Monday, January 17, 2011

The Best "Best Pictures"

Awards season in Hollywood has gotten underway; the Golden Globes ceremony following the announcements of several critics' associations on the best pictures and performances of the year. Soon it will be time for the Academy Award nominations to be revealed (January 25) followed by the Oscar awards themselves on February 27.

This means that the blogosphere will soon be alive with all sorts of posts about the Academy Awards with subjects ranging from the new nominations and who will win to famous omissions from previous years. No doubt the tone of many of these will be highly critical of the Academy for their selections.

To be sure, I've been puzzled at some of the results over the years - who hasn't? - but for today, I'd like to focus on the positives. Sometimes the Academy gets it right, so over the next few weeks, I'd like to point out some of the best awards in my mind. I'll cover categories from acting to music to editing; for this post, I'd like to name my choices at the best 5 selections of Best Picture over the course of the Academy's history (the first Oscars were awarded for 1927/1928 film seasons.) To only select five is a bit of a daunting task, so I'll list them in chronological order.

Casablanca (1943)
Is there a more beloved movie ever to emerge from Hollywood? Everyone knows the story of Rick (Humphrey Bogart at his most suave) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman at her most beautiful) and how their lives and loves become intertwined again in Casablanca during the Second World War.

This is classic Hollywood filmmaking at is best, from Arthur Edeson's vibrant black and white photography to the superb art direction and set decoration of  Carl Jules Weyl and Georges James Hopkins - who could forget the look of Rick's CafĂ© Americain?

Of course, the screenplay by Howard Koch and the Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip, is a certified classic, combining intrigue, romance and illicit deals; the characters they created were among the most living, breathing, complex you've ever seen on the screen. And that's not just the two main stars, but also lesser roles such as Capt. Renault (Claude Rains) an of course Sam, the piano player (Dooley Wilson) - who could ever forget those two characters? Michael Curtiz contributed the most elegant direction of his career, but in reality, this is a film that lives in our memory thanks to the contribution of dozens of extremely talented craftsmen - clearly this was supreme evidence of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
This drama about soldiers returning to the uncertainties of home life shortly after the end of World War ll certainly touched a nerve at the time of its release, but the fact is that this marvelous film has not lost any of its emotional appeal some 65 years later. William Wyler's subtle direction and an excellent ensemble (especially Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and of course, Harold Russell) were among the highlights of this film along with Gregg Toland's famously celebrated deep focus photography. The  scene where Andrews climbs back into the cockpit of a plane in a junkyard is only one of several heartbreaking moments in this film. As beautiful a tribute to the American soldier as has ever been made in Hollywood.

Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews in The Best Years of our Lives 

On the Waterfront (1954)
A great film from director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg about life in the longshoreman's union in the mid-1950s, from the dull, everyday routine of the work to the criminal activities of the union that decides who will work each day. This is one of the finest on location shoots ever and Kazan has commented often about the brutally cold days during the film's shooting. The sparse, moody black and white cinematography of Boris Kaufman (he won the Oscar for his work on this film), adds greatly to the realism of the drama's setting. The acting - especially from Marlon Brando - but also from Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger, is miraculous.

Of course, everyone remembers the climax with Brando getting up from a bloody battle with the union honchos as well as the scene in the taxicab ("I coulda been a contender"), but for me, several of the quieter scenes in the picture are even more memorable, such as the one in which Brando tells Saint that he was indirectly responsible for her brother's death. This is filmed near the water's edge and we can only hear a few introductory words, as the whistle of a tugboat drowns out most of Brando's dialogue. It's a superb scene from an outstanding film.

The Godfather/ The Godfather ll (1972/1974)
Each of these films won the Best Picture Oscar, so I am combining them. Francis Ford Coppola gave us an epic, the likes of which we had truly never seen on the screen, be its graphic (but necessary) violence or its internal look at crime family politics. The stunning images in these works - the horse's head in the bed and the brutal murders at a tollbooth - are only two of the most memorable in screen history.

This was another brilliant combination of multiple talents, especially those of Production Manager Dean Tavoularis and sound designer Walter Murch. Marlon Brando left us with one of the screen's most imitated roles as Vito Corleone and what a wonderful ensemble of Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall, as well as Robert DeNiro as the young Don in the second part of this film (actually predating the first film, in terms of chronological order). Almost 40 years on, the two films are riveting entertainment and epic filmmaking at its best, as the small details of everyday lives are never overshadowed by the vastness of the subject matter. 

Unforgiven (1992)
Clint Eastwood had been winning over the critical mass for almost a decade with his meticulously crafted Westerns, but it was with this film that Hollywood finally admitted that he was a truly gifted filmmaker. This study of how a former killer has to return to his former ways is a moralistic Western that never preaches, but instead challenges us to examine the demons in our own lives - how would we react in a similar situation?

This was a tribute to classic Westerns of the past and at the same time, a remarkably fresh examination of the genre's myth. Beautiful photography by Jack Green and first-rate editing by Joel Cox (an Oscar winner) added to the film's excellence, but at the heart, it was the combination of a brilliant script by David Peoples and Eastwood's masterful storytelling (he won his first Best Director award for this film) that set this film apart. 

No comments:

Post a Comment