Cimarron (1931), A Man for All Seasons (1966), The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

2009 • The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker, 2009“What the heck is a hurt locker? Sounds interesting!” That was my thought when this movie was first released in 2009. Friends who had seen it raved about it and said it was a shoe-in for Best Picture. I eventually saw it, along with seven of the other Best Picture nominees, and declared it my least favorite of the bunch, well behind Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

But since we didn’t know at the time that The Hurt Locker would go on to win Best Picture, we didn’t review it, and I needed to go back and re-watch it for the blog. Last week, Lauren and I did just that, and I gave the movie another chance to show why it was the best of the year.

The Hurt Locker stars Jeremy Renner as Sgt. William James, who has arrived in Iraq to defuse bombs for the US Army. James immediately gets on everyone’s nerves with his reckless attitude, but nevertheless defuses bombs with ease as if he is in no danger whatsoever. Most of the movie is very tense edge-of-your-seat scenes with lots of sitting and waiting, whether it’s a shootout with Iraqis over a long span of desert, or meticulously cutting wires on a live bomb. When James’ tour of duty is complete and he returns home to his wife and son, he realizes he can’t stand his mundane life and agrees to a new 365-day mission in Iraq, once again putting his life on the line.

The movie was written by freelance war writer Mark Boal, who spent time in Iraq documenting events of the war and then fictionalized them for the movie, which Kathryn Bigelow directed. The goal of the movie was to make the film as realistic as absolutely possible, putting the audience in the Humvee with the soldiers. It received universal critical acclaim, but actual veterans of the Iraq war widely found certain aspects to be portrayed inaccurately.

In hindsight The Hurt Locker really was pretty good. There haven’t been many movies I can remember that have been able to do twenty minute scenes with almost nothing happening and still have me in nervous anticipation. I’m referring to my favorite scene, where James and his men encounter the Iraqi prisoners in the desert and go on the long-range shootout. It reminds me a little of No Country for Old Men and also a little of The Deer Hunter. 

Even though I liked it much more the second time around, I thought the best movie of 2009 was Inglourious Basterds by a very wide margin. And I’m still not sure what “hurt locker” means.

2010 • The King’s Speech

The King's Speech, 2010This year, I managed to watch all ten Best Picture nominees, the first time I’d ever accomplished that feat, even when it was recently just five nominees. One of the movies that I questioned going in was The King’s Speech. I mean honestly, if you don’t want someone to see your movie, what a fitting title. There were two words in that title that made me loathe wanting to see it: “king” and “speech.” I don’t particularly find foreign history interesting, and I certainly don’t find speeches by royalty interesting. So I admittedly went in a little sour, expecting something like A Man for All Seasons. But oh, how I was wrong!

The King’s Speech stars Colin Firth as Prince Albert (eventually King George VI), who struggles mightily with a stammer. His wife, Elizabeth, attempts to find a therapist who can cure her husband’s impediment, and her last hope is Lionel Logue. Initially reluctant, Albert hears his voice on a recording and gives Logue another chance. Through a series of twisted events, Prince Albert is named King. All the while, he and Logue form an unlikely bond. With war with Germany looming, the King must give the most important speech of his life; can Logue coach him through it?

I was relieved when I found out this was more of a timeless movie. Yes, it focuses on real characters from history, but it wasn’t a movie about history. It was more about the characters as people themselves and overcoming an obstacle. Firth’s character is very likable and it’s hard not to root for him throughout the movie. The point I’m making is I feel like this movie could have taken place today as easily as it did the early 1900s.

Spoiler Alert! My favorite moments were probably everybody’s favorite moments—the big triumphant scenes, like where King George VI successfully delivers the big speech. Even though he and Logue are isolated in a private room speaking into a microphone for the big speech, it was a huge production with the media just outside and thousands of people outside the building and millions listening on the radio… anyone would be nervous to speak in that situation. Yet that, of all times, is the time he finally does it.

I surprised even myself when I decided that this was the best of the ten nominees. While I actually really liked all ten movies, I was hoping one of the two front-runners would win—Social Network was equally as good. But I predicted and would have voted for The King’s Speech. The acting, obviously, was phenomenal with Firth winning Best Actor and nominations for Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham-Carter. Tom Hooper won for Best Director in only his third feature film.

