In 1998, I saw only four movies all year I felt worthy of a four star rating ("Buffalo '66," "Shakespeare In Love," "Pi" and "Ever After") and it was almost a struggle to coalesce enough great movies for a top 10. I had to resort to ranking merely good movies among the years best to complete my list.
Not so in 1999. This year I was overwhelmed. I saw six four-star movies just between April and June -- and I actually had a hard time compiling a list of the year's worst movies!
It was a banner year for the cinema -- not just wildly entertaining, but groundbreaking (the editing in "Run Lola Run," "The Limey," and "Any Given Sunday"; the special effects in "The Matrix"), innovative ("The Blair Witch Project"), delightfully irreverent ("South Park," "Election"), and even surprising -- rarely do twist endings trick me, but I was duped four times in the last 12 months (in "Open Your Eyes," "Limbo," "Arlington Road" and "The Sixth Sense").
Holding this year's best list to 10 films was the cause of much consternation as I debated which brilliant, inventive, engrossing and just plain delightful movies to bump down to mere honorable mention status. Eventually I concluded that 10 is not a magic number, so here's my top 13:
"Run Lola Run"
Every tick of this German festival hit's swift 81 minutes is pounding with kinetic energy and double-espresso adrenaline, like a marathon inside a rave inside a fusion reactor. It follows a strangely beautiful, post-modern punker (Franka Potente) with a shock of flaming crimson hair, whose money-runner boyfriend needs 100,000 marks in 20 minutes to save himself from a trigger-happy thug -- and Lola is his only hope. As the techno-industrial soundtrack pounds, Lola's desperate, solution-seeking, break-neck bolt through Berlin is played three times over, with slightly differing events along the way and three wildly different outcomes. Writer-director Tom Tykwer follows her tightly, tossing in creative instantaneous flashes about the people she meets and matching Lola's pace with hyperactive but coherent editing that is at once utterly exhilarating and absolutely exhausting.
This undiluted blast of pure cinematic genius is not only the best film of the year, but -- mark my words -- it's one of the movies that will influence 21st Century filmmaking. Oliver Stone has already imitated it (even borrowing the theme music) in "Any Given Sunday."
"Open Your Eyes"
Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar delves headlong into the increasingly erratic mind of a rich, charming, devastatingly handsome egoist (Eduardo Noriega) who becomes unhinged after being horribly disfigured in a car crash the day after meeting the first girl he's ever loved (Penelope Cruz). Full of wild twists and powerful emotions, "Open Your Eyes" finds Noriega's reality beginning to mix with his dreams, his fantasies and his delusions until they're virtually indistinguishable -- then just when you start to think you know what's real and what isn't, the film pulls the rug out from under you. This was my 1999 drag-everyone-I-know-to-see-it movie.
"The Red Violin"
This sensual symphony of music and masterful movie-making is the biography of a mystical string instrument and its globetrotting passage through centuries of owners, including an orphaned child prodigy; a rakish, aristocratic English virtuoso; and a Chinese Communist who hides the violin during the Cultural Revolution. Directed by Francios Girard, "Violin" is overflowing with fervent movements of pathos, seductive tempos of passion, tragic refrains of sorrow and a riveting, recurring chorus that ties every measure beautifully together with a modern story in which an expert appraiser (Samuel L. Jackson) investigates the instruments' history before it is sold at auction.
"Being John Malkovich"
Unrivaled as the most inventive and wildly conceptual movie of 1999, there's just no way to explain "Being John Malkovich" without it sounding too weird to be for real. The daring feature debut of music video and commercial director Spike Jonze, the film stars a disheveled John Cusack as an unemployed, master puppeteer and social malcontent who discovers a portal into the mind of John Malkovich and begins to exploit and manipulate the esoteric actor. An uncanny and sublimely off-the-wall dark comedy in the Terry Gilliam ("Brazil") vein, it's a cult movie masterpiece in the making and probably the weirdest, creepiest, funniest vision of unleashed subconscious ever put on film. Also stars Cameron Diaz as Cusack's mousy, plain-Jane wife, Catherine Keener as his sexy, manipulative workmate and John Malkovich as an astute self-mockery of himself.
A 200-proof character study so absorbing, intelligent and intellectually rewarding that by 60 minutes into the movie I was already antsy to see it a second time. Writer-director John Sayles' story starts out ensemble-style, but soon focuses on a mother, her daughter and her lover who become stranded on a remote Alaskan island during a sailboat outing that turns violent when double-crossed drug traffickers come calling for another passenger. While their struggle to survive and their fear that the traffickers will return to hunt them down are riveting, this plot -- which would make lesser directors itch for action sequences and outdoor thrills -- is mostly a backdrop for an astute, probing personality piece as the three face their internal demons and their uncertain fate. Ingenious last-reel surprise deviates wildly from the obvious finale to drive home the point that the film is about the characters, not their circumstances, which might not sit well with the blockbuster brainwashed.
"The War Zone"
Astoundingly raw performances and the relentlessly unflinching eye of actor-turned director Tim Roth help paint a vivid, wrenching portrait of terrible family secrets in this stormy, explosive drama about incest and its repercussions. Starring talented newcomer Freddie Cunliffe as a sullen, withdrawn teenager who is frozen with fear and rage when he discovers his father (an imposing, bipolar Ray Winston) has been sexual abusing his older sister (the devastating Lara Belmont, also a first-time actor), "The War Zone" is a deeply disturbing and sometimes savage film, yet Roth bravely and unflinchingly holds nothing back, making his directorial debut as compelling as it is upsetting.
