LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: 1999 and 2000

Posted by · 7:19 pm · December 14th, 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

We’ve all heard that 1999 is the best year in movies since 1939 or possibly ever, but it’s hard to defend that statement if you actually believe “American Beauty” is the cream of the crop like the Academy did. Yet another “you had to be there” award that the Academy seems so prone to, while Cannes can pick timeless classics more often than not.

At least the Academy saw fit to reward true ingenuity in the form of three nominations apiece for “Being John Malkovich” and “Magnolia.” They even stuck a toe in the water of bravery by nominating a song from “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” even if it was the worst and least offensive one in the film.

The first year of the new millennium was conquered by “Gladiator,” but will perhaps be better remembered for Steven Soderbergh’s near-unprecedented double Best Director nomination and the record-breaking 10 nods nabbed by “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the most ever for a foreign film.

Academy members also seemed to have popped in their “Dancer in the Dark” soundtrack CDs but couldn’t be bothered to do the same with the actual movie, which is the only way to explain Björk landing a nomination for Best Song and not Best Actress.

This year marked Steve Martin’s first time at the helm and he remains my favorite Oscar host ever thanks to deadpan gems like, “You know, I saw the movie ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ and I didn’t see any tigers or dragons. Then I realized, it’s because they’re crouching and hidden.”

Here’s what I recommend you spend your time watching.

1999 – “American Movie” (Chris Smith)

Something of a cult classic, “American Movie” may be the finest movie ever made about filmmaking, or at the very least, the funniest. It possibly could have been even funnier, if director Smith had resorted to merely laughing at his subjects, but he correctly concludes that simply filming them as is would provide the right balance of humor, heart and audience sympathy.

He certainly must have felt that he had struck gold running into Mark Borchardt while working on his previous film, “American Job.” Borchardt has an infectious energy and an admirable attitude towards his dream, which is to make movies. He’s desperately poor and thousands of miles away from Hollywood, but he has his dream, his friends and a 16mm camera. He also works at a cemetery, is divorced with kids and shows signs of alcoholism. Again, there’s plenty to judge Borchardt on, but Smith doesn’t go that route. If anything, I left the theater inspired by a man who was reduced to cleaning shit for his art.

As entertaining as Borchardt is, his best friend Mike Schank is doubly so. A man of few words and a killer moustache, Schank initially comes across as a cautionary tale on what years of drug abuse can do to your brain, but as the film progresses, he reveals himself to be a quiet balancing board for Borchardt’s rambling, overexcited mind. He’s the type of supportive friend that few can boast and it’s the scenes between the two of them that lifted the movie to cult status and continues to give them both work on the fringes of Hollywood.

The thematic resonance for anyone trying to make it in the film business, or any artistic pursuit really, is powerful. Initially started as a documentary on the making of one film, it slowly turns into a documentary about the finishing of a previous one in the first of many setbacks that haunt Borchardt. There’s never enough money, time, talent or cooperation, but he always comes back swinging. He finds ways to get things done and the triumphant premiere at the end of the film is nothing if not well earned. It’s an added bonus then that a lot of the footage Smith sneaks in from Borchardt’s actual film is strikingly beautiful and well-composed. Furthermore, he shot and edited the film by hand on celluloid, which probably makes him a technically more adept “filmmaker” than hundreds of young critical darlings working today.

At the end of the day, you have to be a little crazy to attempt moviemaking, but you also have to have an enormous passion for life. Whether its for living life, capturing life, recreating life, analyzing life, deconstructing life, an inquisitive mind is an absolute prerequisite and Mark Borchadt proves that those can be found in the most unusual of places. Just remember, “It’s alright, it’s okay, there’s something to live for… Jesus told me so!”

2000 – “Songs From the Second Floor” (Roy Andersson)

Roy Andersson may be my favorite filmmaker at the moment, simply based on this and “You the Living,” both of which I saw in the last three years. A somewhat prolific Swedish filmmaker in the late 60’s and early 70’s, he disappeared from feature filmmaking for a quarter of a century, focusing on personal artwork and commercials before returning with a bang in 2000. Somewhere along the way, he developed a wonderfully unique and acidic aesthetic that is characterized by long takes, surrealist comedy and political or religious satire. Think Bergman meets Fellini meets Van Sant’s Death Trilogy meets Jacques Tati.

“Songs From the Second Floor” took four years to make and consists of only 46 shots. The camera moves only once and in a minor way, but otherwise Andersson picks his vantage point and lets his scene unfold within it. In terms of being a master of his frame, few can compete with the virtuoso work done here. Andersson can get a laugh or a heartbreaking moment out of anything, whether it’s a door slowly creaking open or a light flickering slightly in the background. Like a magician, he’s a master at sleight of hand, focusing your attention here while he does some work here that will reveal itself when he wants. Fitting then that one of the most memorable scenes involves a magician sawing a volunteer in half.

