Saturday, May 22, 2010

Smack-down: Best Picture, 1995

Sunday (tomorrow) The Final Oscar is hosting one of its "Smackdown" contests, where an invited group of bloggers re-think The Academy's final selection of what it considers the "Best Picture" for a specific year. Just as it's "an honor just to be nominated," for me, it's an honor to be asked to participate. Thanks to Malcolm for asking. The winner that year was "Braveheart"—a good pick, really—but we'll see what happens when all the votes are tallied and Malc' does his "Price/Waterhouse" on it.

Here's what I wrote for "Smackdown: 2008 Best Picture" (which Malcolm will mercifully edit, as I do go on a bit!). It was a very good year.

The Nominees:

Apollo 13 (Ron Howard) A labor of love for director Howard and star Tom Hanks—both space-junkies, who looked to the Apollo program as an Ultimate Adventure and the astronauts as gods. After a previous television movie about the "Moon-shot That Wasn't" ginned up a melodrama in the NASA control-room, complete with heart-attack (fictional), Howard, producer Brian Grazer and Hanks determined to tell the dramatic-enough story of the astronauts and NASA personnel, who found their carefully-planned third Moon-landing Mission becoming an improvised rescue operation to save the three astronauts (Hanks, Bill Paxton, and last-minute replacement for Gary Sinise, Kevin Bacon), who, through a dramatic explosion on board, found themselves running out of power and oxygen half-way to the Moon.

That story is known, but what the production excels at is showing the travails that any flight in space contains—the violent buffeting of launch, the creepy stress noises the capsules make even in the best of times, the difficulty of navigating in space during a propellant burn (complicated by having to fly backwards, and track stars amidst a stream of ice crystals). These are details left out of the history books and make the trips look far more hair-raising than the cool demeanor of the astronauts show. And even though the outcome of the mission is known, Howard manages to make it a nail-biting experience. An all-star cast (including Ed Harris as Mission Controller Eugene Krantz) does a superb job of displaying grace and determination under pressure, while the film also makes plain, in its quieter moments, the daunting isolation and lonely vastness of space—even in the astral neighborhood. As far as space movies go, it truly is "its finest hour."

5 stars

Babe (Chris Noonan) Charming "Awww"-inspiring story about a pig, who through a defiance of his own herd-instinct, and the assistance of his co-conspirators in the barnyard, saves his bacon by providing a function other than consumption and strives to become a working animal—by learning to herd. A technological marvel, the film boasts live-animal performances merged seamlessly with animatronics and CGI enhancement to give the audience the animal perspective on their insular societies.

Far more sophisticated than a simple "talking animals" movie, Babe gives its creatures distinctive functions and personalities invisible to the human farmers (James Cromwell and Magda Szubanski), who see them as mere workers or food. It's a more humanistic (if I can use the speciest term) and apolitical version of "Animal Farm." As a film, it runs contrary to formula by providing a climax done in quiet silence and comically distant long-shots. It is a "family film" that does not limit itself to the family of Man. "That'll do, pig."

5 stars

Braveheart (Mel Gibson) Gibson's second directorial outing and first true Epic about 14th century Scotch freedom fighter William Wallace, who defied the English king (Edward Longshanks, played by Patrick McGoohan), over their policies invading Scottish freedoms and, indeed, dignity. Braveheart is a gritty, stirring story given to hyper-theatrics and a kinetic presentation style during the bloody battle scenes that has been emulated (but rarely matched) by every subsequent historic sword-and-sandal film.

It provides a great starring role for Gibson that neatly ties in with his martyr screen persona (whether he is "Mad" Max or Detective Riggs), and his final fate—publicly drawn and quartered (which may be a screen first)—is discretely accomplished inches off-screen. The film boasts other great performances by Brendan Gleeson, Brian Cox, McGoohan, Angus MacFadyen and Sophie Marceau. It may be out of place to mention it in an article that includes a talking pig movie, but The Times declared "Braveheart" second in it's "10 Most Historically Inaccurate Movies" (for instance, the "primae noctis" decree that is made so much of wasn't used, if it even existed). Gibson defends the credibility gaps, saying they made more "cinematically compelling." Can't argue with that.

5 stars

Il Postino (Michael Radford) Remake of "Ardienta Paciencia," (which was made in 1985 by the book's author), the screenplay for "Il Postino" boasts five authors, including the star Missimo Troisi, who postponed heart surgery to make the film, only to die of a heart attack the day after filming wrapped.

A sunny, affectionate film—reminiscent of "Cyrano de Bergerac"—it tells the tale of the upheaval the Italian island of Salina experiences when the poet Pablo Neruda (Phillipe Noiret) temporarily settle there, a political exile. Because his notoriety overwhelms the little island post-office with fan-mail, the sickly son of a fisherman, Mario, is hired to bicycle Neruda's mail to him. The two develop a bond through Neruda's poetry, and Mario's appreciation for verse enables him to win the affections of the waitress he secretly longs for.

Very popular at the time, Il Postino has faded from memory somewhat, its influence in the culture less than the other nominees, although it garnered five Oscar nominations—Picture, Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay—winning the Award for score (As the Academy appears to be tone-deaf, they can be counted on to vote for the composer with the most exotic name). A pleasant-enough film experience, its presence on the "Best Picture" nominations is a bit inexplicable.

4 Stars

Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee) Adaptation of the Jane Austen novel that manages to take the English classic and blow it free of mold and dust. Credit must go to an extraordinary adaptation by star Emma Thompson, who manages to embody the wit in the story that most everyone seems to have forgotten. The almost hysterical imperative to marry informs and dominates the lives of the three girls in the Dashwood family, and the circumstances and complications that surround their interactions with potential suitors runs the gamut of emotions, all presented by an impeccable cast of actors, who would dominate cinema for the next decade. That it is the first English-language film of Chinese director Ang Lee makes it astonishing, but it really shouldn't be—the lives of the Dashwoods are as foreign to modern audiences as they were to Lee. But everyone understands love and heart-break. And Lee's first big-budget film benefits from his keen eye for detail and landscape—not only of the rural English countryside, but also of the human heart.

Any film that can take its source material and improve it while showing proper respect for that source is one that all films should aspire to. To make it "cinematically compelling" in that transition makes it the best a film can be.

5 Stars - Winner

Generally, the 1995 Best Picture list is a good crop of films that have had staying power, and, frankly, it's a bit tough to choose between the Apples and Oranges to determine which is the Best Film between them. The one that's a bit of a stretch is "Il Postino," but you can attribute that to the "Miramax effect" of aggressive Oscar campaigning. (Here's a list of the films that could have been nominated: Before Sunrise, The Bridges of Madison County, The City of Lost Children, Clockers, Dead Man Walking, Get Shorty, Heat, Leaving Las Vegas, A Little Princess, Twelve Monkeys, Toy Story, and The Usual Suspectsyou be the judge). But for me, of the five, Sense and Sensibility is the winner this time. A "woman's picture" butch enough to have the sense and sensibility to question the romantic tropes, and even the sanity, of its flawed but all-too-human soldiers of love, Ang Lee and Emma Thompson's film is one of those costume dramas more concerned with the people inside the costumes trapped inside their times and mores. They are not extraordinary people. They are all too ordinary and completely relatable in their gifts and flaws. And the gentle way that the film-makers communicate the absurdities of the romantic rondelets while giving them the participants the respect they are due sets it apart from the other films in the list.

Of the nominees, I own two on DVD, Babe and Sense and Sensibility.

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