Friday, April 17, 2015

This Week in Rankings


The past several weeks saw the Hou Hsiao-hsien Retrospective come and go in Seattle, and I covered it in detail over at Seattle Screen Scene (I also was lucky enough to be invited to introduce a handful of shows as well, which was fun). Over there I wrote lengthy reviews of The Boys from Fengkuei, The Time to Live, The Time to Die, Dust in the Wind, Flowers from Shanghai, Millennium Mambo and Café Lumière. I also covered the Seattle releases of Abel Ferrera's Welcome to New York, Hal Hartley's Ned Rifle and Lisandro Alonso's Jauja.

I also submitted an annotated list of Underrated 1985 Films to Rupert Pupkin Speaks. And I don't think I've mentioned it yet, but I also have a thing on my favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 over there too.

Over here at the end, I wrote about Chang Cheh's Masked Avengers, part of my Running Out of Karma series, the index for which is fully updated. I'm closing in on 200 Chinese language films seen as part of the series, which is surely some kind of a milestone. Especially since I still pretty much hate the series's title. My other indices are up-to-date as well: the Review Index as well as the Index of Essays and Podcasts.

These are the movies I've watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings.

Red Line 7000 (Howard Hawks) - 11, 1965
The Boys in the Band (William Friedkin) - 19, 1970
Cute Girl (Hou Hsiao-hsien) - 27, 1980
Masked Avengers (Chang Cheh) - 28, 1981
Three Crowns of the Sailor (Raoul Ruiz) - 8, 1983

The Boys from Fengkuei (Hou Hsiao-hsien) - 9, 1983
The Time to Live, The Time to Die (Hou Hsiao-hsien) - 2, 1985
Taipei Story (Edward Yang) - 7, 1985
Yes, Madam (Corey Yuen) - 9, 1985
The Terrorizers (Edward Yang) - 6, 1986

Dust in the Wind (Hou Hsiao-hsien) - 11, 1986
Project A 2 (Jackie Chan) - 18, 1987
Days of Thunder (Tony Scott) - 40, 1990
Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata) - 2, 1991
Twin Dragons (Tsui Hark & Ringo Lam) - 24, 1992

A Borrowed Life (Wu Nien-jen) - 11, 1994
Henry Fool (Hal Hartley) - 12, 1997
Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien) - 6, 1998
Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien) - 1, 2001
Fay Grim (Hal Hartley) - 19, 2006

It Felt Like a Kiss (Adam Curtis) - 2, 2009
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Adam Curtis) - 23, 2011
Save the Date (Michael Mohan) - 82, 2012
Jauja (Lisandro Alonso) - 4, 2014
Approaching the Elephant (Amanda Wilder) - 31, 2014

Ned Rifle (Hal Hartley) - 53, 2014
World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeld) - 2, 2015
Bitter Lake (Adam Curtis) - 4, 2015
Furious 7 (James Wan) - 5, 2015

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Running Out of Karma: Chang Cheh's Masked Avengers


Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.

Masked Avengers was released in 1981, the latest in a series of films directed by Chang Cheh and starring a new group of actors and stunt performers generally known as the Venom Mob, after the 1978 film in which they were first gathered, The Five Deadly Venoms. The plot revolves around a martial arts group's search for the leaders of a criminal gang of assassins. The bad guys wear masks, conduct elaborate sacrifices of their victims (including blood-drinking) and are surprisingly hard to find considering they're the only other characters in the film. Except for one guy, a waiter who knows more than he lets on, who turns out to be a hero, which is also pretty obvious because he's played by Philip Kwok, the most-recognizable of the Venoms (you know him as the badass killer from Hard-Boiled and also Johnnie To and Tsui Hark's The Big Heat). Like the rest of Chang's films from this period, the plots and characters are rote and mechanical, the fight scenes interminable and the sense of moral, cultural and philosophical decay overwhelming. They are bloody, bleak and crushing films, movies in which the heroes who in earlier years stuck defiantly to codes of honor and brotherhood are finally lost into their nihilistic world of violence and destruction.


Chang Cheh's breakthrough films in the late 60s and early 70s are driven by the star charisma of David Chiang, Ti Lung and Jimmy Wang Yu and romantic notions of brotherhood, codes and bloody self-sacrifice (The One-Armed Swordsman, Golden Swallow, The DuelVengeance!, The Heroic Ones). His mid-70s films reflect a haphazard attempt to chart a history of kung fu (driven in some part by his collaboration with Lau Kar-leung), locating that code ideal in a centuries-old tradition, as well as an influx of new stars like Alexander Fu Sheng and Chen Kuan-ti (Shaolin Temple, Boxer Rebellion, Five Shaolin Masters, Heroes Two). His late 70s and 80s films ditch the romanticism of brotherhood and movie stardom in favor of a collective of highly skilled stunt performers, almost all of whom either lack star power or aren't given a chance to express it in the confines of the claustrophobic gothic-detective narratives in which they find themselves. The films (In addition to Masked Avengers, I've seen The Five Deadly Venoms, Crippled Avengers, Ten Tigers from Kwangtung and Five-Element Ninjas) almost all exist outside of history or even the ephemeral political context of so many other kung fu films (Ten Tigers being the notable exception, as it is located on the Shaolin Temple-Wong Fei-hung timeline, about which I wrote a long piece last year that may be published someday) choosing instead to play out as either generic revenge tales or wholly unremarkable mystery plots.


