Top Ten Movies of 1992

Top Ten 1992

If for some weird reason you’re a fan of this blog, and thus, you have been wondering why I haven’t really post much this week, well, it’s because I’m moving and I still don’t have internet at my new place. However, I managed to find some time to post this list, which will be the official send-off to the Summer of ’92 series, which I hope you enjoyed. And what better way to say goodbye to my exploration of the movies of the year I was born, than to make a list of my favorites!

When choosing what movies I was going to write about in the series, I went with a mix of movies that I thought were historically significant, and movies that I hadn’t seen before. I basically wanted to focus on the movies people usually talk about when they talk about 1992. In retrospect, the list was a little too American, and too mainstream, but I guess that’s ok, since it’s the most popular movies that people usually talk about. Anyway, now it’s time to focus on my favorites. So, if you ever want movie recommendations from the year 1992, this is the list you’re looking for.

The Ten Best Movies of 1992

ThePlayer921. The Player (directed by Robert Altman)
The ending of The Player is so perfect that I think it’s impossible that a better satire about Hollywood and the movie business could ever be made. Truth and fiction intermingle to reveal that, after all that happened in the movie, a relatively happy ending -the kind that Hollywood loves most- can end up being the most terrifyingly dark thing that could possibly happen. But don’t be fooled, The Player is so much more than its ending. This is one of Altman’s best movies, and one of his most playful. From the opening shot that lasts six minutes, to the innumerable flashing arrows that foreshadow the plot, the celebrity cameos, and all those classic movie posters… It’s a perfect movie for film lovers. That’s all.

PorcoRosso922. Porco Rosso (directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
Is Porco Rosso the most underrated Miyazaki movie? Sure, it isn’t as epic as Princess Mononoke, nor is it as imaginative as Spirited Away, but it is just as much of a masterpiece. This story about a fighter pilot cursed to look like a pig, and a young mechanic girl that team up to fight a band of air-pirates on the Adriatic Sea is nothing if not a labor of love. The colorful characters and silly comedy make it perfect for kids, but it is the melancholic voice that peaks between the moments of light-hearted adventure that make it so fantastic to watch as an adult. But really, at this point, just saying that this is one of the best Miyazaki movies should be more than enough for you to run and watch it as soon as you can.

Unforgiven923. Unforgiven (directed by Clint Eastwood)
I’m not a fan of Clint Eastwood as a director, but I must admit that the early-mid nineties were probably his best period, and that Unforgiven is a great movie if there ever was one. It’s a very violent movie, but being as it is about violence itself, it treats the subject with as much gravity and sorrow as Eastwood saw it necessary. Eastwood himself, of course, plays with his own screen persona when he plays an old man who has made a living out of killing and has, in turn, become extremely weary and tired. But he is not the only one, most of the characters in the movie have fascinating relationships to violence. From the evil but deeply logical sheriff played by Gene Hackman to the young Kid that wants to prove his worth through brutality.

HardBoiled924. Hard Boiled (directed by John Woo)
And while we’re on the subject of violent movies, you can’t really get much more violent than the action movies produced in Hong Kong in the late eighties and early nineties. Hard Boiled is one of the best (if not the very best) action movie ever made. First of all, the way Woo stages and directs action, is simply awesome. The movie is full of amazing stunts (like Mad Dog on the motorcycle), and amazing long shots (like the one on the elevator), but it also does something that American action movies are very unwilling to do (even today): it makes it about the victims of violence, and the weight that comes with the death of every innocence. It’s thematically outstanding on the inside, and a kick-ass thriller starring Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung on the oustide.

LongDayCloses925. The Long Day Closes (directed by Terence Davies)
I’m usually not a huge fan of artistic movies that are light on plot and heavy on imagery (I’m not a huge fan of either The Tree of Life or The Mirror), but there’s something about Davies’s The Long Day Closes that gets to me. Maybe it’s the fact that film itself, and the love of film, are essential to its plot. Actually, one of the most popular ways to describe this movie is “Cinema Paradiso meets The Tree of Life“. This is a very personal movie, an almost autobiographical account of Davies’s years growing up amongst his loving family, his strict catholic school, and the movies. It’s a movie that breezes over you. I watched it for the first time a couple weeks ago, and I’m sure there are many things to uncover in future viewings.

StrictlyBallroom926. Strictly Ballroom (directed by Baz Luhrmann)
Even if yo don’t like Baz Luhrmann, you might love Strictly Ballroom. I don’t see how you could not be delighted by this cheeky and bizarre story about a group of Australian obsessed with ballroom dancing. The narrative of the movie is deeply traditional, a mix of romantic comedy and sports movie that develops almost as predictably as you’d expect… but it is also an absolute delight. Luhrmann announces himself as one of the most iconoclastic, flamboyant, and colorful directors from his very first film. And at this point of his career, when he was still discovering his style, and trying to make due with relatively limited resources, the result is truly special.

