The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1991-1992)
The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.
I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.
This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.
Jonathan Demme, The Silence of the Lambs
Barry Levinson, Bugsy
Ridley Scott, Thelma and Louise
John Singleton, Boyz N the Hood
Oliver Stone, JFK
The Silence of the Lambs. Kind of a famous movie. Buffalo Bill. Clarice Starling. Hannibal Lecter. Fava beans. Chianti. You’ve heard of it.
This movie is actually quite perfect. Demme directs the shit out of it. And the amount of iconic scenes and images from this film, it’s hard not to consider him worthy of a vote. The only question is whether you take him over another worthy choice.
Bugsy. Barry Levinson is back. This is his most classical “Oscar” film. Just looking at this movie and its story, it feels like the kind of movie you’d expect to get 10 Oscar nominations.
First off, it stars Warren Beatty, and just about everything he touched, it seems, ended up a major Oscar player. And then, it’s a biopic of Bugsy Siegel, a gangster who had the idea of a gambling town in the desert, and set out to build it. So he takes millions of dollars of mob money to build this town, and no one understands what he’s doing or why he’s doing it, and in the end, Las Vegas is what emerges. It’s the kind of thing the Academy loves, because it’s almost an allegory for making movies. The director has a vision, and gets the studio to put up millions of dollars for that vision, even if, as it’s being shot, going over budget and looking like a giant disaster, the studio doesn’t see what they think is a prudent investment and want them to alter it or stop. And then, in the end, that movie ends up as the most successful film of all time, the studio reaps the benefits of that, even if the director may have gotten fired before that happened. That’s why they love this shit and why this movie had them written all over it.
This is a really terrific film, and it makes complete sense that it’s here. However, it’s not exactly remembered as well as every other film in this category, is it? Which doesn’t matter so much. The effort is strong, and feels like it would be a solid choice, maybe as high as a 2 in most years. This year, though… we already started with Silence of the Lambs. It’s gonna be hard to overcome that for a vote. It’s worth one, but I don’t know if it can overtake the heavy hitters in the category.
Thelma and Louise. Very famous and iconic film. Most people remember the ending. No one really remembers the rest of it. Do people even equate this movie with the person who directed it? I barely think of this as a Ridley Scott movie.
It’s about Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis go out on a road trip together to escape their lives. Along the way, Sarandon ends up killing a man who was going to rape Davis and they end up on the run together. That’s pretty much all you need to know if for some reason you have no idea what this movie is.
The movie is really good and was a huge film at the time of its release. Iconic performances and one of the most famous endings in film history. The direction is good, but I don’t think I’d vote for it. Maybe it’s middle of the pack, but I don’t think this would get many people’s votes in this category. (That seems to be the case a lot with Ridley.)
Boyz N the Hood. Aww yeah. Love this movie. Huge movie, culturally. I wonder if the Academy remembers that they embraced this movie fifteen years ago.
It’s about a bunch of kids growing up in South Central. Cuba Gooding Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut. They’re just trying to get by and not be killed. It is fucking GREAT. This movie is so good. This is what people thought Straight Outta Compton was last year. Laurence Fishburne is so incredible as Cuba Gooding’s father in this movie.
This is one of the most important films of the 90s, and represents a really important place in film history. Singleton was (and is still) the youngest Best Director nominee of all time. He was 24. He was two younger than Orson Welles when he made Citizen Kane. The nomination was clearly his reward, but the nomination is well, well worth it.
JFK. This is one of the greatest movies ever made. Yes, it has an agenda, but the film tells you it has an agenda. And at the very least, it presents its argument in a very clear way that engages and entertains the viewer. Agree or disagree with the argument, there’s no denying this is some great directing.
This is a movie about the JFK assassination. A lawyer finds links that may prove the assassination was a conspiracy by the U.S. government. So we watch them investigate the links and bring the case to trial, during which they recreate all sorts of different outcomes for the day of the assassination. And it’s GREAT. Trust me on this. The movie is great. This is one of the great American films of all time. The worst people can say about it is that it’s biased. But there is no denying the strength and quality of the filmmaking.
Stone does such a good job here that I want to vote for him. It’s between him and Demme for me, and I have no idea what the fuck to do. This is a strong category.
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The Reconsideration: Really strong category. Solid entries all around. Levinson is the classy entry where there are no faults, but also there’s no passion for it. So I can’t vote for him. Scott — nah. It’s good, but fifth for me. And then Singleton — love the film, but I wouldn’t vote for the direction over the other two.
So that leaves me with Stone and Demme. Stone won twice, but I think this is his best overall effort, so I’m not taking that into account. And Demme made a hell of a film, and while the direction doesn’t feel as overly energetic as JFK’s, the amount of iconic images the film brought us more than makes up for it. I think they’re both good choices, and my tiebreaker is — I just like Silence of the Lambs more. So I’m taking Demme. I can feel better after the fact that Stone had won twice, but that wasn’t a factor in the decision. That’s just rationalization after the fact. Both are well worth a vote, and since I can’t decide, I’ll go with my favorite. Seems simple enough.