This has the effect of making the films seem even more nihilistic than Chang's earlier paeans to bloody revenge. At least when David Chiang is sacrificing himself, he's doing it for something. Even Wang Yu's white-clad super-swordsman in Golden Swallow, alienated from the world by his bloody obsessions, at least has his moment of heroic glory, knowing he's the greatest warrior of them all. The early Chang heroes die standing up, but in the late films, there's no such glory to be found, only exhaustion. Driven by the percussive rhythms of their (over-)long fight sequences, which, without the drive to authenticity of Lau or the comic ingenuity of the New Wave of choreographers popping up at Golden Harvest and various independent production houses (Sammo Hung, Corey Yuen, Ching Siu-tung, Yuen Woo-ping) become exercises in brutality. The films become less action-entertainment than Sisyphean horror shows, the human body distorted beyond reality, mutilated and scarred by motiveless betrayals and the devious machinery of violence. The five venoms and ninjas are inhuman collectives, the avengers are crippled and demon-masked. The infernal dungeons and torture devices of Masked Avengers belong more to the world of Roger Corman's Poe films than the bright studio sets of the Shaw Brothers (contrast Chang's spare but for devilish implements of murder backgrounds to the stately Sternbergian clutter of Chor Yuen's wuxia films of the same period (Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, Heroes Shed No Tears, and The Sentimental Swordsman), the ornateness of his mise-en-scene matched only by the wild curlicues of his and Gu Long's dizzyingly complicated plots, narratives which pack more ingenious twists into any given ten minutes than the entirety of Chang's bland mysteries). The Masked gang utilizes statues of the Buddha in its elaborate torture systems, imprisoning their victims within statues or crucifying them upon them, but they don't propagate an alternate religion: their base is an abandoned temple, their world has no monks, no ideology, they kill people for money and that is all there is.


The kung fu film in the early 80s, like most generic cycles in their late stages, was falling apart as it dissolved in a multitude of directions. In a weird way, Chang, the oldest of the great kung fu directors, most captured the generational rage and nihilistic drive to (self-)destruction at the heart of New Wave classics like The Happening or Dangerous Encounters - First Kind. Masked Avengers embodies a bleakness that Sammo Hung can only hint at, that Tsui Hark ventured into only rarely before receding into the comic antics of Cinema City, that Lau Kar-leung took a breath-taking stab at in The Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter before walking away. In the 15 years between 1967's The One-Armed Swordsman and 1982's The Five-Element Ninjas, Chang Cheh directed somewhere in the neighborhood of seventy films. I'd hesitate to say these late films represent a kind of personal exhaustion, but my God, who wouldn't be tired after all that?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

This Week in Rankings


The 2014 Oscars came and went since my last update, and I wrote a few things in relation to them: my predictions (turned out pretty well, though I missed on the biggest awards of the night), the 2014 (and 1998) Endy Awards, and a long Oscars-inspired editorial, the kind of thing I don't write very often. I also continued my look at 21st Century history films with reviews of Ridley Scott's Gladiator and Robin Hood.

Most of my writing has been over at Seattle Screen Scene, where I covered Valentine's Day, Lady Snowblood, A Fuller Life, the Fists and Fury Series, Casablanca, Chimes at Midnight, Maps to the Stars, 12 Golden DucksBallet 422, Wild Tales, and Another Hitchcock Series.

Coming up over the next couple of weeks, I'll be introducing a number of screenings at Seattle's version of the big Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective that's been traveling the world in recent months. I'll be at Boys from Fengkuei at Scarecrow Video and then all five of the shows at the Northwest Film Forum (Dust in the Wind, Flowers of Shanghai, A Time to Live A Time to Die, Millennium Mambo and Good Men Good Women). I haven't watched or written much about Hou at all over the past few years, so I've been studying up lately. A few years ago, we did a They Shot Pictures episode on Hou (you can listen here), and around that time I wrote about Café Lumière and Good Men, Good Women, and collected some images from Flight of the Red Balloon.

These are the movies I've watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Short reviews or comments for most of them can be found on my letterboxd page.

