Saturday, March 26, 2011

Time-Delayed Oscars 1999

Cross-posted at The_Goat_Speaks.

Folks, we’re nearing the end of the nineties, and what have we learned? First, I’ve learned that this is a truly enjoyable series of posts to write. I’m almost certain to move on to the eighties. Second, it can be a total grind. I’m almost certain to take a break before moving on.

I was asked on Formspring the other day which year I thought represented the decade’s strongest showing.  This is that year.  Seriously, go look at the absolute monster list below. It’s almost silly. We’re talking about a breathtaking array of genre-benders and risk-taking films that sent shock waves into and throughout the next decade. Amazingly (or perhaps not so much), this was also a year that the Academy got it almost entirely wrong.

Spoilers: This is too long and you didn’t read it. Those of you who sold your attention spans for the latest Angry Birds upgrade pack should probably just pull the ripcord now; your parachute will carry you down with cottony softness to the Daily Doses of Crazy and Awesome.

Huh? You’re still here?

Let’s do it.

Yes, you can ask your contractor to install a similar ceiling,
but the insulation is crap, it's going to just KILL your heating bill.
And Down! The! Stretch! They! Come!

All About My Mother – The first Pedro Almodovar movie to receive serious Oscar notice. Not my favorite of his, but all the touchstones are here; the strong women, the bright palate, the artifice of performance bleeding into “real” life. It’s worth seeking out.

American Beauty – Otherwise known as Your Best Picture of 1999, Beauty hasn’t aged all that well. It’s still got bits that pop, the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, and I think Kevin Spacey in particular is very good in it, but it comes off now as overly mannered in some spots, and outright contrived or pretentious in others. In another year, I think it would remain a contender, but I think it would be hard-pressed to even get a nomination in retrospect, particularly given director Sam Mendes’ spotty track record (Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road, and other movies without the word ‘Road’ in them).

American Pie – Brought back the teen raunch comedy and launched a billion direct-to-DVD sequels. Also, Shannon Elizabeth. Just sayin’.

Any Given Sunday – Never saw this, but it got Jamie Foxx started down the ‘serious actor’ road, and allegedly has a lively Al Pacino performance. Warrants a brief mention.

Being John Malkovich – OK, so we’re all now aware that this is an all-time classic, right? Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jones showed up with this aggressively bizarre gem about people scheming for recognition, scrambling around in a culture that values fame so desperately that they’ll pay top dollar to spend a little bit of time as a kind of famous person. I think this movie pretty much freaked everybody out, and though there were a couple nominations given, it pretty much was ignored, written off as a cult hit with a small but rabid fan base.  Nope; this one pushed the envelope of how stories could be told, and spoke into our culture of ‘look at me!’ with far greater insight than The Truman Show managed to do.  Also, it’s safe to say I will never fully recover from the “Malkovitch enters Malkovitch” scene.

The Blair Witch Project – This was a sensation at the time, remember? I thought it was OK, but much better at creating atmosphere than sustaining it. Nevertheless, I think it was the first major hit to employ the ‘handheld’ look, and it redefined film marketing by producing hoax documentaries about the film, which went an early form of viral. In fact, the first time many of us heard the term “viral” in reference to web popularity may well have been in the context of this movie.

Boys Don't Cry – One of those classic “excellent movies that I never want to watch again.” Hilary Swank gives the performance of her career as Brandon Teena.

Dogma – This is notable to me because it is the movie where Kevin Smith and I parted ways. Not because of the religious satire stuff, which I thought was interesting-to-brilliant, but because he felt the need to bring in Jay and Silent Bob, who fit in to the movie about as well as a fart demon in church. And then they fought a fart demon. Smith is a very funny guy, and I’ll listen to him talk whenever and wherever and about whatever he wants to talk. But when he self-deprecatingly calls himself a lazy film-maker, it is proof that ‘self-deprecating’ doesn’t equal ‘wrong.’ I’m a fan of Kevin Smith who is not a fan of Kevin Smith movies, is I guess what I’m saying.

Election – Guys, Reese Witherspoon is el magnifico. I mean pure genius. If not for an entry a little further down the list, this would be the recipient of my ‘sadly buried classic’ prize for this year.

Eyes Wide Shut – I rented and watched Stanley Kubrick’s final movie ten years ago. I thought it was absolute drivel, but on the other hand, I also thought Nicole Kidman was naked in it. Now critics who hated it are coming back around. It occurs to me that this sort of critical time-lapse is pretty common with Kubrick. It also occurs to me that I probably rented a lousy pan-and-scan on VHS. Might be time to revisit Nicole, um, I mean this movie.

Fight Club – Was this movie any good?  I don’t know, I never saw it but I think it’s probably been forgotten.

HA! Caught you, didn’t I?  You probably were already crafting your angry comments.

Galaxy Quest – Just a fun B-movie all the way. If it were on TV right now, I’d watch it, and so would you.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai – All I really want to say about Ghost Dog is this: I think of this meditative and immensely oddball gangster movie as the ultimate halfway litmus test. If you didn’t like it, it doesn’t mean too much to me in terms of your taste, by which I mean I understand why it might not be your cup of tea, and I don’t really judge you because of it. On the other hand, if you loved it, you are definitely my kind of people. If you loved The Godfather? Well, congratulations. Who didn’t? But if you loved Ghost Dog? I need to buy you a beer and talk with you for a while. You’re part of my tribe.

