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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1983-1984)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1983

Bruce Beresford, Tender Mercies

Ingmar Bergman, Fanny and Alexander

James L. Brooks, Terms of Endearment

Mike Nichols, Silkwood

Peter Yates, The Dresser

Analysis:

Tender Mercies. The original Crazy Heart.

Robert Duvall is an alcoholic country singer. He meets the owner of a motel and starts a relationship with her and her son. He decides to put his life back together and stop drinking. That’s basically the film.

It’s a solid film. Like Crazy Heart in that it won its star an Oscar after many previous win-worthy parts. And he’s really low key and you might not think he’d win an Oscar for the part after you see it. But we’re not here to talk about that.

The direction is okay. Nothing great. I guess you could nominate Beresford. He’s not a director with a particular style or vision with this film. (Case and point — Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture and he wasn’t even nominated for Best Director. That tells you everything you need to know.) So he’s fine, but barring Peter Yates, he’s fifth in the category. With Yates, easy fourth. No way he’s not.

Fanny and Alexander. Ingmar Bergman. Chamber drama. Oh boy.

We follow two kids and their family for three hours. I’m not getting into specifics. It’s Bergman. It’s colorful, the sets are great, and it’s really long and a lot of people are gonna hate it. That’s Bergman.

I like this one. I think the film is actually good. The direction is fine. But there’s no way you’re not telling me a lot of people are gonna vote for him purely because he’s Bergman. Don’t be one of those people.

Watch the five efforts. There’s nothing really separating him from most of the other nominees except maybe nice art direction. He’s not the runaway winner just because he’s Bergman. Don’t make that mistake and don’t be that person. He is in the top two for sure, just because the category sucks. But don’t just take him because he’s Ingmar Bergman.

Terms of Endearment. The original weepie.

It’s a mother/daughter story. Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. Comedy, drama, empathy, and then by the time the end comes, you’re bawling your eyes out.

It’s a terrific film. Just see it. You know generally what it is, and I went in with specific (generally negative) expectations because of what I knew about it from its reputation, and I was blown away by how good it is. James L. Brooks (As Good As It Gets, Broadcast News) knows how to craft a good film (well, until Spanglish… and How Do You Know. Yeesh), so just trust him.

The direction is fine. Nothing overly outstanding. But the category is shit. So you’re in one of those situations — do you vote Rain Man for Best Direction even though there’s another film whose only strength is the direction? That’s where we’re headed with this category — vote for the guy who crafted the best film, or vote for the one with the best directing? And even then, I question if that person isn’t him in both cases.

Silkwood. Radiation is bad.

Meryl Streep works at a nuclear power plant. As you do. The plant has to get more output, so they start cutting corners, forcing workers to work lots of overtime. But more importantly, safety regulations are lax. So Streep speaks up. And then is mysteriously exposed to a large dose of radiation. Was it intentional?

It’s a great film. Really solid. Nichols is a great director. Not sure I saw enough out of this to vote for him. But he’s solid. He feels like one of those efforts that’s fourth most years that goes third this year because of a particularly weak category. He’s the “solid but no vote” entry of this category. Though honestly because it’s so weak, you can make a case for him. There’s no #1 here at all.

The Dresser. Actors are crazy. Is basically what this is about.

Albert Finney is an actor who is out of his mind. He’s just a crazy motherfucker, but brilliant when he’s on stage. So Tom Courtenay, his dedicated (insert second word of title here) has to do what he can to get him on the stage. It’s really entertaining. Great performances.

This is basically a play on film. There’s no direction here, and I can’t believe Yates was nominated. If he’s not number five for every single person rating this category, I will seriously question your judgment. (Maybe one in twenty will have him fourth, but only over Beresford. No way he’s higher than fifth for anyone else.)

No way you vote for him. Seriously. No way.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: 1982 as such a strong year, of course 1983 sucks. I don’t like anything in this category. The Dresser is a play on film. So no. Tender Mercies is fine, but not something I’d vote for. Fanny and Alexander looks nice, but there’s nothing in the direction that makes me scream “vote.” Silkwood is solid, but also feels like a number three for most years. And Terms of Endearment is a great film, but again, the direction doesn’t feel like anything other than standard 80s fare.

I wish Philip Kaufman was nominated for The Right Stuff. I’d have voted for him in a second. He was nominated for the DGA too. As was Lawrence Kasdan for The Big Chill. And the Academy instead went with Nichols (makes sense) and Yates (what?).

