With the Oscars being awarded this coming weekend, I thought I would talk a little about “great” movies. I try to make a point of watching movies that are generally considered great, in hopes that I’ll like them. I mean, everyone else is saying they’re great, right?
But here’s the thing: sometimes, the cultural zeitgeist is just wrong. Here are six of the best “great” movies that I just didn’t get… or maybe I did get it, and they just aren’t that great. Spoilers ahead.
6. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) — Holy crap did this movie look awesome. Explosions, practical effects, kickass characters, and a reboot/sequel that might actually not crap all over its source material. Now, admittedly, the only Mad Max film I’ve seen is Beyond Thunderdome, so maybe I’m the wrong audience, but Fury Road looked pretty great, and the critics seemed to agree: it was feminist, it was enjoyable, it was well-acted. So, when it made it to HBO, I watched it.
And then I thought… “Well, it certainly looked cool.” Because it sure did. I appreciate cinematography and lighting even in bad films. I don’t think Fury Road was bad, but I also don’t think it deserved all the praise heaped upon it. It was basically one long-ass chase scene. And, yes, Max was the assistant character, working with Furiosa to help her in her mission to save Immortan Joe’s women, but there wasn’t much of a character arc for anyone except that one guy who started as one of Joe’s warriors and eventually joined Furiosa and Max. We don’t really know what spurred Furiosa to do what she did; we never find out who the girl is in Max’s visions (I think it’s Furiosa, but I’m not really sure); in general the women retain the characteristics they started with; and in the end, Max slips away, leaving Furiosa in charge of Immortan Joe’s holdings. A happy ending, I suppose, and an enjoyable movie. But it wasn’t “great”.
5. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013) — Did you know this film was based on a graphic novel? I didn’t, until I saw it. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, which is supposed to mean it’s a great movie. It had some excellent use of color, and the emotion of the two main characters was super-raw (especially Adele’s breakdown in the coffee shop; that woman can cry really well), and of course the actresses were quite attractive and often naked, and the sex was simulated more realistically than any film I’ve ever seen. Adele’s story arc was pretty complete, as was Emma’s, although I was less interested in her (which I suppose was the point, since Adele was the main character).
And then I thought… “What did I just watch?” Look, here’s the thing: I enjoy coming-of-age stories, and I enjoy stories with emotional power, and I enjoy stories where time is played with, but sometimes you have to give the viewer a little more insight into what exactly is happening. This film jumped time periods without guideposts (especially when we see Adele as a teacher), and it was confusing. Maybe if I spoke French I wouldn’t have been so confused because I wouldn’t have been reading the subtitles the entire time, but I have to believe even French audiences were like “how long has it been now?” Also, while love is a powerful force, the relationship between Emma and Adele was toxic in more ways than one, and yes, that happens in real life, but I don’t think there was enough self-realization on Adele’s part — many people in toxic relationships know they’re in them, and they stay anyway. Also, I read somewhere that the director wasn’t very nice to the actresses, especially during the sex scenes. That casts a negative light on them, which sucks because there was a lot of passion being portrayed by the actors.
4. Les Miserables (2012) — Look, I love musicals. I think they’re fun, and they often distill plot down into something simple so the writers can squeeze in the songs. I even knew some of the songs from the musical before I saw the film. I’d never seen Les Mis before, although the story was reasonably familiar to me, and given the quality of the cast and the fact that the film was made with actual singing during the scenes (instead of dubbing it in later), I was totally on board with this movie and was really excited to see it.
And then I thought… “Wait, Fantine’s dead?” Maybe this made more sense in the book, but Fantine’s death was quite a surprise to me because I thought she made it to the end (and not just as part of Valjean’s dying hallucination). But she was introduced, and then destroyed, and then killed off, all in the second section — and for what? So that we could move onto a terrible love story between Cosette and Marius, one that made no sense? I mean, c’mon, Marius, Eponine is gorgeous and right in front of you and her father isn’t keeping her behind a locked gate, and she doesn’t have Amanda Seyfried’s super-high soprano, either. Look, man, I’ve dated a soprano before; she was a few notes short of a symphony, if you know what I mean. Anyway, while the film was amazing to look at, by the time “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” wrapped up I was like “can this please end now?” But no, we had to sit through the scene with Valjean on his deathbed, which was almost as interminable as the thirty-eight endings of Return of the King.
3. Pulp Fiction (1994) — Although this came out in 1994, I didn’t see it until years later, and when I did, I guess I liked it. Or, at least, things moved so fast in it that I didn’t have time to process what was going on. First there’s some criminals, and then John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, and then Marcellus Wallace and Bruce Willis, and Tarantino shows up, and at some point Uma Thurman does a weird dance, and it’s over. Hooray?
