Film on TV: March 19-25

I picked out a bunch of classics to pull over from this week’s Film on TV post over at Row Three. Some film noir, some Depression-era musicals, some 1950s creature features, and some Czech New Wave classics. Okay, just one of each of those things. But these are all solid films with some variety, and there’s definitely a lot more to choose from if you click over and see the whole post.

Gold Diggers of 1933

Tuesday, March 20 at 8:00pm on TCM
The story’s nothing to get excited about (and in fact, the subplot that takes over the main plot wears out its welcome fairly quickly), but the strong Depression-era songs, kaleidoscopic choreography from Busby Berkeley, and spunky supporting work from Ginger Rogers pretty much make up for it.
1933 USA. Director: Mervyn LeRoy. Starring: Joan Blondell, Warren William, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Aline MacMahon, Ginger Rogers, Guy Kibbee.

This Gun for Hire

Wednesday, March 21 at 1:30am on TCM (that’s late Tuesday night)
This early noir depicts a hitman (Alan Ladd in his first big role) trying to revenge himself on a former-employer-turned-police-informant, while evading the police (led by Robert Preston), with the help of the policeman’s girlfriend (Veronica Lake), who also happens to be a spy trying to ferret out information on the informant, who is smuggling bomb plans out of the country. Confused yet? It’s intricately-plotted, but most of it makes sense, and the shifting alliances make for engaging viewing. Throw in a sultry magic act for Lake posing as a showgirl, and This Gun for Hire is a more than solid example of a 1940s B-level crime film.
1942 USA. Director: Frank Tuttle. Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Robert Preston, Laird Cregar.


Thursday, March 22 at 6:15pm on TCM
I love a good classic sci-fi film and this one hits all the high points. Radioactive material? Check. Mutant insects? Check. Scientists? Check. Nuclear paranoia? Check. Giant mutant ants (created by radioactivity left by atomic bomb tests in Arizona) start attacking people, first in Arizona, then to Texas and Mexico, and finally in the middle of Los Angeles. A team of scientists works with the police to take the monsters down. One of the better examples of the “atomic mutant” sci-fi films, of which there were many; it builds intensity perfectly (in fact, it’s at least half an hour in before you come close to finding out what’s happening, adding in a very welcome mystery element) and doesn’t spend to long on its obligatory romantic subplot.
1954 USA. Director: Gordon Douglas. Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness.

Bunny Lake is Missing

Friday, March 24 at 5:45pm on TCM
As the title suggests, this is a missing person mystery, but with a twist. When four-year-old Bunny Lake goes missing, her mother frantically tries to track her down, but no one else, including her nursery school teachers, will acknowledge the child ever existed. Is this a vast conspiracy, or a woman gone mad? Otto Preminger keeps the tension tight in this foray into British cinema, and I’ll set this credit sequence against anything else Saul Bass has ever done.
1965 UK. Director: Otto Preminger. Starring: Carol Lynley, Laurence Olivier, Keir Dullea, Martita Hunt, Anna Massey.

Closely Watched Trains

Monday, March 26 at 4:30am on TCM (that’s late Sunday night)
One of the most highly regarded films of the Czech New Wave is, typically, about a seemingly mundane subject – a young man who takes a job as a conductor at his tiny town’s train station and seeks to come of age sexually. The basic story has been told many, many times, but the undertones of the Czech resistance to Nazi occupation along with the surprisingly sweet treatment of Milos’ personal quest make this engaging and memorable. Also, you’ll never look at stamp pads quite the same way again.
1966 Czechoslovakia. Director: Jirí Menzel. Starring: Václav Neckár, Josef Somr and Vlastimil Brodský.

