Friday, May 21, 2010

Year in Review: 1998

1998 was a very good year for movies. I remember this year very well, because it was the first time I ever really made a concentrated effort to see everything that was nominated at the Oscars – although I still did miss some acting nominees, the last time this would ever happen. When I look at the top 10 list, I cannot help but this that this was one of the last years dominated by the veterans – directors who debuted at some point from the 1960s-1980s, although there are a few newbies here as well. 1998 is a transition year, but the films in it were excellent.

10. A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi)
Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan is a wonderfully tense crime drama that for once isn’t about criminals – but regular people caught in way over their heads. Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton are brothers who discover a downed plan, with a suitcase full of cash in it. At first, they think they’ve hit the jackpot, but things soon get more complicated. Paxton is the more intelligent of the two brothers – he is thinking everything through the best he can, and Bridget Fonda is excellent as his pregnant, Lady MacBeth-esque wife who at first seems just happy to be where they are, but gradually gets more and greedier. But the best performances belongs to Thornton, as an overgrown man child who is smart enough to know that he isn’t smart enough to pull this all off. Sam Raimi’s direction is assured, making the snow covered setting seem ominous, and Scott Smith’s adaptation of his own novel is masterful (even if I do prefer the original ending of the book over the new ending of the book – although it should be said that he doesn’t soften the ending for mass consumption, just changes it). Raimi usually goes over the top in his direction of movies, but here he sticks with a more straight forward style, which is perfect for the film. Perhaps the best film of his career.

9. Primary Colors (Mike Nichols)
It took guts to make a film about Bill Clinton while he was still in office – even if the names were changed, we knew who the film was about. Mike Nichols movie about Clinton’s run for President in 1992 is an intelligent, extremely well written, acted and directed movie about what happened. John Travolta doesn’t merely do an impersonation of Clinton, but gets under his skin – the charm, the rationalizations, the ambition are all there. Emma Thompson is his equal as his wife, who is horribly angry at her husband, but sticks by him just the same – her ambition even outreaches him. The supporting cast is all excellent – Adrian Lester as a black George Stephanopolous, Billy Bob Thornton as a crash, good old version of James Carville and best of all Kathy Bates in the most work of her career as the ever loyal campaign worker who is heartbroken by the revelations that come out. Nichols has had a spotty career, but when he is on his game – as he is here – he is one of the best at crafted intelligent, adult dramas. One of the best movies about politics of the 1990s.

8. The Truman Show (Peter Weir)
The Truman Show showed up just before the reality TV craze really hit American screens, and in the decade since it has only looked more and more relevant. Jim Carrey gives a great performance as Truman Burbank, a child who was adopted by a TV station who broadcasts every minute of every day of his existence on round the clock television. The “show” is directed by Ed Harris as a benevolent God character who observes Truman. The audiences loves him – he is a part of their daily lives, and he is a comforting presence on the screen at all hours of the day. But he starts to feel as if something isn’t quite right about his world. Strange things start happening – a studio light falling at his feet, a rain storm that starts off just focused on him, etc. Although his TV world has everything he could ever possibly want – he wants more. He wants the freedom to do whatever the hell he wants to do, even if that means failure. The Truman Show is an excellent film – intelligent, well written, well directed, well acted and a film that is also an unflinching portrait of our modern lives.

7. Rushmore (Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson had already proven that he was a budding young talent with his first film – Bottle Rocket – but it was Rushmore that proved just how good he actually was. His film about Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) a high school student in love with his private school – Rushmore, as well as growing increasingly infatuated with his teacher (Olivia Williams) is at once hilarious and heartfelt. Bill Murray gives a tremendous performance as the slightly pathetic rich guy who at first takes Schwartzman under his wing, and then ends up competing with him for Williams’ affection. The film is hilarious at points – a definite highlight is the plays that the Max Fischer players put on – but it is also at times a rather painfully accurate portrait of high school. All the performances are terrific – that Murray wasn’t even nominated for Best Supporting Actor still fills me with bitterness – and the screenplay by Anderson and Owen Wilson is one of the best of the year. A terrific high school comedy that you do not have to be in high school to love.

6. Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh)
For a long time, no one seemed to be able to adapt the novels of Elmore Leonard to the screen properly. But just a year after Tarantino’s excellent Jackie Brown, Steven Soderbergh directed another great movie based on the work of Leonard. Out of Sight is one of Soderbergh’s best films – a clever, funny, sexy crime drama with an intricate flashback structure and terrific performances. George Clooney gives one of his best performances as a bank robber, out of jail after an escape which literally locks him in a trunk of a car with a government agent (Jennifer Lopez, proving that she did in fact have the talent to be a great actress, even if she never again really tried). The two cannot stop thinking about each other even though they know that she will arrest him if she has the chance. The excellent supporting cast includes Ving Rhames as Clooney’s buddy, Don Cheadle as a psychopathic ex-con, Albert Brooks as a blue collar criminal who everyone wants to rip off, and Michael Keaton reprising his Jackie Brown role with a memorable cameo here. The filmmaking here is wonderful – the best Soderbergh had done in quite some time – and the movie, while clever, doesn’t fall into the trap of many of Soderbergh’s later efforts where they were clever only for the sake of being clever. A terrifically entertaining movie.

5. Dark City (Alex Proyas)
In the little more than a decade since this film was released, it has become increasingly clear that director Alex Proyas may never make a film of this caliber ever again. He hasn’t even come close since. But Dark City is still one of the very best science fiction films of the 1990s – and one of the best ever if I’m being honest. The movie takes place in a dark, film noir inspired world, where everything happens at night. A mysterious group of Strangers move the residents of the city around every night – wiping their memories clean and giving them a new identity. Then something goes wrong – Rufus Sewell wakes up and starts to unravel the plot. The film is a masterpiece of style – with amazing cinematography, art direction and costume design that contribute to making the film one of the most distinctive environments in screen history. Sewell’s performance is solid, but workmanlike, but the supporting cast – including Kiefer Sutherland as the doctor who helps the strangers, William Hurt as a cop and Jennifer Connelly as a gorgeous woman (a stretch for her I know), is great. Proyas may never reach these heights again – but with this film, inspired by Fritz Lang’s brilliant Metropolis, he has created a film that will be remembered.

4. Happiness (Todd Solondz)
Todd Solondz’s Happiness contains the strangest, most perverted cast of characters that I can recall seeing in a movie. A pedophile psychologist (Dylan Baker) who uses his son’s sleepovers to rape his friends. His wife (Cynthia Nixon) who believes that she has the perfect life. A phone sex addict (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who wants to rape his beautiful neighbor (Lara Flynn Boyle) who is into the idea, and is Nixon’s sister. The third sister (Jane Adams), who dumps her current boyfriend (Jon Lovitz), which sends her on a shame spiral, and ends with her sleeping with one of English as a Second Students (Jared Harris), who takes advantage of her. Their parents (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser) who are getting a divorce for seemingly no reason. A woman who chops up her doorman who she says raped her (Camryn Manheim). Yet with all the perversion on display, Solondz has still managed to craft an excellent dark comedy that finds humor in even the blackest of moments. He doesn’t exploit his characters, but loves them despite their imperfections, and presents them honestly. Perhaps the truest scene in the film comes near the end when Boyle tells Adams that “We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you”, and Adams replies “But I’m not laughing”. Solondz, one of the most daring directors of his generation, has crafted a movie that plays like a moral test, where it may just be impossible for you to pass. No matter what you think of the movie, you won’t be able to forget it.

3. The Big Lebowski (Joel & Ethan Coen)
The Coen brothers The Big Lebowski is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. No matter how many times I watch it, I cannot help but laugh pretty much from the beginning to the end of the film. Jeff Bridges gives the best performance of his career as The Dude, who is mistaken for another Lebowski, has his rug peed on by a “Chinaman”, and spends the rest of the movie trying to get restitution for his ruined rug because “it really tied the room together”. He unknowingly becomes involves in a kidnapping and in a mystery plot that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Philip Marlowe movie, but he is so clueless that he continually makes the wrong decisions. But he always finds the time to go bowling. Bridges carries the movie, but the entire supporting cast is brilliant – John Goodman as his Vietnam veteran buddy who is even more insane than Goodman was in Barton Fink, Julianne Moore as the woman who wants The Dude to impregnate her, Steve Buscemi who is always a few steps behind the conversation, David Huddleston as the real Lebowski in a wheelchair, Philip Seymour Hoffman as his constantly smiling assistant and John Turturro as the pedophile bowler named Jesus, who correctly informs The Dude that “You don’t fuck with the Jesus”. The Big Lebowski is the Coens at their most insane – as well as at their funniest and most inspired.

2. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg)
Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is one of the most intense war movies ever made. A lot has already been said about the opening battle sequence – which ranks among the bloodiest battles in cinema history, and is pretty much unmatched in terms of pure visceral impact – but the rest of the movie is quite good as well. Tom Hanks gives one of his best performances as the leader of a group of men who are sent deep into the war zone to pull out one Private (Matt Damon) who has had all of his brothers killed. The group argue, but are basically all for one and one for all. Hanks is the most visible face, but gradually the cynical Edward Burns, the scared Jeremy Davies and the gung ho Tim Sizemore all emerge as real character as well. The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, full of dark, overcast skies, dark browns, and an overall gray scale is marvelous. The final battle cannot match the first one for pure cinematic intensity, but it is even more moving, as now we have come to know the different people and feel for them. This is one of the best movies of Spielberg’s career – and considering his body of work, that is saying something.

1. The Thin Red Line (Terence Malick)
I think at the time, many thought of Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line as a disappointment. After all, it was the famed director’s first film in 20 years, and audiences fresh off that summer’s Saving Private Ryan essentially wanted to see that film again – not Malick’s slow, meditative study of the men at war in Africa during WWII. While Malick’s film cannot match Spielberg’s in terms of raw, visceral power, I think his meditative study of these men makes for the stronger movie. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, contrasting the beauty of the surroundings with the brutality on the battlefield itself. The performances are all good – especially Nick Nolte as a hard driving commanding officer, and Sean Penn as the more relaxed one – but the cast is full of top name talent, all of whom do a great job no matter how large or small their role is. My hope is that one day Malick will let someone like Criterion release his original cut of the film – all 6 hours of it – and we can see the film in its entirety (Adrien Brody insists the best work of his career wound up on the cutting room floor for this film). But the film we have now is a masterpiece – the best film of Malick’s wonderful career.

Just Missed The Top 10: Affliction (Paul Schrader), American History X (Tony Kaye), Babe: Pig in the City (George Miller), Buffalo 66 (Vincent Gallo), Bulworth (Warren Beatty), The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordon), The Celebration (Tomas Vinterberg), Elizabeth (Shakur Kapur),Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam), Fireworks (Takahasi Kitano), The General (John Boorman), Gods and Monsters (Bill Condon), He Got Game (Spike Lee), Love and Death on Long Island (Richard Kwientski), Men with Guns (John Sayles), Pi (Darren Aronofsky), Pleasantville (Gary Ross), Show Me Love (Lukas Moodysson),Your Friends and Neighbors (Neil LaBute).

Notable Films Missed: Beau Travail (Claire Denis), Central Station (Walter Salles), Eternity and a Day (Theo Angelpoulous), Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-Hsien).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: Shakespeare in Love
Shakespeare in Love is an undeniably charming, intelligent, handsomely mounted period comedy. Joseph Fiennes is a little bland in the lead role – but Gwyneth Paltrow is wonderful as his leading lady and the supporting cast including Ben Affleck, Geoffrey Rush and Judi Dench provide stellar support. Having said all of that, after watching the film once upon it initial release, I have never felt even the slightest urge to revisit the film. Yes, it is fun, but it never really transcends its genre to become a truly great film. I find it somewhat disappointing that the Academy so often overlooks great comedies in favor of mediocre dramas for its big prize, which makes this win all the more disappointing – since they did the exact opposite. I think it is fairly clear that Saving Private Ryan was both the more critically acclaimed and audience friendly film – and in the decade since its release it has gone onto become a genuine classic. But it came out in July, and I think that Academy was sick of hearing about the film – sick of hearing about Spielberg – and most importantly sick of everyone telling them what film was going to win the Oscar – since from its first screening, everyone assumed Saving Private Ryan was going to win. I commend the Academy for thinking for themselves, but did they have to pick this year to do it?

