For the love of entertainment
Here we are: another decade ready for judgment. Can you feel the excitement?
Full disclosure: in seeking to determine the best movie made between 1990 and 1999, I have decided to only focus on films that won the Best Picture Academy Award. That makes the list much easier to manage. Unfortunately, that also means that I must only focus on the winners. I may comment on snubs, but I have to stick to my guns. Sorry, Saving Private Ryan fans. Burned again.
As a point of interest, the Academy was in flux in the 1990s. The 70s had been a hotbed of groundbreaking cinema, but they spent twenty years turning its back on that trend. Best Picture winners in the 90’s feel stodgy and traditional, not revelatory. In almost every year you can point to a more groundbreaking movie that went ignored when it came to the big prize. Years since have been spent trying to figure out how to compensate for that stodginess, in everything from not ignoring movies from oft-neglected genres to the counteracting the #OscarsSoWhite controversy in the 2010’s.
Is there anyone out there who thinks Shakespeare in Love deserved to win over Saving Private Ryan? No? Good. That’s the right answer.
Let’s be real: Shakespeare won because the Weinstein brothers and their original studio, Miramax, were at the height of their glory days as movie marketers. They specialized in cranking out prestige films and raking in Oscar nominations. Swift-boating Saving Private Ryan‘s Academy Award is the jewel in their crown. The only possible explanation is that people were so sure Ryan would win that they threw their vote at Shakespeare in order to appease the Weinsteins.
OK, we should probably talk about the movie. Shakespeare in Love is a cute movie about an imagined love affair between William Shakespeare and a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to act in one of his plays. Their mad affair leads him to write the classic love story Romeo and Juliet. Again: it’s a cute movie. But that’s really all you can say about it. It was massively overpraised (and consequently over-rewarded) to the point of embarrassment.
Should have won in 1998: In case you couldn’t tell: Saving Private Ryan.
The English Patient exists today as a punchline–even more than Shakespeare in Love, which says a lot. It will live in infamy as the ultimate example of the ‘prestige film’–a movie almost scientifically engineered to be rewarded with Academy Awards. A movie people tend to gush over but rarely actually like. How did it become the torch-bearer for this kind of film? Thank Seinfeld for that. In one of the TV show’s best gags, Elaine is pilloried for being the only person willing to admit to despising The English Patient. It gave the movie something to be legendary for, but I’m willing to bet that wasn’t the way the producers hoped to be remembered.
As for the movie, it’s mostly fine. It’s a pretentious WWII-era love story about a young nurse taking care of a badly burned man who was injured in a plane crash, whose story of a fateful love affair is teased out in flashbacks. Being self-serious and deadly dull would land any other movie in the bottom slot, so The English Patient should be very thankful that Shakespeare in Love exists right about now.
Should have won in 1996: You know what movie also came out in 1996 and is remembered for being good? Fargo. But the biggest prize that movie walked away with was Best Actress for Frances McDormand.
Self importance is a major theme among Best Picture winners of the 1990’s. It’s like you couldn’t win the big prize at the Academy Awards without your nose firmly pointed in the air. In that respect, Braveheart is almost a breath of fresh air for not being afraid to be a little crass. Unfortunately, it still falls into the trap.
Centering on the story of William Wallace, the Scottish man who led an uprising against the British, Braveheart is also an example of the Academy’s preoccupation with actor-directors. To be honest, there’s very little I remember about Braveheart nowadays except for Mel Gibson’s iconic inspirational speech to his soldiers, the outrageously offensive depiction of the villain as homosexual, and the over-the-top gore of the finale. Still, it’s surprising how that speech has had such staying power as a pop cultural touchstone all these years later. For that alone, Braveheart gets some points.
Apollo 13 had actually been predicted by many to be the winner in 1995, but a groundswell of support for Braveheart late in the game put it over the top. Given its pop culture legacy, it’s hard to say that they made the wrong choice.
Should have won in 1995: Having said that, Sense and Sensibility would be my personal pick.
Here we have another entry in the self-serious category, this time with actor-director Kevin Costner starring as a white man who befriends and tries to save a tribe of Native Americans in the old West. To be fair, it was about time for someone to do a harsh reality check about the brutal treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government. But to have that message filtered through a story about a white man trying to save the day kind of undermines it. Dances gets points for trying, but ultimately falls flat for handling a serious subject in the Driving Miss Daisy mode.
Should have won in 1990: Do you know what other classic movie came out in 1990? Goodfellas. But the gritty crime drama lost out to the movie about white man’s guilt, adding more fuel on the fire for conspiracy theorists looking to be angry about Martin Scorsese’s failure to win an Oscar for Raging Bull a decade earlier.