Where Danger Lives (John Farrow) - 23, 1950
Doctor Zhivago (David Lean) - 23, 1965
Darling (John Schlesinger) - 27, 1965
Lady Snowblood (Toshiya Fujita) - 15, 1973
Farewell, My Lovely (Dick Richards) - 14, 1975

Christine (John Carpenter) - 9, 1983
Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann) - 1, 1992
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (John Carpenter) - 41, 1992
HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien (Olivier Assayas) - 23, 1999
The Insider (Michael Mann) - 31, 1999

Gladiator (Ridley Scott) - 40, 2000
Ali (Michael Mann) - 11, 2001
The Power of Nightmares (Adam Curtis) - 10, 2004
Collateral (Michael Mann) - 13, 2004
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien) - 2, 2005

Cigarette Burns (John Carpenter) - 26, 2005
The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (Adam Curtis) - 8, 2007
Public Enemies (Michael Mann) - 10, 2009
Robin Hood (Ridley Scott) - 39, 2010
J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood) - 34, 2011

A Fuller Life (Samantha Fuller) - 28, 2013
The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann) - 55, 2013
Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 (Johnnie To) - 5, 2014
Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono) - 20, 2014
The Last Five Years (Richard LaGravenese) - 36, 2014

Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón) - 37, 2014
Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg) - 45, 2014
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland) - 47, 2014
The Iron Ministry (JP Sniadecki) - 49, 2014
Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy) - 52, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu) - 58, 2014
Black Comedy (Wilson Chin) - 75, 2014
The Theory of Everything (James Marsh) - 76, 2014
Smog Journeys (Jia Zhangke) - 3, 2015

Saturday, February 28, 2015

1998 Endy Awards


These are the 1998 Endy Awards, wherein I pretend to give out maneki-neko statues to the best in that year in film. Awards for many other years can be found in the Endy Awards Index. Eligibility is determined by imdb date and by whether or not I've seen the movie in question. Nominees are listed in alphabetical order and the winners are bolded. And the Endy goes to. . .


Best Picture:

1. The Big Lebowski
2. Histoire(s) du cinema
3. The Last Days of Disco
4. Rushmore
5. The Thin Red Line

Best Director:

1. Joel & Ethan Coen, The Big Lebowski
2. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Flowers of Shanghai
3. Jean-Luc Godard, Histoire(s) du cinema
4. Wes Anderson, Rushmore
5. Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line

Hard not to reward the Coens for their best work, but Godard's massive Histoire(s) is one of the great directorial achievements of the decade, a project that is still ahead of its time more than 15 years after it was completed. Hou, Anderson and Malick all have Endys in their future: in 2007, 2009, and both 2005 and 2011, respectively. Somewhat surprisingly, this is the Coens' first nomination. Odds are their next best shot at a win will come in 1990.

Best Actor:

1. Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski
2. George Clooney, Out of Sight
3. Tony Leung, The Longest Nite
4. Willem Dafoe, New Rose Hotel
5. Jason Schwartzman, Rushmore

Best Actress:

1. Takako Matsu, April Story
2. Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth
3. Rebecka Liljeberg, Fucking Åmål
4. Chloe Sevigny, The Last Days of Disco
5. Asia Argento, New Rose Hotel

Supporting Actor:

1. John Goodman, The Big Lebowski
2. Lau Ching-wan, The Longest Nite
3. Christopher Walken, New Rose Hotel
4. Bill Murray, Rushmore
5. Sean Penn, The Thin Red Line

Supporting Actress:

1. Julianne Moore, The Big Lebowski
2. Christina Ricci, Buffalo '66
3. Alexandra Dahlström, Fucking Åmål
4. Kate Beckinsale, The Last Days of Disco
5. Olivia Williams, Rushmore

Lau Ching-wan was the workhorse star of the early days of Milkyway Image, and this might be his best year. In addition to this nomination, he also starred in Expect the UnexpectedA Hero Never Dies and two other films in 1998 that I haven't seen yet, Wong Jing's Step into the Dark and Lee Chi-ngai's Doctor Mack. He'll be nominated for Best Actor in 1999 and 2007 and for Supporting Actor in 2002 and 2011. But John Goodman in Lebowski is unbeatable.


Original Screenplay:

1. Joel & Ethan Coen, The Big Lebowski
2. Jean-Luc Godard, Histoire(s) du cinema
3. Whit Stillman, The Last Days of Disco
4. Peter & Bobby Farrelly, Ed Decter & John Strauss, There's Something About Mary
5. Wes Anderson & Owen Wilson, Rushmore

Adapted Screenplay:

1. Chu Tien-wen & Eileen Chang, Flowers of Shanghai
2. Abel Ferrara & Christ Zoist, New Rose Hotel
3. Scott Frank, Out of Sight
4. Elaine May, Primary Colors
5. Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line

Non-English Language Film:

1. April Story (Shunji Iwai)
2. Expect the Unexpected (Patrick Yau)
3. Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
4. Fucking Åmål (Lukas Moodysson)
5. Histoire(s) du cinema (Jean-Luc Godard)

Expect the Unexpected was one of the early Milkyway Image films contentiously produced by Johnnie To for other directors. After four films in two years (The Longest Nite, The Odd One Dies and Where a Good Man Goes are the others), Yau and To never worked together again. Since breaking with Milkyway, Yau has apparently mostly been working in television.

