|Oscar: Something for Everyone|
1998 was a film year with something for everyone and then some. It brought some really terrific movies -- sophisticated, thought provoking films like Happiness and the Opposite of Sex, taut dramas like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, and good-natured fun-filled movies like Waking Ned Devine.
Movies for children became "box office," and bugs crawled into prominence. There were movies people either loved or hated -- The Big Lebowski, comes to mind. Some movies gave actors the opportunity to finally fulfill their potential -- Zorro's Antonio Banderas and Out of Sight's George Clooney, for example. Others offered debuts -- Zorro's Catherine Zeta-Jones dueling her way to the top.
1998 proved that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were not flashes in the pan. They went their separate ways with Affleck showing a flair for comedy and Damon taking on interesting dramatic challenges. Vince Vaughn and Joaquin Phoenix continued to build strong resumes.
Meryl Streep delivered two nearly perfect performances in both American and Irish accents. But she was not alone. It was a year chock full of simply great performances -- the entire cast of Little Voice, and Gwyneth Paltrow's dead-on portrayals of women in Elizabethan and Tony Blair's times jump to mind.
It was also a year of comebacks. On the people front, it was a pleasure to welcome back Bill Murray, Ally Sheedy and James Coburn. Meanwhile, clever dialogue and great screenwriting made a comeback in Out of Sight, Shakespeare in Love, Thin Red Line and Gods and Monsters.
But 1998 also saw some serious lows. Nicholas Cage should be forced to give back his Oscar for two remarkably horrible performances: City of Angels and Snake Eyes. He looked like he was sleepwalking through the first and was so over the top in the second you wanted to hand him a Valium. Living Out Loud embarrassed through its out-of-dateness. Angels and cancer seemed to be everywhere. And try as one might, who can forget Hurlyburly?
Then there were the performances that had to be seen to be believed. Ben Affleck should receive a special prize for managing to hang on to his dignity while uttering what may be the worst dialogue in movie history in Armageddon's animal crackers love scene. And if Gwyneth Paltrow convinced many that she's English, Kenneth Branaugh convinced us that he is Woody Allen. And what is one to make of Edward Norton? Last year he sang for Woody Allen. This year he bulked up for a frightening turn in American History X.
This leads us to this year's Oscar picks. For once, there's no wondering, "How did this picture or actor get this nomination?" Almost everyone deserved nominations. To be sure, there are some glaring omissions and questionable inclusions, but by and large this is a worthy group.
Best Actor: Nick Nolte
Every actor in this category gave great performances, especially Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful, Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters and Edward Norton, American History X. Everyone was riveting. Tom Hanks, too, was very good in Private Ryan, but Ryan is truly an ensemble piece.
But Nick Nolte is America's finest actor. There seems to be no role he's unwilling to tackle, and nothing he can't play. Since his first appearance in Rich Man, Poor Man, he's shown us his ability to play tough, tough and vulnerable, hardened, and lovable. Affliction gives Nolte the opportunity to showcase all his talent, and he delivers in spades. As an emotionally abused son, he sears the viewer's heart. And the performance lingers long after the screen turns black.
Best Supporting Actor: Billy Bob Thornton
This category has the most glaring omissions. Michael Caine gave the performance of anyone's career in Little Voice. John Goodman, from the Big Lebowski, and Bill Murray, from Rushmore, were both overlooked. Ed Harris is a fabulous actor, but not in this year's The Truman Show. And Geoffrey Rush seems to have gotten the nomination Joseph Fiennes should have received from Shakespeare in Love.
That said, Billy Bob Thornton should not to be missed. As Jacob, the slow brother in A Simple Plan, he gave a delicate performance, full of shadows. His breakout role in Slingblade seemed one note, not so with A Simple Plan. Slingblade was merely a tease. Thornton has since moved light years away from that and developed into a truly wondrous actor.
Best Actress: Emily Watson
This reviewer did not see Fernanda Montenegro's Central Station, but all the other performances merit their nominations. Gwyneth Paltrow showed amazing versatility, and her English accent was flawless. Is Meryl Streep ever bad? One True Thing demonstrates Streep doesn't even have to speak to give a killer performance. Her bathtub scene just blows you away in its starkness. But Streep gives a better demonstration of her skill in the little seen Dancing at Lughnasa.
That brings us to Emily Watson. Emily Watson simply astounds. Her turn as Jacqueline (Jackie) Du Pre in Hilary and Jackie makes you laugh and sob, not just cry. You feel her highs, and those terrible lows go right through you. What's more, you forget she's acting. She is Jacqueline Du Pre.
Best Supporting Actress: Brenda Blethyn
This is the hardest category to judge. Each one of these actresses with the exception of Judi Dench deserves to win. Each gave amazing performances.
Is the Academy infatuated with peerage? That can be the only reason for nominating Dench. Her inclusion meant the exclusion of either Lisa Kudrow or Christina Ricci from the Opposite of Sex, or Patricia Clarkson from High Art.
But Little Voice's Brenda Blethyn is so wonderful in her awfulness, she cannot be overlooked. When the camera is on her, you can't take your eyes off her. She is the mother from hell and completely unashamed of it. She revels in it. And her scenes with Michael Caine both break your heart and have you rolling in the aisle.
Best Picture: Saving Private Ryan
It would not be an embarrassment to have any of the nominated pictures win. But Ryan grabs you from the beginning and never lets go. It makes World War II personal. It lands you on the beaches of Normandy. It enlists you as part of the team searching for Ryan. Ryan meshes great acting with a simple story and lets the actors do the storytelling. It's terrific movie-making.
Best Director: John Madden
Simply put, Madden brings Shakespeare to life. There are a million (literally) great touches, even down to the credits for Romeo and Juliet. Madden gets great performances from all his actors. Geoffrey Rush and Joseph Fiennes, just so-so in Elizabeth, delight in Shakespeare in Love. Shakespeare in Love works on so many levels -- visually, acting, dialogue. Madden makes you believe he knows Shakespeare and that when his story is finished, you know him too.
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