I recently learned that in today’s film classes, the 1990’s are regarded as a golden age of movies. Well, damn! This is proof that we are very rarely able to guess what history is taking place, when it’s taking place, even if it’s in the culture right in front of our faces. The 1990’s being a golden age of cinema? This is assuming academia is now under full awareness of the fact that the 90’s are the decade that brought Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay into prominence. It’s probably the worst decade in the long career of Martin Scorsese, who started the decade with Goodfellas but went the rest of it directing Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Casino, Kundun, and Bringing Out the Dead. Teen movies ripping off old literature got to be in vogue. Bruce Willis never was really able to follow through on the action star promise he began showing in Die Hard.
Into the void we enter the Oscars. They are still used as an all-time barometer of a movie’s true greatness, although for the life of me I can’t remember why that is. Well, it could have something to do with the fact that so many of them have been given out to so many undeserving movies. Alas, people still use the Academy Awards as a be-all for foretelling classic status, even though plenty have been given out to movies no one can remember. That brings us to what I’m writing about: The best 90’s movies that got shafted for the Best Picture Oscar. The criteria I’m using for this list is that they have to have been nominated for Best Picture during the 90’s but lost. That, unfortunately, leaves out plenty of movies that lost out on nominations in the first place for not being traditional Best Picture nominees, but that should only back up how stupid the Academy is. I’m not putting The Screwed Movies in any particular order, but do know that some of these film injustices were more outrageous than others.
For my money, Goodfellas is the greatest gangster movie ever made. Sure, everyone love to quote the wisdom of The Godfather, but it’s Goodfellas which brings a sort of gritty darkness to the sub-genre. The movie gives us a viewpoint of the gangster world and just how surreal and weird it can be – violence is sudden and flash-quick rather than calculated; characters make wisecracks about people getting hurt and killed; and the movie manages the incredible trick of celebrating the gangster lifestyle at the same time as it shows us why living it might not be a very good idea. The way it’s crafted is something taught in film 101, from the careful tracking shots to the numerous improvised scenes. Yet, Goodfellas lost Best Picture to Dances with Wolves – a good movie, yes, but also one with a black and white moralistic viewpoint in which many of the important scenes feature underdeveloped, irrational characters.
Saving Private Ryan
This is the BIG one. Everyone knew the fallout would be brutal just seconds after the envelope was opened and Shakespeare in Love was announced as Best Picture. Steven Spielberg’s war drama – bookended by two of the greatest war scenes ever shot – changed the way we viewed war through a movie lens. Quentin Tarantino put it best when, expressing his admiration for Saving Private Ryan, he said it was impossible to look at the scenes from the old World War II classics the same way – the idea that 40 men could be wiped out in seconds in a hail of machine gun bullets was suddenly more real, and more terrifying. In spite of the brutal portrayal of war violence, Spielberg still managed to create a narrative about soldiers searching for their inner humanity in the midst of a surrounding carnage in which it might have been lost.
I suppose it’s understandable why Pulp Fiction lost to Forrest Gump. Gump was a schmaltzy, heartwarming little movie whereas Pulp Fiction didn’t really do anything of note, did it? It only challenged the idea of structure linearity, brought on a whole new movement of daring independent movies, and littered the media scape with a giant slew of dialogue and scenes to poke affectionate fun at. The reason I consider Quentin Tarantino great isn’t because of all that, though; it’s because he’s a director who’s trained himself to create impact. Everything he writes in dialogue and films in scenes is created with the intent of really making it stick. Its been 20 years since the release of Pulp Fiction, and yet it’s still very easy for even the most remedial film buffs to quote Winston Wolfe, Honey Bunny, Captain Koons, and Marsellus Wallace. And none of those characters play especially large roles.
The Shawshank Redemption
The Shawshank Redemption got beat in Best Picture the same year Pulp Fiction did. Shawshank sort of plays around with us – is it a drama about life for an innocent man in jail? A critique of the system? It can’t really be referred to as a character movie, since so many of its characters are in and out. It took an observation from Roger Ebert before I was really able to think of a way to describe it: The importance of The Shawshank Redemption comes from its portrayal of integrity, and a man’s way of holding onto his in a place meant to break him of it. Main character Andy Dufresne spends 19 years shacked up in hell, and knowing his innocence allows him to keep finding a sense of purpose.
Another one of the Academy’s classic fuckups, 1997 saw the ignorance of this movie, Good Will Hunting, As Good as it Gets, and The Full Monty in order to throw the Oscar at Titanic. Now, I loved Titanic, but that’s solely on its merits as a disaster movie. (I happen to love good disaster movies, and Titanic might be the best ever made.) In the process, the clear superior was this densely layered mystery/thriller about a corrupt Police department in Los Angeles. LA Confidential contained equally complex characters and plot, and watching it gives one the sense of the classic caper in that everyone has pertinent information they’re not privy to blabbing. This is a movie that demands a viewer’s fullest attention, and is frequently capable of holding onto it even through the repeated viewings necessitated by the labyrinthine series of events that can drive a moviegoer mad trying to put everything together. They don’t make capers like this anymore, not ever.
