These five Oscar best picture winners from the last half of the 1990s included four with historical settings and one focusing on modern dysfunctional families.
1995 Best Picture: Braveheart
Braveheart is a three hour tale about the 13th century Scottish warrior William Wallace who led a revolt against the England’s King Edward I. Historically inaccurate from start to finish, the film, nevertheless, is a big adventure epic for viewers not put off by brutal and bloody battle scenes. Helping, too, is a script that allows for character development rather than presenting one-dimensional cardboard figures.
This movie was a labor of love for producer, director and star Mel Gibson, who was rewarded for his efforts with an Oscar for direction. The film was also helped by a strong supporting cast that included veteran Patrick MacGoohan as the malevolent Edward. The movie can be seen as either pro-war or as a treatise on the futility of war.
1996 Best Picture: The English Patient
This nearly three hour film, covering the period of World War II, combines mystery and romance in a story whose plot will enthrall some viewers and leave others confused or bored. It is mostly centered on a mysterious, badly burned and disfigured man (Ralph Fiennes) who also suffers from amnesia. Through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards his identity and story are slowly revealed.
Based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient was not a box office success when it was first released, but managed to win a total of nine Oscars. Among these was best supporting actress for Juliette Binoche as the Canadian nurse who, although battling her own personal demons, is able to help Fiennes.
1997 Best Picture: Titanic
Titanic is hampered by a banal script burdened by unlikely dialogue and featuring one-dimensional characters. It has less historical detail than the 1958 version, A Night to Remember. But, under the capable hands of James Cameron (best director) it is a masterpiece of sound, photography, and special effects that reach their heights during the action scenes. Of the eleven Oscars won by the movie, six were for technical achievement.
The movie is the all time box office hit, grossing over one billion dollars. It also tied All about Eve (1950) for the most ever Oscar nominations with fourteen. One interesting aside: It is the only film in which two people, Kate Winslet (best actress) and Gloria Stuart (best supporting actress) were nominated for playing the same character. Neither won.
1998 Best Picture: Shakespeare in Love
This is a fictional story, based on speculation, of the love affair that inspired William Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet. It will not be remembered as a great movie, but it certainly is an entertaining one, filled with wit, charm, sensuality, and a cast of colorful characters. These features, along with excellent art direction and cinematography, help to negate the story’s historical inaccuracies.
This film did well at the box office and won a total of seven Oscars. Gwyneth Paltrow won best actress and is perfect in the role of Viola de Lesseps, the mysterious woman who inspires The Bard. Other winners included British veteran Judi Dench, who received the best supporting actress award for her brief eight minute appearance as Queen Elizabeth I.
1999 Best Picture: American Beauty
This black comedy features Kevin Spacey as an unhappy businessman with a neglectful, career hungry wife and an alienated teenage daughter who is attracted to a strange, voyeuristic, drug dealing young man living next door. Going through a midlife crisis, Spacey decides to completely change his lifestyle, a decision which ultimately leads to tragedy.
American Beauty is a harsh and ruthless look at middle class suburban life. There are no “heroes,” the main characters all have varying degrees of narcissism and few, if any, redeeming qualities. First time director Sam Mendes took home an Oscar as did Spacey for best actor. Chris Cooper is excellent as the creepy, retired army officer neighbor whose family is even more dysfunctional than Spacey’s.