*American Beauty (1999)*

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Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper,  Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Scott Bakula

Director: Sam Mendes (his first film)

Summary: An unemployed ad man becomes disillusioned with suburbia

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Spacey)*, Actress (Bening), Original Screenplay*, Original Score, Cinematography*, Film Editing

When American Beauty came out in 1999, it won pretty much every major Best Picture award there was and was considered a true modern classic; with that said, a lot about the movie has aged horribly because of how much the United States has changed since its release.1999 was the height of American peace, prosperity and contentment: back then making a super self-important movie about how much it sucks being a well-off white family in the suburbs seemed totally reasonable (Reality Bites and Rent also have this same problem). The problem isn’t its themes or even in its characters, but in how it presents them to us. For instance, the three major characters in the film who by the end we’re supposed to think have cut through the “phony baloney bullshit” of soulless suburban life (Spacey’s, Bentley’s and to a lesser extent Birch’s) are all really grating in one way or another. Bentley is a pretentious, pseudo-profound 18 year old drug dealer layabout who creepily films people in the dark without their permission and we’re supposed to think he’s smarter than all these other “phonies” out there; Along with being an asshhole throughout the film in general, Spacey quits his job so that he can flip burgers, specifically because it’s the job with the least amount of responsibility he could think of, without telling his wife or daughter. Birch is more of a normal, insecure high school with bad judgment, but I don’t know how positive her changes by the end of the film really are (assuming she actually intends to move somewhere with her drug dealer boyfriend and somehow figure out what to do without even a high school diploma). Everything about these characters and the entire movie screams smugness in a way that is totally undeserved. This is somewhat related to another complaint I have-what exactly is the message here? What is it telling ultimately trying to tell us in the end besides the darkness underneath suburbian life? I believe the film gets muddled here. Honestly, the characters that I gravitated towards were Bening’s and Suvari’s; while they are deeply flawed, their flaws are more the result of external societal expectations that have shaped who they are vs. Spacey and Bentley, who are supposed to be flawed but still “the smart/awoken ones”, are pompous assholes most of the time, something much more internal and less sympathetic.

With all this said, the movie does actually have a number of really strong points that honestly make it solidly above average even in light of all its problems. The entire cast is outstanding, especially Spacey, Bening, Suvari and Cooper giving Academy Award-worthy performances. The screenplay also has a lot of merit to it: I have to grant that the dialogue is memorable even if it annoyed the hell out of me sometimes and all the characters are well developed (even if I had problems with several of them), with Suvari, Bening and Cooper’s being especially strong and fit perfectly with everything the movie wanted to explore thematically. The humor also consistently hits its mark, and the pacing is very solid. It’s really a shame though-if you gave the concept, themes and actors to a different writer and director with a different perspective, you might have gotten something really special, something that cut into the heart of problems that the American dream can entail, but without constant smug tone and misfired characters and messages that we got here. Then again, that might have turned into something much more bland and less memorable, so maybe it was for the best.

Rating: B-

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The Cider House Rules (1999)

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Starring: Tobey Maguire, Michael Caine, Charlize Theron, Delroy Lindo, Erykah Badu, Paul Rudd, Jane Alexander
Director: Lasse Hallstrom

Summary: An orphan trained in medicine sets out to find his place in the world
Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Caine)*, Adapted Screenplay*, Original Score, Art Direction, Film Editing

Well, that was a movie I guess, and it was nominated because around this time Miramax ALWAYS had a BP nominee. There’s nothing glaringly wrong with it or anything, but it’s mostly uninspired melodrama that was incredible predictable for me. Maguire is never someone I would call a great actor or anything, but he was a good fit for “awkward young man coming of age” roles (like in Spider-Man, Pleasantville and here). Caine is solid, but I am surprised he won an Oscar though since he already had one; him putting on a New England by way of a Nordic country accent probably helped his chances. The script is technically fine, although again it hits plot points in a very expected way (except for one-I didn’t expect a Chinatown redux here for one of them). It’s perfectly decent, but nothing more than that.

