The Year That Was ... Pretty Good

Even New Times critics liked what they saw

Andy's Top 10
Film critics are by nature a sour lot, so it is with truly great pleasure that I suggest that 1999 has been the best year for cinema -- certainly for American cinema and even for the major studios -- in my fifteen years on the beat. I'm at a loss to explain this, beyond suggesting that Hollywood's ongoing assimilation of the independent film phenomenon has reached a particularly interesting stage. Most of the titles that made this year so exciting incorporated at least some indie values. And most came from filmmakers under age 30.

As always, my list is in constant flux: It has been arbitrarily frozen in this version by the paper's copy deadline. But here they are:

1. Being John Malkovich: (Spike Jonze) Completely original and off-the-map, without feeling forced. Hysterically funny but ultimately not really a comedy at all; rather, it's something in between a tragedy and a horror story. Read the fullNew Times review

Feeling good about Being John Malkovich
Feeling good about Being John Malkovich
Like South Park, movies this year were bigger, longer, and better
Like South Park, movies this year were bigger, longer, and better
Yes, some even liked Tom and Nicole and Eyes Wide Shut
Yes, some even liked Tom and Nicole and Eyes Wide Shut

2. The Matrix: (Andy and Larry Wachowski) Philip K. Dick meets Hong Kong action cinema. What more could one possibly ask for? The special effects are not only dazzling, they're also never gratuitous; the script is not merely clever but downright smart. The whole thing shows that loud action movies are not a played-out genre, if you're willing to take a few risks ... like trusting the audience's intelligence. Read the fullNew Times review

3. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut: (Trey Parker) Okay, so the animation's crappy, but, you know, it's supposed to be. This is still the best musical comedy written directly for film in years and manages to stay true to the TV show while adding a little more thematic heft. It's also very, very funny.

4. The Straight Story:(David Lynch) Lynch's much-touted change of pace is merely the other side of the coin from his usual weirdness -- a paean to basic human decency and the strangeness of life. Read the fullNew Times review

5. The Sixth Sense: (M. Night Shyamalan) The perfect example of a big-studio production that is enriched by the indie sensibilities of its young writer-director. Not only amazingly clever and more complex each time you watch it, it has genuine emotional content. Read the fullNew Times review

6. Lovers of the Arctic Circle: (Julio Medem, Spain) This lovely and intriguing Spanish film flickered through theaters quickly. For those who like an intricately constructed, nonlinear story -- like Toto the Hero -- it was a treat.

7. Toy Story 2: (John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, and Ash Brannon) Pixar keeps up their unbroken chain of completely entertaining computer-generated features. Read the fullNew Times review

8. Cookie's Fortune: (Robert Altman) You can never quite count Altman out. After a string of less-satisfying films, he came back this year with a sweet, low-key look at a small Southern town. Every performance was spot-on. Read the fullNew Times review

9. Run Lola Run: (Tom Tykwer, Germany) It may not be profound, but it's a great reminder of the sheer kineticism that no narrative medium besides cinema can reproduce. Read the fullNew Times review

10. The Limey: (Steven Soderbergh) Soderbergh follows up Out of Sight with a very different kind of crime film: crisp, no-nonsense action that never stops being driven by character. Read the fullNew Times review -- Andy Klein

Jean's Top 10
1. Cider House Rules: No other film this year captures the complex, bittersweet nature of life so movingly. Michael Caine and Delroy Lindo are standouts in a terrific ensemble cast. Filled with grace, compassion, and humor, this is director Lasse Hallstrom's best work since My Life as a Dog. Read the fullNew Times review

2. The Insider: Idealism and harsh reality -- and all the moral shades in-between -- collide in this hard-hitting exposé that features formidable performances by Russell Crowe and Al Pacino. Director Michael Mann marries his sense of outrage with his trademark powerhouse visual style in a fact-based story that casts a harsh light on journalistic ethics and the personal cost of telling the truth.

3. American Beauty: As darkly comic as it is disturbing, this take-no-prisoners look at a dysfunctional American family marks an impressive directorial debut for theatrical director Sam Mendes (Cabaret). Kevin Spacey, arguably the greatest actor working today, is even more extraordinary than usual. Read the fullNew Times review

4. October Sky: A small treasure from director Joe Johnston, based on the memoir by Homer H. Hickham, Jr., about making one's dreams come true despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Heartfelt and moving, without being the least bit sentimental. Exceptional family entertainment.

