Thursday, March 26, 2015

Best Picture of 1996

In sharp contrast to the last year of review, this one has gone from first review to verdict in under two weeks. I haven't managed that in a very long time. I can't guarantee this will last, but let's continue to ride the wave, shall we? Here now are my thoughts on these five fine films.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1996 are:
  • The English Patient
  • Fargo
  • Jerry Maguire
  • Secrets and Lies
  • Shine
Interestingly, four of these pictures are independent movies, produced outside of the studio system. That correlates well with the fact that many of them were helmed by writer/directors. I don't have official statistics at hand, but I suspect it's relatively unusual for 80% of the nominees to fit that category. Additionally, all five pictures feature some brilliant ensemble acting, so all in all, it's a tough bunch to separate.

I genuinely liked each of these films so there's no sense in naming a least favourite. But in order to make my way to a most favourite, I suppose I have to eliminate something first. That honour goes to Shine, but as I said, it's not because I didn't like it. I just didn't like it as much as I liked the others. I saw both The English Patient and Secrets and Lies when they were first released, and I don't think early-20s me appreciated them then as much as pushing-40 me did the second time around. Nonetheless, they too will be set aside for the purposes of this verdict.

Now that I've unpatriotically excluded the Australian and British films, I'm left with two American films, either of which could easily stand as my favourite. As I entered into this year of review, I fully expected that Jerry Maguire would win out, based on my prior fondness for the polished, inspirational and fun movie. And while that fondness has not diminished, the quirkiness of Fargo just tickled my fancy a tad more this time around, along with its fantastic cast and captivating story. Hence, Fargo officially becomes my favourite Best Picture nominee from 1996.
Best Picture of 1996
Academy's choice:

The English Patient

Matt's choice:


Your choice:

Chime in with your favourite in the poll above or the comments below. Next up, we again move to a year that has been chosen exclusively due to the convenience of a local screening. The TCM Classic Film Festival has just begun here in Los Angeles and there are numerous Best Picture nominees on offer. The current plan is to attend a screening of The Apartment this weekend at the world-famous Grauman's Chinese Theatre, with Shirley MacLaine in attendance, so 1960 will be our next year of review.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1960 are:
  • The Alamo
  • The Apartment
  • Elmer Gantry
  • Sons and Lovers
  • The Sundowners
Of course, this is all dependent on me getting in to the screening. Since I don't want to fork out the hundreds and hundreds of dollars for a festival pass, I'll be taking a chance on buying an individual ticket on the day of the screening. So don't be surprised if the next year of review ends up being something else entirely...

Monday, March 23, 2015

1996 - Secrets and Lies

After an early morning trip to the airport, Kat and Charlie are back home, with my in-laws in tow. As everyone attempts to recover from their jet lag - and at 13 months, Charlie doesn't know if it's day or night, the poor little guy - I managed to write up my thoughts on the last film of this year of review.

Our final contender for the 1996 Best Picture prize is...

Secrets and Lies
Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh
Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn, Phyllis Logan, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Claire Rushbrook
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

After her adopted mother passes away, London optometrist Hortense Cumberbatch (Jean-Baptiste) - probably not related to Benedict - decides to track down her birth mother. As a black woman, she is understandably surprised to discover that her mother is Cynthia Purley (Blethyn), a white woman who, despite a good heart, has the smarts and social graces of a small puppy. Cynthia and Hortense slowly develop a camaraderie but Cynthia baulks at introducing Hortense to her other daughter, Roxanne (Rushbrook), an ungrateful council worker. Eventually, however, Cynthia invites Hortense to a family gathering, hosted by her somewhat estranged brother, portrait photographer Maurice (Spall), and his wife Monica (Logan). It is at this soiree that the dysfunctional family's secrets and lies are finally exposed.

At first, Secrets and Lies comes across a little like a soap opera, and given the title, that's perhaps appropriate. The secrets and lies in this family are indeed of soap opera quality: life-changing and nothing less. But once you accept each character's predicament, the shades of soap opera fade away and you're left with quite an emotional ride. Writer/director Mike Leigh allows his audience to really absorb these people's lives by keeping an easy pace and often utilising lengthy and static shots in which the action (or mere dialogue, as the case may be) plays out in all its voyeuristic glory. The outdoor barbecue scene is particularly fascinating. There's tension, sure, which has been set up by the prior circumstances, but for the most part, the scene is just a seeming melange of very real and mundane conversations. It's captivating fly-on-the-wall stuff.

Due to the single-shot style, the entire picture would fall apart if the actors weren't engaging, but thankfully, the ensemble here is genuinely superb, working very well off each other. At the centre is a beautifully subdued performance by Timothy Spall (pictured), who many will recognise as Peter Pettigrew, but I first noticed him in a sarcastically memorable guest role in BBC's sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf, clearly showing his comedic chops are on par with his dramatic ability. As a woman trying to get some answers, Marianne Jean-Baptiste is intelligent and vulnerable, earning herself a Best Supporting Actress nod in the process. And yes, that's Downton Abbey's Mrs. Hughes, Phyllis Logan, turning in a strong performance as Spall's uptight wife. Stealing the show, though, is Brenda Blethyn with a powerhouse portrayal that could so easily have fallen into caricature. Cynthia is larger than life, for sure, but Blethyn roots her in reality, wearing her emotions on her sleeve. Secrets and Lies also received nominations for Mike Leigh's direction and screenplay, but sadly, the film walked away without any Oscars at all.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

1996 - The English Patient

After three weeks away in Australia, my darling wife and child return to LA on Monday. While that will do wonders for my emotional well-being, I suspect it will also mean an end to this notable streak in blog posts. I'll cram one more movie in before they return, but I may not get a chance to write about it immediately. We shall see...