Honestly, because I have no idea what to do (and am not just gonna vote for Bergman because he’s Bergman), I’m taking Brooks. I refuse to vote for a play, I don’t think this was one of Nichols’ best efforts. Bergman did fine, but I don’t love the direction. And then Tender Mercies is also a no. So by process of elimination, I’m taking Brooks, which happens to be the film I liked best in this category. So there. Sometimes that’s how you have to play it.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. James L. Brooks, Terms of Endearment
  2. Ingmar Bergman, Fanny and Alexander
  3. Mike Nichols, Silkwood
  4. Bruce Beresford, Tender Mercies
  5. Peter Yates, The Dresser

Rankings (films):

  1. Terms of Endearment
  2. Silkwood
  3. The Dresser
  4. Tender Mercies
  5. Fanny and Alexander

My Vote: James L. Brooks, Terms of Endearment

Recommendations:

Terms of Endearment is a great movie, and the most essential movie on this list. It’s one of those movies that was the quintessential “weepy” melodrama for a while, but actually, it’s hard not to love it. You get totally invested in the mother/daughter relationship, and the MacLaine/Nicholson relationship, and it really sets you up to feel really awful when the ending happens. It’s well made. I went in with no expectations and loved this movie. I prefer some of Brooks’ other movies to this in terms of pure entertainment, but this movie is really terrific and ought to be seen. It’s not fully essential, but as a Best Picture winner and a James L. Brooks movie, its something a film buff ought to see.

Silkwood is a great movie. Almost essential because it’s one of those films that makes you upset about injustice in the world. Meryl is great in it. Some people think Cher should have won an Oscar for her part. And it’s Mike Nichols, who is great. So it’s definitely worth seeing, and while not essential, film buffs should get around to it eventually.

Tender Mercies is a solid film. Crazy Heart made 25 years earlier. (There’s a reason Duvall is in that movie.) It won Duvall his Oscar. And it’s actually similar to Crazy Heart in that it’s a good film, but you definitely get the sense that he won for his other body of work than this singular performance. But the film is solid either way. So I do think it’s worth seeing. It won, so there’s that. Not essential, though.

Fanny and Alexander is a solid film. I actually really liked it. I was usually bored by foreign films the first go-round in this Quest. Especially Bergman films. So the fact that I like this should tell you that it’s actually pretty good. It’ll bore the shit out of a lot of people, though. Know that going in. There are the people whose tastes run toward the… I wanna say pretentious, but I guess the proper terms are “arty” and “intellectual” who will say this is an unqualified masterpiece. And who am I to argue? I will say that the people who like more mainstream films will most likely not like this, and there will be people in between, which I feel is most people reading this site, who will want to like this because they feel liking it makes them more of a film person and will want to think it’s great but not really get that kind of enjoyment out of the film. To those people I say — like what you like, be okay with what you don’t. The film is fine, but I’m not saying you need to see it. You can get by without it. Ignore the scholarly people. It’s okay.

And The Dresser I actually recommend. It’s solid. The performances are great. Crazy actor and his manic assistant. Good shit. Worth a watch.

The Last Word: No idea what the fuck to do here. I’d say you’re insane if you voted for Yates. Beresford — would anyone pick him? Maybe. I guess I could understand it. Don’t think he feels like the choice, though. I could understand a Nichols vote. I clearly could understand a Brooks vote, since that’s what I did, not having any other recourse. And then Bergman — I feel like a lot of people would want to vote for Bergman here because he’s Bergman. I’m fine with that. He did a good job with this. Just acknowledge why you think the effort is best when you do so in order to prevent people like me from getting upset that you voted for him purely because he’s Bergman and the category sucked.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1984

Woody Allen, Broadway Danny Rose

Robert Benton, Places in the Heart

Milos Forman, Amadeus

Roland Joffe, The Killing Fields

David Lean, A Passage to India

Analysis:

Broadway Danny Rose. It’s funny to me how Woody Allen doesn’t ever get DGA nominations yet manages to get Oscar nominations. Why do they like him so much? What am I not seeing in his direction?

This is a movie that’s about a story being told by a bunch of comedians over lunch. It’s about a talent manager whose client makes him pretend to be his mistress’s boyfriend so she can see his show, only the mistress used to date a mobster, who is real pissed that the manager is seeing “his’ woman. Comedy ensues.

