By John H. Foote
Great directors once again dominated the decade as they had the seventies, resulting in some of the greatest films ever made. Steven Spielberg won two Academy Awards for Best Director for Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), while Quentin Tarantino emerged as the most exciting filmmaker since Martin Scorsese broke through in the seventies.
Many veteran directors did some of their finest work, Spielberg and Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, Oliver Stone, while there were several new filmmakers breaking through. Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Penny Marshall, Jane Campion, Spike Lee, and the Coen Brothers made film exciting again.
And animation made a huge comeback with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994), with the groundbreaking Toy Story (1995) emerging as the first computer feature length animated film. And visual effects benefited hugely with computer effects, revolutionizing the industry.
With so many great films it only goes to be that many potential Best Picture nominees did not make the cut. Here are 10 and I could have easily listed another 20.
THELMA AND LOUISE (1991)
One of the finest road films ever made with a lovely twist in that the two outlaws on the run are a couple of ordinary women, who prove to be extraordinary human beings. While heading off for a weekend getaway, an attempted sexual assault causes one of the girls to shoot and kill the assaulter, leaving them to flee, becoming unfortunate outlaws who learn fast. And how they evolve. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are simply brilliant as the two ladies, who reach down and become their best selves on the run. Davis is hysterical as a woman who has never experienced an orgasm and finally does when they pick up a young hitchhiker who helps her achieve that and teaches her how to rob a store, which comes in handy. Susan Sarandon is perfect as the down to earth beauty with a past, and who refuses to let her friend experience rape, putting her gun to use. Brad Pitt made an immediate impact as JD, the hitcher who teaches Thelma a thing or two about a thing or two. Ridley Scott directed this superb film and was nominated for an Oscar, as were the two ladies, but a Best Picture nod did not come. On Oscar night the screenplay took Original Screenplay but nothing else, but not to be nominated for Best Picture? That final image is forever in my mind, not the car freezing as it plummets to earth in the canyon, but the two women taking hands and driving over the edge, knowing their fate if they stay. Sisterhood man … courage.
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (1992)
Geena Davis was back the next year in Penny Marshall’s golden nostalgic film about the Women’s Baseball League, created as a diversion when the best of the male ball players were off fighting WWII. The women’s’ league got off to a slow start but eventually found great success as Marshall’s lovely, warm film explores. The performances of the ladies are uniformly fantastic beginning with the towering MVP Davis, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell (terrific), the entire cast but especially Lori Petty stands out. Tom Hanks was Oscar worthy as their coach, former Major League slugger Jimmy Dugan, who gets to utter the best line in the nineties, “there’s no crying in baseball”. Just a golden film with a loving look at a time gone by in America, when things were simpler, clearer. And not a single nomination for which the Academy should be forever ashamed. Marshall was an outstanding director, as this and her Best Picture nominated Awakenings (1990) more than attested.
MALCOLM X (1992)
After wrestling the film from Norman Jewison, director-writer Spike Lee proceeded to make an epic about the angry Civil Rights leader which included exploring his journey to Mecca, which drove the budget up. Warner capped the budget and refused to give him another nickel, leading Oliver Stone, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan to come forward with the cash to film the additional scenes. Did Warner Brothers then punish Lee with a limited Oscar campaign, choosing to support Unforgiven (1992) instead? You hate to think that but when a film of this sort is snubbed for the major awards, earning only Best Actor and Best Costume Design nods, you have to wonder what happened? Lee made a bitingly honest film that explored the life of Malcolm from his criminal beginnings through his education in jail to his life as a black activist up to and including his assassination. Denzel Washington gives one of the screen’s greatest performances as Malcolm, winning the New York Film Critics Award as Best Actor, but incredibly, INCREDIBLY lost the Oscar to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. So, when Spike Lee states he was robbed, he was robbed, and he was robbed for many years after.
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993)
There were jaws dropping when Martin Scorsese announced his intention to film the famous Edith Wharton novel “The Age of Innocence” because this was usually the area of James Ivory. But the New York director pushed ahead with his film, exploring New York society at the turn of the 20th century when everything happened underneath what seemed to be happening and no one spoke what they were feeling, but their actions spoke volumes. It was a very different kind of mean streets. Michelle Pfeiffer is superb as the scandalous woman who returns to New York after a doomed marriage, the talk of the social society but never in a good way. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is fascinated with her and falls in love with her, and she him, but she knows their love can never be. He is engaged to a rather dim young lady portrayed by Winona Ryder, who in fact is smart as a whip and engineers far more than her intended realizes. The film is beautiful to look at and simmers with unspoken heat and lust, long gazes, hands that touch and pull away, it is not a film you can watch and not pay attention. Superbly acted and directed, Scorsese once again displayed his extraordinary range, stepping into a very different world of mean streets and cruelty. Robbed of Oscar attention for film, director and Pfeiffer. Robbed.
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994)
Seven nominations, including Best Director, two for Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Screenplay but not Best Picture? Really? As crazy and impossible as it sounds that is precisely the fate of Woody Allen’s fast paced, rollicking farce Bullets Over Broadway, the finest film he made during the nineties, and remains one of his finest. John Cusack steps into the Woody type role as David, a self-involved playwright who discovers his newest play, which he is directing is being financed by the mob with a few conditions, the most problematic being that the moll of the boss wants a major role. Olive (Jennifer Tilly) is hopeless as an actress, as she is a vulgar, screeching harpy with one mighty powerful sex drive. Cheech (Chaz Palminteri) is sent to guard her, and it turns out he is a gifted writer and begins to make corrections and improvements to the play. David has bigger troubles, seduced by the star of the play, Broadway legend Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest) has seduced him largely to improve her role and get everything she suggests into the character. Wiest gives, without question, one of the greatest performances ever put on film as the vain, hard drinking Sinclair who hushes David with an impassioned “Don’t speak, don’t speak”. Beautifully designed, with, well, everything how was this film good for so many nominations but not the big one?