Blind Spots 2012: The Virgin Spring

[This post is part of a series to identify and catch up with various blind spots in my cinematic knowledge, choosing twelve films to watch in 2012. See the series intro for the rest of my picks]

A couple of years ago, I was watching The Virgin Spring at one of LA’s best repertory cinemas, the New Beverly, and left almost exactly halfway through. Now, don’t get the wrong idea. I almost never walk out of films anyway, and it was INCREDIBLY hard to leave this one, especially since it was almost exactly at the climactic scene. I had come to see the first film of the double feature they were showing (Revanche), but knew I’d have to leave the program early in order to get to Cinefamily (the OTHER great LA repertory cinema) for their Czech New Wave series, showing films rarely screened on 35mm in the US. I stayed as long as I could watching , yet despite how drawn into it I was, I somehow never got around to sitting down with the rest of the film at home. So when I put together my list of films for the Blind Spot series, I knew The Virgin Spring had to be on it, even though there are a plethora of other Bergman films I could’ve picked as well.

I should never have waited so long, and yet, it is entirely worth the wait. The film enjoys a healthy reputation (hence it feeling like a major blind spot), and I was a bit afraid that between that and my own self-hyping of it based on my experience with the first half, I’d be disappointed by the film in the end. Such was vehemently not the case. Bergman films are often something of a tough sell with me – there are a few I love unequivocally (Persona, Smiles of a Summer Night), but the ones that seem more quintessentially “Bergman” to me, rather than the anomalous light comedy or experimental film, are much more of a struggle for me. With its story of rape and revenge, I expected The Virgin Spring to be in the same vein – somber and bleak, with an edge of existential angst. What I got was something far more terrible and sublime than I expected.

Though The Virgin Spring is not a part of Bergman’s unofficial “faith” trilogy (kicked off the following year with Through a Glass Darkly), it is still very concerned with faith – a concern laid out from the very beginning as the film sets up a contrast between wild-eyed, unkempt servant girl Ingeri who is praying to Odin and the lord of the manor who, along with his wife, kneel before a crucifix. Ingeri is pregnant and unwed, and she is quickly contrasted with the lord’s daughter Karin, a sunny and virginal blonde who’s preparing to trek through the woods taking candles to the church. I don’t really get the whole purpose of this, being unfamiliar with Swedish medieval tradition, but it doesn’t really matter – it’s basically a Macguffin. When Ingeri temporarily leaves her along on the way, Karin falls in with some seemingly nice shepherds who, well, turn out to have ulterior motives.

It’s not much of a spoiler at this point to reveal that they rape Karin – that’s basically the logline of the film, and it happens only about half-way through. Still, even when you know it’s coming, it’s kind of a shock to the system, simply because Bergman is so forthright and frank about it. He doesn’t shy away from the rape, instead holding his camera unwaveringly, not letting us look away. It’s still 1960, so it’s not what I’d call physically explicit, but there’s absolutely no question about what’s happening, and the beauty and, dare I say it, tastefulness of the shot almost makes the content of the shot even more of a punch to the gut. This is actually the point where I had to leave the New Beverly screening of the film. I did rewatch the whole thing before writing this, though, and the scene was just as horrific and just as gut-wrenching as before.

There’s a lot more in store, though, and the next little section almost plays like a suspense thriller as the three shepherds (the youngest is just a boy and didn’t participate in the rape) wind up at Karin’s manor, apparently not realizing where they are. Despite being worried about Karin’s long absence, the lord and his lady offer the three food and shelter, like any magnanimous landowner should – but we know who they are and what they’ve done, so the intensity doesn’t let up for us. There’s a simply chilling scene when one of the men offers Karin’s cloak to her mother as a gift. But what the film comes down to is whether vengeance is worth it, or if forgiveness is possible – either of rapists or those who take revenge on them. Perhaps the reason The Virgin Spring isn’t part of the Faith Trilogy (aside from its more poetic, less chamber-drama style) is that it shows hope at the end, hope of forgiveness and community, while the Faith Trilogy is about crises of faith in the face of divine silence.

