LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: 1995 and 1996

Posted by · 2:34 pm · December 1st, 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

I saw “Braveheart” on video and I’m not positive if that was before or after it won Best Picture at the Oscars. Whenever it was, Mel Gibson’s historical epic immediately became this 13 year old’s favorite movie of all time. My second favorite movie of all time back then was “Apollo 13,” so it was a good Oscars for me.

1996 became famously known as the “Year of the Indie” and “The English Patient” walked away with just about every award under the sun. I seem to remember Andrew Lloyd Webber quipping, “I’m glad there wasn’t a song in “The English Patient,”” while collecting his prize for “Evita.”

Cuba Gooding Jr. completed the first phase of his future career as a punchline by winning Best Supporting Actor for “Jerry Maguire,” while Juliette Binoche etched her name at the top of Lauren Bacall’s shitlist by winning Best Supporting Actress in a huge upset.

Speaking of punchlines, Whoopi Goldberg delivered them in ’95 before Billy Crystal’s triumphant return in ’96. Goldberg, who remains my least favorite MC of all the broadcasts I’ve watched, thought that following Vanessa Williams’s performance of “Colors of the Wind” with a glance behind her and the line, “What color is my wind?” constituted great comedy.

But I digress.

1995 – “Dead Man” (Jim Jarmusch)

Remember when Johnny Depp was box office poison and made your Mom uncomfortable? “Dead Man” probably arrived at the zenith of that period and is an uncompromisingly bleak anti-Western from Jim Jarmusch. Many of the genre’s classic tropes are present and accounted for, but the real joy in watching the film is the way Jarmusch tweaks and deconstructs them.

Let’s start with the cast, though. Johnny Depp is reliably fantastic and offers a very different protagonist than we’re used to in these environments. A stranger wanders into town in the opening scene, but instead of an outlaw or gunslinger, it’s a bookish accountant. His eventual sidekick/partner is an Indian named Nobody, played by Gary Farmer. His performance takes a few scenes to get used to, either because his natural cadence is a little stiff or because we’re just too accustomed to more racist portrayals of Native Americans in these films. Crispin Glover, Gabriel Byrne, Alfred Molina, Iggy Pop all come and go as our heroes travel through the countryside, giving fine performances each, but it’s a pre-famous Billy Bob Thornton who really steals his scenes and makes an impression.

Robby Müller’s black and white cinematography is a wonder to behold, successfully capturing the beauty of the vistas and the thematic spiritual journey of the character. The editing, production design and costumes are also all top notch, lending huge value to a relatively low budget enterprise. But the real story amongst the technical aspects is Neil Young’s score. Almost entirely done anachronistically on electric guitar, it was apparently recorded while Young watched the cut for the first time and improvised the entire thing. As crazy as that sounds, it’s not hard to believe when watching the film, and it’s the kind of inspired move that seems like a decision made by someone who’s never even seen a film before, let alone made one and learnt “the rules.”

This carries over into other aspects of the filmmaking, such as the drastic tonal shifts that occur throughout. One minute Billy Bob is offering some light hearted comic relief and the next will present a moment of sickeningly graphic violence. It all goes hand in hand with the existential crisis Depp is having and the good vs. evil conflict Jarmusch is toying around with. All along, we’re not sure what could happen next or how it will transpire, but the film progresses with an assured grace and finishes on a moment of poignance.

Jarmusch is wildly inconsistent for me and it’s likely because he’s one of those artists that is constantly experimenting and exploring his options and abilities. That makes his films never less than interesting, but rarely slam dunks. “Dead Man” is a happy exception and is still unlike any Western you’re likely to see then or in the future.

1996 – “Flirting With Disaster” (David O. Russell)

1996 was a fertile year for future heavyweights cutting their teeth. “Bottle Rocket” and “Hard Eight” are two other great films that could have a strong case made in this column. But I’d wager that more people have seen those two films than this curious charmer from soon-to-be-nominated-at-last David O. Russell. A loving homage to family ties and screwball comedies, it offered the world’s first real look at Ben Stiller as a comedic leading man.

Stiller plays an adopted man about to have his first child and that triggers a cross-country search for his biological parents and his true identity. Kooks of all shapes and sizes either accompany him or cross his path in classic screwball comedy tradition and it’s a truly amazing parade of actors- including future nominees Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins as a pair of special agents/lovers. Among the two sets of parents in the film, it’s hard to decide which pairing is more inspired, Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal or Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda, but both are equally entertaining to watch.

