Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 19
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 19: 1995
The Shawshank Redemption
Four Weddings and a Funeral
Forrest Gump (winner)
Quiz Show: In the late 1950’s, there were basically two quiz shows on TV for every letter of the alphabet. These early trivia shows rewarded knowledge, making celebrities out of the everyday people who knew a little bit about everything. Shows like The $64,000 Question and Twenty-One gave smart people the opportunity to win big by answering pretty difficult questions. But when word began to spread that some of these shows were rigged and answers were being fed to the contestants the networks liked, the public (and the contestants) were faced with a difficult question: if someone offered you a ton of money and popularity for pretending to be smarter than you actually are, would you do it?
Based on a true story, Quiz Show aims to answer that very question.
NBC’s Twenty-One was a game show hosted by Jack Barry. It pegged two contestants against each other, each in separate isolation booths, to answer questions, with a goal of earning 21 points. Each round had a different category (movies, music, pop culture), and contestants could pick a question valued 1 to 11: the higher the value, the more points you get if you guess correctly. Guess incorrectly, the points are subtracted from your total score.
Much like Jeopardy!, there was usually a returning champion who would compete against a new player every week. In 1956, that champion was a man named Herbert Stempel (John Turturro). Though audiences seemed to love the guy, the network was noticing a drop in their ratings, mostly because Stempel wasn’t what you might call a handsome fellow.
Having decided that his appeal was wearing thin, the NBC executives force Stempel to answer his final question incorrectly, ultimately ending his reign. Though Stempel is furious with how NBC treated him, America is loving his replacement – a young and shiny WASP by the name of Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). A descendant of one of America’s great literary families, Van Doren is not quite as smart as Stempel, but he’s much more gullible. He agrees to cheat, receiving all the answers by the executives, in order to remain on Twenty-One and keep those ratings high.
But Stempel is bound to have the last laugh. He will not be made a fool of, and he’s all too willing to blow the whistle on the whole setup, confessing to government investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) that he and Van Doren were fed answers by Twenty-One executives, as was every other contestant that’s come before them.
Directed by Robert Redford, Quiz Show is really a lesson in ethics. One executive tries to justify his actions by claiming, “…it isn’t like we’re hardened criminals here – we’re in show business.” And really, that’s the cynical truth of it all. The entertainment industry is a business where ethics are basically meaningless…especially when it comes to ratings. Today it wouldn’t be surprising at all to learn that contestants were kept on The Bachelor or Survivor just to help with viewership – and it’s because of the Twenty-One scandal that we’re all so disillusioned to game and reality TV.
Just one year after his career-making role in Schindler’s List, Ralph Fiennes brings another tortured character to life here, though this one is much more likable! Equally seduced and repelled by greed, Van Doren is a man desperate to escape his father’s shadow. While he at first has trouble accepting what the network wants him to do, he learns to live with it when he realizes the glory that comes with basically becoming an overnight success story. Women swooning at your feet, Life magazine covers, elegant million-dollar mansions – it all starts to look quite nice if you just ignore that little voice in your head that’s telling you you’re doing the wrong thing…
Starting with something as ridiculous as a rigged gameshow, Quiz Show sheds light on some pretty big American themes: the cult of celebrity, the influence of big business, the hidden price of fame, and the simple lure of easy money. Would you put it all on the line for the chance to win big? Ah, well, that is the $64,000 question!
Pulp Fiction: The best way I can describe Pulp Fiction is that you watch it like you would read a trashy magazine…flipping from one story to the other, skimming the basic gist of the articles you’re interested in. Directed by Quintin Tarantino, this film is constructed in such a nonlinear way that you could see it a handful of times and still not remember what comes next.
For more than 2 hours, we romp around the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles – playing with hit men, drug dealers, and lethal vamps – in a collection of interlocking stories that double and triple-cross each other. In this world, there are no ordinary people…and there are no ordinary days. When all of your characters are villains, things are bound to get interesting.
