Leading up to the Oscars on February 27, I thought I’d revisit some past Oscar races. Along the way, I’m also going to try to figure out the answer to this question: What’s the most ‘90s movie you can think of? (It’s frustrating because you can either think of lots of answers, or you can’t think of a single one. And it’s doubly frustrating because the same question when posed about the ‘80s is kind of easy to answer—Back to the Future. Duh.)
So first up: The 81st Academy Awards, presented in 2009
Best Picture Nominees: Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader
Snubbed: Synechdoche, New York; The Dark Knight; Wall-E
It was an odd year. Slumdog was a feel-good hit with the twist of being filmed in India, with an entirely Indian cast, speaking English. It also was a very enjoyable movie without a speck of greatness in it. Director Danny Boyle’s editing has always been energetic to the point of twitchiness, which has its uses when following around heroin addicts (Trainspotting) or athletic zombies (Twenty-Eight Days Later), but doesn’t really allow you to catch your breath when trying to tell—as Time credits this movie with being—a “timeless love story.” We attribute a positive connotation to the word “timeless”, but only because it suggests we are rediscovering something we’ve always known to be true (love overcomes all, and so on). In Slumdog’s case, we only discovered that worn American clichés clean up nicely in Mumbai.
The movie everyone remembers from 2008 is Dark Knight, because it made a gazillion dollars at the box office but didn’t get a nomination for Best Picture. The Academy has fickle taste when it comes to nominating big entertainments—historical epics like Gladiator or Titanic can outright win, as can franchises once relegated to geeks, like Return of the King. But a movie about a man who dresses in a bat suit and fights crime cannot. A.O. Scott, the reviewer for the Times, said this film showed both the absolute heights and absolute limits of superhero movies, which is an excellent way to explain why it didn’t quite receive all the plaudits it seemed destined for. Christopher Nolan has completely stripped his Batman franchise of the original concept’s weirdness. The Danny Elfman/Michael Keaton Batman of the late ‘80s acknowledged that the entire endeavor was a strange one, not quite appropriate to reality and readily available to self-mockery and scenery-chewing. Christian Bale’s Batman is as dead serious about stopping crime as Mayor Giuliani. The concept begins to loop in on itself, once you let go of the fun—why doesn’t Batman just run around in a commando suit, if he wants to be so grim about it? Couldn’t he think of a slightly more efficient way to battle evil, if he has all those Bruce Wayne billions at his disposal, than personally running around to take care of every last mugger/pimp/dealer/flasher in Gotham City?
The Reader is probably the least enjoyable movie of the bunch, but it is the only one which attempts to pose a demanding question. The movie begins with a young man having an affair with an older woman in pre-war Germany. That woman (Kate Winslet, who won her first Best Actress for this role after six previous nominations), becomes a prison guard in a concentration camp when the Nazis take over during World War II. The film is based on a popular German novel. Many Jewish intellectuals have decried this movie as some kind of sick apology for German citizens’ behavior during the Holocaust. There can be no art about something so horrible—end of argument. And indeed, even to a East Asian Gentile like me, feeling the inevitable sympathy one does for Winslet’s character is unsettling. But those who believe any kind of artistic thought on the Holocaust from the point of view of the perpetrators is immoral are not doing humanity any favors. An entire nation once allowed this to happen. They could not have all been innately evil, or at least they couldn’t have been any more so than the rest of us. If jackbooted thugs started goose-stepping down Park Avenue today, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t stop them, either. It’s worth trying to figure out if we are capable of changing.
My favorite movie from this year was Synecdoche, New York. It’s written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, which of course means it’s strange and meta on three or four different levels, and maddeningly clever. The movie starts out slowly, and you wonder briefly if Kaufman’s brand of funhouse-mirror complexity has already become boring, but no worries—eventually the mirrors get you and you have no idea where you’re at. All you know is that this funhouse is fun as hell.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has a laughably pointless premise—Brad Pitt is born old and grows young. He meets Cate Blanchett on the way there, headed in the opposite direction. There is nothing inherently meaningful about the idea of growing young–the structure of life remains unchanged, despite the physical peculiarities. You might as well make a movie about a man who wakes up and eats dinner in the morning, and breakfast at night. This movie, however, ends up becoming surprisingly affecting. It acknowledges how pointless its conceit is by making its focus the relentless, single-directional march of time. It becomes the exact opposite of its premise—a movie about growing old and dying. Pitt’s particular condition only highlights some of the rather beautiful and impossible conundrums inherent in the fact that life only moves us toward death.
Button was written by Eric Roth, who also wrote my first nominee for Movie of the ‘90s, 1994’s Forrest Gump. If you’ve seen both Gump and Button you will be stricken by how similar the storytelling is, despite having different directors—David Fincher directed Button, Robert Zemeckis Gump. In both movies, time is of the essence. Time does not change the main character in the traditional way—Tom Hanks’ Gump is a mentally disabled man with the innocence of a child, while Pitt’s Button receives experience early and loses it later (the opposite of how we receive it). But time robs both of them of the women they love, whom they can never quite reach a satisfactory union with because they themselves seem to live outside of time.
But Fincher and Zemeckis, while acknowledging the inevitability of movie-time, use technology to defeat time for the audience. We are treated to grainy TV footage of Gump shaking hands with actual presidents, aided by revolutionary technology developed by Zemeckis (he has since gone on to focus on similar technologies, at times to the point of discarding the elements actual human beings enjoy). And in Button we get an extraordinary scene where Brad Pitt, forty-five at the time and probably the most iconically beautiful actor or actress of the past twenty years, is convincingly rendered as a teenager, beauty intact. Add in the fact that Zemeckis’ first big hit as a director was Back to the Future, and you have a statement which should be just a little bit stirring: death awaits, and we will lose those we love and everything we know, but in a darkened movie theatre you can imagine having it all back for a few hours.
Gump was extremely popular—the last non-franchise, non-special effects spectacle film to become a megahit (it grossed over $329 million domestically, to finish as the #1 film of the year at the box office). It divided critics to a certain extent, because it didn’t seem to have very much depth or complexity. I loved the film, and I will readily admit the film lacks in both of those qualities. But looking back, it was probably important in ways we didn’t quite understand at the time. Gump closed the book on a big chunk of American history—from Elvis, through the counterculture and Vietnam, to the hedonism of the ‘70s and into the Reagan Years. It codified those years in gentle parody, which has become the generally accepted way to see them. (A show like Mad Men can make a steady living by slowly taking apart this view of things). Nothing Gump had to say about those years was original, but it did make a sly statement (criticism?) on American sensibilities by having an idiot move through them and survive—and often thrive.
We also welcomed into the pop-culture lexicon: “Life is a box of chocolates…,” “Lootenant Daaan,” “shrimp” concatenations, “stupid is as stupid does,” “I was runn-hin’,” and probably a few more I can’t think of right now. Tom Hanks became the most popular and celebrated actor in America, reaching a pinnacle no one has been able to match since, and which may be an unrecognizable goal for even stout-hearted men like Will Smith, in our current state of media fracture.
The fact that almost no straight dramas have managed to become blockbusters since Gump (Tom Hanks himself came closest with 2000’s Cast Away) speaks to many things, most of which I find unpleasant to think about. But the movie bottled up a treacly, unsophisticated version of American history in the latter half of the 20th century, completely devoid of giant anthropomorphic robots or hordes of orcs, and we lined up in droves. It can happen.