Meta-post: The Ranking

It’s the moment you’ve not been waiting for:  my top twenty Best Pictures!

It’s worth pointing out that these are my personal favorites; I’m not trying to objectively classify the actual Best Pictures.  Maybe they’re not even definitive, considering how much tweaking I’ve already done, and I’m more than willing to accept that I have unrefined taste in film.  I’m just looking forward to going back to my usual rate of movie-watching, which is approximately two per year.

Links to my original posts are included for reference.

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Meta-post: Summary and Statistics

year-end-papers

Tools of the trade:  My hand-scribbled list of Best Pictures (waterlogged from spending the year on my kitchen table).

Some Statistics for the Nerdy:

 

How many minutes total:   12,339 minutes (205 hours, or 8.5 days) yowza

Longest film:  Gone With the Wind (or Lawrence of Arabia if you count the director’s cut, I guess)

Shortest film:  Marty

Longest decade:  1990s (1679 minutes; bloated historical epics)

Shortest decade:  1940s (1262 minutes; war rationing)

 

How much time I spent calculating all this:  Way too much

 

How much money I spent watching these films:  Less than $15 total

Spotlight:  $8 or $9 for a discounted ticket in theater

Gigi:  $2 rental on Amazon (I was in a time pinch)

Cavalcade:  $3 rental on Amazon (I couldn’t find it anywhere else)

Otherwise, I found everything at the library or streaming

 

How many films had I seen before?  Eleven (seven, if you exclude the few I watched in an earlier attempt at the project)

 

How many movies involved World War II?  Eight

Other wars?  Nine

 

I’ll be honest:  I’m pretty surprised that I actually made it through this year of Best Pictures.  I watched 88 films this year, most of which I’d never seen before.  Not only that, I wrote blog posts for each film, into which I put at least a minimal amount of thought.  Literally multiple people read most of my posts.

Technically, it’s doable (since I did it), but it really felt like a job at times.  It interfered with my (fortunately non-existent) social life simply with the volume of material I had to get through in any given week or month.  I didn’t have much time to watch all the trendy TV shows that people loved two years ago (this year’s hits are further down in the queue).  After a certain point, I ran out of time to write anything except my blog posts, but that may also have been due to my laziness or lack of confidence.

So how do I feel about it?  Good question.  It feels like an accomplishment of sorts, but not quite as impressive as I’d hoped.  Although there are certainly films that have entered the general cultural mindset, many others have faded, such that it probably doesn’t matter whether I’ve seen them or not.  However, one of my goals was to increase my trivia knowledge in the area of film, and, after reading IMDB trivia for just about every Best Picture, I think I can say I succeeded there as well.

 

I’ll do a Top Something list in my (probably last) post, coming soon!

 

Titanic (1997)

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My only fond memory of Titanic is from a student exchange trip to Russia, when I saw a middle-aged Russian man rocking a Titanic-themed t-shirt plastered with Leonardo DiCaprio’s face.

Back when I was in high school, and this movie was all the rage, and Celine Dion was inescapable, and I was cynical of anything pop culture, I vowed to myself that I would never watch Titanic.  And until now, I’ve been able to keep that promise.

I knew the obvious plot points, of course – the boat sinking, the doomed love story, something about a naked drawing, old lady framing device.  I recognized some other random moments thanks to various parodies or references in other media, such as the Irish jig replicated in Battlestar Galactica or that episode of Futurama, or that other episode of Futurama.  But I finally had to see the whole film to truly appreciate how stupid it is.

You would think that a movie about a massive ship sinking would carry enough drama and gravitas on its own, but no:  this movie also has to add a ridiculous MacGuffin to explain why some guy would be sending submersibles to search the wreckage, and why a little old lady would travel by helicopter to the middle of the ocean to tell her granddaughter and a bunch of strangers about the time she lost her virginity.  What happened to the giant valuable diamond?  Who cares, because its existence and disposal is completely meaningless!

Right around the time a normal movie would be wrapping it up in time for the closing credits, the iceberg finally strikes.  Trivia point:  both in real life and on film, the impact took 37 seconds, which happens also to be the 37 seconds that I stopped paying attention.  I actually liked the way people mostly didn’t really get the severity of the situation for a while; that felt genuine based on every disaster I’ve been witness to.

But what didn’t feel genuine was the way Jack and Rose decide to go traipsing back and forth through flooded sections of the ship, completely impervious to the cold temperatures.  And the absurd gun fight when Billy Zane decides he’d much rather shoot Jack than hop in the lifeboat.  When the stern splits off from the bow and slams back into the ocean, the people on deck suffer little more than a faint shudder, because physics.  While I’m complaining about inanities, I’d also like to point out how stupid it is that a charcoal drawing survived 80 years in a waterlogged safe.