HowardsEnd_5.psd7. Howards End (directed by James Ivory)
I said when I wrote about it for the series, but Merchant-Ivory movies have been wrongfully maligned for too long. It’s easy to look at them and dismiss them as stuffy English drama the likes of Downton Abbey and whatnot, but the truth is that the duo, as well as screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala were a masterful filmmaking team. Especially director James Ivory, who makes Howards End an insanely watchable movie. Not only because it is gorgeous to look at, but because of all kinds of different choices. The one I always return to is the way he frames the characters in the movie. There could be a whole book written about who is and isn’t the frame, and how the characters in the frame are seen in relation to one another. And I haven’t even said anything about its angry attitudes towards class, and feminism, and family, and… I think you get it. It’s a good movie.

husbands928. Husbands and Wives (directed by Woody Allen)
One of Woody Allen’s best. It’s hard to say what it makes Husbands and Wives so successful, though. I would like to say that it doesn’t have to do with the behind-the-scenes gossipy element about how the movie was filmed and released just as the Allen’s marriage to Mia Farrow was crumbling, but it just might have everything to do with that. The movie delves into many of the usual Woody Allen themes, but its documentary aesthetic, and the amazing performances, that are an impressive balancing act between cartoons and real human beings help illustrate the most ridiculous and pathetic elements of love and marriage.

ManBitesDog929. Man Bites Dog (directed by Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, and Benoit Poelvoorde)
A found-footage type movie about a group of filmmakers following the life of a serial killer. It’s an outrageous premise, not only ahead of its time, but also impressively executed. Benoit Poelvoorde gives the lead performance, and is essential to the movie’s biggest asset: it makes the whole enterprise as despicable as it is hilarious. Like Allen’s movie, and unlike many of the movies that later adopted the same aesthetic, it makes the most out of marrying style and content. It’s an unsettling movie to watch, even more than you’d expect, but like I said, it’s also incredibly funny. Man Bites DOg an uncomfortable, insane, almost dadaist watching experience.

One False Move 9210. One False Move (directed by Carl Franklin)
I continue to be fascinated by how unique One False Move feels despite all of its similarities to so many movies that came before and after it. The thing is, despite the fact that many of its elements have been present in movies all throughout history, almost none of them have mixed them quite in the same way. At the end of the day, it is just a solid thriller, with a refreshingly low-key approach to big themes and violent moments, and grounded by the performances that make up its center, especially Bill Paxton as the charismatic southern sheriff, who’s got more diverse and complex sides to him than you’d expect at first glance.

Honorable Mentions: Aladdin, Malcolm X, A League of Their Own and The Muppet Christmas Carol 

And as a bonus: since I’m the kind of obsessive person that spends way too much time thinking about this kind of thing, here’s my dream Oscar ballot for the performances of 1992…

Best Lead Actor: 

  • Tom Cruise, owning the screen like only a superstar of his talent can in A Few Good Men.
  • Jack Lemmon, horribly vulnerable and desperate in Glengarry Glen Ross. 
  • Bill Paxton, who goes beyond the charisma and the darkness of his character in One False Move.
  • Tim Robbins, embracing the sleaziest aspects of his screen persona in The Player. 
  • Denzel Washington, larger than life but always human in Malcolm X

Best Lead Actress:

  • Mia Farrow, almost unbearably sorrowful in Husbands and Wives. 
  • Susan Sarandon, a strong actress giving an even stronger performance in Lorenzo’s Oil. 
  • Tilda Swinton, being her magnificent self, in Orlando. 
  • Emma Thompson, hinting at a feminist woman trapped in her own time in Howards End
  • Alfre Woodard, telling whole stories behind her big eyes in Passion Fish 

Best Supporting Actor:

  • Gene Hackman, finding logic in the evil mind of his character in Unforgiven
  • Tom Hanks, at his most likable and hilarious in A League of Their Own 
  • Sydney Pollack, breaking through as funny and poignant in Husbands and Wives
  • Wes Studi, communicating more with a glance than anyone else in The Last of the Mohicans
  • Robin Williams, who cannot be stopped in Aladdin

Best Supporting Actress

  • Judy Davis, hilariously shrill and surprisingly believable as a human in Husbands and Wives
  • Rosie Perez, simply awesome showing her innate talent in White Men Can’t Jump 
  • Michelle Pfeiffer, one of the best super-villains the screen has ever seen in Batman Returns 
  • Vanessa Redgrave, showing us an inside into a removed and complex woman in Howards End. 
  • Marisa Tomei, who is just so much fun in My Cousin Vinny.

