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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 1

Updated: Dec 21, 2022

Part 1: 1980


  • Kramer vs. Kramer (winner)

  • All That Jazz

  • Apocalypse Now

  • Breaking Away (hidden gem)

  • Norma Rae

Apocalypse Now

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, G. D. Spradlin, Jerry Ziesmer, Harrison Ford, Scott Glenn, James Keane, Kerry Rossall, Colleen Camp, Cynthia Wood, Linda Beatty, Bill Graham

Oscar Wins: Best Cinematography, Best Sound

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Best Art Direction, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture

Before he left production to work on Star Wars, George Lucas was originally slated to direct Apocalypse Now. How weird is it to imagine a world where two of the most influential movies in cinematic history, one beloved and one revered, may not have existed?

And Lucas isn’t the only thing these two titans of cinema have in common. They both explore the dark side of humanity. They both focus on the internal battle of good and evil. They even both star Harrison Ford (he even plays a character named G. Lucas in Apocalypse Now!).

But where Star Wars shows us that good always wins, Apocalypse Now isn’t so sure. Sometimes the dark side overcomes us and the better angels of our nature. This is especially true in war, where it seems every side is the dark side.

For a film that’s so controversial, the plot of Apocalypse Now is actually quite simple. Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is on a mission to penetrate into Cambodia, locate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), and terminate him with “extreme prejudice.” Kurtz, who has set himself up as a god somewhere in the jungle, is committing actions that are not sanctioned by the U.S. government. Even worse, he’s become a danger and an embarrassment to the U.S. and must be eliminated.

For the majority of the film, we follow Willard’s journey up the (fictional) Nung River to locate Kurtz. He is accompanied by four others: the boat’s commander, Chief Phillips (Albert Hall); the chef (Frederic Forrest); an inner city kid looking for some action (Laurence Fishburne); and Lance (Sam Bottoms), a surfer who’s more often stoned than sober. However, only Willard knows the reason for the mission.

Along the way, Willard’s crew meet the fanatical Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who loves the smell of napalm in the morning. Kilgore’s scenes are some of the best in the entire film, mostly because he’s a complete lunatic who will risk just about anything to ride a good wave. Totally, dude.

The turning point in the film comes when Willard’s boat stops a sampan in order to check its cargo. A misunderstanding causes someone on Willard’s crew to open fire, killing everyone on the sampan and seriously injuring a young girl. The crew takes the injured girl on board to get medical attention, but Willard can’t afford the delay. He executes her, perfectly illustrating the ruthlessness that can hide inside anyone. From this moment on, everyone on the boat sees Willard differently.

As the boat continues down the river, the rest of Willard’s crew are picked off one by one. Eventually he arrives at his destination, greeted by a drugged-out photojournalist (Dennis Hopper). After about 2 hours, we finally meet the elusive Colonel Kurtz, who spends the last 30 minutes babbling, quoting poetry, and mumbling about the horrors (“THE HORRORS!”) he has seen. Willard, who is now torn between his duty and admiration for the man, must decide the best course of action.

It is in these final sequences that the meaning of Apocalypse Now finally takes form. What director Francis Ford Coppola is investigating is the evil that lurks in the hearts of men, particularly those in the upper military echelons. Willard isn’t under orders to kill Kurtz because he’s switched sides, but because he is a renegade, living by his own rules (small wonder that the U.S. Army “declined to cooperate” in the production of this film).

Unlike other films about the Vietnam War, such as Platoon, The Deer Hunter, and Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now pushes us beyond the battlefield and into the dark places of the soul. It’s a film not so much about war as it is about how war reveals the truths in us that we would be happy never to uncover.


Breaking Away

Director: Peter Yates

Starring: Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley, Paul Dooley, Barbara Barrie, Robyn Douglass, Hart Bochner, P. J. Soles, Amy Wright, John Ashton

Oscar Wins: Best Original Screenplay

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Barbara Barrie), Best Director, Best Adapted Musical Score, Best Picture

Part coming-of-age comedy, part underdog tale, and part glimpse into small-town America, Breaking Away is one of the greatest sports movies that’s not about sports. Like others in its category, it is both wonderfully goofy and, at the same time, is an incredible exploration of humanity through character.

