By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Heather Baysa
By Calum Marsh
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Simon Abrams
By Alan Scherstuhl
Film critics are by nature a sour lot, so it is with truly great pleasure that I suggest that 1999 has been the best year for cinema -- certainly for American cinema and even for the major studios -- in my 15 years on the beat. I'm at a loss to explain this, beyond suggesting that Hollywood's ongoing assimilation of the independent film phenomenon has reached a particularly interesting stage. Most of the titles that made this year so exciting incorporated at least some indie values. And most came from filmmakers under age 30.
As always, my list is in constant flux: It has been arbitrarily frozen in this version by the paper's copy deadline. But many of the films in my "bubbling under" list have been bouncing on and off the Top Ten during the compilation process.
It also must be noted that once again it has been impossible for any mortal to see every obviously significant film released this year, let alone every film. So if I have overlooked your favorite, give me the benefit of the doubt and assume that I simply haven't caught up with it yet. I feel obliged, however, to note one exception to this rule. If your favorite is, as the odds might suggest, American Beauty, rest assured that I have not only caught up with it, but consider it the foulest, most overrated film of the year. While I am a firm subscriber to the doctrine of de gustibus non disputandum est -- or "That's what makes horse races, toots!" -- I am so baffled by the reaction to this film from normally reasonable people that I can only theorize that implanted subliminal messages created some sort of mass delusion.
American Beauty is a film that clearly presents itself as profound art, but it is constructed of caricatures (the characters of Annette Bening and Allison Janney), cliched revelations (Chris Cooper and Mena Suvari), creaky plot mechanics that seem to have drifted in from a farce (the Burger King coincidence and the contrived staging that allows Chris Cooper to misunderstand his son's relationship with Kevin Spacey), distracting red herrings left over from an earlier version of the script, dime-novel philosophizing, cheap irony, anti-Mom scapegoating, and miscellaneous bad values (Hey, psychos! Those girls you're stalking really do want you!). In short, this movie is so entirely bogus that it's almost guaranteed to sweep the Oscars. It's this year's Ordinary People and Kramer vs. Kramer, without those films' redeeming features. Only Kevin Spacey's performance saves it from being entirely without merit. Some morning five years from now, you're all going to wake up and say: "What the hell were we thinking?"
Having gotten that off my chest, herewith my Top Ten of a great year:
1. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze) Completely original and off-the-map, without feeling forced. Hysterically funny but ultimately not really a comedy at all; rather, it's something between a tragedy and a horror story. (read New Times' review)
2. The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski) Philip K. Dick meets Hong Kong action cinema: What more could one possibly ask for? The special effects are not only dazzling, they're also never gratuitous; the script is not merely clever but downright smart. The whole thing shows that loud action movies are not a played-out genre, if you're willing to take a few risks... like trusting the audience's intelligence. (read New Times' review)
3. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (Trey Parker) OK, so the animation's crappy, but, you know, it's supposed to be. This is still the best musical comedy written directly for film in years and manages to stay true to the TV show while adding a little more thematic heft. It's also very, very funny. (read New Times' review)
4. The Straight Story (David Lynch) Lynch's much-touted change of pace is merely the other side of the coin from his usual weirdness -- a paean to basic human decency and the strangeness of life. (read New Times' review)
5. The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan) The perfect example of a big studio production that is enriched by the indie sensibilities of its young writer-director. Not only amazingly clever and more complex each time you watch it, it has genuine emotional content.
6. Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Julio Medem) This lovely and intriguing Spanish film flickered through theaters quickly. For those who like an intricately constructed, nonlinear story -- like Toto the Hero -- it was a treat.
7. Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, and Ash Brannon) Pixar keeps up their unbroken chain of completely entertaining computer-generated features. (read New Times' review)
8. Cookie's Fortune (Robert Altman) You can never quite count Altman out. After a string of less-satisfying films, he came back this year with a sweet, low-key look at a small Southern town. Every performance was spot-on. (read New Times' review)
9. Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, Germany) It may not be profound, but it's a great reminder of the sheer kineticism that no narrative medium besides cinema can reproduce.
