Thursday, April 30, 2009

1999 (The 9 Years, Part 7)

As we are now in 2009, we can expect to see a great many articles trumpeting the 70th anniversary of the fabled "Best Movie Year," 1939. This is tradition, dating back probably to every 9 year of every movie-oriented decade.

But is 1939 really the best year for movies? I don't know about that. It was great, but after the watershed year 1979, I started having my doubts. In 1989, I started noticing a trend. And in 1999, I was sure I was on to something.

I have a theory: that the 9 year in every decade is the best of that period. Why? I can only surmise that filmmakers working during the decade in question want to get out their final word on the era, and thus save their best for last. But, in the end, who really knows why: maybe it's simply just chance working here. Still, it's a very definable trend.

I first started conceiving this article (which you can see in full here) in 1999. Though I began thinking, in that year, that movies were doomed, I was blown away by the number of 1999 titles notable for their innovative quality (mostly due to the new influence of videogames, video cameras, and for the generational shift). Though it's too soon to say, 1999 really may be the greatest movie year ever, and this very well may be because filmmakers consciously or subconsciously felt the need to blow away the 1939 worship.

I should note: here in this 7th part of this ongoing series, I start talking WAY more in depth about why these movies should be noted, because the time that's elapsed since their release has not been great enough to ensure their inclusion into the filmmaking canon.

And so:

10 years ago this year--very possibly cinema's greatest era:

Aimee and Jaguar (Oscar-nominated German drama centering in on lesbian relationship set, with inevitable complications, in Nazi-era Berlin)

All About My Mother (Pedro Almodovar's Oscar-winning masterpiece about a Madrid mother--portrayed by an unsparing Cecelia Roth--traveling to confront her recently-deceased son's long-estranged father, now a Barcelona transvestite; the many turns in this film's serpentine plot are universally, uniquely transfixing. Even now, film is tastiest fruit yet born from Almodovar's bountiful career--from this point on, he's been regarded as Europe's premier autuer, and he thus netted Best Director honors at 1999's Cannes Film Festival)

American Beauty (1999's Best Picture winner; the film debut from Tony-winning stage vet Sam Mendes, who pounds Alan Ball's much-lauded scripting of poisonous suburban malaise into a visually electrifying work; vividly colorful cinematography and lighting from Oscar-winner Conrad Hall is his secret weapon, as is Thomas Newman's influential, oddly-syncopated score. But, of course, the film's MVPs are its actors, with lead Kevin Spacey winning his second Academy Award (Best Actor this time) as put-upon business writer/domestic drudge Lester Burnham, Annette Bening as his icy wife Carolyn, Thora Burch as their fed-up daughter Jane, Wes Bentley as their weed-dealing weirdo neighbor kid Ricky Fitts, Chris Cooper and Allison Jenney as Ricky's deadly despairing parents, and Mena Suvari as Jane's friend, a faux-worldly sexpot deemed by Lester as his mid-life crisis's creamy, sensual center. Film arguably didn't deserve Best Picture but, given its consitantly loving embrace by the industry, and its massive $130 million box office take, one has to admit its capture of late-1990s zeitgeist. Its cynical survey of American home life has been explored to better effect in a host of other pictures but inventive, fun-to-look-at, ultimately touching film is so detailed in its vision and performance that it stands up to numerous viewings; it still just misses my top ten of the year, mainly because I do have to admit it feels strangely dated now)

American Movie (my favorite documentary from 1999; director Chris Smith follows troubled ultra-indie filmmaker Mark Borchardt around rural Minnesota as he recruits his friends and family in the making of a financially-strapped black-and-white 20-minute horror film called Coven; cult hit is both deceptively depressing and extremely entertaining pop-culture portrait of one rather unprepared man's desperate dreams of fame and fortune; Borchardt, with his elderly, unwitting producer Uncle Bill, and recovering tripoholic collaborator/friend Mike Schenk (who provides the documentary's fantastic acoustic guitar score) each emerged as 1999's most idiosyncratic, and somehow inspiring, film personalities)

American Pie (blockbuster reboot of teen sex comedy genre, delivered with surprising warmth, along with inevitable vulgarities, by debut filmmaking brothers Paul and Chris Weitz; Jason Biggs, Chris Klein, Eddie Kay Thomas, and Thomas Ian Nicholas portray horny friends vowing to lose their virginity before prom night; their female compatriots are assayed by Tara Reid, Natasha Lyonne, Shannon Elizabeth, and cute Buffy The Vampire Slayer vet Alison Hannigan (who, along with manic Eddie Kay Thomas, walks away with the movie); also sports a career-transforming perf from SCTV vet Eugene Levy as Biggs' square father)

