Thursday, August 28, 2008

High Seas and Epic Tease

In this crazy Eighth episode of Best Pictures from the Outside In, Nathaniel and Goatdog and I pop some giant horse-pills of testosterone to confront two big Man Movies: Frank Lloyd's Mutiny on the Bounty, Oscar's champ from 1935, and Ridley Scott's Gladiator, the first post-Y2K winner. General consensus is that Mutiny is yare, while Gladiator's the one at sea. Read the full transcript, and share your thoughts.

Unfortunately, the week catches me totally unprepared to embellish much beyond what I wrote in the conversation. 1935 is an even sparser year in terms of my own viewing than 1934 was. In my very distant memory, I loved John Ford's The Informer, though almost everyone I know tells me it's overly stylized and unconvincingly acted, so I can't stand by it as my Best Picture vote without another look. I'm a huge fan of Alice Adams (see here for the proof) and of Top Hat, and Broadway Melody of 1936 is steady entertainment, thanks largely to the dynamic Eleanor Powell, if not a full-on knockout. Sadly, I have seven Best Picture nominees left to see and, from my own viewing experience, only Alfred Hitchcock's crackling 39 Steps to insist upon as an Oscar oversight. (Lots of folks would stump for The Bride of Frankenstein or The Devil Is a Woman, but I'm a dissenter on both counts: I think the former is too facetious and the latter is just too tacky and skimpy on feeling, even though Marlene memorably, gruffly asserted it as the best of her Sternberg vehicles in the indispensable documentary that Maximilan Schell made about her.)

Meanwhile, I also have some 2000 dilemmas to solve. I've been trumpeting Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (reviewed here) as my favorite BP nominee ever since they were announced... but at this point, isn't my heart with Erin Brockovich (reviewed here and here), an issue picture, biopic, and vanity vehicle that glides over all three of those huge generic hurdles and improves with every single viewing? I didn't get to re-watch Tiger to find out, but the race is tight. Adventures in high concept: Erin Brockovich goes wuxia on PG&E!

So, no firm verdicts on either year, just a bunch of ambivalence and fond memories. When I eventually go back and review my Top Ten of 2000, I'll also be eager to revisit Timecode, The Wind Will Carry Us, and Yi Yi (A One and a Two...), three films I may well have undervalued at the time; Up at the Villa, a delicious perversity that I may nonetheless have over-estimated; The Claim, Traffic, and The Yards, which I always liked but have largely forgotten in their particulars; and a bunch of critically idolized titles that I couldn't access at the time, including Lodge Kerrigan's Claire Dolan and Laurent Cantet's Human Resources. And those are just the U.S. commercial releases! 2000 also yielded festival sensations like Shinji Aoyama's Eureka, Ousmane Sembene's Faat Kiné, Jiang Wen's Devils on the Doorstep, Chantal Akerman's La Captive, Jia Zhangke's Platform, Bernard Rose's ivansxtc., and Béla Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, all of them still hovering on my viewing horizon.

So, make like Commodus and cast your thumbs up and down in the Comments. Make like Captain Bligh and lead me in the right direction, however roughly. Make like Fletcher Christian and buck the prevailing authorities. I'm eager for your guidance.

This Week: Goatdog's transcript and Nathaniel's Gable/Crowe profile
Previously: ep.1: Wings & No Country; ep.2: Broadway Melody & Departed; ep.3: All Quiet & Crash; ep.4: Cimarron & Million Dollar Baby; ep.5: Grand Hotel & LOTR:ROTK; ep.6: Cavalcade & Chicago; ep.7: It Happened One Night & A Beautiful Mind

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Beware of a Holy Blog-a-Thon

