Saturday, March 1, 2014
Ten Years When the Winner of the Genie Award for Best Picture Was Better than the Winner of the Oscar for Best Picture
No Canadian film has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture, although seven Canadian films have been in the running for best Foreign Language film, with one actually winning (as I mention below). Does this mean that Canadian films are just not in the same league in terms of quality? Not so fast. I offer here a list of ten occasions when an award-winning Canadian film has been, in my opinion superior to the film selected by the Academy for Best Picture. I should say that I do believe there are lots and lots of great films that have won the Best Picture award; it’s just that, in these ten cases, I think that there were better films, which the American Academy ignored and the Canadian Academy didn’t.
Best Picture Oscar: The Last Emperor
The Last Emperor is pretty to look at, and it focuses on a fascinating episode in history, and it is very, very long, which possibly adds to its impression of grandeur. But the sweep it made of the Oscars that year did a lot of damage to the credibility of the Academy. Vincent Canby hit the nail on the head when he compared it to “an elegant travel brochure” in the New York Times. As lushly attractive as the film is, it is thin on real content. The script (which also won an Oscar) is dull and vapid, rarely rising above the level of a soap opera.
Best Picture Genie: Le Déclin de l'empire américain
Best Picture Oscar: Driving Miss Daisy
Yes, Driving Miss Daisy is a sweet and likeable movie, and I wouldn’t want to encourage anyone to dislike it. The question I want to raise has to do with the artistic achievement it represents. The movie sticks fairly close to the play by Alfred Uhry, a sentimental favourite of theatre audiences. But, as charming as the play is, and as winning as the performances of the main actors are, judged as a piece of filmmaking, the movie seems no more than…fine, blandly competent. (This film also raises the question of what the Academy is actually judging when they award Best Adapted Screenplay: the specific work of adaptation or the overall accomplishment regardless of how much adaptation there was? Either way, I await a rational justification for why the award went to the barely adapted screenplay for Driving Miss Daisy over Branagh’s somewhat bolder screenplay for one of Shakespeare’s classic dramas, Henry V.)
Best Picture Genie: Dead Ringers
Best Picture Oscar: Dances With Wolves
I used to have the idea that Dances With Wolves had won the Oscar in the same year that Black Robe had won the Genie, but this is not so.
Best Picture Genie: Jésus de Montréal
Best Picture Oscar: Forrest Gump
The faults of the movie Forrest Gump may be summed up in the way that the catch-line of the movie was altered from what it had been in the novel. Where, in the novel, the lesson Forrest learned from his mother was that “bein’ a idiot is no box of chocolates,” in the movie, this famously became “life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.” A grim and pessimistic truth has been replaced by a rather saccharine and sanctimonious piece of optimism. But it is worse than that. The real damage is that the story of Forrest Gump stands as an allegory of the experience of the United States of America over those decades. An indictment of a nation that has been slow to learn and has suffered for that lack has been turned into a feel-good, can-do story. The very notion that an opportunity for self-scrutiny should be seized upon and profited from has been discarded in favour of a cheerleading session. In short, the movie valourizes stupidity.
Best Picture Genie: Exotica
Best Picture Oscar: Titanic
Lest anyone should believe that this whole exercise is motivated and informed solely by nationalist prejudice, let me note that James Cameron, the writer-director of this, my least favourite movie on the list, is Canadian. So be it. I hasten to admit that the last twenty-five minutes of Titanic (with the exception of a few moments of mawkishness) are brilliant filmmaking. The sinking of the ship is an extraordinary spectacle marrying a huge array of different talents and disciplines. The film up until that point, however, is a different story. The script is shallower than a comic book. Stilted dialogue, preposterous plotting, clichéd characters are all packed into the stalest sort of melodramatic story imaginable. Titanic contains so many groan and wince inducing scenes and lines of dialogue that one hardly knows which to single out for special derision. And let’s not even talk about that dreadful, cloying theme song from Celine Dion. No, watch it for the shipwreck and do your best to forget the rest.
Best Picture Genie: The Sweet Hereafter
Best Picture Oscar: Chicago
I don’t have anything against Rob Marshall’s Chicago. I actually think it’s a fun, invigorating film and that its music is much better than many musicals. It’s well cast, and the choreography, cinematography and direction are all impressive. If pressed for criticisms, I would have to admit to finding the story a little thin and not especially significant. But I would by no means want to suggest that this was a bad movie. No, the real problem for Chicago in this context is that...
Best Picture Genie: Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
Best Picture Oscar: Crash
I actually think that Crash is a pretty good film, and again, I should note that the writer-director, Paul Haggis, is Canadian. (Which really ought to have made him hesitate more before he went ahead and used the same title as David Cronenberg’s 1996 movie…but, whatever.) However, there are a few things that keep Haggis's Crash from greatness in my opinion. First of all, the set up of the racial collision feels a little schematic and somewhat predictable, and, at moments, even a bit clichéd, so that there is sometimes a feeling of safeness and familiarity about the movie that is probably not what was intended. Second, I find that too often it strains credulity with the various coincidences and the outrageously bad behavior of the characters. Still, these are somewhat minor quibbles with a movie that, in the midst of so much mindless dreck, is mercifully about something important, and it does have a strong impact on the viewer. Indeed, it would not have made it on to my list except for what won at the Genies that year.
Best Picture Genie: The Triplets of Belleville
Best Picture Oscar: Slumdog Millionaire
Slumdog Millionaire is another visually arresting movie, and the fast pace of the editing adds to the visual excitement. But I think that the degree to which this film fails to rise above the level of eye-candy is probably its greatest fault. I don’t want to damn it for its gross implausibility, of which we could equally accuse Charles Dickens, one of the screenplay’s clear influences. The setting in an Indian slum is unusual for a mainstream movie, but apart from that, it is quite formulaic and the dialogue is too often trite: “Come away with me.” “And live on what?” “Love.” Moreover, for this viewer, the inescapable constant awareness of how the manipulation of emotion is occurring scene after scene, tends to take away from its feel good ambitions. It just feels too much like a well-oiled clockwork emotion machine.
Best Picture Genie: Away From Her
Best Picture Oscar: The Artist
The Artist is another charming film, but it would seem that the chief reason for the enthusiasm that it generated, was surprise at the way it proved that the old conventions of silent films ⎯ not merely the lack of sound, but the dialogue cards, the performances conveyed through pantomime, and the stark reduction of the complexity of real life to a clear, melodramatic plot ⎯ are still quite effective. What had seemed merely a gimmick at first acquaintance actually created something quite fulfilling for the viewer. And it was that amazement that prompted people to say of what was, finally, merely a good film, that it was great. I think that, viewed in a few years time, when the novelty of The Artist no longer startles (not, of course, because other silent films will be made, but merely because one knows already that it was done and it worked), it will seem what it is: solid entertainment, but no more than that.
Best Picture Genie: Incendies
Best Picture Oscar: Argo
Argo is good fun, but although it is about a very serious subject, it is certainly not a movie to be taken seriously, simply because it plays so fast and loose with the facts. The real story, if you want to read it, is laid out in Robert Wright’s very exciting and very readable Our Man in Tehran. Naturally, one expects Hollywood to make stories conform to Hollywood conventions, so there are no surprises in that. But it is difficult to achieve greatness by playing wholly within such limited popular conventions, and Argo doesn’t surprise there either.
Best Picture Genie: Monsieur Lazhar