American Pimp (along with Pimps Up, Ho's Down, the definitive doc chronicle of pimp life, directed by The Hughes Brothers)

Analyze This (made the same year as The Sopranos, Robert De Niro delivers his one great lead comic performance as mob boss who visits psychiatrist Billy Crystal for therapy; merely diverting movie, but a gigantic hit, directed by Harold Ramis)

Any Given Sunday (Oliver Stone's caffinated football saga, damning but somehow celebratory of the harsher sides of the sport's business; fun cast--Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, LL Cool J, Ann-Margret, James Woods, Matthew Modine, and Jamie Foxx, who makes a deep impression in pre-Oscar supporting role as sickeningly egotistical quarterback)

Arlington Road
(underrated paranoia creep-out with Jeff Bridges as widowed professor who suspects weird neighbors Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack as bomb-planting terrorists; sometimes lame, often exciting movie sticks with you; outstanding credits sequence)

Audition (Hong Kong horrormeister Takeshi Miike's US breakthrough, and one of the genre's recent greats, following widower Ryo Ishibashi as he suffers unforeseen consequences as the lovelorn amateur casting director for his friend's new movie. "Kiri, kiri, kiri, kiri, kiri!" Have fun...)

Being John Malkovich (gloriously befuddling debut film from former video director Spike Jonze casts John Cusack as artist-cum-office-worker who discovers a portal to the mind and spirits of actor John Malkovich; extremely weird and profound; a little disappointing in its final third, but a bold, deservedly much-treasured cult movie, with great work from Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich, and Orson Bean; sharply written by Charlie Kaufman, who instantly shot to screenwriting's A-list; earned Oscar nominations for Jonze, Kaufman, and Keener)

Beau Travail (powerful, Oscar-nominated Claire Denis film about the passionate, destructive relationship between a CO and a French Foreign Legion recruit stationed off the cost of Djibouti)

The Blair Witch Project
(horror "shockumentary" from Florida filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez; three college kids venture into a notoriously haunted New England forest to shoot a non-fiction film about "infamous" title character. After a historic viral on-line ad campaign made it into one of the most profitable movies ever produced, Blair Witch became an singularly divisive love-it-or-hate-it event; I fall on the love-it side, because I find the woods to be frightening (if you aren't shaken even a little by this side of nature, the film won't work for you). Questionable shaky-cam DV work--made way worse by strobe-causing film transfer--resulted in a rash of vomiting incidents in movie theaters)

Boondock Saints (writer/director Troy Duffy's debut is spiritually-tinged action movie, a smash on video, that has Irish brothers Willem Dafoe and Sean Patrick Flanery taking on the Russian mob, ultimately all in the name of God; a very strong cult following is out there for this movie, but I don't get it)

Bowfinger (Steve Martin scripted this lively Hollywood-based comedy with Martin as a penniless movie director trying to trick sweet, goofy regular-guy Eddie Murphy--a dead ringer for big-movie-star Eddie Murphy--into being the lead in his next picture, intending to pass him off as the star; another underrated script from Martin, and equally excellent but ignored performance by Murphy)

Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce's harrowing directorial debut detailing real-life teenager Brandon Teena's notoriously violent fate after "friends" discovered she was a woman masquerading as a man; career-defining, Oscar-winning lead performance from Hillary Swank is given equally strong support from Chloe Sevigny, Peter Saarsgard, and Brendon Sexton III)

Bringing Out The Dead (very bleak Martin Scorsese picture reunites him with Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader, and furthers that movie with a more damning, depressing portrayal of NYC streetlife--a real achievement; it follows sickly-looking EMT worker Nicholas Cage on his nightmarish nightly rounds through the city, with a game supporting cast and queasy-colored cinematography from Robert Richardson)

Buena Vista Social Club (Oscar-nominated, wildly energetic Wim Wenders doc about the kings and queens of the Cuban music scene; lit a big fire of popularity for all artists involved, as it was cleverly designed to do)

The Cider House Rules (Lasse Hallstrom directed this classically-flavored filming of John Irving's abortion-themed saga; Irving won an Academy Award for his screenwriting, as did Michael Caine for his supporting performance--his first with an American accent--as the ether-addicted head of a New England women's hospital; key film for leads Tobey Maguire and for Charlize Theron, who stunningly looks in some shots as if transported from the MGM stable of 1930s beauty queens)

Cookie’s Fortune (likable Robert Altman trifle with Patricia Neal as wealthy small-town success whose death and will causes strife amongst her satellites; with Julianne Moore, Glenn Close, Liv Tyler, Chris O'Donnell, Charles S. Dutton, Ned Beatty, Courtney B. Vance, Donald Moffat, and Lyle Lovett)

