The Best Picture Project – The Shape of Water, dir. Guillermo Del Toro (2017)

The Shape of Water (film).pngDirected by Guillermo Del Toro

Screenplay by Guillermo Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, story by Guillermo Del Toro

Starring Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Doug Jones

Firsts are everything in life – first steps, first words, first kiss.  The same is true for the Oscars.  Here are some important firsts for Oscar wins: Continue reading


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The Also-Rans Project – The Sea Inside (Best Foreign Language Film 2004)

Mar adentro poster.jpgDirected by Alejandro Amenabar

Written by Alejandro Amenabar and Mateo Gil

Starring Javier Bardem, Belen Rueda, Lola Duenas, Mabel Rivera, and Celso Bugallo

You probably read the title of this week’s Also-Rans entry and asked yourself, “Why a Foreign Language Film winner and not an actual loser from one of the top races?”  Answer: Because of all the films in the top races[1] the lone nominee I’ve not seen was Vera Drake, [2]  a Mike Leigh Film,[3] and I was not motivated to fill in that one blind spot because I find Mike Leigh’s films boring and don’t need to sit through another to come to the same conclusion.[4] Continue reading

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The Also-Rans Project — Henry V (Best Director Also-Ran 1989)

Henry v post.jpgDirected by Kenneth Branagh

Screenplay by Kenneth Branagh, from the play by William Shakespeare

Starring Kenneth Branagh, Brian Blessed, Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, Emma Thompson, Judi Dench, Christian Bale, Alec McCowen, and Robbie Coltrane

I am ignorant.  Not of everything, because I definitely know stuff.  But I do have some gaps in my knowledge, the only one of importance here being the writings of William Shakespeare.

If we’re honest, I’m hardly the only Shakespeare-ignorant one among us.  In fact, I’m probably fairly typical.  Truthfully, though Shakespeare has enduring popularity, he is not a writer for the masses.  No matter what your high school English teachers, or college profs had to say about his enduring relevance and his appeal to audiences at the time, he is no longer a writer aiming for mass popularity.  He is not the grandfather of rap.  He is not the touchstone of all poets.  He is not— Continue reading

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The Also-Rans Project – Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (Best Actress Also-Ran 1990)

Mr & Mrs Bridge.jpgDirected by James Ivory

Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, from the novels by Evan S. Connell

Starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Robert Sean Leonard, Kyra Sedgwick, and Blythe Danner

I love my grandparents – most people do.  Love their grandparents, I mean, not my grandparents.  But why shouldn’t I love mine.  They are good people, they are generally loving, they’re good to me, and I would not exist if not for them.  Actually, because my grandparents were legit Catholics – 13 kids! – a lot of people wouldn’t exist without them.

So, yay grandparents!

While my grandparents are unique in many ways, I’m sure they are just like many other grandparents in many ways.  If I had to guess, I’d bet my grandparents are a lot like your grandparents.  Grandpa is very closed mouth about things, fairly stoic, and seems severe, when he’s really not.[1]  Grandma is the much more gregarious and the socially outgoing of the two.  She’s more talkative.  Plus, because they had 13 kids they tend to be very thrifty and take pleasure in the simple things in life.  In that way they have been a perfect fit for something like 60 years – he doesn’t say much, she says a lot, and together they work well as a unit. Continue reading

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The Also-Rans Project – Call Me By Your Name (Best Picture Also-Ran 2017)

CallMeByYourName2017.pngDirected by Luca Guadagnino

Screenplay by James Ivory, from the novel of the same name by Andre Aciman

Starring Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg

A graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer) comes to Italy for 6 weeks of working as an assistant to an archaeology professor (Stuhlbarg).  As part of the gig he’ll live with the professor’s family, including the professor’s 17 year-old son, Elio (Timothee Chalamet).  Over the course of the 6 weeks, Oliver and Elio become close, and eventually have an affair.  When Oliver leaves, Elio is devastated, having lost his first love.

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The Also-Rans Project — Ivanhoe (Best Picture Also-Ran 1952)

Ivanhoe (1952 movie poster).jpgDirected by Richard Thorpe

Screenplay by Aeneas MacKenzie, Noel Langley and Marguerite Roberts, based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott

Starring Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Fontaine and George Sanders

The House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood Blacklist that followed it were some bullshit.  Some major league bullshit.  Right now, in 2018, we have a president who loves to use the term witch-hunt in ways that makes me wonder if he even knows what the word means, but if he wanted to see what a real witch-hunt was, he only need look at HUAC and the Blacklist to get a solid definition.

