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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 76

Part 76: 2000


MOVIES:

  • The Sixth Sense

  • The Cider House Rules

  • American Beauty (winner)

  • The Insider

  • The Green Mile (hidden gem)



The Sixth Sense

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Starring: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg, Glenn Fitzgerald, Mischa Barton, Trevor Morgan, Bruce Norris, Angelica Page, Greg Wood, M. Night Shyamalan, Peter Tambakis, Jeffrey Zubernis

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Toni Collette), Best Supporting Actor (Haley Joel Osment), Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Film Editing, Best Director, Best Picture


Up until 1999, the scariest movie I had ever seen was probably The Never-Ending Story. I’ve never liked horror films and was much more willing to spend my hard-earned allowance seeing Notting Hill or Never Been Kissed. But, at the cornerstone of my teenage years, my anxiety was no match for peer pressure...and so, in an act of adolescent bravado, I agreed to join my family on an excursion to see the new hit, The Sixth Sense.

 

Well, see is the wrong word. As soon as I saw Mischa Barton grab Haley Joel Osment’s leg from under the bed, The Sixth Sense became a movie I endured, watching in segments between my fingers until the blasted thing was over. Once the credits rolled, I assured myself that I would NEVER watch that movie again.



I watched it again.

 

Given that the top three box office earners in 1999 included a prequel (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace [1]) and a sequel (Toy Story 2; [3]), it speaks volumes that the # 2 spot went to a little ghost story from a then-unknown director. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense drew critical acclaim, a slew of Oscar nominations, and forever embedded “I see dead people” into the pop culture lexicon. Yet the success of the film had nothing to do with the production, the cast, or even the overall plot…it was solely thanks to the rumor mill.

 


The promise and unyielding buzz of a shocking twist ending helped build this film’s reputation as THE MOVIE TO SEE, but was it worth the hype?

 

The film begins by introducing us to a revered psychologist named Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis). At the start of the film, he and his wife Anna (Olivia Williams) return home to find an intruder in their bedroom. His name is Vincent Gray (Donnie Wahlberg), a former patient of Malcolm’s who is still struggling to silence his demons. He pulls a gun on Malcolm, shooting him in the stomach before turning the gun on himself.



The following autumn, the slowly recovering Malcolm is fueled by course correction, putting all his focus into new patient Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a shy and introverted boy with similar symptoms to Vincent Gray. Upon gaining the boy’s trust, Malcolm learns that this extremely sensitive, compassionate 8-year-old has a sixth sense – the ability to see dead people walking amongst the living. But is this a blessing or a curse?

 

Over the coming weeks, Malcolm works tirelessly to help Cole demystify this supernatural skill, but at a cost. In the year that’s passed, Anna has kept a quiet distance and Malcolm suspects her of having an affair. The once loving couple hardly ever talk and Malcolm is running out of ways to try and get through to his wife.

 

Meanwhile, Cole’s visions continue…leading up to that pivotal moment when everything is revealed. Was it the twist of the century? When I was 15, I certainly thought so…but, watching it again, I’ve gotta say – it’s not all that shocking.



Still, it’s fun to return to the film after knowing the twist and see how Shyamalan makes us see only what he wants us to see. It’s a film that’s certainly best viewed once, because in all other subsequent viewings, you’re not watching the same movie. You’ll hear every line of dialog differently, you’ll interpret what you see differently, you won’t see characters in the same way again. In that way, The Sixth Sense is a fun movie experience. But in every other way, it’s honestly pretty boring. The acting is blah. The pacing is slow. And the parts that scared me at 15 are almost laughable now. However, I have to give it credit where credit is due. Shayamalan and his little ghost-movie-that-could do understand that these supernatural stories are about more than dead people. Ghost stories often translate a sense of longing and regret, of disconnection and isolation. At its heart, The Sixth Sense is a story about how difficult it is to have meaningful communication in the modern world, with or without a pulse.