There is way too much in this film in terms of symbolism, character comparisons and contrasts, and religious themes to unpack in one blog post, or even after one viewing of the film. This is definitely one I’ll be coming back to again and again. There are obvious contrasts, like the ones I mentioned between Odin and Christ, or between Ingeri and Karin, or between crime and revenge, etc. But they’re not black and white, despite the dark/light distinction suggested by Ingeri and Karin’s respective hair colors. Karin is the innocent here, but she’s far from perfect – she’s kind of a spoiled brat, whining to her mother to let her sleep later and wear fancy clothes. She’s a flirt, leading on the same man (probably) who got Ingeri pregnant. She manipulates her father into letting her do whatever she wants, basically, and blames everyone else for her own faults rather than take responsibility. But through it all, her very innocence and sheltered existence in her perhaps overly-loving family is what gets her in trouble. Meanwhile, Ingeri is world-wise and wary, but superstitious – she prays to the Norse gods and stops off at a witchdoctor type guy, which also contributes to Karin’s predicament due to Ingeri’s absence.

The question of blame comes up again and again. Though it’s easy to blame the two men who actually commit the rape, and certainly they’re not exempt from the father’s wrath, seemingly everybody blames themselves for what happened. The mother blames herself for sheltering Karin too much, the father blames God for letting it happen but then takes responsibility for his own retaliatory actions, Ingeri blames herself for praying to Odin for Karin’s downfall. In fact, it’s quite the contrast to Karin’s own blithe attempts to blame everyone ELSE for everything. But Bergman ends with a cleansing spring, a mark of forgiveness and new birth coming out of this horror.

Ugly things happen in Bergman films, and this is one of the ugliest, but he is never an ugly filmmaker. As I hinted above, even the rape scene is shot with tremendously beautiful framing and cinematography, and that’s true throughout the film. Every shot is composed carefully, with every element in the frame there for a specific visual or symbolic purpose. A friend writing about this film pointed out that Max von Sydow “looks absolutely monumental, like he was hollowed out and carved from wood, a living breathing relic of medieval art,” and that’s such a perfect description that I had to steal it. Bergman is known for the sometimes slow pacing of his films, and here his willingness to simply let Sydow and others BE in the frame, their power coming simply from their imaged existence, is wonderous and utterly moving. Often I find Bergman austere, and there’s definitely that here, but this may be the first time that I understand Bergman’s essential humanity. He may be unflinching in what he shows, and he may use music and other manipulative techniques sparingly, but he cares deeply, achingly for these people. And he made me feel the same way, despite their flaws…or perhaps because of them.

Rep Cinemagoing: Modern Times

The thing that makes me happiest in the world is seeing audiences respond to classic films with joy and wonder, and that’s exactly what I saw Wednesday night when Cinefamily screened Modern Times to a nearly full audience. First off, it’s awesome that 150 people will choose a Chaplin silent film over the hoards of other entertainment options in this city, but it’s proven to me again and again that Chaplin (or Keaton) will still pack them in at Cinefamily, as they run these films every year or so to new and delighted audiences. Last time they ran Modern Times, though, I think I wasn’t able to go. This time it coincided with my volunteering night, so once I finished taking tickets, seating people, and clearing up a minor popcorn vs gravity issue, I settled in just as the credits finished to watch my favorite Chaplin film with a wonderfully receptive audience.

I’ve seen Modern Times probably five or six times, but never before with an audience, and it added an awful lot to the experience. The film itself is incredible, and falls squarely within my top twenty of all time. Chaplin’s tramp starts off as a cog in the machine (literally, at one point) of a steel factory, spending his days tightening bolts on an endless stream of conveyor-belt carried steel plates. Slowing down piles him into the workers further down the assembly line, and stopping (for lunch) puts him into spasms as his muscles try to continue the tightening motions. After being put into an automatic lunch machine to test it – with hilarious results – he ends up having a nervous breakdown, losing his job, getting arrested by accident, meeting up with an orphan waif from the docks, trying to find a job to support her and protect her from the child services authorities, etc.

Every time I watch this film, I’m amazed again at just how much goes on in it – I forget that the roller-skating scene in the department store is here, for example, or the Tramp stopping the jailbreak. Part of that is because to some degree, a lot of the gags could be interchanged with any gags in his shorts; part of it is that there are so many moments indelibly associated with Modern Times and etched forever in my brain that it’s understandable that I would miss a few. But for a good chunk of the audience, this was their first experience with any of it. There’s no doubt some of the people had seen it before – you don’t get 150 people at Cinefamily to watch a silent film and them all be first-time viewers. But others were going with their guts, laughing as they realized the gag that was being set up (like the woman walking down the street with bolt-like buttons on the bust of her dress), crying out “no way!” when the Tramp maneuvered his way through hundreds of would-be factory works to get the last job, gasping when Chaplin pulled off a particularly flashy stunt, like rollerskating blindfolded three inches from a precipitous drop.

