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The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1999

1999. Not terribly much to say here. 1999 as a year had a lot of good films. It’s one of those years where a field of 10 would have been helpful, because there were a lot of films (specifically The Matrix) that would have probably gotten on the final list.

Outside of this category, American Beauty won Best Actor for Kevin Spacey (talked about here) and Best Director for Sam Mendes (talked about here). It should have also won Best Actress for Annette Bening, but Hilary Swank won for Boys Don’t Cry instead (talked about here). Michael Caine won Best Supporting Actor for The Cider House Rules, in what was essentially a veteran win (talked about here). And Angelina Jolie won Best Supporting Actress for Girl, Interrupted (talked about here).

This is one of those years where the race was not terribly interesting. From the looks of it, American Beauty was the film all the way through the race, with The Insider as a film people would have liked to have seen win, but never really caught any momentum at all (no acting nominations). The Sixth Sense got that blockbuster/unexpected surprise spot (a la The Blind Side and The Help, for recent comparisons). The Cider House Rules got the “classic” Oscar bait film spot. Or, as it’s known in this era — the Miramax spot. And The Green Mile is that on-the-nose, emotional film that tugs at the heartstrings, but is looked at disparagingly by real Oscars people (like Million Dollar Baby). It’s a good list from an academic perspective, but otherwise pretty average, bordering on weak. There are really only two films here, and only one really ever had a shot here. This was American Beauty all the way.

BEST PICTURE – 1999

And the nominees were…

American Beauty (DreamWorks)

The Cider House Rules (Miramax)

The Green Mile (Castle Rock Entertainment, Warner Bros.)

The Insider (Touchstone Pictures)

The Sixth Sense (Hollywood Pictures)

American Beauty — The film is about a man’s midlife crisis, during which he learns to stop worrying about all of the boring things he used to concern himself with and start looking at all the beauty life has to offer.

Kevin Spacey is Lester Burnham, who tells us that the high point of his daily life is masturbating in the shower every morning; “It’s all downhill from here,” he says. He and his wife, Caroline (played by Annette Bening), have fallen out of love long ago. His daughter, Janie (played by Thora Birch) has completely drifted away from him and now regards him with utter contempt. And it’s mostly deserved — Lester’s pretty much a loser.

Then one day, at a high school basketball game (where Janie is part of the cheerleading squad), Lester sees Janie’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari), and is immediately smitten. He starts to fantasize about her, and this leads to an awakening. He begins to get himself in shape. He cuts all the bullshit out of his life. He quits his job and even blackmails his boss for almost $70,000 (“Pass the asparagus.”) He starts smoking pot, buys a sports car he’s always wanted since he was twenty, and starts working at a fast food restaurant, because it requires him to have no responsibility whatsoever. And we follow him along this journey (which takes place over a year, since, as he tells us right at the beginning, “In less than a year, I’ll be dead”), as well as the other characters. And it’s amazing.

Here’s a film that really wonderful, and is a film that I’d think most people have seen and love. The only real thing people can say against this film is that it shouldn’t have won Best Picture. That I can accept. (That, and maybe that it’s become its own cliche. A lot of 90s films have become their own cliche. This, Jerry Maguire, The Usual Suspects. It doesn’t decrease their quality, it just makes more people bitter about them after the fact.) Otherwise, this is a great film, and definitely was good enough to win this category.

The Cider House Rules — I’m not really sure what this film is about. I know what happens in it, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what this was about. (Which might make it the quintessential Miramax film.)

Tobey Maguire is an orphan who was brought up in an orphanage in New England, run by Michael Caine, a kind doctor who is secretly addicted to ether and also performs illegal abortions as a kindness to women in the area. Many of the children are adopted from the orphanage, but Tobey never was. As he got older, he became Caine’s assistant.

Then one day, Charlize Theron and Paul Rudd show up to get an abortion. Afterwards, Tobey decides to leave with them, since he realizes he’s never seen the outside world. They live on Rudd’s family’s apple orchard. Tobey goes to work there as an apple picker as Rudd goes off to fight in World War II. He lives on the orchard with a black family, the patriarch of which is played by Delroy Lindo. And Lindo ends up sleeping with his own daughter and getting her pregnant, and Tobey must perform an abortion for her, otherwise the kid will show up — well, you know, incest baby. And then Rudd comes back from the war paralyzed, and Theron (who had started an affair with Tobey) goes to take care of him. And Tobey, after finding out that Caine has died, goes back and takes over his role at the orphanage, the role Caine always knew he would take.

It’s not a bad film, but when you think about it in terms of Oscars, it’s too obvious a choice. It’s that film that you know the Academy will respond to and it just feels flat. It’s almost like The Reader from 2008. It was so obvious a choice (despite being a pretty good film) that you were just bored with it. You don’t want to see a film like this win, because there’s nothing terribly interesting about it as a choice. (Plus it takes a spot away from a film like The Matrix, or in The Reader’s case, The Dark Knight.) To me, it’s easily a #5 on this list. And I’m glad this film didn’t win any major Oscars. (The Caine win was for Caine and not the film or the performance, and I feel like the Screenplay win was for John Irving and not necessarily for the film.)

