Thursday, February 27, 2014

Great Films that Didn't Receive Any Oscar Nominations, 1982-2011

The Oscars will air this Sunday (March 2) and then the Oscar predictions will give way to many long, angry ruminations on why such and such film won this or that award and such and such another film didn't win this or that other award. The winning choices will most likely lean towards the conservative (as the nominations did) and, just as there is every year, there will be a lot of talk onstage about how exceptional this year has been because somehow "exceptional" at the Oscars means "typical." But before all that, it's worthwhile recalling some of the many great films that Oscar neglected in years past.

The Dark Crystal (1982)
Jim Henson and Frank Oz's incredible live-action film, entirely populated by muppets, is an unprecedented and unmatched technical achievement, but it was poorly marketed and failed to gather either the critical acclaim or the box office numbers it deserved. The Dark Crystal is a moody allegory about good, evil, and holism set in an extraordinarily vividly imagined fantasy world. The puppeteers did magnificent work bringing the many creatures to life and there have never, before or since, been more complex and vibrant sets in a fantasy film.

Should have been nominated for: Best Original Screenplay (Jim Henson and David Odell), Best Original Score (Trevor Jones), Best Art Direction (Brian Froud, Harry Lange, and Charles Bishop)

The Quiet Earth (1985)
This ambiguous sci-fi film from New Zealand follows a researcher who wakes up one day to find that he is the only human being left on Earth. As he strives to understand the consequences of what he eventually dubs the Effect, he meets two other survivors and together they form an uneasy surrogate family. The Quiet Earth, like Contact, is about the frightening and wonderful possibilities of modern scientific discovery, but it is equally a depiction of existential crisis and the fundamental isolation of being human.

Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Geoff Murphy), Best Actor (Bruno Lawrence), Best Adapted Screenplay (Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence, and Sam Pillsbury), Best Sound Mixing (Mike Westgate), Best Visual Effects (Ken Durey)

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Strangely enough, The Muppet Christmas Carol is the most faithful adaptation of the beloved Dickens novella and certainly the most fun. Michael Caine plays the miserly Scrooge, opposite Gonzo as Dickens (a brilliant casting decision if ever there was one), Kermit as Bob Cratchit, and Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchit. The film captures Dickens's humor and crosses it with the manic pace of the muppets, while still proving effectively frightening when it needs to be and successfully breaking the fourth wall without breaking the narrative. The songs are, every one, wonderful.

Should have been nominated for: Best Actor (Michael Caine), Best Adapted Screenplay (Jerry Juhl), Best Original Song ("Scrooge" - Paul Williams, "It Feels Like Christmas" - Paul Williams)

The Piano Teacher (2001)
Michael Hanneke has made a good bit of headway with the Academy - The White Ribbon was a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and Amour won the award and was also in the running for Best Picture. One of his earlier films, The Piano Teacher, is based on Elfriede Jelinek's deeply disturbing novel about a profoundly repressed piano teacher (Isabelle Huppert) drawn into a dangerous liaison with a student (Benoit Magimel). Few films are as effectively frank about the dark side of human sexuality.

Should have been nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Hanneke), Best Actress (Isabelle Huppert), Best Supporting Actress (Annie Girardot), Best Adapted Screenplay (Michael Hanneke), Best Foreign Language Film

The Son's Room (2001)
Nanni Moretti's film is one of the finest cinematic explorations of grief of all time. Moretti and Laura Morante play happily married bourgeois parents, blindsided by the loss of their son (Giuseppe Sanfelice) in a freak scuba diving accident. Though the film could have so easily descended into melodrama, Moretti resists the sort of simple pandering one might expect. Instead, a relatively bare soundtrack, hyper-realistic and understated performances, and an unflinching approach make this one of the best films of the current century.

Should have been nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director (Nanni Moretti), Best Actor (Nanni Moretti), Best Original Screenplay (Nanni Moretti), Best Foreign Language Film

Russian Ark (2002)
The Academy is known for its conservative tastes and thus it is no wonder that it ignored this very avant-garde experimental film that has to be seen to be believed. Filmed in one continuous moving shot of 96 minutes, the camera, with an unnamed narrator and another man known simply as the "European," makes its way through more than 30 rooms of the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum, exploring 300 years of Russian history, with a cast of thousands and three different orchestras. Both an extraordinary achievement and a fascinating experience, Russian Ark will definitely be remembered as one of the great cinematic achievements of its time.

Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Alexander Sukorov), Best Original Screenplay (Anatoli Nikiforov and Alexander Sukorov), Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography (Tilman Buettner)

Good Morning, Night (2003)
A brilliant re-imagining of the shocking kidnapping of Aldo Moro by the Brigate Rosse, Good Morning, Night is a gorgeous film that meditates on political agency, action, and apathy, as well as the complexity of a violent heritage, and the youthful idealism of the 1970s, which certainly had its darker side, particularly in Italy. Despite its subject, the film has a dream-like quality, one that teases the imagination with fantastic possibilities, even as one knows what history wrought.

Should have been nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director (Marco Bellocchio), Best Actor (Roberto Herlitzka), Best Actress (Maya Sansa), Best Adapted Screenplay (Marco Bellocchio and Paola Tevella), Best Foreign Language Film

Conversations with Other Women (2005)
This character piece explores the relationship between a man and a woman who meet at a wedding and slowly reveal, through their memories, their past relationship. Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart both give profound performances, but the film's special qualities are due to the controversial decision of making the film split-screen, with each character's perspective portrayed individually and simultaneously. Canosa's film is all the more impressive given that it was his directorial debut.

Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Hans Canosa), Best Actress (Helena Bonham Carter), Best Original Screenplay (Gabrielle Zevin), Best Film Editing (Hans Canosa)

The Fall (2006)
Tarsem Singh's wildly imaginative film is about a little girl (Catinca Untaru in an astonishing debut performance) in the hospital for a broken arm who meets a severely injured stuntman, who tells her an amazingly inventive fairy tale in exchange for stolen morphine. The film really soars in its fairy tale sequences, which are a colorful mishmash of Westerns, the 1001 Arabian Nights, and epic fantasy a la The Princess Bride or Willow. There's no other film quite like it.

Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Tarsem Singh), Best Actress (Catinca Untaru), Best Original Screenplay (Tarsem Singh, Dan Gilroy, and Nico Soultanakis), Best Art Direction (Ged Clarke), Best Costume Design (Eiko Ishioka)

Fish Tank (2009)
Andrea Arnold won the Oscar for her short film, Wasp, which inspired this feature length film, but she received no recognition for the feature. Katie Jarvis, a non-professional actress who gives a great performance, plays a troubled British teen, living with her still very young mother (Kierston Wareing) and a number of half-siblings. Her mother's boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) encourages her dancing and sparks her interest. An anti-romantic film that owes much to documentary filmmaking, Fish Tank is one of the best British dramas of the past decade.

Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Andrea Arnold), Best Actor (Micharl Fassbender), Best Actress (Katie Jarvis), Best Supporting Actress (Kierston Wareing), Best Original Screenplay (Andrea Arnold)

Four Lions (2010)
As black as a comedy could possibly be, Four Lions is about four British Muslims, radicalized and eager to engage in a jihad. Terrorism hardly seems like a topic for comedy, but Four Lions succeeds both in humanizing men who at first glance appear to be monsters (if absurd ones) and in accentuating the disturbing ludicrousness of modern terrorist objectives. It's also extremely funny. This is another fine debut film, this one from Chris Morris.

Should have been nominated for: Best Supporting Actor (Kayvan Novak), Best Writing - Original Screenplay (Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, and Simon Blackwell)

Monsters (2010)
Yet another fabulous debut film, Monsters is proof that one doesn't need a fortune to make a great action-packed sci-fi film. After a NASA probe crashes in Mexico, it proves to have been a carrier of an invasive form of alien life, resulting in the annexation of half of Mexico. A photojournalist (Scoot McNairy) and his boss's daughter (Whitney Able) decide to risk an illegal trip through the forbidden zone to get back to the US. The stunning visual effects were done by director Gareth Edwards with retail software on his laptop - an unbelievable achievement and one that was shamefully ignored.

