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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12 Years a Slave (2013)

 

A few years ago, my coworker related a funny scene from a movie she liked – I can’t remember what it was – and asked me whether I’d seen it. I answered, off-the-cuff, “Oh, I don’t watch black movies.” It sounded pretty bad, and she didn’t hesitate to call me out on it. Later, the line became a bit of a running joke between us, in those moments when the topic of race came up in conversation.

Of course, what I meant was something along the lines of “I don’t watch movies at all, really, including but not limited to comedies predominantly featuring black actors of the sort you’re describing, maybe in part because I don’t get some of the jokes.” But I suppose I also meant “I don’t watch black movies.”

What makes a black movie, anyway? Is 12 Years a Slave a black film, because it stars black actors, or was directed by a black man, or because it tells a story that is distinctly and uniquely a Black American experience? (That director, incidentally, is also British.)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup is amazing in this role. Some of the most powerful moments are those with no dialogue or action; we’re left only to contemplate the shock on Solomon’s face as he tries to recognize the reality of his situation, the absurdity of it. We linger long on his near-lynching, see the background as people gradually resume their activities in the background, not daring to approach the man dangling on the end of the rope. It’s a frightening world, with little compassion or humanity – even sometimes among the slaves, who are themselves clinging to survival however they can.

This is a difficult movie to watch. It’s heart-wrenching, and even though it kind of has a happy ending, at least in the sense that Solomon returns home, the viewer is left with a sense of nausea at the idea of all those slaves who suffered this life. Maybe the hardest thing for me to fathom was the sheer resilience that kept them alive despite the hopelessness of their life. I recall reading something recently about modern-day plantation tours, where (white) tourists often asked, “But they treated the slaves well, right?”

Well, we even get a look at that question, in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch (who is great as Sherlock, but I had no idea what to make of his accent here). BC plays Ford, Solomon’s first slaveholder, and he’s portrayed as almost benevolent. He takes Solomon’s expertise into account, and praises him for his work. You’d almost think he’s one of those kindly slaveowners. When Ford sells Solomon, he portrays himself as stuck in a system beyond his control. He has debts, he protests, and so as much as he’d like to keep Solomon, he has no choice. In the end, Solomon is still just property to discard.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the ongoing controversy around diversity in Hollywood and at the Oscars. Something in it also forces me to question my decision to focus on Oscar-winning films for a year. By choosing to watch these movies – not only, but realistically, how many movies can you watch in a year? – I am also choosing to not watch others. And if the Oscars has excluded minority artists throughout much of its history, then what else am I missing? I do still feel that it’s worthwhile to watch canonical movies, but also recognize the value of delving deeper to appreciate things outside the mainstream, which are often also outside white culture.

My last blog post drew an interesting reaction (interesting, for starters, that I got a reaction at all). Somebody reacted negatively to my critique of Dances with Wolves, or not so much the movie itself, but in context with the Oscars diversity issue. He suggested that great art will find its audience, which is a nice sentiment – but I don’t think history supports it.

Great art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, unless the cleaning crew at the gallery made a grave mistake. Art is made by people, and exists in conversation between its creator (who carries a history of his/her own experience and interpretation) and the audience it finds. Engaging with art requires asking questions of all kinds, probably starting with, “Why I am reacting to this the way I am?” You do a disservice to yourself to limit your encounters with art (of any kind – writing, fine art, music) to things that resonate with your own experience.

When watching this film, I asked myself, what audience is this meant for, and for what reaction? It’s a difficult movie to watch, filled with white characters that are loathsome. There’s a sense of distance that I feel as a white person watching these figures, who are so blatantly racist and cruel. And yet, I can’t help seeing parallels in our present day. How many of us white people are well-intentioned and yet still blind to many of the painful realities of living as a Black American today?

This post, as it turns out, isn’t really about 12 Years a Slave much at all. It’s an incredible film, and certainly worth looking at in greater detail, but I think others have probably done that better than I can do. At the same time, I don’t think it’s a disservice to the movie that I’ve spent my time discussing the context in which I’ve experienced it. Maybe I don’t watch black movies. But maybe I should try harder to do so and see what I can learn.

Theme:  Plantation

First Time Watching?  Yes

Loved it/Liked it/Hated it – Thank God Almighty We Are Free at Last

Dances with Wolves (1990)

 

Speaking on behalf of white people, I can say that if there’s anything we white people love, it’s pretending to be just like a non-white person but without any of the inconvenience of actually living their lives. The Oscars seem to be particularly big on the white-person-being-non-white narrative. I’d say that choosing this as my theme this week was random and unrelated to the controversy around this year’s nominations – but to be honest, any two Best Pictures could as easily illustrate the lack of diversity in Oscar history.

