70’s Oscar Best Picture Project

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land (2016)

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Holy crap, I freaking loved this movie. I wasn’t expecting it to be much since the first 10-15 minutes or so were pretty standard (but fun) but the moment we start following the emotional journeys of the 2 leads, I was thoroughly hooked. It’s such a brilliant tribute to the era of Gene Kelly/Fred Astaire, and surprisingly, the rather standard story works remarkably because of the amount of heart in it. Yes, La La Land can be seen as a somewhat formulaic musical about chasing your dreams and love, but instead of making me roll my eyes, the whole thing tugged at my heartstrings and even gave me chills at times. The music is FREAKING FANTASTIC! I usually hate it in musicals when everyone suddenly breaks out into song and dance, but over here the energy is plain infectious. I was actually tapping my feet along some parts, and that “love melody” that Ryan Gosling plays (I don’t know what it’s called, the one that got him fired from his first job) actually gave me goosebumps in a good way. I’m a little bit giddy with excitement now, but I just feel like La La Land is the movie we all need at this particular period, what’s with the world’s chaos and the Oscar’s love for heavy dramas like Manchester by the Sea. It is filled with heart, heartbreak, energy, optimism, cheeriness, sadness and just love. 5/5 for film.

Emma Stone

Look, I am admittedly biased about this but I have this massive crush on Emma Stone. To me, she is one of the most real celebrities out there and I really enjoy her on-screen and off-screen persona. She is another one of those actresses who can’t do wrong in my eyes, even if her actual performances aren’t necessarily that good. That being said, I have loved her since Easy A and Zombieland, and I’m so glad that she’s finally getting the career that she deserves.

You know how certain movies are basically vehicles for their lead performers? Like Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind etc.? La La Land is really Emma Stone’s show. She is absolutely luminous and charming throughout the entire film, as if there is a kind of spotlight that is shining on her in every film.

Her performance here as Mia really grew on me as I mulled over it on the way home from the theatre. Firstly, I wouldn’t say Mia is the most original character ever. She is an aspiring actress who repeatedly fails to make it big before she actually succeeds, finding love in the process. This Eliza Doolittle archetype has been played so many times that it is extremely difficult to give it a different kind of treatment. Emma Stone knows this and chooses to portray the character as written, but at the same time, she pours her own emotions, love and dreams into the character. There is so much life and love in Mia that we can’t help but root for her through her ups and downs.

Initially, I was quite content calling this a 4/5 performance, especially in the earlier parts of the performance. It’s not that she was bad (4 = very good for me), but I just thought it was going to be a pretty standard kind of musical performance that is charming and fun. However, her performance manages to hit some powerful highs, elevating it greatly. Stone’s portrayal of heartbreak especially got to me, like when Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) insults her or when her play fails. It wasn’t just “sadness” she was portraying – when she cries about being unable to pay the theatre, my heart freaking broke. And of course, there is her brilliant number that can teach Anne Hathaway a lesson or two about not needing to resort to histrionics to make a song powerful. I just love this performance. Even though I suspect there will be a certain backlash if she wins, I still think she would make a worthy winner. 5/5. (Note: Will probably downgrade it to 4.5 when I’m more objective, but I really loved her here guys!)

Ryan Gosling

Ryan Gosling’s performance is also getting a lot of unexpected awards recognition, which I think many people didn’t see coming. I guess it’s because the attention has always been primarily on Emma’s performance.

I happen to think that Ryan Gosling is a much better actor than people tend to give him credit for (Blue Valentine, Half-Nelson, Drive). He does tend to sail on his charisma sometimes but it actually works cause, let’s face it: the guy is good-looking. Unfortunately, that sorta became an issue here because I am actually finding it a bit hard to write about his performance. As a matter of fact, his performance really allows me to see how good Emma Stone is, because I’m honestly just thinking about her all the time. While he is very good in playing Sebastian, it’s easy to see how much more Stone gave to the character.

It’s still very nice though – I could feel his strong passion for jazz actually, like how he constantly shifted toward playing jazz on the piano despite being told not to. His disappointment when he had to give up his love for jazz in order to survive can also be felt quite well. In a way, Mia and Sebastian are similar in their pursuits of dreams and passions, but for some reason, I just didn’t feel it as strongly for Gosling. It could also be due to the fact that Sebastian tends to internalize his emotions more (I think?). I also thought his earlier scene with his sister was a little bit flat, though not terrible.