All of these actors wouldn’t be able to save poor material so it’s a good thing that Russell has always excelled in his writing. The dialogue is sharp, intelligent and fast paced, as it should be in a comedy of errors, and while his directorial chops would be greatly enhanced by the time “Three Kings” and “I ♥ Huckabees” came around, he still keeps things brisk and tight. It’s a particular credit to his skills that despite a cast of characters stretching into double digits, all of them feel fully alive and complex, with special mention to Patricia Arquette for handling the unenviable task of providing a straight-faced anchor to the proceedings and doing it flawlessly.

It’s films like “Flirting With Disaster” that make me so depressed when people make gigantic hits out of flaccid comedies like “The Hangover” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” It’s a film that features bizarre circumstances and set-ups, but it is always in service of the characters and gets almost all of its laughs out of our attachment to them and their relationships. It never dumbs down the characters for a cheap laugh and it features women who aren’t completely useless, if you can imagine such a thing in a Hollywood comedy.

Those are my picks. What do you guys think?

[Photo: The Guardian]
[Photo: Photobucket]

→ 33 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Life Without Oscar

33 responses so far

  • 1 12-01-2010 at 2:53 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    1995 – Safe

    1996 – Trainspotting

  • 2 12-01-2010 at 3:03 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Trainspotting was nominated, miraculously enough.

  • 3 12-01-2010 at 3:04 pm

    Andrew Rech said...

    95 is all about Safe. Brilliant, brilliant,brilliant. Julianne Moore’s performance? Incredible, especially in that final scene. Before Sunrise would be my next pick. I struggle to decide whether or not I love Before Sunset more.

    96. Crash, not much else to be said.

  • 4 12-01-2010 at 3:10 pm

    Mitch said...

    I’m right there withya on Dead Man. The score is INCREDIBLE. but for 1996 i like Cronenberg’s crash.

    always love your picks dude

  • 5 12-01-2010 at 3:16 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    Wow, I really don’t recall that about Trainspotting. Of course, it should have been nominated for more than just Screenplay, but that’s pretty impressive in its own right. I guess I’ll amend my selections:

    1995 – Safe

    1996 – Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills – OR – Welcome to the Dollhouse

  • 6 12-01-2010 at 3:16 pm

    Patriotsfan said...

    I have not seen both of these films, but both sound very interesting. I will have to check them out.

  • 7 12-01-2010 at 3:19 pm

    Chris said...

    Any love for Mathieu Kassovitz’s “La Haine”? My favourite film of 1995.

  • 8 12-01-2010 at 3:29 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I haven’t seen La Haine, though I’d like to. Paradise Lost was close to being my pick and of course, Before Sunrise is great. But I HATE Welcome to the Dollhouse

  • 9 12-01-2010 at 3:30 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    I remember liking La Haine quite a bit, but haven’t seen it since it first hit…VHS (so bizarre). Same can be said for Living in Oblivion.

    However, another film I really liked from 1995 that probably wasn’t nominated is…


    Should have landed nods for Screenplay and Actress, if nothing else.

  • 10 12-01-2010 at 3:32 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    The only nod I think Dollhouse could have earned was one for Original Screenplay.

    Of course, another film I really like from 1996, and there should be no shame in saying this, is Scream. It’s screenplay alone was probably worth a nom.

  • 11 12-01-2010 at 3:32 pm

    Keil Shults said...


  • 12 12-01-2010 at 3:53 pm

    John said...

    1995–To Die For. The movie that made me realize how good Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix could be. One of Gus Van Sant’s best.

    1996–Scream. Some weird combo of writer, director, and cast made this an absolute delight.

  • 13 12-01-2010 at 4:01 pm

    Nicolas Mancuso said...

    For 1996, Citizen Ruth.

    I have never met anyone who has even heard of Alexander Payne’s first feature film, but I think it’s a masterpiece and one of the best (and blackest, most depressing) comedies ever made.

  • 14 12-01-2010 at 4:04 pm

    Nicolas Mancuso said...


    Laura Dern, in a career-best performance, would have been a thoroughly deserving Best Actress winner.

  • 15 12-01-2010 at 4:04 pm

    RJL said...

    1995: To Die For (Kidman’s only respectable performance)

    1996: A Time To Kill (although I’m sure I’ve missed something much better)

  • 16 12-01-2010 at 4:23 pm

    El Rocho said...

    1995-The USual Suspects. I know it was nominated and won, but it’s my favorite of 1995. For non-nominated, it would have to be Michael Mann’s Heat.