All these story elements still work, and some of them work even better now, because we know that if someone did the roller-skating scene today, they’d be in no danger. The drop would be green-screened in, or Chaplin would be on wires that would later be digitally removed, or there would be a trained stuntman taking his place. But we know instinctively watching this scene that Chaplin really did this stunt, that he really was skating that close to the edge, and that he really could’ve fallen. There’s a wonder to that knowledge that lasts throughout the ages.

But Modern Times is far more than treacherous stunts – in fact, it depends on them far less than some of Chaplin’s earlier films, or Keaton’s films, or the virtuoso third act of Lloyd’s Safety Last. All the other gags continue to work as well, even the ones that have lost some amount of context over the years. We may not know about the labor disputes of the 1930s or the communist rallies, but it’s pretty clear what’s going on in all those parts, and Chaplin’s unwitting involvement in them is imminently understandable. Even the kids scattered throughout the audience were totally on board – one near me was jabbering nonstop about the nonsense song as his family left the theatre after the show. He was fascinated and trying to figure out what language it was in.

Speaking of the nonsense song, I’m so used to thinking of Modern Times as “the last silent movie” (at least, that last one that actually has some valid claim on the term outside of homage or imitation) that I forget how much synchronized sound it really has. Besides the song – which is the first time Chaplin was ever heard on screen – there are sound effects scattered throughout, especially in the factory sequences, and the factory boss speaks audibly through his intercom several times to tell the foreman to speed up production. Of course, Chaplin’s making a statement with this: as he clings to silence seven years longer than everyone else, he associates sound within his film with the mechanized “progress” of technology. Factory owners use sound; the Tramp and the waif and other ordinary, working-class people do not. When the Tramp does express himself audibly, he sings nonsense – words that make no sense in any language (to answer the kid’s question, it’s mostly based on French, but seems to have some Italian-sounding stuff in there, too). It’s hilarious, and a success for the Tramp’s hopeful singing waiter-wannabe, but the subtext is clear: audible language is either mechanized and oppressive, or gibberish. Neither holds a candle to what Chaplin does with silence. (Of course, with The Great Dictator four years later, he proved he could speechify with the best of them.)

Though it should be noted that like any other silent film, Modern Times is never silent, even when it is, because it has a nearly omnipresent and absolutely perfect score, written by Chaplin himself. Chaplin often wrote his own scores for his films, or at least themes meant to be provided to the theatre’s musician, going way back into the 1920s. He was actually in the vanguard of providing specific music to be used along with his films, though the practice was fairly common by the late 1920s. In fact, Modern Times uses music much more fully and expressively than most sound films did in 1936, using the love theme judiciously to build pathos at just the right places. The words to the theme are never used in the film, but it became a popular song of the time:

Tho’ your heart is aching
Even tho’ it’s breaking

When there are clouds in the sky
You’ll get by
If you
Smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining thru for you.

Light up your face with gladness
Hide ev’ry trace of sadness
Altho’ a tear maybe ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying

What’s the use of crying
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you’ll just smile.

These days, Chaplin is often scoffed at for his sentimentality, and it’s easy to see why modern audiences often gravitate towards the stoic Buster Keaton instead. Even I do most of the time. But here, Chaplin’s pathos is so perfectly pitched, and balanced so well with the humor and with the Metropolis-lite satire on a mechanistic society, that it works splendidly. I can’t watch Chaplin and Paulette Goddard walk off into the sunset without getting a well-earned tear in my eye. Speaking of Goddard just briefly, with all the praise of the actors in The Artist for imitating silent acting styles so well (and I think they do), it’s even more refreshing to watch Goddard, who started in movies right at the turn from silent to sound, simply inhabit her anachronistic character, darting furtive glances around with her whole being, acting with every part of her body to get that dynamic movement that sound films lost almost immediately.

