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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 10

I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.


PART 10: 1998


MOVIES:

  • As Good As it Gets

  • L.A. Confidential

  • Good Will Hunting

  • The Full Monty

  • Titanic (winner)

THOUGHTS:

As Good as it Gets: There are some things only Jack Nicholson can get away with – telling a waitress to “…hold the chicken between your knees”, convincing a group of insane men to break out of a mental institution, calling a gay man a “…pansy-ass stool pusher.”


In almost all of his movies, Nicholson seems to take pleasure in getting away with something, his broad grin and trademark eyebrows speaking to his devilish character. He knows how to play the angle and excels at bringing to life characters that would seem near impossible to visualize in the hands of any other actor.


In As Good as it Gets, Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, the Archie Bunker of the 90s. Melvin is a racist. He’s xenophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic and, to top it all off, hates dogs. An obsessive-compulsive who takes pleasure in insulting everyone in his path, Melvin is recluse, spending his time ironically writing romance novels that have women of all ages swooning.


In the hands of Nicholson, Melvin is a curmudgeon, an archetypal Scrooge who refuses to admit he has a problem. In one scene, he sits down to write the ending to one of his romance novels, only to discover he doesn’t have the words to explain what love even is. Of course, that’s because he doesn’t know. In fact, it takes three characters to break him down, each one teaching him a different facet of this emotion he’s spent his entire career trying to define.

From Verdell the dog, Melvin learns affection. In the opening scenes of AGAIG, Melvin is in the process of throwing Verdell down the garbage chute. Having peed in the hallway one too many times, this poor pooch is told by Melvin that “…if you can make it here [in New York], you can make it anywhere” before he’s sent flying to the basement (no worries, the dog is safely found and returned in the next scene!). However, when Melvin is tasked with dog-sitting, he and Verdell develop a bond. As Verdell’s Ewok-like face begins breaking down Melvin’s hard exterior, Melvin becomes almost tolerable as the humanity, hidden deep within himself, begins to manifest.

This opens the door to romance, which comes to him in the form of Carol (Helen Hunt), a waitress in Manhattan. Though she’s everything Melvin isn’t, Carol is also run down by the life she leads, struggling as a single parent and caring for her ailing son.

When Carol finds herself having to take off work to care for her son Spencer, Melvin finds it in himself to pay for Spencer’s medical bills, a gesture, no doubt, with obligation.

Finally, Melvin is taught friendship by the most unlikely source yet, a struggling gay artist named Simon (Greg Kinnear). Simon is Melvin’s neighbor and is often the butt of Melvin’s classic one-liners. But after Simon is beat up, battered and left for dead in a robbery gone wrong, he officially hits rock bottom. Unable to pay his mounting medical bills, Simon must bite the bullet and ask his parents, who don’t approve of the fact that he’s gay, for money. Melvin agrees to drive Simon to Baltimore, but cashes in his favor to Carol to come along, scared that Simon might “…pull the stiff one-eye” on him.


And so these three misfits – a racist old man, a gay artist without the will to live and a struggling waitress – hit the open road.

All things considered, the trip isn’t all bad. Relationships blossom, friendships are formed. Melvin realizes his desire to become a better person. But the comedic success of the first half of AGAIG is not met in the second half. These real, relatable human characters are forced into conventional storylines that are almost painful to watch. Melvin and Carol (and really Nicholson and Hunt) never really “click”, which makes their romantic storyline feel all the more forced and contrived. Nicholson struggles with vulnerability, and his prickly personality interferes with our acceptance of Melvin as “a new man”.


That all being said, I still love this film and usually find time about once or twice a year to watch it again. Like many rom-coms, it’s a film you have to enjoy while you’re watching it, because it doesn’t make a whole lotta sense when you stop and think about the logistics.


In Nicholson’s long repertoire of classic characters, Melvin Udall ranks up there with Col. Nathan R. Jessep, Jack Napier and R. P. McMurphy as one of his best. Both Nicholson and Hunt won Oscars for their performances in AGAIG, and the film was nominated for five other Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor (Kinnear), Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay.