The strength of Gosling’s performance is really his charm. I know this sounds negative, but actually, it was really needed for this role. He is just damn charismatic and it’s easy to see why Mia would fall for him despite them not getting along initially. It’s actually impossible to take your eyes off him, be it when he plays the piano, sings City of Stars (I prefer Emma’s song though) or wears a goofy costume while performing with his band.

The love story in La La Land is actually really cliche, with the initial bickering to the falling in love to the quarrels to the reconciliation to the…well, won’t spoil the ending. But the 2 actors have such brilliant chemistry that this formula actually freaking works. It’s no wonder why people are shipping both of them in real life, although Gosling is already married. All in all, a very nice performance by a good actor. 4/5.

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Brief thoughts on 1977

This took me really long to complete, but despite that, it is still an easy year to sit through and rank. I don’t think the films are all amazing, but like 2012, they are very interesting to say the least, and I actually enjoyed watching them. It’s worth noting that each of them had something special/unique/original – Star Wars is, well Star Wars. Annie Hall has Diane Keaton. The Goodbye Girl produced the youngest best actor winner at its time. Julia had Vanessa Redgrave’s brilliant performance and controversial speech. The Turning Point has the distinction of being the first movie with 11 nominations (including some head-scratching acting nominations) without winning any.

Despite my constant procrastination, I think ranking this is pretty easy. Some of the scores have changed as I became more objective over time.

5. The Turning Point – 2.5/5
4. The Goodbye Girl – 3/5
3. Annie Hall – 4/5
2. Julia – 4.5/5
1. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope – 5/5

Best actress:

5. Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl – 3/5
4. Shirley Maclaine in The Turning Point – 3/5
3. Anne Bancroft in The Turning Point – 4.5/5
2. Jane Fonda in Julia – 5/5
1. Diane Keaton in Annie Hall – 5/5

Future plans: I have to confess, my enthusiasm for this project has died a little, and if I were to pick one year as motivation to continue, it would be either 1974 or 1976 as these years sound amazing. But as of now, it is going to be film performances. I want to explore the works of famous actors and actresses whom I need to watch more of – Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Alec Guinness, Maggie Smith, Kirk Douglas, Peter O’Toole etc.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)

 

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I mean seriously, what else is there to say about Star Wars and its influence? George Lucas did not merely create a film, he created an iconic moment in cinema that would be remembered till today. There is a reason why people today are still referencing Star Wars, be it by hardcore fans or in the form of parodies. From the iconic opening, to the fantastic score, to the amazing visuals, almost nobody would not have heard of this legendary franchise. Almost everyone would have at the very least heard of “May the force be with you”, or “I am your father”. Most people would also have known Star Wars as the movie with the girl with the funky donut hairdo.

Like how Tolkien created the fantasy world of LOTR, Lucas’ shows us how incredible his mind is with Star Wars. There are so much details, personalities, cultures and humour within this world that one could not help but marvel at the breadth of this man’s imagination. I love the small little quirks he adds to the different aliens and droids, giving them much more “life”. And the designs of all those spaceships and battle stations! The Death Star! The X-fighters! I won’t dwell too much on the technical aspects – they are amazing and still stand the test of time. I mean, this was in 1977, and yet I think it looks better than some of the movies made today!

The story in itself is simple, and yet unlike directors like James Cameron, Lucas gives so much soul and depth into its rather straightforward narrative. The characters aren’t the most complex as well, but the actors bring them to life. Princess Leia is likable as the feisty Princess Leia, Harrison Ford nails his portrayal of the charming scoundrel Han Solo, and Mark Hamill brings the right amount of naivety and courage as Luke Skywalker. Alec Guinness is absolutely memorable as Obi-Wan Kenobi, bringing out the character’s wisdom, experience and power. That being said, I have to admit that this isn’t really much of an actor’s movie, although this cast definitely fares a LOT better than the horribleness of Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman in the later films.

Of course, there are going to be criticisms about how some of the lines are not entirely realistic, as well as some of the weaker moments/plotholes in the films. But this does not change the fact that Star Wars is an absolutely mind-blowing and powerful experience that it is. 5/5.

