Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi The Top 10 Films of 1999

By Devin D. O'Leary

JANUARY 10, 2000:  What a whirlwind year this was for movies. Chaos theory seemed to rule at the box office, with unknown little indies (The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense) beating up on big-budget "blockbusters" (Wild Wild West) and a $430 million record-breaker (Star Wars: Episode One -- The Phantom Menace) being dubbed a "loser." The films that impressed most, however, were an exciting, eye-opening mix. Rules were broken, traditions fell, and moviegoers saw their first glimpse of 21st-century filmmaking, thanks to such innovative flicks as The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, The Blair Witch Project, and Run Lola Run. Here, then, are the Alibi's 10 Best Films of 1999 to usher us into a brand new century of moviemaking.

American Beauty
If I were a betting man, I'd lay odds that this film will walk away with the Best Original Screenplay Oscar at this year's Academy Awards ceremony. Not that the film was shirking in any other department, mind you. Acting, directing, cinematography -- add 'em all up, and you've got filmmaking at its best. This brutal black satire of middle American values was the most subversive Hollywood film in a year filled with gleeful subversion (Fight Club, South Park). If The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit defined America's soul-sucking workaday world for the 1950s, then surely this mid-life crisis manifesto nails the zeitgeist of late '90s corporate dissatisfaction. American life has never looked so beautiful or so hollow as in this cut-to-the-gut black comedy.


Boys Don't Cry
At times this film was difficult to watch. It was far harder, though, to tear your eyes away from the screen -- a testament to the film's skill as both document and drama. Star Hillary Swank gave this year's most Herculean performance by physically, mentally and emotionally transforming herself into a man (or, to be more precise, a girl transforming herself into a man). This shattering true story of Midwest misfit Teena Brandon, who so wanted to be someone else that she passed herself off as Brandon Teena (and was murdered for her efforts), was an eye-opening In Cold Blood for the 1990s. More than just a story about gender issues, Boys Don't Cry was a universal tale of teenage confusion, desperation and longing. First-time writer/director Kimberly Peirce deserves some serious congratulations for handing out sympathy to each and every character on screen -- elevating this from a black-and-white parable about homophobia to a complex portrait of today's dangerously disaffected youth.


The Blair Witch Project
It's almost impossible to separate this film from the hype that preceded (and followed) its release. But try for a minute. This film was never intended to be a $140 million blockbuster, and it certainly doesn't live up to those standards. This was a $30,000 experiment shot by some ambitious film students over the course of eight days. As such, it's one of the most brilliantly-crafted independent films of the last decade. Everything about this film (its jittery camerawork, its coal furnace lighting) was designed to serve its nonexistent budget and sizable technical restrictions. Blair Witch also received some big backlash for not being "the scariest movie ever made." What film could live up to that hype? I'll admit I didn't wet myself watching this cheapjack little chiller, but no film in movie history has ever whipped up such a palpable fear of The Great Unknown. Fear comes from the imagination, and Blair Witch had that in spades. Like it or not, this film changed movie history, and its after effects will be with us for a long time.


The Dreamlife of Angels
Few audiences caught this luminous French import. Hopefully, it will find a new life on home video (where it recently alighted). Certainly the most intimate and unassuming film this year, The Dreamlife of Angels rose like cream as a pitch-perfect example of the art of filmmaking. First-time director Erich Zonca took the most mundane of situations (a freewheeling street waif and an emotionally brittle homebody become low-rent roomies) and spun it into one of the most magnetic examinations of everyday life since the heyday of Francois Truffaut. Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Régnier were perfectly cast as the polar-opposite roommates who eventually trade emotional lives during the course of one soul-churning year. Anyone who has ever cohabited could easily sympathize with the roller coaster of emotions involved in this loving trompe l'oeil.


Election
Writer/director Alexander Payne has emerged as America's funniest, most incisive satirist. Following up his excellent Citizen Ruth with this bleak glimpse into high school politics solidified his comic rep in concrete. Matthew Broderick pulled off this year's best career reversal with his deft turn as the sexually frustrated, emotionally drained burnout teacher trying to sabotage the class presidency campaign of an overeager overachiever (Reese Witherspoon in a breakout perf). Sort of the dark flipside to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, this wicked, funny swipe at ambition, jealousy and youthful cruelty was a black comedy gem.


