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.

1. 1987

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
Let’s admit that The Barbarian Invasions (2004), the sequel to The Decline of the American Empire, is probably the better movie (indeed, it won the best Foreign Language Film Oscar that year, so I haven’t put it on the list for that reason; and also because I am not sure I would want to argue that it is a better film than the 2004 Best Picture Oscar winner, Million Dollar Baby). But there can be little question that Decline is better than Last Emperor. Where the Oscar winner is a solemn historical pageant that quickly becomes turgid and never really engages any important ideas, the Genie winner is a lively character-driven drama in the spirit of Chekhov. Because it was a movie that belonged so clearly to its time, it has dated a little, but in 1987 it was surprising and unconventional and it is still full of ideas.

2. 1989

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
Dead Ringers is as disturbing as Driving Miss Daisy is charming. David Cronenberg has created a film that is haunting because scene after scene it manages at the same time to be both repellently horrific and absorbingly beautiful. It is an astonishing and wholly original work. Many people hate the movie for what it does to them emotionally, but the strength of that response speaks in favour of Cronenberg’s artistic achievement, not against it. Dead Ringers is like a nightmare shared by the whole modern world: all our obsessions with eroticism and violence and with the mechanical scrutiny of human beings flow together into this movie. It is a brilliant work of art and a shattering experience for the viewer.

3. 1990

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.
(Black Robe is indeed a great Canadian movie, but it won in the following year, 1991, when Silence of the Lambs won the Oscar, and I’m not convinced there is an obvious enough difference in quality to make a point about that.) The reason I wanted to put them into the same year, I think, was because of all the ridiculous things Dances With Wolves did in telling a story that is similar to Black Robe’s, about European contact with First Nations people. Again, Dances With Wolves is often very beautiful, but it is a silly film that uses sentimental melodrama and well-worn clichés to appeal to our emotions and avoid any intellectual scrutiny. It is, in short, rather adolescent in its sensibility. It may be enjoyable at that level, but it is hardly great art.

Best Picture Genie: Jésus de Montréal
Jésus de Montréal is an allegory that alludes continuously to the life of Jesus of Nazareth, but the main emotional and intellectual thrust of the film has to do with the idea that any genuine spiritual awakening will pose an intolerable threat to the establishment. A feeling of euphoria emerges at first, only to be replaced by dread and sorrow and finally acceptance as the film continues. For the viewer, it creates something very close to a religious experience, albeit one that is really entirely heterodox. It is dangerous and thrilling and profound.

4. 1994

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
Atom Egoyan’s Exotica is another one of those strange, quasi-hallucinatory Canadian movies that deliberately challenge the mainstream ordering of values and experiences. At first, the scenes and characters in Exotica seem to have no coherent relation to one another. Indeed, the story is not even organized chronologically. The main sense of order lies in the film’s consistent offering of images of obsession, of boundaries crossed and of taboos violated. The effect for the viewer is a queasy sense of being complicit in something that is bound to bring an enormous flood of remorse. When the heart of the mystery linking all these characters is revealed, it arrives with awful clarity and the realization that what lies at the core of many experiences is unresolvable tragedy. Exotica is a sternly demanding, but emotionally exhilarating work of art. (It is worth noting, too, that one of the short-listed nominees for the Genie that year was Whale Music, which, in a way is a kind of critical commentary on what the film Forrest Gump embraces: the deliberate choice of mindlessness as a way of avoiding painful experience.)

5. 1997

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
Here we have Egoyan again, with a very different sort of disaster movie. This disaster doesn’t involve thousands of passengers aboard the largest ship ever made; it is just a couple of dozen school children on an ordinary school bus, although they nonetheless drown in icy water. The actual crash is almost eerily unremarkable in the film. Rather, the focus is on the aftermath, the complicated interplay of relationships. Love, betrayal, loyalty, exploitation, grief, honesty and deception all come to the surface after the accident. And I would argue that the cast is one of the best ensembles every captured on film.

