Look at that fucking asshole. It’s like that set of photos of four Shiba Inus with the one dog always looking the other way, looking goofy, etc.
For those just joining us, this is the third of several looks back at the movies deemed worthy of ranking among The Best. (The first; the second.) These loose spatterings of prose tend to be intemperate and snarky in the Gen-X tradition, such as when I refer to Oscar winner Roberto Benigni as “that fucking asshole.” Well, so did everyone else on Oscar night.
Best Picture nominees: American Beauty • The Cider House Rules • The Green Mile • The Insider • The Sixth Sense
Phew, did this one ever acquire layers of ick. Ultimately, it yokes a group portrait of folks with specific foibles to a larger, more general story about transcending whatever’s holding you down. You gotta become like a plastic bag floating in the breeze, man. I enjoyed it in the theater, have not especially felt the urge to revisit in over twenty years. But, oh, the white suburban anguish. The sort of sour-stomached whimsy that wouldn’t fly today, and kind of got in under the wire in 1999.
So 1999 is legendary for its epic shininess, the unusual number of films by major directors. Of course, it didn’t feel very shiny when you were looking at a weekend like August 20–22, 1999. (That was when Teaching Mrs. Tingle and Mickey Blue Eyes came out.) But it does explain why there are no true bummers among the five Best Picture nominees — though I was surprised to be reminded that The Green Mile was one of them. It was a modest hit, certainly more so than Shawshank; maybe the Academy likes Frank Darabont (although when he got like a needy boyfriend and delivered a giftwrapped appeal to squishy Academy sensibilities, The Majestic, the Academy noped out like most everyone else). I like Green Mile, don’t get me wrong (Sam Rockwell really brings that raggedy-ass Stephen King villain spirit to his performance), but you and I could each think of about ten 1999 movies that deserve its spot.
I’ve always liked The Sixth Sense and Shyamalan in general; I think that without the sad quietude that turned out to be Shyamalan’s default mode, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as creepy, because what it is first is emotionally engaging. The comparisons to Spielberg made sense only insofar that Shyamalan, like Spielberg, seemed to have an effortless affinity for making us care. If everyone could do it, everyone would do it. Cider House and The Insider: both well-wrought tales for adults. I remember even back then (or probably more like 1998, the year of Armageddon) saying that films made for smart grownups were going extinct, and, hahahahaha, well, *gestures at the Disney-dominated cultural landscape of 2021*.
Best Picture nominees: Shakespeare in Love • Elizabeth • Life Is Beautiful • Saving Private Ryan • The Thin Red Line
Or, the Spielberg-stopper. I think Weinstein got a lot of extra juice out of being able to sit Spielberg down and show him who was really running things around here now. Well, fans of Saving Private Ryan can content themselves with the knowledge that Harvey will most likely die in prison, while vanishingly few people have actively sought to watch Shakespeare in Love in recent years. I found it perfectly amiable then, and perfectly absent from my memory now. SPR, despite its omnibus of war-movie clichés, at least has that D-Day opening number going for it. (My lukewarm review is far and away the one I’ve taken the most shit for, although one time I happened across someone using a quote from the review as their forum signature. Whether they agreed with the sentiment, or were using the quote as an example of flagrant numbnuttedness, I do not know.)
Until it becomes stupid, Life Is Beautiful is an ode to movie romanticism — but when it gets stupid, it gets really stupid. I had no patience for the travelogue images of The Thin Red Line at the time, but I keep meaning to give the whole of Malick another chance. Never saw Elizabeth, but should probably do a double feature of it and its follow-up. Maybe I can do a Cate Blanchett Year.
Best Picture nominees: Titanic • As Good As It Gets • The Full Monty •Good Will Hunting • L.A. Confidential
Yeah, you and I and every sentient being got well and truly sick of it before it finally ran its course. It became hip to dislike it. Then it became hip to reappraise it. I don’t know what the hip stance on it is now. I can tell you I saw it three times in the theater, the first two times with packed crowds, and let me just remind you: the movie works. It works, and it plays like a house on fire for a huge, rapt audience. James Cameron’s dialogue is egregious, but as William Goldman said, screenplays are not dialogue — screenplays are structure. Cameron understands structure and understands story. Not plot, but story. The ancient tropes and narrative beats that are still around because they still work. Because they inform some aspect of us, fill a need we weren’t aware we had. This is all to say that Titanic deserved all it got.
I saw all of these, and I probably have seen As Good As It Gets exactly as many times (once) as I ever need to. Ditto The Full Monty — charming stuff, some great British banter (“That were crap,” said Robert Carlyle’s little boy after Carlyle and his mates’ first apocalyptic attempt at erotic dancing), and I think I saw it twice, and probably not any more. L.A. Confidential is masterful architecture, talking about screenplay structure. Years from now (and maybe now) scenes from it will be studied alongside scenes from the ’40s noir that influenced it, only it’ll be viewed not as a disciple paying homage, but as part of the same continuum — a peer, speaking pilot to pilot with the classics.