Cradle Will Rock (Tim Robbins wrote and directed this slightly overstuffed pastiche of Orson Welles' radical 30s-era theater group the NTA, culminating with a reinacting of the company's most famous production; huge cast includes Hank Azaria, Rubén Blades, Joan Cusack, John Cusack, Cary Elwes, Philip Baker Hall, Cherry Jones, Angus Macfadyen, Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Jamey Sheridan, John Turturro, Emily Watson, and Bob Balaban; this engaging lineup of talent, plus film's brave ambition to tell an largely unknown story makes it quite worth seeing)

Cruel Intentions (modern-day retelling of Dangerous Liasons with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair, Ryan Phillipe, and Joshua Jackson; cult hit is actually much better than one might expect)

Dogma (Kevin Smith's inevitably vulgar screed against organized religion has fine cast--Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Chris Rock, George Carlin and many others--but remains another of the year's love-it-or-hate-it filmgoing experiences; this time, I fall wholly on the hate side, but plenty of people strongly disagree)

East-West (Oscar-nominated French film follows Catherine Denueve as Russian-born French citizen whose family is lured back to Stalinist USSR, only to be squeezed hard by the dictator's iron-fisted grip)

Election (Alexander Payne's scintillating follow-up to almost-equally brilliant debut film Citizen Ruth is based on Tom Perotta's novel, screen-adapted with Payne's longtime writing partner Jim Taylor. It's a perfect blend of high laughter and pin-point political satire (sexual realms included) that's at once insistent and subtle. Matthew Broderick is Mr. McAllister, a popular creampuff-liberal high school teacher overseeing the school's student presidential election; Reese Witherspoon is extraordinary as Tracy Flick, the embarrassingly but somewhat admiringly gung-ho "presidential" candidate for whom an in-the-know Broderick has a distinct distaste; Chris Klein is the popular former football star Broderick slyly goads into the race; and, in a low-key but triumphant performance, Jessica Campbell excels as the school's heartbroken misfit--Klein's adopted sister--who spitefully submits her name for candidacy and ends up defiantly representing the school's politically indifferent populace. Smart, entertaining, unrelentingly discomforting comedy should have garnered a slew of top Oscar nods, but only managed a screenplay citation (it did however nab Best Picture, Director and Screenplay at 1999's Independent Spirit Awards). Outstandingly well-cast and performed by all. Rolfe Kent's memorably smirky score is accompanied by upbeat source music selections. For me, the third best movie of the year)

The End of the Affair (Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes and Stephen Rea are all excellent in Neil Jordan's handsome, tastefully soapy adaptation of Graham Greene's novel recounting, against a WWII London backdrop, brewing adulterous passions between Moore and Finnes, with Rea as Moore's wounded, hang-dog husband)

eXistenZ (outrageous David Cronenberg commentary--what other kind is there?--on video game culture with Jennifer Jason Leigh as designer of new game system that plugs directly into player's spine and results in bizarre alternate reality; obviously, with its graphic mash-ups of flesh and machine, it'd be perfect on a double-bill with Cronenberg classic Videodrome; compact and actually pretty funny movie also stars Jude Law and Ian Holm)

Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick's final film was released four months after his March 7th 1999 death at age 70. Kubrick turns his famously exacting eye to Arthur Schnitzler's phantasmic 1926 novel dealing with marital crisis between a successful, self-obsessed doctor and his strong-willed wife who rocks him after confessing a one-time urge to stray sexually. First considered by Kubrick as a possible follow-up to 2001, but idea didn't gel until the mid-90s when the great director landed superstar married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as his leads; for three years, Kubrick's crew toiled amongst production designers Les Tompkins and Roy Walker and cinematographer Larry Smith's rich, Christmas-lit--but very much intentionally "off"--recreations of New York cityscapes; working on this movie must've demanded more honesty than the Cruise/Kidman marriage could withstand, because it ended not very long after the film's controversial release. Eyes Wide Shut registered as a strong disappointment with many viewers who likely weren't expecting a maze-like, Freudian-gassed experimental-film /murder-mystery (they didn't even get to see Cruise and Kidman get it on, which I think really pissed some ticket buyers off). No matter, because it remains a career highlight for the two leads, who forged a unique bond with the legendary director. Despite being widely misunderstood, Kubrick's swansong landed a surplus of votes as one of the ten best movies of the 1990s by Film Comment's vast critic/filmmaker poll, published in early 2000. This tells me that many film lovers see it as the creepy, cryptic, romantic masterpiece as which it'll eventually be hailed. Film's dramatic and visual riches are too many to enumerate here, so I direct you to my longer review; the best movie of the year, in my opinion, and I recommend that haters give it a more open-minded chance)

