Elizabeth (1998)


Starring: Cate Blanchett, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Richard Attenborough, Kathy Burke, Vincent Cassel, John Gielgud (his final film), Daniel Craig

Director: Shekhar Kapur

Summary: The early years of the reign of Elizabeth I of England and her difficult task of learning what it is to be a monarch

Other Nominations: Actress (Blanchett), Original Dramatic Score, Art Direction, Cinematography, Makeup*, Costume Design

What would have been a very average to mediocre film is elevated considerably by Cate Blanchett’s breakout performance as Elizabeth. While they saddle her with some questionable characterization at times for narrative interest (making Elizabeth embittered and changed after a failed romance seems like a poor choice), she knocks the material out of the park and makes the movie far better than it otherwise could have been. As mentioned, there is a lot changed for the sake of narrative interest and this feels like the high-production values, exciting, sexed-up version of events and persons; sort of like Braveheart, but not quite as far off the deep-end as that movie was. In line with this, the Catholic Church are basically your villains of the movie, which historically makes sense in this context, but I’m surprised they got away with making every single Catholic in the movie just plain evil. For me, some questionable script choices that were made for mass appeal (it made $82 million worldwide on a $30 million budget, so I guess it worked) bring it down, but the central story arc is reasonably effective, the production values are strong and Cate Blanchett’s performance makes it worth watching.

Rating: B-

Life is Beautiful (1998)


Starring: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini (his first film), Giustino Durano, Horst Buchholz

Director: Roberto Benigni

Summary: An Italian Jew’s sense of humor is his only hope when he and his family are put into a concentration camp

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Benigni)*, Original Screenplay, Foreign Language Film*, Original Dramatic Score*, Film Editing

*Note: this film was released in Italy in 1997, but not in the United States until 1998, hence why it was nominated for this year*

The word I would use for this is uneven. First of all, the premise is insanely risky and probably should not have been attempted, much less by someone who had no personal connection to the Holocaust-people always talk about how horrifying and insane Jerry Lewis’ idea behind his infamous unreleased film The Day the Clown Cried was, and this is extremely similar in most respects, yet Benigni was able to get away with it. It goes from a romantic comedy with slapstick, broad comedy and some sinister undertones to a serious holocaust movie with black comedy elements. The first half of the movie isn’t particularly memorable and Benigni, while very good in the second half, embodies the most annoying traits of Robin Williams (a hyperactive man-child and a clown to the core) in the first. Nevertheless, it’s the second half where the movie got both its acclaim and derision. They have to skirt the most razor thin of margins to avoid being extremely offensive, and a lot of times they get it right; however, the times they don’t REALLY fall flat in the worst of ways. There are unquestionably some truly poignant and heart-wrenching scenes which make up for some of the big problems that the movie has, but those real “thud” moments along with a just okay first half (which provides a nice visual and tonal contrast to the latter half, but not much else) keep it from being something I would give any sort of big recommendation for.

Rating: C

Saving Private Ryan (1998)


Starring: Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, Harrison Young, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Paul Giamatti, Ted Danson, Bryan Cranston, Nathan Fillion

Director: Steven Spielberg

Summary: Following D-Day, a group of U.S. soldiers go behind enemy lines to retrieve a paratrooper whose brothers were killed in action

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Hanks), Original Screenplay, Original Dramatic Score, Sound Editing*, Sound*, Art Direction, Cinematography*, Makeup, Film Editing*

In spite of a few imperfections, this is exceptional filmmaking. The two big action set pieces that we get at the beginning and end are truly incredible in scope and execution (especially the Omaha Beach opening)-the cinematography, direction, editing and sound design all put us right in the middle of it, making us feel how jarring and chaotic it was in unflinching and graphic detail. At least for these scenes, it feels real and gives you a true appreciation for what a soldier has to go through in combat, or at least as much as can be for a civilian like myself. Besides just the action, many of the other elements work: the muted color palette of greens and browns fit perfectly, setting the tone for basically every color WWII combat movie after it and Hanks’ character has weight to it, or at least more than the characters he tends to play.

The biggest issue I have is that it sometimes becomes overly-sentimental. I know it’s Spielberg and that almost always comes with the territory, but the ending really went over the edge for me and hurt the film. In general, the story/script is the weakest major aspect relative to others along with the score which was not one of John Williams’ more memorable efforts. Still, the film is a marvel on a technical and action-directing level and deserves its place as one of the great WWII movies.

