Thursday Movie Picks #32: Oscar-Winning Movies

ThursdayMoviePicksHappy Thursday everyone! I’ve been seeing posts on the weekly Thursday Movie Picks that’s spearheaded by Wandering Through the Shelves Blog, but I haven’t been able to participate. Well until now that is.

The rules are simple simple:
Each week there is a topic for you to create a list of three movies. Your picks can either be favourites/best, worst, hidden gems, or if you’re up to it, one of each. Today’s topic is…

OscarWinningMovies

The Oscar-winning movies can include winners of Best Picture, Best Animated Film and Best Foreign Film, but I ended up sticking with the main Best Picture winners. As I was thinking of doing a Top 10 list on this topic, you could say that these films would make my Top 5.

So, here are my picks of three films that deserve all the accolades they’ve received and I don’t hesitate calling each of them a masterpiece.

Casablanca (1942)

ThursdayPicks_Casablanca

Oscar Facts: Won 3 Oscars out of 6 nominations

I had the good fortune of finally seeing Casablanca for the first time two years ago (as I documented here), as part of TCM Theatrical re-release. Robert Osborne, the longtime TCM host, introduced the film and gave some background, which is cool. Unfortunately, he also spoiled the plot – I think he just assumed everyone had seen the film. But even with that snafu, I was so engrossed in the story right from the start. It’s got everything you could want in a movie – intrigue, romance, humor, great music, exotic setting, etc. But most importantly, at the heart of it is the engaging and unforgettable love story, beautifully-realized by Humphrey Bogart & Ingrid Bergman. There’s really so much to appreciate in this film that I can’t possibly write in a paragraph or two.

The world will always welcome lovers ♬ As time goes by ♪

 The world will always welcome beautiful stories, too and that’s why Casablanca will always stand the test of time.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1959)

Oscar Facts: Won 11 Oscars out of 12 nominations

ThursdayPicks_BenHur

Here’s another Hollywood epic that shall stand the test of time. This is one of the first American films I saw as a young girl with my late mother and it made a huge impression to me then. I was in awe of the visual grandeur and all the epic action scenes, especially the chariot race. I have re-watched it countless times since and even with the technological advancement of movie-making, few scenes from today’s movies could match the intensity and the panoramic spectacle of the chariot scene, it’s 40-min of pure adrenaline rush that I wish I could witness on the big screen one day.

But visuals alone doesn’t make a movie and the personal redemptive story of Judah Ben-Hur is just as riveting. I love that it tells the story of Christ through the eyes of the protagonist and how an encounter with Him ultimately transforms his life in a profound way. It’s truly as epic as a film could get, a feast for the eyes as well as for the soul. Though it’s 3.5-hours long, it’s so well-worth your time and I know it’s one that I appreciate more and more every time I watch it. Both Charlton Heston in the title role and Stephen Boyd as friend-turned-foe Messala are superb, with a supporting cast

But this is truly William Wyler‘s towering achievement. He’s considered by his peers as a master craftsman of cinema, and rightly so. I just read on IMDb that Wyler was an assistant director on the 1925 version of Ben-Hur, who knew he’d go on to surpass that film in so many ways three decades later.

Gladiator (2000)

Oscar Facts: Won 5 Oscars out of 12 nominations

ThursdayPicks_Gladiator

I have dedicated a post for Ridley Scott’s magnum opus a few years ago and even today he still can’t reclaim the glory of this Roman epic. I’m going to self-plagiarize myself here as I still carry a torch for this film and each repeat viewing reminds me just spectacular it is. Gladiator is a visceral spectacle that offers a thrilling blend of intellect and physical strength.  Massively entertaining and memorable, it lived up to the promise of Maximus himself: “I will give them something they have never seen before.“ Oh yes, we’re definitely entertained.

I LOVE that both the hero and the villain are equally-matched in terms of how intensely they’re portrayed on screen. Both Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix gave tremendous performances, culminating to a thrilling and emotional finale worth cheering for. Like the two films I mentioned above, this film ticks all the right boxes to be considered a classic. Visually and emotionally satisfying, it also boasts one of the greatest soundtracks ever by Hans Zimmer. It’s the soundtrack that’s been copied many times over but never surpassed.

BONUS PICK:

Gone with the Wind (1939)

GWTW_OakTreeI just had to include this film as it’s also one of my earliest intro to Hollywood films and even eight decades later, this film is still being talked about. I’d call it a monumental classic, showing the best and absolute worst of American history during the civil war era. Some people didn’t care for the melodrama and it seems overindulgent at times thanks to producer David O. Selznick‘s constant meddling, but few films are as beautifully-shot and wonderfully-acted as this one. There are just too many iconic scenes and dialog from this film, some of them I have highlighted here on its 75th anniversary. Whether you’d end up liking it or not, this is one of those cinematic gems every film fan should be compelled to check out.


