Monday, August 19, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1998

The Contenders:

Life is Beautiful
Saving Private Ryan
Shakespeare in Love (winner)
The Thin Red Line

What’s Missing

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.

4. I loved Life is Beautiful when I first saw it in the theater and I’m convinced that it’s a very good, even a great film. But it’s also a film that doesn’t rewatch very well, which I found out when I rewatched it. The story itself is kind of fascinating in spite of itself, and the slow build is fascinating—there is no real clue early on that we’re going to end up in a concentration camp. I think this is an objectively great film. The problem is that, great or not, I don’t know how much I actually like it.

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.

My Choices

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.

Final Analysis


  1. WHOA!!!!!!!!!!!! While I wouldn't have mind if Saving Private Ryan won Best Picture as I too don't dislike Shakespeare in Love but how it won Best Picture and Harvey Weinstein's involvement left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

    Blade and Soldier I thought were pretty good films though I prefer the sequel of the former mainly for its visuals and humor thanks in part to Guillermo del Toro and while it's not in my list of the best films of that year. Those 2 films do deserve an honorable mention.

    I haven't seen Central Station and A Simple Plan but they at least would've made things interesting.

    Then there's The Thin Red Line which is a monumental achievement in cinema as it would've been tremendous if the film won Best Picture with Malick getting Best Director as I put him in my 5 best-living directors working today along with Sofia Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Lynne Ramsay and David Fincher as I'll watch anything they do.

    1. Saving Private Ryan opens with that amazing sequence, and while the rest of the movie is good, it can't live up to that. How could it?

      I also prefer Blade II. Guillermo del Toro is my favorite living director (true for at least a decade), and I love even his mistakes. Blade II is wildly entertaining, but we got there because of Blade. Soldier is crap, but it's earnest and sincere crap, and I love it for that. I think Paul W.S. Anderson has gotten a lot of bad breaks with his films, and I kind of love him because of their faults rather than in spite of them.

      Central Station is kind of a movie of the week, but it's a good one. A Simple Plan is really, really good. I love Bridget Fonda, and it's my favorite of her performances.

      But really, this is about The Thin Red Line.

  2. Shakespeare in Love is awesome! I would have been fine with Life Is Beautiful or Thin Red Line winning, but I was rooting for Shakespeare in Love.

    Saving Private Ryan coasts along from the first 40 minutes (and they are an excellent 40 minutes) but eventually it runs out of steam and stops coasting and there's still 20 minutes left in the movie.

    Also acceptable in the top spot: The Big Lebowski.

    1. We'll disagree on Shakespeare in Love. It's fine, but I think it's a far cry from "awesome."

  3. My vote goes to Pvt. Ryan, even if I think its coda no matter how moving could have been eliminated. It's the same problem that Lincoln had, Spielberg just has to add that unnecessary end note. Though perhaps he's learning, he ended The Post at precisely the right moment.

    I appreciated the skill of The Thin Red Line more than liked it. It would be my choice however over Shakespeare in Love, which is a pleasant time at the movies but no more.

    I loved Elizabeth but then I'm a history nut. Still I wouldn't choose it for BP but Cate Blanchett was flat out robbed of the Best Actress statue!!

    Life is Beautiful was very moving but again I didn't think of it as Best Picture material.

    Those are some interesting suggestions for substitutes. Central Station is an excellent film and Gods and Monsters would make my list (Ian McKellan was equally robbed of his prize). I enjoyed Primary Colors but more for the performances than anything else. The Truman Show is a good film but not one I harbor a great deal of affection for, it was better than some that made it in. I HATED Soldier!

    There are a few more that I'd add-the wonderful Pleasantville, Bulworth which I would have chosen over Primary Colors as far as political satires go, and the Irish crime comic drama I Went Down.

    1. Pleasantville is a bit of a miss on my end, but it's the visuals that really make the movie (and I would have loved to have seen Joan Allen nominated in a supporting role). I have mixed feelings on Bulworth.

      I wouldn't complain terribly if Saving Private Ryan had won. I put it below the fold for a reason--even if it wouldn't be my choice, I can't fault it.