There are three main stories that make up the heart of Pulp Fiction, and each is designed to overlap with another at key points. Though told out of chronological order, the structure starts to fall into place as the film comes to a close. Don’t worry if you find yourself looking like that John Travolta gif (ironically from this movie), it should all make sense at the end!
The first story (“Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”) involves Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) executing a hit for their boss, Marsellus (Ving Rhames). Along the way, Vincent confesses to Jules that he’s been instructed to ‘babysit’ Marsellus’s wife, Mia (Uma Thurman) while he’s out of town. Eager to help out his boss (though weary of stepping out of bounds), Vincent and Mia enjoy a night on the town, pounding burgers and shakes at Jack Rabbit Slim’s before entering a twisty dance contest. However, when Mia has an accidental drug overdose, Vincent has to exhaust every measure at his disposable to make sure she survives.
The second story (“The Gold Watch”) is about a boxer named Butch (Bruce Willis) who is paid off by Marsellus to throw a fight. But when Butch learns he can make more money by reneging on the deal, he and his girlfriend, Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) go on the run with the newly acquired cash in tow. The title of this story refers to a lucky watch passed down to Butch by his great-great grandfather and is wonderfully explained in a hilarious walk-on role by Christopher Walken.
The final story (“The Bonnie Situation”), ties together a few loose threads. It introduces Harvey Keitel as a “cleaner” (the O.G. Mike Ehrmantraut) and Tarantino himself as a man who ultimately made friends with the wrong guy.
Pulp Fiction’s circular structure alone has made this film famous, as the movie ends exactly where it begins. Though the scenes are all out of order, the dialogue is the key to figuring out where each storyline belongs. It becomes the foundation of everything else.
There’s also a very real, conversational feel to what is said in this movie – mostly because these characters never stop talking. There were so many points to ponder in this movie, some were even conversations I’ve had with people in my own life. Everything from the intimacy of foot massages to McDonald’s trivia is discussed in between jobs, in car rides, or while waiting for food to arrive. Tarantino has a gift for dialogue, both the loud, vulgar parts and those quiet, awkward silences that sometimes say more than words ever could.
Pulp Fiction is a brash, in-your-face, action-fueled comedy that takes B-movie tropes and elevates them with incredible writing and direction. It is relentless in its pace, weaving moments of exhaustion with moments of calm. Interspersed between Mexican standoffs, epic car chases and accidental murders are subtle moments that explore the various facets of the human experience. This is most definitely a movie for movie-lovers, as each layer you peel away leads to something deeper and richer to explore.
In the final scene of the movie, Jules explains to a scruffy thief that, although he’s evil and does evil things, he’s trying really hard to not be that way. It’s a scene that sends shivers down the spine, highlighting in a brief moment the film’s theme – the morality of scoundrels. No one in this movie is inherently good, but they’re all trying to do ‘the right thing’. And in between hits, shots, robberies and jobs, even the strongest antihero needs the comfort that comes with a bloody steak and a $5 milkshake - and I think that's something we can all relate to.
The Shawshank Redemption: As most of us hunker down in our small, yet cozy, minimum security units, watching a movie like The Shawshank Redemption is a bit on the nose. Another year of quarantine and all of us might be chipping away at the walls. Still annoyed you can’t go out to the bar with your friends? At least your only option for a frosty beverage doesn’t involve bargaining for your life while dangling from a rooftop!
The Shawshank Redemption joins the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz and The Princess Bride as a beloved movie that totally flopped at the box office. Besides the fact that audiences couldn’t remember or understand the title of the film, it also had to compete with Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. It lacked female characters, it was set in a prison and had a run time of 142 minutes – a life sentence for most audiences. However, after it was nominated for a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, it suddenly became a global phenomenon. So, how did this little-movie-that-could go on to become an inspiration for viewers of all ages? Andy Dufresne said it best himself: “Pressure and time.”
