A Pair of Reviews

Book Review: The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry

After reading this as well as her previous work, Unnatural Magic, I’m ready to put author C.M. Waggoner among those whose new works I most look forward to. I know I’m going to get an intriguing mix of wit and drama, flavored with flawed, complex, but ultimately awesome female leads.

The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry concerns Dellaria Wells, a grifter from the wrong side of the tracks gifted with the power of fire magic. Fire magic suits her, as she’s a hot mess, having lasted less than a month at the prestigious university for wizards before being kicked out and now seeking various ways to line her pockets, not only to make herself comfortable but to move her drug-addicted mother out of the crime-infested city. She seizes an opportunity to join a team of bodyguards (all women — all this book’s important humanoid characters are women) assigned to protect a high-ranking bride-to-be who’s been receiving death threats. She thinks it will be a fairly easy task, though her interest is less in protecting the young woman than in charming a wealthy fellow bodyguard, Winn Cynallum, and making her her meal ticket. But she soon finds herself in very deep, as the threats to the bride-to-be’s life are linked to the city’s dangerous drug trade and as she begins to fall hard for her “mark.” Suddenly the stakes are personal indeed, and Dellaria must find a way to become the hero Winn thinks she is.

The bad news is that I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as I did Unnatural Magic. While that book had three different point-of-view characters, this one sticks with Dellaria only, and while I did find Delly an engaging and richly drawn character, I missed the multiple perspectives. When the romance unfolds in Unnatural Magic, we see it through the eyes of both characters, and as we get to know them both, we see how well they work together and become more and more invested in seeing their relationship succeed. In The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry, we only see Winn through Delly’s perspective, from the outside looking in, so while their relationship is charming and I rooted for them, some of the depth and intensity was lost, at least for me. I would have liked to know Winn better. Big (she’s part troll), beautiful, smart yet soft-hearted, she’s just the kind of heroine whose head I would have loved to travel in.

Still, I found much to enjoy here, from the dry humor which never completely fades out even as danger mounts to the eclectic supporting cast (among them a bitter, grieving mother, an overly proud scientifically inclined mage, and a skeletal zombie mouse, the only male character of any real significance). Delly’s narrative voice is cynical — and the thing she’s most cynical about is herself — but we still find touches of sweetness, most of them courtesy of Winn. I’d recommend this to anyone who likes their fantasy with a bit of Jane Austen flair. Four out of five stars.

Movie Review: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret

True confession: I’ve never read the Judy Blume book on which this film is based (though my husband has), since when I was growing up I never gravitated towards stories with realistic settings and characters. I still don’t, at least where books are concerned. Movies, however, are a different matter, and I ended up loving this film for the very realism and groundedness that disinclined me toward the book. Had I read the book, I might well have been impatient with Margaret’s lack of observable hobbies or interests, but through the movie I could see her very ordinariness works in the story’s favor, as she’s just a kid finding her way, trying to figure out what she wants and what she believes in as she navigates the land mines of puberty.

Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) is the daughter of a Jewish dad, Herb (Benny Safdie), and a Christian mom, Barbara (Rachel McAdams). Her parents have decided to raise her without any religion, so that when she grows up she can decide for herself which faith she wants to follow. But after her family leaves New York City and relocates to suburban New Jersey, Margaret, now having to make herself at home in a new place, starts to become curious about the nature of God; on a visit to her grandmother (Kathy Bates), she insists on going to Temple for the first time, and she goes to church with a friend, Janie (Amari Alexis Price), all the while engaging in dialogues with God about the changes in her life and in her body. A flawed heroine, she makes many a mistake along her way, but we see her learn from them, and she ends her story not in a perfect place but in a good one.

Movies that take an honest, thoughtful look at a girl’s journey through puberty are sadly few and far between, but even if they were more plentiful, Margaret would still stand out. There is so much to enjoy in this movie. Abby Ryder Fortson makes Margaret an immensely likable protagonist, someone we can identify with and root for. For once, we see a somewhat functional relationship between a tween heroine and her parents; even when they’re at odds, the bonds of love among them are never in doubt. The movie also departs from its source novel in a way I can appreciate: while Margaret is the book’s first-person narrator, the movie opens up the narrative to develop her mother, Barbara, as a co-protagonist, a woman with an artistic bent who does her best to play the role of suburban housewife and stay-at-home mother but comes increasingly to realize she’s not cut out for it. In one moving scene, she spies a colorful bird through her window, and she feels she must sketch it and rushes to the art supplies she’s packed away in storage, and then sits down with her drawing pencil — only for a PTA mom’s knock at her door to scare the bird away before she can draw more than a line. Just like her daughter, Barbara must find a way to be true to herself, and McAdams, like Fortson, is enormously likable in her role.

Among girl-centered movies from the 21st century, the ones I feel work best as companion pieces with Margaret are Pixar’s Inside Out and Turning Red. Inside Out shows 11-year-old Riley having to adjust to a new home, while Turning Red tackles the physical, mental, and emotional transformations of puberty by showing 13-year-old Mei changing into a giant red panda whenever emotion overwhelms her. The three films would make a marvelous binge-watch, but as much as I love the Pixar films, I feel Margaret takes the issues and ties them together in a more satisfying package. Sadly, it hasn’t managed to find its audience in theaters, but I hold out hope that it will become a huge success when it hits its streaming platform. Five stars.


All Best Picture Winners, Ranked: 2016 – 2022

2016: Moonlight [Haven’t Seen]

I need to get around to seeing this film; it features a number of actors I like, and it’s almost certainly better than the movie mistakenly announced as the year’s Best Picture, the dreary La La Land, a misguided attempt to breathe new life into the musical genre that makes the same mistake that put the genre on life support in the first place, e.g. casting non-singing, non-dancing actors. A dash of musical-talent charisma might have made the movie’s bland, narcissistic main characters halfway interesting, but alas, ’tis not so. (That this film got so much attention while the vastly superior In the Heights and West Side Story were ignored still has me a little salty.)

2017: The Shape of Water [Personal Favorite]

Dismissed by many as “that fish sex movie,” Guillermo del Toro’s historical fantasy about a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins) who learns to communicate with an aquatic humanoid (Doug Jones) imprisoned in the lab where she works is one of the few romantic dramas to win Best Picture, and it’s my favorite of those few. I admit I’m a sucker for stories of two underdogs taking on the world, particularly with del Toro’s deft creative hand behind them.

2018: Green Book [Haven’t Seen]

As much as I admire Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, this one doesn’t feel like it’s for me. It gives me some distinct been-there-done-that vibes (Driving Miss Daisy, anyone?).

2019: Parasite [Good, but Not for Me]

This pitch-black comedy-drama about an impoverished Korean family tricking their way into a household of wealthy narcissists is brilliantly crafted and deeply disturbing. It accomplishes its goal and then some, shedding light on socioeconomic inequities and posing an uncomfortable question of its audience: to what lengths would you go in order to be safe? But it’s one of those movies I can admire yet not love. I have no issue with its win, since my favorite films of that year, The Farewell and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, were snubbed. But now that I’ve seen it, I never need to see it again.

