The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1999
Ah, Best Director ’99. I was originally going to end Best Director month with this one (since I’d already done 2000-2010, and this would have been the most recent category left and the most fitting to end with), but I decided to wait because I knew this would be a nice break for me in a month like this. Talking about this category is like when, on a test, after three long essays on the Boer wars, you get a question like, “So tell us why Nixon fucked up in the 70s.” And you’re like, “I know that! I can write twice what they want me to without pausing for thought!”
1999 was a good year. I think I explained it once as being a bit, on the nose. Don’t get me wrong, I love American Beauty — I fucking love that movie. I’d have voted for it all the way — but, it’s kind of, I don’t know, it feels too easy. It’s because the film is kind of stagy. Which doesn’t so much affect Best Picture as much as it affects this category. But we’ll get to that in a second. First let’s recap:
Best Actor this year was Kevin Spacey for American Beauty. Best Actress was Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry (don’t get me started on this one), Best Supporting Actor was Michael Caine for The Cider House Rules (or this one), and Best Supporting Actress was Angelina Jolie for Girl, Interrupted (I talked about this one already).
So now, we come to the big conundrum — do I vote for the director of the movie I’d have voted for Best Picture, or do I vote for the director who directed the hell out of his movie and was much more “flashy” in his effort? What do you do? Pop quiz, hotshot.
BEST DIRECTOR – 1999
And the nominees are…
Lasse Hallström, The Cider House Rules
Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich
Michael Mann, The Insider
Sam Mendes, American Beauty
M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense
Hallström — Yeah, this movie. It seems there’s always one movie like this in recent years. (Note: The reason is because it’s a Miramax film.) The film that’s so obviously an Oscar contender that it’s not interesting. Think The Hours, Cold Mountain — they’re just, boring because they’re so awards predictable. (Note: Miramax films.)
This movie was just — wow. And I like John Irving too. The World According to Garp is a fucking tremendous film. But — wow.
Tobey Maguire is an orphan raised in an orphanage by Michael Caine, a doctor who’s addicted to ether and performs abortions for women who have no other choice. And Tobey grows up to become Caine’s assistant, until the day when he decides he wants to go out and see the world. And I think that’s the day when Caine performs an abortion on Charlize Theron, who’s dating Paul Rudd, who’s going off to war. And then he goes back with them, and works on their apple orchard, and then there’s a whole bit with a black family, and I think Tobey sleeps with Charlize, and Paul Rudd comes back hurt from the war, and Michael Caine dies for no reason other than to get him a Supporting Actor nomination — I honestly don’t remember what really happened in this movie. I just remember, I got through it okay, and wondered why the fuck everyone nominated it for so many awards. I mean, really?
So, in closing, the direction is standard, I had no interest in it at all, and it was never going to win here in a million years. Moving on.
Jonze — Now here’s a movie that really deserves to be on here. Goddamn this movie was great. Charlie Kaufman is the David Lynch of screenwriters. He’s a mad genius. (I hope he’s got another one coming out soon.)
The movie, if you don’t know, and if you don’t why the hell not, is about a puppeteer who goes to work in an office on the 7 1/2 floor of a building, starts flirting with a coworker (who turns out to be a lesbian), and ends up finding a portal into the brain of John Malkovich. At first it only lasts fifteen minutes, so they start charging for people to come in and check it out. But, the dude discovers he can be in there for as long as he wants, and he starts to control Malkovich, and then the lesbian marries Malkovich, even though it’s the puppeteer and then there’s this plot about a bunch of people living inside Malkovich — trust me, if you’ve seen it, it makes sense. If you haven’t, just watch it.
Personally, this is my least favorite Charlie Kaufman film, but that’s only because I fucking love Adaptation. and Eternal Sunshine. And, for my money, Synecdoche, New York, while not perfect, is so fascinating it easily takes a spot above this one. So, even though this is 4 of 4 for Charlie Kaufman films, that’s still a couple rungs above most films.
As for the direction here, Spike Jonze does a really great job with it. I still don’t like it enough to vote for it, but it’s a solid third here. Very solid third.
Mann — Okay, now we come down to one of the big two. The Insider is a fucking great movie. This is the movie that’s a tossup with American Beauty for Best Picture this year. You wouldn’t be wrong to say you preferred this over the other. I personally prefer American Beauty, but I still love this film to death.
