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Essays & Articles

January, 2000
The Best Films of 1999
by Dustin Putman

    1999. The final year of the 20th century, and the last twelve months of movies in the technical millennium (not the scientific one). 1999 was the year, I believe, in which filmmakers broke out and were willing to try something new—something that either hadn't been done before, or hadn't been tried in quite the same manner. It was the year when a shot-on-video $30,000 horror movie became the most financially successful indie film of all time, with a domestic gross of over $140-million. It was the year when a Bruce Willis sleeper drama was pushed from an autumn release date to the dog days of summer, and came out of nowhere to capture audiences' imaginations and emotions and gross over $275-million. It was the year that saw the release of the eagerly-awaited "Star Wars: Episode 1," which became a box-office smash, but one that most people don't really seem to like very much. In the spring, multiplexes were pelted almost every single week with a new "teen" movie (I swear, I went to the prom upwards of seven times this year and didn't even have to leave the movie theater or get dressed up). But most of all, movies in 1999 were alive in a way that they hadn't been since 1996. Strangely, looking at my Top 20 picks of the year, less than half were released in the last four months, well-known as the time of year when the best movies are chosen to be released in order to be fresh in the minds of Academy voters. Regardless, this year was a fitting way to say goodbye to 1999 and hello to 2000, a new era that, no doubt, will change the face of motion pictures forever.

    The 20 Best Films of 1999

    20.) Toy Story 2 (Dir: John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, Ash Brannon).
    The most innovative and joyously entertaining family film of the year, "Toy Story 2" managed the impossible, by being far superior to the 1995 original. Visually more advanced and stunning, freer in its settings and storyline, and with more mature themes that both adults and children can appreciate, this is an example of how assured Walt Disney Pictures is when dealing with its animated films. If only they could solve their live-action problem...

    19.) Girl (Dir: Jonathan Kahn)
    The winner for Best Narrative Filmmaking at the 1999 Florida Film Festival, it is a crying shame that "Girl" did not receive proper theatrical distribution and, instead, was virtually sent direct-to-cable (where I saw it), and then to video. Aside from "Election," "Girl" was the best so-called "teen" movie of the year, a surprisingly realistic and well-written film that unexpectedly packs a wallop by its conclusion. Dominique Swain toplines a wonderful cast that also includes Sean Patrick Flanery, Tara Reid, Selma Blair, and Summer Phoenix, as a girl who grows up a great deal and learns quite a lot about herself during her senior year of high school. Swain's character may not always been likable, and she might not always make the best decisions, but that is simply another reason to appreciate this accurately drawn, sorely overlooked gem.

    18.) Arlington Road (Dir: Mark Pellington)
    An extraordinarily taut, frightening motion picture that superbly handles its subject of paranoia, "Arlington Road" stars Jeff Bridges as a widowed father who begins to suspect that his neighbors' friendly personalities are only a facade to hide their secret identities as terrorists. Atmospheric cinematography, break-neck pacing, a stunner of a conclusion, and the perfectly cast Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack as the neighbors, all aid together in creating a truly thought-provoking thriller.

    17.) Girl, Interrupted (Dir: James Mangold)
    Based on Susanna Kaysen 1993 memoir about her stay at a psychiatric hospital as a teenager in 1967, "Girl, Interrupted" is James Mangold's perceptive film adaptation, with a glorious ensemble cast, including Winona Ryder (as Susanna), Angelina Jolie (as Lisa, a so-called sociopath), and Brittany Murphy (as Daisy, a severely troubled young woman). Non-stereotypical and never condescending, the film is filled with honesty, warmth, and mature subject matter that is never anything less than thoughtfully written.

    16.) Bringing Out the Dead (Dir: Martin Scorsese)
    A technically flashy, stunningly provocative journey through three nights in the life of Frank (Nicolas Cage), a conflicted ambulance driver who is still struggling over the loss of a young teenager he failed to save, acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese is at the top of his game with "Bringing Out the Dead," an unequivocal character study with a handful of hugely memorable supporting roles, from Ving Rhames, John Goodman, Tom Sizemore, and Marc Anthony. Patricia Arquette is especially effective and poignant as an equally troubled woman whom Frank feels powerfully connected with. Like so many of the films on this list, "Bringing Out the Dead" never found an audience in theaters, but very much deserved to.