Felicia’s Journey (writer/director Atom Egoyan's grim, measured yet suspenseful character study with tremendous lead acting from Bob Hoskins as milquetoast serial sex criminal and Elaine Cassidy as the unsuspecting Irish girl destined to be his next victim)

Fight Club (culture-rocking adaptation of Chuck Pahlaniuk's anarchic novel casts Edward Norton as insomniac lead whose affliction leads him to the mindspace of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a violence- worshiping rebel who propels Norton on to a perhaps-real, perhaps-fantasy fate. Helena Bonham Carter is outstanding as the constantly-smoking woman they share. Film was unjustly ignored by the Academy, earning only a Sound Effects nod, but quickly became an indispensable cult film because of its unique worldview and filmmaking prowess; incredible Jeff Cronenworth cinematography, Alex McDowell art direction, and perhaps the decade's most inventive visual effects; a masterpiece, for many, but not without fascinating problems)

Galaxy Quest (Oscar-winning short film director Dean Parisot made his biggest mark to date in the world of features with this truly hysterical, constantly inventive comedy, written by David Howard and Robert Gordon, about a crew of has-been actors, all now sci-fi convention regulars as the adored cast of a geek-loved Star Trek-ish TV show; Tim Allen gets his juiciest live-action film role here as tube star and "ship captain," cocky drunk Jason Nesmith who, while on a bender, is transported into space by troubled, confused aliens who have received "Galaxy Quest" TV transmissions and are now seeking his "crew's" assistance in a species-threatening battle with the scaly General Sarris; the film's "crew" includes Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Darryl Mitchell, a delightfully deadpan Tony Shaloub; Enrico Colatoni and Missi Pyle co-star as the starstruck head aliens; that's Robin Sachs underneath all that Sarris makeup; and you can't miss the gut-busting turn from Sam Rockwell as a jittery one-time "Galaxy Quest" extra who stumbles into the action and spends the movie convinced his expendable show status marks him as the mission's first victim--his may be my favorite supporting performance of 1999; easily the year's best all-out comedy)

Girl, Interrupted (Angelina Jolie won the Supporting Actress Oscar for playing the rule-breaking inmate in the psychiatric ward visited by Winona Ryder; not a movie I like, but must be cited)

Girl on the Bridge (Vanessa Paradis and Daniel Auteuil are platonic friends who realize, after much heartache, that they were meant for each other; beautiful visuals in this passionate Patrice Leconte-directed romance)

Go (writer/director Doug Liman's enjoyably hopped-up comedy about the chaos surrounding a drug deal gone wrong, with Sarah Polley, Katie Holmes, Timothy Olyphant, and a particularly memorable William Fichtner)

Grass (breezy but substantial, ultimately infuriating Ron Mann documentary about the history of America's pointless war on marijuana)

The Green Mile (Frank Darabont's popular--if terrible--Stephen King adaptation about magical inmate at small southern prison; Michael Clarke Duncan is vibrant in the key supporting role, but it's a mystery why else anyone would like this film; still, received a Best Picture nomination--and I must reiteraste here how much I HATE HATE HATE this movie. But here it is....)

Hands on a Hard Body
(surprisingly tense and affecting documentary about group of contestants who vie to keep both hands on the body of a car longer than the other, in order to win the car itself; the modern-day They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is more substantial than one might think)

The Hurricane (Norman Jewison-directed biopic with Denzel Washington unwaveringly dynamic as wrongly-imprisoned boxer Ruben "Hurricane" Carter)

An Ideal Husband (genially amusing adaptation of Oscar Wilde's work, with Jeremy Northam as upper-crust denizen of 19th Century England whose placement in society is threatened by wise Julianne Moore as a woman who has some not-so-salient background on the man, and blackmail on her mind; excellent cast rounded out by Cate Blanchett and Minnie Driver)

The Insider (key film from director/producer Michael Mann follows Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman, the real-life 60 Minutes producer who lands whistle-blowing former Big Tobacco scientist Jeffery Wigand for a TV expose of the cigarette industry's crooked dealings, only to incur the suffocating wrath of the tobacco lobby and the ultimate power of truth-telling; Russell Crowe gained thirty pounds to play the frumpy Wigand, and delivers an explosive performance--one of the year's best. Also notable for having a superb supporting cast that includes Michael Gambon, Bruce Magill, Debi Mazar, Gina Gershon, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsey Crouse, Stephen Tobolowsky, real-life anti-tobacco lawyers Mike Moore and Jack Palladino, and Christopher Plummer, who's phenomenal as 60 Minutes anchor Mike Wallace. Superb scripting, cinematography by the amazing Dante Spinnoti, editing, sound, and evocative scoring by Lisa Gerrard (of Dead Can Dance) and Pieter Bourke. This is a smart, suspenseful, abjectly perfect moviegoing experience that's easily enjoyed in repeat viewings; my eighth favorite movie of the year)

