Of course, the big story in 1998 was the return of Terrence Malick.
I'm going by Oscar Wars (incredible work by Michael Schulman) and Inside Oscar 2 (incredibly bitchy work by Damien Bona) when I give these details. Malick was beloved by critics, artists, and cinephiles for his 1970s releases Badlands and Days of Heaven. Then he left for Paris, just dropped out, doing the odd uncredited rewrite here and there but otherwise kept out of the whole Hollywood thing. Producers Robert Michael Geisler and John Roberdeau coaxed him out after 19 years, and The Thin Red Line is the result. It would be another 13 before he would follow up with The Tree of Life, and now the man can't stop churning them out! By his standards, anyway.
Malick's return was a triumph critically and Oscarally - nominations-wise, at any rate. Because, at least in Best Director, there was no stopping the inevitable:
Was the inevitable the right choice, though?
Life is Beautiful
only nomination; DGA Awards nominee for Best Director
The late-film shot of Guido stumbling on the pile of dead bodies in the thick fog is, for me, the crux of the problem. Uncomfortable truths can't just be hidden from the children, they must also be shrouded from us, they must be barely visible Floris-ian, Bosch-esque riffs, we can't conceive of the horror. Except, we can! We have the footage! And why is this such a discovery for Guido, who surely must see what's going on around him? The broadly comedic first act is a bit better, but I don't know if Benigni is ever able to fully reconcile the two halves.
Shakespeare in Love
only nomination; BAFTA Award nominee for Best Direction, DGA Award nominee for Best Director, Golden Globe nominee for Best Director
He makes the contemporary attitude in a period setting work, keeps the energy lively whether it's focused on actors in rehearsal or Geoffrey Rush running through London, makes the sex scenes genuinely hot and passionate so you believe in the love and lust, and gets great performances from his full ensemble. I think you can tell which final scenes were added after test screenings, they feel...longer. But before that, he's got it.
The Thin Red Line
first of two directing nominations; NYFCC Awards winner for Best Director; DGA Award nominee for Best Director
You can't deny there's a vision there. He's got the footage to underline those conversations about the violence in nature, he's got the performances of these men staring reflectively while their voiceovers reveal inner doubts, he's got those unexpected moments between supposed enemies when they can wail and share a cigarette. He's like Cassavetes: I don't care for the work, but you can't say they're bad directors, they got what they wanted!
Saving Private Ryan
past winner, fifth of nine directing nominations; DGA Award winner for Best Director, Golden Globe winner for Best Director, LAFCA Award winner for Best Director; BAFTA Award nominee for Best Direction, NYFCC Awards runner-up for Best Director
It's among his best. I go back to that Henry V church scene again and again, what should be a lull is instead this thoroughly engrossing series of conversations that we can all understand, not just about war but about the peculiarities of people. I think about how he manages to wring genuine laughs from the "wrong" Private Ryan moment, a moment that is as sobering (my God, a needle in a haystick, my GOD, all this for one guy???) as it is amusing. And all these good things come after the landing at Normandy sequence...
The Truman Show
third of four directing nominations; BAFTA Award winner for Best Direction; DGA Awards nominee for Best Director, Golden Globe nominee for Best Director
A great handle on the dramedy aspects, the ridiculousness of the setup, guiding the actors so that they play actors desperate for screen time, approval, status, a better paycheck. He shows us all the angles, all the ways the network captures Truman Burbank's life, guaranteeing not a moment is missed. Certainly doesn't hurt that he was all, "Hey, this scene could use some Powaqqatsi," and longtime readers know I adore Philip Glass.
Darling, Oscar and I agree. The vote goes to:
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
And tomorrow, it's The Big One - Best Picture of the Year! Starring: Elizabeth, Life is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan, Shakespeare in Love, and The Thin Red Line.