Friday, October 28, 2011

Best Picture of 1998

I remember the 1998 Best Picture race well. Saving Private Ryan was the hot favourite to win for most of the season, right up until just before the ceremony. I recall reading the predictions of a possible upset by Shakespeare In Love but couldn't believe it would happen. The Spielberg film was my pick, both for my own personal favourite and for the Academy's favourite, and it just made no sense that a light-hearted period rom-com would best it. Having watched all five nominees again over recent weeks, let's see if my feelings have changed.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1998 are:
  • Elizabeth
  • Life Is Beautiful
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Shakespeare In Love
  • The Thin Red Line
Two of these contenders take place during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, but that is about all they have in common. The other three take place during World War II, two of which are ripe for comparison. Both The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan deal with the personal journeys of soldiers in battle, and somehow these two films created a pseudo-rivalry for film buffs. You're either a Thin Red Line kind of movie lover, or you're a Saving Private Ryan kind of movie lover. Whatever the implications, I think I can attest to the fact that I am not the former. I struggled with The Thin Red Line. It contained some gripping sequences but its rambling nature left me wanting. Elizabeth is next to be removed from the running. While still a fascinating film with terrific production values, there is something about it that doesn't quite hit the spot. Not a particularly intelligible reason, I know, but nonetheless, we are left with three.

Due to my support of Saving Private Ryan, I think I may have irrationally held a grudge against Shakespeare In Love for many years. Watching it again, I am happy to be reminded of what a charmingly enjoyable film it is. While I still wouldn't select it as my favourite, I am content with the Academy's decision. The year's Best Foreign Language Film winner, Life Is Beautiful, is next to go, despite being a superbly unique film that is both hilarious and heartbreaking.

I must point out how close both Life Is Beautiful and Shakespeare In Love came to taking my top prize, much closer than I remembered. Ultimately, however, I am sticking with my pick from 13 years ago and calling Saving Private Ryan my favourite from 1998. Although heavy with sentimentality, the D-Day sequence alone is almost enough for me to declare it the winner.

Best Picture of 1998
Academy's choice:

Shakespeare In Love

Matt's choice:

Saving Private Ryan

Your choice:

What kind of movie lover are you? Vote for your favourite 1998 Best Picture nominee above. I'm very interested in the results of this one. Next, we head back to the early days of the Oscars.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1929/30 are:
  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • The Big House
  • Disraeli
  • The Divorcee
  • The Love Parade
Some of these titles are a little harder to find than others. They're all available from Amazon in some form or another (just click on the links below), but undoubtedly, there are other places to go if you don't want to buy a box set just for one movie.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

1998 - Saving Private Ryan

As a waiter for a catering company, I am not usually called upon to do anything too tricky. I don't have to balance several plates along my forearm and I don't have to memorise a table full of orders. On the whole, the service is relatively simple. Occasionally, however, a client will request French service for their event, which requires a little more effort. Last night, I worked on one such event.

French service is inefficient, inconvenient and wholly unnecessary. Instead of sensibly serving plates with the food already placed on them by a professional chef, French service begins by serving empty plates to the guests. Then, the waiter carries a bulky tray of food and, while awkwardly squeezing between the seated guests, serves them individually at the table. In order to achieve this, it is necessary for the waiter to twist the fingers of one hand around two oversized serving utensils in a sort of demented chopstick fashion and scoop the food directly onto the guest's plate. It's awkward and uncomfortable for both server and guest. Just ask the lady into whose lap I placed a lamb chop.

The final nominee to review from 1998's Best Picture list is...

Saving Private Ryan
Steven Spielberg
Robert Rodat
Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
5 wins, including Best Director

When three brothers in the same family are killed in action during World War II, the US Army decides to give a reprieve to the fourth brother in the family, Private James Ryan (Damon). But first they have to find him. Heading the mission to locate Ryan is Captain Miller (Hanks), fresh from helping to secure Omaha Beach on D-Day. To achieve his mission, he brings along a diverse mix of soldiers, including his second in command (Sizemore), three riflemen (Burns, Goldberg, Diesel), a sniper (Pepper), a medic (Ribisi) and a translator (Davies). As they close in on Ryan's location, they deal with other deadly skirmishes, causing them to question the rationale in risking all eight of their lives in order to save one.