Originally, HUAC was used by reactionary conservatives to investigate subversive activities.  Ostensibly, this meant actual communists, which eventually included so much more than that, because slippery-slopes ya’ll.  Then, just like that, careers were ruined. Continue reading

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The Also-Rans Project – Watch on the Rhine (Best Picture Also-Ran 1943)

Watch on the Rhine poster.jpgDirected by Herman Shumlin

Screenplay by Dashiell Hammett, based upon the play of the same name by Lillian Hellman

Starring Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Lucile Watson, George Coulouris, and Donald Woods

Here it is: After living in Europe with her husband, Kurt (Paul Lukas), and children, for many years, Sara (Bette Davis) returns home – this is after WWII has broken out, but before the US has gotten involved.  And home, in this instance, is suburban Washington D.C., where her widowed mother (Lucile Watson) maintains the family estate.  But mother is no ordinary widow – no, her dead husband was a long-time Justice of the US Supreme Court and rich as hell.  Continue reading

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The Also-Ran’s Project — The Sundowners (Best Picture Also-Ran 1960)

The Sundowners poster.jpgDirected by Fred Zinnemann

Written by Isobel Lennart, from the novel by Jon Cleary

Starring Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum, Peter Ustinov, Michael Anderson Jr., and Glynnis Johns

Feed Zinnemann had quite a varied career.  Studied filmmaking in France in the 1920s, began directing films in Germany not long after that, and made a film on location in Mexico – all this before he decamped from Berlin for Hollywood at the dawn of the 1930s.  Once in Hollywood he established himself as a director with no real ties to any one genre.  He made socialist realist dramas; westerns that could be read as both supporting, and attacking, the blacklist witch-hunt; musicals; vaguely religious dramas; prestige costume dramas; and assassination procedurals.[1] Continue reading

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The Also-Rans Project – Howard’s End (Best Picture Also-Ran 1992)

Howards end poster.jpgDirected by James Ivory

Screenplay by Ruth Prawar Jhabvala, from the novel by E.M. Forster

Starring Anthony Hopkin, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Redgrave, Prunella Scales, James Wilby, Samuel West and Nicola Duffett

Some movies inspire extreme reactions, both good and bad.  Positive passion, and negative passion.  Rapturous appreciation, and out-right loathing.

But, while some movies are inspirational, it is only the barest few.  In reality, most movies are not inspirational.  Most movies are not even good.  To be fair, most movies, are also not bad.  They are, for the most part, ‘meh.’

Now, this should not be a surprise – after all, the bell-curve was developed based on reality.  That reality being that most everything, and everybody, was mediocre, and only the barest few rise, or fall, below it.  To be blunt, very few things are outright good, or outright bad.  Which is why most of the entries in this series answer the question of, Better than best?, with an easy no.  Very few things are the best, and even fewer are better.

It should not come as a shock, then, that Howard’s End lives more in the fat part of the bell-curve with the other mediocrities than out on the extreme ends with the truly exceptional.  Because the odds always were that it’d be ‘meh.’

What’s It About

In the early part of the 20th century, the fortunes of two British families – the wealthy, conservative Wilcox’s, and the economically-secure-but-not-wealthy, intellectual Schlegel’s – intersect in different ways.  And because these two families, and the disparate folks who happen into their orbit, come from different parts of society, there are all sorts of minor culture clashes amongst the different parties.  In short, it’s a soap opera of very stiff-upper-lip types, which means it’s fairly quiet and more concerned about propriety than anything else.

Image result for howards endIs It Good?

Howard’s End has no real narrative through-line, or spine, or arc, to tie it all together.  Rather, because it’s more interested in the interactions of different parts of society, it’s more episodic, meandering from one bit to the other.  Episodes that only sometimes touch one another:

  1. Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham-Carter) becomes momentarily engaged to Paul Wilcox, the youngest son of the Wilcox family. Later, after that entanglement is done in, Helen finds herself wrapped up in the life of a lowly insurance clerk, Leonard Bast (Samuel West), and his gauche wife, Jacky.
  2. Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) makes friends with Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) – Paul’s mother – in that woman’s final days, and unbeknownst to Margaret, is to be made a gift of Ruth’s house – Howard’s End is the house – upon Ruth’s death. This is a gift the rest of the Wilcox’s immediately conceal from Margaret, then dishonor.
  3. Margaret eventually marries Ruth’s widower, Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), much to the chagrin of Henry’s children, especially Charles (James Wilby), who seems to believe Margaret is some sort of fortune hunter and should be driven off.
  4. Henry is later revealed to have been a one-time lover of Leonard Bast’s wife, Jacky, who he first encountered in Greece. Much friction ensues when Helen brings her to the wedding of one of Henry’s children.
  5. Also, after Helen and Margaret casually mention Leonard and his employer to Henry, Henry says Leonard’s employer is about to go broke, which causes Leonard to quit his job and seek another, eventually spiraling him into poverty when his subsequent jobs all fall through. The kicker?  Henry later carelessly admits he was wrong on that one, the employer was fine, and basically shrugs it off with an, “Oops, my bad.”  Of course, once he finds out Jacky is married to Leonard, he refuses to help Leonard find another job.
  6. Leonard eventually impregnates Helen – it is an adulterous moment – and even though Charles it not really family to Helen, and he seems to despise the Schlegel’s, Charles accidentally kills Leonard in some weird ‘defending her honor’ sort of way. Charles is eventually jailed for this killing.
  7. Finally, Henry decides that upon his death he will leave Howard’s End to Margaret, fulfilling his dead wife’s wish.
  8. The End.
Image result for howards end