Everyone in the theatre had smiles radiating from their faces as they walked out of the theatre, everyone from the people who come to Cinefamily’s silent film presentations every week to the families with children who might’ve been seeing their first silent film, to college-age students and jaded film bloggers like me. I almost didn’t stay to watch the film. After all, I thought, I’ve seen this half a dozen times. Mightn’t my time waiting until it’s time to take tickets for the next screening be better spent studying up on golden era exhibition for a post I’m planning, or working on my Blind Spot review of The Virgin Spring, or catching up on everyone’s blogs? But no. I made the right decision, because sharing a movie you love with a large group of appreciative viewers in a big-screen setting is always the right thing to do.

A few more clips to leave you with (click the link to open in a lightbox):

Working at the factory assembly line
Being mauled by the eating machine
The gorgeous finale

The Roundup: March 16, 2012

This post was mostly ready last week, but life (and hackers) intervened and delayed me. I spruced it up with some links from this week, but I also had to do a lot of skim reading this week and utilize the dreaded “mark as read” function in GReader, so I’m sure I missed some great posts from people I was following. I’m sorry, I’m really trying to do better. The more I do this, the more I get invested in reading people’s blogs – which is great, but time-consuming. In any case, all these links are well worth your time, even if they are a week or two old at this point.

Featured Links

Past/Not Past: A Tale of Two Cinemas by Adam Cook at The Auteur’s Notebook

It’s difficulty to avoid comparing the two 2011 films that owe a great debt to silent cinema (and cleaned up at the Oscars), but they actually take very different approaches. Hugo is a film ABOUT silent cinema, but set after the silent era, as two kids become acquainted with one of the first motion picture giants, Georges Méliès, and his films. The Artist imitates silent cinema, setting its story in Hollywood in the late 1920s and depicting the transition into sound. I liked both films, but probably enjoyed The Artist a little more – that said, Adam Cook makes a REALLY strong case for why Hugo is actually much more celebratory of silent cinema than The Artist, which subtly undercuts its own nostalgia (probably unintentionally). Really good and thought-provoking piece that made me want to rewatch and re-evaluate both films soon. See also Glenn Kenny discussing Singin’ in the Rain‘s attitude toward silent cinema, in light of the frequent comparisons between it and The Artist.

An Introduction to the Flickchart World of Ranking Films by Emil at A Swede Talks Movies

The movie-ranking website Flickchart has been around for a while, and yet it still seems to fall under the radar a lot of the time. I know a lot of passionate users (disclaimer: I know the founder and a lot of the contributors and once in a while contribute to the Flickchart blog), but I know just as many people who either haven’t heard of it or just checked it out a couple of years ago when it launched and then forgot about it. But they’ve continued innovating, and as of now, I’d say it’s ones of the most useful movie websites I frequent. Fellow Flickcharter Emil has written up a wonderful introduction to it, and though I intend to do a write-up over at Row Three soon (there are a ton of new features since the last time I wrote about the site), I have to defer to Emil for one of the best posts I’ve seen explaining how the site works and what value it has.

John Ford and the Citizen Kane Assumption by Kristen Thompson at Observations on Film Art

Interestingly enough, I just got finished defending How Green Was My Valley‘s Oscar win a week or so ago in my Oscars Rank ‘Em post, and here’s Kristen Thompson doing the same thing, only far more eloquently and in greater detail. She suggests, and I think it’s true, that the film is usually denigrated SOLELY because it beat the apparently untouchable Citizen Kane out for the Oscar. Not only does she point out how unfair that is, but she goes on to discuss exactly why How Green deserved to win the Oscar, and delves a bit into why Citizen Kane gets all the praise and study instead. It’s a really great article on a lot of fronts.

Gone Too Soon Blogathon at Comet Over Hollywood

Comet Over Hollywood hosted a blogathon last weekend devoted to remembering the many classic Hollywood celebrities who passed away far too young. Obvious names like Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe came up of course, but there are literally dozens of people memoired here, from huge stars to starlets who barely got the chance to make an impression. I haven’t had time to read them all yet, but the ones I have are great. I’d especially point out True Classic’s post on the tragic short adulthood of child star Bobby Driscoll and a two-part piece on Thelma Todd, whose death remains mysterious, from My Love of Old Hollywood.