Documentary Film:

1. Histoire(s) du cinema (Jean-Luc Godard)
2. Meeting People is Easy (Grant Gee)

Animated Film:

1. A Bug's Life (John Lasseter)
2. Mulan (Tony Bancroft & Barry Cook)

Unseen Film:

1. Autumn Tale (Eric Rohmer)
2. Bird People in China (Takashi Miike)
3. Eternity and a Day (Theo Angelopoulos)
4. The Hole (Tsai Ming-liang)
5. Late August, Early September (Olivier Assayas)

Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine just missed, mostly because I just feel bad that I've never seen any Angelopoulos.


Film Editing:

1. The Big Lebowski
2. He Got Game
3. Histoire(s) du cinema
4. New Rose Hotel
5. The Thin Red Line

Cinematography:

1. April Story
2. Flowers of Shanghai
3. New Rose Hotel
4. Saving Private Ryan
5. The Thin Red Line

Could have gone a lot of different directions with my fourth-place pick here, like He Got Game or Out of Sight or Pi or A Hero Never Dies or even Meet Joe Black or What Dreams May Come, but April Story is just about the prettiest-looking movie ever. And as disastrous as the impact of Saving Private Ryan has been on the action cinema of the last decade, it is an exceptionally well-shot film.

Art Direction:

1. The Big Lebowski
2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
3. Flowers of Shanghai
4. Pleasantville
5. Shakespeare in Love

That rug really ties the room together.

Costume Design:

1. The Big Lebowski
2. Elizabeth
3. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
4. The Last Days of Disco
5. Rushmore

Make-up:

1. Elizabeth
2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
3. A Hero Never Dies
4. The Last Days of Disco
5. There's Something About Mary


Original Score:

1. Meet Joe Black
2. New Rose Hotel
3. Pleasantville
4. There's Something About Mary
5. The Thin Red Line

Adapted Score:

1. The Big Lebowski
2. He Got Game
3. The Last Days of Disco
4. There's Something About Mary
5. The Thin Red Line

Sound:

1. Armageddon
2. Enemy of the State
3. Histoire(s) du cinema
4. Saving Private Ryan
5. The Thin Red Line

Sound Editing:

1. Armageddon
2. Enemy of the State
3. A Hero Never Dies
4. Saving Private Ryan
5. The Thin Red Line

Visual Effects:

1. Armageddon
2. Dark City
3. A Hero Never Dies
4. Pleasantville
5. What Dreams May Come

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

On Ridley Scott's Gladiator


I've been building up to a rematch of this one for awhile now, taking in a series of historical epics in anticipation of a second look at one of my least favorite Best Picture winners of the century so far. I do think there's much to be made about the 2000 Best Picture race: here was a chance for The Academy to move in a new and progressive direction, honoring truly innovative and important work from outside America (though directed and written by Hollywood veterans and co-funded with American cash). It could have set the tone for a more globally open and innovative 21st century, not just for awards, but for US film distribution and viewing patterns. But instead the Academy opted for Ridley Scott's CGI-fueled historical epic over Ang Lee's CGI-fueled historical epic. And one the Weinsteins put a stranglehold on everything they could from Hong Kong, the chances of American audiences getting wide exposure to the most exciting and interesting cinema in the world quickly diminished. But this is a long digression, this is supposed to be about Gladiator itself.

The action, at least, is better than I remembered, it's really only the opening battle that degenerates into an incoherent blur, the gladiator fights are instead simply middling examples of Hollywood obfuscation-as-excitement (the opening battle is also topped by a similar one in Oliver Stone's Alexander which as well hinges on a daring cavalry maneuver, but manages to both ratchet up the excitement and violence while at the same time remaining historically accurate), although I quite liked the one with the tigers.

As history it's abominable in just about every particular. It's not so much that it is historically inaccurate, or even that it just doesn't give a fuck about history, it's that it is actively anti-historical, manipulating the facts of the past in service of the narrative it wants to tell, which is a story about two versions of manhood: one virile and stoic; one impotent and emotional. Commodus is transformed into a simpering weakling, a coward and an incestuous pervert. His villainy is sourced in his weakness. Opposite to him in every way is Maximus, the very ideal of honor, loyalty, fidelity, fatherhood and filial piety. Maximus is the guy Chris Kyle thought he was, and this is a Bush-era film to its core: it imagines a world in which peace and freedom can be instilled through violence, war and the sacrifices of noble men. That Marcus Aurelius never did much in the way of seeking eternal peace, his wars against the Marcomanni and Quadi, on-going at his death, was only concluded when Commodus decided he simply wasn't interested in continuing the fight, is an inconvenient fact of history to be ignored, as is the indisputable fact that Marcus very much wanted Commodus to succeed him (and in fact Commodus had been in place as his Caesar for 14 years prior to Marcus's death - co-Emperors were a fairly common practice in Rome, the senior being titled "Augustus" the junior "Caesar"). The idea that Marcus couldn't possibly have made such a terrible decision is an enduring one, however, and it'd be hard to blame Scott for propagating the legend.


