Sunday, February 19, 2012

For Your Consideration: The “Best Pictures” for Families

I’m sure you’ve noticed it’s Academy Awards season. Offered for your consideration: the greatest family films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Easy? Not really. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that not many family films have won Best Picture. But every so often, a family picture slips through. This is my personal top five, incidentally an honor roll of great directors, and appropriate for every family’s dvd shelf or digital video queue:

Number 5: My Fair Lady, 1964
Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Rex Harrison), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Music (Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment), Best Sound.
This 1964 musical directed by George Cukor is tuneful and has over-the-top costumes that are the stuff of any kid’s fantasy. It stars the always appealing Audrey Hepburn as Eliza with Hollywood go-to gal Marni Nixon providing Eliza’s singing voice. The entire film was shot inside a sound stage that adds to its magical, child-like feeling. And the story is simple to understand: Higgins is a mean, strict teacher who comes to like and even respect his pupil.

Number 4: How Green Was My Valley, 1941
Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Acting in a Supporting Role (Donald Crisp), Best Art Direction (Interior Decoration, Black-and-White), Best Cinematography (Black-and-White).
This is an atypical John Ford film, telling the sentimental tale of a close-knit Welsh mining family. It’s told through the eyes of the youngest son, Huw, played by a 12-year-old Roddy McDowall, anchoring the story in a child’s world. Huw’s personal drama, like his slow recovery from an injury that cost him the use of his legs, creates an interesting parallel to the grown-up issues of his siblings and parents. They triumph over their woes by loving and supporting each other. It’s a quiet stunner.

Number 3: An American in Paris, 1951
Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Music (Scoring of a Musical Picture), Best Writing (Story and Screenplay).
This Vincente Minnelli directed musical stars the immensely likable Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, who tries to succeed as a painter in post-war Paris. This really is a kid’s version of a love story, wholesome and chaste by today’s standards. I half expect Jerry to ask Leslie Caron’s Lise Bouvier to share an ice cream soda. Gene Kelly/Jerry Mulligan even sings and dances to “I Got Rhythm” with a group of children, his natural fans. The musical numbers are ambitious and impressive, the greatest high school musical you’ll ever see.

Number 2: The Sound of Music, 1965
Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music (Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment), and Best Sound.
Robert Wise created a truly special film for the entire family, starring the spunky Julie Andrews as Maria. Maria brings music as well as laughter and fun back into the lives of the seven Von Trapp children, beguiling their father (and us) in the bargain. The music of Rogers and Hammerstein soars to the mountaintops, with songs like “Do Re Mi,” “Edelweiss,” and the title theme, “The Sound of Music,” capturing a more wholesome, by-gone era. And the encroaching Nazi threat is filtered through a child’s understanding. And Andrews carries the film with talent and charisma. She was always able to find the humor and sass within the schmaltz of this project, turning the sentiment into an asset. She asserts the values of love, of family closeness, and the importance of fun. Her sincerity—both Julie’s and Maria’s—is infectious. On her, it all looks good.

Number 1: Oliver! 1968
Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Art Direction (Set Decoration), Best Music (Score of a Musical Picture, Original or Adaptation), and Best Sound, as well as an honorary award for Best Choreography.
This movie really is for, by, and about kids. Young Oliver suffers, but triumphs in the end. Director Carol Reed has brought indelible children’s performances to the screen, including Mark Lester as Oliver, but even more spectacularly, the late Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger, one of the great kid’s performances on film ever, full stop. And the rest of Fagin’s boys are more talented and better singers and dancers than they have the right to be at their tender ages. The production numbers featuring these kids including “I’d Do Anything” and “Consider Yourself” are particular gems, but the entire film is a feast, with Dickens’ London brought to life in all its teeming, glorious richness from the most gleaming upper-crust address to the most treacherous back-alley hide-out. As Dr. Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

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