After a brief prologue, Saving Private Ryan begins with some of the most riveting cinema available to experience. The D-Day scene plants the audience right in the thick of the action, and subjects it to a barrage of constant intensity that does not let up for at least twenty minutes. A genuine tour-de-force of filmmaking, all the elements are brought together to create a phenomenally gripping sequence. Historically replicated art direction, unrelenting cinematography, emphatic sound design, energetic editing and harrowing special effects. The result is simply mind-blowing.

Undeniably, the picture wears its emotions on its sleeve. Right from the start, the prologue sets a particular tone, clearly intended to elicit action from our tear ducts. Perhaps not unfairly, the film has been criticised for its sentimentality - and it is, indeed, dripping with Hollywood sentiment - but those familiar with this blog will know that sentimentality goes down well with me. Besides, it is difficult to deny Spielberg's mastery, specifically his understanding of how to present a scene. And when compared to that other World War II film in competition for Best Picture in the same year - and such comparisons are rife - there is clearly a stark difference. Whereas The Thin Red Line was a rambling tale punctuated with poetry, Saving Private Ryan has a very clear story that the audience can get behind.

Tom Hanks offers a fine performance in a role which saw him nominated for Best Actor, the film's only acting citation. The motley band of soldiers are a great mix of young talented actors, a lot of whom were relative unknowns at the time - Burns, Pepper, Goldberg, Diesel, Ribisi, Davies, Damon. The underrated Tom Sizemore is terrific in a role that could be described as the sidekick. And Paul Giamatti is a treat, showing up in a small role.

Monday, October 17, 2011

1998 - Shakespeare In Love

All too often, if given the choice, I would rather stay home and relax than go out and do something. Lazy? Probably. Hence, I'm always surprised at how much I actually enjoy going out and doing something. And living in New York City offers me many somethings to go out and do, and the more unique those somethings, the more I seem to enjoy them. On Friday afternoon, Kat and I took a trip to Lincoln Center to see the IBM Think Exhibit, an interactive multimedia presentation celebrating the way in which modern technology enriches our lives. Utterly fascinating. Later, we travelled downtown to catch a friend perform the title role in one of Shakespeare's most violent tragedies, Titus Andronicus. The following evening was spent attending another friend's performance of the wonderful O Sole Trio, a musical group offering a cabaret of opera, jazz and musical theatre with an Italian twist. Finally, on Sunday morning, we met some friends for brunch at the charming Silent Era-themed Astor Room, adjacent to the historic Kaufman-Astoria Studios. In fact, the restaurant stands on the site of the studio's former commissary. One can only imagine which stars passed through those walls.

Next to review of the 1998 nominees for Best Picture is the eventual winner...

Shakespeare In Love
John Madden
Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench
Academy Awards:
13 nominations
7 wins, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Paltrow) and Best Supporting Actress (Dench)

As the title would suggest, Shakespeare In Love centres on the romantic exploits of the world's most famous playwright, William Shakespeare (Fiennes), and you know it's a comedy because our titular hero is referred to throughout as Will. As the story begins, he is suffering from a bad case of writer's block, struggling to develop his latest comedy, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter. Philip Henslowe (Rush), the theatre owner who has commissioned Will's latest play, has some problems of his own, mostly financial, so he is in dire need of a big hit.

Meanwhile, the beautiful Viola de Lesseps (Paltrow) is simply itching to be an actress, thwarted by the seemingly insurmountable fact that only men are allowed on stage. Disguising herself as Thomas Kent, she auditions for and wins the role of Romeo, and when Will discovers this deceit, the two begin a forbidden love affair. Will is married, albeit estranged from his absent wife, and Viola has been promised to the stuffy Lord Wessex (Firth). Nonetheless, with his new muse, Will's creative spark returns to him and, with a much-needed title change, Romeo and Juliet begins to take shape.

Shakespeare In Love is undeniably fun. A light-hearted and romantic romp through the Elizabethan stage, it is filled with theatre humour and Shakespearean in-jokes, which, perhaps because I am an actor myself, I especially appreciated. (A particularly amusing moment occurs during a rehearsal, when the actor playing Tybalt swaggers in speaking his line with exaggerated vigour. Ned Alleyn as Mercutio breaks character, scoffs at his scene partner and says, "Are you going to do it like that?") While there are obviously many liberties taken with the story of Shakespeare's life, one can still glean a few nuggets of truth among the dramatic license. In fact, the entire tale is in effect a "what-if" story.

As expected with such period pieces, the design is sumptuous. It is interesting, however, to contrast this design to that of the other Elizabethan film in contention for Best Picture, Elizabeth, whose design is equally extravagant, yet with a dark focus that suits that film's mood. In Shakespeare In Love, the sets and costumes are bright and playful, adding an appropriate cheerfulness to the film.

