And the Oscar Should Have Gone to…
The 1999 Contenders Ranked
For a year commonly cited – in my view, seemingly at random – as the best year ever for movies, it’s notable that 72nd Academy Awards’ vanguard Best Picture Oscar nominees have either fallen from grace (American Beauty, The Green Mile, even The Sixth Sense is less feted after two decades of M Night Shyamalan repeatedly using the same template) or been forgotten (The Cider House Rules, The Insider). I’d argue that rather reflects a not-quite-vintage year generally. Still, there’s only one picture there that had absolutely no business even being within sight of the last five.
The Cider House Rules
A prime (relatively) recent example of the power of lobbying for nominations, after Miramax’s hopes for The (Un)Talented Mr Ripley went belly up. The same tactic of throwing weight behind a respectable-yet-inoffensive, determinedly unremarkable picture also paid off the following year, with nominations for Chocolat. The auteur behind both, Lasse Hallström has gone from anaemic strength to anaemic strength since. Well, up until Joe Johnston had to replace him on last year’s mega-stiff The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.
The result of Miramax marketing’s overexertion was nominations in seven categories and wins for John Irving’s screenplay and Michael Caine. The latter is, if anything, an unsightly blemish on his career. He wholly deserved his previous win for Hannah and Her Sisters, but Wilbur Larch is a weak performance (and weak accent) in a weak film, so misleadingly gives the impression this was the best Caine had to offer by this point. It wasn’t; he was stuck playing against his strengths. Tobey Maguire sets the standard for placid lead performances for the next decade (even as Spider-Man), Rachel Portman’s score is standard-issue syrup, and Charlize Theron’s bottom becomes a lovingly-captured tableau at the behest of the also Oscar-nominated director.
$57.5m (US, 41st), $88.5m (WW, 47th)
The Sixth Sense
I think it’s fair to suggest The Sixth Sense wouldn’t be nominated today, with the benefit of hindsight regarding M Night Shyamalan’s genre bent and use of the twist as a fix-all story crutch (even now, when he’s experiencing a career second wind of sorts). Probably the most deserved of the film’s six nominations was its director nod, though. Conversely, the screenplay, which after all, provoked that word-of-mouth mega-sleeper success, concentrates so much on retro-fitting that it’s borderline malnourished where it counts.
Because Shyamalan has the rare quality in today’s directors of the confidence to allow his picture to unfold at a slow, sure, steady pace, believing in the atmosphere he’s creating and the world he’s building. Of course, that self-certainty can go too far (witness Ari Aster’s Midsommar), but it remains by far the most impressive aspect of The Sixth Sense and holds true of his subsequent succession of diminishing-returns replica constructs. Haley Joel Osment, in retrospect, is more creepily preternatural than he is a brilliant performer, while Bruce Willis meticulously delivers his patented blank. Of the cast, it’s Toni Collette who stands out, as naturalistic here as she was OTT in last year’s Hereditary.
$293.5m (US, 2nd), $672.8m (WW, 2nd)
The Green Mile
It’s understandable that The Green Mile has come in for a lot of stick over the years since its Best Picture nomination. It can be argued, via its magical-realist trappings, to present a ridiculously neutered vision of prison life – much like the preceding Stephen King/ Frank Darabont Best Picture nomination The Shawshank Redemption – despite going full bore in its depiction of grisly horror-movie executions. That would be rather missing the point of this intentionally heightened milieu, though.
Less easy to dismiss is its wholesale use of the “Magical Negro” trope, by which Michael Clarke Duncan’s strong, sensitive simpleton weaves a miraculous healing effect on all the (good) white folks he comes into contact with, and then goes willingly to his tear-jerking death. Just like Jesus. The picture would be hard-pressed to be more overt in its use of the device if it was consciously trying (regarding which, Stephen King doesn’t so much have past form as a running tally).
Whether you find this all too much is a matter of taste – and endurance, if a three-hour running time is an issue for you – but it hasn’t prevented The Green Mile from holding the current rank of 28thon IMDB’s Top Rated Movies. And if that’s slightly over the top – an indicator of the site’s popularity past rather than present (Interstellar is the only post-2010 movie in the Top 30) – it’s still representative of just how compelling a storytelling combination King and Darabont can be.