The Sixth Sense
This might be my own personal preference coming into play here. The 1999 winner, American Beauty, is one during the decade I don’t have any real problems with. The Sixth Sense, however, was more than just a ghost story, at least to me. It’s one movie where the chilly, morose directorial style of M Night Shyamalan presented the theme exactly as it was supposed to. Far from being a supernatural story, The Sixth Sense is about the world from the point of view of its main character, Cole, a little boy whose supernatural gift makes him an outcast. Cole is basically living a life of isolation in a world where his peers write him off as “one of them.” Gradually, Cole comes to accept who he is through the help of a therapist who teaches him to integrate his condition into his everyday life. Forget the famous twist ending – concentrating on that is missing the entire point.
Beauty and the Beast
This is another case of me not having a big problem with the winner – The Silence of the Lambs in this case – so much as people considering the loser less of a movie, especially since that viewpoint rarely takes into account the Academy’s clear bias against comedies and animation. I also don’t fully buy into the popular view of Belle acting on a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome. At the very least, I think the view is grossly oversimplified. What I saw was one of Disney’s most independent-minded, courageous, and resourceful heroines. Belle refused to buckle to the town traditions, bargained for her father’s freedom, and had to use Beast’s servants – who were legitimately warm to her from her first appearance – as a communication buffer between herself and Beast. Eventually, she was able to bring out his good side. This was one of Disney’s last truly great animated movies.
This movie, which lost to The English Patient, answered the burning question of what would happen if a movie was created that refused to define itself. Fargo at times comes off comedic, thrilling, senseless, and heartwarming, and all of it is engrossing.
A Few Good Men
Aaron Sorkin’s big breakthrough movie lost the Best Picture award to Unforgiven. Unforgiven is a great movie, but I always thought A Few Good Men got thumb-nosed a lot. Yes, A Few Good Men is schmaltz, but at least it’s well-done schmaltz that manages to carry its story through fantastic dialogue. It also doesn’t depend on heavy-handed melodrama, unlike some other movies that DID win the high prize (ahem, Forrest Gump). And anyone who claims they’ve never quoted the scene where Jack Nicholson finally answers Tom Cruise’s demands for the truth is just a liar.
The astronauts of Apollo 13 were, in real life, stuck in one of the scariest and most desperate of situations imaginable: They were out in space, days away from Earth, with their very life support system running away from them. It’s a pretty difficult feeling to try to capture in a movie, all the more so when you’re trying to base all the suspense around technical difficulties and advanced mathematics. Although Apollo 13 features periodic cuts back to the NASA base and to the astronauts’ families, when director Ron Howard puts you inside Apollo 13, he REALLY puts you in Apollo 13, in a way few space movies ever have. Howard also captures the era, showing the indifference which greeted the Apollo crew’s original broadcasts from space to a public which had seen enough of it to be bored of it – only to become engaged by the fact that it might be possible for the crew to actually die in space. Apollo 13 lost to Braveheart. While the two of them are about equal in quality, Apollo 13 is definitely the more accurate in regards to its era.
Good Will Hunting
Another one of Titanic’s conquests, Good Will Hunting was an inspiring movie that turned the whole nerd trope of the 90’s onto its head. Main character Will Hunting, despite being a janitor at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is very content with his life on the outside. Then after his latest brush with the law, he’s placed with a counselor who challenges him. The payoff is a little on the weak side, but Good Will Hunting is one of those movies less about the whole than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, what Good Will Hunting is doing is challenging the idea of pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps toughness, eternal steely exteriors, and fear of intellectualism many blue-collar neighborhoods – including the one I was raised in – hold so close to their hearts.
Here’s the full list of winners: 1990-Dances with Wolves. 1991-The Silence of the Lambs. 1992-Unforgiven. 1993-Schindler’s List. 1994-Forrest Gump. 1995-Braveheart. 1996-The English Patient. 1997-Titanic. 1998-Shakespeare in Love. 1999-American Beauty. Braveheart is a bit of a wild card – I love it myself, but observers smarter than me don’t have the affection that I do for it. Considerable attacks can be mounted on Forrest Gump and Dances with Wolves, but the two I really save my ire for are Titanic and Shakespeare in Love. I actually love Titanic; I own it on video, but like I mentioned, I love it only for its merit as a disaster movie. The visuals are amazing, but the weak story is just another cinematic rehash of Romeo and Juliet while the only characters who come off like they might have the potential to be interesting – and who, you know, EXISTED ON THE REAL TITANIC – are mostly given throwaway lines in throwaway scenes. Shakespeare in Love, however, slammed the door on a lot of the respect that I had given the Academy Awards, and I never got it back. Take away the pretty Victorian scenery and all you get is the umpteenth love story, except in this case the woman is forced to play dress-up and the man is William Shakespeare, needing inspiration for his new play. Its been completely forgotten since then, and those who remember it now associate it only with Dame Judi Dench – whose eight-minute performance, to be fair, was the only thing in the movie worth watching – and Gwenyth Paltrow, the newest rich brat to think she’s qualified to offer pseudo-spiritual advice to the masses. At least she’s not as bad as Elizabeth Gilbert.