Indeed, Anthony Mann utilizes much the same premise in his Fall of the Roman Empire, though that film at least accepts the political realities of late Second Century Rome. There's no question of the Senate, or the Roman populace (repeatedly identified as "the mob") having any real power at all, which they hadn't for at least a century, if not longer. The reason for this can only be contemporary: it's the neoconservative vision of using force to establish freedom, transplanted to the Roman Empire. Marcus appoints Maximus as the Emperor needed to maintain order while the government transitions from autocracy to democracy, the military dictatorship preceding the withering away of the state. Then the film has the audacity to suggest that Marcus and Maximus's "dream of Rome" a dream of freedom guaranteed by the Roman Senate (never mind that the Senate was never anything like what we'd recognize as democratic or even populist, rather a hereditary oligarchy built on a slave economy), actually will come true. When, in fact, after Commodus's assassination (strangled in his bath by his wrestling partner: Commodus was in fact an energetic lover of games, often partaking in rigged gladiatorial combats, something which engendered popular dislike of him by the deeply class-conscious masses), the Senate quickly put the role of Emperor up for sale to the highest bidder (something Mann's film does well to dramatize). The year following Commodus's death is called the Year of the Five Emperors, you can guess from that how it went down. The ultimate victor in that civil war, Septimus Severus, established a tradition of military dictatorship, infighting and political assassination that came to be the norm for the next century (it's collectively known as "The Crisis of the Third Century"), until Diocletion and then Constantine radically remade the Empire in the late 200s and early 300s. At no point did the Roman Empire ever become more democratic that it was when Commodus was alive: that's why Gibbon started his book with his reign.

It's interesting then to rewatch this now, 15 years after its release and after just having seen Scott's Robin Hood, which similarly twists historical fact in the service of a political narrative, albeit one as informed by the Bush years as Gladiator is in anticipation of them. Crowe's Robin is a mythical figure, a mask adopted by a foot soldier (well, archer, technically), one that, as Maximus does, embodies certain masculine ideals. But the implication is that all of these roles are merely poses, that the actual man is nothing more than a construct, an ephemerality. Just so is that film's dream of freedom - it's one that pointedly is not accomplished by film's end, and indeed it's strongly implied that it cannot ever be - rather the aim of the true hero is the struggle toward universal political freedom, not the justification of certain means of achieving it. The utopia Robin and Marion create can exist only in the magic of Sherwood Forest, and then not by force, but only by withdrawing from the world into a small-scale community, disconnected from the strife of the larger world.

Even still, given all that, I probably would have given it a positive rating if only Oliver Reed had thrown his hat and charged into combat at the end.

On the 2014 Academy Awards (Or the Vice of Intended Ignorance)


I do love the Oscars. As long as I can remember, I've watched them. The first ceremony I have any memory of was the one held in 1982, just days shy of my sixth birthday. I had only seen one of the films in contention, Raiders of the Lost Ark, of course, but all i really remember is the theme song from Chariots of Fire. We watched the show every year, whether we'd seen any of the movies or not (my mom would race home from work to catch the beginning (back when the show used to be on a Monday so that it wouldn't compete with weekend theatrical movie business, remember when that was a thing that mattered?) and I'd have to fill her in on any awards she'd just missed (Supporting Actor or Actress, always). I remember ET inexplicably losing to Gandhi (though mom raved about Ben Kingsley's performance). I remember The Right Stuff (a very popular film among the grown-ups I knew; though I'd seen it, it was too slow and boring for me at that point) being upset by Terms of Endearment  and mom's love of Out of Africa (big Redford fan) and Amadeus. I remember someone on television claiming that Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man was one of the best performances ever. I remember rooting for Dead Poets Society or Field of Dreams and being as baffled as anyone by Driving Miss Daisy's win.

1990, when I was 14, was the first time I saw all of the nominees for Best Picture. I can't if I saw them all before the ceremony, but I made the effort to see them as soon as possible (Goodfellas had to wait until HBO, for sure). I loved Dances with Wolves that year, and Silence of the Lambs the next (HBO again, I read the book too), though I was rooting for JFK. Unforgiven was my favorite in 1992, a movie I saw multiple times, once in a drive-in even, on a double bill with Terminator 2. Schindler's List I saw three times in the theatre, I was convinced that, as I kept hearing, it was indeed the greatest movie ever made. The Oscars, as long as I could remember, were for big movies, important movies, great movies. And then, in 1994, the year I started college, Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction and the Academy Awards, or at least, my relation to them, have never been the same.


