by David Krauss
Over the past month, we've examined Best Picture winners from the 1920s and 1930s, the 1940s and 1950s, the 1960s and 1970s, and the 1980s. This week, the spotlight shines on the 1990s. Independent cinema really started to come into its own in the '90s, as mainstream movies refused to tackle the kind of offbeat, controversial, and adult themes a large segment of the movie-going population craved. The major studios' safe, homogeneous attitudes resulted in a frustrating reliance on sequels, remakes, and knock-offs that earned huge sums but didn't advance the art form. African-American and female directors – among them, John Singleton, Spike Lee, Nora Ephron, Kathryn Bigelow, Barbra Streisand, and Jane Campion – began to emerge as formidable forces in the industry, and computer-generated special effects helped action movies push the envelope of credulity even further. All 10 Best Picture winners of the 1990s are currently available on Blu-ray, and they are…
'Dances with Wolves' (1990) – During its lengthy and troubled production, many dubbed this epic tale "Kevin's Folly," but director and star Kevin Costner, whose stubborn belief in the project carried it to fruition, got the last laugh on Oscar night when his sweeping and surprisingly sensitive account of how a Civil War lieutenant learns to embrace and defend Native American culture became the first western to win the Best Picture prize since 'Cimarron' in 1930. Costner also won the Best Director award, though it seems unfathomable the Academy could prefer his work over the dazzling artistry of Martin Scorcese in 'GoodFellas.' (This marked the second time Marty lost a much deserved Best Director Oscar to an actor helming his first feature film; Robert Redford, quite shockingly, also beat him a decade earlier for 'Ordinary People.') 'Dances with Wolves' also took home citations for adapted screenplay, cinematography, sound, editing, and music score.
'The Silence of the Lambs' (1991) – The first psychological thriller to win Best Picture (some would call it a horror movie), this fascinating and deliciously disturbing portrait of the twisted relationship between a fledgling female FBI agent and the refined yet cannibalistic serial killer who helps her track down one of his own kind also became only the third movie in Academy Award history to receive all five major awards. (The other two were 'It Happened One Night' and 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.') In addition to the top honor, 'The Silence of the Lambs' also won Oscars for Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally). Foster is terrifically intense and focused as the young cadet Clarice Starling, but it's Hopkins who makes an indelible impression as the alternately endearing, funny, and frightening Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant yet tortured individual who fully embraces his dark side and relishes the game of mental manipulation. His famous line – "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti" – and the mouth movement that follows it has become one of the most memorable and oft-quoted moments in movie history.
'Unforgiven' (1992) – Some call this brooding, violent tale of a reformed gunslinger who jumps back in the saddle one last time in the hope of snaring a sizeable bounty the "anti-western," as it flips many genre conventions and clichés on their ear, yet 'Unforgiven' also reminds us of all the reasons why we love westerns and why they've become such a vital part of American cinema history. Clint Eastwood's film refreshingly depicts the Old West as morally ambiguous, a place where established archetypes stray from their appointed paths and complex motives muddy the waters. It's lean, mean, utterly absorbing, and a fitting climax to the actor-director's iconic western career. Eastwood became the fourth man to win the Best Director Oscar for a film in which he also starred (Woody Allen for 'Annie Hall,' Warren Beatty for 'Reds,' and Kevin Costner for 'Dances with Wolves' are the other three), and Gene Hackman won his second Academy Award, this time for Best Supporting Actor.
'Schindler's List' (1993) – After weathering almost as many Academy snubs as Martin Scorcese, director Steven Spielberg finally won a well-deserved Oscar for this gut-wrenching, often harrowing, and incredibly moving tribute to Oskar Schindler, an avaricious German businessman who becomes uncharacteristically concerned about his Jewish workforce during World War II, and decides to defy the Nazi regime and bravely shelter hundreds of Polish Jews marked for persecution and almost certain extermination. Filmed in a semi-documentary style and uncompromising in its depiction of barbarism, 'Schindler's List' is that rare Holocaust film that's not only shattering, but also inspiring and even hopeful, as the lives Schindler saved multiplied exponentially over subsequent generations, allowing the Jewish race to thrive. Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley all contribute excellent performances, and additional Oscars went to the movie's adapted screenplay, art direction-set decoration, cinematography, editing, and music score.
'Forrest Gump' (1994) – Everybody loves 'Forrest Gump'…except me. While I don't dislike Robert Zemeckis' light-hearted, sensitive portrait of a mentally challenged man who somehow finds himself at the epicenter of many pivotal historical events over the course of three turbulent decades, I've never understood what all the fuss is about. Yes, the Oscar-winning visual effects inspire awe, and the simple message of love, empathy, optimism, and perseverance strikes a universal chord, but there's a triteness and gimmicky feel about 'Forrest Gump' that overshadows its warmth and charm. (And that's all I have to say about that.) For his fine work in the title role, Tom Hanks became only the second man to win back-to-back Best Actor Oscars (Spencer Tracy was the first in 1937-38), and the movie was also honored for its direction, adapted screenplay, and editing. In addition, 'Forrest Gump' spawned several quotable lines, including, "Life is like a box of chocolates" and "Stupid is as stupid does."
