Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 32
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 2021 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 32: 1991
The Godfather Part III
Dances with Wolves (winner)
Goodfellas: Damn it feels good to be a gangsta.
Now, I’m not really a fan of crime movies. I’m much more of a folksy, independent, movie lover – someone who would watch The Princess Bride or Dead Poet’s Society over an epic like Taxi Driver or The Godfather…but damn it if I didn’t love this ode to organized crime.
Narrated by Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Goodfellas is a memoir of life in the Mafia. While films like The Godfather focus on a specific family or character, Goodfellas portrays an entire male subculture. Director Martin Scorsese explores ‘the gangster’ as a sociological phenomenon, highlighting the behavior, language and business practices of these larger-than-life wise guys.
As an Irish-Italian kid growing up in New York, Henry’s only ambition was to be a mafioso, a ‘wise guy’. He spends his childhood and teenage years doing dirty jobs for Italian mobsters, slowly working his way up the latter of respect.
Along the way Henry meets a whole collection of characters, including Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), the Don who takes Henry under his wing; Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), a man who steals for the sheer thrill of the game; and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a bonified hot-head with an explosive temper.
We follow this crew through 30 years – beginning with complete power, moving towards decline, then ending in betrayal. It’s not about any particular plot – rather it’s about what it feels like to be in the Mafia, chronicling both the good times and the bad ones. We watch Henry fall in love and get married, we watch characters get betrayed and betray each other. We see what the Mafia wives do when the husbands are “at work”…and, true to form, there’s plenty of the three F’s that define almost every Italian-American movie: food, family, and faith.
Of course, that’s not to say there isn’t violence, too. There is…a lot of it. Most of it is sudden and visceral – one death in particular came as a total surprise to me the first time I saw this movie and still shocked me after watching it again. There’s a sense of uncertainty that hangs over every scene in this film, which is all Scorsese needs to keep your attention for 150 minutes. By the end, as we ride shotgun with Henry Hill as he tries to do a cocaine deal, cook dinner for this family, satisfy his goomah and get a grip on his growing paranoia, we can’t help but want out. The walls are caving in and the fear is real. But the deal must be made, the sauce must be stirred, and Henry’s life is quickly careening out of control.
Though Goodfellas is almost always told from Henry’s point of view, there’s amazing development given to the entire cast of characters. Each one is a fully developed person capable of both good and evil deeds. As Tommy, Pesci is charming in one scene and completely insane in the next. The brilliance of his performance is how quickly he can shift from one extreme to the other. He’s a live wire and any word or action could set him off. In a role that was heavily improvised, Pesci created a character he would take with him in several other films, including his role as Nicky in Casino just a few years later. He also received his only Oscar win to date for his part in Goodfellas.
De Niro, who was Scorsese’s golden boy for, well, ever, is also fantastic. Though his part is not as scene-stealing as Pecsi’s or Liotta’s, De Niro is just as violent as he is charismatic – making him as suave and dangerous as ever.
Watching Goodfellas again, what strikes me the most is how funny it is (as Tommy might say, “Funny how?”). The gangsters are always joking, kidding around, throwing $20 bills at their problems, breaking your balls. You wanna like them, they’re ‘goodfellas’ after all. But the very term speaks to the dark comedy of the movie. These are not good guys, wise guys or family guys. They’re thieves, swindlers, Robbing Hoods, out to steal from the rich and give to themselves…but that’s not to say we can’t hop in Jimmy’s Cadillac and enjoy the ride!
Ghost: A pair of plaid shorts. A collection of CD’s. An old wallet. A broken pocket watch. These were the things that became even more important to me after my dad died in 2014. To a person mourning the death of a loved one, even something as simple as a half-eaten pack of Rolaids suddenly carries the weight of the world.
The plot of Ghost hinges upon stuff – a sweater knitted four sizes too big, a photo from Reno, a pair of earrings, a shirt bearing a margarita stain – mementos of a life, and a love, left behind. For Molly (Demi Moore), these items simply remind her of her late boyfriend, Sam. But for Sam (Patrick Swayze), these things are all he has to prove to Molly that his spirit still lingers in the land of the living.
Sam Wheat and Molly are enjoying life in their newly renovated Manhattan apartment. Sam is an investment counselor and clearly makes great money because A) they live in a swanky New York loft and B) Molly spends all her time making pottery and sculptures that Delia Deetz would proudly show off.
On their way home from seeing a production of Macbeth (OMINOUS!), Sam is killed in a mugging accident. His spirit is unable to leave his grief-stricken love behind, so he lingers about as Molly attempts to piece her life back together.
