The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1995-1996)
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.
Mike Figgis, Leaving Las Vegas
Mel Gibson, Braveheart
Chris Noonan, Babe
Michael Radford, Il Postino
Tim Robbins, Dead Man Walking
Leaving Las Vegas is somehow a movie that people don’t really believe exists. Especially people younger than I am. I tell them that Nicolas Cage won an Oscar for this and is great in it, and they’re like, “No way.” Because they grew up with his crazy paycheck, become a meme roles. This is probably his best straight dramatic performance that he’s ever given.
He plays a screenwriter who is also an alcoholic who can’t get a job because of it. Having nothing left, he decides to go to Vegas and drink himself to death. And along the way, he meets Elisabeth Shue, a prostitute, and the two find solace in one another. The agreement? She won’t stop his drinking, he won’t stop her work.
The film is really good. I’m happy Figgis got nominated here, but it’s not the type of effort you vote for. It looks like a 90s indie drama. Which is fine, but when you rank it up against the rest of the category, it’s probably a fourth choice.
Braveheart is a film we all know. Mel Gibson, Scotland, “Freedom!” It’s an iconic movie.
Scotland is conquered by England in the 13th century. Mel Gibson’s family is murdered when he’s a child. When he’s an adult, his wife gets murdered. He then goes to slaughter a bunch of British soldiers, and then goes off rallying the Scottish troops, so to speak. (Very similar to The Patriot.)
It’s a great movie. Would I vote for this normally? Maybe. It would be between this and Ron Howard. But since Ron Howard wasn’t nominated, he seems to rise to the top of the category. Nothing else truly impressed me enough to vote for. Except maybe…
Babe is a lovely film. A pig wants to be a sheep dog, so he learns to do it and earns the respect of his farmer (“That’ll do, pig”). It’s an adorable movie, and the talking animals are a work of magic.
The movie is really well made, and I guess you could vote for it. It’s a kid’s movie. I can see why they didn’t vote for this, but it’s definitely worth one if you wanted to go that way. It’s clearly top two by default in this category. There’s not much else to vote for.
Il Postino is a fine film. I think it’s probably the result of Harvey campaigning more than anything else. The actor put off heart surgery so he could star, and then died of a heart attack after it was done filming. So basically he died for his art. That’s an Oscar campaigner’s wet dream.
The film itself is about an illiterate postman who befriends Pablo Neruda, who is exiled in Italy. So he teaches the guy how to read and write poetry, and the guy ends up charming a lady — you can guess where it goes.
The film is fine. The direction is fine. But it clearly falls to bottom two in the category. There’s no way anyone would actually vote for it.
Dead Man Walking is a pretty famous film. This was the first time people took Sean Penn seriously as an actor. We can talk about that more in the Best Actor category for this year. Here, we’re talking about the direction. Which, I don’t think a lot of people know that Tim Robbins actually directed this. He crawled through the river of shit and then went right back to prison.
Sean Penn is a death row inmate who asks Susan Sarandon, a nun, to help him with an appeal. She meets with him, and he’s just not remorseful at all and is a huge asshole to her. But eventually they keep meeting and get to know one another. So mostly we see them forge this weird friendship until he gets executed.
The movie’s good. I don’t love it. I think some of it’s overrated. But Penn is good. The direction is fine. I remember when I saw it thinking it owed a lot to how Demme shot Silence of the Lambs scenes with Lecter behind bars. But overall, it’s fine. Maybe it’s third in the category. Definitely not above Babe or Braveheart, but it could be third. I’m not feeling much of anything for the bottom three, so I guess you could give him third if you want. Don’t think anyone would actually vote for him, though.
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The Reconsideration: This is one of the stranger years in the Best Director category. Two of the major Best Picture contenders got DGA nominations and weren’t nominated at the Oscars. One of whom won the DGA. Kind of reminds me a little bit of 2012. Ron Howard won the DGA for Apollo 13 and wasn’t nominated for the Oscar, and then Ang Lee also got nominated for Sense and Sensibility and also wasn’t nominated for the Oscar. Which is interesting. Instead, they nominated Tim Robbins and Chris Noonan.
All that aside — with the absence of these nominees, it really makes things less interesting. Because, just looking at the category, Gibson seems like the only one you could vote for. Radford is the five. Figgis and Robbins are 3 and 4, take your pick. Noonan usually would be a 3 and maybe a 2 on personality, but here he’s a default 2, and I could even make a case for him being the vote.
I’m still taking Gibson. Based on what is nominated, Gibson wins this easily for me, with Noonan the only real potential alternate.
