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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1997-1998)

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.

1997

James Cameron, Titanic

Peter Cattaneo, The Full Monty

Atom Egoyan, The Sweet Hereafter

Curtis Hanson, L.A. Confidential

Gus Van Sant, Good Will Hunting

Analysis:

Titanic. You know, that big movie with the boat sinking.

I think we all agree that this runs away with the category. Having grown up in the 90s, there’s no denying that this was the biggest thing in the world when it came out. And no matter how great the rest of these movies are, there’s no way they achieve even half of what Cameron achieves in the second half of this movie. Sometimes a category is over before it even begins.

The Full Monty is one of those Four Weddings and a Funeral films. The British comedy that breaks out and becomes a runaway hit that everyone is enamored by. And I get it. This movie is enjoyable as shit. But Picture and Director? Goddamn.

A bunch of steel workers are fired and are unable to find work. So they, through various means of comedy, decide to put on a strip show. So a lot of the film is them auditioning people and comically screwing up in an endearing way, leading to the climactic show.

It’s hilarious. It really is. It’s fun as hell and it’s hard not to be charmed by it. Did it need to be nominated here? Not really. I’m cool with it, though. Every category needs a fifth nominee. Whether it be this, or James L. Brooks for As Good as It Gets, Spielberg for Amistad (both DGA nominated). No issue with it being here, but no way people vote for it on effort alone, and especially after you put it up against Titanic.

The Sweet Hereafter is a study in grief.

The film opens with a traffic bus accident that kills a dozen kids and badly injures the rest. Ian Holm is a lawyer who arrives in the town to try to start a class action lawsuit to get money for the victims. And the film is about how everyone is dealing with this tragedy in their own way. It’s really well done.

A lot of people would vote for Egoyan here, and I don’t know if I could really say you shouldn’t. He’s very deserving. The only real thing I can say is — you know Cameron is gonna be the choice here. So, vote for Egoyan all you want, but at least acknowledge that Cameron also was deserving.

L.A. Confidential is one of those films all movie buffs get to really early on and fall in love with. Because it’s incredible. It’s hard not to love this movie. The fact that it got as close as it did to Best Picture is quite astounding.

The film revolves around three main characters: Guy Pearce, the ambitious son of a famous police officer, trying to rise up the ranks. Kevin Spacey, the hot shot cop who goes around town, consulting for cop shows and living the Hollywood life. And Russell Crowe, the blunt instrument, whose best assets are his willingness to beat the shit out of perps who beat their wives and stop them from doing it again. The film is about a horrible diner murder that happens after midnight and the investigation of it. Like any good noir, there are a lot of twists and turns — a call girl service of women given plastic surgery to look like movie stars, shady businessmen, police corruption, all that good stuff.

It’s great. It’s really a perfect movie. It’s gonna be a lot of people’s favorite film on this list, and rightly so. That said… I don’t think Hanson is the vote over Cameron. On effort, it’s still Cameron. On personality, it’s probably Hanson. And, not that I want to take this stuff into account for the category… overall, history looks better at Cameron’s career. But that aside, even if you want to take L.A. Confidential for Best Picture like most people do, I think we can all agree that Cameron is probably the better choice in the category.

Good Will Hunting is a movie that, on paper, should not work nearly as well as it does. Seriously.

It’s about a genius who keeps getting into trouble and ends up getting arrested and going to court appointed therapy and then actually makes enough strides to get his life together. That’s literally the plot. But it doesn’t cover even half of the great stuff that’s in this movie. And you can see where it could have gone very wrong. Yet it doesn’t. It’s wonderful. The scenes with the guys hanging out, the scenes with Damon and Williams — great stuff.

The film is so good. The direction — ehh. It’s fine, but at best you can only put him fourth in this category. It’s well-directed, but there’s no way you can ever seriously consider this for a vote. There are at least three other choices that are better than this.

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The Reconsideration: It’s Cameron. It’s always gonna be Cameron. Hanson is a good choice and Egoyan is a good choice, both are deserving. But in all honesty, what Cameron achieves here, with mostly legit sets and practical effects, it’s gotta be him. He earned this. He made the biggest movie of all time (which stayed that way for 12 years… until he broke his own record!). This is his.

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Rankings (category):

  1. James Cameron, Titanic
  2. Curtis Hanson, L.A. Confidential
  3. Atom Egoyan, The Sweet Hereafter
  4. Gus Van Sant, Good Will Hunting
  5. Peter Cattaneo, The Full Monty

Rankings (films):

  1. L.A. Confidential
  2. Good Will Hunting
  3. Titanic
  4. The Full Monty
  5. The Sweet Hereafter

My Vote: James Cameron, Titanic

Recommendations:

How have you gotten this far without seeing Titanic? I have a friend who refused to see it specifically because it was the highest grossing movie of all time, and it was out of spite. But now that it’s no longer the highest grossing movie, why would anyone not have seen it? I assume if you haven’t seen it, you’re under the age of 16. Because how could you have missed it? (It’s essential, in case you haven’t figured it out.)

