Sunday, February 27, 2011

Time-Delayed Oscars 007: 1996

You know the old saying: “An awesome, fun vacation with your family will wreak havoc with your schedule for a series of Time-Delayed Oscars blog posts”?

Well, that saying is true.

Anyway, this week brings us to 1996, which I think was a year that actually happened once, though Wikipedia is still asking for a citation to verify this.  Since it’s been a while, here’s a refresher for the groundlings:

Time Delayed Oscars is predicated on the idea that time itself picks the true quality in movies. Each year, we the mass of casual movie watchers, film aficionados, and habitual renters decide which movies will last in the public consciousness; we do this by deciding what we still want to watch, through pop culture references, through pastiche, through homage, and even through which posters we put on our dorm room walls.

Here we go.

"Listen honey, I know you're not a big Monty Python fan, but I've got
to ask: This would be the perfect time to do the whole 'I'm not dead yet'
routine from Grail. Chance of a lifetime. Would you mind?"
All The Movies of 1996

Sometimes These Come Back

Bottle Rocket – This one is special, guys. You know those bullets that make a tiny entrance wound but an exit wound the size of a pie plate?  That’s this movie.  Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson (and yes, OK, Luke Wilson, too) made a tiny little splash in the cinematic ocean with Bottle Rocket, but since then there’s been an explosion underwater somewhere. Without a doubt Anderson’s least polished work, it’s still one of his best. A little classic.

Breaking the Waves – Emily Watson and the rather divisive auteur Lars von Trier first came to the attention of the general U.S. moviegoing public when Watson received a (well-deserved) Oscar nomination for her devastating portrayal of a devout, nearly suicidally-sacrificial young woman (a recurring theme of von Trier’s). The rather controversial ending is still a favorite of mine, as von Trier breaks the naturalistic, gritty formalism of his self-created “Dogma 95” rules in an audacious commentary on the divide between religion and divinity.

The Cable Guy – The first Jim Carrey box office disappointment is also the first Jim Carrey movie to hint at the strains of darkness and complexity that would mark some of Old Rubberface’s more interesting roles.

The English Patient – This is 1996’s Best Picture laureate, which should come as no surprise, since it’s essentially the How To Make A Best Picture template. It’s beautifully shot and gorgeous to look at. It’s well-acted by British people. It’s historical. It’s epic. It’s very tastefully done. It has basically no sharp edges or anything that might be the slightest bit challenging (it completely jettisons the moment in the book when the gentle-nature Sikh sapper Kip explodes in fury at the dropping of atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which is only one of the two emotional climaxes).  I don’t know if anybody is interested in watching it again, ever, or why they might want to do so, short of curiosity after finishing Michael Ondaatje’s superb novel. It also has Colin Firth in a supporting role, and Colin Firth is the star of a very nicely-acted British historical movie called The King’s Speech.  I don’t know why I brought that up.

Everyone Says I Love You – Am I the only person who thinks this was Woody Allen’s most enjoyable movie –by a mile – of the nineties?  A return to a sort of silly whimsical Woody, and most of the cast doesn’t embarrass themselves with the singing. Also, any movie that has two dozen Groucho Marxes (Grouchoes Marx?) in pith helmets singing “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” in French is going to be Good People in my book.

Fargo – For some reason, Fargo represents the moment when the world at large started paying attention to the Coen Brothers; kind of analogous to the moment when your favorite indie band turns into a rock superpower. I think this is middle-drawer Coens, which is still a very good movie indeed. It’s top of the middle drawer. Maybe bottom of the top drawer. Anyway, people are still watching and quoting and thinking about Fargo, its pregnant no-nonsense sheriff, its wood chipper, its impeccably staged double-murders, and its deadpan aping of Northern Midwest patois, but I remain bemused that this was the breakout album and not (say) Miller’s Crossing or Raising Arizona.

Fear –  I don’t think this is remembered, but I do remember seeing the box in the video store. It was the moment I thought, “Huh. So I guess they’re going to keep letting Marky Mark make movies.”

