Best Picturesque: The 57th – A Passage to Killing Amadeus

What makes an Oscar winner? I have no idea, really.  But I can take a guess by watching each Best Picture winner, regardless of if I’ve already seen it, at random years, and then watching the two nominees with the most Oscar nominations for that year to find out, in my pompous assessment, if the Academy made the right choice. If I’ve already seen the subsequent nominee, I’ll move on to the next most nominated for that year.

The 57th Academy Award Best Picture nominees I watched: Amadeus, A Passage to India (11), The Killing Fields (7)
bold = winner italics = losers (nominations) ]

When I watched these: November 12th – 14th

The snacks: they were filling, and featured way too much sour cream

The year: 1984.

Did I skip any of the movies?: Yes.  Places of the Heart had equal nominations to The Killing Fields; this tiebreaker was determined by IMDb rating.

So why did the other movies lose?

A Passage to India is definitive Oscar bait.  Piggybacking Gandhi from two years prior, even throwing in an underwhelming brown-face Alec Guiness, the main message of the film is justice with the backdrop of prejudice in British-ruled India.  The characters collide awkwardly from the start, but Dr. Aziz is charming enough in contrast to the aloof general British population of the time, which sets us up for the rape trial that arrives long after I’d lost interest in what was going on. I liked Mrs. Moore — and so did the Academy — but I felt the movie intends to hit us over the head with the social class and British/Indian discrimination thing until we’re too dizzy to realize how boring and stretched out the film really is, and how ridiculous the rest of the characters are.  It had just as many nominations at Amadeus, but only won two.  In the end, it felt like pity nods to appease those who might perceive any snub as a racist stance.

While Passage is about as intense as a swig of cola, The Killing Fields feels like swallowing arsenic-laden ball bearings one at a time. When an explosion occurs in the streets of Phnom Penh and the reporter and photographer merely get up from their table and go to work covering the fresh carnage, we get the feeling this is only the start of the true horror surrounding them.  I knew little about the Khmer Rouge prior, but I got a first hand take through the lens of Pran (an absolutely stunning performance by Haing S. Ngor) as he is separated from Sydney (Waterston) after numerous perilous situations and attempts to escape. Halfway through the film, Pran endures a harrowing set of circumstances (capped off with a chilling close encounter with a field of corpses) as he is captured by the Khmer Rouge and narrowly escapes death to reunite with Sydney. The reunion is as relieving as it is emotional.  In the end (not fully explained in the film), the Khmer Rouge successfully eliminated 1/4th of the Cambodian population, a sickening reality we want to forget quickly. It’s possible the content is too heavy handed for the academic pallete, and The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now already sort of covered the carnage of the Southeast Asian peninsula theater, perhaps.

So why did Amadeus win?

A mysterious man is shown to unsuccessfully commit suicide; instead of dying, he is committed to a psych ward where he recounts his time as the renowned Austrian court composer Antonio Salieri, who is outshined by the vulgar Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in terms of pure talent. Prior to this encounter Mozart, Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) makes a pact with God, that he would give up all things in order to become the greatest composer who ever lived. It is this proud notion, for we’re no fools and recognize his false humility from the start, that drives him to literal madness as Mozart consistently and ironically bumps him aside and becomes the brilliant composer we know of today.  While the film takes plenty of liberties to embellish history, we don’t care — we despise Salieri AND Mozart, yet we also feel pity for both, because the film portrays them as roundly human.  The philosophical undertone of the film is the real treasure, but everything around it is constructed with utmost care — the cinematography, the costuming, the acting, and oh the killer music and score.  I suppose one could say it is all too easy to gather up public domain tunes and refresh them for the big screen.  It’s not the subject matter itself that makes the film so brilliant, however, but the way it’s presented. On numerous occasions, you forget you’re watching a stage performance worthy of Tony awards in a film, and high art that is accessible to all levels of class and familiarity.

The movie that should have won: Amadeus

One could say this is Miloš Forman’s magnum opus, but he also directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which garnered the “Big Five” Oscars. Nonetheless, Amadeus remains one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and received just accolades in 1985.

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