Hey friends, Shep here, returning with the top five on my list of truly great films, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, that lost out on the coveted top prize. You can find numbers ten down through six right here. Let’s continue, shall we?
5. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Lost To: No Country for Old Men (dir: Joel and Ethan Coen)
Daniel Plainview, an early 20th century oil driller, is the kinda bad guy you just have to root for in There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s cynical, epic-scale satire where business sells out to religion and religion sells out to business. For all intents and purposes, it’s sort of the Citizen Kane of the 21st century. Gorgeously shot and brilliantly acted (the film won Oscars for both aspects), many people dismissed this film as merely a performance piece, as Daniel Day-Lewis, admittedly, does do quite a bit of the ol’ scenery-chewing. But watch it again, folks. This film is a total auteur’s picture all the way and Day-Lewis’s performance only compliments Anderson’s big bombastic show. Blood is a comedy of the darkest nature, a thick oily black that cakes the surface of the entire landscape and permeates its bleakest moments. And who would have thought it was going to be such a quotable gem? It’s been just over a year since this movie was released, but I’ve been getting liquored up at the Peach Tree Dance and drinking other people’s milkshakes ever since! DRRRRAAAINAGE!!!
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Lost To: Chariots of Fire (dir: Hugh Hudson)
How did what is easily one of the most rousing and wildly entertaining films ever made wind up losing the Best Picture Oscar to one of the most boring films I’ve ever seen in my life?! It’s an outrage, quite frankly. Raiders of the Lost Ark may well be Steven Spielberg’s crowning achievement. If the first ten minutes of this film don’t put you on the edge of your seat, then you’re obviously soulless and have no business watching movies. Harrison Ford, in the role that cancelled him out as being forever remembered as Han Solo, is a perfect fit for our hero, Indiana Jones, in his first big-screen adventure as he and Karen Allen and a whole bunch of Nazis search ruthlessly for the Ark of the Covenant. Raiders of the Lost Ark is why people go to the movies–it’s pure entertainment, a classic slice of exciting, face-melting adventure. Truth be told, I’m more of a Temple of Doom guy, but there’s no denying the cinematic excellence and technical prowess of this film. The stunts, sets, and special effects are classically ridiculous, providing perfect eye candy as the plot twists and turns along with an intense urgency and a sharp sense of humor. Let’s just all agree to forget about that whole Crystal Skull thing, ok?
3. Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Lost To: All About Eve (dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
In the opening title shot of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd we find the title plastered on the bottom of the street, overtop of a gutter. It’s a perfect juxtaposition of an iconic cultural landmark and the washed-up trash that it harbors, and it gives you just the right idea about what kind of picture you’re in for. William Holden plays Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis, whose opening (posthumous) narration cynically spits in the face of the swarms of reporters at a murder scene, and, in a triumph for the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction philosophy, promises us the facts of the case before the newspapers and magazines distort the whole sordid affair. And, in a feat of terrific irony, what follows is classic Hollywood production turned violently on its head. Wilder shows us the story of how in the midst of car trouble (what else?) Gillis happens across the home of eccentric has-been silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson in a stirring and often frightening performance). Upon learning what he does, Desmond keeps him in her house to help her finish her gargantuan epic script for what she’s sure will be her major comeback. Sunset Blvd is probably the best film about the movies ever made, finding a way to exist inside of every genre imaginable, which for the subject, is more than appropriate. It’s a big, gaudy presentation of film noir, black comedy, and twisted romance. We watch in horrified amusement as Ms. Desmond, so deluded by countless nights sitting quietly in the projector-light of her own art, creates constant drama, milking all the theatricality she can from life, turning her own existence into the emulation of one giant film. It exhibits a quality that other great film films, like Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, don’t quite achieve. Sunset Blvd succeeds on the highest levels because it knows how to manipulate cinematic spectacle and intrigue in the most classic sense while coldly subverting it. If nothing else, it’s my favorite film featuring a chimpanzee funeral.
