The Oscar Project
Part of what I want to do with this challenge this year is chronicle my experiences through watching the movies that I select for each of these categories. In certain circumstances, the timing of watching the films will play a part in my feelings on it. My choice to watch Platoon on the evening of January 6, 2021 certainly had an impact.
As I write this post, we are in the midst of a strange time in our nation's history. While there is still much to be figured out about the events of January 6, 2021, it is sure to be a date that finds a place in history books of the future, not unlike July 4th, 1776, December 7th, 1941, and September 11th, 2001. I bring up those dates not to compare the recent events to those famous events. The scale and ultimate loss of life that resulted from the events on those days goes far beyond what we saw this week. However, there was a sense of January 6th being a turning point in history, just as those dates were.
But what does this have to do with Platoon? Well, nothing really. The only connection is that I spent the afternoon watching continuous news coverage of the events then watched the film. Usually I would turn to a comedy to cleanse the palate. But I had committed to doing this challenge and needed to get my film in before the end of the week, planning to watch it on Wednesday evening, before all the chaos erupted. So I sat down and pulled it up on Netflix as planned and tried to focus my attention on the movie for a few hours.
This was easier said than done and I fear it may have detracted a bit from the viewing experience. That said, the violence and chaos I saw in the film were definitely more serious than what was on television news earlier that evening. But, it was a very interesting juxtaposition.
What about the film?
As someone who has loved films for a long time, I have read, seen, and heard many people's opinions on this film. It is often cited as one of the best films about war ever made and given the fact that Oliver Stone was himself a Vietnam veteran, the entire film feels extremely real and genuine. However, I have to admit to being a little less enthralled with this film than I was with Apocalypse Now (the Redux version). That is not to say that it's a bad film. It is fantastic and still worthy of all the praise it has received over the years. Perhaps the fact that I have heard continued hype about it over the years meant that whatever the film was would fail to live up to expectations. Perhaps if I'd seen this earlier in life, before I settled down and had a family, maybe then I would have been able to connect even more with the characters, all being young teenage and early 20s men.
One thing I will say as a huge positive about the film is that it didn't feel bloated the way war films often do. It was a tight two hours and didn't even feel that long because the pacing was great. There were times for quiet and introspection, punctuated by the fire fights and chaos of the guerrilla warfare faced in Vietnam. Continuing the comparison to Apocalypse Now, that film clocks in at just over two and a half hours in the director's cut, but often feels like three hours or more. That film tends to have more extended periods of introspection and rumination, and feels much more like a psychological study than a snapshot of a short period in history in a small part of the jungle like Platoon.
I can't let the comparisons end there with the obvious one left unstated. While Platoon was made nearly a decade later than Apocalypse Now, they feature father Martin (Apocalypse Now) and son Charlie (Platoon) Sheen in the leading roles. One could argue that Charlie's is less of a lead since Platoon's cast is much more of an ensemble, but both actors are the featured voice in the film and provide narration at different points.
Interestingly, both Martin's Captain Willard and Charlie's Chris Taylor undergo a transformation during the time that we are with them in Vietnam. Willard is already a seasoned veteran at the beginning of the film, but progress more and more towards going native as he progresses up river over the course of the film. Taylor on the other hand is a brand new soldier, fresh off the plane from the States. Initially he is a fish out of water, the only man who volunteered in a unit full of draftees. But when he is accepted by some of his peers, he begins to blossom and ultimately shows levels of courage and bravery, along with at least one bout of insanity along the way.
Keith David (King) has enjoyed a prolific career since the 1980s with appearances in blockbusters like Pitch Black, There's Something About Mary, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith while also providing voice work for a number of films. Forest Whitaker (Big Harold) appeared in Fast Times at Ridgemont High a few years prior to Platoon, and returned to the subject of Vietnam with Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam before winning an Oscar for his role in The Last King of Scotland in 2006.