Mad Men: The Jet Set (S02E11)

Screen shot 2014-08-25 at 11.44.21 p.m.

I’m reviewing all the episodes of Mad Men before the last seven episodes premiere in the Spring of 2015. If you want to see an overview of the episodes I’ve written about so far, click HERE

Why did Don Draper go to California? In my last Mad Men review, I suggested that it was a way to remove himself from his problems. In this case, that would be the particularly difficult moment his marriage is experiencing. Betty seems determined to not let go back into her house, and considering what we know about Don’s past at this relatively early point in the series run, we might expect to try to “reinvent” himself once more. Of course that wouldn’t be as easy it was back in Korea, when the perfect (and deadly) circumstances presented themselves, and allowed Dick Whitman to become Don Draper. It is unlikely that another accident quite as convenient would present itself. Also, Don has a family now. A family that, despite all the flaws in Don’s behavior, he seems to genuinely love. If there is something I took form that last scene in “Maidenform” where Sally sees Don shave, is that Don wants to give his family the very best of himself.

And yet, despite the logistical issues, the opportunity to elope and become a yet another person does present itself when Don meets a group of eccentrics that are probably what give this episode its name. The most important member of this group is Joy (Laura Ramsey), a twenty-one year old woman that sets her mind on Don (The age difference between Don and Joy must be intended to draw parallels with Roger and twenty-two year old Jane, whom we see together in the first scene of the episode). Joy describes herself and the other Jet Setters as nomads. They don’t work (although one of them, Klaus, is technically a physician), they just have money that they spend lounging by pools all around the world. All these weird people, and Joy especially, are impressed by Don, and so, he gets the offer to come along with them. Of dedicating his existence to the relaxing occupation of doing nothing.

But Don is not the kind of man who could be an eccentric aristocrat type. Like Freddie Rumsen when he asked what he was outside the office, Don too has dedicated too much time to his job, and to making a name out of himself. Don Draper is, essentially, a brand, and as our current economy must have thought us, brands are invaluable. Although that is not the only thing factoring into Don’s decision. Turns out that two of the Jet Setters Joy hangs out with are her parents. Joy’s dad, Willie, even comes into the room and sits on the bed where Don and Joy are lying naked after having had sex the night before. Joy swims topless in the pool with Don, while her parents are about six feet away making out. This is all bizarre, and very unsettling. It’s the kind of weird-as-shit thing that Don seems to run into way too often when he goes to California. Still, these characters aren’t there just for the icky factor, what Joy and her parents are offering thirtysomething-year-old Don is the chance to have the childhood he never had. A fairly twisted one, but hey, Hakuna Matata, he wouldn’t have to work, or worry for the rest of his days.

So, the fact that Don refuses to go with them tells us that, despite everything, he isn’t really one to go back. He doesn’t want the past that he didn’t get, he wants the future that he is crafting for himself. And that is very important. Don Draper is all about being the master of his own fate, he wouldn’t stand aside and let his life in the hands of a couple of weirdos. Even more importantly, though, is the final moment of the episode, after Don has made his decision not to go with them, he calls a mysterious person, and says “Hello. It’s Dick Whitman”. And there isn’t a single bit of discomfort or difficulty in his voice. Of the things that we weren’t expecting, Don saying the words “Dick Whitman” in a such a matter-of-fact way was definitely towards the top of the list. Who is Don calling? What role does that person play in his not wanting to joing the Jet Set? Is he planning another escape route out of his problems? Or is he planning to come back at full force?

It would be a good idea to get some ammo before he comes back, though. I mean, it’s obvious that he will be back in New York sooner rather than later, considering he is the main character of a television show set in 1960s Madison Avenue, but at this exact moment, it doesn’t seem like he would be able to just strut his way into Sterling Cooper as if nothing had happened in his absence, for while Don was chilling in California, Duck Phillips started putting the pieces of his ultimate power play in motion. Ever since the American Airlines fiasco, Duck was established as Don’s big antagonist at the agency, and now more than ever. He has gone back to drinking, and the teeth of the relentless businessman that Sterling Cooper thought it was getting when they hired him have finally come out. He sets up a meeting with his British friends of Putnam, Powell, and Loewe, and convinces them not only of buying Sterling Cooper, but of putting him in charge. Don might be going through an inner journey, but things are happening in the real world, and he better come back soon, lest he ends up not being a part of it anymore.