2020: Nomadland [Good]

This slow-burning docudrama features Frances McDormand, one of the finest actresses working today, as a woman with no fixed abode, who moves from one place and low-level job to another, interacting with others who have chosen a similarly nomadic lifestyle. McDormand’s character is no victim driven to this way of life by harsh necessity. In fact, the best part of the movie is its refusal to judge her or her lifestyle; instead, we’re invited to make up our own minds. The movie’s biggest problem, the most likely reason this winner doesn’t have more vocal fans, is its episodic structure and lack of central conflict. But those looking for a fascinating slice of life should find much to enjoy here.

2021: CODA [Good]

This story of a “Child of Deaf Adults” (CODA), winningly played by Emilia Jones, torn between her longing to pursue her musical ambitions and her responsibility (as she sees it) to protect and care for her family was not my pick to win. I was rooting hard for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story; had that film won, it would have earned God-Tier, or at least Personal Favorite. Still, CODA is solidly good, with a touching storyline, interesting and often likable characters, and strong performances all around. I understand complaints that nothing much about it stands out — my husband, though he enjoyed it, had issues with its predictability — but I do not agree with those who claim it had no business winning Best Picture because it’s a “feel-good movie,” as if that’s some sort of weakness, some sign of irrelevance or unintelligence. Should we really reserve the Best Picture Oscar for those movies that make us feel terrible? Surely not.

2022: Everything Everywhere All at Once [God-Tier]

Author Jorge Luis Borges would love Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s wild ride through a multiverse; it’s a veritable garden of forking paths, as its protagonist Evelyn (Best Actress winner Michelle Yeoh), a laundromat/dry-cleaner owner dissatisfied with her life and at odds with her daughter (the also excellent Stephanie Hsu). must confront a multitude of roads not taken and the various forms taken not only by her daughter but also her husband (Best Supporting Actor winner Ke Huy Quan), whose love is the one thing constant in every ‘verse she visits. This movie could so easily have misfired and left us talking about it as yet another example of shine over substance, of trickery replacing solid storytelling. Yet the screenplay, also the work of “the Daniels,” takes the time to develop the story’s characters and their relationships, grounding the bizarre affair in humanity and warmth. Weary, confused, but strong-willed Evelyn, in some worlds an action heroine and in others simply a loving, frightened mom out of her depth, provides the vital emotional core. If she isn’t my favorite live-action female protagonist of the past twenty years, she is certainly in the top five. And oh, yeah, Jamie Lee Curtis delivers the performance of a lifetime, earning her a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

What will 2023 have in store? I’ve already seen one excellent film — Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret — and I’m eager to see what’s next.

All Best Picture Winners, Ranked: 2010 – 2015

2010: The King’s Speech [Personal Favorite]

This British period piece is the most unpopular winner of the decade. Its detractors, most of them massive fans of David Fincher’s very contemporary, very American drama The Social Network, claim its victory serves as a sign that Academy voters are hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch. They’re not far wrong — Academy voters can indeed be pretty darn out of touch — but I would argue that what it really reveals is the problematic nature of the Best Picture award itself, that two such different films — one a humanistic historical drama about a friendship that transcends the class divide, the other an edgy, cynical expose’ of humans’ appetite for exploitation and tendency toward betrayal — should be judged against each other when each film succeeds brilliantly in what it sets out to do. It all comes down to what flavor you’re hungry for, and I will always gravitate toward a smart, well-crafted heartwarming film, particularly one which features strong performances from Colin Firth (as King George VI), Geoffrey Rush (as speech therapist Lionel Logue), Helena Bonham Carter (as George’s loyal, loving Queen), Guy Pearce (as his feckless older brother Edward, who surrenders his throne to marry Nazi sympathizer Wallis Simpson), and Michael Gambon (as the exacting George V).

Perhaps the Academy voters took the criticisms to heart, as this marks the last victory (so far) for a British period drama. This Masterpiece Theatre fan blinks the mist from her eyes.

2011: The Artist [Good]

The first silent film since 1927’s Wings to win Best Picture, this one has met with some backlash as well, yet I find it an effective depiction of Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound movies and its displacement of one-time matinee idols like George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the darker side of my beloved Singin’ in the Rain. Unlike John Gilbert, the silent star on whom he may have been based, George manages to struggle to an eventual happy ending, once he’s been humbled and learned to adapt. Yet, having seen in the film itself how effective silent drama can be, we feel a sense of loss just the same.

2012: Argo [Good]

The first big news story I can remember following, the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the taking of American hostages, forms the backdrop of this taut nail-biter, which tells the story of six Americans who escaped the U.S. embassy in Iran and took refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s home, and the successful rescue mission mounted by the CIA’s Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed). Affleck is among those actors whose real-life behavior I find off-putting, but this film nonetheless shines an intriguing light on a piece of little-known history. Even though I knew the fate of the six escapees going in, I found myself worrying about them every step of the way. Affleck’s performance is serviceable, but the cast is full of performers who disappear into their featured or minor roles, adding to the film’s realistic you-are-there feel. Alan Arkin is here as well, awesome as usual. And John Goodman (at the time) made an excellent John Chambers, the make up whiz of Hollywood.

2013: Twelve Years a Slave [Good]

Chiwetel Ejeofor is an insufficiently acknowledged treasure, an intently charismatic actor equally at home in blockbusters (his performance was pretty much the only thing I liked about Doctor Strange) and serious dramas. Here he brings his energy and power to the role of Solomon Northrup, an African-American New Yorker kidnapped, taken south, and sold into slavery. Even the ultimately happy ending, in which Northrup regains his freedom, can’t soft-pedal the brutality and degradation he is forced to endure; this film is not an easy watch, nor should it be. Yet tough meat is often the most nourishing. The movie boasts strong performances not only from Ejeofor but from Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson (as an especially despicable pair of slaveholders) and Lupita Nyong’o (who won Best Supporting Actress for her turn as Northrup’s fellow slave Patsey, a sexually exploited girl fighting for every scrap of dignity).

2014: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance [Good, but Not for Everyone]

Alejandro G. Inarritu’s backstage drama centering on a disaffected actor (Michael Keaton in an inspired bit of casting) who made his name playing a superhero but now hopes to stage a comeback on the “legitimate stage” made a strong impression on me when I first saw it, with solid performances from all involved. Yet while I still remember it as an interesting, incisive look into the world of theater and the acting profession, there were points at which I wasn’t sure where my sympathies were meant to lie, most of them involving female characters. Keaton’s performance provides a strong anchor for the film, but a specific scene involving one of his co-stars, played by Naomi Watts, leaves a sour aftertaste in my mouth. Trigger warning for sexual assault.

