Friday, May 16, 2014

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1979

The Contenders:
All That Jazz
Apocalypse Now
Breaking Away
Kramer vs. Kramer (winner)
Norma Rae

What’s Missing

It’s not a terrible crop of films for 1979, but naturally there are some films that I think should be here that are not. We can start with Alien, which isn’t a typical Oscar film, but is simultaneously one of the great science fiction and great horror movies of the era. Manhattan is the sort of film that Oscar typically likes, so I’m mildly surprised it wasn’t mentioned. …And Justice for All netted a number of nominations but I haven’t seen it, so I have no real opinion. The China Syndrome and North Dallas Forty are in the same position and I have seen those, and they would have been an interesting nominations. In the comedy world we had Life of Brian and The In-Laws, the latter of which I find underrated in particular. On the foreign front, I’d look at both Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht and Stalker as noteworthy

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I’m dumping Kramer vs. Kramer immediately and for a very specific reason. I tell my students that a good paper with a bad conclusion is remembered as a bad paper. Same thing here. Kramer vs. Kramer is an excellent movie all the way through. It’s relevant, well-acted, and well-written. And then we get to the last five minutes, and instead of giving us a real ending that makes sense with the rest of the movie, it goes for Hollywood feel-good and completely shits the bed. With an appropriate ending, this would move up at least two spots in my estimation, but I’m stuck with the ending that’s here.

4: I have no genuine problem with Norma Rae except that it doesn’t seem important enough to warrant this nomination. It’s a good film, perhaps even a great one in places, but worthy of Best Picture? I give it a great deal of credit for not giving us the ending that seems like it’s heading for, but the conclusion isn’t as strong as it could be. It does have that moment with Norma standing on top of the factory table and all of the machines shutting down, but a fantastic and memorable moment like that one, no matter how good it is, doesn’t make for a Best Picture.

3: If my mother read this blog, she’d be disappointed with me that I didn’t put Breaking Away below the fold and into my choices. It just misses. I genuinely like Breaking Away quite a bit. It benefits greatly from excellent performances, especially by Paul Dooley, and from a surprisingly strong cast. It’s also beautifully written—funny, sweet, poignant, and smart. I like it enough that it's the source of my "got it right" picture for this feature. Its problem is that it’s too predictable. A team of underdogs is going to compete in a sports competition. What do you think is going to happen? I know it’s based at least a little on a true story, but it’s too easy to spot the ending.

My Choices

2: So how shocking is it that I’m putting a musical like All That Jazz into the realm of potentially good choices here? Shocking or not, this film deserves it (and it deserves its Criterion release later this year). This is a masterful film, one directed to within an inch of its life and itfeatures the best work of Roy Scheider, which is saying a hell of a lot, since I love him. While it’s a great film all the way through, it doesn’t really kick in until the last half hour or so when it becomes a heavily medicated near-death musical fantasy. That it’s more or less a biopic of its own director and is brutally honest is only a bonus. It might not be my choice, but I’d at least give Oscar credit for being in the right direction with this selection.

1: Platoon would eventually become the film to win the Oscar for Vietnam, but that’s because Oscar missed its chance with Apocalypse Now in 1979. This is not only the premiere film about the Vietnam War, it’s also one of the best war films ever made in any country by anyone. When the nightmare of its production is taken into account, it’s surprising that it was completed in the first place. That it was not only completed but has become the seminal work on its subject is little short of miraculous. It’s a bonus that it’s based on a story by Joseph Conrad. Beyond that, it’s the sort of film with so many great moments that picking even a top-5 is almost impossible. This shouldn’t have been much of a horse race, and Apocalypse Now was robbed.

Final Analysis

12 comments:

  1. I can't disagree with your choice in the slightest though my heart belongs to "Breaking Away". Probably I would have been happiest with a win for Manhattan, my favorite Woody Allen film, though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My mom's heart belongs to Breaking Away, too. I vividly remember this Oscar year because my mom would sometimes rant about how Paul Dooley got robbed of a nomination when he should be the one winning.

      Delete
  2. I'd probably pick Apocalypse Now, too, although it sounds like I'm not as high on it as you are. Like Marie, Breaking Away is my favorite film of the five. And I agree that the last part of All That Jazz is when the film is at its best. I also have a problem with Kramer vs. Kramer, but not because of the ending, but because I hated the Meryl Streep character so much, and because I have a personal dislike of how in reality fathers are so often treated as nothing more than wallets by judges in divorce courts and this film reminded me of that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Of the five, I'm probably the most likely to watch Breaking Away if I'm just looking to watch one of these movies. I do think it's predictable, and that counts against it for me.

      With Kramer vs. Kramer, you're right about the way men are treated by the courts, and that's exactly where the film is going. To get us there and then give us that bullshit ending is such weak sauce. It feels like such a cheat that I can't forgive it.

      Delete
  3. The moral finale must be between Apocalypse Now and Alien. These two made the biggest splash, outdoing even All That Jazz. I agree on your points all the way through, allthough I never saw Breaking away and Norma Rae. They do not sound like they would be competition for Apocalyse Now (or Alien). Like Chip I disliked Kramer vs. Kramer with a vengeance.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Breaking Away is good. In fact, it's really good. While it's very formulaic, it's one of the better examples of that formula you're likely to find. It's very funny and really well acted. Great cast, too.

      Delete
  4. You're right on with the top two picks. All That Jazz remains a stunning film, and Scheider is a revelation in this part. I haven't seen it in a long time, but it's really stuck with me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's with Oscar picks like this one that sometimes I think we should wait five years before handing out the awards. Seriously, if we held the 1979 Oscars in 1984, there's no way Kramer vs. Kramer wins this, and no way Alien isn't nominated.

      Delete
  5. What, no props for that timeless 1979 classic, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture"? It was directed by none other than Robert Wise, the man who gave us your favorite musical, "The Sound of Music"!

    I'm imagining a Trek mashup now—one in which a rosy-cheeked (well, maybe a chlorophyll-cheeked) Spock serenades Kirk by crooning I am seventeen, going on eighteen; I'll take care of you as transporter beams sparkle gaily in the background, making dancing Klingons with nipple pasties appear and disappear.

    Where's the love?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The biggest problem with Star Trek: The Motion Picture is that it's boring. Nothing happens in that damn movie. It might be the least innocuous of the best of the odd-numbered original cast Treks, but it's so damn dull!

      Robert Wise, by the way, also did The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Haunting, so a slip into deer and sunshine can almost be forgiven.

      "Phasers and photons and Klingons with ridges,
      When Mr. Sulu's in charge of ship bridges,
      Alien ladies in sexy silk slings,
      These are a few of Kirk's fav-o-rite things..."

      Delete
  6. The biggest issue I have with Apocalypse, Now is the scene where the crew guns down the Vietnamese family on the boat. Though it is a great scene in itself (would have been great for the end of the movie) I lose all sympathy for any of the characters after that (except Chef). That being said, the great outweighs the not-so-good here and would be my choice for Best Picutre as well. The Redux version of Apocalypse is worth seeing for what was cut out.

    All That Jazz is a good second choice as well. It's a favorite of mine and seemed to foreshadow Fosse's death just a few years later. Breaking Away, Manhattan, The China Syndrome and many of the others you mentioned round out one of my favorite movie years.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My reaction to the boat scene is completely different from yours. I see it as a moment of believable fear--two groups of people terrified and reacting because of that fear, and reacting in the worst way possible. In that respect, it increases my sympathy for the men on the boat. They're constantly terrified and trying to pretend that they aren't.

      Delete