Anyone who has seen this film knows it could never be made today. It’s a time capsule of a Hollywood long gone, where actors could get away with racist slurs, homophobic jokes and demoralizing comments about women. Yet, at it’s heart, As Good as it Gets is a story about overcoming personal demons, an honest and original comedy about recognizable and relatable human beings.

L.A. Confidential: How could a movie from 1997 about the film era of the 1950s feel so relevant in 2020?


The Golden Age of Hollywood – Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, Judy Garland and Rock Hudson were just some of the stars to light up the silver screen. Movies were a booming business, but in America’s capital of sophistication, glitter and glamour, a seedy underbelly began to take shape, framed by secret alliances, vicious paparazzi and, the coup de grace, a crooked police force.


It’s 1953. The City of Angels is in the grip of an unprecedented wave of violence. The head of the LAPD, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), knows of the corruption going on within his department but turns a blind eye to it. After all, there’s always a group of rag-tag (Black) youths he can pin the crime on…


When the Night Owl Massacre claims the lives of six people, including an ex-cop, the LAPD begins its routine investigation, only to discover this is no ordinary homicide.

The three cops on the job seem to represent three distinct stereotypical groups within law enforcement – one obsessed with violence, one corrupt to the core and one too naïve for his own good.

Bud White (Russell Crowe) is the “muscle”, believing that violence is the key to solving almost every problem. His temper is almost always at war with his basic sense of decency and justice.


Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the “by-the-book” cop, hoping to rise through the ranks with honesty and integrity. He’s quick to blow the whistle on his fellow officers and, even though he lacks experience, he soon picks up on the inner politics of the department.


Finally, there’s Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), who makes a few extra bucks working as a technical advisor on the hit police drama, “Badge of Honor”. He also sells celebrity tips to Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito), publisher of the L.A. trash tabloid, Hush-Hush. He’s become so casually corrupt and addicted to this secret life that he’s quite literally forgotten why he became a policeman in the first place.

These convoluted plot lines (plus a few more) all intersect at the Night Owl Massacre, where these three cops, who share nothing in common, must work together to solve this crime.


Violence and betrayal lead these men into a web of deceit as the truth about the massacre begins to come to light. A sexy noir crime drama that also stars Kim Basinger as prostitute Lynn Bracken and David Strathairn as her pimp Pierce Patchett, this is one wild and crazy ride though the dirty streets of 1950s SoCal.


Much like the other films that came out this year, L.A. Confidential didn’t stand a chance against the powerhouse that was Titanic. Though nominated for nine Academy Awards, it only won two: Best Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger) and Best Adapted Screenplay.


In the family of Hollywood noir films, L.A. Confidential is certainly up there with the likes of Chinatown and Double Indemnity. The characters are smart and the plot is nothing if not a labyrinth. We don’t know who’s guilty or innocent…and dirty little secrets hide behind every palm tree.


Of course, it would be remiss of me to not mention the police brutality in this film that felt very topical in today’s day and age. Racial profiling, inner racism and white privilege all reared their ugly heads in this movie about a broken police force – all the more proof that today’s fights eerily echo what those before us fought for as well – equality, basic human rights and the dismantling of those departments drunk with power and greed.

Good Will Hunting: My final creative writing assignment in college was to write a short story about something that was important to me. Matt Damon’s was to write a scene…instead, he wrote a movie. How do you like them apples?!


What started as Damon’s final assignment in his Harvard University playwriting class eventually morphed into Good Will Hunting, an award-winning “Cinderella” dramedy about a group of boys slumming around the streets of working-class Boston.


MIT may be known for its math and engineering programs, but the smartest kid to walk its campus isn’t a student, it’s the guy who sweeps the floors. Headstrong and stubborn, Will Hunting (Damon) is a blue-collar kid with a genius IQ who can tackle the hardest math problems, yet can’t seem to score in the category that counts – his own life.


In mathematical terms, Will’s life is governed by chaos theory. Janitor by day and reckloose by night, Will spends most of his time drinking with his buds. Though he has the smarts to study math, he prefers spending his time doing something he actually enjoys. After all, being a janitor is good, honest work and allows him the freedom to spend his nights as he pleases.