    15.) Summer of Sam (Dir: Spike Lee)
    A marvelous, exact portrait of a particular time and place, Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam" takes an unforgettable look at a dozen or so people during the hottest summer on record in NYC, circa 1977, as David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam serial killer, was going on his rampage. John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino are top-notch as, respectively, a philandering husband and his neglected wife. Using several different film stocks, and intermixing the characters and situations with a plethora of music from the time period, "Summer of Sam" is a testament to Lee's overwhelming assurance as a film director, and his nearly seven-minute montage midway through, set to The Who's "Baba O' Riley," is one of the most breathtaking pieces of film all year. Only debit: the rapid-fire use of the F-word (I think 318 uses in its 145-minute running time) grows extremely tedious, and could easily have been cut down.

    14.) Snow Falling on Cedars (Dir: Scott Hicks)
    Based on the acclaimed novel by David Gutterson, "Snow Falling On Cedars," which tells three richly textured stories in one (a murder-mystery, a love story, and an examination of the treatment of the Japanese in America during World War II), is a sumptuous, meticulously poetic motion picture that refreshingly tells much of its story through strikingly beautiful visual images, rather than a lot of needless dialogue. One could complain that some of the characters are never fully realized (including the central figure, played by Ethan Hawke), but those that say such a thing, perhaps, have missed the point. Consistently weaving in and out of the past and present, based on people's recollections, "Snow Falling on Cedars" leaves a lasting magical spell on the viewer. Youki Kudoh lends a standout performance as Hawke's lifelong love whom he was separated from because of race.

    13.) Anywhere But Here (Dir: Wayne Wang)
    Easily superior to the other similar comedy-drama of 1999, "Tumbleweeds," "Anywhere But Here" is one of the most truthful and affectionate films about mother-daughter relationships in ages. Refreshingly without a predictable story device, "Anywhere But Here" is that rare, perceptive Hollywood film that is about the characters and their emotional growth and conflicts. Admittedly, not a great deal happens plot-wise, but more occurs underneath the surface than most films would even dream about, and the acting turns by Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon are just about as remarkable as two performances could possibly be. They raise the already-winning material to an even higher plateau of success.

    12.) The Talented Mr. Ripley (Dir: Anthony Minghella)
    Based on the first in a series of novels by Patricia Highsmith, in which the protagonist (and antagonist) happens to be Thomas Ripley (Matt Damon), a sociopath, "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is one of the most challenging and thought-provoking thrillers in recent memory, a sort of affectionate ode to the classic films of Alfred Hitchcock. A motion picture in which we follow a character who just so happens to be mentally unhinged, it also holds the ability to genuinely surprise because we grow to, on some level, like Tom, and even at times when he does awful things to other people, it usually seems perversely just. In the story of a man who becomes so obsessed with a handsome playboy (Jude Law) that he sets out to become him, readers may initially think, "been there, done that," but they would be wrong, as the multi-layered plot developments and outstanding performances (from Damon, Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Cate Blanchett), all come together to create a complex and absolutely electrifying film.

    11.) The Sixth Sense (Dir: M. Night Shyamalan)
    A relatively small sleeper thriller that shocked everyone and turned into a sort of phenomenon (not unlike "The Blair Witch Project"), "The Sixth Sense" is that rarest of birds: a genuinely intelligent and spooky horror-drama that has the power to sideswipe you at any moment and either scare you, surprise you (the brilliantly unpredictable conclusion), or touch you. Bruce Willis (in his first impressive film since 1989's "In Country") stars as a Philadelphia psychologist whose marriage is on the rocks, and who takes on the challenge of trying to help a young boy (the excellent Haley Joel Osment) who claims to be able to see dead people. For once, an incredible box-office hit that deserves the recognition it received.

