Ten Decades of Oscars: AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)

Hey, we’re making it! We’re getting there! Feels like I’ve been saying that for a while but this time I feel some semblance of truth in it! Welcome back to Ten Decades of Oscars, and now things are getting weird because now we’ve reached an era of film that I feel personally connected to because I was, you know, alive during it. In my estimation, the 90s is one of the most eclectic and stylistically diverse decades of film. It’s both wildly influenced and influencing. If a film looked rough-and-tumble gritty, it was wholly on purpose and meticulously achieved. The art and the craft began to intersect and those intersections began to multiply. When I watch, say, STAR WARS (1977), I can see the technical and budgetary limitations that plagued the production. These don’t detract from the overall impact of the film because it’s so well done and so well edited, but on the flipside of that: when I watch TERMINATOR 2 (1991), I no longer notice the limitations because there hardly are any. Part of that, of course, is because of more studio money, but the 90s has always seemed to me like the turning point in filmmaking as art-making, where even the low budget flicks like RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) feel more technically competent than they would have ten or twenty years ago. Enough experimentation and stylistic ventures had been tried from Hitchcock to Kubrick to Friedkin to Scorsese that filmmakers of the 90s had enough knowledge and expertise passed onto them just from the decades of films that influenced them.

The winners of this decade are almost all household names. The Academy often guessed well this era, and even when they didn’t feel comfortable crowning big accolades on seminal pieces like THE MATRIX (1999), they still offloaded a dump truck worth of technical awards for them. I know it’s just a popularity contest, but let’s look at IMDb’s Top 250 for a moment. In the top twenty films, eight of them are from the 90s—more than any other decade. I love the 80s, but I can’t think of nearly as many films that were as culturally significant as the wealth of films from the 90s. PULP FICTION (1994), GOODFELLAS (1990), THE MATRIX (1999), SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), TITANIC (1997), FIGHT CLUB (1999), THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994), THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995), SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), TOY STORY (1995), JURASSIC PARK (1993), TRAINSPOTTING (1996), FARGO (1996), —the list feels endless. Remember, I was a child during this decade, and kids at school or on the bus would routinely quote FORREST GUMP (1994) it was such a staple of the average family’s VHS collection. “I see dead people” from THE SIXTH SENSE entered my cultural lexicon before I even knew what THE SIXTH SENSE was. THE LION KING (1994) is my very first theatre-going memory. This decade is almost untouchable for me—this strange decade with its primordial digital prowess and its almost time-capsule pre-9/11 quality. And there is still so much to explore. The decade is overloaded with films worth viewing beyond the well-established kinds. I recently watched GODS AND MONSTERS (1998) and QUIZ SHOW (1994), both for the first time, and they feel so much like films you could make today except you couldn’t. They’re simultaneously too competent and too flat. They’re classy and emotional but not striking. I loved them both but those kinds of films hugely influenced my cinematic upbringing.

Anyway, I knew I was going to rant and I apologize for that, but I want to touch on the decade’s final winner: AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999). I’ve been mired in nostalgic flexing for this review for good reason—I promise—and it’s because AMERICAN BEAUTY came to me at the most opportune time in my exploration of film. At the time, I had been following the artists as I’ve discussed in previous entries in this column, and I’d been renting films like mad without much thought as to why. Why did I like films so much? Could I ever articulate my blossoming passion for this artform? Then, on a whim, I rented AMERICAN BEAUTY, and it felt like every one of those intangible questions found an easy answer. Because that’s kind of what AMERICAN BEAUTY is: an eye-opener for younger, thoughtful minds. A film that more often than not is operating on the surface level, but is boldly pretentious enough to inflate its sense of importance and purpose—and to a fourteen-year-old who doesn’t know much better, that’s perfect. That’s art, baby. Suddenly, it’s clear: “Oh, this is why I love film so much—because it can do things like this.”

And much of AMERICAN BEAUTY still holds up. That bizarre Thomas Newman score, the emotionally fraught performances, the exquisite cinematography. But the film has been aging rapidly since it first made that indelible impact on my young heart. To say as little of Spacey as possible, over the past year I’ve been revisiting some of his films with queasy trepidation. It’s nice in films like GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992) wherein everybody uses him as a punching bag. Almost cathartic, that film. And it helps that he often chose projects that were so well done it’s easy—for me, at least—to let the story and characters and filmmaking sweep his real life under the rug for a couple hours. And he is a great actor. It’s a fact that feels almost wrong to admit, but he won two Oscars—one of which for AMERICAN BEAUTY—and it’s not difficult to see why. Ultimately, though, he is one of the factors that significantly contribute to this film’s dated outlook. The other is Alan Ball’s winning screenplay.

I think the consensus on AMERICAN BEAUTY is fairly split these days. I lauded it for years to friends and colleagues, but now I let it kind of sit in the hall of forgotten classics. It is childishly pretentious. You can have one of two reactions to that plastic bag scene: sincere emotional understanding or cringe-induced eye-rolling, and I think your reaction depends much on the kind of person you are when you first watch the film. And I am a very different person than I was seventeen years ago (thank god). The ending montage used to move me to tears. Now I kind of make faces and think about how good MAGNOLIA (1999) is. I think, for what the film has done for me on my journey through the artform, I can’t slight it much; I just don’t return to it nearly as often as other profoundly influential films. It’s odd what we can lose when we grow. But I still got to follow the artist with director Sam Mendes, and that led me to ROAD TO PERDITION (2002), which if I could write a glowing dissertation on, I would in a heartbeat. That film is utter perfection with almost every frame a painting worthy of museum standards.

Oh, you know another 90s film I love? SCENT OF A WOMAN (1992). Go watch that. But for now, that concludes the century. I’ll be back next week with the 2000s and I promise I won’t add too many bitter remarks about BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005) losing to CRASH (2005), because if anyone asks, yes I am over it why wouldn’t I be it happened sixteen years ago I’m not some weirdo like that. So yeah, the contestants will be:

GLADIATOR
A BEAUTIFUL MIND
CHICAGO
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
MILLION DOLLAR BABY
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
THE DEPARTED
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
THE HURT LOCKER

AMERICAN BEAUTY is available on Blu-Ray and for digital purchase on Apple TV, Google Play, and Microsoft.

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