• Melissa

Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 18

I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.


PART 18: 1994


MOVIES:

  • The Fugitive

  • In the Name of the Father

  • The Piano

  • The Remains of the Day

  • Schindler's List (winner)

THOUGHTS:

The Fugitive: The Fugitive wasn’t supposed to be a good movie. In fact, the actors themselves wrote it off as a joke. Harrison Ford thought it would be a flop. Tommy Lee Jones thought it would be the end of his career. With a crazy plot, no one could have imagined that this little action thriller would become one of the highest-grossing films of 1993. Not only that, it was nominated for 7 Academy Awards (SEVEN!), including Best Picture. Even party pooper Tommy Lee Jones won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as U.S. Marshal Gerard. It made $370 million on a $44 million budget and, more than 25 years later, is still considered one of the greatest action films of the 90’s, if not all time.

Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) is a respected Chicago surgeon with a phenomenal beard who returns home one night to find his wife fatally beaten by a one-armed man. The assailant makes his escape before police arrive, and the lazy investigating officers are all too quick in pointing the guilty finger at the doctor himself.

Believing Kimble murdered his wife to collect on her large life insurance policy, a judge condemns him to death with basically no evidence…so, you know, your average run-of-the-mill Chicago court case.

However, things are turned upside down, literally and figuratively, when Kimble’s prison bus collides with a train, allowing him to make a run for it. Kimble breaks free of his chains and decides to clear his name by hunting down his wife’s killer himself.

Now a fugitive on the run, Kimble must navigate his way through Chicago with Deputy U.S. Marshall Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) hot on his trail. Can he find his wife’s killer before the Deputy finds him?

Never even slowing down for a coffee break, The Fugitive pulses with heightened tension from start to finish. This epic cat and mouse chase requires Kimble to be at least one or two steps ahead of his pursuers the entire time – which is a dangerous strategy that leads to several close calls. And naturally, as is the case with most of these Hitchcockian thrillers, the reason Kimble is able to escape time after time is because he and Gerard are actually quite similar in how they think and strategize.

This genre of adult action films isn’t as explored nowadays as it was back in the 90s. Movies like Diehard, Lethal Weapon and The Fugitive have given way to artsy action, like No Country for Old Men, or have followed their leading men into the “old man action film” genre, with movies like Taken and The Equalizer. Action movies now need explosions and eye candy, special effects and intricate costume design. Gone are the days when real trains crashed into real busses, where actors did their own stunt work and tried to create an action movie that actually had character development and visual impact.

That being said, this still isn’t a realistic movie by any means. While Kimble is a protagonist, he’s by no means a hero. Though a doctor, and though innocent of the crime against him, he wreaks havoc trying to clear his name. He evades arrest, steals clothes, food and medicine, impersonates hospital personnel and breaks into someone’s home. He also performs stunts that would surely kill him in real life, such as jumping off of a dam into a raging waterfall without so much as a broken bone.

But Kimble also has a heart, which doesn’t often happen in action films. He has a compulsion to help others, even if that means putting his own life at risk, and he’s not above asking for help when he needs it.

As for Marshall Gerard, he’s a bloodhound of the highest pedigree, just as quick on his feet as his prey. Jones’ Gerard has all the sass and sarcasm that make him a likeable and relatable antagonist, as his desire to hunt Kimble is nothing personal, he’s just a guy doing a job.

Classic in almost every way, The Fugitive has the standards of an earlier time, when acting, character and dialogue were meant to stand on their own. With virtually no fat, this movie is a propulsive mix of action, suspense and humor, enjoyable from start to finish.

In the Name of the Father: The streets of Guildford, England were a mess in October of 1974, when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombed a local pub, killing 5 people. As public demand for justice grew louder, the police force – headed by Robert Dixon (Corin Redgrave) – turned to the most likely suspects, without so much as a regard for their guilt or innocence.

The prime suspect is Gerard “Gerry” Conlon (Daniel Day Lewis), an Irish lad who was in England visiting friends, drinking and engaging in general tomfoolery, as a young 20-something is bound to do. During one adventure-packed evening, Conlon robs a prostitute of her earnings, returning to Ireland with a bundle of cash.

