LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: 1991 and 1992

Posted by · 4:48 pm · November 16th, 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

1991 was a banner year for the Academy bucking trends. Of course, “Silence of the Lambs” was the big winner, a first for the horror genre and the first time the winning film was available to own on home video before nominations came out. That it was only the third film to win the “big five” was even more impressive.

Arguably more daring was the Best Picture nomination bestowed upon “Beauty and the Beast,” which remains the only animated film to get the call in a field of five. Also noteworthy is the Best Picture nomination for “The Prince of Tides” and Best Director omission for Barbra Streisand. Many cried sexism since it was the third straight time a female-directed Best Picture nominee failed to also receive a nomination for Best Director.

Instead, we got John Singleton, our first African American Best Director nominee and our youngest, at age 24! How exciting must it have been to be following the Oscars this year? I wouldn’t know because…

1992 was the first year I watched the Oscars. I vividly remember Billy Crystal singing and dancing his way through the nominees and Clint Eastwood collecting his gongs for “Unforgiven.” I hadn’t seen a single nominated film from the big categories and since I was living in Cyprus and the show would have been at 4am live, I imagine my Dad must have taped it onto VHS for me, but I remember loving every second of it.

But enough Oscar nostalgia. The real good films are never nominated anyway and here’s the proof.

1991 – “Slacker” (Richard Linklater)

It’s difficult to imagine just how jarring it must have been to sit down in a theater in 1991 and watch “Slacker.” Of course, “Sex, Lies and Videotape” had ushered in the new era of independent film two years before and there were more options available to budding filmmakers and discerning audiences than ever, but Richard Linklater’s meandering, verbose debut is still unlike almost anything I’ve seen then or now. It’s effect on the industry ranges from inspiring hundreds of DIY filmmakers like Kevin Smith to single-handedly turning Austin into a viable production hub away from Hollywood.

Cultural implications aside (it was this film that sent the titular word into the broader lexicon), does it stand up as anything besides a snapshot of a budding generation of disillusioned youths? In a word, yes. Essentially, the film follows Austin residents as they walk and talk around the city of Austin over a 24 hour period. Characters appear on screen for roughly four to five minutes a piece and are then completely discarded for the next batch. As a result, the film develops a repetitive rhythm that will either hypnotize you or bore you to tears.

Personally, I was entranced. At any given moment, the film is only as interesting and engaging as the people it’s currently showcasing, but on the whole, it’s a remarkably structured and thought out film. Linklater himself kicks things off with a one-sided conversation about dreams that name-drops Tolstoy, Frank Zappa and “The Omega Man” within the first minute. The film bobs and weaves from there, mirroring its theme of cultural drift and aimless ennui, although it should certainly be noted that not all of the characters are slackers.

Some of them are writing books, some of them are making music, one has even left town to be a terrorist. In fact, everyone is “doing” something, although it’s not clear how productive or proactive they are in doing it. It’s hard to imagine the film being successful now, or maybe even ever, except for the exact time it came out when journalists and audiences were desperate to latch on to something that could help explain the grunge-fueled angst that was seeping into, and taking over, American culture.

It may be easy to dismiss as navel-gazing or a bunch of nobodies talking about nothing, but there’s no doubt that Linklater has captured something here, and in a way entirely his own. His assured camera direction, from fluid Steadicam shots to a credit-card busting crane that seamlessly introduces us to the narrative-shifting structure, all belie the notion that he didn’t know what he was doing.

1992 – “Baraka” (Ron Fricke)

I never would have thought about it before this column, but “Slackers” and “Baraka” make interesting bedfellows, in that they are both narrative-free collages of life. “Baraka” just has a bit wider scope. I first saw it on a 70mm print at my film school and was immediately blown away. I tried to describe it to high school friends who had never heard of it and kept saying that if aliens landed and only had two hours to try and comprehend life on Earth, I would show them “Baraka.” I recently saw it again, a 70mm print at the Egyptian, and was a little disappointed to find it not quite as Earth-shattering as I remembered, but there was still no denying its power.

If you don’t know, “Baraka” is a dialogue-free series of images taken from around the world that sometimes seem to follow a thematic thread and sometimes don’t. It’s part travelogue, part visual essay, part widescreen porn and all engrossing. Not since the days of silent films has so much been invested in the storytelling power of the image. Michael Stearns’s incredible score provides ample backup, but at the end of the day, “Baraka” lives or dies by its images. Luckily, they are some of the most beautiful ever captured on film.