$136.8m (US, 12th), $286.8m (WW, 13th)
Another 1999 nominee time hasn’t been kind to, with barbs out for its affected, indulgent satire of the affluent middle class. Zeitgeist movies don’t often win Best Picture, possibly because there’s always the danger that, a few years hence, the Academy will end up with egg on its face. Possibly because, traditionally, much of the membership has consisted of fogies. Probably the biggest offence caused retrospectively here, though, is that reigning persona non grata Kevin Spacey took Best Actor for his supremely showy role of Lester Burnham.
Alan Ball’s screenplay undoubtedly has its issues: it’s loaded in favour of Lester at the expense of an offensive against his shrewish wife (Annette Bening); it has a supremely mockable sincere streak running counter to the actual mockery, its titular beauty manifested in in the form of a plastic bag; the framing murder subplot is superfluous and possibly actually damaging to the picture; and it seems not to be quite horrified enough at Lester being a shameless hound for underage sex – indeed, we’re encouraged to ally ourselves with his worm-turning rebellion against societal restraints, so he can revert to a pre-adult state. And yet, twenty years on, it retains the quality of being supremely engrossing. Certainly, Mendes hasn’t made anything more engaging since; this and The Green Mile stand as examples of problematic pictures that are nevertheless well-made, dramatically compelling pieces of work.
$130.1m (US, 13th), $356.3m (WW, 9th)
The Insider wasn’t alone in going home empty handed among 1999’s Best Picture nominees – The Sixth Sense and The Green Mile suffered the same fate – but it was definitely the most deserving of those passed over. None of the nominees could be judged unqualified successes, but The Insider’s biggest failing was perhaps not realising that no one shared its outrage. It’s very difficult to get the weight of opinion – and votes – behind you if the prevailing response is “Yeah, but tell me something I don’t know”.
So Big Tobacco spiking its cigarettes to make them more addictive is no Watergate, and whatever the merits of Eric Roth and Michael Mann’s telling of Jeffrey Wigand’s whistleblowing, they’re unable to convince us it has similar cachet. As a consequence, it isn’t until the focus shifts to the internal wrangling at CBS’ Sixty Minutes that a sense of urgency and anger (courtesy of Al Pacino being angry) fires up. Still an unfairly underseen picture, The Insider also boasts an unfairly underseen performance from Russell Crowe, one of remarkable internalised intelligence that makes it a shame he took on so many post-Gladiator rugged, classic leading-man roles; one could imagine his subsequent career being very different and much more interesting.
$29.1m (US, 69th), $60.3m (WW, 58th)
And the rest…
Winner: Sam Mendes
Should have won: Spike Jonze
Admittedly, it’s much easier to asses this in retrospect, since Conrad Hall’s photography for American Beauty is frequently stunning and so leads one to assume there’s a director fully in charge and expertly martialling his array of troops. But look at what Mendes has done since (and I’m including the trailer for 1917) and he seems nothing so much as a theatre director going undercover as a lover of cinema. Which is what he is. Of the other contenders, Mann’s generally great The Insider has a couple of missteps that don’t suit the material. Hallström’s presence is almost as much of a joke as The Cider House Rules’ nomination for the top prize. And Shyamalan, well, I might pick him if not for Jonze. I’m not quite as effusive about Being John Malkovich as everyone else – I do think it’s an estimably original film – but Jonze is enormously talented, and his work on it highly impressive.
Winner: Kevin Spacey (American Beauty)
Should have won: Russell Crowe (The Insider)
Yeah, we can now say Spacey’s an undesirable, and any rewards recognition was a disgrace, but there’s a five-year spell between The Usual Suspects and this Best Actor statuette where he was snagging great roles, giving great performances and generally being the most riveting person on screen in any movie where he showed up. After that, he appeared to stop giving so much of a toss – so this post’s acceptance quote from him is quite ironic – but anyone suggesting he wasn’t all that as an actor is most likely in denial. That said, Crowe’s performance in The Insider is a career best, an immersive, compelling study that – if hearsay is to be believed – had Brando watching the movie on rotation. None of the others (Denzel Washington for The Hurricane, Sean Penn for Sweet and Lowdown, Richard Farnsworth for The Straight Story) are really within a sneeze of these two.
