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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1999-2000)

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.

1999

Lasse Hallstrom, The Cider House Rules

Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich

Michael Mann, The Insider

Sam Mendes, American Beauty

Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense

Analysis:

The Cider House Rules is a movie that I don’t think holds up as well as maybe they’d have thought back in 1999. This is one of those Miramax specials. Harvey gets shit nominated for a bunch of Oscars, but do they all hold up? Not really.

This is based on a John Irving book. He wrote The World According to Garp. Tobey Maguire grow up in an orphanage run by Michael Caine. He is groomed to take over, but doesn’t really want to. So he goes off into the world, working on an apple orchard run by Charlize Theron’s family. And there’s a whole other plot the film settles into from there. But eventually it gets back to the orphanage.

It’s a good film. Not great, but good. I don’t love it, but some might. Lasse Hallstrom directs, and he’s a capable director but I never see anything overly outstanding in his films. Nothing that would make me want to vote for them.

Hallstrom wasn’t nominated for the DGA, by the way. Frank Darabont was nominated there instead for The Green Mile. Another Best Picture nominee. Interesting they swapped one off for the other.

Being John Malkovich is Charlie Kaufman’s first masterpiece.

The simple way to explain it: John Cusack finds a portal that goes into the head of John Malkovich. Yes, that John Malkovich. Things get weird from there. There’s no way to explain it, you just need to experience it.

The film is brilliant. Spike Jonze was the perfect director to bring this type of material to the screen (and he also has a perfect filmography, by the way). Would I vote for it? Maybe. Doubtful, but I might. Is he worth a vote? Perhaps. Definitely can be considered in the conversation.

The Insider is perhaps Michael Mann’s greatest film. Most people would go Heat. Some people might go Collateral. This is the other one that’s perfect.

It’s about a Big Tobacco exec who is ignominiously fired and decides to go to CBS 60 Minutes with evidence that his bosses knowingly knew cigarettes were harmful and lied about it. The problem is — he signed a shitload of NDAs, and bringing this evidence causes a whole lot of legal issues. So then we get the trial. Was it legal, was it not? Will there be a settlement? Will Big Tobacco get away on a technicality? The film is just riveting. Absolutely riveting throughout.

Mann directs the shit out of it and is easily a top two contender in the category, top three at worst. Definitely worthy of a vote for sure..

American Beauty is such a lovely film. The kind of film that I’m surprised won Best Picture. Because yes, it’s the film most people love, but so rarely does that film actually win Best Picture. Plus, how does one describe it? It’s so unlike everything that usually wins.

Kevin Spacey is a man bored of life. His wife doesn’t respect him, his daughter doesn’t respect him. Life sucks for him. Then he meets his daughter’s new friend, the hot girl in school, and suddenly life feels fresh again. And things around him start changing. And — it’s just great. I won’t get into specifics, but it’s absolutely wonderful what happens to this man over the course of the film. Until, you know… the ending, when he dies. (Don’t worry, they tell you that at the top of the opening narration.)

This movie is terrific. The effort? It’s good. Does it need to win? No, not really. But does any effort this year need to win? If The Matrix is nominated, we all want to vote for that. Aside from that, category’s wide open.

The Sixth Sense is a magic trick of a film. It’s put together to where you can only fall for it once. And once the reveal happens, it’s hard to go back and enjoy it as much.

Bruce Willis is a child psychiatrist who talks to Haley Joel Osment, a boy who is very weird and claims to see ghosts. The “I see dead people” reveal happens quite late into the film, considering how memorable and all over the marketing the line is. And the reveal… well, pretty much everyone knows it, but for the 1% of people who have no idea, I won’t spoil it here.

There’s nothing overly great about the direction. It’s fine. And the fact that he pulls the wool over your eyes for 90% of the film is impressive. But honestly, aside from that, there’s not a whole lot to vote for here. How many people would actually nominate him in this category, let alone vote for him? At best he’s a fourth choice.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I’m not sure what to do here. I (and I’d wager 98% of people) wouldn’t take Hallstrom. And then, Shyamalan as well. Maybe 5% of people would take him. Not much more. He’s solid, but I for sure wouldn’t vote for that.

That leaves Jonze, Mann and Mendes.

I take Jonze off first, because while I love Being John Malkovich, the direction doesn’t speak to me for a vote. It feels solid but not something I pick for the win. The other two feel much more worthy in my mind. But I completely understand if you want to take him.

That leaves Mann and Mendes. Mann’s direction feels the most energetic, and Mendes’ film is my favorite. The easy thing is to say Mann’s effort was better because it was more heavily edited, but it’s actually closer than one would think. And honestly, tie goes to the favorite. So I’m taking Mendes. I don’t see a clear frontrunner, so it pretty much comes down to personal preference. Mine’s Mendes, with Mann a very close second.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Sam Mendes, American Beauty
  2. Michael Mann, The Insider
  3. Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich
  4. M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense
  5. Lasse Hallstrom, The Cider House Rules

Rankings (films):

  1. American Beauty
  2. Being John Malkovich
  3. The Insider
  4. The Sixth Sense
  5. The Cider House Rules

My Vote: Sam Mendes, American Beauty

Recommendations:

American Beauty is an essential film. A Best Picture winner, and one of those films that film buffs get to really early. People watch it as a young age, and I feel it’s one of those movies where, in high school, young writers use as a reference point a lot. Maybe I’m overestimating that, but that’s how it feels to me. Either way, people need to see it.

