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Nashville Scene Cinema Paradiso

Looking back at a stellar year for movies

By Noel Murray, Donna Bowman, and Jim Ridley

JANUARY 10, 2000:  How good a year for movies was 1999? Magnolia wasn't screened in time, and well-regarded films such as I Stand Alone and The Flowers of Shanghai never made it to local theaters--and still we had trouble fitting the year's riches into the Procrustean bed of a Top 10 list. Read on to find out our choices:

Jim Ridley:

1. Rosetta Seizing and shaking the viewer from the first shot, the Dardenne brothers' shattering drama--neorealism on speed--pursues a teenage Belgian girl (the unforgettable Emilie Dequenne) on a desperate and increasingly ruthless quest for a poverty-wage job. Few movies offer such stinging rebuke to misty-eyed capitalist myths about bootstrapping; as someone once said of Stanley Kubrick, the Dardennes demonstrate that merciless isn't the same thing as pitiless.

2. Boys Don't Cry/The Straight Story Kimberly Peirce's harrowing account of the Brandon Teena story and David Lynch's G-rated pastoral ode to the passing 20th century seem like polar opposites, especially in their depiction of the soul of rural America. At each film's heart, however, is a passionate defense of the outsider in a country that forgets all too often it's a land of outsiders.

3. After Life Hirokazu Kore-eda's serene, beautifully understated fantasy examines memory, cinema, bureaucracy, earthly rituals, and the promise of heaven, and finds the humanity in all of them.

4. eXistenZ/The Blair Witch Project In a cinematic year fueled by technological terror and virtual-reality paranoia, no other movies laid waste to their audiences' certainties more provocatively than these two class-A headscramblers. I love Blair Witch, especially in its more ambiguous pre-release version, but David Cronenberg's barely released sci-fi thriller is an unheralded masterpiece--a devious, sense-deranging consideration of what mindless escapism does to the mind.

5. Besieged The most exciting, cinematically breathless work in many years from director Bernardo Bertolucci, who turns the interior of an Italian townhouse into psychic space as volatile as the inside of the Blair Witch gang's pup tent.

6. Topsy-Turvy This rich, enormously entertaining musical about the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado is the most accessible film yet from filmmaker Mike Leigh--and yet it's as personal a statement about his working methods as The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was for John Cassavetes.

7. Being John Malkovich Malkovich malkovich, malkovich malkovich malkovich. Malkovich!

8. Three Kings/South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut Who thought Hollywood's first acknowledgment of the xenophobia and economic self-interest behind the Gulf War would come packaged as the year's best action movie and the year's best screen musical? And it only took 10 years.

9. Eyes Wide Shut Sorry, no superstar porn--just one last exquisitely controlled vision from one of the century's great directors, that's all. Too bad the movie Stanley Kubrick made wasn't the one the media wanted to sell, or the one duped curiosity-seekers wanted to buy.

10. Election Yes, it's about a class election (in more senses than one) in an Omaha high school; but its unsparing irony is firmly in the manner of Jonathan Swift, not Alanis Morissette.

Special Recognition: The engrossing but heartbreakingly limited "reconstruction" of Erich von Stroheim's mutilated Greed, which redressed only minimally one of the century's artistic crimes.

Honorable Mention: Autumn Tale, Buena Vista Social Club, The Dreamlife of Angels, Fight Club, The Insider, Ravenous, Ride With the Devil, The Sixth Sense, Summer of Sam, Toy Story 2, True Crime, Xiu-Xiu the Sent-Down Girl.


Noel Murray:

1. Fight Club David Fincher's sly pokes at the artificiality of film (and film stardom)--and a last-act plot twist that humanizes the story--make this uncompromising masterpiece both an outlet for antisocial moods and a warning about the ultimate end to basing your worldview on the music of the Sex Pistols.

2. American Beauty The best examination of suburban restlessness since Dazed and Confused (or at least since Election; see below) makes disgust with the world an integral part of the loveliness of the world.

3. Election Like the best satires, this comedy about the delusions of high school (and American) culture closely shadows the melancholy anxieties of everyday life.

4. The Limey The whole movie takes place in the reflective scenes before a typical crime picture's climactic shoot-out, which Steven Soderbergh artfully converts into a drama all its own.

5. Toy Story 2 For the second year running, the Pixar animation studio produces the year's funniest and most exciting adventure film--classic storytelling in any medium.

6. Topsy-Turvy As subtle as Shakespeare in Love was blatant, Mike Leigh's exploration of the creative process behind a timeless work of popular art (The Mikado) is itself one for the archives.

