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whatsthatsound On September - 22 - 2009

Live from The Chicago Municipal Opera House, bequeathed to the city by Charles Foster (Citizen) Kane, it’s Oscar Night! Tonight is a special ceremony, wherein we honor the Best Pictures to NOT win Best Picture. At what other venue could we possibly hold this auspicious event? Citizen Kane is more than just a great film that got snubbed by the Academy. It is widely regarded as one of, if not THE, greatest motion pictures ever made. In fact, so laden with accolades is Orson Welles’ groundbreaking triumph, it seems unnecessary to award it with  something as trivial as an Oscar at this point. Better perhaps to allow the film that bested it, How Green Was My Valley, that one link to immortality. Leaving “Kane” aside, let us now focus our attention on some of the other masterpieces of film that were robbed of their Art Deco paperweights.

 

Goodfellas (1990); When The Departed won Best Picture in 2007 (it was released in 2006), most movie fans considered it to be little more than a face saving way to present a Lifetime Achievement Award to its director, Martin Scorsese. It may have been his goriest crime drama, but it was hardly his greatest picture. This is the man who gave us Taxi Driver andRaging Bull, after all. Both of those films merited an Oscar, but it isGoodfellas that must be looked upon as the master director’s greatest epic. The best gangster movie ever made? With its release in 1990, it certainly muscled its way into that conversation alongside Oscar winners The Godfather Parts I and II. Goodfellas is a cinematic tour-de-force, dazzling us with one unforgettable scene, camera angle, and performance after another. Surely every movie fan has riffed on Tommy’s  (played by Joe Pesci) “Funny How?” monologue at least once. So, what movie did the Academy decide to laud as the year’s best in its place? Kevin Costner’sDances With Wolves. While not a bad movie, Costner’s politically correct Western amply demonstrates that the freshman director knew less about making grandiose, sweeping epics than Scorsese had forgotten (which would be confirmed by later Costner “epics” The Postman andWaterworld). Early in Goodfellas, when the narrator, mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), introduces us to his mentor Jimmy Conway (Robert Deniro), one of the first things he tells us is that “Jimmy loved to steal!” One cannot but wonder how Jimmy feels when the shoe is on the other foot, because he, along with his wiseguy cohorts, wuz robbed!

 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Here we have a movie so unusual, so utterly unique, so creative, so visionary, so unlike any other movie ever made that it basically changed our perception of the medium. To be sure, there were “art films” before (and no doubt inspiring) 2001. But it was 2001 that first dazzled us with the technology of filmmaking, the “special effects” that opened up doors undreamed of to directors and studios. If Jaws (1975) was the movie that ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster, it was2001 which revealed the potential of what such films could look like, and the impact that makes on an audience. You don’t watch 2001, youexperience it, which was exactly what director Stanley Kubrick was intending. Plot? Secondary. Performances? Who needs ’em? The best lines, every single one of them, went to the disembodied, hollow voice of a malfunctioning supercomputer. What supplanted all of that was a VISION; Kubrick was out to entertain our subconscious minds, not the part of us that decides to get up and buy some popcorn. So, what beat out this cinematic work of the finest art? Well, it wasn’t even nominated (though Kubrick was nominated for, and lost, Best Director), so you could say that all the nominees did. The award went to Oliver!, but Funny Girl and The Lion in Winter were also picked as better films. HAL 9000 wasn’t the only thing malfunctioning in movie-land that year, it seems.

 

May I have the envelope, please? We now come to my personal pick for Best Picture Not to Win Best Picture, Sunset Boulevard (1950): Director Billy Wilder was firing off on all cylinders with this masterpiece,  directed from the height of his powers. Combining black comedy and noir mystery with a subject  he knew all too well about (Hollywood, with its egos and fantasy worlds), this, among all his works, seems his most personal statement. Did Wilder see himself as the writer played by William Holden, losing his soul to the gaudy seductress Norma Desmond (played to perfection by Gloria Swanson) who represented, better than any other role in history, Tinseltown itself? When Norma haughtily proclaims, “I’m still big! It’s the pictures that got smaller!”, is it her ego Wilder is poking fun at, or his own? Perhaps he himself didn’t know for sure, but with this claustrophobic, surreal tragi-comic nightmare, he gave Hollywood its most searing and unflinching look at itself. Nevertheless, it’s hard to fault the Academy this time. “Sunset” was bested by another great movie, featuring another stellar performance by the female lead. All About Eve is perhaps Bette Davis’ finest film (and performance), and unquestionably deserved its Oscar. The only problem is that Sunset Boulevard deserved it too, even more.