Should have been nominated for: Best Writing - Original Screenplay (Gareth Edwards), Best Sound Editing (Gareth Edwards), Best Editing (Colin Goudie), Best Visual Effects (Gareth Edwards)

The Princess of Montpensier (2010)
This bitter romantic drama, one of my favorite films of the past decade, is about the beautiful Marie de Mezieres (Melanie Thierry), infatuated with the Duc de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), but engaged to the Prince of Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), and enchanting powerful men left and right from the Count de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson) to the Duc d'Anjou (Raphael Personnaz). Gorgeously photographed, brilliantly written, and beautifully acted, this is a decidedly adult period piece about love, lust, and what they mean to both men and women.

Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Bertrand Tavernier), Best Supporting Actor (Gaspard Ulliel), Best Writing - Adapted Screenplay (Jean Cosmos, Francois-Olivier Rousseau, and Bertrand Tavernier), Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Score (Philippe Sarde), Best Art Direction (Guy-Claude Francois), Best Cinematography (Bruno de Keyzer), Best Costume Design (Caroline de Vivaise)

50/50 (2011)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, a 27-year-old radio journalist who is stunned to discover that he has a malignant tumor. Will Reiser's autobiographical screenplay is absolutely great, zeroing in on the blackly humorous aspects of living with a possibly terminal disease without ever minimizing the seriousness of the diagnosis, treatment, or possible outcome. Seth Rogen proves that he has genuine acting chops as Adam's best friend, and Anjelica Huston is stellar as Adam's smothering mother.

Should have been nominated for: Best Supporting Actor (Seth Rogen), Best Original Screenplay (Will Reiser)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Great Films that Didn't Receive Any Oscar Nominations, 1960-1978

Continuing my celebration of great films that didn't receive the Oscar nominations which they deserved, here are some of the finest examples of un-nominated films from the 1960s and 1970s.

Peeping Tom (1960)
Michael Powell is one of the greatest directors of all time and his career-ending Peeping Tom forever changed the horror genre and more significantly, how audiences relate to their inevitably voyeuristic cinematic experiences. This film was too disturbing for audiences of the time, and even today it packs a mean punch. Mark (Carl Boehm) carries his camera everywhere, intent on capturing an elusive emotion that seemingly can only be found on the faces of women about to die. The excellent supporting cast includes Moira Shearer.

Should have been nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Powell), Best Original Screenplay (Leo Marks), Best Film Editing (Noreen Ackland)

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
Undoubtedly a technical tour-de-force, this family-friendly adventure film from the Disney Studios is a vast improvement over Johann Wyss's proselytizing treatise for boys and one of the most entertaining adventure films ever made. John Mills and Dorothy McGuire head the cast of Swiss castaways who must protect themselves from pirates. The design in this film is extraordinary, particularly the tree-house (built in an actual, live tree on Tobago), which was fully functional from the running water to the cooler.

Should have been nominated for: Best Adapted Screenplay (Lowell S. Hawley), Best Art Direction, Color (John Howell)
A Shot in the Dark (1964)
This is the best installment in Blake Edwards's Pink Panther series. Brilliant comedic actor Peter Sellers plays Inspector Clousseau, a hapless French detective determined to solve a murder, whether he has to infiltrate a nudist camp, go on a wild date with the sexy suspect, or give his boss (Herbert Lom) a nervous breakdown. An uproarious comedy with a sexy sixties vibe and a great soundtrack by Henry Mancini.

Should have been nominated for: Best Actor (Peter Sellers), Best Supporting Actor (Herbert Lom), Best Original Song ("Shadows of Paris" - Henry Mancini and Robert Wells)

The World of Henry Orient (1964) 
A wacky comedy with a bitter aftertaste, this film stars Peter Sellers as a narcissistic, womanizing pianist on the verge of being a has-been, who becomes the object of an adolescent infatuation when schoolgirl Valerie (Tippy Walker) reads about him in a magazine. Val and her friend Marion (Merrie Spaeth) are soon following their hero everywhere, while Orient believes that they're spies sent by the husband of his lover. The film is one of the most musically literate films I've ever seen, including a brilliant spoof of twentieth century music.

Should have been nominated for: Best Actor (Peter Sellers), Best Supporting Actress (Angela Lansbury)

Chimes at Midnight (1965)
A copyright dispute has thrust this masterpiece, Orson Welles's greatest film, into obscurity and made it difficult to watch legally. Welles plays Falstaff, a character who obsessed him, in his own brilliant adaptation, made up of various bits and pieces of five of Shakespeare's plays. It is impossible to exaggerate the genius of this film - supremely moving, hilariously funny, soul-crushingly tragic, it is one of the few perfect films.

Should have been nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director (Orson Welles), Best Actor (Orson Welles), Best Adapted Screenplay (Orson Welles), Best Film Editing (Fritz Muller)

The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)
Based on a classic Polish novel by Jan Potocki, this film follows Alfonso von Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), as he attempts to find a shortcut through the Sierra Morena Mountains. He soon becomes entangled in an enchantment, or a dream, or portal through time, depending on one's interpretation. His adventure is sensual, frightening, antic, and sexy, making this film all but unclassifiable. A restored version of the film, financed by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, was happily released in 2001.

Should have been nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director (Wojciech Has), Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction, Black and White (Jerzy Skarzynski), Best Costume Design, Black and White (Lydia and Jerzy Skarzynski)

The Red and the White (1967)
This Hungarian film about the Russian Civil War is a pacifist masterpiece, capturing the confusion and toss-of-a-coin luck that characterize any armed conflict, but particularly a civil war. The film was banned in the Soviet Union for its politics and anti-heroic depiction of warfare, but its fully radical spirit is imparted by Jancso's complete rejection of war-film cinematic conventions. It is not possible to choose a side, for who belongs to which army remains unclear, nor can one sympathize with a protagonist, for there is none. A subversive film that deserves a larger audience.

Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Miklos Jancso), Best Foreign Language Film

If... (1968)
 Malcolm McDowell's film debut is a damning condemnation of the British public school, and by extension the sort of quasi-Fascist conformism that often reigns in materialistic societies. The film is as disturbing as it is prescient, depicting the violent impulses that over the past few decades have resulted in school shootings. McDowell is mesmerizing as the rebellious student who won't tow the line, preferring to escape the campus and steal motorbikes, while trolling for girls. If... fatally blasts the sentimental nostalgia of films like Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Lindsay Anderson), Best Actor (Malcolm McDowell), Best Original Screenplay (David Sherwin and John Howlett), Best Film Editing (David Gladwell)

Shame (1968)
Bergman's war film is not set in a specific time, place, or conflict; he instead places his characters in the midst of a chaotic war that immerses the viewer in the terrifying experience of lived war, rather than remembered war. Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann are two musicians who have retired to their country home since their orchestra has been disbanded because of the war. With no means of getting up-to-date news, the war mercilessly overwhelms them, and they are reduced to actions that would have appalled them mere minutes before.

Should have been nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director (Ingmar Bergman), Best Actor (Max von Sydow), Best Actress (Liv Ullmann), Best Original Screenplay (Ingmar Bergman), Best Foreign Language Film

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
This Australian film is about a school excursion to Hanging Rock on Valentine's Day 1900, one that will have strange and incredible consequences for everyone involved. Several schoolgirls and a teacher disappear during a climb on the rock and no easy explanation presents itself. A sensual film about sexual repression, loss, and infatuation, Picnic at Hanging Rock is both mystery and fantasy. Plus, the cinematography is stunning.

Should have been nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director (Peter Weir), Best Costume Design (Judith Dorsman), Best Cinematography (Russell Boyd)

Watership Down (1978)
This British animated film is a solid adaptation of Richard Adams's marvelous novel about a group of rabbits who must leave their warren, about to be apocalyptically destroyed by human developers, and found a new one, only to be challenged by the war-like leader of a neighboring warren. Watership Down is really not a kids' film - it's far too graphically violent - but it succeeds as an exploration of the brutality of survival. The film also does an excellent job of portraying the complex Lapine culture, more completely explained in Adams's novel.