2015: Spotlight [Good]

This film’s victory represents a triumph of competence, the first word that comes to mind when I think of it. Its parts combine into a well-oiled machine, particularly its screenplay, which tells the story of a team of journalists’ exposure of sexual abuse and corruption in Boston’s Catholic Church, and its performances. (Michael Keaton is here again, in a less flashy but still solid turn.) It doesn’t quite have the oomph that might make it a favorite frequent watch of mine, but those looking for a serious workplace drama with a minimum of personal distractions could do far worse than this film.

All Best Picture Winners, Ranked: The 2000s

Are the 1990s my favorite decade for movies? I’ve always considered myself partial to the 1930s, but in writing these posts, I’ve discovered that the 1990s are the only decade in which I’ve actually seen every single Best Picture winner. With the dawn on the new millennium, sadly, my enthusiasm for the Oscars started to wane, and as I look over the list of winners for this decade, I see that every single year except 2003 brought a movie I love substantially more.

So let’s get started:

2000: Gladiator [Good]

In a lot of ways, this Russell Crowe-starring sword-and-sandal epic about a military general reduced to a slave’s status and his thirst for revenge against the tyrannical Emperor Commodus is a tighter, grittier, less sprawling, less offensive Braveheart. It certainly holds up better as entertainment, with Crowe’s Maximus a powerfully sympathetic protagonist and good supporting performances by Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, and Connie Nielsen. Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Commodus is a bit polarizing, but having seen 2005’s Walk the Line, I have to give Phoenix credit for his astonishing range. (Movie I Love Substantially More: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.]

2001: A Beautiful Mind [Good]

Russell Crowe is back, this time playing a mathematical genius battling (and often losing to) schizophrenia. He’s quite good as John Nash, but it’s actually Paul Bettany, as Nash’s college roommate, who captures my heart and my imagination here. (Bettany hasn’t had quite the career I would have wished for him, but he’s great in everything I’ve seen him in.) Yet even though I’m putting the film in the Good tier, I haven’t felt much need to revisit it in subsequent years — unlike the Movie I Love Substantially More, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which I’ve rewatched many times.

2002: Chicago [Good, but Not for Me]

As a fan of musicals, I should eat this up, right? It does have plenty going for it: catchy songs, great choreography, and first-rate acting/singing/dancing performances from Catherine Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah. Yet the story, of an adulterous housewife (played by Renee Zellweger) with showbiz aspirations who is put on trial for murdering her lover, is so thoroughly cynical, with not even the slightest hint of any genuine sentiment as its characters use and abuse each other without conscience, that it alienates me. (Movie I Love Substantially More: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I’m also partial to Minority Report, one of the few Tom Cruise vehicles I actually enjoy.)

2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [God-Tier]

Director Peter Jackson has made some regrettable missteps since he wowed the world with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, but these three films — and I consider this award honors all three films, since they tell a single story, just as J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels did — are still the gold standard for fantasy filmmaking. Those who dislike fantasy fiction, on both page and screen, probably wish that Lost in Translation, or Mystic River, or Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (which I did love) had taken the prize. But as a long-time fan of both fantasy in general and Tolkien in particular, I love, love, love these films, even though I acknowledge their flaws (most notably the rewrite they did on the character of Faramir, played by David Wenham). Not only are they wonderful films to swim in, but they also offer a break from the harsh, acerbic tone of so many acclaimed films of this period. Heroes do exist, and it’s pure pleasure to see them so powerfully realized on screen.

2004: Million Dollar Baby [Okay]

It’s been said often that Clint Eastwood’s boxing drama is actually two films. The first two-thirds is a triumph-of-the-underdog feel-good movie, with poor girl Maggie (Hilary Swank) punching her way towards greater self-esteem and a found family (Eastwood as her coach, Morgan Freeman as his right-hand man) far more loving and supportive than her loathsome biological clan. Then the movie does a hard pivot and transforms into a dreary, depressing meditation on quality of life and the relative rightness of euthanasia. Had it continued on its original path, it would have been solidly in my Good tier. But the last third had me banging my head (metaphorically, of course) and shouting that “this was not what I signed up for!” I felt betrayed, and I still do when I think about it. A far more tonally consistent portrait of despair is this year’s Movie I Loved Substantially More (and should have won Best Picture, darn it!), Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator.

(Note: despite my dislike of the twist, I have to acknowledge Million Dollar Baby as the last Best Picture winner of the decade to feature a female protagonist. We’re heading back into No Woman’s Land; the next female-led film to win the top prize will be 2017’s The Shape of Water.)

2005: Crash [Never Seen]

Favorite Oscar-bait movies of the year: Capote and Walk the Line.

2006: The Departed [Good, but Not for Me]

Martin Scorcese is hit or miss with me. Just two years earlier he won my allegiance with The Aviator, a biopic of tormented genius billionaire Howard Hughes, and I’ve enjoyed his costume dramas The Age of Innocence (nominated for Best Picture but doomed to lose in the year of Schindler’s List), Gangs of New York (in spite of the miscast Cameron Diaz), and Hugo. But I’m far less enthralled by his movies with contemporary or near-contemporary settings, in which there’s no fascinating window into the past to make the dark, uber-gritty violence and emphasis on the baser side of human nature more palatable. Still, this drama of organized crime and police corruption in Boston is well-made and well-acted, so I can’t argue it didn’t deserve the award, especially since the Movie I Loved Substantially More, Guillermo del Toro’s dark but ultimately humanistic fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth, didn’t have a shot.

2007: No Country for Old Men [Never Seen]

I have no interest in this film. This was, in my opinion, a rather weak year for movies, at least judging from what I’ve seen; Juno, Away from Her, and Ratatouille are probably my favorites.

2008: Slumdog Millionaire [Good, but Not for Me]

This dark but ultimately triumphant story of a young Indian Muslim man who faces down both class and religious prejudice to win a fortune and the girl of his dreams is one of those satisfying blends of grit and sentiment that I love to see win Oscars. But this film didn’t quite land with me. I couldn’t help noticing that while protagonist Jamal (Dev Patel), his older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), and even the game-show host (Anil Kapoor) were all interesting and compelling characters, Jamal’s love interest Latika (Freida Pinto), the only female character of any significance in the film, gets no substantial development beyond her function as love interest. Love stories in which one character has a personality while the other (usually the woman) remains a shadow are a pet peeve of mine. A more satisfying romance, and the Movie I Love Substantially More, is Pixar’s WALL-E.

2009: The Hurt Locker [Good, but Not for Me]

I remember this movie being a well-made film; I admired it when I saw it, but nothing about it has stuck. This year I have three Movies I Loved Substantially More: An Education, Inglorious Basterds, and Up. Inglorious Basterds would have been my choice for Best Picture.

Book Report: Ithaca

How much do we know about Hera, wife of Zeus and queen of the gods in ancient Greek myth? If we know her at all, it’s probably best as the most cheated-on of all divinities. Unable to hold her powerful “Lord of the Thunderbolt” husband accountable, she takes out her anger on the various nymphs and mortal women he dallies with and, quite often, their offspring as well (e.g. Hercules, or Heracles as he’s known in Greek — ironically, the name means “glory of Hera”). She also helps bring about the downfall of the great city of Troy after Prince Paris snubs her in the famous beauty contest, the prize being an apple labeled “For the Fairest.” These myths paint her as a shrewish rage-a-holic, the ancient equivalent of the modern-day “Karen.”