The Insider is a perfect film. It’s engaging no matter who you are, and it will draw you in even if you don’t think you care about the subject matter. Essential, and great. One of Michael Mann’s three best films, and I don’t think that can be argued.

Being John Malkovich is also essential. A movie buff film you get to real early because it’s so good and crosslists everywhere. You’ll probably see it before you even find this site, but if not, you better see it soon if you like movies.

The Sixth Sense is probably essential. We’re in that weird area where it’s impossible to get to a certain age without knowing the spoiler for this movie, so it’s almost like you’ve seen it before you’ve seen it. It was essential before this because it was such a big magic trick of a film. Now it’s one of those movies you kind of have to see because ‘it’s the Sixth Sense’ and because you know all bout it. I’m curious to see where this ends up in another fifteen years. Will people automatically know about it? Will it maybe get more of its power back? For people to get into it not knowing the ending? I don’t know. But you should probably see it.

The Cider House Rules is good. Not essential. Worthwhile. You should probably see it. Michael Caine won Supporting Actor for it. Oscar buffs need to see it because there’s a winner here. Movie buffs aren’t obligated to see it, but with the amount of famous people in it, it cross lists a bunch. So probably, but not necessary. Though it is a solid film.

The Last Word: It’s a wide open category, and I feel the best three choices are Mann, Mendes and Jonze. Any one of the three feels like a legitimate vote. The other two, not so much. I’m very okay with Mendes having win, his film being my favorite of the group. But Mann was a very close second for me, and Jonze also feels like you could take him. So they’re all good. I’m happiest with Mendes, so that’s who I’m taking.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

2000

Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot

Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Ridley Scott, Gladiator

Steven Soderbergh, Erin Brockovich

Steven Soderbergh, Traffic

Analysis:

Billy Elliot is a bit of a surprise nominee. Stephen Daldry was 3 for 3 in this category in nominations for his first three films. Kinda crazy. He wasn’t even nominated for the DGA. Cameron Crowe was nominated instead for Almost Famous. Surprising he didn’t get here, but I guess that’s the BAFTA vote.

Billy Elliot is an 11 year old boy who loves to dance and wants to be a professional dancer. Not the manliest thing to do. So we see his family and friends coming to term with it, while he trains with Julie Walters to do what he loves.

It’s a very enjoyable movie. Do I love it? No. Will people love it? Definitely. It’s a very likable film, and it’s hard not to enjoy it. Do I think it needed to be nominated here? Absolutely not. It’s easily fifth in the category. Maybe if you love it, you put it fourth. There is no way anyone puts this higher than fourth. There are three legitimately better efforts than this, and there is no way anyone could or would actually vote for this as the best effort.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of those films I grew up not liking, purely because I didn’t think it was as good as everyone said. You see something, especially at that 13-17 age, and you think, “Yeah, that was fine.” And then all of a sudden people think it’s the greatest thing and really love it. Or worse, you’re like me and you really get into the Oscars, and everyone says how this movie should have won both Best Picture and Best Director this year. And you go, “What? That’s insane.” And because you’re young and don’t understand the nuance of, “More than one thing can be true” and gray areas, you develop a dislike for a perfectly decent movie. That’s what happened with me.

I think I came out of it a bit by the time I wrote up the articles the first time, but I wasn’t really out of it. I appreciated the film, but still didn’t love it. And right now, I’m here to say… the film’s getting another shot.

The story is basically a pretty standard kung fu narrative with love story, elevated by Ang Lee’s direction. Chow-Yun Fat is a swordsman, Michelle Yeoh is another warrior. They love each other, but cannot act on them because she’s arranged to be married to someone else. He decides to retire, and asks her to bring his sword to a friend for safekeeping. The sword is then stolen, leading to revenge and revelation and forbidden love, and a whole bunch of awesome fight scenes.

The direction is great. There are no two ways about it. Would I vote for it? Not really. I wouldn’t. But is he vote-worthy? Abso-fucking-lutely. In a year like this, he may be second choice. However you want to slice it.

Gladiator is… Gladiator. Who hasn’t seen Gladiator?

Russell Crowe is a Roman general. Marcus Aurelius is going to retire. Joaquin Phoenix is his son. Marcus decides he’d rather have Crowe be his successor. So Phoenix kills him and has Crowe and his family murdered. Only Crowe survives. And ends up being captured into slavery. So he ends up coming back as a (insert title here), hoping to win back his freedom and get some vengeance, “in this life or the next.”

It’s a great movie. We all love this movie. It’s awesome. CGI doesn’t hold up as well in some of the Rome recreations, but as a film, it’s fucking awesome.

