One tradition of Oscar night – besides the red carpet, the musical numbers, and Jack Nicholson grinning in the front row – is the self-referential film clip. You know the one: Judy Garland, John Wayne, Paul Newman, Ingrid Bergman, or some other combination of famous faces speed by, smiling, grimacing, and dropping signature lines (“Go ahead, make my day”) while the music swells and Hollywood tells us that movies make us laugh and cry, touch our hearts, change our thinking, yadda, yadda.
Movies aren’t as profoundly important as Hollywood wants you to believe. But movies aren’t piffle, either. Some have powerful messages. You can talk movies with strangers. When a must-see blockbuster is at the multiplex, you can feel the national conversation changing. People suddenly start dropping lines like “To infinity and beyond!” or “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
Movies mean something, but what? Do they capture the national zeitgeist or are they just escapism? Can they lift a nation’s mood or are they merely made to separate you from your dollars? Critic Neal Gabler, author of this week’s cover essay, makes a strong case that recent movies reflect our mental state, meaning our collective worry and uncertainty because of the economic difficulties we have been going through.
Although ... one could argue that “The King’s Speech” was more touching and inspiring than bleak. And “Inception,” like mind-bending shows every year (“Avatar” last year, “The Dark Knight” the year before), was visually impressive but didn’t seem particularly applicable to daily life.
Or take “Toy Story 3.” It was just as much a mix of adventure, comedy, and separation anxiety as “Toy Story” 1 and 2 a decade and more ago. (Exhibit A: the toys trying to rejoin Andy’s family in “TS-1.” Exhibit B: the heartbreaking neglect of Jesse the cowgirl as her owner grew up in “TS-2.”) And besides, making a movie takes three years on average, so nailing the national mood on première day would be quite a trick.
Neal’s the critic. He’s thought about these things professionally. As has Peter Rainer, whose writing graces our pages each week. I’m a rank amateur. But that’s really my point. When it comes to movies, we all get a vote. We all have our reasons why some movies are great, some are howlers, and some are like a warm blanket that we turn to over and over again.
Is it any wonder that there are a dozen different ways of measuring the best movies of all time? Besides the impressively named Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, there’s the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globes, People’s Choice, Cannes, and many more contests that combine serious judging with the opportunity to showcase celebrities on red carpets.
Go to Metacritic.com and you’ll learn that the way-serious art film “Balthazar” (1966) heads the list.
It doesn’t stop there. All of us have movies we are fond of. Richard Nixon famously watched “Patton” over and over while embattled in the White House. Howard Hughes loved “Ice Station Zebra” for some reason.
I need to watch “Groundhog Day” at least once a year. I have friends who never miss a chance to see “The Big Lebowski,” “Shakespeare in Love,” or the first and second (never the third) “Godfather.” And on any list of favorites, most people would say “The Wizard of Oz” is one because, well, because of the wonderful things it does.
We all get a vote. Drop me a line and tell me what your all-time favorite is. I’ll tally them and publish the Academy of Monitor People’s Screen Guild list in a future issue.
John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.