Friday, January 31, 2014

Ranking the Best Picture Nominees of 1973

1973 was a very strong year for movies – unfortunately, the Academy didn’t really follow through and nominate the best of the best that year. Yet two of these nominees are truly great films, two are very, very good – and only one is bad. Not a horrible ratio – but it could have been much better.

5. A Touch of Class
I’m not quite sure what the Academy saw in Melvin Frank’s would-be screwball comedy back in 1973 – they obviously loved it, as not only did it get nominated for Best Picture, it won Glenda Jackson her second Best Actress Oscar in just four years. The film seems somewhat schizophrenic to me – a would be 1930s screwball comedy, with a 1970s sensibility that never quite gels. Jackson does her best to channel the heroines of those classic movies – Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, etc. – and she mainly gets it right – she is excellent in what is a bad role. But George Segel – as her married lover – seems to be trying to be a more modern, 1970s type of guy. They two clash – and not just in the way the screenplay means them to. They don’t seem like they belong in the same movie, let alone as two characters who supposedly fall in love with each other. This isn’t even a case where you can say the Academy wanted a light option amongst heavy contenders – as two other films are fairly lightweight as well. Chalk me up as someone who just doesn’t get this one.

4. American Graffiti
George Lucas’ first hit film was this nostalgic look back at being a teenager in the 1960s. It was the Dazed and Confused of its day (and while we’re on the subject, can a filmmaker make a film as good as American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused about being a teenager in the 1990s now – thanks). Set all during one night, the film follows a group of friends on their various mis-adventures before some set off to college. The film is full of memorable performances – by Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Mackenzie Phillips, the Oscar nominated Candy Clark and many others. For what it is, American Graffiti is a hell of a lot of fun – and a sign of what Lucas could have done had he not been sucked into the vortex that was Star Wars just four years later.

3. The Sting (WINNER)
It’s not hard to see why the Academy was so taken with George Roy Hill’s The Sting. It has Robert Redford and Paul Newman at the top of their game as a pair conmen, Robert Shaw who is excellent as the mark, and is pretty much non-stop entertainment from beginning to end. Add this together with the fact that the Redford and Newman had co-starred in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for Hill just four years before – a beloved film that didn’t win – and some would have felt that Hill and company were due a victory. As old school Hollywood entertainment goes, it’s tough to beat – a con movie done pretty much to perfection, and if it doesn’t go much deeper than that, it doesn’t really have to. If American Hustle was anywhere near this good, I wouldn’t bitch about it as much as I have this season.

2. Cries and Whispers
Despite having multiple films win or get nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, and being personally nominated 9 times (3 for director, 5 as a screenwriter, once as a producer - here), and winning the Irving Thalberg award, this is surprisingly the only film of his to be nominated for Best Picture. While I wouldn’t put the film among his very best (like Smiles of Summer Night, Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, Persona, Scenes from a Marriage or Fanny and Alexander) it is still masterful drama about one sister who is dying, and two others who come to visit. Bergman’s use of color here is amongst his best work – the film is an emotionally draining film that in many years would have been my choice for the best of the nominees. It’s rather silly that the Academy has been around for 86 years now, and have never given the Best Picture prize to a film not in English, isn’t it?

1. The Exorcist

Even 40 years later, William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece The Exorcist retains the power to shock, surprise and scare the audience. The reason it retains that power is not just because Friedkin and company nail the big scare moments – but because they take as much care with the story and characters – that they make us like them, even while they are tormenting them. This is a serious movie about good vs. evil – God vs. the Devil – and it takes the questions of faith it raises seriously. It doesn’t hurt that the performances by Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow and Jason Miller are all top notch – seriously, does anyone think that any of them winning an Oscar for their work (and none of them did – although all but von Sydow were nominated) would look out of place? The Academy has some obvious blind spots – Cries and Whispers highlights the foreign film blind spot this year, and The Exorcist highlights its horror film one. In 86 years, only The Silence of the Lambs can lay claim to being a horror film and a Best Picture winner. That should have changed nearly two decades earlier with The Exorcist.

What They Should Have Nominated: The did nominate Bernardo Bertolucci for Directing Last Tango in Paris and Brando’s iconic performance in it – but they should have gone all the way and nominated it for Best Picture as well. They could have and should have gone with some of the new generation of 1970s – Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Malick’s Badlands or Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. And for something completely different – how about Peter Yates’ excellent crime drama, with one of the best Robert Mitchum performances ever – The Friends of Eddie Coyle? And those are just my personal favorites and doesn’t even mention The Last Detail, The Wicker Man, Serpico, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid or The Day of the Jackal. There was lots of ways this could have gone better this year.

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