The effort now… you know, I’m not quite sure exactly what I think about it as compared to the others. So let’s leave it at, yes it’s worthy of a vote, and figure it all out in the end.

Erin Brockovich is the first of two Steven Soderbergh nominations. He’s the only person two be nominated for two separate films in the Best Director category. Michael Curtiz was nominated for two films in 1938, but that was one nomination, two films. They amended the rules after that so a director would only be nominated for one film. So Soderbergh is the only person to get enough votes to be nominated for two separate films in the same category. Not even Francis Ford Coppola did that for The Godfather Part II and The Conversation. So that’s of note.

(Also, interesting that Robert Zemeckis wasn’t nominated for Cast Away. Not even a DGA nomination. Hmm.)

Anyway, Erin Brockovich is about a single mother who works at a law office and basically helps take down a corporation who has been dumping chemicals in the water of a town, which has led to people getting sick.

It’s good. Mostly a star vehicle for Julia Roberts. Very similar to a lot of trial movies that came out during these years, except this one is a spunky single mother with a push up bra.

The effort — it’s fine. Mostly nominated because the film got a Best Picture nomination. No real other reason. Easily fourth or fifth in the category, flipped with Daldry, however you want. There’s no way you take this for a vote. Especially since…

Traffic is a film that people literally rallied around. When Soderbergh was nominated twice, people took out ads to say, “Vote for him for this. This is the better achievement.” And it worked. And to be fair, this is the better effort of the two. We do take Soderbergh for granted. He’s a hell of a director.

Traffic is about the war on drugs. A lot of different interweaving stories. Three major ones. There’s Michael Douglas as a harsh judge against drug use, whose daughter secretly becomes a crackhead. And then there’s Benicio del Toro as a cop trying to take down the cartel in Mexico. And then there’s the DEA and an informant who is ready to give up the cartel boss, and the agents are trying to keep him alive long enough to testify. It’s a great movie. Really well done.

Soderbergh separates the three stories by giving them a different color palette. The Douglas story has a blueish tint, the DEA one has a warmer hue, and the del Toro one has more of a yellow, grainy, overexposed feel. It’s very well made. Definitely worth a vote, too. So we’ll sort out which is my vote now.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: No to Soderbergh one (Brockovich) and no to Daldry. That leaves Ridley, Soderbergh 2 (Traffic) and Ang Lee.

Seeing those three choices, I totally see how Ang Lee won the DGA and could have won this category. He’s easily worth voting for. Though me, personally… I’d take Ridley over him. So that leaves Lee third for me. Now we have Ridley vs. Soderbergh.

Tough choice. I can’t even use Soderbergh having two films as a tiebreaker, since he’s here for both. Ridley did a great job, and Gladiator is terrific. The CGI is a bit of a turn off. And then Soderbergh — Traffic is really great and he does a great job juggling all the stories and making them feel separate yet intertwined. I keep fluctuating between who I think should win. Originally it was Scott, and then it was Soderbergh. Now… I think I’m back to Ridley. My reasoning this time is… Gladiator is more iconic. I remember more images and moments from that, even though Traffic feels more intimate and more… I don’t know, directed. If that makes sense. I get Soderbergh winning and think it’s perfectly acceptable. And honestly, until probably yesterday, I’d have had him as the winner. But today I’m feeling Ridley, so that’s who I’m taking.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Ridley Scott, Gladiator
  2. Steven Soderbergh, Traffic
  3. Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  4. Steven Soderbergh, Erin Brockovich
  5. Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot

Rankings (films):

  1. Gladiator
  2. Traffic
  3. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  4. Erin Brockovich
  5. Billy Elliot

My Vote: Ridley Scott, Gladiator

Recommendations:

Gladiator is such a clearly obvious essential film. “Are you not entertained?” How have you not seen this by now? Plus it’s a Best Picture winner. All around essential.

Traffic is essential. You may not think it, but it is. It’s so good. Ensemble piece with actors you love. That’s why people get to it pretty early. Best Director winner, so Oscar buff essential, plus it’s just a great movie. You’ll likely see it before you realize you needed to.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is essential on title alone. Great movie. And one of those films you need to see even if it’s not entirely for you. But it’ll be for most people.

Erin Brockovich is one of those movies that sounds essential in title alone. And it’s a great movie. Julia Roberts is terrific. Best Actress winner. Probably essential. And if not, a really entertaining movie that’s highly recommended. Take away whatever she’s doing (and she’s definitely doing something), the film is still really engaging. Trial movie. Those are always good.

Billy Elliot is a lot of fun and very charming. Hard not to enjoy this. Not essential, but definitely very good. I do recommend it, though if you’re not feeling it, you don’t need to go out of your way. But it is very charming, and you probably will like it.

The Last Word: It’s either Ridley, Soderbergh for Traffic or Ang Lee. All are completely reasonable winners and great choices. I wouldn’t take Lee (personal thing), and between Soderbergh and Scott… toss up. Changes from week to week. Right now, it’s Ridley, so he was my choice. All three options are great winners. You couldn’t go wrong with any of them.

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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