Not just a showman, Andersson clearly has something to say about the political and religious environment in Sweden. What he’s trying to say exactly is beyond me. I don’t pretend to get every nuance in such a deliberately oblique work. It also features a number of quotes from Peruvian poet César Vallejo, someone whose work I don’t know at all and would struggle to find a thematic connection to. This is the misconception about “art” films; that they are hard to understand and therefore unenjoyable. To me, understanding everything is the key to ruining my enjoyment. I want to connect emotionally or be engaged by the images and events unraveling onscreen, neither of which requires following a spelled out plot from point A to point B.

I don’t have to know Andersson’s motives to understand the loneliness and despair present in Lars Nordh’s subdued performance. It’s a testament to all the actors that they give fully formed performances, given that Andersson’s shooting and blocking style turns actors into one more prop to move around the frame. The following quote sheds some light on his approach and how his painting influences it, “Nowadays I prefer lighting without shadows. There should not be a possibility for people to hide. They should be seen. They should be illuminated all the time. That’s what I mean when I say ‘light without mercy.’ You make the people, the human beings in the movie, very naked.”

That may sound like the prized pupil at the Lars von Trier school of filmmaking talking, but it’s that attitude that brings such brutally honest moments out of such absurd situations. He goes on to compare the lighting style he’s thinking of with cartoons and that is the wonderful dichotomy that makes “Songs From the Second Floor” such a treat. Seek this film out. You may not understand or like it, but you will never forget it.

Those are my picks. What do you guys think?

[Photo: Sony Classics]
[Photo: New Yorker Films]

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

31 responses so far

  • 1 12-14-2010 at 7:28 pm

    James D. said...

    Two fantastic choices. I have the Andersson film as a 2001 release, but still.

    In 1999, they managed to nominate Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, and Election, so Eyes Wide Shut would be my pick. In 2000, George Washington was my favorite film and it garnered no nominations.

  • 2 12-14-2010 at 8:06 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Love both Eyes Wide Shut and George Washington but felt like writing about these two more.

  • 3 12-14-2010 at 8:07 pm

    SpidermanUpdate said...

    Martin was the worst host ever. Among many of examples of this were the comments he made after Michael Moore’s speach. I don’t care what the fuck you think, no mere Oscar host should have a right to make an Oscar winner feel unwelcome.

  • 4 12-14-2010 at 8:30 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Gotta go with “Ratcatcher” for 1999. Such a beautiful, sad little movie!

  • 5 12-14-2010 at 8:46 pm

    Rob T. said...

    My own pick for 1999 would be The Iron Giant, the film Brad Bird made for Warner Bros. that flopped at the box office but attracted the attention of John Lasseter at Pixar, who gave his old Cal Arts classmate a call. I love the film’s child’s-eye view of a 1950’s that includes bad sci-fi movies and comics, McCarthyism, beatniks and the Bomb. Even today, few “family” films are that daring with their subject matter.

    1999 was a banner year for animation on American movie screens. In addition to The Iron Giant, there was the “South Park” movie, the second “Toy Story” movie, Disney’s Tarzan and the American release of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. However, the only presence any of these movies had at the Oscars was in the song category, meaning that both Giant and Mononoke were shut out (not having any songs). It’s surely no accident that the animated features Oscar category was introduced within a couple of years.

  • 6 12-14-2010 at 9:03 pm

    PalCinema said...

    1999 was definitely one of the best recent years. I still defend American Beauty as one of the best films of the last 20 years. Its cinematography, visual design, themes, and performances rank as some of the best ever. It perfectly captures middle age and suburbia in America. That said, I also think that Magnolia, Election, Run Lola Run, Being John Malkovich, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Boys Don’t Cry, and Three Kings also were superb films released that year.

  • 7 12-14-2010 at 9:19 pm

    Zachary said...

    I have to disagree with you on American Beauty. Over 11 years later after seeing it for the first time, it remains one of the best movie-going experiences of my life. After I saw it, I stayed in the theater and saw it a second time.

    For 1999, I would go with Three Kings. The opening shot shows Wahlberg looking through a sniper rifle at a target a undetermined distance away. When he asks whether or not to shoot him, that’s when I thought this might be a different movie. Later, when the movie takes the time to humanize the Iraqi citizens, I knew I was watching a great movie. The movie would be memorable alone just for the bullet in the body sequence, but everything else adds up to one of 1999’s best and the best movie of the year that wasn’t nominated for Oscar.