Did cold-hearted Bridget get emotional watching this film?  Okay, I’ll admit that I did – but it was when they showed all the second- and third-class passengers who clearly weren’t going to make it out alive, not when Jack was cheerfully turning himself into an icicle.

At least Rose finally gets to share her story of lost love.  “He exists only in my memory, which is why I like to imagine him looking like Leonardo DiCaprio.”

Thank God I took on this project, because otherwise I never would have experienced the pure face-palming that is Titanic.  And with that, gentle readers, I’m finished!  Next week, I’ll do a summary post or two, along with a ranking (of either the whole list, or maybe only part, depending on how lazy/busy I am.  Thanks for joining me on this journey!

 

Theme:  On a Boat

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  I have a sinking feeling…

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

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I live in a city with quite a nautical history.  I’ve seen the U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” in the Charlestown Navy Yard (spoiler alert:  not actually made of iron).  Every once in a while, there’s some interesting ship that comes into Boston Harbor, and I’ve toured a couple of them.  That includes a nineteenth century whaleship – so I’m somewhat familiar with the kind of wooden ship in the era the Bounty comes from.  They are teeny tiny boats for a few dozen dudes to ride around in for two years.

Based on how commonly-referenced the story of the mutiny is, I’d have guessed that I would have a better sense of what happened and why.  But I genuinely knew next to nothing about it, and it’s a really interesting story.  More fascinating, I’d say, than is given justice in the film.

The year is 1787, and Captain Bligh is assigned to set out on a trade mission to Tahiti on the British naval ship the Bounty.  As was apparently common practice for the navy at that time, sailors were conscripted from local pubs to fulfill a two-year mission overseas, which probably explains why so many of the reluctant seamen were so eager to volunteer for a mutiny later. Bligh does not treat his crew well, punishing them willy-nilly with floggings and half-rations and grumpy scowls.

They land on Tahiti, and obviously all the native women fall in love with the white guys, and the white guys explain civilization to them in condescending ways.  (As a side note, I would love to know if there exists narratives from the perspective of indigenous peoples during this time period of European exploration/exploitation, because it seems pretty hard to come by.)  Shortly after they leave, Bligh’s second in command decides he’s had enough and leads a mutiny.

In some way, we see the mutineers as heroic, or at least justified in what they did.  Particularly in the movie’s portrayal, Captain Bligh is a terrible guy who punishes his men in severe ways for minor transgressions.  When he’s set adrift in (an even tinier!) boat with some of his loyal men, basically left for dead, you kind of feel he deserves it.  I mean, let’s just start with the fact that the entire trip was initiated to obtain breadfruit plants to transport to the Caribbean “as a cheap food source for slaves.”  I’m not gonna cry if that little expedition misses its mark.

At this point, the film seems to get itself mixed up with Moby Dick, because Bligh comes back on an even bigger ship, searching for the escaped mutineers, who returned to Tahiti.  There’s a high-speed boat chase (not really), and Bligh’s obsession with capturing his crew leads to the destruction of yet another ship.  In actuality, this part did not happen exactly like that in real life Bligh made it home alive, but didn’t chase after the Bounty – though the mutineers did end up on Pitcairn Island.

As a side note, on the DVD, there was a bonus “documentary” about Pitcairn Island today, made in the 1930s, which was interesting/hilarious as a historical document.  The descendants of the mutineers and their Tahitian wives/kidnapped women? still eke out a living there.

And that’s the film, too – interesting as a historical document, impressive for its time in its special effects (the special-est effect being water, which to be fair would probably be added as CGI today).  Ultimately, though, I’d rather read a book that went into more detail about the nuances and realities of the situation.  And what role did those Tahitians play in the whole shebang?  Movie, why you gotta leave me hanging?

 

Theme:  On a Boat

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Saying, unironically, “we’re all in the same boat.”  Twice.

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

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If you know anything about Henry VIII, it’s probably that he went through wives like a teenager goes through hashtags.  (Is that a hip, relevant reference – all the kids these days use the Twitter, right?)  In fact, he was so pissed at the pope, he broke off and formed his own church where he could marry, fuck, kill whichever queen he wanted.  I feel like this is totally accurate.

