Best Picture Catchup: The French Connection, Ordinary People, Chariots of Fire, Out of Africa

Recently I decided to try to catch up and see all of the Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards that I had never seen before.

I decided to narrow the mission to just winners since 1950 since some of the older movies are harder to find, even with streaming services.

I had a strong start to my mission, having seen 44 out of the 70 Best Picture winners and I had not missed a winner going back until 1997. In my first installment, I watched and reviewed “Braveheart,” “Patton,” “Unforgiven” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” Now I tackled four more, bringing my total to 52 out of 70 movies.

The four in this installment were a little disappointing. Two movies I liked but would not list among my favorite movies ever. The other two movies I found to be particularly dull.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)

Along with Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich, director William Friedkin was considered one of the premier directors of New Hollywood in the 1970s. Friedkin directed one of my favorite movies of all time in “The Exorcist” so I was interested in watching “The French Connection,” a true-crime movie that he won Best Director for. “The French Connection” might not thrill today’s audiences but it’s certainly more engaging or suspenseful than “Bullitt” or other 1970s crime movies. It has one of the greatest car chases of all time. “The French Connection” won Best Picture over two movies that I greatly prefer “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Last Picture Show” but that shouldn’t take away from “The French Connection’s” achievement. While it’s certainly a genre movie — and maybe not as amazing as those other two movies — it’s bolstered by stellar performances by Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. Hackman won an Oscar, which might seem odd since the role doesn’t require much heavy lifting, but he was very good. I really enjoyed “The French Connection” and maybe I’d put it in my top 50 crime/action movies of all time.

ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)

Robert Redford makes his debut as a director and ends up winning Best Director at the Oscars for this drama about grief, family dynamics and mental health. It might feel a little dated 40 years later but at the time it was an honest and eye-opening look at mental health issues that were not often discussed. It features some awesome performances. Mary Tyler Moore, best known for playing bubbly lovable strong women such as Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and, of course, Mary Richard on her own starring sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” “Ordinary People” gave her a chance to breakout of her typecast and play an unlikable role and she was rewarded with a Best Actress nomination. I think her character was a little one-dimensional and unfairly villainous but there were hints at depth that she brought out. Judd Hirsch, another performer known more for a TV role (“Taxi”), earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for playing the psychiatrist and his portrayal earned praise from the psychiatric community. Hirsch ended up losing to his co-star Timothy Hutton, who really had a lead role. At age 20, Hutton became the youngest winner of the Best Supporting Actor and he hold that record to this day. The youngest nominee was 8-year-old Justin Henry in “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Hutton earned some starring roles after his win, most notably in “Taps” in 1981. He never solidified himself as one of the best actors in Hollywood and today’s audiences really only know him from the formulaic TNT drama “Leverage.” The one main star who didn’t receive an Oscar nomination was Donald Sutherland (President Snow of “Hunger Games” for today’s audiences) who did an amazing job as the father in “Ordinary People.” Entertainment Weekly called it one of the biggest awards snubs in history and interesting enough Sutherland has never been nominated for an Oscar to this day. I think he’s one of the best actors of all time without a single Oscar nomination, joining Martin Sheen, Alfred Molina, Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Jeff Daniels and Ewan McGregor. “Ordinary People” is a great movie that I really enjoyed but interestingly enough it beat out a much better movie for Best Picture that year: “Raging Bull.” I had a few friends who said they like “Ordinary People” better than “Raging Bull” but in my mind that’s just incorrect. “Raging Bull” is one of the best movies ever made and in 1990, it became the first film to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in its first year of eligibility. When the American Film Institute released its list of 100 greatest movies of all time to celebrate its 100th anniversary, “Raging Bull” ranked 24th of all time. When they updated the list 10 years later, “Raging Bull” shot up to fourth on the list. To me, there’s no real comparison between the two.

C

CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981)

Now we’re entering territory of Best Pictures that make me scratch my head. I always had an interest in seeing “Chariots of Fire” because I was so familiar with the iconic music. The piano you hear when they run in slow motion at the beginning of movie is famous and it’s been parodied so many times. Just think of Will Ferrell running in “Old School.” I knew it because my dad is really into 1970s/1980s progressive rock and composer Vangelis, who wrote this score (he also did the music for the movie “Blade Runner”), has teamed up with prog rock icons like John Anderson of Yes. So I’ve heard Vangelis many times before when my dad has played it in the kitchen of the restaurant we own. Unfortunately, that music is the best part of a dull movie. It’s a true story about Olympic runners but there’s no real stakes. One character is a very faithful Catholic and the other is jewish and faces anti-semitism. That’s it. I’m not downplaying their struggle, but it’s hardly losing a leg! (Although, I’m not sure we want a movie on an Olympic runner who lost a leg. The Oscar Pistorius story might not be so feel-good). “Chariots of Fire” beat “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Reds” and “On Golden Pond” that year. Heck, I might even say that “Arthur,” released that year but not nominated for Best Picture, was a better movie than “Chariots of Fire.” One list called this one of the biggest surprise Best Picture winners of all time, along with “Crash” upsetting “Brokeback Mountain.” Many people thought that it was a two-movie race between “On Golden Pond,” which won Best Actor and Best Actress for Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn, and “Reds,” which earned Warren Beatty the Best Director award while securing nominations for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. “Reds” was the last film to gain nominations in all four acting categories until “Silver Linings Playbook” matched that feat in 2013.

OUT OF AFRICA (1985)

One of my least favorite Best Picture winners that I’ve seen. It’s an epic love story set in Africa in the time of World War One. Meryl Streep gives an amazing performance but Robert Redford seems to be mailing it in. It’s not the longest movie to win Best Picture. It’s only two and half hours long. But it feels really long since there’s just not enough meat on the bone to justify this length. Basically it’s the story of rich white people who fall in love and every once and a while they help some tribal Africans. Oh and there are a few lions. The lions are the best part. But nobody gets mauled. Unfortunately. It’s really hard to care about any of these characters and I would struggle to call this a good movie, let alone of one of the best movies put out in a year. One film critic, James Berardinelli, checked this movie out in 2009 and agrees with my assessment: “Watching Out of Africa a quarter of a century after its release, it’s almost impossible to guess how it won the Oscar for Best Picture … the lazy story is little more than an ordinary melodrama that simmers without ever reaching a boil.” “Out of Africa” beat “Witness,” “The Color Purple,” “Prizzi’s Honor” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” to win Best Picture. None of those movies are favorites of mine, but they’re all better films. Probably the two movies of that year that I’d really think should have been nominated are “Ran” by Akira Kurosawa or “Cocoon” by Ron Howard. We all know the best movie to be eligible for the Oscars that year was “Back to the Future” but oh well. Interesting side note: I was skimming through the Wikipedia page of the Oscars that year and “Return to Oz” was nominated for best special effects that year. What?!! Have you seen those special effects?! Maybe they were good for that day (I can’t imagine they were ever good) but they have not aged well. Revisit the freaky film “Return to Oz” if you want to be weirded out.

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