Should have been nominated for: Best Adapted Screenplay (Martin Rosen), Best Original Song ("Bright Eyes" - Mike Batt)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Great Films that Didn't Receive Any Oscar Nominations, 1950-1958

An Oscar winner is usually regarded as synonymous with a cinematic masterpiece, and certainly many Oscar winners are in fact masterpieces, though many more are simply good films and quite a few are awful films. But amid the flurry of Oscar speculation, it seems worthwhile to revisit those many masterpieces that, inexplicably, were ignored by the Academy and celebrate them alongside of great Oscar winners. Here are just a few of them, from the 1950s.

Treasure Island (1950)
Disney's first live-action film is one of a number of successful adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure novel, but it is, in my opinion, the best by virtue of starring the incomparable Robert Newton, as Long John Silver. It is Newton who invented the pirate vernacular and accent that are still standard today and he still does it best. The film overall is a first-rate maritime adventure and one of the best pirate films of the 50s.

Should have been nominated for: Best Actor (Robert Newton)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
This brilliantly funny musical is about Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy (Jane Russell), two gorgeous showgirls on the make, either for diamonds, love, or, ideally, both. The songs, from "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" to "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love" (sung by Russell to a roomful of hunky Olympic athletes), are iconic and catchy. The script is witty and quite risque for its time, the two protagonists are anything but virginal wallflowers, and the supporting cast includes Charles Coburn and the ever bizarre George Winslow.   
Should have been nominated for: Best Story and Screenplay (Anita Loos, Joseph Fields, and Charles Lederer), Best Original Song ("Ain't There Anyone Here for Love" - Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson), Best Costume Design, Color (William Travilla)

Sansho the Bailiff (1954)
Mizoguchi is possibly the greatest Japanese director of all time, the only real competition being Akira Kurosawa. This incredible film, set in feudal Japan, is about two aristocratic children who are kidnapped and sold into slavery. Few films are as heartbreaking as Sansho the Bailiff, but it is kept from utter bleakness by its extraordinary beauty. This is unquestionably among the greatest films of all time.

Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Kenji Mizoguchi), Best Art Direction, Black and White (Kisaku Ito), Best Cinematography, Black and White (Kazuo Miyagawa)

Salt of the Earth (1954)
This film has the dubious distinction of being the only American film suppressed for its Communist ties. Nearly everyone involved in the making of the film was blacklisted. Heavily influenced by the Italian neorealist movement, this film, directed by Herbert J. Biberman and written by Michael Wilson, follows a group of Hispanic miners who go on strike to protest unsafe working conditions and discrimination. The film is exhilarating and quite radical in its empowerment not just of workers but also of women.

Should have been nominated for: Best Actress (Rosaura Revueltas), Best Story and Screenplay (Michael Wilson), Best Film Editing (Joan Laird and Ed Spiegel)

Pather Panchali (1955) 
The first film in director Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, Pather Panchali is mesmerizing. Apu and his sister Durga live an Edenic, if impoverished, childhood. Their father, a Hindu priest, is an improvident dreamer and their mother is constantly on edge, far more concerned with where the next meal is to come from than with her husband's flights of fancy. Quiet tragedies happen amid moments of intense beauty and wonder, petty disputes give way to unselfish generosity. Pather Panchali is an essential film.

Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Satyajit Ray), Best Screenplay (Satyajit Ray), Best Dramatic or Comedy Score (Ravi Shankar)
The Court Jester (1955) 
Danny Kaye is perfect as a less than heroic acrobat, drafted into impersonating the false king's court jester, who also happens to be a trained assassin, as part of a plot to put the true king, known by a birthmark of a purple pimpernel on his bottom, on the throne. None of the jokes fall flat, more than fifty years later, a tribute both to Kaye's skill as a comedian and the marvelous screenplay. The Court Jester is a great spoof of swashbucklers and Arthurian epics, deeply respectful of its source material and gleefully playing with the tropes of the genre.

Should have been nominated for: Best Actor (Danny Kaye), Best Story and Screenplay (Melvin Frank and Norman Panama), Best Original Song ("Maladjusted Jester" - Sylvia Fine)

The Glass Slipper (1955) 
This ridiculously under-appreciated film is a musical retelling of the Cinderella story starring Leslie Caron. In this version, Cinderella is hardly the docile, dreamy servant girl; she's rebellious, angry, and bitter. Love in all its forms, including friendship, is the magic in this version, while social snobbery and venomous gossip replace cartoonish villainy. This little-known gem deserved a special honorary award for the extraordinarily expressive and moving choreography of Roland Petit.

Should have been nominated for: Best Actress (Leslie Caron), Best Screenplay (Helen Deutsch), Best Dramatic or Comedy Score (Bronislau Kaper), Best Original Song ("Take My Love" - Bronislau Kaper and Helen Deutsch), Best Art Direction, Color (Daniel B. Cathcart and Cedric Gibbons), Best Costume Design, Color (Walter Plunkett and Helen Rose), Special Honorary Award for Best Choreography (Roland Petit)

The Night of the Hunter (1955)
How critics (and the Academy) failed to appreciate Charles Laughton's only directorial outing is one of cinema's greatest mysteries. Robert Mitchum plays a serial killer and self-designated reverend, who believes himself to be doing God's work. When he discovers the children of a recently bereaved widow may know where their father hid a stash of money, he insinuates himself into the woman's good graces, setting off one of the most terrifying suspense plots in Hollywood cinema.

Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Charles Laughton), Best Actor (Robert Mitchum), Best Screenplay (James Agee and Charles Laughton)

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
Bergman's only comedy was written as an alternative to suicide, while he was undergoing a particularly black depression, and it lives on as one of the great master's greatest films. In turn of the century Sweden, eight people are stuck in relationships that don't work, until one midsummer night at an idyllic country house where they drink what may or may not be an elixir of love. Much imitated, but never bettered.

Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Ingmar Bergman), Best Story and Screenplay (Ingmar Bergman), Best Costume Design, Black and White (Mago)

Cranes Are Flying (1957)
Kalatozov's film marked a sea change in Soviet cinema. The film's lead actress, Tatiana Samojlova, became a major star in Europe, playing an unusually complex and multifaceted heroine, Veronika. Veronika is intoxicated by her romance with Boris, but World War II intervenes and Boris is listed as missing in action. The film follows Veronika as she struggles to survive the war and to keep hope alive that Boris will return. Though many films have been made with a similar plot, few are as delicate, poignant, and lovely as this one.

Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Mikhail Kalatozov), Best Actress (Tatiana Samojlova), Best Foreign Language Film, Best Film Editing (Mariya Timofeyeva)

Paths of Glory (1957)
Stanley Kubrick's pacifist film stars Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, a commanding officer who attempts to defend his soldiers from a court-martial and execution after they refuse to follow orders tantamount to suicide. An unflinching look at the inevitable misery and waste attendant on any war, this film is devastating and is surely one of the finest war films of all time. It is also my personal favorite of all of Kubrick's films.

Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Stanley Kubrick), Best Actor (Kirk Douglas), Best Supporting Actor (Adolphe Menjou), Best Sound Recording (Al Gramaglia)

The Seventh Seal (1957) 
Bergman's film was in fact Sweden's submission for Best Foreign Language Film the year it was eligible, but it was not ultimately nominated. Haunting in every sense of the word, The Seventh Seal is about a medieval knight returning home from the crusades to find that the black death is abroad. When he meets Death, he challenges him to a game of chess, trusting that he can thusly prolong his life. This is such an iconic and profound film that words of praise are superfluous.

Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Ingmar Bergman), Best Original Screenplay (Ingmar Bergman), Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction (P.A. Lundgren)

Cairo Station (1958)
This Egyptian masterpiece is about Qinawi, a lame newspaper seller who works in Cairo's railroad station and who has become obsessed by the alluring cold drink vendor, Hannuma, who is engaged to a handsome porter, determined to unionize his compatriots. Cairo Station is as suspenseful as a Hitchcock film, but it cuts far deeper. Qinawi is both an object of pity and therefore justifiably enraged, but he is equally an irresponsible and selfish moral agent, while Hannuma walks a subtle line between victim and villain. This is a film that deserves to be far more widely seen.

Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Youssef Chahine), Best Actor (Farid Shawqi), Best Writing, Original Screenplay (Mohamed Abu Youssef and Abdel Hay Adib), Best Foreign Language Film

Monday, February 17, 2014

Great Films that Didn't Receive Any Oscar Nominations, 1927-1946

As usual, neither of my favorite films from this past year received Oscar nominations. Europa Report, a low-profile sci-fi film about a research mission to look for alien life forms, is one of the most realistic sci-fi films I've ever seen - and no wonder, since NASA consulted on the design and script - and also a rare film about the wonder and passion of scientific discovery, rather than Kirk and Han Solo fighting space monsters, or whatever. My other favorite, Blackfish, is a documentary film that has spawned a minor social movement, changing the way that we think about keeping whales in captivity. It's particularly disappointing that this film wasn't nominated given that it was helmed by a female filmmaker, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, and the Academy has a habit of ignoring films made by women. With the Oscars fast approaching, I've decided to explore some of the great masterpieces that didn't get a single nomination. I've only considered nominations in categories that actually existed the year that the film would have been eligible (and also assuming a release in the US).

Metropolis (1927)
Lang's visual tour-de-force was the very first feature length science fiction film, and it, remarkably, remains one of the finest science fiction films of all time, if not the absolute finest. In a dystopian future in which the rich live in impossibly high skyscrapers and spend their evenings in wild nightclubs, the poor live in an underground maze where they toil at menial jobs, keeping the machines of industry running. A prophet foretells a mediator that will lead the poor above ground, but a diabolical inventor in league with the industrialists creates the ultimate weapon, subverting the revolution.

Should have been nominated for: Unique and Artistic Production, Best Director, Dramatic Picture (Fritz Lang), Best Actress (Brigitte Helm), Best Art Direction (Otto Hunte)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
In my opinion, this is the greatest film of all time, greater even than Citizen Kane or Gone with the Wind, or The Bicycle Thieves, or The Rules of the Game. Renee Jeanne Falconetti (also known as Maria Falconetti) is so incredible as Joan of Arc that her performance becomes unworldly. The film begins with Joan's trial and interrogations, following her tortured spiritual path to her martyrdom.  

Should have been nominated for: Outstanding Picture, Best Director (Carl Theodor Dreyer), Best Actress (Renee Jeanne Falconetti)

Pandora's Box (1929)
This German masterpiece is about Lulu (Louise Brooks), a woman so incredibly alluring that both men and women will commit any act, no matter how ruinous, for the chance to have her. Lulu is a deeply sexual being, a woman whose physical enjoyment of life is either supremely selfish or radically liberated, depending on one's point of view. Pandora's Box is a strikingly modern take on gender, sexuality, and desire.

Should have been nominated for: Outstanding Production, Best Director (G.W. Pabst), Best Actress (Louise Brooks)

M (1931)
Another of Lang's great masterpieces and in his own estimation his finest work, M is a disturbing thriller about a compulsive murderer and child molester, whose crimes are so incredibly despicable that the entire criminal underworld unites to put him on trial before the police can catch up to him. It is astonishing that this was Lang's first talkie - the sound work is magnificent and groundbreaking. This film is also proof of the extraordinary acting abilities of Peter Lorre, who struggled to find suitable roles when he came to the US.

Should have been nominated for: Outstanding Production, Best Director (Fritz Lang), Best Actor (Peter Lorre), Best Adapted Screenplay (Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Paul Falkenberg, and two others), Best Sound Recording (Fritz Lang)

Dinner at Eight (1933)
With one of the most impressive all-star casts ever put together in one film, Dinner at Eight captured the excesses and anxieties of the Great Depression. John Barrymore, nearing the end of his career, plays a washed up alcoholic actor, Lionel Barrymore is a formerly wealthy magnate on the verge of bankruptcy, Billie Burke is his neurotic and self-absorbed wife, Jean Harlow is a gold digger and social climber, Wallace Beery is her surly husband, and Marie Dressler is the former sex symbol confronting her age. This is one of the great classics of the 1930s.

Should have been nominated for: Outstanding Production, Best Actor (John Barrymore), Best Actress (Marie Dressler)

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
 Leslie Howard gives one of his two finest performances (the other being as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion) as Sir Percy Blakeney, an effeminate, foppish dandy, who may or may not be the notorious Scarlet Pimpernel, the savior of the French aristocracy from the guillotine. The stunningly beautiful Merle Oberon, in a series of gorgeous gowns by Oliver Mossel, plays the Lady Blakeney, whose contempt for her husband is only matched by her adoration of her brother. This film is a top-notch adaptation of the Baroness Orczy's romantic suspense novel.

Should have been nominated for: Best Actor (Leslie Howard)

Anna Karenina (1935)
Though it's far from the most faithful adaptation of Tolstoy's novel, this version is the best for one reason - Greta Garbo. Garbo was born to play the role of the sensual, frustrated Anna, trapped in a socially advantageous marriage and fruitlessly seeking something transcendent. Directed by Clarence Brown and co-starring Fredric March, Basil Rathbone, and Freddie Bartholomew, Anna Karenina is one of Garbo's best films.

Should have been nominated for: Best Actress (Greta Garbo), Best Cinematography (William H. Daniels)

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
This heartrending movie is about an elderly couple who lose their house and have to separate because none of their five children has room for them. This is a quiet film, but stunning in terms of its emotional depth and poignancy. Leo McCarey in fact won the award for Best Director in 1937, for his work on The Awful Truth, a delightful screwball comedy, but McCarey felt, and I definitely agree, that he should have won for his direction on this film instead.
Should have been nominated for: Outstanding Production, Best Director (Leo McCarey), Best Actor (Victor Moore), Best Actress (Beulah Bondi), Best Adapted Screenplay (Vina Delmar)

Ossessione (1943)
Long unavailable in the US because Visconti did not have the rights to James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice on which he based this, his first film, Ossessione is both the first Italian work of neorealism and the finest adaptation of Cain's work. The film was also banned by the Fascist Italian government, who even attempted to destroy the negative. Luckily, Visconti had a duplicate and thus preserved this brilliant telling of the sordid story of a woman's affair with an earthy tramp and their plan to murder her husband.

Should have been nominated for: Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Director (Luchino Visconti), Best Actor (Massimo Girotti), Best Actress (Clara Calamai), Best Supporting Actor (Juan de Landa), Best Adapted Screenplay (Luchino Visconti, and others)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
Roger Livesey plays Major-General Candy, a man who has risen through the British Army, living through the Boer War, World War I, and World War II, which was ongoing as production went forward on this film. The film, despite the brilliant photography, a witty and profound screenplay, and fabulous performances, was originally unpopular, in large part because audiences of the time were offended by the portrayal of sympathetic German characters. This is one of Powell and Pressburger's best films.

Should have been nominated for: Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Director (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), Best Actor (Roger Livesy), Best Original Screenplay (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), Best Cinematography, Color (Georges Perinal)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Another marvelous film from Powell and Pressburger, A Matter of Life and Death follows a British pilot (David Niven) who is scheduled to die when his parachute fails, only for Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) to lose sight of him in the fog. The pilot is then given the opportunity to present a case to the authorities of Heaven, so that he may continue to live. This film is gorgeous from top to toe, a perfect masterpiece from a team that specialized in perfect masterpieces.

Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), Best Supporting Actor (Marius Goring), Best Original Screenplay (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), Best Story (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), Best Art Direction, Color (Alfred Junge), Best Cinematography, Color (Jack Cardiff)

Beauty and the Beast (1946)
Cocteau's film is perhaps the greatest cinematic fairy tale of all time, a vivid and magical retelling of the romance between an innocent and selfless beauty and the tortured beast who holds her captive. The special effects, achieved with the slimmest of resources, are truly astonishing, giving the film an otherworldly effect and enchanting audiences. It is undoubtedly one of the great achievements of world cinema.

Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Jean Cocteau), Best Actor (Jean Marais), Best Dramatic or Comedy Score (Georges Auric), Best Art Direction, Black and White (Christian Berard), Best Cinematography, Black and White (Henri Alekan), Best Special Effects (Jean Cocteau?)

Friday, February 14, 2014

Forgotten Oscar Winners, 1980 - The Present

One of my favorite feminist films of all time, Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career, received a nomination for Best Costume Design in 1980, losing to Roman Polanski's Tess. This turn-of-the-century period piece stars Judy Davis as a woman with ambitious dreams of a career, despite the narrow possibilities available to women of the time. Another great period piece, The French Lieutenant's Woman, received five nominations in 1981, for Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, and Best Film Editing. This adaptation of the John Fowles novel explores sexuality, obsession, post-modern ideas of the self, destiny, and feminism, all while serving up a first-class period melodrama.

In 1984, another feminist drama, Merchant and Ivory's The Bostonians, was nominated for Best Actress, for Vanessa Redgrave's challenging performance as Olive Chancellor, and Best Costume Design. Though she was not nominated, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala deserved the award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Her adaptation of Henry James's powerfully misogynistic novel about Bostonian feminists manages to be both faithful to the source material and powerfully feminist. Few writers could manage that. She did win the award however in 1986 for A Room with a View.

As we get closer to the present, there are fewer and fewer forgotten gems among Oscar winners and nominees. It's likely that the smaller films, the intimate dramas and understated comedies, will be forgotten, while the blockbusters, epics, military dramas, and provocative (read: sexually explicit) films remain in the public consciousness. That's not necessarily a bad thing - those great films that are forgotten can then be rediscovered again and again.

 In fact, of recent years, it seems that nearly every Oscar nominee that I've really loved seems destined to fall from pop culture reference, where it will have to be rediscovered down the line: Howards End from 1992, The Remains of the Day and The Piano from 1993, Sense and Sensibility and Il Postino from 1995, Kolya from 1996, The Wings of the Dove from 1997, Far from Heaven from 2002, A Very Long Engagement from 2004, The Lives of Others and Jesus Camp from 2006, The Reader from 2008, A Single Man and Bright Star from 2009, Jane Eyre from 2011 (easily lost among the many Jane Eyre adaptations), A Royal Affair from 2012. There are exceptions of course; I don't think The Silence of the Lambs, Contact, Amelie or Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World are likely to be forgotten.

There is one final argument to be made: if great films are not to be forgotten, then they must be available to everybody. While internet streaming services are great, they also limit what we can watch. Licensing agreements greatly complicate the availability of streaming services and everyone who subscribes to Netflix knows a thing or two about limited, uninteresting selections with an emphasis on new releases and low-budget horror. DVDs can be rented without licensing agreements, but streaming films requires a contractual agreement. Without physical media, many, many films will simply be impossible to find. A fairly large number of the films that I've recommended in these posts, including It Started in Naples, Sleuth, and The Little Foxes, are out of print. Some are only available in DVD-R format, like The Merry Widow, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and Lili, which means that they will not be added to DVD rental services. Physical media also offer another key element for film fans: special features like commentary tracks, documentaries, and interviews. For newer films, much of that material will be available online, but for older films, or for films for which you need subtitles, you're often out of luck. Without physical media, all these great forgotten films will be increasingly inaccessible and that will be a loss for everyone.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Forgotten Oscar Winners, 1960-1979

The 1960s were a time of major upheaval in Hollywood. With the release of Spartacus and its crediting of black-listed writer Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood Black List was broken. Psychological horror films overcame the until-then dominant monster trope, while historical epics, spy films, heist films, and spaghetti Westerns were some of the most prominent and popular genres. While Spartacus would be nominated for six Oscars and win four, a charming and unobtrusive film starring Clark Gable and Sophia Loren, It Started in Naples, would be nominated only once, for Best Art Direction, Color. It Started in Naples is a romantic comedy drama about a custody battle between an American uncle and an Italian aunt that evolves into an irresistible attraction. A highlight of the film is Sophia Loren's rendition of the classic song, "Tu vuo' fa' l'americano."

One of the Best Motion Picture nominees of 1961, Fanny is set on the docks of Marseille where the heroine (Leslie Caron) falls in love with a sailor who leaves her pregnant. Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer play the older men who become her surrogate family. A lush romance with a bitter edge, the film seems insignificant next to heavy hitters Judgment at Nuremberg and The Guns of Navarone or the Best Picture winner, West Side Story, but Fanny remains one of the loveliest romantic films of the 1960s. The Children's Hour is another great drama that got swept away by the competition. Both Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn deserved recognition for their performances as friends and colleagues whose lives are torn apart by the lies spread by a spoiled student. The film is surprisingly frank about homosexuality, though the actresses claimed to be unaware of that subtext.

In 1962, an Italian film by Pietro Germi, Divorce, Italian Style, received nominations for Best Director and Best Actor, for Marcello Mastroianni, and won the award for Best Original Screenplay. That a foreign language film would garner nominations in these major categories is already surprising; that the film is extremely sophisticated and subversive makes it even more so. While Italian filmmakers like Fellini, Rossellini, and De Sica still have monumental reputations among American cinephiles, Pietro Germi is rarely cited as the brilliant auteur that he was.

While Shirley MacLaine was ignored in 1961, in 1963 she received a nomination for Best Actress for her role in Irma La Douce, a highly stylized comedy about a prostitute and her guileless pimp who falls in love with her. The film received three nominations and won the award for Best Adaptation or Treatment Score. Another nominee for Best Adaptation or Treatment Score was Walt Disney's The Sword in the Stone, perhaps the most underrated of all the studio's animated films. Though shunted aside in favor of more popular - and lucrative - efforts, this Arthurian fable, an American translation of T. H. White's tale of magical education, ought to counted among the finest of Disney's films.

The winner of the Best Original Screenplay award in 1964 is one of Cary Grant's most frequently (and unjustly) panned films. In Father Goose, Grant plays a boozy beach bum coerced into spying for the Allies in the Pacific, who gets stranded with a young French refugee (Leslie Caron) and the gaggle of schoolgirls in her charge. Such a film would probably not be made today - its blend of comedy, romance, and wartime suspense would be considered jarring and perhaps even inappropriate. But the film works, even today when we typically prefer our war films to be serious and dramatic or intensely and bitterly satirical. Father Goose manages to be upbeat despite its wartime setting and convincing despite its farcical plot.

In 1965, The Collector was nominated for three awards - Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Terrence Stamp very much deserved a nomination for his starring role as Frederick Clegg, a lonely butterfly collector who becomes dangerously obsessed with an art student, as did Maurice Jarre for his score. This adaptation of the John Fowles novel is a fabulous thriller.

In 1966, Norman Jewison's Cold War satire, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming received four nominations, including one for Best Picture and one for Best Actor for Alan Arkin, who plays a Soviet submarine officer forced to land on the New England coast when they run aground. It's a brilliantly funny film that plays on American paranoia and vigilantism, but ultimately recalls humanity to its shared senses.

The Production Code was dropped in 1968 in favor of a version of the ratings system that we still use today. This decision had a monumental effect on the American film industry, as it gave filmmakers unprecedented freedom to explore taboo subjects and subvert accepted paradigms. The Best Foreign Language Film of 1970 (also nominated for Best Original Screenplay the following year) was Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, a blistering satire of police and government corruption set in the turmoil of contemporary Italy, which was being rocked by both right-wing and left-wing terrorist groups. Starring Gian Maria Volonte', the film is one of the finest Italian films of the 1970s. On the other hand, just because one could make a subversive film didn't mean that one had to do so. The musical extravaganza, Scrooge, received four nominations, including one for "Thank You Very Much," one of its many great songs, and while it may not be subversive, it is quite delightful, with the exception of a misguided sequence set in Hell, which is better forgotten.