The Insider – Almost left this off the list. I think it’s still sort of remembered for the Russell Crowe performance. It’s a good movie, but I think it’s going to be/has already been forgotten.

The Iron Giant – Dudes. Dudettes. Trust me. If you haven’t seen this movie, you’re missing out on one of the finest and most sadly unknown children’s films ever. Before he made The Incredibles or Ratatouille, animation legend Brad Bird made this. If you don’t love it, I’ll kill ya. This would be a credible Best Picture choice in most years, kids’ movie or no kids’ movie. It’s pretty much perfect.

Magnolia There comes a point, after the frogs have started raining down on Los Angeles, when Current Quiz Kid Stanley Spector looks around and says with awe, “This happens. This is something that happens.”  That’s how I felt too, as I realized that PT Anderson had decided that no limits were necessary in his narratives. I was already pretty well invested in the movie, a well-acted, beautifully written, stunningly directed piece, but I couldn’t shake that it was essentially nothing more than a well-made entry in the ‘we-are-all-connected-in-this-big-city’ cannon that Robert Altman (among others) had already done pretty well. But then Anderson hocked up a frog rain, and dared us to follow him right down the rabbit hole. Did you? I did. This is my favorite movie of this very strong year.

The Matrix – You see what I mean about 1999? You see what I mean? The original lost a little of its shine because of two ghastly sequels, but whatever you might think of those movies, it’s difficult to say that The Matrix didn’t drop a megaton paradigm bomb all over action cinema and helped usher in the design aesthetic (sleek, black, lots of white space – this movie basically invented a decade of Apple products) we’re still living with. It’s also a top-shelf sci-fi action film, and provides us with what is sure to be the defining ‘whoa’ of Keanu Reeves’ career.

Office Space – This movie was a total bomb. I’ll repeat that. This movie – this movie – was a total bomb. My, what a difference a few hundred cases of the Mondays makes, am I right? I think it’s safe now to call Office Space one of the defining comedies of the decade. This is the way we can find the Russian agents still hiding among us: Find out if they’ve seen this movie. If not, you’ve got a sleeper agent for sure. It’s a sort of polite howl against the dehumanizing effect of cubical life, it’s the movie that gave us all the chance to vicariously beat the living shit out of a faulty printer, and most importantly, it’s the movie that reclaimed the name ‘Michael Bolton’ from infamy. In many years, this movie would be a likely dark horse Best Picture nominee, even though it’s in the comedy ghetto that is seldom Academy-honored. Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta.

The Sixth Sense – Remember when M. Night Shyamalan was considered the heir to Spielberg and Hitchcock? Yeah.  So, anyway…I watched this again, and it isn’t terrible.  In fact, there are creepy little parts of it that are effective and bordering on great.  Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, and Toni Collette all give interesting, if highly stylized, performances, and Shyamalan -as-director’s strength have not yet been subsumed by Shyamalan -as-writer-of-terrible-and-obvious-dialogue. Also, it kept Donnie Wahlberg off the streets for a few days. That said, it doesn’t hold up as anything resembling ‘great’. It’s difficult to know how much of my reaction is biased by the midden heap that M. Night has been slowly pooting out for the last 10 years, but it’s pretty clear that this is simply the cleverest of his empty little Twilight Zone episodes. (I’d say one of his later movies is less clever but still more successful cinematically.  Now I’m quibbling. How do I get out of this parenthetical?)

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut – I’d have to say this is one of the very funniest movies that have ever been made. What’s so extraordinary about SPBLU is not just that it expands the South Park universe to a scope epic enough for the big screen, but that is it easily one of the most enjoyable screen musicals in decades. They don’t just make fun of the music they are satirizing, either; Parker and Stone went and made honest-to-God great songs. They are geniuses, and it’s little wonder that this year they have become the toast of Broadway.

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace – Yep. So. This happened. Hmm. Kind of awkward. Shall we just sort of politely move along?

The Talented Mr. Ripley – A fantastic thriller that kind of gets lost it in the 1999 mix. It brought Jude Law front and center in the national consciousness, but what is often missed is that Matt Damon delivered what is probably the best performance of his career. How he missed the nomination is beyond me, but who cares? Go back and watch him now.

Three Kings – An odd little sleeper in 1999 (part Kelly’s Heroes, part Platoon), it’s now often mentioned among the best war films ever. It doesn’t hurt that director David O. Russell has become an official Auteur To Watch in the decade following this Gulf War drama, or that stars Mark Wahlberg and George Clooney have themselves gained significant critical cachet.

Toy Story 2 – The sequel is every bit as good as the groundbreaking (and Retroactive Oscar Best Picture winning) original. There are those that would say it’s even better, setting up and deepening the themes that would, by part three, blossom into a full-on existential meditation about the inevitability of death. To be fair, it’s also about toys doing funny things. I don’t want to get too far down Pretention Parkway with this. Whatever, all hail Pixar.

Varsity Blues – I think this is sort of remembered, but I just want to point out that this is the movie that actually gave the hero my last name (and the nickname derivative that is the natural offshoot of said name), and then cast James VanderBeek (Dawson himself) as that hero. This is like finding out you won $500 in a contest and then finding out that it is a Dom Deluise look-alike contest.

And The Time-Delayed Oscars Go To. . .