10. The Limey (Steven Soderbergh) Soderbergh follows up Out of Sight with a very different kind of crime film -- crisp, no-nonsense action that never stops being driven by character. (read New Times' review)
Bubbling right beneath these selections were the American productions Three Kings (David O. Russell), Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Pierce), The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella), The Iron Giant (Brad Bird), The Insider (Michael Mann), Office Space (Mike Judge), Where's Marlowe? (Daniel Pyne), and Titus (Julie Taymor), along with All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain), Leila (Dariush Mehrjui, Iran), and Bandits (Katja von Garnier, France). Best documentaries were Rabbit in the Moon (Emiko Omori, USA), The Brandon Teena Story (Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir, USA), Genghis Blues (Roko Belic, USA), and 42 Up (Michael Apted, UK).
Ask me about Eyes Wide Shut in about ten years.
My Favorite Ten
By Jean Oppenheimer
1. The Cider House Rules No other film this year captures the complex, bittersweet nature of life so movingly. Michael Caine and Delroy Lindo are standouts in a terrific ensemble cast. Filled with grace, compassion, and humor, this is director Lasse Hallström's best work since My Life as a Dog. (read New Times' review)
2. The Insider Idealism and harsh reality -- and all the moral shades in-between -- collide in this hard-hitting exposé that features formidable performances by Russell Crowe and Al Pacino. Director Michael Mann marries his sense of outrage with his trademark powerhouse visual style in a fact-based story that casts a harsh light on journalistic ethics and the personal cost of telling the truth.
3. American Beauty As darkly comic as it is disturbing, this take-no-prisoners look at a dysfunctional American family marks an impressive directorial debut for theatrical director Sam Mendes (Cabaret). Kevin Spacey, arguably the greatest actor working today, is even more extraordinary than usual. (read New Times' review)
4. October Sky A small treasure from director Joe Johnston, based on the memoir by Homer H. Hickham, Jr., about making one's dreams come true despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Heartfelt and moving, without being the least bit sentimental. Exceptional family entertainment.
5. All About My Mother A richly textured film from Spain's Pedro Almodóvar, one of the few true auteurs working today. Merging the comic, tragic, and subversive, this beautifully acted screwball drama is Almodóvar's most mature film to date.
6. West Beirut In his directorial debut, Lebanese-born cinematographer Ziad Doueiri examines the chaos of a divided, war-torn city (Beirut, 1975) from the perspective of an adventurous teenager who gradually comes to appreciate the corrosive effect of the conflict. Rami Doueiri, the director's brother, is a complete natural in his acting debut.
7. Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl Chinese-born actress Joan Chen turns director in this stark but beautiful look at the failure of China's Cultural Revolution. Tibetan actor Lopsong brings heartwrenching dignity to his role of a peasant assigned to teach a naive city girl about herding horses. Magnificently shot by cinematographer Lu Yue, the film has an eloquent simplicity that proves emotionally devastating.
8. Grand Illusion One of the greatest films ever made, Jean Renoir's 1937 antiwar masterpiece was rereleased this year in a pristine new print. Set during the World War I, the movie is as much about the death of Europe's prevailing class-conscious social order as it is about the tragedy and futility of war.
9. The Legend of 1900 Mesmerizingly beautiful to look at, this first English-language picture from director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) contains the most exquisite cinematography and production design of any film this year. A dreamlike fable about the precariousness of life, the film is suffused with an almost tangible sense of longing and sadness.
10. Twin Falls Idaho A modern-day Beauty and the Beast, this beautifully realized tale of love and intimacy marks the feature debut of acting/writing/directing twin brothers Mark and Michael Polish. The dramatic lighting, sense of composition, and use of rich colors give the film the feeling of an exquisite still photograph. (read New Times' review)
Ten Best of 1999
By Luke Y. Thompson
My favorite movies of the year, in ascending order, are:
10. Stir of Echoes Otherwise known as "the other movie about a kid who sees dead people." A release date about the time The Sixth Sense was becoming a national phenomenon effectively killed David Koepp's spookier ghost story, which is too bad: Kevin Bacon turns in a great performance as a man obsessed by delusions, Koepp's cinematic visualization of a hypnotic trance is stunning, and residential Chicago is effectively portrayed as a near-hell on earth. Genuine shivers are hard to find in mainstream fare nowadays, but Echoes, adapted from a novel by Richard Matheson, delivered. read New Times' review)
9. On the Ropes It's rare that a documentary comes along that can rival a dramatic treatment of the same subject, but this outstanding movie about inner-city boxers struggling to transcend their environment had me on the edge of my seat. Because the odds are stacked against our heroes, and this is real life rather than Rocky, you honestly don't know how things will work out until they do. The Academy has never shown a great deal of logic in its choices for Best Documentary, but in a fair world, this film would take not only that category but possibly even score a Best Picture nomination as well.
