Friday, May 9, 2014

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1981

The Contenders:
Atlantic City
Chariots of Fire (winner)
On Golden Pond
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Reds

What’s Missing

Oscar picked its sort of movies for the five nominees this year, although my tastes tend to be quite different. There are a number of films that could have been nominated and others that, in retrospect, probably should have been if influence is any indicator. Primary in those left off is Das Boot, which is still one of the greatest war films ever made. Man of Iron is certainly worth a mention here as well. I’m a big fan of Michael Mann’s Thief even if others find that love misguided. I think Body Heat is underappreciated, too. In the “would never be nominated category” are An American Werewolf in London, Evil Dead, and The Road Warrior, all of which cast a shadow that reaches to today.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: We’re punting the eventual winner Chariots of Fire right away. I understand completely why the Academy decided that this was the best film of the year and I’m also of the opinion that they couldn’t have gotten this selection more wrong. Chariots of Fire is just…dull. Some folks like it, I guess, because I’ve been told by people that they like it. For me, I can’t remember much about it except for the Vangelis soundtrack and the image of slow-motion white guys running on a beach. A pretty image and a great (for its time) soundtrack do not a Best Picture make, and this is no Best Picture.

4: Reds is following right behind Chariots of Fire. Again, this is not specifically a bad movie, but it is a long one and not a particularly interesting one in my opinion. It feels like an oddity, turning a communist rabble-rouser into a Hollywood hero, particularly in the early days of Ronald Reagan. The biggest issue is that it’s overlong for the story it tells. A three-hour film on the Bolshevik Revolution would be warranted, but Reds uses that event as a backdrop for a love story. It’s good, but it falls short of great, and thus falls far short of Best Picture.

3: The most difficult decision I had here was what to put third and what to put second. I’ve opted for On Golden Pond third only because it’s such a small story. It’s a very good story and it’s beautifully told. It gains a ton of points for making Henry Fonda play a cantankerous old bastard who has a ton of great lines beautifully delivered. This is a sweet story and worth seeing, but it’s also the sort of film that doesn’t specifically warrant rewatching in my opinion. I like the relationships and I like where the film goes, but a story of reconciliation is hardly the sort of thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, because that story isn’t that compelling and one of the two characters reconciling isn’t in the film that much. It’s a bit of a cobble. Sweet, but not special enough.

2: I’m mildly surprised that Atlantic City made it all the way up to number 2 for me. I don’t dislike this film at all, but I also can’t claim to love it. There’s a marvelous sense of loss and of urgency against time here, which I appreciate very much. This is almost a neo-noir but doesn’t quite get all the way there. The biggest connection, at least for me, is that all of the characters are, essentially, losers destined to keep on losing. Where I lose the trail with Atlantic City is the bizarre May-December romance. Burt Lancaster is old enough to be Susan Sarandon’s grandfather, so a romantic relationship between them is just sort of icky.

My Choice

1: Honestly, is there a real choice that isn’t Raiders of the Lost Ark? Sure, I’ve got the benefit of hindsight, but Raiders is a cultural icon even if not all of the sequels are completely up to snuff. This is a film that has everything that a great day at the movies needs. There’s fantastic action, a romance, explosions, a fun plot, and even the bona fide wrath of God at the end to tie everything together. It’s also got wonderful performances top to bottom and any number of memorable scenes, including one of the greatest chase sequences ever filmed (and that’s saying something in a year that saw the release of The Road Warrior). Hell, my wallpaper is the closing shot from Raiders. Did you honestly think I could pick something different?

Final Analysis

17 comments:

  1. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, so I'd pick it as my favorite of the five nominees. In fact, it's so much my number one that number 2 isn't even close. Having said that, I don't really think of it as a "Best Picture" kind of movie, but more as a popcorn, matinee movie (maybe because that's how I saw it on its first theater run way back when I was a teenager). The entire crowd freaked at the beginning with the tarantula scene.

    I'd go with one from your What's Missing section - Das Boot - as the Best Picture that year.