The Iron Giant (former Simpsons producer Brad Bird debuted in features with this animated masterpiece, an adaptation of poet Ted Hughes' The Iron Man that follows a young boy's relationship with a gigantic robot from outer space; cautionary tale about 50s-era cold war fears perhaps came too late in the game to be properly noticed, as it is the last great, largely cel-based feature in a now-3D-controlled world of animation; brilliantly designed and animated movie still seems to be searching for its cult, but that doesn't detract from fact that it's among the five best animated films of the last three decades; voices provided by Jennifer Anniston, Harry Connick Jr., John Mahoney, Christopher MacDonald, Eli Marienthal, and Vin Diesel as the Giant; my seventh favorite movie of the year)

Judy Berlin (very sweet little black-and-white indie, written and directed by Eric Mendelsohn, about a meek, unhitched schoolteacher carrying on a dalliance with the school's married principal; Sopranos star Edie Falco is charming in the title role, and film sports a nifty supporting cast, including Bob Dishy, Barbara Barrie, Carlin Glynn, Julie Kavner, Anne Meara, and Madeline Kahn in her final film outing)

Julian Donkey-Boy (somehow much-seen second feature from Harmony Korine is a mess; it's officially a Dogme 95 entry, but is most laudable for exacting supporting performance from director Werner Herzog)

Kikujiro (Hong Kong autuer Takeshi "Beat" Kitano is a long way from his more blood-sodden efforts with this tiny-scaled road movie that has his title character electing to accompany a kid on his cross-country journey to see his estranged mother; lots of laughs here, provided in part by Great Gidayu and Rakkyo Ide as lunkheaded bikers who assist Kikujiro in his attempts to cheer the boy up)

The Limey (Terence Stamp delivered one of 1999's best characterizations as a long-jailed British hit man visiting L.A. to find the man responsible for his daughter's death; he's led into the underbelly of the California music scene, with Peter Fonda also scoring as the record producer who may or may not be Stamp's target; Luis Guzman offers a notable, laugh-inducing supporting performance in this, ostensibly a continuation of Ken Loach's 1967 debut Poor Cow)

Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson's impossibly large-scaled, Altmanesque opus surveys intertwined lives amongst the lowly and the successful in L.A.'s San Fernando valley; film willfully examines fate, death, love, sex, family, misery, forgiveness, and greed amongst diverse cast of characters; incredible cast--perhaps the best of the year--includes Tom Cruise (whose sex-addicted superstar stands as his most unlikable film role--a gamble that got Cruise an unusual Supporting Actor Oscar nominiation), Julianne Moore, Jason Robards (in his final film), William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, Jeremy Blackman, Luis Guzman, Ricky Jay, and my two favorite supporting performances of the year: John C. Reilly as a dedicated street cop and Melora Walters as the coke-addicted woman he falls in love with; it's a picture that tends to divide people into the pro or con categories, but I see it as an undeniable masterwork; eerie score by Jon Brion, with essential songs by Aimee Mann acting as the film's "Greek Chorus"; my fourth favorite movie of the year)

Man on the Moon (Milos Forman-directed Andy Kaufman biopic, with Jim Carrey striving mightily in the lead, and with Paul Giamatti and Courtney Love stealing his thunder as support)

Mansfield Park (a comeback for Canada's Patricia Rozema (I've Heard the Mermaids Singing); Jane Austen-adapted romance is fast-paced and very entertaining)

A Map of the World (Sigourney Weaver is intense as suburban mother who struggles with neighbor child's death that occurred while in her care; quietly effective family melodrama co-starring David Strathairn, Julianne Moore, and Chloe Sevigny)

The Matrix (game-changing sci-fi action classic by Andy and Larry Wachowski justifiably blew audiences away with its rare synthesis of excitement and philosophy; Keanu Reeves stars as Neo, a computer geek who's enlisted by a band of freedom fighters out to short-circuit the alien-controlled enslavement of the human race. It's arguable that the film altered movies in a way that hasn't been seen since the days of Star Wars; its Oscar-winning editing, sound, and ultra-outstanding special effects ushered reached a new watershed mark for cinema. Though it cribs a lot from many sources, film remains a true original (though its two lame sequels helped to bring its reputation down a bit). Lawrence Fishburne, Joe Pantoliano, Hugo Weaving (as the daunting villain Agent Smith), Gloria Foster (as The Oracle), and the fetching Carrie-Anne Moss round out the great cast; my ninth favorite film of the year, and the source for my #1 most memorable moviegoing experience)