8. Earth An Indian answer to Gone With the Wind, Earth tells a powerful human story of love, class, and religion, set against the epic backdrop of India's civil war and the formation of Pakistan. Director Deepa Mehta had already proven that she could handle intimate drama with the lesbian-themed Fire, and now proves herself equally adept at making a "big" movie as well.
7. Three Kings OK, admittedly the idea of making an international call on a cell phone when you're trapped in a bunker beneath the desert is pushing it, but otherwise David O. Russell's Gulf War Western is both a thrilling ride and a powerful protest film. And let's face it, who would have thought, back in 1991, that pants-dropping white rapper Marky Mark Wahlberg would be capable of giving one of the year's best performances? The scene where he emerges from the Iraqi bunker, still in shock after being tortured, says it all.
6. Run Lola Run I can't think of any movie this year that experimented as much with form and content. Lola perfectly captured the rush of playing a really good video game, complete with multiple endings, a pulse-pounding score, and a surrealistic blending of visual media. Oliver Stone has tried this sort of thing but hasn't pulled it off quite so well. (He was obviously impressed: Some of Lola's score ended up on the soundtrack for his year-end release, Any Given Sunday).
5. Being John Malkovich Speaking of experimenting with content... video director Spike Jonze deserves a lot of credit for picking this as his first feature when he could have had virtually any project he wanted. John Malkovich deserves equal credit for going along with it and turning in one of his greatest performances simply by being himself. In a year where the overwhelming theme was crisis of identity, Jonze gave the concept an absurd literalization and followed it through with deft execution. The chimpanzee's flashback sequence alone was worth the admission price. (read New Times' review)
4. Cabaret Balkan An Eastern European Pulp Fiction, minus the '70s stylings and constant pop-cultural references that bogged down the original.
3. The Matrix That this movie isn't number one on my list just shows what a great year this has been. It's nice to finally see a science-fiction movie that breaks new ground; even more so when it adapts comic book and animé concepts to live-action in a manner that few movies this side of the prime meridian have been successfully able to do. Many claimed the story was too convoluted, but how nice to be able to make that complaint after years of other movies that invoke comments like "It's too dumb, and rips off Aliens/Blade Runner/Road Warrior/(insert iconic sci-fi movie title here)." (read New Times' review)
2. Fight Club Many folks missed the point of this film; many others got it and were repelled. Identity crisis ruled the day yet again in David Fincher's darkly comic masterpiece, which amalgamated many of his previous themes from other films into one massive cinematic download and also brought self-reflexivity to new heights. Perhaps it's a generational thing, but anyone who has ever experimented with masochism as an alternative to crushing numbness or felt impotent to change the circumstances of a life that's been planned out from birth, can understand, if not absolutely relate to, the frustrations of Ed Norton's nameless narrator. And in much the same way that Ice Cube's Death Certificate CD was said to have predicted the L.A. riots, it isn't much of a stretch to say that Fight Club foreshadowed the anticorporate WTO protests in Seattle. (read New Times' review)
1. South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut. A comedy about censorship, war, dysfunctional relationships, and misunderstood children ruled the day, despite having the most deceptively primitive animation since Rocky and Bullwinkle (who, by the way, get their own movie next year). Director Trey Parker's obvious love of musicals made the film both a great musical in its own right and a dead-on parody of musical clichés. Even after repeat viewings, when the laughs are no longer original nor the profanity shocking, the story emerges as a surprisingly poignant tale of neglected children living in a knee-jerk society. Try naming one other movie that uses satire so effectively to take on the United States' arrogant attitude toward the U.N., racism in the military, Japanese internment camps, gay rights, war propaganda, the gender and generation gaps, and our hypocritical national preference for violence over sex -- all with insanely catchy tunes that may get you into trouble if you're caught singing them. (read New Times' review)
Because this year has been a remarkably good one for movies, I'd like to also list some honorable mentions, films that might have made my list in a lesser year. I have tremendously enjoyed, in no particular order: Perfect Blue (an animé far superior to and more innovative than Princess Mononoke), The Iron Giant, Sleepy Hollow, Election, The Insider, The Sixth Sense, Trick, Dog Park, Bringing Out the Dead, La Ciudad (The City), Beyond the Mat, Galaxy Quest, Eyes Wide Shut, Toy Story 2, and Terror Firmer. Not yet seen, but greatly anticipated, is Man on the Moon.
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