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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 35

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

Part 35: 1999


  • Saving Private Ryan

  • The Thin Red Line (hidden gem)

  • Elizabeth

  • Shakespeare in Love (winner)

  • Life is Beautiful

Saving Private Ryan

War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

Unlike the other 1,300-some movies the world has made about World War II, Saving Private Ryan is not a story about valor, like Schindler’s List, nor a biopic about a notable soldier or general, like Patton. Instead, Saving Private Ryan is a condemnation of war wrapped up in a tale of human courage and sacrifice. It quickly and brutally dispels the notion that war is anything but vicious, demoralizing violence that makes a joke out of the human body and spirit.

From the very first shot of the film, director Steven Spielberg takes us right into the action, whether we want to see it or not. The opening sequence, which is a soldier’s-eye-view of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, is stunning not only in terms of technique, but in the visceral reaction it generates as a viewer. While I haven’t seen many war films, these first 30 minutes are certainly the most violent, gory, upsetting scenes I’ve witnessed on screen. Besides seeing men being blown to bits, losing limbs and entrails, and weeping at the loss of their comrades, Spielberg’s camera also makes no sense of the utter carnage going on. For the individual soldier on the beach, the landing was surely filled with noise, blood, vomit and death…and we see it all. By the end, the waves breaking on the beach are red with blood.

This first 30 minutes of this almost 3-hour movie required more than 15% of the film’s entire budget, equating to about $12 million. To add to the chaos of the scene, no part of the D-Day sequence was even storyboarded, giving the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan a very realistic, unsettling feel.

From here we transition to a much cozier office setting, where a few generals are learning that a woman in Iowa is about to receive notice that three of her four sons have died in battle. The last living son, James Ryan (Matt Damon) is somewhere in France and is granted leave to return home…of course, the only problem being that no one knows where the hell he is…not to mention if he’s even still alive.

This prompts the US army to dispatch a team of men to track down Private Ryan and return him home safe and sound. Led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), this group of soldiers must traverse enemy territory to find a common white boy with the most popular last name ever.

Captain Miller is joined by seven other men: Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Reiben (Edward Burns), Jackson (Barry Pepper), Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Caparzo (Vin Diesel), Upham (Jeremy Davis) and Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), most of whom aren’t at all excited about their new assignment. But off they go down the red brick road to track down a needle in a haystack.

As these men hike their way through the French countryside, we get to spend time with them – offering quiet, character-building moments that turn these soldiers into real people. When some of them die, we grieve for them because we know them. Though they all put on a brave face, there’s no denying that all these men, even the Captain, are just ordinary guys caught in the grasp of extraordinary circumstances.

In what was maybe one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history, Saving Private Ryan lost Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love; however, it would take home several technical awards, including Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Film Editing and Best Director. It was the highest-grossing US film of 1998 and the second highest-grossing worldwide, behind Armageddon.

Similar to Schindler’s List, which Spielberg directed just 5 years before Ryan, this film is a gripping, disturbing and powerful movie experience. Although both films take place during the same time period, they focus on different ideas. Schindler’s List personifies the struggle of good and evil. Saving Private Ryan doesn’t have a human villain. The enemy isn’t the German army – it’s war itself. It’s an insatiable monster that consumes human lives no matter how noble the purpose.


The Thin Red Line

“Beautiful” is not a word I ever thought I’d use to describe a war film…yet, I can’t think of a better one to describe Terrance Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

The same year Steven Spielberg blew the world away with Saving Private Ryan, Malick introduced a film entirely different. Though it takes place during the same time, The Thin Red Line is more intimate, more soulful. It’s a kind of lyric poem about the way men are transformed by the experience of war. In a delicate dance between action and introspection, The Thin Red Line reminds us that life and death are anything but simple.

Where Saving Private Ryan opens with a bloody, violent attack, The Thin Red Line begins with a simple question: “What is this war in the heart of nature?” A crocodile slithers into the moss-covered waters like a soldier in the grass. Stunning shots of the Pacific jungles fill the screen. The sun illuminates the sky. A slew of open-ended questions presented by the narrator invite us to interpret what we’re seeing. “Why does nature vie with itself?”

We eventually land somewhere in the Pacific, where two American soldiers have gone AWOL and live blissfully with the tribal people who reside on this small, coastal island. It’s a society that reflects man’s best nature, where sustenance is built on need, not desire. During the few battle scenes in this film, the story flashes back here, and to home life in America. Against these simple pleasures is stacked the ideology of war, represented by a colonel (Nick Nolte) who lives and breathes fighting, freedom and ferociousness. He reins over the soldiers of C Company, who were integral in this fictionalized version of the Battle of Mount Austen.

Starring basically everyone who wasn’t in Saving Private Ryan, including Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, Adrien Brody, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, John C. Reilly and John Travolta, The Thin Red Line has a lot of characters, most of whom come and go without so much as a salute. Honestly, it’s probably not unlike real war, where one soldier is no different, no more indestructible, than the next.