Joseph Fiennes (pictured) and Gwyneth Paltrow are pleasant leads, lending the story an affable charm. Paltrow won the Best Actress Oscar which, in many people's opinion, including mine, should probably have gone to Cate Blanchett for her magnificent turn in Elizabeth. Still, Paltrow's performance here is hard to fault. She is warm and natural and altogether appropriate for the genre. With one of the shortest performances to be awarded an Oscar, Judi Dench was named Best Supporting Actress for her gleefully icy portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I. The only other acting nominee was Geoffrey Rush, delivering my favourite performance of the film as the sublimely goofy Philip Henslowe. The rest of the cast is filled with delightfully whimsical performers delivering delightfully whimsical performances - Colin Firth, Simon Callow, Tom Wilkinson, Rupert Everett, Imelda Staunton, Martin Clunes, Mark Williams. Even Ben Affleck successfully joins in the fun.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

1998 - Life Is Beautiful

Another name-dropping story: I once again had the simultaneously exciting and humbling experience of rubbing shoulders with celebrities while serving them dinner. At a charity event last night, I presented plates to both Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, who very politely offered a simple, "Thank you." See, kids? Fame doesn't mean you have to dispense with manners.

This past weekend, Kat and I sat down to watch another Best Picture contender from 1998...

Life Is Beautiful
Roberto Benigni
Roberto Benigni
Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini, Giustino Durano, Sergio Bustric, Madre di Dora, Horst Buchholz
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
3 wins, including Best Actor (Benigni) and Best Foreign Language Film

Fun-loving Italian Guido Orefice (Benigni) and his good buddy Ferruccio (Bustric) arrive in Arezzo to try their luck in a big city ... well, biggish city. Almost immediately, Guido has a chance meeting with the beautiful schoolteacher Dora (Braschi), bumping into her (literally) a few more times before falling head over heels (literally) for her. Unperturbed by her engagement to a jerk, he rides in on a painted horse and sweeps her off her feet (literally).

Years later, the two are married with an adorable young son named Joshua (Cantarini). But their happy life is soon turned upside down by the horrific realities of World War II. Because they are Jewish, Guido, Joshua and Guido's uncle Eliseo (Durano) are taken away to a concentration camp. Dora, although not Jewish, demands to be sent with them so that she can be with her family. While at the camp, Guido insists to Joshua that the entire experience is one large game with a tank as the first prize. Through imaginative, and often brave, acts of quick-thinking, Guido attempts to shield his son from the tragic truth of their situation.

In a way, Life is Beautiful is two films in one - a slapstick romantic comedy with a drama as its companion piece. Both are equally captivating and they are perfectly matched, seamlessly switching from one to the other. The first half is unabashedly silly and romantically sweet. Roberto Benigni's old-fashioned style of slapstick is starkly Chaplinesque, as if the Holocaust-themed comedy needed another reason to be reminiscent of The Great Dictator.

At the midway point, the film takes a surprisingly smooth turn to the serious. Cleverly, though, the comedy is not entirely pushed aside. Quite the contrary. The improvisational nature of Benigni's character, that was so delightfully set up during the opening scenes, pays off dividends in the film's latter half. In fact, the entire premise succeeds precisely because of Guido's personality. He is essentially the glue that sticks the two potentially incongruous genres together.

Any film in a language that is foreign to me - which, embarrassingly, is every language other than English - has the unavoidable setback of requiring me to read the dialogue. In this instance, it is particularly unfortunate due to the loquaciousness of the main character. I'd much rather be looking at Benigni's face than at the bottom of the screen. It is, then, a testament to the power of the film that it is still so remarkably effective on an emotional level.

Benigni won the Academy's Best Actor prize for his buffoonish performance (delivering an equally buffoonish speech when he accepted the film's Foreign Language Film win). But his buffoonery is just so ridiculously charming, and he is extremely adept at recognising when to turn it off. His face when he realises Dr. Lessing's nervous discomfort is only due to a particularly hard-to-solve riddle is nothing short of heartbreaking. Benigni's real-life wife Braschi serves well as his foil in the comedic moments of the first half, even if she is mostly relegated to longing looks in the second. And what a find is Giorgio Cantarini, the adorable young boy who plays Joshua. Praise clearly needs to be given to Benigni yet again for directing such a young child to such an amicable performance.