Rating: C

The Green Mile (1999)

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Starring: Tom Hanks, David Morse, Michael Clarke Duncan, Doug Hutchison, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, Sam Rockwell, Bonnie Hunt, Barry Pepper, Dabbs Greer (his final film), Gary Sinise

Director: Frank Darabont

Summary: The lives of guards on death row are affected by one of their charges

Other Nominations: Supporting Actor (Duncan), Adapted Screenplay, Sound

I have a lesser opinion of this movie than most average moviegoers seem to-ranking this as one of the 40 or 50 greatest movies ever made is ludicrous to me. First, at 189 minutes, it’s far longer than it needs to be and you really feel that length sometimes-not so much in what scenes should they have cut, but did every scene need to go as long as it did. We also get a major genre shift (well, sub-genre, it’s still a drama throughout) at about an hour in that personally did work all that well for me. This is probably why I thought the movie tailed off a lot in the last 45 minutes or so, because it’s at that point where it rears its head with increased frequency at you can’t just have “normal” scenes at this point.

I will say there’s several things that I liked a lot though. The execution scenes are all compelling and  completely different, with the second being one of the most genuinely horrifying things I’ve ever seen in a movie. The cast is good: Hanks is solid as he always was during this time period even if I wouldn’t call this one of his best performances; Duncan is probably the best person who could have ever possibly played the role of Joe Coffey, as he has imposing size (made even bigger through clever camera tricks and specially-built sets) and his eyes have a true soul to them; and Sam Rockwell is good here as he is in basically everything (he was easily the best part of Iron Man 2 for instance). The movie has some really exceptional moments that keep you engaged, but unfortunately it has just as many clunkers as well (especially during the ending stretch) and some of the tear-jerker moments felt cloying. I liked it, but I just don’t get the unreal praise a lot of people have for it.

Rating: B-

The Insider (1999)

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Starring: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Michael Gambon, Hallie Eisenberg (aka the Pepsi Girl)

Director: Michael Mann

Summary: A research chemist comes under personal and professional attack when he decides to appear in a 60 Minutes expose on Big Tobacco

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Crowe), Adapted Screenplay, Sound, Cinematography, Film Editing

Movies based on real events can often be either too dry or too sensationalized, but The Insider finds the perfect balance and is an extraordinarily compelling film. I liked both the leads a lot-Crowe ably navigates a role that combines intense paranoia, anger, intelligence, coldness and aloofness, and it’s one of the last times Pacino actually tried in a movie. Also, Plummer (as Mike Wallace) is terrific and I love his characterization in general since I was never really a fan of Wallace in general.

I loved the screenplay for a number of reasons. First, it’s a great thriller, especially with the paranoia that’s pervasive throughout the first half (the scene at the driving range being my favorite, with perfect pacing, editing and cinematography). Second, it’s very dedicated to historical accuracy, something I think is important in a movie with explosive allegations and negative characterizations about people when the events happened just four years before the movie came out. Third, in a different telling of this story, we might get more broad and obvious characterizations, but here we get much richer portraits, like with Crowe’s character, who is clearly heroic by putting everything on the line for the right cause, but is also unpersonable, a little self-righteous and prone to anger.

The other thing that stood out to me was the cinematography and editing, which felt very “modern” (for better or worse). Lots of rapid-fire cuts, heavy use of steadicam, off-kilter close-ups, and switching the focus from the foreground to the background (or vice versa) within the same shot-it certainly looks distinctive. I think it gives a dynamic feel to the movie, and in the context of a thriller like this, it works well.

Making a compelling, true-to-real-life-events thriller with themes about monied interests and media influence that are more relevant today than ever is an incredibly difficult task, yet The Insider somehow gets everything right. This was the high point for Michael Mann’s career, a bit of a swan song for Pacino, and a movie that further established Crowe as maybe the top actor for the time period.

Rating: A-

The Sixth Sense (1999)

 

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Starring: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg, Mischa Barton

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Summary: A boy who communicates with spirits that don’t know they’re dead seeks the help of a disheartened child psychologist

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Osment), Supporting Actress (Collette), Original Screenplay, Film Editing

Much like The Crying Game, The Sixth Sense is a movie mainly remembered for its twist; while that’s technically true, it undersells what a good movie it is and how well the twist is executed. The editing, cinematography and screenplay all work together perfectly to frame the viewer’s perception in a way that deceives us with a satisfying payoff. Sure, maybe you could poke logical holes into everything, but I can’t imagine how you could have a movie with this twist be otherwise. Regardless, you never feel like the movie cheated, that it wasn’t really well set-up and unearned. Really, the only major criticism I have of the movie is that the relationship between Willis and his wife (Williams), one of the core aspects of the whole film, isn’t all that impactful in terms of me being invested enough to care about his marital problems. This is of course inevitable for a number of reasons, but it’s still a weakness.

