by Jason Koenigsberg
Remember the 90’s? Of course you do, nostalgia is at an all time high in pop culture right now. Throughout most of the 1990’s and early 2000’s there was one studio that thrived during the winter months and turned the act of films receiving Oscar nominations into a methodical, almost scientific formula. The studio was Miramax, founded by Brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who named the company after their parents Miriam and Max. For nearly fifteen years their studio Miramax became synonymous with independent features earning Academy recognition. They did not always win the big awards, but they almost always succeeded in earning some major nominations. In fact starting in 1993 with The Piano, Miramax had a Best Picture nominee every year up until 2004 with Finding Neverland. A rather amazing feat especially considering that during those years the Academy only allowed five films to be nominated rather than the modern cop out rules allowing up to ten films to be nominated for Best Picture. Miramax created the saber-metrics for Oscars.
This culminated in the Weinstein’s winning 9 Oscars including Best Picture in 1996 for The English Patient and their biggest coupe and high point in the studio’s history winning Best Picture in 1998 for Shakespeare in Love, upsetting Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic Saving Private Ryan for the top prize. The Miramax style of campaigning for Oscar gold certainly raised some eyebrows, sparked controversy and upset many in Hollywood for seeming to buy the awards and nominations and not just letting the films speak for themselves.
In 1993 Miramax started a partnership with Disney to make distribution of their films easier. That business partnership ended in 2010 but the Weinstein Bros. left Miramax in 2005 over differences about what films they were allowed to release. Two of the biggest examples were Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Kevin Smith’s Dogma. Both films had controversial subject matter that Disney did not want to touch so even though Bob and Harvey Weinstein served as producers, they were released in theaters through Lionsgate and home video sales through Columbia. After their departure from Miramax, they founded The Weinstein Company which has been distributing large scale, independent minded motion pictures like Quentin Tarantino’s last two films The Hateful Eight (2015) and Django Unchained (2012).
Since it is now officially the 2016 Awards season it is a good time to look back and reflect on some Oscar winning and nominated movies from the past. The Miramax brand did a lot of good during their reign as perennial Oscar giants, but they also did a lot of damage. With their unscrupulous campaign tactics they had films earn some very coveted Academy Award nominations over more deserving films.
Pan and Slam is now going to look back at the best contributions to cinema Miramax gave the world and their worst. This does not necessarily mean that they are the worst films released under the Miramax banner, they owned Dimension films which were responsible for some truly awful B-movies like Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996). By worst we mean the films that earned the most Academy recognition that were least deserving of it.
Also, some of the very best films Miramax released did not make the top five for reasons that made it unfair to other films. Foreign imports such as Life is Beautiful (1998) and City of God (2003) are both phenomenal but I did not feel were eligible because Miramax only had US distribution rights to those films, they had nothing to do with the actual production. Same thing with Trainspotting (1996) which Miramax distributed in North America and had nothing else to do with Danny Boyle’s breakout hit. They did help his career and he has since gone on to become a prolific filmmaker and won Best Director for Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Ditto for Sling Blade which is a terrific movie and earned Billy Bob Thornton a well deserved Oscar and made him a household name. Another film that just missed the top five was Gangs of New York (2002) which brought about the Scorsese renaissance and he has been on a hot streak ever since, finally earning him the long awaited Best Director Oscar for The Departed (2006). It also started the long fruitful partnership Scorsese has had with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, helping him formally step out from his heartthrob status after Titanic (1997) into being one of the finest actors of his generation. But it’s $100 million plus budget really was not the typical Miramax production, even though it helped one of the best actors of our time earn legitimate respect and one of the best directors of all time become relevant and a box office force again. There are so many other great titles that did not make the cut but here are the films chosen as the five best…
The Best of Miramax
1. Pulp Fiction (1994, directed by Quentin Tarantino)
Often considered the best and most influential movie of the 1990’s, even though I prefer Reservoir Dogs, this is the one that changed cinema and Tarantino’s career as well as everyone in the cast and crew. A box office hit and landmark for independent cinema. Gave Travolta the best leading role of his career since the late 70’s, made Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman viable stars and won Tarantino his first Academy Award. Miramax changed the cinematic world when they released Pulp Fiction, and its loss in many Oscar categories to Forrest Gump including Best Picture is often regarded as one of the biggest injustices in Academy Awards history. I guess karma works in strange ways and Miramax got what they deserved four years later with Shakespeare in Love.
2. Good Will Hunting (1997, directed by Gus Van Sant)
The film that launched the careers of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon while simultaneously earning the late-great Robin Williams his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Let’s not forget this film earned Affleck and Damon the Best Original Screenplay Oscar as well. Another big victory for independent producer Lawrence Bender who also produced Pulp Fiction. This is hailed as a modern classic and rightfully so. Unquestionably one of the best Miramax productions.
3. Clerks (1994, directed by Kevin Smith)
One of the finest debut features from any filmmaker in the 1990’s. This sort of breaks the rules of Miramax being simply the distributor but Harvey and Bob Weinstein fought hard for this little independent raunchy comedy. After it’s release it gave the world Kevin Smith, who for a brief period was every bit as important as independent filmmakers Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater and Paul Thomas Anderson and emerged as one of the great cinematic voices from the 90’s. The difference between Smith and the other directors that were once his peers is range. Kevin Smith is extremely limited in what he can do well and has not ventured much out of his comfort zone. However, one cannot deny the hysterical brilliance of Clerks, the little movie that could and did make a career for Kevin Smith.