The film is about a producer at 60 Minutes, played by Al Pacino, who gets contacted by Russell Crowe, who worked as a scientist for a tobacco company and was fired very unfairly. And now Crowe wants to go public with claims about how the company knew they were poisoning people and were playing dumb for so many years. It’s the kind of thing where, his testimony would finally allow for the companies to be prosecuted successfully, something that’s never happened due to their endless supply of money and ability to crush almost any attempt at a trial. And the beauty of the movie is that it plays at multiple levels. At first you see the two men just dealing with their lives. Then, they meet and it becomes about Pacino getting the information out of Crowe. Crowe’s company made him sign a non-disclosure agreement, which makes him libel to go to prison if he says anything. And then after that it becomes about the legal ramifications of making this public, and whether or not the network can and will air it, as well as the effects on Crowe’s family, as they begin receiving death threats and break ins and stuff. It’s a riveting fucking movie. Seriously. Most people would say Heat was Michael Mann’s best. I agree, but to an extent. I think this is his all around best film. His best five are probably this, Heat, Collateral, Manhunter and probably Last of the Mohicans. Though Miami Vice is pretty awesome in that cooler than you kind of way, Public Enemies has that element of fun to it and Ali is mostly a showcase for Will Smith but is also good. But, for my money, this is Mann’s best film.
The direction here is perfect. Mann’s style is perfect for this kind of film. It makes what would be monotonous conversations interesting because of his love of changing the color palette and shooting handheld. And then his style works even better once the “thriller” sequences come about toward the end of the film, when Crowe starts getting paranoid and worrying for his life. It’s fucking great.
Now, the problem here is — do I vote for the brilliant direction even though I wouldn’t vote for the film for Best Picture? Or do I go with the direction on a film I love to death? Let’s get to that direction first, before I continue this question.
Mendes — American Beauty is a brilliantly written film. Parts of it are a bit — I don’t know — strange — especially now. I’m not sure how this film is gonna hold up, but still, the film is incredible to watch and has top notch performances all around.
Just to quickly recap — Kevin Spacey is bored and hates his life. He’s pretty much a loser, and he says as much. He and his wife don’t love one another anymore, his daughter doesn’t respect him, and the high point of his day is masturbating in the shower. And then one day he says, “fuck it.” A bunch of things kind of happen at once. He gets a crush on his daughter’s friend, then quits his job, blackmails his boss, starts buying pot from the neighbor next door (who starts dating his daughter), gets a job in a burger place, and starts enjoying his life much more. And a bunch of other shit happens around this, which eventually leads to his murder — which he tells you up front, so, it’s not a surprise. There’s no point in describing everything else that happens in the film. If you’ve seen it, you know. If you haven’t, you need to see it. Now.
The film is incredible from the top down. This is one of those lightning in a bottle movies for all involved. Everyone is fantastic. My only issue with the film, and it’s not even an issue really, it’s more of a snag when it comes to this category, is that the direction is very stagey. Sam Mendes is a theater director. His background is in theater, and the film is shot pretty plainly. Now, this isn’t a problem most years, and usually they don’t care what the direction looks like (see: 2010 Best Director. I will never get over that one). But, for me, for voting, I have to decide if I vote for a director because I liked his film the best or if the direction was the best. I try to stick to whatever rules I implement, so as to be as consistent as possible.
Either way, this film is incredible, watch it.
Shyamalan — Yeah, Night. Remember when he was relevant? It’s amazing what ego can do to a person.
This is, arguably, Night’s finest showing. Personally, I much prefer Signs to this film, although I’ll admit the last six minutes of that one diminish it slightly. The rest of the film is brilliant, though. This one — I don’t know what all the love was about. I mean, it’s an okay movie and all, but, how can you not see what it’s building toward? Does no one understand camera placement? But I digest…
The film is about a child psychiatrist who starts helping a troubled child. He tries to figure out what’s wrong, the kid tells him he sees ghosts, and then that happens. Really this film is kind of boring. It’s strange how this went over so well. I really don’t have much nice to say about it except, congrats on getting one over on the public, Night. I’m never voting for you here, though.
My Thoughts: So it comes down to Mendes and Mann. Mendes deserves it because his film was the best and Mann deserves it because his direction was the best. It’s a tough call to make. But, ultimately it comes down to which I think was the best direction, so, even though I vote Mendes’s film Best Picture, I have to vote Mann’s film for Best Director. I have to. His direction was incredible.
My Vote: Mann
Should Have Won: Mendes, Mann
Is the result acceptable?: Yeah. It was seriously a tossup for me down to the wire. I’d have been happy with either of them winning. Either one was the most acceptable result there could have been in this category.
Ones I suggest you see: American Beauty is almost a must-see film. It’s a Best Picture, so that eliminates any doubt as to whether you need to see it. It’s great, and it won Best Picture. I don’t really know what else you need. The Insider is a fucking brilliant film and should be seen by everyone. I guarantee you will be riveted by the midway point. Being John Malkovich is a wonderfully off-the-wall film and should be seen by all. It’s so fucking good. Trust me on this, you need to see it. Anyone who even remotely shares my taste in film (and I mean remotely) should see this movie, because odds are, they’ll like it. And The Sixth Sense, I guess, people should see if they haven’t because — I don’t know — because, they should see how pretty average the film really is. Average being good and not the great that people anoint it as being.