Best Picture: A Look Back

A few weeks ago, I posted look backs at major categories at the Oscars from 1990 to the present. I’ve covered all four acting races and if you missed it, you can peruse them here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/11/04/best-actor-a-look-back/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/10/31/best-actress-a-look-back/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/10/25/best-supporting-actor-a-look-back/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/10/20/best-supporting-actress-a-look-back/

In each post, I review what I’d classify as the three least surprising winners, as well as the three biggest upsets. And I select what I believe are the strongest and weakest overall fields.

Today on the blog, we arrive at the Big Daddy – Best Picture. It’s important to remember that hindsight doesn’t come into play here. For instance, Forrest Gump won the top prize in 1994. Since then, many believe fellow nominees Pulp Fiction or The Shawshank Redemption should have won. Yet the Gump victory was not an upset at the time. Same goes for 1990 when Dances with Wolves bested GoodFellas.

Let’s begin with a reminder of each winner since 1990:

1990 – Dances with Wolves

1991 – The Silence of the Lambs

1992 – Unforgiven

1993 – Schindler’s List

1994 – Forrest Gump

1995 – Braveheart

1996 – The English Patient

1997 – Titanic

1998 – Shakespeare in Love

1999 – American Beauty

2000 – Gladiator

2001 – A Beautiful Mind

2002 – Chicago

2003 – Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

2004 – Million Dollar Baby

2005 – Crash

2006 – The Departed

2007 – No Country for Old Men

2008 – Slumdog Millionaire

2009 – The Hurt Locker

2010 – The King’s Speech

2011 – The Artist

2012 – Argo

2013 – 12 Years a Slave

2014 – Birdman

2015 – Spotlight

2016 – Moonlight

2017 – The Shape of Water

We start with my three least surprising winners:

3. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

Peter Jackson’s final entry in the acclaimed trilogy seemed due for a win after the first two installments were nominated, but lost to A Beautiful Mind and Chicago. This was as much a recognition for the entire franchise and by 2003, it was obvious the Academy would move in that direction.

2. Titanic (1997)

James Cameron’s epic was plagued with rumors of a troubled shoot and the possibility seemed real that it could be a costly flop. The opposite occurred as Titanic became the highest grossing motion picture of all time upon its release. It seemed clear that Oscar love would follow.

1. Schindler’s List (1993)

Capping an amazing year which saw Steven Spielberg direct Jurassic Park over the summer, his Holocaust feature Schindler’s List became the undeniable front-runner at its end of year release. Winning all significant precursors, this was a shoo-in selection.

Now to the upsets. In my view, there were four very real ones and I had to leave one out. That would be 1995 when Braveheart emerged victorious over the favored Apollo 13 and Sense and Sensibility. Yet there’s 3 others that I feel top it.

3. Moonlight (2016)

La La Land appeared ready to pick up the gold after its filmmaker Damien Chazelle and lead actress Emma Stone had already won. And it looked like the script was being followed when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway actually announced the musical as Best Picture. Perhaps Oscar’s largest controversy followed as the wrong envelope was given and the Barry Jenkins effort Moonlight had actually won. Correct envelopes or not, the Moonlight victory was still unexpected given the La La momentum.

2. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

All eyes were on Spielberg’s World War II epic Saving Private Ryan to win as Spielberg had already picked up his second statue for directing. Shakespeare rewrote that script and few saw it coming.

1. Crash (2005)

Here is perhaps the most surprising BP winner in history. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was the strong favorite when the Paul Haggis race relations drama took it. Even presenter Jack Nicholson looked shocked when he read the envelope.

And now the fields. That’s a bit tough because just under a decade ago, the Academy switched from five finite nominees to anywhere between five and ten (nine being the most common). For weakest, I’m going with 2011 when there were 9. While there’s some quality picks like The Artist, The Descendants, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, and The Tree of Life – I feel even some of them might have missed the cut in stronger years. And I think that certainly applies to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, and War Horse.

For strongest, I will go with the aforementioned 1994. Pulp Fiction and Shawshank are indeed two of the most impressive cinematic contributions in recent times. Winner Gump and other nominees Quiz Show and Four Weddings and a Funeral filled out the slate.

And that does it, folks! Hope you enjoyed my look back at Best Picture in modern times.

Best Supporting Actor: A Look Back

Continuing on with my look back at the major categories from 1990 to the present at the Oscars, we arrive at Best Supporting Actor! If you missed my post regarding Supporting Actress, you can find it right here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/10/20/best-supporting-actress-a-look-back/

As I did with that blog entry, I’m picking the top 3 least surprising winners (performers who essentially sailed right through awards season) and the 3 biggest upsets in each race. I am also selecting the strongest and weakest fields overall.