In 1971, with five nominations and a win for Best Visual Effects, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, sometimes referred to as the lesser Mary Poppins, received more recognition than Stanley Kubrick's much-imitated A Clockwork Orange. Bedknobs and Broomsticks, based on a pair of novels by Mary Norton, is yet another film that demonstrates the incredible technical mastery of the Disney animators and effects artists. It blends live-action and animation in a story, far darker in tone than Mary Poppins, about an apprentice witch and the refugee children staying with her during the second World War. Had the award for Best Dance Direction not been been discontinued several decades before, this film would have been a shoo-in. Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice, one of the few of the great master's films to receive recognition from the Academy, was also nominated in 1971, for Best Costume Design. Starring Dirk Bogarde, the film is a haunting meditation on death, beauty, and impotence.

Sleuth, starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, is one of the films I most love to recommend. It's smart, sophisticated, ruthlessly funny, and extremely creepy. In 1972, it received four nominations, including two for its stars who both give truly brilliant performances, but failed to win any of them. It's perhaps because of this that the film has become undeservedly obscure.

In 1975, Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Flute was nominated for the award for Best Costume Design. Though it was originally made to air on Swedish television, it was given a theatrical release in the United States and was therefore eligible for the Oscars, making it, as far as I'm aware, the only made-for-television film to receive an Oscar nomination. Bergman's brilliant adaptation is much more than a cinematic staging of Mozart's great opera. It's a film that explores the magic of performance, theatrical, cinematic, and musical.

While it's probably debatable whether The Turning Point, which garnered no less than eleven nominations in 1977, could really be considered a forgotten film, the only scene which seems to continue to exist in pop culture is the one in which Anne Bancroft throws a drink in Shirley MacLaine's face. The Turning Point is a lot more than that. It's one of the finest ballet films ever made, not to mention it was Mikhail Baryshnikov's film debut, one for which he was nominated as Best Supporting Actor.

The winner for Best Original Screenplay in 1979 was Breaking Away, a comedy drama about four disenchanted townies living in Bloomington, Indiana, with no idea what to do with their lives
 after high school. This film is particularly ripe to be rediscovered now, since, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, so many young people are similarly trapped in an extended childhood for want of employment prospects. Breaking Away also received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Song Score or Adaptation Score (possibly the most confusing Academy Awards category of all time).

Monday, February 10, 2014

Forgotten Oscar Winners, 1950-1959

With the advent of television, movies got bigger and splashier. More movies were made in color and various widescreen formats were introduced. More serious self-reflexive films about the industry were being made by people like Billy Wilder and Vincente Minnelli. Three of the greatest filmmakers of all time - Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and Satyajit Ray - were making their greatest masterpieces. At the 1951 Oscars, the World War II drama, Decision Before Dawn, was competing against biblical epics, Technicolor musicals, and theatrical adaptations, garnering two nominations for Best Motion Picture and Best Film Editing. Decision Before Dawn is about a German prisoner of war who agrees to spy for the Allies because he desperately wants to end the war. The film's star, Oskar Werner, had in fact deserted the German Luftwaffe because of his pacifist beliefs. It's one of the finest war films of the era - nuanced, understated, and humanitarian.

Today Joseph Breen is demonized as a censorship tyrant, but in 1953, the Academy gave him an honorary award "For his conscientious, open-minded and dignified management of the Motion Picture Production Code." Whereas Will H. Hays, who had been the face of Hollywood censorship in 1930, had been far more lax, Breen zealously enforced the Production Code, which prohibited ridicule of the clergy, miscegenation, scenes of childbirth either in fact or in silhouette, venereal disease, white slavery, and "willful offense to any nation, race or creed," among other things. That last item seems to have been the only one Breen was happy to let slide.

That same year, a lovely fairy tale of a film starring Leslie Caron, Lili, received six nominations, including Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Story and Screenplay. Bronislau Kaper won the award for Best Dramatic or Comedy Score, though the famous song so essential to the film's score overall, "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo," was not nominated. Lili is about a naive young woman who connects with a carnival puppeteer through his puppets. This film, like 1947's The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, is charming largely because the Production Code prohibited overt depictions of sexuality, which would have rendered both films horrifically creepy.

Today, Disney films are considered kids' fare, but that wasn't always the case. Most of the films Disney made, both animated and live-action, were as much for adults as kids (though it's true that the company strove for a squeaky clean quality in their filmmaking). This is particularly unfair in the case of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a film that won the awards for Best Special Effects and Best Art Direction, Color, as well as receiving a nomination for Best Film Editing. Its all-star cast - James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, and Paul Lukas - and a very fine screenplay make this a science fiction classic. Even the special effects, sixty years later, are still impressive. That same year, one of Max Ophuls's great masterworks, The Earrings of Madame de..., was nominated for Best Costume Design, Black and White. Foreign language films were (and are) rarely recognized at the Academy Awards and it is quite pleasing that at least one aspect of this film was recognized. The Earrings of Madame de... is about a deeply unhappy aristocratic woman whose luxurious tastes lead her into debt and an attempt to pawn her diamond earrings. It's a brilliant and sophisticated film, one that examines capitalism, elitism, marital boredom, sexual freedom, and a host of other topics few American films dared to address.

Another wonderful film that was only nominated for Best Costume Design, Black and White, is 1955's The Pickwick Papers, a delightful British film starring James Hayter as Dickens's hero, Pickwick, and Harry Fowler as the irrepressible Sam Weller, supported by a host of fabulous British actors. The novel is the funniest of all of Dickens's works and the movie captures many of the wittiest moments, including a recitation of "Ode to an Expiring Frog."

1956 was the first year that the Academy accepted competitive submissions for the Best Foreign Language Film award, which had previously been an honorary award. The first competitive winner was Fellini's La Strada  - hardly a forgotten film, but it is interesting to remember the high artistic quality of the earlier winners, given the tamer fare that generally receives nominations for the award today. The Best Motion Picture nominees this year are disappointing. Around the World in Eighty Days, a bloated homage to colonial power, won the award, over such pathetic competitors as The Ten Commandments, an equally bloated biblical epic, and The King and I, a film only slightly less racist than the award winner. But one of the finest films of the year also garnered a nomination,
William Wyler's Friendly Persuasion. Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire star as Quaker parents forced to confront violence when the Civil War arrives at their doorstep. It was nominated for six awards, but didn't win a single one. In a sea of swollen, lumbering blockbusters, Friendly Persuasion was one of the only nuanced films of the year.

With occasional exceptions, the Western was, and is, not typically an Oscar-winning genre. In 1957, one of the many iterations of the legendary battle fought by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, was nominated for a single Oscar, for Best Sound Recording. Burt Lancaster and the magnificent Kirk Douglas are wonderful as the lawman and the gunslinger who form a beautiful friendship. The film was a big hit in its day and should be better remembered as a classic Western.

In 1959, The Nun's Story received eight nominations, but failed to take home a single one. It's a difficult drama starring Audrey Hepburn as an idealistic Belgian nun who works as a nurse until the onset of World War II makes it impossible for her to retain the political neutrality required by her vows. Hepburn very much deserved the Best Actress award for her performance, but she lost to Simone Signoret. The French submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year was actually an international co-production with Brazil and Italy, with all dialogue in Portuguese. Black Orpheus is a retelling of the Orpheus myth set during Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. The bossa nova soundtrack is stellar and the cast of non-professional actors is excellent.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Forgotten Oscar Winners, 1940-1949

Continuing my celebration of great forgotten Oscar winners and nominees, we arrive at one of the finest decades of Hollywood filmmaking. The 1940s were the heyday of film noir and a period of extreme productivity. Among the top box office stars were Bing Crosby, Humphrey Bogart, Bob Hope, Betty Grable, and Greer Garson. In 1940, All This, and Heaven Too, a period drama starring Bette Davis and Charles Boyer, about a governess, her enamored employer, and their tragic attempts to love each other without hurting those they love, was among the nominees for Outstanding Production. Although it suffers from a poorly directed framing narrative, the film overall is one of Hollywood's best period dramas. It lost to Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick's only collaboration, Rebecca.

