Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway

In my post about actor Maurice Chevalier I commented that movies in the early 30's seemed more provocative than those of the 40's and 50's. I just found out why. In 1934 the Production Code, or Hays Code, went into effect. It was the industry's attempt to censure itself amid rising public pressure for government regulation.

The difference can be seen in two Hemingway adaptations both starring Gary Cooper. In 1931's A Farewell to Arms it is very clear when characters intend to have sex and Cooper's character is even shown apologizing for not realizing he had just taken a nurse's virginity. In 1943's For Whom the Bell Tolls, arguably a more racy book, it is unclear whether the protagonist ever consummates his relationship with the Spanish girl Maria. And all references of her having been raped in the past are summed up with a mention of villains taking her to a couch where "the worst things were done."

The Production Code gradually faded from importance as film makers realized that bending it (or even breaking it) didn't hurt their bottom line. It was officially replaced with an early version of the current MPAA rating system in 1968. Incidentally, the Best Picture winner the following year was Midnight Cowboy - originally rated X. A final nail in the coffin of the Production Code.

It's been over a decade since I read A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. If asked last week to diagram the plots of either, my sketches would have been very rough. It was fun watching these films and finding the majority of the scenes felt familiar.

In real life, Hemingway and Cooper were friends for the last twenty years of their lives (they died just weeks apart). Of Cooper, Hemingway said, "Coop is a fine man; as honest and straight and friendly and unspoiled as he looks. If you made up a character like Coop, nobody would believe it. He's just too good to be true."

86 to go...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Charles Dickens

IMDb currently lists 298 titles credited to the novels, stories, and characters of Charles Dickens. Everyone knows Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol and most have heard the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities even if they haven't read it - "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Fitting with the scope of this blog, I'm going to mention only the four Dickens movies that were nominated for best picture. The classic musical Oliver! won best picture in 1968. Acclaimed director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) gave us the 1946 version of Great Expectations with a cast that included Alec Guinness and a young Jean Simmons. The two I watched this week were David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, both credited as 1935 releases, though the later was late enough to belong to the 1936 Oscar nominee class.

David Copperfield is listed on IMDb with its full title The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger. As ambitious as that is, it still truncates the full novel title that continues, "of Blunderstone Rookery, Which He Never Meant to Be Published on Any Account."

I was not familiar with this story going in, but I’d call it a successful adaptation in that it did not feel rushed or awkward, nor did it drag at all. A credit to both Dickens and the film is that all of the characters were interesting, even the bit parts. W.C. Fields is especially fun as the amiable Micawber who has trouble paying his debts. The film was directed by George Cukor who directed the version of Little Women I have already reviewed on this blog. He later won best director for My Fair Lady. The best compliment I can pay this film is that it has made me want to tackle the 900+ page behemoth that inspired it despite Dickens’s often cumbersome prose.

A Tale of Two Cities is a book I have read. I found it dull at the beginning, but captivating once all the tracks Dickens laid started coming together. The movie does a better job of explaining the situation up front, though it foreshadows Sydney Carton’s great sacrifice far more than I remember in the book. I also did not remember any one character standing out as the protagonist in the novel, but Carton is definitely the lead in the film. He is played by Ronald Colman. Colman later won a best actor Oscar for A Double Life, which I have not seen, but I thought he was great in Random Harvest, a best picture nominee I saw before starting this blog.

Again, this is just a taste of the influence Dickens has had on movies and storytelling in general. 140 years after his death, Hollywood could still take more lessons from him. It’s amazing what can happen when engaging plots are populated with memorable characters.

88 to go…

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

San Francisco (1936)

New Year's Day 1906. San Francisco. The catastrophic earthquake is three and a half months away. Clark Gable stars as Blackie Norton, a local club owner, who discovers and subsequently falls in love with a talented new singer. A rivalry ensues between Blackie and an opera house owner who wants the girl to sing for him instead.

Blackie's 1930's passive sexism makes him hard to root for, but he is also an honest and charitable man. And, as noted in the special features on the DVD, Gable "was 'cool' before the word was invented."