The Goodbye Girl (1977)

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I watched The Goodbye Girl a couple of years back and kinda hated it then. I found it artificial, contrived and overly theatrical. I felt like Neil Simon was trying to throw in as many wisecracks and witty lines into the script, and it was quite grating. Re-watching it this time round, well…I actually still feel the same way, except that I don’t hate it anymore. I understand the whole angle it was going for and I can accept why so many people find it a charming film. That being said, I could not help but wonder if I would have appreciated it more as a live theater production. Still, it is a nice, heartwarming tale about falling in love under unlikely circumstances (*coughs* better explored in Annie Hall *coughs*) and I did smile at the end of it.

Certain things definitely improved on this re-watch. Firstly, I thought Richard Dreyfuss deserved his slightly unpopular Oscar win. He has always been the mvp of this film for me, but I really enjoyed his performance this time round. It’s an atypical win for this category, especially if you were to compare it to the other winners of this decade, but I thought it was so damn good. Even when his character was annoying and grating in the beginning, I actually felt sorry for him and understood where he was coming from. And then when we understood the character’s struggles more, with Dreyfuss nailing the vulnerable moments (his sadness after his failed play was pretty heartbreaking), I actually got to appreciating how multi-faceted his portrayal is. He actually has some pretty similar mannerisms to Woody Allen’s performance is Annie Hall, except that I find Dreyfuss a much more charismatic and charming performer. I mean, that rooftop dinner is so cheesy and yet I’ll be lying if I said I wasn’t charmed by it.

On the other hand, I am pretty much with Roger Ebert on Marsha Mason’s performance. I never really appreciated it then, and unfortunately, I still kinda feel the same way. A lot of people are saying that she should have won the Oscar but I totally don’t get this love. Definitely not over Keaton, and I actually would have ranked some of the other nominees over her. While Dreyfuss manages to give a convincing portrayal, I feel that Mason kinda flounders a bit and she never really overcomes the artificiality of the script. In fact, I felt that some of her neurotic tics and line deliveries were quite fake. Maybe I just don’t “get” her acting style, but there are times I found her more annoying than Dreyfuss and no, it is not the character. Most people seem to feel the other way round though.

Overall, The Goodbye Girl was a nice film, but I personally never cared too much for it. I don’t think Neil Simon’s writing is really my kind of thing – or at least on film. Dreyfuss elevates it imo, but as a whole – okay, with nice performance by Quin Cummings and song by David Gates. 3/5

Julia (1977)

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Julia (1977) is based on a section of Lillian Hellman’s book Pentimento. The story follows the relationship between Hellman and her best friend Julia, who is also an anti-Nazi activist.

I watched Julia many years ago, and I remembered it as a fantastic introduction to Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave and Fred Zinnemann. I was thoroughly hooked from the beginning to end by every aspect of this film: the direction, the score, the slightly “surreal”/”dreamy” atmosphere, and the top-notch acting. I will discuss Jane Fonda’s performance in another post, and okay, I didn’t get Maximilian Schell’s nomination. I mean he was fine but no, he didn’t need to be nominated for that. Jason Robards was good, and I have no issues with his win but it is really Vanessa Redgrave who absolutely deserved her Oscar. She has always been actress who could do so much with so little, and it’s the same here. She utilizes her extremely unique screen presence (I’m sure her greatest fans would know what I am referring to) to bring out the mystery behind this character, and like many others, we never know whether she existed or not. Although she only appears in a couple of scenes throughout the films, she makes Julia such a fascinating and complex character – a great friend, an intelligent young woman, a fierce political activist, a *SPOILER ALERT* mother to an unseen child…

I have always been a fan of Fred Zinnemann’s movies, and over here his direction is truly in top form. I usually have issues with non-linear narratives, but thanks to Zinnemann’s expert direction, it works amazingly in this film. The way the childhood scenes were interwoven with the present scenes was flawlessly handled, especially the way they were used to develop the story. They also helped in creating the aforementioned “dreamy” atmosphere, letting the viewers wonder whether the entire story was real or merely a figment of Hellman’s imagination. And the tense atmosphere in the train scene was one of the best “suspenseful moments” I have ever seen in a movie. The whole segment was done in a simple and understated way, and yet Zinnemann’s direction (and Fonda’s performance) constantly keeps you on the edge, always guessing what is going to happen next.