Yet in her novel Ithaca, Claire North gives us a very different Hera, a Queen and a champion of Queens. Through her all-knowing eyes we watch Penelope, Queen of Ithaca and wife of Odysseus, cope with the encroachment of grasping, quarrelsome men eager to win her hand, along with an invasion of “pirates.” To deal with the pirates — in reality the henchmen of Andraemon, the most vicious of the suitors — she oversees the training of the women of her island into an effective fighting force. As if that were not enough to handle, she must also play host to the children of the recently murdered King Agamemnon, the slightly-out-of-his-depth Orestes and the cold, vengeful Elektra, who believe that Clytemnestra, their mother and Agamemnon’s murderer, is hiding on Ithaca (They’re right.) Hera herself plays little active role in the proceedings, but North’s decision to tell the story from her perspective proves a stroke of genius. With her sharp, wry, ultimately sympathetic voice, the queen of the gods becomes an embodiment for our rooting interest in Penelope, the women who serve her, and even Clytemnestra. Plus, I love her sense of humor. Hoot-bleeping-hoot.

If Ithaca has a fault, it might be a lack of sympathetic male representation; while this lack makes narrative sense, I can see how it might be off-putting for some readers, as the same situation would bother me if the genders were reversed. Men in this story range from despicable abusers (e.g. Andraemon) to neurotic would-be heroes (e.g. Odysseus’ son Telemachus), all of them having one trait in common: a deep and unbridled contempt for women, the natural result of the misogynistic culture in which they have been raised. Kenamon, the only male visitor to Ithaca to treat Penelope with any respect, hails from Egypt, a society far more enlightened where gender roles are concerned; he is painted sympathetically, but his role is too small to offset the impression of the male characters in general as arrogant, violent misogynists. The worst thing about them, for me, is how predictable they are. In any given situation, they will choose the cruelest, most hurtful course available to them. In many ways, Telemachus is the cruelest, since he’s the only one for whom Penelope actually cares and therefore in the position to hurt her the most deeply. Throughout the story, Penelope, a woman of wit, resourcefulness, and courage, shows herself to be up to every challenge until the end, which shows her broken by the actions of her unloving son. (For a kinder Telemachus, give Madeline Miller’s Circe a look. So many brilliant authors these days are turning their hands to fascinating feminist retellings of the old myths, and it makes me glad all over.)

Yet the menfolk create chaos, the driving force of this narrative are the bonds between women, some strong, some tenuous, some hostile. Hera observes the friendships forged by the martial training with delight; she’s far less patient with those women who withhold support from their sisters (e.g. Telemachus’ nanny Eurycleia, a poster child for internalized misogyny). Hera’s own complicated relationships with her own stepdaughters, goddesses Athena and Artemis, also come into play, a good portion of loathing with a welcome dash of understanding and even winking admiration. Best of all, each woman in this network of relationships, even with the smallest page time, is an interesting and complex figure who could easily be the heroine of her own story.

Five out of five stars.

All Best Picture Winners, Ranked: The 1990’s

1990: Dances With Wolves [Good]

I have one major gripe with this film, and it’s not “It’s not Goodfellas,” It’s that Kevin Costner, the director and star, is a poor narrator in a heavily narrated movie. When he’s simply playing Civil War veteran John Dunbar, who journeys west and ends up building a life among the Sioux, he’d decent. But he should have found a way to leave the narration to someone else (like, maybe, Graham Greene?). Still, the other major players — Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant — all give outstanding performances. The real MVP is John Barry, whose lush, sweeping score delivers an emotional punch.

1991: The Silence of the Lambs [Good]

Some movies I enjoy while I’m watching them but start to sink in my estimation as I reflect on them (case in point: 1997’s Titanic). This movie made the opposite journey. When I first watched it, I found its ice-cold tone off-putting, but since then, my respect and admiration for it has grown. While fellow nominee Beauty and the Beast and the un-nominated Fried Green Tomatoes might remain my sentimental favorites, this year’s winner hits my feminist sweet spot for being the only female-led Best Picture winner other than All About Eve to focus on its protagonist’s work life rather than her love and/or family life. In order to capture a serial killer, FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) must seek help from a notorious murderer (Anthony Hopkins) imprisoned in an asylum. Hopkins’ Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter might get the bulk of the attention from fans, but the story belongs to Clarice, as she uses all her courage and resourcefulness to rescue a young woman from the serial killer’s clutches. If you enjoy a smart nail-biter with super-high stakes, this Best Picture winner is for you.

1992: Unforgiven [Good]

William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a mercenary with a dark past, is hired to avenge a prostitute’s murder and defend the women of a bordello from the bullying minions of powerful “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman); Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris offer stalwart support. A much grittier vision of the Old West than Dances With Wolves, it’s a disturbing meditation on violence and redemption.

1993: Schindler’s List [God-Tier]

Steven Spielberg’s best film (thus far) remains, after thirty years, among the top five finest pieces of film making to emerge in my lifetime. I’m one of those strange folk who has seen this film more than once; I’ve used it to teach Film Analysis to my students, and each time I show it I feel its impact afresh. How can I keep doing that to myself? It is, without question, a dark and disturbing film, a chilling glimpse into the horrors of the Holocaust, a lesson in what happens when human beings are reduced to livestock. Yet it offers a glimmer of hope, symbolized by the tiny flame on the melted-down candle at the opening. The story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German businessman who transforms from a self-involved profiteer of slave labor into a protector of his Jewish workforce, it highlights the power of empathy to change and save lives. Neeson, at this point in this career a brilliant actor, brings cunning and charisma to his complicated role, and Ben Kingsley (as Schindler’s manager and mentor) and Ralph Fiennes (as a mad, monstrous Nazi commandant) give faultless supporting performances. Once you’ve seen it, it will not leave your mind.

1994: Forrest Gump [Okay]

This frequently disparaged Best Picture winner is far from terrible, though it’s nowhere near as good as fellow nominee The Shawshank Redemption. Tom Hanks and (especially) Gary Sinise are quite good, Alan Silvestri’s score is lovely, and many scenes are genuinely moving. But the parts are stronger than the whole, which may be why the movie gets far less attention these days than Shawshank or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. (Gary Sinise would have been a fine choice to win Best Supporting Actor, but that went to the equally-deserving Martin Landau for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.)

1995: Braveheart [Aged Like Milk]

Treating it as a joke when the vicious King Edward Longshanks (Patrick MacGoohan, who’s quite good) hurls his homosexual son’s lover from a tower window to his death would not, and should not, be acceptable today. Yet even omitting this off-putting homophobia from the equation, Mel Gibson’s overblown, historically inaccurate vanity project just isn’t very good, though MacGoohan and a number of other supporting players give a good account of themselves. One of the most notable examples of the Academy’s preference for male-led projects over female-driven ones is their choosing this film to honor with the Best Picture award rather than Ang Lee’s and Emma Thompson’s exquisite screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which has aged like fine wine. The charming Babe would also have been a better choice.