'Braveheart' (1995) – Most Best Picture awardees receive similar honors from at least one other organization prior to Oscar night, but not 'Braveheart,' which made Mel Gibson's compelling historical epic a surprise victor at the 68th annual Academy Awards. The sprawling spectacle set in 13th century Scotland, which chronicles a massive peasant revolt led by freedom-fighter William Wallace (Gibson) against the tyrannical English ruler Edward the Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan), who hopes to usurp the Scottish throne, features impressive battle sequences, powerful confrontations, and brutality galore. Yet amid all the violence, an underlying tenderness and sense of honor and courage pervade the film and heighten its impact. (Who can forget Wallace's impassioned cry of "Freedom!!!" late in the movie?) Gibson, who at the time was still a Hollywood golden boy (the bigger they are, the harder they fall!), became the third actor of the decade to take home a Best Director award for his masterful command of such a large and challenging canvas. The film also won statuettes for its gorgeous cinematography, makeup, and sound effects editing.
'The English Patient' (1996) – Maybe 'Fargo' was just too quirky, disturbing, and violent for stodgy Academy voters, who bestowed top honors on this lyrical, mystical, romantic, breathtakingly beautiful, and much more mainstream period piece about a badly burned World War II pilot (Ralph Fiennes) whose layered past is revealed through a series of flashbacks. The "love has no boundaries" message may seem a bit clichéd by today's standards, but it connected with audiences, who also responded to the strong performances and glamorous personalities. Produced in the lush, sumptuous manner of classic Hollywood fare, the film received a whopping nine Oscars in all, including Best Director (Anthony Minghella), Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Binoche, upsetting a visibly shaken Lauren Bacall, who was considered a shoo-in up until the envelope was opened), and awards for art direction-set decoration, cinematography, costume design, editing, original score, and sound.
'Titanic' (1997) – The pandemonium and manic devotion that greeted this expensive, elephantine disaster flick left little doubt it would be crowned Best Picture come Oscar night, but despite its impressive production values, larger-than-life recreation of a tragic event, winning performances by "king of the world" Leonardo DiCaprio and the irresistible Kate Winslet, and the brash (okay, obnoxious) confidence of director James Cameron, 'Titanic' still was not the year's finest film. Far from it, in fact. That distinction unequivocally belongs to Curtis Hanson's dazzling film noir, 'L.A. Confidential.' Yet so often, commercial momentum trumps high art, and Cameron's epic became an Oscar darling, grabbing a record-tying 11 Academy Awards, including Best Director, Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Original Song, Original Score, and Visual Effects. (Not surprisingly, the god-awful screenplay wasn't even nominated. A word to the wise…Don't ever play a drinking game with the word "Jack" as a trigger, or else you'll end up in the hospital before the ship hits the iceberg!) Believe it or not, I'm a 'Titanic' fan; I admire its technical prowess and attempt to be historically accurate, but I'm not blind to the movie's faults and have no problem laughing at its hyper-romantic tone, shameless clichés, and how DiCaprio (who's my favorite actor, by the way) often calls his leading lady "Wose." Unlike the eponymous ship, 'Titanic' will never sink, but it's heart may not go on forever.
'Shakespeare in Love' (1998) – Clever, endearing, witty, and romantic, this delightful confection about an insecure 16th century writer and the muse who helps him find his voice captivated audiences and won seven Oscars, including Best Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I), and Best Original Screenplay. No question about it, the tightly constructed film is beautiful to look at, flawlessly evokes the period setting, is wonderfully acted (Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes make a highly combustible pair), and contains an abundance of inside jokes and marvelous Shakespearean references in its pitch-perfect script. But was 'Shakespeare in Love' really worthy of the Academy's supreme citation? The one major award the movie didn't corral was Best Director (one of the rare occasions that honor didn't go hand-in-hand with the Best Picture winner). For the second time, Steven Spielberg took home that coveted prize for the supremely affecting World War II drama, 'Saving Private Ryan,' which many felt was really the year's best film. 'Shakespeare in Love' holds up well 15 years later, but maybe not quite well enough.
'American Beauty' (1999) – Closing out the decade – and the century – this scathing, and often scathingly funny, look at dysfunctional American families, screwed up teen culture, secret obsessions, personal insecurities, and suburban ennui won well-deserved Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Sam Mendes), Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay (Alan Ball), and Best Cinematography. Brilliantly constructed and flawlessly executed, 'American Beauty' is an alternately hilarious and supremely tragic tale that draws us in like peeping toms and sparks myriad instances of personal recognition…much to our own dismay, shame, and amusement. Though Hilary Swank certainly earned her Best Actress award for 'Boys Don't Cry,' it's a crying shame Annette Bening couldn't have shared the honor with her. Bening's fearless, manic, and heartbreaking portrayal of an uptight, uncompromising wife on the edge is just as vital as Spacey's excellent performance. 'American Beauty' may be disturbing and at times distasteful, but much of it is probably happening next door or under your own roof.
Best Picture Nominees of the 1990s Available on Blu-ray:
'The Godfather, Part III' (1990)
'Beauty and the Beast' (1991)
'Scent of a Woman' (1992)
'Howard's End' (1992)
'A Few Good Men' (1992)
'The Fugitive' (1993)
'In the Name of the Father' (1993)
'The Piano' (1993)
'The Shawshank Redemption' (1994)
'Pulp Fiction' (1994)
'Apollo 13' (1995)
'Jerry Maguire' (1996)
'As Good as It Gets' (1997)
'Good Will Hunting' (1997)
'L.A. Confidential' (1997)
'Life Is Beautiful' (1998)
'Saving Private Ryan' (1998)
'The Thin Red Line' (1998)
'The Cider House Rules' (1999)
'The Green Mile' (1999)
'The Insider' (1999)
'The Sixth Sense' (1999)
Next week: The New Millennium