Thursday, July 02, 2009

Are Movies Worse Today? 1967 vs. 1987

As mentioned in a prior post, Anne Thompson commented recently, in a post about changes in the number of films the Academy will review for Best Picture, that "bottom line though, the Academy had more quality films to choose from then than they do now." We're putting this claim to the test.

A respected commenter added a clarifying note regarding the "Are Classic Movies Better" post. Professor Nokes reminded Cinerati of the importance of specificity when using language, by pointing out that by definition Classic movies are better. Classic movies, by definition, being old movies that have withstood the test of time -- the canon of film if you will. Since our contention is not that Classic movies are no better than Modern films, rather that films made in prior decades are not on average better than Modern films, this is a useful correction.

I would have been better served to use the post-structuralist "Classic," rather than the literal Classic, as that use has the implied irony I was attempting to bring to the front. That a film was made in some bygone era doesn't automatically mean the film is a genuine Classic, at least that is the assertion of this series. Though I would love to use the ironic post-structural word in the future, I won't use it. In order to remain clear, I will now call films made during prior decades Older films rather than Classic films. Certainly, some of the films are Classics (but so are some Modern films), but all of them are Older.

Now that I have clarified the purpose of this series, let's move on to the first comparison.


Below is the list of the 1967 nominees for best picture with the addition of Anne Thompson's film historian friend's +5. This list will be followed by some Cinerati commentary, the list of the 1987 nominees plus my +5, and some closing commentary.


1967 original nominees

  • In the Heat of the Night [winner]
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • Doctor Dolittle
  • The Graduate
  • Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

PLUS

  • Camelot
  • Cool Hand Luke
  • In Cold Blood
  • The Dirty Dozen
  • Two for the Road


There are two things that become clear from looking at the list of films above. First, 1967 was a pretty good year for movies. Quite a few of my favorite films are in that nominees+5 list. I am particularly enamored of Doctor Dolittle due to memories from my childhood of watching the film on VHS with my grandfather. Second, one can quickly see just from the films that 1967 was a year where the USA was undergoing some cultural shifts. The massive violence of Bonnie and Clyde was shocking to some audiences, two of the films deal heavily with race issues, the role of sexual liberation in Camelot's portrayal of Guenevere, are all indicative of the changes the society was facing at the time.

I would argue though that two of these films would be laughed at by modern critics, if viewed without the rose colored glasses of nostalgia. I love Doctor Dolittle and think it is a great film. But if it had come out in 2009 rather than 1967 (as exactly the same picture), the film would be derided as frivolous childhood fare not worthy of artistic consideration. If this weren't true, we would see films like Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone nominated for Best Picture. Potter received three Oscar nominations, had a stellar cast of brilliant British actors, but was not nominated for Best Picture. My guess is because as children's fare it is taken less seriously, this is further evinced by the fact that the BAFTAs nominated it for Best Children's Feature. Surely, one can argue that I am overstating things, but based on my discussions with current film critics I don't believe it to be the case. The older critics seem too "sophisticated" and the younger critics are often too "gothtentious" to consider a film like Dolittle for an Oscar nod -- particularly over a film like Cool Hand Luke.

I could make a similar argument for why modern critics would overlook Camelot, not for its childishness. In this case, Camelot would be overlooked for being "over done." It's a very good film. I find its representation of Guenevere to be extremely unsympathetic, and think it flawed in that regard, but the acting, singing, and narrative are extremely compelling.

I can take or leave The Graduate. For me it is a film too deeply rooted in its era to inspire or challenge me. It's well shot, well acted, entertaining, but in the end uninspiring. I'll watch Cool Hand Luke over The Graduate any day of the week.

All in all, 1967 was a still a very good year for movies. How does 1987 compare?


1987 original nominees

  • The Last Emperor [winner]
  • Broadcast News
  • Fatal Attraction
  • Hope and Glory
  • Moonstruck

PLUS

  • Empire of the Sun
  • Raising Arizona
  • Full Metal Jacket
  • Good Morning, Vietnam
  • Cry Freedom


Looking at the list above, one might believe that I stacked the deck against Anne by choosing 1987. I should also note that the +5 part of the list comes not from my own opinions, but from Tim Dirks of Filmsite. When I saw his discussion of overlooked films, I found I agreed with him and thus used those rather than create my own +5 which would have looked pretty much the same. With the exception of the over-rated at the time Fatal Attraction, 1987 is a very good year for films receiving Academy consideration -- and would be with the +5 rule as well.