Covering a span of time between 1946 and 1967, Shawshank begins with Maine banker, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), getting two life sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover. Upon arriving at Shawshank State Prison, Andy is immediately deemed an outcast among the uneducated, macho thugs that make up the brunt of the prison population. As the film’s narrator Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) observes Andy try to assimilate, he bets a few cigarettes that Andy won’t even make it through his first night without breaking down.
Red loses the bet but, as he gets to know Andy, he begins to respect this quiet, yet resilient guy – even going so far as to get Andy a few things from the outside to make his time in prison more bearable. Throughout the years, the two form a strong friendship that becomes the very heart of this film.
Though set in a prison, Shawshank is not a traditional ‘prison drama’. It’s not about violence, riots or melodrama. Based on a short story by Stephen King, the horror in this film is not a supernatural monster, but the very real and visceral fear that a man’s life can be spent in the same, unchanging daily prison routine. Sure, there are evil, sadistic guards (Clancy Brown) and a cruel and pious warden (Bob Gunton), but time is the real enemy: "When they put you in that cell," Red says, "when those bars slam home, that's when you know it's for real. Old life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it."
From the very beginning of Shawshank, Andy is our ‘hero’, yet the action is never seen from his point of view. We only see how others see him, which only adds to his mysterious nature. Is he really guilty of murder? Why is he so quiet and reserved? Much like his comrades, and Red himself, we can only wonder…
So, we never really get into our hero’s head, there are no explosions or prison riots, there’s no romance or stunning scenery…so what is it about Shawshank that has audiences hooked? Well, the word ‘redemption’ is in the title for a reason. For most viewers, Shawshank probably plays more like a spiritual experience than a movie. Much of this film’s 142 minutes is spent in quiet moments and philosophical discussions about life. Through Andy and Red, we learn how important it is to be true to yourself and not lose hope…everything comes your way if you simply bide your time. And whether you’re in prison in a literal or figurative sense, you can’t help but relate to the allegory about holding onto your sense of personal worth, despite your situation. There’s freedom inside all of us and we’ll all get to that warm spot on the beach…sometimes, it just takes a while.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, The Shawshank Redemption didn’t win a single one. It didn’t win any Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards or CFCA Awards. And then, after many years, it suddenly emerged as the most beloved movie of all time – earning a 9.3 on IMDb and a near 100% store on Rotten Tomatoes. You might even say Shawshank was reborn, having crawled through that mucky tunnel, and is now – finally – enjoying its redemption.
Four Weddings and a Funeral: The year I got married, I stood up in two other weddings. In the years before and after, I attended at least five more. It seems inevitable that friend groups are bound to experience life’s milestones together. Whether it’s getting married, having kids or losing parents, we can only hope that we’re all lucky enough to get by with a little help from our friends.
In Four Weddings and a Funeral, Charles (Hugh Grant) gets by with a LOT of help from his friends. Always a groomsmen, never a groom, Charles is a 30-something “serial monogamist” – moving from girlfriend to girlfriend without ever committing to anyone. He and his group of flirty, feisty friends live from one wedding invitation to the next, and the more ceremonies Charles attends, the further the feels from settling down himself.
His core group of friends is made up of several smaller sets: Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Tom (James Fleet) are brother and sister, Gareth (Simon Callow) and Matthew (John Hannah) are in a same-sex relationship and Charles and Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman) are flatmates who act more like brother and sister than romantic partners. There’s also Charles’ brother David (David Bower), who is deaf. Throughout the movie, this merry band of misfits drink, dance, sob and sleep their way through, well, four weddings and a funeral.
The film begins with wedding #1, where Charles is the best man. His frazzled look, messy hair and aloofness craft a picture of someone who depends heavily on his friends to get him out of sticky situations. It’s at this wedding where Charles meets, or not quite meets, Carrie (Andie MacDowell), an American fashion editor who somehow possesses the power to woo this un-wooable man.
