My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
American History X
All hail Edward Norton, one of the fiercest, most compelling actors in Hollywood today. This is one of his very best roles in which he plays an intelligent Neo-Nazi skinhead whose world around him begins to crumble. His younger brother (the best performance you'll see out of Edward Furlong) idolizes him, and the rest of his family doesn't know what to do with him. This is a brutal, hard film, well told and well done.
The Big Lebowski
One of the best comedies to ever come out of the Hollywood studio system, The Big Lebowski features an incredible amount of off-beat originality and a wild, groovy performance from the great, forever underrated Jeff Bridges. From the team that brought us memorable stuff like Fargo and Blood Simple, the Coen brothers movies are usually hit and miss (mostly the former), and this one is clearly my balls-out favorite. This one rocked my boat the most; it's perfect in its profound weirdness, so comfortable in its own wacked-out world, and my god, if I really may say so, I think it's bloody brilliant.
City of Angels
In what is probably the most romantic movie of the 90's, Nicolas Cage delivers his most endearing puppy-dog performance as an angel who watches over earth-bound Meg Ryan. Dennis Franz is pitch-perfect (cleverly steering away from Andy Sipowicz) as a man who gave up his angelic duty to become human. Cage believes to have fallen in love with Ryan, but doesn't know it since he can't really "feel." Therefore, Franz shows him how powerful and explosive life as a human can be. This is a film that treasures the little things; it's a film that loves and appreciates the human mind, body and soul. Some people were pretty damn pissed at the ending, but I wasn't. It was sad, but completely true to the film's real message: You can't understand life until you’ve lived it.
Dancer, Texas, Pop 81
"Some people aren't meant to live in a small town. Some can't live anywhere else." Almost every year, I like to stand behind and rally at least one independently made, very low-budgeted movie with an unknown cast and a first time filmmaker. This year, it's the lovely Dancer, Texas, Pop 81, about a group of high school kids from a small town (read: VERY small town) who must decide if they want to stay in their town upon graduation or move on to bigger and better things. It's a very small premise, but writer-director Tim McCanlies fills the script with big ideas, rich characters and memorable locales.
Oh, one must love Todd Solondz and his deep affection for losers. As he has also shown in Welcome to the Dollhouse and Storytelling, Solondz fills his canvas with sad, lonely characters who, as strange and disturbing as some may be, come across as beautiful, whole, sympathetic beings. And when I say disturbing, look at Dylan Baker's haunting child molester, or Philip Seymour Hoffman's icky phone sex addict. These types of characters are hard to like, but Solondz masterfully transcends the stereotypes and makes them human.
Hilary and Jackie
An insightful and beautiful movie. Rachel Griffiths and Emily Watson, just as they were being discovered as up and coming actresses, are phenomenal as talented sisters who share a passion for music. Only one of them becomes a successful musician, while the other grows into a family. Their bond strengthens and weakens as the years go on, and it makes for some fascinating drama. My eyes never left either actress since.
How adorable is Sandra Bullock? Oh, let me count the ways. Even though she really needs a new agent because her script choices are usually straight and lame, but she knows how to knock one out of the park when she sees one. Hope Floats is one of her best films (right up there with Speed and Wrestling Ernest Hemingway), a sweet, engaging little soap opera about a young woman who returns home to Texas after being ridiculed on a talk show. While trying to pick up the pieces of her life, she falls for a childhood friend, played by the charismatic Harry Connick, Jr. Forest Whitaker sensitively directed this dramedy, and it's a professionally polished gem.
Living Out Loud
When I saw this in the theatre on a whim, I was so pleasantly surprised. I left the theatre on an emotional high; this is an inspiring, inspirational film about a few lonely middle-aged souls in a New York apartment who connect and find love. The sublime screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (Mirror Has Two Faces, Bridges of Madison County) scores with his directorial debut, which features robust performances by Danny DeVito, Holly Hunter and Queen Latifah. I can't remember ever feeling this good watching a romantic comedy.
F. Gary Gray is a good, hard-knuckled director, reminiscent of John McTiernan in his early works. Gray's films, like Set it Off and Italian Job, are lean and thoroughly engrossing. This one is no exception, and thanks to the casting, The Negotiator is actually one of the most memorable action films of the late 90's. You've got Sam Jackson, Kevin Spacey (in his prime era), David Morse, John Spencer, Ron Rifkin, JT Walsh, and Paul Giamatti, all delivering the goods.
