Life is Beautiful
Shakespeare in Love (winner)
Saving Private Ryan
The Truman Show
Every now and then you get a year like this. There are so many good original screenplays from 1998 I can almost make two entire, completely new sets of nominees that I would stand by. There’s a lot of room for improvement even though I like a lot of the actual nominees. We don’t need to go very far away from the 1001 Movies list to find more than a handful of movies that legitimately could be nominated. In the non-English category, we have The Celebration which is the best of the Dogme 95 films in my opinion and the wildly entertaining Run Lola Run. The more cynical among us might also put Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in the non-English column as well. Both Happiness and Pi were probably too harsh for the Academy for serious consideration. The Big Lebowski didn’t really find its audience until long after its release, and Wes Anderson was still starting out, which probably got Rushmore ignored. I’m genuinely surprised at the omission of American History X. Personally, the one film I think really should be added in place of several of the nominees is the wonderful Pleasantville.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. There was a lot of blowback on Shakespeare in Love when it won Best Picture, particularly since it beat Saving Private Ryan. Well, it beat it in this category, too, and it didn’t deserve to. I understand precisely why it won. It’s a clever screenplay, and it’s the sort of screenplay that has particular rewards for people who are smart about the topic. If you’re the right sort of person, Shakespeare in Love makes you feel very smart when you get all of the jokes. A lot of the people who get the jokes work in the industry. So when they feel clever, they reward the film that made them feel clever. They shouldn’t have.
4. I found Bulworth surprising and I liked it a great deal more than I thought I would. So why is it fourth? Mainly because the third act, despite everything it does well, depends almost entirely on wild coincidences. Coincidences are fun and interesting, but they shouldn’t carry the plot of a movie. That, to me, is a significant weakness in the story, almost as if the writer couldn’t find another, better way out of the problem. That’s an issue, and one that in my world would keep this off the ballot.
3. Life is Beautiful is a film that shouldn’t work in almost any respect, but it does. A lot of the reason that it works at all comes from the performances, particularly that of Roberto Benigni. That it doesn’t become maudlin is also a bit surprising, but it avoids this problem as well. This is a case where something needs to be third, and I happen to like the other two nominated screenplays more than this one. I could see this winning and I like the nomination; I just don’t think it deserves the win.
2. Saving Private Ryan might be the best movie of 1998 (this or The Thin Red Line would at least be in contention) and some of that at least comes from the screenplay. This is a smart movie, but it ultimately suffers from what a lot of Spielberg movies do—it goes for the emotional jugular. I think it goes on too long. More specifically, I think that the framing story is present only for the emotional beats it provides and that it isn’t really necessary for the impact of the main story. Cut it, and we might have a different story here.
1. I’m giving this to The Truman Show specifically because of all of the movies in this list, it’s the one that I will always look forward to seeing. Much of this comes from the performances and from seeing Jim Carrey really act and not just mug for the camera. More of this comes from the fact that this is a truly wonderful existential experience. The Truman Show is a beautiful story wonderfully told. So many moments in it are memorable, and many of those moments start from a strong screenplay. Put Pleasantville in the mix and it would be a tighter race, but the tie always goes to the Academy here, which means they just got this one wrong.