Winner: Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry)
Should have won: Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry)
I’m unconvinced there’s a standout in the year’s line up, so I’m happy to go with Swank. It’s a year of nominees for unremarkable films (Janet McTeer for Tumbleweeds, Julianne Moore for The End of the Affair, Meryl for Music of the Heart), or where a film is noteworthy (Annette Bening in American Beauty) the role isn’t as deserving as the performance.
Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Michael Caine (The Cider House Rules)
Should have won: Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile)
Is it a contradiction to recognise a fine performance that’s in the service of a negative trope? Maybe, but I’d argue Michael Clarke Duncan’s John Coffey is the most powerful and affecting of those nominated: Haley Joel Osment attracted a lot of the attention for his youth and intensity, but I think The Sixth Sense‘s Cole Sear is too rehearsed and technically precise to have deserved recognition; Tom Cruise’s egoist motivational speaker in Magnolia holds the screen, but it’s the kind of thing built precisely for Oscar vanity; Caine’s performance is quite weak by his standards; and The Talented Mr Ripley‘s Jude Law… well, he was just playing himself, wasn’t he?
Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Angelina Jolie (Girl, Interrupted)
Should have won: Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense)
It’s quite difficult to remember a time when Angelina Jolie brought something to roles, such that her win for Girl, Interrupted wasn’t just the Academy opting for the latest photogenic bright young thing (the manner in which the category occasionally appeared to be functioning). One couldn’t claim injustice, had anyone won that year, though – Catherine Keener for Being John Malkovich, Samantha Morton for Sweet and Lowdown, Chloe Sevigny for Boys Don’t Cry – and in retrospect, while I probably thought Jolie was a solid choice at the time, I think I’d plumb for Collette now.
Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
Winner: American Beauty (Alan Ball)
Should have won: Being John Malkovich (Charlie Kaufman)
American Beauty was, and remains, to some extent, a flashy bauble of a piece of writing, and in that respect, its recognition is entirely understandable, however crudely fashioned that bauble may be. Being John Malkovich marked out a true original, even if Kaufman’s subsequent work (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) would eclipse it. Topsy-Turvy is solid, Magnolia grossly overrated, The Sixth Sense too calculated.
Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published
Winner: The Cider House Rules (John Irving)
Should have won: Election (Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor)
The Green Mile might have benefitted from Darabont being slightly less reverential, The Talented Mr Ripley from being slightly less assuming of its own merit, The Insider from attempting to balance the most compelling elements against the less-so ones more astutely, and The Cider House Rules from not being so damn soporific. The sharpest script here is Election, probably more so than anything Payne has tackled since (Sideways possibly excepted).
Best Original Song
Winner: You’ll Be in My Heart (Tarzan)
Should have won: Blame Canada (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut)
It’s not big and it isn’t clever, but it is funny; Trey Parker and Marc Shaiman ought to have licked Phil Collins. Also in the running were compositions from Music of the Heart Diane Warren), Magnolia (Aimee Mann) and – ugh – Toy Story 2 (Randy Newman).
Best Original Score
Winner: The Red Violin (John Corigliano)
Should have won: American Beauty (Thomas Newman)
A year where little stands out, but while Newman’s strengths are often simultaneously weaknesses, his is the most memorable score out of the nominees. Also nominated were Angela’s Ashes (John Williams), The Cider House Rules (Rachel Portman) and The Talented Mr Ripley (Gabriel Yared).
Best Art Direction
Winner: Sleepy Hollow
Should have won: Sleepy Hollow
Burton’s best-looking film? The other contenders: Anna and the King, The Cider House Rules, The Talented Mr Ripley, Topsy-Turvy.
Winner: American Beauty
Should have won: American Beauty
I was tempted to go for Sleepy Hollow, but American Beauty’s look remains the one thing you can’t bash it for. The other contenders: The End of the Affair, The Insider, Snow Falling on Cedars.
Best Costume Design
Should have won: Sleepy Hollow
Sleepy Hollow’s duds are damn good. The other contenders: Anna and the King, The Talented Mr Ripley, Titus.