Friendship is never an easy theme to cover realistically, as most films tend to address it in a rather superficial manner. I can easily say that Julia and Lillian’s friendship is one of the best I’ve ever seen portrayed on film. Thanks to the strong performances by Redgrave and Fonda, the portrayal of Lillian and Julia’s friendship is both touching and heartbreaking. I never once doubted the authenticity of their relationship, which was epitomized during their brief reunion in the cafe scene (SO good). When they parted, the heartbreak and sadness in both characters were so real that I felt slightly uncomfortable.

I could go on about what a perfect film Julia is to me, but you will really have to see it for itself to experience it. Even though I’ve already seen it once, I was still thoroughly drawn by it from beginning to end on this rewatch. Truly an underrated classic. 5/5.

Annie Hall (1977)

I have always been vocal about my thoughts about Diane Keaton’s iconic Oscar-winning turn as Annie Hall – to me, she is my second favourite best actress winner after Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (And yes, I have watched Sophie’s Choice/Gone With The Wind etc.). Nonetheless, re-watching Annie Hall as a part of my personal project to watch all of the 70s best picture nominated films made me nervous – what if the performance didn’t impress me as much as before? I certainly hate the feeling of disappointment.

Before I go into Keaton’s performance, I thought I’ll be frank and just say that Annie Hall is a film I respect more than enjoy. I can respect why so many consider it as one of their favourites of all time – it is a fresh, original and unique love story, even by today’s standards. The two leads aren’t particularly attractive, there isn’t any heartbreaking melodrama, and it is told entirely from the perspective of the neurotic male lead, which leads to some truly interesting scenes where the characters break the fourth wall, or when they literally visit the past. That being said, despite the strangeness of the film, there’s a realism to this film that allows it to reach out to the viewers, effectively conveying its message about love fading. There’s no cancer, no car accidents, no deaths, no poverty, no evil in-laws in this story – it’s all about people, how they change and how their perspectives of life change, including love. This is one aspect of the film which I truly respect – it takes this simple reality of life and tells it in a unique, refreshing manner.

And yet, my main issue about the film lies with its master itself. First of all, I never let my personal opinion of an artist affect my opinion of his work (Polanski), but the fact remains that I find Woody Allen a real creep, and unfortunately, it really shows in his work. It’s not as bad here as in some of his other films where the self-indulgence is unbearable, but the neurotic ramblings of Alvy Singer, who is essentially Allen with a different name, was really plain annoying at times. Yes, yes, I do see the layers in his performance, and I do like the self-deprecating touch in his work (then again, maybe not since the character is so full of himself), but I really felt a bit grossed out whenever I see him and Annie Hall kissing and about to have sex. For the most part, Keaton’s brilliant performance saved this as she really sold their romance and brought about the necessary sweetness and love needed to portray their relationship. Look, I totally understand that my judgement here is flawed and biased, but whenever I see Allen on screen having sex with different women (not the actual act, thank goodness), it really turns me off. Sorry about that, don’t want to offend the fans.

Nonetheless, it is Diane Keaton who makes the film. She is this film, she is the heart of the film, and thankfully, instead of disappointment, I found my respect for this performance tripling after this re-visit (though still not enough to usurp Vivien Leigh as personal favourite). She’s just so damn good and frankly, I don’t think anyone can ever pull off such a character as well as she did. I mean, I don’t think any of the modern actresses like Emma Stone (whom I really like btw) nowadays can pull off what she did here. Her performance is just so damn real, layered and relatable. I daresay that her performance is one of the most accurate portrayals of the nervousness, the awkwardness, the constant self-exploration and discovery that we all go through. Watching Annie find her true passion and calling in life was such a relatable experience, and as I always say, a performance that can make a line like “la-dee-da” sound so natural is a damn good one.

Still, I have not much negative thoughts for Annie Hall. I can even respect the best picture and best director win because it is a unique film that succeeds in what it sets out to do. While not my favourite, I totally understand where the love is coming from. That being said, Diane saves this film for me, and hence, I am willing to give it a 4.

p.s. I told you I haven’t gave up on this, I’m just taking forever.

