1) Schindler's List |
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Hailed as the best film to hit the screen in twenty years by critics, audiences, and actors alike, Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List has won practically every conceivable award for film last year. It topped many critics' best lists of 1993 (this critic included), won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama) in January, and added the coveted Academy Award for Best Picture to its name in March. What makes this three-hour-plus, mostly black-and-white Holocaust drama better than the other four worthy Best Picture nominees--The Fugitive, In the Name of the Father, The Piano, and The Remains of the Day--let alone the many other motion pictures released in 1993? Like the other four, Schindler's List has all the ingredients of a great film--a smart screenplay, fabulous acting, exceptional direction--but unlike the others, the ingredients add up to something greater: a classic that stays with the audience long after the closing credits conclude.
Steven Zaillian's Oscar-winning screenplay tells an emotionally involving story with fascinating characters. For a script for a three-hour film, the action progresses at a rapid pace, keeping the audience interested and involved. Naturally, the pace of the action would not matter if the action itself were not interesting, and Zaillian's script is never lacking in interesting scenes. This is primarily due to the well-written characters. Zaillian so successfully fleshes out the characters that not only does the audience feel a rapport with them, but, more importantly, it is interested in what the characters have to say. An early scene with Oskar Schindler dining with his wife in a restaurant could, when taken out of context, be seen as a routine exchange between a troubled married couple. But the audience stays interested because it wants to know what these two people want to say. Interestingly enough, the protagonist, Oskar Schindler, is not an especially likable character, as are some others in the film, yet he manages to come off favorably to the audience, even when, in one scene, he has sex with a woman who is not his wife. Only a screenplay written with great skill can make an abrasive protagonist compelling and tolerable for more than three hours.
Schindler boasts incredible, convincing performances all across the board. Liam Neeson gives a brave performance as Schindler. Like fellow Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes, who plays evil Nazi concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth, Neeson is not afraid to play his character as written: in Neeson's case, an arrogant war profiteer who does not realize--until the very end--the enormity of his actions; in Fiennes's case, a human embodiment of pure evil and hate. Lesser actors would try to romanticize their characters to make them more pleasant to the audience. Fiennes and Neeson wisely chose not to take that route, and make an even more favorable impression than they would have had they tried to soften their roles. Ben Kingsley (as Schindler's accountant, Itzhak Stern), Embeth Davidtz (as Goeth's Jewish maid, Helen Hirsch), and Caroline Goodall (as Schindler's wife, Emilie) all turn in the type of performance that is easily taken for granted. They are so convincing that it is easy for the audience to forget that they are actors playing roles, especially since they are in the background. While watching Schindler's, the audience does not see actors acting in a made-up world; it believes it sees real people living in the real world.
Of course, good writing and acting do not make a good film unless properly assembled by a competent director, and Steven Spielberg is more than up to the challenge. While he has proven himself to be a skilled director over the years with blockbusters such as E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark, his brilliant work here actually comes as a surprise, primarily because it is so "un-Spielberg." He does not resort to his trademark sappy, sentimental tricks and sugarcoating; Schindler's List is raw, brutal, and restrained. Spielberg could have easily turned every harrowing scene into a saccharine emotional peak; for instance, he could have trumped up every scene where a Jew is shot in the head to a relentless tearjerker where a victim tearfully pleads to his Nazi executor, and his or her spouse, hysterical and also crying, struggles to break free from the grip of Nazi troops holding him or her back, preventing him or her from saving his or her loved one as the bullet is fired. Spielberg records all the deaths as matter-of-factly as possible and free from any melodramatics, not unlike a documentary. Spielberg wisely chose to film the movie in black and white, a choice that not only makes the already-disturbing deaths less gruesome, but also makes the film feel more authentic, giving it a newsreel-like quality. The color epilogue with the actual Schindler Jews visiting his grave is a stroke of genius, but what really makes this segment even more effective is Spielberg's decision to have the actors escort their real-life counterparts to the grave. Connections between the actual person and the actor who portrayed him or her could be established by a name printed on the screen, but the connection is so much clearer when one sees the actor and the person side by side.
With all films, I find myself leaving the theater not so much thinking about the entire film, but certain parts of it. I had that reaction with the four other Best Picture nominees. After The Fugitive, I thought of the spectacular train wreck; the disturbing sight of Daniel Day-Lewis being beaten into a false murder confession stayed with me after In the Name of the Father The Piano's haunting final image was etched into my memory; and the heart-wrenching scene of Anthony Hopkins merely looking on in the rain while a heartbroken Emma Thompson tearfully rides away on a bus replayed in my head after The Remains of the Day. However, I left Schindler's List thinking not only about the girl in the red coat, but also the Auschwitz shower scene, Schindler's powerful goodbye scene, the flames of the candles regaining their color--not one scene, but the entire film. That is what separates a merely great film from a true classic. That's what separates the best film of the year from all the rest.