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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1989-1990)

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.

1989

Woody Allen, Crimes and Misdemeanors

Kenneth Branagh, Henry V

Jim Sheridan, My Left Foot

Oliver Stone, Born on the Fourth of July

Peter Weir, Dead Poet’s Society

Analysis:

Crimes and Misdemeanors. This is one of the weirdest Woody Allen movies. And for that reason, I am fascinated by it. It’s two stories in one. One is a comedy, one is decidedly not a comedy.

The first story is Martin Landau. A dentist. He’s having an affair with Anjelica Huston. Though as soon as she finds out he’s not gonna leave his wife, she threatens to tell his wife about the affair. He then decides to hire a hitman to kill her. It’s a very serious half of the film.

Meanwhile, there’s the other story. Woody Allen is a documentarian who is hired by his brother in law, Alan Alda, to make a documentary about him. And he’s just a giant schmuck. And Allen openly mocks him as he makes the documentary. But in doing so, he also falls in love with Mia Farrow, who works with Alda. This segment of the film is fucking hilarious. Alan Alda is just the biggest schmuck in the world, and it’s wonderful. This is where the famous lines come from — “If it bends, it’s funny, if it breaks, it isn’t” and “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Alda is so great in this half.

The movie then ends with a great scene of the two characters interacting, though it doesn’t go the way you think it will. Which brings the whole thing back to Allen’s typical themes of existentialism and the meaningless of life. But it’s actually good.

This is one of the Woody Allen movies I actually like. And I’m actually okay with him being nominated for this. Sure as shit wouldn’t put him higher than fourth at best on this list, but I’m okay with the nomination.

Henry V. This is the movie that introduced Kenneth Branagh to the world. It was the first movie he directed, which is kind of a cagey move on his part, as Henry V was also the first movie Laurence Olivier directed. Though he didn’t get a Best Director nomination when he did it.

It’s an adaptation of Shakespeare. So look it up if you want to know the story. This is the play with the “once more unto the breach” monologue. It also has battle scenes, which makes it more appealing for film audiences.

This is actually one of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever made. It’s better than Olivier’s version, and is the quintessential Henry V film version. It’s terrific. Branagh acts and directs the shit out of it. You could easily vote for him in this category. I have my rule of “no Shakespeare after 1945,” but honestly, the job he does here makes me reconsider that. Especially in this category, where there’s not a whole lot of style in the efforts. He immediately rises to top two for me, without even thinking about it.

My Left Foot. Kind of a surprise nominee. He and Branagh weren’t DGA nominated (Phil Alden Robinson for Field of Dreams and Rob Reiner for When Harry Met Sally were nominated instead). Clearly they got the BAFTA vote.

This is a biopic of Christy Brown, born with cerebral palsy and only had control of (insert title here). He overcomes the disability to become an artist. The film is a mix of scenes of his childhood (the most amazing scene of the film is when he shows the family he’s disabled but not stupid by spelling out a word in chalk with his foot. It’s such a beautiful moment that will make anyone feel good), and of him as an adult. It’s framed around him winning an award.

The movie is great. Daniel Day-Lewis is breathtaking, and all the supporting performances are spot on. The direction… it’s fine. Very small. Intimate. Nothing I’d vote for based purely on the effort. Last time, I think I voted for him for political reasons. Effort-wise, maybe third. Maybe fourth, maybe fifth. Depends on how you feel about the other films and how much you’d vote for those over this. Either way, not something I consider to be the best directed film of the year.

Born on the Fourth of July. It’s Oliver again. Doing Vietnam again. And goddamnit if he doesn’t know how to make these films great.

It starts with Ron Kovic, all-American boy who’s gonna enlist and be the town hero. It’s a lot of fairytale type scenes of Americana, followed by the harsh realities of Vietnam. Kovic ends up becoming paralyzed and losing both his legs. So there’s a long stretch where we see him in the VA hospital, dealing with his new disability and the absolutely atrocious conditions. And then he returns home, a changed, disillusioned man, and eventually becomes a Vietnam protestor.

It’s a great movie. The combat scenes are classic Stone, and he does a great job with the rest of it. I may not say this is the choice if different films are nominated, but in this category, he certainly seems like the right choice.

Dead Poet’s Society. O Captain, My Captain.

I say that to my cereal every morning.

Robin Williams plays an English teacher at a boy’s prep school who teaches outside the box. “Carpe Diem. Sieze the day. Make your lives extraordinary.” He teaches the boys to think a different way and look at life in a different way so they can learn to be who they are and not what others think they should be. And we follow a group of boys who take his class and discover that he was part of a (insert title here) when he was a student and effort to start the club again.