Where most war films give us someone to root for, or at least focus on, The Thin Red Line is an ensemble film. There really isn’t a traditional “main character”. People are taken at face value, often remaining undefined even after we get to know them. Most of them don’t even have names – we just know them as “Welsh”, “Fife”, “Tall”, “Witt”, or “Gaff”. But Malick isn’t interested in exploring these men any more than Death is. War doesn’t care if you have a wife at home, so why should we?

And, unlike Ryan, squirmy viewers don’t have to worry about piles of intestines here. War is certainly hell, but The Thin Red Line doesn’t care about what war does to one’s body. Instead, this film focuses on the damage done to one’s soul. When one soldier confides in another that he’s unable to feel anything anymore, the second soldier responds, “That sounds like bliss.”

While all the soldiers in this film may be on the same battlefield, they're each experiencing their own war. Colonel Tall (Nolte) is in desperate need of professional recognition and is all too willing to risk the lives of his men for his own benefit. Captain Staros (Koteas) believes life should be protected at all costs and doesn’t understand Tall’s blind need for victory. Within the company, Private Bell (Chaplin) longs for the love of his wife and dreads fighting because of it, while Corporal Fife (Brody) is so scared at the thought of battle that fear essentially paralyzes him. These are men lost in the bewilderment, struggling to survive under the most horrific conditions.

By the end of the film, we’re left wondering about the questions at the beginning. “Why does nature vie with itself?” Perhaps nature must oppose itself in order to achieve balance. “Darkness and light, strife and love…” a voiceover says, “…are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?”

The final image of the film brings back memories of Wall-E: a small clump of soil, in a pool of calm water, holding a stalk of new life that reaches towards the sky. Is it a symbol of all things shining? A glimmer of hope in a world inundated with death? Maybe it’s an answer to the film’s opening questions of whether nature can harmonize with itself. How do you approach life when you are made fully aware of your own morality? For these men, and maybe Malick himself, that’s the great question at the heart of it all.



Who would have thought that Queen Elizabeth I and Michael Corleone would have so much in common…

Set just before and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Elizabeth is a bit of a 16th century Godfather story. Both characters find themselves in the middle of a familial war they seemingly want no part of. They’re both unlikely candidates who ascend to the leadership position, much to everyone’s surprise…then with strategy, ruthlessness and a crazy cynical mentor, they not only survive, but orchestrate a triumphant, bloody, countercoup, setting the scene for a long and productive reign. Of course, they also share the common idea that with great power comes weirder and weirder hairdos…

The film starts in 1554, with Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) assuming the throne after the death of her half-sister, Queen Mary (Kathy Burke). Almost immediately she is confronted by a slew of problems: a country with no money, a weak army, pressure to marry another royal to secure the blood line, not to mention a litany of threats from other leaders looking to move against England.

But there are dangers from within, too…with several men in her court plotting to kill her. And, because Elizabeth is a Protestant (Queen Mary was Catholic), the church declares her a heretic and issues a proclamation releasing all English Catholics from following her. Sister needs a trip to the pub!

Skeptical and unsure of her next move, Elizabeth hands off most of her decisions to her wise old owl, Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), who reiterates the notion that Elizabeth should marry to secure the realm. Her options are handed down: her dead sister’s husband (from France) or King Phillip II (from Spain)…but Elizabeth only has eyes for her childhood love, Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes).

Her decision to remain with her true love rather than marry for duty almost costs Elizabeth her life, and she’s soon swallowed up in a chess game, designed by those seeking to usurp her power by any means necessary. However, the game takes a turn when she comes to learn that Dudley has a secret of his own, causing Elizabeth to orchestrate an elaborate Corleone/Walter White-style murderfest in a last-ditch effort to maintain the throne.

Like most historical romances, Elizabeth compresses and rewrites history at its own convenience. Fine, but it also suffers from an emphasis on so many characters and subplots that the entire film feels jumpy and confusing. The overcrowded palace hallways come at the cost of depth of story and, apart from the Queen herself, most of the characters are no more than a white-washed face in a frilly dress.

In the end, it seems that great power almost always comes with great personal sacrifice. No one can truly have it all. For Elizabeth, power means losing her sexuality, her true love, her ability to become a mother, her very happiness all for the benefit of her country. Putting duty above all, the titled “Virgin Queen” made the unbreakable bond with the country she loved, with the crown, with power. And, much like Michael Corleone, found monarchy supreme to marriage.


Shakespeare in Love

Movie writers in 1998 must have been sharing homework or something. Three of the films nominated for Best Picture this year were about World War II, there were two movies about bugs (Antz and A Bug's Life), movies about alternate realities (The Truman Show, What Dreams May Come, Pleasantville), several films that would go on to become cult classics (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Big Lebowski, Rushmore, The Wedding Singer, and A Night at the Roxbury), and two movies set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Not only do Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love feature Queen Elizabeth in different eras of her reign, they also share a similar cast. Joseph Fiennes, who was arguably pretty forgettable in Elizabeth, is somewhat better as the Bard in Shakespeare…and Geoffrey Rush, who played a serious role in Elizabeth, offered a more joyous part in Shakespeare.

The two films also take great liberties with history; however, I’d argue that Shakespeare does a better job of it – if only because it offers something Elizabeth sorely lacked: wit.