As a primer, here are the 28 actors whose support earned them a golden statue:

1990 – Joe Pesci, GoodFellas

1991 – Jack Palance, City Slickers

1992 – Gene Hackman, Unforgiven

1993 – Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive

1994 – Martin Landau, Ed Wood

1995 – Kevin Spacey, The Usual Suspects

1996 – Cuba Gooding Jr., Jerry Maguire

1997 – Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting

1998 – James Coburn, Affliction

1999 – Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules

2000 – Benicio del Toro, Traffic

2001 – Jim Broadbent, Iris

2002 – Chris Cooper, Adaptation

2003 – Tim Robbins, Mystic River

2004 – Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby

2005 – George Clooney, Syriana

2006 – Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine

2007 – Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men

2008 – Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

2009 – Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

2010 – Christian Bale, The Fighter

2011 – Christopher Plummer, Beginners

2012 – Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

2013 – Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

2014 – J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

2015 – Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

2016 – Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

2017 – Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

There are plenty to choose from as far least surprising winners, but here’s my top ones:

3. Gene Hackman, Unforgiven

Clint Eastwood’s Western picked up a slew of awards on Oscar night and Hackman’s inclusion in that race was never really in doubt. It was his second statue after winning Best Actor 21 years previously for The French Connection.

2. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

It was director Christopher Nolan giving numerous awards speeches on behalf of the late Ledger, as his work playing the iconic villain swept all precursors as well. This remains not only the only win in the omnipresent superhero genre in the 21st century, but the only nomination.

1. Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men

Like Ledger, Bardem created a bad guy for the ages in the Coen Brothers Oscar-winning picture. He picked up all the precursors as well for his role.

And now the upsets!

3. James Coburn, Affliction

There was clearly no front-runner in 1998 as a different actor was honored in each preceding awards show. Ed Harris took the Golden Globe for The Truman Show, Billy Bob Thornton (A Simple Plan) was victorious at the Critics Choice Awards, Robert Duvall’s role in A Civil Action was honored at SAG, and Geoffrey Rush (Elizabeth) was the BAFTA recipient. Surely one of them would win the Oscar, but it instead went to Mr. Coburn.

2. Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

In 2015, the general consensus was that Sylvester Stallone would punch out the competition in his signature role for Creed. That would have been quite a feat after Rocky took Best Picture in 1976 – nearly four decades prior. Yet it didn’t materialize when Rylance made the trip to the podium.

1. Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine

Along the same lines, Eddie Murphy was the strong favorite for his rare dramatic work in Dreamgirls. With Jennifer Hudson as a sure thing for Supporting Actress (which did happen), the musical looked safe for a supporting sweep. The Academy surprisingly went another route by honoring Arkin.

And now to the fields overall and choosing a strongest and weakest. For the least impressive of the bunch, I’m going with 2011. Here were the nominees:

Christopher Plummer, Beginners (winner)

Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn

Jonah Hill, Moneyball

Nick Nolte, Warrior

Max Von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

When it comes to best overall field, I chose 1993. This is the year that Tommy Lee Jones got the gold in The Fugitive. That’s a rare acting win for an action flick. It was deserved in my view and the other four nominees were very strong as well. They were:

Leonardo DiCaprio, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Ralph Fiennes, Schindler’s List

John Malkovich, In the Line of Fire

Pete Postlethwaite, In the Name of the Father

Furthermore, I could keep going with other deserving actors that year, including Val Kilmer in Tombstone and Sean Penn for Carlito’s Way. 

The next trip down memory lane will be Best Actress and it will be up soon!

Oscar Watch: Mid90s

Jonah Hill has two Oscar nominations to his credit in Supporting Actor for 2011’s Moneyball and 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Now the actor broadens his horizons this fall with Mid90s, his directorial debut which he also wrote. It has premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.

Based on early reactions from critics, Hill has made an impressive first feature behind the camera. The coming of age dramedy stars Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges (who’s everywhere this awards season with Boy Erased and Ben Is Back), and Katherine Waterston.

While reviews are solid, Mid90s doesn’t look like Best Picture kind of material for Academy voters. It’s best chance could be recognition for Hill in the Original Screenplay race.

Bottom line: while this looks poised to kickstart a second career for its maker, Oscar chatter could be hard to come by.

The film opens October 19 domestically. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

The Best Picture Wouldn’t Have Been Contenders: 2009-2017

A couple of days back on the blog, I speculated about what films in the 21st century would have been nominated for Best Picture prior to a rule change in 2009. As a refresher, nearly a decade ago, the Academy changed its Best Picture Nominees from a finite five to anywhere between five to ten. In that time frame, the magic number most years has been nine (it was actually a finite 10 for 2009 and 2010 before the fluctuation change). My recent post selected two pictures from 1990-2008 that I believe would have been nominated. You can find that post here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/08/03/the-best-picture-coulda-been-contenders-1990-2008/

Today comes the inverse of that column. What if the rule had never been altered? What if the last nine Oscar ceremonies honored just five features?