It was Spencer Tracy, however, not Gable who received an Oscar nomination in the film for his role as the local priest and Blackie's lifelong friend. Though in my opinion he didn't have near enough screen time to be nominated in the lead acting category and Gable was obviously the protagonist of the story. Also nominated was director W.S. Van Dyke who also helmed the well-known Thin Man series.

The movie won the Oscar for best sound which it undoubtedly earned from a combination of its musical numbers and the destruction of the city when the earthquake hits, throwing in a plot twist that would be insulting if it had not been so rooted in a very real tragedy.

90 to go...

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

First let me explain the seeming grammatical error in the title. A bengal lancer was a division of British soldiers in India so "lives" is correctly used in the plural.

Second let me note that this was one of best movies I've seen from the entire decade of the 1930s. The acting was very good, the writing was excellent, and the story was unpredictable. Henry Hathaway, who later directed True Grit, earned the only Oscar nomination of his career here.

A rigid Colonel, who subordinate Gary Cooper constantly refers to as the Ramrod, is disconcerted to hear that his son has been transferred to their company. He insists that the boy receive no special treatment. To a fault the Colonel has always put duty above all else. When the boy goes missing and they learn he has been taken prisoner, the Colonel is torn but says they cannot go after him. For Cooper this is the last straw and he goes anyway.

A film filled with far more nuance and character depth than most movies of its period, or today.

91 to go...

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Alice Adams (1935)

This was the first major film directed by George Stevens. He later went on to win two directing Oscars for Giant and A Place in the Sun in addition to three other nominations for Shane, The More the Merrier, and The Diary of Anne Frank.

I hate to say I don't like this movie because it was well done all around. I just don't like the character of Alice Adams. She's played by Katharine Hepburn who, as always, does a great job. I actually don't think the audience is meant to like her. She not bad at all, she just is so worried about what other people think of her that it drives you crazy. I honestly didn't want her to end up with the guy at the end because I was hoping he'd escape her insanity.

92 to go...

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)

I think this was actually the first version I have seen of this Shakespeare play. I knew Puck's closing soliloquy from Dead Poets Society and had heard his famous line "what fools these mortals be" but that was about it.

Basically, two young couples enter a forest populated with fairies and spirits. The king of the fairies has Puck bewitch people to fall in love with the next person they see and, of course, they don't see the people intended for them and comedy ensues.

Mickey Rooney plays Puck who isn't exactly the protagonist, but no one character seems to fill this role - in the movie anyway. James Cagney plays the actor Bottom who, fittingly, gets turned into an ass while his troupe also wanders through the woods.

The film won the Oscar for best cinematography in what IMDb says is the first and only time there was a write-in winner at the Oscars.

93 to go...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

7th Heaven (1927)

7th Heaven is one of the few silent films in my quest as the silent era was ending as the Academy initiated its awards ceremony. It's a sweet little tale set in Paris just before World War I. The confident Chico let's everyone know he's "a very remarkable fellow" as he ascends from a mere sewer worker to a proud street cleaner. His world is altered when he comes to the aid of the destitute Diane who is constantly abused by her wicked sister. Diane is smitten with Chico, but he takes a little longer in coming around. Just as he starts to fall for her, the war intervenes.

Sometimes the simplicity of early film making can be a nuisance, but here it's cute and works. The movie proudly showcases a special effect where the camera follows the characters up several flights of stairs from the fourth wall viewpoint to Chico's apartment. My favorite line of title card dialogue came when Chico and Diane were waiting for the police to come and question them. After Chico opens the door a man enters in plain clothes and says, "I am a police detective." No, hello, just the facts, ma'am.

94 to go...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Little Women (1933)

This was the second of ten collaborations between director George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn, the most notable of which is The Philadelphia Story. Here Hepburn plays tomboy and aspiring writer Jo March.

I haven't read the book but was already familiar with the story from the 1994 movie version with Winona Ryder in the role of Jo. Both seem similar enough that I presume they are faithful to the text.

It's an excellent portrait of 19th century life. The four sisters struggle to balance selfish desires with doing what's right and even if they bicker, they all truly care about each other when it matters.

95 to go...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Charles Laughton won the best actor award for playing the oft-married king. He is almost a dead-ringer for the most famous portrait of the king and does an excellent job of capturing his legendary essence.

