Saturday, March 26, 2011

Time-Delayed Oscars 010: 1999

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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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?  Go to FilmChaw right now and do what you gotta.


CJ said...

You're selling The Sixth Sense short. It's impossible to watch it again and have it affect you in the same way. That's the nature of a movie with such an ingenious twist. And it's not fair to hold movies like The Happening and The Lady in the Water against him.

It was a great movie. One of the best movies of the year.

Julius_Goat said...

@CJ - TSS is certainly not a bad movie. I'm just not entirely convinced it is a great one. It didn't strike me that way when I revisited it a few months ago.

I may well be selling it short. I think I'm clear in the post that I think it is well-acted and well-directed, and its use of color, composition and lighting are extremely effective even when you know where the scares are. Shymalan is a director whose strengths are obvious, and I keep waiting for him to put them to use in a better movie. I don't doubt it could still happen.

I should point out that it is totally fair to hold movies like The Happening against Shymalan. They're his movies after all. However, I presume your meaning was that it is not fair to let the lack of quality of those movies auger against The Sixth Sense, and I think that's certainly true.

I'm not certain that Shymalan's more recent output is coloring my views of TSS, but I do admit that it's possible. On the other hand, I absolutely think that it would hurt him and TSS's Oscar chances within the context of this hypothetical time-delayed Oscars, so I think that it's worth mentioning in this post.

On the other hand, if what you suggest is true, and the movie is designed to work in a unique way for full impact exclusively upon first view, then the flip side is true, too: it is also designed to be less effective on subsequent viewings. I'd suggest that a movie that is constructed in that way is probably not destined for long-term enjoyment. It may by its very design be fated for a quick peak of popularity that ebbs over time.

I guess for me, 1999 is such an embarrassment of riches when it comes to movies that don't lose enjoyment on the 10th or 20th viewing, that I'd have to disagree with you that TSS represents one of the year's best.

CJ said...

That's fair. And in my first comment, I should have said against it (the movie) and not him (the director). You can certainly hold those subpar movies against him.

Of course, I'm one of those people who liked The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable (his best, I think), Signs and The Village (which seems universally despised).

Perhaps my enjoyment of those flicks colors my opinions like your regard for all things QT.

Julius_Goat said...

Maybe. Though I'd point out that (1) I actually liked The Sixth Sense, too, albeit not as much as you. I also think Unbreakable is his best, and (2) Sure, I'll stack QT against Shymalan film-for film any day, but I don't love "all things" Tarantino. Thus far I think I've expressed my admiration for QT's first 3 movies, but I really doubt I'm alone in that. They're just extremely good films. If I ever get around to their respective years, I think you'll find me more circumspect about the uneven Kill Bill film (films?), and I think that it's possible that Death Proof won't even get an entry. If it does, it will not be particularly effusive.

Inglourious Basterds is fantastic, though.

Mike Maloney said...

Man, lot to cover this year.

-I disagree with you about American Beauty (Although you're not the first person I've heard make that comment). I feel even now it holds up very well, and while I'd agree that there are certain elements of the story I'd classify as contrived, I think the idea of dysfunction among families and in society still echoes pretty strongly, at least to me.

And I am annoyed that Sam Mendes has had a less-than-stellar career since. Oh, and Annette Benning doesn't get enough credit in that movie, I adore her in that, such a great job with her character.

-I'm surprised Jay & Silent Bob really turned you off of Dogma as a whole that much. For me, the fact that I keep reading about what a bitch Linda Fiorentino is is more of a distraction when I watch.

-Make sure when you watch Eyes Wide Shut you get to see the extended Orgy scene. Just sayin'.

-I probably said this when you covered 12 Monkeys, but that will always be my favorite Brad Pitt performance. I still think he doesn't get enough credit for being a really good actor because he's Brad Pitt.

-I'm not gonna lie, I look down at anyone that tells me they haven't seen Office Space. I have a Jump to Conclusions mat on the floor in my cubicle and I'm disgusted when people see it and then don't realize what it's from.

-I liked Signs. I don't care what anyone else thinks.

-Just like Brad Pitt is underappreciated because he's Brad Pitt, the South Park movie is underappreciated because it's South Park. Absolutely fantastic musical, which shouldn't be overly surprising considering their track record and ability to integrate song into the series as a whole (Take some notes, MacFarlane). Can't say enough good things about that movie, still hilarious even when I watch it now.

-God I hate George Lucas. I tried so hard to like those prequels, I really did. And they do NOT age well. Ugh. What an asshole. Jake Lloyd deserves to die.

-I've heard rumors about you and a whip cream to comment?

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

I think Matrix walks away with this one -- if there was ever a movie made to win the retroactive Oscar for best picture, this is it. The Academy had not yet accepted this at the time, but the Matrix changed movies more than any other movie in that decade. Hands down.

I thought American Beauty was great, and I like your inclusion of Fight Club, which is surely worthy of nomination-but-not-winning in this year's crop.

I think Sixth Sense is quite overrated. I thought Signs was ok, but in general I don't think there's a single Shaylaman movie that ages well. His stuff is just a little to predictable for me, as I knew the "twist" to Sixth Sense within minutes of seeing it happen live. And any movie that relies totally on a surprise ending to win best picture, is never actually worthy of winning best picture.

Did not see Cider House Rules or Green Mile, but I am surprised you dismiss them as being horrible so quickly. I have heard from others that Cider House in particular is quite good.

Matrix with the easy time-delayed victory on this one, Goat. As surely as Inception bit a testicle.

Julius_Goat said...

@Maloney -- Actually, Jake Lloyd has suffered horribly from the Phantom Menace thing. He is sort of bitter and a little awesome about it. He also looks like Leonardo DiCaprio swallowed a man-sized sausage:

Julius_Goat said...

@Hoy -- I think The Matrix is certainly a credible choice, though it is not my choice. I think if we lived in the alternate universe of Matt Damon's hypothetical 10-year delay Oscar, it may well win. I just think it won't for the reasons I listed. The genre shouldn't really matter, nor should the fact that the sequels were disappointing (to be charitable), nor should the fact that the Wachowski brother/sister's output following has been underwhelming...nevertheless, I do think that these factors would play.

I can see why you'd want it to win, though.

Matt said...

*Isiah. Unless you're just the world's last remaining fan of Isaiah Rider.