In making these picks, there’s obviously one extremely easy selection – the movie that won. In naming the other four, I’m looking at factors such as number of other nods it received. For instance, if a Director won that award for their work and the Picture went to something else, that director’s film is in.

So let’s get to it in this alternative Oscar universe. I’ll be reminding you all the pictures recognized and then showing my final five.

2009

The Actual Nominees:

The Hurt Locker (Winner), Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air

Had It Been Five:

The Hurt Locker, Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, Up in the Air

2010

The Actual Nominees:

The King’s Speech (W), 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter’s Bone

Had It Been Five:

The King’s Speech, The Fighter, Inception, The Social Network, True Grit

2011

The Actual Nominees:

The Artist (W), The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, War Horse

Had It Been Five:

The Artist, The Descendants, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris

2012

The Actual Nominees:

Argo (W), Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty

Had It Been Five:

Argo, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook

2013

The Actual Nominees:

12 Years a Slave (W), American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street

Had It Been Five:

12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Gravity, Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street

2014

The Actual Nominees:

Birdman (W), American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash

Had It Been Five:

Birdman, American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game

2015

The Actual Nominees:

Spotlight (W), The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room

Had It Been Five:

Spotlight, The Big Short, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant

2016

The Actual Nominees:

Moonlight (W), Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea

Had It Been Five:

Moonlight, Arrival, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea

2017

The Actual Nominees:

The Shape of Water (W), Call Me by Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Had It Been Five:

The Shape of Water, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

And there you have it with my posts on the “what if” Best Picture happenings in Oscar world!

Molly’s Game Movie Review

At its best, Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue is cinematic music. Like many distinctive screenwriters icluding Mamet and Tarantino, he has an unmistakable style. There’s a zippy and often whip smart quality present. We heard that melody in The Social Network and on “The West Wing” and large parts of A Few Good Men, The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs. On occasion, there are heavy-handed and slightly preachy notes in his wordy tunes.

We know what we’re getting in a Sorkin screenplay. An unknown until now is how he performs behind the lens and Molly’s Game answers it. The frequent highs and more infrequent lows of his writing are present here. And he pleasingly proves he’s got some style in the director’s chair, too.

The film is based on the real life story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), who went from a wannabe Olympic skier sidelined by freak injury to underground poker syndicate magnate. It’s an improbable yarn where truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Following her slopes related incident, Molly travels to L.A. and soon finds herself as assistant to a rich on paper and sleazy real estate developer (Jeremy Strong). He seems far more concerned with his high stakes poker game that involves celebrities and the West Coast wealthy – all male. Molly starts out basically holding their money. That doesn’t last long as her intellect soon has her running the show.

This puts her in constant contact with an unnamed movie star played by Michael Cera. A quick look at the facts of Bloom’s true events would put Tobey Maguire as the actual actor. Sorkin’s screenplay doesn’t dwell on the famous names that real Molly came in contact with, as apparently the subject’s book this is based on didn’t either. I will say this. If half the stuff about Maguire (err Cera’s character) is accurate, he’s not exactly your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

It also puts her in proximity with far worse types than bratty leading men. There’s the Mob, in Italian and Russian form. And that’s where it all gets truly dangerous. These individuals provide a risk to her personal safety, as do the drug fueled measures she takes on her own to keep the business rolling in celebrity, Mafia, and trust fund kid cash.

Molly’s Game is told in flashback as our central figure’s legal troubles mount. Idris Elba is her skilled and sympathetic lawyer. Kevin Costner is her hard charging dad – a therapist who is always seeking perfection from his daughter. It’s their dynamic that turns out to be the key one here and provides a window into Molly’s behavior. In some ways, it’s a relationship we’ve seen countless times onscreen before and this doesn’t add much freshness.

That said, when Sorkin’s writing is at its best, it’s an entertaining sound. Molly’s Game gives us plenty of long exchanges between particularly Chastain and Elba that qualify. We’ve seen the world of closed-door poker (in the solid Rounders for example) before, but not often. The writer/director frequently excels at displaying this fast-paced universe that just a minor segment of the ultra rich are privy to.

Chastain is present in nearly every frame and she provides another electric performance as a strong female getting it done in a male dominated universe. Elba offers sturdy support. Even though Costner’s subplot is the most routine, he adds some depth in the third act as the complicated dad.