1996: The English Patient [Personal Favorite]

Of all the winners I’ve placed in this tier up to this point, this one is my guiltiest pleasure. Backlash to its win began almost immediately, even before Seinfeld stepped in to make it fashionable to loathe it. Although I’m hardly ashamed to hold an opposite opinion to any character played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, I realize this movie has notable flaws, and I’d even acknowledge that the Coen brothers’ Fargo would have been a better choice for Best Picture. But I still find myself swept away by this unpopular winner whenever I watch it, thanks largely to its cinematography, its score (courtesy of underrated Gabriel Yared), and the two characters played by Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche, in whose fates I find myself invested.

1997: Titanic [Okay to Good]

My husband says it best: the movie really picks up once the ship hits the iceberg. Everything involving the sinking is top-level film-making, and it’s hard not to feel the tragedy as the massive ocean liner disappears beneath the waves while the surviving passengers watch from their lifeboats. The cast also includes some memorable figures, especially Kathy Bates’ Molly Brown, Victor Garber’s doomed shipbuilder Mr. Andrews, and Jonathan Evans-Jones’ bandleader Wallace Hartley, who provides perhaps the film’s most genuinely poignant moment when he tells his fellow musicians what a privilege it’s been to play with them that night. (Evans-Jones is primarily a musician, not an actor, but his is the face that stays with me.) Yet the bulk of the movie is taken up by the rather shallow and clumsy romance between Kate Winslet’s discontented patrician and Leonardo diCaprio’s starving artist. Both excellent performers, Winslet and diCaprio give it their all, but they fight a losing battle against the cliche-ridden screenplay. Both have gone on to do much better work and win Oscars of their own.

1998: Shakespeare in Love [Good]

Everyone said the Best Picture Oscar this year was Saving Private Ryan‘s to lose, but then Miramax mogul and all-around garbage human being Harvey Weinstein spread some money around among Academy voters, and this historical-speculation romantic comedy walked away with the prize. So runs the prevailing narrative, at any rate. Yet while Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama is a powerful film, I find this winner charming, with strong performances from Joseph Fiennes as struggling young playwright William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Rush as a theater manager who has trouble keeping up, Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth (earning an Oscar that should have been hers for Mrs. Brown the year before), and a host of awesome British character actors as Shakespeare’s company of players. Ben Affleck, as a popular actor whose ego Shakespeare must stroke, is the weak link, feeling more like a LARP-er who wandered onto the set. But while it’s become popular lately to dislike Gwyneth Paltrow, here I like both her and the character she plays. (Cate Blanchett’s performance in Elizabeth should have won Best Actress, though.)

1999: American Beauty [Good, but Not for Me]

A lot of first-rate craftsmanship went into this drama of a disaffected suburbanite (Kevin Spacey) stricken with lust for his daughter’s cheerleader friend. But “White Male Malaise: The Movie” failed to resonate with me, as I couldn’t find a single character with whom to sympathize, except maybe the catatonic neighbor played by Allison Janney, clearly a victim of abuse and neglect. Most irksome was the movie’s insistence on demonizing Spacey’s wife (Annette Bening) for, among other things, playing Broadway show tunes — disparaged by Spacey as “Lawrence Welk s**t” — at dinner. Sorry, movie, but if I want White Male Malaise, I’ll just play “It’s Quiet Uptown” from Hamilton. 1999 wasn’t the best year for Oscar-bait films. It’ll be more remembered for The Phantom Menace and Stanley Kubrick’s sudden passing…

Ranking Best Picture Winners: The 1980s

It’s become clear that I won’t manage to finish this blog series before March 12, the date of this year’s Oscars. I still have a good many years to get through. But I’ll keep it going till I’ve brought my rankings up to the present, because hey, it’s fun.

1980: Ordinary People [Good]

Fans of Martin Scorcese resent this film’s winning Best Picture in the same year that Raging Bull was nominated, but Robert Redford’s directorial debut is nonetheless a well-acted, well-crafted, and thought-provoking family drama which eschews sentimentality. Timothy Hutton plays Conrad Jarrett, whose survivor’s guilt after his brother’s death has driven him to attempt suicide and who now is striving, with the aid of sympathetic psychiatrist Judd Hirsch, to escape the burden of his mother’s (Mary Tyler Moore) icy hatred. Moore’s Beth Jarrett ranks with Gladys Cooper’s nasty Mrs. Vale from 1942’s Now, Voyager among Cinema’s Most Toxic Parents, and Donald Sutherland also turns in an effective performance as the paterfamilias torn between his loyalty to his wife and his love for his suffering son. A smart, tasteful melodrama for grown-ups.

1981: Chariots of Fire [Personal Favorite]

This winner is often dismissed as “boring.” When my husband and I watched it together, he found the lack of conflict disappointing, and I can’t say he’s wrong; there is no central tension, no clearly identifiable antagonist. Instead, it’s more of a snapshot of a time and place, Britain the years 1919 through 1924, when the fabled roar of the Twenties was muted as the country was trying to move out of the shadow of a devastating war. It concerns two track athletes as they train for the 1924 Olympics, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Jewish Oxford student who confronts anti-Semitism with a determination to “run [the bigots] off their feet,” and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a Scots missionary who puts this work on hold to train and must deal with his family’s disappointment. Both actors turn in admirable performances, as does Ian Holm, as Abrahams’ coach and mentor. But here again is a case where my love of Masterpiece Theatre and my interest in 19th and early 20th century British history sell me on a movie that not everyone is going to like.

1982: Gandhi [Okay]

So I’m a Masterpiece Theatre fan who loves historical dramas; if that predilection sold me on Chariots of Fire, just why didn’t this one click with me? The fact that it’s at least an hour longer than 1981’s winner might have something to do with it. Ben Kingsley is not to blame; his performance is flawless, and his Best Actor Oscar deserved. But in the years that have elapsed between my first and only viewing of the film and now, what I remember most about it is its ponderous pace. I wonder if I might feel differently if I saw it again.

1983: Terms of Endearment [Good, but Not for Me]

Finally, the streak of male-dominated Best Picture winners comes to an end. Ironically enough, if I’d had the deciding vote, the award would have gone to yet another male-dominated film, The Right Stuff. James L. Brooks’ mother (Shirley MacLaine) – daughter (Debra Winger) comedy-drama should have been a slam-dunk for me, yet I found their characters shallow, self-absorbed, and regrettably unengaging. The last half, in which Winger battles cancer, picks up a bit, but the first hour struck me as a cast of narcissists knocking against each other, and I couldn’t find a reason why I’d want to spend time with them. I suspect Brooks’ style just isn’t to my taste; I’ve seen three of his films — this one, Broadcast News, and As Good as It Gets — and of these, only Broadcast News sorta-kinda landed with me.