Within the educational walls of MIT, professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) is attempting to challenge his students with a near impossible math problem, posted outside his classroom. When the problem appears to be solved the next day, Lambeau surveys the class to see who cracked it, but no one fesses up. After a second problem is posted, Lambeau catches Will in the act and attempts to chase him down, only to discover the cops have beaten him to it.


Indeed it’s Will’s temper rather than his intelligence that dominates his life and, when he finds himself in trouble with the law for assault, he’s offered a deal, courtesy of one Professor Lambeau. In exchange for receiving probation, Will must enter private study with Lambeau at MIT and attend mandatory therapy sessions. Begrudgingly, Will agrees.


One by one, a succession of psychologists tries to reach Will, but he won’t cooperate. After putting upwards of five shrinks through the ringer, Will finally meets his match in Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), a college professor and old roommate of Professor Lambeau.


As Sean breaks through Will’s tough exterior, a beautiful bond is formed, and Will comes to realize that the only one holding him back is himself.

Also starring Ben Affleck and Minnie Driver, Good Will Hunting is a classic coming-of-age story that showcases two gifted writers. Damon actually re-wrote his script with fellow actor and childhood friend, Ben Affleck, and their chemistry shows onscreen. Having grown up in Boston, Damon featured his city in a way only a local could, bringing to life the beauty of its ivy league schools, as well as its lower-class slums.


Both Damon and Affleck took home Oscars for Best Original Screenplay for Good Will Hunting. Robin Williams, whose performance was somber and tender, also earned his one and only Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film.


In the long run, Good Will Hunting is not a groundbreaking story. The ending is sappy and predictable. Taken for what it is, there’s little that’s really special about it. But, as is the case with most character-driven films, it’s the little moments – a talk on a bench, a fight in a bar – not the payoff, that makes this story so memorable.

The Full Monty: As the old song goes, “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”


Sheffield, England. A once booming manufacturing town, Sheffield has been modernized and mechanized. Productivity is up, but the victims of automation are the blue-collar workers, many of whom are now unemployed with nothing left to do but get into mischief.


While bumming around the streets of Sheffield, Gaz (Robert Carlyle) notices flocks of women lined up for a Chippendale performance. Taking note of the tremendous crowds, Gaz gets an idea. If male strippers who don’t bare all can rake in the money, what about those who are willing to show ‘the full monty’?


In a last-ditch effort to earn some cash, Gaz and his mate Dave (Mark Addy) decide to turn in their hard hats for G-strings and go where the work is: the strip club.


Calling themselves “Hard Steel”, Gaz and his crew are anything but. Gaz wears his years of smoking and drinking well…Dave is on the heavy side and very self-conscious about his body. Horse (Paul Barber) has a bad hip, Lomper (Steve Huison) is suicidal and Guy (Hugo Speer) doesn’t know a beat from a ball change – but he makes the cut do to his, um, manhood. To top it all off, the only man who can choreograph this group of misfits is Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), a fellow unemployed foreman by day and ballroom dancer by night.

What results is a wonderfully charming comedy about overcoming adversity in spite of any perceived…shortcomings (pun intended!). While the “Hard Steel” performance is more amusing than enticing, it becomes the thing that gets these men up and out of bed in the morning. Since loosing their jobs, this little striptease provides a sense of purpose again.


Unlike other stripper films, The Full Monty throws eroticism out the window. In fact, there’s not a sexually provocative moment in the entire movie. Instead the central joke here is that there’s really nothing funnier than watching a bunch of old, non-athletic Englishmen prancing about in snap-on underwear.


Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Musical or Comedy Score (which it won), The Full Monty is one of those rare movies that tugs at the heartstrings and tickles the funny bone. With big-hearted characters who experience real human emotion and fear, this a sweet story that is sure to leave you satisfied and smiling.

Titanic: Like most 80s girls, 1997 was a big year for me. I became a bat mitzvah…I traveled to Israel with my mom...and I saw the movie that would change everything.


For me, Titanic was not just a formative experience, it was THE formative experience. Every penny I earned went to buying another ticket to see this blockbuster on screen. Leonardo DiCaprio literally covered my walls (and, together with Joshua Jackson, basically spurred on my sexual awakening). As I sat there in the theater watching this beautiful love story unfold, I became utterly and completely swept up in it. Up to that point, it was the most amazing movie I had ever seen and, frankly, still holds up.