When you’re a poor kid from Ireland, a sudden increase in wealth is bound to look suspicious…and Colon’s desire to flaunt his fistfuls of dollars certainly didn’t help. Of course it was his own bad luck that he happened to be in England during the time of the bombing, but that was enough for this desperate police force. Conlon is snatched from his own bed in the wee hours of morn and brought in for questioning.

Well, when I say questioning, I mean interrogating…and when I say interrogating, I mean torture. Dixon and his brutal band of Bobbies implore every tactic they can think of to get this innocent man to admit his guilt. It’s not until they bring in Conlon’s father, Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite) for “questioning” that Conlon breaks down and admits to the bombing he really had no part of.

In a trial high on rhetoric but low on facts, “The Guildford Four”, made up of Conlon and his supposed accomplices, are sentenced to life in prison, mostly because the judge doesn’t have enough evidence to hang them. Giuseppe is also charged with a 14-year sentence (basically life at his age) for helping his son commit the crime. Not gonna lie, my blood was boiling by this point.

The greater part of In the Name of the Father takes place in prison, where Conlon and his father, who both share a cell, try to adjust to life behind bars. It’s not until the man actually responsible for the bombing confesses to the crime that doubts begin to circulate about whether or not “The Guildford Four” were actually involved. When lawyer Gareth Peirce (Emma Thompson) agrees to take on Conlon’s case for justice, she comes to discover evidence that not only proves his innocence, but was purposefully hidden by police in an effort to cover it up.

Though incredibly frustrating to watch at times, In the Name of the Father actually does a great job of showing how, and why, a man might confess to something he didn’t do. It’s a nightmare not only for Conlon, who had to endure days of relentless torture by police, but for the audience as well, who must watch him go through it, avoiding the things he could say and do to defend himself (like, oh, I don’t know, asking for a lawyer…).

But despite all that frustration, the heart of this movie is about the relationship between a father and his son. When Conlon and his father arrive in prison, they are basically strangers. Years later, they both have confronted their demons and made peace with themselves and each other. As their relationship grows, a lovely bond begins to form in the harshest of places.

Based on a true story, In the Name of the Father was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Day-Lewis), Best Supporting Actor (Postlethwaite) and Best Supporting Actress (Thompson), but did not win any. Still it’s an adrenalin-fueled, high-speed, emotional rollercoaster that will have your blood surging in one scene, and your heart breaking in the next.

How could four people be declared guilty of a crime in absence of testimonial or physical evidence? That’s the million-dollar question. These victims who are too uneducated or too scared to fight back fall prey to the police who just want to maintain the perception that they’re doing their jobs. It’s gut-wrenching and infuriating…and it still happens today. If this movie has taught me anything, it’s this: KNOW YOUR RIGHTS.

The Piano: Passion. The most basic and primal element of human nature. No matter how thick the velvet, how tight the corset, how strong the codpiece, passion cannot be denied.

The Piano is a movie about passion – the passion for love, wanting, music, understanding. It’s a melodramatic Victorian romance that Emily Dickinson could have penned, where simple words give way to a much more powerful language… where more is said in quiet moments – in a touch, in a kiss – than in longwinded prose and poetry.

The film begins with Ada (Holly Hunter) and her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin) landing on a stormy gray beach off the coast of New Zealand. With all their possessions in tow, including Ada’s beloved piano, the two await the arrival of Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), who has agreed to marry Ada at the bequest of her father.

For reasons unknown to Ada and us, she is a mute, not having spoken a word since she was 6 years old. She relies on music and motion, using her piano and sign language to communicate (Holly Hunter is herself a gifted pianist).

When Stewart arrives with members of a local Maori tribe to transport Ada back to his homestead, he informs her that the piano must stay on the beach, as it’s too heavy to carry. As Ada and Flora settle into their new life, the piano remains boxed on the beach, braving the wind and the rain.

