Monday, February 18, 2013

Best Picture Winners: 1998-2002

Winner: Shakespeare in Love
Director: John Madden
Distributed by: Miramax Films

This was the first film that won the Best Picture Oscar that I knew didn't deserve it. Or at least that's what I was led to believe. All I heard about was how much better Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan was, and how it was so much better than some "chick flick." If you mention Saving Private Ryan to anyone, what do they talk about? The opening scene of D-Day. That's it. Nobody really cares about the rest of the movie. Most people I talk to consider it to be pretty boring after the opening. But, since the opening is so spectacular, so epic, and so...well...bloody, people just kind of went along with the rest of the movie, even if it was a little sub-par from that point on. Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, another WWII movie, was also nominated, but I guess it was a bit too artsy. Apparently the Academy wasn't interested in depressing WWII movies that year, instead going for probably the most lighthearted and fun entries, Shakespeare in Love. Sure, there was also Life is Beautiful and Elizabeth, but they weren't as strong as this little love story. Joseph Fiennes (yes, Ralph is his brother) plays William Shakespeare, and looks much different from what I pictured. I don't know, I guess I'm too used to the picture of the balding bard. Anyway, Shakespeare is not yet the important playwright we know and love, and after a bad break, decides to pen Romeo and Juliet. While holding auditions for the play, he sees an amazing performance by someone named Thomas Kent for the part of Romeo. Unbeknownst to him, Kent is actually the heiress Viola de Lesseps (Gwenyth Paltrow). Lesseps had to cross dress to audition since women weren't allowed to act on stage at that time. Shakespeare finds out and they soon start a relationship, though he is married (though estranged) and she is engaged. The story is full of anachronisms, which don't really hurt the film since there is nothing known about Shakespeare's life for the most part. Even the mention of the colony of Virginia (which didn't exist in the 1590's) is OK because it seems like it's all part of the joke. The film isn't trying to be accurate, it's trying to tell an engaging love story. This must have appealed to Oscar voters who were tired of the conventional fact based history movies. Shakespeare in Love also nabbed the Oscar for Best Actress (Paltrow), Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench), Best Original Screenplay, Best Costumes, Best Score for a Musical or Comedy, and Best Art Direction.

Winner: American Beauty
Director: Sam Mendes
Distributed by: Dreamworks Pictures

American Beauty is an enigma of a film. Mendes was strictly a theater director before he helmed this movie, and I guess he hit it out of the park on his first try. Alan Ball, the film's writer, had begun penning the story in the early 90's for stage, but realized it was impossible to adapt in that venue. It resurfaced in 1997 when Ball was tired of trying to write for sitcoms and adapted the story to fit that mindset: one of cynicism. Dreamworks picked up the script and went through over twenty directors before they decided on Mendes. They re-worked the story a little bit and lo and behold we had...something. American Beauty is a hard movie to pin down. Is it about the meaning of life, the empty existence of suburbia, a story about love, or one about imprisonment? The answer, depending who you ask, is all of them, and many more. I'm not going to try and peg down exactly what I think it's all about, mostly since I've only seen the movie once. All you need to know is that it was a hit. Though it started out slow in theaters, a win at the Golden Globes and word of mouth rocketed the movie to a gross of over $356 million worldwide. Critics praised the acting of Kevin Spacey, the sharp writing of Ball, and the cinematography of Mendes. The movie was pretty hyped up, which is partly why it stayed ahead in the Oscar race, over The Cider House Rules and The Insider, the other big contenders. The Green Mile may have seemed a little too much like The Shawshank Redemption and The Sixth Sense couldn't have won due to the Academy already handing out it's one allotted horror movie Best Picture Oscar to The Silence of the Lambs. Probably the most inventive films of the year, The Matrix and Fight Club, were left out, which is really too bad. The funny thing is, after American Beauty won for 1999, it's reputation basically went downhill. It's like people were all suffering from a mania and finally woke up, because nobody could understand why they liked that weird movie in the first place. I blame the fact that it was so hyped up. Everyone saw it and convinced themselves that they must also like it, so as not to seem out of the loop. Then, that one person stood up and said, "meh." This doesn't mean that it's not a fine film, I remember liking it when I watched it, it just suffered from overpraise. The film won Mendes a directing and cinematography Oscar, and Kevin Spacey the Oscar for Best Actor. I'm not huge on the Space-man, but he was pretty good in this. Sorry I was kind of vague on the story. I guess you'll just have to watch it for yourself.

