Friday, November 16, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1997

The Contenders:

Peter Cattaneo: The Full Monty
Gus Van Sant: Good Will Hunting
Curtis Hanson: L.A. Confidential
Atom Egoyan: The Sweet Hereafter
James Cameron: Titanic (winner)

What’s Missing

1997 was a surprisingly good year for movies, and as I often say, it’s not something you’d know based on our nominations. As is always the case, there are some movies that simply would never get a nomination because their directors worked in the wrong genre. This means that no matter how good it was, we’re not going to see nominations for Robert Zemeckis for Contact nor one for Andrew Niccol for Gattaca. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure how much Niccol did on the film aside from get out of the way, but Zemeckis is a serious miss. Foreign language films were still rare in this category, which leaves out Wong Kar-wai for Happy Together and Alejandro Amenabar for Abre los Ojos. Barry Levinson was either a couple of years too late or a couple of decades too early with Wag the Dog. For me, the biggest clear miss here is Paul Thomas Anderson and Boogie Nights.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. It’s probably impossible to dislike Good Will Hunting on some level. Say what you will about 1997 wunderkinder Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, there was a reason that they became famous very quickly. The truth is, though, that I don’t see this movie as being the revelation that most other people seem to think it is. And I’m honestly not sure that Gus Van Sant did more than reign in Robin Williams and otherwise get out of the way. There are plenty of places this should have been nominated, but for this? I’m not so sure.

4. I’ve said before that I view Best Director as essentially the best storytelling of the year—not who told the best story, but who told a story the best. That being the case, I can’t put winner James Cameron above fourth. Anyone even mildly objective could have seen this movie would be significantly improved by eliminating the framing story. Titanic, starting when Rose talks about it being the ship of dreams to the point where she sits on a dock in New York is a damn good movie. It’s so much less with the modern story, and Cameron at some level is responsible for this.

3. I genuinely like The Full Monty, and I really like the fact that Peter Cattaneo was recognized for his work. This is a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but builds up enough good will that it can when it needs to. It’s funny and tender, and also has moments of real pain and pathos. It’s not going to win here, because of other nominations, but it makes me happy to see a film that is made with this much genuine get this kind of recognition. It runs the risk of becoming or drippy and it never gets there, and that takes skill.

2. The Sweet Hereafter is one of those movies that I’ll almost certainly never watch again. It’s a brutal watch, the kind of film that is filled as much as possible with the sort of existential pain that I hate having to experience and couldn’t possibly imagine trying to live with. That Atom Egoyan made this as something that can be genuinely experienced is rather exceptional. This could be a couple of hours’ worth of misery and self-pity, but it’s not. It’s painful, but also beautiful, a movie that hurts us, but ultimately heals.

My Choice

1. L.A. Confidential is damn close to perfect, though. Anyone who is even slightly a fan of film noir will find this required viewing, a film that, more than any other relatively modern film I can think of, embodies the idea of noir. Well-acted, twisting, and with a plot that runs surprisingly deep, this is a film that rewards repeat viewings. In an open field I’m still going here, but we’re going to get a much closer race if Paul Thomas Anderson is in the running here. You might convince me to put PTA on top, but that’s on you, because I’m still probably picking Curtis Hanson.

Final Analysis


  1. I'm a fan of Cameron's work on Titanic, and don't mind the framing story. Curtis Hanson and Paul Thomas Anderson would be the main competition, but I also love what James Mangold did with the vastly underrated Cop Land.

    1. Based on the scope of Titanic, I may have sold Cameron a little short. Still, the frame does bother me because it's unnecessary.

  2. I knew going into the ceremony that Titanic was going to win pretty much everything despite pulling for L.A. Confidential.

    I think Cameron's control of all the elements that were involved in such a huge undertaking was excellent so in that respect his direction is strong. I agree the framing story, excepting Gloria Stuart's terrific performance, is unnecessary but then I think the love story is so much crap too, there is simply no way a steerage passenger could have the kind of access to first class Jack managed let alone the romance hooey. However once they hit the berg the film is riveting.

    Be that as it may Hanson's steering of Confidential is so wonderfully intricate and complex there really should have been no other winner.

    1. I have described Titanic in the past as "come for the romance, stay for the drowning." I'll admit that the ship sinking really is the part of the film that is the part where Cameron did his best work.

      However, this should have been Hanson's Oscar, and barring him, we should be talking about an unnominated Paul Thomas Anderson.