Travelling Through the Movies by Jessica at The Velvet Cafe

All of Jessica’s posts are simply delightful; basically, if you love film and delightful people and you’re NOT following The Velvet Cafe, you’re doing it wrong. I actually had another one of her posts set for up here (the one on Swedish cinema which is now linked below under “more links”), but this one hit one of my favorite things of all time – traveling. And rather than just do a list of films where people take trips, which would still have come up with a good lot of excellent films, Jessica bases her list around films that explore different aspects of traveling. Everything from road trips to journeys of self to being stuck in airports to feeling lost in an unknown country. It’s a great set of films, and a unique way of looking at them.

Unforgettable Scenes: It’s Still Not Over by Tyler at Southern Vision

I’ve only recently discovered this blog, but I can already tell it’s going to be one of my favorites. Here Tyler takes a scene from Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (which is probably his most accessible film, from what I can gather – it’s the one everyone told me to try when I failed to make it through his 7.5-hour Satantango) and describes his love for it with great eloquence. Like him, I’m not entirely sure I could say why I found Werckmeister Harmonies magical, but I did, and this scene is definitely the part of it that I found the most memorable.

The Woman in the Window by the Self-Styled Siren

Almost every time I’ve mentioned Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window since I saw it last year, I’ve said some combination of “it’s a wonderful little film noir, but the ending is a total cop out.” I’m not alone in thinking that, but the Self-Styled Siren disagrees. She defends the ending as intentional, fitting, and more subversive than it seems on first viewing. I’m not sure I’m totally convinced, but she’s definitely given me second thoughts, and I’ll definitely have her thoughts in the back of my head next time I watch the film.

How John Carter Succeeds Where the Star Wars Prequels Failed by Jack Giroux at Film School Rejects

See, see, I’m not only featuring articles about classic films! This one’s only been out, like, ONE WEEK. I haven’t seen it myself, to be honest, though I am curious based on the source novel, Andrew Stanton’s involvement, and the fact that I like big adventure films. But Film School Rejects is going one step farther and acclaiming the film quite highly (most critics are reservedly favorable at best, from what I’ve read). I found this particular article especially interesting, as Giroux runs down what John Carter does right that George Lucas did wrong with the prequels – that’s not necessarily a high bar for praise, but it’s a really solid article. See also Neil Miller’s 7 Reasons to Go See John Carter.

More Links!

Trailers of Interest (or Not)

Headhunters Trailer – this movie is AWESOME
ParaNorman Trailer – one of the more intriguing animated films of the year
Dark Shadows Trailer – the comedy tone threw me a bit; back to Beetlejuice for Burton?
On the Road Trailer – curious to see what Walter Salles does with this material
Ice Age 3: Continental Drift Trailer – pretty sure these are supposed to make me laugh; didn’t work
Men in Black 3 Trailer 2 – this looks ridiculous; of course, I thought that about the first one

Cool Videos

Short film: The Love Connection – very adorable, plus has music by The Pauses, one of whom is a friend
The History of Television – a few omissions, but by and large, this is AWESOME
Creepy, weird, and kind of awesome video for Florence and the Machine’s “Never Let Me Go”
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah splatter paint all over the place in this video for “Hysterical”

Noteworthy News

On Row Three: Oscars Rank ‘Em

Much of my free time over the past week has been taken up with a mondo Rank ‘Em post on Row Three, ranking all the Academy Award Best Picture winners according to my personal preferences (of the ones I’ve seen – 72 out of 84). It was definitely a fun process, but also a rather exasperating one, since it’s a really hard group of films to rank. Flickchart helped me a lot, but I didn’t quite stick to it totally, because in some cases, frankly, it’s wrong. Gotta work on that at some point. Anyway. The whole post, with all 72 Best Picture winners I’ve seen, is here on Row Three. Here’s just a sampling of films culled from throughout the list.