Those familiar with Sorkin’s word games will find plenty to enjoy here. It doesn’t rise to the level of The Social Network, mind you. It does comfortably give me confidence that his dialogue works just fine with him also wearing the director’s hat.

*** (out of four)

 

War Dogs Movie Review

In a way, War Dogs is a bit of a companion piece to The Big Short. We have a director (Todd Phillips) known for humorous material making a more serious and based on true events effort about controversial policies during the Bush/Cheney era. We have a mix of dramatic and comedic actors telling the tale. However, whereas Adam McKay’s aforementioned 2014 picture was a big success, Dogs falls short.

Its failings are certainly not due to lack of an interesting story. We begin in 2005 when the Iraq conflict is at its height. While the war is dividing a nation, David (Miles Teller) is living a carefree existence in Miami as a massage therapist. His major conflict is making enough cash to support him and his pregnant girlfriend (Ana de Armas). David’s financial issues are provided a boost when he runs into his junior high best bud Efraim (Jonah Hill). He seems to be doing just fine and David soon discovers his old friend is making a killing as an arms dealer selling product to the U.S. government. Efraim soon cuts David in as a partner and their deals bring them to the Middle East, including drab Albania. It is that deal, involving selling 100 million rounds of ammo to the military, that will provide their windfall payload. It also provides all sorts of dangerous problems.

Dogs wags an understandable critical finger at the ease in which these twentysomethings with zero government or defense experience managed their exploits. As Efraim and David become richer than they ever could have envisioned, their trappings of wealth storyline feels awfully familiar. David’s relationship suffers, Efraim’s already diabolical personality grows out of control, etc… Yes, this may be a true story, but all this material felt truly well-worn.

As for performances, Hill has shown himself to be adept at both funny stuff and less funny stuff (Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street as the prime examples). His performance here isn’t near as effective and I couldn’t escape the notion that he seemed to be trying a bit too hard to pull off his bad guy role. Teller is a talent as well (Whiplash as prime example), but his work here is a couple notches above bland. Bradley Cooper turns up for a few minutes as a shady dealer whose character is just interesting enough that I would’ve liked to see him more.

The source material (based on a Rolling Stone article) should have garnered a richer experience than what Phillips gives us. War Dogs has plenty in common with The Big Short in terms of personnel involved, but little in common with it as to lasting impression.

** (out of four)

Oscar History: 2011

For the Academy Awards, 2011 will forever be known as the year when a French black and white silent film came out of nowhere to win three major categories, including Best Picture. That would be The Artist and it picked up momentum over its rivals, becoming one of the more unlikely recipients of the prize in some time.

During that year, the number of Picture nominees was nine and it beat out The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and War Horse. 

As for some others I may have considered, my favorite film of the year was Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Another personal favorite: David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Furthermore, the expanded list of nominees could have given the Academy a chance to nominate some of the better blockbusters that year: Rise of the Planet of the Apes or Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol for example.

The Artist‘s auteur Michel Hazanavicius would win Director over stellar competitors: Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Alexander Payne (The Descendants), and Martin Scorsese (Hugo). Again, Mr. Refn and Mr. Fincher would have made my cut.

The Artist love continued in Best Actor where Jean Dujardin took the prize over Demian Bichir (A Better Life), George Clooney (The Descendants), Gary Oldman in his first (??) nomination (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and Brad Pitt (Moneyball).

I may have found room for Ryan Gosling’s silent but strong work in Drive or perhaps even Steve Carell in Crazy, Stupid, Love – in which he showed off real dramatic acting chops coupled with his comedic abilities for the first time.

Awards darling Meryl Streep took Best Actress for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher (no relation) in The Iron Lady. Othern nominees: Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Viola Davis (The Help), Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn).

The Academy’s penchant for ignoring comedy was shown here as Kristin Wiig should have merited consideration for her megahit Bridesmaids.

Beloved veteran Christopher Plummer won Supporting Actor for Beginners over Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn), Jonah Hill (Moneyball), Nick Nolte (Warrior), and Max Von Sydow (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close).

Two others I may have made room for: Albert Brooks in Drive and especially the brilliant motion capture work of Andy Serkis in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Octavia Spencer was victorious in Supporting Actress for The Help over her costar Jessica Chastain, as well as Berenice Bejo (The Artist), Melissa McCarthy in the rare nod for comedy in Bridesmaids, and Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs).

Two other comedic performances worthy of consideration: Rose Byrne in Bridesmaids and Jennifer Aniston’s scene stealing work in Horrible Bosses. I also would have found room for Shailene Woodley in The Descendants.

And that’s your Oscar history for 2011, folks! I’ll have 2012 up in the near future.