 

Clearly, the Academy has made some dumb, historically indefensible decisions. Worst Picture to Win Best Picture? Hard to be objective in such matters. Some people see art where others are left shaking their heads. DidTitanic deserve its Oscar? This movie, perhaps seen by more people in the world than any other motion picture ever made, certainly delivered the goods in terms of spectacle and scale. But with its two dimensional lovers, and one dimensional villain, it is doubtful that it will be talked about in years to come as a masterpiece. Preachy Crash is a movie whose Oscar provokes many a temper tantrum by serious movie lovers. But for me personally, the “honor” can only go to Chicago!, which won in 2003 (released in 2002). Chicago! is a soulless, unabashedly amoral piece of doo doo. In Roxie Hart (played with neither charm nor sex appeal by Renee Zellweger) Hollywood gave us perhaps its most annoying anti-heroine ever. Featuring unwatchable dance numbers (literally, because they are shot so dark or cut so rapidly), pathetic lyrics, lousy performances, and an utterly bleak and sneeringly cynical viewpoint, in its defense I can only say that  some of the costumes are nice. Kind of. But Best Picture? Fugeddaboudit!

 

Maybe Norma Desmond was right. The movies really did get smaller. Consider that in 1970, Cabaret, a movie musical far superior to Chicago! in every conceivable way, lost  Best Picture to an even greater film, The Godfather (consider also the competition between Sunset Boulevard andAll About Eve). 2001 would never conceivably be released by a major studio in this day and age. Hollywood is in a pretty bleak state right now, content to crank out superhero movies one after the other, or gory splatter-fests, or Will Smith special effects extravaganzas – noisy movies lacking the intelligence or wit of the films mentioned above. Great movies are still being made, just not with the regularity with which they once were. They are like oases in the desert, rare respites, refreshing reminders of the possibilities of filmmaking for we, as Norma puts it, “wonderful people, out there in the dark…..”

Written by whatsthatsound

Writer, Illustrator, Curmudgeon. Ferret Owner. Tokyoite, formerly Ohioan. Much nicer in person.

54 Responses so far.

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  1. KQuark says:

    Q you have a point in allot of ways TV is better than Hollywood especially if you add British shows. My wife and I are huge anglophiles and shows like “Shameless” which absolutely is shameless are far beyond the stories Hollywood produces. It’s all about risk taking and Hollywood is risk adverse so they do the same remakes, sequels and comic book live action films over and over again. It’s sad when probably the best performance in the last few years was Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight”.

    Other British shows I would recommend are “New Tricks” and “Inspector Lewis” (which I actually like better than the last couple years of “Inspector Morse” the original). You usually can find most good British shows on PBS, IFC or Sundance. Unfortunately BBC America has kind of sold out and is showing these cruddy reality shows and shite like that.

    Since I’m also a SciFi fan I’ve noticed much of the good SciFi is actually being produced in Canada these days.

    • Questinia says:

      Hollywood seems like it wants to draw you in, but doesn’t. It really wants to keep you out so it can better manipulate you. If the movies they make draw you in then by nature of that relationship, they are going to have to alter themselves in order to incorporate you. That’s too big a risk for them. How then, are they going to get “rid” of you without ridding a piece of themselves?

      Hollywood has intimacy issues.

      I have no idea if what I said is correct but it sounds kinda good.

      OMG! I’m turning into Ken Burns. I’m extruding!!

      • KQuark says:

        You’ve also got to put allot of the blame on the audience and not just the American audience but also the International audience in this case. When Hollywood doesn’t deliver the big bang or the happy ending people who actually pay to got to movies to see the audience is pulled out of their comfort zones. Making mega movies for International audiences has made things worse because it made plot lines even more trivial and special effects even a higher premium.