Good Will Hunting is a thorny case because it represents an entire unofficial subgenre — the “Miramax movie.” All these well-written mid-budget films calibrated to create awards buzz — even before Weinstein fell, he was no longer the king and kingmaker he had been at his Oscar-chasing peak in the ’90s, and you stopped seeing “Miramax movies” around Oscar season (even post-Miramax, movies under the Weinstein Company shingle tried to duplicate that Miramagic and mostly failed — The King’s Speech and The Artist, which as you know can eat a loot crate of dicks as far as I’m concerned, were the only WC films actually to win the top prize, though several others got nominations).
Best Picture nominees: The English Patient • Fargo • Jerry Maguire • Secrets & Lies • Shine
Hey, another roster of movies I saw all of! (Of which I saw all? Whatevs.) The English Patient is probably the complete Miramax package, and woof, John Fogerty’s BFF Saul Zaentz produced it. I still liked it, though. On the big screen it was a luscious thing, and I can’t ever imagine watching it again.
Fargo, of course, is a different story, and is the big bag of potato chips among the crop here — anywhere you land on it, you can’t help seeing it through to the end. The others, I think, are remembered for one thing — Shine has Geoffrey Rush serving up Easter ham, Jerry Maguire has “You complete me” and “Show me the money” (I can’t honestly remember anything else from it), and Secrets & Lies more or less exists for the moment where Brenda Blethyn realizes just who Marianne Jean-Baptiste is. A great acting moment, but again, the rest of the film dances and capers out of memory’s grasp.
But yeah. This was the year Miramax really announced itself as an Oscar player, for good or ill. It had been nominated for this and that, and won for this and that, but at the 69th Oscars the Weinsteins could no longer be denied a seat at the table. And as long as the movies kept printing money and hoovering trophies, nobody much cared to look into what Harvey was doing in his spare time. Not that anyone involved with The English Patient is responsible for it, but someone out there paid for Harvey’s triumph in blood and dignity.
Best Picture nominees: Braveheart • Apollo 13 • Babe • Il Postino • Sense and Sensibility
Babe was terrific, the sequel even better. Sense and Sensibility was tops, with a mid-’90s cast the likes of which you’re not going to see again. Apollo 13 was the sort of competence-uber-alles real-life hero story that Tom Hanks seems to gravitate to. If you held a gun to my head I couldn’t tell you what happens in Il Postino, though I know I saw it in a theater.
And then … ugh. Worst Best Picture winner of the ’90s.
Best Picture nominees: Forrest Gump • Four Weddings and a Funeral • Pulp Fiction • Quiz Show • The Shawshank Redemption
All right, all right, knock it off. I thought Gump was pretty darn good when I saw it, and I mostly stand by that sentiment. It’s a fable. And I know what’s wrong with it, starting with the ways Jenn-ay is punished for being a free spirit in the film when she isn’t particularly in the book (which is also more acerbic and less squishy). But. It’s directed to a T, though you have to overlook some shaky, gimmicky computer effects (the John Lennon scene needed to hit the cutting-room floor and stay there). Hanks acts the hell out of it, matched by Robin Wright. It’s your standard Best Picture winner, and the reason it’s caught so much shrapnel is that it kept Pulp Fiction from winning.
Truth: Pulp Fiction wouldn’t have won anyway. If Gump hadn’t existed, Quiz Show (one of the great screenplays, by the way) or Shawshank would’ve sat Pulp down. The real annoyance of this Oscar year, as Roger Ebert never tired of opining, was that Hoop Dreams wasn’t even nominated for Best Documentary, much less Best Picture, a slot it richly merited. And that would have been, I think, an acceptable Tarantino-killer. I said what I said. Four Weddings announced Hugh Grant and a certain brand of slightly rough (that opening “fuck fuck fuck” scene) British comedy to the American mainstream, and it eventually led to Love, Actually and endless despair. But it was a fun spring diversion from Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
Best Picture nominees: Schindler’s List • The Fugitive • In the Name of the Father • The Piano • The Remains of the Day
Certainly I have no quibbles here; it’s a beautiful, appalling work, truly the movie Spielberg was put here to make. Unfortunately it also gave him an appetite for historical drama that has only occasionally paid off.
This is an undeniably strong year. I have some beef with The Piano storywise (taking it literally will avail us not), but it’s gorgeously crafted, probably Campion’s peak — that or An Angel at My Table. Pauline Kael liked In the Name of the Father (“The movie has substance”), and so did I. The Fugitive was an action blockbuster that didn’t put a foot wrong and therefore couldn’t be overlooked. The Remains of the Day feels like it’s based on a turn-of-the-20th-century novel instead of one published in 1989, but the talent across the board is unquestionable. Truly not a bummer here.
