As Good As It Gets (1997)

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Starring: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Shirley Knight, Jesse James (his first film), Skeet Ulrich, Yeardley Smith, Harold Ramis

Director: James L. Brooks

Summary: An obsessive-compulsive writer comes out of his shell to help a struggling waitress and an injured artist

Other Nominations: Actor (Nicholson)*, Actress (Hunt)*, Supporting Actor (Kinnear), Original Screenplay, Musical/Comedy Score, Film Editing

The movie lost me within 10 minutes because of a fundamental problem. Jack Nicholson’s character is more than just lonely, obsessive-compulsive and abrasive-he throws someone else’s dog down a garbage chute in an apartment complex and makes homophobic, racist and anti-semitic remarks. He starts out too despicable to be convincingly redeemed by a dog and a woman, especially in the format of a 2 hour and 15 minute movie-this would be like if Jake LaMotta became a nice guy after he got a cat and a nicer girlfriend or something. Sure, there have been rom-com protagonists who have started with impure motives (Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, Clark Gable in It Happened One Night) or have  significant character flaws, but they never start out as sadistic.

This is a shame, because the movie has a number of redeeming qualities to it. Hunt is very likeable and a great lead; not sure she should have won Best Actress, but she’s still the best part of the movie. Brooks knows how to write quality dialogue even if the script as a whole has some serious issues. Also credit to them that in 1997 they made Kinnear (who gives a good performance) more than just a stock “gay neighbor” (like George Carlin in Prince of Tides), him being gay is relatively unimportant, he’s just presented as a normal, fully fleshed out character. Ultimately though, the aforementioned big issue for me at least (along with it feeling cookie-cutter from a plotting standpoint) brought down what could have been a really solid rom-com.

Rating: C+

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The Full Monty (1997)

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Starring: Robert Carlyle, Mark Addy (his first feature film), Tom Wilkinson, William Snape (his first film), Steve Huison, Paul Barber, Hugo Speer

Director: Peter Cattaneo

Summary: Six unemployed steel workers form a male striptease act

Other Nominations: Director, Original Screenplay, Musical/Comedy Score*

Don’t have a lot to say about this one-it has an original premise, is decently funny, the characters are fine, and it’s just 90 minutes. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, but I am surprised it was nominated for Best Picture, considering 1) it wasn’t really exceptional, in conjunction with 2) how rare it is for a non-romantic comedy to get nominated (the only other one this decade was Fargo and this is a totally different type of comedy than that movie). If you want to watch something fairly light on a Sunday afternoon and have an hour and a half, then you could certainly do a lot worse than this, it’s just that I’m surprised a low-budget, no name comedy from England got nominated over something like Amistad, a movie scientifically engineered to win Oscars, Boogie Nights, a much more interesting movie that actually got 3 nominations that year, or The Sweet Hereafter which got Best Director and Screenplay nominations and is considered one of the best movies of the 1990s.

Rating: C+

Good Will Hunting (1997)

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Starring: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgard, Casey Affleck, George Plimpton

Director: Gus Van Sant

Summary: A child abuse survivor reveals a surprising genius for mathematics

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Damon), Supporting Actor (Williams)*, Supporting Actress (Driver), Original Screenplay*, Original Song (“Miss Misery”), Original Dramatic Score, Film Editing

It’s still remarkable that this was the first screenplay for either Damon and Affleck, because it’s what makes this film something really memorable. The dialogue is really good for the most part, the characters and their struggles are well-written and developed, and the “bigger” moments feel more realistic and restrained than in lesser screenplays. I like everyone in the movie, but Williams is the standout-partially because he gets the best part and a lot of the best dialogue, and partially because he’s great at expressing both self-assuredness and melancholy without going over the top. If I had a criticism, it would be that it gets overly-sentimental sometimes, which tonally feels off compared to how grounded the movie usually is. Overall though, a very good movie with a great screenplay and some strong performances.

