Defying Projections

Oscar nominations reflect the type of year it was for Hollywood, with no clear front-runners but a delicious stew of interesting stuff.

February 16, 2000|By ANN HORNADAY | ANN HORNADAY,SUN FILM CRITIC

If 1999 was the year of anything in movies, it was the "Year of the Map." As in, All Over The.

Some of the strongest movies were darkly comic, resolutely independent and wickedly subversive, such as "American Beauty," "Being John Malkovich" and "Election." Meanwhile, filmgoers of more conventional tastes were rewarded by the classical storytelling and safe sentiment of such films as "The Straight Story," "The Cider House Rules" and "The Green Mile."

All of these movies were recognized yesterday, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its 72nd annual Oscar nominations. In nearly every major category, the nominations reinforced the notion that last year's films were too varied -- in genre, style and tone -- to make for clear front-runners.

Besides being wildly diverse in approach and subject, the films of 1999 included a compelling screen heroine who was a man (see Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother," nominated for best foreign-language film) and an affecting screen hero who was a woman (see Hilary Swank's Oscar-nominated portrayal of murder victim Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry").

Well-known directors also diverged from expectations. Who would have thought David Lynch would leave behind his weirdly Gothic images of America and direct Richard Farnsworth to his second Oscar nomination in the slow, quiet "The Straight Story"? (At 79, Farnsworth is the oldest nominee in the Academy's history.) Or that Wes Craven, best known for "Scream," "Nightmare on Elm Street" and other hair-raisers, would guide Meryl Streep to her 12th nomination in the utterly unscary "Music of the Heart"?

It was also a year when two of the most critically acclaimed movies -- "The Insider" and "The Hurricane" -- were based on true stories. Both played fast and loose with the facts, but only one suffered what many have seen as a critical backlash. "The Insider" was nominated for seven awards, including best picture; "The Hurricane" nabbed only one, for lead actor Denzel Washington.

And it was a year when the most talked-about movie was a no-budget, Maryland-filmed horror flick made into a must-see by an ingenious grass roots Internet campaign. If the Academy gave an Oscar for most creative marketing scheme, "The Blair Witch Project" would no doubt have been honored yesterday. Instead, the sleek, suspenseful "Sixth Sense" -- which became an unlikely mainstream sleeper hit even as "Witch" fell prey to over-hype -- exceeded expectations by garnering six nominations, among them best picture and best director.

It's not surprising that "American Beauty," Sam Mendes' elegant portrait of suburban angst and redemption, won the most nominations; none of the year's diverse offerings was as insightfully conceived, carefully executed and emotionally devastating. Not only did "American Beauty" earn a best picture nomination, but first-timer Mendes made the best director list, Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening were nominated for best actor and actress, and writer Alan Ball was nominated for his poetic, incisive script. The film is also up for cinematography, editing and Thomas Newman's haunting musical score.

"The Insider," Michael Mann's film about real-life tobacco company whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, and "The Cider House Rules," an adaptation of John Irving's novel about a young orphan's journey through life, each received seven nominations, including best picture. Both were well-made, critically acclaimed films, with solid artistic pedigrees.

But two best-picture nominations were surprises. "The Sixth Sense," which starred Bruce Willis as a psychologist who befriends a mysterious young boy, made $278 million at the box office, leading many to predict that its popularity could work against it.

And "The Green Mile," the Tom Hanks vehicle based on a Stephen King novel, got a nomination even though it received a nearly universal drubbing from critics. Still, "Mile" was a popular adult fairy-tale, which co-stars Michael Clark Duncan (nominated for best supporting actor) as a gentle African-American giant who enlightens his prison guard (Hanks) while on death row.

Comedies, especially animated ones, are perennially overlooked in the best picture category, but "Being John Malkovich" and "Toy Story 2" are just two films that were smarter, more creative and more gracefully executed than the too-long, too-syrupy and too-stereotyped "Mile."

"Being John Malkovich" received three nominations: Spike Jonze for best director, Catherine Keener for best supporting actress, and Charlie Kaufman for best original screenplay. Would that Malkovich had been recognized for his supporting role in the film -- or at the very least, that the academy had added a special category this year for Best Sport.

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