Though they can’t seem to get their timing right to talk at the wedding, they settle into bed together that night – just in time for Carrie to pack up and head back to America.
At another wedding three months later, the mere sight of Carrie sets Charles’ heart aflutter, but his hopes are dismally dashed when Carrie announces that she’s engaged. In the film’s only non-ceremonial interlude, Charles and Carrie enjoy a day out together as friends, reeling off lists of bedmates and picking out a wedding dress.
It is then with wistful resignation that Charles journeys to wedding #3, Carrie’s nuptials to a much older man named Hamish (Corin Redgrave). However, a sudden death at the reception precipitates the funeral, forever changing the diversity and depth of Charles’ inner circle.
Finally, the film concludes with wedding #4 – Charles has finally decided to settle down himself. But what would the end of a rom-com be without a string of surprises? With enough delightful anxiety to keep you squirming until the end, the final scenes gives us closure not only to Charles’ storyline, but to all the characters we’ve come to love and know throughout these joyful, and mournful, celebrations.
As is the case with most rom-coms, what makes this movie so delightful is the cast. Every character, no matter how small, has a storyline. For example, Kristin Scott Tomas only has a handful of lines, but her portrayal of the forever-overlooked Fiona is devastating. She harbors a deep love for Charles, and though he adores her as a friend, their relationship has no hope of moving beyond that. Even Fiona’s brother Tom, who throughout most of the movie is a baffoonish clown, has a very tender moment with Charles about wanting to find someone to love: “…I never expected the thunderbolt, I just hoped that I’d find a friendly girl and pop the question, settle down and be happy.”
Simon Callow, John Hannah and Charlotte Coleman also have memorable moments that give their characters added depth and dimension. Best of all though is Rowan Atkinson, who only appears in two scenes but fills them both with such joy and happiness that this movie is worth seeing for him alone.
As Charles, Hugh Grant enjoyed quite the rise to fame after Four Weddings. His character almost felt like it was based on his own life, the perfect combination of charm, good looks, and that quirky British nerdiness. Four Weddings would be the reason Grant was cast in Notting Hill, Love Actually and Bridget Jones’ Diary…not a bad run! The film itself was even an unexpected success, becoming the highest-grossing British film in history at the time, with a worldwide box office total of more than $245 million.
Much like all the memorable weddings you’ve probably attended, Four Weddings is filled with matrimonial madness. Horrible readings by brassy uncles, the nightmare of being seated at a table filled with old girlfriends, awkward best man speeches…But there are also quiet moments of real heart-to-heart conversations, showcasing how tight and trusting this group of friends really is. In fact, the climactic point of the entire film is declared in sign language – in words unspoken. It’s a theme that runs through the movie – leaving things unsaid – and those are the best moments of Four Weddings.
Forrest Gump: Sitting on a bench in Savannah, GA., wearing an unassuming smile and running shoes, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) looks like a gentle man. He is, in fact, a former college football star, a decorated Vietnam War hero, a professional ping-pong player, a millionaire businessman, restaurant chain owner and a confidant of three American Presidents (not to mention Elvis Presley), but no one would know that looking at the guy, least of all the patrons sitting beside him.
Call it divine intervention or just a string of dumb luck, but Forrest Gump is no ordinary fella. Like the box of chocolates he holds, you just never know what you’re gonna get with this one.
Raised in a boarding house by his abandoned mother (Sally Field), Forrest never claimed to be the brightest bulb in Greenbow, Alabama. Trudging through life with an IQ of 75, he was always just a little different from his peers. Though his innocent nature and corrective leg braces make him a defenseless target for school bullies, Forrest finds comfort in his dear friend, Jenny (Robin Wright), who herself is the victim of abuse at home.