The man for all seasons featured here is actually Thomas More, who is famous for writing Utopia, a book that you may have learned was significant in school but would never actually read.  He also, out of some deep moral feelings, resisted Henry VIII’s crazy moves by… not explaining why he wouldn’t sign on to the divorce/beheading party. I’m not entirely clear on that part.  It’s fine, though, because (history spoiler alert) he eventually joined the beheading party whether he wanted to or not.

As I may have mentioned, I’m a little rusty on royal history.  As evidence of this, I spent a decent portion of the early section of this film wondering why Oliver Cromwell was in a movie about Henry VIII and how I’d learned so little in AP Euro History in high school.  Lo and behold, another Cromwell played a role in British history, and he was apparently related to the Puritan who later ruined Charles I’s day.

I found the first half of this pretty dull, in large part because I had trouble figuring out who was who and what the story was.  Then Henry VIII shows up, and acts in a manner that seems to be now standard for autocratic figures:  he’s downright jovial one minute and spins on a dime to be creepy-scary when he doesn’t get his way.  It’s a little cliché now, but maybe was less so in the sixties.

As Thomas More sits with the decision he’s made – not to support Henry VIII’s break from the Church, but also not to openly oppose him – it gets a bit more interesting.  But it’s never exactly clear what game he’s playing and why he thinks remaining mysterious is the way to go.  Maybe he hoped that he might avoid the king’s wrath by keeping his big mouth shut; on the other hand, if he holds such deep religious convictions, why not own them, even at the risk of his own life?

Sometimes movies appear to be educational, or at least to inspire you to go read a book or something.  I’m not sure whether I care enough about Thomas More to read more about him, unfortunately.  I am, however, looking forward to spending more of my free time reading in the near future.  Or maybe I’ll go binge-watch The Tudors or The Crown.

 

Theme:  King

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  This isn’t Spain

The King’s Speech (2010)

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“I have a voice,” he says, on behalf of suppressed royalty everywhere.

Royal history is not my strong suit.  I remember some of the big names – Elizabeth I and II, Victoria, some Henrys and Georges and what-not thrown in for good measure – but the order is a bit mixed up.  I tend to forget about the ones who didn’t have eras named after them, and quite possibly never even knew who reigned during the big wars of the twentieth century.  (How often have we heard about Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain; far rarer did we hear of the king’s role.)  I’ve also just spent the last twenty minutes meandering through Wikipedia’s lists of British monarchs.  Unsurprisingly, I did not end up on the page for George VI.

This film is in the genre of “moderately interesting historical story where nothing particularly unexpected happens but maybe you learn a bit more about a significant event.”  The plot is quite simple:  king meets speech therapist, king nearly fires speech therapist, king makes speech.

The speech in question is the king’s announcement of Britain’s entrance into war with Germany, live on radio to the entire nation.  Problem is, the king has had a lifelong stammer, and would have been spared the duties of the king if only his flaky brother hadn’t abdicated the throne to run off with his American divorcee girlfriend (another story I knew nothing about until suddenly Madonna made a movie about it).  Spoiler alert:  he makes the speech.

One of the things I’d hoped to better understand after watching a large number of award-winning films was the three-act structure.  I’ve read about it in various contexts, in both screenwriting and other types of stories.  However, I’ve watched movies for years without being conscious of the structure, and even after learning that it exists as a pretty standard structure, I still have trouble recognizing where those acts begin and end.

I’m not sure whether my skill has improved, but this movie’s structure seems pretty formulaic.  Of course, King Bertie first has an antagonistic relationship with his speech therapist Lionel.  Of course, they have a moment where Lionel is revealed to be not what he seemed, thereby threatening the entire relationship.  And of course, the king ends up succeeding in his important speech and sharing a creepy nod across the room with Lionel, before the latter fades mysteriously into the background, like any other Yoda-like figure.

The difficulty with films based on real events is that, even if you don’t know the particulars of the story, you have a general sense that things turned out okay.  We know coming into it that they wouldn’t have made a movie if the speech was a disaster and it somehow made Britain lose the war against Hitler.  Maybe you don’t need shocking twists to stay engaged with a movie, but then again, it’s hard to be passionate about something so bland.  It’s not a terrible movie – even fun in a few places – but neither does it affect me in any deep way.  Now, Hamilton’s King George III – that’s a king that’ll stick with you!

 

Theme:  King

First Time Watching?  No

Final Verdict:   Positively medieval

All the King’s Men (1949)

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“If you yell ‘foul’ long enough, hard enough, and loud enough, people believe you.”  If I suspected Trump might have done some research while preparing for his run for president, I’d say that he watched this film as a primer.  And if I’d watched this film a few months earlier, I wouldn’t have cringed in recognition at every scene.