The Academy's choice is up next in our look at the Best Picture nominees of 1996...

The English Patient
Anthony Minghella
Anthony Minghella
(based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje)
Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Kristin Scott Thomas, Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth, Julian Wadham, Jürgen Prochnow, Kevin Whately
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
9 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Binoche)

In the war-torn Italian countryside near the end of World War II, nurse Hana (Binoche) tends to a severe burn victim (Fiennes) with an English accent and a horrible case of amnesia. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that our English patient is actually László de Almásy, a Hungarian cartographer who was helping to map the Sahara for the Royal Geographical Society in the months leading up to the war. The expedition is joined by English couple Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton (Firth and Scott Thomas), but during one of Geoffrey's many absences, Almásy and Katharine begin an affair, which to say the least, causes emotions to run high for everyone involved.

It's not difficult to understand why the Academy bestowed its top honour on The English Patient. It's exactly the sort of epic they love: romance, danger, sweeping landscapes. With a tight script, spectacular visuals and expressive performances, it truly is an example of filmmaking at its finest. That said, it may not be to everyone's taste. While it would be hard to ignore the extraordinary artistry that writer/director Anthony Minghella has crafted, I could certainly understand if it didn't strike a chord with all who see it. Maybe I'm even talking about myself here. I'd be hard pressed to pinpoint why exactly, but I can't shake the feeling that I didn't love this film as much as I should have, considering what a brilliant accomplishment it is. Perhaps it's just a matter of taste, but even that seems unfair somehow because I really don't have anything bad to say about the film. It's almost as if I'm trying to convince myself that I didn't like it, when the truth of it is that I actually found it incredibly entertaining on almost every level. Human brains are fickle indeed.

As potential validation of its brilliance, it swept the awards on Oscar night, winning nine in total. Not too surprising since its costume and set design featured both period and foreign elements, two predictors of Oscar success. And where Fargo's cinematography was assisted by blankets of white snow, The English Patient exploits its blankets of yellow sand to exquisite advantage.

The cast, too, are exceptional, many of them using this film as a stepping stone to even greater things. Ralph Fiennes is solid as the charming yet stubborn adventurer who, when suffering from third-degree burns, looks uncannily like another heavily made-up Fiennes character. I also immensely enjoyed Kristin Scott Thomas, who is very fluid and available as the emotionally torn lover. Earning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Juliette Binoche has the purest heart in the film, although there was perhaps one too many sudden moments of bursting into tears. The always-watchable Colin Firth is as affable as ever (until his final moments, of course). And that's a pre-Lost Naveen Andrews (pictured) as the shirtless, luscious-haired bomb defuser.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

1996 - Fargo

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a pub trivia night here in Los Angeles. Pub trivia is a staple of weeknight life in Australia and, in fact, I was even a pub trivia host for quite some time back home, but a mixture of a scarcity of time and a scarcity of venues hosting such events has meant I haven't been to one in rather a long time. I'd like to think my movie knowledge helped our team to second place, although I let my teammates down when I represented them in the speed round and failed under pressure to name a movie beginning with the letter N. The shame.

Now, let's take a look at another Best Picture contender from 1996...

Joel Coen
Ethan & Joel Coen
Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare, John Carroll Lynch
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
2 wins, including Best Actress (McDormand) and Best Original Screenplay

Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (Macy) hatches a plan to end his financial woes by having his wife kidnapped and pocketing the ransom money that his father-in-law, Wade (Presnell), will be forced to fork out. Jerry hires unlikely criminal duo Carl and Gaear (Buscemi and Stormare) to carry out the deed but things go awry when Gaear goes rogue and shoots a state trooper and two passersby on a barren country road outside of Brainerd, Minnesota. While Jerry and the kidnappers bicker over how to sort out the mess, Brainerd's police chief, Marge Gunderson (McDormand), takes charge of the investigation into the multiple homicides and her congenial persistence soon gives Jerry cause for major concern.

Fargo opens with a caption informing us that, while the names have been changed, everything that is about to occur actually happened. I don't know whether it was because of the film's current well-known status in pop culture or because of the Coen brothers' reputation for offbeat stories or maybe it was just because I'd seen it before, but I didn't trust that caption for a second. A true story? Really? Turns out my disbelief is only partially justified. The Coens did indeed grab their inspiration from a real-life wood chipper incident and used an amalgam of other criminal events, but the specifics of the plot and the idiosyncrasies of character are entirely fictional.

