Newcomers, oldsters and angst

Film: The Academy Awards

March 26, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,sun film critic

In the course of what always seems like an endless Oscars ceremony, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has never seen fit to recognize or reward what most filmgoers remember from the preceding year: the Best Moment at the Movies. But this year, the Academy has at least nominated most of the films that provided those moments.

Who can forget Kevin Spacey's first toke in "American Beauty"? Or the opening strains of "Chan-Chan" in "Buena Vista Social Club"? Or Matthew Broderick's sly updating of Ferris Bueller in "Election"? Or John Malkovich's heroic self-deprecation in "Being John Malkovich"? Who can forget similar moments of transcendence and mirth in "The Straight Story," "Genghis Blues," "All About My Mother" and "Toy Story 2"?

Those are just my favorites, of course; other moviegoers have their own moments. Still, there were a bunch of them in 1999 and they have inspired me to buck tradition a little in this year's preparation for the Oscars. Since the field is so wide open, I've avoided predictions and proffered some suggestions (see accompanying Oscar ballot). And instead of speculation, here are some reflections inspired by this year's nominees:

The year of men and their identity crises -- "American Beauty," the year's finest film, featured a searingly funny performance by Kevin Spacey as a suburban father and husband who goes through a midlife catharsis only to rediscover his authentic self tragically late. The role of Lester Burnham was as emblematic of its era as Gary Cooper's "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit"; Spacey's Burnham was the flawlessly callow foil for anxieties stoked by shifting gender politics, the emasculating nature of consumer culture, and the sexual diminuendo of baby boomer middle age.

"American Beauty" wasn't the only movie to explore the mutability of identity. "The Cider House Rules" was an evocative tale of a young man forging his way in a world of murky moral choices; even stylishly spooky "The Sixth Sense" had as its narrative center a man unable to come to grips with what he is.

Add the antic comedy "Being John Malkovich," Spike Jonze's kaleidoscopic joy ride through consciousness, sexuality and celebrity; "Election," Alexander Payne's wickedly bleak satire about a high school teacher hoist by his own ethical petard; and the fact that Oscar nominee Hilary Swank played a young woman trying to pass as a man, and you have an unusually compelling year in which questions of identity were explored with wit, style and smarts. (Fellow nominees "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Fight Club," "The Matrix," "Magnolia" and even "Toy Story 2," which posed the question of whether a toy exists without its owner's love, also provided some engaging variations on the theme.)

Newcomers carry the day -- Two of the year's best movies, "American Beauty" and "Being John Malkovich," were written by television writers making their feature debuts. They were also directed by two first-time feature directors: Sam Mendes, who started in theater, and Jonze, who earned fame as a music video director. Both proved to be incisive and zestful filmmakers. And don't forget Julie Taymor ("Titus") and the "Blair Witch" boys.

In the sophomore category, Payne fulfilled the promise of his first film, "Citizen Ruth," by turning in a smart, well-crafted comedy; and M. Night Shyamalan, whose first film, "Wide Awake," rendered most filmgoers just the opposite, proved his mettle with the graceful and assured "The Sixth Sense."

Promising rookies in front of the camera included the nominated Swank ("Boys Don't Cry") and Haley Joel Osment ("The Sixth Sense"). Wes Bentley ("American Beauty") and Kimberly Brown ("Tumbleweeds") weren't mentioned at Oscar nomination time, but deserve kudos for two of the more winning performances of the year.

But don't count the old-timers out -- Making a convincing case of age before beauty were veteran directors Lasse Hallstrom ("The Cider House Rules"), Michael Mann ("The Insider"), Woody Allen ("Sweet and Lowdown"), Norman Jewison ("The Hurricane") and Mike Leigh ("Topsy-Turvy"), novelist John Irving (nominated for his screenplay for "The Cider House Rules") and actors Richard Farnsworth ("The Straight Story") and Michael Caine ("The Cider House Rules"). Not to mention those beguiling stars of "Buena Vista Social Club," Wim Wenders' intoxicating documentary that proved there are second -- and third and fourth -- acts, at least in Cuban life.

The truth hurts, even when it's not the whole truth -- "The Hurricane," Norman Jewison's movie about prize-fighter Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, was thought by many to be a hot Oscar contender when it was first released. But then questions arose regarding the truth of events portrayed in the movie

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