As in Lawrence of Arabia, non-white characters – even those with some degree of development – exist primarily as tools for the white man to find some sort of deliverance. Lawrence’s tribal leaders essentially ceased to exist for us once he left the desert. And do we know anything about Wind in His Hair now except that he will always be Dunbar’s friend? No, because he is not Kevin Costner.

I first saw Dances with Wolves in an anthropology class in college called “Native America Today.” One component of the course was to watch a series of movies spanning several decades and discuss how Native Americans were portrayed, and how that differed over time. I don’t recall most of the films besides this one – except that most were Westerns because that is the only acceptable genre in which a Native American can appear.

At the beginning of the semester, we were assigned an essay in which we had to describe our impressions of Native Americans based on our encounters with them in the media – movies, TV, whatever. I really struggled with the assignment, and to this day, I’m not sure why. Perhaps in part because I recognized that we were being asking to be reflective about stereotypes and acknowledge that real Indians weren’t like Chief Wahoo, which seemed too obvious a thing to say. I knew that I should admit to having perceptions in defiance of reality, but I couldn’t find the “right” way to reflect on that idea.

I grew up in upstate New York, where there are small reservations made up of Iroquois tribes. I’d learned about the Five Nations of the Iroquois in school, and was actually interested in learning about their history (hence, why I was taking that class), but I didn’t know any Native Americans personally. Was my interest nothing more than a fetishized fascination with whatever I’d constructed as a modern Native American, that mystical figure who held a special bond with nature?

My professor had suggested we talk about the popular movies of the era – modernized Westerns were kind of big in the nineties – but, as you’ll recall if you’ve read my introductory blog, I didn’t grow up watching many movies. Instead, my impressions of Native Americans came from disparate sources: old comics from my dad’s childhood featuring the bright red people in feathers saying “How”; the children’s book series The Indian in the Cupboard that literally objectified Indians as little figurines that came to life; the Indian Village at the New York State Fair, where tribe members across the state gathered in some mix between authentic and tourist-trap that I still don’t fully understand. I didn’t know how to put all that into one 3-page essay.

I don’t recall exactly what we discussed when we watched Dances with Wolves. Now it’s blatantly obvious to me that Dances With Wolves (the man) is this white hero figure, who even beats the Lakota at their own game. He rescues wounded women, he kills buffalo, he battles U.S. soldiers and Pawnee warriors alike (let’s not even get into the good/evil dichotomy of Lakota and Pawnee). At least there are a few Native American characters with some depth, but this is ultimately not about them: it’s about the white man who only “found himself” by adopting (appropriating?) another culture.

To be honest, I was expecting to be more disappointed by the film than I actually was. In terms of the three-hour films I’ve watched so far on this journey, it definitely dragged less than most. And it’s neat to Graham Greene in this role compared to what he’s been in recently. I’ve been watching Longmire, which has gradually been exploring interesting, nuanced characters on an Indian reservation in Wyoming. Granted, the show’s still named after a white guy, but there’s some hope that we’ll continue to see more Native actors in solid roles.

 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

This is what I was afraid of when I first decided I would watch all the Best Pictures: that I would feel like I was wasting my time. It’s especially noticeable when you sit down to watch a film that’s three hours and forty-two minutes long, like Lawrence of Arabia. I feared the tedium of seeing through a task that I’d set for myself, to watch this movie whether I liked it or not. Of doing something without a clear purpose, only for some arbitrary reason.

Yeah, I could have given up on it halfway through, like one of those times I paused to take a break or to see how much more of it there was to get through, only to discover that I had two and a half more hours of this. But I’m stubborn that way. This was a classic, recommended to me by movie buffs, and I was going to look for the proof of its brilliance.

I don’t regret finishing the movie, but I don’t really think I appreciated it much more by the end of it. For starters, I had a bit of difficulty following the story. Truth is, I don’t know much about this period of history, in this place – the Middle East during World War I – and one positive result of watching the movie is that it piqued my interest in reading more about it: the role the Ottoman Empire played in the region, the aftermath of the Arab Uprising, how the European powers contributed to the upheaval in the Middle East in ways that clearly resonate today. Sometimes that’s the best a film can do, make you want to know more about something.

One thing that a good film can offer is simple beauty, and there’s definitely much to be found in the long, lingering shots of dunes. Sometimes the only traces you find of the people at all are tiny silhouettes of camels, or the lone straight lines of footsteps in the sand. Someone I know from Saudi Arabia once referred to himself and his nation as “desert people,” and I don’t think I fully appreciated the sense of that until seeing that expanse of space. I’m from a place where there’s not much empty space in between the parts that contain people or clear signs of civilization, so it’s hard for me to fathom living in a region that lacks so much of both.