Two more cast members to note are John C. McGinley (Sgt. O'Neill) who would go on to land a role as Dr. Perry Cox on the comedy series Scrubs and Johnny Depp (Lerner) who you may know best as Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Depp's role in Platoon was minimal, but McGinley figured prominently as Sgt. Barnes's right hand man.
The final word
I plan to post an official review of this film under the Reviews section, but to summarize my feelings on the film, it nearly met my expectations. I was looking for a story about a group of soldiers in Vietnam and that's what I got. There were relationships built and strained, as I'm sure really happened on the ground there. There was plenty of chaos, a sprinkle of weed and alcohol, lots of f-bombs, and what felt to me like genuine military jargon (I'll leave the actual veterans to fully judge that point).
In the end, Platoon lives up to the tag line from the trailer and posters: "The first casualty of war is innocence."
Be sure to come back next week for the next film in the challenge. Week to is all about "classic" films.
A film that is visually striking to you
I absolutely love this film and was happy to find a spot for it on my list. It’s probably my second favorite “real” space film behind Apollo 13. By real space, I mean set roughly in the current reality of our ability to travel in space, and not set in some far off future or distant far-flung past. It has a great pace to it and truly makes you feel like you are in the various space bound environments with Sandra Bullock.
With Bullock playing the majority of the film on her own in space, fighting for her own survival and trying desperately to figure out a way to get back to Earth safely, it truly give the feeling of a suspense thriller that just happens to be set in space. One of the main points of pride, but also pain points is the scientific accuracy of the film. While even director Alfonso Cuarón admits some liberties were taken in the interest of the film, it is incredible to me how well they depicted the movement in space and how things interact with one another in that environment. There are several moments where Bullock just barely manages to save herself from certain doom. Typically, in an Earthbound film, we would see this as falling over a cliff or off the side of a mountain, but in zero gravity, we get that in the form of potentially being flung off into the void of space. It’s a different look at something tried and true in survival films.
One of my absolute favorite pieces of trivia related to this film is its running time. The film runs at 91 minutes, which by no coincidence is almost exactly the amount of time that it takes for the ISS to complete an orbit around the Earth. In a similar way that Titanic runs for the same amount of time as it took for the boat to sink after it hit the iceberg, Gravity is as long as it would take for Bullock’s character to be forced to find a way home. In that way, we are on the journey with her and feel the tension in as close to real time as possible.
And finally, returning to the visuals which prompted the selection of this film for this category, the views in the film are truly stunning. You certainly get the feeling of being in the emptiness of space and far away from our home planet, but also get the feel of the scale of Earth when looking at it from low orbit on or near the ISS. As the action moves around the planet and away from sunlight that we get at the beginning of the film, the palette changes form very bright to very dark, and back again. We get interiors of various space vehicles along with the splendid exterior space shots. All in all, it’s a fantastic voyage and visually stimulating the entire time.
If you haven’t checked out Gravity, I urge you to go rent or download it today. You won’t be disappointed.
Day 26 – A film you like that is adapted front somewhere | Day 28 – A film that made you feel uncomfortable
A film you wish you saw in theaters
Despite my desire to stray away from Star Wars films in this list, I didn’t have much of a choice when picking this category. It was a no-brainer for me to pick the original Star Wars. Not Star Wars: A New Hope, as it is now known, but just Star Wars. Unfortunately, the film was release in 1977, a few years before I was born, so I was never able to see the original version when it was in theaters. Even the version I had on VHS tape in the mid-90s was slightly different than the original 1977 version and there is plenty of changes that have been applied to the film since that time.
The first time I was able to see the film in the theater was in 1997 when Lucas released his Special Editions of the original trilogy, priming the pump with audiences for the 1999 release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace. There have been entire libraries written, mainly on the internet, about the positives and (mostly) negatives of the Special Editions. Yes, they are different than what was originally shown in the late 70s and early 80s, but certain aspects I can understand updating, especially when it comes to visual effects shots that just weren’t possible until computer technology caught up with the vision.