Flirting With Disaster – David O. Russell’s studio debut (he made an uber indie called Spanking the Monkey) with Daniel Faraday a few years prior. I haven’t seen it. Anybody here still love it?

Hamlet – Man, Kenneth Branagh was on fire with this faithful Shakespeare adaptation. To my tastes, this is 95% the most gorgeously made movie of the year (the other 5%, in particular the ghost scene and some ill-advised stunt casting, went for the gusto and missed), and Branagh gives one of the performances of the decade as the Dane. Strangely, I’m in a minority here; the movie hasn’t had much attention in the last 15 years. I’m including it anyway, because this is THE definitive film Hamlet.

Happy Gilmore – King Adam Sandler ruled for 12 years. This is by consensus his best movie.  Let’s all say it together: “The Price is WRONG, bitch!”

Hard Eight – P.T. Anderson’s debut is a twisty little noir. It’s not much known, but I include it here as a sign of what was to come.

Independence Day – This big stupid summer blockbuster distinguishes itself from the mass of big dumb summer blockbusters that have been completely forgotten for two reasons: First, it’s so committed to its big and its dumb that it achieves a sort of lasting purity, and second, (Bad Boys aside) this was the moment when Will Smith broke loose from the sitcom set and established himself as a Big Damn Star. Welcome to earth, indeed.

The Island of Dr. Moreau – A massive stinkbomb that effectively killed both Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. A camp classic today.

Jerry Maguire – SHOW ME THE MONEY!  A big hit when it came out, it then surprised everybody (by which I mean me) when it got nominated for a bunch of Oscars, including Picture and Actor. Cuba Gooding Jr.even won for Best Supporting Actor, and immediately parlayed his newfound credibility into forming a production company dedicated to creating genuine artistic expression.  Either that, or he started making movies that required him to bug out his eyes a lot and share the screen with talking dogs. Oy.  Anyway, Maguire remains one of the most-liked movies of this year. And it has a kid with like a 70 lb. head in it.

Kingpin – We all know now that this – and not There’s Something About Mary –  is the best of the Farrelly Brothers’ movies, right? Right?  Good. Let’s move on.

Lone Star – This slow paced, character driven story about a Texas sheriff solving a decades-old crime is the last time that I can remember John Sayles getting widespread critical praise. It was a little movie that few had heard of when it came out, and it remains just that, but when critics talk about the greats of the year (or sometimes even of the entire decade), this one will invariably be on the list.

Mars Attacks! – This completely insane movie is the last Tim Burton film that I actually like without qualifications. You need to surrender to the madness and let go of expectations, though, or you’re in for a rough 90 or so minutes.

Mission: Impossible – Only memorable today for that “lowered by wires” sequence.

The Nutty Professor – The movie that taught Eddie Murphy that putting on multiple fat suits equals bags full of money. For this reason alone, it should be put into a space capsule and fired directly into the sun.

Primal Fear – Ho hum, dumb little Richard Gere thriller.  Oh, here comes Ed Norton, the most talented actor of his generation. Holy crap!

Sling Blade – mmm hmmm, sure do love them French fried per-tay-ters. This movie gave the world Billy Bob Thornton, as well as a bunch of people constantly saying that last sentence. You decide if that’s a good thing.

Swingers – The movie that taught douchebags how to behave! Actually, it’s aware of their character’s flaws, even if many of the film’s fans aren’t, so we won’t blame Jon Favreau and company. Notable for Vince Vaughan’s hilarious portrayal of fast-talking uber-dip Trent “Double Down” Walker, which made him an instant star and created the persona that he’ll never escape.

Tin Cup – The last gasp of Kevin Costner’s career was actually a lot of fun. This is one of the more under-rated sports movies in recent(ish) memory.

Trainspotting – This tale of the rapid disintegration of four junkies and their drunken homicidal cohort introduced us to Ewan MacGregor and director Danny Boyle (if you didn’t see their excellent tiny indie thriller Shallow Grave a year before, that is). It’s still a frenetic good time, until it morphs into a grim psycho-horror. Then a good time again. Then horror. Then . . .