        • AdLib says:

          I don’t agree with putting it on the audience as much.

          The power of market research has far more influence on what films are made and though that does include polling potential audiences, it sets up a fait d’accompli for predictable and derivative films.

          Market research is not effective in championing brilliant filmmaking. If you were to try to distill down the plots of some of the greatest films made, they would sound far less desirable than some of the crappiest films ever made. The movie going audience has often loved challenging or fresh films once they were made but would never have predicted that in a focus group when the film was just a concept.

          For example, when Studios conduct polling on concepts for films, they are seeking the highest scoring projects to produce.

          So, if the first question is, “Would you be interested in seeing a film based on the Transformers cartoons and toys?” and “Would you be interested in seeing a film that is a fictional account of the life of William Randolph Hearst?”, you can imagine which concept scores higher and is far more likely to get financed.

          The old days were definitely worse in many ways but when there were studio moguls, when studios weren’t simply part of a global mega corp, the studio heads made some films simply because they were films they wanted to see made.

          Market research wasn’t such a religion though they still did test concepts and star combinations and make films from books and plays.

          Today, it’s all about the marketing. Look at the critic-proof films that pour out in the summer. Many of the films are admittedly poor but the skill, technology and knowhow of marketing to manipulate people to go see films is so advanced and prolific, films don’t have to be good anymore to be big hits.

          It is the potential for marketing that makes a film most viable today, not the finished product being a great film.

          That’s why the indie world is where most of the story-telling creativity is, the studio world is where the technological and marketing creativity is.

          • KQuark says:

            You sure know allot more about the marketing that goes into film making than I would. I guess I also see the marketing manipulations as exploiting sheeple being sheeple. Expanding the market to the international markets and I really think of emerging markets like Japan, India, South Korea and China to that list many of whom miss the intricacies of plot structure for cultural reasons just makes it worse.

            • AdLib says:

              The truth is that foreign markets have been developing their own domestic film industries and are distributing less American films.

              As you say, manipulating the sheeples is the name of the game.

              There is a reason that a McDonalds Hamburger is the most popular in the world…despite their making some of the cheapest and most terrible hamburgers.

              The film business and many other industries are no different.

              The quality of the product being sold is secondary. If the marketing hook and approach is strong, that’s all that matters. That’s what the priority is, not the quality of the hamburger (film).

            • KQuark says:

              Yup of course you are right and thank goodness. I love Asian Extreme on Sundance. Actually right now I’m watching an Aussie film called “Chopper” on IFC. It’s OK but it’s trying to bee too cool.

        • whatsthatsound says:

          That is so true. Movies with a lot of intricate dialogue are likely to lose so much in the translation that the chance of them being mega-hits is small. So the whizbang movies keep getting made because the subtleties of any particular language are unimportant. My Japanese friends know that Hollywood movies are usually goofy eye candy, they just don’t expect much more from Hollywood these days.

          • KQuark says:

            One of the reasons I find anime and movies from the Far East so fascinating is how good pieces of work view good and evil so differently than many in the West. I think one of the serious problems in our culture is that both sides are so certain that the intentions of the other side are so evil that there is no good in them. Sure conservatives have made demonizing the other side into a everlasting political strategy but I see many on the other side who relish in the perpetual culture wars as well.

            • whatsthatsound says:

              Absolute agreement! Disney villains are always pure evil, whereas Miyazaki villains, such as those in Naoshika and Princess Mononoke are much more multi-dimensional. They are not simply plot devices, which is what, say, Scar was in Lion King, even though that is an impressive film. It spills out into the “real world”, this mentality that refuses to validate shades of gray.

            • whatsthatsound says:

              Exactly. The very act of using it would tend to corrupt a person, as it did “Light” in the story.

            • KQuark says:

              I love the ethical question it posses. What would you do with a Death Notebook?

            • whatsthatsound says:

              I’ve seen it. My daughter was reading the comic before the movie came out, and I was intrigued. Love the main Death God! He looks like a cross between Frank N Furter and Marilyn Manson!

