Director Ridley Scott‘s frenetic, almost overwhelmingly brutal action drama might be one of the few war films to truly capture “the horror” that Col. Kurtz reflected on in his dying breaths in Apocalypse Now. The local militia has declared war on the huge in-country United Nations peacekeeping operation in Somalia, a country being ravaged by famine and civil uprising; when U.S. Rangers and an elite Delta Force team are sent in to capture Mohammed Farrah Aidid, the self-proclaimed president of the country, their Black Hawk helicopters are shot down and they suffer heavy casualties (to say the least) as they engage in battle on the ground. Black Hawk Down expertly depicts just how insane war can be; Scott exercises a sense of “controlled chaos” in telling this story based on Mark Bowden’s nonfiction book, with bullets flying and men screaming and things exploding like it’s truly the end of the world. The impressive ensemble cast includes Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Tom Hardy and Orlando Bloom, among others; the film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including a Best Director nod for Scott, and won two (Best Film Editing and Best Sound).
Hilary Swank may be flailing about now with ill-advised appearances at the birthday parties of foreign dictators and supporting roles in wretched studio write-offs like New Year’s Eve, but back in 1999 she was the talk of the town with her stunning performance as Brandon Teena, a woman disguised as a man who ended up being the victim of a brutal hate crime. Director Kimberly Peirce’s slow-burn drama is actually rather grungy-romantic in its depiction of Brandon’s relationship with Lana Tisdel (Chloe Sevigny) and their plans to move to Memphis, where Lana will pursue a karaoke career; the film’s odd white-trash fairy tale tone makes the eventual violence all the more powerful — and enraging. Peter Saarsgard and Brendan Sexton III are both quite good as Brandon’s ex-convict “friends” and Sevigny received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but this is Swank’s show all the way — she completely transformed herself both inside and out to play an almost unplayable role. Swank’s performance earned her the Oscar for Best Actress, among several other awards — truly, her other Oscar-winning performance, in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, seems curiously unimpressive as compared to this one.
Ed Harris rules in this hot-blooded biography film about Jackson Pollock, a brilliant abstract expressionistic painter whose love of drink and women as well as his diagnosed neurosis often got the better of him — and put an almost constant strain on his longtime on-again, off-again relationship with fellow artist Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden). Pollock is not only an insightful look into the life and (fractured) mind of one of the 20th century’s most underrated and underappreciated (at least during most of his lifetime) painters but also a rare exploration of the New York art scene of the ’40s and ’50s. This was a longtime dream project for Harris, who also directs (and did all of the paintings); his fiery performance earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, with Harden taking home Best Supporting Actress for her strong and sensitive portrayal of the woman who tolerated Pollock’s behavior because, well, she “got” him. Val Kilmer makes for an amusingly fey Willem de Kooning, one of Pollock’s colleagues; Harris’ future A Beautiful Mind co-star Jennifer Connelly plays Ruth Kligman, Pollock’s mistress and fellow artist — and the only survivor of the 1956 car crash that took the lives of Pollock and Ruth’s friend, Edith Metzger.
A terrific tale of winners and losers and how any given person will never completely be one or the other, The Hustler stars Paul Newman as ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson, a small-time pool hustler who sets out to prove himself as the best player in the country by taking on and beating the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), a seemingly insurmountable task that comes with a great personal price. Director Robert Rossen’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1959 novel is a triumph of direction, acting, cinematography and editing, with the film’s realistic characterizations and dialogue and male-centric storyline contradicting its frequent comparisons to film noir. Nominated for nine Academy Awards but the winner of only two (Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography, both in the Black & White subcategory); Newman made something of a Fast Eddie-style comeback himself when he went on to actually score the Best Actor Oscar 25 years later when he reprised his role in Martin Scorsese’s excellent sequel, The Color of Money, a win that many see as belated recognition for his performance in The Hustler.
An emotionally exhausting drama that was rather notorious at the time of its release due to its X rating (though it would barely qualify for an R today), Midnight Cowboy stars Jon Voight as Joe Buck, a young Texan who quits his dishwashing job and heads to New York City, reinventing himself as a sexual hustler in rodeo cowboy garb; once there, he clashes with and then befriends Enrico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a crippled small-time con man — together they traverse the mean streets of the Bad Apple, with Ratso dreaming of a life in Miami as his health steadily declines. While the film’s “deviant” sexual content has stolen a lot of the conversational spotlight over the years, Midnight Cowboy is actually a very moving and ultimately heartbreaking story of a highly unlikely and very powerful friendship; it’s also quite the bittersweet valentine to NYC, portrayed as a place where lost souls go to either embrace or destroy each other. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including a Best Supporting Actress nod for Sylvia Miles (who’s on screen for less than four minutes), and won three: Best Picture, Best Director (John Schlesinger) and Best Adapted Screenplay.