A lot of what I have to say about this category is based around Ron Howard not being here, and how insane that is. And rather than deal with all of that, I’m gonna stick with who I’d vote for an analyzing the category. Since once you acknowledge how crazy it is, there’s not a whole lot more to add.
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- Mel Gibson, Braveheart
- Chris Noonan, Babe
- Mike Figgis, Leaving Las Vegas
- Tim Robbins, Dead Man Walking
- Michael Radford, Il Postino
- Leaving Las Vegas
- Dead Man Walking
- Il Postino
My Vote: Mel Gibson, Braveheart
Braveheart is an essential film. Just because, culturally, over the past 20 years, it gets referenced a lot. Plus it’s awesome. And for Oscar buffs, Picture and Director… essential.
Babe is essential, because who doesn’t want to see a kids movie about a talking pig? Plus it’s also pretty wonderful.
Leaving Las Vegas is not essential, but you should definitely see it to understand the acting heights that Nicolas Cage can reach. If you grew up with his campy performances (and chances are you have), you should see him at his absolute best. Plus the film is fucking fantastic. I call it essential, even if it’s not objectively essential.
Dead Man Walking is… I don’t think it’s essential. It’s solid. Penn and Sarandon. She won for it. A lot of people think he should have. It’s worth seeing. Essential for Oscar buffs, highly recommended otherwise, because it’s a pretty big film for the 90s.
Il Postino is a decent film. Not essential, you don’t need to see it at all. But if you’re into the Oscars, you may want to check it out. Otherwise, even regular film buffs don’t need to see this unless they think it’s gonna be something they like.
The Last Word: Again, most of the conversation to be had about this category has to do with the fact that Ron Howard, the DGA winner (!) wasn’t even nominated. That aside, you’re pretty much left with Mel Gibson and not much else. Chris Noonan is really the only choice based solely on effort. But even he feels like a choice that only happens in a compromise year. (Also, not to turn it into logistics and all that stuff I don’t like to focus on… Mel Gibson is probably a better person to have a Best Director Oscar than Chris Noonan. Quick, off the top of your head, name another movie he made. You can’t because there was only one other one. Miss Potter, starring Renee Zellweger. Yup.) Not even Ang Lee was nominated this year. So we’re pretty much just left with Mel Gibson in a walk. Not a whole lot to say. The category answers itself.
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Joel and Ethan Coen, Fargo
Milos Forman, The People vs. Larry Flynt
Scott Hicks, Shine
Mike Leigh, Secrets and Lies
Anthony Minghella, The English Patient
Fargo is a fucking dark comedy masterpiece. It’s impossible to really explain if you don’t know or haven’t seen it (but how many people is that?), but basically — a man hires two men to kidnap his wife in order to extort money out of her father. Things don’t go well. That’s all you need to know.
The writing, the acting and the directing in this film are all perfect. Some of the shots and lines in this movie are iconic. Give this category to 1000 people, I’d wager that at least 600 of them will take this as the choice. It’s clearly in the conversation, not to take anything away from the other choices.
The People vs. Larry Flynt is about the man who started Hustler magazine, and how people fucking hated it. Because, you know, indecency. This and Private Parts came out around the same time, and were both about similar things. This is the better film. The last half is a trial movie, and it’s awesome. This was Edward Norton’s FIRST movie, and when people see this for the first time, everyone without fail says, “Edward Norton is amazing in this.” And he is. (He got nominated for a different performance this year, but that’s fine, because he’s great there too.)
This movie is really well made, very entertaining. For direction? I don’t know. The nomination is fine, but I don’t think I’d vote for it. I don’t think most people would vote for it. It feels very 90s. Not in a good way. Also, it’s no Fargo. Just saying. I find it hard to believe someone would actually take this over that.
Shine is a good movie, but it’s one of those movies that’s… what’s a good analogy… Capote. 2005. Really strong film. Did it need to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Director? No. Is it okay that it’s here? Sure. Does it make the category any stronger? Not particularly. Did it win Best Actor? Yes it did. (I seem to be good at finding analogous precedents for Oscar nominees.)
It’s a biopic of David Helfgott. We follow him at three different ages. Child, teen, adult. He’s a famous pianist. We follow him as his father is really hard on him as a child, as he has so much stress on himself as a teenager that he has a nervous breakdown, and then as an adult where he’s still manic, post-institutionalization, but also a brilliant pianist.
It’s a good movie. It is. Not sure it needed to be nominated here, but it’s good. I have it fourth, just because Leigh is fifth the way Woody Allen always gets fifth. So it’s a default fourth. No way anyone would actually ever vote for this in this category. I honestly feel like more people would have voted for Cameron Crowe for Jerry Maguire over this.