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Rankings (category and films):
- Jonathan Demme, The Silence of the Lambs
- Oliver Stone, JFK
- John Singleton, Boyz N the Hood
- Barry Levinson, Bugsy
- Ridley Scott, Thelma and Louise
My Vote: Jonathan Demme, The Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs is a very essential movie. The amount of cultural references that came out of this film, and the fact that it is still in the culture (with that Hannibal show) — movie buffs need to see this movie. Shit, most people need to see this movie.
JFK is an essential movie. It’s about the filmmaking, and not about the argument. Honestly, if it weren’t so controversial, I’d say this needed to win Best Picture that year. I might still say that. It’s a really terrific film. Everyone needs to see it.
Boyz N the Hood — also an essential movie. They don’t get a whole lot more essential than this for 1991. This is a very important movie in the history of film, and movie buffs need to seek this out.
Thelma and Louise is probably not essential, but it is iconic. And given all the people involved in it, and how iconic it is, you should probably see it. If you’re really into movies, consider this essential.
Bugsy is somehow not essential, but is also really fantastic. Movie buffs will consider it something they need to see because of all the talent involved, in front of and behind the camera. That’s how you find movies in high school. You see, “Oh shit, look at all these people I loved in other movies.” And then you go watch that other movie. This is one of those. And it’s a huge film for the Oscars. The most nominated film of 1991. As a movie buff, you should see it because it checks a lot of boxes and is a terrific film.
The Last Word: It’s either Stone or Demme. I feel like almost no one is voting for Levinson here, a small handful may vote for Scott, but not many, and Singleton will get a fair amount, but not many votes in all. I think most people are choosing between Stone and Demme. And they’re both perfect choices. I have trouble picking between them every time I think about this category. So in a dead heat, I always take the film I like better, which is Silence of the Lambs. But they’re both good choices.
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Robert Altman, The Player
Martin Brest, Scent of a Woman
Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven
James Ivory, Howards End
Neil Jordan, The Crying Game
The Player. Altman, baby.
This is a movie about Hollywood. It begins with one of the most famous tracking shots in film history. Tim Robbins is a studio executive who is constantly hearing pitches and greenlighting movies. He starts receiving death threats from a writer whose work he rejected, which doesn’t narrow the list down at all. And it turns into a tale of dark comedy and murder.
It’s a really terrific film. Altman is the master. And in a category like this, he actually jumps toward the front of the pack. There’s not a whole lot of top competition in this category. Though I won’t ultimately vote for him, because my heart will always be somewhere else with this one.
Scent of a Woman. Hoo ah.
This movie is somehow iconic. Partly because of Pacino’s performance, and partly because they really liked to tell this type of story. I grew up with the movie Finding Forrester. I saw it before I saw this. And upon seeing this for the first time, I realized — that movie basically stole this movie’s plot. Broad strokes, anyway.
Chris O’Donnell (remember him?) is a regular kid in a very prestigious prep school. Every other student is rich, but he’s on scholarship. The rich kids don’t value their education the way he does and pull a prank on the principal by dropping paint on his beloved car. O’Donnell and Philip Seymour Hoffman see the whole thing, but refuse to name names. The principal leans on him and tells him that if he doesn’t snitch on the other kids, he’ll be expelled. He gives him to the end of the Thanksgiving holiday to decide what he’s gonna do.
Meanwhile, over the holiday, he’s been hired to babysit Al Pacino, a blind army colonel, as his family goes away on vacation. They can’t wait to be rid of him. Of course he’s got plans of his own and escapes away to New York, with O’Donnell in tow. And naturally he teaches O’Donnell how to live and come into his own, and all those good things, and O’Donnell helps him with his own personal shit. You know how this works.
It’s a great film. A remake of an Italian film. And yes, the title is about pussy.
The direction is fine. Nothing outstanding. Fourth or fifth in the category. Brest came along with the film, the way a lot of directors do. It’s well-directed but no one would actually vote for him unless they’re one of those people that likes to match Picture and Director.
Unforgiven. The eulogy to the western genre, directed by one of its foremost icons.
Clint Eastwood is a gunfighter who settled down long ago. The redemptive woman stole his heart, got him to put down his guns and become a farmer. She’s long since died and he now has two young kids and troubles keeping his pigs from dying of the fever.
Meanwhile, in another town, a cowboy rapes and cuts up a prostitute in the local town and the prostitutes all put out a bounty on the man’s head. This disturbs the town sheriff (Gene Hackman), a former gunfighter himself, who doesn’t allow guns or violence in his town (and is sadistic in his methods of keeping it that way). Words spreads around and a young gunfighter who wants the bounty comes to Eastwood to enlist his help. Eastwood has given up that life, but his farm is in jeopardy, and the money could really help his kids. So he sets off to help, bringing in his good friend and crack shot Morgan Freeman.
It’s GREAT. I love this film so much and it will always be my vote in the category. I think this is a wonderful winner and it’s hard for me to consider anything else over it.
