Sunday, March 13, 2011

Time-Delayed Oscars 009: 1998

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 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? Go vote at FilmChaw!


Absinthe said...

The Thin Red Line is so hypnotic that it actually puts me to sleep every time I try to watch it. Which, granted, is something when you consider my insomniacal tendencies. So I guess put me down for the other WWII movie, unless it's for the Oscar for Best Picture You Would Actually Watch Again, in which case the Dude wins it by a mile and going away.

Julius_Goat said...

The first time I watched The Thin Red Line, I stopped the tape (1999, people) and never started it again. The second time it sunk its teeth into me and didn't let go. I'll credit it to a decade's experience and the fact that I was probably watching it in a crappy pan-and-scan print on first attempt.

However, even speaking as one who really liked it, I'd have to say "hypnotic" is an accurate assessment of the film. It's the WWII movie equivalent of a Phillip Glass orchestral piece, which depending on who you are is either an insult or a compliment.

Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

I actually don't think there were many great movies this year. I think Saving Private Ryan runs away with the award in a very weak year, with The Truman Show probably a distant second.

And how Ed Harris doesn't win Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Truman is beyond human comprehension. Truman Show was kind of like The Game from a couple of years earlier -- yes, it was ridiculous if you try to take it super-literally. But if you are willing to suspend a little bit as is necessary for so many movies nowadays, it is really a fun time.

Julius_Goat said...

Hoy -- The mistake I see "The Truman Show" making that "The Game" did not make is that "The Truman Show"'s is far more self-serious about its Big Ideas, whereas "The Game", though arguably darker in tone, is pretty obviously a lark. Thus the movie itself works against the suspension of disbelief that is most certainly needed.

Ed Harris is one of our most gifted un-Oscared actors, but I actually thought his character (if not his performance) was a pretty weak link in Truman. This year I don't see how Supporting rightfully goes to anybody other than Lebowski's John Goodman, who runs away with every scene.