Been away for a week on vacation, and just got back in time for last night’s Academy Awards. Apropos of which, a friend said last night, “I think I’ve seen more of the films nominated for the 24th Academy Awards than the films nominated for the 84th Academy Awards.”
It’s a very “Midnight in Paris” sentiment, and people say stuff like this all the time – and, indeed, in our age of cheap and easy access to extensive film back-catalogs, it is possible to indulge in one’s taste for the movies of yesteryear over those of today. But I thought I’d check if it was true for me. The answer: no, but yes, but no.
First, no: of the 55 films of 1951 nominated for awards, I’ve only seen four: ”A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Strangers on a Train,” and “The African Queen.” I’m not sure how I’ve gotten to my advanced age without seeing “An American in Paris” or “A Place in the Sun” – I’ll have to fix that. And I’m curious about “Detective Story” and “Tales of Hoffmann.” But at first glance, that’s the list. And I didn’t really like “The African Queen” or “Alice in Wonderland” all that much. 1951 wasn’t my year, and isn’t likely to be.
By contrast, of the 61 films nominated from 2011, I’ve seen ten: “Beginners,” “Bridesmaids,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Margin Call,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Moneyball,” “The Adventures of Tintin,” “The Artist,” “The Descendants,” and “The Muppets.” I didn’t love most of these – “Beginners” has a wonderful performance by Christopher Plummer, but the other two major roles are badly underwritten; “Bridesmaids” left me cold, “Midnight in Paris” is possibly the most overrated film since “The Shawshank Redemption,” and “The Artist,” which I enjoyed, is not, I think, built to last. But “Margin Call” was not only extremely well-written and well-acted but an extremely rare effort to accurately depict the culture of Wall Street, a genuinely “important” film. And “The Descendants,” if a little dull, and by no means my favorite Alexander Payne movie (and I generally like his work an awful lot) was important in its own small way, covering physical and sociological terrain (Hawaii, the rights and obligations of families with long-standing and profound ties to the land) not often covered in American films. I’m still eager to see other nominated films like “A Separation,” “Drive,” “Pina,” “Rango,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “The Tree of Life,” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” And some of my favorite films from 2011 – most notably “Martha Marcy Mae Marlene” – weren’t nominated.
But second, yes. Because I wondered: is it just something about the comparison with 1951? So I took a look at the 44th Academy Awards. Of the 49 nominated films, I’ve seen nine – one fewer than this year, but a higher percentage. The movies: “A Clockwork Orange,” “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Klute,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The French Connection,” “The Last Picture Show,” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. That list includes one of my all-time favorite movies (Robert Altman’s alt-Western, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”), four other movies I would watch again in a heartbeat (“Carnal Knowledge,” “The French Connection,” “The Last Picture Show” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) and two movies that are plainly significant and worth seeing even though I have major arguments with them (“A Clockwork Orange” and “Fiddler on the Roof”). And I’m not sure how it is I haven’t yet seen “Shaft,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “The Sorrow and the Pity.” 1971, apparently, is more my year than either 1951 or 2011.
And what about the 64th Academy Awards? 1991 is an interesting year for comparison, because the 1990s was the decade of the rise of independent cinema, and the decade when the studios took more risk on individual scripts and individual concepts than they had since the 1970s. 1991 should look more like 1971 than like 1951 or like 2011. And, indeed, of the 44 nominated films, I’ve seen thirteen – the highest percentage and the highest number, which would suggest an affinity.
But then I took a look at the movies I saw: “Barton Fink,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Boyz n the Hood,” “City Slickers,” “JFK,” “Mediterraneo,” “Rambling Rose,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “The Commitments,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “Thelma & Louise.” “Barton Fink” is a movie I’ve returned to more than once (usually when I have writer’s block); it’s one of my personal favorites. But none of the other movies on the list am I likely to see again. The two Costner films – “JFK” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” – I thought were catastrophes. “Boyz n the Hood” and “The Commitments” were both good, small-scale movies, but neither is a revelation; neither’s as significant as “Margin Call,” or as inventive as “Martha Marcy Mae Marlene,” or as resonant as “Take Shelter.” And “Rambling Rose,” a movie I have a lot of affection for, has two excellent performances – by Laura Dern and a teenage Lukas Haas – but I’m not sure it adds up to a totally successful movie. And of the nominated movies I didn’t see, I’m not sure I can find a single one that I’m sorry I missed. (“Bugsy?” “Backdraft?” “For the Boys?” “Grand Canyon?” “Hook?” “The Prince of Tides?”) Some day maybe I’ll get to “Cape Fear” or “The Fisher King” – but they aren’t very high on my list.
Meanwhile, there are three films on the list of movies I saw from 1991 - “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “Thelma & Louise” – that are unquestionably significant films. That’s three more than in 2011. But I have serious problems with all three of those films – problems with, for lack of a better way of putting it, their honesty. “Terminator 2″ is, for me, completely ruined by its sentimentality. I can’t get the comic image of all those guards hopping on one leg because Schwarzenegger has shot them in the other when he’s ordered by the young John Connor not to kill people. It’s the perfect film for the New World Order in which we imagine we can make our killing machines antiseptic, and therefore moral. “The Silence of the Lambs” was pretty thrilling the first time I saw it, but the second time I frankly got bored – I could see the holes too easily – and I can’t get past the fact that the movie is structured to make us cheer for Hannibal Lecter to escape, simply because he’s so obviously more intelligent than his jailers (those jailers really have done nothing wrong to deserve being eaten by him). It could have been an interesting film if it took the audience on this journey and then brought us face-to-face with what we’d come to empathize with, but that’s not what it does – instead, it leaves us comfortable with that empathy, an empathy apparently shared by Clarisse Starling. It’s terrifying when you actually think about it, but the movie encourages you not to do so. And don’t get me started on “Thelma & Louise.” These are the movies that will be remembered from 1991, the movies that make people’s top-100-of-all-time lists, but they are all movies that I would rather argue with people about than see again.
If I had to rate things objectively, I’d say 1991 was a vastly better year for movies than 2011 – certainly a vastly better year for Oscar movies, films with both large themes and a potentially large audience. But rating things more subjectively, it’s less clear, because the “great” films of 1991 that make it stand out are films that, when it comes right down to it, I didn’t like that much more than I liked the “not-great-enough” films of 2011 – and in some cases, I liked them less.
All of which I guess boils down to an argument for having both personal taste and an objective sense of quality in artistry and craftsmanship, so that you can range across the present and the past with some degree of personal confidence. Which may not be much of a moral – but it’s more than Woody Allen gave us, and he got an Oscar for it.