Mystery Men (extremely lovable, absolutely hilarious, unjustly maligned spoof of superhero genre, based on comic book by Bob Burden, that has amateur "superheroes" angling to assist Champion City's reigning star Captain Amazing after he's kidnapped by supervillain Casanova Frankenstein; Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria, Kel Mitchell, Paul Reubens, Wes Studi, and especially the way-bitchy Janeane Garafalo are outstanding as the title crew, as are unctuous Greg Kinnear as Amazing and snarling Geoffrey Rush as Frankenstein; mindbending cast is rounded out by Tom Waits, Eddie Izzard, Lena Olin, Ricky Jay, Louise Lasser and Claire Forlani; with its wonderfully stitched-together set and costume design as icing on the cake, director Kinka Usher's comedy classic is my choice as the #1 Most Overlooked Film of 1999; certain to one day be a cult mainstay)The Ninth Gate (another dark-cast "is it a comedy or isn't it?" entry from Roman Polanski; Johnny Depp is a book collector searching for famous tome that will allow him a glimpse into Hell; might seem stupid at times, but shockingly resonate)

Notting Hill (good-hearted Richard Curtis effort with famed movie actress Julia Roberts striking up romance with mere mortal bookseller Hugh Grant)

October Sky (remarkably fast-paced bio-pic about early life of Homer Hickham, who sprung from 50s-era Kentucky coal miner to pioneering rocket scientist; lead debut for Jake Gyllenhall; really terrific family movie, with extremely sharp editing; directed by Joe Johnston and co-starring Chris Cooper and Laura Dern)

Office Space (TV animation king Mike Judge made the leap to live-action features with this, the best-loved comedy of the year. Though it wasn't a box office hit, film about a lowly office worker who's hypnotically transformed into a ruthless power broker became a sensation on home video, where it garnered legions of fans who recognized the untold honesty in its hilarious jabs at bland, corporatized America; excellent performances from Ron Livingston, Jennifer Anniston, Gary Cole, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, Diedrich Bader, and especially from Stephen Root as the office's aging whipping boy; it's a movie that gets better and better each time I see it)

One Day in September (Kevin MacDonald's stunning, Oscar-winning documentary about the Palestinian-led kidnapping of the Israeli athletes at 1972's Olympics at Munich)

Ratcatcher (Scottish director Lynne Ramsay's dreamy filmmaking debut, following a young boy through the horrors of an impoverished life in trash-ridden 1973 Glasgow)

The Red Violin (epic anthology film, of sorts, by Canada's Francois Girard, and written by actor/screenwriter Don McKellar; it follows an immaculately constructed, legendary violin through three centuries, culminating in its modern-day auction; Oscar-winning score by 20th-Century classical composer John Corigliano; involves actors from Italy, Germany, China, Canada, and America)

Romance (Catherine Breillat's controversial exploration of one woman's sexual frustration and release; a breakthrough for the director, who includes both a hardcore sex scene and a birth within the film)

Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer's German-language debut is a breathless action film/love story with Franke Potente as athletic girl racing against time to deliver sachel of money to boyfriend Moritz Bleibtreu before he launches into robbery of supermarket; time-juggling work leaves one reeling with its visual brilliance--its video-game-flavored playfulness comes complete with time limits and start-overs; along with The Matrix and eXistenZ, made 1999 the year video games truly invaded movieland territory, which instantly makes it one of the most influential movies ever)

The Sixth Sense (writer/director M. Night Shymalyan won critical acclaim and humongous box office receipts with moody horror film starring Bruce Willis as psychiatrist studying young Haley Joel Osment, who maintains an ability to talk to dead people; film plays like an extended Twilight Zone episode, with a twist ending that made it a must-see; though it's not something I like, it is often genuinely creepy, and garnered a slew of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (the preternatural Osment), and Supporting Actress (Toni Colette, as Osment's mother); Shymalyan would go on to make much better movies, but this is the one he'll be remembered for)

SLC Punk (Matthew Lillard is superlative in this indie period piece about 80s-era punks living in strait-laced Salt Lake City; unexpectedly exacting direction and writing from James Merendino)

The Sopranos
(absolutely spellbinding first season of David Chase's HBO series is so steeped in cinematic quality that it's impossible not to include it on this list; James Gandolfini stars as mob boss Tony Soprano, whose debilitating panic attacks leads him to the office of psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco); hugely influential series went on for seven more seasons, and transformed the television landscape with its unparaleled writing and production; with Edie Falco, Steven Van Zandt, Michael Imperioli, and an unending cast of ruthless yet still likable liars, cheats, and murderers; all said and done, my favorite film event of 1999, and a continuing influence on film and TV throughout the 21st Century)