They are amassed from over a year’s worth of shooting in six different continents and are compiled into a whole by editors David Aubrey, Mark Magidson and Ron Fricke, who do a remarkable job of making the journey seem linear emotionally, if nothing else. Some beats hit a little too hard, such as the brief section on poverty or the subtle screams inserted into the soundtrack when looking at footage of Auschwitz, but for the most part, the film is an objective look at what makes up life all over the world.

I will add a footnote to this recommendation, which is that I once was at a friend’s house who owned a copy of “Baraka” on DVD and I asked him to pop it in so we could watch a few minutes. I barely lasted a few seconds before realizing that unless you have an enormous flat screen, HD TV, then you should not bother with the movie at home. It’s simply made to be seen as big and as loud as possible, preferably in the dark and with strangers, and thankfully not because it’s explosions are so grand and loud. It’s the film’s ambition and scope that need to be seen wrapped around a giant screen to be appreciated.

If you get the opportunity, see it and marvel at how Fricke uses the medium to transport, illuminate, inspire and uplift.

Those are my picks. What do you guys think?

[Photo: Cinema of the World]
[Photo: MPI Home Video]




→ 31 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Life Without Oscar

31 responses so far

  • 1 11-16-2010 at 4:55 pm

    Everett said...

    “it was the third straight time a female-directed Best Picture nominee failed to also receive a nomination for Best Director.”

    Not to nitpick, but I don’t think any of the Best Picture nominees in 1989 were directed by women? Unless I misunderstood what you meant by that?

  • 2 11-16-2010 at 5:04 pm

    Eli said...

    Sorry to say that I didn’t really like Baraka much. I guess I’m just bored by continual shots of nature for an entire feature-length film if there’s nothing tying them together. And I found the few moments where there was some narrative tension – as when Fricke interspersed shots of chicks pushed through machinery with shots of suit-clad businesspeople hustling through long lines – to be overwrought (and occasionally borderline offensive).

    I do understand how somebody else could take the same movie and find simply awe and grandeur, though.

  • 3 11-16-2010 at 5:06 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I didn’t mean the last three years but the last three instances of a Best Picture nominee being directed by a woman.

  • 4 11-16-2010 at 5:16 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Baraka. Word.

  • 5 11-16-2010 at 5:26 pm

    RJL said...

    1991: Soapdish (Why was Cathy Moriarty not nominated?)
    1992: Bob Roberts
    or (depending on eligibility) Strictly Ballroom (1992 or 1993?)

  • 6 11-16-2010 at 5:38 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Everett: Read Chad’s sentence again. It’s perfectly clear.

  • 7 11-16-2010 at 5:40 pm

    Everett said...

    Yeah, I got it this time. Thanks for the clarification.

  • 8 11-16-2010 at 5:43 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Oh, “Proof” for 1991. Amazing film — one of the best, and most daring, of Australia’s 1990s resurgence, and curiously sidelined these days, despite Russell Crowe’s presence.

    Actually, I could happily stick with the Antipodean psychological-thriller meme for 1992 and pick “Crush.” Still one of Marcia Gay Harden’s finest hours, and Alison Maclean desperately needs to make a film again.

  • 9 11-16-2010 at 6:04 pm

    RJL said...

    1991: Black Robe
    I realize I already submitted Soapdish, but just recalled the great Black Robe, superb in the technical categories (particularly cinematography) as well as music, screenplay, acting, and directing (Bruce Beresford).

  • 10 11-16-2010 at 6:28 pm

    Derek said...

    1991: Les Amants du Pont Neuf (Leos Carax)
    Three years in the making, an overblown budget and an injury that befell star Denis Lavant all in the name to express as the slogan says “the most unlikely of loves in the most likeliest of places”. Oh, and plus it’s the film that sparked my eternal flame for Juliette Binoche.

    1992: Leolo (Jean-Claude Lauzon)
    A truly great film that endlessly entertains, surprises, shocks and above all left me reinvigorated with the same imaginative
    qualities that boosted Leo to become Leolo in order to escape from the suppository induced madness of the world around him. To quote the boy wonder “because I dream I am not crazy”.

  • 11 11-16-2010 at 8:12 pm

    Zac said...

    Chad, I believe Principal Strickland would like a word with you regarding the word slacker. :D

    My choice for 1991 would be Man in the Moon. It’s hard to capture what it is like when someone develops a crush for the first time. Man in the Moon got it right thanks to great performances from Sam Waterson, Jason London and Emily Warfield. However, it’s Reese Witherspoon’s star that shines the brightest of all as a maturing teenager who falls hard for the neighbor boy, but has to watch crestfallen as he hooks up with her older sister. I won’t spoil the ending, but it brings a lump to my throat every time I watch it. At the moment, the only other movie about first love that I can think of that got it right was Bridge to Teribithia.

    For 1992, I’m with Chad on Baraka. I blind bought the Blu-ray and when I went to watch it, I was filled with apprehension. I knew the BD was considered reference quality and that the movie itself was called mesmerizing. Thankfully, it disappoint at all. I wanted to get my face extremely close to the screen to drink in all the astounding detail.

  • 12 11-16-2010 at 8:12 pm

    James D. said...

    Slacker is pretty terrific. I think about the Madonna part on a fairly regular basis.

    On a side note, is there a more inconsistent director than Linklater?

  • 13 11-16-2010 at 8:14 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    1991

    The Doors
    Barton Fink
    Jungle Fever
    Naked Lunch
    My Own Private Idaho

  • 14 11-16-2010 at 9:06 pm

    Andrew R. said...

    1991. Quite a few to pick from that year.

    High Heels
    Flirting
    The aforementioned Slacker
    The Double Life of Véronique

    92. Dryer compared to 91.

    Jamón Jamón
    Swoon
    Bitter Moon
    El Mariachi

    Need to delve more into 92…

  • 15 11-16-2010 at 9:21 pm

    thespirithunter said...

    I have El mariachi in my top 5 in 1993, because I believe it was technically part of 93 Sundance

    1991 –
    The Commitments
    Defending Your Life
    Dead Again
    L.A. Story
    Hearts Of Darkness (RIP George)

    1992 –
    Sneakers
    Bob Roberts
    Reservoir Dogs
    Under Siege
    Honeymoon In Vegas
    White Men Can’t Jump

    And I will defend to the death Marisa Tomei’s Oscar for My Cousin Vinny. I still remember Mona Lisa Vito, more than I can say for any other supporting performance that year (and I liked Miranda Richardson and Judy Davis)

  • 16 11-17-2010 at 1:43 am

    Manuel L. said...

    1992 is also a banner year. Unforgiven is, to this day, the only film to top the Cahiers du Cinéma list and win the Best Picture Oscar. It is also, in my opinion, one of the most deserving winners in this category.

  • 17 11-17-2010 at 5:04 am

    Lance said...

    1992 – “A Midnight Clear” One of the most under-rated films ever.

  • 18 11-17-2010 at 5:52 am

    Dominik said...

    The Academy Awards show from 1992 was also the first one I saw, too!
    And I was happy enough to at least having seen “The Silence of the Lambs”, cause the age control at the small cinema here in Germany was not really strictly handled.
    My choice from the non-best picture-nominees:

    1991: Dogfight (ru: Barton Fink)
    1992: The Player

  • 19 11-17-2010 at 6:12 am

    JJ1 said...

    1991 – Soapdish. That movie still cracks me up to this day; such a strange, hysterical soap opera satire. And I agree, Cathy Moriarty was comic gold, there. They all were.

  • 20 11-17-2010 at 8:44 am

    Keil Shults said...

    Keeping in mind that we should be mentioning films that didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination…

    1991:

    My Own Private Idaho
    Naked Lunch

    1992:

    Reservoir Dogs

    Note:

    I think Hearts of Darkness may have been ineligible for an Oscar due to a technicality. If not, it should also have been nominated in 1991.

  • 21 11-17-2010 at 9:22 am

    Keil Shults said...

    @ James D.

    Richard Linklater may be somewhat inconsistent, but most of his films range from good to great. I liked all of his films from the 1990s except The Newton Boys, though I’ve only seen it once (when it came out, I think). Of that era, I consider Dazed and Confused to be his masterpiece and one of the finest films of the decade (yes, I’m serious). Who says great movies can’t also be fun as hell?

    Then he embarked on a very fertile period, quickly delivering Waking Life, Tape, School of Rock, and the extraordinary Before Sunset. Those are four films that range widely in subject and style, but each are wonderful in their own way.

    I recall being let down by Bad News Bears, especially coming so closely on the heels of Zwigoff’s Bad Santa. Still, I don’t recall fully disliking it, and I’d have to see it once more before judging it accurately. Meanwhile, I liked A Scanner Darkly quite a bit (I’m a big fan of the novel), but I’d need to see it again before determining where it falls on the good-to-great spectrum. Fast Food Nation was okay, and again, only saw it once. I have not seen Me and Orson Welles, though I recall reading a fair amount of slightly positive praise. I need to watch it soon.

    However, his next two films have me pretty excited. Bernie, sort of an east Texas Fargo, is presently being shot in central Texas. My sister-in-law called me about a week ago and told me Jack Black was in town filming a movie. Once I found out it was a new Linklater film I got rather excited, especially when I learned it’s based on a real-life murder story. Sounds like something new and intriguing for Linklater, and I love that he’s using primarily Texas locations in it.