Secrets and Lies is a film that I’d seen clips of before I saw the actual film. If you’re a film student, or an actor, at some point you’re gonna be shown the one big scene from this film. At the coffee shop. Between Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Honestly, most of the film is in that scene. The rest of it is pretty boring to me.
Jean-Baptiste is a woman who has decided to seek out her birth mother after her adopted mother dies. She finds out her birth mother is white. And then she starts finding out more about her by meeting the rest of her family. And then we meet the family and see all their issues. The two finally meet at that centerpiece scene, and then the rest of the film is them getting to know one another better, and an eventual reveal to the rest of the family who this woman is.
It’s fine. I don’t love it. I like that scene and the acting, but the film is something I’m not a huge fan of. I find that with a lot of Mike Leigh movies. Pretty much all of them I’ve seen, actually. Good acting, good moments, but I don’t love the films and find a lot of them boring.
The direction — ehh. I guess good in the sense of, he got those performances out of the actors. But in terms of the way the film looks and all that, this is fifth for me. I don’t see how this isn’t fifth for everyone. Maybe fourth if you really love it. No way this is anyone’s vote.
The English Patient.
I mean, right, though?
The film begins with a plane crash. Ralph Fiennes is inside. Juliette Binoche is a nurse who has her own backstory going on. He tells her his story. He’s a cartographer, and he was in love with a married woman, and it’s this big desert romance, and then there are all these other subplots with Willem Dafoe who doesn’t have any thumbs, and it’s supposedly this gorgeous romance that’s one of the best films of the 90s.
The movie is good, but my thoughts about it have always been — you can cut like 50 minutes out of this movie and it would be just as good, if not better. The 50s version of this movie would have been great. 110 minutes, cover all the bases, focus on the romance, keep that shit taut and moving — then it might be perfect. Here, the movie goes on for 160 minutes. No. Too long.
I don’t care about the bomb diffuser. I don’t really care about Willem Dafoe. But he’s always welcome. This movie should be shorter, and as good as it looks, I’m holding that against the direction. You don’t feel like Fargo is too long. And I bet you remember more lines, performances and images from that movie than you do this movie. I know my opinion is abundantly clear, but I will say — completely deserving choice. No issue if you want to vote for this.
Honestly, I feel like, given this category — 600 Fargo, 350 English Patient, 30 People vs. Larry Flynt, and then 20 assorted votes wherever. More people will take Fargo, but we all agree that it’s between the two.
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The Reconsideration: Yeah… I understand The English Patient winning. I’m even somewhat okay with it. But it’s Fargo. Come on. It’s so clearly Fargo for me. Leigh is always a no for me, Hicks is also a no. Forman is good, but not an effort you vote for (very 90s, not timeless). It’s either the Coens (technically only Joel was nominated, but come on) or Minghella. Clearly one or the other. Both are fine, but there is no way I’m not taking the Coens. But I’m fine with Minghella having won. I get it.
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- Joel and Ethan Coen, Fargo
- Anthony Minghella, The English Patient
- Milos Forman, The People vs. Larry Flynt
- Scott Hicks, Shine
- Mike Leigh, Secrets and Lies
- The People vs. Larry Flynt
- The English Patient
- Secrets & Lies
My Vote: Joel and Ethan Coen, Fargo
How have you gotten this far into being a movie buff and not seen Fargo? (You probably have. But if you have, then you echo the previous statement.)
The English Patient is a Best Picture winner and a film that’s probably something you should see. I refuse to call it essential, because it’s not. It’s essential for reasons other than quality. So, see it, but mostly so you can say that Fargo should have beaten it and because it won a bunch of Oscars.
The People vs. Larry Flynt is a great movie that should be seen. Milos Forman made three great biopics in his career (Amadeus, this and Man on the Moon). The performances in this are terrific, and this is a quintessential 90s movie. See this movie purely for Edward Norton and you won’t be disappointed. (Trial movie, too.) Highly recommended.
Shine is not essential. But it won Best Actor for Geoffrey Rush. So there’s that. And Noah Taylor is great. Otherwise, nah. Don’t need to. Worthwhile, though. Definitely a very solid 4 star kind of movie.
Secrets & Lies is fine. If you haven’t seen a Mike Leigh movie, then yes, by all means, see this one. The coffee shop scene is one of the best acted scenes you’ll see. But you don’t need to see it at all. Gauge your reactions to other Mike Leigh movies as to whether you’ll like this one. Not essential, but okay. Great performances, not much else, I feel.
The Last Word: It’s either the Coens or Minghella. That’s it. Both are good choices. To me, Fargo is the more iconic effort and the one we remember more, even though The English Patient clearly fits with what the Academy loves and slobbers over. So I get it. But I think most people would agree that Fargo is a better choice, historically.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)