But back to the original film. Star Wars is a classic hero’s journey story. You have a cast of characters that are immediately memorable. From the affable farm boy turned Jedi in training Luke Skywalker and his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, to the evil Darth Vader, the beautiful yet headstrong Princess Leia to the charismatic Han Solo and his alien co-pilot Chewbacca. And let’s not forget the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the story, R2-D2 and C-3PO, as well as a cast of hundreds of aliens populating bars, spaceports, scavenging vessels and warrior tribes.
And with all those characters, I haven’t even mentioned the spaceships. Between the Rebel X-Wing fighter and Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, you have two of the most iconic spaceships in movie history. Add to that the Empire’s TIE Fighters with their distinctive screeching sound and of course the Death Star itself, and you have the makings of an entire universe.
And I still haven’t gotten to the lightsabers! This film is one that just keeps on giving. Just when you think there isn’t any more cool stuff to cram into a movie, it surprises you yet again. If not for Star Wars, empty paper towel tubes would be just that. But thanks to Star Wars, they become laser swords in the imagination of just about every adolescent boy in the last 40 years.
I know there is a section of the population that doesn’t care for Star Wars, and they are allowed to be wrong. I kid, sort of. No matter what your feelings on the films that came after Star Wars, there is no denying that the original film redefined the genre, bringing it solidly into the mainstream and in the process, cementing the concept of the summer blockbuster, pioneered a few years before with Jaws. If you’ve never seen any Star Wars film, I urge you to try and find an old copy of the original film and watch it as it was originally intended to be seen. If you’re a huge Star Wars fan, use this as your excuse to go watch the original again. Even as many times as I’ve seen it in my life, I always try and find something new when I watch it.
Here’s hoping I’ll be able to catch the next groundbreaking film in the theater and as always, may the Force be with you.
Day 23 – A film made by a director that is dead | Day 25 – A film you like that is not set in the current era
A film that changed your life
There is a book that came out last year by Brian Raftery called Best. Movie. Year. Ever. How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. In it he documents the stories behind some of the biggest films of 20 years ago (OK, 21 years ago) and argues the idea that 1999 is the best year in films, at least in recent memory. Some of the films he covers include The Blair Witch Project, Office Space, American Pie, Cruel Intentions, The Sixth Sense, Eyes Wide Shut, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, and Magnolia. That’s only about a third of the films he covers, yet any one of those could be included in a list of top ten favorite films for many people.
The movie that I’ve picked for this category though is The Matrix. While some of the films mentioned above are revolutionary in their own way (Blair Witch gave us the “true-story” horror film, American Pie gave us a great look at the struggles of teenagers and the importance of friendships) none of them quite stood out like The Matrix. Seeing this for the first time at the end of my junior year of high school, my mind was completely blown by the story that they Wachowskis has invented and ultimately delivered to the screen.
I always had mild aspirations of being some sort of computer hacker when I was younger. Granted, I never really had the skills to make that dream a reality, but when I heard about the movie where a guy finds out he’s permanently wired into a computer and has to break out into the real world, I was hooked. Pile on top of that a huge action film with plenty of great action set pieces, and it was a no-brainer for a teen like myself to flock to this movie.
The film is well known for the introduction of the filming technique called “bullet time” that used still cameras positioned around the actor(s) to achieve the illusion of the camera moving around the action in super slow motion. And while this technique was only used in a handful of shots in the finished film, you’ve probably seen dozens of other films, television shows, and even commercials that use the concept this film pioneered.
Beyond the stunning visuals and the fantastical story, The Matrix stayed with me in an emotional and even metaphysical way long after I first saw it. There is a scene where Neo is waiting to meet The Oracle and speaks with a young child bending spoons with his mind. The boy hands Neo the spoon and tells him not to try and bend the spoon as it’s impossible. Instead, he must realize the truth, that there is no spoon at all. Since they are in the matrix at the time, the spoon is not real. Now, I don’t have time to expound on this concept here, but there is plenty of analysis of this one scene (and more) on the internet if you are interested in it. You can check out the scene here.
The Matrix spawned several sequels along with short films, comics, and other media, but the original is the only one that counts in my book. It has everything you need in it and tells the complete story.