Also, I’m having trouble deciding whether Lawrence was intended to be portrayed as a heroic figure, or if we’re meant to come out of it thinking he’s kind of an asshole. Maybe both, if the funeral scene at the beginning is any indication. All the same, I couldn’t get a handle on his character’s journey by the end of it. His actions, from his seemingly random decisions to leave the people and then to return, came off as nonsensical to me.

One thing that surprised me was the complexity given to many of the Arabian characters. My impression of a film from the sixties is that non-white characters are naturally given less of a sense of their own agency than white characters. Considering that the film was peopled by a large cast, there was an interesting range of personalities, portrayed as having their own motives. True, most of them were played by white actors, which is certainly problematic. And then there was the bizarre worship of Lawrence, resplendent in his white heroic garb. But I suppose I expected worse.

It does raise an important question, though, in light of this week’s Oscar nominations. Should I be more surprised about how much diversity exists in a film from fifty years ago, or that so little exists in Oscar-nominated films today? What sort of progress have we made in that period of time? (Answer: none.) How is this restriction of diversity in one field reflective of greater American culture, and how do we improve? I don’t know the answer to these questions. That sort of goes beyond the scope of my intentions with this blog, which was essentially: let’s write our silly little thoughts about movies.

I was thinking about a good movie to pair this with – something that addresses war in the Middle East today, of which there are several possibilities? Another cult of personality film? Or another epic (read: long) film that spans space or time. I think I found something that balances well against this one, and a theme that I’d like to think about: going native.

The Artist (2011)

Speaking of silent films…

What’s that? You couldn’t hear me? Well, that’s probably because you’re reading this, not because it was a silent film.

Anyway, over eighty years after the first silent Best Picture, The Artist took the prize. I remember the buzz when it came out – in fact, I even saw it in the theater, something I can mostly only say about movies that contain Harry Potter or Wolverine. (Harry Potter and the Adamantium Claws: best crossover ever?)

What’s really cool about The Artist is that it’s as much a meta-picture as anything, a celebration of and sort of winking look at the early film industry. I’m not sure why this intrigued me so much considering how little I know about the film industry (of any era). Having now seen (one, at least) silent film, and understanding a bit more of what that genre was like, I can appreciate a little better that transition. It seems so long ago, and yet, here we are in an era of so much change. Which of the new technologies in entertainment – 3D, 4D, whatever – will stand 80 years from now, and how will our current batch of movies look to those future people? What must it be like to be on the losing end of change, left behind as a dinosaur in a world of mammals?

This is maybe the first movie I’ve watched in this project (which I’ve now re-watched for at least the third time) that’s really made me think about what it means to be a “Best Picture.” The Artist is truly different from any other movie I’ve seen, even as it follows the trends and tropes of everything that’s come before it. Without the distraction of dialogue, the visuals are given a greater weight, narratively and emotionally. Water pooled on a table, fire, so many reflections. I enjoy the part where George and Peppy play out take after take of their first scene together, each redo another step towards them falling in love. But it’s another scene that really sticks with me: Peppy finds herself alone in George’s dressing room, puts her arm through his jacket sleeve, hanging on a rack at person-level, and relives the dance with her own hand substituting for his on her hip.

If that’s not enough, there’s an adorable dog who plays the role of mascot, comic relief, savior. If they could make a movie with an entire cast of dogs (and maybe a few baby goats), I would be all over that.

Perhaps a Best Picture is one that can change something inside of you, make you feel love where once beat a cold, hardened heart. I don’t consider myself a romantic, and yet, here I am, gushing over a romance film. There’s hope for all of us.

Theme:  Silent Film

First Time Watching?  Nope, saw it in the theater.

Loved it/Liked it/Hated it:  With pleasure.

 

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

So, I swear that when I planned to watch this the day after Rocky, I didn’t realize it was another boxing movie. Sure, I probably knew the basic premise at some point, but as I navigated from the Best Picture list to Netflix, I didn’t know what I was in for.

Actually, all I knew about Million Dollar Baby was from a random joke on The Office (which I didn’t get at the time, but turned out to be kind of a major spoiler). Even that hanging in the back of mind didn’t prevent me from loving this film.

As I’ve mentioned, I have a soft spot for boxing. I have an even softer spot for stories about misfits or loners who find each other. At its core, this was a love story. We never needed to learn the meaning of mo chuisle to know that it was a term of endearment. It’s fitting somehow that it’s expressed in a means both open to all and couched in secrecy, like an inside joke to which only Frankie knows the punchline.

Yes, there were some problematic moments. I really wish Maggie’s welfare-cheat family had a little more complexity to them, and that the issue of poverty (theirs and Maggie’s) was more than just a caricature. But I suppose it served the greater story, that of building a relationship between Frankie and Maggie. It’s a film that warrants re-watching, not because to catch the things you might have missed the first time around, but to appreciate moments of poignancy.

