The Departed (2006)

The Departed (2006)

Dir. Martin Scorcese

Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Martin Scorcese), Best Adapted Screenplay (William Monahan), Best Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker)

Other nominees: Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen

Boston has a rat problem. That of the vermin variety, yes, but also those of the snitch variety. Martin Scorcese’s 2006 crime drama, The Departed, depicts a Massachusetts State Police Department as crooked operators as the crime rings they try to disassemble. The film questions personal identity and its subjugation for personal desire, as told by two men working the circuit in 21st Century Boston – Billy Corrigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), an undercover cop posing as a thug in a crime ring, and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), and undercover thug posing as a cop on a police force. The crime operation in question is run by a Frank Costello, a walking skeleton of human trash embodied with grace and a gut by Jack Nicholson.

Rats

Rats! Boston is lousy with ’em. Frank sees them everywhere, all crawling their way greedily towards the Boston State House, epitome of power.

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Annie Hall (1977)

Annie Hall (1977)

Dir. Woody Allen

Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Woody Allen), Best Actress (Diane Keaton), Best Original Screenplay (Woody Allen, Marshal Brickman)

Other Nominees: The Goodbye GirlJuliaStar WarsThe Turning Point

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Though Alvy is richly drawn, it’s hard to not see Woody as Woody, with all the baggage that entails.

After all these years, what is there left to say about Annie Hall? It was revolutionary, Diane is a treasure, Woody is a creep, such postmodern autocritical angst is passé, it’s a laugh, it’s so dated? I’ll admit upfront I’ve never been a fan of Allen and especially not of this film, though this viewing (my third if memory serves) proved to be my most enjoyable. The film is tight as a drum, clever, fast, meticulous, and for all of the wallowing in self pity, it’s strikingly to the point. So my question then morphs from what is there left to say to what can Annie Hall tell us today?

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Mrs. Miniver (1943)

Mrs. Miniver (1943)

Dir. William Wyler

Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actress (Greer Garson), Best Supporting Actress (Teresa Wright), Best Screenplay (George Froeschel, James Hilton, Claudine West, Arthur Wimperis), Best Cinematography (Joseph Ruttenberg)

Other Nominees: 49th Parallel, Kings Row, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Pied Piper, The Pride of the Yankees, Random Harvest, The Talk of the Town, Wake Island, Yankee Doodle Dandy

I believe it would be a disservice to William Wyler’s wartime melodrama Mrs. Miniver to ignore the fact that the film is propaganda. This is not meant to demean the film, indeed, many great works of art have been created specifically to redirect a political compass, but to ignore its purpose or to excuse it would weaken the film’s character, and undermine its tremendous heart. Mrs. Miniver casts Greer Garson as a middle-class mother and housewife (those descriptors in that order, thank you) living in the English countryside before and during the country’s entry into World War II (a subject that is pure catnip for the Academy). As the war progresses  from mist to cloud to rain to hurricane, the Miniver family finds themselves at its mercy, just as any family might have during the War. The film shows the family’s simple, harmonious way of life before the war, when their greatest worry was a town flower show, as a valuable ideal that is worth defending at great mortal cost.

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World War II wasn’t that bad – wasn’t your local church destroyed this artfully?

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Marty (1955)

Marty (1955)

Dir. Delbert Mann

Oscars: Best Picture (Harold Hecht), Best Director (Delbert Mann), Best Actor (Ernest Borgnine), Best Screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky)

Other Nominees: Love is a Many-Splendored Thing; Mister Roberts; Picnic; The Rose Tattoo

Marty is a film of such small scale, of such small ambitions, that it is hard to imagine such a film winning critical acclaim or even much popular attention in today’s world of big budgets and high stakes. Indeed, such was the attitude at Warner Bros. at the time of the film’s production, as it was produced largely as a low-budget tax write-off. Regardless, Marty went on to great financial success at many times its studio investment, and took the country by surprise with its simple, naïve charm. The film is largely unremarkable but for the moral conundrum of its titular character, played with dim-witted spark by Ernest Borgnine, who faces questions of worth and identity in as posed to him by those in his good meaning, but close-minded, community.

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Marty (Ernest Borgnine) attempts to ask a girl out, to disastrous results.

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The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection (1971)

Dir. William Friedkin

Oscars: Best Picture (Philip D’Antoni); Best Director (William Friedkin); Best Actor (Gene Hackman);Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman); Best Editing (Gerald B. Greenberg)

Other Nominees: A Clockwork Orange; Fiddler on the Roof; The Last Picture Show; Nicholas and Alexandra

The French Connection was an early sign of a filmmaking community at a crossroads: one turning away from the epics of the 50s and 60s (when Oscar saluted grand films like Lawrence of Arabia, My Fair Lady, and Patton) and into a more contemplative exploration of the medium (70s Oscar triumphs were films like The Sting, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the first two Godfather films). The French Connection is a small-scale, simple film of narrow ambitions. Focusing on a NYPD narcotics cop, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner, Buddy (Roy Scheider), trying to bust a heroin trail rooted in France, this film, lean in structure and heavy in atmosphere, reaches more for the gutter than to the sky, and is probably better off for it.

