Tyros take Oscar in new directions

To borrow the title from Mike Leigh’s latest film, 1999 might be remembered as the year the movie business went topsy-turvy. In the past 12 months, films by Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, David Lynch and Neil Jordan — all directors who helped change the language of cinema — were released. And yet, in the red-hot glare of awards season, such first-time directors as Sam Mendes and Spike Jonze, and the heretofore unknown M. Night Shyamalan stole the spotlight from their more established counterparts.

Even the work of filmmakers whose names became synonymous with prestige projects in the ’90s — Barry Levinson, Ang Lee, Atom Egoyan, Jane Campion and Anthony Minghella — received less ink and exposure over the past year than a couple of fledgling filmmakers from Florida whose micro-budgeted, mockumentary scarefest became 1999′s biggest B.O. phenomenon.

“One of the characteristics of a lot of the name directors is that they all went in different directions than they usually go,” says veteran author, critic and influential film scholar Andrew Sarris, who writes for the New York Observer. “I thought ‘The Straight Story’ was the best Lynch film I’d seen in a long time. I liked the Scorsese film (‘Bringing Out the Dead’) better than most people did, and I think the Oscars and the Golden Globes underrated Neil Jordan’s film (‘End of the Affair”) as well.”

“I think this year there’s been a lot of very ambitious films by new or little-known directors, and I think people are reacting to their ambition and originality rather than paying heed to big-name filmmakers,” Sarris adds.

Pedro Almodovar, a big-name helmer in his own right, thinks part of the excitement has to do with Hollywood’s, and the world’s, infatuation with youth.

“It is a big advantage just to be young,” says the recent Golden Globe winner for “All About My Mother,” which is also an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film. “If you are 25 and make a movie, you already have a kind of value. They (the cognoscenti), at least in Spain, are giving too much importance to young directors. And these are people who have great talent, there’s no doubt about that. But there’s been a certain expectation of genius which I think is unfair to them and to everyone else.”

New talent

Judging from the Oscar nominations, the influence of youth and new talent was not lost on Academy voters. More than half the actors vying for awards are first-time nominees, while producers of four of the five best pic contenders are also first-timers.

This perceived shock of the new has not been lost on the mass media. “Blair Witch” helmers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez and their cast graced the covers of Time and Newsweek, respectively, on the same date in August; Entertainment Weekly called 1999 “the year that changed movies” in their Nov. 26 cover story; and the L.A. Times’ Sunday Calendar hailed a “new wave of young directors” whose movies are “fresh, audacious and don’t play by the rules” in its Dec. 12 cover story.

And yet certain Oscar prognosticators and film critics are not ready to hail 1999 as a changing of the guard. “Every year has its own rules and circumstances, so one should never look at a specific year and make grandiose generalizations about it,” says Damien Bona, co-author with Mason Wiley of “Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards.”

“It’s just one of the oddest years that I can recall,” Bona adds. “It seems to be all over the place. The different guilds are honoring different films. The different critics groups went with different movies.”

‘Beauty’ pageant

The National Board of Review got the ball rolling Dec. 8 when it hailed “American Beauty” as the year’s best picture. The org’s announcement traditionally kicks off the awards season, and “American Beauty” certainly was the closest to achieving front-runner status at the time. But subsequent announcements by the four other major critics groups made it clear that 1999′s crop of Oscar contenders was anything but a no-brainer.

In the Board of Review’s wake, best picture wins by “The Insider” (L.A. Film Critics Assn.), “Three Kings” (Boston Society of Film Critics) and “Topsy-Turvy” (New York Film Critics Circle) broke the race wide open, while, for the first time in its 34-year history, the National Society of Film Critics split its top prize between “Topsy-Turvy” and “Being John Malkovich.” Only two of the aforementioned critics’ picks made Oscar’s cut, and “Three Kings” didn’t even score a single Oscar nomination

The Directors Guild of America further complicated the picture when it announced its five contenders for features, supplanting such names as Minghella, Leigh and Jordan with Mendes, Jonze and Shyamalan — all tyro nominees, and Oscar finalists.

Populist win

If the critics groups are perceived by many as stuffy cineastes whose high-brow tastes run counter to mainstream tastes, then the Golden Globes are viewed as a more accurate barometer of popular opinion. And yet what to make of a year in which Hilary Swank wins out over Annette Bening and Meryl Streep, or Janet McTeer grabs the top prize over Julia Roberts? (All but Roberts are still in the Oscar hunt.)

Part of it might have to do with the preponderance of issue-oriented films based on history or current events — the kind of morality dramas the Hollywood establishment tends to embrace.

“The Insider” deals with corporate malfeasance; “The Hurricane” and “Boys Don’t Cry” address racial and sexual intolerance and injustice; “Three Kings” subversively casts a jaundiced eye on war for profit; and even something as innocuous as “Music of the Heart” reflects the plight of inner-city schools, with Oscar nominee Meryl Streep championing the rights of the underpriviledged to an arts education.

Swank and Denzel Washington won Golden Globes for “Boys” and “Hurricane,” respectively, for playing real-life figures whose tragic circumstances translate into political rallying cries, and whose performances carry the weight of human sacrifice. They are now considered front-runners for Oscars.

“Any film that defends the individual in his or her own particular circumstances is very important in a country where the marginalization of individuals is stronger every day,” says Almodovar, whose “All About My Mother” deals with the politics of AIDS, among other issues.

“Here it’s an election year, and not one Republican candidate is taking the pro-choice side, and the Democratic candidates, who are all pro-choice, would just as soon the subject never comes up,” says novelist-cum-screenwriter John Irving, whose “Cider House Rules” (up for best picture) deals unflinchingly with the hot-button topic of abortion. “The evidence seems to be that film is broaching subjects that politics is not addressing or skirting away from.”

Irving says he and director Lasse Hallstrom, both Oscar nominees, managed to navigate a potential minefield by focusing on the essential humanity of his characters. “Because of how hard a subject (abortion) is, we wanted to work all that harder to make the characters as gentle and sympathetic as possible,” Irving says, “to make it an unashamedly sentimental film on a political subject that is volatile and quite the opposite of what you’d think of as sentimental.”

Human side of issue

This humanistic approach helped Michael Caine, who plays a doctor at an orphanage who both delivers unwanted babies and performs abortions, garner Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, and allowed actors like Swank, Washington and Angelina Jolie (“Girl, Interrupted”) to enjoy banner years.

“A lot of people complain about movies today, that they’re so derivative and they’re so cynical and the only thing that counts is the bottom line and money,” Sarris says. “But I think that’s not true. This year proved that a great variety of things were done that were different and original.”

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