It is not fair to say that because A Beautiful Mind won Picture and Director, that the Academy were just not into darker movies. True, this has the true story, the sensible direction, and redemption. But the subject matter was deep, emotional, and powerful. The other nominees were a murder mystery, a drama about grief, a fantasy epic, and downbeat musical. All dark in their own way. That said, it was actually a rather bleak year for movies, in the subject matter not the quality of the movies. David Lynch and Ridley Scott won Directing nominations (without Picture) films not exactly feel-good, right? Look at some of the acting nominations. Horrendous cop Denzel Washington. Halle Berry suffering unimaginable grief – like Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek. Varied ailments were also portrayed by Russell Crowe, Sean Penn, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman. Ben Kingsley was an assertive crook, Ian McKellen was a wizard who perishes, and Marisa Tomei sees her lover murdered. Even the Screenplay nominees represented the gritty and the grim – Memento, The Royal Tenenbaums, Ghost World. It was down to the big, colorful characters of Shrek, or Bridget Jones, to provide the shinier side of the coin – and even some real laughs or joy. Giving my wonderful contributors the night off, I start this list of five myself with one of those movies, a five-times-nominated feel-good picture that surprising lost the Foreign Language Oscar to a Bosnia war movie. Of course.
Picture — Amelie 2001
There are very few words, in English or French, to encapsulate how I feel about Amelie. But generally speaking it would be hard for anyone who has seen it to convey the wonder of, say, it’s production design. Or the vivid and wizardry movement of Bruno Delbonnel’s camera. And how it is all edited together. Or even the impact the music by Yann Tiersen has on you, the audience, as well as the flow of the characters and the story. Jean-Pierre Jeunet did incredible visual things with Delicatessen, this is right up that street. Right in the center is the delightful Audrey Tautou as Amelie, an Emma Woodhouse in a whimsical Paris tending to everyone else’s affairs until her own lonely reality becomes too close for comfort. Nominated for five Oscars you can’t help but wonder what might have been if you add to that Picture, Director, and Actress, with possibilities for Editing and Score.
Original Screenplay – Hal Hartley (The Unbelievable Truth) 1989
True, in the early 90s the kick-starters of indie cinema (like Richard Linklater and Jim Jarmusch) were never going to get a look in at the Oscars. But somehow Whit Stillman garnered an Original Screenplay nomination for Metropolitan – a huge feat for a movie like that. Hal Hartley was in a very similar boat to Stillman, but was making movies with more quirk and energy, and at a more consistent frequency. Anybody who followed the indie new wave, and saw The Unbelievable Truth will hopefully love it for its oddball dialogue and characters, but also for its original humor and charm.
Original Screenplay — Richard Linklater, Kim Krizan (Before Sunrise) 1995
Sometimes with movies we don’t need wizards to see the magic of cinema. We don’t need explosions to be captivated. We don’t need to go to outer space for an adventure. Or need a lifetime to fall in love. Just two regular people, who meet on a train, and spend the day together. Richard Linklater is one of the only film-makers I know who can take the ordinary, the simple, the human story in its freshest and most raw form, and make something exceptional as a viewing experience. Here with co-writer Kim Krizan (and later Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke with Before Sunset and Before Midnight), Linklater is writing real stuff here, like pretend phone calls, or a milkshake poem. I know a bit about limited time romance in Europe, but when I first saw Before Sunrise I didn’t. Linklater has inspired me to go on and write characters that I hoped felt so very real, and were allowed to just talk about the regular stuff.
Original Screenplay – Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen (Kissing Jessica Stein) 2002
In some ways Kissing Jessica Stein is your typical New York romantic comedy. Except this is pretty top tier when you want to actually laugh, and appreciate a flip-side romance where a girl simply wants to date another girl. And Jennifer Westfeldt is perfect as a neurotic romantic here a la Woody Allen, which is a great on-screen match with Heather Juergensen’s more forward, speak-your-mind kind of girl. It would have been an illustrious thing to have these women writers and actors alongside Nia Vardolos this year.
Picture — The White Ribbon 2009
Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte translates to inform us that The White Ribbon, immaculately directed by the compulsively brilliant Michael Haneke, is a German children’s story. The actual action in this Palme d’Or winner is rather effectively sedate and eerie, but as finely crafted story-telling goes, this is hardly a drag at all. Focusing on some sinister children and passive adults, trying to keep control and maintain order, while all manner of mysterious events frequent a pre-World War I German village. It is an idyllic setting, but a rather enigmatic, disrupted little society. There’s relief in the love story between the school teacher and Eva, and a graceful, crisp black and white cinematography from Christian Berger, but this in all remains a very dark, very consuming fable. I think I used the word masterpiece when I saw it for the first time, and I don’t throw that term around very often at all – let alone on first viewing.
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