Cinematic counter-programming — during the summer, it isn't too difficult a strategy to pull off. The season is jam-packed with Hollywood's biggest, baddest blockbusters, each weekend sporting franchise installments, high concept adventures and sensory overloads designed to keep or synpases firing at maximum capacity while the sun beats us down. But what about those who want to take a break from the action? People will find a few movies that may tickle their art house desires, but other than the occasional sleek drama or black comedy, there aren't too many options.
Which is why it makes perfect sense for last year's Academy Award winner for Best Picture to hit Blu-ray this week. The Artist arrives just in the nick of time with a sweet story that's welcomely un-blockbustery (although it revolves around the blockbusters of the early days of Hollywood!). Inspired by The Artist, we took a look back at the many Best Picture winners over the years that seem like logical fits for the summer programming. Action, thrillers, children's movies — the Academy as awarded them all with its top prize at some point in its 84 years of handing out Best Picture Oscars. If you're looking for a few films with a bit of a history to them, here are your best bets:
The Best Picture Adult Comedy: Annie Hall
All raunchy misadventures and over-the-top rom-coms are in debt of Woody Allen's magnum opus, a hilarious, uniquely structured and shockingly poignant comedy. In Annie Hall, the auteur director tackles romance and relationships, but like magic, finds ways to weave in sex jokes and stand up bits wittier than most of what we see in theaters today. The film won Best Picture in 1977.
The Best Picture Epic Fantasy: Lord of the Rings
Too soon? No. Never. There have been few movies that begin to touch the tangible otherworldliness of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, a fully realized universe where every moment is fully fleshed out, from epic battle scene to intimate dramatic moment. After three back-to-back-to-back films, the franchise's final installment, Return of the King finally picked up a Best Picture Oscar in 2003.
The Best Picture Action Movie: The French Connection
The gritty crime tale from William Friedkin (the director of The Exorcist follows James "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) as he traverses New York City, on a mission to bust some drug smugglers. The story is involving enough, but French Connection also sports one of the best car chases of all time — yes, even in the wake of the many Fast and the Furious sequels. It was the first R-rated Best Picture winner, which it won in 1971.
The Best Picture Musical Movie: My Fair Lady
Today, most musicals are mash-ups of familiar classics — the horrific sounding "jukebox musical" (see the much maligned Rock of AgesMy Fair Lady stands as one of the most perfectly crafted of the bunch. Starring the always lovely Audrey Hepburn and the ultimate speak-singer Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady picked up the Best Picture Oscar in 1964.
The Best Picture Thriller Movies: The Departed
For awhile, it looked like Martin Scorsese was never going to pick up an Oscar, but his return to unfiltered violence and profanity (and, perhaps more importantly, a great crime tale) saw the cineaste win a coveted Best Director Oscar. The movie may have the gravitas of an all-star cast and creative team, but at its core its pulpy genre material that, in lesser hands, would fit right into the the throwaway summer season. The Departed won Best Picture in 2006.
The Best Picture Superhero Movie: Ben-Hur
Today we have crime-fighting men impersonating bats and clad in iron armor, but back in Biblical times, the world had Ben-Hur. He doesn't have super powers, but his journey is epic, falling from grace only to rise up from slave status as one of the great chariot riders. Oh, and he met Jesus. The movie won Best Picture in 1959.
The Best Picture Kids Movies: Oliver!
And just in case the young ones take a break from clamoring to see the latest and greatest in big screen entertainment, there's Oliver!, the charming, kid-centric film based on the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens classic. Oliver! works double duty: it's a ball for children who dream of living on their own, but it should sufficiently scare the crap out of them too. Fagin is one scary dude. Oliver! won Best Picture in 1968.
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[Photo Credit: Weinstein Company]
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.