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Ten Things We Love About 1999

The Year in Film

A Shot in the Dark: The Matrix's mind-blowing effects and smarter-than-expected plot made it a surprise hit.
Not Himself Today: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, and others got to be John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich.
You Want Fries With That Shake?: The Blair Witch Project's wobbly camerawork either enthralled or enraged filmgoers.

By Ian Grey, Jack Purdy and Luisa F. Ribeiro | Posted 12/15/1999

As none has been in a long, long time, it was a year of movie lines. Standing in line, hoping for tickets, pulling up to the box office just as the next screening is sold out. Standing in line for the new Star Wars sequel. For a Bruce Willis movie. For a movie starring three unknowns shot in shaky, poorly lit video.

It was also a year of antiheroes and antiheroines, who rarely enjoyed happy endings, whose stories were often told in a newfangled, cut-and-paste cinematic language. The most sympathetic characters in 1999 movies included a teenage drug dealer (American Beauty), a transgendered con artist (Boys Don't Cry), an abortion-clinic worker (Dogma), an adulterous high school teacher (Election), a trio of arrogant film students (The Blair Witch Project), a trio of thieving soldiers (Three Kings), and a tobacco-industry researcher (The Insider). In several films--Run Lola Run, The Matrix, Go, The Limey--filmmakers played with time itself, molding and shaping it like so much Play-Doh.

And this strange confluence of mold- breaking, antiheroic movies was no accident, some critics told us, but the dawn of a new era. Goodbye, traditional narrative film; hello, brave new cybercinema. "1999--The Year That Changed Movies" screamed a recent cover of Entertainment Weekly, which not only compared the current Year of Our Lord to 1939 (generally regarded as the peak year of Hollywood's Golden Age), but suggested that the new crop of movies heralded a clean break with all the decades of celluloid that unspooled before it. 1999, EW's Jeff Gordinier wrote, "will be etched on a microchip as the first real year of 21st-century filmmaking. The year when all the old, boring rules about cinema started to crumble. The year when a new generation of directors--weaned on cyberspace and Cops, Pac-Man and Public Enemy--snatched the flickering torch from the aging rebels of the 1970s. The year when the whole concept of 'making a movie' got turned on its head."

Whew. From such hype, you'd think that nothing, in the history of human entertainment, in the thousands of years since Neanderthals first made shadow puppets on the walls of their caves, could compare to the sheer brain-busting innovation of Being John Malkovich.

Yet, Being John Malkovich is not a reinvented wheel. At heart, it's just a sci-fi story, though an uncommonly witty and frisky one--not so far afield from the work of, say, Terry Gilliam. The year's other groundbreakers also owed more to traditional show biz than their hype would have you believe. Beneath The Blair Witch Project's shakycam vérité shivered an old-fashioned ghost story. The subversive spirit of M*A*S*H* (the movie, not the sitcom) haunted Three Kings. American Beauty's much-heralded framing device--a tale told by a dead man--is at least as old as 1950's Sunset Boulevard. The Matrix brandished eye-popping special effects, but also drew fans with its smarter-than-the-genre-norm plot. The year's biggest sleeper--the horror film The Sixth Sense, now the 12th biggest money-maker ever--had viewers streaming out of the theater talking not about the special effects, but about the acting.

And that's what was so encouraging about the best movies of 1999: Whether or not these films truly represent the next wave, they are all based on storytelling. They do not appear to have been created merely as the cornerstones of a merchandising campaign, with their scripts secondary to the demands of talent-agency deal-making, product placement, or plush-toy sales. (Though Blair Witch and The Matrix in particular owed the marketing gods a little thanks for coaxing people into the tent.) It was a great year for sleepers, a year when sure things became considerably less sure. The exceptions, Star Wars--Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me--which were created merely as the cornerstones for merchandising campaigns--did predictably great business. The former is currently number three on the all-time hit list; the latter enjoyed the best-ever opening weekend for a comedy. But is anyone insisting either is a future classic, or even a conventionally great film? No. Nor were any such claims made for the slew of star-vehicle, business-as-usual studio efforts--True Crime, Music of the Heart, For the Love of the Game, Random Hearts, The Haunting, The Story of Us--that fell right into the box-office dumper.