Out of Sight
The sexiest film of the 90's has the edgiest cast, the wittiest lines, and the coolest plot of any film this year. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez are loads of fun as Clooney plays a charming thief who falls for Lopez, the FBI agent on his tail. They ooze charisma and their chemistry is genuine and hot-blooded. Albert Brooks, Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames and the incomparable Dennis Farina fill out the ensemble nicely as Uber-filmmaker Steven Soderbergh gets another day in the spotlight just for being so freakin' cool.
Playing By Heart
"Talking about love is like dancing about architecture." And so says Angelina Jolie, one of the dozen great actors we meet in Willard Carroll's sensitive, articulate ensemble movie about a group of lovestruck characters in Los Angeles whose lives fatefully intertwine. Cast includes Ryan Phillippe as her AIDS-infected lover, Gillian Anderson as her reclusive sister, Jon Stewart (hilarious here) as Anderson's new lover, and Sean Connery as the girls' father. This delightful dramedy also features Dennis Quaid, Anthony Edwards, Madeline Stowe, and Jay Mohr in strong roles. Sweet, thoughtful, plays like a good ballad.
This visionary film fits perfectly on a double bill with The Truman Show, as both films deal with the vivid realities of a fictional world. Tobey Maquire and Reese Witherspoon, our heroes of Pleasantville, find themselves trapped inside of a TV show, a universe etched out of a black-and-white existence. Witherspoon gets the bright idea of shaking up their newfound straight world, and as everyone in Pleasantville experiences great change in their lives, everything begins to turn color. The film is clearly metaphorical, but even if you watch it without analyzing the clever asides, Pleasantville is still a rich, satisfying movie. Joan Allen is simply mesmerizing.
In the most underrated film of the year, John Travolta delivers one of his very best performances as a U.S. President who eerily mirrors a certain promiscuous real-life one. Critics and audiences responded harshly to the comparison, but that is not what made this film so brilliant. It's Elaine May's script, infused with heart, wit and soul, blistering politics and media frenzy, and some of the funniest material captured on screen this year. Mike Nichols slyly directs a superb ensemble, including Billy Bob Thornton (funnier than I have ever seen him), Emma Thompson, Maura Tierney, and the Oscar-nominated, larger-than-life Kathy Bates. Good, rich fun.
Run Lola Run
In this feature-length MTV video, Franka Potente runs and runs and runs, desperately trying to save her troubled boyfriend from danger while affecting the lives of many on her way. What makes Tom Tykwer's masterpiece so special is its thoughtful way of dealing with fate, luck and second chances. The music is incredibly pulsating and alive, while the eye-popping visual style bursts out of every corner of the screen. Run Lola Run is a fun, memorable movie-going experience, unlike any other.
A Simple Plan
The perfect plan, really, would be if Billy Bob Thornton steadily worked in the movies for the next 100 years. He is a consistently edgy performer and every time I see him, he's a breath of fresh air. In A Simple Plan, he was robbed of an Oscar as Jacob Mitchell, a slow, dim-witted man whose goodness is corrupted by a bag of found millions. His brother, an excellent Bill Paxton, is conscientious and wary of the whole situation, but eventually makes all the wrong decisions. This is Sam Raimi at his restrained best.
The Truman Show
Ingenious! Not only is the premise inspiring and thoughtful, but the final product works on every imaginable level. Director Peter Weir masterfully juggles Andrew Niccol's witty script that features societal commentary, science-fiction, situational comedy, romantic drama and a larger-than-life role of Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey, in his best performance. Upon first viewing, you're often wondering, "Where is this movie going to take me next?" The layers and emotion run deep and aplenty, while the laughs (and tears) pile on. Carrey is a revelation, and The Truman Show is truth once again that this man is a talent beyond words.
Babe: Pig in the City; Buffalo '66; The General; The Horse Whisperer; Last Night; Meet Joe Black; The Parent Trap; Saving Private Ryan; Shakespeare in Love; Slums of Beverly Hills; The Thin Red Line; U.S. Marshals; Without Limits; The X-Files; Your Friends and Neighbors