I've referred to 1994 as Year Zero for cinephiles of my generation. Growing up in the hinterlands, a world of chain video stores and zero repertory film, our exposure to the films of the past, especially foreign and art films, was severely limited. Every video store had a foreign film section, of course, but those usually consisted of a few   and a handful of Gerard Depardieu spectacles. The classic film sections were better stocked, but without a reliable guide, who knew where to begin. The film sections of the local bookstores mostly consisted of Leonard Maltin and his imitators, and when spend hours pouring through his guides along with the Video Hound Golden Movie Retriever (which rated everything on a scale of "Woof" to "Four Bones"). So we had a passing familiarity with Hitchcock, Welles, Scorsese, and the Best Picture Oscar winners, but not much else. But then Quentin Tarantino came along, bursting with big city video store knowledge, urging, demanding that the kids like us who loved his movies seek out in turn the films he loved. (An example, in June 1995 Tarantino presented Jackie Chan with the Lifetime Achievement MTV Movie Award, which was accompanied by a greatest hits reel of Chan stunts. I had never seen a Hong Kong movie, I'd never heard of Jackie Chan. But that award led to a wide US release for Rumble in the Bronx, so wide it even played Spokane. I saw that and the few other Chans I could find on video, and when I moved to Seattle, I dived headfirst into Hong Kong cinema, an obsession that has yet to subside.)  Reservoir Dogs, True Romance and Pulp Fiction (the first two I watched back to back one weekend afternoon, after my friends heard I'd never seen a Tarantino film; I knew he'd won the Palme d'Or, but didn't know he'd made any other movies) demanded we familiarize ourselves with their influences: film noir, Howard Hawks, Jean-Luc Godard (one of our favorite pass-times was driving around to all the video stores in town looking for a copy of Breathless. After years of searching, when finally found it for a $10 rental at a short-lived Jazz record store downtown). Movies with Christopher Walken and John Travolta and Harvey Keitel. We sought them all out, and each new discovery led to three more must-see films. Around the same time, Turner Classic Movies launched, opening a whole new front in the war on limited distribution. I'd always been a movie fan, it was the one thing my mom, my sister and I ever did as a family, but 1994 was the year I became a cinephile, and Pulp Fiction was the spark.

And then it lost Best Picture to Forrest Gump. A fine movie, sure, one we'd all liked when it came out that summer. But it looked positively ⃞  next to Pulp Fiction. The divide was cultural, political, generational. That was their movie and this was ours, and we'd been robbed. The pattern continued, year after year: our favorites always just losing to something bigger, blander, more mainstream. I don't know if that was new, I suspect it wasn't, but it seemed like a new development. Like there really was a generational war at play in Hollywood, between the old guard of respectable spectacle and a new wave of independent, Alternative to use the word of the times, cinema. The consensus of the 1980s, where every couple of years it seemed everyone agreed that the Best Picture really was The Best, and would therefore reward it with a multi-Oscar sweep, were gone. But it would take a few years for this split to play itself out, the big sweeps would continue for the rest of the 90s, though the rhetoric around the Oscars and their wrongness would grow with each middlebrow choice.


Here are the Best Picture winners from 1980-1993, along with their total number of Oscars won:

1980: Ordinary People - 4
1981: Chariots of Fire - 4
1982: Ghandi - 8
1983: Terms of Endearment - 5
1984: Amadeus - 8
1985: Out of Africa - 7
1986: Platoon - 4
1987: The Last Emperor - 9
1988: Rain Man - 4
1989: Driving Miss Daisy - 4
1990: Dances with Wolves - 7
1991: Silence of the Lambs - 5
1992: Unforgiven - 4
1993: Schindler's List - 7

That's an average of 5.7 Oscars per winner, with 6 films out of 14 winning 7 or more awards. The average would actually go up over the next 10 years, with 4 big sweeps leading to 6.9 Oscars per winner:

1994: Forrest Gump - 6
1995: Braveheart - 5
1996: The English Patient - 9
1997: Titanic - 11
1998: Shakespeare in Love - 7
1999: American Beauty - 5
2000: Gladiator - 5
2001: A Beautiful Mind - 4
2002: Chicago - 6
2003: Return of the King - 11

But that was the last time there was any real consensus, and one could argue the Return of the King number is a fluke, driven by three years of wonder at Peter Jackson's epic trilogy. The next 11 years show a striking break with tradition, with an average of only 4.3 Oscar per Best Picture winner:

2004: Million Dollar Baby - 4
2005: Crash - 3
2006: The Departed - 4
2007: No Country for Old Men - 4
2008: Slumdog Millionaire - 8
2009: The Hurt Locker - 6
2010: The King's Speech - 4
2011: The Artist - 5
2012: Argo - 3
2013: 12 Years a Slave - 3
2014: Birdman - 4

There are any number of possible explanations for this trend, most probable simply being the increasing split between blockbuster "entertainment" films that dominate the technical categories while low-budget (in)dependent films, driving by strong acting, directing and writing, dominate the more prestigious awards, making a 7 Oscar win relatively rare (in order to reach that number, a film has to do well in either the effects or design categories, areas which favor big-budget spectacle). But is there in fact some more ideological, something like my (perceived) generational split at work?