It’s just a fantastic film. It’s really wonderful. Robin Williams is terrific, and it’s one of those movies where, if it catches you at the right age, you’ll find yourself really inspired by it.

As for the direction — meh. It’s fine. Middle of the road. Definitely makes sense as a nominee, but not something I’d vote for. Could be third, could be fourth, could be fifth. Depends on how you feel about the films below the top two.

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The Reconsideration: Seems like Stone and Branagh easily rise to the top of the pack based on effort. The other three are nice, but don’t seem like they’re vote-worthy unless you really love the films. Woody Allen is almost always a five for me. Weir and Sheridan — nice, but nothing outstanding. So that leaves me with Branagh and Stone. And as much as I loved Branagh’s effort, I find it hard to take a Shakespeare movie as my choice at the Oscars. So that leads me more toward Stone. Plus, I really do like Stone’s direction more. The way he stages the battle scenes, and the way he shoots all the different sections of Kovic’s life. It’s a really solid effort. Based on what I have here, Stone is the choice.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Oliver Stone, Born on the Fourth of July
  2. Kenneth Branagh, Henry V
  3. Jim Sheridan, My Left Foot
  4. Peter Weir, Dead Poet’s Society
  5. Woody Allen, Crimes and Misdemeanors

Rankings (films):

  1. My Left Foot
  2. Born on the Fourth of July
  3. Dead Poet’s Society
  4. Henry V
  5. Crimes and Misdemeanors

My Vote: Oliver Stone, Born on the Fourth of July

Recommendations:

Born on the Fourth of July is an essential movie. Stone, Kovic, Cruise — it’s one of the most iconic Vietnam movies made, and it’s a terrific film. Film buffs need to see it. Maybe not immediately, but you need to see it at some point.

Dead Poet’s Society is probably the most essential movie on this list. You need to see it as a film buff, and honestly, most high school students should see this movie just to be better people.

My Left Foot is an essential movie. What Daniel Day-Lewis does in this movie alone… plus it’s just great. Very iconic film and performance, and just a terrific film. Definitely an essential film.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of the better Woody Allen films, and if we’re looking at his films specifically, it’s one of the essential ones that he’s made. All-time essential? No. You can make it through life without seeing this. But as a film buff, you might want to get to it, but it’s by no means something you need to see. I think you should, though. And I’m not the biggest Woody Allen fan out there.

Henry V is not essential, but it is one of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever made. If you’re gonna see a Henry V adaptation, this is the one. If you want to see a Shakespeare movie that’s actually entertaining, this is one. If you want to see a really solid movie with good battle scenes and great acting that just happens to be based on Shakespeare, this is your movie. Not essential, but I do recommend it because it is really well made and really entertaining.

The Last Word: Yeah… the efforts here are all solid, but only two of them feel like they’re worth a vote. And one of them is a Shakespeare movie. If you like any of the films strong enough, you could make a case that they’re the vote. I think Stone gives the strongest effort, so I vote for him. Based on the category, I take him. Branagh is a solid second, and the others are all good, but not ones I’d vote for. I think this category comes down to whatever effort people like the most and think is the strongest. It’s fairly wide open and doesn’t have a clear cut #1 winner.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1990

Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather Part III

Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves

Stephen Frears, The Grifters

Barbet Schroeder, Reversal of Fortune

Martin Scorsese, Goodfellas

Analysis:

The Godfather Part III. Yes, it’s the bad one. No, it’s not that bad. Try to watch it as just a movie and not part of “The Godfather.” It’s 16 years later and it’s almost not connected to the other two. Don’t hold it to the same standards. Coppola actually wanted to call this The Death of Michael Corleone, but of course the studio said no. That would have been a more appropriate title, since that’s more what this film is, than a continuation of that other story.

Michael is now 60, semi-retired, and really regretful over all the shit he did back in the day. He’s now trying to fix his reputation in public, in private, and with the church. Meanwhile, enter Andy Garcia — he’s the illegitimate son of Sonny (remember that bridesmaid he was fucking on the side? Yeah). He’s got a beef with Joe Mantegna, the guy running the Corleone family at the moment. Michael likes Garcia’s spirit, so he takes him under his wing. It’s like Rocky coming back to train Creed. Except no cancer.

It’s a really solid film. On its own, definitely something you consider for a vote. But it’s not the other two (Godfather films). You don’t have to vote for it. It’s probably easier to not vote for it, as a show of “this isn’t as good as the other two.” But honestly, it’s not even the best gangster film in the category. So it works out.