Best Picture nominees: Unforgiven • The Crying Game • A Few Good Men • Howards End • Scent of a Woman
It really would’ve been good enough to be Clint’s career capper — and then he kept going for another thirty+ years. Whatever shabbily made, right-wing stuff he does now, he still made Unforgiven, and he was the right actor-director to do it.
The only discordant note here is A Few Good Men, which I thought was a disgrace and the beginning of the end of Rob Reiner’s tenure as a witty jack-of-all-genres. It’s worth hating just for the widely quoted, just as widely misunderstood “you need me on that wall” speech. It’s a high-powered face-off between two smug assholes. I could wish The Crying Game hadn’t inspired a transphobic joke in Ace Ventura, not to mention the “huge twist” is itself a wee bit tasteless, but it’s an interesting effort from Neil Jordan. Howards End was sturdy, standard-issue Merchant-Ivory, bolstered, as was Remains of the Day, by Hopkins and Thompson. That death-by-bookcase, though — tch. Scent of a Woman should have pointed Martin Brest towards ever more complicated and rewarding human portraits, but he made two generally hated (and underrated) films, and that was it for him as of seventeen years ago. (And Tom Hooper continues to get work.) We’ll always have Midnight Run, I guess.
Best Picture nominees: The Silence of the Lambs • Beauty and the Beast • Bugsy • JFK • The Prince of Tides
For a lot of us, it was entirely thrilling that Silence, a true dark horse not expected to win much of anything for a dozen Oscar-handicapper reasons, instead swept so hard it became only the third (and last, as of this moment) movie in Oscar history to nab all five Big Five awards. This is a truly weird, not altogether nice film (odd coming from the generally democratic and good-hearted Jonathan Demme, who followed Jodie Foster’s ethical lead and held on tight), with lots of bizarre, murder-fetishy details and some questionable stuff. But the craft involved was sky-high, so it handily slew dragons like Disney and Streisand and Oliver Stone and Warren Beatty. That it was released by Orion, a studio noted at the time of release for hemorrhaging money, adds to the bafflement. This film, a great one, was simply not supposed to win.
The only one of the five I haven’t seen to this day is Prince of Tides, and the spectacle of Nolte’s first Oscar-nominated performance might lure me sooner or later. If Silence didn’t exist, I’d hand it to JFK, which of course is horseshit as history — what narrative film isn’t? — but a masterpiece of collage.
Best Picture nominees: Dances with Wolves • Awakenings • Ghost • The Godfather Part III • GoodFellas
Another film unfairly spat upon because it “beat” the film everyone wanted to win. Costner gave us back the kind of epic, leisurely sweep we’d been missing in American movies for years, and its agenda to humanize indigenous tribes was a bonus, though people seemed to forget Little Big Man was there first (and a lot harsher). I haven’t been moved to watch the extended version — as we speak, I’ve only seen it … twice, I think? … in its original form in theaters. But the media story was that, once again, a hunky actor turned director had given the great movie nerd Scorsese a swirlie. Given that Costner cashed in every last bit of capital he had and could easily have ended his career just three years after The Untouchables, it’s a brave and miraculous achievement.
GoodFellas, of course, is a different kind of great. Godfather III, well, we all have opinions about that; I feel like it only made it to the top five to close out the trilogy’s Oscar record (it wound up getting seven nominations and winning nothing) and to give John Cazale, in flashback footage, a sixth Best Picture nominee to be in posthumously. I wish we still had a film industry that made things like Awakenings on the regular. At the time I pooh-poohed it; now it’s like, De Niro and Williams? We didn’t know how good we had it! And then there’s Ghost, which I can’t dream of watching again unless I really have a yen for the softer side of Swayze.
Now for my picks:
1990: Miller’s Crossing — I could get sucked right back into this right now.
1991: If I can’t have any of the nominated films, then I choose Thelma & Louise, which may be the true genesis of Harvey Keitel’s ’90s comeback.
1992: Bad Lieutenant — And here we have Keitel and director Ferrara at their gut-level best.
1993: Menace II Society — An amazing work by prodigious brothers who seemed to breathe cinema while telling their uncompromising story.
1994: Again, leaving out the nominees, which is difficult — Heavenly Creatures is still Peter Jackson’s peak as a filmmaker.
1995: Crumb. That’s it. There’s Crumb and then there’s everything else.
1996: Citizen Ruth — The both-sides satire might rankle some who would prefer the abortion debate to be handled less recklessly, but Laura Dern is simply the queen in it.
1997: Once upon a time The Sweet Hereafter occupied my top slot for this year, but today I have to pour one out for Grosse Pointe Blank.
1998: Rushmore. I will not be taking questions at this time.
1999: Christ, this is a brutal year to narrow it down to one, but my heart votes for the ornery masterpiece Being John Malkovich.