Movies of 1998 Bracket Game: Saving Private Ryan Vs. A Simple Plan
1998 is right in the middle of an era in cinema that I have great affection for. The success of former video store employee Quentin Tarantino had been hugely influential and motivated a general expanded interest in independent film and in the value of both movie trivia and the expertise of your local hole-in-the-wall movie rental clerk. Many of the bigger studios had scrambled to put together projects and promote filmmakers who would help to bolster their street credibility and make them seem in tune with the times. While at moments this resulted in some movies that only had the markers associated with the sort of stuff they thought we wanted to see, but none of the genuine connection with the material that had made it interesting to begin with, I’d say the overall result was positive. Creative and idiosyncratic efforts were more likely to get the green light, and I consider that to be a good thing. At the same time, we were still getting a lot of very mainstream movies with pretty varied results, which served to remind us both of the value of earlier studio approaches and of the corporate malaise that independent films were in part a reaction against. It was a fine time to be a movie fan.
Join us here at LeBlog over the next couple of weeks as we take a look back at the film landscape of twenty years ago and help us decide which of our pre-selected movies from 1998 is the best of the bunch. Is it a smaller independent film, a highly-touted prestige film, or one of those aforementioned big dumb action flicks?
Traditionally, we spend a few moments here addressing some of our choices in building the bracket in question. I’m sure as you take a look at it a couple of things will stand out to you. Yes, I included Deep Impact for the sole purpose of matching it up in the first round against Armageddon. One of the trends of the time which was still prevalent was the release of movies with similar themes or plots by more than one studio. It was the cinematic equivalent of opening a Burger King across the street from a McDonald’s. While I think we’re all pretty sure where that matchup will go, I felt like including it helps reflect 1998 well. You will also notice that Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love have been placed on opposite ends of the bracket. This means that if we’re going to once again address this very contentious one-on-one matchup here at LeBlog that both movies will have to fight their way to the championship round first. Saving Private Ryan has been placed in what is generally the “action/drama” half of the bracket, while Shakespeare in Love will be facing off against comedies and award-winners. On first glance, Spielberg’s war drama appears to have an easier path to the final than Will and Viola. It is probably no secret that I think the Academy made the right call that year, but hopefully by placing Shakespeare in Love in the tougher half of the bracket I have mitigated what might be seen as bias on my part. Let’s get started, shall we?
Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama Saving Private Ryan had a lot going for it even prior to its release when audiences first got a glimpse at it. Simply the pairing of the already legendary director with Tom Hanks, who was still considered one of the top A-list actors caught the attention. I personally saw the poster for it before I had heard about the movie in any other way. This was still in the early days of the internet, so such a thing was not uncommon. Then the trailer dropped, and it was clear that this film was being positioned as very important. In addition to Spielberg and Hanks, they even got John Williams to write the score. On its release in July, Saving Private Ryan immediately grabbed success at the box office, holding onto the number one spot for a full month and sticking solidly in the top ten deep into autumn. The film saw a resurgence at the box office in February after it received eleven Academy Award nominations, and eventually has been recognized by Box Office Mojo as the highest-grossing film at the American box office released in 1998. The film would win five Academy Awards, including Best Director for Spielberg as well as Best Editing and Best Cinematography. It would rake it a bevy of awards from a long list of sources, including at least fifteen “Best Picture” equivalents. Only its loss at BAFTA was a real indicator that it might not take home the ultimate Best Picture prize at the Oscars ceremony. Despite what some people consider a puzzling defeat that night (or perhaps in part because of it), Saving Private Ryan has maintained a strong place in the hearts of many film fans. Here, take a look at that trailer.
Our second competitor in today’s matchup cut a much more humble figure as it creeped its way onto just thirty-one screens in December of 1998. Although the book it was based on garnered immediate attention from film companies, and its rights were snapped up by Mike Nichols, the project became mired in development, first with Nichols having to step away due to scheduling conflicts, then with Ben Stiller and John Dahl passing on the opportunity to direct it and John Boorman stepping down (also due to a scheduling conflict) before Sam Raimi was finally brought on to the helm. In the process of all of this director juggling, the film lost its intended lead in Nicholas Cage. Eventual leads Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton had been set to begin filming with John Boorman in 1997 when the project fell through, an event that Paxton later described as being a “cruel twist.” At the time it looked to Paxton and others like A Simple Plan might never actually get made, at least not with the intended cast and crew, but when Sam Raimi joined in, he hit the ground running, keeping the core cast and saving money by depending on the location scouting which had already been done by Boorman’s team. For those who are very familiar with Raimi’s most memorable movies, A simple Plan might seem like a real departure for him, and the director took the job intentionally as an opportunity to try something more character driven and less dependent on stylized production and creative camera movement. The film would eventually gain attention when it received plaudits after a screening at the Toronto Film Festival and garnered awards attention for Scott B. Smith’s script and Billy Bob Thornton’s supporting performance, including Oscar nominations in those categories. Although A Simple Plan never developed into a financial success for Paramount, the film continues to have a loyal fan base that considers it criminally underrated.
Wow, that’s quite a lot of the plot for A Simple Plan in the trailer there, isn’t it? So what do you think? Are you backing the obvious choice headed by Spielberg, Hanks, and Williams or do you prefer the smaller production besieged by stops and starts brought to you by Sam Raimi, Bill Paxton, and Danny Elfman (yeah that’s right)?