6. 2002

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
...Atanarjuat is a genuine masterpiece. It is based on an old Inuit legend about a man’s attempt to escape a group of killers, a story that continues to resonate profoundly as figurative rendering of the daily struggle of life in the Arctic. The story of Atanarjuat is, essentially, one of the central myths of the Inuit, and every aspect of the film works to ensure that the story lands with an uncanny persuasiveness in the viewer’s imaginations. This may be the most startling and original film ever made in Canada. In fact, when I am made Emperor of the country, I will decree that Atanarjuat is required viewing for anyone wishing to retain their citizenship. That’s all.

7. 2005

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
The relentless ingeniousness of this animated feature is breathtaking. It reminded me of the effect of those early Disney movies ⎯ Dumbo and Snow White ⎯ before that studio settled into the narrow formulaic approach they mostly take today. But, of course, the work of the animators in Triplets of Belleville is in a new age, and it amazes with its vivid effectiveness in frame after frame. This is a story in which love and goodness prevails, but the story is so weird, so extravagant, that it never settles into cliché or feels overly familiar. I’ll admit that I can’t possibly justify preferring this movie to Crash on intellectual grounds; but the delight it brings is just overwhelming enough that my preference is undeniable.

8. 2008

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
In contrast, Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, which is based on an Alice Munro story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” feels anything but familiar. That’s one of the themes of the movie: the idea that the movement of a loved spouse into the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease entails finding oneself in an unknown land, in which neither one’s spouse, nor one’s love nor one’s self seem familiar any longer. This is a good-looking, well-edited film, but the most compelling aspect of the movie is probably the rich, detailed performances that Polley drew from her terrific cast. It is undoubtedly somewhat depressing to watch, but by compensation, it is always a bit invigorating to witness the triumph of great art being made from terrible experiences.

9. 2011

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
Incendies is often uncomfortable to watch because of its content and some of its settings, but it is always enthralling. The performances are terrific, and the scenes all seem absolutely fresh to the screen. There is a highly crafted plot that is driving the story, a sort of thriller, but it has to be said that it is unconventional enough that it is difficult to believe that anybody could predict exactly where it was going without having read the play by Wadji Mouawad first. That is another thing that is remarkable about Incendies: it would be almost impossible to guess that this screenplay had started life off as a play, so naturally cinematic seems the story.

10. 2012

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
In contrast to Argo, Monsieur Lazhar is a film that seems innocent of convention or calculated effect. It contains perhaps the most extraordinary ensemble of child actors that I have ever seen. They are never less than convincing, and the depiction of the social workings of the classroom is compelling and truthful. Moreover, the story, though quite simply told and containing little action, manages to be utterly wrenching. This is terrific, under-stated filmmaking.


Quentin said...

Although, you could have included Dances With Wolves and Forrest Gump in the "Years When Banging Your Head With A Rock Was Better Than the Winner of the Oscar for Best Picture". I think my rage hit new heights when the Pratfalls and A-team villain cavalry movie beat Goodfellas for best picture. On the positive side, I do remember being super excited when Atom Egoyan was nominated for Best Director for The Sweet Hereafter, but lost to James Cameron...sigh...what could have been...

Mo Bock said...

What continually irritates me about the whole Oscar debate is that the idea of 'best' in such a context is moot at best, political at worst. It's a shame that art has to be subjected to this kind of 'beauty pageant' mentality, but I guess that's show business. But when people get upset because this or that film won or didn't win, it strikes me that we're really clutching at straws to glean significance out of what is essentially just another form of entertainment.

Craig Walker said...

Yes, I think the awards have no real inherent meaning, except as a kind of promotion opportunity. But, in Canada, where we have a foreign-run distribution system that seldom lets us see the films made in this country, that makes these awards a battleground.

Mo Bock said...

I'm going to snoop around in Netflix and see if they have Canada as a subgenre in their foreign listing.

Mo Bock said...
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