            • KQuark says:

              If you ever get a chance see a live action film of the anime series “Death Note”. It turns the Western concept of good and evil on it’s head. You will also love the Shinigami or “death gods” or “soul reapers”.

      • whatsthatsound says:

        Wow! So we’ve come full circle! Because what you’re describing is basically the same dynamic of the relationship between Swanson and Holden in Sunset Boulevard!
        Or not!
        Turning into Ken Burns is contagious, it seems.

        • Questinia says:

          it happens whenever you try turning even the most casual idea into something extra meaningful.

          How do you see the relationship between Swanson and Holden? Besides their both needing something from each other, something selfish. How did mutual use turn into abuse? Cause it did, right? Makes you wonder how the monkey bought it.

          Using each other is fine. Abusing each other is not fine.

          • whatsthatsound says:

            I was commenting from the perspective of Swanson representing Hollywood, and what it could, potentially, “do” for Holden. It was just one fantasy built on another. Holden knew the Salome movie idea was crap, but he fed Swanson’s illusion because it kept him in his comfortable surroundings. Their whole relationship was based on lies, and that seemed a little to me like your comments above about current Hollywood’s “intimacy issues”.

            • AdLib says:

              Just a note to say how down the line I am with you and Questinia on this, very insightful indeed.

            • whatsthatsound says:

              Thanks. There is some really interesting discussion going on here. I feel like I’m the one with the least knowledge of films here, but I am happy that my “visual essay” can be enhanced by so many insightful comments.

  2. AdLib says:

    Great article and as always, fantastic artwork! A very warm welcome to The Planet!

    One of the Oscar misses that always annoyed me was Peter Sellers not winning for playing Chance the Gardner in “Being There”.

    He had just died, that was his last and IMO greatest role and instead the Oscar went to Dustin Hoffman for an unchallenging, movie-of-the-week type role in “Kramer vs. Kramer”.

    Of course the most famous Oscar head scratcher was Marisa Tomei playing a cliche character in the throw away comedy, “My Friend Vinnie”.

    And though I am a fan of many Woody Allen films (mostly the earlier funny ones), Mira Sorvino winning for her role as a ditzy hooker in “Mighty Aphrodite” was a replay of Marisa Tomei. Huh?

    Lots of factors determine who wins Oscars, including studios throwing their weight around (many Academy members work with or for studios), marketing and what puts the best face on presenting Hollywood as having a heart and really caring about substantial things/humanity.

    Then again, sometimes movies like “Shakespeare in Love” win and everyone walks away somewhat bewildered.

    • whatsthatsound says:

      Thanks for the welcome and the comments, Adlib! Good to be here. I’m with you, about Woody. He is very inventive, but he somehow seems to keep repeating himself in spite of that, so the earlier movies far outshine the later ones.

      • AdLib says:

        It’s the same thing that happened to Orson Welles, Coppola, even Scorsese to a degree. Great directors can have a period where they’re so plugged into their strengths and then they get to an age and stage where they are just trying to recapture what they had or where they were.

        I didn’t see the Woody film starring Larry David but the last funny Woody film I can remember seeing was a long time ago, “Small Time Crooks” which was a fun little film. “Bullets Over Broadway” was cute but watching Cusack do a Woody impression was a bit annoying.

        One underrated film of his is “Sweet and Lowdown” with Sean Penn playing a self-centered Django Reinhardt type musician.

        AND…I just realized I left out one of my all time favorites of his, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”.

        It’s a bit sad having to write off a filmmaker whose films I used to look forward to so much but based on his films this decade, it just doesn’t seem he’s got it anymore.

      • Questinia says:

        Have you seen “Annie Hall” lately? It’s pretty dated and not in a good way.

        • AdLib says:

          “Manhattan” is a time capsule which I loved… much more before Woody played it out in real life with Soon Yi.

          Woody Allen was a very contemporary comedian so it is natural some of his films are dated. So, a division of my favorite Woody films:

          DATED BUT GREAT:
          Take the Money and Run
          Bananas
          Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex
          Sleeper
          Love and Death
          Sleeper
          Annie Hall
          Manhattan

          CLASSIC:
          Hannah and her Sisters
          Broadway Danny Rose
          Purple Rose of Cairo
          Zelig

          Am I leaving any out?