    10.) Drop Dead Gorgeous (Dir: Michael Patrick Jann)
    It may be offensive (to some), it may be unrelenting, it may be about as politically incorrect as a studio picture can get, but "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is, easily, not only the funniest film of the year, but maybe even of the decade. Shot in mock-documentary format, and concerning the race for Mount Rose, Minnesota's Miss American Teen Princess, the screenplay, by Lona Williams, is so consistently sharp, biting, and original, that even after six viewings, it still manages to attack my funny bone each and every time. Kirsten Dunst proves what a talented young actress she truly is as one of the pageant's hopefuls, while Kirstey Alley, Ellen Barkin, and the unbeatable Allison Janney lend memorable support.

    9.) Trick (Dir: Jim Fall)
    A hit at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, there's no better word to describe "Trick" than 'magical,' as a struggling, young musical writer (Christian Campbell) briefly meets a studly go-go dancer (J.P. Pitoc) on the NY subway, and what starts off as an attempt at a one-night-stand turns into so much more as they begin to get to know and really like each other. Abandoning the usual topics and hang-ups of most gay-oriented movies, including "coming out" and AIDS, what talented director Fall has done here is not only given us two people whose sexual orientation is irrelevant, but also the sweetest romantic comedy of the year. Tori Spelling, once and for all, gets to show off her rather surprising acting chops as Campbell's outwardly upbeat, but insecure, best friend who secretly wishes they could be together.

    8.) In Dreams (Dir: Neil Jordan)
    Yep, you read that right. Neil Jordan's visually beautiful, thought-provoking horror-fantasy, "In Dreams," is, by far, the most underrated motion picture of 1999 — strikingly original, unpredictable, and marvelously acted, particularly by Annette Bening as a wife and mother who begins to have dreams of a serial killer who gradually is getting closer to her peaceful home life. Along with "Snow Falling on Cedars," the absolutely stunning, unforgettable cinematography, by Darius Khondji, is the best of the year, and it's a shame it will be overlooked when the Oscar nominations come out. Actually, it's a shame the whole film itself disappeared quickly from the radar—rarely do you find a widely-released motion picture as innovative as this one, unless its name happens to be...

    7.) Being John Malkovich (Dir: Spike Jonze)
    From the first second to the last, "Being John Malkovich" left a huge, dorky smile on my face, and when I wasn't completely breaking down and bursting out into laughter, I was either giggling, touched, or in awe at the overall ambition and imagination that was brought to this comedy-fantasy, about an office worker/puppeteer (John Cusack) who discovers a portal in the wall that takes you into actor John Malkovich's mind for 15 minutes, before being abruptly dumped along the side of the New Jersey Turnpike(!!!) Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze never run out of ideas in its two-hour running time, as one jewel of an idea arises after another, and Cameron Diaz (as Cusack's confused, animal-loving wife) and Catherine Keener (as Cusack's icy, yet alluring co-worker) are outstanding in supporting roles. This is what the enchantment of the movies is all about.

    6.) Limbo (Dir: John Sayles)
    A quiet, deliberately-paced drama that gradually sneaks up on you until its unforeseen, heartbreaking conclusion, which left some viewers feeling cheated, while others realized it was the only truthful way to end such an intimate study of three people (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Strathairn, Vanessa Martinez) in Alaska whose lives are technically, and later on, literally, in a state of limbo. Nobody writes characters as honestly as filmmaker John Sayles does, and this is his best picture, as every element of the production comes together effortlessly to create a film of sheer emotional power.

    5.) Election (Dir: Alexander Payne)
    With an endless stream of mostly predictable and cliched movies set in high school invading movie screens in 1999, Alexander Payne's brilliant satire, "Election," came along in April and was, amazingly, so precise, so hilarious, so biting, so smart, so perfect, in every one of its minute details that it was something of a godsend. Payne cleverly uses the story of a high school election in Omaha, Nebraska, to stand for the ruthless nature of political campaigns, in general, and did it with not one false move. Reese Witherspoon is astounding in an Oscar-worthy performance as the overachieving, yet lonely, Tracy Flick, while Matthew Broderick comes back full circle from his own teen days in 1986' s "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," this time as a pathetic history teacher.

