Thursday, April 30, 2009

Oscar is always wrong (except when it's right) Part VI: 1998


1998 was a big year for the Oscars. It pitted Spielberg, going all out to win Best Picture for his WWII flick Saving Private Ryan, against the Mirimax machine trying to sneak away with the major prize for Shakespeare in Love. Added into the mix was the first film for 20 years by America auteur Terrence Malik with his take on WWII with The Thin Red Line, also the was the funny holocaust movie Life is Beautiful, the prescient The Truman Show and the history of Elizabeth.

It was a good year for films, but mostly a bad year for the Oscars.

Best Picture: Shakespeare in Love
Nominees: Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Life is Beautiful, Elizabeth

Shakespeare in Love gets a pretty bum rap nowadays. Mostly because of the view that Mirimax stole the Oscar from Saving Private Ryan. To which I say, bullshit. Saving Private Ryan is the most over-rated piece of crap ever committed to celluloid. The film purports to treat war realistically, and yet the whole thing is a crock.

Apparently told by flashback, it is only at the end we discover we have been viewing the film through the eyes of Private Ryan. Which is ok, except Ryan doesn't come on the scene until two thirds of the way through the damn film, so God knows how he knew about the deaths of all those people on Omoha beach when he was a paratrooper. If you're going to tell a story it has to at least make logically sense.

It was also supposed to show how random death in war is, and yet in the end Captain Tom Hanks gets killed by the same German soldier who not an hour earlier in the film he had let go out of an act of kindness. Yep just like in the real war.

Plus every solider in the platoon looks to have been picked to ensure every single ethnic group (apart from blacks) is represented. Just like in real life.

Yeah the first half hour landing on Normandy is amazing; but that isn't the whole film. And the greatness of that 30 minutes is more than cancelled out by the last hour.

I hate the film because it lies to us. It told us (and remember the ad campaign) that this is the real thing - you were almost recommended to seek a doctor's certificate before watching the film. And then you find out its just the same old Hollywood horseshit. Screenwriter William Goldman called this film for the crock it was when he was making his choices for the Oscars of that year. I agree with him all the way.

Into the same basket of vomit, you can put Life is Beautiful. Manipulative and stupid - a heartwarming comedy movie about the holocaust? Give me a break.

Elizabeth? Excellent acting, but the history of the film is pretty bad, and while I don't mind a few liberties taken, it took too many for mine.

None of those three would even get nominated in my world.

The Thin Red Line? There's lots I love about the film - it is poetic, beautifully shot and some of the battle scenes are as gripping as any on film. But geez, would it hurt to have a narrative? And what the hell is George Clooney doing appearing only in the last minute? I would love to see the film with all the stuff that was left on the cutting room floor. It is the epitome of a flawed masterpiece.

If it had a more coherent narrative (and having read the book, I can tell you it is an incredibally loose adaptation) and less a sense that Malik wanted it to go for another hour I would be tempted to give it the Oscar. But as it stands I can't give it the award (even though it has a great score by Hans Zimmer).

This made-for-youtube trailer highlights a lot of what was great about it:

The big film missing from the nominations list is The Truman Show. I love this film and it is my runner up for Best Picture. The main reason for its brilliance is Peter Weir. He is one of the few great artists of the film world going around. In the mid 1990s, film magazine Movieline did a list of things Hollywood should do. One of them was "let Peter Weir do whatever he wants". This was the film that he wanted to do and it is brilliantly done.

The premise is excellent, the acting by all is top drawer - Jim Carrey showed he could act (much as Robin Williams did in Weir's earlier film Dead Poets Society), and it has a great score by Burkhard Dallwitz (wuth a big assist from Philip Glass). I'll write more about this film next week.
Two other less critically acclaimed films would make my list of nominees for that year. The first is the great comedy There's Something About Mary. In a time where the screens are filled with gross-out comedies like Superbad and Knocked Up (God I hated that film), it's easy to forget just how sweet this, the grandfather of all gross out comedies, was - and also just how damn funny. I had put off seeing this film because everyone I knew told me that it was the funniest thing they had ever seen. I was sure it could not possibly be, but decided to go along and give it a go. Well damn it contained more "I nearly wet myself laughing" moments than I had experienced for many a long day.

There was also the genius of having Jonathon Richman as the troubadour popping up after every act to provide a Greek chorus style commentary. And seriously how good was Cameron Diaz in this? Obviously there wasn't a lot of acting required, but there aren't many actresses who can do a scene with semen hair gel and still come across as the hottest girl you've ever met. Easily her best role (which admittedly doesn't say a real lot).

Sure it's not "Oscar material", but heck it was funny, it was popular, and it has been more influential than any of the other films nominated that year.

My other nominated film would be my equal favourite film of the year - and the one I've probably seen the most thanks to Channel 10's love of repeats.

Stephen Soderbergh's Out of Sight was great film making, with a great cast and screenplay working perfectly in sync.

It's hard now to think that at the time JLo was just Jennifer Lopez, and could be considered an actress rather than a headline. She was perfectly cast in this film, and works brilliantly with Clooney.

The supporting cast is amazing - Dennis Farina, Ving Rhames, Albert Brooks, Don Cheadle, and the perfect Steve Zahn all work together in perfect sync.

But the real winner of the film is George Clooney. This was the film in which he worked out that he was a film star. Prior to this his film acting was lacking something - like he didn't know if he was up to carrying a film, or whether he should be back playing Dr Doug Ross. Here's the four films he did before this role - From Dusk Till Dawn, Batman and Robin, One Fine Day and The Peacemaker. Now I actually like The Peacemaker, but even there he still seems to be a TV star lost in celluloid. But here he commands the screen. It's little wonder he has returned to work with Soderbergh so often, because the guy obviously taught him how to act on the big screen.

After this film his next 4 leading roles were in Three Kings, O Brother Where Art Thou? The Perfect Storm and Ocean's 11. Think there were any doubts about whether he could carry a film after those?

It's a good film done brilliantly. Intelligent, adult and fun. Why shouldn't it be nominated for best picture? After all back in 1941 The Maltese Falcon was nominated - why do we need to be so snobby now? Just look at how Soderbergh shoots this love scene - it is top drawer film making:

But the winner? I'm staying with Shakespeare in Love. Another film with a great cast in which every actor seems to know that they're in something special and is determined not to stuff it up.

Sure Gwyneth is a weak link - but she certainly doesn't destroy the film. Joseph Fiennes for one brief moment acts as well as his older brother, Ben Affleck has fun with his role, Rupert Everitt is Kit Marlowe, Colin Firth is marvelously up himself, and Geoffrey Rush is just amazing. For something fun, watch this and Elizabeth back to back, and besides seeing that Cate Blanchette could act Gwyneth under the table, you'll also notice how brilliant is Rush - few others could play a bumbling fool and a Machiavellian politician so believably.

The film is a delight - yeah sure it plays pretty lose with the order and timing of Shakespeare's plays, but it matters not a jot because there is no attempt to pretend this is real - it is a beautiful romp.

Best of all, after seeing this film I want to read Shakespeare - the guy seems real. Before this, even though I loved reading Shakespeare, I always thought of him as the old guy you see in the only portrait of him. Here he is young and dashing. This film made Shakespeare as accessible as any of the modernised versions that get made.

It had also had great score and witty script. The biggest oddity of the film is that the director John Madden would go on to do so little.

But so what? This film is still great entertainment, and, for mine, it keeps the Best Picture Oscar. The first 10 minutes gives a great taste of the whole:


There's still a lot of work left to fix this year, so I'll have to split it into a couple parts. I'll get onto the actors and directors next week.

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