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and the ability to control time and space. Consult with your
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Best Picture

Real List:  American Beauty, The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, The Sixth Sense

Today's List: Being John Malkovitch, Fight Club, Magnolia, The Matrix, Three Kings

My pick: Magnolia

Look at those two lists. I don’t think that there is any more damning evidence of the Academy’s increased irrelevance than that. I mean, of the movies actually nominated in 1999, only eventual winner American Beauty is even credible. Meanwhile, the bottom list is almost comically stacked. It’s the 1992 Dream Team of Best Picture nominees, and consider the following:  (1) in 1999, none of them even made the team, which would be like leaving off Magic, Michael, Larry, and Isaiah* in favor of John Starks, AC Green, Christian Laettner*, and a then-4 year old Darko Milicec; (2) I even left off Office Space, Toy Story 2, South Park, The Iron Giant, Ghost Dog, Election, Eyes Wide Shut, The Talented Mr. Ripley,  and Boys Don’t Cry, any of which would have been perfectly credible entries (and all of which I at one point or another nearly included in place of Three Kings), and none of THEM made the list of nominees either.

The Cider House Rules?

The Green Mile?

The Insider?

The Sixth Sense?

Are you kidding me? These are forgettable-ish at best (The Sixth Sense, The Insider), and downright terrible in some cases (The Green Mile, The Cider House Rules).

The Academy was sitting at a veritable Brazilian steak house of cinematic destiny, and they filled up at the salad bar. LOLDonkOscarments, as the man says.

*Yes, I know. I am still bitter.

Anyway, it’s nearly impossible for me to decide which of these movies is the winner. I’m tempted to go with my personal favorite, Magnolia, but I know that it annoyed many even as it inspired many. It’s a prickly pear, and probably still too prickly for a solid win. Being John Malkovitch undoubtedly belongs at the table…but is it still too damn weird to get to carve the turkey? I sort of think ‘yes’. Three Kings has the war movie thing going for it, which the Academy loves, but there’s precious little flag-waving in it, which the Academy loves…less.

I think it’s down to Fight Club and The Matrix. I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest fan of The Matrix. I think it has a number of story problems (which blossom to full flower in the sequels), and morally speaking it is about ten times too nihilistic for me. (Look, I realize that the Matrix by its very nature makes all people connected into it potential enemies, but they are still PEOPLE, you know? Having our heroes looking all cool and awesome and just mowing down a bunch of cops without any reflection on either their part or the part of the film is troubling to me, and I suspect it always will be.) However, it is without doubt a touchstone movie and a defining moment in modern popular culture. James Cameron aside, I think its safe to say that Big Spectacle Hollywood is still trying – and failing – to catch it.

"It's a can of whup-ass. Let's open it."
Oh, and speaking of nihilism: Hello, Fight Club, aka the Gonzo American Beauty. Yes, the parallels are certainly there between Tyler Durden’s Diary of A Mad White Man and American Beauty, the actual, considerably more wan, Best Picture winner of 1999. Here we have a movie about a guy much like American Beauty’s Lester Burnham, a guy who realizes the absolute cancerous emptiness of the consumerist American careerist/ consumerist death trap, a guy who is forced to face the impossibility of human contact within the lifestyle that he’s chosen for himself, a guy who (exactly like Lester) responds to this new realization first by acting out, then by aggressively blackmailing his superior into firing him with a dream severance package, and then by dropping out of common society altogether.

You see it, right? The Academy got the zeitgeist right. It just chose the wrong damn picture.

Oh. Unlike Lester Burnham, the unnamed hero of Fight Club becomes a friggin’ terrorist with split personality disorder who by movies end stands hand-in-hand with his damaged girlfriend, listens to the Pixies, and watches the world financial system (built on nonsense – that is to say, credit) and the skyscrapers fall . . .

(Spoilers! Also: Chills!)

Um. Dudes. This movie came out in 1999. No way it gets made today with that ending. But did it have its finger on the pulse?

Answer?  Yes.

I am Jack’s Best Picture Oscar.

Best Actor

Kevin Spacey carries American Beauty. Bruce Willis grounds The Sixth Sense. Matt Damon is revelatory in The Talented Mr.Ripley. Keanu Reeves is, um, in The Matrix. That said, you really have to give this to Bradley Pitt, the live wire that makes Fight Club jump. Imagine another actor as Tyler Durden, please. You see? That’s one sad tamale, isn’t it? I recall a time when I thought that Pitt was just another pretty face with not much going on. A Keanu, in other words. After a while, it became clear that he had the Robert Redford charisma gear, and was a genuine movie star who could actually act when needed. I am pretty sure that 12 Monkeys was the moment it became entirely clear that Pitt was an excellent actor, period, and Fight Club was the moment when that promise came to full flower. Brad Pitt is going to be in dozens more movies, I’d imagine, but Durden is rightfully his career definer. Oscar time, please.

Best Actress

You’d be hard-pressed to take this away from Hilary Swank, an actress that I normally can barely tolerate, but who nevertheless gave a performance in Boys Don’t Cry that was so raw and vulnerable and believable and utterly heart-rending that experiencing it almost feels like it should leave scars. On the opposite side of the spectrum, though, we have Reese Witherspoon, who is comedic perfection in Election.  (I didn’t know that was going to rhyme like that when I wrote it, so I’m leaving it. Screw.) I don’t think she’d manage to win it retroactively in this fantabulously stacked year, and frankly I’m not sure she even deserves to, but since in almost any other year she’d be the obvious pick, I wanted to mention her here. 

