A few weeks ago, I saw and greatly enjoyed American Hustle. It’s all surface and doesn’t really add up to anything profound, but I was at a mall on Cape Cod with my mom, whom I was visiting for Christmas. We didn’t need, nor were we expecting, any great masterpiece, and I wasn’t on the hook to review the movie for anyone, so we went to the movies and had a grand old time.
This reaction was by no means universal. A whole lot of people don’t like the movie, and a number of critics found it infuriatingly insubstantial and sloppy. It was ever thus. But, when I’m not serving as the model of critical equanimity, I spend my days in a state of nervous terror, brought on by an acute fear of “being wrong” whose scale is frankly silly in its enormity, which is why it may be a very long time, if ever, until I can rewatch American Hustle.
Here are 5 more films that induce that same state:
I saw Ben Affleck’s hostage drama because I wanted to check out the year’s presumptive Best Picture favorite (it wasn’t the only reason, but it wasn’t not a reason). I saw it with a friend at a very nice theater in Brooklyn, we really dug it and were chattering excitedly about it for a good hour afterward. It wasn’t the best movie I saw that year, but I came out of it with a great respect for the way ol’ B-Fleck handled the pace as a director.
Then, about a week later I went on a podcast with a couple dudes to talk about the movie and it turned out my guarded-bordering-on-high enthusiasm for the movie was decidedly not shared by them. That started me thinking.
Then, of course, in the run up to the Oscars last year, the negative takes on it in both the critical community (hammering on it as a movie) and from parties irked by the villainous portrayals of Iranians sparked that old familiar terror: was I wrong? Had I been too easy on Argo? What does my being too easy on it mean?
So, basically, I’m not in any hurry to watch it again, for the silly solipsistic reasons I’ve enumerated, but also because I suspect it really won’t hold up terribly well. At least I’m worried it won’t.
This is the clearest-cut case of a Best Picture win—and its endless build-up—destroying a movie’s reputation. I caught it before the majority of the awards hype started, and under perhaps the ideal circumstances: in the middle of the afternoon with about four 90-year-old gay couples the only other people in the theater. No critics (rightly) taking the filmmakers to task for lifting from the Vertigo score, no after-the-fact realization that the lens, film stock, and design choices were more appropriate to a Hollywood movie of the mid-1940s than the silent era. None of that, just laughing, crying, and making a mental note to hop a plane to France to woo Berenice Bejo.
The Artist encapsulates the paradox of the Oscars: every year, everyone demands something different, a Best Picture winner that isn’t the same old crap. Then, a silent black & white French movie wins and suddenly the Best Picture win is the worst thing that could ever happen to it. Its imperfections are suddenly magnified, its “little picture that could” status is revoked, and instantly a slight, clever, imperfect bauble has this enormous burden to live up to.
It may never be able to escape the shadow of the golden statue. Also, I’m loathe to admit it as a quasi-defender of the movie, but there isn’t necessarily enough hidden depths to potentially “get” to make a revisit necessary.
The King’s Speech
I didn’t even really like this, and unlike the previous movies, I only watched this because of all the hate it was getting as the shoo-in Best Picture winner, out of fairness. Yes, getting worked up about the Oscars is dumb, but I was really mad that The Social Network was about to get screwed because it was a legitimately great, profound, and perfectly timed film. Still, in the interests of remaining open to the possibility that The King’s Speech could be, albeit in a very different way, of equivalent merit, I watched it.
And I didn’t hate it. It wasn’t very good, and Tom Hooper is a very weird director possessed of some of the most superfluous tics in the medium. But I didn’t hate it, in part because it was too bland to elicit a proper emotional reaction, and because it was going to get Colin Firth a win and he’s one of the good ones, but also because there was still a slim chance all the pundits were wrong and justice would be done.
Of course, it wasn’t. The Oscars have nothing to do with merit and are the result of a poorly curated voting body. My terror at the prospect of watching The King’s Speech again has less to do with the movie itself and more the attempt to stay one step ahead of the FBI, Homeland Security, and various state police agencies following my inevitable actions after seeing it again.
It’s fine. Danny Boyle makes competent movies, and he has a particular flair for pacing and sweep. Thinking to get A.R. Rahman to score the picture was a brilliant move (the soundtrack’s far and away the best part). Also, that bit about the extent to which people with proper priorities will go to see Amitabh Bachchan movies was well-observed. And yet….
In Slumdog Millionaire‘s case, the Best Picture win wrecked not only its chances to be a cute, slightly clumsy Western homage to Bollywood (I mean, seriously, a linear plot, and only one song picturization, at the end of the movie? Child, please) but also meant that from now until the end of time, lazy Western film writers who accidentally get assigned to review an Indian movie will compare said movie to Slumdog Millionaire, which has nothing to do with anything. But it’s something people will have heard of, because of the Oscar. Oh, Slumdog Millionaire, how difficult you’ve (inadvertently) made life.
By this point, you’ve probably figured out where I’m going with this: that a Best Picture Oscar is a curse as often as it is a blessing. If not more. And that rewatching something after it’s been anointed Best Picture (as American Hustle is currently the statistical favorite to be) adds undue, arbitrarily assigned pressure for that movie to bear.
Crash is, to date, the worst movie to ever win Best Picture. By far. It’s not even close. It’s a movie that purports to condemn racism that is in fact wildly, deliriously racist. Paul Haggis’ dialogue makes Tommy Wiseau look like Paddy Chayefsky. The bounteous multitudes of badness are all contained within. It’s a movie that had no business being released, let alone nominated for awards, let alone winning them. It will forever be a reminder that the Oscars are not about merit, but about marginally higher aggregate vote totals, and completely inscrutable aesthetic tastes. Crash is the proof that “Best Picture” is a meaningless phrase.
I would say “don’t be afraid to re-watch past Best Picture winners” if there was more apparent reason to re-watch them at all. Even the ones that aren’t hatefully awful tend toward the slight, forgettable, and/or problematic.
So, instead, I’ll borrow the tagline from a movie that never won any Oscars: Be afraid. Be kind of afraid.