L.A. Confidential is an essential film for movie buffs. Because most of the movies we all love — Pulp Fiction, Usual Suspects, Seven, The Big Lebowski (remember those days? When those were the top movies? That’s how I know how old someone is, when I see all those movies still all in their top ten or top twenty. That’s basically what the top movies on IMDB still are) — all those movies that are in that first grouping you see when you’re starting to get into movies — this is in that group. Everybody loves this movie. It’s that good and that entertaining. You need to see it as a movie buff because that’s just entry level shit to get you into loving movies.

Good Will Hunting is also an essential movie. Everyone manages to see this by college. If not, you should. It’s great. A lot of classic lines and performances

The Sweet Hereafter is a really tragic movie. It’ll rip your heart out if it catches you at the right age. You should see it. There’s a chance it might not strike you when you’re 17-18. So if that’s the case, wait a while. See it again when you’re older. Keep giving it a chance, because there’s something here where, when you get it, it really digs deep. It’s a hell of a movie. Not essential, but very, very highly recommended.

The Full Monty is really entertaining. Not essential in the least. Took me this Quest to see it. It’s fun as shit, and I loved it. I had no idea it was gonna be as entertaining as it was. I imagine a lot of people are gonna go into this thinking that. I knew the movie because it was a cultural reference point — a lot of shows would reference it between 1998 and 2002, which were my prime growing up years — but never actually saw it. And for those of you in the same boat, you’re gonna enjoy this movie. Because it’s so much fun.

The Last Word: It’s Cameron. I don’t think we can argue that Cameron was by far the most impressive effort of the category. You could vote for Hanson or Egoyan, though you better acknowledge Cameron when you do that, because there’s no way you can honestly see their efforts as being more impressive than Cameron’s. Preferred, sure, but more impressive, no. And then Cattaneo and Van Sant are here, but there’s no way you could vote for them. It’s so clearly James Cameron.

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1998

Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful

John Madden, Shakespeare in Love

Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line

Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan

Peter Weir, The Truman Show

Analysis:

Life Is Beautiful is a film that it took me a long time to warm up to. And it’s purely because I was so bitter about him having won Best Actor for it that it made me have this weird dislike for a film that I knew I enjoyed. This film is one of the reasons I’m doing this Reconsideration.

The movie is very strange, tonally. I’m actually kind of shocked it works as well as it does. The first half is a straight goofy romantic/slapstick comedy. Roberto Benigni is this manic Italian who meets and falls in love with a woman and gets her to marry him. And they have a song. And all the while, fascism is growing. And eventually World War II happens and all the Jews get thrown into concentration camps. So, in order to shield his son from the horrors of war, he tells his son it’s a game. He has to do exactly what he is told, and if he does, he gets points, and first prize is a tank. So he turns the war into a game for his son. It’s — really one of those movies that shouldn’t work. And yet it does. You know what it’s weirdly similar to? Seven Beauties. It’s better than that, but that movie also fluctuates between over the top comedy and tense drama.

The movie is well made and well directed. I can definitely see him having been nominated. That said, there is no fucking way in hell that he’s anything more than fifth in this category. Look at the other nominees on this list and tell me he’s not the fifth choice. Maybe you put him fourth. No way he goes higher than that.

Shakespeare in Love is, as I always say, a great film. It really is. The only bad thing you can say about it is that it shouldn’t have won Best Picture. And that’s not our problem here.

The movie is about William Shakespeare, a fledgling playwright, working on a new play called Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. And through various circumstances, mostly falling in love with a noblewoman, turns the play into one of the greatest tragic romances to ever be written. It’s impossible to see this movie and not think that it’s great. It really is. It’s lovely. It’s perfectly written, it’s so much fun, and it’s just a joy to watch.

Now — we’re talking about Best Director here. We’re not talking about anything else. And again, you’re insane if you put this higher than third in the category. Because it’s well crafted, but this is not the best directorial effort in this category. Shit, you could be justified in putting this fifth. I wouldn’t put it lower than fourth though. Fourth seems about right. It’s solid, but in such a strong category, there’s no way you vote for this unless you really love the film and like to match Picture and Director. Because this category is too good.

The Thin Red Line is Terrence Malick’s first film in 20 years. He went off to do peyote in the wilderness and stuff. Or teach. Whatever the popular version is.

