It was a very good year. Maybe not the revolutionary year crowed about in Entertainment magazine in which pot-bellied Baby Boomer directors were unseated by Gen-X upstarts, but altogether 1999 was a very good movie year, notable for innovative ideas, courageous approaches to conventional subjects and a great deal of cinematic invention.
I hesitate to compile a list of the "best" films, because I haven't yet seen many that I suspect might fall on that list (P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, Tim Robbins' The Cradle Will Rock, Jane Campion's Holy Smoke, David Lynch's The Straight Story, Kimberly Pierce's Boys Don't Cry, Pedro Almadovar's All About My Mother), and because the films I want to honor were not necessarily the best in terms of production value and technique.
Instead, I want to raise a glass to movies that surprised me, that made me sit up and listen, that left me wide-eyed when the credits rolled. In the past year, I experienced genuine wonder at the movies more times than I can remember and came away less depressed about the state of the most popular and accessible art than in years past.
So here's to 1999, or at least what I've seen of it so far, my favorite films in no particular order:
1. The Talented Mr. Ripley. Old-fashioned and stylish in a Hitchcockian sense, Anthony Minghella's brilliant adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel delivers the best that Hollywood has to offer -- cogent narrative, star-quality performances, magnificent cinematography and a wide-ranging musical soundtrack -- all woven together to tell one whopper of a story. Suspenseful, touching and radiantly beautiful, though too long by a tad, it's masterful moviemaking.
2. Election. Way to go, MTV. Finally, a worthy adult role for Matthew Broderick and the perfect comic foil in the always superb Reese Witherspoon. A knowing look at ambition and the riotous tumble of personal disaster.
3. Three Kings. The best anti-war flick of the end of the century. Director-writer David O. Russell's script is tight and provocative, and the wildly inventive filming colors the Gulf War as the surreal misadventure it appeared to be on television.
4. Being John Malkovich. First-time director Spike Jonze (terrific as a thick-headed GI in Three Kings) and first-time screenwriter Charlie Kaufman deliver that most delicious rarity -- a funny, wry, intelligent movie in which the viewer has no idea what is going to happen next. Pure inspiration.
5. American Beauty. Sam Mendes' first feature, a dark look at contemporary American civilization and suburban discontents, is beautifully written, compellingly acted, and, yes, beautiful. Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening as disaffected spouses jump off the screen, and young actors Thora Birch, Mena Suvari and Wes Bentley all make convincing teenagers -- no small feat.
6. The Insider. A film about a contemporary issue -- corporate greed, deceit and domination -- that actually takes a stand. Michael Mann's subtle, complex, urbane telling of Jeffrey Wigand's battle with big tobacco is masterful. Russell Crowe deserves the Oscar for his grave portrayal of the beleaguered whistle blower.
7. Fight Club. The first hour of Fight Club is a mind-blowing satire of our consumer-obsessed, name-brand culture. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton pull out all the stops in this unflinching exploration of the roots of violence and cultural dissatisfaction. Director David Fincher aims to disturb, and he succeeds.
8. The Matrix. The sheer look of this movie knocked me out, especially the meticulously choreographed fight scenes that appear to defy gravity. A winning futuristic fable that doesn't forget to entertain in its effort to say something serious.
9. Toy Story 2. Who would have believed the Pixel animators could top the first Toy Story? Believe it. This time they deliver the same superb computer-generated animation with a story that appeals equally to the action-figure set and their moms and dads.
10. Eyes Wide Shut. Roundly hated by many, Stanley Kubrick's swan song was a dark vision of marital imperfection. Think of it this way -- would you rather contemplate the questions raised in this one or would you rather listen to Rob Reiner compare the problems of marriage to his butt in The Story of Us?
Honorable mention to the following films which helped us remember why we have movie theaters: Sixth Sense, a fluid, compelling and genuinely scary ghost story with a knockout ending and a moody, atmospheric set; Mumford, Lawrence Kasdan's good-natured, affectionate riff on the collective psyche of a small town; Lovers of the Arctic Circle, the haunting, lovely tale of two lovers, destined from childhood to be together, who separate and struggle to find their way back (now on videotape, subtitled); Besieged, Bernardo Bertolucci's gorgeous vision of unlikely love, friendship and loyalty, so beautiful it warms the eyes; A Walk on the Moon, a charming period piece set at the cusp of the age of rock and roll in upstate New York, starring Diane Lane and Liev Schreiber.
There were more turkeys in 1999 than it's prudent to mention here as in all years. Some (End of Days, Mod Squad) promised to be so bad I couldn't bear to see them at all. But here is a short list of films I sat through this year that I hope never to see again. (Filmmakers take note: We don't wish to see any of these themes resurrected in 2000.):
EdTV -- Do we really care that rich, famous people have no privacy? Not if they're jerks like those depicted in this cheap shot.
Runaway Bride -- Do we really care that Julia Roberts can't seem to stick with a guy, even though she's roundly adored, overpaid and annoyingly chipper? No.
The General's Daughter -- Tabloid journalism parading as serious Hollywood film-making. Do we really need to see a gorgeous blonde tie herself up, spread-eagle, and offer herself up for sacrifice in order to make an inane point about the exploitation of women in the military? No.
The Story of Us -- Do we ever want to suffer again through the spectacle of a bunch of whiny, bratty, gorgeous, rich Yuppies sniping at each other while driving their SUV's through the sun-bleached streets of L.A.? No.
Instinct -- Hey, Cuba Gooding, Jr. Two words of advice: chill out.