Also in this episode:
Poor Peggy thinks she is going on a date with Kurt when he offers to take her see Bob Dylan, but turns out Kurt is gay. Not only that, but he is very casual about it. “I’m a homosexual. “I don’t think that means what you think it means” responds Ken Cosgrove. “Yes. I make love to the man, not the woman” responds Kurt. Again, poor Peggy just seems to pick the wrong guys, but at least she got an awesome new haircut out of the whole situation. Is this the beginning of the sassy-gay-best-friend trope?

Random Thoughts:

  • Someone says Don smells like Jasmine. Considering the Kurt subplot, I thought this was used as an euphemism, as in The Maltese Falconbut then I remembered that the smell in that movie was Gardenia, not Jasmine.
  • Those crazy sixties: Don has never had Mexican food.
  • Joy is reading The Sound and the FuryFaulkner’s novel about the decline of an aristocratic family in the American South. I haven’t read the novel, but if you have, do you see any parallels to this episode’s themes?
  • One of the British guys is played by Charles Shaughnessy, who you might remember as that guy from The Nanny. 
  • “You are drinking sad?” Where the hell is Kurt from? That accent is either too generic foreign, or way too specific for me to pin down what his nationality is supposed to be.
  • One of the funniest parts of the episode are seeing Pete being left alone to deal with the clients while Don escapes with the weird Jet Setters. When he comes back to New York, Pete brings oranges and says he didn’t like California. Don’t worry, Pete, California will grow on you.
  • “Let them open the kimono” is both a cool phrase, and appropriate given Bert Cooper’s seeming fascination with Japanese culture.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Gone with the Wind (1939 – Part Two)

This is an entry in the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, in which you watch a movie every week, and then pick your favorite shot. Thanks again to the marvelous Nathaniel Rogers for hosting the series over at The Film Experience.

Gone with the Wind is my mom’s favorite movie. Her other favorite movie is The Wizard of Ozwhich makes her a big fan of the cinematic output of the year 1939. She loves Gone with the Wind so much, that she was almost offended when I told her that it was regarded by a lot of people as a deeply racist movie. Now, this is not to say that my mom is a racist, but she was born and raised in Peru, which means she doesn’t carry the baggage of America’s racial history. Instead, she carries the baggage of Peru’s racial history, which is in many ways similar to America’s, but does have some dramatic differences. As fate would have it, I think it’s precisely this baggage, and the effect it had in her life, that makes Gone with the Wind so dear to her heart.

In order to understand my mother’s love for this movie, you’ll have to learn a little bit of contemporary Peruvian history. My mom was born in 1964, to a relatively wealthy family that owned large chunks of agricultural land in the northern coast of Peru. In 1968, General Juan Velasco Alvarado lead a coup d’etat that resulted in a left-wing military dictatorship. Perhaps the new regime’s biggest goal was generating racial equality by highlighting the culture of the indigenous populations. One of the programs designed ti aid this initiative was an agrarian reform, which expropriated land and put in the hands of the workers. Suddenly, my mom’s family no longer owned any land; and all they were given in return were worthless government bonds.

My mom is too young to remember too much about the days before the agrarian reform, but rest assure that she heard about it throughout her whole life. Even I, have been witness to countless retellings of the family’s glory days, and the hardship that followed. Now that you know it, you will agree that the story of my mom’s family clearly resembles the plot of Gone with the Wind. After all, this is a movie about people who can’t move on from a past that doesn’t belong to them anymore. I don’t want to go off on too much of a tangent, so I’ll just point out to a great article by “Alison”, which Nathaniel linked to this week and deals precisely with the notion of people clinging to the past, and the question of what makes Gone with the Wind endure as a classic movie despite its flaws.

Now, sure, the story of the lost riches is the story she was told over and over since she was a child, and sure, Gone with the Wind is a racist movie (despite all its wonderful elements, there really is no other way to put it), but neither of these elements lies at the heart of my mother’s fandom. You see, the real reason why my mom loves Gone with the Wind is very simple. Her name is Scarlett O’Hara. Perhaps the most important and influential figure in my mother’s life was her aunt Elsa. She was largely responsible for raising my mother, especially when she lived in the small town of Pacasmayo, while her parents were working in the Capital. Elsa was what you would call a strong woman. I’d say she was the strongest woman I have ever met. While her family was rich, she would take care of the daily operations of the family business more so than any of her brothers and sisters, and after the revolution, she worked as hard as she could to garner the money to support herself and her loved ones (including my mother). She never married. Instead, she dedicated her life to her family.

There is no doubt in my mind that when my mom sees Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, what she really sees is her aunt Elsa. Leigh’s performance as Scarlett is obviously nothing short of magnificent. Despite the character’s most unlikable behavior, despite her selfishness, and her vanity, Leigh always makes her humanity shine through. It helps that she is by far the most lively character in the movie, but at the end of the day, it’s her strength and her willingness to endure no matter how many times she is stripped of everything she owns, that makes her such a memorable heroine. “After all, tomorrow is another day” is the mantra of someone who has nothing to lose, but will not stop until she regains what she values most.