Oscar Winner – Best Director: Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan
Shakespeare in Love may have come out of nowhere and surprising Saving Private Ryan in the big race, but Spielberg’s Director win was never really in any doubt. The opening 20 minute beach scene ranks among the most intense, bloody and brilliant war sequences ever put to film, and the rest of the film is an emotional tour de force. By this time, Spielberg had long since established himself as the most popular director in the world – and that rare director who is able to provide a cross between art and commerce. Yes, I think Terence Malick made the better war film in 1998 – and I would have voted for him. But I also understand that The Thin Red Line is a more cerebral, meditative film, whereas Saving Private Ryan is more audience friendly and visceral – meaning I know exactly why the Academy voted for him, and really do not have a problem with this win.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful
Despite how much this film has become practically despised since its release (something I didn’t hear much of at the time), I still enjoy Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust comedy, that I think is a fitting tribute to his hero Charles Chaplin, who also infused many of his classic comedies with elements of tragic reality. And Benigni is charming in the first half of the film, and even better in the second half as he tries to shield his son from the horrors around him (and I choose not to think of the very valid criticism that his son is going to be screwed now that he’s dead). But do I in anyway think that the film is Oscar worthy, or that this performance is deserved to win? No. They voted with their hearts this year, and when they do that they often come up with an unworthy winner. Compare this performance to the searing performance of Edward Norton in American History X, the slow implosion of Nick Nolte in Affliction, the grandness of Ian McKellan in Gods and Monsters or the tragic everyman of Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (to name just the other nominees, and not even touching on the best performance of the year – Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski), and Benigni comes in short to every one of them. Yes, I still think the film and the performance are fine. No, I do not think he deserved an Oscar – let alone two (he also won for Foreign Language Film) for it.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Gwyneth Paltorw, Shakespeare in Love
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Gwyneth Paltrow sparkle as much as she does in this film. She accomplishes that rare, but absolutely essential for this type of movie, feat of making the audience fall in love with her right alongside its hero. If you don’t fall for Paltrow – believe that Shakespeare could feel that passion for her, then the whole movie becomes little more than an amusing diversion, and certainly not an Oscar winning movie. However, I still have to admit that although I admire the performance a great deal, I really don’t think it deserved to win an Oscar. The clear best performance in this category was Cate Blanchatt who ripped into her role as Queen Elizabeth with a sheer vengeance, without going over the top as she would in its much maligned (deservedly so in my opinion) sequel a decade later. Yes Paltrow is delightful in Shakespeare in Love – but that doesn’t mean I think she should have won.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: James Coburn, Affliction
James Coburn was one of the last surviving members of an acting generation when men were men – screw sensitivity, these guys – of which I would argue Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum were the clear masters – didn’t give a shit. Coburn won this award for a multitude of reasons – his competition had already won (Rush, Thornton, Duvall in A Civil Action), didn’t have that big Oscar moment to build a campaign out of (Harris) and because he was an old time actor who had never won before – hell he had never even been nominated. But unlike many of these so called sympathy awards, I don’t mind Coburn winning this one at all. As Nolte’s aging father, Coburn is harsh and cruel to his children – calling them “Jesus freaks and candy asses”. Coburn didn’t abandon his screen image to win an Oscar, but instead he played with it a little bit, showing us the mean underbelly of being a man who doesn’t give a shit. Out of the nominees, I think Thornton gave the best performance – and would have loved to have seen Bill Murray get nominated (and win!) for Rushmore, but that doesn’t change the fact that this was a worthy winner.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love
Judi Dench had been doing great work on stage and TV in England for decades before she truly started to get great roles in movies – starting with 1997’s Mrs. Brown, for which many people thought she deserved to win the Best Actress Oscar for. So, when she reteamed with the same director the following year – playing yet another English Queen, the Academy pretty much gave in and gave her the Oscar, despite her limited screen time in the film. Her few brief scenes are admittedly a highlight of the film (she is wonderfully, bitterly comic) but when you compare her work to that of Kathy Bates, as the political operative in Primary Colors or Lynn Redgrave as the comic maid in Gods and Monsters, I think she comes up a bit short. Dench has gone onto become an Oscar favorite – getting nominations for such unworthy films as Chocolat, Iris and Mrs. Henderson Presents, alongside her best work in Notes on a Scandal. I don’t mind this win too much – if for no other reason, it prevented her from winning for something even more unworthy.

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