1999 is often cited as one of the best years in film history, and probably the best year in a decade that wasn’t so great. The question of what were the best films that year gets asked often, and I thought I would give my own list.
–BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (dir. Spike Jonze) – I never saw what the big deal was with this movie. I’ve always just felt it’s strange for the sake of being strange. But, definitely a notable film that year.
–THE SIXTH SENSE (dir. M. Night Shyamalan) – Again, I never saw what the big deal was with this one. The whole thing is built around its twist ending, which a lot of people guess. But it’s a notable entry.
–BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (dir. Wim Wenders) – Documentary about the music of Cuba, following producer Ry Cooder assembling legendary Cuban musicians to make the album of the same name. I used to love this one, but subsequent viewings have made me realize it’s not as strong as I remembered.
Now, let’s move on to our top 10 list:
You may not remember this movie, but it holds a special place for me. It was the first Spike Lee film I saw, as well as the first Adrien Brody performance. The film focuses on the Son of Sam killer, but instead of being a traditional biopic, it chooses to focus on the summer of 1977 itself and makes New York City the star. The tension, heat, and paranoia over the serial killer brings out the worst in people. And the scene where the dog “talks” to David Berkowitz really creeped me out. The movie is weird, creepy, surreal, and in your face. Jimmy Breslin appears at the film’s beginning and end, stating he loves and hates New York equally. This same ambivalence applies to how the film regards its subject matter. While not at the level of DO THE RIGHT THING or MALCOLM X, this is still one of the director’s stronger films.
I know this will seem like a really leftfield choice, but hear me out. If you were a teenager during this era, the big stars of the time were the likes of Neve Campbell, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Sarah Michelle Gellar. SCREAM, WILD THINGS, and SHE’S ALL THAT were all huge. I like CRUEL INTENTIONS because I’ve always considered it the pinnacle of that era, and it’s much more sophisticated than your typical teen movie. As most people know, it’s a modern version of LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, and that gives it a certain air. The plot is twisted: our heroes are rich, privileged kids who seduce and pervert other kids for the hell of it, but to see that level of sexual maturity in the genre of John Hughes was refreshing. Also, I find it ironic that a teen movie features almost no scenes in a high school except for the very end. This is a nice little gem of a film.
I went for a long time without seeing this movie. I was so often told that it was one of the best films of its entire decade. I still have never really come to a conclusion about what the film is actually about. But I guess I can sum it up as follows: the film is one big giant “Fuck you!” It’s a film about pent-up rage, mental breakdowns, the numbness of society, and laughing at your own insanity, with an unreliable narrative. I initially used to criticize the big twist of the movie, stating that it made no sense (“How does Edward Norton beat himself up? How did he tie himself to a chair?”). But now I see that that’s the point; the film IS a distortion of reality. Some things aren’t literally true, but they’re Story True.
I love this movie! It’s a very simple, straightforward narrative about Richard Farnsworth making a long pilgrimage on a lawnmower to see his dying brother. And that’s really all it is. Throughout the film he encounters many side-characters. There isn’t much conflict; in fact, most people he meets actually are friendly and want to help him, but he insists on going on alone. The film’s minimalism is in fact its point. This is a film about character and the journey. Even more interesting is that this film ended up beginning a renaissance for Lynch. After having a slump in the ’90’s, this film brought him back on track and he soon made his masterpiece MULHOLLAND DRIVE.
The Best Picture winner of the year. This movie was extremely popular when I was in high school; in fact, for a movie dealing with a mid-life crisis, kids seemed to like it more than the actual generation it was about. I guess that was once again due to the anti-establishment message. AMERICAN BEAUTY works because of its family dynamic and its whodunit structure. We are told at the beginning that a murder will occur and see the clues slowly put in place before they all crescendo in the third act. Looking at the film today, maybe it’s not as strong as when released, but it definitely left an impact.
Given how several of these movies are very “hip” and stylized, have twist endings, or a “Fuck the Man” message, THE GREEN MILE may be easy to forget. It’s a much more old fashioned film, classically shot and edited, with a basic story and a lot of Oscar bait. But, it’s also a really good movie with a fine ensemble of actors. It draws you in to its long, slow-paced story about a magical inmate in the death row of a prison, and the effect he has on the guards around him. Every character in this film is well developed, every plot point perfectly set up. It’s a movie that loves Story and puts it first. It’s also the most faithful Stephen King adaptation ever made.
As with FIGHT CLUB, it took me a while to get around to seeing this one. In fact, both films came out around the same time. Over time I’d hear people rave about both, yet they’d struggled to really articulate what either was about. MAGNOLIA polarizes people to this day and serves as a good barometer for what kind of filmgoer you are: either you can appreciate a movie where it randomly rains frogs from the sky, or you can’t. Myself, I love this film and its many plotlines. John C. Reilly, in what may be his single best performance, is the true backbone of the piece for me. The looseness of the story and interconnectedness of the characters reminds me of WAR AND PEACE (come to think of it, this may even be the best film version of WAR AND PEACE ever made), and the film’s indulgences could only have been made by a director in his 20’s. In an odd way, this may be Anderson’s darkest film; yes, even darker than anything Daniel Plainview dreams up. It’s also his saddest.
No, not to be confused with AMERICAN BEAUTY, which we already covered. This cult documentary about an aspiring low-budget filmmaker and his inept crew has really resonated with a large audience. On a first viewing, you might easily label Mark Borchardt as just some loser to laugh at. But as you get older, you start to see yourself in this figure. The doc serves as a nice educational piece on filmmaking while also a good film in its own right. It has become a staple in film schools across the country, and many refer to it as “their filmmaking Bible.” At the end of the day, this film isn’t so much about filmmaking as it is about chasing the American dream, whether for better or worse.
After suffering a personal tragedy, Manuela leaves conventional Madrid for the underworld of Barcelona where she befriends a pregnant, HIV-positive nun. When asked “What exactly is this movie about?” this is another one that defies a conventional answer. In short, this Spanish film is about women, and not all of them are literal women. Transgendered, drag queens, actresses, lovers, and mothers, this is a film about identity and how the stage transforms, and informs, reality. It also pays tribute to ALL ABOUT EVE, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and other great “women’s pictures.” As I said about THE STRAIGHT STORY and Lynch, this film also marked the beginning of Almodovar’s renaissance. He also had had a slump in the ’90’s but would now hit his stride in the 2000’s, and this film paved the way.
Almost from the very day this movie came out, I have defended it. It initially was ignored and discarded by most audiences, who I guess were expecting a more erotic film. Many criticized it as “slow and boring,” leading me to respond “Have none of you people ever seen 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY? Did you not know what Kubrick’s trademark style was?” Of course, there has always been the criticism that we don’t know how severely Kubrick’s death may have impacted the film; would he have made substantial changes had he lived? I’ve heard both sides of this argument, from those who insist that Kubrick had completed the film just before he died to those who insist what we got will always be unfinished and should not be considered a Kubrick film. All I can say is this: EYES WIDE SHUT is a really strong and haunting examination at the relationship between Sexuality and Death, and how these two forces dance with one another over the course of one long nightmare. In the end, there is no real difference between a marriage and a sex cult. While I do think the movie could maybe have been cut down by about fifteen minutes, the film we got features some very strong work, including a performance by Nicole Kidman that deserved Best Supporting Actress.
In short, it was the best film of 1999.