What was the Best Picture of 1999? Vote!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Time-Delayed Oscars 1998

Cross-posted at The_Goat_Speaks.

Right after the films of 1997 came the film of 1998. And the year before that had been 1996!  Really, it just happened that way. Personally, I am beginning to detect a pattern.  If the movies of 1999 follow, this whole thing may be rigged.

The year of our King of the World (1997) was what we might call 'disappointing' to write about, as I first wrestled against, and then finally learned to stop worrying and love, Titanic. Well, OK, not 'love'.  More like 'accept the fact that Titanic still casts a long shadow fourteen (!!) years later and will probably still win the Oscar'. It sort of makes me want to start up a "30 years later" series, except then I'd have to wait to do it. What I'd like to do is reiterate that I believe that The Sweet Hereafter is the best film of the year, and will eventually be recognized as such. I'm heartened to see that so many of you agree, as you made it the easy winner in the FilmChaw poll. Not quite the level that we saw with Fargo, which crushed for 1996, but still enough.  Good show, Internet!

OK, let's reach the bourgeoisie and rock the boulevard.

"Highness, forgive me for saying so, but you look like some kind of
Batman super-villain. We thought you would want to
know, you are making babies cry."

And Those The Storm Left Behind

American History X – Edward Norton was awesome in this overly-didactic Tony Kaye flick. Also, you can’t bring up this movie without reliving the grueling curb-stomp scene, the grueling shower scene, and the hilarious basketball scene where Norton dunks.
The Big Lebowski – I must confess, I’ve been considering this movie to be the proof case for the whole Time-Delayed experiment. For most people, this meandering spoof on noir detective tropes was a minor little nothing when it came out, a sort of confusing disappointment from the Coens following their mainstream breakthrough with Fargo.  What a difference a decade or so makes, huh? Lebowski has proven to have some serious legs as a cult film and a critical darling. It’s an endlessly quotable, marvelously clever, perfectly daffy movie. It may be the best comedy of the decade.

– Wesley’s Nipes as a vampire hunting vampires, back in an age when vampires were dangerous instead of sparkly. I think there are still a lot of fans of this movie. It did spawn two sequels, after all. Was it any good?

Buffalo '66
– Vincent Gallo made this movie about a stunted man-child ex-con who kidnaps a girl to pose as his wife to impress his parents, who are the cause of all his emotional problems. It’s sort of insane and compelling.

A Bug's Life
– If there’s a forgettable Pixar movie, it’s this one. But it’s also possible that there isn’t a forgettable Pixar movie, so I’m mentioning it here. Yep. Um, yep. So…let’s move on.

– Warren Beatty raps. This is not a typo. This is actually a seriously under-rated political satire. It falls apart at the end and falls short of the 70s masterpieces like The Candidate and Network to which it clearly aspires, but until then Beatty is serious fun as a senator who loses his marbles and starts telling the truth.

– Great little gambling noir that introduced Clive Owen as an actor to reckon with.

– Sort of dull-ish but stylish costume drama with a superb Cate Blanchett role. Not her first big role, but definitely the first where she made a big splash.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
– Another one of those 1998 movies that tanked in the theater but have warranted reconsideration afterward. I tried watching this as a comedy, and I hated it. Then I watched it as a horror film, and I loved it. Arguably Johnny Depp’s finest hour, and required viewing for both fans of Hunter S. Thompson’s book and the oeuvre of Terry Gilliam.

Gods and Monsters
– Ian McKellen was a favorite to win Best Actor until Roberto Begnini cold-cocked him on Oscar night. I remember this film fondly, though I don’t hear a whole lot of people these days saying, “hey, remember Gods and Monsters?”

– Wow, is this the most disturbing funny movie of all time, or is it simply one of the most disturbing movies of all time? It remains Todd Solondz’s most acclaimed offering, and one of the only films (the only one?) that attempts to humanize a pedophile –  and that’s only one thread in this twisted little path of woe. I think if Solondz’s post-Happiness films had been better received, it would be a 1998 best picture contender.

Life is Beautiful
– Ah, yes, the Holocaust comedy. You know, I actually think that any topic, no matter how controversial or painful, is a valid target for comedy (see the entry directly before this one), but certain topics require a very deft touch when it comes to tone. I think if we know one thing about Roberto Begnini, it’s that he isn’t a particularly deft touch when it comes to tone. He’s more like a shotgun than a sniper rifle, is what I’m saying, and he gives us a movie where a guy gives a whole barracks full of Auschwitz prisoners hilarious and comical instructions so that his son won’t know the horrific truth. It’s a slapsticky feel-goody Holocaust farce. Is the Academy embarrassed yet about falling in love with this one?

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
– Look out, bad guys; here comes Jason Statham. The Statham is actually a low-key (and approximately 300% less badass) part of a massive ensemble that sees Tarantino’s tough talking thugs, twisting plot, and stylized dialogue, and raises with impenetrable British slang and diction, twice the characters, and three times the nihilism. Still a hell of a lot of fun. Guns for show. Knife for a pro.

Meet Joe Black
– This was a total bomb, but I wanted to mention it for the rag-doll-struck-by-two-cars death of Brad Pitt’s character in the first act.