 

The Cider House Rules

Director: Lasse Hallstrom

Starring: Tobey Maguire, Michael Caine, Charlize Theron, Paul Rudd, Delroy Lindo, Erykah Badu, Heavy D, K. Todd Freeman, Kieran Culkin, Jane Alexander, Kathy Baker, Kate Nelligan, Paz de la Huerta, J.K. Simmons, Evan Parke, Jimmy Flynn, Erik Per Sullivan, Skye McCole Bartusiak

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Michael Caine), Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Other Nominations: Best Art Direction, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music (Original Score), Best Picture

 

Dr. Larch (Michael Caine) is an old man with modern views, suck in a world that refuses to change or adapt to the times. His gynecological practice has morphed into an orphanage, giving shelter and support to those children left behind. He’s also one of the only practitioners in 1940s America who is pro-choice, offering women the option to have safe, quiet abortions, no questions asked.



One of the young boys left behind is a lad named Homer (Toby McGuire). As a blossoming teenager, Homer is resigned to growing up in the orphanage. He helps Dr. Larch with deliveries and abortions and acts as a surrogate father/brother to the other children under Larch’s care.

 

In its own ram-shackled and grubby way, the orphanage is a loving place. Each child is well-loved by the entire staff, including Larch, Homer, and at least two full-time nurses. Bedtime stories are a nightly tradition, as are prayers for those children who have gone to their forever homes.



For the first half of the film, we’re just hanging out with these kids, getting to know them and watching them grow. The core of The Cider House Rules begins to emerge when Homer, eager to experience the world and find his own way, decides to leave with a young couple that have come in for an abortion. Homer is much taken with the man, Wally (Paul Rudd), who is a bomber pilot in the Air Force. His wife, Candy (Charlize Theron) is also affectionate and warm, and the couple offer Homer a job on their apple farm.

 

The small cider house where Homer stays with the rest of the farm workers displays a list of rules, including don’t operate the grinder if you’ve been drinking, don’t smoke in the bed, and don’t go up on the roof. The workers, including Arthur Rose (Delroy Lindo) and his daughter, Rose Rose (Erykah Badu), cannot read – and ironically break the rules daily.



Rule-breaking is a theme throughout the remainder of the film, with several characters going against societal law. There’s incest, infidelity, abortions, murder, and lying, not to mention the constant breaking of the cider house rules. What rules apply, then? How much do we choose to care what damage has been created by our irresponsibility? What are the set ground rules of life, or are there any?

 

For Homer, the lessons come fast and strong. Like his namesake, the Greek poet, he learns from his odyssey. He returns home, to the orphanage, where he takes over as director. And as he honors Dr. Larch, and his charges, with his nightly close of, “Goodnight, you Princes of Maine; you Kings of New England”, his full-circle moment ends. His quest for manhood and experience serve only to lead him back to his roots, both physically, emotionally and morally.

 


Obviously the most enjoyable part of The Cider House Rules is the kids, who are all completely adorable and charming. Little Fuzzy (Erik Per Sullivan) is a particular favorite, who has a badly damaged heart and severe asthma due to fetal alcohol poisoning. Buster (Kieran Culkin) is a little firecracker who is just begging to be seen and loved and Curly (Spencer Diamond) is virtually impossible to resist, with his cute button nose and brilliant smile. But once we leave the orphanage in the second half, The Cider House Rules can’t quite match the energy of where it started. Part of that is the nature of the story – I mean, watching Kieran Culkin cause trouble is obviously more fun than learning about an incestual relationship, but part of that is also Toby McGuire, who’s soft, quiet presence can’t quite carry the junk in this movie’s trunk.

 

Still, I thought this was a solid film with a message that’s sadly still relevant today – that abolishing abortion isn’t saving babies, it’s causing unsafe abortions. When Homer sees, first-hand, the damage a back-alley abortion can cause a woman, his pro-life views begin to change. And while Dr. Larch may not completely agree with all the modern pro-choice views, he’s certainly pro-woman and believes that women have the right to a safe procedure, regardless of the reason.

 

Ultimately, the film doesn’t take a strong stance either way, but it does try to demonstrate the rules, written or unwritten, that justify how we live our lives and how we treat others.

 

American Beauty

Director: Sam Mendes

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Chris Cooper, Scott Bakula, Sam Robards, Amber Smith

Oscar Wins: Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Cinematography, Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Director, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Actress (Annette Bening), Best Film Editing, Best Music (Original Score)

 

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a depressed, despondent, down-trodden 40-something with a wife he doesn’t love and a kid who can’t stand him. His seemingly beautiful home is no more than a cardboard box to him and every social gathering he’s forced to attend is yet just another display of fake human emotion.