The film is only 97 minutes and definitely rushes along. Catherine of Arragon (wife #1) is skipped altogether. She is given only a sentence saying Henry divorced her for being noble (not mentioning the lack of a male heir). It then jumps all the way to preparation for Anne Boleyn's (wife #2) execution.

The middle is solid before they fly through at the end again not even following through to Henry's death while still married to wife #6. Not a bad movie, but there better versions of this story out there (A Man for All Seasons comes to mind - best picture winner 1966).

96 to go...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Maurice Chevalier

By an odd coincidence, the last three best picture nominees I’ve watched have all starred Maurice Chevalier. Researching him on IMDb, I realized I have seen him in at least two other movies, but as an older man in Fanny (1961) and best picture winner Gigi (1958). I knew without looking what character he played in Gigi. Every time I see that title, I hear his almost comically think French accent singing “thank Heaven for little girls.”

These three earlier pictures were all directed by Ernst Lubitsch and definitely have a similar tone – light, fun, musical-esque, and surprisingly sexy. Chevalier is basically the exact same character in all three films. Think of him as a toned down version of Pepe Le Pew. Indeed, I was convinced the famous skunk must be modeled on Chevalier’s film persona and while wikipedia does mention that as a common theory, it has never been officially confirmed.

I don’t know if there exists research or opinions on this, but I have noticed that movies from the early 1930s were more risqué than were movies from the 40s and 50s. The innuendo seems a little less subtle and the women are shown in negligees that seem startling revealing for 80 years ago.

In The Love Parade (1929), Chevalier marries a queen only to be torn between wanting to be a commanding husband and a subservient subject at the same time. In One Hour With You (1932), he plays a happily married man whose wife’s best friend tries to coax him into an affair. The movie’s title refers slyly to what a man and woman might be able to do with an hour alone together. And in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Chevalier is the titular officer whose smile and wink across the street to his girlfriend (Claudette Colbert) are intercepted by a princess riding by in procession. Offended at first, the princess and her royal father assume the lieutenant wants to marry the princess and arrange the wedding at once.

This has been yet another example of the wonderful discoveries I’ve unearthed while eating my movie vegetables. After watching Love Parade, it didn’t occur to me that either Chevalier or Lubitsch were worth noting. Now, while I don’t consider these great movies necessarily, I am a fan of both men. Lubitsch won an honorary Oscar in 1947 “for his distinguished contributions to the art of the motion picture” and Chevalier won his own in 1958 “for his contributions to the world of entertainment for more than half a century.”

97 to go…

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Love Parade (1929)

This was an odd, but enjoyable little movie. Set in the fictitious country of Sylvania, it tells the love story between the Queen of Sylvania and the ladies-man, government official who wins her heart. It's primarily a comedy, sometimes a musical, with a little (if sexist) social commentary thrown in.

99 to go...

Thursday, November 4, 2010

IMDb Top 250

While I started this blog primarily to chronicle my quest to watch every Academy Award best picture nominee, the idea behind "movie vegetables" is much larger. It is the continual search for great, worthwhile, relevant, original, and classic movies. Everything you're supposed to watch because it's good for you.

No list of great movies is perfect. The idea of ranking and rating movies is flawed from the beginning. There will never be an accurate, objective way to rate movies on a scale as if they were earthquakes or something quantifiable. It's like at the beginning of Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams has them read from their text how determining the greatness of a poem can be calculated mathematically. "Excrement," is how Williams describes such a theory.

Here's the way I look at it: Any person or group compiling a list is going to overlook some great films. It's inevitable and even infuriating at times. But whether it's the Academy, AFI, or IMDb, they can at least give you guide that offers a better place to start than what made the most money at the box office last week (currently Saw 3D, by the way).

