Monday, March 14, 2011

Best of the Year: 1999

My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
American Beauty
When watching American Beauty, you get the sense that this is a smart film. You know you are witnessing excellent craftsmanship. The film oozes polishedness. The surprise is that not only are you admiring this work of art but, also, you're in the film, under its skin. Of course, it's sarcastic and it's dark but, above all, it's universal. It's happening right next door, if not upstairs. The impeccable cast delivers spellbinding performances in this "slice of life" in which the melting pot of tension begins to boil over with dire consequences. Kevin Spacey is nothing short of a revelation.

Being John Malkovich
A sheer original. Never before in Hollywood has there been a film as strange and strangely appealing as this one. A frumpy, unhappy John Cusack finds the key to glory as he accidentally finds a portal that takes him inside John Malkovich's brain. Malkovich, usually in serious, methodical roles, is a lovely sight here. He's game for anything, and the script allows him (and the audience) to venture in places unknown. It's all inspired lunacy.

Boys Don't Cry
Hilary Swank is brilliant as Brandon Teena/Teena Brandon, a cross-dresser who wasn't really confused about her identity but was troubled by society's confusion of it. It's a searing love story, thanks largely in part of Chloe Sevigny, who beautifully plays Brandon's love interest with both naivete and confidence. The film is rough around the edges, but that's precisely what makes it all the more real and devastating.

Eyes Wide Shut
The most haunting film of the year. For two and a half hours, we watch Tom Cruise stroll the streets of New York contemplating about sex, dreams and the sanctity of marriage. It's a fascinating art film, drawn with complex and vivid characters, and accompanied by a most memorable soundtrack. Cruise is terrific here, once again stretching his limits and daring to be unconventional. But it's Nicole Kidman who just simply knocks me out. Her performance here is even further proof that she is one of the best actresses in Hollywood. Eyes Wide Shut takes the top prize this year, partly because it gets better after each viewing. Another reason it's so damn good: it's one of the coolest titles in Hollywood history.

Galaxy Quest
It's amazing what a little heart will get you. Not just a spoof of Star Trek, Galaxy Quest is a biting, hilarious comedy about self-absorbed actors who find themselves on a real mission in space. It's silly, but also very big-hearted and smartly crafted. The cast is sublime; Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Daryll "Chill" Mitchell, Tony Shalhoub and Alan Rickman each bring gravitas to what could have been a throwaway movie about Trekkies. A delightful surprise.

The Insider
A classic whistle-blower thriller expertly crafted by Michael Mann. Russell Crowe loses himself once again into a role, this time as Jeffrey Wigand, with his usual finesse and craftsmanship. I don't like Crowe, the movie star, but I love Crowe, the actor; he's one of the best performers in Hollywood today. Al Pacino has one of his more memorable roles in recent years as the reporter who goes at great lengths to protect Wigand and his own career. A genuine nail-biter -- you can't complain that they don't make movies like this anymore.

The Iron Giant
This one ranks as one of my favorite cartoon features of all time. It's the timeless story of acceptance and friendship where a sweet giant robot (Vin Diesel) lands on Earth and strikes a peculiar relationship with a boy (Harry Connick, Jr.). The art is simple and clever, the voices real and incredibly moving, and the action exciting and at times frightening. It's a gem!

Right off the bat -- it's flawed. With too many stories, Magnolia is overstuffed. But too much of a good thing can still be a very, very good thing. There are scenes of such genius and bravado that allow us to easily overlook any shortcomings in Paul Thomas Anderson's semi-masterpiece about people "trying to do the right thing every day." Take the first twenty minutes, for example. It's a masterful prologue, introducing all of the characters in the film and allowing us to get under their skins right away. And the frogs! Seriously, what other filmmaker would have the audacity to pull off something like that? P.T. Anderson is a brave, gifted man, and I hope he will be making films for the rest of his life.

Notting Hill
Easily the very best romantic comedy in years, this standout is smart, brilliantly cast and impeccably written. Julia and Hugh are the epitome of the Hollywood leading couple, and they are backed up by such a lovely and memorable supporting cast (these guys ought to have their own sitcom). Of course, the plot is a fantasy, but there are so many moments that ring painfully true. "I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her." Does it get more heartbreaking than that?

October Sky
Jake Gyllenhaal, in his breakout film, plays Homer Hickham, the son of a miner from a small town where life is already mapped out for him. In this affecting and beautiful true story, we watch young Homer convince his town and stubborn father (who does stubborn better than Chris Cooper?) that he can break out of the mold and enter the exciting world of rocketry. On a side note, I knew it when I first saw October Sky in theatres -- Jake Gyllenhaal is a star.

The Sixth Sense 
This film will forever be known as the flashy start of M. Night Shyamalan's illustrious career. And, of course, the kid who sees dead people. It's a remarkable ghost story that effectively makes use of long takes, pauses in dialogue, and a hush, muted tone that are also present in all of Shyamalan's subsequent films. Haley Joel Osment gives a star performance here, and Bruce Willis, once again, proves he can stretch with the best of them. Toni Collette, however, takes the top prize here; her Oscar-nominated performance is a heartbreaker.

The Straight Story
Richard Farnsworth, in his fine, final performance, plays Alvin Straight, a persistent, stubborn old man who wants to patch things up with his brother, a recent stroke victim who lives a couple of hundred miles away. But how will Straight, a legally blind farmer who cannot drive, get there? By lawnmower, that's how! David Lynch (!) directed this beguiling, charming little story rife with sweet moments and a wholesome, feel-good spirit.