This isn’t really my favorite show in Gone with the Wind, but instead the one that best represents my mother’s love for the movie, which is honestly what I think about the most every time I see it. Given what you just read, I think I couldn’t have picked any other shot.

Screen shot 2014-08-25 at 2.13.34 a.m.

Mad Men: The Inheritance (S02E10)

Screen shot 2014-08-24 at 2.16.06 a.m.I’m reviewing all the episodes of Mad Men before the last seven episodes premiere in the Spring of 2015. If you want to see an overview of the episodes I’ve written about so far, click HERE

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s first notable job in the television industry was as a writer on The Sopranos. Which makes sense, since it takes a single episode for one to notice the influence of HBO’s New Jersey mob story over Mad Men. I mean, The Sopranos is probably the most influential drama of the past twenty years, so practically every drama on television right now is built in one way or another in its image, but its influence over Mad Men seems greater: from the structure and plotting of a season, to the low-key focus on character over plot, and even down to the themes explores in both shows.

The Sopranos was largely a show about people who idolized a past that never existed, and seemed incapable of change no matter how many horrible, traumatizing things they did. Sounds familiar? Yes, I agree with you, Mad Men can almost be seen as a response to the themes of The Sopranos. It is too about about people who refuse to change, only this time, instead of looking back at a distant past, they are living in said past, and witnessing the world change around them. However, Mad Men is much more than a show about showing the idealized past as being as flawed and corrupt as the present. Actually, I’d say it’s a show about many, many things (that’s why it’s my favorite). One of those things is being about the scars that shape people into who they are, and how those people go on to create similar scars on others, and so on, and so on in a never ending circle. And yet, the big irony of Mad Men is that no matter how many things change around them, some things are so deeply ingrained in people, that they simply won’t let them fully become who they want to be.

Take, for instance, Betty Draper. In this episode, we get yet another extended look at what Betty’s upbringing must have looked like, as she and Don set aside their break to visit her father, who had suffered a non-fatal stroke. Despite her family’s insistence that everything is fine, Betty’s father is starting to act demential. He is sometimes unable to recognize his own daughter, thinking Betty is his deceased wife. At the same time, his new girlfriend has removed almost every sign of Betty’s mother from the house. This is why Betty cries at the sight of her old nanny Viola, the only remnant from her past in a house that seems eager to forget all about it. We have heard enough about Betty’s mom in the past to know how her worldview must have shaped her into the woman she’s become, and now that we have also met Viola, we see even more parallels between Betty’s life as a child, and the life she is giving her children. Viola was largely responsible for raising Betty, just like Carla seems largely responsible in the raising of Sally and Bobby. Similarly, Betty’s constant criticizing of Sally -especially regarding her weight, despite the fact that she is a small child that shouldn’t even worry about such things and ugh!- seems like the kind of thing that she must have gotten from her own mother.

This episode, like season one’s “New Amsterdam“, knows that if you’re going to have a storyline focusing on Betty’s past, then you should pair it with the other character with a blue-blood background: Pete Campbell. I said when I reviewed “New Amsterdam”, but Pete and Betty are very similar in many ways. They have both been shaped by the hermetic worldview of their families, and educated in largely antiquated ways. However, Pete, unlike Betty, seems to have nothing but contempt for his family. And with good reason. They are pretty awful people. His father was constantly diminishing him, and his mother is completely agains the idea of him adopting a baby. Still, Pete may hate his family, but he is still one of them, and the bitterness of his childhood has payed fruit in his ability to be just as cruel as the people that raised him. How else, would you explain his destructive behavior towards Peggy. There is no question he desires her, but he would never accept her. He can only make sure she is as miserable as he is.

Another person who has been horribly shaped by his past is, of course, our own Don Draper. At this point in the show’s run, we know relatively little about Don’s past. But considering the themes of the series, it’s fair to assume that his rough upbringing at the hands of Archie Whitman must play a role in his behavior as an adult. We might want to find hints at reasons for his constant need to cheat on his wife, but more important to this story is how the past has thought him to deal with his problems. He is quick to embrace new starts -we’ve heard him telling so to both Peggy and Freddie Rumsen- and after all, he did it himself when he turned from Dick Whitman into Don Draper. However, he doesn’t seem ready to leave his family and his marriage to Betty behind, The lovemaking he and Betty engage in in her childhood bedroom gives him hope that his marital vacation might be over, but Betty is still not willing to take him back. Don’s reaction? To flee to California. Is Don once again running from his problems? Well, we’ll have to find out as the season goes along. Anyway, if he were, it would be completely within character.