A beautifully crafted epic from Martin Scorsese about the mafia in Las Vegas and the intense control they held for many years. Robert De Niro is Ace Rothstein, a Jewish bookmaker hired by the mob to run their casino and he brings in tens of millions of dollars because he knows and understands all the scams to cheat. Ever watchful, he misses nothing which is not surprising but when he marries a known and respected hustler, Ginger portrayed by Sharon Stone, we know and so does he that is making the mistake of his life. His other mistake was inviting Nicky Santurro (Joe Pesci) a volatile, violent gangster to Vegas, who accepts the invitation, arrives, and begins to take over. Nicky is genuinely dangerous, eventually even to Ace, refusing to stop his conquest of Vegas, making the boys back home, the bosses, very nervous. The film moves quickly, narrated by Ace and Nicky, an interesting choice, and the twists and turns the plot takes are often shocking. Nicki’s fate is horrific, beaten to death with baseball bats and tossed in a shallow grave in a cornfield. Ace survives, goes back to his bookmaking, while Ginger dies, addicted to drugs. It is powerful stuff, and initially was jokingly referred to as “Goodfellas Goes to Vegas” despite being a very different film. The actors are brilliant, but only Stone was an Oscar nominee. Superb. Vintage Scorsese.
When I heard Oscar winner Oliver Stone was going to direct a film about disgraced President Richard Nixon, I prepared for an all-out attack, a film that delivered a blast about the shortcomings about the President. Instead what we got was a sensitive, honest, often heartbreaking film about a man who never felt worthy of being the leader of the free world, who felt he was not the man the people could ever love as they did the Kennedys. When Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins was cast as the former President, there were whispers of discontent that the actor could not pull it off. When the film opened, audiences and critics were stunned by what Hopkins had accomplished, for while he did not look like Nixon, he captured the body language, the speech patterns, and somehow found his wounded soul. Minutes into the film, we were no longer watching an actor but Nixon himself. The massive cast included a perfect Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, Ed Harris as Howard Hunt, Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger, and many others equally outstanding in their roles. Where Stone soared as a director, as an artist and as a human being was having the courage to tell the story of a man who lost his way, who accomplished great things often forgotten, yet forged a place in history. This film ennobles the man who opened relations with China, Russia and ended Vietnam.
THE CRUCIBLE (1996)
Did over 40 years really pass without an American film production of one of the greatest plays of the 20th century? Arthur Miller wrote All My Sons, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, the latter being the only one not made into an American film. It was filmed in France, but not the United States until this production, directed by Nicholas Hytner. In the fall of 1996, The Crucible graced the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and was said to be THE film to beat for the Academy Award, a slam dunk Oscar winner. Yet by the end of the year, December, it was being screened sparingly, if at all in major cities. Though Daniel Day-Lewis finished runner up for the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor, though the film was well reviewed, it never found the audience it needed to push it in to the Oscar race. Fox studios should forever feel shame about the way they mishandled the film, and simply put, they blew it. They had a major work of art, a prestige film based on a great play, written by a titan of the American theatre who also wrote the screenplay, and they did not stand by their film. The Crucible deserved nominations in all the major categories, and should have hit eleven or twelve, Best Picture among them. He turned Miller’s extraordinary play into a seething film where guilt is by accusation, a society where it was impossible to prove your innocence. Ever timely. Forever timely.
THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997)
This Canadian film directed and written by Atom Egoyan earned the young filmmaker Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay Adaptation but, despite being a critical darling across North America, no Best Picture nomination. After stunning the jury at Cannes, then ramping up through the fall festivals, the film was raved about by major and minor film critics, finishing runner up for the Best Picture prizes with the LA, NY and National Society of Film Critics’ Awards. Egoyan’s near ethereal, hushed and haunting film explores how a terrible school bus accident which leaves all but one of the towns children dead, impacts the community. There are terrible secrets, incest, affairs, and the quiet seething rage of a child who gets revenge on her father in a most unique manner. Acted with startling power by Sarah Polley, Alberta Watson, Gabrielle Rose, Maury Chaykin, Bruce Greenwood, Arsinee Khanjian and Ian Holm the film is an austere masterwork. Watching you will be overwhelmed by the portrayal of grief. How will they ever get over this? You know deep in your gut, they will not. A masterpiece.
Over a 24 hour period, several characters with interconnecting stories will cross each other’s paths, help or hinder one another, yet all will evolve in a dramatic manner. The consequences of lifetime of actions will come to weigh on these characters, created by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. What I loved about Magnolia was its wild originality, where else do you see the characters sing a song together in different locations or watch as a plague of frogs rain from the sky on Los Angeles? It really is quite astounding, and I suspect the Academy did not know what to make of it. Tom Cruise as a misogynistic self-help guru was never better, Julianne Moore was tragic and heartbreaking as a trophy wife who realizes after cheating throughout her marriage she loves her dying husband, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a loyal nurse trying to bring an estranged father and son together, William H. Macy is a former quiz show child star trying to put his life together, and John C. Reilly is a decent cop trying to begin a relationship with a damaged young drug addict abused by her father, beautifully portrayed with haunting power by Melora Waters. Jason Robards is the tie that binds as a TV producer dying of cancer, father to Cruise, husband to Moore, boss to the abuser of Waters. An astonishing work from the most exciting director to emerge in the nineties.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.