Reasons to be Cheerful:
1999's Best Movies
Feature by Eddie Cockrell, 7 January 2000

It will be remembered as a year of bounty and vision and boldness, will 1999, a year of confronting established filmmaking forms and taking audacious chances with stories, performances and styles. All in all, a very good year (which explains the reluctance to throw brickbats and thus the transformation of the ten worst list below). Here, in the order of their importance, are the best films of 1999:

USA, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Equal parts majesty and mystery, P.T. Anderson’s much-anticipated follow-up to 1997’s Boogie Nights is nothing less than a Nashville for the late 1990s (complete with two major players from that landmark film in minor roles), with the action shifted to SoCal’s San Fernando Valley and the style amped up to reflect the cacophony of modern living. And while much will be written of the labyrinthine relationships among the characters, the across-the-board emotional accuracy of the cast (not coincidentally, Tom Cruise has never been better) and the extraordinary use of Aimee Mann’s music, perhaps the most talked-about element of the film will be that out-of-nowhere climax, predicted throughout the film by references, both veiled and overt, to a single bible verse, Exodus 8:2. Magnolia may not smite the box office (it’s on the verge of a wide release as this is written), but it confirms Anderson’s status as among the most promising young filmmakers in the world.

American Beauty
USA, directed by Sam Mendes

The history of Hollywood is studded with examples of suburban living given new vigor through the gaze of an outsider (Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is but a single example), so British stage director Sam Mendes’ extraordinary film debut isn’t without precedent. From the echoes of Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard in the mischievously macabre narration of protagonist Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) to the magnificent photography of Tahiti-born Hollywood veteran Conrad L. Hall (who won an Oscar 30 years ago for shooting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and could very well win another one for his work here), American Beauty seems at once reassuringly familiar and bewilderingly strange, as if aliens were masquerading as an average family. Of course, this is precisely the point: the heartaches in this dream home are no different than those felt by untold numbers of people. It is in the details of the sad dance in Alan Ball’s audacious script, scored to Thomas Newman’s perfectly calibrated and spell-inducing music (at once respectful of and spoofy towards the New Age-y tropes it mimics, that American Beauty).

Run Lola Run
Germany, directed by Tom Tykwer

Love can do everything,” Lola’s always told her low-level hood boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu), and now she’s got to prove it: nervous about collecting for his boss, he’s forgotten DM 100,000 in a plastic bag on the subway he had to hop because Lola was late and now he’s got 20 minutes to replace or find it. “Stay where you are,” says Lola (flame-haired Franka Potente, Tykwer’s current real-life love interest), “I promise I’ll come up with something.”  Guaranteed to leave first-time audiences sucking wind after a half hour (about the time things really get interesting), Run Lola Run orchestrates live action, animation, split-screen, slo-mo and most every other trick in the book to spectacular effect. Nothing less than the missing link of contemporary German cinema, writer-director Tom Tykwer unifies the philosophical navel-gazing of the 1970s to the beat-driven 1990s aesthetic, creating a mischievous yet deadly serious time-shifting emotional action epic that, like Rashomon and Breathless and Muriel and O Lucky Man! and Groundhog Day and Pulp Fiction before it rewrites the rules of narrative storytelling with a propulsive blast of pure, exuberant cinema. Tykwer’s really come up with something: the year’s most effortlessy kinetic movie joyride, Run Lola Run is a millennial milestone from Germany’s most promising young filmmaker. Similar territory is covered in Doug Liman’s Go, albeit with a much larger cast and decidedly more forced approach to hipster cool.

The Blair Witch Project 
USA, directed by Daniel Myrick and Sam Mendes

The year’s -- if not the decade’s -- shining example of art by accident, this bona fide cultural phenomenon plays even better on tape and DVD than it did in theaters, where audiences seemed either sickened by the camerawork or disgusted by the misleading hype. With groundbreaking support by a canny, straight-faced internet site, the picture was sold as a low-budget psychological horror film about three student filmmakers who are lost in the woods of Maryland as they search for the title entity. But stripped of it’s nearly unstoppable momentum, the movie is also very much about the stubborn sense of entitlement and deep self absorption endemic to today’s young people, traits instilled via contemporary child-rearing that doom these fledgling filmmakers as surely as the most determined ax-wielding maniac. Credit young directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez for having the discipline to jettison all the extraneous mockumentary material and focus on the real drama of poor, dumb, bratty Heather (“this can’t happen to us,” she wails, “we’re in America!”) and her two increasingly petulant crew members, Joshua and Michael, as they flail around the forest in search of something they clearly have no idea what to do with should they ever find it.

Being John Malkovich
USA, directed by Spike Jonze

The proof of this movie’s merit is in the relative ease with which newcomer Jonze, who cut his teeth on music videos (that’s him as a spastic featured dancer in Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You”) and can be seen in a distinctive supporting role in David O. Russell’s Three Kings, sells the patently absurd idea of average people climbing inside the head of one of our most intense and enigmatic actors. Part of this success comes from the clean logic behind the patently absurd idea in Charlie Kaufman’s script (one of many truly great original screenplays on display throughout the year), and much of it arises from John Cusack’s typically selfless performance as Craig Schwartz, the frustrated, idealistic puppeteer whose filing job (he’s got fast fingers) leads him to the aforementioned portal. Many critics have pointed out how much less successful the film might’ve been with any actor other than the at once approachable and off-kilter Malkovich, but the true inspiration on view here is the inspired casting against respective types of Amerindie queen Catherine Keener as the vampy Maxine and a virtually unrecognizable Cameron Diaz as Craig’s frumpy, spacy wife Lotte. These are just the most obvious gambles in a movie possessed of many brave choices that pay off cumulatively in a movie of off-the-wall charm and subtle profundity.

The Limey 
USA, directed by Steven Soderbergh

Along with Run Lola Run the year’s most exhilarating example of noodling around with time and character point of view, Soderbergh’s pithy follow-up to the bravura Out of Sight features a delightfully droll yet commandingly intense turn by Terence Stamp as intense British ex-con Wilson, determined to find the person or persons who caused the death of his daughter while he was in stir. To this end he makes his first trip to Los Angeles in search of preening record producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), who is surrounded by the Southern California good life and protected by ruthless personal attorney Avery (Barry Newman, making a welcome return to the screen). Sort of a cross between the cool stylistic calisthenics of John Boorman’s Point Blank and the scruffy 1970s Raymond Chandler retooling of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, The Limey was written by Lem Dobbs, directed by Soderbergh and photographed by respected international vet Ed Lachman with a knowing wink towards those and other genre movies as well as the flamboyant and well-documented public histories of Fonda and Stamp. In fact the latter’s character name, Wilson, is the same as the young man he played in Ken Loach’s 1967 Poor Cow -- the film from which black and white clips are lifted to illustrate his memories here. This is only one of the numerous time-shifting strategies employed by Soderbergh in a continuation of the stylish structure he brought to Out of Sight. Taken together, the two films signal a tangible rebirth for a director whose track record until now (from the indie fave sex, lies & videotape to the wretched The Underneath) can charitably be called erratic.

The Insider
USA, directed by Michael Mann

It is indicative of the power of Michael Mann’s determinedly meticulous yet hyper-stylized method of storytelling (remember “Miami Vice”?) that, judged solely on the theatrical and television trailers, The Insider looks like a bad television show, pompous and inflated. Yet in one of the year’s truly great performances, the unlikely Russell Crowe so completely inhabits the real-life character of prickly whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand that viewers may never know in real life he’s an intense, chain-smoking Australian hunk (hint: L.A. Confidential.). And Mann’s style over a very deliberate three hours, at once jittery and elegant, turns the tale of skullduggery in the tobacco industry and “60 Minutes” into a nervous moral opera of colliding interests. Serving the same function as his character in Mann’s Heat, Al Pacino’s Lowell Bergman, a real-life producer at the CBS television program, brings a smooth thuggishness and strong moral compass to a conflicted man on the front lines of societal responsibility. Less finely-drawn is Christopher Plummer’s Mike Wallace, who comes across as too much the spineless idiot to represent the survivor he so clearly is. Through the meticulousness of their script, Mann and co-writer Eric Roth make an abundantly clear case that the tug-of-war between big business and TV represented by this real-life tobacco company scandal is a vital battle in the war for equilibrium between the interests. As an added -- albeit obscure -- grace note, one of the year’s busiest actors, Philip Baker Hall (he’s also in Magnolia and The Talented Mr. Ripley) does a precise turn as “60 Minutes” producer Don Hewitt.

Three Kings
USA, directed by David O. Russell

Doing for the Persian Gulf War what Catch-22 did for World War Two and M*A*S*H did for Korea, this irreverent and kinetic anti-war movie -- improbably reminiscent, above all, of the giddy clash of greed and glory in the cult 1970 Clint Eastwood movie Kelly’s Heroes -- spreads its cynicism thicker than most entries in the genre but tempers it with a cheerful streak of absurdist panache that keeps the irony from overwhelming the drama. Little in director David O. Russell’s previous two features (Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster) indicated his leanings towards this kind of epic sweep, yet the picture struts along for three-quarters of its conventional 105 minutes on the sheer brio of its conceit: with a map plucked from the ass of a dead Iraqi soldier, four unlikely compatriots chase down a cache of gold ingots and discover the flaws of the military action and strengths of their individual characters in the process. George Clooney finally seems on track to get the kind of roles he excels in, while Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze (see Being John Malkovich, above) are precise in support. Special mention to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel for one of the year’s most unorthodox visual styles and composer Carter Burwell (Fargo) for a memorable score.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
USA, directed by Trey Parker

If exuberant excess is a reliable yardstick of satire, then this big-screen version of the popular -- if primitive -- cable television program towers above the year’s releases for sheer inventive tastelessness. Ensnaring the previously quasi-dignified Marc Shaiman (the Sister Act franchise, Bette Midler’s Diva Las Vegas) to collaborate on the music and lyrics, Parker and co-creator Matt Stone have written fifteen howlingly funny and breathtakingly obscene songs that punctuate the new, broad-ranging adventures of Cartman, Kenny, Kyle and Stan. Whether spoofing the efforts of government to regulate movie ratings or the complications of war (Saddam Hussein and Satan team up to exploit a misguided conflict against Canada), the Swiftian satire on display holds a mirror up to the contradictions of pop culture and the importance of free speech. That the creative team behind the movie wallows so gleefully in the adolescent muck they try so hard to defend is simultaneously the movie’s biggest drawback and most hilarious benefit. By no means the only notable animated feature of the year (others include Tarzan, The Iron Giant and Toy Story 2), South Park is decidedly the most adult. Alexander Payne’s Election is a live-action (and infinitely more dignified) satire of note and Dick is, well, Dick.

All About My Mother
Spain, directed by Pedro Almodovar

There’s something to be said for consistency, particularly over a thirteen-film career now on the verge of its third decade. And while there’s the legitimate question of what makes Pedro Almodovar popular with a wide audience just now -- did the world finally catch up with his gender-bending worldview or has he gradually retooled his approach for the mainstream? -- there’s little debate about the unity of his vision. Since he first burst on the American art-house scene with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown over a decade ago, Almodovar has staked out the territory of a Spanish cross between George Cukor and John Waters, the flamboyant but compassionate chronicler of the often tangled but always rewarding relationships among women. Following the momentum of 1995’s The Flower of My Secret and 1997’s Live Flesh, All About My Mother confirms his increasing maturity as a filmmaker of great visual and emotional gifts (a pity the 1999 Cannes jury didn’t think so, giving Almodovar the Best Director award instead of the Palm d’Or everybody else thought the movie deserved). The complex and rewarding saga of a mother who travels from Madrid to Barcelona after her son dies tragically, the film makes pointed structural references to the Bette Davis picture All About Eve and Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” in its story of show business, sexual ambiguity and support. Drawing from the circle of actresses that have appeared in many of his films, Almodovar elicits rich performances from Cecilia Roth as the grieving mother, Marisa Paredes as a vulnerable actress, and Penelope Cruz as a pregnant nun (what would an Almodovar movie be without a pregnant nun?). Thoughtful and heartfelt, All About My Mother is a melodrama for moviegoers wary of the genre.

Films that could just as well made the list in any other year of the decade include (in no particular order) Election, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, Limbo, Buena Vista Social Club, The Matrix, Rosetta, The Iron Giant, Toy Story 2, Dick, The Mummy, 42 UP, American Pie, Eyes Wide Shut, Sitcom, The Straight Story, Bowfinger, The Dreamlife of Angels, Felicia’s Journey and My Name is Joe.

The Ten Most, uh, Exasperating Films of 1999

Not so much bad as just plain overhyped (although some of these are pretty intolerable), the following movies proved disappointments (some larger than others) relative to their advance tub-thumping:

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