What do you think of my picks? Have you seen these films?

The Oscar Best Picture Project and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) Review

It’s Oscar Week, so today we’re taking a look at some of the past Best Picture films from each decade from the 20s to the 90s. With some help from my friends, below are a list of reviews they’ve selected from each decade.


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• Ruth – Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
• Iba @ I Luv Cinema – An American in Paris (1951)

• Paula @ Paula Cinema Club – The Apartment (1960)
• Michael @ It Rains… You Get Wet – The Godfather (1972)
• Ronan @ Filmplicity – Rain Man (1989)
• David @ Never Too Early Movie Predictions – Shakespeare in Love (1998) 
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Thanks to Iba, we’ve also got some Honorable Mentions from the 20s and 30s, see below:

1920s (Wings, 1927/8)

There is not much on offer for the span of the decade since the Academy Awards only began in 1927/8. So let’s take a look at that first awards ceremony. The WWI silent epic “Wings” took home the prize for Best Production (Picture). The William Wellman masterpiece, with its groundbreaking footage of in-the-air fighter plane battles is the first and only silent film to receive the Academy’s highest honor (this of course may soon change).

But wait, there is more; another film “Sunrise”, received an award for Best Picture (Unique and Artistic Picture/Artistic Quality of Production). This was the first and only year in which there were two separate categories for best picture. “Sunrise”, directed by F.W. Murnau, was the famed German expressionist’s first Hollywood feature and is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all-time.

There is also symmetry with the Awards and the dawning of a new era in the motion picture industry. This first year of industry wide recognition for excellence in film production coincided with the advent of sound. As such, although Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” was released in 1927, the Academy deemed it ineligible as it was claimed that its revolutionary use of sound gave it an unfair advantage.

Another major snub of this year was the Buster Keaton classic “The General.”

1930s (The Life of Emile Zola, 1937)

It is far too easy to mention the Golden Year of Hollywood, 1939 as one enters a discussion of one year to focus on in the decade. That year is the stuff of legend. It should be noted, however that the excellence in filmmaking goes beyond that one isolated ‘magical’ year. Overall the decade produced a bounty of escapist entertainment for the masses.

So let’s take a look at another year in the decade that produced equally stunning pictures – 1937. The winner of the Best Picture prize was the Warner Brothers’ biopic “The Life of Emile Zola,” starring Paul Muni as the crusading activist involved in the 19th century “Dreyfus Affair” in France. During the heyday of the studio system, Warner Brothers was the studio with the reputation of being the “socially conscious,” “realistic” studio; the win in this category marked the studio’s first win for Best Picture.

Zola beat out a diverse offering of films which included “The Awful Truth”, “Captains Courageous”, “Dead End”, “The Good Earth”, “In Old Chicago”, “Lost Horizon”, “One Hundred Men and a Girl”, “Stage Door”, “A Star is Born.”

Notable snubs from this year included the Garbo tearjerker “Camille”, the screwball comedy “Nothing Sacred” and Disney’s first full-length animated feature “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”


Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Moss Hart, based on the novel by Laura Z. Hobson
Cast: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, Anne Revere


Before I get to my in-depth review, I just want to share some interesting tidbits about this film. From the Gregory Peck’s biography by Gary Fishgall, it’s noted that this film was so controversial in its day that even major Hollywood moguls such as Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer who are Jewish did not want this film to be made, not wishing to ‘rock the boat’ and prefer to deal with the matter quietly. In fact, they pleaded with Darryl Zanuck (who is NOT wish) to abandon the project. Even some of Peck’s fans and his own agent encouraged the actor to refuse the part. This film was also the first time the word “Jew” was used explicitly in a mainstream film. Well, this film not only won Best Picture and Best Director for Elia Kazan, but is also the highest-grossing picture of 1948.


Fifteen years before Peck dealt with blatant racism as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, he tackled the issue of anti-Semitism as a reporter who pretends to be Jewish to cover a story on the controversial topic. The film opens with Phil Green, a widower who just recently moves to New York City, hanging out with his son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) just before his appointment with a magazine publisher for his next assignment. Even for a seasoned writer like Phil, this assignment presents quite a challenge as his boss John Minify wants a fresh new take on the issue of anti-Semitism, not just mere facts-and-figures type of articles that have been written many times before.

After some soul-searching and weeks pounding away tirelessly at his typewriter, a eureka moment hits him that in order to really understand what it means to be Jewish, he must become Jewish himself. The fact that he just moves to NYC and practically nobody knows who he is should make his plan a cinch, and in a way it is, but by no means is it going to be a walk in the park. Inevitably, Phil encounters bigotry and discrimination first hand and discovers that the silent prejudices also exist amongst the people he holds dear.