7. The Insider Michael Mann's gripping description of the real-world effects of corporate arrogance is as much about the eerie silence that surrounds powerful men as it is about the mutual misdeeds of the tobacco and news industries.

8. Being John Malkovich/Three Kings Both Spike Jonze's film and David O. Russell's film starring Spike Jonze bordered on the excessively clever, but their respective thematic hearts were strong enough to survive bravura cinematic flourishes.

9. Felicia's Journey/The Talented Mr. Ripley Like Hitchcock films with most of the suspense removed and the sticky emotional subtext floating on the surface.

10. Galaxy Quest/Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace The former is a good-natured, exciting reminder of why we attach so much meaning to hoary space-opera clichés; the latter is the overhyped and underrated vision of a starry-eyed perpetual adolescent.

Honorable Mention: The Blair Witch Project, Cookie's Fortune, The Dreamlife of Angels, Eyes Wide Shut, The Iron Giant, Limbo, Metroland, Mumford, Princess Mononoke, The Sixth Sense, SLC Punk!, The Straight Story, Summer of Sam, Tarzan, The Thomas Crown Affair, True Crime.


Donna Bowman:

1. Besieged All the best accomplishments of 1999 cinema--attention to detail, lyrical silence, poetic imagery, portrayal of complex romantic relationships--are exemplified in this quiet masterwork from Bernardo Bertolucci, with Thandie Newton providing another in a series of courageous performances.

2. Fight Club In a year when several fearless films thumbed their noses at convention and said their piece without compromise, David Fincher's box-office flop was the most imaginative and dizzily thought-provoking.

3. The Matrix If we can put aside the legitimate worries about its ultra-violence, this thrilling dystopia from the Wachowski brothers confirms their love for genre film, their sense of style, and their hypnotic control over audience and material alike.

4. The Straight Story David Lynch's G-rated docudrama takes his deadpan, eye-level style and turns it to the service of genuine emotion, rather than black comedy.

5. South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut Pre-millennial tension caused a lot of filmmakers to play it safe this year, but not Trey Stone and Matt Parker, who gleefully turned their rude raspberry at family values into a raw, hysterical classic.

6. The Limey With every film, Steven Soderbergh refines his gorgeously clear technique to present an entirely new vision of the crime story. Here he incorporates Tarantino-like fillips of dialogue without relinquishing his unrelenting gaze at men under stress.

7. Toy Story 2/Princess Mononoke The future of animation is here today on two different fronts: John Lasseter's perfected integration of technology and story-telling, and Hayao Miyazaki's unbounded imagination and refined aesthetic.

8. The Iron Giant Now emerging as a home-video hit, this searingly emotional animated tale renews the significance of the '60s pacifist ideology.

9. Rosetta/The Dreamlife of Angels The first is an exercise in extreme cinema verité; the second is a more matter-of-fact slice of life. For honesty and entertainment value alike, both easily eclipse 1999's most acclaimed foreign film, Run Lola Run.

10. Eyes Wide Shut Unjustly vilified, Kubrick's final work unfolds in layers of dream imagery that reward the attentive, sympathetic viewer with depth, meaning, and coherence.

Honorable Mention: American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, The Blair Witch Project, Bringing Out the Dead, Election, The Insider, Limbo, Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Three Kings, The Winslow Boy.


Best 1998 film seen in 1999

Jim: How about the best film of 1991 seen in 1999? That would be Leos Carax's magical Les Amants du Pont Neuf--dully retitled The Lovers on the Bridge last year by Miramax and given a release so halfhearted and boneheaded that the studio's ineptitude became a news story in itself.

Noel: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson's Rushmore is a film to cherish--a wistful, eccentric comedy about juvenile dreamers and defeated adults learning to dance on the same floor.

Donna: Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line utterly fails to entertain and moves at glacial speed. Yet its combination of sound, light, and idea is heaven for this film-loving philosophe.


Great performances

Jim: There are a great many visual glories in The Straight Story, but few surpass the weathered dignity of Richard Farnsworth's face--his almost wordless final scene is a gem of unforced emotion. The measured sarcasm of Jim Broadbent's William S. Gilbert is an exquisite thing to behold in Topsy-Turvy, but this paean to theater folk is commandeered at the end by an offstage trouper: Lesley Manville's long-ignored wife, who seizes her due in a brilliant final scene. As Summer of Sam's frustrated disco-dolly, Mira Sorvino deserved more attention; so did the movie. Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Regnier created an indelible portrait of friends drifting apart in the superb French drama The Dreamlife of Angels, while Reese Witherspoon captured the ruthless zeal of Election's čber-achiever Tracy Flick so acutely that most reviewers incorrectly pegged her as the villain of the piece. My favorite, though, was Isabelle Huppert as the lust-struck fashion executive of Benoit Jacquot's unjustly overlooked The School of Flesh--she obliterated the year's parade of interchangeable teenage hotties with a single, coolly appraising stare.

