Armchair Oscars – 1999

Best Picture

American Beauty (Directed by Sam Mendes)
The Nominees: The Cider House RulesThe Green MileThe InsiderThe Sixth Sense

After Life (Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda)
My Nominees: American Beauty (Sam Mendes)Being John Malkovich (Spike Jones)Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Pierce)Election (Alexander Payne)Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick), The Insider (Michael Mann), The Straight Story (David Lynch), Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen), Titus (Julie Taymor), TopsyTurvy (Mike Leigh), Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter)


The new century could not have opened with a more lackluster year at the movies.   With a very few exceptions there just weren’t many truly bright, original movies that found an audience in 2000.  The bad year  culminated in one of the worst films ever to receive the Oscar for Best  Picture.

It was Miramax’s blustery campaign that got a middling barnacle like The Cider House Rules into the race for Best Picture. Of the nominees, only Michael Mann’s The Insider and Sam Mendes American Beauty were worthy of recognition and thankfully the latter won the Oscar. Beauty was great but the best films of the year like Three Kings, Eyes Wide Shut, Boys Don’t Cry, Topsy-Turvy, Titus, The Straight Story and Being John Malkovich weren’t even considered. The difference between those film, however, and my choice is that those films were talked about as possible contenders, my choice was not.

I realize that After Life would fit better in the Best Foreign Language Film category, but I think when describing the Best Picture of the Year it defies categories. It even defies awards. After Life is one of those mezmerizing experiences that actually stays with you. This is a film about the nature of the after life and the things we take with us.

It is probably safe to say that very few films these days know very much about real life. Safer to say that most films these days know even less about the nature of death. A lot of movies about death are more interested in the celestial wallpaper, tying up romantic loose ends or returning to unfinished business. Very few films have ever matter-of-factly considered the afterlife from the point of view of the traveller who has crossed the threshold to the undiscovered country.

Koreeda’s Afterlife is almost alone in its contemplation on the importance of the single moment or moments that shape our humanity. In 1999, Koreeda created this absolutely beautiful examination of the stopover between life and death where the choice of a lifetime must be made: What single memory would you carry with you to your eternal reward?

The examination is vessled by 22 travellers who, for various reasons, have died and arrive from a white light to a place that is neither here nor there. They are in a waystation between the end of life and their eternal lodgings. The counselors who work here meet and interview several recently dead people each week. The travellers are tasked with choosing one memory from a lifetime that they will carry over into the eternity that awaits them. Once a memory is selected it will be turned into a film and screened before the patron vanishes with the memory, all other memories will be eliminated.

But what memory? What single memory is worth an eternity? Carrying the best memory would be heaven while surely carrying the worst would be hell. To that end, the travellers find this a difficult task for various reasons. One man discovers that he has no memory that he wishes to carry on. Another discovers that he has too many. One decides that it was her experience on the Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland.

We meet these people through interviews while the staff works diligently to create the productions for the films that will be screened. We learn very little about the staff who have apparently chosen to spend eternity at the station helping others select a memory. There is a moment when we come close, a connection between one of the patrons and the man who didn’t think that he had a memory (of this I will leave you to discover). This moment provides one of the most emotional moments in the film and provides him with a reason for choosing the memory most precious to his heart.

This is the most profound examination of the nature of humanity that I have ever seen on film. There are no special effects, no gimmickry, no scenes that are thrown together to hold our interest. This is a movie that very gently reaches out to those lucky enough to be caught up in it’s contemplative spell and to be spellbound by it’s message

The ultimate message of Afterlife is that as human beings we are made of our experience, our personalities, our character. It all comes from the things we leave behind, the experience of the short experience of life. In other words, down at our very core, memory is all we have. No matter what financial or possessive objects we have gained in our lives our memories lie at the core of what makes us intelligent beings. It is the thing that connects our learning, our maturity and shapes our social connection. It is the core of our being, the connection point of our humanity.

On the emotional level, the film works through contemplation, through imagining ourselves as the wayward patrons. The movie sees the selection process as very matter of fact. Koreeada is more interested in the people who have arrived here than in the place to which they have arrived. That spareness allows us to contemplate their process rather than their surroundings.

I saw After Life shortly after it’s initial release in 1999 and years later it still resonates in my mind. When I am idle, staring at the ceiling when sleep refuses to settle my mind, I contemplate the question posed by Koreeda’s film and to this day I am nowhere near a decision. If I had to choose one memory it might be agony because my number of candidates would go as high as five hundred or if I wrote them down closer to a thousand. For that, I feel fortunate, fortunate and grateful that my life can contain that kind of contentment. If I am given the kind of task given to the people in After Life, it is my hope that whatever I settle on can be turned into a film that is as gentle, peaceful and affirming as Koreeda’s beautiful film.