2. Apocalyspe Now (1979)
Lost To: Kramer vs. Kramer (dir: Robert Benton)
Let me just start off by saying that I’m intimidated by the very idea of writing about this movie. If it’s not the best war movie ever made, then it’s certainly the most dense. But good lord, can’t it be both? See, I’m not much of a wordsmith. I’m sure you’ve noticed I tend to repeat adjectives and sentence structure and general concepts of interpretation much of the time. Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now deserves better than what I have to offer. As I sit here, tapping away on my keyboard, I have the film playing on my TV and I’m madly searching for something–some tool in its arsenal that I can possibly articulate to give the uninitiated a sense of just what they have in store for them. From the opening shot, I’m caught in its slow angry wrath, watching helicopters fly over a tropical landscape, slowly transforming it into a haze of napalm; a harsh and deadly haze which we stay inside of for the rest of the two and a half hours of the film (or three and a half, if Redux is your thing). I’m paused right now on Coppola’s own cameo as a filmmaker, standing in the thick of combat, giving direction to the soldiers. I can’t help but crack a wry smile. Oh, the horror! Though the film isn’t so much a satire as a frantic surrealist nightmare. At the risk of sounding like a jackass, this isn’t your grandfather’s war picture. There’s no John Wayne gloriously emerging in triumph from a blazing battle of excitement and testosterone. Apocalypse Now, as its title suggests, is bleak despair and terror from the word go; a furious outcry at the notion of war sold to the American public as cheap entertainment and propoganda. Martin Sheen plays Captain Willard, who’s been sent on a mission to “terminate the command” of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando in one of his many iconic performances), a decorated US military commander who has disappeared into the jungles of Vietnam and created a regime of complete madness–a sick, haunting response to the horrifying nature of war. Based loosely on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the film chronicles Willard’s daunting journey down the river to the Kurtz compound and the further horrors he experiences once there. Maybe it’s not a film for every mindset, but it’s complex and powerful filmmaking and one of the most important pictures ever made. For a great companion piece, check out Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, a terrific documentary about the pains and self-doubt that Francis Ford Coppola endured to get this film made.
1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Lost To: My Fair Lady (dir: George Cukor)
Stanley Kubrick made lots and lots of great movies. He didn’t even really make a whole lot of movies. But it’s just a fact. Look it up. Stanley Kubrick made lots and lots of great movies. But he never bested his manic Cold War satire Dr. Stangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. US Military General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) goes “a little funny in the head” and orders a last resort Wing Attack Plan R against the Soviet Union (and for the most unusual of reasons). The plan calls for communications to be shut off between land and air, so the Executive Branch and the military, quite obviously, are sent into a panic. And so starts the best comedy ever made. Kubrick’s scathing indictment of nuclear proliferation rapidly escalates to the extremes and the laughs get darker and louder as the situation becomes all the more horrifying. Kubrick knows that the best way to paint the complete absurdity of his subject is to make one big damn joke out of it, and he does so flawlessly. Peter Sellers is at his best in this film, playing three roles, all to equally hysterical effect. The President has easily some of the best and most quotable material in the film, particularly a scene in which he calls the drunken Soviet Premier, Dmitri Kissoff, to calmly let him know that there are nuclear-armed jets headed his way. (“Dmitiri, keep your feet on the floor when you’re talking to me!”) Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, his second character, is a British exchange officer stuck in the bunker with General Ripper, as the military tries to break through Ripper’s barrier and apprehend him. And finally, he plays the titular character, Dr. Strangelove, a former-Nazi nuclear war strategist and Presidential advisor, who can’t help slipping up and addressing the President as ”Mein Fuhrer.” But George C. Scott steals the show from all three of them as the chronically gum-chewing, thick-headed, cross-armed bumbling ball of supposed military know-how General Buck Turgidson. Scott plays it so over-the-top that you can’t help bursting out in laughter just looking at his face. Most film nerds know that the original ending of the film was a massive pie-fight set in the ficticious Washington DC “war room” that much of the film takes place in. It seems a wise choice to leave this on the cutting room floor. What makes the film so successful and so monstrously funny is the outlandish comedic performances presented through the eye of Kubrick’s taut docu-drama style direction. A pie fight seems like Kubrick simply giving up. Roger Ebert said it best in his Great Movies article about the film: “A man wearing a funny hat is not funny. But a man who doesn’t know he’s wearing a funny hat…ah, now you’ve got something.” It’s a testament to great filmmaking that a script which could have (and in any other filmmaker’s hands would have) been a serious drama, winds up as one of the most revered, quoted, and watched comedies of all time. Just thinking about it right now, I’m filled with an urgent need to watch it again and you know what? I think I just might.
And that concludes things for me right now. In an effort to not duplicate directors or years, I admit that I had to leave off some incredible films like A Clockwork Orange, Double Indemnity, Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Jack. (wait…Francis Ford Coppola’s stirring Jack wasn’t nominated?! OUTRAGE!!) Not to mention other more recent favorites of mine like Pulp Fiction, Fargo, Good Night and Good Luck, and The Shawshank Redemption. But at the end of the day, this is just what felt right. I’m signing out for now, but be sure to check back with us tonight at 7:30 pm EST for our live blogging and constant updates during the 81st Annual Academy Awards!