Friday, December 28, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1999

The Contenders:

Sam Mendes: American Beauty (winner)
Spike Jonze: Being John Malkovich
Lasse Hallstrom: The Cider House Rules
Michael Mann: The Insider
M. Night Shyamalan: The Sixth Sense

What’s Missing

When it comes to Best Director, I frequently have to remind myself that this isn’t specifically a contest for the movie I liked the best. This award is about the storytelling for me, and there are plenty of good stories told by average or lackluster minstrels. As usual, I’ll drop out the ones that simply would never get nominated first. We can start with Dean Parisot’s excellent Galaxy Quest followed by Jim Jarmusch and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and, strangely, David Fincher for Fight Club, which was simply too controversial. Three Kings is a better movie than most people remember, and some of that credit has to go to David O. Russell. The same can be said for Kimberly Pierce and Boys Don’t Cry. Anyone can (and maybe should) complain that Frank Darabont does nothing but pick the bones of Stephen King, but when he does it well, as in The Green Mile, he does it very well, indeed. I’d also be willing to hear arguments for both Anthony Minghella for The Talented Mr. Ripley and for Pedro Almodovar for All about My Mother. There were three major misses though, in terms of influence and how movie stories can be told. The first is Paul Thomas Anderson for Magnolia. The second is the never-nominated Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez for The Blair Witch Project. Finally, and most egregiously, the Wachowskis were inexplicably ignored for The Matrix.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I consider myself a Michael Mann fan, but I can’t for the life of me determine why anyone thought his work on The Insider deserved to be nominated. For one thing, it’s a good 20 minutes too long. For another, it really wants to be a thriller, but it’s oddly muted and doesn’t quite work in that genre. There’s not enough here to make this the exciting film it desperately wants to be, and while part of that may be the subject matter, ultimately, a lot of that has to sit with the director. Mann can direct a great thriller when he has the right material. This, good though it may be, wasn’t the right material.

4. I could say similar things about The Cider House Rules and Lasse Hallstrom. I tend to like Hallstrom’s films, and I liked this one quite a bit. That being said, though, this is absolutely a performance piece more than it is anything else. This film belongs to Tobey Maguire, Michael Caine, Charlize Theron, and Delroy Lindo more than it does to the style in which the story is told. Hallstrom made the right choices here—show the pretty scenery and get out of the way of a compelling group of actors telling a good story. It’s the right choice, but not a nomination-worthy performance from a director.

3. As easy as it is to make fun of M. Night Shyamalan (or M. Night Shameaboutyourlastfilm as he is called by Mark Kermode), it’s difficult to deny that his career started with quite a bang. The storytelling for The Sixth Sense is actually quite strong. Oh, I know there are people out there who will claim that they figured out the giant plot twist, and for the most part, I don’t believe them. What works here is just how well that plot element works on a rewatch once you know what’s going to happen. This is a good effort, and it’s the first of these nominations I like, even if I still think Stir of Echoes is ultimately a better movie.

2. American Beauty was the flavor of the month when the Oscars rolled around in 1999, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise when Sam Mendes walked off with the statue. While he wouldn’t be my pick, he’s not a terrible choice. American Beauty could have gone off the rails in all sorts of ways and it never does. This is a film that could have easily been buried by the intense emotions at play. That it doesn’t, that it remains coherent and relevant, is very much a function of Mendes and what he does behind the camera. Again, I like the nomination.

1. I am in the minority in disliking Being John Malkovich, since it’s a film that most people seem to like for its innovation. I dislike the characters intently, and for me, that makes it a hard film to enjoy. That said, in a year of innovative films and film design, this ranks near the top. Spike Jonze took a very strange story that shouldn’t work at all and made it work far better than it ever should have. Given a free choice, I still wouldn’t award the statue to Jonze, but based on the five nominations I’ve been given, he gets my vote.

My Choice

If we’re going to talk about innovation, the Oscar has to go to the Wachowskis for The Matrix. The same is true if we’re going to talk about influence. The Matrix is one of those rare films that changed the game, and while the story was ultimately science fiction pablum that doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, the way that this story is told has altered cinema since 1999 in virtually every aspect. It’s a good reminder that perhaps we should wait five years to give out these awards, because few films caused the sort of revolution The Matrix did, and the Wachowskis are most of the reason why.

Final Analysis


  1. My vote goes to M. Night Shyamalan for The Sixth Sense. He's turned out to be more or less a one trick pony but this was a great trick. True he had a trio of awesome actors who added much to it but he is the one who judged just how to twist and turn the plot for ultimate benefit.

    I loved Cider House Rules but agree its a performance film, as was The Insider, and while I never return to it thought American Beauty was well done but I hated the Malkovich movie.

    I realize I'm in the minority but I loathe The Matrix and everything about it.

    I'd probably consider Alexander Payne's work on Election but again the performances really make it more than the direction. I would include Joe Johnston for October Sky. Love that film and while it too is full of beautiful performances Johnston imparts a sense of wonder and the spirit of American can-doism into the picture.

    1. I think more and more people dislike The Matrix the further we get away from it and the more that people understand just how dumb the science is.

      That said, it's incredibly innovative, and while I agree that it wasn't the best story of its year, I think the way that story is told is impeccable.

      My problem with The Sixth Sense is that, like its director, it's a one-trick pony. There are movies (Fight Club, The Crying Game, etc.) that have a significant twist that are still incredibly watchable over and over. The Sixth Sense is great on a first watch, interesting on a second, and's got nothing. That might in part be the story, but it's not just the story. Part of that is the storyteller.

  2. Steve, you and I have never been in greater agreement, whether it's about your #1 pick from the lineup or your personal choice. "Malkovich" is head-trippy in terms of its ideas, if not its characters; "Matrix" is a "Where's Waldo?" of sacred and philosophical tropes for a religious-studies student like me. It also has an unself-conscious sense of fun—something missing from the next two movies.

    1. I'm not surprised you're attracted at some level to the philosophy in The Matrix. The science is complete shit, but boy-damn howdy! if it isn't fun as hell to look at!

    2. Yeah, you're right about the awful science. The philo/rel was sort of a hodgepodge, too, but it was fun watching something as "meta" as the weaving-together of all these strands of religious and philosophical tradition. In a paper I did for grad school, for a prof who tolerated such subject matter, I discussed Neo's "double-helical" path as he followed the arc, primarily, of both Jesus and the Buddha, with death/resurrection/ascension happening alongside seeing into the true nature of things with the "dharma eye." Most of the other tropes (hero's journey, Moses imagery, the PoMo philosophy of the Merovingian in the second film, Plato's Cave, etc.) didn't really gel; it was more like a whirlwind tour through an esoteric grocery store full of mysteries that were arbitrarily juxtaposed on the shelves. Fluff, but entertaining fluff. And if nothing else, "The Matrix" provoked a paroxysm of philo-related discussion that was often much more substantive than the movie itself. That's an awesome formula when you think about it: make a movie that's a rollicking good time, but that provokes thought and discussion like the best movies of Spike Lee.

    3. I get the philosophy and the pseudo-religious posturing of the film, but for me, the discussion really does come down to the way the movie is presented. It is absolutely groundbreaking in so many ways.

      Since it has been so copied since then, it's difficult to remember just how astonishing those "bullet-time" moments really were the first time they showed up.