1984: Amadeus [God-Tier]

In every way but one (the lack of a sympathetic female figure I can root for), this movie seems to have been designed for me, a feast for my historical-drama-loving eyes, ears, and heart. It tells the story of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), court composer to Emperor Joseph II, who enjoys a life of prestige in late 1700s Vienna until a brash young genius named Mozart (Tom Hulce) comes to town. Salieri is all too aware of both Mozart’s gifts and his own lack of them; as this awareness becomes torture, he sets out to destroy the “obscene child.” A sharp and insightful study of the nature of genius, the movie is brilliantly acted all around, with Abraham earning a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the haunted mediocrity. Also, it follows the “show, don’t tell” principle when it comes to Mozart’s gifts, as it’s scored entirely with the wunderkind’s compositions.

1985: Out of Africa [Okay]

This was the year I fell in love with Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, seeing it three times in the theater between late 1985 and early 1986. I didn’t see Out of Africa until some months later, and I finally knew enough to be legitimately angry that it took Best Picture away from Spielberg’s film. Out of Africa should have worked for me, as it’s one of the few highly-regarded movies to tell the story of a female creative, author Karen Blixen, a.k.a. Isak Dinesen (Meryl Streep), and the years she spends running a farm in Africa and her doomed love affair with a British adventurer (Robert Redford). The raw material for greatness is there. But like Gandhi, it suffers from pacing issues, particularly in its last third, when it becomes increasingly episodic. The Color Purple is also a lengthy film, with a runtime of two hours and thirty-four minutes, yet I felt invested in every minute of it and afterwards felt the delicious melancholy that comes from having followed a beautifully made historical drama to its end. Out of Africa, however, lost me as it began to ramble, and by the end I felt only relief that it didn’t go on any longer. One point in its favor: a stunning John Barry score.

1986: Platoon [Good, but Not for Me]

This movie deserves credit for putting Willem Dafoe, one of the most consistently awesome actors working in Hollywood, on the map. He and Tom Berenger play sergeants, Dafoe a wise mentor and Berenger a psychotic bully, who contend for the soul of a G.I. (the problematic Charlie Sheen) in Vietnam. Of director Oliver Stone’s oeuvre, I find this film the most palatable, for Stone’s greatest weakness is his tendency to show female characters as either sex objects, whiny wet-blanket wives (e.g. Sissy Spacek in JFK), or soulless harridans (e.g. Cameron Diaz in Any Given Sunday), and Platoon evades this flaw by including no notable female characters whatsoever. But my revulsion for Sheen — whose real-life doings have made it impossible for me to watch him in anything except maybe Eight Men Out, where his role is small — outweighs my admiration for Dafoe, so I won’t be revisiting this movie anytime soon.

1987: The Last Emperor [Never Seen]

At some point I do need to sit down and watch Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic biopic of Chinese Emperor Pu Yi (played as an adult by the charismatic John Lone). But I agree with those critics who note that, for full impact, this movie should have been made in Chinese rather than in English.

1988: Rain Man [Good]

Neither Tom Cruise nor Dustin Hoffman is among my favorite actors — again, real-life doings are a factor — but I have to give credit where it’s due: they both give strong performance here, as an upwardly mobile young man and the autistic brother he never knew he had, whose care he must take over. The movie itself is a smart, moving dramedy. It always makes me smile to see a heartwarming film take the top prize over its “edgier” competitors.

1989: Driving Miss Daisy [Uhhhh…]

This is among the more controversial Best Picture winners of the decade. I admit I was charmed by it when I first saw it, thanks largely to the engaging performances of Jessica Tandy (as the title character, an upper-middle-class Southern lady who also happens to be Jewish) and Morgan Freeman (as her African-American chauffeur). But time hasn’t been kind to this film, as critics have observed that Freeman’s character is only really seen and understood in relation to Tandy’s, which creates an awkward-to-21st-century-eyes dynamic. Is Miss Daisy, the white woman, the best person through whose eyes to witness the gradual fall of Jim Crow in the South, from the late 1940s to the then-present? Is her perspective a valid one, and what do we learn from seeing her story told? These questions offer me food for thought. My main issue with the movie these days is that it seems, in my memory, a little too glossy, a little too “pretty,” for the time and place in which it’s set.

Ranking the Best Picture Winners: Entering “No Woman’s Land” (1966 – 1979)

In 2019, when the female-led historical drama The Favourite was nominated for Best Picture, some Oscar handicappers warned that this film was the longest shot of all, because, generally speaking, “movies about women don’t win Best Picture.” (Movies about women have won Best Picture for the past two years in a row, but that’s another post for another day.) Prior to 1966, this wouldn’t have been much of a predictor. The winners for 1965 and 1964, The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady, both featured female lead characters; Lady‘s main competition, Mary Poppins, also starred a woman. Maria from West Side Story can be considered a co-protagonist, with a character arc of her own; despite my problems with her, the same might be said of the rather dim Fran Kubelik in The Apartment. Gigi and All About Eve took the prize in the 1950s; the 1940s saw the triumphs of Mrs. Miniver and Rebecca. 1939’s Gone With the Wind may have aged like milk, but it’s still clearly a woman’s story, and its detractors often cite another female-centered movie, The Wizard of Oz, as the movie that should have won Best Picture that year. It Happened One Night‘s Ellie Andrews, like Maria and Fran Kubelik, is a co-protagonist. Even mediocre winners The Broadway Melody and Cimarron are female-led. So just where did this idea that “movies about women don’t win Best Picture” come from?

I suspect it springs from the general adulation given to the period I’m about to cover, the late 1960s through the 1970s. Film buffs love these years, heaping loads of praise on their Best Picture winners. I can understand were the love comes from, since this time period saw the fall of the Hollywood studio system and, along with it, the infamous Hays Code that imposed heavy restrictions on classic-era films, especially where sex and language were concerned. (True, many great films were made during the years the Code was in force, but they were great in spite of the Code, not because of it.) The most acclaimed movies from the late 60s and early 70s touch on subjects that would have been unthinkable under the Code. New York gigolos (Midnight Cowboy), mob families (The Godfather Parts I and II), traumatized war veterans (The Deer Hunter), call girls (Klute), and homicidal taxi drivers (Taxi Driver) could now have their stories told with unflinching realism; a veil was lifted off those areas of society that the Code had kept hidden, and fascinated audiences responded then and have been responding ever since. Yet the new freedom came with a dark side. Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, originally published in 1974, cites the period in which she was writing as the worst yet when it comes to female representation. The Best Picture winners of this time period reflect this: between 1966 and 1983, not a single with a female protagonist took home the top prize. The only female characters in those winners substantial enough to warrant a Best Actress nomination for their performers — Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Beth Jarrett from Ordinary People (1980) — were villains, each in her own way a reflection of male anxieties about second-wave feminism. Accordingly, I have more Never Seens from this period than from any other Oscar era.