The opening shots of Titanic take place about 85 years after she sank, deep on the ocean floor. As a rover explores the wreckage, the ship calls from the grave for its story to be told. Staterooms once built for millionaires are now inherited by crustaceans. Shoes, dolls, glasses and even china bearing the White Star Line logo remain virtually intact, frozen in time.


The purpose of this expedition, led by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), is to locate a rare jeweled necklace, romantically called “The Heart of the Ocean.” However, the only relic Lovett is able to locate is a nude drawing of a young girl, seemingly wearing the necklace he’s looking for.


When an elderly woman by the name of Rose (Gloria Stewart) sees the drawing on TV, she recognizes it as her younger self. After a call to Lovett, she’s flown out to his ship and, through her retelling of that fateful night, our story begins.


For most passengers, the RMS Titanic was “the ship of dreams”…but for young Rose (Kate Winslet) it was a slave ship. Forced by her penniless mother to become engaged to a rich, snob named Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), Rose is perhaps the only passenger not looking forward to stepping foot on American soil. In fact, she’s so upset with the course her life has taken that she tries to kill herself by jumping off the ship. However, she’s saved by one Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a brash kid from steerage who won his ticket aboard the Titanic in a lucky hand of poker.


Despite their obvious class difference (Rose being a first-class passenger and Jack being in third), the two form a friendship that quickly turns into love. Their romance is written in such a way as to show off as much of the ship as possible, with Jack accompanying Rose to dinner in a first-class dining room, followed by a jaunt down to third class where they dance and drink beer. We later follow the lovers as they walk the first-class promenade, run through the engine room and explore various rooms on the ship we wouldn’t see otherwise, such as the gym and the chapel.

Titanic also intertwines fictional characters, such as Jack, Rose and Cal, with historical figures who were on board the real ship, such as Margaret “Molly” Brown (Kathy Bates), the ship’s designer Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), and wealthy first-class passengers including John Jacob Astor IV (Eric Braeden) and Benjamin Guggenheim (Michael Ensign).


Now in a movie about the RMS Titanic, certain things HAVE to happen. The boat has to sink. People have to die. Families must make those gut-wrenching decisions about whether to board a lifeboat or stay together until the bitter end…and it’s in these moments where Titanic truly shines. In the scenes that are most harsh to watch – the ship cracking in two, the sea of bodies screaming for help, a mother reading to her children knowing they won’t make it out alive – Titanic goes from romance to tragedy in the most heartbreaking way possible.

Clocking in at just over 3 hours, Titanic takes about 25 minutes longer to watch than it took for the ship to sink (actually, minus the credits and present day shots, the movie is 2 hours and 40 minutes long, the exact length of time it took the ship to sink). However, it cost about 25 times more to make than the original ship cost to build. Director James Cameron actually rebuilt the Titanic 90% to scale, then sunk it. Combined with several computer graphics, the outcome is something truly extraordinary.


Of course, it’s no shock that the movie was a worldwide success. It became the first film to reach the billion-dollar mark and became the highest-grossing film of all time until Cameron outdid himself with Avatar in 2010. It was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and took home 11, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Original Song (“My Heart Will Go On”) and Best Original Dramatic Score (which it rightfully deserved).


Narratively, Titanic is a masterpiece of storytelling, broad enough to entertain, yet nuanced enough to educate. Cameron puts us inside the psyches of those on board and it’s easy to see some facet of ourselves in the wealthy class as well as the poor. Money be damned, we’re all flesh and blood. We’re all susceptible to the force of nature. In other words, we’re all on the same boat.

OVERALL:

Awesome, awesome, awesome movies this year. As Good As it Gets and The Full Monty are tied for my hidden gem (though I’m likely to give it to The Full Monty since I’ve seen As Good As it Gets enough to quote it verbatim).


Good Will Hunting is a classic in the genre of coming-of-age movies and ranks up there with Dead Poet’s Society as one of Robin Williams’ best performances of his short career.


Released any other year, I think L.A. Confidential may have snagged Best Picture, but Titanic was clearly deserving. Massive in size, scale and budget, she surpassed them all.


Onto the next pull!

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