Oscar season has increasingly come to be defined as a horse race, with the contenders and dark horses defined long before any of the films in question have been seen, and then adjusted up and down the odds tables throughout the fall festival season and into the end-of-the-year awards deluge, with critics' groups routinely seen as mere precursors to the main events, and therefore their relevance defined by their relation to the established narrative (thus the cries of anguish from the awards bloggers when the National Society of Film Critics awarded Adieu au langage their Best Picture this past year: the Godard film wasn't part of the defined race, and therefore the group was marginalizing themselves by choosing to acknowledge its existence, a decision that could only be made by obstinate refusal to play the game by the rules, or, in other words, snobbery). The competition is good for business: people like gossip and they like competition, awards commentary provides both in spades. Driven in no small part from the ad revenue from studio's Oscar campaigns (the ubiquitous FYC ads you see on every major film site during voting season), there's a vested interest in heightening the controversy, in making a compelling story out of a bunch of people getting together and voting on their favorite movies of the year.


The awards season is now a narrative-driven event, and the simplest narratives put two things in opposition to each other, thus most years, the Oscar race seems to come down to two films, and everyone is encouraged to align themselves with one camp or another. These are the years 1994-2003 of the Best Picture race, the years of heavy consensus, with the winner and the runner-up listed. Note that some years there wasn't a clear runner-up, in which case I've picked the film that seemed like the #2 to me at the time. I could have been wrong. We'll never know for sure as the Academy doesn't release voting results.


Year Oscar Winner Runner-Up
1994 Forrest Gump Pulp Fiction
1995 Braveheart Sense & Sensibility
1996 The English Patient Fargo
1997 Titanic LA Confidential
1998 Shakespeare in Love Saving Private Ryan
1999 American Beauty The Insider
2000 Gladiator Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
2001 A Beautiful Mind The Fellowship of the Ring
2002 Chicago The Pianist
2003 Return of the King Master and Commander



It looks to me like in most of these years, the race has been defined by a choice between one traditional Hollywood film and one "edgy" independent. Love stories are pitted against violent dramas, serious melodramas against genre fare, big-budget spectacle against intimate character stories. One could debate the details, but it looks to me like in every year but (possibly) one from 1994 until 2003, the Academy chose the more traditionally appealing film at the expense of the artier, hipper movie. The outlier is 1995, but I'd argue that Ang Lee's Jane Austen film is much more modern than Mel Gibson's war epic, though obviously far less violent. Anyway, a reasonable case could be made that the runner-up that year was actually Apollo 13, which is the most traditional of the three, but I think it and Braveheart appealed to the same core audience and was thus unlikely to have been the second-place finisher. Regardless, even with that one outlier, the trend is fairly clear. (A personal note that not every one of the winners this year was my least favorite, I would have made the same choice in three of these years (96, 97 and 98) and am fairly ambivalent about a fourth (2003)).

Now let's look at the same chart for 2004-2014:

Year Oscar Winner Runner-Up



2004 Million Dollar Baby The Aviator
2005 Crash Brokeback Mountain
2006 The Departed Little Miss Sunshine
2007 No Country for Old Men There Will Be Blood
2008 Slumdog Millionaire The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2009 The Hurt Locker Avatar
2010 The King's Speech The Social Network
2011 The Artist The Tree of Life
2012 Argo Lincoln
2013 12 Years a Slave Gravity
2014 Birdman Boyhood

Here we have chaos. The "edgy" film wins in 2004, 2006-09 and 2013-14, while the more traditionally appealing film wins in 2005 and 2010-12. Though the distinctions between camps are harder than ever to define. Take this past year for example. Boyhood was the consensus critics choice, which would lead one to assume it was the "artier" movie. But its style, aside from the unique method of production, is resolutely traditional, a coming of age story/family drama of the type that has broad mainstream appeal. Birdman, on the other hand, declares itself Edgy with an ostentatious pseudeo-single-take visual style, jarring tonal swings and a deeply cynical screenplay. It is most certainly a film descended from Pulp Fiction (though, I'd argue, one that learned all the wrong lessons from its forebears, but that's not relevant here). If there is a generational war at play within the Academy, this is what one would expect the Oscar results to look like: pendulum swings back and forth, with neither side gaining enough momentum to push the consensus in one unified direction. Thus we have the significantly lower average totals of wins by Best Picture winners. Whether that represents an actual conflict or one manufactured by journalists pushing a story, I can't say: the two feed off themselves in such a way that one can only expect further polarization and less consensus as time goes on, absent structural change of some kind.


