Sunday, November 23, 2014

What Watching All of the Best Picture Winners Taught Me (Part 2)

Tom Hulce in Amadeus
You can read Part 1 (1927-1969) here.

I have officially done it. After a few years of watching Best Picture films once a week with occasional brief hiatuses, I have achieved a rare feat. I have watched every last one of them. From Wings (1927) through 12 Years a Slave (2013), I have seen the progression of film as dictated by the most prestigious award in Hollywood. It wasn't entirely easy, but it did open me up to a lot of new and fascinating films while introducing me to new favorite actors and directors. As time will go on, I will occasionally share my thoughts on the films, including various superlative lists. However, with my completion, I thought that I would start by sharing something more broad. Here is a look at what I have learned about cinema through the decades as present in the Best Picture winners.

Scene from The Deer Hunter
The 1970's

- Winners -
Patton (1970)
The French Connection (1971)
The Godfather (1972)
The Sting (1973)
The Godfather Part II (1974)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Rocky (1986)
Annie Hall (1977)
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

This may be regarded as the best decade of them all. It's for a good reason. Not a dud in sight. Following in the vein of the 40's, this is the second wave of auteurs. Most of these films can be considered required viewing for budding cinephiles who want to know what great cinema is. While seven of the films end on a dour note, there's a deeper subtext that is explored here. Coming in an uncertain time following the Vietnam War, everyone was frazzled and looking for acceptance from society. It wasn't entirely there immediately. In some cases, it lead to tragedy (The Deer Hunter) or even compromising with evil (The Godfather). This is the tragic decade in the best sense possible.

Most of all, it was a rebellious period that wasn't going to play by the rules of the predecessors. Films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest turned their surroundings into a societal commentary about what things really meant. In many cases, they were dark and dreary. They weren't always pleasant. Even in love (Annie Hall), things didn't always end well. Still, there was a need to explore the modern family (Kramer vs. Kramer) and triumph against evil (Rocky). From the moment that General Patton came out in Patton and told us to fight the good fight, it felt like the start of a sprint through a fascinating decade of film. It was a time of uncertainty and it reflected it.

Most of all, it wasn't just dour. There were fun moments in worlds populated by antiheroes (The French Connection). People would con you (The Sting) and the only ones you could trust were family (The Godfather Part II). It is a time when cinema embraced its dark side and understood that things were more serious than  musicals and big theatrics. It was about the people behind them dealing with demons. Compared to everything since, no decade has been this tumultuous and engaging to American cinema.

BEST EXAMPLE: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest may seem like the simplest, but its exploration of a mental institution as society controlling civilians is excellent for a lot of reasons. The most notable is that it works on both bases and with its sad conclusion, captures a deeper, more haunting message. Also, it featured Jack Nicholson, who became one of the greatest actors during this era. It was ferocious, funny and candid in ways that few films have been able to capture in the Best Picture category.

Meryl Streep in Out of Africa
The 1980's

- Winners -
Ordinary People (1980)
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Gandhi (1982)
Terms of Endearment (1983)
Amadeus (1984)
Out of Africa (1985)
Platoon (1986)
The Last Emperor (1987)
Rain Man (1988)
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

If you were confused by the 50's, please go directly to this decade for the strangest, least memorable decade to date. While it looked like things were on track with the important family dissection drama Ordinary People), it is the decade where the Academy began to feel self-important and seemed to reward stars over quality of films. It is a decade that took big themes to its nauseating heights in the least subtle way by exploring things in the epic format. While there are stories about jealousy (Amadeus) and a life unlived (The Last Emperor) that actually work, these are the rare exceptions to everything that was around it.

In general, the films can be summarized likewise: films about Americans going overseas, riding a train and making a difference. There felt like there was a need for The Academy to be socially relevant more than its dour films that preceded were. It needed to preach world peace (Gandhi) and racism (Driving Miss Daisy) in very on the nose ways. Even films about the common man overcoming problems (Chariots of Fire) were problematic in that they inflated egos more than gave engaging narratives worthy of the Best Picture Award.

By the end of the decade, it was a different story than when things started. While Rain Man captured a compelling side to mental illness, it was still in a decade that preached world peace while also giving ultraviolent Platoon the top honor. It is a decade that isn't entirely sure what it wants to do. It will occasionally please people, but it also is starting to show its age by falling for sentimentality (Terms of Endearment) and stars (Out of Africa). There's some good in here, but it ultimately feels like it captures the "big themes" that made The Academy noteworthy without any of the substance to back it up.