Best Actor

Kevin Spacey (American Beauty)
The Nominees: Russell Crowe (The Insider), Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story), Sean Penn (Sweet and Lowdown), Denzel Washington (The Hurricane)

Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense)
My Nominees: Jim Broadbent (Topsy-Turvy), Nicholas Cage (Bringing Out the Dead), Jim Carrey (Man on the Moon), George Clooney (Three Kings), Russell Crowe (The Insider), Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story), Ethan Hawke (Snow Falling on Cedars), Eddie Murphy (Bowfinger), Al Pacino (The Insider), Sean Penn (Sweet and Lowdown)


Amid the many things that are not fully understood about the practices of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is where an actor deserves credit when he or she is nominated for an Oscar. What constitutes a nomination for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor should be obvious but since every film is different and the placement of characters and actors within a film’s narrative is always different. This can create quite a conundrum.

In reality, the actor nominated for the leading performance should be the actor to whom the film’s narrative centers. Then should come the consideration of screen time. At times, however, this can be a bit confusing and therein likes the issue of The Sixth Sense, in which both Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment share nearly equal screentime. As far as the film’s narrative, I think the focal point of the film falls to Osment. If you take him out of the story, you don’t have a movie.

There are many reasons why Haley Joel Osment recieved a supporting actor nomination and not one for Best Actor, but I think most of it had to do with his age. The few pre-adolecent kids who have been nominated – with very few exceptions – have always been cornered into the Supporting Actor catagory. Personally, I think that if Osment had been nominated for Best Actor, he would have won.

The winner in that category was Kevin Spacey for his work in American Beauty as Lester Burnam, a family man who’s mid-life crises gives his life a second wind. I like Spacey’s work in the film, but since Lester’s fate is telegraphed from the movie’s opening scene, we already know where his journey will end. I find Osment’s character in The Sixth Sense far more compelling.

Haley Joel Osment’s work in The Sixth Sense is not only excellent but crucial to the film’s success. He plays Cole Sear (literally, he is a see-er), a 10 year-old boy who lives in a world of ghosts – he sees dead people all around him and is powerless to control it. He cannot speak of his fears and his disassociation has been construed by adults as being a sign of emotional distress brought on by his father’s recent death. We know his problem, we see it. He sees dead people who jump out in front of him, vent frustrations and plead for his help. Based on their wounds, it is apparent that they all died badly but he can’t communicate with them and doesn’t know what they want.

He comes under the care of Dr. Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis), who himself is haunted because a former patient shot him one night because the good doctor failed to cure him. Crowe is determined to not to let it happen again. He finds Cole more or less in same state as his former patient and it takes a while to get close to the boy. Cole is understandably haunted and lives under a blanket of fear and we wonder how he will explain this to his doctor.

Cole hasn’t gotten use to the visit by his haunted visitors but he has learned how to brace himself for them. It has turned his insides and worn him down. His face is tired, he is quiet and withdrawn. What is stunning about Osment’s performance is the way that he is able to act and to re-act. Most acting kids are actors but very few are great re-actors. We sense a normal kid hiding beneath all the supernatural hoopla, a normal kid who has been paralyzed by fear and the frustration that he can’t tell anyone.


His single best scene is the scene in which he tells Dr. Malcolm that he sees dead people. This is the moment that has become movie folklore. Peering out from beneath the covers, he whispers to Dr. Crowe that “I see dead people.” There is a terror in his eyes, and in his voice but it is the next line that takes us deeper into the mystery. Crowe asks how often and Cole answers with dread “All the time . . . they’re everywhere.” This moment allows us to understand that Cole’s visions don’t just happen every so often. They spring up at every moment, at any time. We also understand that this has been going on for a good while, that this poor kid has been haunted by these visions for years.


His whole performance is on the tip of his nose, around his eyes and the corners of his mouth. There are crucial moments in the film when his reaction is crucial. Watch his face in the moments when he sees the girl vomiting, the hanging trio, the woman screaming in the kitchen. Watch the way he grips the kitchen table when the ghosts open all the cabinets and drawers. There’s a frustration there that is more effective then most actors who would simply scream and run. His face is a mask of haunted fear in almost every scene, a reflection of a very short life that has been lived being scared to death.

Best Actress

Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry)
The Nominees: Annette Bening (American Beauty), Julianne Moore (The End of the Affair), Meryl Streep (Music of the Heart), Janet McTeer (Tumbleweeds)

Reese Witherspoon (Election)
y Nominees: Lu Lu (Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl), Julianne Moore (An Ideal Husband), Meryl Streep (Music of the Heart), Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry), Julia Sweeney (God Said ‘Ha’!), Kate Winslet (Hideous Kinky)


Out of the ten women who won Best Actress in a Leading Role between 1990 and 1999, only one came from a straight-out comedy.  Unfortunately, it was Helen Hunt for As Good As It Gets, one of the least deserving winners in the history of the academy awards.  This lack of affection for comedy on the part of the voting academy is nothing new. They seem to labor under the delusion that drama is harder to do than comedy, that comedy is a lark that doesn’t make for great artistic expression.  When a comic performance is recognized by the academy, it is usually surrounded by darker tones and sophisticated subject matter.