One day as Forrest and Jenny are walking home from school, a band of bullies begins chasing them. Forrest begins to run, eventually breaking free of his leg shackles, and then just continues running through the history of our times, from the integration of the University of Alabama, to the Vietnam War and back again. Along the way, he finds time to receive the Medal of Honor, shake hands with JFK, LBJ and Nixon, play a key role in the Watergate scandal, start a shrimping business, become a professional ping-pong player, become a key investor in Apple, Inc. and rub elbows with the likes of John Lennon and Elvis Presley.
In covering so much ground, literally and figuratively, Forrest Gump is designed to hit baby boomers right in the feels. Besides the truly awesome soundtrack, the themes of recapturing the past, returning to that childhood innocence (or at least the desire to ‘go back home’), and finding your one true love pulse through this movie. And as Forrest finds a way to insert himself into literally every single historical event that happened from 1951 to 1981, a scrapbook of sorts allows us to revisit all those moments that helped shape and define 1960s and 1970s America.
And, through it all, Forrest retains his love for his childhood friend, Jenny. As he fights alongside the brilliant Gary Sinise (LIEUTENANT DAAAAN!!!) in Vietnam and starts “Bubba-Gump Shrimp” in honor of his friend, “Bubba” Blue (Mykelti Williamson), Jenny explores the darker side of 1960s America, transitioning from stripper to hippie to drug-induced activist.
Throughout the film, their lives cross paths intermittently, and it’s really these quieter moments that give Forrest Gump heart. Sure, it’s cool to see Forrest shake hands with JFK and joke around with John Lennon, but those things really never mattered to him. The only thing that EVER mattered was Jenny…and all the money, all the stuff, all the fame in the world doesn’t matter if you don’t have anyone to share it with. And this seems to be the ‘baby boomer’ lesson of the movie: material success is over-rated.
Besides winning the Oscar for Best Picture, Forrest Gump also won Oscars for Best Director, Best Actor (Hanks), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Visual Effects and Best Film Editing. It was the top-grossing film in America the year it was released and the second-highest grossing film world-wide (behind The Lion King) in 1994. The soundtrack alone sold more than 12 million copies.
The bookends of Forrest Gump are shots of a single white feather dancing on the breeze. Everyone seems to interpret the symbolism of the feather differently – the unbearable lightness of being, randomness of experience, happenstance…Tom Hanks himself has been quoted as saying that the feather represents destiny and “…how we deal with the chance elements to our life.” For Forrest, who lacked the ability to really make decisions on his own, his life was put into motion by those around him – he joined the army because a recruiter told him to, he survived Vietnam because Jenny told him to run if he got in trouble, he started the shrimp restaurant because Bubba asked him to be his partner. When Jenny asks him if he dreams about who he’s going to be, Forrest simply responds, “Aren’t…aren’t I going to be me?” Like a feather, Forrest simply floats through life, allowing the breeze to take him from moment to moment. Some may see that as a blessing, but I can’t help but feel a pang of hurt for Forrest, so dependent on others to move him along life’s path.
Love it or hate it, Forrest Gump has indeed become integrated into popular culture, giving birth to an actual restaurant chain, as well as a whole slew of memorable quotes. Is it the best film ever made? No. But is it a good movie? Absolutely. And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.
Another great year for movies. Quiz Show and my hidden gem, Four Weddings and a Funeral, didn’t have what it took to stand up to the likes of the other three, but they were still great films in their own right.
Pulp Fiction was a masterclass in visual storytelling and equally could have won Best Picture alongside The Shawshank Redemption.
Forrest Gump was clearly a nostalgic favorite for Academy voters, which I’m sure helped with its win. Should it have won in this lineup? Frankly, I don’t think so. Shawshank was the underdog this year and really deserved so much better. Amazing acting, storytelling and directing shot Shawshank to the top for me, even though anyone who knows me will tell you how much I adore Tom Hanks!
With films about redemption, love and happenstance, the movies of 1995 were clear opposites of the year before. These movies created iconic characters, scenes, and lines of dialogue that are permanently ingrained into our culture. And that, awards be damned, is the true testament to how great these films are.
Onto the next pull!