Waiting for Guffman – Christopher Guest’s re-invigoration of the mockumentary is one of the funniest movies of the 90s. If Oscar were a little more friendly to comedies, I’d put it on the nomination list.

"No, he's not Bruce Willis. He's Peter Stomare. He's the IKEA Bruce
Willis, which means that he's Swedish and not 100% properly assembled."
And The Time-Delayed Oscars Go To:

Best Picture:

Real List: The English Patient, Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Secrets & Lies, Shine

Today’s List: The English Patient, Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Lone Star, Trainspotting

My Pick: Hamlet

The Winner: I’ve already detailed the reasons that I think The English Patient would no longer win the big prize. I honestly was expecting to de-nominate it (and I sort of liked it), but in reviewing 1996 I am faced with the fact that it was a really bad year for film. So, Patient is still on the short list, but the race for the TDO is between Fargo and Jerry Maguire.  I’m fairly torn.  Both of them are still well-loved modern classics that have been uploaded into the collective consciousness, but neither of them stands out to me as an obvious choice for a win. Maguire definitely has the edge when it comes to how much of the script has entered our vocabulary (though I’m not sure if that helps or hinders a perception of quality), while the Coen Brothers, outsiders of sorts in 1996, have become Oscar darlings in the last few years. I want to call it a tie, but a man’s got to take a stand eventually.  I think that if the Academy gave out the 1996 do-over awards this year, you’d probably see Fargo take it – and immediately face popular opinion  that Maguire was robbed. 

Here’s an interesting thought that I haven’t encountered until now:  The assumption of Time Delayed Oscars is that it allows a more objective view of a film’s historical significance and staying power, shorn of the hype/money machine that now permeates the Yearly Awards Cycle (which is itself now longer than the NHL season), and might act as a tonic to Oscar’s habit of awarding somebody for a lesser work because of their prodigious body of previously unawarded work (see Scorsese, Martin).  However, it seems possible that a lesser movie may get a boost because of its film-maker’s prodigious collective body of work since then.

Turns out there is nothing that Tom Cruise could be yelling here
funnier than "I LOVE BLACK PEOPLE!!!"
Best Actor:  I don’t think Geoffrey Rush would get the prize for a hammy performance in a  dull movie (Shine) that is now generally recognized as such. Personally, I’d give this prize to Kenneth Branagh for Hamlet, but I know I’m the only person banging that gong. Tom Cruise has really damaged his career lately, but that’s really only taken him from “biggest star in the world who everybody loves” to “one of the ten biggest stars in the world who everybody thinks is weird”, which also describes Johnny Depp.  Jerry Maguire is still beloved, and the whole thing falls apart without the cocky desperation that he invests in his title character (watch that shark’s grin start to glisten with flop sweat as unctuous Jay Mohr fires him).  I don’t think there’s anybody else in 1996 that could have played that part, and Cruise does so to perfection.  If not Cruise, then maybe Woody Harrelson in The People vs. Larry Flynt, but that movie is pretty much dust by now. I say Cruise.

Best Actress: The thing about Francis McDormand’s turn as Sheriff Marge Gunderson is that, while certainly iconic, it was a supporting role (strangely, William H. Macy, the closest thing that Fargo had to a lead role, was nominated in the supporting category). Meanwhile, Emily Watson’s performance in Breaking the Waves remains astonishing (do yourself a favor and check that movie out). I think she gets the golden boy in a fairly weak year. Even though the movie she appeared in is not broadly remembered from a popular standpoint, von Trier is still a relevant director today, and so one of his early and more universally well-regarded entries would still get consideration.

Which is the Best Picture of 1996?  Go vote at FilmChaw!

1 comment:

Emily of Deutschland said...

You go wash your mouth out with soap, blasphemer! How dare you compare my Johnny with that awful Tom Cruise? Johnny's crazy is INSPIRED, capice? He has not had all his teeth replaced by perfect, uniform pearlies that register alien radio signals, nor does he cut his hair with a flowbee, nor does he dress his daughter like a scary doll. Pshhht. Embarassing.