Day 19 – A film made by your favorite director | Day 21 – A film that you dozed off in
A film made by your favorite director
I had such a hard time picking a favorite director for this category, so I landed on Steven Spielberg. I already had two Christopher Nolan films on the list and had selections from some greats like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and Peter Jackson but I only had one Spielberg film (Jurassic Park) way back on day 2. And if you’ve been playing along all month, you’ll know that a few of those names I just mentioned are teasers for upcoming films in the last few days.
Obviously, Spielberg has such a vast catalog of films he has directed over a nearly 50-year career, I had many options to choose from. Some other choices that were near the top of my list included Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, and Minority Report. But if I had to pick one movie that only Spielberg could have made, it would be E.T. The Extraterrestrial.
There is so much to love about this film. He clearly moved on from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and wanted to make a different kind of alien movie and succeeded in that. From the instant E.T. appears on screen, anyone watching the film loves him. Granted, the film was released three months after I was born, but I would guess that the love for E.T. hasn’t been matched in the nearly 40 years since then, with the exception of the recent addition to the Star Wars universe, Baby Yoda.
I think it’s a credit to the enduring legacy of this film that it even inspired a short film/commercial last holiday season that featured Henry Thomas, the actor who portrayed Elliott in the original. You can watch that short film here. I dare you to watch even this short 4-minute clip without tearing up just a little.
We all want a little part of E.T. in our life, something from completely outside our imagination that we can believe in and be connected to. And deep down, we probably all understand that we may not get to keep that strange thing for long, but that it will always be a part of our experience and remain in our heart forever.
Day 18 – A film that stars your favorite actor/actress | Day 20 – A film that changed your life
Favorite film sequel
I was trying VERY hard to stay away from Star Wars films on this list and this is already my second one (after The Last Jedi last week) so I’ve already broken that goal. But there really is no other answer for this category. Not only is it my favorite film sequel, I think many people would argue that it is the best sequel ever made.
I know my post last week about The Last Jedi identified some problems with The Empire Strikes Back, but while they derail the recent film, Empire is still a near perfect film. For fans of the franchise, this outing accomplishes what many other films in the series tried (and failed) to do. It goes in a very dark direction, while expanding the story and the universe of the original. We have the same familiar cast of characters, but also get a new crop of fan favorites from the Jedi Master Yoda to his evil counterpart Emperor Palpatine. The story also takes us to new locales, completely different from what we had in the first film.
But all this pales in comparison with one of the greatest plot twists in cinematic history. I don’t need to flag this as a spoiler, but Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. So much has been made about this moment in film that took place now 40 years ago. The Simpson’s have referenced it when Homer and Marge’s went to see the film on a date and Homer ruined the surprise for fans waiting in line for the next showing. Many films have parodied the line including Tommy Boy, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Toy Story 2, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The reveal is so pervasive in popular culture that even people who have never seen a second of a Star Wars film know the line and the situation.
The film was nominated for several Oscars and won for Best Sound Mixing, the only other film in the series to win a competitive Oscar after the original 1977 release. The film has been heralded as the best Star Wars film ever made, many referring to the darker themes explored and the fact that unlike the first film, it ends with the bad guys on top, something you usually don’t see in popular cinema.
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back is available on Disney+.
Day 16 – A film that is personal to you | Day 18 – A film that stars your favorite actor/actress
A film that put you in deep thought
This is the second newest film I have on my list and one of the most recently critically acclaimed. As such, there may be a bit of recency bias in this pick, but that’s OK. I wanted this list to have a broad spectrum of films from different eras, genres, directors, and styles, and that means including recent films as well as those from 50 or 80 years ago.
For anyone who has seen this film, I challenge you to admit that it didn’t move you in some way. As I wrote in my recent review of the film, it is a personal story, yet one that is told on a grand scale. There are moments of intense emotion between individuals, followed by sweeping views of the devastation of war that is evident all around them.
