Monday, October 16, 2023

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1998: Holiday Hits

Past years, you can see a good spreading of the wealth when it comes to release dates for Oscar nominees. As we go further along through the 90s and 00s, you'll notice a lot of nominees come from the last two months of the year...the time when ballots go out and so whatever's fresh in the memory gets their box ticked. Of the following 14 films, seven were nominated for Academy Awards. Deservedly so? You tell me...

A Bug's Life
release: November 20
nominee: Best Original Musical or Comedy Score

When his colony is threatened by a gang of grasshoppers, a misbegotten ant goes to get help - and brings back a troupe of circus performers he's mistaken for a gang of assassins. Do they teach this one in screenwriting classes? I know it's a riff on Seven Samurai, but they should: it's a tightly constructed series of events, every element that's introduced pays off organically, there are at least three complete and satisfying character arcs, and it's funny! Great voice work.

release: November 20

Woody Allen reflects on celebrity culture, kind of, through the experiences of two halves of a recently divorced couple in (where else?) New York City. Uneven, but that means as many bad things as there are, there are also a number of great things: the cameos by Leonardo DiCaprio (as an abusive Hollywood star) and Bebe Neuwirth (as a celebrity madam), the cinematography by Sven Nykvist, and the writing of Branagh's character, embodying Orson Welles' own description of Allen as someone who "presents himself at his free himself from his hang-ups." It's incisive writing, though Branagh should've played it less Allen-y.

Central Station
release: November 20
nominee: Best Actress (Fernanda Montenegro), Best Foreign Language Film

A curmudgeonly letter writer takes a road trip with a newly orphaned boy. This is not the deepest analysis, and I hope you all forgive me, but I find road movies pretty tedious for the most part, and this is no exception. The opening establishing Montenegro's relationship with the boy is interesting, the entire section from the religious ceremony to the end is terrific, I know the stuff in the middle is important because of what it tells us about Montenegro's loneliness (in that sequence with the religious trucker that she gets along with), about the ease and danger of child trafficking (briefly, when the kid is homed with a friend of an acquaintance), but...I don't know, I find it unfocused. I'm sorry, it's a fine performance, but I do not care for this movie.

Enemy of the State
release: November 20

So one thing I do when I'm bored and in the middle of these retrospectives is I write down the year's nominees in each Oscar category the way some people doodle, and I swear I wrote in Enemy of the State for Best Editing a couple times but oh my goodness somehow no???? A thriller focused on the surveillance state, wherein a labor lawyer through circumstances is unwittingly targeted by a second-tier NSA higher-up who murdered a congressman (or senator or whatever, a politician is the point), all because he has the evidence in his possession and has no idea. Everything about this flick sings. Obviously, the editing, for one, running at a breakneck pace between the lens of the movie camera and the various surveillance methods found in the modern era. The performances, too, with Will Smith leading as a hero worthy of Hitchcock, Regina King as his loving but by no means one-note wife, Jon Voight as the villain, his ensemble of subordinates populated by Scott Caan, Jake Busey, Jack Black, Seth Green, and more - and, then, of course, Gene Hackman as the expert who'll save the day. The music! - there's no specific theme I recall, but I do remember the way it kept time to my heartbeat during every chase sequence, ratcheting up the tension. Oh, there's so much this movie does that's worthy.

Babe: Pig in the City
release: November 25
nominee: Best Original Song ("That'll Do")

Farmer Hoggett is injured and so his wife takes Babe to a thing where they'll get money? I don't really remember the details of why they're in the city. Glenne Headly and Steven Wright voice a pair of cynical criminal circus chimps, they're great. The sets are great, The City envisioned as a mishmash of all the iconic urban centers of the world. Is the original Babe very silly? Because this one seems very silly, in a way that is somewhat though the filmmakers misjudge what it is about Babe people liked. Great running gag with the singing cats, though.

Home Fries
release: November 25

A pair of brothers kill their stepfather, but there's one loose end - daddy's pregnant mistress who works the drive-thru at the local burger joint...and one brother falls in love with her. Written by Vince Gilligan, who nine years later would start Breaking Bad and become A Thing. You can hear in the dialogue and the general setup how this could go either way - light drama, dark comedy - in the hands of the right director. That did not happen. Drew Barrymore is too sincere? Luke Wilson is too understated? Catherine O'Hara and Jake Busey feel underserved by the editing and general shot compositions, but they're clearly the best. Drew had such a great 1998 with The Wedding Singer and Ever After, I'm glad this one's been mostly forgotten.