BEST EXAMPLE: Chariots of Fire is a film that serves no real purpose other than to say that the British are great at running. Even the iconic Vangelis score is unwarranted, as it is used to emphasize running in ways that feel more Blade Runner than period piece. It just keeps going and the patriotism is never more blatant. Nothing exciting really happens and yet it feels like it is trying to be important and innovative. It isn't. While there are some great films from this decade, the lackluster finish of this film is the feeling I get when viewing most of these films.

Left to right: Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
The 1990's

- Winners -
Dances with Wolves (1990)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Unforgiven (1992)
Schindler's List (1993)
Forrest Gump (1994)
Braveheart (1995)
The English Patient (1996)
Titanic (1997)
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
American Beauty (1999)

While the decade was an improvement over the 80's, this is still a decade full of identity crisis. With exception to two films, all of them are period pieces that add a romantic current to cinema. It is an era where cinema didn't feel much like it progressed as much as it acknowledged its own past. Whether it was the sweeping epic (The English Patient) or the more general westerns (Unforgiven), there was a familiarity that came with the 90's that sadly keeps it from having too much of an identity. While there were some true masterpieces (Schindler's List) and films that were technical achievements (Titanic), it feels like the cinema in general was caught in a stagnation.

It doesn't help that the decade also features two of my least favorite films to win (Braveheart and Dances with Wolves). There was still this undercurrent of self-importance that made some winners very much dated. Others were more immediate to recognize their own nostalgia (Forrest Gump). In fact, the only film to do it cynically and provide a compelling look into contemporary society was American Beauty. While the film is very much of its time, it defied the norms and asked for a change. It wanted to regress and challenge norms in ways that hadn't been seen since the 70's. It was the perfect statement for a decade that could be considered just a continuation.

Still, there were other ferocious films that kept people guessing. The Silence of the Lambs still seems like the strangest Best Picture winner not only because of its subject matter but also because it is a genuine masterpiece. It is unnerving in ways that the Academy hasn't rewarded before or since. It proves that there is still some spark in there. Still, for a decade that was complacent on following the norms, it did produce some quality films that in their own sense are transparent with other decades tonally. That is kind of a good thing, though it isn't necessarily an encouraging factor.

BEST EXAMPLE: Forrest Gump is quintessentially an epic in the same way that Cimarron or Cavalcade were in the 30's. While it is technically impressive and covers a story with humor and a great Tom Hanks performance, it is a recollection of a great history. Also, using Forrest Gump as a metaphor for cinema, his reliance on being around for the important moments can ring true of any given decade. That is how most of these films feel when considered in their own context. More than any decade before or since, this is a nostalgic decade.

Scene from Chicago

Gladiator (2000)
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Chicago (2002)
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Crash (2005)
The Departed (2006)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
The Hurt Locker (2009)
The King's Speech (2010)
The Artist (2011)
Argo (2012)
12 Years a Slave (2013)

It is hard to distinguish the 10's from the 00's at this point, as there aren't enough to properly judge the latter. Also, it simply feels like it has been a slow progression into defining their own personality. While there's some retreads into cinema's rich history (Gladiator), there's films with technical flourishes that show a bright future for cinema (The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King). It is an innovative period in which the post-9-11 uncertainty translated into iconic villainous characters (No Country for Old Men) and a desire to overcome struggle (Slumdog Millionaire). It is a confusing era in which identity is something that needs to be made on our own (The Departed). We need to be our own heroes.

Film has become more engaging while trying to appeal to everyone. While it cannot help but pay respects to its past (The Artist), it provides original stories and something greater. It is a return to American patriotism (Argo) and becoming a mighty hero (Gladiator). Most of all, cinema isn't afraid to be dark again (Million Dollar Baby) and challenges politics (Chicago) through innovation. It is a decade that has embraced technology and story simultaneously in ways that have pretty much accepted that it can't live in the past. It needs to do something greater.

As a result, the past 13 years have been some of the stronger winners since the 70's. It could be that campaigning has become of a benefactor into being nominating and winning, but the crowd favorite stands less of a chance of winning. Lesser known films (The Hurt Locker) can compete with the big boys. Films can be powerful (12 Years a Slave), reminding you of The Academy's relevance. Some would argue that this award has lost meaning, though it is hard to judge from today's perspective. One day, the 10's will have every Best Picture winner and have its own reputation. It is all dependent on how it relates to everything else. For now, it looks very showy and wants to impress in ways that have properly shown the development of cinema in such a short period.

BEST EXAMPLE: The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King may seem like a sore thumb in the way of every other Best Picture, but it covers the bases of what cinema could be. It is probably as cutting edge as the 00's got. With innovative technology and characters fighting for what's right, it keeps the uncertainty of post-9-11 worldviews in focus for most of the epic's running time. It also explores identity and the patriotism of its characters as it fights for the common goal. It's full of twists and turns in ways that grab you and never let go. It covers all of the bases nicely.

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