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
(Trey Parker and Matt Stone surprised all with transformation of their cut-out animated TV hit into a mesmerizing big-screen musical (with tunes by Parker and Marc Shaiman); the town of South Park is torn asunder by the arrival of the profane new Terrence and Phillip movie, which inspires the town kids to be as foul-mouthed as their heroes; gotta love a movie that gives such a nifty part to hilarious "Saddam Hussein" (who has the film's best number, "I Can Change"); still, that's only one of many songs that makes an impression in this wickedly well-scripted hit)

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (very long-awaited prequel to first three Star Wars movies tells of difficult childhood for Annikin Skywalker, later to become villainous Darth Vader; written and directed by George Lucas, in his return to hands-on filmmaking, movie was a tremendous hit, but began downward spiral in series quality; of course, the John Williams score and the ILM special effects are first-rate, but unbearably wooden scripting and acting failed to capture hearts this time around; with Ewan MacGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Ian McDiarmid, and Amhed Best as universally-despised Jar Jar Binks)

The Straight Story (bountiful David Lynch movie, released under the unlikely Disney imprimatuer and based on a true story, tracks octogenarian Alvin Straight as he travels slowly through America's heartland on a power mower, sojourning to console his dying, long-estranged brother; former golden-age film stuntman Richard Farnsworth, who was deathly ill during this taxing production, lovingly plays Straight with folksy, unshowy emotion; he was everyone's sentimental favorite that year for the Best Actor Oscar. Supporting cast includes superb Sissy Spacek as Alvin's old-maid daughter, and a key cameo by Harry Dean Stanton; lilting Angelo Badalamenti score acts as background to scrumptious Freddie Francis photography. Though the film--and its lead character--seems to gush sentiment, there's a typically Lynchian edge of darkness to be found here; just missed being in my top ten)

Sugar Town (fluffy examination of L.A. music biz wannabes, directed by Allison Anders and Kurt Voss, with Rosanna Arquette, Ally Sheedy, Jade Gordon, Beverly D'Angelo, Lumi Cavasos, and a few 80s-flavored pop personalities: Duran Duran's John Taylor, Spandau Ballet's Martin Kemp, Power Station's Michael Des Barres, and X's John Doe)

Sweet and Lowdown (realistically sentimental character study from Woody Allen, who also narrates this look at impoverished guitarist Emmet Ray, played with much heart by Sean Penn; movie's inextricably haunted by the spirit of guitarist Django Reinhardt, idolized by Penn's character; incredible supporting performance from Samantha Morton as dedicated deaf girl in love with philandering lead; Allen's finest movie of the 1990s)

The Talented Mr. Ripley (a remake of Rene Clement's 1960s masterpiece Purple Noon, mounted by writer/director Anthony Mingella, who casts Matt Damon as author Patricia Highsmith's morally bankrupt hero who murders his way into high society; extremely beautiful to look at, and wonderfully, radically different than the Clement film, it co-stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Cate Blanchett; the late Minghella's most notable film)

Three Kings
(David O. Russell's complex tale has Iraq-based soldiers George Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg, and Spike Jonze plotting to steal Saddam Hussein's cache of gold bars--however, the team finds itself also committed to going against orders in delivering a crowd of innocent Iraqis to border freedom; Russell's literate, funny, constantly moving screenplay is a marvel, as is Newton Thomas Sigel's skillfully overexposed photography)

Titus (former stage director Julie Taymor submitted her filmmaking debut with this sizzling adaptation of William Shakespeare's gory play chronicling the violent headbutting between a valiant Roman general (Anthony Hopkins) and the one-time enemy who becomes his queen (Jessica Lange); astonishing supporting performances from Alan Cumming and especially from Harry Lennix, whose monologue before his execution is one of the year's greatest scenes; film's wowing Oscar-nominated period sets--by Dante Ferreti--and costumes--by Milena Canonero--are likably augmented by cars, motorcycles, and modern-day ephemera, which add to the story's considerable weirdness; my ninth favorite film of the year)

Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh's detailed, riveting look at the gestation of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado is a celebration of stage collaboration; Allen Corduner and Jim Broadbent play the often-battling team whose redoubled efforts result in one of the most treasured of stageworks; Leigh, no stranger to the theater, wisely elects to film rehearsals and backstage drama, giving full portraiture to the demands and rewards of the theatre; Oscar-nominated script, costumes, and Oscar-winning period stage makeup are all astonishing; my tenth favorite film of the year)