Why do I work in such ridiculously erratic cycles? Just a day after that Vicky Cristina Barcelona review, here's another write-up, this one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore. I suppose that could have been the title for Allen's film, if he were letting his real feelings about the Penélope Cruz character be known. It turns out that when Fassbinder travels to Spain, his experience of life is rather... different than Allen's. You can pore over Holy Whore and find not one shot that all the reviews will describe as "buttery." You can also, as in long stretches of the Allen picture, fail to realize that you're even in Spain, but for totally different reasons. Enjoy the review, and then wile away some summer hours at the party that inspired it, Goatdog's Movies About Movies Blog-a-Thon.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Nick Woody Mediocrity

Woody Allen, for my money, has failed once again to "come back" in any meaningful way, but that doesn't mean that I can't take a stab at my own career resurgence. Remember when I used to write full reviews? Taste this and tell me if I'm ready.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sh*t Happened One Night

Click here for Episode 7 of Best Pictures from the Outside In.

You like us, you really like us! Nathaniel's full transcript for Episode 7 of Best Pictures from the Outside In just went on-line, and we already have seven comments, many of them commiserating with what to me is the unforgivable victory of Ron Howard's scared and very safe A Beautiful Mind over Robert Altman's saucily observant Gosford Park, Peter Jackson's majestic Fellowship of the Ring (my full review here), and Baz Luhrmann's inventively exuberant Moulin Rouge! (my full review here). I can't get on board with the idea that Mind's success was an all-out travesty, since I still think that Todd Field's In the Bedroom is as self-fetishizing and frustrating a middlebrow arthouse film as A Beautiful Mind is a burnished crowd-pleaser. But Oscar Night '01 remains, nonetheless, a major miscarriage of justice, not because A Beautiful Mind is worse than other Best Picture winners—as we've seen recently and will again, it's not—but because Oscar came so close, and yet so far, from doing the right thing with its top prize.

Since I didn't get a chance to say so during our conversation, I'll add that I do think A Beautiful Mind has one bracing little moment of writing, directing, and performance, when Jennifer Connelly asks an on-the-mend Russell Crowe to take out the trash just for a change of scenery, and she overhears him talking to people who aren't there, only to be corrected. It's a very rare scene for letting you identify heartily with both points of view, and for ending with a tone that isn't what you expect. Both actors successfully project characters who feel like whole people, and Nash's dementia seems like a three-dimensional dramatic situation. Would that we'd seen more of this.

Thankfully, sometimes Oscar does do the right thing with its top prize, and even more thankfully, some films are brimming with beautifully played and directed scenes, and with three-dimensional dramatic situations. I'm the only one of the three of us who was left wanting just a bit more from It Happened One Night this time 'round, but that doesn't change that the film remains one of my all-time favorite winners. I still rejoice that, in a rarity for his early youth, Oscar had the grace and merriment to reward a comedic love story and a character piece that isn't about a legendary scientist or a famous leader. As Mike points out, there is so much more to say about this rich, delicate, ambitious, and entertaining movie than we were able, so keep the conversation flowing in the comments!

For reasons of available time, which have also hampered my recent viewing, I haven't seen all of the 1934 nominees yet and can't deliver my own rankings as has been my recent custom. In fact, '34 is sort of a weak year for me overall, so as you wait for my updates (once I've seen Cleopatra, Flirtation Walk, and a couple of others), please let me know your own favorites from that year. I love taking direction, and with any luck at all, yours will be better than Ron Howard's.

This Week: Nathaniel's transcript and Goatdog's tie-in entry
Previously: ep.1: Wings & No Country; ep.2: Broadway Melody & Departed; ep.3: All Quiet & Crash; ep.4: Cimarron & Million Dollar Baby; ep.5: Grand Hotel & LOTR:ROTK; ep.6: Cavalcade & Chicago

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Just so you know...