Now to take a deep breath and dive into specifics:

1966: A Man for All Seasons [Personal Favorite]

As someone who grew up with PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, I have a distinct weakness for British historical dramas. (This will come up again.) I love the aura. I love the costumes. Most of all, I love the acting. Paul Scofield, primarily a stage actor, gives a master-class performance as Sir Thomas More, the good friend and advisor of Henry VIII who lost his head when he opposed Henry’s breaking with the Catholic Church to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. The real More was far less upright, by modern standards at least, than the stalwart man of honor depicted here, but the story of the tension between conscience and politics remains strong and relevant. Leo McKern also acquits himself brilliantly as the villainous (in this movie, anyway) Thomas Cromwell, as does John Hurt in the small but noteworthy role as treacherous weasel Richard Rich. This film rarely gets much attention these days, but if you’re a fellow Masterpiece Theatre fan, you shouldn’t miss it. (Avoid the Charlton Heston remake.)

1967: In the Heat of the Night [Good]

Here we have our first example of a movie that could never have been made thirty years earlier. Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia detective sent down South to help in a murder investigation. In one scene, a bigoted white man slaps him in an attempt to “put him in his place.” Poitier had made it known that he — or rather, the character he plays — would not take that slap without giving it back with interest, and indeed that’s just what happens; audiences in 1937 would be shocked and even disgusted, but nowadays, the scene inspires cheers. A gritty, intense, well-acted crime drama (Rod Steiger is also very good as the Southern small-town sheriff) that I need to watch again.

1968: Oliver! [Good, but Not for Me]

This big-budget musical may seem painfully old-fashioned alongside such films as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but for what it is, it’s well done. The performances are good; the songs are catchy and well-staged; best of all, with the exception of Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes, all the adults in the cast have the skills needed for musical roles. (Sykes’ big number, “My Name,” was cut from the film. but Reed is so strong in the role that it’s one instance in which I can forgive the powers-that-be for giving him the role.) Yet I put it in the “Not for Me” tier, because the movies I designate as “Good” are nearly all ones I can enjoy rewatching, and I’ve never felt that compelled to revisit this film. David Lean’s 1948 film Oliver Twist tells Charles Dickens’ story much better.

1969: Midnight Cowboy [Never Seen]

1970: Patton [Never Seen] I do enjoy the rousing theme song.

1971: The French Connection [Never Seen]

1972: The Godfather [Never Seen]*

1973: The Sting [Never Seen] — Of my Never-Seens from this period, this is the one I have the most interest in seeing at some point because I like its director, George Roy Hill. He’s the man behind two of my favorite coming-of-age films, The World of Henry Orient and A Little Romance. (This will air on TCM in March as part of its annual “31 Days of Oscar” campaign.)

1974: The Godfather Part II [Never Seen]*

1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [Never Seen] — I’ve read the book. That’s all I need. Stories meant to extol freedom and nonconformity shouldn’t come with a side of misogyny.

1976: Rocky [Never Seen] — but I have seen Saturday Night Live‘s Angel, “Every Boxer’s Girlfriend from Every Movie About Boxing, Ever,” so I feel like I’ve kind of seen it. (Aside from Matt, my husband: “there’s more to it than that, but it does give you the general idea.”)

1977: Annie Hall [Never Seen] — The title doesn’t fool me. Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall is not the protagonist or even a co-protagonist. Woody Allen’s the star.

1978: The Deer Hunter [Never Seen]

1979: Kramer vs. Kramer [Good]

This is the first Best Picture winner I actually saw in the theater when it was released. I was ten, and I could connect with the story of a father (Dustin Hoffman) struggling to raise his son after his wife (Meryl Streep) leaves. It holds up pretty well in my memory; I appreciate the movie’s refusal to cast Streep as a one-dimensional villain and instead giving her a point of view we can sympathize with, even though her screen time is too limited to earn her Best Actress consideration. (She did win Best Supporting Actress, however.) Still, the thing I like best about this movie is something we still see too rarely on the big screen: the friendship between Hoffman’s character and that of Jane Alexander, an actress who has never gotten the attention she deserves. Both single parents in the process of getting over divorces, they forge a bond that never slips into romance.

*My husband has been suggesting that he show me these one of these days. But his patience for epic films has kind of been limited these days.

Ranking the Best Picture Winners: 1960 – 1965

1960: The Apartment [Good, but Not for Me]

Another “little movie that could,” The Apartment is Marty’s darker cousin; again, we have two underdogs, bruised and battered by life, who find solace in each other, but the tone is much more acerbic, as its plot would suggest — an aspiring junior-level exec (Jack Lemmon) lets his married boss (Fred MacMurray) use his apartment to conduct extramarital affairs, but when Lemmon learns that his crush (Shirley MacLaine) is one of MacMurray’s many conquests, he starts to have doubts about the arrangement. The movie charts his journey toward becoming a mensch, a man of honor, and Lemmon’s performance engages our sympathies. But the standout among the actors is MacMurray, who brings the detestable, slimy boss to life with craft and charisma. Nonetheless, I can’t name this film among my favorites. I’m not wild about MacLaine, either her character or her performance. She’s cute, naive, and deeply damaged, but while her flaws are interesting, I kept wishing she had a few more observable strengths to balance out those flaws. Lemmon’s character has much more substance.

1961: West Side Story [Good]

One of the best big-screen adaptations of a Broadway musical hit, I put this one in the Good tier because, for me at least, its strengths — powerful songs, amazing dancing, scorching performances by Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, and George Chakiris — outweigh its flaws — the miscast romantic leads (Natalie Wood tries, and mostly succeeds when she’s not pretending to sing, while Richard Beymer is just plain flat and wooden) and the extreme suspension of disbelief required to accept the young men as violent, dangerous street toughs. This movie is a classic for a reason, but I actually like Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake just a little better.

1962: Lawrence of Arabia [Good]

Like 1959’s Ben-Hur, this movie is massive, with its sweeping desert landscapes and majestic score. It is also, unlike Ben-Hur, quite well-acted, with all its players, from Peter O’Toole (as Lawrence) to Alec Guinness to Anthony Quinn to Arthur Kennedy to the always-reliable Claude Rains and Jack Hawkins. But for some reason, it doesn’t have the same emotional resonance for me as the same year’s To Kill a Mockingbird or The Miracle Worker. I think I need to watch it again. Some movies don’t take firm hold of my memory and win my full appreciation until I see them a second time, and I think this might be one of them, not in spite of its grand scope but because of it.

1963: Tom Jones [Aged Like Milk]

As a work of literature, Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, one of the earliest of the form, still holds some academic interest; those interested in studying the history of the English novel should give it a look. But as entertainment, its value depends on your level of tolerance for seeing an innocent young heroine put through hell for pages on end. My tolerance for such a thing, particularly when it’s presented with a light-hearted tone, is small to nonexistent. In this film adaptation, Albert Finney is charming as the roving rogue who hops from one willing lady’s bed to another, but watching poor, lovely Susannah York go from being held prisoner by her father and aunt until she agrees to marry a man she doesn’t love, to nearly being raped at the instigation of an older rival, is downright painful. There were much better films in 1963; It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World would have been a more amusing choice, and Lilies of the Field a more moving one.