In 1941, the film widely considered the best of all time, Citizen Kane may not have won the Outstanding Motion Picture award, but it has easily overshadowed every other nominee of that year. With the exception of The Maltese Falcon and Sergeant York, its fellow nominees have been largely overlooked. The Little Foxes, written by Lillian Hellman and starring Bette Davis (who gives one of her strongest performances), received nine nominations, the same number as Citizen Kane. Bette Davis plays a scheming, money-hungry, Southern matriarch, supported by Teresa Wright, Herbert Marshall, and Dan Duryea. Cary Grant received his first nomination for Best Actor for his role in the heartbreaking drama Penny Serenade, a devastating depiction of parenthood, marriage, and loss. Here Comes Mr. Jordan, starring Robert Montgomery as a boxer who is taken to Heaven too soon by an overeager angel (the always hilarious Edward Everett Horton), received no less than seven nominations, while Hold Back the Dawn, starring Olivia de Havilland as a schoolteacher swept off her feet by an unscrupulous con artist (Charles Boyer) looking for a green card, received six nominations. All of these films were nominees for Outstanding Motion Picture.

The musical was one of the most popular film genres from the beginning of the sound era until the early 1960s. While musical films tended to dominate in categories pertaining to music and sound, only one would win the Outstanding Motion picture award in the 1940s - and only nine in the history of the awards. In 1942, Gene Kelly's film debut, For Me and My Gal, was nominated for Best Musical Score. Kelly plays an unscrupulous vaudevillian intent on making it big no matter the cost opposite the effervescent and brilliant Judy Garland and the charming and under-appreciated George Murphy. This film is one of my favorite musicals and one that proves that Gene Kelly had real acting chops.

Ernst Lubitsch brought his trademark sophistication and wit to 1943's Heaven Can Wait, which was nominated for Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography, Color. Don Ameche, in his finest role, plays a dashing playboy, who, after a lifetime of chasing women, believes after his death that he belongs in Hell. He's supported by a fabulous cast of great character actors, including Charles Coburn. This utterly delightful film is one of Lubitsch's finest.

David O. Selznick's hubristic attempt to repeat the success of Gone with the Wind was part of what lost him the Best Motion Picture statuette in 1944. Though reviews were quite mixed, audiences connected with Since You Went Away, a three hour drama about women on the Home Front starring Claudette Colbert and Jennifer Jones, and it received nine nominations, winning only one, for Max Steiner's score. Selznick's loss is particularly stinging given that Going My Way, a soapy musical about a singing priest played by Bing Crosby and one of the most appallingly bad Best Picture nominees of all time, won Best Motion Picture.

In 1945, Albert Lewin's idiosyncratic interpretation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, one of the finest horror films of the decade, won the award for Best Cinematography, Black and White, and was nominated for both Best Art Direction, Black and White, and Best Supporting Actress, for Angela Lansbury's knockout performance, only her third cinematic appearance. The Picture of Dorian Gray is an unusually artistic and philosophical Hollywood film, an erudite and yet entertaining exploration of murky morality and perversion that features some extraordinary artwork by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright.

Winner of the award for Best Original Song and nominee for Best Musical Score in 1946, The Harvey Girls is one of the classic musicals of the 1940s. Judy Garland stars, supported by a fabulous cast of comedic actors including Ray Bolger, Marjorie Main, and Angela Lansbury, in this kitschy Western about the waitresses of Harvey's Restaurants and their quest to lure the menfolk out of the saloon and into the restaurant. The Harvey Girls couldn't really compete with films like The Best Years of Our Lives and Henry V, but it is a great example of the kind of quality musical filmmaking of the era.

The British were out in force in 1947, represented by such masterpieces as Black Narcissus and Great Expectations. Competing against Charlie Chaplin's masterwork Monsieur Verdoux, Sidney Sheldon won the Best Original Screenplay award for The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, a delightfully witty comedy starring Cary Grant as a troublesome artist, Shirley Temple as the teenager infatuated with him, and Myrna Loy as Shirley's sister who insists he play along until the infatuation wears off - and as a judge, she's not about to let Grant off the hook. It's extremely exciting to see a judge played by a woman, especially such a classy woman, but the film works primarily because Grant's sophisticated and yet very clean-cut persona keeps the story from descending into a creep-fest. There isn't an actor in Hollywood who could pull this off today.

In 1948, a little known drama starring Jane Wyman as a deaf and mute woman who fights to keep her child after being raped had more nominations - a round dozen - than any other film of that year. Johnny Belinda only received one award, for Best Actress, one of the most highly competitive categories of the year, as Jane Wyman was up against Ingrid Bergman for Joan of Arc and Olivia de Havilland for The Snake Pit. The Snake Pit was a groundbreaking film about mental illness and psychiatry, which was filmed in an actual mental institution with its inmates as extras. It's a powerful indictment of inhumane psychiatric treatment and one of the most realistic Hollywood depictions of the subject. Also nominated that year, though only for Best Musical Score, was The Pirate, an avant-garde project helmed by Gene Kelly, Vincente Minnelli, and Arthur Freed, which flopped when it was released, but has become a cult classic. The dancing is magnificent, the brilliant Nicholas Brothers have a cameo, and Judy Garland belts "Mack the Black" - what more could you ask for?

Quick - who starred in the 1949 version of Little Women? Hint - it wasn't Katharine Hepburn or Winona Ryder. It was, in fact, June Allyson, one of America's sweethearts in her heyday, but no longer in the pantheon of iconic film stars. While the cult around Katharine Hepburn has kept the memory of her 1933 version of the Louisa May Alcott novel alive, the 1949 version, which won the award for Best Art Direction, Color, and was nominated for Best Cinematography, Color, is the best adaptation of the material. The film overall captures the spirit of its source material, and while June Allyson's performance as Jo may not have the iconic status of Hepburn's or the popularity of Ryder's, lovers of the novel will recognize the beloved literary heroine in this film far more than in the others.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Forgotten Oscar Winners, 1927-1939

It's that time of year again. The end of December brought us what seemed like a gazillion Oscar-bait movies, the nominations have been announced, the parties have been planned, and the Oscars aren't happening until March 2. My usual reaction to the Oscars is irritation, either over what was nominated, or not, or what won, or not. But, despite my complaints, so many great films have been awarded Oscars over the years and unfortunately many of those great films have been forgotten. Over the next few weeks, in anticipation of this year's ceremony, I will be exploring some great Oscar winners and nominees that deserve greater recognition.

Although Wings is widely considered the first Best Picture winner, the choice is rather arbitrary because at the first Academy Awards, for the years 1927 and 1928, it won the Outstanding Picture award, while F. W. Murnau's extraordinary Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans won the Unique and Artistic Production award. Since then, the two awards have been combined and only one film is honored as Best Picture. (Greg Ferrara, on TCM's fabulous blog, wrote a great post about why having two awards was such a great thing.) As a result, Sunrise has been unjustly left in the shadows, although it is one of the most fascinating and technically innovative films ever produced in the US. From the simple premise of a straying husband and his suffering wife emerges a stunning, suspenseful, kaleidoscopic, and philosophic film. It was also nominated for the Best Actress and Best Art Design awards and won for Best Cinematography.

That same year, Frank Borzage, one of the great forgotten directors, won the Best Director, Dramatic Picture, award for Seventh Heaven, a beautiful romantic fable about two unhappy people who find solace and happiness in each other, only for the first World War to separate them. Though many of its conventions seem dated to modern viewers, Janet Gaynor, who also starred in Sunrise, gives a heartbreaking performance and the film is less sentimental than sincere and idealistic.

With four nominations and one win for Best Actress in the ceremony for 1929 and 1930, The Divorcee, starring the glorious Norma Shearer, was one of the big pictures of the year. Today, it's considered a classic of the pre-code era, as its plot revolves around the sexual misbehavior of a married couple and the double standards that dictated that if a man cheated, it was just a mistake, but if a woman did, it was a marriage-shattering crisis. American films wouldn't be as sexually frank again until the late 1960s.

At the fourth Academy Awards, honoring films released in 1930 and 1931, Marie Dressler got the statuette for Best Actress for her knockout performance opposite Walter Beery in Min and Bill. Marie Dressler was one of the great actresses of her day, a pug-faced vociferous woman with a marvelous sense of comedic timing. Today, it's unlikely that she would get roles at all, let alone star in high-profile films, but Hollywood has been wanting her like since her death in 1934.

