Friday, May 05, 2006

Best of the Best Pictures

Here's the Siren's list of the Best of the Best Picture Oscars, for Edward Copeland's latest survey. You have until midnight tonight (May 5) to mail your selections to eddiesworst@yahoo.com. The only way the Siren could compile this list was by going with the Best Picture Oscar winners than she liked best--the ones she would gladly watch again tonight. In order, then:

1. The Best Years of Our Lives. Peerless portrait of American family life. Not a weak performance in the movie. Full of moments to treasure, such as Myrna Loy's wordless reaction when she finally sees her husband, or Fredric March, contrasting a prewar picture of himself with the image in the mirror. And there's Harold Russell's homecoming to his family and his "swell girl" Wilma, as moving a scene as any Wyler ever filmed--and the prelude, as Dana Andrews watches Russell walk away and says sadly, "I hope Wilma is a swell girl." The movie is sometimes described as idealized, but the Siren absolutely disagrees. Virginia Mayo's trampy wife, Myrna Loy's expression while watching her husband drink too much, Russell's mother suppressing a gasp when she sees the hooks that have replaced her son's hands, Dana Andrews suffering what we'd now call PTSD--none of this is treated with anything near treacly sentiment.

2. The Bridge on the River Kwai. Most people seem to prefer Lawrence of Arabia to this earlier David Lean epic. Lawrence is a magnificent movie, but the Siren gives the edge to The Bridge, for its clearer and more pungent characterizations, its biting antiwar and anti-imperialist message and its satiric edge.

3. The Apartment. Next to The Crowd (a clear influence), the Wilder movie is the premiere meditation on surviving as a cog in the capitalist machinery, a theme that is notably under-explored in American film. Office Space can't hold a candle to the honesty and wit of this movie.

4. Annie Hall. The Siren knows some people don't like this movie, but it's like telling her you don't like ice cream. Doesn't compute. I particularly love Diane Keaton's and Woody Allen's split-screen shrink session when, asked how often they have sex, Keaton blurts "All the time. Twice a week!" and Allen laments, "Practically never. Twice a week."

5. All About Eve. Wordplay that remains unsurpassed more than a half-century after the movie was released.

6. The Godfather Part II. The Godfather movies began our fatuous romanticization of the Mob's vicious criminals, and therefore have a great deal to answer for. (The Siren agrees wholeheartedly with whoever was first to observe that The Godfather shows the Mafia the way they want to think of themselves, but the real Mobsters are the casually homicidal sadists of Goodfellas.) The first Godfather is perhaps more purely entertaining, but it's the second film that shows the escalating costs of violence. When Michael Corleone asks his mother whether it's possible to lose your family (Mr. Campaspe's favorite scene), she can't comprehend what he's talking about. It isn't possible, she tells him--but by that time, the audience knows it is not only possible, for Michael it is inevitable.


7. An American in Paris. Oh well, every list should have an item calculated to start an argument. This gorgeous musical occupies an odd position, beloved yet often called overrated. The final ballet sequence, with its dancers echoing French painters from Monet to Lautrec, gets a lot of eye-rolling from some modern audiences. Piffle, says the Siren. Remember, Gene Kelly's character is a struggling artist. That his fantasy sequence would be overrun with more talented painters is as logical as anything in an MGM musical ever gets. The ballet certainly makes as much sense as the "Louisiana Hayride" number in The Band Wagon (a film the Siren also loves, natch). And if Kelly and Leslie Caron on the banks of the Seine fail to enchant, the Siren thinks you should come clean and admit you just don't like musicals.

8. Unforgiven. A grimmer and more violent pendant to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Like its predecessor, this movie asks the audience to look at how we know what we think we know about our heros and our history.

9. Rebecca. It's the atmosphere that makes this one so marvelous.

10. How Green Was My Valley. Yes, yes, yes, Citizen Kane should have won. That doesn't mean this exquisitely beautiful movie, more lyrical and heartfelt than any other John Ford made, should be overlooked. Roddy MacDowell gives perhaps the greatest child performance of all time, and Maureen O'Hara was never again as simple, direct and true as she was playing Angharad. In her memoirs she said that when the Welsh choir, hired to sing in a couple of sequences, saw Ford's set, its beauty made them burst into tears.

(Above left, Gregg Toland's deep focus for The Best Years of Our Lives turns a dingy bar into art. Middle right, Jack Lemmon demonstrates the movies' best-ever use of a tennis racket--although years later, Annie Hall came in a close second. Bottom left, Gene Kelly is menaced by showgirls in Paris. Perhaps they just wanted no more of his perfectionist rehearsals.)

7 comments:

Zach Campbell said...

Campaspe, thanks for mentioning How Green Was My Valley. It's really too bad this film is known as the one that unjustly beat Citizen Kane for best picture. Frankly I think it might be better than Kane. Certainly, "deserving" winner or not, by any sane estimation it's one of the best recipients of the BP Oscar. It's like Picasso losing out to Cezanne for "greatest modern artist" ...

(I do disagree that the film is the most lyrical and heartfelt film that Ford made--to me he made more l&h masterpieces than anyone else in Hollywood, but that's just me ...)

Campaspe said...

I agree, lyrical and heartfelt was Ford's stock in trade. It's a hackneyed phrase on my part, anyway; must have had the cliche sensor switched off! I think tender is the word I am looking for. Above all, it's the story of this family struggling to keep its love and ties intact. The theme is similar to The Grapes of Wrath but to me this movie works better, much as I like both.

Patrick said...

I voted on this one too - we agreed on 3 movies anyway, numbers 1,3,5. How could Best Years have landed at only number 15 at Edward's site? Maybe its just that not enough people have seen it. One thing that occurred to me was that there have been a lot of very good pictures that have won Best Picture. Only worth commenting on because the winners seem to receive a good deal of ridicule each year, but you go through the list and there is some very good stuff there. Like Shakespeare in Love landing way down at 38, below American in Paris, how did that happen...

Exiled in NJ said...

In putting Best Years in my top five, I made the glib comment that the list needed a Wyler. What a horse's behind comment. Wyler managed to touch so many bases without resorting to caricatures. As you point out, these heroes come home warts and all, to some wonderful women, and some who are not, but Mayo, and the men who envy Andrews' place in the wartime pecking order and now lord over him, only display the same weaknesses as March, when he has a few too many.

Set this film up as a double feature with Hal Ashby's Coming Home. The more things change....

Koneko said...

I loved Rebecca and All About Eve! Sigh...

Eriol said...

Campaspe, (and zach) thanks for listing "How Green Was My Valley." I put "Valley" on my list, and included "Rebecca" as well. As you noted about "Rebecca", the atmospheres make it great. I think the same for "Valley", esp. as O'Hara is leaving the church after being married, and the wind sweeps up her vale, like a sail or a surrender flag.
Kane has its great atmospherics as well. I think this is a big advantage B&W has over color.

About "The Best Years of Our Lives", I'm not a very experienced cinephile, but before sometime last year I'd never heard of it, and I still haven't seen it.

Thanks for your list and your blogging.

The duck thief said...

I just found your website and I have to say, I absolutely love it! I especially like this Best Picture post. My mom and I have made it a goal to watch all of the Best Picture winners together because we're big movie buffs. It's been so much fun.