Thursday, May 13, 2010

Year in Review: 1999

1999 ended the 1990s with a bang. This is one of the key years in recent movie history, as for the most part, this represented a moving away from the old school directors of the 1970s into a new direction. There was still room for the veterans – three of the films on this top ten list represent those – but new directors were finally really starting to step up and take their place. A great year in cinema history.

10. The Straight Story (David Lynch)
I have no idea what inspired David Lynch – master of the absurd – to make this simple, yet touching and brilliantly made movie. It is about an old man named Alvin (Richard Farnsworth in an amazing performance) who now needs to walk with two canes (because using a walker would make him look silly) who finds out that the brother he hasn’t seen in decades (Harry Dean Stanton – great with his one line) has taken ill and doesn’t have long to live. Alvin has lost his driver’s license, and his daughter (Sissy Spacek) is a little slow and doesn’t have one. His brother is hundreds of miles away, but Alvin is determined to see him. So, he sets out on his riding lawnmower to make the long journey to see him – meeting all sorts of people along the way. I wonder if Lynch came up with the title of this movie – because it’s an appropriate one – he plays the material straight from start to finish. For Lynch, that the strangest thing of all.

9. American Beauty (Sam Mendes)
Sam Mendes’ American Beauty remains a incisive, funny dissection of American suburbia in all its dark glory. Kevin Spacey is excellent in the lead role as Lester Burnham, a mild mannered businessman who is sick and tired of his life, his job and just wants to go back and be a teenager again. His wife, Annette Bening, is trying to maintain the American dream, and is sick of Lester and his whining. Meanwhile their teenage daughter (Thora Birch) feels like an outcast and has fallen for the new boy next door (Wes Bentley), as her dad lusts after her best friend (Mena Suvari). American Beauty does not quite have the same impact on me now as it did when I first saw it as a teenager. Having said that, it is a powerful film – expertly acted, written and directed (in Mendes first film behind the camera no less) and I cannot possibly have a best of 1999 list without it.

8. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (Trey Parker)
I have easily seen this movie somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 times by now. Yes, I am a huge fan of the TV show – and still think it can be among the best written, most intelligent comedies on TV (unless they do an episode about Bono’s shit), but with this movie Trey Parker and Matt Stone have made their one work on unadultered genius. This is the most profane film of the year – perhaps the decade – with constant swearing littered throughout, mixed together with a lot of toilet humor. But the film is also an intelligent satire of itself – depicting the insane reaction that would come about because of the show. It is also a brilliant musical – effortlessly sending up the Disney animated movies of the 1990s with wit and style. Yes, South Park has been, and always will be, about four foul mouthed fourth graders – but it is a work of genius on TV, and in this movie.

7. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze)
Spike Jonze made an excellent directorial debut with this tremendously weird film from the mind of Charlie Kaufman. John Cusack is excellent as a struggling puppeteer (as if there is any other kind) who stumbles upon a portal into the mind of John Malkovich for fifteen minutes at a stretch – before being spit out onto the New Jersey turnpike. His wife (Cameron Diaz) is getting on his nerves with all of her animals, and slowly he comes to realize that he can use his puppeteering skills to control Malkovich – which turns on the girl he really wants – Catherine Keener. The four leads are great in the movie – it took guts for Malkovich to play himself in this way – and Jonze’s direction helps to make this seemingly outlandish movie seem believable. Charlie Kaufman’s first screenplay gave us a glimpse into the special talent that he really is, and what was to come. A truly one of a kind film.

6. The War Zone (Tim Roth)
Actor Tim Roth made one of the most remarkable debut films of the 1990s with this intense, nearly impossible to watch film. Freddie Cunliffe has the key role as a 15 year old boy who moves with his family from London to a more rundown, rural village. He basically observes his family, which is full of deep, dark secrets. His father (Ray Winstone) is vocally abusive, his mother (Tilda Swinton) is pregnant and has buried her head in the sand about the truth of the family. His older sister (Lara Belmont, in a phenomenal performance) is sexually promiscuous and he suspects has been raped by their father. Roth’s film has echoes of Ingmar Bergman in it – both in its visual look and subject matter – and he does an amazing job of capturing this phenomenally dysfunctional family – warts and all. Please Tim, make another movie already!