I’m not joking when I tell you that I sat in silence in my living room, all by myself, after this film finished playing. In today’s world of streaming video and DVDs, it’s easy to just click off the credits and move on to the next piece of media. But as the category for today suggests, I sat in thought after this film finished. I let the credits play and imagined how I would have reacted in the shoes of the characters on screen. Would I have had the courage to lay my life on the line the way they did to save my fellow countrymen? Would I have been able to crawl through trenches full of decaying carcasses, avoid sniper fire, and swim over a waterfall, just to deliver a message that could potentially save the lives of hundreds of men? I’m not sure.
This is a hallmark of some of the best films throughout history. They tell a striking story in an incredibly visual way that makes you sit back and think. Films like this stay with you and give your brain plenty to chew on, not just in the moment, but for days after viewing. That is what 1917 did for me.
Day 12 – A film that you hate from your favorite genre | Day 14 – A film that gave you depression
A film that you will never get tired of
My first of two Christopher Nolan films on this list comes with Inception. I could probably populate this list with even more of his films, but I’m trying to keep things spread out a bit, giving love to as many possible films, directors, and actors as I can.
Inception is certainly not a perfect film. It leaves many people very confused and there is a whole corner of the internet focusing on finding ways to visualize the various levels of dreams that the characters go through during the third act of the film. To call it the third act isn’t even really fair. The whole second half of the film represents the heist that Leonardo DiCaprio’s crew is trying to pull off, while the first half sets the stage and give as much exposition as you’re going to get for a mind-bender like this.
For a quick recap, well, I’m not going to try and explain it. You just have to watch the film. The basic idea is that a team of corporate espionage experts have to hack into someone’s dreams to plant an idea deep in the victim’s subconscious in order to get them to do what the client wants. I’m not sure how someone even comes up with an idea like that, but it’s truly wild ideas like this that make many of Nolan’s films so memorable.
I have to give an honorable mention and shout out here to the first Nolan film I saw, Memento. Released in 2000, Memento tells the story of a man who suffers from short term memory loss and relies on a complex system of notes and tattoos to remember who he is, who he can trust, and why he is where he is. Another truly mind-bending concept, executed to perfection by Nolan.
But back to Inception. I love this film many of the reasons outlined above, in addition to the great cast. DiCaprio is cool and calm (most of the time) while his team made up of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, and Dileep Rao provide a good group to pal around with for two hours. Add in Ken Watanabe as their client Saito and Cillian Murphy as the mark, and Marion Cotillard as DiCaprio’s deceased wife, you’ve got a phenomenal cast that knocks this story out of the park.
I used this as the film I never get tired of and it’s true. The number of times I have stayed up until 2 or 3 in the morning watching this because I caught it on TV late at night is more than I care to admit. I think I’ve only seen it from beginning to end once or twice, but the entire heist sequence is one I can’t tear myself away from and I just have to watch it to the end.
Inception is currently available on Amazon Prime.
Day 6 - Your favorite animated film | Day 8 - A film where you like the soundtrack more
A film where a character had a job you want
For someone who grew up wanting to go to space (and still does), Apollo 13 made that a reality, even if only on screen for a few hours. Ever since I was old enough to know what a “job” was, I wanted to be an astronaut. I didn’t really know what the job entailed, but the idea of floating around in space, free of anything else, was so inviting to me.
I’m often amazed at how well certain films about true events keep you on the edge of your seat, even though you know what’s going to happen. Case in point, I remember a certain member of my family (who will remain nameless) asking me in the middle of this film whether the astronauts make it back alive. I was the source for this information in our family, having read every book on space from my school library and attending space camp during spring break a few years before the film was released. I assured my relative that the men did make it back, since the film was based on a book by one of the characters, Jim Lovell.
For those who don’t know, Apollo 13 tells the true story of Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise as they carry out the third mission to land men on the surface of the moon. En route to the moon, there is an explosion onboard their ship which leaves them with a limited supply of oxygen. The disaster forces the astronauts to abandon their landing and the men and women on the ground at NASA to find a way to keep the astronauts alive with enough breathable air to get them back to Earth safely.