    For 2000, I would go with Sophia Coppola’s feature debut The Virgin Suicides. If I could describe this movie in one word, it would be “haunting.” After seeing this movie, I was in kind of a daze for a few days trying to make sense of it all. I could understand why the girls were the way they were, and yet, I could understand why the parents were the way they were. Fantastic performances all around, especially from James Woods and Kathleen Turner as the parents and a star making turn from Kirsten Dunst who would explode two years later with the Spider-man franchise. With this movie, Sofia would put behind her once and for all her disastrous performance in The Godfather Part III. As good as this movie was, her follow-up Lost in Translation was even better. A brilliant debut from a director who showed that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

  • 8 12-14-2010 at 9:21 pm

    Zachary said...

    Oh crap. I just saw that someone posted about The Iron Giant. How the hell did I forget that?

    One of the best animated movies I’ve ever seen and the awesome debut of Brad Bird who did my two favorite Pixar movies. The final word spoken in the movie still runs chills down my spine every time I watch it.

  • 9 12-14-2010 at 9:25 pm

    Jeremy said...

    1999: I’ll take “The War Zone” just ahead of “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Three Kings”.

    2000: “High Fidelity,” and handily.

    And “American Beauty” remains one of my all-time favorite films.

  • 10 12-14-2010 at 9:40 pm

    Fitz said...

    For 1999 I’m going with Arlington Road. I was digging my nails into the couch when I first saw that film.

  • 11 12-14-2010 at 9:43 pm

    Jack Wyle said...

    The Iron Giant is a great film, as is The Talented Mr. Ripley.

    I’ll probably get roasted for this, but I’m a dog lover, so who cares. My Dog Skip (2000) is a great film & a true story (Diane Lane, Kevin Bacon, and Luke Wilson) about growing up in the South during the War years. One of my favorites.

    I’ll also probably get roasted for this, too, but did anyone else enjoy The Legend of Bagger Vance? I’m more than aware of its shortcomings- it could definitely benefit from a bit more, ahem, conflict- but Will Smith gave an amazing performance.

  • 12 12-14-2010 at 10:35 pm

    Justin said...

    American Beauty has been my favorite movie of all time ever since it was released in theaters. Experiencing that film is seriously unbelievable — almost like a religious awakening. But now that a decade has passed, I’m realizing how pessimistic and depressing it really is… almost like it’s advertising death in a way. Not saying it’s a bad film because I think it transcends film in general.

    Also, it satirized a culture that never changed… and even got worse if you think about all the spin-offs (Desperate Housewives, all those terrible “Real Housewives” shows). So maybe it’s society’s fault.

    I agree that 1999 was amazing. Aside from AB, I really liked Election, Being John Malkovich, & The Sixth Sense. How come nobody makes movies like those anymore?

  • 13 12-14-2010 at 10:47 pm

    Angry Shark said...

    American Beauty is a repugnant film, a film that made me feel suicidal when I finished watching it. It is the worst Best Picture winner I have seen, and I’ve seen Mrs. Miniver, so yeah.

  • 14 12-14-2010 at 11:30 pm

    Ibad said...

    Going strictly by US releases my choice for both years, respectively, would be “Princess Mononoke” by Hayao Miyazaki and “Color of Paradise” by Majid Majidi (one of my three favorite films ever).

  • 15 12-14-2010 at 11:44 pm

    Jesse Crall said...


    America Beauty wipes the floor with Magnolia. Any film that has the entire cast stop everything in their respective scenes and do a sing-along has run out of ideas. And as for “you had to be there” I didn’t see it until a few years ago and was beyond blown away.

    But we all have our opinions…

  • 16 12-15-2010 at 5:29 am

    JJ1 said...

    Yeah, American Beauty remains one of my favorite movies of all time. I remember being floored walking out of the theater (at age 19), and I saw it 2 more times during it’s theater run. It’s awards are well-deserved, IMO.

  • 17 12-15-2010 at 6:10 am

    Rashad said...

    1999 – Talented Mr. Ripley, Stir of Echoes, and of course Fight Club!

    2000 – Unbreakable, without a doubt M Night’s best

  • 18 12-15-2010 at 6:51 am

    Joe7827 said...

    Chad: you didn’t you remember that you have to pick only movies from the first half of the year? Oh wait… sorry, wrong series.

    “It’s alright, it’s okay, it’s something to live for, Jesus told me so” is a line I quote frequently, particularly in Uncle Bill’s “I don’t care” style. What a heartbreaking scene. But my pick for 1999 (the first year I really started following movies) has to be Three Kings. I’ll say it – I thought Mark Wahlberg should’ve WON for his performance. And David O. Russell’s expected upcoming nomination will be 11 years too late, in my opinion. Run Lola Run is a close second.
    As for 2000: Return to Me. It’s a shame Bonnie Hunt doesn’t direct more movies, because in her feature debut she proves to be an expert storyteller. Finding Forrester is a close second.