Rating: B+

L.A. Confidential (1997)

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Starring: Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, David Strathaim, Simon Baker (his first film)

Director: Curtis Hanson

Summary: Detectives clash while investigating political corruption

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actress (Basinger)*, Adapted Screenplay*, Original Dramatic Score, Sound, Art Direction, Cinematography, Film Editing

While it does nothing all that new and covers ground that other great film noirs have, it was fresh for the time period and the execution is so good that it’s still a real joy to watch. Everything here feels so vibrant and alive, moving quickly with a lean and mean screenplay that trimmed what was a focus on eight characters in the source novel to just three, with great results. While the story is solid, it really is the three main characters arcs that carry the story along with the strong performances from those playing them (and really the performances of everyone involved). Basinger was the only one who got a nomination (and she won), which surprises me considering 1) Spacey is excellent and should have gotten a Supporting Actor nom, and 2) Basinger’s relatively small role compared to other members of the cast, although she’s perfect in it. Finally, the score feels nearly identical to Chinatown’s but hey, no need to fix what’s not broke for a noir set in Los Angeles. If you like noirs, this is a great one.

Rating: A-

*Titanic (1997)*

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Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Zane, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Kathy Bates, Bill Paxton, David Warner, Victor Garber

Director: James Cameron

Summary: Lovers from opposite sides of the tracks find their love tested during the maiden voyage of the doomed ocean liner

Other Nominations: Director*, Actress (Winslet), Supporting Actress (Stuart), Original Song (“My Heart Will Go On”)*, Original Dramatic Score*, Sound Editing*, Sound*, Art Direction*, Cinematography*, Makeup, Costume Design*, Film Editing*, Visual Effects*

Why was Titanic the box office monster that it was, a film that was #1 in the U.S. for 15 weeks? (To compare, the current highest grossing U.S. film ever, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, was #1 for just 3 weeks. It’s because much like Casablanca, it had something for everyone: an effective romance, attractive leads with great chemistry, spectacle, drama, history with an incredible attention for detail, action, and extremely accessible and uncomplicated story with some very memorable scenes that people still remember. It also makes perfect use of CGI to enhance practical effects not replace them and features and excellent score-“My Heart Will Go On” as used in the film is perfect, even if everybody got sick of it in 1998.

Unlike Casablanca though, there are a fair amount of script problems-there had to be considering it had a record-tying 14 nominations yet none for Original Screenplay. The dialogue is relatively weak; it lacks depth for the most part (although the scene with Rose and her mother putting on her corset sticks out as an exception); Billy Zane is an over the top cartoon villain when we really didn’t need one; and finally, it’s overly long and didn’t need to be 3 hours and 15 minutes. The biggest cuts could have been made after the Titanic gets hit by the iceberg, it doesn’t need to be almost half the movie even if they wanted it to feel as close to real-time as possible. While this is not a great movie, I think it has gotten more criticism than it deserves from some circles over the years. It’s an extremely watchable romance that’s epic in scale even if it’s lacking in some of the script areas and it’s longer than it needs to be.

Rating: B

Best of 1988-1997

Best of the Nominees

  1. Goodfellas (1990)
  2. Schindler’s List (1993)
  3. Remains of the Day (1993)
  4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
  5. Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  6. L.A. Confidential (1997)
  7. Unforgiven (1992)
  8. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
  9. Field of Dreams (1989)
  10. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Ranking the Best Picture Winners

  1. Schindler’s List (1993)
  2. Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  3. Unforgiven (1992)
  4. Forrest Gump (1994)
  5. Rain Man (1988)
  6. Titanic (1997)
  7. Dances With Wolves (1990)
  8. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
  9. Braveheart (1995)
  10. The English Patient (1996)

Best Actor/Actress/Director

Actor: Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs, Howards End, Remains of the Day); Runner-Up: Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump, Apollo 13)

Actress: Emma Thompson (Howard’s End, Remains of the Day, In the Name of the Father, Sense and Sensibility); Runner-Up: Jodie Foster (Silence of the Lambs)

Director: James Ivory (Howards End, Remains of the Day); Runner-Up: Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas)