Best Films of 1999

Put it this way: It was the best year in years. Brazen, powerful, witty, original, and moving films ruled, even (some of them) at the box office. And for once the overhyped dogs died, or at least didn't hit their expected grosses. For a critic, what could be better? Invention, eccentricity, and great courage ruled the day as filmmakers presented us with a feast of powerful, deeply touching, and even breathtakingly funny films that we could enjoy guilt-free. My plate is overfull, and so I've divided it into domestic and foreign films, listed alphabetically. Full reviews for each film are available under their own listings. Let's begin.

Foreign films:

Cabaret Balkan -- Goran Paskaljevic's breathtaking study of life in Serbia today, where a society in the process of self-destruction shows us that pain, humiliation, murder, and lynching are part of everyday life, where no good deed goes unpunished, where only the strong survive. Brilliantly written by Dejan Dukovski, and played by actors who convince us they are truly living in this inferno.

The Celebration -- I'd been suspicious of Thomas Vinterberg's Danish film before it opened, because it flaunts its Dogma 95 label as though that were a mark of quality (and then violates the Dogma rules when necessary for a good shot), but the film makes all quibbling unnecessary. It's the story of the celebration of a family patriarch's sixtieth birthday, when things begin to unravel as family secrets, both frightening and funny, start popping out of closets.

The Dreamlife of Angels -- An extraordinary first film by the French filmmaker Erick Zonca, that watches with a bleak eye the lives of two young women in the industrial city of Lille, as they meet, work, play, and deal with life, love, and death. Two Cannes award-winning performances by Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Régnier as working-class women confronting questions larger than they know how to handle.

Run Lola Run -- The motion picture event of the year, a film destined, in the tradition of "Breathless" and "Pulp Fiction," to change the way films are made. In a witty, speedy 80 minutes, writer-director Tom Tykwer and his amazing star Franka Potente give us three alternate realities, as Lola races through Berlin trying to find 100,000 marks in twenty minutes, in order to save the life of her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). See it a couple of times to make sure you get all the gags.

American films:

American Beauty -- A strange and haunting film by theatre director Sam Mendes that is both a burlesque of and an agonizing analysis of a failed marriage and two failed lives. It's another chance to see the genius in Kevin Spacey's work, as he builds on a profoundly witty and oblique script by Alan Ball. The film goes mechanical and weakens in the last ten minutes, but you can't have everything.

Being John Malkovich -- Who thought this up? More inventive than any dozen films, from anywhere, by anybody, that you could ever name, this film (script by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Spike Jonze) keeps us open-mouthed with delight for two hours. From the Abelard/Heloise streetcorner masturbation scene to the seven-and-a-halfth floor offices of the Lester Corp., to the dumping on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike to the Sean Penn interview to the unrecognizable Cameron Diaz to the Mobius-strip sexuality of the film, this is a comedy for the ages.

Dogma -- When was the last time a two-and-a-half-hour theological discussion was a laugh riot? Well, it's not quite all a laugh riot, but it's close enough. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, two banished angels, discover a way back into heaven. The only problem is that if they succeed, they'll end the universe. Uh-oh, quite a problem, n'est-ce pas? But not to worry. Jay and Silent Bob will save the day, or at least the film, whenever things get sticky. It helps to be Catholic, but even an atheist will get the jokes.

The Insider -- Michael Mann finally has a story worthy of his technical mastery; it's the tobacco industry scandal, and he plays it just right. With Russell Crowe as the Brown & Williamson exec who comes to '60 Minutes' with the inside story of lies and corporate deceit, and Al Pacino, in a fine performance as producer Lowell Bergman, who fights (unsuccessfully, at first) to get the story on the air. Brilliant direction, camera work, and editing keep us on the edge of our seats.

Man on the Moon -- One of the great performances in screen history, by Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman, the comic whose goal was not to be funny. Milos Forman lets the story play without ever forcing it, knowing that Carrey will be there to show us everything knowable about that enigmatic man, along with some things that Carrey has figured out by himself to share with us. He deserves all possible awards for his performance.

The Sixth Sense -- This sleeper, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, has deservedly taken the country by storm. It is the story of a child psychologist (Bruce Willis in a thoughtful, understated performance) who is asked to work with a 9-year-old who sees dead people (Haley Joel Osment in a performance that will tear your heart out), and how they come to understand what has happened to each of them. A beautiful and haunting film that approaches perfection.

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut -- Trey Parker and Matt Stone's musical comedy, with great songs and a tightly wound plot about bad words, penises, war, bigotry, censorship, friendship, jingoism, and homosexuality. What did I forget? Oh, Saddam Hussein and Satan, electric shocks, and -- well, you get the point. It's a stunning comedy with lots of what my wife describes as fart jokes and I would call sophisticated humor.

Summer of Sam -- Spike Lee is the one filmmaker in America who insists on dealing with issues that society runs away from. Here he finds a group of Italian layabouts in the Bronx who manage to use the 1977 Son of Sam murders as an excuse for vicious bigotry and homophobia. A daring performance by Adrien Brody as a bisexual member of the group. Painful to watch, yet absolutely essential.

The Thomas Crown Affair -- Even better than the 1968 original, with the rough edges smoothed out and better cinematography and editing (directed by John McTiernan) and a witty, sexy performance by Renée Russo. Pierce Brosnan manages, barely, to hold his own as Crown. Light as a soufflé but just as delicious.

Toy Story 2 -- For a change, the sequel improves on the original. Not just in technical quality, but in a richer and deeper story that actually confronts the question of whether it is better to survive forever without a life, or to live once thoroughly, then die. Witty, with some good Randy Newman songs and a whole batch of delightful action sequences. There's even a parody of 'Star Wars,' and a delicious sendup of Barbie. What more could you want?

A Walk on the Moon -- First-time writer Pamela Gray and first-time director Tony Goldwyn have given us a near-masterpiece, a beautiful study of a family and a marriage. It's the summer of 1969, with the odd conjunction of Woodstock and the Apollo moon landing transforming much of American life. A Jewish family at their summer camp in the Catskills, near Woodstock, faces a crisis as the wife (Diane Lane, in an exquisitely understated performance) has an affair with the gentile babe (Viggo Mortensen) who sells blouses to the women at the camp. Natalie Portman is her daughter, Liev Schreiber her husband.

Some others that came close for me included "Another Day in Paradise," the Larry Clark film about thieves, drugs, and murder, with brilliant performances by James Woods and Melanie Griffith; "Election," for its taking us by the nose and leading us down the garden path; "Austin Powers II," for Mini-Me; "Limbo," for the first nine-tenths; "Princess Mononoke," for its Tolkien-like fable; "Music of the Heart," for Meryl Streep; and "Sleepy Hollow," for Johnny Depp.    

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