1964: My Fair Lady [Good]

Another successful Broadway-to-Hollywood adaptation, My Fair Lady preserves Rex Harrison’s stage performance as Henry Higgins for posterity. He’s wonderful, as are Wilfrid Hyde-White, as his kinder best friend, and Stanley Holloway, as a Cockney rogue. But like West Side Story before it, the movie suffers from a casting mistake: Audrey Hepburn, whom I otherwise love, should never have been chosen to play Eliza Doolittle. She’s not terrible by any means, but Eliza should have set the screen on fire, and Hepburn just doesn’t have the energy that Broadway’s Julie Andrews would have brought to the role. (The growing frequency with which actors who could neither sing nor dance were cast in musical roles would soon bring about the downfall of the classic Hollywood musical). This movie was a favorite of mine when I was younger, but while I still respect and admire it, I don’t enjoy it quite as much as I used to, thanks primarily to Hepburn’s casting and some pacing issues.

1965: The Sound of Music [Uhhhhh…]

This movie is one of the most polarizing Best Picture winners of the classic era; people either adore it or deplore it, and I have friends and loved ones on both sides of the issue. I’m, well, caught in the middle. The movie does have its distinct virtues. Julie Andrews (as novice nun turned governess Maria) and Christopher Plummer (as her employer, Captain von Trapp) both give excellent performances, and they’re ably supported by Richard Haydn and Eleanor Parker. Some of the songs suffer from the over-familiarity that breeds contempt, but others (e.g. “Edelweiss”) are quite lovely. Yet too many moments involving the children either border on the saccharine or cross right over. While the adults in the cast give their all, a bit too much depends upon the children. Moreover, when the movie takes a darker turn in the last act, the tonal shift doesn’t work. So I can’t come down too strongly on either side. When the subject comes up in conversation, I just offer a vague, noncommittal nod.

Ranking the Best Picture Winners: 1951 – 1959

1951: An American in Paris (Good, but Not for Me)

I had to create a new Tier for this one: winners whose quality I acknowledge but that failed to land with me, for reasons that have as much to do with me as they do with the films themselves. This musical, directed by Vincente Minelli and starring Gene Kelly, has so much going for it, from the gorgeous Gershwin tunes to Kelly’s energetic dancing to Oscar Levant’s wisecracks to the extended ballet sequence at the climax. Yet I can’t help noticing how 1950s gender roles figure into the script. Leslie Caron, as Kelly’s love interest, is charming, but her role is so underwritten that “charming” is just about all I can say about her; meanwhile, Nina Foch’s “bad girl” is presented as a lustful schemer who needs to be taught her place. (This aspect of the film stands out in contrast to 1952’s unnominated Singin’ in the Rain, in which the female lead, played by Debbie Reynolds, has a personality and a point of view, and Kelly’s character actually helps her fulfill her career ambitions.) So even though I recommend it heartily to those who love musicals with excellent singing and dancing, I can’t say I love it.

1952: The Greatest Show on Earth (Not for Me)

This overblown spectacle’s winning Best Picture is one of Oscar’s biggest WTF moments. I saw it once, but so little of it stayed with me that it’s practically a Never Seen. Making matters worse is that perhaps the strongest, most enduring movie of that year, Singin’ in the Rain, failed to be nominated. Which of these has given cinema buffs the most pleasure over the years?

1953: From Here to Eternity AND–

1954: On the Waterfront (Never Seen)

I have the least to say about these films than any other winners I’ve talked about so far. Most of my Never Seens I’ve deliberately avoided for a specific reason, perhaps a dislike of the subject matter, or bad word of mouth, or a dislike of one or more of the actors. But with these, I honestly don’t know why I haven’t gotten around to seeing them yet. I can’t comment further on them.

1955: Marty (Good)

This film is almost certainly the least “splashy” Best Picture winner of the lot, with its minimal budget and short runtime and overall earthy quality. It’s not challenging or thought-provoking; it doesn’t have anything especially profound to say. It’s just a small, sweet film, a love story of two underdogs played by Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, made at a time when Hollywood hadn’t forgotten how to make high-quality small, sweet films. Those who sneered at last year’s winner CODA for being a “feel-good movie” probably won’t like this one either. But if you’re like me and you relish movies that can make you feel good without insulting your intelligence, give this one a look.

1956: Around the World in 80 Days (Never Seen)

Even though I like David Niven, I believe I can spare myself the awkwardness of watching Shirley MacLaine playing an Indian princess.

1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai (God-Tier)

When a British POW officer (Alec Guinness) orders his men to build a bridge, at the behest of his Japanese captor (Sessue Hayakawa), that will be a marvel of British engineering, is he a traitor? This brilliantly acted World War II drama builds to a collision between Guinness and Hayakawa and a team of demolitionists (led by William Holden and the underrated Jack Hawkins) intent on blowing up said marvel of British engineering. It’s one of those admirable films that provoke thought by presenting a situation in which no one is wholly good or wholly evil, and each perspective is given time and attention.

1958: Gigi (Okay-to-Good)

At one time, this film would have found a place in my Personal Favorites tier, thanks to its clever Alan Jay Lerner/ Frederick Loewe songs and its dazzling turn-of-the-century setting; plus, my twentysomething self thought Louis Jourdan was hot. I still enjoy a number of the performances, particularly Hermione Gingold as the grandmother of Leslie Caron’s titular heroine, and the scene she shares with Maurice Chevalier, in which the two of them sing, “Ah, Yes, I Remember It Well,” is a poignant highlight. Yet I’ve come to think of this film as the reverse of 1955’s Marty; where the latter is a triumph of low-budget sincere storytelling, the former has all the high-budget gloss and glamor with little of the heart. It’s a spectacle that I can enjoy when it’s on but that leaves little impact on my emotions.

1959: Ben-Hur (Okay-to-Good)

What was I just saying about “spectacle that I can enjoy when it’s on but that leaves little impact on my emotions”? That description applies equally to this film. At the time when it took the top prize, “sword and sandal” epics set in ancient Rome, often at or near the time of Christ, were in vogue, and this was one of the biggest; everything about this movie is huge, from the sets to Miklos Rozsa’s dramatic score (which, I must confess, I love). But it’s not the best of its genre. For those looking for a historical epic with a Christian theme, 1956’s Quo Vadis is better acted, with Leo Genn and Peter Ustinov in particular giving superb performances; the only performance in Ben-Hur that I find holds up is that of Jack Hawkins, as the Roman commander whose life Charlton Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur saves. Those just interested in a glimpse of ancient Roman history should find 1961’s Spartacus more enjoyable; despite its long runtime, there’s always something interesting going on, and with the exception of a miscast Tony Curtis, every performance is strong; Ben-Hur, by contrast, has significant lulls in its action, and you feel its overlength. I did enjoy seeing the film on the big screen at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre some years back, but when I went into the lobby I caught sight of a group of young people having a ball taking turns mimicking Heston’s hammy performance. I guess that shows how well the film holds up…