5. All About My Mother: A richly textured film from Spain's Pedro Almodovar, one of the few true auteurs working today. Merging the comic, tragic, and subversive, this beautifully acted screwball drama is Almodovar's most mature film to date. Read the fullNew Times review

6. West Beirut: In his directorial debut, Lebanese-born cinematographer Ziad Doueiri examines the chaos of a divided, war-torn city (Beirut, 1975) from the perspective of an adventurous teenager who gradually comes to appreciate the corrosive effect of the conflict. Rami Doueiri, the director's brother, is a complete natural in his acting debut.

7. Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl: Chinese-born actress Joan Chen turns director in this stark but beautiful look at the failure of China's Cultural Revolution. Tibetan actor Lopsong brings heartwrenching dignity to his role of a peasant assigned to teach a naive city girl about herding horses. Magnificently shot by cinematographer Lu Yue, the film has an eloquent simplicity that proves emotionally devastating. Read the fullNew Times review

8. Grand Illusion: One of the greatest films ever made, Jean Renoir's 1937 antiwar masterpiece was re-released this year in a pristine new print. Set during the First World War, the movie is as much about the death of Europe's prevailing class-conscious social order as it is about the tragedy and futility of war.

9. The Legend of 1900: Mesmerizingly beautiful to look at, this first English-language picture from director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) contains the most exquisite cinematography and production design of any film this year. A dreamlike fable about the precariousness of life, the film is suffused with an almost tangible sense of longing and sadness. Read the fullNew Times review

10. Twin Falls Idaho: A modern-day Beauty and the Beast, this beautifully realized tale of love and intimacy marks the feature debut of acting/writing/directing twin brothers Mark and Michael Polish. The dramatic lighting, sense of composition, and use of rich colors give the film the feeling of an exquisite still photograph. Read the fullNew Times review -- Jean Oppenheimer

Luke's Top 10
My favorite movies of the year, in ascending order, are:

1. South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut: Director Trey Parker's obvious love of musicals made the film both a great musical in its own right and a dead-on parody of musical clichés. Even after repeat viewings, when the laughs are no longer original nor the profanity shocking, the story emerges as a surprisingly poignant tale of neglected children living in a knee-jerk society. Try naming one other movie that uses satire so effectively to take on the United States' arrogant attitude toward the United Nations, racism in the military, Japanese internment camps, gay rights, war propaganda, the gender and generation gaps, and our hypocritical national preference for violence over sex -- all with insanely catchy tunes that may get you into trouble if you're caught singing them.

2. Fight Club: Many folks missed the point of this film; many others got it and were repelled. Identity crisis ruled the day yet again in David Fincher's darkly comic masterpiece, which amalgamated many of his previous themes from other films into one massive cinematic download. Perhaps it's a generational thing, but anyone who has ever experimented with masochism as an alternative to crushing numbness or felt impotent to change the circumstances of a life that's been planned out from birth, can understand, if not absolutely relate to, the frustrations of Ed Norton's nameless narrator. Read the fullNew Times review

3. The Matrix: That this movie isn't number one on my list just shows what a great year this has been. It's nice to finally see a science-fiction movie that breaks new ground. Many claimed the story was too convoluted, but how nice to be able to make that complaint after years of other movies that invoke comments like "It's too dumb, and rips off Aliens/Blade Runner/Road Warrior/(insert iconic sci-fi movie title here)." Read the fullNew Times review

4. Cabaret Balkan: An Eastern European Pulp Fiction, minus the Seventies stylings and constant pop-cultural references that bogged down the original.