Looking at these lists, I can't help but compare them to my own personal award winners. Here's the full chart for 1994-2014, with the Best Picture Endys added into the mix:

Year Oscar Winner Runner-Up Endy Winner
1994 Forrest Gump Pulp Fiction Chungking Express
1995 Braveheart Sense & Sensibility Dead Man
1996 The English Patient Fargo Comrades, Almost a Love Story
1997 Titanic LA Confidential Boogie Nights
1998 Shakespeare in Love Saving Private Ryan The Big Lebowski
1999 American Beauty The Insider Beau travail
2000 Gladiator Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon La Commune (Paris 1871)
2001 A Beautiful Mind The Fellowship of the Ring Millennium Mambo
2002 Chicago The Pianist Punch-Drunk Love
2003 Return of the King Master and Commander Running on Karma
2004 Million Dollar Baby The Aviator Tropical Malady
2005 Crash Brokeback Mountain The New World
2006 The Departed Little Miss Sunshine The Wind that Shakes the Barley
2007 No Country for Old Men There Will Be Blood Flight of the Red Balloon
2008 Slumdog Millionaire The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Sparrow
2009 The Hurt Locker Avatar Oxhide II
2010 The King's Speech The Social Network Oki's Movie
2011 The Artist The Tree of Life The Tree of Life
2012 Argo Lincoln Moonrise Kingdom
2013 12 Years a Slave Gravity La última película
2014 Birdman Boyhood The Midnight After

A few obvious things jump out. Only in one case does my winner match one of the top two Oscar films (though Pulp Fiction is my #2 film of 1994). As they should in comparing a consensus vote to an individual one, my choices are personal and idiosyncratic. This will happen when you compare anyone's picks to that of a large body: the larger the voting pool, the less unique the winner. My particular idiosyncrasy appears in two forms on this list. Most obvious is the large number of Asian films, 9 out of 21, from China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan (and a 10th that's a French film made by a Taiwanese director). But also apparent, and more important, are the large number of films that never received wide distribution in the United States (that Asian films are less likely to receive US distribution than comparable European films is a (debatable) issue for another time). Only 10 of my 21 winners had even a reasonably-sized art house run in American theatres, a few have never even qualified for major critics awards, almost all of which tie their eligibility rules to week-long theatrical runs in New York City. Instead I've had to seek these films out at festivals or on imported video, bypassing the establishment distribution channels entirely. Critics groups can't and won't do this because they are inextricably tied into the distribution system: they depend on studios for screeners and local theatrical audiences for readership. 

This raises the question of the purpose of awards. Is it to raise awareness of excellence in motion pictures, to record for posterity the movies we think are great, the ones we recommend viewers of the future to seek out? Or is it a matter of marketing? Do awards matter because, as we hear every year as a justification for the countless words printed on the subject, an Oscar win significantly increases a film's total gross, in theatrical revenue and on video, for years and decades to come? One may as well ask what is the function of film criticism: to guide the prospective viewer into places they might not go on their own, or to confirm for them what they already believe? If a critic is a guide, then it doesn't matter whether a film they recommend is immediately available or not: it's their job to instill the desire to seek in the audience. I think most critics would aspire to that ideal, see for example the flabbergasted responses to this week's New York Times column lambasting the Oscars for failing to be relevant because they didn't give awards to the highest-grossing films. Of course, the idea is absurd on its face, but the critical response is telling: to them, the Oscars, in choosing Birdman are not only not elitist, but are resolutely middle of the road. To the critical community, Birdman's win is a sign of the Academy's bowing to the mainstream, of a failure to be sufficiently elite. (I'm speaking in general terms here: there is no "critical community", there is instead a collection of individuals who disagree with each other as a matter of principle, that is part of their charm. This is, however, the reaction as I understand it in a broad sense).

Why then should critics, critics who travel the festival circuit year-round, who make yearly pilgrimages to Sundance, Locarno, Cannes, Toronto, New York, Vancouver, Berlin, Austin, Venice, Vienna and more, tie themselves to an awards model that narrowly defines what counts as a film in any given year. If awards are a snapshot, preserving the consensus thoughts about cinema at a given time for the sake of posterity, a report from a group of passionate lovers of film about what they believe is great in the present moment, then why should they define that snapshot by the parameters of an industry that views their efforts only in the crudest terms? Should critics not be in opposition to the forces that drive the awards industry, that attempt to limit what we can see? Strong reviews at film festivals can and have led to otherwise invisible films being picked up for US release by adventurous distributors, why does that noble mission stop when awards season begins? The awards bloggers want to limit our conversation to a simple narrative, they want a few, clearly defined poles: good and bad, liberal and conservative, traditional and arty, edgy and populist. The major distributors want to limit our conversation to the films they own and make available to the public: criticism is advertising, no more, no less. We shouldn't let them. We can't let every year come down to Forrest Gump vs. Pulp Fiction, that's not how cinema works and it's not how history will remember it. It has to be about Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction and Chungking Express (a film many of us only saw because Quentin Tarantino forced Harvey Weinstein to release it uncut and in its original language, something Weinstein is loathe to do with his Hong Kong properties to this day), not to mention Sátántangó and Ed Wood and Pom Poko and Exotica and The Shawshank Redemption and He's a Woman, She's a Man and Three Colors: Red and Drunken Master II and I Can't Sleep and Hoop Dreams and Clerks and Speed and In the Mouth of Madness and and and.