Life is Beautiful
Saving Private Ryan
Shakespeare in Love (winner)
The Thin Red Line
Once again, we have a dandy film year and while the Best Picture nomination list isn’t perfect, it’s not terrible. As always, I have any number of potential suggestions. Let’s start with the ones that I’m not serious about: Blade for pure campy fun and Soldier, a film that I know is objectively terrible and that I desperately love anyway. Also not really contenders even if they could be in a better world are Pi, The Celebration, and Rushmore, since Aronofsky, Vinterberg and Wes Anderson didn’t have the Academy cred in 1998 to make any serious inroads. On the foreign front we have Central Station and the wildly inventive Run, Lola, Run. Neither The Big Lebowski nor Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels would be in serious contention, but both have cast long cult film shadows over the industry. Gods and Monsters could have contended thanks to its love of old films and Primary Colors had political chops that could have made it an interesting addition. American History X and Happiness may have simply been too damn much for the Academy to handle. A Simple Plan has never gotten the love it deserves, partly because Sam Raimi was still considered a horror director at the time. The biggest and clearest miss for me is The Truman Show, which absolutely belongs on this list. Oh, and before anyone suggests it, I hated There’s Something About Mary.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. It’s perhaps clichéd to suggest that Oscar’s ultimate pick was the least-deserving of the five nominations, but that’s very much the case here. Given the chance to nominate my own slate of movies, Shakespeare in Love doesn’t make the dais. The truth is that I don’t hate the movie; I just don’t love it and there are movies that I genuinely love from 1998 that are nominated and a few that aren’t. This is pleasant and entertaining and not worth a second watch. I can hear Chip Lary arguing with me about this since he always championed this film, but I think he was wrong.
3. Elizabeth is surprisingly bad-ass, and I’m a little surprised that I ended up liking it as much as I did. The truth is that I don’t know why it works as well as it does. There isn’t a ton here—it’s kind of a character study more than anything else and a lot of Elizabeth seems to be famous historical characters in search of a plot. It’s little more than courtly intrigue and slowly developing character, and yet it’s absolutely fascinating. It’s worth watching for Cate Blanchett. But even in a weak year, I’m not sure it tops my list for Best Picture.
2. I’m going to mildly break one of my rules here by putting two movies below the fold. I do this often enough, but I do so when I really struggle with my choice. In this case, I’m going to defer to a lot of other people and suggest that Saving Private Ryan would be a damn fine choice for Best Picture even if it’s not close to my choice. Sure, it ends up falling into a lot of Spielberg’s clichés and tropes, but boy the battle sequences are something else and that opening is still astonishing. It’s not my pic, but I’ll understand if it’s yours.
1. This should have belonged to The Thin Red Line from the moment the nominations were announced. Where Spielberg gave us war that is juddering and terrifying but ultimately noble and necessary, Malick gives us something smooth and almost pastoral, but just as deadly and thus perhaps more terrifying. Malick presents World War II less as a noble war of necessity and more as a Vietnam film. It’s a stark contrast from what is expected, and it works completely. The Academy should have gone in this direction without question.