Thursday, December 3, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Best Picture Nominees

Three movies that were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but didn't win

1. All The President’s Men (1976)

With an intelligent script (penned by William Goldman) and the steady hand of director Alan J. Pakula at the helm, All the President’s Men takes what is essentially an investigation conducted by two journalists and makes it feel like a political thriller. What started as a botched break-in at the Watergate building - headquarters of the Democratic National Committee - in June of 1972 eventually becomes one the biggest stories of the 20th century. Following leads and piecing together the various clues, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) connect the Watergate burglars with top White House officials, sparking a controversy that would soon force Richard Nixon to resign as President of the United States. Redford and Hoffman are pitch-perfect as the newspapermen hot on the trail of a big story, and the supporting cast, including Jason Robards as Post editor Ben Bradlee and Jane Alexander as one of the duo’s key sources, are equally solid (Robards won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, and Alexander was nominated for Best Supporting Actress). Under Pakula’s watchful eye, not a moment is wasted; every scene in All the President’s Men feels absolutely necessary, and his taut pacing brings a sense of excitement to the proceedings, keeping us poised on the edge of our seats for every second of the film’s two-plus hour runtime.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

2. Gosford Park (2001)

Robert Altman’s unique take on an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, Gosford Park is as much a study of the British class system as it is a whodunit. Members of the upper crust, as well as their servants, gather at the country estate of Lord and Lady McCardle (William Gambon and Kristen Scott Thomas) for a hunting weekend. Among the guests are Lady Trentham (Maggie Smith) and her maid, Mary (Kelly Macdonald); Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance) and his valet Parks (Clive Owen), and actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), who invited along Hollywood producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) and Weissman’s “Scottish” valet, Denton (Ryan Phillippe). Before the weekend is over, someone will be murdered, and it falls to Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) to track down the killer. Like many of Altman’s films (Nashville, Short Cuts, etc), the cast he assembled for Gosford Park is beyond impressive; Along with those already mentioned, there’s Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Emily Watson, and Richard Grant, all of whom play members of the McCardle’s household staff. As for the murder, it’s nothing more than a vehicle to shine a light on the differences between the “upstairs” guests and their “downstairs” servants, and how each had their place in “proper” society. The movie is often quite funny (the pheasant hunt had me laughing out loud, as did Stephen Fry’s hilarious turn as the incompetent Inspector Thompson), but it’s the presentation of high society in Pre-WWII England, fueled by Julian Fellowes’ Oscar-winning script, that has ensured Gosford Park a place of honor in Altman’s filmography.
Rating: 10 out of 10

3. The King and I (1956)

The King and I is a difficult movie to review. On one hand, it’s a grand, entertaining musical featuring two performers at the top of their game. On the other, it’s culturally insensitive, relating the tale of a genteel British woman who clashes time and again with her employer. an “uncivilized” Asian king. The year is 1862. Anna (Deborah Kerr), a schoolteacher, has been hired by the King of Siam (Yul Brynner) to teach his many children the ways of the west, including how to speak English. The arrangement gets off to a bad start, however, when the King refuses to build Anna the house he promised her, insisting that she reside in the palace. To further complicate matters, Anna takes it upon herself to help Tuptim (Rita Moreno), a young Burmese woman who was recently “gifted” to the King (Tuptim is in love with another man, and has no desire to become one of the King’s many wives). Over time, Anna grows to love the children in her care, yet continues to insist that the King honor his word and build her a house. As for the King, he is struggling with a potential threat from the West, and turns to Anna for advice. Brynner is intensely charismatic as the stubborn, strong-willed King, and he deservedly won an Oscar for his performance. Equally as good is the always-reliable Kerr, playing the lone person in Siam courageous enough to stand up to the King. The musical numbers are also enjoyable, highlighted by the tunes “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?” Yet as fun as the movie is at times, it also made me cringe occasionally; several Caucasians were cast in key Asian roles (British character actor Martin Benson portrayed the King’s trusted advisor Kralahome, while American Carlos Rivas played Lun Tha, Tuptim’s love interest) and the scenes in which Anna teaches the King how to act when British Ambassador Sir John Hay (Alan Mowbray) pays them a visit came across as condescending. Yet I’d still recommend The King and I; even with its flaws, it’s a damn fine musical!
Rating: 7 out of 10

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