        • whatsthatsound says:

          Not recently, but just recalling it, I’m thinking I can see what you’re saying. But I really loved it and “Manhattan” when I first saw them.

  3. KQuark says:

    Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome! Fabulous piece WTS! We absolutely love movies. I’m so glad you said “Crash” and “Chicago!” were shite I thought especially “Crash” was sooooo overrated.

    We also love love love old movies and you named two of our absolute favorites. Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis what can you say? Where are female actors like them today?

    We just watched “Dr. Strangelove…” for the umpteenth time last night. Probably the best satirical comedy of all time with an unbelievable performance from Peter Sellers.

    I would also recommend “Witness for the Prosecution” and “Double Indemnity” to anyone who hasn’t seen them in a while. Barbara Stanwyck and Marlene Dietrich are also a treat.

    For more current movies I would recommend “Mulholland Drive” by David Lynch. You almost have to watch it a few times to catch it’s full meaning.

    “Citizen Kane” was robbed!

    • whatsthatsound says:

      Hi KQ. Yes, “Double Indemnity”! My brother prefers it to Sunset Boulevard. I haven’t seen “Witness for the Prosecution” but have heard lots of good things about it.

      Thanks for the great comments. It is fun to talk about movies!

      • KQuark says:

        I forgot to say I love the old Hollywood artwork which is so apropos since that was the golden age of film-making.

        You must see “Witness for the Prosecution” Charles Laughton and Tyrone Power were in it as well. In fact I think it was the only film Charles Laughton directed.

        • whatsthatsound says:

          And off to the rental store I go!

          As for artwork, the posters for “King Kong” and “Metropolis” are fantastic. And all of those old monster movies like Dracula and The Wolfman had great posters. But “Metropolis” (the poster, movie too I guess) is in a class by itself.

          • Questinia says:

            Fritz Lang.

            I have a tee-shirt with the heroine winking after she’s been turned into an evil temptress and on its back is one of the movie’s lines, “She’s with your father”.

    • Questinia says:

      Citizen Kane was as avant-garde as it could get in Hollywood in those days, which, when you think of it was way more avant-garde than anything they would dare produce today.

      The industry is cynical about the American film-going public.

    • Questinia says:

      I really liked Mulholland Drive too. Naomi Watts gave an excellent performance. Lynch’s films are all about atmosphere, provocation and id. I’m probably one of the only people who liked that really long film of his (forgot the name of it) with Laura Dern from a couple of years back. It was really like a dream with pretty nightmarish sequences. She ends up shot on the sidewalk with panhandling druggies. One of women turns to her and says “You dyin’lady”. Really gave you the sense of being there. I could see that happening to me on a really bad, I mean REALLY bad night.

      I despised Slum Dog Millionaire- just a random comment there.

      • KQuark says:

        I’m glad you brought her performance up it was excellent. On the flip side you should see her in “I Heart Huckabees” which was hilarious and a vastly underrated film.

    • Questinia says:

      Who can forget Marlene Dietrich playing the Cockney black mailer.

  4. VegasBabe says:

    Applause Applause Applause! Well, that was very nicely stated, and I’m in agreement with all except for Chicago. Wasn’t impressed! I felt the exact same way about Cabaret which actually was not superior to Chicago to me, but still wasn’t worth all the noise it received. Bette was ROBBED hands down as was Scorsese and had Anne Baxter not insisted on becoming a contender for an Oscar as well for the same picture, perhaps Bette’s chances would have been greater. For these and similar examples, I have lost trust with the Academies.

    However, my immediate concern is WTH is going on in Hollywood? Our movies are not what they use to be. And we’re getting to few decent movies. We seem to be averaging maybe one, if we’re lucky perhaps two every couple of years now. Sheesh!

    Now how do I rate this a ten star article?

    • AdLib says:

      VB, just move your cursor over the stars just below the article, you’ll see the stars turn red, to rate this article a “10”, place your cursor on the star at the last star on the right (which will turn all the stars red) then just click.

