Ramble through the 2018 Oscars

It’s that time again, just a year since the previous Academy Awards and a guarantee that they’ll read the name of the correct winner this time around. Last year, I made a point of seeing all the Best Picture nominees, or at least all but the eventual victor obviously (something I soon redressed); on this occasion through a combination of laziness and lack of accessibility I haven’t been able to do the same. I could have caught The Phantom Thread, for example, but I would have had to travel to do so and in all honesty I couldn’t be bothered. There were just things that I wanted to watch more, and I hope at this stage you aren’t all going to click off as I reveal that I find Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies to be a bit of a chore sometimes.

At the time of writing, I’ve covered five of the nine finalists. Of these, the best for me is clearly Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a haunting and rather droll drama about death and its fallout. The curiousity is that Martin McDonagh’s sudden prominence has come as any sort of surprise. In Bruges was an utter blast, both very funny and quite moving, and at the time who knew Ralph Fiennes had such a gift for comedy? I would place Dunkirk in second place, if for nothing else then for Nolan’s willingness and skill in finding new ways to tell a well-trodden story, also because it’s such a tense watch. I liked but wasn’t blown away by The Shape of Water. A residual love for Guillermo del Toro saw it across the line, but I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that I’ve seen it all before – the director made a better fist of his off-kilter fairy tale oeuvre with Pan’s Labyrinth, and despite doing little wrong – the period detail was especially well observed – this one felt kind of thin and stretched, like there wasn’t really enough going on for a full-length feature. I liked Get Out a lot and am pleased to see it get this kind of recognition, but I don’t see it as a potential best film of the year and suspect there’s an agenda by the Academy to its positioning. Finally, and by some distance, is Darkest Hour. I’m a sucker for (i) Gary Oldman (ii) films about wartime (iii) prods against the Establishment, but every bit of love for this entry drives from a first rate performance by its lead actor because much of the rest seemed cliched and set in the usual fictionalised England that didn’t exist outside a Hollywood writer’s room.  Besides which, anyone who’s watched Netflix’s The Crown knows that it’s possible to coax a striking Churchillian turn from a left-field casting choice…

The film I thought was the best of the previous year didn’t get anywhere save for the technical categories, and that was Blade Runner 2049. I was enraptured enough to have watched it three times now, and increasingly it strikes me as a five star piece of work. Just think how easy it would have been to have given us more of the same, and instead we get an entirely new plot set within the world of Deckard and Replicants, a tale that answers a stack of questions set by the original film and poses new ones, all with a thread of topicality and what it means to be human. Wonderful stuff, and that’s without a word on the frankly incredible job of world building, Deakins’s cinematography and the sound design. I would shower it with honours, and along the way I’d find time to praise the actors also.

Of course, disagreeing with the Academy is nothing new. I indulged a week off work catching up on some old unseen titles, particularly previous Oscar winners, and what a mixed bag it is. Take the first ever Awards, ninety years ago, and the honours going to Wings. On the night Sunrise was given what appeared to be an equally weighted trophy, but it’s Wellman’s World War One epic that’s considered the outright Best Picture. Having seen both, I feel Sunrise has aged far better, and retains an elegiac, haunting quality that’s as powerful now as it was when Murnau first shot it, whereas Wings… Well, it’s fine. Notable for its aerial photography, the film explodes into life when depicting dog-fights between the primitive planes waging war miles above the trenches, even serving up some colour via the machine gun fire. Elsewhere, the opening comedy of errors leads to a largely tension-free love rivalry between the two male leads, while Clara Bow – effortlessly worthy of more attention than she receives – watches on longingly. Both films are available in restored, HD editions, and are well worth seeing, but for me there’s little contest between which of the two deserves the higher praise.