Stuck in a form of purgatory where he can see and hear the living but no one can see or hear him (except his cat, apparently), Sam sets out to solve his own murder. Sam eventually learns that his death was not random, but a contract murder, organized by someone close to Molly. He desperately tries to reach Molly to inform her that she's in danger, but can’t seem to get her attention.
In a last-ditch effort, Sam tries to enlist the help of spiritual advisor, Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg). Oda Mae, who has made a living convincing gullible people that she can talk to the dead, discovers she actually does have a gift when she reveals she can hear (but not see) Sam’s ghost.
Acting as interpreter between Sam and Molly, Oda Mae tries to convince Molly that she can not only hear Sam’s spirit, but that Sam believes Molly is in danger. In a bit of pure genius casting, Goldberg gives this film something it needed to be as successful as it has managed to be: comic relief. After all, the worst situations usually bear both tears and laughter, and Goldberg easily steals every scene, more than earning her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Of course, most people remember the infamous “pottery scene”, which remains one of the most sensual and sexy love scenes in American cinema – but it’s far from the best part of this film. Moore’s heartbreaking speech on how she can’t break the daily patterns of tending to Sam’s clothes, even after he died, is sure to speak to anyone who has ever lost a loved one. Swayze’s early bedtime talk with Moore about the fragility of life not only foreshadows his character’s death, but speaks to the untimely death of Swayze himself.
At the time of its release, Ghost received mixed reviews from critics but it was a huge box office success, grossing over $505 million on a $22 million budget. It was the highest-grossing film of 1990 and, at the time of its release, the third highest-grossing film of all time. As Oda Mae says, “Cute! White, but cute!”
Ultimately, what makes Ghost so satisfying to watch and revisit is the reminder that those who leave us are never really gone. Love is always present, even when we can’t physically see or feel it. As we learn from Molly and Sam, grief brings people together in strange – even supernatural – ways. But, even more importantly, it reminds us to keep moving, as my dad told us to do in his final days. It won’t be easy, but you take it a day at a time. As one reviewer said, “For me, Ghost is a film about universal, big ideas told through intimate relationships that manage to be thrilling, romantic, and sometimes also really funny.” To that, I just have one word: Ditto.
The Godfather Part III: Just when I thought I was out, he pulls me back in!
There are few sequels that have lived up to the legacy of their parent film…even rarer are those third installments that somehow still pack a punch. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was one such rarity, as was Toy Story 3 and, I’d even group the Alien trilogy in there, too.
Of course, it’s more likely the third installment of any trilogy is more embarrassing than anything else – the most infamous among them being The Godfather Part III. Unlike the films that came before it, Part III never gets mentioned in any all-time best lists. Though nominated for 7 Academy Awards, it didn’t win any Oscars. In fact, the only awards it did win were two Golden Raspberry Awards (Razzies) – Worst Supporting Actress and Worst New Star, both awarded to Sofia Coppola. It’s the offer that most Godfather fans find all too easy to refuse.
Part III begins about 20 years after Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) gave the order to have his older brother killed (RIP, Chicken Alfredo). His children Mary (Sofia Coppola) and Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) are now grown. Mary is devoted to her father and doesn’t seem to mind who or what he is. Anthony, though, is more wary. He loves his dad, but wants nothing to do with “the business”…ironically not unlike Michael when we first meet him at Connie’s wedding nearly 40 years ago. No, Anthony wants to be a singer, a career venture his mother, Kay (Diane Keaton) supports, but Michael detests.
As with the other two films, Part III kicks off with a family gathering, the occasion here begin the presentation to Michael of the Order of St. Sebastian – the highest honor the Catholic Church can bestow upon a civilian. However, Michael’s dirty work isn’t quite done. In this final installment, the Corleone family is brought into the inner circles of corruption in the Vatican…and when Michael refuses to play nice, a bloody retribution becomes the heartbreaking price.
In addition to dealing with corrupt accountants and twisted priests, Michael must also weather the love storm brewing between his daughter Mary and Sonny’s son, Vincent (Andy Garcia). Vincent, who – yes – is Mary’s cousin, is not unlike his father…a cobra waiting to strike. He possesses the ruthlessness and taste for violence that Michael once had and when he begins to seduce Mary, Vincent creates trouble for the whole family.
True Godfather fans would be quick to tell you that the thing that hurts this film the most is the casting. To any proud Sicilian, blood is thicker than the bottom line, and Frances Ford Coppola’s decision to cast his daughter as Mary may have been the fatal move that turned many of his fans against him. Though she’s a well-established director now, back in her teenage years, Sofia – who apparently didn’t give 2 squirts about appearing in this film – provided a flat and unconvincing portrayal of a role that was central to the drama of the story.