5. Being John Malkovich: Speaking of experimenting with content ... video director Spike Jonze deserves a lot of credit for picking this as his first feature. And John Malkovich deserves equal credit for going along with it and turning in one of his greatest performances simply by being himself. In a year where the overwhelming theme was crisis of identity, Jonze gave the concept an absurd literalization and followed it through with deft execution. Read the fullNew Times review

6. Run Lola Run: I can't think of any movie this year that experimented as much with form and content. Lola perfectly captured the rush of playing a really good video game, complete with multiple endings, a pulse-pounding score, and a surrealistic blending of visual media. Oliver Stone has tried this sort of thing but hasn't pulled it off quite so well. (He was obviously impressed: Some of Lola's score ended up on the soundtrack for his year-end release, Any Given Sunday). Read the fullNew Times review

7. Three Kings: Okay, admittedly the idea of making an international call on a cell phone when you're trapped in a bunker beneath the desert is pushing it, but otherwise, David O. Russell's Gulf War Western is both a thrilling ride and a powerful protest film. And let's face it, whoever would have thought, back in 1991, that pants-dropping white rapper Marky Mark Wahlberg would be capable of giving one of the year's best performances? The scene where he emerges from the Iraqi bunker, still in shock after being tortured, says it all.

8. Earth: An Indian answer to Gone with the Wind, Earth tells a powerful human story of love, class, and religion, set against the epic backdrop of India's civil war and the formation of Pakistan. Director Deepa Mehta had already proven that she could handle intimate drama with the lesbian-theme Fire, and now proves herself equally adept at making a "big" movie as well. Read the fullNew Times review

9. On the Ropes: It's rare that a documentary comes along that can rival a dramatic treatment of the same subject, but this outstanding movie about inner-city boxers struggling to transcend their environment had me on the edge of my seat. Because the odds are stacked against our heroes, and this is real life rather than Rocky, you honestly don't know how things will work out until they do.

10. Stir of Echoes: Otherwise known as "the other movie about a kid who sees dead people." A release date about the time The Sixth Sense was becoming a national phenomenon effectively killed David Koepp's spookier ghost story, which is too bad. Kevin Bacon turns in a great performance as a man obsessed by delusions, Koepp's cinematic visualization of a hypnotic trance is stunning, and residential Chicago is effectively portrayed as a near-Hell on Earth. Read the fullNew Times review -- Luke Y. Thompson

Bill's Top 10
1. American Beauty
Read the fullNew Times review

2. Being John Malkovich
Read the fullNew Times review

3. The Insider

4. Magnolia
Read the fullNew Times review

5. Topsy-Turvy

6. The Matrix
Read the fullNew Times review

7. The Dreamlife of Angels
Read the fullNew Times review

8. Election
Read the fullNew Times review

9. An Ideal Husband
Read the fullNew Times review

10. Holy Smoke -- Bill Gallo

David's Top 10
1. Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train: Patrice Chereau's film about a funeral and its aftermath is the greatest motion picture made not just this year, but in the past 32 years. Read the fullNew Times review

2. The Lovers on the Bridge: The second greatest motion picture made in the past 32 years. Léos Carax's romantic epic bankrupted three companies before its four years of shooting and postproduction was finished. It was worth it.

3. Mandadayo: Thanks to Turner Classic Movies for premiering Kurosawa's final film, about an old professor, his class of adoring students, and the loss of a beloved house cat.

4. Being John Malkovich: "Craig, you can't stand in the way of my realizing myself as a man." Read the fullNew Times review

5. Eyes Wide Shut: The year's most misunderstood film: It's not about sex -- it's about bundt cake. Read the fullNew Times review

6. Lola and Billy the Kid: Gay, Turkish-immigrant drag queens and street hustlers in Germany, brilliantly directed by UCLA film school graduate E. Kutlug Ataman.

7. The Talented Mr. Ripley: Patricia Highsmith's novel, first filmed by Rene Clement as Purple Noon and starring Alain Delon, now is reconfigured by Anthony Minghella for Matt Damon. Beautiful, scary, and sexy as hell, thanks in no small part to the babealicious Jude Law. Read the fullNew Times review

8. Dogma: Fallen angels Matt Damon and Ben Affleck argue Catholic theology in a style that hasn't been seen since Edmund O'Brien and Marius Goring locked horns over oil-depletion allowances in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa. Kevin Smith may have Luis Buñuel on the brain, but he's Mankiewicz's heir apparent

9. Boys Don't Cry: A true picture of the heartland, with an incredible performance by Hilary Swank. Read the fullNew Times review

10. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut: Jack Valenti stole my Cheesy Poofs! -- David Ehrenstein

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