Among the 20th century’s last five nominees for Best Actress in a Leading Role, there was hardly a laugh to be found in the bunch.  Yet, I admit that among those five women, the best was rewarded with the Oscar.  Hilary Swank seemed to come out of nowhere with her incredibly moving performance in Kimberly Pierce’s heartbreaking Boys Don’t Cry.

Before Boys Don’t Cry, Hilary Swank had been cast in a lot of forgettable supporting roles in films like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sometimes They Come Back  . . . Again and her best-known role up to that time as The Next Karate KidBoys Don’t Cry, however, took a lot of guts because this is a performance that many actresses would instinctively turn down.

Based on a tragic true story, Swank played Brandon Teena, a woman who was born Teena Brandon who faced a sexual identity crises and tried living as a man.  She cut her hair, changed her name, dressed like a man and moved to the town of Fall City, Nebraska to get a fresh start.  She (he!) fell in love with another woman and was eventually raped and murdered by two local tough guys when her deception was uncovered.

What is special about Hilary Swank’s performance is that she manages to adopt the swaggering mannerisms of a man and, unlike other films in which an actor switches gender, she looks convincing enough as a man that I could actually believe that those around her would be fooled.  Yet, I find Boys Don’t Cry very difficult to watch, especially a climactic scene when Brandon is raped in the back seat of a car and later shot to death.  That doesn’t make the film bad, but this is not a film I am ready to sit through again.

One of the lost treasures of nineteen ninety-nine was Alexander Payne’s great high school satire Election, featuring Reese Witherspoon in a performance that is pure comic perfection.  If you believe that drama is tougher than comedy, then I challenge you to study Witherspoon’s performance in this film, her body language, her attention to character detail, the way she is able to create a character that, in other hands, would have been a stereotype.

Witherspoon plays Tracy Flick, one of those know-it-all honor students who not only puts her hand up when the teacher asked a question but strained at the shoulder as if being called on were a matter of life or death. She’s that kid who was always maticulously dressed, who spoke with the perfect anunciation and was so involved with every facet of student activities that her picture occupied more pages in the yearbook than the mascot. She is a member of every school club, every school organization and the fruits of her labor don her bedroom in the form of prizes and trophies and awards from everyone except The Nobel Foundation . . . she’s young yet.

There is a mask of politeness about Tracy, something in her smile that projects a sweet, inoffensive girl, but underneath that facade beats the heart of a snake, a person who knows how to get what she wants and drives at her ambitions so that others fear to oppose her. Take for example, her current conquest to win the election for student body president of George Washington Carver High. She wants the position, not for any real reason other than it makes a nice addition to her list of accolades. She runs unopposed probably because no one is brave enough to run against her. Even still, she puts on an aggressive campaign that includes baking 480 cupcakes embossed with her campaign slogan “Pick Flick”.

Our perspective on Tracy is seen from a distance.  Election is seen from the point of view of a genial Civics teacher named Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), a decent guy who got into teaching because he honestly believed that he could mold young minds and prepare them for the world. Tracy is one of his students and in his heart he is deathly afraid of her, especially when she informs him that “When I become student body president, we are going to be spending lots and lots of time together” Those words haunt him in his sleep because a year earlier, Tracy brought down one of his fellow teachers Dave Novotney (Mark Harelik) by having an improper relationship that cost the man his job. Tracy’s response to their relationship: “What I’ll remember is our talks”.

Jim knows how manipulative she can be. The Novotney incident was kept quiet but Jim still harbors a resentment toward the girl especially knowing that her manipulation is keeping the other students from running against her. He knows how she is, knows that her life will be loaded with mean-spirted overinflated ruthless campaigns. He knows that she will become the next Elizabeth Dole or Connie Chung or Diane Sawyer or Hilary Clinton but wants to put a chink in her plan. He feels that Tracy Flick must be stopped and figures that his only line of defense is to keep her from winning the election. He convinces Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), a good-hearted jock to run against her.

When Tracy spots Paul’s first campaign poster, her annoying good cheer gives way to narrowed eyes and flared nostrils and an unnerving wail on the sountrack (we’re reminded oddly enough of Carrie). She becomes more determined to win the election when Paul’s lesbian sister Tammy throws her hat into the ring for no other reason than her girlfriend dumped her for Paul.

What is interesting about Tracy is that she’s not all one-dimentional. This is film with a cast of characters who all lose something in one away or another. When Mr. M sabotages the election by tossing out two votes, giving the election to Paul, Tracy’s heart is broken and somehow we feel that this is the first time she’s ever lost anything. There is also a sense of sympathy in the wider perspective, especially when we learn that, despite the fact that Tracy’s picture is practically on every page, very few people will sign it.

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