Personally, I didn’t really mind Sofia here…what hurt the most was the Robert Duvall-sized hole in my heart after learning that Coppola was unwilling to meet the salary demands of Duvall, forcing him to remove the character of Tom Hagen from the film.
As the Hamlet-like Michael, even Pacino seems lost at times, now suffering from diabetes, remorse and Shakespearean indecision. It’s sad to watch Michael retreat in this way, especially considering the immensity of his performance in Part II.
Other characters just appear, and then are forgotten about, such as the frisky journalist played by Bridget Fonda and Tom Hagen’s straight-arrow son. Even Joe Mantagna’s oily John Gotti doesn’t get nearly enough screen time.
Like any great Shakespearean hero, Michael could have been a great man. To borrow a phrase from another Marlon Brando character, he coulda been a contender…but he couldn’t break free of his past. Both Michael and his father were haunted by destiny, or perhaps they were simply born into the wrong family.
In each installment of The Godfather, we see tradition and ritual used as a storytelling devise. The first film uses a baptism to intercut the murder of the 5 families, Part II involves Vito assassinating Don Fanucci under the veil of a festival, then Part III rounds it out with a play within a play – the great Mascagni opera, “Cavalleria Rusticana”, which acts not only as the backdrop to the film, but as a representation of the story as a whole – the once powerful Corleone family is now nothing but another Sicilian tragedy. In the final moments of The Godfather Part III, we see Michael get exactly what he deserves – and maybe what he was destined for – loneliness.
Awakenings: Believe. Hope. Miracle. These are fluffy words that oftentimes have no place in science. A doctor will rarely claim “divine intervention” as a reason for someone surviving an accident or beating cancer. However, that’s not to say that miracles are nonexistent.
Sometimes things happen in the medical world that simply cannot be explained and are therefore grouped under some kind of medical miracle. In Awakenings, we witness one such phenomenon. Based on a true story, this film is a sweet and tender reminder that the human spirit is maybe the strongest medicine of all.
When we look at Leonard (Robert De Niro), we see a human vegetable. He cannot move or speak. What goes on inside his mind? Is he even thinking or feeling? His neurologist says no, merely because the implications of that are unthinkable…
Leonard is a patient in the Bronx mental hospital. He is part of the “garden” ward, so named because the staff are simply there to feed and water the patients. The ward is made up of those stricken by the great encephalitis lethargica epidemic of the 1920s, a horrible infection that affected more than one million people. It was dubbed the great “sleeping sickness” because victims were unable to make their bodies do what their minds desired. Sometimes the blockage manifested itself through bizarre physical behavior, sometimes through apparent paralysis…but regardless of the manifestation, it was clear that nothing could be done for them.
Enter Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams). Though he has no experience working with patients (his last project involved earthworms), he takes up residence on the garden ward, silently watching and observing.
When one patient is wheeled into his office for observation, he has little hope of getting through to her; however, he notices her body shift positions, apparently trying to catch her eyeglasses as they fell. This inspires a little experiment. He holds her glasses out in front of her, then drops them. Her hand flashes out quickly and catches them.
He tries again, this time throwing a ball. Her hand shoots up and grabs it. He can only deduct that this otherwise catatonic woman is “…borrowing the will of the ball” in order to move. Suddenly Dr. Sayer is onto something. What if these patients aren’t actually “frozen” at all? What if their motor impulses are cancelling each other out? If all the muscles are trying to move at the same time, maybe they’re powerless to choose one impulse over the other.
Wondering if a treatment plan meant for Parkinson’s Disease might help calm the motor impulses, Dr. Sayer enlists the help of Leonard, who is volunteered for the aggressive treatment plan by his mother. The drug in question, L-DOPA, would be administered in high doses in the hope that it would break the deadlock in Leonard’s brain. This is the great discovery at the heart of Awakenings, paving the way for enormous joy and inevitable heartbreak. As Leonard begins to come back to life, he and Dr. Sayer become colleagues in testing the boundaries of being.
I don’t want to give too much away here, but Awakenings is a beautiful film about resilience that will tug at your heartstrings. Robert De Niro’s performance is a wonder to behold, completely unlike anything he’s ever done before. His childlike wisdom and spirit pair perfectly with Robin Williams’ comically tentative bedside manner. They are as complimentary as eggs and bacon.
But outside of all of that, Awakenings is a movie about friendship. Directed by Penny Marshall, this film touches a tender part in all of us without becoming melodramatic. It reminds us that, in a world bigger and brighter than we will ever know, we’ve forgotten those things that really matter – “…friendship…family….the simple things.” Funnily enough, it’s a lesson common in most Robin Williams’ movies…
In the end, miracles are complicated business. We can’t explain them when they go right and, even more devastating, we can’t explain them when they go wrong. Yet, after watching this movie, you can’t help but wonder what those with Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia, schizophrenia or Asperger’s Disease might be experiencing on the inside when the outside shows us something so completely different…better yet, what drug, what prescription, what miracle, is lying dormant out there, just waiting to be discovered?