Should have won: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
You sometimes wonder if the Academy aren’t just shunning those whose recognition might cause embarrassment. Nah, of course not, they gave this award to Suicide Squad. The other contenders: Bicentennial Man, Life.
Best Visual Effects
Winner: The Matrix
Should have won: The Matrix
Nothing in the twenty years since has suggested this was the wrong decision. The other contenders: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Stuart Little.
My Top 5 Films of the Year
1999 is generally lauded as a banner year for great movies, but I’m less convinced of the peerless quality of many of those cited. There’s a good selection of quality ones – Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, Election – that fall short of being the miracles their staunchest advocates suggest. Others – The Straight Story, Toy Story 2, The Limey, Bowfinger, Run Lola Run, Boys Don’t Cry – are decent, but not altogether remarkable. And then there are a feted few – Magnolia, The Blair Witch Project, The Talented Mr Ripley, Dogma – that are entirely overrated. Five that I do think deserve the praise lavished on them follow, and I’d note a further few – Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, The Thomas Crown Affair, Galaxy Quest, Pitch Black – that vied for attention.
Perhaps not peak Mann – his previous film deserves that garland – but the best of his biopics (Ali, Public Enemies), and even not-quite-peak Mann is vastly superior to most directors’ most sterling efforts.
Eyes Wide Shut
Addendum 14/09/22: I’ve changed the fifth slot here, which was reserved for The Insider. Kubrick’s fascinating, flawed (garrotted by Spielberg after Stan was offed?) insight into arcane Elite activities is slow, ponderous and determinedly out-of-synch with 1999 in a way that recalls Full Metal Jacket’s Docklands-for-Nam rather than a master expressly achieving his intentions, but its portentous, hypnotic atmosphere, encroaching upon the hideous unknown that lurks just out of sight of the proles, is entirely persuasive and commanding. Much has been written on what else Eyes Wide Shut is about and what may have been excised, but you can find that elsewhere (some if it on this site). While this isn’t the late (latest) stage masterpiece some claim, it’s nevertheless a fascinating work.
The Iron Giant
Brad Bird adapts – very loosely – Ted Hughes, to surprisingly heartfelt and thematically resonant effect. Like the number one on this list, it didn’t do very well at first box office call, but its reputation has only grown since. Also: a pre-Groot example of effective use of chrome-dome Vin Diesel’s vocal chords.
Possibly Tim Burton’s best-directed movie, a go-for-broke Grand-Guignol, no-apologies shocker, which is also enormous fun thanks to a tremendously fey, not-very-heroic performance from hero Johnny Depp. This was, on the one hand, Burton clawing back box-office cred after Mars Attacks! floundered. On the other, it was the last gasp (at least for a while) of his idiosyncratic spirit put to best Burton-esque use.
The top two films here have become stylistically iconic, but it’s doubtful they’d have made the cultural impact they did without substance to back them up. The Matrix was the Star Wars of 1999, as opposed to the actual Star Wars of 1999. It captured the imagination, dazzled with special effects, the like of which hadn’t been seen before, and spawned a batch of forgettable imitators. It also led to two inferior sequels, but they really shouldn’t lessen the respect for this, one of a handful of movies of the era concerning a virtual, simulated existence, a concept that’s gained cachet thanks to mainstream science proposing the Holographic Universe theory. Like the more recent Mad Max: Fury Road, it nabbed a load of technical Oscars, and I suspect that, in the age of ten nominees, a place on the Best Picture list would have been guaranteed.
There’s a long, illustrious tradition of individuals, or groups of individuals, getting the wrong end of the stick concerning art, be it movies or music. Consequently, anyone condemning Fight Club because a certain brand of toxic masculinity venerates it is, shall we say, as misguided as they are. Fincher’s movies taken as a whole are nothing if not on the dark side, even the ones that don’t feature serial killers (even “heart-warming” The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is decidedly twisted). And more often not, given the Kubrick-esque attention to detail he exerts, it pays to revisit them. Fight Club is his most playful, fun, layered and darkest outing, though. Indeed, that the picture is wilfully misinterpreted might be argued to give it more, not less cachet. Not that you want to celebrate people being idiots. Would this have picked up a Best Picture nomination under the current system? If A Clockwork Orange could, anything’s possible, but I suspect it might have been a little too much.