Like 1967, one can see the social issues of the day reflected in the important films of the year. Broadcast News was an entertaining look at news media that demonstrated how society was beginning to see that what was presented to us as "news" was in many ways mere show business. One thinks that James L. Brooks wouldn't find something like TMZ suprising, upsetting maybe but not surprising. The Last Emperor is a touching tale brought to the big screen in the final years of the Cold War. It is a touching film that looks at humanity and the transition of a culture from Empire to Revolution to Stability -- a culture that is still undergoing the process depicted in the film.

Hope and Glory is ostensibly about a child living in England throughout WWII, but one can easily see reflections of Cold War sentiments underlying the tensions of the film. While most Gen X-ers hadn't undergone drills showing them what to do in case of a nuclear attack, as Boomers had experienced, but they still lived with an underlying dread rooted in the potential of nuclear war. Hope and Glory in depicting life in a London suburb during WWII, demonstrated that while war is a time of constant upheaval it is also a time that can be endured.

Two of the films in the +5 are narratives that take place during the Vietnam War, a conflict from which America was very much in need of healing in the 1980s (and still today). The movies come at the conflict from different narrative perspectives -- one is a drama and one is a dramedy -- but they each have power.

Cry Freedom is as politically important a film as one can imagine. Denzel Washington's performance as Steven Biko makes one wish this was more a film about Biko and less a film about a heroic journalist (played by Kevin Kline) who will tell his tale.

If you don't recognize Raising Arizona as one of the all-time great comedies, you lack a sense of humor. In the film, the Coen brothers put their ability to tell epic stories about mundane characters on high display.

Looking at the Academy films (and +5s) from 1967 and 1987, I don't think the Academy had remarkably better films to judge in the earlier year. Both years are very strong. One can make an argument that 1967 is stronger, but I think one could equally make an argument that 1987 is stronger.

I'd also like to go a little deeper into the respective years. The quality of the film industry shouldn't merely be measured by the "Academy worthy" films of a given year. Many genuine Classics are films I would never argue should win an Oscar. One doesn't immediately think "Best Picture" when one is watching Bringing Up Baby, but one does certainly think it is a Classic. It is simply one of the most entertaining films ever made. How do 1967 and 1987 stack up when it comes to the entertaining films offered?


Cinerati's 10 Best Non-Oscar "Entertainment" Films of 1967 in No Particular Order
  • A Fistful of Dollars
  • Valley of the Dolls
  • Bedazzled
  • The Jungle Book
  • Point Blank
  • To Sir With Love
  • You Only Live Twice
  • In Like Flint
  • The Good the Bad and the Ugly


That's a pretty good list of entertaining films. I am particularly fond of the Moore/Cook comedy Bedazzled. Most of these films are films that people still watch and most are considered classics. It should be noted that Barefoot in the Park and For a Few Dollars More were also released in 1967. You Only Live Twice is arguably the first use of Ninja in a "Western" film. Point Blank has a darkness that the more recent Mel Gibson version of the story Payback lacks. Unarguably, 1967 was a good year for movies in general and not just Award worthy films. But it is also the year one of my least favorite films was made. The lame and contrived Casino Royale comedy was released that year, a film to metacognitive for its own good.

What about 1987?


Cinerati's 10 Best Non-Oscar "Entertainment" Films of 1987 in No Particular Order
  • Lethal Weapon
  • Evil Dead II
  • Predator
  • The Untouchables
  • The Princess Bride
  • 3 Men and a Baby
  • Overboard
  • Near Dark
  • Dirty Dancing


1987 also saw the release of La Bamba, Robocop, The Secret of My Succe$s, River's Edge, Inner Space, Baby Boom, No Way Out, and The Monster Squad. It's hard to compete with the Spaghetti Western trilogy of Clint Eastwood, so 1967 wins for being bad ass. But it should be noted that much of the entertaining fare of 1987 is very entertaining. The Princess Bride is a wonderfully enchanting tale that people will be watching for generations to come. Overboard is a romantic comedy that ranks up in my enjoyment factor with Bringing Up Baby -- as are Baby Boom and 3 Men and a Baby for that matter.

Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark is one of my favorite vampire films and is must see for any fans of the HBO True Blood series. The vampires in Bigelow's film are a refreshing alternative from the sexy and alluring vampires typically presented, these are stone cold killers on a rampage. It's also an important film because Bigelow demonstrated, as she continues to demonstrate, that women directors can very ably direct things other than "women's films."

1967 wins because of the Spaghetti Western trilogy, but 1987 is one heck of a fun year for movie fans.
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