Out of Sight
– There should be warnings before a movie that is this stylish and assured and fun. George Clooney came into his own as a movie star in this, and Jennifer Lopez is never better than here (which means that she is actually good). Seriously, from beginning to end Out of Sight is an embarrassment of awesome. Woefully under-appreciated in its day.

Patch Adams
– Behold, the end of Robin Williams’ funniness. This movie gave me cancer.

– Darren Aronowsky’s debut. He really wasn’t any mellower back in the day. Are you thinking of the power drill yet?

– The movie that spawned approximately 67% of the screen names on online poker sites, and 87% of the poker clichés from 1998 until around 2004. This is sort of dated in the internet poker age, and way simplistic for anybody who has followed the evolution of the game over the last decade, but there’s something compelling about the world of Worm and Knish and Mike McD and especially the scenery-destroying John Malkovitch as Teddy KGB.

Run Lola Run
– I don’t know; is this one still on the list? It’s on the edge for me. I remember it as being very flashy but ultimately hollow. It was without doubt relevant back in the day, though; an art-house action movie.

Rush Hour
– Are we all over our Chris Tucker fascination yet? This was a major hit back in the day, but I think it will be a film that time forgets pretty soon.

– Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket follow-up is the first movie that fully realizes what is now his signature style. It might be the best of them, too, though it’s not quite my favorite. Do you know that Bill Murray wasn’t even nominated for this? No matter; the rejuvenation of his career began with Rushmore.

Saving Private Ryan
–   Hold on . . .

Shakespeare In Love
– I swear I actually heard the air get sucked out of the room when they called out this movie at the end of the Oscar ceremony. Yep, this was the movie considered Best Picture of 1998. And, once again, I don’t hate it. I actually like it. It’s quite well done. But come on, this is the best movie of the year? Sometimes it’s obvious when the wrong pick has been made. This movie was a well-made middlebrow hit. It’s not an all-time classic. Is it getting into some stirring “Ain’t Cinema Great” montage between clips of On The Waterfront and Taxi Driver?  The answer, obviously, is ‘no’. We wouldn’t even be thinking of it if it hadn’t won the major prize. By the way, The King’s Speech just won Best Picture of 2010. Huh, what made me think of that?

A Simple Plan
– Very under-rated modern noir gem from a post-Evil Dead, pre-Spider Man Sam Raimi.  Watch it if you haven’t. You’ll not regret it.

There's Something About Mary
– A mega-hit comedy from the Farrelly brothers that notably raised the bar on outrageousness; I suspect it would seem quaint today. Remember that South Park was only getting warmed up when the ‘hair gel’ gag was considered outré. I always thought that TSAM was overrated by exactly 76.9%, but I’ll always love it a little for two reasons: (1) Matt Dillon’s delivery when he proudly proclaims, “I work with retards”; and (2) for being the only film of the 90s bold enough to take on the issue of the disparity between the spelling and the pronunciation of Brett Favre’s name.

The Thin Red Line
– Hold on . . .

The Truman Show
– Ladies and gently-men, I give you the most overrated film of 1998! I remember that magazines had practically given it (and Jim Carrey) the Oscar before it came out. It seems to think it has a lot to say about either (1) our celebrity culture or (2) the human condition, but it’s actually (3) ludicrous. The premise – unlimited technology and resources are spent in order to stage what is essentially a very dull (yet inexplicably globally popular) reality show about a very dull man – is just unbelievable enough to be distracting, but it’s played just straight enough that you have to try to push through and accept it at face value, which is hard work. It’s ironic given how much credit Carrey was given for dialing back his manic persona in service to this film, but a broader comic tone might have helped sell the premise a bit better. (I’ll now back up and say that it’s not a terrible movie, and Carrey in particular is actually pretty good in it, but damn, 1998. Get a grip.)

Velvet Goldmine
– A minor independent film from Todd Haynes about the glam rock scene starring a pre-superstar Christian Bale. It’s still well-remembered by aficionados, which indicates to me that I should probably watch it.

Wild Things
– This movie will always be remembered for one thing: the dialogue.

You've Got Mail
– This is the third and (to date) final Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy, and I’m guessing the late 90s computer theme makes it easily the most comically dated movie of the year. Never mind that, though, this thing was awful to start with. Let’s sum up: Tom Hanks’ big business book chain owner is going to crush the family business of small independent bookstore owner Meg Ryan, little knowing that Ryan is the woman he’s fallen in love with online. Then he finds out. Then he crushes her anyway. Then she cries a lot.  Then she loves him, because it is the end of the movie. This movie can be summed up by one word, and that word is “gloorrmf?” At least it lives up to its product placement: It is the AOL of romantic comedies. I have been waiting 13 long years to write this rant down. I feel better now.
War is hell. It's still not as bad as You've Got Mail.

And the Time-Delayed Oscars Go To:

Best Picture

Real List: Elizabeth, Life Is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan, Shakespeare In Love, The Thin Red Line

Today’s List: The Big Lebowski, Out of Sight, Rushmore, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line

My Choice: The Thin Red Line

We really have an embarrassment of riches this year; not only of great movies, but of great movies that are now generally recognized as such. I think Lebowski would actually be a contender today, given that the Coens are officially recognized Big Damn Geniuses now, and the fact that Lebowski is one of their most beloved movies wouldn’t hurt, either. However, it’s just too goofy and shambling and weird, and it’s a comedy. Academy don’t like comedy as much. They’d rather be taken seriously. Ironically, they’d be taken more seriously if they recognized movies like Lebowski, but whatever.  Similarly, Out of Sight and Rushmore would be in the running, but one is a breezy and enjoyable heist flick and the other one is an idiosyncratic story about a teenaged misfit. They’re out.

