Greeting and salutations movie lovers! This article represents the first of an ongoing column looking back at past years in film. While the focus, of course, will be on Oscar-nominated films, we will also take a glance back at further interesting endeavors from Hollywood and beyond. These will include forgotten gems, overrated riffraff, and flat-out embarrassments to the flat screen. As usual, this column will probably generate a few squabbles here and there, but your comments, blessings and general disaccord are always welcomed and encouraged. The years will be tossed around at random, and so the first week will tee off with one of the most controversial Oscar races of all time, 1998. Thatâ€™s right, Words vs. War, The Bard vs. The Battle, and Disney vs. Dreamworks.
1998 was a year for some truly rotten movies. Topping the dump are such atrocious releases as: “Blues Brothers 2000,” “Playing by Heart,” “Hi-Life,” “Holy Man,” “Jack Frost,” “54,” “Krippendorfâ€™s Tribe,” “Lost in Space,” “Snake Eyes,” “Soldier,” “BASEketball,” and the biggest flop of them all, “Godzilla.” There was your usual teen drudge, “Canâ€™t Hardly Wait,” “Urban Legend” and “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.” Eddie Murphy did his thing in “Doctor Dolittle,” and Harrison Ford, fresh off of his box-office smash “Air Force One” (1997), began his decent into choosing bad scripts with “Six Days, Seven Nights.”
Rising talents showcased their abilities in “Dark City” (Jennifer Connelly), “Clay Pigeons” (Joaquin Phoenix, Vince Vaughn), and “The Opposite of Sex” (Christina Ricci). “Rounders” predicted the massive pop-culture poker phenomenon, and “The Siege” siphoned a pre-911 terrorism foreboding. Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore mugged for the camera in their popular audience pleasers “The Waterboy,” “The Wedding Singer,” and “Ever After.” Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan updated their “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993) cute-meet with “Youâ€™ve Got Mail,” and the Star Trek crew beamed up for their 9th motion picture, “Insurrection.” Chinese superstars Chow-Yun Fat and Jackie Chan introduced their acting and martial arts skills (respectively, of course) to Americans, in “The Replacement Killers” and “Rush Hour.” Sex continued to be a major screen icon with John Watersâ€™ graphic shots of nudity and pubic hair in “Pecker,” and Kevin Bacon sandwiched rather nicely between “Wild Things” sex-pots Denise Richards and Neve Campbell.
There were also some underrated flicks amongst the legion of clunkers. The Coen brothersâ€™ all-time tribute to slackers, “The Big Lebowski,” has reached a certain cult status (powdered white russian, anyone?) and has inched its way into the IMDBâ€™s top 200. Tony Scottâ€™s “Enemy of the State” foreshadowed the paranoia of post-911 technology going too far. Alas, the brightest forgotten gem from 1998 was a little bittersweet movie entitled “Simon Birch.” From a book written by Oscar winner John Irving (The Cider House Rules), the movie and characters have wisdom well beyond their years, as the highly watchable Ian Michael Smith challenges the â€œadultâ€ world of sex and religion. Roger Ebert called the movie a â€œfilm so direct and engaging that cynicism wilts in its sunny spirit,â€ while Leonard Maltin labeled it a â€œwell-made tearjerker.â€ The sensational supporting cast includes David Strathairn, Ashley Judd, Oliver Platt, and a serious Jim Carrey.
Speaking of a serious Jim Carrey, there were also several Oscar-nominated films worth mentioning from 1998, namely “The Truman Show.” Nominated for 6 Golden Globes including Best Picture, “The Truman Show” has become known as one of the most snubbed movies of all time. Peter Weir, a six-time Oscar nominee (winning none of them — future Thalberg/Lifetime Achievement award?), was nominated for Best Director, but Jim Carrey, who won the Golden Globe for Best Actor, was mysteriously MIA when it came to the Academy Awards. In fact, just like his oft-slighted director, he has been nominated a whopping six times for Golden Globes, yet nil for the Oscars — most notably “Man in the Moon” (1999) and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). Will the arcane Academy ever recognize Carreyâ€™s extraordinary acting ability, or will they continue to fancy him as pure, rubbery shtick?
Other Oscar-nominated films that are worth another viewing include Disneyâ€™s trio of underrated family pictures: “Mulan,” “Mighty Joe Young,” and “A Bugâ€™s Life.” Speaking of the latter, 1998 was definitely the year of the studio copycat duels, namely Disney vs. Dreamworks. The superior “A Bugâ€™s Life” vs. the clever “Antz,” as well as the stupendously awful “Armageddon” (four Oscar noms!) vs. the not much better “Deep Impact” (Iâ€™ll believe Morgan Freeman as the first African-American president over Tea Leoni, well…acting, any day). Alas, both studios certainly filled theaters as well as their own pockets. “Babeâ€™s” (1995) triumphant return from Best Picture Land didnâ€™t have the same (insert Miss Piggy-type joke here) with “Pig in the City,” while audiences either loved or hated the beautiful and imaginative “What Dreams May Come.” Nothing, however, was more so than (excuse the obvious tie-in) “Life Is Beautiful,” Roberto Benigniâ€™s teary, childlike fable about the Holocaust. Nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture, who can forget Benigniâ€™s tour-de-force acceptance (we wonâ€™t call it a speech)…uh…spectacular? Should I dare ask what he has done since? To add to the love it/hate it motif, Terrence Malickâ€™s “The Thin Red Line” garnered seven Oscar noms including Best Picture, and offered a poetic, literary view into the horrific W.W.II consciousness (and war in general). Which brings us to the main event: “Saving Private Ryan” (IMDB rating 8.4) vs. “Shakespeare in Love” (IMDB rating 7.4).
“Ryan”, with eleven nominations, was one of those shoo-in event movies that no one questioned about winning the Best Picture honor. In fact, it was the most obvious front-runner since — oh…since that boat movie the previous year. People came out of the theaters feeling like they truly went through Hell and back again. In fact, most war veterans wept from the grueling realism of the battle sequences, including my hardened 80 year old uncle who earned a purple heart in Iwo Jima. Spielbergâ€™s vision was truly unforgettable, and it deservedly earned him his second Best Director Oscar. And the winner for Best Picture is (Spielberg and company adjust their ties)…”Shakespeare in Love?!” Granted, the art direction, screenplay and costume Oscars were well deserved, but a better motion picture experience than “Ryan?’ On retrospect, “Shakespeare” was certainly a well-made, pleasing period piece that most Academy voters would lick there chops over, but attendees, forecasters, and viewers were shocked and appalled that something so fluffy and ultimately forgettable could beat the greatest war film of all time.
But then again, “Saving Private Ryan” didnâ€™t have Ben Affleck.