    1996– All about Lone Star! MAsterful work. Cannot remember if it was nominated. Either way, it’s the film.
    Close in second place would be Fargo (winner, I know) and Lost HIghway. A brilliant Lynch film, sadly underrated.

  • 17 12-01-2010 at 4:43 pm

    Daniel Crooke said...

    I was hoping you’d choose Flirting with Disaster for 1996. Such a great, underrated film. One of my all time favorite comedies. Where else am I going to see Richard Jenkins being fed acid-laced quail and Mary Tyler Moore talking about the strengths of a good, sturdy bra?

  • 18 12-01-2010 at 4:55 pm

    James D. said...

    La Haine is fantastic.

  • 19 12-01-2010 at 6:20 pm

    Jeremy said...

    El Rocho: “Lone Star” nabbed a screenplay nomination. My favorite John Sayles film.

    I think “Dead Man” is O.K., but I swore off Jarmusch after “Broken Flowers”. I enjoy parts of “Flirting with Disaster”, but it’s a bit hit-and-miss with me.

    1995: Heat. Not Michael Mann’s best, but still magnificently operatic.

    1996: “Bound” by the Wachowski Bros., narrowly beating out “Swingers” (now there’s a comedy that focuses on its characters).

  • 20 12-01-2010 at 6:38 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    @Nick Mancuso:

    Not only have I heard of Citizen Ruth, but I even have a shirt with amazing, comic book style sketches (drawn by wy wife) of the main characters from all 4 Alexander Payne films. The top of the shirt reads PAYNE’S WORLD. We tried selling them on Cafe Press years ago, but they made us take it down, so I own the only copy. Wish we could post pics here.

  • 21 12-01-2010 at 7:38 pm

    Cameron said...

    For once, Chad, I completely agree with your sentiments. I would have chosen the same 2 films

  • 22 12-01-2010 at 8:52 pm

    Matt said...

    1995- Heat, one of the best movies of the 90s

  • 23 12-01-2010 at 10:13 pm

    Steve said...

    oh jesus, am I ever in love with “Flirting with Disaster” or WHAT!? mary tyler moore and lily tomlin should have been not only co-nominated, but the kind of kismet that led to a tie in the Supporting Actress category. I agree with you that Stiller and particularly Arquette need to be singled out for the steadiness they anchor in a truly out-there film. Josh Brolin, Alan Alda, RICHARD JENKINS (that acid trip…the brimming jealousy of his younger lover…oh dear, so juicy), down to cameos from Celia Weston and Glenn Fitzgerald (why isn’t this guy a go-to?!). sigh…

  • 24 12-01-2010 at 10:23 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    The Perez Family (1995) – Tomei’s lead actress performance is enough for a mention here.
    Crash (1996) – The “real one”, the one that’s an actual “art film”, the one with Holly Hunter’s coolest hairstyle – it won a prize for “audacity” for a reason.

  • 25 12-01-2010 at 11:30 pm

    Rashad said...

    Only one mention of Heat

    what a travesty

  • 26 12-02-2010 at 6:26 am

    Nicolas Mancuso said...

    Oh my god, Keil! That shirt sounds really cool!

    Can I buy one? Do you manufacture on demand? I’d love to see a photo? Have you posted photos on Flickr or something?

  • 27 12-02-2010 at 6:27 am

    Nicolas Mancuso said...


    Reading that back, I sound like I’m coming mentally unhinged!

  • 28 12-02-2010 at 8:50 am

    jen said...

    1995 is my favourite year because of Moore in Safe and Kidman in To die for. Tour de force. Best female performances of the decade.

  • 29 12-02-2010 at 6:10 pm

    Knative said...

    I liked the movie Freeway. It’s the reason why I like Reese Witherspoon as an actress.

  • 30 12-02-2010 at 10:55 pm

    Pope said...

    1995 – Heat
    1996 – Paradise Lost – The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (I was fortunate enough to have seen this is a Sociology class in my sophomore year, completely fascinating and compelling)

  • 31 12-03-2010 at 7:36 am

    Keil Shults said...

    I didn’t mention it earlier, but Scream is better than most people remember or care to admit. I obviously didn’t make it my top pick, but I think it’s a smartly-written, well-crafted, endlessly watchable movie. If you were old enough to see it in theaters, you’ll probably recall how fun it was seeing that in a packed theater. Good times.

  • 32 12-03-2010 at 7:37 am

    Keil Shults said...

    Didn’t mean to say theater twice. Oh well.

  • 33 12-07-2010 at 11:06 am

    Keil Shults said...

    Ooooohhh…another addition I should have added sooner:

    Microcosmos (1996)