The IMDb Top 250 has long fascinated me. It wasn't decided upon by IMDb staff. It is simply a list of the highest rated movies by the site's users. IMDb has even taken the time to calculate a formula that gives each film a weighted rating to ensure each film has received a sufficient number of votes before breaching the Top 250. Voters who only give films "10" or "1" have their votes discarded. It's far from perfect, like any list. But, even though I tend to disagree with the general public on what's good, this list has always had a wonderful mix of old, new, foreign, and independent movies. It has lost some credibility lately. I believe The Dark Knight (which I love) brought thousands of new voters to the site as TDK climbed the charts vying for the #1 all-time spot. When the dust settled, The Godfather, that had been the site's #1 for years, surrendered the top spot to The Shawshank Redemption. TDK now sits at #10. The result seems to be that newer "cool" movies are way overrated. I like Inception, but it is NOT the 4th greatest movie of all-time. But, again, no list is perfect. Inception is worth seeing and the old, foreign, and indies are still represented. I don't regret seeing any movie on this list, which at the moment, I have seen all of.

I'm writing this post because last night I re-tackled the Top 250. As of about six months ago I had seen them all, but the list is constantly in flux and I had fallen behind by a few movies again. By recently watching How to Train Your Dragon, The Social Network, and Toy Story 3, I thought I had done it again. I pulled up the ol' list to confirm this. I found that it will now track for you what you've seen on the top 250 by showing you the ones you haven't rated yet. I don't tend to rate movies on IMDb for the reasons I stated above about it's futility (ironic, because if no one did, there'd be no top 250 for me to go by). So I had to go through and rate them all, some of which I hadn't seen in years and just gave it my best guess from what I remember. Then I unexpectedly hit one I had never heard of. Mary and Max, a 2009 Australian animated black comedy. Netflix had it available on live streaming, so I watched it immediately.

This highlights the entire reason I'm doing what I'm doing with the IMDb Top 250 and the best picture nominees, etc. There are just too many movies out there and most of them are crap. Mary and Max is a GREAT movie that 24 hours ago I hadn't even heard of. Maybe it will magically be eligible for the Oscars this year (stranger things have happened with foreign movies), but probably not. So to plug IMDb some more, I say, USE IT. Browse, sort, rank, search. Regardless of your tastes, it is an invaluable tool in looking for your own movie vegetables.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Alibi (1929)

This movie was actually pretty crummy. Bad acting. Low production values (even for 1929). Basically they're trying to track down a guy who shot a cop, blah, blah, blah. Don't waste your time (even though it's only 84 minutes).

100 to go...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Arrowsmith (1931)

Based on the Sinclair Lewis novel of the same name, the film follows Dr. Martin Arrowsmith's dreams of influencing mankind through his scientific research. Offered a lab job right out of school, he turns it down to move to his wife's rural hometown and become a general practitioner. It is here that he makes a breakthrough that receives national attention.

This is a largely unspectacular show. But it was directed by four-time Oscar winning director John Ford and stars Ronald Colman who was a big star at the time.

101 to go...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

1939 - A Year in Film

Having just watched Love Affair, I have now seen all ten best picture nominees from 1939. The year belonged to Gone with the Wind which brought home ten Oscars (including two honorary) and was nominated for five more. When adjusting for inflation, it is still the highest grossing film of all-time.

This was a year stacked with movie vegetables. Everyone has, of course, seen The Wizard of Oz. This was also the year Mr. Smith (the incomparable Jimmy Stewart) went to Washington and students said goodbye to Mr. Chips.

Gone with the Wind wasn't the only literary classic to be adapted in 1939. Of Mice and Men with Burgess Meredith and Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier were also released.

Others you might not have heard of still showcased stars you undoubtedly have. Dark Victory starred Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. John Wayne starred in Stagecoach. Ninotchka featured Greta Garbo.

And how's this for a best actor competition: Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable, James Stewart, Laurence Olivier, and Robert Donat. Donat, who you likely haven't heard of, was the winner for playing Mr. Chips.

Here's the complete list of 1939 winners and nominees:
Keep in mind it says 1940 as that's when the ceremony took place, just like they do today.

I also just realized I had miscounted both the total number of all-time nominees and the number I had seen. The count in the upper right is now correct.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Of Mice and Men (1939)

If you've already read the book, there are no surprises here. Steinbeck's classic is more popular than any movie version of his work. What is significant about this version is that it was released just two years after the book.

Bumbling Lennie is played by Lon Chaney Jr., son of the Man of a Thousand Faces. Lennie's protector, George, is played by Rocky's future trainer, Burgess Meredith. My guess is the iconic abominable snowman from Looney Toons is based more on Chaney's performance here than Steinbeck's words.

