Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Crash" (2005)

Left to right: Ludacris and Larenz Tate
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: May 6, 2005
Director: Paul Haggis
Written By: Paul Haggis (story), Paul Haggis & Robert Moresco (screenplay)
Starring: Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 112 minutes

Oscar Wins: 3
-Best Picture
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Film Editing

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Supporting Actor (Matt Dillon)
-Best Director (Paul Haggis)
-Best Original Song ("In the Deep")

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Brokeback Mountain
-Good Night and Good Luck

And the winner is...

If there is any evidence that a film's entire reputation can be changed by a single event, it is Crash. While the film was the lowest grossing Best Picture winner since The Last Emperor, it has gone on to hold a very notorious reputation with many referencing it as the worst Best Picture winner in history. Many even go so far as to claim that the film embraces the "white guilt" mindset of its Oscar voters, putting the film in a camp of safe looks at race relations that includes Driving Miss Daisy. Whether or not the film deserves the reputation will forever remain up for debate, as critics like Roger Ebert came to its defense when things were looking to be in the film's favor on Oscar night. However, it is easy to overlook one simple fact: it was the indie film that could. However, once it did, nobody was on its side.

The origins of Crash are very similar to one of the plots within the film. Upon being carjacked by someone, director and writer Paul Haggis was encouraged to write the screenplay. By encapsulating Los Angeles, he made it intentional to try and explore how one of the most populated and diverse communities in America related to each other on a variety of societal topics. It was a film that sounded like it was trying to be important. In fact, Haggis would state that he intentionally made the first 20 minutes of the film focus on stereotypes so that when everything began to progress in the plot, the subversion would cause the viewer to think differently. The results added melodramatic tendencies and other techniques to enhance the story's themes. 

It cannot be understated how much of an independent film that it was trying to be. Actress Sandra Bullock bought her own plane ticket to travel and shoot the film (she would eventually have six minutes of screen time total). Many of the scenes featured use of Haggis' car and house due to budgetary issues. The film also had access to only six police cars for the film. With an impressively large ensemble cast, it also juggled around various actors who were almost in the film including Forrest Whitaker, John Cusack and Heath Ledger - the latter of whom starred in Brokeback Mountain; a film that would go on to compete against the film at the Oscars and lose in the Best Picture race. The film was shot in 36 days.

The one interesting note is the confusing fact that the film technically dates back to 2004, but competed in the 2005 Oscars. This is because the film made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival in 2004 at which it was sold to Lions Gate. Because it didn't play for seven consecutive days in a theater, it was ineligible to compete until it opened in May of the following year. Upon its release, it did rather well at the box office and was a moderate success. While the divisive criticism would be rampant from the beginning, it still was revered by critics. The film also was the only 2005 Best Picture nominee to be available upon the nomination announcement, which helped to elevate rental sales. It is the last Best Picture winner to be released on VHS while also being the first to be released on Blu-Ray. 

There wasn't a lot of expectations going into Oscar night. However, it ended up with a series of honorable mentions, including being the second winner (the other being The Sting) to win without being nominated for the respective Golden Globe nominations. Haggis would also hold the distinct honor of being the only screenwriter to write back-to-back Best Picture winners (the other being Million Dollar Baby). It was one of few Best Picture winners to win only three Oscars (another being Rocky). The film also has the same wins as 2012 winner Argo - which also failed to win Best Director, which in both cases went to Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi respectively). It is also the first and to date only film to take place predominantly around Los Angeles to win Best Picture. 

The results were immediately staggering for the Oscars. While there is a long and storied account of why Brokeback Mountain lost (read more here), many took its loss as a chance to attack Crash. Many can argue that the LGBT film has withstood the test of time better. Many even accuse the predominantly older white voters of falling into "white guilt" as the reason for Crash's win. Nevertheless, its reputation was cemented in stone and it remains the most controversial Best Picture win of the 00's. Despite this, the film managed to spawn a TV series on Starz lead by Dennis Hopper that ran for two seasons with 26 episodes total. This is an interesting note considering that Haggis initially wrote Crash as a TV series, but changed it to a film when his pitches failed to gather any attention. The series covered similar subjects as the film and as a result featured the same conflicting reviews. It however didn't receive any major awards nominations.

Crash is a film that went from being likely forgettable to instantly reviled thanks to the Academy. It is a divisive choice that hits a lot of important issues which depending on your view either makes it brave or lazy. However, its one defense is that it is one of few contemporary films to both win and tackle important topics. While the Oscars can pull out an interesting winner sometimes, most films with hefty weight nowadays are period pieces that are relevant to modern society. Instead of exploring how society talks about race in cinema differently a decade later, the focus is on the Oscars' politics and how some homophobic cowboy purists set out to keep Brokeback Mountain from  winning. While it is important to help progress the awards' views, I still feel like that is one of the unfortunate losses to the film's reputation. It isn't the best or the worst. It is simply a victim of being something the could make it, did, and ended up regretting it.

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