5. The Insider (Michael Mann)
Michael Mann’s The Insider seems like a little bit of a departure for him as it is not a hardboiled action film. And yet, the film does fit in alongside the rest of his films quite nicely. It is another film about men who are defined by their jobs – their actions. Al Pacino gives an excellent performance as a 60 Minutes producer who finds Russell Crowe – an ex-tobacco executive who is willing to go on the record and tell him the truth. But this causes no end of trouble and legal maneuverings. Crowe gives one of the best performances of the year – this is the film he should have won his Oscar for – as the man who fights to get his story – and the lies of the tobacco companies – exposed for the world to see. Christopher Plummer gives one of his best performances as well – as Mike Wallace, who backs down in the face of legal pressure. Mann’s direction of the movie is assured, and the movie plays like a thriller. This is one of the best films ever made about journalism.

4. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick’s final film plays like a dream. Tom Cruise is a successful doctor who gets into a fight with his wife (Nicole Kidman), imagines her sleeping with other men, and then heads out into the New York night – where each and every person he meets responds to him in some sort of sexual way. I do not believe that Kubrick meant for the film to be taken literally – it takes place in a sort of dream world version of New York, not the real city. Cruise is excellent in the lead role, as he slowly descends deeper and deeper into the sexual underworld, eventually coming up at an orgy behind a mask. But he remains an observer more than anything else. Eyes Wide Shut is not a movie about a plot – nor its thriller elements – but rather about a mood, and is essentially about the dark fantasy world in which it takes place. The final scene in the film – between Cruise and Kidman again – is just about perfect and ends with one of the best final lines in cinema history. A fitting way to go out for a cinematic giant.

3. Election (Alexander Payne)
Alexander Payne’s Election is the best comedy of 1999 – and one of the best political satires of all time. The entire American election system is seen through the microcosm of a high school election – where the grade grubbing, brown nosing, constant annoyance Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon, in perhaps the best performance any gave this year) goes up against the lunk headed, but sweet injured football star Chris Klein. But while the election is the backdrop for the film, the film itself is really about Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) the teacher who has to oversee the election and truly hates Tracy Flick. It isn’t just because she’s annoying, or that her affair with his best friend got him fired but all of those things combined with his own frustration with his own marriage – and his sexual attraction to Tracy. In many ways, Election resembles American Beauty in its depiction of a mid life crisis, but this movie is far more thoughtful – better written and directed, and even better acted. In the decade since this film has been made, it simply continues to grow in my mind.

2. Fight Club (David Fincher)
David Fincher’s Fight Club has pretty much come to define an entire generation of men. Edward Norton is the main character – a mild mannered risk assessment guy for an insurance company, who is sick and tired of his life. When he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), and together they start Fight Club – where essentially a group of men get together to pummel each other into submission – he is freed by the structure of society. Fight Club is brilliantly directed by David Fincher, and features three amazing performances in the leads (Helena Bonham Carter, as the woman who Pitt fucks, and Norton hates is the third one). It is a complex film, with a twist ending that at first seems absurd, but then makes complete and total sense. Fight Club is one of those movies that gets better and better each time you watch it. It has become one of the most influential films of the 1990s.

1. Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is an epic movie about lives intersecting in and around Los Angeles. It is essentially a movie about fathers and their children – how those relationships shape the characters for good or bad for the rest of their lives. The cast is huge including Tom Cruise as an egomanical self help guru, Jason Robards as a dying old man, Julianne Moore as his younger wife, Philip Seymour Hoffman as his nurse, William H. Macy as a former child game show prodigy, Philip Baker Hall as the host of the same show which now has another contender, Melora Walters as a damaged woman, John C. Reilly as the cop who falls for her along with many more. Anderson’s main influence here is obviously Robert Altman – who made similar films with Nashville and Short Cuts to name but two – but Anderson outdoes even that cinema giant. Magnolia is an endlessly inventive film, brilliantly written and directed by Anderson, and acted by his phenomenal cast. After his deliriously entertaining Boogie Nights, he upped the ante here making a wildly ambitious film – that he pulled off brilliantly. This is a masterpiece.

Just Missed The Top 10: All About My Mother (Pedro Almodovar), Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Pierce), Bringing Out the Dead (Martin Scoresese), Dick (Andrew Flemyng), Dogma (Kevin Smith), eXistenZ (David Cronenberg), Felicia’s Journey (Atom Egoyan), The Iron Giant (Brad Bird), The Limey (Steven Soderbergh), The Matrix (Andy & Larry Wachowski), Mr. Death (Errol Morris) ,Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki), Rosetta (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne), Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton), Summer of Sam (Spike Lee), Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen), The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella), Three Kings (David O. Russell), Titus (Julie Taymor), Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh), Toy Story 2 (Andrew Stanton).

