Tuesday, February 14, 2012
This is a new feature for my blog. Every Tuesday, I'll post a top 10 list about some random movie topic (Best Romantic Comedies, Worst Sequels, etc.). Inspired by the upcoming Oscars, the first entry in this series will be the 10 Worst Oscar decisions ever.
I came up with some criteria for what I would include here. I'm only counting decisions where I saw both the winner and the film that was snubbed as it wouldn't be fair to assume something shouldn't have won just because it beat something great. I'm also not talking about nomination snubs. This is simply the worst decision among films or performers that were actually nominated. Having said that, here is the list...
#10. 1994, Lead Actor - Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump) over Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption)
I actually often find myself as a defender of both Forrest Gump and Tom Hanks performance in it. I think it's a funny and often moving story punctuated by the genius visual creativity of Robert Zemeckis. Hanks performance is more nuanced and multidimensional than people give it credit for. So the reason I chose this entry at #10 has less to do with Hanks being undeserving and more to do with how incredibly amazing Freeman was in Shawshank. Freeman, who had yet to win an Oscar, gave one of the most moving and complex performances of the decade, yet would have to wait 10 years before finally winning his first Oscar for Million Dollar Baby.
#9. 1931, Lead Actress - Helen Hayes (The Sin of Madelon Claudet) over Marie Dressler (Emma)
One of the earliest examples of the Academy rewarding shameless overacting, and it certainly won't be the last to make this list. Helen Hayes was the most beloved stage performer of her time, known as the "First Lady of the American Theater". However, her film performances leave alot to be desired. This was actually her film debut and she played a single mother going to desperate lengths (such as prostitution) to provide for her son. What may have worked wonderfully in the theater comes across as incredibly hammy and ridiculous on screen. Marie Dressler's (who had won the previous year) performance in Emma wasn't her best, but it was still a nice bit of character acting and far more deserving of the win.
#8. 1998, Best Picture - Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan
Despite making my top 10, this is often considered a bigger injustice than it really deserves. Shakespeare in Love is a very good period comedy whose only flaw is a weak leading performance from Joseph Fiennes. What really hurts the film's perception in the eyes of many is the manner in which it won. Miramax poured tons of money in a marketing campaign aimed at Oscar voters, hoping to tip the scales in their favor and it worked. Having said that, this is a very bad choice by the Academy even ignoring the marketing campaign. Saving Private Ryan was a masterful examination of bravery, cowardice and sacrifice in war. As good a movie as Shakespeare in Love is, it doesn't hold a candle to Spielberg's masterpiece.
#7. 2000, Lead Actor - Russell Crowe (Gladiator) over Tom Hanks (Cast Away)
In a reversal from my #10 choice, it is Hanks who was robbed this time. Russell Crowe is a terrific actor and there is nothing wrong with his performance in Gladiator. However, there's nothing especially great about it either. He gives a gives a good, strong physical performance, but it pales in comparison the dynamic portrayals he gave in films like LA Confidential and The Insider. His win here would be like giving Liam Neeson the Oscar for Taken. Meanwhile, Hanks gave the best performance of his career in Cast Away. It was an incredible accomplishment, completely carrying the film by himself for almost the entire running time and making you believe he cared deeply for a volleyball.
#6. 1971, Best Picture - The French Connection over A Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show
This is probably a case of a film not aging well at all. The French Connection is a mostly dull (except for the memorable chase scene at the end) cop drama with decent performances. Not sure what the Academy saw in this film, but they really missed the ball by passing over two classics in Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show and Kubrick's A clockwork Orange, wildly different films that are both extremely memorable in their own ways. The French Connection can't even compare to a fellow cop drama from the same year - Dirty Harry, which has aged better and had much more influence over the years.
#5. 2009, Original Screenplay - Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) over Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds)
The Hurt Locker was a good film and I have no problem with Kathryn Bigelow's Best Director victory, as she created some stunning and viscerally compelling suspense sequences. However, voters also rewarded the screenplay, which is the very worst part of the film. It severely undermined a great premise about a bomb squad in Iraq by making its main character a crazy cowboy who violates protocol constantly and rushes into dangerous situations without thinking. It undermines the entire anti-war concept of the film, as the tense situations they find themselves in are the result of the main character's stupidity instead of the natural craziness of war. Meanwhile, Tarantino crafted another brilliantly original film with his mixture of pulp storytelling, broad humor, and fascinating dialogue.
#4. 1981, Best Picture - Chariots of Fire over Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Reds
Yep, this is a case where the film that won was worse than all four films that it beat. And the sad thing is it's not even close. When people think Chariots of Fire, they remember the memorable musical score by Vangelis and not much else. That's because there isn't much else to it. It's a dreadfully dry and dull film with awful pacing and no engaging characters. The better choice would've been Spielberg's classic adventure tale Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Louis Malle's fascinating character study Atlantic City close behind. Any of them would've been better than the dreadful and unimaginative Chariots of Fire.