4. Swingers (1996, directed by Doug Liman)
A hilarious and heartfelt romantic comedy from the male perspective and catapulted the careers of Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn and Doug Liman, all of which started out as indie specialists and have found their way into some of Hollywood’s biggest studio productions. It even shortly boosted the careers of Ron Livingston and Heather Graham. Plus, it’s soundtrack and costume design brought a retro cool influence back into pop culture in a way none of the other films on this list did.
5. Scream (1996, directed by Wes Craven)
The 1990’s were a tough decade for horror fans. Gone were the heydays of Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers as those franchises fizzled out with lousy umpteenth sequels to the 1990’s. Miramax’s Dimension line was even responsible for the reprehensible Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995). With dwindling box office receipts, the horror genre was on thin ice until Wes Craven made the revisionist, and extremely 90’s horror flick Scream. Every frame represents the decade in ways that make it a product of it’s environment. Personally, I was not a fan of this film which seemed more like a typical unimaginative slasher movie with tongue in cheek movie references, but there is no denying it’s impact on the horror genre, providing the great Wes Craven with his last big hit and saving the horror genre which has not floundered at the box office since.
The Worst of Miramax
1. Chocolat (2000, directed by Lasse Hallstrom)
A Best Picture nominee about the charms and dangers of chocolate. Really? This was actually a nice throwback and simple romantic comedy but there is absolutely nothing Oscar worthy about it. It earned nominations for Best Picture, Actress (Juliette Binoche), Supporting Actress (Judi Dench), Adapted Screenplay and Music Score. All of which could have gone to more deserving films such as Almost Famous, Wonder Boys, Quills, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, High Fidelity or Requiem for a Dream. It’s inclusion in the Best Picture category alongside Gladiator, Traffic and Crouching, Tiger Hidden Dragon is just embarrassing. This was the least deserving of all the Miramax Best Picture nominees.
2. The English Patient (1996, directed by Anthony Minghella)
The worst movie to ever win Best Picture in my humble opinion. Overlong, over dramatic, extremely boring and just plain dreadful. The fact that this pathetic excuse for a prestige epic won Best Picture over Fargo is one of the Academy’s biggest blunders of the past 25 years. It’s nine Academy Awards out of twelve nominations robbed so many more worthy films of honor and recognition. The lone positive to come out of The English Patient is a great Seinfeld joke about Elaine and her disdain for the film. I am with Elaine on this one.
3. Shakespeare in Love (1998, directed by John Madden)
When Harrison Ford opened the envelope and announced Shakespeare in Love as Best Picture, it sent shockwaves throughout the country. Steven Spielberg had won Best Director earlier that night and it was all but certain that his troops would be storming the stage at the end of the ceremony. But that did not happen. Instead the Weinstein’s rigorous and ruthless campaigning for their precious period piece payed off in one of the biggest upsets in Academy Awards history. As many people feel that Miramax was robbed when Pulp Fiction lost to Forrest Gump in 1994, Miramax became the villain and robbed Saving Private Ryan of the top prize. Shakespeare in Love is a very good film, but not Best Picture material.
4. The Cider House Rules (1999, directed by Lasse Hallstrom)
An all around good movie, vastly superior to Hallstrom’s other film on this list. However 1999 was one of the best years for film in recent memory. The fact the Academy chose to honor this feel good fluff with seven nominations including Best Picture and winning two for Best Supporting Actor (Michael Caine) and Adapted Screenplay was really preventing other great films from earning the recognition they deserved. Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Three Kings, Topsy Turvy, Man on the Moon, and at least a dozen other films were more deserving. Even The Talented Mr. Ripley, a Miramax co-production with Paramount directed by Anthony Minghella who has two films on this list, should have earned the accolades The Cider House Rules achieved. Plus, it’s marketing campaign was undeniably racist only showcasing the beautiful white actors Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron and the cute little orphans while they ignored Delroy Lindo (whos performance was just as good as Michael Caine’s), Erykah Badu and other actors of color from advertisements. Shameful indeed, but the Weinstein’s knew how to get results and their Oscar formula worked again to the dismay of much better films released that year.
5. Cold Mountain (2003, directed by Anthony Minghella)
Often regarded as the final big Miramax picture and the second from Anthony Minghella on this list of their worst films. The Weinstein’s had the Oscar checklist and Minghella knew how to deliver what they needed to get the Academy voters attention. Ironic that they primarily ignored his best film The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Even though Cold Mountain was the Miramax prestige picture of 2003 it failed to earn a Best Picture nomination, however Miramax co-produced Master and Commander with Fox and that earned a Best Picture nomination so their Best Picture streak was still technically alive. Cold Mountain was another predictable, paint-by-numbers Awards bait effort and not much else. It still earned seven nominations and it’s sole win was for Renee Zellweger for Best Supporting Actress which ended up doing more damage to her career than it did good. After great performances in Nurse Betty (2000), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), Chicago (2002), she was nominated for her third Oscar in as many years and the whole “it’s her time” factor allowed her to take home the gold in her least deserving performance up to that point in her career. Since her win she practically disappeared from mainstream Hollywood starring in box office failures. Once again Cold Mountain had uneasy racist undertones, as it was a Civil War romantic epic that took place in the South, yet starred all white actors and had so few blacks. I do not even think any black actors were provided with speaking roles. The last time a Miramax production took away award nominations from more deserving pictures.
Anything that I left off the best or worst lists? Here is a clip from the Seinfeld episode where Elaine rips on The English Patient. This is better than all two hours and forty-five minutes of that stupid movie.