I think one of the things that makes this such a great movie for me is the all-star cast. Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton are fantastic as the three astronauts, with support from Gary Sinise as Ken Mattingly, the grounded Command Module Pilot who’s spot was taken by Swigert and my favorite supporting role of the film, Ed Harris as famous NASA flight director Gene Kranz. If you’ve ever seen interviews with the real Kranz, it’s clear that Harris nailed his performance.
The film was made 25 years ago now (which incidentally is the same amount of time from the events to the film’s release) and I was pleasantly surprised at how well the visuals hold up today. Key moments of the film including the rocket launch and the segments in space where the three astronauts float around inside the craft are well done and captured the feeling of being in space. As I mentioned before, the film holds the tension of the experience, and while the actual events took place over the course of nearly six days, the film does an excellent job of compressing those events into a run time of just over two hours.
While not entirely accurate from the perspective of all the historical nuances, the film tells the story of the brave men both in space and on the ground that seemingly achieved the impossible.
Day 4 - A film with a number in the title | Day 6 - Your favorite animated film
A film you like that starts with the first letter of your name
Thankfully my name starts with J because I’m not sure where else I would've put Jurassic Park in this challenge. There are a few spots it could have landed, but this is probably my favorite “J" movie. Some others that nearly made the cut were Jumanji (the original with Robin Williams), The Jungle Book (original animated feature), and of course, Jaws.
I find it interesting that three of the four films I considered in this category dealt with special effects. Jaws is famous for the shark even though we see only a few minutes of actual footage of the shark in the film. Jumanji came after Jurassic Park by a few years and utilized much of the technology that Spielberg’s groundbreaking film pioneered, but not with the same attention to detail.
Jurassic Park was, and still is, a masterpiece of storytelling, brought to life on the screen by advanced technology that made seemingly impossible visions a reality. I’m still not quite sure how my pre-teen self managed to sift through Michael Crighton’s 448-page book that the film is based on, but I did, and I was so excited to see the dinosaurs on screen. And while some people remember their fright at seeing Jaws for the first time, that film for me is Jurassic Park. It wasn’t so much the T-Rex, but the raptors that did it for me. Especially near the end of the film when those raptors are after prey that was much the same age I was at the time, I guess it hit just a little too close to home.
Now, you surely know that an entire franchise has sprung up around Jurassic Park, complete with theme park rides, video games, LEGO sets, and a new animated series on Netflix. Probably not what Crighton had in mind when he put pen to paper in the 1980s or when Spielberg decided to adapt the book into a film.
And while the most recent entries in the franchise have done better at the box office even than the original, the first film will always hold a special place in my heart, just as it has cemented its legacy in the history of film. Seeing the herd of dinos running across the island as they’re being chased by the T-Rex or feeling the adrenaline of Grant, Sattler, and the kids being chased by computer generated velociraptors was something that had never been seen on screen before. We take these visual effects tools for granted today, but at the time they were state of the art and cutting edge. I would estimate that 95% of the effects work you see on screen today can be traced back to the technologies created to make Jurassic Park.
The last thing I must talk about with Jurassic Park is the music. It’s one thing to see the dinosaurs on the screen, moving in their environment and even interacting with the human actors on occasion, but it’s another thing entirely to feel the grandeur of those enormous creatures when you hear the swell of John Williams’s incredible score for the film. I spent many hours when I was younger practicing my assigned piano pieces as quickly as possible so I could get a chance to play the Jurassic Park theme on my piano. While my piano never quite did the same justice as a full orchestra, I always loved playing that music just as much as I love listening to it. If you are a lover of soundtracks as I am, I recommend you check out two episodes of The Soundtrack Show podcast dedicated to an analysis of the music of Jurassic Park. (Episode 1, Episode 2)
Day 1 - The first film you remember watching | Day 3 - A film that has more than five words
I'm just a film buff who wants to watch great movies. Where else to find the best, than the list of those nominated by the Academy each year?