The film is okay. I don’t love it. It’s shot in black and white. I guess that’s why they nominated it? Honestly I don’t see the appeal of a lot of Allen’s stuff. I mean in terms of direction. The writing, fine. The acting — sometimes. But the direction. Really? He’s a fifth for me here. Maybe you could put him fourth. But there’s no way he gets any higher.

Places in the Heart. Here’s a movie that I bet was much better in the 80s than it seems now. I’m not sure what the point of this movie is, and some of the plotlines feel tacked on to give the film more screen time. It’s good, but it feels cobbled together from pieces of other scripts.

The main story is Sally Field. Her husband is the sheriff who is accidentally killed by a drunk boy on the train tracks who is firing a gun. She now has to raise her kids and maintain the farm all by herself. So she has to plant a field full of cotton, make it grow, harvest it, and then sell it for a good price. Oh, and the bank is gonna foreclose on the house if they don’t. So of course, the woman gets out in the fields. And she’s got help — a blind man (John Malkovich) and a negro (Danny Glover). And this ragtag group of friends help save the family farm.

Oh, and there’s an entire subplot about Ed Harris and Lindsay Crouse and him having an affair with another woman in the town. And it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the film, which would have been a perfectly acceptable plot for a film on its own. And it’s just kind of there. And the only connection is that all the characters seem to live in the same town. Very strange choice. I still don’t get it.

But the film is fine and perfectly entertaining. I bet this was a major contender for Best Picture in 1984. Here, it’s just an entertaining movie that no one would actually vote for. The direction is fine, but no. It’s solid, but not vote worthy.

Amadeus. What a perfect movie. I’m blown away every time I watch this movie. It’s so good.

It’s about Antonio Salieri, the court composer to the Emperor, who has a weird relationship with Mozart. Salieri is this ambitious, respected musician whose pieces are totally fine, but nothing people would remember throughout history. And then here comes Mozart, this 17 year old who has no manners, says and does what he wants, has no social tact whatsoever, and happens to be the most brilliant musician to come around in a hundred years. Salieri hates him, because he’s hard to like, but also can’t help be respect him and be completely jealous of him. There’s a great scene in the middle where Mozart’s wife brings Salieri the pieces he’s working on, and Salieri asks where the originals are. And she says those are them. And he realizes Mozart composed perfect orchestral pieces in one go, without the need for any edits whatsoever. It’s a fascinating rivalry, between these two, and the film is one of the greatest ever made.

Forman directs the shit out of it, and it’s something I’ll vote for every time. In a category like this, there’s no way he’s not top two for a vote. No way. This category is weak as hell. Maybe you don’t ultimately vote for him, but there’s no way he’s not top two.

The Killing Fields. This is the only other film I see as being remotely worth a vote.

It’s about an American reporter, played by Sam Waterston, who comes to Cambodia to cover the Civil War. He is paired with an interpreter, played by Haing S. Ngor, who himself was imprisoned in a camp for years before the Khmer Rouge fell.

Crazy story — he was a gynecologist, and his wife died giving birth. And he couldn’t do anything about it, because the Khmer Rouge hated any intellectual. So if he helped her, he’d reveal he was a doctor, and in all likelihood both he and his wife would have been killed. Fucked up, right?

Anyway, Waterston covers the story until the Khmer Rouge takes over. He has to flee with a lot of other journalists, and Ngor ends up captured and put in a labor camp. And the rest of the film is mostly about Ngor’s life in the prison camp and his escape. It’s — intense.

It’s a really great film. I’m due to watch it again. But even from what I remember, this is easily second in the category. I want to see it again because I want to see just how close this is for a vote for me. I feel like I might actually consider it over Forman if I see it again. I’ll definitely watch it by the time Supporting Actor rolls around, that’s for sure.

A Passage to India. David Lean. Doing E.M. Forster. Seems like a slam dunk nominee.

The film is about the period as India started growing away from Britain in the 20s. Judy Davis and Peggy Ashcroft are daughter and mother who go to India to stay with Davis’ fiancé. They befriend an Indian doctor. While seeing some caves, Davis disappears from the group and is found bloody and screaming. The doctor is arrested and charged with rape. So of course this is a huge deal for both countries. And then a trial happens, and it’s a whole international incident.