So really, this is a race between two World War II movies. Now, WWII is the ultimate catnip to the Academy, but these actually happen to be among the greatest war movies of all time, so I think their head-to-head battle is appropriate. My preference is for the absolutely gorgeous, meditative and detached rumination on beauty and horror that Terrence Malick delivered (honestly, I’ve never seen a war movie that’s anything like it, and it’s been burrowing its way into my soul since I watched it), but I have little doubt that the hardware would be going to Steven Spielberg’s technically astounding Saving Private Ryan, an excellent movie marred somewhat by a narrative misleading and unnecessary framing device.  Ryan is definitely more popular, more influential (it pretty much re-wrote the war film playbook) and more accessible than Line, and it’s entirely deserving.

Best Actor

There’s plenty of ways we could go, all of them better than the actual winner (Roberto Begnini the Holocaust clown).  Tom Hanks gives what is in my opinion his finest performance in Saving Private Ryan. George Clooney anchored Out of Sight. Edward Norton was a force of nature in American History X, and Johnny Depp gave great gonzo. In the end, I’m calling it for Jeff Bridges in his most iconic role as The Dude. Every time I watch Lebowski I’m amazed at the Dude-ish perfection that Bridges brings to his accidental shamus/bowler/ex-hippie/occasional wearer of pants. It’s just about perfecto. There’s any number of award-worthy Bridges performances (in fact, he just got awarded for one of them recently); but it’s as The Dude that he’ll be remembered.

Best Actress

This was a two-way race between Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love and Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth, and I think it still is. However, I think the Academy would now zag instead of zig. I say this mainly based on my understanding of the current reputations of both.  I’d argue that, without the imprimatur of Best Picture for Shakespeare, both actress’s films would be remembered equally well, which is to say not very, but there sure was some fine actin’, wasn’t there? Paltrow’s relative disappearing act since winning, compared with Blanchett’s awards show ubiquity, suggest that it is now Blanchett who is considered the finer actress, and who therefore would have the inside track to the win.

What was the Best Picture of 1998? Vote!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Time-Delayed Oscars 1997

Cross-posted at The_Goat_Speaks.

This is going to be a weird year; there were some genuinely great movies to come out in 1997, some of which haven’t yet received their full due, others of which have simply faded from our regard… and then there’s a giant 900 lb. gorilla in the room. A technically amazing, poorly-written, extremely high grossing gorilla who sometimes sounds like Celine Dion.

Will our hearts go on?  Let’s find out.

Ian Holm and Sarah Polley contemplate the fact that they have
no shot at the 1997 Oscars.

And The Survivors:

Air Bud – OK, I’m kidding. This movie was probably terrible. I certainly will never watch it.

The Apostle – AKA Robert Duvall’s tour-de force as actor/writer/director. This may be his greatest performance. He brought it to the screen almost by himself. It was almost totally ignored. I think the love for this movie is growing slowly. The day will come when suddenly the world of film history will take another look and realize what has been buried.

As Good As It Gets – One of the most beloved movies of 1997, both then and now, which obscures what a mess this thing is. Jack Nicholson is given one of his best opportunities ever to play The Jack Nicholson Character – and yes, he is sure enough given some of his most hilarious lines in an age to say, and yes, he does tear into those lines with gusto. But his character is just such a terminal louse, and his semi-redemption seems so tacked on and unearned. I’m being unduly harsh, because I actually enjoyed it, but as cinema it’s a pretty good TV movie. I think this movie is good eating, but it’s fast food.

Austin Powers – The movie that launched a million catchphrases. Or, perhaps, the same catch phrase a million times. A middling semi-success in theaters, it was such a hit on video that it catapulted Michael Myers into headlining movie-star territory the likes of which had only been seen by a handful of SNL stars (arguably only Eddie Murphy ever got bigger than Myers at his biggest, though you could make a case for Bill Murray and Chevy Chase). Myers used his newfound clout to make the exact same movie two more times, and then appear in a series of decent-to-excruciating movies as the voice of a Scottish troll.

Batman & Robin – This movie was the worst thing ever and should never be forgotten as such. However, it did end Chris O’Donnell’s movie career, so it wasn’t for nothing.

Boogie Nights – PT Anderson’s LA porn epic was his first big grab at the Scorsese crown and dangnabbit, if he didn’t pull off an at least temporary coup. Features include maybe a dozen of the more indelible scenes of the year, an entire stable of great actors on the cusp of stardom (seriously, look at it; Phillip Seymour Hoffman probably has 12th billing), one of the more infectious soundtracks of the decade, and Burt Reynold’s last fleeting moment of relevance.

The Butcher Boy – OK, does anybody remember this movie?  It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve seen. Neil Jordan gets a performance out of child actor Eamonn Owens that is a miracle. Eamonn who? Exactly. But trust me, this isn’t just one of the best child performances of the decade; it’s one of the best performances of any kind. I think the movie was just obscure enough that the baffled Academy was able to sort of ignore it.

