The Worst of the Best re-examines the most unpopular Best Picture winners to see if they have any merit and determine why they won the top prize.
It’s difficult to think of a worse year at the Oscars in my lifetime than the 2006 ceremony. Despite the legendary Jon Stewart acting as the host, the awards were completely sterile. There was no coronation for an exciting new talent, there was no legend finally getting their due (barring Robert Altman’s honorary Oscar) and none of the nominated pictures had any lasting impact.
Be honest – when was the last time you thought about Good Night and Good Luck? Or Munich? They’re good films but they’re not the sort of films that go on to change the medium.
There remains a pall hanging over the awards that has not subsided. The controversy has become almost as famous as the films involved. Against all odds, Crash beat Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture.
I personally am not a fan of Brokeback Mountain. I thought it was a boring slog that was not nearly as clever or insightful as it thought it was. But compared to Crash, Brokeback Mountain is a John Ford masterpiece. Even at the time, critics didn’t embrace Crash. (Roger Ebert notwithstanding.) They liked it – it has a 74 percent on Rotten Tomatoes – but the positive reviews couldn’t help but point out the movie’s flaws. Besides, a 74 percent score for a Best Picture winner is dismal. 2019’s Best Picture Parasite was a 99 percent score. Even on the surface, Crash lacks the gravitas that comes with the top prize.
And its reputation has not improved with time. It frequently tops polls as the “worst” Best Picture winner and even writer/director Paul Haggis said his movie didn’t deserve to win. There was a TV spin-off on STARZ that lasted two seasons, but Crash didn’t lead to a movement of socially conscious films about race relations in the United States. Today, Paul Haggis is more famous for his public break with the Church of Scientology over their refusal to support gay marriage than for his filmmaking career.
But even if Crash is a controversial Best Picture winner, is it a bad film? Does it have any redeeming merits? I’ve seen multiple Best Picture nominations and Best Picture winners that I don’t like. But they have some merit.
I’ll go ahead and spoil it – yes, Crash is utter dreck. It feels like an amateurish copy of better films. Its message is not original and the script mirrors scripts written by film students at UCLA. I have no doubt Haggis sincerely believed in the anti-prejudice message of the film. But he couldn’t translate that belief into a great script. I walked away from this movie feeling like I had nothing to examine about my views of the world.
For a socially conscious movie, that’s a death sentence.
I could compare Crash to movies like Robert Altman’s classic Short Cuts and, especially, Spike Lee’s legendary Do the Right Thing. But honestly, it doesn’t feel right to even mention Crash in the same breath as the other two.
Instead, I think there’s more contemporary example that illustrates Crash’s failure. Do you remember in 2017 when The New York Times wrote a profile of a young neoNazi living in Ohio? And the whole point the article seemed to be making was that this young man really wasn’t all that different from anyone else, with his wife, his love of Applebee’s food, and his enjoyment of the TV shows Twin Peaks and (ironically) Seinfeld? And then people rightfully condemned the story, pointing out that trying to normalize this hate or make those that espouse it seem more sympathetic is the exact opposite of what we should be doing and the fact that such hate can be so normal on its surface is what the actual problem is?
Crash is the cinematic equivalent of that article. It seeks to examine race relations by showing how, beneath the surface, those who would look down on black people and those who would accuse Hispanics or being thieves are really just suffering from a bad day and are actually very sympathetic.
That’s not the story that needs to be told. Additionally, this approach doesn’t work because none of the characters are complex. They all exist for one reason – to endlessly reinforce the point Haggis thought he was making.
I mentioned Do The Right Thing because that is the sort of template socially conscious movies need to follow. For one, we learn about the characters and what drives them. Do you remember the scene where Mookie makes love to his girlfriend, asking God to bless every part of her body? That scene doesn’t exist to forward Lee’s message. What it does is paints Mookie as a complete human. He’s not just a pizza delivery man who is growing increasingly frustrated by his out of touch boss. He has a child. He has a partner. He loves them. His actions at the end do not just have an affect on Sal and the people in his neighborhood. He’s burning down his source of income that he used to take care of his family.