Outside the semi-regular Oscar posts, I realize this blog has been a bit bound and gagged lately, and yet the host site has not been stagnating as much as it may appear. As a place-marker and promissory note for future writing (as I finish revising the Julie and Vanessa essay, heading to my editor any day now...), let me just call some quick attention to some of the subtle but important changes that I hope you'll enjoy over at Nick's Flick Picks:

Remember, regular readers, when the site suddenly emerged from its literal Dark Ages of white text on black backgrounds? That happened a little over a year ago on the major pages of the main site, and a few months ago on this blog. Updating the individual review pages and special features is a painstaking process; Universal Replace software helps for the big stuff, but the html for all the awards information and permalinks are different on every page, so there's a lot of file-by-file revision to do. I'm up to about "H" right now as I fix my 2,000+ individual pages, but soon enough, all those reviews that used to look like this will look more like this. (Would that the actual movies made the same quantum leaps.) Please tell me when and where you notice obvious errors.

I've worked out some html kinks and beefed up some of the graphics on the Best Actress site especially, and I've added a new Best Picture interface, in case you haven't visited yet. Again, please let me know if things don't work.

The front page has been revised for the first time in a while, including tour-guide suggestions for new readers. Enjoy!

A major joy of recent years has been my increased access to festivals, imported DVDs, and other opportunities for viewing films outside of their commercial releases. This has wreaked a little havoc, though, on my system of classifying movies by year; last year, for example, I ranked 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days high on my Top 10 list after seeing it at CIFF, even though it hadn't officially premiered Stateside yet. I'm now revising for a more consistent policy of classifying by year of U.S. release from 1995 onward, when my regular theater-going habits really began, and by year of initial production for earlier years, when almost all of my viewing has involved retroactive catch-up. In addition to organizing the site more coherently, this change has led to a page for unreleased films, about which I'll have more to say soon. It also frees me up to finish those "Best of" Features that I got stuck on when I ran into eligibility quandaries. Stay tuned!

This increased attention to years of world premiere vs. years of U.S. release also has an impact on my Top Ten lists, which have recently been a bit indiscriminate on these points. Plus, WHO AMONG US doesn't occasionally wish to revise those lists. So, working backwards, I'm now outfitting each Year page with three Top Tens: one by U.S. release date, one by world premiere (including festival titles and delayed releases, which most of us didn't see until later), and the original list I wrote at the time, so I'm not falsely covering my earliest tracks, even as I've left myself new room to re-rank and re-prioritize in light of new encounters. You can see the changes already for 2003 (which further explains the image at the top of this post) and for every year since. For kicks, I've also furnished the runners-up, which are sometimes more interesting and less consensus-ish than the actual Top 10.

Changes will be even bigger for progressively more distant years, since my tastes have obviously changed in greater proportion, and my sense of exact release dates has been foggiest the further back you go. So again, stay tuned! The bumper years of 2002, 2001, and 1999, where I wondered even at the time how I could squeeze so much quality into a mere ten slots, are due for pretty intense overhauls, even though I still love all my original choices. (But no worries, Nathaniel: I'm no longer allowing myself ties!)

I've been re-watching lots of old movies and catching up with long-deferred pleasures while Nathaniel and Goatdog and I have been doing our Best Picture thing... which means, at long last, Year pages as far back as the Silent Era, currently up through 1933. Even more than on the modern Year pages, viewing lists, grades, and Top Tens on these pages will be subject to constant change—so once more, stay tuned! Disregard any link promising content after 1933, or before 1980. These are placeholders, but I know they're "broken" for the time being.

Are you bored yet? Eventually this blog will more obviously recede behind the main site, so I just like to keep you posted every now and then about what's going on over there during my massive Big Dig reconstruction. What I really can't wait to do after finishing all these nips, tucks, and overhauls, is to WRITE MORE and MORE OFTEN. The dream is still alive, and feeling closer all the time.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

What's Wrong with 1949?