The Talented Mr. Ripley
It took me two viewings to really appreciate this masterful character thriller by Anthony Minghella. By the third go-around, The Talented Mr. Ripley had become a favorite of mine, thanks largely to one Matt Damon. A superb actor, vastly under-appreciated by his peers and critics, Damon subtly plays one of his best characters as a genius who takes his creepy obsession too far. Jude Law is so good here as Dickie Greenleaf, that he actually makes Damon's character sympathetic; seriously, who wouldn't want to be Jude Law? And Gwyneth? What can I say about her that hasn't been said before? A masterpiece.

10 Things I Hate About You
"I burn, I pine, I perish." Everyone has a "rainy day" movie, and this film is the ultimate, number one "rainy day" movie in my collection. It's one of the sunniest, wittiest comedies of the decade, a clever and very modern reworking of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. It knocks out all those lame teenage-based comedies assaulting the multiplex and stands out as the head of the class. Let us not forget that it made big stars out of Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger, two extremely bright and talented performers.

The Thomas Crown Affair
John McTeirnan made some classic action pictures in the late 80's, early 90's. As he got older, his movies got staler. However, there is one exception -- The Thomas Crown Affair, a rousing, supremely sexy thriller in which Pierce Brosnan easily sheds his Bond image as Rene Russo just as easily sheds her clothing (in a riveting, wowser of a nude scene). The action is exciting, the drama is involving, and the climax is a kick-in-your-pants, rug-swept-from-under-your-feet scene of movie magic. Some experiences just don't get much better than this.

Toy Story 2
God bless John Lasseter and his Pixar team. Their films are consistently brilliant and thrilling, and Toy Story 2 is no exception. Further adventures of Buzz Lightyear, Woody and friends ensue with new buddies, cooler gadgets, and more laughs. There's no reason at all for anyone not to like it.

A Walk on the Moon
A true "chick" flick, in every sense of the expression. Of course, this isn't nearly a bad thing. Diane Lane, in her prime and delivering the best, most moving performance of her young career, plays a 60's era wife and mother who hasn't quite "found" herself spiritually. Woodstock is just around the corner and she immerses herself in that world of ambiguity and free-spiritedness, and she doesn't do it alone. Viggo Mortensen is the sexy and charming hippie she "finds" herself with and the great Liev Schrieber is her doting, loving husband. Both men are superb, as is Anna Paquin as her daughter, who is going through some changes herself. A Walk on the Moon is a beautiful character piece, lovingly directed by Tony Goldwyn.

Honorary Mention
The Big Kahuna; The Cider House Rules; The Five Senses; Limbo; The Matrix; Ride with the Devil; Snow Falling on Cedars; South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut; Stuart Little; Summer of Sam; Topsy-Turvy; Tumbleweeds


PETE said...

1999 - some would argue on of the best years in modern cinema. It was the year that everyone waited with baited breath for the opening of The Phantom Menace, but The Matrix proved to be the sci-fi epic that would propel us into the next decade. A lot of good picks here (as usual). Though with a whopping 17 favorites(!) I'm a little bummed to see Snow Falling On Cedars just make the honorary mention list.

And yes, I must make it my business to highlight your notable snubs:

The 13th Warrior - John McTiernan's hugely overlooked and underrated swordplay epic (based on a novel by Michael Chriton) turned out to be a rousing adventure tale.

Bringing Out The Dead - Martin Scorsese's most underrated masterpiece! A return to the mean streets of NYC with Nic Cage as a strung-out paramedic on a hallucinatory ride between the boundaries of life and death. Featuring Robert Richardson's second dose of breathtaking lensing on the year after Cedars.

Election - biting comedy from Alexander Payne (Sideways) with deftly comedic performances from Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick.

Fight Club - I'm not a huge Fincher fan, nor was this one of my favorites, but it's definitely worth a mention and I admire its subversive vision. A film with sack.

The Limey - superb crime film/revenge drama from Steven Soderbergh (following up Out Of Sight) with Terrence Stamp supercharging the screen as a tough British ex-con out to track down the men he thinks are responsible for his daughter's death. A stellar supporting cast, excellent cinematography, tight script and the year's most ambitious editing structure make this one a pure gem of the genre.

Mumford - By no means a classic, but a personal feel-good favorite from Lawrence Kasdan about the effects of a new psychologist on his small town patients. Again, featuring a delightful supporting cast.

Three Kings - David O. Russell's hyperactive anti-Iraq War drama; one of the year's most invigorating pieces of filmmaking.

The Virgin Suicides - Sofia Coppola's hypnotic debut feature, photographed by the great Ed Lachman, who like Robert Richardson had a slam dunk double-feature year behind the camera (he was also responsible for The Limey!).

WOW! What a year indeed!

Dave said...

You're absolutely right, Pete. It's a stunning year! And as always, I welcome your insistence, though sometimes misguided, that I missed the mark on some titles.

Your list of snubs are not terrible films, but they just didn't stick with me. With the exception of the 13th Warrior, which I did not see, I have quite a few positive things to say about each of those titles. (Well, Bringing Out the Dead was a bit of a snooze, I must say, but it did look fantastic and an unhinged Nic Cage is usually a welcome sight). Three Kings, Election and Fight Club were decent films but overrated in my book. The Limey, Virgin Suicides and Mumford just failed to register in the long-term.

And don't be sad about Snow Falling on Cedars. To be listed as an Honorable Mention is, well, an honor. :-)


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