Longing for her piano like a long-lost lover, Ada returns to the beach to play, and her music is heard by Baines (Harvey Keitel), a rough-and-tough whaler who has given up that life to join the Maori tribe. He enjoys her playing so much that he agrees to trade Stewart land for the piano to be brought to his home – where Ada can “give him lessons”.

Sound like a euphemism? It is. Baines of course has no interest in tickling piano keys. He agrees to give her back the instrument, key by key, in exchange for intimate acts – one key for removing her jacket, five keys for raising her skirt. Forced to submit to unwanted contact in order to win back her most cherished possession, Ada walks that fine line between being raped and forced into prostitution, but she has no choice. She submits to Baines’ desires, allowing him to “do what he likes” with her.

As their ‘lessons’ continue, Ada comes to discover that the beast is not what he seemed at first. Unexpectedly tender and kind, Baines seems to understand her in a way Stewart never could, even if he tried. As her relationship back home gets colder, things heat up with Baines, that is until Stewart becomes aware of Ada’s infidelity. He bans her from seeing Baines again and has the piano brought back to his home.


But Ada cannot stop thinking about that rugged, tattooed beef cake. She disfigures her piano, removing a key to send a message to her lover. Tasked with the delivery, Flora takes the key to Stewart instead, claiming her mother was trying to misbehave again. Stewart, utterly humiliated, then chops off Ada’s finger, essentially robbing her of her passion, before sending her, Baines and her piano back out into the open waters.

Aptly titled, The Piano indeed gives great symbolism to the instrument at the center of this story. Not only is it Ada’s voice, it’s her sexuality, her womanhood. Stewart forbids her from bringing it home at first, essentially robbing her of her own opinions and desires. When Baines takes ownership of it, she must perform sexual acts to slowly win it back. This not only shows that Ada is not in control of her own wants, but reinforces the fantasy that all women want is sexual brutality from a primitive man.

Earning $140.2 million on a $7 million budget, The Piano was a critical and commercial success. Hunter and Paquin gave brilliant performances, with extra praise going to Paquin, who was only 11 at the time. She easily had more lines than anyone else in the film and provided one of the best examples of child acting I’ve ever seen. Both actresses won Oscars for their performances (Best Actress for Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Paquin) and the film also took home an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

As the small rowboat makes its way into the ocean, Ada tells Baines to throw her piano overboard, claiming she doesn’t want it anymore. As the piano sinks like an anchor, a rope tied to the leg of it snakes around Ada’s leg and drags her down into the deep, blue sea. Though she escapes, Ada can’t help but return to this moment in her dreams, floating in complete and utter silence. Once imprisoned by silence, bars, men and customs, Ada escapes to freedom – finding her voice – but losing her passion as a result. Her dream of drowning, her skirt bellowed up around her, is the final image in the movie, one that weighs heavy on the mind, dragging us down into our own silence, where no sound may be.

The Remains of the Day: This was me the entire time watching this movie:

I think it was Joey Potter on Dawson’s Creek who once said that love unspoken is the loudest sound of all – and that couldn’t be truer than in the romance (or lack thereof) between Mr. Stevens and Ms. Kenton in The Remains of the Day.

Equally fascinating as he is frustrating, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is the quintessential romantic British character, able to maintain emotional distance in order to perform the job at hand. He comes from a long line of servants and his main goal in life is to serve his employer to the best of his ability (“I don’t believe a man can consider himself fully content until he has done all he can to be of service to his employer.”). As we get to know him, we realize this is his ONLY goal, blinding himself to all other promises and possibilities of life.

Told in a series of flashbacks, The Remains of the Day is a memory palace of the privileged people enjoying their privileges – fox hunts, footman-filled dining halls, intricately manicured gardens and a staff to answer to every beck and call. As Stevens recalls his years of service under Lord Darlington (James Fox), we’re transported back in time to the years leading up to World War II, where Darlington Hall played host to the world’s leaders and Stevens, dutifully deaf to the reality around him, battles with his own inner demons.