Chasing Amy – I remember when Kevin Smith movies were nearly as fun as Kevin Smith speaking engagements. This was the first movie of note starring Ben Affleck, and to watch it today is to watch what might have been if he had been allowed to grow into his likeable but flawed everyman shoes instead of trying to wear Bruce Willis’ big boy action boots. Jason Lee is a genius in this movie. Jay and Silent Bob barely appear in this, still to date Smith’s best movie. This is not a coincidence.

Donnie Brasco – Ah, when Johnny Depp played human beings instead of a sequence of space alien schoolgirls in a variety of funny hair. Come back, Johnny, I miss you, man. Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco . . . oh man.  Do you remember this performance?  Do you remember him leaving his watch behind as he goes to his fate?  How is this movie not better remembered? I see Brasco on the Godfather/Goodfellas axis, with Godfather showing the upper class, Goodfellas the middle class, and Brasco the working stiffs of the mob.

Face/Off – This is a pretty special movie. Something that John Woo should keep in mind as he makes his movies: He’s so over-the-top in such a self-serious way that the only thing to do is to cast in the lead roles crazy people who don’t mind dialing the scenery chewing up to 11, the better to make your film the comedy it really is. Face/Off is a masterpiece of ludicrous cheese. I loved every silly second of it.  And you know what? Cage and Travolta are GREAT in this. I won’t hear otherwise.

The Fifth Element – John Baptiste Emanuel ZORG. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

Funny Games – This home-invasion exercise in sadism and audience implication is an early stage-setter for Michael Haneke. He went and made a near shot-for-shot English remake a few years back for some reason. I haven’t seen it yet. It scares me.

The Game – David Fincher, Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, and about 7000 plot holes. I don’t care, this one is fan-flipping-tastic. One of the best genre pictures and one of the most under-rated movies of the year and many other years around it.  You know what? Between this and Face/Off and The Fifth Element and Donnie Brasco and The Butcher Boy and The Apostle, this is turning into an absolute killer year for movies with either great cheese factor or great performances, or both, and some fantastic genre pieces . . . it’s just very weird, because I don’t think most of these are properly loved even now.  It’s like that monster boat took the whole year in film down to the bottom of the Atlantic with it.

Gattaca – Another under-rated sleeper. This one’s actually sort of B-level, not as smart as it thinks it is (and surrounded by movies that are smarter than they let on) but it brought us Jude Law and it still is shorthand for “genetic science moral quandary.”

Good Will Hunting – Wow. Watch this movie again and tell me if I’m wrong but . . .it’s just really uneven, isn’t it? The parts that are good (starting with Matt Damon, who is excellent in the title role) are really, really good; but the parts that aren’t (the surface-level pop psychology first and foremost) really aren’t. Nevertheless, it’s a well-remembered film, and one that has Robin Williams mercifully playing the Wise Shrink role in a minor key, which he excels at.

Jackie Brown – I know I sound like a fanboy, but Quentin Tarantino hasn’t made a bad movie yet. However, his penchant for surprising stylistic turns has disappointed his fans before, and Brown was a big first bump in the road for people expecting more Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction from QT. This Elmore Leonard adaptation is top-notch, though, and the themes of finding your place in a world you’re aging out of are just starting to ring true for me.  I think this may be a film you age into, which is all the more extraordinary considering that it was made by a guy in his early thirties. Check it out again, and marvel at the nearly full minute of screen time Samuel L. Jackson’s character is given to think about who stole his mothafuckin’ money.  Not many movies have the trust in the audience and actors to allow these sorts of beats.

LA Confidential – One of the best neo-noirs ever. Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce just popped out of nowhere to become major stars in their own right. Kevin Spacey gives one of his better performances right in the middle of a pretty sick tear of great performances. Kim Basinger channels old-school Hollywood star wattage. This is a crime flick of the best kind, the kind that just doesn’t get made all that much.  I sort of wish I was watching it again.

Lost Highway – This would be a much more critically beloved (or at least acclaimed) movie, I’m convinced, if it weren’t seen as such a dry run for the all time David Lynch classic, Mulholland Drive, released a few year later. Still, if 1997 has a creepier scene than the “Call me/Ask me” bit between Bill Pullman and Robert Blake, I am not aware of it.

Men In Black – Will Smith arrived in Independence Day.  He blasted off in this, but my favorite moments of MIB come from bit players, like David Cross as a David Cross kind of person and Siobhan Fallon as the confused wife of the movie’s comedic masterpiece, Edgar the Bug Man (Vincent D’Onofrio).

Princess Mononoke – Japan’s highest grosser (I think) until the Great Big Boat That Could (Sink) came along.  That was a long time on top there, Princess Mononoke.  I’d like to say this: Animator Hideo Miyizaki is a friggin’ genius, and everybody should watch every single one of his movies. That said, Mononoke is one of his lesser efforts, in quality if not in scope. I like my Miyazaki dreamy.
Starship Troopers – Haven’t seen this war against aliens cum satire of military fascism, but it (and the films of Paul Verhovan in general) are getting a critical reclaimation. Maybe it’s time to.

The Sweet Hereafter – Atom Egoyan’s devastating masterpiece of sorrow. Ian Holm as an ambulance chaser who secretly shares in the mourning of a town that lost their children in one fell swoop. This movie will hurt you and help you. It has often appeared at or near the top of critic’s “best of the 90s” lists. It is entirely, terribly and unequivocally great.