If you haven’t seen this one yet, I’d highly recommend it. I ended up ranking it 23rd overall on my list, just behind Gone With the Wind.

That leaves only 2009’s Hurt Locker (which we’ve seen, but not recently enough to review it, so I have to watch it again) and 1933’s Cavalcade, which I just purchased for $5.00 on eBay on VHS. The project is nearly complete!

1928 • Wings

Wings 1928As of Sunday, February 20, 2011, Lauren and I had three movies left on our Best Picture project… 2009’s Hurt Locker, 1933’s hard-to-find Cavalcade, and 1928’s silent Wings. If there was ever a day to watch the 14 ten-minute segments of Wings on YouTube, Sunday’s 15-inch blizzard was the day. A 1.75 of Windsor, a 2-liter of Coke, a homemade Thai pizza, and YouTube via the PS3 and 47″ HD bigscreen were all we needed to get through the second record-setting blizzard of this hellish winter.

Wings is the first Best Picture winner, though some also say Sunrise is considered to be its equal. Sunrise won in 1928 for Most Artistic Quality of Production, the one and only year that award was given. It’s up for debate, I suppose, but Wikipedia tells us that Wings is the true Best Picture.

Wings, for obvious reasons, really takes me back to the first Best Picture winner we watched, 1929’s Broadway Melody. It’s hard to take it seriously! Though serious in nature, dealing with World War I, the movie comes off today as comical, perhaps due to the organ music playing throughout. The organ music never sounds particularly grim even in the most dire of circumstances. To think that just a few years later in 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front rattled me. I guess replacing happy organs with actual sounds makes quite the difference.

Wings reminded us somewhat of the modern-day Pearl Harbor. Two guys from the same hometown, Jack and David, go off to war and are involved with two women. They start off enemies but by war’s end are best friends. After surviving a crash, David winds up stealing a German plane and attempts to fly to safety, but in a tragic stroke of bad luck, is shot down by Jack who mistakes him for the enemy.

I must give credit to the filmmakers. From what I understand, this was one of most difficult shoots of its time. Any shot that appeared as though it happened in the air actually did. This was the first time for many such aerial shots in movies.

The titles–not subtitles–gave Lauren and me and chance to read the dialogue aloud and do a ton of stupidly funny voices. I recorded some of it and may have to find a use for it someday. There were also some really funny moments in some drunken scenes in Paris with fake champagne bubbles floating through the air.

Wings was far from the worst of the Best Pictures, silent or not. The lack of audio actually helped its cause, probably, because it gave us a chance to interact with the movie. I wonder if the actors had lines to memorize or not… they mouthed a lot of things but it was hard to tell if they were in fact just mouthing or reading from a script.

Technically the only Best Picture we’ve never seen is Cavalcade. We already saw Hurt Locker but not as part of this project. So close!

Bonus! Oscar Documentary Shorts Nominees 2011

With just three Oscar-winning films left to review for this blog, I will take a short break to review the five nominees for this year’s Documentary Shorts award. On Sunday, a couple friends and I took in the mini-marathon of movies at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis, sitting through about 3.5 hours of documentary footage. Historically, documentaries are not my idea of a fun time, but since these were literally shorter, I thought perhaps I’d be able to sit through them. And I was right—at no more than 40 minutes in length, these were just right for me!

As a side note, I really question where people would see shorts like this normally. I imagine there were hundreds of other documentary shorts produced that didn’t get nominated; where do people possibly see these? Some money had to go into their production; just sending them to the Academy seems like a waste. If anyone knows, I’d be curious to find out!

Four of the five nominees were very dark; actually all five centered largely around death. From terrorism to pollution to global warming to war, it wasn’t the most fun subject matter throughout.

Now, to rank the five nominees.

1. Sun Come Up
This was my favorite, but I put its chance of winning around 1%. The inhabitants of the Carteret Islands must leave after thousands of years of settlement; global warming is causing the ocean to engulf their tiny island, and they must travel to the mainland, pleading with the locals to donate some land for their families to live on. All the while I was really rooting for the poor Carteret people, who seemed like such a peaceful, likable bunch. In the end, they find villagers willing to donate land and the Carterets will eventually be saved. One line in the short really struck me as funny: “You, chew betelnut!”