At the center of the film is Stevens’ never-quite-defined relationship with the head housekeeper, Ms. Kenton (Emma Thompson). Though it’s clear that they both love each other, neither can quite admit their feelings to the other, let alone themselves.

As memories unfold like cherished love letters, this beautiful friendship begins to take form…and as opportune moments come and go, the you can almost see the frustration welling up in Stevens’ eyes, as he just can’t find the words to tell this woman how he feels. Over the course of 20 years, these two dance a delicate dance of avoidance until Ms. Kenton finally gives up and leaves Darlington.

The beginning and end of the film take place in present day (1950-something), as Stevens embarks on a trip to the beach where he plans to reunite with Ms. Kenton after several years apart. Perhaps now, after all this time, they will finally find the words…

Quiet, introspective and oh so bittersweet, The Remains of the Day perfectly captures a man who puts his emotional life on hold in the name of duty. Sadder still, it’s not that Stevens and Kenton are not in love, they lack the ability to even be romantic with each other despite their obvious chemistry – and that’s the worst heartbreak of all. The ultimate regret of not only losing someone but also losing all of those ‘what could have beens’ if they just admitted their feelings makes this one of the most tragic and beautiful movies I’ve seen in a long time.

The closest thing this film has to a love scene is ironically the one that truly showcases the talent Hopkins and Thompson bring to the table. After surprising Stevens in his room, Ms. Kenton discovers he’s reading a book. She tries to pry it out of his hands to discover what he’s reading (thinking it’s something scandalous), but finally snatches it to see that it’s a romantic novel. In this brief moment, she looks at him so lovingly, claiming she never thought him to be the romantic type, but he flees, saying he just reads to improve his vocabulary.

He sends her away, disciplining her for invading his privacy, but she’s found him out. Somewhere in there, hidden deep under a pressed uniform, is a sweet, beating heart. Stevens is tortured by his love for her, but the need to express his feelings cannot overcome his deep reserve, and no one can portray that quite like Anthony Hopkins. Straight-laced and stoic on the outside, yet almost impossible to read, Hopkins offers a wonderful performance here, chilling – as many of his characters are – unreadable, tortured and sad.

Some viewers may consider this movie boring and, indeed, it’s certainly not action-packed. The upheavals, numerous as they are, take place in secret, in the shadows and corners of this house that’s constantly buzzing with life. But for those who understand it, this movie is simply beautiful. If love unspoken is the loudest sound of all, this movie is deafening.

Schindler’s List: There are certain characters and stories that are staples of the Holocaust canon – Anne Frank, Elle Wiesel, The Book Thief, Number the Stars, etc. But Oskar Schindler seems to get lost in the mix. Perhaps he would be more prominent if he were a conventional hero, a man who fought for his beliefs. But the truth of the matter is, Schindler was flawed. He drank, he gambled, he was a womanizer who had a lust for high living, but he was also a humanitarian who risked his life to safe thousands of Jews during the Nazi invasion of Poland.

While Oskar Schindler is the center of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, he still remains an enigma. This man, this member of the Nazi party, almost singlehandedly outsmarted his own people in his own little corner of the war. He never seemed to have a plan, sometimes even surprising himself in his actions, but his commitment to keep his Jewish workers alive remains one of the most heroic actions of World War II, and upwards of 6,000 Jews are alive now (or at least were in 1993) because of him.

Schindler’s List is a war film that begins with a prayer for peace. As the Sabbath candles are lit, the flame dances in color amidst a black and white background. As the candles burn, the flame is eventually extinguished, along with any glimmer of hope or happiness. As the candles draw their final breath, the smoke billows in shades of cold grey, dissolving into the steam from a departing train. The flame and the smoke become a constant theme throughout Schindler’s List, as the thing that once brought peace comes to bring death and destruction to more than 6 million individuals.

It’s 1939 and the Jewish community in Krakow, Poland is under increasing pressure from the Nazis. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a Nazi businessman looking to open a factory, decides to hire Jews rather than Polish workers, as Jews come at a cheaper price. He makes contact with Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), an accountant who recruits Jews for Schindler’s operation.