Noel: The Blair Witch Project didn't succeed because of Internet hype, but because Heather Donahue was so convincing as a smart person frustrated by her inability to control supernatural (and natural) forces. Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham in American Beauty creates a new archetype--the corporate drone who becomes a gleeful leech. Julia Stiles is about the only good thing about 10 Things I Hate About You, but her bruised, stubborn beauty is immediately captivating. Loren Dean's confident psychologist in Mumford masks a disturbing rootlessness, while Christian Bale's rosy cheeks and timid smile in Metroland hide his longing for a more decadent, less English lifestyle.

Donna: Emilie Dequenne has a camera in her face for the entire running time of Rosetta and never fails to hold it spellbound. As tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, The Insider's Russell Crowe conveys unspeakable strain without ever crossing the line into histrionics. Crowe's L.A. Confidential costar Guy Pearce reinvented the role of horror-movie victim, communicating a thousand emotions in his reaction shots, in the little-seen Ravenous. And Drew Barrymore finally lived up to her promise with a Lucy-esque comic performance in Never Been Kissed.


Scene stealers

Jim: Chris Cooper is likely assured a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his showy role in American Beauty, but he was even better as a different kind of taciturn dad--the stoic but silently supportive father in the immensely likable October Sky. Steve Zahn's agitated gyrating as a convict-turned-unlikely-choreographer made him the worst dancer since Seinfeld's Elaine Benis, but he was the best thing about the dopey Happy, Texas. And as hard as it was to snatch any attention away from Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, and Christopher Plummer in The Insider, Bruce McGill managed it in a single electrifying outburst as a Mississippi prosecutor--it was a triumph for an actor best remembered as Animal House's D-Day.

Noel: Perennial scene-stealer Phillip Seymour Hoffman is in about five minutes total of The Talented Mr. Ripley, but his hilarious boorishness represents everything that Ripley both disdains and envies. Nicky Katt's hit man in The Limey is compelled to destroy everything he sees, including the dignity of a hardworking film crew in one side-splitting montage. NFL hall-of-famer Lawrence Taylor bravely shows his physical and psychological scars, giving soul to the contraption that is Any Given Sunday. Angelina Jolie in Pushing Tin and Taye Diggs in Go are both so vivid that you wish they could escape their contrived movies and go be fascinating together.

Donna: Rupert Everett's return to the screen couldn't have been more welcome, as he played beautiful, amoral gadabouts in An Ideal Husband and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Leelee Sobieski was too attractive for her role as a nerd in Never Been Kissed, but she provoked shocked delight when she batted her eyes at Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut. In one brief dressing-room improvisation, Topsy-Turvy's Timothy Spall sketches a complete picture of an actor who lives for the show and fears his life is over. And Cate Blanchett was the female lead of An Ideal Husband, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Pushing Tin, no matter what the marquee said.


Highlights

Jim:

A simple but stunning moment of transcendence, from After Life: The lights come up in a purgatorial screening room, and there's one more empty chair.

Another transcendent moment, from American Beauty: the unsuppressible smile of Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham when he hears his morose daughter is finally in love.

The astonishing fireworks set-piece that climaxes Les Amants du Pont Neuf: With its irrepressible dancing and riotous romantic expressionism, it's like Kevin Bacon's big number from Footloose reimagined by drunken gods.


Noel:

The dedication of the good folks at Pixar is exemplified in one scene of Toy Story 2--the completely unnecessary but lovely minute or so of Woody being restored by "The Cleaner."

Rejecting his programming, The Iron Giant raises his hands in the air and proclaims himself to be "Superman."

A sullen Gilbert, his confidence shaken by bad reviews, desultorily reads his latest libretto to his partner Sullivan, who giggles with the delight of discovery--The Mikado starts to come to life in Topsy-Turvy.

The consequence of celebrity: John Malkovich is beaned on the head by an empty can as a passing driver shouts, "Heads up, Malkovich!"


Donna:

Richard Farnsworth swivels his head at 10 times the speed of his lawn tractor when passed by a peloton of cyclists in The Straight Story.

Director Mark Borshardt tries to coax a performance from his cynical uncle (and executive producer) in American Movie.

Nicolas Cage and Patricia Arquette, overcome with synchronicity, each smile privately as they sit together in the back of an ambulance in Bringing Out the Dead.


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