Rating: A-

*Shakespeare in Love (1998)*


Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Tom Wilkinson

Director: John Madden

Summary: An affair with a noblewoman inspires Shakespeare to write his first great tragedy

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Paltrow)*, Supporting Actor (Rush), Supporting Actress (Dench)*, Original Screenplay*, Musical/Comedy Score*, Sound, Art Direction*, Cinematography, Makeup, Costume Design*, Film Editing

It has a negative reputation as “the movie that robbed Saving Private Ryan” of Best Picture, but even if it shouldn’t have won, that doesn’t make it a bad movie by any means. Shakespeare in Love has plenty of charm from start to finish, the story is creative and is it’s clever in incorporating elements from Shakespeare’s work and that of his contemporaries. As far as scripting goes, it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do and I only had one complaint, that it resolves what should have been an extremely significant problem in the relationship between the two main characters that raised plenty of questions that were not expanded upon with about 3-4 lines of dialogue in a way that felt absurd even within the context of this movie. Joseph Fiennes probably would have received a Best Actor nomination in a year that wasn’t so strong in that category, but I am surprised Paltrow won over Blanchett’s performance in Elizabeth-both are great, but Blanchett really carries that movie where Paltrow has a lot more working in her favor here. Most famously though was Dench winning an Oscar despite her miniscule screen time; here, I don’t have an opinion about her vs. the other nominees, as none of the others were in a Best Picture nominee and I haven’t seen them, but I will say that Dench was flawless as Queen Elizabeth and if someone was going to win for being in a movie for just six minutes, it should be her. This was a better movie than I expected, with good humor, romance, creativity and wit along with a strong cast.

Rating: B

The Thin Red Line (1998)


Starring: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, Nick Nolte, Dash Mihok, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, John Travolta, George Clooney

Director: Terrence Malick

Summary: Adaptation of James Jones’ autobiographical novel focusing on the conflict at Guadalcanal during World War II

Other Nominations: Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Dramatic Score, Sound, Cinematography, Film Editing

This was Terrence Malick’s first film in 20 years (his acclaimed Days of Heaven came out in 1978), so everyone wanted to be a part of it, and everyone was anticipating it-so did it live up to the hype? While I liked it, it missed an opportunity to be something truly special. This is a gorgeous looking film with stunning cinematography that I feel should have won even over the excellent work in Saving Private Ryan. The score from Hans Zimmer is another clear highlight. I would also say that while the cast was surprisingly average overall, Nick Nolte is great as the main CO; for an actor that I never really thought much of, he’s delivered two really strong dramatic performances (this and his leading role in The Prince of Tides).

The screenplay is the big mixed bag of the film though. If Saving Private Ryan was overly sentimental, this strips out every speck of it which certainly works well with its themes and is generally how I like my war movies. I thought the relationship between COs and regular infantry on the front lines in the movie was effective and the dynamic between Nolte and Koteas made for my favorite scenes in the movie. The big problem is that it’s pretentious and philosophical, but about what exactly? The basic message (war poisons the soul and creates numbness to violence for most, and it destroys the oneness and good of man) is clear, but we get so much navel gazing that it muddles everything in terms of giving real depth to those themes. While the script has problems, the movie looks and sounds so good that it’s worth watching on that basis alone and I would still recommend it.

Rating: B

1998 in Review

One Notable Film from 1998

I was debating over which of a number of very good films from 1998 I was going to review, but there wasn’t much interesting I could think to say about any of them. That’s why I’m going in the total opposite direction with one of the most unique and interesting bad movies I can think of-Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho.

I’m not necessarily surprised they made a remake of Psycho; I am surprised that Gus Van Sant wanted to do it immediately after his success with Good Will Hunting, and I am surprised how he did it. You see, the 1998 version is close to a shot-for-shot remake of the 1960 film, except in color-nearly identical script (mostly updating it to 1998), cinematography, editing and production design. What it ends up being is a sort of bizarre experiment: if you remake a movie so that it matches the original almost exactly, is it as good as the original? The answer is of course, no. For one, you can have the same lines, but different actors delivering those lines with different body language, intonation and chemistry can have a huge impact-Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche are no Tony Perkins and Janet Leigh. More importantly though, a copy is just that-a copy that can never be the original it is being compared against. I think most people already knew that, including Van Sant. However, Van Sant probably wanted to try out that theory for himself, as nobody had done it before, or at least not on such a massive stage. As ultimately misguided as the overall effort was and as mediocre as the finished product was, I have to give Van Sant credit: any remake of Psycho was going to be bad, but at least here we get something that’s at least fascinating to watch on some level.

Other Notable Films from 1998

The Big Lebowski

My Name is Joe

The Truman Show

Gods and Monsters

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas


American History X



Run Lola Run


A Simple Plan

There’s Something About Mary

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels


1998 Nominees in Review

Saving Private Ryan: A-

Shakespeare in Love: B (Won Best Picture)

The Thin Red Line: B

Elizabeth: B-

Life is Beautiful: C

Saving Private Ryan should have won Best Picture, but the biggest miscarriage of justice in the history of the award? Hardly. At least Shakespeare in Love is still a genuinely good movie, unlike Cavalcade (which beat I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang), Going My Way (which beat Gaslight and Double Indemnity) and The Greatest Show on Earth (which beat High Noon and The Quiet Man). Overall, this was a strong year for Best Picture nominees.

For 1999: along with Silence of the Lambs, it’s the only other 1990s Best Picture winner to not be a period piece; that movie where Michael Caine says “Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England”; the highest grossing Stephen King adaptation at the box office by several magnitudes; a movie based on a scandal involving CBS and 60 Minutes; and the most recent horror movie to get a Best Picture nomination.