Random Thoughts:

  • This episode also saw the return of Glen Bishop, which means lots and lots of creepiness. I wish I could have better integrated his appearance in the main review, but looking at him holding Betty’s hand was just too shocking. I am also waiting to see what Glen’s character arc looks like on this rewatch, and I would like to see a few more of his appearances before writing about it.
  • “I just wanted to say happy birthday!” The self-satisfaction in Cooper’s face is enough to forgive him for having no idea that this wasn’t a birthday party.
  • Paul Kinsey is pretty insufferable, but he is also not a bad guy… Still, there is endless satisfaction in watching Joan joyfully tell him he won’t be going on the trip to California.
  • “Does she have a lot of boyfriend”? no matter the circumstances, Betty will always be somewhat of a gossip.

 

Academy Rules: Best Picture of 1992

AR UnforgivenAs part of celebrating the occasion that the Summer of ’92 series is finally complete, I decided to resurrect the long dormant Academy Rules. I have already let my thoughts on most of these movies be known as part of Summer of  ’92, so I’ll be approaching this mostly from a historic perspective, trying to consider what the Academy responded to in these nominees, and what kept them from giving them the award…

There were quite a few stories that developed through the 1992 Oscar season. One of them was the surprising Marisa Tomei win in the Supporting Actress category, which became one of the most infamous moments in Oscar history. Since her win, Tomei has proven to be a pretty terrific actress (she’s been nominated twice since then), but at the time people were quick to question the motives and legitimacy of the Academy voting for a young, hot, American actress in a light comedy over a group of older and more respected foreign nominees. Be that as it may, the biggest scandal of the season didn’t have anything to do with the Oscars, but with The Golden Globes. But I’ll get to that in a second, let’s just take our time to look at the nominees for the Best Picture of 1992…

Unforgiven
The big winner of the night was Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Eastwood had been directing for a couple decades already, but he was just starting to be recognized as a type-A auteur. Critics loved Unforgiven, and the Academy is an awards-giving body that likes to reward actors when they become directors (Kevin Costner, Robert Redford, and Ben Affleck are all examples of this trend). That being said, Unforgiven is a surprisingly dark choice for Best Picture, especially at this point in the Academy’s history. True, The Silence of  the Lambs had just become the first “horror” movie to win for Best Picture the year before, but take a look at the winners that came before that: Dances with Wolves, Driving Miss Daisy, and Rain Man are all movies that easily classify as what we think of as “Oscarbait” a.k.a. movies that seem designed to win awards.

Part of the reason why Unforgiven won must have had to do with the idea of finally rewarding a hardworking veteran who was showing a surprising amount of maturity as a director. It also must have had something to do with how powerful and elegant a movie Unforgiven is. I always think of it as a perfectly oil machine, that is always moving forward. But I also think that Unforgiven wouldn’t have pulled off the win if it had been directed by someone else. Even if it were as powerful and dark as it is in its current form, the idea of Eastwood, one of the roughest and toughest guys in cinema history playing a broken-down, tired man who has been destroyed by the violence he has committed gives the movie a meta layer that Hollywood must have loved. I mean, most reviews at the time took notice that Eastwood’s movie echoed the actor’s own history as a celebrity.

AR Crying GameThe Crying Game
Like I said when I wrote about this movie for Summer of ’92, The Crying Game was kind of the sensation of late 1992. People, including critics, fell head-over-heels for Neil Jordan’s tale of an Irish terrorist who tries to start a new life in London. Oscar voters were also excited about the movie, nominating it for six awards, and giving it the Original Screenplay trophy. The most talked about thing about The Crying Game, both at the time and nowadays, is the twist that comes roughly halfway through the movie. Now, fans of the movie say that it is much more than just the twist, and while I agree that the twist is by no means the most interesting thing about the movie, I still don’t understand what people see in The Crying Game. 

The Crying Game is also notable for being the first Miramax film nominated for Best Picture. Those of you familiar with recent Oscar history will recognize Harvey Weinstein as the relentlessly aggressive Oscar campaigner of the modern age. First as head of Miramax, and now as head of The Weinstein Company, he perfected the art of using publicity and PR to get Academy members to see and vote for his movies. In 1992, the audience response to The Crying Game gave him the ammunition he needed to enter the big leagues. He would go on to have at least one movie nominated for Best Picture for the next ten years. And he is obviously still going strong (The King’s Speech and The Artist are his latest Oscar successes).

AR Few Good MenA Few Good Men
A Few Good Men went into the Oscar race as the favorite, especially after it got nominated for seven Golden Globes (more than any other movie that year). However, its chances were greatly diminished when it left the Golden Globe ceremony empty-handed. It obviously managed to get nominated for Best Picture, but I get the sense that it barely made it. The most telling sign is that, despite getting four Oscar nominations, none of them were for Best Director or Best Screenplay. Historically speaking, movies that aren’t nominated in either of those categories have little to no chance of winning, so A Few Good Men‘s odds weren’t all that good to begin with.

I think what happened to A Few Good Men is that it was hurt by being perceived as the early front-runner. It’s something that’s happened countless times in Oscar history: it’s better to be a surprising “little movie that could” than be the one movie that everyone expects will do great. I obviously didn’t follow the 1992 race (for I was less than a year old), but I remember when similar things happened to Cold Mountain and Up in the Air. A Few Good Men had all the elements to be a “big Oscar movie”. It had a cast full of the biggest stars of the moment (Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Jack Nicholson), it dealt with an important subject matter (corruption in the military), and it was directed by Rob Reiner, one of the most popular directors of the time. The ways in which it would be a no-brainer for Oscar season were so obvious that it was very easy to take down. Many critics were underwhelmed by the movie, even those who liked it hesitated to call it “great”. I would agree with most critics in so far as saying that A Few Good Men isn’t a great movie, but it’s a pretty good one. It’s the kind of big-star, medium-budget drama that doesn’t get made anymore. At least not of this quality.

AR Howards EndHowards End
Unforgiven was the big winner of the night, but it was actually tied up for the most nominations, nine, with this English literary adaptation. By this point, the work of Merchant-Ivory had become synonymous with a particular kind of movie. Their productions had gathered Oscar attention before (most notably A Room with A View), but Howards End was probably their biggest hit both critically and at the Oscars. When I wrote about it for the Summer series, I was quick to point out how it might seem at first glance like a typical, stuffy English drama, but that it is a far angrier and more visceral movie than you’d expect. It’s a story about class, and injustice, in which even the heroes end up turning a blind eye to the dark repercussions of their mistakes. It is also not, as one might assume, a showcase for good writing and solid performances, it is very interesting on a visual level. James Ivory, working at his peak, was a master staging scenes in ways that were beautiful, but also added to the movie’s themes and meaning.

AR Scent of a WomanScent of a Woman
This is the only movie of the nominees I didn’t write about for the Summer series, and… ooff. Scent of a Woman was the movie I alluded to in the opening paragraphs of this post. It was after it won three Golden Globe (including Best Motion Picture – Drama) that rumors started going round that it had won because Universal Pictures had flown the voters to New York for a “special” screening, which was an elegant way of saying they had “bought the election”. Now, it’s worthy to notice that the Golden Globes  have suffered such claims for as long as they’ve existed, and that they are an organization known for being most interested in getting to hang out with famous actors than with giving awards to quality movies. Be that as it may, it seems like people did like Scent of a Woman at the time. Or at least Oscar voters did, giving it four nominations in the most important categories.

The reason why the movie did so well at the Oscars, I cannot understand. Scent of a Woman is, simply put, a bad movie. It’s a tired story about a young man (Chris O’Donnell) connecting with an old, sour, grumpy ex Colonel (Al Pacino), who proves to be much more than meets the eye. The story is tired and overwrought, the direction not particularly interesting in any way, and the worst part of it all is, as faith would have it, the one thing for which it won the Oscar: Al Pacino’s performance. The Academy was clearly eager to give Pacino an Oscar after two decades of being nominated without a win, but it sadly came at the moment in which Pacino officially turned from a complex, interesting actor, into an overacting ham-machine. If Pacino had to win this year, then a much better choice would have been his role as Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross, at least in that movie he manages to be both charismatic and intimidating, neither of which he is in Scent of a Woman, no matter how much the movie wants this to be so.

Overlooked Movies:
The one that probably came the closest, was probably Robert Altman’s The PlayerIf you read my take on it, then you know how much I love the movie. In my opinion, not only should it have been nominated, but it should have won. It won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical), as well as the top prize from the New York Film Critics Circle. It ended up getting three nominations, including Altman for Best Direction, which makes me think it probably came in sixth place for Best Picture. The other big omission of the year was Spike Lee’s biography of Malcolm X, one of the most talked-about movies of the year. When it was finally released, the movie was greeted with generally warm praise, but few critics were outright excited about it. The movie ended up getting two nominations (Denzel Washington for Lead Actor, and Costume Design for Ruth Carter).