Dances with Wolves. A big epic western. And to get it out of the way — yes, he’s a deserving winner. Over Scorsese? No, not really. History hasn’t looked well on that. But that doesn’t mean the film is bad or the effort is bad. That is a very important distinction to make before we can start talking.

The film is about Kevin Costner, a soldier in the Civil War. He’s about to lose his leg, and rather than do that, he tries suicide by battle. He rides between the lines, expecting to be shot. Only the other side has no idea what to make of him and stop shooting, which allows his side to win the battle. And because of that, he’s a hero, and gets the proper care so he doesn’t have to lose his leg. He then gets transferred out to the frontier (which is slowly disappearing). There, he lives in peace among the NAtive Americans, and slowly befriends them.

That’s pretty much the film. It’s really good. It looks great, it’s well directed, and it’s not a bad winner based on effort alone. You have to realize that. The effort is good. It’s worth a vote. It’s just when you factor the efforts around it and how they’ve held up historically does this seem like a poor choice. So it’s not the best result, but it is a fine choice and a decent winner on its own.

The Grifters. GREAT movie. Neo noir.

Anjelica Huston is a con artist. Her son is John Cusack, a small time grifter. Cusack is dating Annette Bening, also a grifter. They all decide to play a long con together. Things — don’t go well. It’s a noir. You can expect things to not go well.

This movie is so fucking good. Frears directs the shit out of it, and in another year, he’d be a dark horse candidate for a vote. But man, what are you gonna do this year? Shit happens.

Reversal of Fortune. Real surprising he got on. Especially since Cinema Paradiso got a DGA nomination and seems like something they’d jump to nominate here. (Barry Levinson was also nominated for Avalon there too, instead of Frears.)

This is a really solid film. Mostly a courtroom drama.

Goodfellas. You’ve seen this. You know what it is. (And if you haven’t, you probably shouldn’t admit it.)

Does anyone, especially now, think that Scorsese isn’t the choice in this category? Look how iconic this film is compared to all the others.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Costner fits exactly what the Academy likes, and I completely understand the vote (and he’s even worth a vote). But the choice here is clearly Scorsese. The only thing that makes Costner a bad choice is that Scorsese’s film has held up so much better than his over time. The choice itself is not awful on its own. You can take Costner. It’s just that Goodfellas is Goodfellas. There are full sequences that people study for the direction. The whole film is flawless. That’s the choice for most people. And that’s not even getting into the other three efforts. Frears did a great job, and Coppola did a great job, even if that film is thought of as the weak one that everybody hates. And then Schroeder — sure. Solid. But still, this category is all Marty, all day.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Martin Scorsese, Goodfellas
  2. Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves
  3. Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather Part III
  4. Stephen Frears, The Grifters
  5. Barbet Schroeder, Reversal of Fortune

Rankings (films):

  1. Goodfellas
  2. Dances with Wolves
  3. The Godfather Part III
  4. The Grifters
  5. Reversal of Fortune

My Vote: Martin Scorsese, Goodfellas

Recommendations:

Goodfellas is practically life essential at this point. Don’t let anyone know you haven’t seen this and rectify it immediately.

Dances with Wolves is an essential movie. It is. If you want to complain that Scorsese should have won, you need to have seen this too. That’s how it works. Otherwise you’re a hypocrite. Otherwise, it’s a great film, won Best Picture, and it’s a classic. It is an essential movie for film buffs.

The Godfather Part III is also an essential movie. Because you can’t just shit on it, sight unseen. Not to mention, it’s actually not bad. It’s a good movie! It’s just that it’s not the first two, and it’s almost impossible to expect it to be as good as the first two. If you accept it as being flawed, it’s actually really great.

The Grifters is an awesome film. Not essential, but any self respecting film buff will want to see this movie, because it’s fucking terrific. A neo noir, with all the hallmarks of a classic noir. Just a great movie. I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Reversal of Fortune is a solid film. A trial film. And those are always interesting. You hear me say it every time, because it’s true. Plus it won Best Actor, and that’s something to take into account. It’s really engaging, and definitely a film worth seeing. Not essential, and you don’t have to rush into it, but it’s definitely worth a watch.

The Last Word: Come on, it’s Marty. It’s always Marty. But that does NOT mean that Costner is a bad choice. He’s just a bad choice against Scorsese. He’s perfectly worth an Oscar and even a vote. But it’s just that Scorsese is more worth a vote and has held up over time as a better choice. That’s all it is. Costner is a good winner based on the effort, and a bad winner in context. It’s not fair to shit on the effort. It’s just history that hasn’t looked kindly on this result. That’s all.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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