Samuel West, as Leonard, (l) and Bonham-Carter

Because the movie plays out over the course of these various stories, there is no central unifying story drawing it together in any cohesive way.  Sure, the lineage of the house, Howard’s End, drives much of the action, but at the same time is immaterial to as much as it is material.  After all, while it is central to Charles’ story, and certainly important to Henry’s, it’s basically tangential to Helen and Margaret’s, and has no connection to the Leonard Bast story at all, other than he is accidentally killed there when he comes to see Helen.  In fact, the house has very little bearing at all on the relationship between Ruth and Margaret – so little bearing that the gift of a house to a newly-formed friend seems odd.

And because the film is told this way, with episodes only occasionally bumping into one another, the film feels as if it really does not have a true leading performance, or performances.  For instance, despite being top-billed, Hopkins doesn’t really arrive into the film until thirty minutes in, and he occasionally disappears for long stretches.  And while much of the story seems driven by Thompson and Bonham-Carter, they each have their own extended periods off-screen – especially Bonham-Carter, who all-but disappears from the film for what seems like an eternity at the end.   So the film feels…unfocused.

Worst for me is the film relies too heavily on coincidence – how perfect is it that Helen and Margaret take a shine to Leonard Bast, who just happens to be married to Jacky, who just happens to have been the one-time lover of Henry in Greece, who just happens to marry Margaret after Margaret makes friends with Ruth, who dies and happens to leave her a house that will not be given to her?  One can accept a certain amount of coincidence in the movies, because life is full of coincidences, but this is all just too much to ignore.

All of this, of course, overlooks that much of the movie would cease to exist if people would (a) just talk to one another instead of hiding everything behind the veneer of propriety, and (b) mind their own damn business.

Image result for howards end charles

James Wilby as Charles

Emma Thompson

Thompson won the Best Actress Oscar for her work in the film, and she does give a fine performance.  She’s a bit flighty to begin, when she seems settled into the notion of being an old maid, until she finally flourishes in her marriage to the much-older Henry.  As Margaret, Thompson is charming and witty and pretty, which means I cannot believe this particular woman would ever be an old maid, needing to be saved by an old rich man.  She’s just too attractive.  Which is probably an inadvertent truth about the movie business – even in the movies the plain-Jane’s have to be attractive women.

That all said, while Thompson won the Oscar, the crucial, yet overlooked, performance was given by James Wilby as Charlie Wilcox, the brutish, elder son who accidentally kills Leonard.  Even though the death is truly accidental – he wants to beat Leonard up, but not really hurt him – we have no sympathy for the killer because Wilby plays him as entirely risible.  In this way, Wilby makes him the perfect villain – he’s handsome, has some charm, and worse, his motives are not all that bad.  He just wants to preserve his family fortune and name, he just goes about achieving it in the wrong way, which makes us have to hate ourselves for sympathizing with his goals.  In the end, his is the kind of performance that won’t win any awards, even as it is exactly what this sort of film needs.

Unforgiven 2.jpgBetter Than Best

In the year that Unforgiven won Best Picture, and other nominees included Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, not mention 1992 was the year of A River Runs Through It, there is no way Howard’s End could ever be argued as being better than the best.


Please Read/Buy…

See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.

Also, don’t be afraid to have a look at the thing that inspired this, The Best Picture Project.  Or, you could buy the revised, updated version of that project in book form:  E-Book or Paperback.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.



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The Also-Ran’s Project — The Champ (Best Picture Also-Ran 1931/1932)

The Champ poster.jpgDirected by King Vidor

Written by Frances Marion

Starring Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Irene Rich and Rosco Ates

In the modern world, women are consistently second choice to men in just about everything – mostly for sexist reasons.  They also make less money for doing the exact same job – also for sexist reasons.  But it’s not only today this happens, because it’s been that way since time immemorial, and Hollywood has certainly been no different: all the big stars are men, and all the big paydays are for me.  For proof, consider the relative pay imbalance between Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams for Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World, even before Wahlberg squeezed more money out of the re-shoots.

It is in light of all this that the achievements of Frances Marion were all-the-more amazing. Continue reading

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