Titanic – Hold on . . .

Wag the Dog – Mainly remembered today for popularizing a phrase that was already sort of out there. This David Mamet production features Robert DeNiro as a politico and Dustin Hoffman as a film producer who make a war up out of whole cloth because the president wants to distract the country. This was a satire until 2003, at which point it retroactively became a documentary.

"Rose, listen to me. You need to live. You need to go on. In about 35 years
a baby named Celine Dion will be born in Canada. You have to kill that
baby. So it is very important that you don't die."

And the Time-Delayed Oscar Goes To:

Best Picture:

Real List: As Good As It Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, LA Confidential, Titanic

Today’s List: As Good As It Gets, Boogie Nights, Good Will Hunting, LA Confidential, Titanic

My Pick: The Sweet Hereafter

This kind of hurts. First, let me say that I saw Titanic in the theaters, and I really liked it at the time. I thought (and still think) that in many ways it was a very well-made and involving motion picture.

That being said, whether you think it was good or whether you think it was nightmarishly awful, we can all come together to admit that this wasn’t the best movie of this or any year, right? The script hit all the right story beats, albeit in a totally by-the-numbers sort of way, but the dialogue was occasionally cringe-worthy, and some of the acting (looking at you, Billy Zane) was imported from the silent era of very big mugging.

I liked Titanic. It’s a throwback spectacle movie (few films suffer more in the translation to home video), and at its best it puts you right there on the boat. At its worst, it plays you a Celine Dion tune while an old lady throws a piece of fashion jewelry right over the side.

Titanic was in some aspects a great movie, in some aspects a merely good movie, and in some aspects not all that good at all.  Wherever you land, I bet you do not consider it the best movie of the year, and I think in time we’ll ALL know that.

But you know what? This movie was such a phenomenon that more than a decade’s time just isn’t enough. I kind of think it would still win the Oscar even today.  It was HA-YUGE, people. Whereas The Sweet Hereafter, which I still believe will win posterity, was very tiny. So my pick for the movie that would probably win Best Picture of 1997, even today, is, sigh, Titanic.

Best Actor
Difficult to say. Jack Nicholson took it this year for what is still a beloved role. This was sort of the last time he really got a chance to play The Feisty Jack Nicholson Guy instead of The Almost-Dead Guy With Moobs and Broccoli Eyebrows, and he does it really, really well in a very funny performance. He may still be the guy to beat.  However, there’s a lot of people who might fit the bill, based on the fact that they gave more impressive performances rather than resting on an established movie-star persona.  Russell Crowe in LA Confidential, Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, Ian Holm in The Sweet Hereafter, Eamonn Owen in The Butcher Boy, and Johnny Depp and Al Pacino both in Donnie Brasco, all fit the bill.  (This was a VERY good year for performances, at least male lead performances.)

But really, guys? It’s Robert Duvall this year. See The Apostle and tell me otherwise. It’s one of the performances of the decade. I think this has been forgotten, but I spent all my cynicism on the Best Picture category. It’s time to recognize.

Best Actress

If it’s possible that Jack doesn’t win anymore, there’s no way Helen Hunt can still ride those coat-tails, especially given the exactly nothing of note that she’s delivered to the silver screen since then.  Once again, though, we’re faced with a chronic Hollywood malady: The Curse Of The Not Many Well-Developed Roles for Women. They really they probably could have spent a bit more time naming that malady.

You know who I think gets it? Pam Grier for Jackie Brown. It’s a great role made just for her and she is awesome in it. There was Oscar talk for her in 1997 but the movie underperformed and she didn’t even get a nomination. She shines in Jackie Brown. Give her the gold.

What was the Best Picture of 1997? Don't sit here asking -- vote!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

I am Number Four

I don't often get to see movies in the theater.

But after a particularly bad run at the poker table, last week, I found myself in line at the Tropicana to see, "I am Number Four."

This movie stars Alex Pettyfer as seemingly all-American teenager until an incident while making googly eyes with a girl out in the ocean, sends him and his father, Timothy Olyphant, on the run.

Turns out Alex, or "John Smith," isn't an American teen at all, he's one of nine survivors of a destroyed planet and Olyphant isn't his dad, he's his alien guardian warrior. The incident in the ocean was a third mark burning itself into his skin, indicating that the third of the nine survivors had been killed by the alien terrorists chasing them. Now, John is on the run because three of his countrymen are dead and he is number four.

Now, a movie with extremely high coolness potential, takes a turn for Boringville, Ohio. Literally.

John Smith and his guardian move to small town Ohio where it turns out that an alien hunter who was helping John's kind has disappeared. John befriends the man's son AND falls in love with the pretty blond, Dianna Agron, whose previous claim to fame is playing the pregnant teen Quinn Fabray on Glee. A full hour of this high crap and then the alien terrorists finally tracks down Number Four! But by then you are in a coma out of which no amount of special effect explosions can roust you.

Also, at 1:45, you also quickly realize there is no way they can finish this story in time.

And you'd be right. I am Number Four is clearly set up to be "the first" of a series of some kind.

I doubt the other movies will ever be made though. It was terrible. The best part of the movie is Timothy Olyphant and his, um...well...what's a non spoiler way of saying "won't be available for the sequel"?

Blah. Definite skipola.