Since we don't have a regularly scheduled Best Pictures... installment for you this week, I am attempting to compensate with a newly filed entry in my series of Best Actress overviews, this one devoted to the starry but nonetheless straggly race from 1949. Oscar behaved very strangely that year, not least in ignoring some of the most lasting classics of that vintage, like John Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Raoul Walsh's White Heat (although, in fairness, I have heretofore ignored those movies, too). Some bright gems like the snappish Adam's Rib, the stylish Third Man, and the British Kind Hearts and Coronets weren't eligible until 1950 (though they didn't generate the Academy enthusiasm they deserved then, either), and even though BIG was enough to secure Best Picture nominations throughout the 50s, Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah, by far the year's biggest hit, was confined to the Spectacle categories.

Still, none of this is anything compared to the hash Oscar made of the two actressing categories. StinkyLulu's Smackdowners recently discovered what a tepid bunch the Supporting gals were, lazily culled from a total of three movies. Up in the lead category, Oscar anointed an inevitable winner, though I think the performance is considerably overrated even now, and surrounded her with no more than adequate turns by three big once-and-future stars, plus a typical bout of gracelessness from Jeanne Crain in the box-office hit Pinky. You can read all of my thoughts about each nomination here.

What I really need help determining, though, is whether Oscar could have done better with the yields of that year—or, better put, exactly how much better he could have done. De Havilland's still on my personal ballot because she's quite good in her best moments, but I'm more impressed by Barbara Bel Geddes' incongruous warmth and accessibility at the heart of the dark Max Ophuls thriller Caught (think Jessica Lange's Tootsie performance in the middle of a woman-in-peril film noir); by another Ophuls heroine, Joan Bennett in The Reckless Moment, doing her gruff take on the role that would later be Tilda Swinton's in The Deep End; and most of all by Ginger Rogers in The Barkleys of Broadway, gamely replacing Judy Garland by the side of her legendary co-star Fred Astaire, and infusing very credible, very real emotion into the role of an ex-partner who left the dancing act in pursuit of more "serious actress" parts. She's funny, she's as smart and quick as she always was in these pictures, and unlike Harrison Ford in The Kingdom of the Crappy Skript, she proves that you really can return to an old well and put years of intervening maturity to good, rich, entertaining use.

My fifth nominee is Ann Sothern, the most charismatic and unpredictable of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Three Wives, but reader, I suspect there's gotta be more gold in them '49er hills. Please tell me where to find it. With Garland, in the musicalized Shop Around the Corner remake In the Good Old Summertime? With Joanne Dru or Virginia Mayo in the undisputed classics I named up top? With Bette Davis whining "What a dump!" in Beyond the Forest, or Jennifer Jones in high-prestige mode in Vincente Minnelli's Madame Bovary? With Valentina Cortese or with Gene Tierney, both giving Richard Conte trouble in Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway and Otto Preminger's Whirlpool, respectively? How about future winner Patricia Neal's one-two punch in The Fountainhead and the Best Actor-nominated The Hasty Heart, or never-nominated Maureen O'Hara in Nicholas Ray's mystery-thriller A Woman's Secret? Or Ingrid Bergman (pictured) headlining one of Hitchcock's first color pictures, Under Capricorn? These are your poll choices, and please vote, even if one just strikes your fancy, or even if you can't make a qualified choice in the other two races. I need inspiration. If your favorite isn't an option (Barbara Hale in The Window? Joan Crawford in Flamingo Road? June Allyson, for god's sake, in Little Women?), give her props in the comments. Help redeem this subpar year!

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Friday, August 01, 2008

March Madness, in August!

You didn't think we'd exclude you forever, did you? Goatdog reminded me that I was supposed to let you after last week's Best Pictures... episode that the insanity has taken two additional, inevitable forms. One of these is a tournament bracket among your three Oscar-obsessed musketeers, where we vote internally about our favorite winner from each set of five consecutive years (so far, '28-'32 and '03-'07), eventually determining our favorite Best Picture winner. The other is a page of reader's polls where you get to record your own votes for the same contests. By the end, sometime next year, under a new Democratic president, we'll see how closely we all agree. Hop to it!

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