Set in late Elizabethan England, Shakespeare in Love begins in the heart of the theater district. Though the play’s the thing in London, the plague has forced several theaters to close their doors, leaving writers like Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett) and William Shakespeare (Fiennes) desperate to sell their work to whomever will buy it.

Shakespeare, who has been suffering from a bit of writer’s block, is encouraged by impresario Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) to complete “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” for his theater, The Rose. However, Shakespeare has yet to find a muse that will, um, fix his broken quill, so to speak.

He eventually finds her in Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a wealthy soon-to-be bride who is one of the few theater-goers who prefers Shakespeare over Christopher Marlowe. In fact, she’d do just about anything to be in a Shakespeare show – including auditioning for the role of Romeo in drag.

The story itself is ingeniously ‘Shakespearean’ in its dimensions, including high and low comedy, mistaken identities, ghosts, poetry, and significant chunks of dialogue from Romeo and Juliet worked into the dialogue, sometimes creatively, sometimes obnoxiously.

And that’s exactly why Shakespeare in Love works just slightly better than Elizabeth. It doesn’t pretend to be somber history. It’s pure Hollywood fluff and it doesn’t try to hide it. It’s a sexy, gorgeous romance filled with sexy, gorgeous people. I mean, it what other universe would Ben Affleck be in an Elizabethan period film?

Rounding out the cast is Judi Dench, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Queen Elizabeth – a controversial win as Dench only had about 8 minutes of camera time…yet she commanded the screen in every scene.

In addition, Shakespeare in Love also won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress (Paltrow), Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design, as well as 6 other nominations. While it’s by no means the best movie ever, nor even the best movie of 1998 (an accolade I save for Rushmore), Shakespeare in Love puts theater front and center, showing us that actors and writers in the 16th century were really no different than those today. You learn your lines, you hope for an audience, and you give it your all. You bond, you fall in love. And if later your revels must be ended, well, at least you reveled.


Life is Beautiful

Well, I’m fairly certain that this is one of those films that exists better in your memory.

Look, I’m all for finding the humor in shitty situations. I think us Jews have gotten used to doing that. I also believe humor is a wonderful weapon and we still don’t know the full extent of what it can do to lift the human spirit. However, I think Life is Beautiful missed the mark here.

While it did a great job showcasing the comedic side of things, it really didn’t go dark enough to balance it out. True optimism is finding beauty where life is genuinely painful and difficult to endure, and this movie seemed to stop just short of that.

The first half of Life is Beautiful is wonderful. The jovial Guido (Roberto Benigni, who also directed the movie) arrives in an Italian town with dreams of a new life. His uncle offers him a job as a waiter, which Guido accepts. Through a series of highly coincidental and comical events, Guido falls madly in love with Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), a school teacher whom he refers to as “princess”. After several meet-cutes, they get married and have a child of their own, Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini).

All of this early material is comedy. Benigni is a classic visual comic, not unlike Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, and the first half of this film feels very much like a classic silent picture. Yet in the background of this developing romance lurks the atrocities of World War II. Though Guido has been able to avoid any issue for the first hour or so of the movie (we’re more than half-way into the movie when we learn the crucial information that Guido is indeed Jewish), all that changes in the second half.

Guido, Dora and Joshua are taken to a concentration camp, where husband and wife are separated upon arrival. Joshua becomes a stowaway at Guido’s side and, in an effort to protect his son from the brutal reality of their circumstances, Guido tells Joshua that the whole thing is a game: the train ride, the rationed food, the uniforms, the living conditions. Guido works diligently to create a fictitious playland for his son, enticing him with the ultimate prize – a real army tank of his own.

And herein lies the ultimate message of the movie: even under the gravest of circumstances, life is, and can be, beautiful. But this is also where this self-described “fable” falls apart. Life is Beautiful doesn’t really have any grave circumstances. There’s nothing in this movie that really raises the ugly head of human suffering. Though Guido and his son are in a concentration camp, they’re allowed to live, sleep, bunk and eat together. Guido somehow gets on the loudspeaker to play music for his wife across the camp. A German doctor shows sympathy for Guido because they were friends in a past life. Not only are these plot points unrealistic, they do nothing to contrast Guido’s need for bringing comedy and humor into the story.

The one scene that tries to admit the horrors of the Holocaust is frankly so miscalculated that it, too, becomes a distraction. While Guido is on a nighttime stroll through the camps after a hard day’s work (um, also unrealistic), he stumbles upon a huge pile of bodies, naked and blanched with death. While certainly powerful, death in a labor camp was not exactly something someone “stumbled upon”…it was everywhere. It was daily existence. The scene is over as quickly as it began, with the fog revealing, then covering, the one horror Guido sees during his time at the camp.

In the end, this fable about love and sacrifice gets some things right, but most things wrong. While the first half of Life is Beautiful does a lovely job of portraying “beauty”, the second half doesn’t quite come close enough to acknowledging “life” at the time. As one reviewer said, “It’s no accident that Roberto Benigni is as winsome and gangly as Dorothy’s scarecrow; there can be no doubting his heart or, to some degree, his courage, but there’s too much straw here where his brain should be.”


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