Bloomington, Indiana is a town divided. Dave (Dennis Christopher), Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern) and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) have just graduated high school and have the great misfortune of being born on the wrong side of the tracks. While the wealthy kids dream about life at the university, this group is somewhat destined to become “cutters”, a term used to describe the men who work at the nearby quarry.

While some in this situation might accept their fate, Dave is not so inclined. He dreams of becoming a champion Italian bicycle racer. In fact, he’s so committed that he spends all his time embracing the Italian culture. He speaks in broken Italian and blares opera records at home, much to his parents’ dismay. He insists on eating “-ini foods” (zucchini, linguini, fettucine) and even renames the family cat Fellini. The proof of his success comes when he convinces a college girl named Kathy (Robyn Douglass) that he’s actually an Italian exchange student.

Dave’s “Italomania” proves to be the movie’s funniest running joke. Dave’s father (Paul Dooley) rants and raves that he didn’t raise his boy to be an “Eye-talian”…yet Dooley is so loveable (as is Dave’s mother, played by Barbara Barrie), that you can’t not love him.

Taking place in that glorious summer following high school graduation and preceding lingering adulthood, Breakaway finds these four friends at a crossroad as the real world infringes on their lazy afternoons. It becomes especially real for Dave when he finally gets the chance to race alongside his idols in a state competition in Indianapolis. When things don’t go to plan, Dave wonders if he’s really destined to be a “cutter” after all.

But, as all sports movies have taught us, fate has other plans. An opportunity to race as a local gives Dave another opportunity at bike racing, one that will – once and for all – help him see the path ahead.

Breaking Away is a movie to treasure. While there is a cycling element, that’s not what the movie is about. It’s about people who are complicated but understanding, who are optimistic but still see things realistically, who are fundamentally comic characters but are fully dimensional. It’s about a Middle America we rarely see in the movies, complete with all the corn a Midwesterner could ask for. And, as these characters cycle into adulthood, we’re reminded of the first lesson many of us learned from our parents: when you fall, you have to get back up again and keep trying. And, maybe if we practice enough, making our way through life will be just as easy as riding a bike.


Norma Rae

Director: Martin Ritt

Starring: Sally Field, Beau Bridges, Ron Leibman, Pat Hingle, Barbara Baxley, Gail Strickland, Morgan Paull, Robert Broyles, Jack Calvin, Booth Colman, Lee de Broux, James Luisi, Vernon Weddle, Bob Minor, Gregory Walcott, Noble Willingham, Lonny Chapman, Bert Freed, Frank McRae, Grace Zabriskie, J. Don Ferguson

Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Sally Field), Best Original Song ("It Goes Like it Goes")

Other Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture



Kramer vs. Kramer

Director: Robert Benton

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Justin Henry, Jane Alexander, Petra King, Melissa Morell, Howard Duff, George Coe, JoBeth Williams, Howland Chamberlain

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Justin Henry), Best Supporting Actress (Jane Alexander), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing

I am so, so, so grateful that I wasn’t a child of divorce. This movie practically gave me an anxiety attack. But Justin Henry certainly earned his Oscar nomination for this movie (he was only EIGHT YEARS OLD. EIGHT!!)


All That Jazz

Director: Bob Fosse

Starring: Roy Scheider, Keith Gordon, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer, Ann Reinking, Cliff Gorman, Ben Vereen, Erzsébet Földi, David Margulies, Michael Tolan, Max Wright, William LeMassena, Deborah Geffner, John Lithgow, Jules Fisher, Chris Chase, Anthony Holland, Ben Masters, Phil Friedman, Robert Levine, C. C. H. Pounder

Oscar Wins: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Musical Score

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Roy Scheider), Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture

This self-indulgent movie describes itself perfectly in this quote from the film, “We take you everywhere, we get you nowhere.” HOW did this acid trip earn an Oscar nomination?


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