This is actually his most narratively straightforward film. It’s about Guadalcanal. And a bunch of soldiers — you know what? It’s Terrence Malick. His plots don’t matter. Just see it. I haven’t actually seen this in quite a few years, and probably should have for this category, but I knew going in that no matter how great I thought it was, I wouldn’t vote for it. So I’ll save the watch for when we get to Best Picture.

Still, any Terrence Malick movie is understood (well… through Tree of Life) to have incredible direction. This effort is probably second best in the category. I could see people thinking about voting for it. But I don’t think it’s even the best war film in this category, let alone the best effort. Because as gorgeous and well-directed as this movie is…

Saving Private Ryan is just better. This movie is perfect. You start watching this movie, and by the time you get to the end of the opening D-Day sequence, Steven Spielberg has already won this Oscar. There’s no question about it. You watch the first 20 minutes of this movie, and if you’re not ready to hand Spielberg this award then and there, I will personally call you a liar. There is no question that Spielberg earned this one. This should be one of the least disputed categories of all time, and that’s insane, because it’s SO strong.

Oh, and the movie is about a bunch of soldiers sent to find a single soldier whose brothers have all died, so they’re going to send him home, so we don’t have another Fighting Sullivans scenario. But you should have already seen this, if you’re reading my opinions on the Oscars. Unless you’re looking for things to see, in which case — how the hell have you not seen this yet? Stop reading my bullshit and go put this on now.

The Truman Show is such a wonderful film. Probably the closest Peter Weir ever came to winning this. Well, not true. He’ll come closer in 2003. But it’s a shame that he puts his efforts out the same year as someone he’s just not beating.

This film, in case you don’t know, is about Jim Carrey, whose entire existence is part of a reality show. From the moment of his birth, everything around him has been manufactured. He lives in a giant soundstage that goes for miles. And for his entire life, he’s lived in an idyllic town where there are no problems. Only now, he starts noticing some inconsistencies. Some problems. Some extras, some parts behind the curtain that he’s not supposed to see. And he becomes suspicious. All the while, Ed Harris, the crazy director of this world, is trying to keep everything the way it is and keep him from discovering the truth.

This movie is GREAT. I’d consider voting for this in another year. Here, it’s a third choice. At BEST. Which is crazy. This movie is so fucking well directed and well made. But there’s no way he beats Spielberg. There just isn’t. Maybe, and that’s a big maybe, you put him higher than Malick at 2, but there’s no way he’s the vote. That’s just how this category goes.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s Spielberg. There’s no question that it’s Spielberg. I’d give it to him on the first half hour of his movie alone. And then the rest of it only adds to why he should have won. Malick — totally reasonable vote on his own. Not against Spielberg. Weir — you could make a case for him in any other year. Not this year. Madden — maybe if you love the film you’ll think about it. No fucking way against those other three. Benigni — no, but maybe he’s a third choice that you want to consider more in a different year. Here, he’s an afterthought.

Spielberg runs away with this category. That’s pretty much the only way he wins. He has an effort that’s so far and away the best that you can’t ignore it. This is one of the great directorial efforts of all time. It’s inarguable as a winner.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan
  2. Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line
  3. Peter Weir, The Truman Show
  4. John Madden, Shakespeare in Love
  5. Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful

Rankings (films):

  1. Saving Private Ryan
  2. Shakespeare in Love
  3. The Truman Show
  4. Life Is Beautiful
  5. The Thin Red Line

My Vote: Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan

Recommendations:

Saving Private Ryan is one of those films that everyone sees. It just is. as a film buff, you’re probably starting already having seen this. And if you haven’t, you probably know you need to. It’s film essential for sure, and might even be life essential at this point.

Shakespeare in Love is such a great film. Essential for Oscar buffs. And it’s a Best Picture winner, which basically makes it essential for movie buffs. It’s also a terrific movie. Pretty much everyone who sees it loves it. It’s purely when you get into talking Oscars that the vitriol starts. You should see the film to understand that it’s actually terrific.

The Truman Show is another essential movie. Everyone needs to see this, especially if you’re into movies. The conceit is just genius and everything about it is perfect.

The Thin Red Line is an essential film. Malick’s movies through Tree of Life are all essential (there are only five of them). Movie buffs must see this.

Life Is Beautiful is another one of those movies it seems like people just end up seeing. It’s probably essential. It’s a hell of a film. As a film buff, you should see it. As an Oscar buff, you definitely need to see it.

The Last Word: I don’t see how anyone doesn’t take Spielberg. Weir and Malick (and even Madden to an extent) are all worthy of a vote, but it’s hard for me to think that Spielberg isn’t the consensus best effort in the category.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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