  • 19 12-15-2010 at 7:27 am

    Daniel said...

    Rosetta, Eyes Wide Shut, The Virgin Suicides… One of those for 1999

    As for 2000, if I’m going by IMDB dates, then In the Mood for Love. Or Code: Unknown. And I’d consider Bamboozled a noble failure.

  • 20 12-15-2010 at 9:55 am

    Ivan said...

    The War Zone
    200 Cigarettes
    Office Space
    Get Real
    Cruel Intentions

    American Psycho
    Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai
    The Filth and the Fury
    Jesus´s Son

  • 21 12-15-2010 at 10:06 am

    psychonappy said...

    Chad, I’ve been talking about Roy Andersson for years ever since I saw SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR on the big screen in 2001. I’m bowled over by the beauty and hilarity of his films. I met him the other day at a Roy Andersson retrospective at MOMA. He’s easily my fillmmaker of the millenium. One thing I would mention about Andersson’s films, is to see them on the biggest screen possible. There are a million things happening in the frame all at once. It’s an absolute treat to discover something new on my tenth viewing of SONGS that escaped me on my ninth.

  • 22 12-15-2010 at 10:51 am

    Keil Shults said...

    FILMS THAT RECEIVED NO NOMINATIONS (which, again, is what this column is designed to recognize):


    Three Kings

    Runners-Up (alphabetical):

    American Movie
    Eyes Wide Shut
    Princess Mononoke
    Run Lola Run


    (4-way tie, alphabetical)

    Chicken Run
    Chuck & Buck
    George Washington
    Jesus’ Son

  • 23 12-15-2010 at 11:45 am

    Andrew Rech said...

    1999 was actually hard for me to find something without skimming through release dates considering that a large amount of the great films that year got some form of an Oscar nomination. I’d have to say Princess Mononoke. Top tier Miyazaki, and every moment is so thrilling. Run Lola Run is also fantastic and I’d like to give a shout out to the under-appreciated little gem that is A Walk on the Moon. Diane Lane’s best performance, completely luminous. Yes it’s better than Unfaithful.

    2000…I’d have to single out The House of Mirth and Ghost Dog. I’m really surprised the former didn’t get any sort of awards traction!

  • 24 12-15-2010 at 11:48 am

    Andrew Rech said...

    I just remembered that Yi Yi was released that year. That would easily be my pick for 2000. One the absolute best of the decade. It’s like this giant gorgeous tapestry that follows everyday life but it speaks volumes about the entire world. Every single aspect is significant.

  • 25 12-15-2010 at 11:57 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    “Any film that has the entire cast stop everything in their respective scenes and do a sing-along has run out of ideas”

    If that’s not an idea, I don’t know what is.

  • 26 12-15-2010 at 11:58 am

    Andrew F said...

    1999: Eyes Wide Shut
    2000: In the Mood for Love

    I’m still debating with myself if “Eyes Wide Shut” is Kubrick’s best film, or if that honour goes to “2001”. A stunning achievement. It also seems to be the favourite Kubrick film in my department; all the profs love it.

    And I consider “In the Mood for Love” a 2000 film, even if it wasn’t released in the States until 2001. What a flurkin’ masterpiece. Just oozing with sensuality.

  • 27 12-15-2010 at 1:14 pm

    David said...

    Although not really adding much, I’m thrilled to see American Movie here. I saw it for the first time this past spring at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival, and it was amazingly touching and hilarious. Fantastic choice.

  • 28 12-15-2010 at 3:03 pm

    PalCinema said...

    2000 hasn’t seemed to be nearly as good a year as ’99. That said, there really were some interesting and original films that year: Chuck & Buck, Time Code, You Can Count On Me, Dancer in the Dark, Requiem For a Dream, and Best in Show. Not a bad bunch! Some pretty daring films!

  • 29 12-15-2010 at 7:22 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    In the Mood for Love wasn’t eligible for most American awards until the next year, so I left it off until next week’s LWO column.

  • 30 12-15-2010 at 10:13 pm

    Pope said...

    1999 was quite a good year. I own Three Kings, American Beauty, Being John Malkovich and Magnolia. I don’t understand the dislike some people have for American Beauty. To each his own I guess…it just happens to be my favorite movie, and I didn’t even see it in 1999, probably some time around 03/04. I think it ages quite well. Magnolia is pretty darn amazing too, I just think AB had a tighter script.

    I don’t have a pick for 1999, but 2000 would have to be American Psycho, what a joy that film is. Wait a minute, Requiem for a Dream was flippin amazing too. Yeah, I’ll go with that one :)