    And then, of course, is Boyhood…assuming that remains its title. For those who may not have heard of this project, it began filming way back in 2002. It’s a fictional tale of two divorced parents trying to raise their son as he grows up. The child is supposed to go from 1st grade to 12th grade throughout the film, and to appropriately capture this, Linklater has been filming a little here and there over the past 8 or 9 years. The film is presently scheduled to be released in 2013. The boy actor, who was 7 when they began shooting, will be about 18 years old when the film comes out.

  • 22 11-17-2010 at 10:07 am

    Maxim said...

    That’s a nice summary, Keil. In some ways, Linklater is one of America’s most talented filmmakers. Not all of his films grab me, but between “Before Sunrise”, “Waking Life”, “Before Sunset” he has made some truly amazing works.

    I cannot say enough good things about “Before Sunset”. It’s in my top 5 movies/theatrical movie experiences of all time.

  • 23 11-17-2010 at 10:09 am

    Maxim said...

    And speaking of Baraka, any news on Fricke’s (who, btw, shot footage for Koyaanisqqatsi) supposed Baraka follow-up “Samsara”?

  • 24 11-17-2010 at 10:44 am

    Keil Shults said...

    @Maxim:

    I may be a bit more inclined to like Linklater given that I grew up in Texas and spent my late teens and early 20s in Austin, but I also just think he seems like a really affable, down-to-earth guy. Plus, he’s obviously an avid cinephile and film scholar.

    Anyone else here feel Dazed and Confused is a masterpiece? Some people say it’s a fun stoner movie and little more, but I feel it’s much more than that. I try to rate films based on their effectiveness, rather than the supposed significance of their subject matter. I thought it wonderfully captured a time, place, and spirit. It’s also just smartly-written, well-acted (for the most part), chockful of great, era-appropriate tunes, and beautifully realized. I’ve also seen it at least 25 times, which is always a good sign (for the film, if not my mental and social health).

  • 25 11-17-2010 at 11:02 am

    Patriotsfan said...

    Since Tarantino is my favorite director, and Reservoir Dogs is my favorite film of his, it would definitely be my pick for 1992. As for 1991, I can’t think of anything great off the top of my head, but I do think Defending Your Life is a good film.

  • 26 11-17-2010 at 11:09 am

    Cameron said...

    1991: Lars von Trier’s Europa
    Maybe not narratively a great film, but the visuals are astounding and I hold this as a personal standard whenever I watch film

    1992: Reservoir Dogs
    Need I say more?

  • 27 11-17-2010 at 11:16 am

    Keil Shults said...

    Yeah, say what you want about Reservoir Dogs or Tarantino, but the script and some of the performances are certainly worthy of a nomination. And the film proved to be pretty influential and a cult smash that continues to impress new audiences today, so I think it’s fair to say it was one of the most overlooked films of its day. Pulp Fiction losing to Forrest Gump for Best Picture was a greater tragedy, but at least it got multiple nominations and a win.

  • 28 11-17-2010 at 12:56 pm

    Maxim said...

    Keil, I actually haven’t seen “Dazed and Confused” yet. I’ve only caught really short pieces on TV. I really need to sit down and watch it.

    And as for Reservoir Dogs, I’d respect it more if it credited Ringo Lam’s “City on Fire”. Dogs is an unquestionably better film but it is also undeniably a remake.

  • 29 11-17-2010 at 2:33 pm

    Jack Wyle said...

    I know these films were nominated in a few categories and thus don’t qualify for this discussion, but:

    1991: Grand Canyon

    1992: A River Runs Through It

    A River Runs Through It is Robert Redford’s masterpiece (only to be followed up by his next masterpiece, 1994’s Quiz Show)

  • 30 11-17-2010 at 6:50 pm

    John said...

    1991–
    New Jack City (Wesley Snipes… what happened?! He was amazing in this!)
    Dead Again (great plot, great style, great performance by Robin Williams… this is the movie that should have gotten him nominated this year)

    1992–
    I don;t know which is worse… they nominate RESERVOIR DOGS for absolutely nothing, not even its screenplay? OR they nominate A FEW GOOD MEN for Best Picture yet somehow not for its screenplay?

    Either way, what were the screenwriters smoking that year?

  • 31 11-17-2010 at 10:54 pm

    Glenn said...

    Great picks, Chad. I aim to finally see “Baraka” on the big screen early next year when it plays at a local revival house.

    Guy, great left field choice with “Proof”. Very good work from everyone (we studied it in high school, actually).