Sunday, June 8, 2014

Oscars of the Aughts: Best Picture 2000

And so we come down to the big kahuna: Best Picture. Of these five nominees, it's an impressively diverse group: a wistful romance, an epic exploration of the US's drug war, a biopic of a well-known activist, a Taiwanese martial arts film, and a blockbuster set in ancient Rome. The new millennium got off to an interesting start at the Oscars, and it works as a fascinating bridge between this categories trends in the 1990s and the trends we'll see over the next decade. 

Here are the five nominees:

Chocolat

On the one hand, Chocolat is exactly the kind of movie that one would expect to be a Best Picture nominee. It's a classically romantic story, set in France, with charming performances from Oscar-ready actors (including Johnny Depp, Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, and Alfred Molina), and just a little bit of dramatic weight to give it "serious" credentials. On the other hand, Lasse Hallstrom's film has significant difficulty balancing its multiple tones, causing whiplash between and even during scenes. And while the cast is certainly talented, they're mostly given sketches of characters to play, and none of the performances ever feel interesting or engaging. The film is a lot like one of the titular confections: sugary sweet, but none of it will stick. 

More after the jump.



Erin Brockovich

We all know that Hollywood - and the Academy, in particular - has a thing for biopics, knowing that audiences will show up to see the life of a notable figure dramatized, preferably with a well-known actor taking on the part. Erin Brockovich is a fairly well-known activist, and Steven Soderbergh's film is the kind of biopic we need more of: one that focuses on a singular moment in the subject's life, instead of taking a "greatest hits" approach. When we meet Brockovich (Julia Roberts), she's already a hard-on-her-luck single mom struggling to make ends meet. No need for flashbacks to see how she got to this point, or flash-forwards to where she is today. Instead, the focus is completely on her efforts to lead a class-action lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric on behalf of the residents of Hinkley, California, where the drinking water was contaminated by the company's chemical runoff. Roberts perfectly captures Brockovich's passion and persistence, while Albert Finney and Aaron Eckhart do great work as her law-firm boss and gearhead lover, respectively. It's an excellent biopic that actually gives real insight into its subject.

*Gladiator

Fourteen years later, it's easy to forget how risky Gladiator was at the time of its release. The sword-and-sandal genre had long been left for dead, as audiences had lost interest in seeing Romans do battle with others (and themselves). Director Ridley Scott hadn't made an acclaimed film since Thelma & Louise (1991), and many wondered if he could handle a project of this magnitude. Russell Crowe's star power was on the rise, but he was untested as the lead in a summer blockbuster. By all means, Gladiator seemed ready to fail. And yet the film was an enormous financial success, and became a surprising Best Picture Oscar winner. There's a reason for that: this film is undeniably enjoyable. Even if the story is particularly inventive, the revenge-narrative of a Roman general (Crowe) turned gladiator works thanks to Crowe's impressive performance and Scott's fearless direction. The former gets assists from Joaquin Phoenix, as the sadistic emperor, and Djimon Honsou, as a fellow gladiator, who each turn in stunning work. But it's Scott's impressively-recreated vision of Rome at the height of its imperial power that truly steals the film. It may not be "heavy" or "important," but being this entertaining is reason enough to be considered one of the year's best.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Speaking of entertaining: it's fascinating that two of 2000's five Best Picture nominees are, at heart, action films that put exciting fight sequences at the forefront of their stories (these are also my two favorite nominees, as you'll see below). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon brings the tradition of wuxia - a broad Chinese genre of martial-arts storytelling - to American audiences, courtesy of master director Ang Lee. Though the film makes much of the chase between two warriors (Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh) for a stolen sword, it is also a romantic epic about the relationship between those warriors. It's the romance that gives the film its resonance, and truly proves Lee's talents as a director. Combine that with the truly impressive wire-fu fight sequences, especially the famous treetop showdown, and it adds up to a unique and incredible film. It's well-deserved recognition for a film that transcended what could have been pulp.

Traffic

In adapting a miniseries into a single film, it shouldn't be surprising that Steven Soderbergh's Traffic is an episodic narrative. The film's a portrait of the American drug trade, peeking into the lives of both the politicians (Michael Douglas) who make anti-drug laws to the officers on either side of the border (Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro) enforcing those laws. Pre-dating Crash - which had a similar narrative structure - by about five years, Traffic undoubtedly has a talented cast doing (mostly) stellar work, is impressively directed by Soderbergh, and was one of the first major films to really turn a critical eye to the "War on Drugs." That being said, it has its flaws: some of the narrative threads are predictable (of course the politician's daughter is an addict!), and many of them tie together a tad too neatly. The most effective ones - particularly the arc of Del Toro's crooked-but-noble cop Javier Rodriguez - explore the violence that drives the trade, and the anarchy that rules it. The parts don't completely add up to a satisfying whole, but it's ambition and talent make it a worthwhile experience.

My ballot:

1. Gladiator
2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
3. Erin Brockovich
4. Traffic
5. Chocolat

So there you have it. The year 2000 is a wrap, but what have we learned? Here's a few points and trivia about the year that was:

  • In terms of the ceremony itself, Steve Martin hosted for the first time, but what most people remember today was Bjork's infamous swan dress. Bjork had been nominated for Best Original Song for "I Feel It All," from Dancer in the Dark, but not for her highly-acclaimed performance in the film. Also of note: "I Feel It All" is also director Lars Von Trier's only Oscar nomination, since he's one of the credited lyricists. Take a moment to let that sink in.
  • Gladiator led all films with 12 nominations and 5 wins, with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon following with 10 nominations and 4 wins. The latter film is also the most-nominated foreign-language film in Oscar history, and its 4 wins matches the mark for foreign-language films set by Ingmar Bergman's Fanny & Alexander in 1983.
  • Traffic also received 4 Oscars, adding Best Film Editing to its accolades covered in this feature.
  • Honorary Oscars were given to cinematographer/director Jack Cardiff (Black Orpheus, The Red Shoes, Sons and Lovers) and screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North By Northwest, West Side Story, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), while the Irving G. Thalberg Award was presented to producer Dino De Laurentiis (Barbarella, Conan the Barbarian, Blue Velvet).
  • Erin Brockovich holds the distinction of being the most recent Best Picture nominee to have been released before the month of May; it was released March 17, 2000.
  • All four acting winners have been nominated since their wins, but Julia Roberts waited the longest. Russell Crowe was nominated for Best Actor in 2001 (A Beautiful Mind), Benicio Del Toro and Marcia Gay Harden were nominated again in 2003 for Best Supporting Actor (21 Grams) and Best Supporting Actress (Mystic River), respectively, while Roberts had to wait until 2013 for her next nomination, Best Supporting Actress for August: Osage County. None of them have won again since.
  • In the major categories, two of the nominees - Julie Walters (Best Supporting Actress) and Steve Kloves (Best Adapted Screenplay) - would go on to be involved in the Harry Potter franchise, which would arrive the following year. Walters played Mrs. Weasley, while Kloves wrote the screenplay for seven of the franchise's eight films. (John Williams, who composed the score for the franchise, was also nominated for The Patriot).

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