#72: Crash (2005)

If you know me at all, you’ll know the abiding hatred I have for Crash. In fact, a lengthy thread about this movie is even to blame for my presence at Row Three. What was initially just disappointment and dislike moved to hatred after the film gathered critical acclaim and eventually an Oscar win – in my opinion, the most egregiously misplaced Oscar win in the history of the Oscars, and not even because I was passionate about another film in the race. I’m not a particular Brokeback Mountain fan, either, as were most people who thought Crash should’ve lost. No, I just dislike this film that much. It’s well-made enough, I guess, but it’s so manipulative and heavy-handed in getting across a message that we all know, whether or not we necessarily put it into practice. Racism is still a problem, I realize this. Telling me racism is still a problem in the didactic and condescending way that this movie adopts is not effective. There, now that this one is out of the way, pretty much all the rest of the low-ranking films aren’t films I dislike, just ones that are unmemorable or unremarkable.

Did it deserve to win? No
Other nominees: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich
My favorite film that year: Brick

#60: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

This film is often cited when people talk about the least deserving Academy Award winners ever, and yeah, it’s a weaker entry in the collection – especially when you note some of the films it was up against. It’s not even the best of Cecil B. DeMille’s spectacles, focusing on the trials, tribulations and love lives of a bunch of a circus troupe rather than, say, the parting of the Red Sea. Still, I can’t quite hate on this movie, because taken apart from its status as “Academy Award Best Picture Winner,” it’s a pretty fun film, with some great supporting turns from Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Lamour, an unrecognizable but moving James Stewart as the clown with a past, and a really impressive climactic train crash. Eat your heart out, Super 8. If I were judging this strictly on whether they deserved to win Best Picture, this might be lower, but just based on how much I enjoy the films, this one’s not too bad.

Did it deserve to win? No
Other nominees: High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge, The Quiet Man
My favorite film that year: Singin’ in the Rain

#56: The King’s Speech (2010)

This film is pretty much the epitome of Oscar bait, and it did its job perfectly – it’s impeccably-made, well-acted, looks good, ticks all the “Oscar favorite” checkboxes. But it’s so unbearably safe and predictable that it just kind of sits there like a bump on a log. I actually watched this the day of the Oscar ceremony last year, just because I knew it was going to win, and it was exactly what I expected it to be. Films like this are why the Oscars are becoming exasperating to some degree – it’s not that they’re picking terrible films. They’re picking well-done, highly calculated films that have no stakes, take no risks, and thus have no ability to surprise and overwhelm the way great films always should. And there were at least three or four other films nominated in 2010 that did just that.

Did it deserve to win? Not really
Other nominees: Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids are All Right, 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter’s Bone
My favorite film that year: The Social Network

#53: Wings (1927-1928)

This picture and the most recent winner have something very major in common – they’re both silent, the only two silent films to ever win Best Picture. This may be the only year that’s true. Coming right at the cusp of the sound era, Wings may not stand as one of the greatest silent films ever made, and indeed, is largely forgotten except by Academy Award completists and Clara Bow aficionados, but in 1927 it was the pinnacle of big budget silent cinema. The love triangle is a bit hokey now, but the WWI battle scenes remain impressive, as does the touching if somewhat overwrought friendship between the two boys who go off to war.

Did it deserve to win? Maybe
Other nominees: The Racket, Seventh Heaven
My favorite film that year: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

#41: My Fair Lady (1964)

I sometimes give My Fair Lady a hard time because it’s an example of the overblown, over-produced musicals that studios made a TON of in the 1960s (and that I don’t tend to like as much as musicals from earlier eras), but I should lay off. Aside from the fact that they should’ve let Julie Andrews reprise her role in the Broadway play (not that Audrey Hepburn is bad or anything; just saying), this is a pretty solid film. A little overlong, perhaps, but Rex Harrison is great in his signature role as caustic language professor Henry Higgins, and the Lerner & Loewe songs are classics.