    4.) Eyes Wide Shut (Dir: Stanley Kubrick)
    Say what you will about "Eyes Wide Shut," but if master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick had to die, I couldn't possibly think of a better motion picture to end his career on, as it was the most passionate and humanistic he ever made. A big-budget art-house film that, therefore, turned many mainstream audiences away who were expecting some sort of Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman porno flick, "Eyes Wide Shut" is not sexy, nor was it meant to be—instead, it is a mysterious, heart-rending morality tale about the dangerous line between marriage and temptation. Masterfully filmed from the first frame to the last, out of any film from 1999, this is the one that, like many of Kubrick's films, is most likely to be regarded as a classic in the future.

    3.) The Blair Witch Project (Dir: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez)
    By the time "The Blair Witch Project" was released in July, it had already become a worldwide sensation, thanks to its groundbreaking, utterly realistic documentary-style storytelling approach, and its flawless promotional campaign. Unfortunately, no movie can possibly withstand such high hype, and so there was an inevitable backlash by certain viewers. Luckily for me, I got to see the film in the spring, before the hype had jumped into full gear, and unlike any horror movie I've ever seen, it left me so unsettled and horrified that I was scared walking around my house for the remainder of the night. Slowly but surely building up to its devastating climax, directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick evoke an unmistakable feeling of pure terror and dread, and star Heather Donahue gives the strongest performance of the year, bar none. Donahue, nor her two co-stars, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard, never act as much as they make you believe they are actually living it.

    2.) Magnolia (Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson)
    An expose of nine peoples' lives over a peculiarly eventful 24 hours in the San Fernando Valley, Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" is a towering achievement, an entertaining and extremely ambitious 3-hour drama that is as unpredictable in its outcome as any film from 1999. The chances Anderson takes never cease to amaze, and he pulls off the daunting task effortlessly, interweaving the lives of these flawed, yet sympathetic, characters whom we grow to care about and respect. What their futures have in store for them means a lot to us, and its unblinking inventiveness is something to behold and cherish in today's Hollywood. The flawless ensemble includes John C. Reilly, Melora Walters, Tom Cruise, Philip Baker Hall, Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeremy Blackman, and Melinda Dillon.

    1.) American Beauty (Dir: Sam Mendes)
    When I saw "American Beauty" for the first time at an advanced screening in mid-September, I may have appeared to be jumping to too abrupt of a conclusion that this would be the best film I see all year, but even now, after a total of six viewings and four months gone by, it remains the startlingly profound masterpiece I originally saw. An offbeat motion picture that was both tragic and hopeful at the same time, director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Sam Ball peer into the lives of two families living side-by-side in an outward image of a perfect suburban neighborhood, which it is anything but. Kevin Spacey stars in a career-high performance as Lester Burnham, a 40-year-old husband and father whose wife (Annette Bening) has become superficial and cold in her attempt at becoming a successful real estate agent, while his teenage daughter (Thora Birch) is insecure and feeling neglected. Lester's whole outlook on life is resurrected with the sight of his daughter's beautiful best friend (Mena Suvari), whom he becomes infatuated with. There is so much going on above and underneath the surface of the film that it is impossible to discuss everything, but each of the central characters are viewed as living and breathing three-dimensional human beings, and what the picture has the say about the beauty of life is something that literally changed my life a little after seeing it. "American Beauty" is a modern motion picture classic.

    Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): American Pie, At First Sight, Bicentennial Man, A Cool, Dry Place, Cruel Intentions, Dick, 8mm, Felicia's Journey, Go, The Green Mile, An Ideal Husband, The Insider, Leila, Mascara, My Name is Joe, Notting Hill, October Sky, Office Space, Outside Providence, Perfect Blue, Ravenous, Run Lola Run, Stir of Echoes, Tarzan, 10 Things I Hate About You, Three Kings, 20 Dates.