Willie Stark is an everyman who sees corruption in the political world around him and vows to run for office to stop it.  He fails, but attracts enough attention so that a vaguely Hugh Laurie-looking guy follows him around to write about his campaign.  Then he tries again, encouraged by more powerful figures using him to steal away votes from their favored candidate’s opponent.  Instead, he rallies the uneducated masses to join him in a populist upheaval and suddenly finds himself with more power than he’s ever had.

Obviously, he uses that power to improve humankind and champion important causes, right?   If you believe that, you probably voted for Bernie Sanders.

The funny thing is, without knowing much about this film, I initially believed Willie Stark to be more of a Bernie-type character.  He runs on a platform of improving the conditions of his fellow “hicks,” the local farmers and working class folks who don’t have a voice in government.  With that plan comes free medical care, free education, no tolls or taxes – and an end to rampant corruption.  Who exactly will pay for this grand vision with all of these social services and no taxes is a crucial question, but fortunately we don’t need to find out, because is as corrupt as they come!

That’s where the movie takes a turn from #FeeltheBern to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.  Willie surrounds himself with minions and Mafioso-style heavies primed to do his bidding, whether it’s a judge who ignores his son’s drunk driving incident or the mysterious death of a political rival.  It’s like looking into the future of America.

What happens when the public gets duped?  I understand this film (and the book it was based on) was written about Huey Long, a political figure from the 1930s.  As always, when I’m seeking wisdom in a post-apocalyptic world, I turn to Battlestar Galactica:  All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.  Leaders of any kind are at risk of the power going to their head, or of convincing people that they will do something and then do something else.  It happens in oligarchies and in democracies.  The question, left mostly unanswered in this film, is how much damage will be wreaked before the people realize their mistake and take measures to correct it?

 

Theme:  King

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  They say he’s an honest man

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

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Back in the middle of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? craze, there was an event at my hometown mall (aww, remember when malls were still a thing?) where they offered an eligibility test for the show – basically just a bunch of trivia questions.  My brother and I both took the test.  He passed, and I didn’t, but I did get to take home a commemorative coin with Regis Philbin’s face on it, so you can’t really call that losing, can you?  (For the record, my brother never got called to go on the show.)

The plot of Slumdog is bizarrely Dickensian:  a boy and his brother grow up on the mean streets of Mumbai, orphaned at a young age and then taken in by a devious Fagin (I learned that name from a previous Best Picture!) who runs a begging operation.  Hijinks ensue, eyeballs are gouged out, and eventually the boy ends up serving tea at a call center.  Then, in a step that’s not fully explained, he ends up on a game show, where he happens to get all the questions right and is tortured under suspicion of cheating.  A nice family film.  Did I mention the interrogation framing device, at least the third such structure I’ve seen in all the Best Picture films.

I do enjoy a good game show, so I’m torn between loving this movie and cringing at the absurd plot holes.  For example, as a game show aficionado, I’m well aware that the structure of a game show prevents the contestants from ever speaking to the host off-air, as happens at a fairly significant moment in this film.

And that raises another question:  how exactly did the uneducated Jamal Malik manage to make it to the Hot Seat on The Millionaire Show (as my mom used to call it)?  As you may recall, the show is structured so that a pool of potential contestants are given a quick-fire question that involves sorting things in order the fastest in order to make it in the Hot Seat – but we only see Jamal after he’s already started playing.  Even if the Indian version of the game didn’t require a pre-test, how is it that he happened to face exactly the right questions to win?  Tricky.

While we’re on the subject of questioning the improbably things that happen, let’s talk about brother Salim for a moment.  The boys start out as rivals, but in the relatively innocent sibling sense.  Later, as their lives get harder, Salim grows more ruthless, until they part ways.  Then, Salim completely flips again, in defiance of every decision he’s made up to that point.  Why the dramatic arc?  Why does Jamal dance joyfully mere hours after his brother [spoiler deleted]?

Okay, so as long as you don’t think particularly hard about it, it’s kind of a fun movie.  Best movie of the year?  Well, I don’t know.  On the other hand, it’s nice to see a movie that isn’t exclusively peopled by white folks win something.  I haven’t seen many of those lately.

 

Theme:  India

First Time Watching?  No.

Final Verdict:  You probably expect a final answer joke here.