Did it deserve to win? Maybe
Other nominees: Becket, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Mary Poppins, Zorba the Greek
My favorite film that year: Band of Outsiders

#37: You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

Frank Capra’s second Best Picture win was for this film, sandwiched in between Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and not quite as good as either of those films, if you ask me. Still, it’s a solid family comedy, with lovers James Stewart and Jean Arthur dealing with the inevitable culture clash between his straight-laced family of businessmen and bankers and her free-spirited, nearly bohemian clan. It’s a piece of socioeconomic fluff that fit perfectly with the just-out-of-the-depression time period, but does seem a little on the corny side now, despite my resistance to devaluing Capra’s very fine work as Capracorn. Still, any chance to watch this set of actors (not only Stewart and Arthur, but also Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, Spring Byington, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and a very young Ann Miller) do their thing is all right with me.

Did it deserve to win? Maybe
Other nominees: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Boys Town, The Citadel, Four Daughters, Grand Illusion, Jezebel, Pygmalion, Test Pilot
My favorite film that year: The Adventures of Robin Hood

#30: Amadeus (1984)

The film may be called “Amadeus,” but it’s really the story of Antonio Salieri, the court musician to the Hapsburgs in Vienna when the upstart Mozart sprang on the scene and took the world by storm, despite his youth and vulgarity. Salieri’s jealousy grows as Mozart’s popularity threatens his position, but he also recognizes Mozart’s brilliance – this combination of jealousy, respect, and frustration at such a gift being given to such an (apparently) undeserving youth makes Salieri’s character a fascinating one (and a role that won an Oscar for F. Murray Abraham as well). The film is highly fictionalized, but to excellent dramatic effect, and had the side bonus of resurrecting the actual Salieri’s music, which had largely been forgotten.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: The Killing Fields, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, A Soldier’s Story
My favorite film that year: This is Spinal Tap

#25: Rebecca (1940)

I’ve been known to rag on this film for two reasons – one, it’s quite far down my list of favorite Hitchcock films, simply because most of his films are so incredibly amazing, and two, it changes the ending from the book in a way that I think is something of a cop out. But I’ve got to give the film its due – taken on its own and disregarding both Hitchcock’s other output (most of which hadn’t happened yet when this film was made) and the source novel, this is one solid, creepy, and well-done little Gothic drama. Joan Fontaine is suitably mousy as the unnamed narrator, unable to come to terms with the reminders of her husband’s former wife everywhere she looks, and Judith Anderson is downright menacing as the housekeeper who will never let her believe she’s as good as Rebecca was. Not quite a ghost story, but Rebecca’s absence is almost as palpable as if she were haunting the place.

Did it deserve to win? Maybe
Other nominees: All This and Heaven Too, Foreign Correspondent, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, Kitty Foyle, The Letter, The Long Voyage Home, Our Town, The Philadelphia Story
My favorite film that year: His Girl Friday

#15: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

I’m sure to take flack for having this film so high, but I don’t care. I saw it three times in the theatres, and have watched it many more on DVD, and I love it every time. Tom Stoppard’s sly script is impeccable, and the tongue-in-cheek view of Elizabeth Theatre put a new spin on Shakespeare for me – I already liked Shakespeare in general, but I’m pretty sure my love for his work actually solidified with this film. I’m not even going to waffle and say that it probably didn’t deserve to win Best Picture, because to me, it did, Saving Private Ryan notwithstanding. That’s an unpopular opinion, but I will stand by it.

Did it deserve to win? Yes
Other nominees: Elizabeth, Life is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line
My favorite film that year: Shakespeare in Love

#11: The Godfather Part II (1974)

I may not like either of the Oscar-winning Godfather movies as much as I’m supposed to (I haven’t seen The Godfather III yet, and I’m not anxious to), but I do like Part II significantly more than Part I. That being said, most of what I like more about Part II are the flashbacks to Vito’s childhood and how he became a mob boss. I liked the parallels being made to the modern-day story involving Michael and his attempts to retain control while losing even more of his humanity, but I often found myself bored with Michael’s story (except the incredibly powerful scene where Diane Keaton gives him what for), so I still don’t count myself a complete fan of this film either.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, The Towering Inferno
My favorite film that year: Chinatown