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Average Movies, Dumb Voters, and Steven Soderbergh: An Oscar 2001 Preview

Most moviegoers — reviewers and fans alike — agree that the films of 2000 generally stunk. Perhaps it was easy to dismiss the year in comparison to an outstanding, creative 1999. Maybe it was the lack of a clear-cut American classic, a la Schindler’s List or American Beauty (yeah, it is a classic, so get over it, detractors). Whatever the reason, the process of choosing last year’s best movies and performances has been amorphous and open-ended, to put it kindly.

So why should voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences know any better? Upon releasing their Oscar nominations on February 13, they made two things apparent: 1) they feel the moviegoers’ pain, and 2) they still come off looking like fairly out-of-touch, inflexible, politically-driven, old farts.

Gladiator – Winner of Best Timing

How else on the good Lord’s earth can you explain 12 nominations for Gladiator?! I think most people would say that Gladiator is a solid action-adventure — maybe a very good one at best — but worthy of the grandest accolades of the year? That showering of nominations puts it in the vaulted company of Star Wars, On the Waterfront, All About Eve, and Ben-Hur.

Actually, Ben-Hur may help to explain this Love of Gladiator. Since William Wyler’s ‘sword-and-sandal’ classic in 1959 and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus a year later, we haven’t really seen this genre of film (I’m sure that memorable line from Airplane! has made it impossible to make a serious attempt for years anyway: ‘Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?’)

So a bunch of voters see Gladiator, probably last summer, and think ‘Cool, it’s big, it’s got an epic feel (especially running at 2:35), and it reminds me of those good old classics in the Golden Age of Hollywood.’ Then, the savvy folks over at DreamWorks realize, that with such thin competition, they may have a shot at Oscar stardom. They start the promotion ball rolling, and the voters pat themselves on the back, thinking, ‘Yeah, I knew that was good enough for a studio to get behind! Hell, these are the guys who championed American Beauty.’

Whatever the situation, deserved or not, Gladiator will be your Best Picture winner come March 25. DreamWorks will have won two of those babies in a row… while Miramax gets ready to release Spy Kids.

Don’t You Just Love our Nominations?!

Now what else can the Academy get behind in order to put on its best face? Remember, it needs to show the moviegoing world that it’s hip and in-tune enough, with one eye on the classics and the other on the future. So here’s one humble opinion as to how the geniuses picked the other four Best Picture nominees:

Erin Brockovich
Easy choice. Little guy beats up big corporate morons. In this case, little woman beats up big corporate morons, which is even better. The Academy loves to get behind an underdog, especially one played by Julia Roberts and directed by Steven Soderbergh. The duo creates a dreamy combination of independent integrity and powerful ticket sales. It’s a get-up-and-cheer movie with style, big boobs, and a bigger box-office take. And because it was released in March, voters are saying ‘See, we remember all the movies – even those from 9 months ago!’ If Gladiator doesn’t win, it’ll be this.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Tougher choice, because it’s subtitled in Mandarin, but with its epic scope, and a throng of adoring insiders, this one’s impossible to ignore. It’s certainly the Life Is Beautiful of 2000, made all the more powerful by the industry’s current love affair with everything Asian. And, as with that film, it will not win, and the Academy has guaranteed it – they’ve placed it in both the Best Picture and Best Foreign Film category, confusing voters who usually feel that the Best Foreign Film vote is good enough. By the way, it’s a much better action movie than Gladiator.

Whether he likes it or not, Steven Soderbergh is Wonder Boy, and here he updates the 70s-style epic. Traffic combines true directorial showmanship with enough excitement to pull down the bucks, and an important story to boot. Again, this reminds voters (the younger ones) of films like Nashville – lots of solid actors and ample social commentary. Won’t win, but leads to some interesting Soderbergh discussion.

The fact that this nugget was chosen over Almost Famous is proof that this clatch of voters is both old and lazy. The movie had a limited, 2-week December run in order to qualify for awards, so in voters’ minds, it’s as fresh as a warm cappuccino — hell, most voters probably saw it at home on DVD. And it’s the Academy’s way of not forgetting Miramax, the powerful, pseudo-independent darling that Hollywood loves to flaunt every time a Gone in 60 Seconds comes out. And lastly, it was directed by Lasse Halstrom, and voters figure, hell, we’ve recognized his past movies (My Life as a Dog and The Cider House Rules), so why not throw him another bone.

Interested in what you, the Internet community, thinks about these five? The esteemed movie reference, the Internet Movie Database, lists the most popular movies of 2000 (as of this writing), as voted by you. Crouching Tiger is first. Traffic is fifth, Gladiator, seventh. Chocolat is tied for 17th. Erin Brockovich, in an accurate place if you ask me, is tied for 26th with Frequency (a favorite of our editor, Christopher Null). High on the list, and ignored for Best Picture, are Almost Famous, You Can Count on Me, and Billy Elliot.

The Wonder of Soderbergh

For whatever reasons, Steven Soderbergh takes up 40% of this year’s Best Direction category. He’s been nominated twice: for his exceptional work in directing Traffic, and for helming more average fare, Erin Brockovich. What’s odd is that Traffic clearly has the Soderbergh mark — harsh colors, edgy camerawork, twisty storyline — while Erin Brockovich looks like a movie that he just happened to direct. It really doesn’t hold the signature flavor
that he’s established through excellent work like Out of Sight, The Limey, and King of the Hill (no, not the TV show).

Will voters fail to see that difference, and assume a vote for either/or is one and the same? Will his dual nominations cancel each other out, and leave us with Ang Lee on the podium? Quite possibly, especially if neither Brockovich nor Traffic wins Best Picture.

By the way, this is the first time that a director has been nominated twice, when both his films are also nominated for Best Picture (there was a period where directors could not be nominated twice in the same year). Michael Curtiz was nominated twice in 1938 (losing to Frank Capra), and two Francis Ford Coppola movies were nominated in 1974 with, of course, The Godfather Part II taking home the prize.

So, if you’re really confused, pissed, or mildly amused by this year’s offerings and nominations, just wait: I’m sure there’ll be some half-ass interpretive dance number during the awards show that we can all agree really stinks.

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