 


His days all start and end the same – wake up, shower, masturbate in the shower, go to work, come home, eat a mediocre dinner while listening to his wife’s weird playlist, go to bed, then do it all over again. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening) is so picture perfect that her garden shears are coordinated with her footwear. The white picket fence surrounding his home is adorned with award-winning roses and there doesn’t seem to be a rouge plastic bag (drifting through the wind, wanting to start again) anywhere in sight. It’s creepy in its perfection, not unlike The Truman Show or Edward Scissorhands. It’s middle-class America as a paradise and a prison.

 


But everything changes for Lester the night he’s dragged to his daughter’s cheerleading performance. There, in the center of the dance floor, he sees HER. A beautiful, intoxicating rose of youth. Her name is Angela (Mena Suvari) and she just so happens to be best friends with his daughter, Jane (Thora Birch). At that moment, something snaps in Lester. He’s never wanted anything more than he wants this girl. In Lester’s dreams that night, she’s nude and beckoning, her body submerged in rose petals. Almost immediately he hatches a plan to lure Angela into his arms.

 


With a new lease on life, Lester quits his job, blackmails his boss, and starts jamming out to his old 70s mix tapes. His garage is transformed into a home gym. He smokes weed and finds work at a local fast-food restaurant. In no time, all responsibility has been abandoned. He’s like a suburban Travis Bickle, totally bonkers, but deliriously happy.

 

While Lester is going through a complete reconstruction of his personality and outlook on life, Carolyn’s perspectives are also changing. Frustrated by her relationship (or lack thereof) with her husband, she begins an affair with a fellow real estate agent who calls himself “The King” (Peter Gallagher).



Stuck in the middle of it all is Jane. She’s very aware of her dad’s weird crush on her best friend but is even more disgusted with Angela’s desire to lead him on. As their friendship fizzles, Jane develops an unusual relationship with Ricky (Wes Bentley), the handsome, yet creepy, boy next door. Ricky’s virtually attached to his camcorder and often films Jane in her room, both with and without her consent. At home, Ricky’s also dealing with a troubled father (Chris Cooper), only his is an ex-Marine neo-Nazi with a few secrets of his own.

 

All these threads come together one dark and stormy night, when a series of misunderstandings so bizarre that they easily could have been lifted from a screwball comedy, result in a murder most foul…well, not so foul – it’s spoiled in the first 10 minutes of the movie – but still!

 

Naturally, all anyone can talk about after seeing this movie is the irony of Kevin Spacey playing a 42-year-old man in love with a 16-year-old girl. But American Beauty is not about a Lolita-type relationship. It’s about yearning after youth, power and, of course, beauty. Lester’s thoughts about Angela are certainly sexual in nature, but she’s more of a catalyst for his eventual freedom, a spark that sets his reawakening in motion.

 

For her part, Angela is easily the most honest, sympathetic character of all of them. She knows how much sexual power she has, and she delights in it. But she’s never a victim. The movie knows what a pathetic loser Lester is, but it also knows that Angela has willingly encouraged his attraction to her. Even when reality meets fantasy and Lester is given the chance to be with Angela in every way, both parties refuse. He never wanted to sleep with her…he simply wanted to stop growing up.


 

As we age, we take refuge in routine. After a number of years, the thought of change becomes terrifying. Happiness and freedom, the goals that inspire us in our youth, are replaced by the desire for conformity and repetition. Loveless marriages like Lester and Carolyn’s exist because neither partner has the guts to break the cycle. And the children they think they’re protecting by staying together are often the biggest victims in the end.

 

Duality plays a major role in American Beauty. Nothing is what it seems. This is obvious with the Americana setting, which almost begs us to make the comparison that suburban life is never what we expect. Carolyn’s tough exterior, for example, hides a woman terrified of failure. Ricky’s father uses anger to hide his own insecurities. Even Angela, with all her sexual energy, is a virgin.

 

When Jane asks Ricky to show her the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, he shows her a 15-minute video of a plastic bag blowing in the wind; yet all she sees is garbage. For Lester, the epitome of beauty is Angela; but all Ricky sees when looking at her is an ugly, self-absorbed twat. Even we, as the viewer, are trained to second-guess the cozy, apple-pie feeling we get when we first see the Burnham home. American Beauty is a movie that asks us to look closer, but still can’t help but feel surface-level. Some will love it for that, and for its symbolism and metaphors, but I didn’t quite buy into its message. Ah well. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, it seems. 