The film is fine. I think it’s overly long and could have been about 45 minutes shorter and still done the same job. I always talk about David Lean movies as having a definite arc, after he turned into David Lean, director of epics. Bridge on the River Kwai is almost perfect, Lawrence of Arabia is perfect, and then Doctor Zhivago goes too far over that edge and feels overdone. Too long, too much. And then after that, it felt like Lean lost it. All his movies felt too long, overly boring, and trying to redo the same thing he did much better earlier. Ryan’s Daughter was hard for me to watch, but solid. And then this movie — I really found myself quite bored for stretches of this. I think that comes back to the direction. This movie could have had 45 minutes cut out of it and been just the same. Can’t vote for a movie like that for Best Director.

– – – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I don’t even want to talk about this category past the obvious winner. It’s Forman all the way. Amadeus is such an amazing piece of work that Forman wins this category every time for me without even a second’s hesitation.

Joffe is a clear second choice. I could see people voting for him. He makes complete sense as a choice. Lean’s movie is really flat and is clearly one of those “older director” films without any energy to it. Benton’s effort is fine, but no one would actually vote for it. And then Allen — I still don’t see it. I guess there’s some energy here, but without getting into other efforts that could have been here, I don’t see him as anything other than fifth in the category.

It’s still Forman all the way for me. There are only two choices in the category, and I’m taking the one that is the more iconic film.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Milos Forman, Amadeus
  2. Roland Joffe, The Killing Fields
  3. David Lean, A Passage to India
  4. Robert Benton, Places in the Heart
  5. Woody Allen, Broadway Danny Rose

Rankings (films):

  1. Amadeus
  2. The Killing Fields
  3. Places in the Heart
  4. Broadway Danny Rose
  5. A Passage to India

My Vote: Milos Forman, Amadeus

Recommendations:

Amadeus is an essential movie. I saw this in middle school in a music class. I imagine that doesn’t happen anymore because schools don’t even bother teaching music or art to students anymore. But you should see this as a person, and definitely as a film buff. It’s incredible. The ideal age to see this is between 12 and 17. Before that, you probably won’t appreciate it enough, and after that, you’re just seeing it because you know you have to. Still, though, it’s never too late.

The Killing Fields is a great movie and an important movie. It documents a terrible piece of history and is really evocative at doing so. It’s not essential, but it’s something every film buff should see. History buffs for sure should see this.

Places in the Heart is a good film. Won Best Actress, has a story that happened a lot in the 80s (three Best Actress nominees with essentially the same plot in a two year span), and has a bunch of actors you like. It’s one of those movies that has all the elements that will make people like it, but it’s not essential. There are reasons to see it, but you don’t need to go out of your way to do so. The fact that it’s an Oscar winner is enough. You’ll either need to see it because of that or won’t care and can easily ignore it.

A Passage to India — I guess. It’s David Lean, and his movies are always worthwhile. But I warn you, it’s too long, and kinda boring. But because it’s Lean, you’ll sit through it. If you don’t care about how famous the novel is or that David Lean is the director, then there’s no appeal here for you and you can skip it. (Though it is part trial movie, and those are always interesting.)

Broadway Danny Rose — I have tiers of Woody Allen movies. This is in the tier of “indifferent to me thinking it’s actually okay.” It’s got its moments. It’s more of a comedy, and his comedies are usually more interesting to people than his dramas. Especially in the 80s, when he’s basically just trying to do other directors. So, while it’s not essential Woody Allen, depending on how you feel about Woody Allen stuff in general, that will dictate whether or not you feel the need to see this.

The Last Word: I can’t see anyone going with a choice that isn’t Forman or Joffe. The other three make zero sense at all as choices. And I can’t fault anyone for taking either. My vote is Forman, but Joffe is perfectly fine too. Outside of those two though, no way. Seriously, no way.

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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One response

  1. Srinivas

    I agree Fanny and Alexander is not Bergman’s best (which could be Persona or The Seventh Seal for most, Winter Light and The Silence for me), but I clearly don’t understand how he is not the vote in ’83. I can understand not voting for him in ’73 but here there is clearly no other choice. How he fills every scene with tension and his subtle shifts to supernatural elements is preeminent. Handling a film of such epic scale in the weakest best director category alone should get him the vote.

    And David Lean deserves more credit for A Passage to India. Agreed the film is long but I think it was needed given the difficulty adapting the novel. There are many layers to each character and what really happens in the caves is never explained clearly, but Lean directs a great movie which invites differing interpretations on multiple viewings.

    April 5, 2016 at 3:13 am

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