Who/What Should Be Nominated
Commentary by James Berardinelli
February 8, 1999
Like every movie critic alive on this planet, I grumble and wail and gnash my teeth at all of the oversights and injustices that occur each year when the Academy announces their nominations on that chilly February morning. So, like every other film critic, I write one of these columns -- something that allows me to single out the best performances of the year gone by. Some of these are familiar names, and will no doubt receive a coveted Oscar nomination. And some are obscure (check out one of my choices in the Best Supporting Actor category, for example). This is not in any way intended to be a predictor of who I think will be nominated. If you're in an office pool for that, do not use this article as source material. You'll end up at the bottom of the list.
Every year, Siskel & Ebert do a TV show in which they send a "Memo to the Academy." That isn't what this is all about. The Academy couldn't care less about what I say or who I think did a good job. This is just a chance to purge my soul. Those who have read these articles in the past know the drill. Unless there's a compelling reason to do otherwise, I'll restrict myself to five "nominees" in each category. They are in alphabetical order. Certain categories (screenplay, foreign language film, documentary, and picture) are presented without commentary, largely because I've already written about these ad nauseum elsewhere, or because I didn't have much to say. For more on my choice of Best Picture, see my 1998 Top 10.
ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE:
- Rachel Griffiths, Hilary and Jackie: If Emily Watson is the soul of this film, Rachel Griffiths is the heart. While Watson's performance is more flamboyant, the film as a whole wouldn't have worked as well without the solid, steady work by Griffiths. It's actually hard to justify forcing her into the Supporting Actress category, but that's the category October Films is touting her for.
- Scarlett Johansson, The Horse Whisperer: Although her work in The Horse Whisperer has largely been forgotten, it's hard to deny that Scarlett Johansson gave one of the most impressive performances by an underage actor of either sex. Her effort for director Robert Redford is powerful and disturbing. And, while it may have taken mainstream viewers by surprise, those who saw her in Manny & Lo should have been ready for this level of quality. Johansson has a bright future.
- Camryn Manheim, Happiness: This is another unconventional choice. However, in a movie of quirky performances (where the cast as whole deserves an "ensemble" nomination, except there is no such thing), Manheim's stands out. The scene where she confesses her crime is heart-rending.
- Thandie Newton, Beloved: Had Beloved been a box office success, Newton's nomination would have been guaranteed - her creepy performance is certainly worthy. However, the film's critical and popular rejection greatly reduces the actresses' chances for any kind of recognition. For my money, however, her work in this movie represented not only one of the most effective supporting performances of the year, but also one of the most courageous.
- Christina Ricci, Buffalo 66: The film industry's newest bad girl is oddly sweet in this offbeat road movie/love story about a couple whose affection "spans time"... as long as she doesn't touch him. What's amazing about this performance is what Ricci manages to do with a shockingly underwritten role. She creates a deeply sympathetic character out of little more than nothing.
Other noteworthy Supporting Actress performances: Lynn Redgrave, Gods and Monsters; Esther Rolle, Down in the Delta; Meg Ryan, Hurlyburly; Sharon Stone, The Mighty; Tatjana Trieb (ineligible by Academy rules), Beyond Silence.
ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE:
- Robert Duvall, A Civil Action: The veteran actor is a likely official choice, but (unlike many of the Academy's selections) with good reason. His sharp portrayal of a corporate lawyer is the best element of a good movie. An actor of Duvall's stature could have sleepwalked through this kind of part and done a decent job. Instead, Duvall invested all of his considerable talent into the role.
- Al Freeman Jr., Down in the Delta: Maya Angelou's directorial debut was one of the year's best "feel good" motion picture, and Freeman's portrayal was one important reason why. A name likely to be overlooked by the Academy, Freeman will be as deserving, if not moreso, than many of the official choices. His work, at times quiet and introspective and at others extravagent, was perfect for the part.
- Douglas McFerran, Sliding Doors: Who??? I thought long and hard about including McFerran on this list, but no supporting performance leapt out at me more forcefully than McFerran's perfect comic turn in this dramatic comedy (he played the wisecracking best friend to Helen's cheating beau). I'll concede that it's probably not the best supporting work of the year, but it deserves some kind of recognition. He will not receive an official nomination.
- Kevin Spacey, Hurlyburly: This movie is an acting goldmine, with tremendous work by Spacey, Anna Paquin, Meg Ryan, and Sean Penn (see below). Spacey was a perfect choice for a character with such dry, biting wit. He brings intelligence and a deadpan approach to the role.
- Billy Bob Thornton, A Simple Plan: Smart writing, strong direction, and top-notch acting make A Simple Plan a superior thriller. While Bill Paxton does an excellent job as the everyman lead, no one is more impressive than Billy Bob Thornton as Paxton's slow brother, who turns out to have a little more on the ball than one initially suspects. This is not merely a copy of Thornton's Sling Blade character, but a completely different, yet no less whole, personality.
Other noteworthy Supporting Actor performances: Alan Arkin, The Slums of Beverly Hills; Dylan Baker, Happiness; Jon Voight, The General.
ACTRESS IN A LEAD ROLE:
- Jennifer Lopez, Out of Sight: Jennifer Lopez, who has given Oscar-caliber performances before (notably in Selena), once again proves that she's one of the most capable young American actresses in the business today. As the female protagonist in Out of Sight, she's smart, sexy, and mesmerizing, and her chemistry with co-star George Clooney represents some of the best in any 1998 movie. Unfortunately, too few people saw the movie, so Lopez's name is likely to be missing from the official roster.
- Samantha Morton, Under the Skin: No one who saw this obscure British film will doubt Morton's worthiness when it comes to a nomination. Her portrayal as the confused, angry young woman having difficulty coping with her mother's death is nothing short of stunning. It's a raw, uncompromising performance that tears at the heart. Morton bears everything - emotionally as well as physically - in a role that I will probably never forget.
