Saturday, February 8, 2014

Ranking the Best Picture Nominees of 1983

I’m not sure there is any decade with a wider gulf between what I liked and what the Academy liked than the 1980s. I’m not saying the films they nominated in 1983 are bad per se – but only the top one made my top 10 list that year. Your nominees were:

5. The Big Chill
There is nothing really wrong with The Big Chill. It is a well written and directed movie by Lawrence Kasdan – making his follow-up to his wonderful debut Body Heat. It is well acted by its cast that includes William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly and JoBeth Williams. It’s just that the movie doesn’t really go anywhere, and doesn’t really seem to be about anything. Yes, it’s about a group of friends who were friends in the 1960s in University, and have now started to drift into middle age they wonder how they got there, who they are, etc. They come together for a weekend, reminiscence, and then go on their way again. Perhaps that’s the point, or perhaps I’m missing something. This is no doubt still a popular movie among people of that generation – a reunion screening at TIFF last year was a big deal. Perhaps it’s just one of those movies you had to be there at the time to really love.

4. The Dresser
Peter Yates was one of those interesting directors who could seemingly do anything – from a crime thriller like The Friends of Eddie Coyle to the inspiration biking movie Breaking Away to this ode to the theater. The reason to see the film is the two lead performances – a booming Albert Finney as a celebrated Shakespearian actor, who is a wreck whenever he is not onstage and is approaching the end of his life, and Tom Courtenay as his dresser, who views himself as the most important person in “Sir’s” life, until he is broken of his delusion at the end of the film. Both actors are wonderful – Courtney especially – and the film is a great deal of fun for most its running time, until we get to see the heartache Courtney feels in his final scene. For what it is, The Dresser is a fine movie. I wish it were something more than it is, but it isn’t, and that’s okay.

3. Terms of Endearment (WINNER)
Perhaps because it has been copied so many times since, and because it’s been saddled with that hated term “chick flick”, I almost feel like James L. Brooks’ Oscar winner is somewhat underrated. If nothing else, isn’t it somewhat sad that this is the last film to win the Best Picture Oscar without a leading role for a man? Brooks’ film is one of those films where the clichéd line “it will make you laugh, it will make you cry” was created for – because that is precisely what the film does, and in a way that is a lot harder than Brooks makes it look. The performances – by Shirley Maclaine as a strong willed widow, Debra Winger as her feisty daughter, Jack Nicholson as, well pretty much Jack Nicholson – as well as Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow and the rest of the cast fine the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy. Yes, time and countless copies have made the achievements of this film feel somehow smaller, but that should not be the case. Perhaps it’s not as good as it seemed in 1983 – but I think it’s better than its current reputation suggests as well.

2. Tender Mercies
Tender Mercies is a film about a former country star who has become a broke alcoholic, and how he ends up with a new wife and a new life. Yet, it is not a movie that plays out precisely how we expect it to. The Oscar winning screenplay by Horton Foote mainly avoids the clichés we expect it to hit. Robert Duvall’s Oscar winning performance is perhaps the quietest and most subtle of his entire career. He was on his fourth nomination then, so he was due – but when you consider his last two nominations before this film were for Apocalypse Now and The Great Santini – two films where Duvall was anything but subtle – and compare it to this film, you see what a great actor he is – what range he has. The film is a quiet one from start to finish – one that observes Duvall’s life, and how he slowly rebuilds it, and how his new, younger wife slowly rebuilds her new life as well. This is not a film that immediately grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go, but quietly takes its time. You don’t realize how great it is, until it’s over. This film served as an obvious inspiration to Crazy Heart (2009) – another film which won an actor (Jeff Bridges) a long overdue Oscar for playing a country singer. Duvall even appears in that film, as if he’s passing the torch to the younger man. Crazy Heart is a fine film in many ways – not least of which because of Bridges’ performance – but it hits more of the clichés than this one does. Perhaps the reason why the film seems to have been mainly forgotten is because of how quiet and subtle it is. It deserves a rediscovery.

1. The Right Stuff
The Right Stuff was a critical hit in 1983, but for whatever reason, audiences pretty much stayed away. Some blamed the fact that they thought it was basically a glorified campaign ad for John Glen – one of the subjects of the movie – who was running for office at the time. But when you watch The Right Stuff, you realize the movie is anything but. Strange for a true story about American astronauts, The Right Stuff is not the kind of ra-ra patriotic film you expect it to be – but something far more complex than that – a film that is funny and well crafted, and yes, does show some heroism, but also a movie that questions some that heroism – and whether it was necessary at all. The movie benefits greatly from the performances – the men who make up the Mercury 7 – the astronauts who would first go into space – have a competitive camaraderie that feels genuine – and they are offset against the the brilliant performance by Sam Shepherd as Chuck Yeager – the quiet, loner and test pilot who pushed things to the limit. Director Phillip Kaufman has had an uneven directing career – but he undoubtedly got two films precisely right – 1988’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and this one.

What They Should Have Nominated: It was a bomb in 1983, but the more I watch it, the more I am convinced that Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is one of his very best films. The Academy found room for Ingmar Bergman in the director category – but not his final masterpiece Fanny and Alexander in the Picture one. Brian DePalma’s Scarface has become a classic. Two Cronenberg films – The Dead Zone and Videodrome are better than most of the nominees. And Bob Fosse’s final great film, Star 80, also came out this year, as did Robert Bresson’s final film L’Argent. Linda Hunt won an Oscar for The Year of Living Dangerously, which is better than most of what they did nominate.

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