Not much else to say. It's a faithful adaptation but not as emotionally impactful as the book.

100 to go...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Captains Courageous (1937)

Based on the Rudyard Kipling novel, Captains Courageous tells the story of the viciously spoiled-rotten Harvey who finally gets the life lessons his teachers and father couldn't give him when he falls from an ocean liner and is picked up by a team of fishermen.

The kid is so horrible at the beginning he even calls the fishermen kidnappers for refusing to change course immediately and take him home. They are relatively patient with Harvey, who many of the crew label a "Jonah." Making him earn his keep, the ship's captain (Lionel Barrymore - It's a Wonderful Life's Mr. Potter) places him under the tutelage of Manuel (Spencer Tracy), the Portuguese fisherman who originally pulled Harvey from the water.

Manuel is a simple man, but one of great integrity whom Harvey grows to admire. Tracy's accent is horribly inconsistent, but he is still delightful and full of spirit in this Oscar winning role.

Harvey's transformation from wicked to hardworking over his three month journey is almost too drastic to be believable. However, he's still extremely stubborn, he has just found something he loves more than himself - a life at sea.

A very good, if mostly predictable, show with a surprisingly poignant end.

101 to go...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Anchors Aweigh (1945)

Even if you haven't heard of Anchors Aweigh, there's a good chance you've seen the classic scene with Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the Mouse. To give you an idea of how groundbreaking that sequence was, it was filmed 19 years before Dick Van Dyke danced with penguins in Mary Poppins. Anchors Aweigh is far from fantasy, however. The Jerry mouse number occurs as Kelly is telling school children about his adventures in the navy.

The story centers on sailors Joe (Kelly) and Clarence (Frank Sinatra) on a few days shore leave. Joe is a ladies' man so the insecure Clarence tags along hoping Joe can help him get a girl. They soon meet the lovely aunt of a young boy who was trying to run away to join the navy and Clarence falls for her right away. Joe tries to get away to find his girl Lola in town, but keeps getting pulled back out of pity for the kid and Clarence. Joe makes a promise he can't keep to get Aunt Susie an audition in Hollywood and that sets the rest of the plot in motion.

Kelly's only Oscar nomination came from this film, though just seven years later he won on honorary Oscar for his contributions to film choreography. Just as in Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris, Kelly is the dancing jock, making grace seem manly. It's also delightfully odd seeing Sinatra as the timid Clarence as his real life reputation was as a gruff and intimidating man. Playing a service man again in 1953's From Here to Eternity, he won his Oscar as the hard-nose scrapper Private Angelo Maggio.

Anchors Aweigh is an amusing show that's definitely worth watching again.

102 to go...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

I have to confess that this is the first Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers movie I've seen. I never saw the appeal in movies where the focus was (or so I thought) on dancing. In actuality, this is a very clever and funny romantic comedy. The singing and dancing is used in light doses that add to the picture.

Astaire plays, not surprisingly, a dancer who meets a young divorcée (Rogers) while they are traveling in Europe. She wants nothing to do with him as he comes on a little too strong for her liking and she is still trying to get her husband to agree to a divorce.

And, since this is a romantic comedy, of course her lawyer is friends with Astaire and she ends up incorrectly thinking that Astaire is the man hired by the lawyer to make her husband jealous. Hilarity, and dancing, ensues. Good show! (And no need to mention that this title would work as a completely different type of comedy today).

103 to go...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In Old Arizona (1929)

IMDb credits In Old Arizona as being the first full talkie. The Jazz Singer came out a year earlier, but only has a few scenes of spoken dialogue and synchronized music numbers. We've definitely come a long way. The sound in In Old Arizona is almost laughably bad at parts. Dialogue is mumbled and faint. At one point a stagecoach goes speeding by on a rocky road without making a sound.

The plot is lifted from an O'Henry story and follows a bandit, the Cisco Kid, on the run from the soldier assigned to bring him in. Cisco's girl flirts with the soldier seemingly to distract him from his target. However, once the idea of a $5000 reward is flashed at her, she becomes uncertain about where her loyalty should lie.