Notable Films Missed: The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami)

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: American Beauty (Sam Mendes)
There seems to be some revisionist history going on in regards to American Beauty. In 1999, despite the critical acclaim for some of the other films of the new school – Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, Election, and Fight Club among them – American Beauty was THE critical favorite of the year – and it was also an audience hit. But as often happens when a film becomes this successful – as the Oscar win indicates – people start to bash the film. It’s the same type of reaction that people have when their favorite indie band signs a major label deal and all of sudden are popular – American Beauty was great when it was YOUR film, but when it became EVERYONES film, then the shine wore off. I will admit that I am not as enamored with the film now as I was in 1999 – but it is still a great movie, full of wonderful dialogue, intelligent direction, great cinematography and most all amazing acting. This is certainly a worthy winner of the Best Picture Oscar.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Kevin Spacey, American Beauty
In 1999, it seemed like Kevin Spacey was posed to take over the mantel of great actors from the likes of Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino (among others) who had dominated the acting scene for nearly 3 decades and won a host of Oscars. But after American Beauty, Spacey’s direction finder seemed to go haywire, and in the decade since, you’re hard pressed to find a truly great film on his resume (sadly, the closest he comes is Superman Returns, where he did make a good Lex Luthor). Yet Spacey’s post Oscar career has nothing to do with his performance in this movie – in which he is excellent, giving a voice to those countless, pathetic middle aged men who feel trapped by their domestic lives, their wives, their kids and their jobs when all they really want to do is fuck the cheerleader who rejected them in high school. Even though his character is somewhat creepy and immature, you cannot help but love the guy. Personally, I think that Russell Crowe deserved the Oscar for his great work in The Insider (and had he won, we might have been spared the indignity of him winning the following year for Gladiator), but I have no problem with Spacey winning.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry
Hilary Swank basically came out of nowhere to pull off this victory – essentially crashing the American Beauty bid to become the fourth film in history to win Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay – which without Swank, would have been easy to do. Swank’s performance in Boys Don’t Cry though earned all the accolades it received. This is not just a stunt performance – featuring an actress playing a character who disguises herself as a man – nor did she win just because the film was based on a real life tragedy – although, both of those certainly helped her to win. But Swank’s performance in the movie is touching and honest – not exploitive at all, and gets to the heart of the character. Watching this performance, you would have thought it would have been the start of a great career, yet despite her other Oscar win, this really hasn’t been the case (seriously, she has only been good in 2 films, and won Oscars for both). But she deserved this one – especially since my choice, Reese Witherspoon in Election, was shamefully snubbed.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules
Michael Caine is one of those actors who I am constantly amazed at. Despite the fact that he keeps the same accent for each film, no more where his character is supposed to be from, he has been able to take on a huge variety of roles – from the kind hearted to the na├»ve to the outright cruel – and make them all believable. I think Caine is the best thing about The Cider House Rules – a mediocre film that took John Irving’s great book and cut the guts out of it (I know Irving wrote the screenplay himself, but that doesn’t change the facts). The one character who comes out unscathed is Caine’s kindly abortionist Dr. Larch, who simultaneously loves and cares for the orphans left with him, and still has no qualms about performing abortions for women – a seeming contradictory character that Caine pulls off wonderfully. Mind you, I don’t think Caine deserved to win for this performance – or even be nominated truth be told – but it is a fine performance just the same.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Angelina Jolie, Girl Interrupted
Girl Interrupted is a wonderfully acted mediocre movie. Winona Ryder is quite good in the lead, and in addition to Angelina Jolie’s creepy, intense performance as a psychopath, Brittany Murphy is excellent as one of her fellow patients in a psych ward. The movie tries hard to recreate the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but comes up short. Having said that, Jolie is excellent her. Of the nominees, I would have gone with either Chloe Sevigny for Boys Don’t Cry or Samantha Morton for Sweet and Lowdown (two great actresses, who still do not have an Oscar between them) and think that Kidman was robbed of at least a nomination for Eyes Wide Shut, but I don’t mind this win too much. I just wish the movie itself was a little better.

2 comments:

  1. "The Iron Giant", "Princess Mononoke", or "Toy Story 2" all deserve a spot on this list over "South Park".

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  2. This truly was a great film for film, and animated film. My mind changes on what the top 10 are every time I think of it, and yes, The Iron Giant, Princess Mononoke and Toy Story 2 are all great films. But I still think South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut deserves a place on this list - the most ballsy, animated, musical comedy in history.

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