It really makes me cringe to see the in-your-face bigotry displayed by seemingly ‘nice’ people Phil encounters in the day-to-day. His own doctor actually advises him against contacting a Jewish internist, his son Tommy is being called a ‘dirty Jew,’ and one of the most heart-wrenching scenes takes place at a resort where Phil actually has reservation for. As soon as he reveals he’s a Jew, the manager tells him the place is fully-booked but that he’d be happy to book him a room at another hotel! You can watch that clip on YouTube (starting at minute 6:00), it really makes my blood boil just watching it.

Phil hates anti-semitism with a passion, it makes him sick no matter who commits it, that’s what tells his Jewish secretary who admits that she too sometimes refers to herself as a ‘kike.’ He’s equally vehement with Kathy when she’s reluctant to fight against the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ about not selling her property to the Jewish people. He confronts her that the ‘nice’ people who choose to remain as bystanders are as guilty in fostering any types of discrimination.

“I’ve come to see lots of nice people who aren’t [antisemitic]…people who despise it and protest their own innocence help it along and wonder why it grows.”

This clip shows his interaction with both Tommy and Kathy, and also his army best friend Dave (John Garfield) telling Phil about what his and his family’s day-to-day life is like being a real Jew. Garfield himself is a Russian-Jewish immigrant who had to change his original name from Jacob Garfinkle, so he certainly could identify with his character very well here.


I’d like to think (hope) that we’ve come a long way since then but it doesn’t mean that this film is passé nowadays as we know that many forms of prejudices still exist, even if they may not be as blatant as it once was. The fact that this film also tackles the more ‘silent’ discrimination makes it all the more relevant and relatable.

Now, even though the subject matter is pretty heavy handed, at the heart of this human drama is a budding romance between Phil and Minify’s niece Kathy. The relationships between Phil and his mother and son, as well as his best friend Dave are also handled very well, which give you insights into his character. Perhaps Phil is a bit too solemn for his own good, even he admits that himself several times every time he gets into an argument with Kathy. I kind of think of Phil Green as Superman without a cape in some ways… fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Plus Peck has that Clark-Kent sensibilities about him 😀

Now, another thing I like about this film is the character of Anne, the Fashion Editor, played wonderfully by Celeste Holm. She won a Best Supporting Oscar for her role as a sharp, spunky and strong career woman who shares his worldview and empathizes with Phil’s plight. I was quite taken aback in their scenes together towards the end as she makes it quite obvious how she feels about him. It’s quite modern in those days I’d imagine for her to do what she did. I actually kind of wish Phil would end up with her instead of with the more conventional Kathy.

Now the performances are just superb throughout. Peck deservedly earned his third Best Actor nomination in four years. I’ve always considered that Atticus Finch is where the actor and the role meets, I think the same could be said about Phil Green as I can’t imagine a more perfect match between the actor and the role. Peck shares a wonderful yet effortless chemistry with all the actors, but I especially love his scenes with his 11-year-old son. There’s an earlier scene where Tommy grilled his father about what anti-semitism is and why people treat the Jews differently, it’s certainly something every parent can relate to having to explain such a tricky subject. This is apparently the second time Dean Stockwell played Peck’s son, the first one is in The Valley of Decision which was his debut. The scene where Phil comforted Tommy after he’s been bullied at school reminds me of Atticus with Scout. As a father of young boys himself, Peck was such a natural as a dad and it made me wish I had such a loving dad like that!

John Garfield, Ann Revere and Dorothy Maguire are all equally convincing in their roles, Maguire perhaps has the least sympathetic role as the confused and weak Kathy but she sort of represents a lot of the ‘nice’ people in the real world who’d rather not speak up against bigotry because we’re afraid to stir things up. Thanks to director Elia Kazan for bringing out the best out of his actors, he’s known for being an actor’s director as many actors flourish under his directions. This is perhaps not his most famous film compared to A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront (which earned Marlon Brando his Best Actor Oscar) and East of Eden. Kazan won a total of three Oscars, five Tony Awards and four Golden Globes throughout his career but he’s also famous for his controversy for being an informer during the McCarthy era’s anti-communist movement.

Writer Moss Hart, Gregory Peck, Elia Kazan and producer Darryl F. Zanuck

The excellent script by Moss Hart, gorgeous cinematography by Arthur C. Miller and music by the celebrated composer Alfred Newman all make up for an astounding film that definitely merits its place amongst the best of Hollywood’s golden years. I love that many parts of the film was shot in on location in NYC around Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Plaza, it’s nice to see the characters walking amongst the crowd of New Yorkers and getting a glimpse of what the office of a major publication looked like.

I’ve seen this film three times just in the past six months and appreciate it even more each time. It’s a well-crafted and well-acted film that entertain as well as enlighten.


Thoughts on this film? If you haven’t seen this yet, I’d love to hear your favorite film from the 1940s.