- Christina Ricci, The Opposite of Sex: 1998 was a breakout year for former family film favorite Christina Ricci, who turned on the sex appeal in both Buffalo 66 and The Opposite of Sex. In the latter film, as the narrator, she gives the kind of edgy performance that few actresses of her age (or any other, for that matter) are capable of giving. She handles drama and comedy with equal flair.
- Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie: Arguably the best female performance of the year (supporting or lead), Emily Watson's portrayal of Jacqueline du Pre represents an amazing achievement. Watson captures every nuance of her character, showing the many faces of Jackie -- from a fierce, uncompromising competitor to a fragile, frightened victim of a cruel disease. Hilary and Jackie is heartbreaking in large part because of Watson's contribution.
- Oprah Winfrey, Beloved: Oprah Winfrey's fine work in Beloved will likely fall victim to the same oversight as Thandie Newton's: the movie is perceived as a failure, and performances in failures are rarely recognized. Still, Oprah deserves a nomination, even if she doesn't get one. Her part in the film is subtle-yet-powerful, and the actress inhabites the character so completely that her larger-than-life offscreen personality vanishes.
Other noteworthy Lead Actress performances: Jane Horrocks, Little Voice; Fernanda Montenegra, Central Station; Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love; Sylvie Testud (ineligible by Academy rules), Beyond Silence; Alfrie Woodard, Down in the Delta.
ACTOR IN A LEAD ROLE:
- John Hurt, Love and Death on Long Island: So many months after the release of this delightful, frothy comedy, it's hard to remember how good John Hurt is in it, when he gave his best performance in over a decade. Although the role is primarily comic, Hurt brings out an element of pathos in the character, allowing viewers to root for him. Sometimes, it's the understated performances that are the best.
- Ian McKellan, Gods and Monsters: Ian McKellan, long recognized as one of England's best stage actors, stepped into the motion picture spotlight for two roles in 1998. In Apt Pupil, he was given a chance to chew the scenery a little, but, as fun as it is to watch him in that otherwise dreary movie, the better performance by far is in Gods and Monsters, where he brings film maker James Whale to three-dimensional life. It's a sublime, emotionally-exact performance that deserves strong consideration by the Academy.
- Nick Nolte, Affliction: Throughout his somewhat uneven career, Nick Nolte has given his share of good and bad performances. His work in Paul Schrader's Affliction, one of 1998's most wrenching films, is simply superb. There's no doubt in my mind that this role, which casts Nolte as a disturbed sheriff who's wrestling with dark memories as he tries to cope with his confused family life, represents the pinnacle of the actor's career, at least to date.
- Eamonn Owens, The Butcher Boy: On rare occasions, children can (and do) outact their more experienced elders. Eamonn Owens in Neil Jordan's bizarre The Butcher Boy is one such example. The kid is a natural, and it shows in the rich, natural performance he turns out in this film. One wonders how someone so young can display such a range of believable emotions.
- Sean Penn, Hurlyburly: Sean Penn is widely hailed as one of the best (if not the best) actor of his generation, and he once again shows why this is so with a blistering, no-holds-barred performance in Hurlyburly. Spitting dialogue as if it's acid, Penn burns up the screen every time he's on camera, dazzling audiences with his range, charisma, and power. It's a spellbinding performance - a cause for even those who didn't like the film to marvel.
Other noteworthy Lead Actor performances: Michael Caine, Little Voice; Brendan Gleeson, The General; Derek Jacobi, Love is the Devil; Federico Luppi, Men with Guns; Edward Norton, American History X; Jonathan Pryce, Regeneration.
- Alex Proyas, Dark City: Alex Proyas must be given a lion's share of the credit for composing this intelligent, visually-stunning blend of science fiction, mystery, and film noir. It's an amazing achievement -- a movie that reveals new layers with each repeated viewing. Proyas created a completely original, new world in Dark City.
- Gary Ross, Pleasantville: With Pleasantville, director Gary Ross has combined an intriguing plot, affable characters, strong acting, and cutting-edge special effects to create one of the year's most original motion pictures. The most impressive aspect of this film is how Ross integrated the multitudinous visual effects (which seamlessly combined black-and-white characters with color backgrounds, and vice versa) without ever undermining the characters or the story. This imposing accomplishment is made all the more amazing by the fact that this is Ross' directorial debut.
- Todd Solondz, Happiness: Few directors other than Todd Solondz could have successfully made Happiness, one of 1998's most controversial motion pictures. It takes talent and courage to fashion a movie that is this biting, this controversial, and this disturbing. Happiness is not an easy picture to watch, but every scene is a testimony to Solondz's strength as a film maker.
- Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan: Saving Private Ryan isn't just the most powerful motion picture of the year, but one of the decade's best. Without director Steven Spielberg at the helm, this movie never would have made it to the screen, or, if it had, it would have been a completely different experience. In this form, Saving Private Ryan is the singlemost stunning and harrowing motion picture about World War II ever to reach theaters. For impact, it does not equal Spielberg's Schindler's List, but it comes close.
- Thomas Vinterberg, The Celebration: Dogme 95 may be little more than thinly-veiled propeganda, but director Thomas Vinterberg uses its principles to stunning effect in The Celebration. It's no exaggeration to say that the director's style and approach to this material lifts it far above the norm and enhances the emotional impact.
Other noteworthy directors: Caroline Link (ineligible by Academy rules), Beyond Silence; Robert Redford, The Horse Whisperer; Paul Schrader, Affliction; Anand Tucker, Hilary and Jackie.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM:
I have the feeling that I'm going to be seething when the Academy makes the official announcements...
© 1999 James Berardinelli