Make fun if you will. Titanic doesn’t make it hard, after all. Here’s the thing, though: as silly as it may seem, Titanic was one of the biggest pop cultural moments of the 90’s and beyond. People were talking about it nonstop for months after it came out. Which says nothing about the months of conversation before it came out–mostly certain it would be a disaster of epic proportions after its budget went sky-high. James Cameron proved them all wrong. Nevermind the years and years of conversation devoted to Titanic in the almost twenty years since it was released.
The script is silly, the love story seems trite, but otherwise Titanic is a solidly made movie. Say what you will about Cameron, he knows just how to play to his audiences. He sucked them in. And they never let go.
Should have won in 1997: Still, a case could be made that L.A. Confidential is a far superior movie from 1997. But the power of Titanic is that quality almost doesn’t matter. Like the ship itself (or, rather, the iceberg), it’s a force to be reckoned with.
Yes, Forrest Gump is an earnest, heartfelt movie. Yes, Pulp Fiction was a far more groundbreaking movie released that year. But you would have to be utterly heartless to say that Gump is a movie with no charm or wit. It’s a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. Many people criticize it for that, but I think it’s refreshing. There’s something bold and sweet about a movie so willing to be earnest. It’s the story of a slow-witted man careening through some tumultuous decades in American history. In a world that is sternly cynical and compromising, Forrest Gump is an eternal optimist who strives to do the right thing every day of his life. What’s so wrong with that?
Should have won in 1994: Yes, Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction. And yes, Fiction was a more groundbreaking movie in many ways. But consider this: both movies have had a huge impact on pop culture. Twenty years later we still talk about both movies a great deal. But to me, Forrest Gump had a much more profound emotional impact. That gives it the edge.
Now, American Beauty has its detractors, but I like it. A lot, actually. It’s the first Best Picture winner on this list that feels even slightly audacious. American Beauty dares its audience to look at a typical American family in a typical American suburb. Then it literally dares you to look closer. All is not as it seems in the household of Lester Burnham. His family has been crumbling for some time and is finally beginning to collapse thanks to all the strain, sending them on a collision course with disaster and violence.
What’s more? Spend some time in an upper-middle-class suburb some time. Really look at the families surrounding you. You will be shocked–shocked–at how depressingly accurate American Beauty is. And to think, it wasn’t even directed by an American.
Countless movies and novels had explored the theme that the American dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be before, but rarely with the subtlety and nuance of American Beauty.
Should have won in 1999: American Beauty deserved it.
Did I mention that the Academy has a thing for actor-directors? Well, what do you know: here’s Clint Eastwood proving my point. Unforgiven is in many ways both a standard Western genre movie and a standard Clint Eastwood movie. It’s plot finds a retired gunslinger (played by Eastwood because of course) reluctantly taking on one last job. You don’t get much more standard than that. What makes it a great movie? Incredible performances, for one–including Gene Hackman’s violent turn as Little Bill Daggett, for which he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Smart filmmaking from Eastwood (remember, in 1992 he didn’t have the reputation as a director that he does now). And the moneymaker: some smart observations about repentance, violence, and forgiveness. Consider this: Unforgiven is a Western that has the mettle to question everything the Western genre stands for and celebrates. That is the very definition of bold.
Should have won in 1992: Some will tell you The Crying Game should have won. Don’t you listen to them.
This is probably the most controversial choice I’m going to make in these rankings. And believe it or not, I feel raw about it. When I sat down to work on this list, I had every intention of putting Schindler’s List at the top. But a funny thing happened when I started typing the blurbs. I kept going back to another movie on the list.
This is not to take away from Schindler’s List at all. It’s a gorgeous movie and a staggering achievement from Steven Spielberg, rendered with splendid artistry in black and white (with touches of color here and there). It’s a painful movie. It’s an important movie. It’s a movie about deep hurts, incredible wrongs, and the triumph of the human spirit in bleak circumstances. It probably deserves to be the #1 movie of the 1990’s. And yet…
Should have won in 1993: Don’t even think any other movie should have won.
… here we are. Like I said, I just couldn’t stop thinking about this movie the whole time I was writing this list. I think that speaks to the power of The Silence of the Lambs: it sneaks up on you. You don’t expect to be haunted by it, and yet you are. Profoundly.
Thrillers don’t usually win Best Picture, let alone get nominated for it, but there’s just no denying Silence. It’s an exceptionally well-crafted movie. Twenty years later, it still frequently appears on TV–and every time I stumble upon it while channel-surfing, I’m compelled to stop. It’s the only movie on this list that can make that claim. I will literally stop what I’m doing in order to watch it. That says something. About me, for one (I deserve that), but about the movie as well.
Judge me if you must, but the more I write about it the more convinced I am.
Should have won in 1991: Silence owned the year. Not to mention the decade.