Did the Academy make the right choice?
I would say yes. I would have had a tough choice deciding between Unforgiven and Howards End for the win, and considering they were the nomination leaders, they were probably the Academy’s favorites. I can’t say this is a particularly strong set of nominees (those two are the only ones I would describe as great), but it’s also not particularly bad (only Scent of a Woman is an outright bad movie). I guess if I had to rank the nominees, I’d do like this: 1. Unforgiven 2. Howards End 3. A Few Good Men 4. The Crying Game 5. Scent of a Woman. 

Mad Men: Six Month Leave (S02E09)

Screen shot 2014-08-21 at 4.36.55 p.m.

I’m reviewing all the episodes of Mad Men before the last seven episodes premiere in the Spring of 2015. If you want to see an overview of the episodes I’ve written about so far, click HERE

This might be considered a spoiler, but this is not the last we’ll see of Freddie Rumsen. Freddie is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting secondary Mad Men characters. We first took notice of Freddie when he took notice of Peggy and her “basket of kisses” line, which won her her first assignment as copywriter. If you are the kind of person who pays attention to this kind of thing, you might have notices that we have gotten a lot of scenes which have featured Freddie drinking in the background. It might have not been all that noticeable, considering how most of the characters on this show are big drinkers, but “Six Month Leave” reveals that Freddie’s love for alcohol is more of a problem than we anticipated. One of the most memorable scenes in the episode has him pissing his pants, and passing out on his couch. I’d be lying if I said there isn’t comedy to the scene, but it’s al ultimately tragic one, especially looking back at it as the moment that lost Freddie his job. Technically he gets a “leave of absence”, but everybody knows he is not coming back.

I’m sure I’ll write about Freddie Rumsen as I get to later episodes, but “Six Month Leave” is the essential Freddie episode, probably his most memorable one, and definitely the one that will color all his future appearances on the show. There is nothing to be done, from this moment on, Freddie Rumsen is a tragic figure. His firing is one of the big plot points that influences the themes of the episode. Its most direct, and notable, influence comes in what happens to Peggy, who after being discovered by Freddie, ends up being the person that gets her job after he’s fired. Peggy is incredibly conflicted about her new position: he’s gotten the job she’s always wanted, but at the expense of the person most directly responsible for her being there (other than herself, of course).

These kind of dilemmas can be found all over “Six Month Leave”, and they connect through the episode’s other thematic plot point: the death of Marilyn Monroe. Roger goes into his office to find Joan crying over the actress’ death. “She was a movie star that had everything and everybody, and she threw it all away” he says, blindly ignoring what lies behind Marilyn’s story. We now know that she had a darker and more tormented life than she let off, a life that couldn’t be brightened no matter how famous and beloved an icon she had become. Similar things are happening to the people at Sterling Cooper, as they realize that getting what they wanted doesn’t come with a certain amount of pain. I’ve already talked about Peggy’s case, but there’s also Roger, who reveals at the end of the episode that he is leaving his wife Mona for Don’s secretary Jane, just as he discovers that the separation might be messier than he expected (both from Mona and Jane’s perspective).

And then you have the Drapers, and the seemingly perfect marriage that seems to be coming to an end. Don wanted to get a new life after suffering through his childhood, and Betty seems to have grown up wanted the perfect happy family, only to find out that the emptiness in their lives could not be so easily filled. Don went after Bobbie Barrett because she offered something that he felt he was missing, but that infidelity in turn opened Betty’s eye towards her suspicion that her husband was cheating on her. And now that the marriage is on a “leave of absence” of its own, comes the question of what is left. Once again, it’s Freddie that puts the themes of the episode into words: “What am I going to do? (…) If I don’t go into that office every day, who am I?” he tells Don, and it feels like it’s the same question that Don and Betty are asking themselves. If they are not the Drapers, then who are they? Similarly, Peggy is building her identity around her rising career at Sterling Cooper, and Roger is trying to reinvent himself by going after a younger woman. The question remains: is there a Norma Jean behind all the Marilyns these people are creating for themselves?

Random Thoughts:

  • The book Betty reads while she is spending her drunk lonely hours at home is Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, a story about a group of people sailing from Mexico to Europe that is really an allegory for the rise of Nazism. More notably, one of the characters is a sad American woman who looks to start a new idyllic life in Paris. So… too on the nose, or just enough?
  • “It’s conduct unbefitting” “Of Freddie Rumsen?”
  • “We can’t even tell Cooper about this. You know his whole thing with germs…”

Spoiler-y Thoughts (but only kind of)

  • Peggy has to step in and pitch for Samsonite after Freddie “gets sick”, but we do not actually see her pitch. Considering recent events in the show’s later season, I’m interested to see when and how we actually see Peggy pitching to clients.
  • Peggy’s notable gain this episode is that she becomes the head of the Samsonite account, a fact that will play a role later, in one of the show’s best episodes.