The Green Mile — This is a film about death row prison guards. One day, Michael Clarke Duncan is brought in for raping and killing two young white girls. It’s pretty clear from the start that he didn’t do it. Then, later, we find out he has magical powers. (Talk about a magical negro…) Duncan helps heal a bunch of people, but then says he wants to die because there’s too much pain in the world.

It’s a simple film, good, but also a bit on-the-nose. I feel like it was nominated because of its similarities to Shawshank. Personally, I thought it was much too Stephen King for me. I liked the film, and it does do a good job of getting to you, emotionally (unless you’re dead inside), but it’s not something you vote for. Seriously, are you gonna vote for this and not Shawshank? And even if you want to vote for both, can you really deal with this one winning and that one not? I can’t. It’s a #3 at best.

The Insider — What a film this is. I bet that if anyone but Michael Mann directed this, it probably would have been much more of a contender for Best Picture. (His style is very — divisive.)

Russell Crowe plays an executive at a tobacco company. One day, he is fired out of nowhere. Upset, he goes to 60 Minutes and offers to tell them everything about the tobacco companies — how they knowingly sold a product they knew was dangerous to people and lied about it. And the film is about many of the legal implications inherent in this, since the company made him sign an NDA that prevented him from disclosing anything he disclosed. So he ends up getting sued by them and having to go to trial, and the film is about that and the strain it puts on him and his family.

It’s an amazing film. It really is. This and American Beauty are the two to vote for. I flip-flopped for the longest time about which one I really wanted to choose, but ultimately I went with American Beauty. I’m not really sure why. I think it’s because I know it won and that makes it easier. Still, this is an amazing, amazing film, and probably deserved (and still does) better than what it got. (I don’t think enough people have seen this one. It just feels underappreciated.)

The Sixth Sense — “I see dead people.” That’s the film.

It’s a pretty simple film, actually. Bruce Willis is a psychiatrist who starts seeing a young boy with emotional problems. And the kid confides in him that he sees ghosts. And we follow Willis and this kid. And not much really happens until the big reveal at the end, which I’m assuming everyone knows by now. It’s not a bad film. M. Night’s films (at least, up until The Village. After that he was just trying to recreate the earlier stuff) are all good films. It’s just that they don’t amount to much. To me, Signs is a brilliant piece of cinema that works entirely until the last, say, ten minutes. Once they come up from the basement, that film falls apart. But it still doesn’t ruin how great the rest of that movie is.

This film — the tone sustains throughout. And that’s really nice. But in terms of a story — what’s it about? It’s basically just working around a twist. The only real reason it’s here is because it was a huge surprise that year. The Academy loves when a film with mostly positive reviews pops huge. I’d actually say that I might vote for The Cider House Rules over it, simply because there’s nothing here of value (Oscar-wise).

My Thoughts: Honestly, for me, it’s American Beauty. For a while, I thought I’d go over to The Insider, but I’m sticking with American Beauty. I love the film too much. I totally understand a vote for The Insider, though. It’s basically a win-win, no matter which one wins. (As long as it’s those two, though. Anything else, and I’ll think you’re an idiot.)

My Vote: American Beauty

Should Have Won: Either American Beauty or The Insider

Is the result acceptable?: Absolutely.

Ones I suggest you see: You should always see a Best Picture winner, and American Beauty is a terrific film on top of that. Though I’d figure this is one of those films most people have seen. And if you haven’t seen it — it’s shaky ground. If you haven’t seen it, don’t listen to what other people have to say about it. It’s a very easy film to overrate, and an easy film to have high expectations for based on its reputation that can’t possibly be met. Just see it, don’t think about it. You’ll enjoy it. (Though, most people see a movie like this by college, don’t they? Or do I just think that because I grew up with this film?) Either way, it’s amazing, and definitely needs to be seen.

The Insider is an amazing, amazing film. Possibly Michael Mann’s best. It’s incredible.

You probably need to see The Sixth Sense, if you haven’t. Culturally, it’s pretty significant. Don’t put too much emphasis on the twist (since, if you’re an astute viewer, and know what eyeline matches are, you’ll catch it really early on). Watch the film as a structure. It’s very well put-together. You need to see it, if you haven’t, so you might as well just watch it.

The Green Mile is — most people should probably see it. It’s probably essential from a cultural standpoint. Plus, he made Shawshank. You owe him at least this one.

The Cider House Rules is a good film. Outside of the Oscars bubble, it’s a good movie. Not my favorite, and not essential by any means, but a good movie. Even if you don’t think you’ll enjoy it going in (like I did), when you’re done with it, you definitely won’t feel as though you’ve wasted your time.Rankings:

5) The Cider House Rules

4) The Sixth Sense

3) The Green Mile

2) The Insider

1) American Beauty

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2 responses

  1. 99 was a pretty strong year for film. Fight Club was in 99 too, right? Cider House Rules was such a waste of a film because the book had a lot really interesting stuff in there that got whitewashed.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    • The great thing about 1999 is that it has movies like Fight Club and The Insider and American Beauty alongside other iconic movies/cultural favorites like The Matrix, Officer Space, The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project. Not to mention stuff like Being John Malkovich and Magnolia, and Election, and The Iron Giant, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, and — well, I can keep going. It’s a really strong year.

      And let us not forget the greatest film in the history of the medium: Wild Wild West.

      April 23, 2012 at 2:29 pm

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