In an effort to save his workers (and his money), Schindler wines and dines the local commander, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), a rotten pustule of a human being who enjoys killing Jews for sport. Schindler works his charm on Goeth and begins a secret mission to help safe and rescue his Jewish factory workers from certain death by getting this Nazi war criminal on his side.

What makes Schindler so interesting in this movie is that he manages to run not one, but two inefficient factories without raising any suspicion. A more cautious man might want to make sure he’s contributing to the war effort, but Schindler couldn’t care less – he just wanted to safe Jewish lives and produce unusable goods – hitting his own party twice all while wearing a swastika on his black-market suit.

His strategy as a con man is simply to seem in charge. He lavishes drinks and gifts on the powerful Nazis and strides into every situation with authority and confidence. When a train full of his workers is “accidently” routed to Auschwitz, he storms into that camp like a freaking boss, demanding his workers be removed from the camp and placed back on the train. As far as the other Germans are concerned, Schindler is just interested in cheap labor – they remain ignorantly oblivious to Schindler’s true intensions.

By the end of the war, more than 1,200 Jewish men, women, and children had their lives thanks to Oskar Schindler. We even get to see some of them at the end of the film, as a long line of survivors line up to place rocks on Schindler’s grave. It’s an incredibly moving scene, and one that will certainly have you in tears if you haven’t broken down already.

Unsurprisingly, Schindler’s List was a box office success, bringing in $322 million on a $22 million budget. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning seven, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score and Best Cinematography.

The power of Schindler’s List is not that it explains evil, but that it insists that men can be good in the face of it. The obvious lesson is that Schindler did more for the Jews than the whole Polish nation, but that’s not true – and it’s not that simple. Rather, the message is this: one man did SOMETHING. Even though he was German, even though he was a Nazi officer, even though he frankly had nothing to gain, he knew what was happening was wrong…and he did something about it. And while he was often reckless and enigmatic in his actions, he never wavered. You don’t need a ton of money to make a difference, and clearly you don’t even need a ton of brain power – all you really need is a heart.

OVERALL:

OK, this was the most depressing year ever. The Fugitive and In the Name of the Father are about people wrongly convicted of the crimes against them, The Piano and The Remains of the Day are all about love gone wrong and, well, then there’s Schindler’s List. Let me just say I ate a lot of chocolate and ice cream while watching the movies of 1994.

Let’s start with the legal films: The Fugitive and In the Name of the Father. I honestly don’t know how The Fugitive landed an Oscar nom, but I’m glad it did! It was certainly the bright light in this sea of dark clouds and has earned its spot as the hidden gem this year!

In the Name of the Father was infuriating to watch, as well it should be. America isn’t the only country with a broken system, and if this movie doesn’t get under your skin, I don’t know what will.

Moving on to the romances: The Piano and The Remains of the Day. In a word, both of these films were DRAMATIC. I could totally understand people being very opinioned about whether or not they liked or disliked either one of these movies. Not gonna lie, The Piano was weird. I really tried to like it, I tried to get into it, but the weird parts were just too weird to justify the non-weird parts. The Remains of the Day is classic British drama, but I unexpectedly enjoyed it – though I’m a sucker for a bittersweet romance.

That brings us to Schindler’s List…the Best Picture winner and rightfully so. This film is up there with The Green Mile in the list of movies I don’t need to see again for a long while, but it’s well worth seeing if you haven’t. It’s almost worth seeing for Ralph Fiennes alone, who showcases some serious acting chops in one of his very first acting roles (this is how is career STARTED, you guys…no wonder he got cast as Voldemort).

Well, I shed a lot of tears on you, 1994. For a year that also gave birth to Hocus Pocus, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jurassic Park, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Philadelphia, Dazed and Confused, The Sandlot, Benny and Joon, Mrs. Doubtfire, Sleepless in Seattle and The Good Son, the Academy certainly favored the dramas. Whether they tugged at your heartstrings, got under your skin or had you weeping like a baby, the films of 1994 showcased humanity at its weakest – calculating, relentless, abusive, ignorant and naïve.


Onto the next pull!

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