The characterization is pretty good with the soldier torn between his girl back home and Cisco's girl coming on so strong. And the Cisco Kid is far from the cutthroat he seems as first. He's later seen as jolly and philosophical, like a homicidal Robin Hood, maybe. Most surprising were the movie's risqué moments with sexual innuendo and a man telling his to mule to "shut up, jackass."

Nothing special, but not a bad little film despite its technical flaws.

104 to go...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)

Early on watching Bing Crosby's priest Father O'Malley, I thought that it seemed a very similar choice for the actor who starred in Going My Way. I should have followed my own advice and done a little more research before viewing. The Bells of St. Mary's is a deliberate follow-up to 1944's best picture winning Going My Way with Crosby playing the same character.

Here Father O'Malley is the new headmaster at a Catholic school. He and Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) trade moral lessons with each other, using their students as evidence to support their points. One of the best moments is Sister Benedict teaching a young boy to box after feeling guilty that her advice to "turn the other cheek" got him pummeled. Father O'Malley coyly observes her behavior and playfully calls her on it.

I'm becoming more and more impressed with Ingrid Bergman after now seeing Casablanca, Gaslight, and Bells of St. Mary's. Three distinct characters and she disappears into each of them with only her beauty and subtle Swedish accent as the common thread between them.

This is a good film, but nothing that hasn't been seen before.

105 to go...

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Twelve O'Clock High (1949)

"Where angels and generals fear to tread."

That's what is written on the side of a plane seen early on in Twelve O'Clock High. When General Savage (Gregory Peck) takes over a struggling air unit, he is far stricter than their previous commanding officer, but slowly earns the admiration of his men by joining them on several bombing raids over France and Germany.

Actual WWII combat footage was used for much of the air sequences, which definitely adds something when you see men ejecting or a plane explode to know that you're watching the real thing. The title refers to enemy planes approaching from above and straight ahead.

Overall, Twelve O'Clock High is a solid WWII movie, but far from spectacular. Peck is always good, but is hard to buy as a real hard ass. The movie was directed by Henry King, one of the founding members of the Motion Picture Academy who directed seven best picture nominees as well as dozens of films before that famous awards ceremony was initiated.

106 to go...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Gaslight (1944)

Ingrid Bergman may be most famous as Ilsa in Casablanca, but her first of three lifetime Oscar wins came as Paula in George Cukor's Gaslight (she wasn't even nominated for Casablanca).

After fleeing London following the murder of her aunt, Paula returns ten years later with her new husband to the same house which she had inherited. Now back home, her husband is concerned her innocent forgetfulness is becoming a growing problem. As Paula begins more and more to doubt her own sanity, a young detective thinks it may be her husband who is up to something and attempts to reopen the investigation into the still unsolved murder of Paula's aunt.

Bergman is great as she portrays a woman driving herself insane with the possibility that she may already be insane. A teenage Angela Lansbury is fun to see as the cockney maid with loose morals and was herself Oscar nominated for her work here.

A solid mystery that despite casting suspicion early on the husband, does keep you guessing until the end.

107 to go...

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Captain Blood (1935)

Captain Blood, directed by Casablanca helmsman Michael Curtiz, was the movie that made Errol Flynn a star. Peter Blood starts out as a doctor in 1685 England before lending medical aid to a member of the faction against the king lands him as a slave in Port Royal, Jamaica. He leads a group of fellow slaves to escape on the high seas. With no land to call home, the band turns to piracy to make a living with the charismatic Captain Blood at the helm. As they evade capture, Blood pines for the niece of the governor he left behind in Port Royal.

This was a very entertaining show complete with a climactic naval battle that is extremely impressive for 1935. Ultimately Captain Blood lost the Best Picture race to the even better sea adventure Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable. IMDb lists a 2011 Captain Blood as being in development so we may soon be seeing another rendition. It will have to be something special to match the spirit of the Errol Flynn version.

108 to go...

Saturday, September 4, 2010

What is a movie vegetable?

When discussing movies with friends, certain titles come up that I found very underwhelming but that I still feel obligated to recommend. Two examples that come immediately to mind are Gone with the Wind and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

To a modern viewer (well, at least to me), Gone with the Wind is downright melodramatic and cheesy. Of course Clark Gable is still the essence of cool with his lack of giving damns, but come on, "tomorrow is another day." That's Nicholas Sparks crap. Still, it's a movie that needs to be watched. When adjusting for inflation (which is only fair) it is still the top grossing movie of all time (sorry Avatar). It was an absolute phenomenon following the smash hit novel of the same name. It is an antebellum South classic strongly tied to American culture of the late 1930s when another great war was looming.