Reportedly, they inserted the opening caption in order to manipulate the audience into accepting the somewhat far-fetched elements of the story. For me, however, I'll willingly accept any plot detail, whether it's appropriated from reality or not, as long as it's within the film's verisimilitude. And Fargo's verisimilitude is never broken. Yes, these events are implausible and occasionally coincidental, but all are set up convincingly and are always engaging. In fact, the plot is excitingly intricate with many captivating and unpredictable twists and turns that I simply didn't even care about the authenticity of it all. It's just brilliant story-telling, plain and simple, irrespective of whether it really happened or not.

The film's style is unmistakably Coen brothers, a curious blend of whimsy and intrigue, culminating in that tense climactic (and now iconic) wood chipper scene. And in keeping with that kooky style, Fargo features a barrage of mildly vexing regional accents, most of them coupled with Minnesota nice, a sort of perpetual politeness that lends a pleasing air of incongruity to an otherwise seedy crime story. The experience is enhanced further by some decidedly beautiful cinematography by frequent Coen-collaborator Roger Deakins, who makes the snowy Minnesotan landscapes seem like another character all its own. The Academy shortlisted him for his work on this film, but sadly he has never won a golden statue, despite a total of 10 nominations over the years, five of them for Coen brothers films.

A magnificent cast is yet another element contributing to Fargo's quirky atmosphere. Steve Buscemi is perfectly cast as Carl, the inept yet indignant criminal who is regularly described as generally odd-looking.
Earning an Oscar for Best Actress, Frances McDormand delivers an appealing portrayal of a small-town police chief. Marge may seem simple and straightforward on the surface, but McDormand augments that unassuming nature with a deep sense of urgency and determination when required. My favourite, though, is William H. Macy (pictured) as the desperate and misguided car salesman turned wannabe mastermind criminal. Macy inhabits Jerry's nervous disposition to naturalistic perfection. His sketchy smiles attempt to cover up his internal struggle, but the cracks are showing and it is delightful to watch.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

1996 - Shine

It's been a few months now since I moved to Los Angeles and I've already landed my first TV role, so I'm happy to conclude it was a wise move. About a month ago, I shot a couple of scenes for Marc Maron's self-titled sitcom on IFC. Season three begins in May, so I don't know exactly yet when my episode will air, but watch this space.

Next up in 1996's battle for Best Picture...

Scott Hicks
Jan Sardi
Geoffrey Rush, Noah Taylor, Armin Mueller-Stahl, John Gielgud, Lynn Redgrave
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Actor (Rush)

The true story of a unique man, Shine explores the life of pianist David Helfgott, from young boy to adolescent (Taylor) to maladjusted adult (Rush). The child of immigrant parents, Helfgott was taught piano at a young age by his father, Peter (Mueller-Stahl), who also imparted an intense passion for winning at all costs. As a teenager, David wins a prestigious music competition and is invited to study in America, but his father cruelly denies him this opportunity. Later, he is offered a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, but this time, Helfgott Senior's protestations are ignored and David pursues his musical dreams. The pressure turns out to be too much, however, when after successfully performing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, a piece renowned for its high degree of difficulty, David suffers a mental breakdown and winds up under psychiatric care. Years later, he is coaxed into returning to play in public, his impetus still to make his father proud.

Shine is a delicate portrait of an eccentric and troubled man. At first, though, it's hard not to wonder how strangers find him so endearing. He's obviously unpredictable and more than a little bit grabby. While we assume he's harmless as we watch in the context of a motion picture, I imagine if I were to actually come across someone so invasive of my personal space, my first reaction would probably not be to welcome him with open arms. Nonetheless, the inappropriate touching is easily brushed aside, allowing us to be enchanted by his enthusiasm for life.

A brilliant collaboration between director Scott Hicks and cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson creates some superb imagery that may seem gratuitously artistic, but on deeper examination, serves to represent a different perspective of the world. Aren't cinematic metaphors wonderful? The script uses less of a metaphoric style and, although it is interesting and well-structured, suffers a little from occasional blatant exposition. Some of the characters are also unfortunately written in a somewhat one-dimensional way. David's father is perhaps the biggest stereotype. He's a man who loves his son so much that he refuses to give him any independence, evidenced by indignant cries of "I know what's best!"

In performance, though, Peter Helfgott is spectacularly watchable, thanks to a very nuanced and passionate performance by Armin Mueller-Stahl, Oscar nominated for the role. Lynn Redgrave is also worthy of mention, delivering a believable portrayal of a woman who, on the page, seems almost unbelievable. I mean, how does a sane woman fall in love with a man who seems incapable of true emotional connection? But Redgrave's tenderness makes it work. Noah Taylor as the adolescent David is called upon to show his range, beginning as merely quirky and innocent, but eventually becoming manic and frenzied, before handing the baton to Geoffrey Rush (pictured). And Rush is nothing short of phenomenal, a performance worthy of the Best Actor Oscar that he won. It may seem like yet another case of a technical performance of a disabled person winning the Oscar, but despite the affectations, Rush's portrayal is natural and accessible, which is no mean feat, considering the character he's playing is anything but. On top of that, Rush performed all the piano-playing himself and he's spectacular, at least to my mildly musical ears. His rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Flight of the Bumblebee is positively chilling.