Eyes Wide Shut
The second film of the summer to live and die by the knife of Hollywood hype was Stanley Kubrick's final masterpiece. It's understandable that many audiences weren't able to access this film's dark tone and ponderous plotting. That actual well-known film critics bought into all the pre-show Tom-and-Nicole hype and went to theaters expecting to see some kind of Tommy Lee-and-Pamela Anderson porn show is unforgivable. Unfortunately, Kubrick wasn't around to defend his creation or to approve the wrongheaded advertising campaign. Instead of an "erotic thriller," Eyes Wide Shut was a frosty fin-de-siécle fable about trust, self-delusion and marital fidelity. Far more of a blackly humorous horror movie about adultery than a sexy romp through Tom and Nicole's underwear drawer, Eyes Wide Shut will eventually be recognized as a genuine work of genius and join the pantheon among Kubrick's other monumental works.


The Matrix
No one could have guessed the formula, but it took Keanu Reeves, two filmmaking brothers and some eyebulb-bending digital camera effects to save the action film genre. The red hot writing/directing duo of Andy and Larry Wachowski took everything they loved -- kung fu movies, comic books, cyberpunk thrillers, supernatural sagas and a dash of apocalyptic agitprop -- and blenderized the whole mess into a jaw-dropping fantasy of epic proportions. The result was the hands-down most entertaining film of the year. Who'd have thunk it? Even I didn't believe general audiences would swallow this film's dense mythology, but swallow they did -- many coming back for second and third helpings. The Matrix not only turned the Wachowskis into superstars and made George Lucas' overhyped summertime sci-fi opus look like a dumb-ass episode of "Romper Room" in comparison, but it very nearly transformed Keanu Reeves into an acceptable on-screen icon.


The Red Violin
The lack of critical support for this film still baffles me. Most film writers took a look at director Francois Girard and writer Don McKeller's epic follow-up to the much-praised 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould and shrugged it off with barely a word. Girard and McKeller did everything right in this massive, episodic tale of a single "perfect" violin and its tumultuous 300-year history. Five countries, four languages, a host of international stars and more than three centuries of historical and cultural change were sewn up seamlessly in this sweeping, emotional symphony of life. Unlike previous omnibus films like Tales of Manhattan (following a man's topcoat around the title location) and The Yellow Rolls Royce (following the title vehicle around the world), The Red Violin and its interrelated vignettes slowly built into a single, tension-filled mystery tale that reached its coda in one unforgettable moment melding tragic past and hopeful future. A bravura performance all around.


Run Lola Run
Some found this edgy Germanic import too hip for its own good. What many mistook for belated MTV flash was actually a dazzling reimagination of the entire film medium laser-targeted to today's multimedia-savvy audiences. Tom Tykwer's kinetic crime-thriller-cum-Techno-video-cum-videogame-cum-cartoon-freakout chased a Teutonic punkette (the scary, alluring Franka Potente) through 20 nonstop, nightmarish minutes in which she had to come up with $20,000 cash or see her drug-dealing boyfriend bumped off by some angry gangsters. Unsatisfied with the results of her actions, the strong-willed title character actually summoned up the power to hit the "replay" button on her entire day and relive it until she got things right. This twisted combination of Groundhog Day and Trainspotting was amphetamine cinema for the 21st century.


South Park/Toy Story 2
You probably couldn't find two more divergent films this year. The low-tech toon South Park lent new meaning to the word irreverent with its crude pot shots at pop culture. The high-tech cartoon Toy Story 2, by way of comparison, was bright, touching and quite possibly the best thing Disney has had its name attached to in the last decade. Believe it or not, though, these two films were bipolar soulmates -- each proving the enduring power of animation and the elasticity of the cartoon genre.

This summer, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's caustic TV creation hit the big screen in gut-busting fashion and caused quite a stink among concerned parents' groups who didn't quite understand the idea of an "adult cartoon." That only made South Park's anticensorship creed all the funnier. From the Disneyesque musical pinings of Satan to the implanting of "V-chips" in children's brains to prevent the moral disintegration of America, this outrageous comedy showed (as Lenny Bruce did decades earlier) that sometimes you've got to ruffle a few feathers to drive home your point.

Come fall, though, Disney and Pixar proved the exact opposite point -- that with a charming story and a toy box full of lovable characters, you can entertain people of all ages. Toy Story 2 actually improved on its wonderful predecessor, thanks to a rapid fire script and heartfelt moral -- showing that toys are meant to be played with, not to be hoarded as "investments" or tossed aside the moment puberty strikes.

Also Rans: Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, The Limey, Magnolia, Princess Mononoke

Guiltiest Pleasure: Cruel Intentions

10 Worst: Baby Geniuses, Body Shots, Jakob the Liar, Lake Placid, My Favorite Martian, The Other Sister, Random Hearts, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Wild Wild West, Wing Commander


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