Pleasantville. Gary Ross' directorial debut is wildly overreaching -- it overloads its setup with more thematic threads than it can handle -- but its initial shift from sheer gimmickry to serious commentary on fascism's roots within American cultural conservatism was one of the year's most thrilling surprises. In addition to Ross' inventive script, the movie featured brilliantly controlled use of color and black-and-white cinematography and benefited from a fine Randy Newman score.
Rushmore. While not as fully satisfying as his earlier Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson's new film (written in collaboration with Owen Wilson) embroiders, more or less, on the same subject -- the horrible results when the fantasies of a charmingly indefatigable nutcase run up against the real world. Anderson continues to be one of the most original new voices in American film. A perfectly cast Bill Murray, once again in the sort of supporting role that brings out his best, gives a wonderful performance.
Saving Private Ryan. Steven Spielberg's World War II epic is no Schindler's List, but it's probably his next-best "serious" film. As has been pointed out repeatedly, the opening 22-minute battle sequence is one of the most brutal and (apparently) realistic ever filmed. The picture is also one of the few instances in which Spielberg doesn't overplay his hand by using John Williams' music to underscore and thus spoiling points already effectively established. But the morphing sequence near the end, no matter how justified by the narrative, feels out of place and even a little, well, cheap.
Shakespeare in Love. As realized by director John Madden, this comedy-drama -- scripted by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard -- about young Will Shakespeare grappling with romance and writer's block is wonderfully constructed and much broader in its humor than one might have expected. Many of the wittiest jokes are at the expense of Hollywood, for which the Elizabethan theater serves as a metaphor.
A Simple Plan. Sam Raimi, whose Evil Dead trilogy was enormously influential on modern fantasy and horror films, gets serious with this taut reworking of the core story from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The plot is not always airtight, but its little lapses are more than compensated for by a downright amazingly nuanced performance from Billy Bob Thornton and nearly equal work from the frequently excessive Bill Paxton. The characters stay with you, heartbreakingly.
The Thin Red Line. Terrence Malick's adaptation of James Jones' World War II bestseller about the battle for Guadalcanal can be frustrating for unprepared viewers. It has thrilling battle scenes but doesn't approach the pacing or goals of traditional war films, including Saving Private Ryan. The structure is off-balance, and it is sometimes hard to keep track of the raft of characters. But if you clear your mind of the usual genre expectations and simply experience the film, its images and performances create a powerful experience that sticks with you.
The Truman Show. Andrew Niccol's incredibly clever script is perfectly realized by director Peter Weir, with a likewise perfect central performance from Jim Carrey. The paranoid-megalomaniac story line -- your whole life consists of a huge conspiracy that everyone is in on but you -- has been rendered several times before, but never this convincingly. While keeping things swiftly entertaining, the filmmakers milk the premise for all its satirical and metaphorical value. If there's a flaw, it's that the movie is so clever that it feels shallower than it may really be.
Among the other films that gave me great pleasure this year were Adam Sandler's atypical The Wedding Singer; Rush Hour, which, while failing to capture all of Jackie Chan's genius, came far closer than any of his previous Hollywood efforts; Bad Manners, Jonathan Kaufer's wicked look at sex and lies among academics; The Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg's excoriating Danish comedy about an unusual family reunion; A Bug's Life, the Pixar-Disney production that won the computer-animated-bug-film wars; and the commercially catastrophic Babe: Pig in the City, in which one of the world's greatest directors, George Miller (Road Warrior), takes the more interesting, intrepid path at every fork.
In the same class were Chilean veteran Raul Ruiz's metaphysical thriller Shattered Image; Paul Schrader's adaptation of Russell Banks' Affliction, featuring great work from Nick Nolte and James Coburn; Warren Beatty's deeply flawed but politically daring Bulworth; and Takeshi Kitano's two existential crime films, Sonatine and Fireworks.