      Same with the thumbs up, just click on it.

      I enjoyed Chicago as a musical, one of my favorites but it was mediocre at best as a film, most musicals don’t make the leap very successfully because they are designed to work in a completely different presentation.

      Hollywood is a corporate business. Teen stars are fabricated, blockbusters are about computer technology and fast cutting and stories are generally variations of recent films that succeeded.

      Between the dominance of market research and corporate mindsets of mitigating risk, this hobbled art form is subservient to businessmen who are focused primarily on quarterly profits than making great movies.

      There is also a lot of fear in the film business, sticking one’s neck out is rare, most prefer to go with films that are based on something that was successful, a broadway play, a book, a toy, a comic book, a cartoon series or tv show, etc. because it supposedly has a built in audience (mitigating risk) and if it fails, they have a built in excuse to cover their ass, “It was so successful as a musical/book/tv show/comic book, how was I to know it would fail as a movie? It’s the writer’s/director’s/actor’s/producer’s fault, not mine, so no reason to fire me.”

      IMO, the majority of true quality films are independent films which can more often escape the forces that push films into molds and mediocrity. Still, distribution is tough for indies as many of the potential distributors are connected to studios and have similar commercial sensibilities.

      Somehow, though, there are quality films that get made and distributed though most years, at the Oscars, it is the Indies that dominate and rightly so.

      • Questinia says:

        Even TV has gotten better than the movies. Much better scripts and plot lines.

        I haven’t seen a Hollywood film for 6 years in a theater until I saw Slum Dog. Bad. I’m going to make like a locust and avoid them again for a really long time.

        Independent films are great. I really like Claire Denis. I adore older documentaries: Weisman, Maysle, Errol Morris. I also love experimental (they should have Oscars for them too) Kenneth Anger and Bruce Conner. Ever see Marilyn x Five? It’ll turn you into an obsessive voyeur in no time.

        Robert Bresson rules!!

        • AdLib says:

          Yep, I think that as far as drama goes, tv is typically superior to films. They do have the benefit of already-established characters and backstories that the audience has already seen. But the writing is very strong on tv.

          You are quite a connoisseur of indie films! As for documentaries, I find them consistently more intriguing nowadays than narrative films.

          Among my favorite documentary films (Ken Burns and other talented tv documentarians aside), “The Thin Blue Line”, “The Corporation”, “Control Room”, “Hoop Dreams”, “Dig” and a separate category for Michael Moore, “Roger and Me”, “Bowling for Columbine”, “Fahrenheit 9/11”, “Sicko”…and opening this week…

          …”Capitalism -- A Love Story”.

          Might that entice you to the movie theater again?

          • Questinia says:

            Why do I always want to take Ken Burns to the back of a building and rough him up?

            Ken Burns’ Civil War series was good. Since then, he’s been the precious and precocious poster boy of PBS.

            He is what I call an “extruder”. He can take a simple idea like “bottled water” and find a way to extrude it, shaping it somehow into a grandiose description of the Bauhaus movement. Come to think of it, when listening to Ken Burns I always feel like I’m watching someone have a bowel movement. That’s probably where I got the word “extruder” from.

          • whatsthatsound says:

            “Capitalism -- A Love Story” is one I can’t WAIT to see!

        • Questinia says:

          Oh, and Bill Viola.

    • whatsthatsound says:

      Thanks for your comments, V-Babe! I consider Cabaret to be a phenomenal movie. The first time I saw the Hitler Youth boy singing, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” ( and the way it goes on to enthrall the whole Octoberfest crowd ), it chilled me as much as any movie scene I’d ever seen. I’d put it up for Best Picture in any number of years, but not the same one that gave us The Godfather.

      • KQuark says:

        “Cabaret” was one of the few musicals that lived up to the old time musicals for sure. My parents always played music during dinner and loved show tunes. So I heard “Cabaret” over a dozen times.

  5. Kalima says:

    Welcome wts!

    Wonderful drawing and insightful article to compliment your theme.

    Again, welcome aboard!


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