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    1. It's not really an "Oscar" picture to the point where I'm a little surprised that it was nominated in the first place. It is my favorite film of the year, though. I could make a pretty good case for Das Boot, and that's a choice I'd have been pretty happy with. I think it's one of the genuinely great war films ever made.

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  2. I have to echo Chip's sentiment re: "Raiders," but seconding that sentiment gives me pause because it makes me wonder why I don't consider "Raiders" to be typical Oscar material. Have I been brainwashed by Hollywood elitism? Should we, in considering "proper" Oscar candidates, avoid films that feature too quick a pace, too many action sequences, and dialogue that's often too quippy and snappy? Are Oscar-worthy movies always to have stately plots, Shakespearean acting, big issues, and running times of over 150 minutes? I'm going a bit "meta," here, in considering these questions, but they may be worth asking.

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    1. It's a fair point. Raiders is not what one normally thinks of in conjunction with the Oscars. It was, however, the best movie of its year, and I'd argue that it has proven to be one of the most influential of its era. Isn't that what we should be looking for?

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  3. Damn right. This one was easy.

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  4. A lot of interesting choices from this year. Body Heat, Raiders, Das Boot and the underappreciated Atlantic City. My favorite movie of that year is Superman II, which is still my favorite superhero movie. But best picture of the year? Chariots of Fire is okay, but I'd definitely go with the smaller scale Atlantic City or the popular Raiders. I was curious what Alternate Oscar author Danny Peary said on this subject and he went with Reds. But no matter what you think won the 1981 battle, no question that Raiders of the Lost Ark won the war.

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    1. Reds has that Oscar feel to it. It's big and blustery and is about world changing events and has a romance stuck in the middle of it. In some respects, it's a more modern Dr. Zhivago. I just wish it were more interesting.

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  5. Though I really do like Chariots of Fire (as a not-so-competitive amateur runner), and although I am an archaeologist (and should be cheering for Raiders), Das Boot would have been my pick (even though I hate the idea of being trapped in small spaces).

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    1. Well, except for the fact that as depicted, Jones is kind of a crappy archaeologist. I remember my college archaeology teacher saying on the first day, "I expect many of you are expecting this will be like Raiders of the Lost Ark. There's a lot more sex and alcohol in reality."

      I wouldn't object to Das Boot winning. It's a hell of a good film.

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    2. "I wouldn't object to Das Boot winning. It's a hell of a good film."

      I liked everything about that movie except the damn music.

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    3. I honestly don't remember the music at all. I just remember the claustrophobia.

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  6. No arguments from me on Raiders of the Lost Ark. I haven't seen Reds, but I found Chariots of Fire to be a good story that hardly stands out as deserving of a Best Picture Oscar. I can see why it won, but there are a lot of good examples from that year that were better picks.

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    1. My problem with Chariots of Fire is that I find it so forgettable. It's not a bad film; it's just pretty dull.

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  7. Oh this win! I can't stand Chariots and just did a guest post over on Dell on Movies for his Against the Crowd blogathon about my scorn for it. I'd agree with your placement of the various nominees straight down the line ending with your choice of winner. It seems absurd now that Raiders didn't win and if I recall correctly wasn't even a serious contender with Reds and On Golden Pond both standing a better chance. That's just nuts.

    Now as to what I think should actually have competed I'd remove everything but Atlantic City and Raiders and replace them with Excalibur, Blow Out and Pennies from Heaven but no matter what the mix Raiders would always be my winner.

    If your interested here's a link to the post about my disdain for Chariots plus another film that has a bad rep but that I have a soft spot for.

    http://dellonmovies.blogspot.com/2015/08/against-crowd-blogathon-2015-guest-post.html

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    1. I stand by my assessment of Chariots of Fire--I challenge anyone to watch it and remember anything other than slow-motion white guys on a beach a month after the watch.

      I think no matter what movies are put into the mix from this year, Raiders comes out on top for me. It's clearly the best of the field no matter what the field.

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