 

The Insider

Director: Michael Mann

Starring: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar, Renee Olstead, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Stephen Tobolowsky, Colm Feore, Bruce McGill, Gina Gershon, Michael Gambon, Rip Torn, Cliff Curtis, Gary Sandy, Roger Bart, Jack Palladino, Mike Moore

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Russell Crowe), Best Sound, Best Cinematography, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Picture

 

The investigative journalists of cinema have taken on some big sharks over the years – local government (Erin Brockovich), the Catholic church (Spotlight), even the Oval Office (All the President’s Men). These brave souls put it all on the line, pursuing truth, righting the scales of justice, and clueing the public into what these institutions – corporate, governmental, or otherwise – are doing behind closed doors.

 

It takes guts to be a good investigative journalist. You have to be tenacious. You have to be ruthless. You have to LOVE talking on the phone, apparently. But to be a GREAT one – well, that involves some level of bravery (or maybe stupidity?) to get to the heart of the story. These are the journalists who put their reputations, their jobs, their lives, on the line. Sharks aren’t big enough. They want the whales.



Journalist Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) has the perfect weapon for his whale hunt: a disgruntled employee. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) has just been fired. As a top scientist at Brown & Williamson, one of the biggest tobacco giants in the world, Wigand clashed with higher-ups over the use of ammonia chemistry – a process which essentially enhances nicotine’s effects on the body.

 

Enter Bergman, who helps Wigand find his voice and speak out against Big Tobacco. Bergman’s longtime correspondent Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) agrees to produce a segment for 60 Minutes, featuring an explosive interview with Wigand in which he accuses the head of Brown & Williamson of lying to Congress and the American people about the addictive properties of nicotine. The whole thing is locked and loaded, ready for strike. That is, until CBS corporate gets wind of what’s about to go down.



Terrified that the tobacco industry will virtually bankrupt CBS with a killer lawsuit if this special airs, the corporate lawyers for the station shut it down. The second half of The Insider then transitions from taking on Big Tobacco to fighting corporate America. 

 

For the majority of the film, Bergman dances around Wigand like a predator, trying to piece together an expose based solely on a man with a pretty tight nondisclosure agreement. However, Bergman is one of those GREAT investigative journalists, willing to put it all out on the line for the betterment of the story. And like the best predators, he’s sneaky, quiet, unassuming. Some of the best parts of the movie involve him pouring through documents, waiting for a phone call, or having an argument via fax. He’s an old school guy armed with modern weapons – a mobile phone and a Rolodex of contacts. When he pounces, it’s not a large gesture, but a small, calculated one. In fact, everything in this movie is intimate. All the action takes place in living rooms, hotel rooms, bedrooms, and offices. Tips are passed while standing at a bar and crucial conversations happen in crowded restaurants or on city buses.



When Bergman gets word that CBS will not be airing his segment, he goes on the warpath. Up until this point, Bergman has worn 60 Minutes like a badge of honor, but now it’s an albatross. “What got broken here doesn’t go back together again,” he says. He walks away from the pinnacle of his profession because they didn’t treat his work the way it deserved to be treated. For this film, there’s no greater crime.

 

At first glance, The Insider doesn’t seem like it’s the stuff of good cinema. Based on real events that transpired in the mid-1990s, this film is mainly about people sitting in rooms and talking. It’s about drab boardrooms and mundane offices – places filled with corporate jargon and legal minutiae – where people’s lives are destroyed. It’s comparatively quiet. There are no pursuits, chases, or battles. When Wallace meets Wigand and his wife, he asks Bergman, “Who are these people?” Bergman responds: “Ordinary people under extraordinary pressure.”



It's also important to remember the power shows like 60 Minutes once had. In that sense, The Insider feels somewhat like a time capsule, a snapshot from a period in time when a TV report could actually reach a massive audience and spark change. In the large wake of Watergate, journalism had a bit of a popularity surge and there was a lot of public education about the value of good information. Today, it’s impossible to think that any kind of change could happen from a news report…and even less likely that the general public would take any of it as truth.

 

And that is perhaps the final tragic shift that The Insider captures – the point at which power, prestige, and profit become more important than the truth, even to those who supposedly dedicated their lives to uncovering it.