I enjoyed contrasting this film with Rocky, to see what a difference twenty years could make in a best picture. Both felt realistic, but also of their time. Boxing is kind of a man’s world, where the women can participate only if they prove themselves to be as masculine as the male heroes. Rocky had a feeling of allegory to it, like David facing Goliath or the Tortoise and the Hare. Million Dollar Baby had a sense of the fantastic to it, with its dramatic voiceover and the fairy-tale story of Maggie’s meteoric rise to stardom. One story of an unexpected rise, the other of a fall. It’s almost as if Million Dollar Baby is a sequel of sorts, not that Rocky really needed another one.

One of my favorite episodes of Battlestar Galactica featured boxing: “Unfinished Business.” It’s sort of a strange episode, half of it flashback, where not much of anything happens. The characters are in a sort of holding pattern, trying to come to terms with what they’ve just survived – the Cylon occupation on New Caprica. Naturally, they resolve their frustrations by beating the shit out of each other. And somehow, by the end of the episode, things have shifted a bit. They’ve regained some of their trust.

Boxing is a sport of trust. Trust in trainers and the people in your corner; trust in your own endurance and power. Rocky showed us the latter, trusting in your ability to carry on against the odds. Million Dollar Baby shows us the strength that can be found between a fighter and her trainer. Trust is love.

Theme:  Boxing

First Time Watching?  Yes

Loved it/Liked it/Hated it:  It was darling.

Rocky (1976)

 

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a secret fascination with boxing. I’ve never really watched the sport much, to be honest, and don’t understand the strategies or the scoring rules. Despite that, it still has a hold on me.

Probably my first boxing-related memory was of watching an episode of the Twilight Zone, in which a down-on-his-luck boxer gets in the ring with a robot. Though it wasn’t intended as horror, something about that episode terrified me. Maybe I was too young, or my imagination ran with the impossibility of man battling machine. Even then something in me understood the fundamental truth of boxing, that the odds are always against you.

In middle school, we did an icebreaking exercise in which everyone filled out a list of our favorite things and then found matches among our classmates. I guess I didn’t understand the purpose of the activity beforehand, but I wrote boxing as my favorite sport – and didn’t find anyone else who agreed. Was I just trying to be contrary? I could have said baseball and it would have been more truthful. That must be the pull of boxing – something about it gets under your skin, opens you up like a good punch. Even if you hate it, you still kind of love the pain.

Fighting, in a way, is not a sport, but something more fundamental, baser and beastly. Boxing appeals to that animal instinct inside us all, makes you want to prove yourself, prove that you could survive battle.

Rocky is one of those films that is so well-known that you don’t need to have seen it to know the basic story: down-on-his-luck boxer (is there any other kind?) gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot to prove himself, and even when he loses, he’s still better for it. Admittedly, if I didn’t already know the ending, I don’t think I would have realized that Rocky didn’t win the decision. The ending was a little confusing. On the bright side, I’ve been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, so it was nice to actually watch the scene that inspired that statue of Rocky on the steps outside.

For the most part, I enjoyed this film. The characters felt like real people, though I had a little trouble figuring out the deal with Adrian. First she’s mousy and silent, and then suddenly she takes off her glasses and is a babe? And I don’t remember a single thing she said, except at the end when she declares her love for Rocky. That’s the real victory, of course – love conquers all.

Boxing used to be a national sport. Now it’s relegated to a few pay-per-view matches for the big-name heavyweights, overshadowed by even bloodier sport, like MMA fighting. In 1976, though, I suppose it was still clinging to the American consciousness, just as Rocky held out hope that he might eventually get his shot. And still it lingers, because some of us still like a good fight.

Of course, even Rocky is still going. There is, after all, a new movie out, Creed. Maybe I’ll watch it at some point, but then, I’ll first have to work my way through Rocky II-V (and beyond?).

A few years ago, I took some boxing classes at a local gym. It wasn’t really fighting, only the workout that a boxer would go through in training: jumping rope, heavy bag, speed bag, combination drills, burpees, ab work. I liked it, but I never really got fit enough to be any good at it, and after a few months, my knee couldn’t handle all the stairs and stresses. I wasn’t cut out to be a boxer, even as a hobby. There’s still a part of me that would like to go back to it, shed some pounds, build some muscle, and maybe I will if I can protect the parts that hurt.

But boxing requires endurance. Persistence. The belief that you are a conqueror. Or at the very least, that no matter how much of a beating you take, you can still stay on your feet.

Theme:  Boxing

First Time Watching?  Yup.

Loved it/Liked it/Hated it:  Yo!