At the ceremony honoring the films of 1931 and 1932, and in company with Grand Hotel and Shanghai Express, Frank Borzage's drama Bad Girl was nominated for Outstanding Production (as the Best Picture award was called at the time) and received both the awards for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. This film is about a working class couple who fall in love, marry, and find their relationship tested by an unexpected pregnancy for which neither one is really prepared. The film has aged extremely well, partly due to the naturalistic acting style and unobtrusive direction. Bad Girl is also significant because it is one of only a handful of films of the time to both realistically and respectfully portray working class people.

At the ceremony honoring the films of 1932 and 1933, an unusual award was handed out to seven deserving individuals - the award for Best Assistant Director. This award was given only until 1937, but it's a nice recognition of some of the men (naturally there isn't a single woman among the nominees) who are essential to the filmmaking process but rarely receive any acknowledgement. Among the great films of 1932-33 are Little Women, A Farewell to Arms, She Done Him Wrong (the film widely credited as the decisive catalyst for the creation of the Production Code), and 42nd Street. One of the best films of the year, Gold Diggers of 1933, only received a nomination for Best Sound Recording, but it deserves to be seen by every Oscar buff. It's still, even in the days of CGI, technically innovative, particularly the dance sequences, and it's both laugh-out-loud funny and a socially progressive film that acknowledged the miseries of the Great Depression and the need for change.

At the 1934 Oscars, three new awards were introduced - Best Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song. One of my all-time favorite Hollywood dramas, just released on DVD by the Warner Archive Collection this week (yay!), The Barretts of Wimpole Street received two nominations, including one for Outstanding Production. Starring Norma Shearer, Fredric March, and Charles Laughton, the film narrates the romance between Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. One of Ernst Lubitsch's most entertaining and sophisticated musicals, The Merry Widow, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald and loosely based on the operetta by Franz Lehar, won the award for Best Art Direction.

In 1937, nominees for Outstanding Production varied widely, including historical epics, screwball comedies, showbiz dramas, and fantasy. Nominated for Best Art Direction, and winner of Best Dance Direction (discontinued after this year), A Damsel in Distress is one of the great underrated musicals of the 1930s. Starring Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, George Burns, and Gracie Allen, the film's dance sequences are innovative, witty, and quite spectacular, the screenplay is particularly funny, and Allen is a comic standout. The Best Animated Short Film was The Old Mill, an experimental Walt Disney cartoon that was the first made using his revolutionary multiplane camera. Walt Disney won the award for Best Animated Short Film again in 1938, for his lovely adaptation of Ferdinand the Bull, the controversial (and perfect) children's book by Munro Leaf. This is among Disney's finest short films.

1939 is often named the greatest year for cinema and it's not hard to see why: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Dark Victory, Ninotchka, and Wuthering Heights are some of the most prominent films of the year. In such company, it's not hard for a slightly less popular film to be overshadowed. One of the finest films of the year, Only Angels Have Wings, a thrilling comedy drama about pilots in South America, was only nominated for Best Cinematography, Black and White, and Best Special Effects, but is nevertheless a brilliant film deserving of inclusion in the illustrious company of the Outstanding Production nominees.

The 86th Oscars ceremony will be broadcast on March 2 on ABC.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

6 Bad Books by Great Authors

No one can be brilliant all the time. All six of these authors were or are brilliant and have written true literary masterpieces. But these particular works are simply not up to par.

Our Mutual Friend - Charles Dickens
I have never felt so betrayed by an author than when I read this, Dickens's last novel. Those who do not wish to know details of the plot, read no further. The reason I felt so betrayed was this: in the book, an apparently irrevocable break occurs between the wealthy Mr. Boffin and his secretary John Rokesmith. Bella Wilfer, protegee of the Boffins who had previously been on the hunt for a wealthy bachelor, instead marries Rokesmith, in the wake of his unjust dismissal. All well and good. Except that the "unjust dismissal" is all playacting for the purpose of teaching the adult Bella that wealth isn't everything and she was being nasty and mercenary, wanting to marry a husband who could support her. So, she marries Rokesmith, who is in fact, extremely wealthy, and has his baby, while living in poverty for a full year. She is, of course, very grateful - what could be more delightful than to be deceived by one's husband and dearest friends so that one's motives could be oh so condescendingly tested? The misogyny of tricking a woman into marriage (and sex - she gets pregnant immediately) by subterfuge and moralizing playacting is disgusting enough, but it's unforgivable to trick the reader along with Bella. The infantilization of Bella is equally the infantilization of the reader.

What to read instead: Dombey and Son, The Pickwick Papers

Memories of My Melancholy Whores - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Marquez's latest work is a short novella about a 90-year-old journalist who decides to reward himself for his longevity with the gift of a young, virginal prostitute. The madam drugs the young woman and the unnamed journalist spends every night watching her sleep during which he believes he has fallen in love with her. Marquez seems to be aiming for a sort of late redemption for his protagonist, who has spent his life frequenting brothels and eschewing love. Leaving aside both the delusional insanity of loving a sleeping body and the extreme misogyny of this vision of male old age, Marquez's writing simply lacks his usual evocative loveliness and the story is neither convincing nor moving.

What to read instead: Love in the Time of Cholera, One Hundred Years of Solitude

What Maisie Knew - Henry James
This novel reads like an exercise in experimental perspectives, essentially because that is what it is. Though many critics have praised it for its technical dexterity (a notable exception being Nabokov who found it dreadful), it is precisely that dexterity that makes the book feel so extremely sterile. Maisie is the product of a deeply troubled marriage, one which ends in divorce, leaving her stranded among a group of dysfunctional adults, both her parents and her parents' lovers. James intended the novel as a condemnation of parental irresponsibility, but this criticism is rather too baldly illustrated and a bit rich coming from a bachelor, who some biographers have theorized was either terrified of sex or gay; in either case, James never had responsibility for any children. And that is perhaps why Maisie is an incredibly unconvincing heroine - a blank canvas of girlhood with James's opinions stamped thereon, rendering the whole slightly grotesque and unnatural.

What to read instead: The Wings of the Dove, The Portrait of a Lady

Alfred and Emily - Doris Lessing 
Lessing's final work examines her parents' marriage, the first half a fictional rendering of what their lives might have been without the rude interruption of World War I and the second half a memoir of her parents' actual marriage. Though as beautifully written as Lessing's great novels, the book suffers both from its structure and from its origins. The two-part structure is too spare and the scope too narrow. The subject matter is obviously personally meaningful for the author, but one struggles to care very deeply for characters that remain enigmatic and that are, for the reader, mere characters, rather than living, breathing people. It is extremely sad that the last work of this great writer should feel so very much like a mere appendix to her oeuvre.

What to read instead: The Golden Notebook, Mara and Dann

Divisadero - Michael Ondaatje
Divisadero feels like two, or possibly three novels uncomfortably mashed together, which may very well be what it is. What starts as an exploration of the troubled lives of a dysfunctional family that is broken apart by an act of violence soon unravels, the characters change in puzzling and sometimes downright inexplicable ways, and a new subject, a French poet, is clunkily introduced. There are rare moments of lyrical writing, but overall, this novel feels unfinished and muddled.

What to read instead: Anil's Ghost, The English Patient

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien
This trilogy is way, way, way too long. Length doesn't have to be a problem - it isn't in the case of War and Peace, or Middlemarch, and it also isn't in the case of many great fantasy novels, from Harry Potter to A Song of Ice and Fire. The problem here is that the trilogy is padded with so much material that is unnecessary, from endless descriptions of endless meadows and forests, to veritable mountains of personality-less characters and places they never go to. But a far greater problem is the trilogy's intense seriousness. The charming sense of humor that makes The Hobbit such a good read is completely absent in the trilogy and it is sorely missed. Wordy, long, and solemn almost to the point of self-parody.

What to read instead: The Hobbit, "On Fairy-Stories"