 

The Green Mile

Director: Frank Darabont

Starring: Tom Hanks, David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, Michael Clarke Duncan, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, Graham Greene, Doug Hutchinson, Sam Rockwell, Barry Pepper, Jeffrey DeMunn, Patricia Clarkson, Harry Dean Stanton, Dabbs Greer, Eve Brent, William Sadler, Paula Malcomson, Brent Briscoe, Bill McKinney, Gary Sinise

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Michael Clarke Duncan), Best Sound, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Picture

 

The Green Mile has a lot in common with that other great prison movie, The Shawshank Redemption. Both are based on stories by Stephen King. Both were directed by Frank Darabont. Both center on relationships between a white man and a black man. Both have acts of violence, as well as acts of mercy. However, where The Shawshank Redemption focused mainly on the prisoners, The Green Mile is told from the guards’ point of view – namely Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), who walked prisoners down the lime-colored linoleum floor that led from the prison to electric chair, lovingly named Old Sparky.



In the summer of 1935, Paul Edgecomb had a lot on his plate. Not only was he dealing with the worst UTI of his life, he was also managing an infection of another sort – one Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchinson), a ward on his staff who was only working Death Row so he could “watch one cook up close.”

 

Thankfully, the rest of Paul’s staff were mostly decent men, including gentle giant Brutus Howell (David Morse), family man Dean (Barry Pepper), and the older Harry Terwillinger (Jeffrey DeMunn). Even Paul was probably nicer than your average Louisiana Death Row guard, taking time to get to know his prisoners and treating them with compassion and respect, despite their circumstance in life.

 


When the film begins, Paul and his staff are awaiting a new prisoner named John Coffey (Michael Clark Duncan) who has been sentenced to death after being convicted of raping and murdering two young girls. Coffey (“like the drink, only not spelled the same”) is a gigantic black man, towering over every other prisoner and guard. But we can tell right away he is not what he seems. He’s afraid of the dark, he cries at night, he’s polite and soft-spoken, and even possesses some strange healing powers (notice his initials, J.C.).

 

Coffey joins a handful of other memorable characters on Death Row, including Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter) and his pet mouse, Mr. Jingles; a taunting monster named “Wild Bill” (Sam Rockwell); and a quiet Native American prisoner (Graham Greene).



For the first hour of this film, we’re simply sitting on Death Row with this crew, learning about the guards and the prisoners alike. Each inmate has his own subplot, giving us time to get to know these men so that when we do get to the heavily dramatic moments (aka the executions), there are real feelings at play (there is one execution I refuse to watch because it’s just that horrifying. IYKYK. I will leave it at that).

 

As the film goes on (and the prison population thins), Paul becomes more and more doubtful about whether John is really guilty of his crimes…and, even more importantly, whether or not it’s a sin to kill someone with the power to perform miracles (again, the initials).



But easily the most unsettling aspect of The Green Mile is Percy, the most contemptuous, vile, human version of period cramps to ever exist on film. He delights in torture and exercises whatever cruel powers his authority lends him. While Paul is passionate about offering his inmates a calm and accommodating environment before their ultimate demise, Percy just wants to watch them squirm. While there is some justification in watching him get his comeuppance, it never feels like enough for this wart of a human being.

 

The film is also bookended with Paul Edgecomb as an old man in the nursing home, recounting his life story to one of his lady friends. In the final scenes, we learn about the cross Paul must bear for his actions as the Louisiana State Penitentiary – because no one gets to play God and get away with it. Hell, every execution we see in The Green Mile goes wrong in some way, perhaps because we’re not supposed to have the power to take another man’s life. Paul’s burdens are heavy and grow heavier as the years go on. He carries his past with him in more ways than one, retribution for acts taken, decisions made, lives stolen.

 

I’ve gotta say, I’d be lying if I said this movie didn’t have a lasting stain on my brain. I almost skipped this one because I was so messed up after the first time I watched it. However, The Green Mile, while not an easy film to watch, is an important one. Even outside of the religious aspects, it’s a powerful story about humanity and compassion, about the constant battle between following our morales and following the law, and – of course, the ever-relatable struggle between what is right and wrong, not just in the rulebook of the job, but in the makeup of our hearts.


 

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