I feel is it vital to know when, where, and why movies were made before watching them. You need to have a basic understanding of the world the filmmakers were living in when they created it.

2001: A Space Odyssey is very slow paced with little plot and less dialogue. Many people today find it comically drawn out with mundane space operations set to dramatic classical music. I didn't dislike it, but I have a hard time supporting it. But, again, it needs to be watched. References to it still abound 40 years after its release (in Wall-E, for example). One has to also consider the state of sci-fi before this Kubrick-Clarke collaboration. It was mostly campy Flash Gordon action and alien invasion stuff. A Space Odyssey pushed the genre to existentialist extremes.

So there are certain movies that while you might not enjoy everything about them, they are still good for you and essential viewing for any self-proclaimed movie buff. Eat your vegetables.


Let me explain how this all started. Like countless people, I've long been an avid movie-watcher. Back in high school (early to mid-90s) I developed an interest in seeing those movies that one was "supposed" to see. I remember being enthralled (and confused) by Pulp Fiction at the theater. I caught The Shawshank Redemption on HBO and thought it was nearly perfect storytelling (an opinion I still hold).

In college I found some friends who introduced me to movies like Swingers and Beautiful Girls. I loved the idea of having favorite movies that the majority of your popcorn-munchers hadn't even heard of. I watched the final minutes of Chasing Amy with my mouth agape. I rose and staggered toward the TV drunk with awe when Keyser Soze's identity was revealed in The Usual Suspects. I drove my friends crazy poorly imitating Brad Pitt from 12 Monkeys ("Get out of my chair!").

During this time, the Internet was becoming a rapidly improving resource to find movie titles that I needed to watch. Though online searching was still followed by a trip to the video store.

Interest in the Academy Awards soon followed. The first ceremony I took an active interest in and actually sat down to watch was in early 2000 when the 1999 crop, led by American Beauty, was on stage. The following year, I was passionately championing Almost Famous over Gladiator heading into the awards season. After they each won their respective best picture category at the Golden Globes I was indignant when Almost Famous failed to make the Oscar nominee cut (curse you, Chocolat).

So despite not always agreeing with the Academy's choices, my initial movie quest become to watch every winner for best picture. Through a combination of the fledgling Netflix and a local Hollywood Video that still had a healthy VHS selection, I completed this task in 2003 when I watched 1948's Hamlet with Laurence Olivier and I've stayed current since, trying to watch nominees and winners as soon as possible, preferably before they are even announced.

Trying to watch every nominee hadn't even been seriously considered at this time. It seemed overwhelming and, honestly, I knew from watching the winners that some of those old ones weren't that great by today's standards (though Casablanca and On the Waterfront are two very notable exceptions). So my next task was to tackle the IMDb top 250. This is a little trickier as it is a living list, always changing to some degree. Earlier this year, I had finally seen them all, but I'm a couple behind again waiting for new additions How to Train Your Dragon and Toy Story 3 to come out on DVD.

So, this year, I officially declared my quixotic intent to track down and watch all 474 (and counting) best picture nominees.

Mission Statement

I'm the kind of guy who tends to agree with the critics when it comes to movies. If you just rolled your eyes, then this blog probably isn't for you. If, however, you also appreciate quality film making and realized long ago that the general population has horrible taste in movies, then I welcome you, friend.

The primary driving force behind starting this blog is to chronicle my quest see every movie ever nominated for a best picture Oscar. By my reckoning this is 474 films. The initial ceremony in 1929 is a little tricky as there were two best picture categories, one for "Best Picture, Production" and another for "Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production." Just to be safe, I'm counting all six nominees between these two categories.

As of today I have seen 365 of these 474 (including all 82 winners) so I'm already just over 3/4 of the way there. However, all but five of the 109 remaining were released before 1950 so finding titles will get harder and harder as I go back. The five nominees I've yet to see in the post-1950 group are not available on DVD.

So let games, or rather movies, begin.