Howards End. Another Merchant Ivory. For people who find these films boring, it must be getting insufferable at this point. But don’t worry, there’s only one more after this.
This is based on yet another E.M. Forster novel (Ivory directed four of these), about three different families. One is upper class, one is working class, and one is lower class. It’s a British period piece, so class differences of course factor into it. Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter are sisters in the middle class. Thompson becomes friendly with Vanessa Redgrave, the matriarch of the upper class family. She loves her home, (insert title here), and none of her children seem to share her respect. So when he dies, she leaves the house to Thompson, which of course makes all her kids angry. They try to find a way to take the house out of her custody. But then, the oldest son, Anthony Hopkins, actually starts falling in love with her.
It’s class, manners, property, that whole deal. It’s a fine movie. Nothing outstanding, nothing terrible. If you’re not into this sort of thing, you’ll be bored out of your mind. The direction is fine, but mostly it’s the same Merchant Ivory thing you’ve come to know. I don’t think anyone would vote for this unless either they really loved the film or stuck to strictly traditional “Oscar” standards, the way people accuse the Academy of being every year.
The Crying Game. This is always a difficult film (I almost said “hard” film. Maybe not the best choice of words) to talk about because there’s a… thing that happens in the middle of this film that used to be common knowledge. The way everyone now can’t watch The Sixth Sense without knowing the deal. What happened in this film was widespread knowledge for a long time. But now, I don’t think people really know about it. Which makes it better if I don’t say anything and you go in cold.
I’m also curious to see how this film holds up today, because at the time, this was a film that a lot of people thought was going to and should win Best Picture. (It even won the PGA.) It’s been a while since I saw it, and I’ll probably see it again before the reconsideration is through.
It’s about an IRA soldier who kidnap Forest Whitaker, a British soldier. They hold him captive and demand the British release a bunch of their soldiers. Meanwhile, Rea is tasked with watching Whitaker and they talk and become friendly. Whitaker asks Rea to seek out his girlfriend in case he is killed. Eventually he does, and starts a relationship with her, not mentioning the Whitaker of it all. And, well… you’ll just have to see where it goes from there. It’s definitely not something you’re expecting if you know nothing about it.
The film is solid and the direction is fine. I don’t think I consider him anything other than third at best. It’s him, Brest and Ivory in that bottom section that you rank based on how well you liked the films, because the efforts are all solid. None of them are ones you’d vote for, I’d figure.
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The Reconsideration: To me, I see Eastwood and that’s the vote. And then I look to see if there’s anything I’m missing. And to be honest… there’s not really anything. Maybe some people would take Altman, which I can understand. But, between the two, hasn’t Unforgiven held up much better over time than The Player has? Ivory is a no, Brest is a no, and Jordan is a no. So I don’t even have to think that far past Eastwood, because it’s Unforgiven. It’s a great film, it’s held up extremely well, and I truly think it’s the best effort in the category.
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- Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven
- Robert Altman, The Player
- Neil Jordan, The Crying Game
- Martin Brest, Scent of a Woman
- James Ivory, Howards End
- Scent of a Woman
- The Player
- The Crying Game
- Howards End
My Vote: Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven
Unforgiven is an essential movie. End of story. Everyone sees this movie growing up and everyone loves it. This is one of those movies that aspiring film buffs go into college armed with, having seen and loved before they had any proper structure to their movie watching. This is in that first group of films most people get to, and with good reason. So if you got this far and haven’t seen it, you really should get to it soon.
Scent of a Woman is a great, memorable and iconic film, and while it’s not essential, I’m saying you need to see it. Pacino is great, this won him his only Oscar, and the story is just iconic. You’ve seen a version of this story even if you haven’t seen the movie. It’s terrific. See it if you love movies.
The Player is a great film and an Altman film. Most would consider it essential. I don’t know if I have enough perspective on it to call it one way or the other. But the opening shot is very famous and it’s one of the best movies about Hollywood ever made. I can’t say whether or not it’s essential, but I can tell you that I think you ought to see it. It’s one of the five essential Robert Altman movies, and he’s one of the great directors of all time.
The Crying Game was a huge film in 1992, and while I don’t think it’s had much of a reputation since then, I think it’s a film that ought to be seen, because it discusses a lot of issues most films wouldn’t. I won’t get into what they are if you don’t know, but believe me when I say that this is a movie that is very iconic and it contains one of the most famous scenes in recent movie history. Highly recommended.
Howards End — Merchant Ivory. They’re all the same. See them, don’t see them. You’re not missing a whole lot. But Emma Thompson did win Best Actress for this, and it got a bunch of major nominations. So if you’re into the Oscars, you pretty much have to see this. Otherwise, take it or leave it. This one’s up to you.
The Last Word: Eastwood is seemingly the best effort in the category and the one that’s held up best over time. I guess you could take Altman. Maybe a small amount of people might take Jordan. I doubt anyone’s taking Ivory or Brest. I feel like most would be in agreement about this being Clint’s category.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)