Winner: Gladiator
Director: Ridley Scott
Distributed by: Dreamworks Pictures

The sword and sandles epics had been dead and buried for a very long time. Who knew it would be resurrected in the 2000's by Ridley Scott. Russel Crowe plays Maximus, a Roman general under Marcus Aurelias, who is reduced to slavery once Aurelias' son, Commodus, kills the emperor and takes his place. On top of this, Maximus' family was murdered. So, he did what anyone would do: become a gladiator and plan to overthrow the new, tyrannical emperor. Easy, right? Crowe was the standout in this movie, which relied more on his steely demeanor than on historical fact. Scott did try to make this film more true to fact than any other sword and sandal epic before it, but continuity and safety reasons made it impossible for him to make it completely true to life. He even hired historians to help him out, though one resigned after changes were made and another asked not to be named in the credits. Historian Allen Ward claimed that making the film true to life would have easily made it much less interesting. He found that "creative artists need to be granted some poetic license, but that should not be a permit for the wholesale disregard of facts...." The movie did really well in theaters, but was met with more tepid responses from critics, only garnering a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert called the film "muddy, fuzzy, and indistinct " while also stating that it "employs depression as a substitute for personality...." Other reviews weren't as scathing, with some even calling it their favorite movies of all time. I don't mind the movie myself, it's not bad or anything, I guess I just don't really care for sword and sandal movies. This is another one of those years where nothing was going to stop the front-runner. Erin Brockovich, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Traffic, and Chocolat didn't stand a chance. If you love movies like 300, King Arthur, Troy, and Kingdom of Heaven, then you have Ridley Scott to thank for bringing back a dead genre. Gladiator didn't give Scott an Oscar however, but it did give one to Crowe. I'm just warning you, this won't be the last time you'll see Crowe and Oscar in the same sentence.

Winner: A Beautiful Mind
Director: Ron Howard
Distributed by: Universal Pictures/Dreamworks Pictures

A Beautiful Mind is the near true story of John Nash (Russel Crowe), a brilliant mathematician and economist, who develops paranoid schizophrenia and suffers from delusions after taking a job helping the Department of Defense as a code-breaker. This takes place a little after the Second World War, so it's a Cold War movie in a sense. I say near true, because Howard and the writers took a few liberties with Nash's story. The film has been criticized for this, but the overall plot and accurate use of complex mathematics garnered praise from critics, mathematicians, and John Nash himself. The supporting cast includes Jennifer Connelly as his one-time student and the woman he eventually marries, and Ed Harris who plays the dedicated and forceful government agent who recruits Nash. The movie had a few things going for it: first, it had Russel Crowe in it, who had just won his first acting Oscar. Secondly, the film was helmed by Ron Howard, a well respected director who probably deserved to win for Apollo 13. The Academy may have felt the past injustice needed to be fixed somehow. And thirdly, the movie dealt with a disability, which always gives your movie a few extra points over other contenders. A Beautiful Mind's competition was all over the place; from Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, to the Grand Hotel-like Gosford Park, to the musical Moulin Rouge!, to the crime drama In the Bedroom. The Academy, knowing that Peter Jackson had two more Lord of the Rings movies coming out, probably decided that they would wait until the end to give him the grand prize. Even I knew it wasn't going to happen at the time. I remember watching 2002's Oscars and noticing that almost nobody for Lord of the Rings bothered to show up. It was like a secret everyone knew. The Academy ultimately decided they were in love with the unusual biopic and garnered it with not only the Best Picture Oscar, but one for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress (Connelly). This entry, like American Beauty, has lost it's luster through the years, with many considering this a weak winner.

Winner: Chicago
Director: Rob Marshall
Distributed by: Miramax Pictures

Chicago is a satirical musical based on the crazy times of the Jazz Age in Chicago. For you non-history oriented and non-F. Scott Fitzgerald readers, the Jazz Age was during the Roaring Twenties. The story follows Roxie Hart (Renee Zelwegger) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) two women who committed murder. After some manipulation in jail, they both seek to make it big in vaudeville, creating a rivalry between them. The supporting cast is full of stars, including Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Lucy Liu, and Taye Diggs. The first true musical since Oliver! in the late sixties, the movie was a hit with audiences and critics, but it didn't pave the way for more musicals to win Best Picture, though Les Miserables is up for it this year (don't count on it). I think this was a case of the Academy finally seeing a decent musical after so many years, and they couldn't resist not giving it the top prize. It's an entertaining movie, with great songs, solid acting, and a good story all around. The competition: Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Hours, Gangs of New York, and The Pianist couldn't really compare. This is not counting LOTR of course, but I already explained that their time would come. Gangs of New York wasn't Scorsese's best, so the Academy didn't feel right giving him his apology Oscar yet. As for The Hours and The Pianist, they were a bit low-key to top the musical extravaganza. It didn't exactly knock it out of the park with awards though, as the only big ones they won were for Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Catherine Zeta-Jones. It is probably one of the best musicals in recent history, so if you're in the mood, you could do much worse.

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