Every once in a while my brain returns to 1998, the first full year I worked as a film critic. What happens is that something will remind me of a movie that has aged particularly well, something like The Big Lebowski or A Simple Plan, and I'll notice that there were quite a lot of good movies that year, and that many of them didn't get much love at the time. But then I'll start thinking about all those movies that did get lots of love -- especially Oscar love -- and how they haven't aged well at all. By looking at the Oscars and the box office list, you'd think it was a terrible movie year, but in reality it was a great movie year. How does this happen?
One of the things I ask myself is: why wasn't Jeff Bridges nominated for Best Actor for The Big Lebowski? And come to that, why wasn't Jim Carrey nominated for the otherwise highly acclaimed and beloved The Truman Show? Or Warren Beatty for Bulworth? How about George Clooney for Out of Sight, Robert Downey Jr. for Two Girls and a Guy, or Johnny Depp for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Or, heck, why not the 14 year-old Eamonn Owens for his astonishing performance in The Butcher Boy? The answer is, of course, because the Academy had to make room for message movies, war movies and Holocaust movies.
The actual nominees were Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan), Edward Norton (American History X), Nick Nolte (Affliction), and -- of all people -- Roberto Benigni won for Life Is Beautiful. Mathematically, we have to ask, would Benigni have won -- or even been considered -- for any of his other films, Johnny Stecchino, The Monster or Son of the Pink Panther? Not in a million years. So basically he didn't win for giving a great performance, but rather he won for simply being an actor in a movie about the Holocaust. The one nominee that definitely holds up is Ian McKellen for his delightful, powerful performance as the tormented old film director James Whale in Gods and Monsters.
Gwyneth Paltrow won Best Actress for Shakespeare in Love, but I can't help but compare that film to another film she made the same year, Great Expectations, also with a strong literary pedigree. She seems to me perfectly capable in both films. Yet, Shakespeare in Love is poorly directed but has a very strong screenplay, while Great Expectations is superbly directed (by Alfonso Cuaron) and has a so-so screenplay. Personally, I like Great Expectations better, but Shakespeare in Love got all the love. Why? It came out in December and it was the flavor of the moment for a couple of months. Non-nominees included Cameron Diaz, who pretty much single-handedly made There's Something About Mary work, and Jane Horrocks for Little Voice, which, if there was one tour-de-force in 1998, it came from her. (The actual nominees also included Meryl Streep, Emily Watson, Cate Blanchett and Fernanda Montenegro.)
In Best Supporting Actor, one name today seems most obvious: Bill Murray for Rushmore, but he was not nominated. I would love to have seen John Malkovich get a nomination for his outrageous, scenery-chewing poker shark in Rounders. Only one of the actual nominees, Billy Bob Thornton in A Simple Plan, seems to have been a good and lasting choice. Though I can't fault the Academy for giving an Oscar to James Coburn for Affliction, which was essentially a lifetime achievement award for great performances in films like Ride Lonesome, The Magnificent Seven, Charade, The Great Escape and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. (The other nominees were Robert Duvall, Geoffrey Rush and Ed Harris.)
Then we have Best Picture, and only one of the five nominees (Elizabeth, Life Is Beautiful, Shakespeare in Love, Saving Private Ryan) stands up as any kind of masterpiece, Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line; it received 7 nominations and did not win anything. We can credit Saving Private Ryan for a couple of truly amazing sequences, but I think many people agree that not much of the rest of the film holds up to scrutiny. Here are some of the movies that did not receive a single nomination in any category, and frankly, any of them would have been a good Best Picture nominee: The Butcher Boy, Happiness, Out of Sight, Babe: Pig in the City, There's Something About Mary, The Big Lebowski, Rushmore, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Dark City, Velvet Goldmine, Pi, The General and Buffalo '66.
So what lesson is there to be learned in terms of 2009? Just one, I think: don't believe the hype.