Tuesday, October 31, 2023

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1998: Best Picture

Nothing was more certain in 1998 than Saving Private Ryan's Best Picture Oscar. It had nearly swept all the "precursors," it was the second-highest-grossing film of the year, it was Spielberg - it was inevitable. But those in the know already heard the buzz going about. Saving Private Ryan is uneven, it was six months ago, what about a movie that makes you happy to be alive? And so came the surprise winner of the night:

And people still debate the two. Are you for Private Ryan or Shakespeare? The Greatest Generation or the Elizabethan Age? "Earn this" or "It is a new world"? 

Here's where I stand:

produced by Alison Owen / Eric Fellner / Tim Bevan
Owen's only nomination; Fellner's first of six nominations; Bevan's first of five nominations; BAFTA Award winner for Best British Film; BAFTA Award nominee for Best Film, Golden Globe nominee for Best Picture - Drama, National Board of Review's Top Ten Films of 1998

I can easily picture every single nominee here as #1 on someone's list...except this one. We all adore a royal melodrama, intrigue at court, come hither stares, and bed-chambers filled with horny courtiers. Lord knows this movie plays it to the hilt with kooky and horny abandon, most of it motivated by power and religious mania. In execution, it's not that exciting. An over-edited, drowsy costume drama with neither the focus nor the camp appeal of, say, Mary, Queen of Scots (the 70s one). It's got all the right ingredients, but the recipe doesn't work.

Life is Beautiful
produced by Elda Ferri / Gianluigi Braschi
Ferri's and Braschi's only nomination; PGA Award nominee for Best Picture, SAG Award nominee for Best Ensemble

It's a movie that goes down easy - I was entertained, I laughed at times, I was surprised it's two hours (it feels shorter), and I left with a bittersweet warmth. However. The inability to actually grapple with life in the camps so as to tell this fable about love expressed through ignorance is, I don't want to say irresponsible, but I think I do mean irresponsible. Benigni does try - that whole subplot with the riddle-loving German doctor reminds us that the perpetrators of these horrors were "nice" people, perfectly charming and sociable. But God...Saving Private Ryan has a single moment about the Holocaust that hits so hard it makes one want to slap Roberto Benigni 'til his ears ring.

Saving Private Ryan
produced by Steven Spielberg / Ian Bryce / Mark Gordon / Gary Levinsohn
Spielberg's fourth of twelve Best Picture nominations; Bryce's, Gordon's, and Levinsohn's only nomination; Golden Globe winner for Best Picture - Drama, LAFCA Award winner for Best Picture, NYFCC Award winner for Best Film, PGA Award winner for Best Picture; BAFTA Award nominee for Best Film, National Board of Review's Top Ten Films of 1998, SAG Award nominee for Best Ensemble

Speaking of Saving Private Ryan! Can you believe I spent 15 years pooh-poohing this movie, based on one viewing during a marathon screening of other war films? Because I watched it this time around and wow did I love almost everything. Critics and even Spielberg have remarked on the classic 1940s war films as inspiration, but I also saw bits of Olivier's Henry V, Fuller's The Big Red One, even some of Audie Murphy's memoir To Hell and Back. The third act is a little gloopy, not just in terms of momentum but in storytelling, as well: its need to bring back certain elements undercuts its previous concern with humanity, the senselessness of war, the preservation of one's moral character on the battlefield. I do feel this is corrected by the cemetery bookends - no matter how "was I a good man?" is answered, one is left feeling that nothing could ever be enough to "earn" the slaughter of thousands. What can I say? It works for me!

Shakespeare in Love
produced by David Parfitt / Donna Gigliotti / Harvey Weinstein / Edward Zwick / Marc Norman
Parfitt's, Weinstein's and Zwick's first of two nominations; Gigliotti's first of four nominations; Norman's only Picture nomination; BAFTA Award winner for Best Film, Golden Globe winner for Best Picture - Musical/Comedy, SAG Award winner for Best Ensemble; National Board of Review's Top Ten Films of 1998, PGA Awards nominee for Best Picture

From these violent meditations on violence, we go to period rom-com. One thing I love is how...awkward this movie feels for the first thirty minutes, almost patchwork in the way it sets up the court, the theatre troupe, the debts, and the search for a muse. Not until Will meets "Thomas Kent" does it suddenly ramp up, performers, script, editing, directing all coming together to make this sexy, hilarious celebration of love and the arts!  I love that the movie does that, subtly mirroring Will's journey, even down to the end when the Queen herself comes in, wakes the dreamers from their fantasy, and slows things down to get Viola to America and men back on stage. How can one leave the theatre (or, in my case, the DVD menu) without a smile on their face?

The Thin Red Line
produced by Robert Michael Geisler / John Roberdeau / Grant Hill
Geisler and Roberdeau's only nomination; Hill's first of two nominations; National Board of Review's Top Ten Films of 1998

Malick is a great writer. As a director, very skilled, I would never deny that. And not to compare the two, but The Thin Red Line has this over Saving Private Ryan: it recognizes the "enemy" as another group of boys sent to die in the wild, hanging on to their sanity by a hair. To me, Malick makes his point and continues to do so, saying and showing very little new insight after the initial thirty minutes of voiceovers. And I think this movie could be just as, if not more, effective without the voiceovers, without those bizarre flashbacks of a silent, stone-faced Miranda Otto - does Malick not trust us to understand? Does he write poetry and become so besotted with his words he simply must make them part of the film? I find him a deeply frustrating, major talent.


At least the race was between the best films in the lineup! But who to award that final vote to? Today, I award it to:


Honestly, it came closest to my Top Ten. Which reminds me: tomorrow, my personal Top Ten of 1998!

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