Peerless Kevin Spacey gives a precisely -- yet almost subconsciously -- unbalanced performance as a husband haunted by suburban ennui, who is thrust into an extreme mid-life crisis by rampaging fantasies about his teenage daughter's coquettish best friend in this astounding, darkly comical, dysfunctional family drama. Blessed with a whole cast of extraordinary actors (notably Annette Bening as Spacey's wound-up wife and Thora Birch as his distant daughter) who create a camaraderie between the audience and even the most contemptible characters, "American Beauty" is almost lyrical in its balance of familial tension and pitch black observational farce as it weaves a completely engrossing tale of the underbelly of middle-class Americana.
Inspired by the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the son of a coal miner starts building home-made rockets, determined to break away from his assumed destiny following in his father's bleak and dangerous subterranean footsteps. Although "October Sky" holds no surprises from its soundtrack of '50s rock 'n' roll standards to its triumph over adversity themes, almost every moment of this teen years biography of NASA scientist Homer Hickman breathes with gifted, timeless and textbook-perfect filmmaking. From its nearly mathematical story arc to its spirited performances to its stirring cinematography and score, director Joe Johnston ("The Rocketeer") has crafted the kind of thrilling and poignant picture that is subtly yet undeniably a classic.
"The Winslow Boy"
Adapted from a Terrence Rattigan play and loosely based on real events, David Mamet's first G-rated outing is a deceptively simple Edwardian-era drawing room drama about a family defending its sacred honor to the financial, emotional and medical detriment of its members. Nigel Hawthorne stars as the father of a 13-year-old boy kicked out of a prestigious private school, who hires the most famous lawyer in England (Jeremy Northam) to represent the boy in a subsequent court case. Mamet inspires at least one career-best performance (Northam's) with his eye for emotional sincerity (even within the confines of the shuttered, proper English facade) and his ear for riveting, measured dialogue. A masterpiece of manners and movie-making.
"Bringing Out the Dead"
Burned out ambulance driver Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) works the graveyard shift in one of the ugliest neighborhoods in New York, taking nightly calls on too many drug overdoses, drive-by shootings and suicides, and after years on the job, it's finally all starting to get to him in this dark, vital, Martin Scorsese opus of mortality. A rigorous, emotionally dense roller coaster of mankind's most fundamental fears and frailties, dynamically directed with impulsive energy that plays on Frank's perpetual exhaustion, "Dead" follows this EMT for three nights as his frustration over those he's failed to save begins to drain his very spirit after assigning his salvation to the dubious survival of a comatose patient, and befriending his distraught, estranged daughter (Patricia Arquette).
An ode to the charms and afflictions of small town Southern life from superlative director Robert Altman, "Cookie's Fortune" follows various members of a oddball Mississippi family as they react to the suicide of their grand, eccentric old aunt. The speed of skeletons stumbling out of the closet is outpaced only by one estranged niece's scramble for inheritance and her sloppy attempts to make the "disgraceful" suicide look like murder, with unexpected consequences. A simple and subtle, yet outrageous and intricate comedy with the kind of seemingly inconsequential embellishments that make all Altman's best films ring so true. Cast includes Charles S. Dutton, Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Liv Tyler and Patricia Neal.
A violent, primal, revenge fantasy, set against the perfidious underworld of the Los Angeles music industry, "The Limey" slightly resembles Mel Gibson's "Payback," but it's far more cunning, poetic and abstract. Terence Stamp (at his somber best) stars as an aging, wrathful and freshly-paroled Welsh tough who comes to L.A. to avenge the death of his daughter, an aspiring actress who had fallen under the influence of a rich, oily record executive (Peter Fonda) with drug trade entanglements that put the girl at risk. Driven by sly, tense abrasive performances from Stamp and Fonda, the film is blessed with director Steven Soderbergh's provocative, arresting, energetic filmmaking style that includes interlaced, non-linear storytelling taking you back and forth in the anti-hero's mind. A unique step above its genre, "The Limey" is to gritty crime flicks what "Unforgiven" is to Westerns.
While "Giant" flopped at the box office, this story of a metal-munching, 100-foot robot that falls to Earth during the fearful 1950s is the best kind of kids' movie -- a simple morality tale set against a fun, exciting sci-fi adventure. Fantastically-rendered (the robot is a post-war comic book amalgam of gears and armor plating) and told with heart and a hilarious sense of humor, "Giant" will eventually be recognized as the most inventively written and cleverly drawn Hollywood cartoon since the genre was revived 10 years ago.
"Toy Story 2" is enjoying the success "Giant" deserved, but since it even wittier and more astoundingly computer-rendered than the original, it's hard to complain. Both a genuinely emotional parable about outgrowing childhood and a screwball rescue mission, it kicks into gear after cowboy doll Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) - who it turns out is a collectors item - is stolen by a greedy toy aficionado for his private museum. Cocksure space hero action figure Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) rallies a band of toys to retrieve his good buddy.
If this were a top 24, I would have included these films, subsequently bumped to honorable mention status: "Magnolia," "All About My Mother," "Cradle Will Rock," "The Hurricane," "Election," "South Park," "The Mummy," "Twin Falls, Idaho," "The Straight Story," "Three Kings" and "The Insider."
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