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Dances With Wolves

For about 400 years after Christopher Columbus bumped into the Caribbean and undeservedly got credit for discovering the place, we honkies set about slowly committing genocide against the folks who made the mistake of living here beforehand. Then we started running out of natives to kill so we spent the next 60 years or so making movies about how ruthless and menacing they were. Eventually we started to feel bad, so for about ten years in the late 80ís and early 90ís there were a bunch of movies about how they werenít all that bad once you got to know them. Yeah, that about makes it even.

Yep, the latest entry in the My Year with Oscar project is the best picture winner from 1990, Dances With Wolves, staring and directed by Kevin Costner. This film is quite a departure for Costner, as it does not involve baseball in any way.

Costner plays Lt. John Dunbar, a man who canít find a way to kill himself during the Civil War, so he heads out west (sadly not finding any women who come equipped with scripts and fake breasts). He ends up at and abandoned fort, visited occasionally by a wolf. Sadly, the major who sent him there was a complete nut job and offed himself, and the scout who actually took him there got shot by the Pawnee, so no one has any clue heís out there.

After a few run-ins with the locals, he decides he to ride out to visit them, and on the way meets Stands With a Fist, a white woman who had been adopted by the Lakota, and is worried that Whitey is going to come and take her back. She evidently also just lost her husband, so sheís trying to kill herself. Dunbar finds her out on the prairie and takes her back to her village, where he is met by distrust.

Eventually he is welcomed into the fold, and he slowly begins to transform, adopting more and more native customs, until he decides to marry Stands With a Fist and join the tribe. However when he goes back to the fort to retrieve his diary, his reinforcements have suddenly arrived, and they accuse him of "turning Indian" and are about to take him back to headquarters when the company is ambushed by the Lakota who rescue their new friend from his own people.

There is a lot to like here. The cinematography is absolutely stunning, and itís worth the price of admission just for the buffalo hunt sequence alone. I especially love the shot where they are tracking the buffalo and come to the opening into a valley, and see a wide swath of land trampled down by the herd, all the way to the horizon. Deam Semler won a much deserved Oscar for the cinematography, as did John Barry for best original score.

The acting is good as well, once you get past Costnerís rather ridiculous late 80ís hairdo. Graham Greene plays Lakota medicine man Kicking Bird and does a very impressive job. In the scene where they first try to communicate with each other, Green and Costner show how two actors at the top of their game can tell a story with little or no dialogue.

Costner also works in some very nice subtleties. The scene where Dunbar makes coffee for the Lakota is quite funny, as is Robert Pastorelli as Dunbarís uncouth traveling companion. There is also some nice imagery in Dunbarís outfit. As he embraces more and more of the native lifestyle, he gradually transitions from a military uniform to native dress.

Dances With Wolves was clearly superior to three of the other four nominees. Godfather III was nowhere near as good as the previous two installments. Ghost was nothing more than an average chick flick. Awakenings is the kind of movie that springs up every year with an uplifting social message that just seems to be designed specifically to get Oscar buzz, but in the end is nothing special. Dances With Wolves is clearly better than all of them, but that fifth nominee was Goodfellas, which is seemingly always on the short list of greatest movies ever made. As good as Dances With Wolves is, and it is a solid A, I canít bring myself to place it above Goodfellas, which scores an easy A+. Maybe Goodfellas and Godfather III split the Mafia vote. But despite being the second bets movie of 1990, Dances With Wolves is a very close second, and definitely worth seeing.

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