Gandhi (1982)

 

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Watching historical movies is a great exercise in testing how little you know about a given subject, even if it’s, hypothetically speaking, a renowned icon of the twentieth century.  It’s also a great excuse to question why you know pathetically little about one of the most populous countries on the planet.  Fun fact:  up until yesterday, I believed that Indira Gandhi was Mohandas Gandhi’s daughter or granddaughter or something, because how could they not be kin and also how weird is it that both were assassinated?  Color me ignorant.

Recently, I’ve seen new writing about Gandhi: he’s been a subject of some more intense scrutiny.  For example, he supposedly tested his commitment to celibacy by having various little girl relatives sleep in his bed.  Creepy.  An article in National Geographic revisited his Salt March and his legacy today throughout the country, including the long-term impact on the acceptance of Dalits (the Untouchable caste) in modern society.  It could be better – but then, so could our own interpersonal relations in America.

Very little of that criticism makes it into this biopic.  Overall, it’s a pretty glowing jaunt through some of Gandhi’s most significant victories in his struggle for Indian independence, starting with his battle for Indian equality in South Africa (equality for blacks would have to come much later).  Some of it’s vaguely familiar to me, like the aforementioned Salt March (though I somehow had the impression that it happened a decade or two earlier, and also that Gandhi himself died considerably before independence).  There was also a fairly disturbing massacre of Indians who were peacefully demonstrating, killed under orders of some unapologetic British general.  I looked up the name of it, but have forgotten, and it’s kind of sad how easily such things are swept into the annals of history.

Gandhi brings to mind Paul Farmer, he of Partners in Health, the medical organization that renders aid to Haiti and other poor countries in great need.  How could someone be that good, that selfless?  And, just as in reading Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, I feel slightly guilty about being bored to tears by a biographical epic about someone who did good things in the world.  Maybe it’s partly because I recognize that I will never be so influential and am not even capable of being remotely as selfless.

But also because there’s nothing really to challenge me intellectually here.  I can appreciate the personal sacrifices he made, perhaps even question within myself whether I could successfully protest injustice in such an effective way (sad truth confession: probably not).  On the other hand, it’s hard to think critically about a historical figure who came out on the right side of history.  When you already know what happened, it’s hard not to see the arc as inevitable, even if the reality was nothing so definite.

On the plus side, Gandhi leaves us with some reassuring words, in a time that threatens the freedom of the world:  “Whenever I despair, I remember that the way of truth and love has always won.  There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail.  Think of it: always.”

 

Theme:  India

First Time Watching?  Yup

Final Verdict:  The truth is the truth.

 

From Here to Eternity (1953)

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This is what everyone did in Hawaii before Pearl Harbor.

There’s something about war that goes well with Oscars, like peanut butter and jelly.  If you’ve been around on this blog awhile, you may recall that I devoted an entire month to war-related films and still had plenty left over for other posts – like, for example, this one.  Perhaps it’s because there is some inherent drama in war:  the personal story meets the epic, the constant threat of death offers a natural level of drastic stakes.  I’ve seen a lot of war movies now, and they’re all a little bit different, but they’re also all a little bit the same.

FHtE opens on the arrival of a new soldier to an army unit in Hawaii.  He’s both a bugler and a boxer, and there must be some kind of joke there, but now he doesn’t really do either.  His commanding officer, a douchebag who doesn’t do much and takes all the credit, brought him there because he wanted to win a boxing championship.  Since he refuses to box, most of his peers and superiors make his life difficult with elaborate hazing rituals and punishments, because the time-honored method of getting someone to become a team player is to treat them like crap until they cave and do whatever you want.

Meanwhile, the non-commissioned officer (by the way, if I sound like I’m throwing off vaguely-accurate military terms with confidence, it’s only because I’ve decided to take a stab at it and hope for the best) who runs the show decides the best thing for his career is to indulge in Captain Douchebag’s wife.  If you’ve maybe played trivia and seen a still image from this movie in a picture round, say, it might have been this beach make-out scene.

Also, Frank Sinatra is in this movie.  Because why not?

I like the subtlety overall of the film, set in Hawaii in the weeks or months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Except for one scene, where someone is casually leaning near a wall calendar with the date brightly indicated in red:  December 6!!!  (exclamation points possibly added).

I just read a movie review for Moonlight (even my non-movie-watching ass was intrigued), in which the reviewer likened an actor’s performance to the experience of watching Montgomery Clift act for the first time.  I mean, I guess it was fine and all, once I figured out which one he was, but I didn’t notice anything unusually brilliant.  This is probably why I’m only a blogger and not a professional critic.  Most of my reviews would be one sentence:  Yeah, that was cool, I guess.

 

Theme:  War & Doomed Romance

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Nobody lies about being lonely