Little Voice
release: December 4
nominee: Best Supporting Actress (Brenda Blethyn)

Uh, gosh, OK, so, Jane Horrocks is a small-town English gehl is an essential shut-in but she knows all the old-time records by heart and Michael Caine is an agent and promoter who discovers she has an incredible voice and works to make a buck out of her. The English make such bizarre twee flicks sometimes, and it's especially weird when you watch them knowing that someone is on the spectrum but the language to express it isn't mainstream yet, so instead it's just, like, "She hates being touched but knows Judy Garland like it's oxygen, isn't that quirrrrrrrrky?!?" Michael Caine is terrifically sleazy and desperate here. Love the costumes, very gaudy.

release: December 11

Not Wes Anderson's debut, but his breakthrough: Jason Schwartzman makes his film debut as Max Fisher, a high school student on scholarship at a private school who's not great with the actual student stuff but intelligent, precocious, a-plus with extracurriculars. He befriends twin classmates' magnate father and falls in love with an elementary-level teacher, all while trying to hide his modest background. First saw this movie in Ms. Arena's class in high school, crushed hard on Jason Schwartzman - reminded me of this guy in my French class who burned me a Mahler CD unprompted. Anyway, a great film. Shaggier than later Anderson, perfect given that it's about an outsider navigating the expectations of the real world. No notes. It's perfect.

A Simple Plan
release: December 11
nominee: Best Supporting Actor (Billy Bob Thornton), Best Adapted Screenplay (Scott B. Smith)

I'm reminded of a forensic psychologist on one of those true crime shows I like to watch who said, "Most killers are described by people who know them as 'nice,' which just shows you what a useless word that is." Certainly that's the case for unassuming Bill Paxton in this movie, a "nice" guy who finds himself capable of wickedness when he, his brother, and his brother's friend chance upon $4.4M. An engaging thriller about the lengths some people will go to when given half the chance.

The Prince of Egypt
release: December 18
winner: Best Original Song ("When You Believe")
nominee: Best Original Musical or Comedy Score

I assume most of you know th estory of Moses, but for those who don't: the Jews are in captivity in Egypt but one of their own who was raised as an Egyptian in the Royal Family learns who he is and leads an Exodus out of bondage. Animated musical. Before Dreamworks became synonymous with cocked-eyebrow irony, there was this all-star production whose subject was once worthy enough for a four-hour epic. "When You Believe" was the big hit (and my high school graduation song!), but "Heaven's Eyes" and "All I Ever Wanted" are not to be missed, either. Great memories, seeing this movie.

You've Got Mail
release: December 18

Chatroom pals who have a lot of digital chemistry are, unbeknownst to them, business rivals in real life! Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan star in this update of The Shop Around the Corner. A piece of perfection from Nora and Delia Ephron, each line worthy of its own plaque, the ensemble of recognizable faces so perfect together you could swear they're all locals who gel. It's laugh-out-loud funny, quotable, romantic, it's everything movies should be.

A Civil Action
release: December 25
nominee: Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Best Cinematography (Conrad Hall)

Merry Christmas! True Story about a lawyer who went broke representing an entire community against a corporation who polluted the water supply. Solid legal drama with a devastated Kathleen Quinlan (her hair is matted), a conflicted James Gandolfini, an arced-up John Travolta, and Robert Duvall as a real-life lawyer who is charming, devious, by-the-book and therefore dangerous.Solid flick.

Down in the Delta
release: December 25

Also Merry Christmas! Alfre Woodard is a drug addict single mother sent to stay for a season with her relatives down South. Too easy a "conflict," this city gal who finds a rebirth and redemption in a no-intersection town. Mary Alice and Al Freeman, Jr., give some grand "old pro" performances. It's a lovely film, predictable, sure, but why not? Why not be comforted by the warm blanket of happy endings? Directed by Maya Angelou.

The Faculty
release: December 25

Merry Christmas? High school students fight back against teachers who've been taken over by an alien species. A cool movie. Roots for the nerd to get with the popular girl, even though she's absolutely horrible! Cheers for the held-back drug dealing burnout student to hook up with the hot teacher! Drugs save the day! Flips every rule on its head and gets away with it!

Tomorrow, the final four films...excepting the Best Picture nominees, of course.

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