Feature Blogs

Second Place Is Still Good - A Tribute To My Forgotten Favourites


My website features my top 10 lists for every year since 1996. Choosing a favourite film of the year can be difficult but I like having the chance to do so. It’s way of honour the film and filmmakers. It’s not as if they’d ever see my list but it’s personal to me and a way of giving credit where credit is due.


I could easily tell you my number 1 film of each year off the top of my head. But the film which finishes 2nd is something I always have to think harder to remember. When you see roughly 200 films a year, to finish 2nd is quite an achievement!


So what I thought is that this week, I’ll pay homage to my 2nd favourite film of each year. It gives me a chance to recall the greatness of the movie, and you a chance to rent/buy a film you might not have otherwise seen (on my recommendation). Let’s get to it…


1996 – Leaving Las Vegas (runner up behind Romeo & Juliet)


I’d forgotten so much about this film that I’ve just slipped it into my dvd player and am watching it as I type. Nicolas Cage gives the best performance in his career as Ben, an alcoholic who has slipped completely off the rails. After being fired from his job, he withdraws everything from his bank account, heads to Las Vegas, and decides to drink himself to death. He befriends a prostitute and the two become quite close but Ben is determined to go through with his plan.


Cage won an Oscar and the film was also nominated for best director (Mike Figgis) and best actress (Elizabeth Shue). It’s a dark, dark film but the strangeness of Ben’s plan provides unexpected comedy. For example, the drunken dialogue he utters is insanely funny. The film made me a big fan of director Mike Figgis and two other great Figgis films have been The Browning Version and Timecode.


1997 – The Ice Storm (runner up behind Titanic)


If you’re wondering where my email address comes from, here it is. This was the film that introduced us to the dysfunctional family before it was cool and popular, like with American Beauty. Starring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigorney Weaver, Elijah Wood, Christina Ricci and Tobey Maguire, it was a sad tale of promiscuity in the 1970s.


It was powerfully moving and brilliantly brought to the screen by director Ang Lee (who also made Sense & Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Sadly, the film has never been released on DVD in Australia. So if you’re looking to catch it, you can try good, old fashioned VHS or order the DVD from overseas.


1998 – Saving Private Ryan (behind The Sweet Hereafter)


I know a lot of people tire of Stephen Spielberg and his conservative style but he hit the mark with Saving Private Ryan. It looked incredibly realistic and was backed with an excellent story. Most will have seen it but if not, it’s the story of a group of American soliders in World War II who go looking for one man to bring home.


The film won best director at the Oscars but was surprisingly beaten for best picture Oscars by Shakespeare In Love (which hasn’t aged well).


1999 – Gods And Monsters (behind Being John Malkovich)


Gods And Monsters won best adapted screenplay at the 2000 Oscars and also earned acting nominations for Ian McKellan and Lynn Redgrave. It is the biographical story of the last few days in the life of director James Whale, who made two famous Frankenstein movies in the 1930s. Whale was a homosexual and a very strange relationship with a lot of people, one of which was his gardener (played by Brendan Fraser).


I particularly remember the soundtrack from composer Carter Burwell and a memorable finale involving Brendan Fraser in the street on a rainy night. A real close look at people from a time not so long ago.


2000 – Magnolia (behind Billy Elliot)


I’ve watched this film so many times that it’s not funny. Not too bad considering it’s 3 hours long. It’s my favourite ensemble piece – a film about a variety of different characters who have inter-related stories (which we learn about along the way). It starred Tom Cruise, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly and was directed by the incredible Paul Thomas Anderson, one of my favourites.


There are some incredible individual scenes my favourite of which is a 5 minute continual shot where the camera follows a whole group of different people before a children’s quiz show. There are heaps of quirks to the film including ending itself which will leave you spellbound or ready to jump out the window with frustration. You’ll either love it or hate it.


2001 – Traffic (behind Requiem For A Dream)


You could also call Traffic an ensemble piece with the myriad of characters. Benecio Del Toro won the Oscar for best supporting actor as did writer Stephen Gaghan and director Stephen Soderbergh. It was a fantastic in-depth look at the war on drugs which is being raged across the globe. The film looks at so many different angles and shows us the problem for what it is, without sugar coating.


It has a grainy look to it and was shot entirely with hand-held cameras to give it a fast-pace, realistic look. It has the perfect ending too – there’s hope but not answers. Director Soderbergh couldn’t have done a much better job.


2002 – Ghost World (behind Mulholland Drive)


Do you love sarcasm? If so, Ghost World in the perfect comedy for you. Two teenage girls (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson) are too intelligent for their own good and are always joking about the stupid world around them. Steve Buscemi enters the picture as a lost cause who Birch befriends and develops a relationship with. What a great mix of drama and comedy! The ending is as black as it gets.


Based on a comic book, I don’t think I’ve ever chuckled more in a single film. Not two minutes would go past without a witty line. Comedy is different for everyone and I can see this not appealing to about 85% of audiences but it was right up my alley. I have a blockmounted copy of the poster on my wall and don’t plan on ever forgetting this sharp comedy.


2003 – The Quiet American (behind Chicago)


Set in Vietnam 1952, Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) is an aging journalist for the London times who reports on Vietnam’s plight to be liberated from France. Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) is a young aid worker who arrives from America. The two become friends but then fall for the same woman. Time is running out for their own battle of affections because a much larger battle is brewing on the streets…


It’s an unconventional love story but very real and emotional. Helping the cause is the fact that it was actually filmed in Vietnam by director Phillip Noyce. As an Aussie, Noyce is an underappreciated filmmaker and one of our finest exports.


2004 – Elephant (behind Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind)


Most people will dislike this film with a passion but I found it intensely hypnotic. It’s part of a trilogy of films from director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) on death. The first film was Gerry and the last in the trilogy is Last Days, released here in Oz next week. This film looks at the senseless nature of death and focuses on a high-school shooting similar to that which happened at Columbine High School in 1999.


With a no-name cast, it won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. Its best quality is it’s ability to not preach and let the audience do the thinking. With its long drawn out scenes, there’ll be plenty of that.