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February 25, 2014

Reeling in the Oscar Years


The Online Film Critics Society is having its members polled on the best and worst Oscar winners. Although I totally lost interest in even watching the annual ceremony, I do watch some of the films to keep up with what was considered the best of the year. I knew that I had missed some of the Best Picture winners from years past, and it turned out to be a few more than I thought. After doing some catching up, I think the history of Best Picture winners can be summed up with my imagined movie mogul from 1928 muttering something like, "Sunrise? We'll never make that mistake again!".

First up, Oliver!. My worst fears were true. I had avoided this musical retelling of the Dickens classic because I was sure I would hate it. I felt like I was hit on the head with a bag of hammers for over two hours. The Academy didn't even nominate what was truly the best film of 1968, 2001 although the directors and writers branch got it right. Richard Lester's Petulia, a film that has been rising in critical estimation over the years, was completely ignored. The only thing I liked about Oliver! was Oliver . . .Oliver Reed, doing a performance modeled after Disney's Big Bad Wolf. And for the record, I do like some of Carol Reed's earlier work, and have The Third Man in my DVD collection.

Around the World in Eighty Days wasn't quite the slog I was expecting. After two hours of being reasonably entertained, the film wore out its welcome. In retrospect, the shoehorning of the many cameo appearances seemed unnecessary, especially as Michael Anderson shot most of the film in a series of full shots. The one time we really got a good look at one of the guest stars, was of Frank Sinatra as the pianist at a San Francisco saloon. A few glimpses suggested why Mexican comic actor Cantinflas was a great physical performer. The Todd-AO lens also had a way of curving perspective, like a modified fish eye lens. At least the Academy gave the Best Director award to George Stevens, the best of the nominees. For mysel, the more interesting films were those nominated in other categories: Lust for Life, Richard !!!, Baby Doll and La Strada.

gping my way.jpg

Going My Way appears to have taken place in an alternate universe where almost everyone is Irish Catholic. I'm stunned that it was even a critical hit, this is hardly Leo McCarey's best film. Of course the film that even McCarey said is his best, Make Way for Tomorrow is an unbearably depressing movie about the Depression. It does say something about popular culture that there was a time when a bit of opera, in this case Carmen could be safely included in a mainstream movie. The real classic among the nominees is still Double Indemnity, a film that remains constantly rewatchable.

With The Life of Emile Zola, I discovered that even the usually dependable William Dieterle could make a boring film at Warner Brothers in the Thirties. I'll take Midsummer Night's Dream and his version of The Maltese Falcon, Satan met a Lady over this. I even found Dieterle's rematch with Paul Muni, Juarez more entertaining. Sure, Frank Capra's Lost Horizon was obvious Oscar bait, but it's more fun to watch, even if Capra turned out not to believe a lot of the stuff he put on the screen. And it's got Jane Wyatt nude, forever altering how I viewed reruns of the TV series, Father Knows Best.

This leave two Best Picture winners unseen at this time - The Great Ziegfeld and Cavalcade. The first one is on my Netflix queue, with the 'long wait" status. Obviously, a few other members of the Online Film Critics Society are also playing catch up. I will eventually see this, but probably not in time for voting in the poll. I might never see Cavalcade. It's not available from Netflix, and I'm not curious enough to pony up the dough for a DVD. It's hard for me to imagine a movie better than the competition, which included I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, 42nd Street or The Private Life of Henry V!!!.

I guess it's like this every year - the Oscars are doled out, and a bunch of us are left wondering, "The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. what the fuck were they thinking?".

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 25, 2014 08:01 AM