#3. 1927-28, Best Picture - Wings over Sunrise and 7th Heaven
The very first Academy Awards makes an appearance on this list with silent war drama Wings not only being a terrible choice that year, but also one of the worst Best Pictures of all time. When I reviewed it a couple years back, I stated it was what you'd expect if Michael Bay had made movies in 1927. I stand by that today, as the somewhat exciting action scenes are not even close to being enough to overcome the horrible love story. The love story takes up the entire second section of the film in an exceedingly long sequence where Clara Bow tries to sober up the drunk main character so he won't be AWOL. Sunrise was split up into a bizarre Best Picture of Artistic Merit category, which it won. If you exclude Sunrise because of this bizarre decision, then Frank Borzage's beautiful melodrama 7th Heaven still would've been a much better choice.
#2. 1992, Lead Actor - Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman) over Denzel Washington (Malcolm X)
After being nominated 7 times and losing each and every time, the Academy finally gave an Oscar to Al Pacino for his performance as a blind veteran in Scent of a Woman. Even if we were to exclude his brilliant competitor in the same category, it would've been a ridiculous choice to award Pacino for his repetitive overacting in Scent of a Woman instead of his legendary performances in films like The Godfather, The Godfather 2, and Dog Day Afternoon. And it's especially bad when you consider that he beat Denzel Washington for what truly is one of the most impressive film performances of all time. Denzel literally transformed himself into Malcolm X and gave an intense, multidimensional portrait of the revolutionary civil rights leader.
#1. 2005, Best Picture - Crash over Brokeback Mountain
In some ways, Crash has faced the same problem of Shakespeare in Love and has been unfairly maligned merely for winning when it shouldn't have. I admit to liking (not loving) it when I first saw it in theaters. Some of the individual stories worked really well (especially the Terrence Howard segment), while others are dreadfully simplistic (Sandra Bullock's simplistic and unconvincing transformation). The problem is less that Crash won and more what it beat. Brokeback Mountain was yet another terrific film from the amazing Ang Lee, a beautifully shot and timeless love story with incredible performances (RIP Heath). It has sometimes been dismissed as getting attention only because it was a gay film, but this is a universal love story that is just as compelling as any film about societal pressures keeping a couple apart, such as Remains of the Day or The Age of Innocence. It was the best film of the year and the Academy's decision to pass it over for Crash is the worst Oscar decision ever.
Posted by Larry McGillicuddy at 3:55 PM
Monday, February 13, 2012
The haunted house genre has been one of the oldest and most reliable horror conventions. Classics of the genre include Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary and James Whale's The Old Dark House. The idea lends itself well to creating a spooky atmosphere and lots of opportunities for surprise scares lurking behind any door, painting, or hallway corner. James Watkins' The Woman in Black is certainly not a bad example of the genre and indeed has some pretty good scares, but ultimately does not completely work due to some repetitiveness and a weak third act.
The Woman in Black follows recently widowed young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe). The death of his wife has seriously affected his life both personally and professionally. His bosses give him one last chance to shape up by traveling to a small village and help settle the estate of a recently deceased woman. He soon finds that nobody in town wants anything to do with that house as they believe it has something to do with a mysterious string of child suicides. Arthur shrugs this off at first, but begins to change his mind after a frightening visit to the house leads to dire consequences.
The film starts off pretty strong, with a creepy opening that sets up a eerie backstory. Director James Watkins does a good job setting up a spooky atmosphere, using fog and dim lighting to great effect. when the film focuses on this, it is a pretty enjoyable ride. The middle section of the film in particular has some great jump-out-of-your-seat moments. Daniel Radcliffe steps out from the Harry Potter series and gives a capable lead performance. His wide eyed everyman appeal is perfect for the lead role.
The problem with the film is it relies too heavily on shock scares set up by something surprising coming from off camera. These big surprises are punctuated with a loud sound effect to make sure the audience knows they're supposed to be scared, like a laugh track on a sitcom. Admittedly, some of the most effective scares in the film come from this device, but the filmmakers go to this well too many times, and it begins to feel repetitive and tedious. The film would have been more effective staying focused on the psychological exploration of the main character. Also problematic is a mostly weak third act featuring a solution that plays out like a less suspenseful episode of Supernatural.
Having said that, the film is competently made and will certainly have strong appeal to fans of the genre. The supporting cast is very strong, showcasing notable vets Janet McTeer, Tom Hardy, and Ciarin Hinds. It's not the film that will completely separate Radcliffe from his famous boy wizard role, but it's a good start. If only Watkins had made up his mind on which movie to make: a psychological ghost story or a B-level shocker. Ultimately, he tries for both and merely ends up with an above average film when it could've been so much more.
Posted by Larry McGillicuddy at 1:55 PM