And then I thought… “What was the point of that?” The best part of Pulp Fiction is its quotable lines — royale with cheese, does he look like a bitch, it’s the one with “bad motherfucker on it”, etc. It has great dialogue, and it’s well-made from a technical standpoint, but I certainly don’t think it deserves a place on the AFI Top 100 Films of All Time list (it’s #94). Quotable lines and restarting John Travolta’s career aren’t enough. The rest of the film just didn’t make sense — it was a typical 1990s “one crazy thing happens after another” movie, just with better actors and dialogue.
2. The Big Lebowski (1998) — Similar to Pulp Fiction, this is one of those films that all my friends lauded but I never got around to seeing until well after it came out. I actually just watched it last year, and in some ways it still holds up: three friends from disparate backgrounds are thrown together in a mistaken-identity story where, as with Pulp Fiction, one crazy thing happens after another. There were moments of hilarity and plenty of quotable lines, and John Goodman was spectacular playing against type (at the time, all he’d been to most people was Dan Conner on Roseanne).
And then I thought… “Meh.” Look, I get it: the dialogue is cool, the conceit is cool, and the acting is better than many films I’d seen by 1998. But here’s the thing: in the end, it’s just “idea with variations”, a style of writing used by, among others, Robert A. Heinlein. Something happens to a character, he reacts, he overcomes, and something else happens to raise the stakes, until the writer has written enough words for a book (or screenplay). Also, while I know it’s fiction, some of the events were just a little too out there to be believable. I wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did. Sorry, Lebowski fans.
1. Blade Runner (1982) — This is an iconic sci-fi film that has so many versions you never know which one you’re watching if it’s not printed on the DVD box. The plot is pretty straightforward: a replicant steals a ship, and Harrison Ford has to stop him. Here’s what IMDB says the movie is about:
In the futuristic year of 2019, Los Angeles has become a dark and depressing metropolis, filled with urban decay. Rick Deckard, an ex-cop, is a “Blade Runner”. Blade runners are people assigned to assassinate “replicants”. The replicants are androids that look like real human beings. When four replicants commit a bloody mutiny on the Off World colony, Deckard is called out of retirement to track down the androids. As he tracks the replicants, eliminating them one by one, he soon comes across another replicant, Rachel, who evokes human emotion, despite the fact that she’s a replicant herself. As Deckard closes in on the leader of the replicant group, his true hatred toward artificial intelligence makes him question his own identity in this future world, including what’s human and what’s not human.
And then I thought… “That’s it?” I watched this movie because I was “supposed to”, but I never really got into it and I don’t know why. And despite the last sentence, I didn’t get that impression from the movie at all. I didn’t identify with Deckard, Batty, or Rachel; I didn’t care about Batty’s final words; I didn’t see Deckard struggling with anything. Maybe I missed it; maybe I need to watch the ultimate edition; maybe I need to have it explained better to me. I don’t really know. But I didn’t see this movie as a “great” film, and in a year that had so many other great films (Annie, E.T., and Fast Times at Ridgemont High were all in the top ten with Blade Runner), I’m surprised this one made so much money and resonated so much with sci-fi fans. I’m a die-hard sci-fi fan, and I absolutely don’t get it at all.
I have never, and will never, watch Million Dollar Baby. Yes, I know it won Best Picture, but I still won’t. I hate that movie. Not because of the acting or subject matter, but because it was released when I first discovered that studios released films specifically as Oscar Bait.
Baby “officially” came out in the US on December 14, 2004, but only in “limited” release. It hit theaters in wide release in late January 2005, and that’s when most people got to see it — and the Academy Awards show was less than a month after the film’s wide release date, so how many people really got to see it? But because it was in a few theaters in 2004, it was eligible for the Oscar that year, and it won.
Now, admittedly, it might have been better than the other four films nominated that year, but it wasn’t alone in being Oscar Bait. The Aviator was released in December, Finding Neverland in November, and Ray and Sideways in October. Were there better films than those five released in 2004? Sure there were: The Incredibles, which was ignored because it was animated; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which was clever and very well-made; and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which added a wonderful serious turn to the “kids’ movie” franchise. I truly believe The Incredibles deserved at least a nomination for Best Picture, but it didn’t come out in Q4, so it was ignored.
This crap is still happening; with the exception of Mad Max: Fury Road, all the nominees for 2015 were released in Q4. In a year that had The Force Awakens, Ex Machina, and Inside Out (a vital film for parents and children to watch together), the Academy almost exclusively looked at Q4 films. Studios know this happens, and they plan for it, stacking the deck with the movies they think the Academy will vote for instead of submitting the actual best films of the year.
And while Inside Out may not be the best picture of 2015, I think it needs to at least be in the conversation. But being released over the summer automatically disqualifies it, for the most part.
Long live the Academy.
Got an idea for a future “Six of the Best” column? Tweet it to me @listener42.
Josh’s book, The Clockwork Russian and Other Stories, has been called “intelligent, compelling, and always entertaining” by award-winning author Sean McMullen, and “thought-provoking” by Big Anklevich, editor of the Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine. You should read it and find out why.