Years later, there’s the Oscar for Gentleman’s Agreement, a film that promised to life the lid on anti-Semitism in post-war America. Gregory Peck is always a star I’d pay to see, but the real draw was John Garfield, that great ‘what if’ of an actor who tragically didn’t get the lasting career and plaudits his talent warranted. Sadly, it all turned out to be sanitised and safe, even resorting to some jarring exposition when Peck explains the point of it all to his son, played by a very young Dean Stockwell. At around the same time, I happened to catch Odds Against Tomorrow on Blu-Ray, a late-period classic Noir, which did a much better job of exploring themes of racism as part of a wider narrative. The film’s about a bank heist, focusing on the lengthy build-up by following the fortunes of its protagonists, Harry Bellafonte’s debt-ridden gambler and Robert Ryan. the robbery is doomed to fail before it even takes place, we learn, largely because the two men are so diametrically opposed. Ryan plays pretty much the same character he essayed in Crossfire, an unremitting racist with some casual misogyny thrown in, all in all a complete arsehole who deserves nothing less than his fate in the film. I thought it was riveting, a smashing work from Robert Wise during his richest period as a director, but despite dealing so eloquently with issues surrounding bigotry didn’t even trouble that year’s Oscars. I guess it’s easy to dismiss this one as a heist movie, however there’s so much more bubbling beneath the surface and it deserves to be better known.

For the record then, here are my ten favourites of the Best Picture winners, in date order…

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30)
2. Rebecca (1940)
3. Casablanca (1943)
4. The Lost Weekend (1945)
5. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
6. The Apartment (1960)
7. The Godfather (1972)
8. The Godfather Part II (1974)
9. Amadeus (1984)
10. The Artist (2011)

Jut goes to show there’s no accounting for taste, huh?

5 Replies to “Ramble through the 2018 Oscars”

  1. I sid see PHANTOM THREAD but am otherwise in the same position as you really ad I have not seen all the nominated films. Was hoping to remedy last week but all my mates got sick or waylaid by snow! I liked the first half od GET OUT especially and THREE BILLBOARDS will probably mop up, which is reasonable despite all the obvious and reallt kind of stupid plot and continuity problems in the second half. I agree with yiur ten best but would want to get MILLION DOLLAR BABY in thete too 😀

    1. Thanks Sergio, hope you’re well and surviving the snow! Nothing easy about picking a ten best from the list of Oscars winners. MILLION DOLLAR BABY’s clearly very good, I might prefer UNFORGIVEN overall, and the only reason I didn’t give ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST more of a shot is that it’s simply so many years since I watched it, and all I tend to remember now are the various parodies.

  2. I’ve only seen two of this year’s nominees — the two that have been out for ages, of course. Shape of Water‘s run here was so short that I didn’t have a chance to go (maybe it’ll come back now!), and the others didn’t quite tempt me enough to prevent just waiting for Blu-ray or streaming.

    As for Oscar history, I’ve seen a little over half of the Best Picture winners now but haven’t actually thought about ranking favourites before. Though I can certainly say Million Dollar Baby would be nowhere near my list! Casablanca would be near the top for me too, and Return of the King is the first other one that comes to mind.

    1. Thanks Richard. I’m a bit surprised that THE SHAPE OF WATER hasn’t enjoyed more screenings – a lot of GDT fans in this country, surely, and on the whole it’s good stuff, though its UK release was very late in the day. I really wanted to see I, TONYA, and had to make the effort to travel quite late one Sunday evening to do so. It was worth it, good movie, but it’s a failing of the local multiplexes that they don’t give these films a bit more coverage on the whole.

      The ranking of favourites was a bit of a last minute decision with little thought beyond gut instinct put into it, though I’ll admit it wasn’t difficult to produce a list and the number of winners that I think are actually that good is relatively small – not too often that the one you think is the best turns out to be the Academy winner, is it? RETURN OF THE KING – felt a bit dirty for not including it, and I know the award was for the trilogy, but I did think this instalment was the weakest and broadest of the three. The first, on the other hand, just wonderful… All personal opinion naturally, there are lots of people who love ROTK, and their reasons for doing so are completely justifiable.

      1. I do wonder if Shape of Water was hurt by its late release here. It should’ve benefitted from word of mouth, but by being so late I wonder if it drove a greater than average number of people to piracy. Or perhaps it’s just more niche than it appears.

        I’m also of the opinion that Fellowship is the best individual film in the trilogy. I’m not sure how I’d rank Return of the King as a film in its own right compared to other Oscar winners, because its win was so obviously an acknowledgement of the whole trilogy that I can’t help but count it as that.

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