For another, Do The Right Thing built to something. It doesn’t start addressing racism right out of the gate. When Sal starts using the n-word as he is destroying Radio Raheem’s boom box, we’re shocked and upset. This is the same man who, earlier in the day, was talking about how much he loves his neighborhood and how he watched its children grow up. But even Sal is blinded by his own prejudices.
Crash doesn’t have anything like that. Every single person in this movie is obsessed with one thing and one thing only – their prejudices. Literally four minutes into the film we get a white character mocking an Asian woman’s accent. At five minutes we have someone exclaiming how “shocked” they are to have been hit by an Asian driver. And the film just keeps going in that direction. We see an Iranian family buying a gun and having the gun store owner mocking him and saying he was involved in 9/11. Don Cheadle angers his sex partner by taking a phone call from his mom and telling her he had to go because “he was having sex with a white woman.” Ludacris’ character only exists to spout off ridiculous theories about how everything is designed to oppress black people. Now, the institutionalized racism in this country is a gigantic wound that has barely begun to heal. But when I say Ludacris’ ideas are…ludicrous, I mean there is a monologue devoted to how hip-hop music is designed to prevent black people from forming complex opinions.
So, Tupac, N.W.A, and Public Enemy don’t exist in the world of Crash? What about Saul Williams? Andre 3000? What gave Ludacris his ideas? The movie never says.
Because the movie starts out with these characters and constantly reveals the one thing on their mind, there’s nothing to build to. Yes, we do learn a little more about them in the screenplay’s desperate attempt to make them seem human – like revealing Matt Dillon’s racist cop is stressed from dealing with his sick father – but again, that doesn’t excuse his behavior (including sexually assaulting a woman in broad daylight) nor does it provide his character an arc. By the end we’re seeing the various characters reach a breaking point, but that’s the only place the movie could go. Ryan Phillipe shoots an unarmed black man, Don Cheadle’s mother blames him for his brother’s death, the Iranian store owner tries to murder Michael Pena’s locksmith character – only for Pena’s daughter to nearly lose her life instead. (The bullets were blanks that he had inadvertently purchased – although how he manages to escape arrest is something the movie doesn’t explain.)
These scenes don’t have any emotional impact because it was obvious the script was building to this ending. It announces its intentions too early. Besides, what does it all mean? What am I supposed to do with this? Am I supposed to be surprised that racism exists and is deeply rooted in people’s minds? I’m not. Does this movie offer any solutions or ways that I can look at situations differently and confront my own prejudices? No.
Crash feels like a script written by a 20-year-old at Sundance who believes that, because their movie is socially conscious, it is automatically good. But just because you have good content doesn’t mean your movies . I would think Paul Haggis should know better. Not only has he written some good movies (Casino Royale and Letters from Iwo Jima), he’s personally stood up against a prejudiced organization and paid a hefty price for doing so. Why he felt this movie was an acceptable way to discuss prejudice is something I don’t know. Maybe I was expecting too much out of the guy who created Walker, Texas Ranger.
So, what did AMPAS love about Crash?
The traditional view is Brokeback Mountain was to controversial a pick and Crash was an easy way out to cater to the progressives in Hollywood while not alienating anyone.
I don’t believe it’s that simple. If that was the case, then it would have been far easier to not nominate Brokeback Mountain at all. Yet not only was it nominated, it won some of the top prizes that night, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. And today, AMPAS has demonstrated it does not care what the more conservative portion of the public wants. In an era of travel bans and neo-Nazis marching in public, they selected the first ever foreign language film as Best Picture.
Instead, I believe I found the answer in Ebert’s review. Ebert was infatuated with the movie and the last paragraph is something that resonated with AMPAS. Ebert called Crash a “movie about progress,” pointing out that a city like Los Angeles would not have existed centuries ago and no one ever met anyone else outside of their race. Even if people are prejudiced, at least they’re interacting with people from different backgrounds.
So, to the voters, the movie helped make LA look good and showed why its residents, even with their flaws, were ultimately BETTER than everyone else. And Hollywood loves nothing more than itself. So, from that point of view, a win for Crash was really a “win” for the home team. Shame the win was such a pyrrhic victory.
There’s really nothing else to say about Crash. AMPAS made a mistake and that’s all there is to it. Unfortunately, it was neither the first nor the last mistake they’ve made.