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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives: 1999

It's been a while since I highlighted an excellent year in film and now seems like a good time for it after a rather disappointing year at the movies in 2009. This time I'll be looking at 1999, a particularly rich cinematic year, though you might not know it from the nominees for Best Picture:

American Beauty: a film that I like but that I have a few issues with

The Cider House Rules: a decent movie, exactly the kind of middle of the road picture that the Academy tends to favour

The Green Mile: a movie that didn't leave much of an impression on me, but that a lot of other people seem to love

The Insider: Russell Crowe's breakthrough film which, I must confess, I have never gotten around to seeing

The Sixth Sense: the populist choice, a film that doesn't quite hold up ten years later - though, in fairness, that's due largely to the number of times it's been parodied and riffed on since its release.

None of these are bad movies (I'm making an assumption about The Insider, of course), but when you consider some of the absolutely extraordinary work that came out in 1999, it's hard not to think of the Academy's picks as a watered down version of the year's best. Some of the other films that came out that year:

Being John Malkovich: a personal favourite of mine and the film that really announced Charlie Kaufman as a writer (and now director) to watch out for. Not content to rest on the laurels of a mind bending, cleverly written screenplay, the film also boasts several great performances, including one from John Malkovich himself, who proves to be a really good sport.

Boys Don't Cry: Kimberley Pierce's brutal but also sensitive depiction of the life and death of Brandon Teena made a star of Hilary Swank and solidified Chloe Sevigny's place as an indie It Girl. It's a terrific, haunting film.

Dogma: Kevin Smith's best film. He's fond of saying that his work is built on a foundation of "dick and fart jokes," but this one proves that he runs a lot deeper intellectually. In his tale of fallen angels, he manages to be subversive and challenging without ever forgetting to be funny.

Fight Club: David Fincher's robust meditation on manhood in the 20th century sparked a lot of controversy when it first came out but has stood the test of time. It features one of Brad Pitt's most interesting performances and is arguably Fincher's best work to date.

Magnolia: A friend once described this movie as "all climax" and I can think of no better way to characterize it. Paul Thomas Anderson's follow-up to Boogie Nights is a whirlwind of a movie with energy to spare. It will leave you breathless.

Office Space: Has any film ever more accurately captured the spirit (if not necessarily the reality) of working in an office? It's one of the best comedies to come out of the 90s.

Sweet and Lowdown: Ever since the early 90s, Woody Allen has been notoriously hit and miss. This film, featuring Oscar nominated performances from Sean Penn and Samantha Morton, is most definitely a hit and I count it as one of my favourite Allen flicks.

Three Kings: A great film about one of the least cinematically depicted wars of the 20th Century (the first Gulf War). Its exploration of wartime morality still resonates deeply today and the fact that it received absolutely no love from the Academy (not even for its truly great editing) underscores how off the ball they were that year.

Titus: I had to see this one a couple of times before I was really able to get a handle on its strange beauty. Julie Taymor's take on Shakespeare's play is a visual masterpiece.

The War Zone: A very dark and underrated film directed by Tim Roth. Its story of a family trying to keep its secrets suppressed nearly reaches the proportions of Greek Tragedy.


Foreign films released in 1999 were also particularly good and include:

All About My Mother: Pedro Almodovar's love letter to women, which took home the prize for Best Foreign Langauge Film and helped launch Penelope Cruz's stateside career.

Audition: I've actually never been able to make it all the way to the end of this film. Some day, however, I hope to work myself up to it because I truly admire what Takashi Miike accomplishes in the parts that I've seen.

Romance: Catherine Breillat's notorious, boundary pushing film is one of my favourites ever, let alone of 1999. It's a challenging and occassionally hard to watch movie, but also completely unforgettable.

Run, Lola, Run: Perhaps the only film from 1999 that's more high-energy than Magnolia. Tom Tykwer's three times a charm story is still highly watchable and enjoyable today.

Other Notable Films:

Dick: Frank Langella got an Oscar nomination last year for his portrayal of Richard Nixon, but for my money Dan Hedaya will always be the definitive Tricky Dick. This hilarious and criminally underseen movie about uncoding the secrets of Watergate is a smart and sharp comedy.

Eyes Wide Shut: The great Stanley Kubrick's last film is perhaps more notable for the behind the scenes story than for its actual content. It's an uneven film, but also intriguing.

Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace: For a certain segment of Star Wars fans, the release of this movie was the best thing ever. For others, it was the worst. A bloated and racially problematic film, it nevertheless grossed about a kagillion dollars.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: An underrated movie, if you ask me. Based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, this exploration of the shifting possibilities of identity is engaging and engrossing.

So, what's your favourite film from 1999 - and have I left anything out?


Koskinen said...

I must say that I'm shocked, shocked and appalled to see that you have completely failed to mention The Matrix. One of the better Sci-Fis' to come out in the 90's. Though I must commend you on you mentioning 'The Audition', it was a great film and I insist on you watching it whole.

I myself haven't seen too many films from -99 so I can't bring many new titles to the table, but I can and will comment on few that you included.

I found Office Space and Dogma to be a bit underwhelming. Both had some funny parts, but overall were rather forgettable and bland. This was more surprising with Office Space, as it was highly recommended to me by a friend who considers it as one of the best comedies he's ever seen (also it seems to have garnered a decent following nowadays).

Eyes Wide Shut and American Beauty are both on top of my -99 list (or would be if I had such a list) as to me they represent what film making can be at its best.

Mildly off topic: as I was checking a list of films I've seen from -99, I ended up comparing it with -98 and I must say, -98 wipes the floor with -99 (despite some aforementioned high quality films).

blake said...

Geez, that WAS a good year for film. I'd probably claim The Talented Mr. Ripley as my favorite of all, I can't get enough of it. But I'd list Eyes Wide Shut, American Beauty, and Fight Club right up there too.

Norma Desmond said...

@Koskinen: I can't believe I forgot about The Matrix! A major lapse on my part.

@Blake: I know! I think there must have been some kind of fin de siecle panic that prompted filmmakers to do some of their best work before it was too late.

Danny King said...

The Talented Mr. Ripley and American Beauty would be my top two, with The Sixth Sense and Magnolia coming in just behind.

I can't believe how underrated Ripley was. At least Jude Law got a nomination, but Matt Damon should have been a shoo-in as well.

American Beauty and The Sixth Sense got the Academy recognition they both deserved, and it was great to see Bruce Willis in a meaningful role once again.

Ana Magnolia, like most PTA films, is unlike anything I've ever seen, but he finds a way to make it work. Tom Cruise rightfully deserved his nomination.

M. Carter @ the Movies said...

You've seen "Dick"? Wow. I thought I was the only one who ever saw that and liked it. I thought it was quite clever, and I'm a fan of most anything with Dan Hedaya in it.

"Boys Don't Cry" took my head off, and though I've seen it since it is not an easy film to rewatch. Hilary Swank's performance is so raw and emotional that watching the film takes a piece out of me.