Dances with Wolves: For a genre so cemented in American culture, Dances with Wolves is only the 2nd Western to win a Best Picture Oscar. Only 4 Westerns have ever taken home the Best Picture award (Cimarron , Dances with Wolves , Unforgiven  and No Country for Old Men ), yet that hasn’t stopped directors from all walks of life from trying to reinvent it.
With sweeping landscape shots that seemed to pay homage to the films of John Ford, Dances with Wolves is a simple story, magnificently told. It’s narrated by John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), a lieutenant in the Union Army, who is brought to hero status by surviving an apparent suicide attempt. His reward comes as a choice: free reign to select his next posting. Dunbar selects the frontier, wanting to see it before it’s gone.
After a long and treacherous journey to his isolated outpost in the Dakotas, Dunbar sets up camp at Fort Sedgewick, where he is the only white man for miles. He is alone, but not lonely – enjoying the company of his faithful horse, Cisco and a curious and friendly wolf he names Two Socks. He keeps a journal of his daily routine and gradually becomes comfortable with his peaceful surroundings.
These scenes with Dunbar alone at Fort Sedgewick are some of the best in the entire film. There exists a quiet, cinematic poetry here, where we not only learn about the character of Dunbar, but about the land itself. It’s all meant to be setup, but the beautiful cinematography, not to mention the brilliant score by John Barry, make it one of the most enjoyable introductions in recent movie history.
Things pick up a bit when the Sioux arrive to explore Dunbar’s camp. Let by medicine man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) and the stubborn Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant), the Sioux wonder if Dunbar isn’t some type of sign sent to warn them or help them.
Ever the positive thinker, Kicking Bird feels he can trust Dunbar…and the two men work towards communication. After learning a few words in each other’s language, the men form a truce, then a bond. With each passing day, Dunbar finds himself more and more infatuated with the Sioux way of life.
His interactions with them become even easier when Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who has lived with the Sioux since childhood, is able to act as interpreter. Unsurprisingly, a romance blossoms between Dunbar and Stands with a Fist and Dunbar eventually moves into the Sioux camp. He becomes a respected member of the tribe – even earning his own Sioux name: Dances with Wolves.
There are some other plot points one might expect in a story like this – a buffalo hunt (HOLY CRAP THIS WAS AMAZING), a bloody fight with a hostile tribe, as well as several scenes depicting rain dances or ceremonial smoking sessions – and each one was done with a great respect for tradition. The Sioux speak their own language and everyone cast as a member of the Sioux tribe was Native American (not ALL of them were Sioux, however – some had to learn the Lakota language). Even Two Socks was a real wolf – no half-breeds here!
Like any great story, Dances with Wolves takes its time to unfold: about three hours to be exact. But it sure doesn’t feel it. This film has the kind of vision and ambition that’s rare in movies today and is a personal triumph for Kevin Costner, who not only starred in the movie, but produced and directed it (the first of three films he has directed thus far).
Shot on a budget of $15 million, Dances with Wolves would bring in $424.2 million worldwide. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning seven: Best Picture, Best Director (Costner), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score and Best Sound Mixing.
Though the film takes place during the Civil War, in no way does Dances with Wolves offer an accurate representation of how the Native Americans and the white men interacted. As we’re all too aware of even today, the American culture was nearsighted, naïve and racist – seeing the Native Americans as nothing more than ignorant, thieving savages. It’s unlikely that Dunbar, or the Sioux, would interact with each other like they did here. And so, Dances with Wolves remains a sentimental fantasy, a “what if” fairy tale that imagines a world where the white man was genuinely interested in learning about, and from, other cultures. A world built on understanding, acceptance and – as Dunbar says – harmony.
Whether you’re summoning spirits or talking to them, mourning the dead or hiding a murder weapon, humans are capable of amazing - and terrible - things. That’s the big lesson in the films of 1990. In the two gangster films this year, Goodfellas and The Godfather Part III, we witness how violent humans can be. One wrong move, one wrong word, and you’re swimmin’ with the fishes.
In Ghost and my hidden gem this year, Awakenings, we learn about the tenacity of the human spirit, be it metaphysical or supernatural. Love can go a long way in helping us accept the unacceptable, believe the unbelievable, witness the unimaginable.
Humans are also capable of learning and growing, as showcased in this year’s winner, Dances with Wolves. A coming-of-age story for adults, this film proves that it’s never too late to admit you were wrong, to learn from your mistakes, and to accept a new, and better, way of life.
Onto the next pull!