The Turning Point (1977)

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Alright, this is my unofficial start of my 1977 best picture reviews. As usual, don’t expect me to complete this extremely fast – in fact, don’t be surprised if I complete this by the end of the year (which I definitely will). Of course, I hope to complete this asap too but I expect myself to not have a lot of free time in the future.

I decided to start my first 1977 best picture nominee with The Turning Point, which is the only film out of all 5 that I have not watched. Furthermore, I was very interested in watching it cause the several reviews I’ve read about it said that it was horrible, so strangely enough, it got me curious.

The Turning Point also has the distinction of being the only film, other than The Color Purple, that received 11 Oscar nominations and zero wins. And is it worthy of such acclaim? Personally, I think 11 nominations are a bit much since there are at least 2 that we can do without (more on that later). But to be honest, I actually found the film rather watchable and not as horrid as people say. Maybe this is due to the numerous horrible best picture nominees from the 40s that I’ve put myself through, but I actually thought The Turning Point was an okay film. Having said that, that’s all I think it is: an okay film.

The story revolves around two ballerinas, Deedee (Shirley MacLaine) and Emma (Anne Bancroft), who were once close friends from the same dance company. The main focus of the story is on the regrets of both characters, namely Deedee’s decision to leave her career because of her pregnancy, and Emma’s ageing and loneliness. There were some pretty complex layers behind both characters that made me interested in finding out more about them. Both actresses were nominated for best actress and gave fine performances – I’ll elaborate more in a separate post. I know many people accuse the story of being ridiculously soapy, but I was actually rather interested in it. I think what worked for me was the characterization of the two female leads (yes, including Bancroft). The gradual build-up of the feud between them, as well as the exploration of their regrets, sadness and inner demons were no doubt the driving forces behind the story. The other aspects leave a lot to be desired.

The script, unfortunately, is probably not the most subtle and borders on ridiculous sometimes. I mean, did the whole confrontation between Deedee and Bancroft really needed all those metaphors about bullfrogs and toads? Did the dance sequences really needed the voice overs of the characters? And don’t even get me started on that overblown, ridiculous catfight on the rooftop – it was sort-of saved by the talents of both actresses, but it just seemed like the weirdest and cheesiest “climax” ever. The supporting characters were also one-note and uninteresting, such as Martha Scott’s Adelaide and the other dancers in the dance company that you couldn’t care less about. The overall direction of the film is also nothing really special to me, and in fact, the story can drag out unnecessarily at times.

Still, I think the film succeeds in capturing the highly competitive, exhausting and yet fascinating nature of the profession. As someone who has zero interest in dance and knows nothing about ballet, I was really impressed by the dance sequences. The dancing talents of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Leslie Browne are on full display in this film. It doesn’t even take an expert to know that these 2 people are bloody good dancers. I still, however, question the way the dance sequences were inserted into the film. It’s as if it suddenly became a recorded dance concert towards the end. It’s not really bad since these scenes were actually enjoyable to watch, but it just felt a bit disjointed.

The two supporting nominations of Baryshnikov and Browne are probably among the most unpopular nominees ever, and I will have to agree that they are undeserved. I’m not going to bash them since you can go read an IMDB board for that. For me, I found Browne’s performance to be the more watchable one because her character actually had potential and I did feel for her at times, but her delivery was noticeably emotionless and plastic. She also obviously had problems handling her character. The changes she went through, such as her sudden anger towards her mother, felt so sudden and out of the blue that I was actually confused. Still, I thought Baryshnikov was just laughable – fantastic dancer, yes, but some of his line readings really made me laugh because he seemed so uncomfortable with them. But the worst thing is, his character is really just a prop in the entire story. Honestly, you know nothing about him and he is basically there just to show his fantastic dancing abilities then sleep with the female dancers. Even if it was played well, it wouldn’t have warranted a nomination imo.

All in all, I might have sounded overly critical of The Turning Point but believe it or not, I really had no issues watching the film. I was actually interested in watching it all the way to the end, especially because of the two lead actresses. The dancing, while overly drawn-out and out of place, was also a highlight for me. I have no problems in giving it a 3/5, although I’m leaning towards 3.5/5.