2. The Warriors of Quigang
In a small village in China, a major chemical plant has moved into town and is polluting the air and water, which is causing poor villagers great illness and death. The villagers team up and one man named Zhang takes the lead and collects signatures to take to the higher government, fighting for the chemical plant to leave town. This short surprisingly got a few chuckles from the audience here and there, mostly from one of the Chinese townswomen gossipers. Again, it is great victory for the little guys. A feel-goodish sort of film despite a ton of unnecessary deaths.

3. Poster Girl
The only one of the shorts that was truly about an American, Poster Girl tells the story of Robynn Murray, a girl who without much consideration signed up for the army and was forced to become a lead machine-gunner. Now she’s home and her life is a living hell as she tries to get over what she did to innocent civilians. This one was very powerful with a lot of raw emotion from this young woman, but the short takes an unexpected twist when she manages to regain control of her life by participating in an art program where she uses her Army uniform in artwork. I was really liking this one until they started focusing on the art, which was much less interesting.

4. Killing in the Name
The first short was a devastating look at the aftermath of Ashraf Al-Khaled’s wedding day where a suicide bomber killed 27 people, including three of the four parents of the couple. Ashraf vows to speak the truth to the world about terrorism and sees if he can change the minds of the youth who are being trained to one day do the work of the jihad. Al-Khaled means very well, but I’m not so sure his message ever gets through to anyone. The school kids he spoke to basically laughed at him. That’s where this one falls a little short for me; unlike the first three, Ashref has yet to actually win his battle.

5. Strangers No More
The last of the five is surprisingly the only one with any lighthearted subject matter at all, as we are taken to a school in Tel Aviv where kids from 48 different countries come together to learn. The short follows the path of several kids who came to the school after overcoming hardships in their home lands, and how the amazing teachers help them to feel part of a family. It was impressive how quickly these kids were able to learn various languages and then become translators for other new students. The short got a few laughs from the crowd with some “kids say the darnedest things” type of lines, but wasn’t terribly memorable in my opinion. It also loses a point for overuse of the Papyrus font.

2008 • Slumdog Millionaire

We’re so close to the end of our Best Picture project! 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire is the second most recent winner (soon to be third), and it doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago that Lauren and I, then just engaged, saw it in the Edina Landmark Theater. It was up against some stiff competition that year—Milk and Frost/Nixon were the two movies that I thought were just as good as Slumdog. I didn’t like Benjamin Button and I still haven’t seen The Reader.  My vote that year probably would have gone to Slumdog, however.

The story takes place in India over the course of the life of Jamal Malik, who is stunning the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire TV audience and producers with his ability to correctly answer every question. Before he can answer the final question, the show ends for the day. Assuming he was somehow cheating, Jamal is interrogated and tortured until he can explain how he was able to answer all the questions. Jamal by coincidence has real life experience to back up his knowing every answer. Through his explanations, we learn about the hardships Jamal and his brash older brother Salim faced growing up after their mother was murdered, as well as Jamal’s longtime love of the beautiful Latika, who he is attempting to reunite with–the very reason he has gone on the show in the first place.

I thought it was a weird idea for the movie to center around the game show, considering the heyday of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was long over in 2001 and the show is now airing weekday afternoons in syndication. But the movie is based in India, where perhaps the show is still relevant.

The kid actors portraying youthful Jamal, Salim, and Latika were all excellent. I read how they were chosen out of tens of thousands of poor Indian kids trying to get the coveted roles, but in the end they ended up only getting several hundred dollars for their year of work on the film and some ended up living in even worse poverty than before. I also thought Anil Kapoor, the only well-known Indian actor in the movie, was very good in his role as the host of Millionaire.

Despite Slumdog winning big at the Oscars that year with eight awards, it was not nominated for a single acting award. Not surprising considering the three main characters were portrayed by three actors each. I know Dev Patel and Freida Pinto are the first-billed, but if anyone in this movie had received an acting nomination I bet it would have been in the Supporting categories.

In the end, I liked the movie a lot, and I really liked the idea of the questions from the show telling the story of the life of Jamal. However, I thought a lot of it was really predictable. That it ended up being a love story between Jamal and Latika was not a surprise to me, but that does not take away from the feel-good tear-jerk sensation. Just because I saw the ending coming doesn’t mean it ruins anything for me. I imagine I will rank this movie in the middle of the pack.