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Gene Hackman (R, foreground) in The French Connection.

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The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Dir. Robert Z. Leonard

Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actress (Luise Rainer), Best Dance Direction (Seymour Felix)

Other Nominees: Anthony Adverse, Dodsworth, Libeled Lady, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Romeo and Juliet, San Francisco, The Story of Louis Pasteur, A Tale of Two Cities, Three Smart Girls

I decided to give The Great Ziegfeld a shot when I heard of the death of Luise Rainer a few days ago, who, at 104, was the oldest living Oscar-winner. She was also the first person to win back-to-back acting Oscars, a feat later repeated by Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and Tom Hanks, and her first was for Ziegfeld. Ziegfeld also holds the honor of being the first musical (sort of, but more on that later) to win the big prize as well as the first biographical film – not that there had been much competition, as this is one of Oscar’s early films.

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Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) and Anna Held (Luise Rainer) in The Great Ziegfeld.

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Gladiator (2000)

Gladiator (2000)

Dir. Ridley Scott

Oscars: Best Picture (Douglas Wick, David Franzoni, Branko Lustig); Best Actor (Russell Crowe); Best Costume Design (Janty Yates); Best Sound (Scott Millan, Bob Beemer, Ken Weston); Best Visual Effects (John Nelson, Neil Corbould, Tim Burke, Rob Harvey)

Other Nominees: Chocolat; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Erin Brockovich; Traffic

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Maximus (Russell Crowe), who wears a wolf’s skin as a cloak and keeps one for a pet – it’s beyond me – in the circus tent of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris).

If a film is relatively critically unpopular at the time of its release, how stand its chances to hold up when rewatched a good 15 years after its release? Obviously Gladiator had its fans when it was released; it grossed $457M and earned scores of 76% and 64% on review aggregators Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. These are fairly low scores for a Best Picture winner, and they speak more to the film’s success as a popular work of moviemaking than as a benchmark in film history. Gladiator was the first film in over 50 years to win the Academy’s top prize without a corresponding win for its writer(s) or director. To put it simply, it was a popular film that rode its chariot of bravura to the podium.

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Gandhi (1982)

Gandhi (1982)

Dir. Richard Attenborough

Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (Ben Kingsley), Best Director (Richard Attenborough), Best Original Screenplay (John Briley), Best Cinematography (Billy Williams, Ronnie Taylor), Best Art Direction (Stuart Craig, Robert W. Laing, Michael Seirton), Best Costume Design (John Mollo, Bhanu Athaiya), Best Film Editing (John Bloom)

Other nominees: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Missing, Tootsie, The Verdict

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Kasturba Gandhi (Rohini Hattangadi, L) and Mirabehn (Geraldine James, R), support the fasting Mohandas Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) in Gandhi.

No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and to try to find one’s way to the heart of the man…

It is perhaps not surprising that Gandhi begins with the above title crawl, or that it begins with a title crawl at all. It is a thoroughly respectful, tiringly detailed, and handsomely mounted retelling of Gandhi’s adult life, beginning chronologically at one of his first experiences of racism and stretching until his funeral, attended by 300,000 extras, a number which one can presume only suggests the true number of mourners at his death in 1948.  The film is terribly respectful, and happily dull.

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Cimarron (1931)

Cimarron (1931)

Dir. Wesley Ruggles

Oscars: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Howard Estabrook), Best Art Direction (Max Rée)

Other nominees: East Lynne, The Front Page, Skippy, Trader Horn

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Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) lays down the law, protects the unprotected, and shoots some bad guys in Cimarron.

Cimarron is one of our first Westerns, and was not only the first Western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture but the first to win an Academy Award, period. Released in 1931, it was one of the most expensive films ever made at the time of its release (with a $1.5 million budget) and despite critical acclaim and commercial success; it did not break even on its production budget during its original theatrical release. Much of the budget was spent on the film’s opening scene, a depiction of the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, a sequence that is now famous, which depicts a number of poor whites rushing westward at the command of Pres. Benjamin Harrison to claim whatever lands they pleased in the as of yet unincorporated “Unassigned Lands” of what is now Oklahoma. The film is distinctly grand in scope, pictorially, nationally, and ideologically, and though unsuccessful in many of its efforts at greatness, the modern viewer can understand the strength of the foundations it laid for future Westerns and the cinematic view of the American landscape.

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