As for performances, I don’t know how you would expect a better performance out of a child actor than what Osment delivered. I would have voted for him over Michael Caine in The Cider House Rules without a second thought. Collette also earned her nomination and gave a really strong performance as Osment’s mom, who is understandably haggard having to deal with her son’s issues. The other thing I enjoyed is that, while it is a horror movie (one of the few to ever get nominated), it hangs its hat more on dread and building stress than just shock and gore. Overall, I liked the film more than I was expecting to (I hadn’t seen it since it first came out when I was 11), and knowing the twist coming in didn’t lessen my enjoyment at all-it in fact leads to a whole different kind of watching the second time around.

Rating: B

1999 in Review

One Notable Film from 1999

One thing I’ve always enjoyed is documentaries that explore unique subcultures in-depth, the ones that have their own interesting little worlds but are often either unknown or overlooked by the public at large. One of the best examples of this kind of movie is the film I’m talking about today-Barry Blaustein’s inside look at the world of professional wrestling, Beyond the Mat.

Ever since I was a kid, I have been a wrestling fan, as a wonderfully unique combination of athleticism and theater that you can’t really compare to anything else. In one way, Beyond the Mat serves a wonderful time capsule of the biggest boom period in the history of American wrestling: the Attitude Era from 1998-2001. For pretty much the only time in the history of the company, an outsider actually got backstage access to document things going on the road and it really captures the flavor of the wrestling business and its carny roots (in the U.S. anyway) that never went away. Beyond just the glamour of being at the top of the wrestling business in the WWF and Mick Foley’s story (which has a lot of darkness to it as well), it also documents both the ups and downs-from Koko B. Ware scraping by at indie shows, to the renegade and sometimes downright scary ECW, to Terry Funk’s inability to finally hang up the boots even though his wife desperately wants him to retire, and finally to Jake Roberts and his issues with drug addiction and his estranged daughter. I think it does a better job giving a fair assessment of the industry as it was (most of which is still accurate) and gives a glimpse into the lives of the crazy stuntmen and entertainers we call professional wrestlers than any other film, except for maybe Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, a film heavily inspired by Beyond the Mat (with Randy the Ram basically being a combination of Jake Roberts and Terry Funk).

Other Notables from 1999

The Matrix

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Toy Story 2

All About My Mother

Boys Don’t Cry

Magnolia

American Pie

Being John Malkovich

Audition

The Boondock Saints

Election

Eyes Wide Shut

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Fight Club

The Iron Giant

Office Space

Three Kings

1999 in Review

The Insider: A-

The Sixth Sense: B

American Beauty: B- (Won Best Picture)

The Green Mile: B-

The Cider House Rules: C

1999 is one of the strongest years in terms of IMDB ratings (4 of the five being rated at 7.9 or above), but for me it was just a really good year instead of a great one because I didn’t like American Beauty or The Green Mile as much as most people. It was also an odd year, in that it was the last where only two of the five nominees actually won any awards (American Beauty and The Cider House Rules). Instead of American Beauty, I would have given Best Picture to The Insider, a film that has aged infinitely better; the only major group that agreed with me without the benefit of hindsight was the L.A. Film Critics Association, who’s voting in general looks sterling compared to the Oscars: in the 90s alone, they gave Best Picture to Goodfellas over Dances with Wolves, Pulp Fiction over Forrest Gump, Leaving Las Vegas over Braveheart, Secrets & Lies over The English Patient, L.A. Confidential over Titanic, Saving Private Ryan over Shakespeare in Love and The Insider over American Beauty. I think they deserve a round of applause and a lot of respect.

Well, the 90s have come and gone, with the most significant development Oscar wise being the rise of Miramax as a powerhouse indie studio-they had a Best Picture nominee every year from 1993-2004, which not coincidentally was the last year the Weinsteins were at Miramax. This was due in part not only to the studio’s highbrow leanings, but also to Harvey Weinstein revolutionizing Oscar campaigning. On the whole, the 90s was definitely a better decade than the 80s as far as nominees go. I’m not sure what the 2000s have in store exactly, although there are some clear highlights including a trilogy I have somehow avoided seeing before.

For 2000: Miramax’s Oscar campaigning prowess get another unexceptional Lasse Hallstrom film nominated for Best Picture; the high grossing foreign language film in U.S. history and the one nominated for the most Oscars; Steven Soderbergh becomes the most recent director to have multiple Best Picture nominees in the same year; and the only Best Picture winner that Roger Ebert and his co-host (at this point, Richard Roeper) both gave a thumbs down to.