Toy Story 2 (directors John Lasseter and Ash Brannon equal, if not surpass, quality of groundbreaking 1995 computer-animated hit; film continues to examine our relationship with toys, here focusing in on young Andy's inevitable growth away from his playtime friends, voiced again by Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, and Jim Varney; movie delves now into adult fascination with toys as a nostalgic commodity, with Wayne Knight perfect as the ruthless toy collector villain; Joan Cusack and Kelsey Grammar play museum-bound toys inextricably linked with Woody, who's now revealed as part of a set; movie boasts of the most moving song of the 1990s, Randy Newman's "When She Loved Me," which, when coupled with its intricately-directed visuals, never fails to make me weep; a true masterpiece, and my sixth favorite film of the year)

Twin Falls Idaho (headache-inducing debut indie from Mark and Michael Polish, who star as siamese twins in love with the same girl; a cult hit on video)

The Virgin Suicides (debut film from writer/ director Sofia Coppola is a poppy, gloomy adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel about band of beautiful sisters whose stifling home life leads them to terrible fates; Kirsten Dunst, A.J. Cook, Hanna Hall, Leslie Hayman, and Chelse Swain are all outstanding as the doomed girls; supporting cast includes James Woods, an unrecognizable Kathleen Turner, and Josh Hartnett; shimmering Edward Lachmann cinematography and score by Euro-pop giants Air)

A Walk on the Moon
(sweet vehicle for Diane Lane--twenty years after her debut at 13 in George Roy Hill's A Little Romance--as a late 60s housewife whose clandestine affair leads her to the Woodstock Music Festival)

The War Zone (devastating directorial debut from Tim Roth about teenage boy dealing with terrifying home life; scary lead performance from Ray Winstone, and a radical, jaw-dropping ending)

The Wind Will Carry Us (typically, beautifully slow-paced Abbas Kierostami character study about Iranian city engineer attempting to fit into rural town's life)

The Winslow Boy
(David Mamet's elegant adaptation of Terrence Rattigan play about rich kid accused of stealing valuable stamps while at all-boys-school; with Nigel Hawthorne, Jeremy Northam, and Rebecca Pidgeon; very different ground for Mamet)

I wanted to include Rushmore on this list, to make it an even 80 notable films from 1999, but alas it was released for a week in 1998, so even though it didn't hit wide until February of 1999, it still has to be considered a '98 film. But it doesn't matter because 1999 is such a ridiculously rich year for cinema that, surely, 79 notable titles would do for just about anybody. Though 1979 barely beats '99 with 83 titles, it's quite possible that the combination of The Matrix, Toy Story 2, Eyes Wide Shut, Three Kings, Office Space, Galaxy Quest, American Beauty, Titus, Topsy-Turvy, Run Lola Run, The Straight Story, Magnolia, All About My Mother, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, American Movie, The Insider, Election, The Sopranos and The Iron Giant--all unqualified masterpieces--is enough to safely conclude that we still, maybe, don't realize how lucky we were in 1999. This dazzling list of movies--all challenging, entertaining, and exceedingly well-crafted--has to give the collected movies of any previous year a run for their money. And so:

The scorecard now stands at:
1939: 41 titles
1949: 56
1959: 66
1969: 73
1979: 85
1989: 67
1999: 79

Now, you tell me: is 1939 the greatest year for movies? Or am I on to something greater?

2 comments:

Jose Sinclair said...

Dean, your list (unless I missed it!) has two #9's (Matrix, Titus), no #2 or 5!
GREAT annual review, however - didn't realize there were so many great ones..
Here's my top 10 off my head, first look (dang, some good ones have to be left off!)
1.October Sky, 2.Run Lola Run, 3.Election, 4.Fight Club, 5.Matrix, 6.Being John Malkovich, 7.Toy Story 2, 8.American Beauty, 9.Insider 10.Talented Mr. Ripley, Cider House Rules (tie)

Close, but off: Sixth Sense, Magnolia (incohesive), Buena Vista Social Club, Straight Story (I love Farnsworth, Gray Fox), Eyes Wide Shut (hypnotic but void, watch L'avventura again! that's how you do this, empty relationships)

Did not see, but will on your rec: Judy Berlin, Sweet and Lowdown, Mystery Men, Office Space

KUDOS!! -- Jose
http://worldsbestfilms.blogspot.com
http://1000dvds.blogspot.com

Jose Sinclair said...

Hey, unless I have the year wrong: Blast From the Past - that belongs here. Loved both Cissy Spacek and Christopher Walken in that, who knew he could do comedy? Even tho Alicia was bland compared to Clueless, Brendan Fraser was lovably goofy in his role.. and the premise: right-wingers crawling into fallout shelters cuz "here come the commies!" Hilarious.. and living on, what, two Honeymooners episodes, or just one? (and laughing each time)

ps - I had Run Lola Run as 1998, so I changed that on mine - sometimes (The Lives of Others) you get two years listed for the same film.