With the shaking off of bland formulas and renewed reliance on the sturdy foundation of story came an awakening of audience passions; several of the year's milestone movies were love-it-or-hate-it affairs. Just ask the folks around the water cooler, the bar rail, the dinner table: The Blair Witch Project was either the Best Horror Movie Since The Exorcist or an I-can't-believe-I-paid-seven-bucks-for-this-crap outrage. Fight Club was either darkly brilliant or morally repugnant. American Beauty was either an American classic or Hollywood liberalism at its worst. When's the last time you heard so many arguments about the movies? How long has it been since the cinema felt this alive?

Baltimore's cinematic scene stayed remarkably lively as well. The already large film-fest circuit widened; in April, the brand new Maryland Film Festival not only brought more than 50 movies (and several of their makers) to town, but helped christen the newly expanded Charles Theatre. Sadly, the competition offered by the new Charles may have helped finish off Fells Point's 10-year-old repertory and second-run house, the Orpheum Theatre, which closed this past spring (though owner George Figgs is reportedly planning to reopen it as a nonprofit film archive and co-op. Native son Barry Levinson released his fourth Baltimore-centric film, Liberty Heights. The cancellation of the TV show Homicide decreased opportunities for the city's extensive pool of tech-crew talent, but film work has picked up in recent months with the shooting of The Replacements and John Waters' Cecil B. Demented.

And now, we skim the year's cream. Our critics' top-10 picks--a trio of lists with very little overlap, a testament to the year's rich, eclectic bounty--are culled from all the movies that have opened or will open in Baltimore in calendar year 1999. Movies that are due to be out on video by year's end are indicated with an asterisk. As a bonus, each critic selected his or her 10 favorite movies of the 1990s, listed in descending order of preference; again, you'll see very little overlap among them, and a general disregard for movies decade-watchers might regard as "important"--no Best Picture winners, no Oliver Stone, no Quentin Tarantino. (For the sake of argument, my 10 favorite '90s films are, in alphabetical order, American Beauty, Dazed and Confused, Ed Wood, Fargo, GoodFellas, Heavenly Creatures, Hoop Dreams, The New Age, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Sweet Hereafter.)

R.I.P. Cinema Sundays godfather George Udel. Farewell to director (and Hollywood 10 member) Edward Dymtryk, comic diva Madeline Kahn, character actor Iron Eyes Cody, matinee idol Dirk Bogarde, critic Gene Siskel, and Oscar-winning FX whiz John Stears, father of the light saber and R2D2. So long, George C. Scott and Stanley Kubrick--we'll meet again.

-- Heather Joslyn

IAN GREY

1. The Matrix* (Andy and Larry Wachowski, U.S.) A hacker (Keanu Reeves) is recruited by a fetishwear-garbed group of guerrillas to battle the evil stepchildren of our PCs. Relentlessly hyperkinetic, smart, and self-aware without stooping to gratuitous postmodernism, The Matrix sums up the tech obsessions and art direction of the '90s as Blade Runner did for the '80s. And like Blade Runner, The Matrix will define the way directors envision the future for years to come.

2. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, U.S.) Kevin Spacey plays an inert office drone who comes out of suburban stasis via a teenager's Lolitalike charms, and says Fuck It to the American Dream. Even with thematic/artistic missteps every 15 minutes or so, there's more ambition and intelligence working here than in most of this year's films combined. The astounding Spacey joins the ranks of Jeff Bridges and Johnny Depp as one of American cinema's finest leading men.

3. Dogma (Kevin Smith, U.S.) Smith makes the ultimate God movie without losing his slacker credibility. Matt Damon holds his own against Alan Rickman. Miracles never cease.

4. Xiu Xiu, the Sent-Down Girl* (Joan Chen, China/U.S.) During China's Cultural Revolution, a timid young girl is shunted off to the Tibetan wastelands, where she is taken care of by a castrated horseman and repeatedly raped by government lackeys. Helming her first feature, actress Chen proves herself as a director by meticulously crafting a political horror story that attains the pitch of classical tragedy.

5. Three Kings (David O. Russell, U.S.) George Clooney, practically hemorrhaging charisma, leads a trio of soldiers to the end of Bush Sr.'s video war with Iraq--and a cache of Saddam Hussein's gold. The defining ugly-American film of the decade.

6. Stir of Echoes (David Koepp, U.S.) Unwanted psychic powers, assorted hauntings, murderous neighbors, hideous secrets, and the economy are all out to destroy a beleaguered telephone lineman's life. After The Blair Witch Project assumes its rightful status as a sort of cinematic hula-hoop fad, Echoes will be the film future historians will reference when trying to figure out what scared America at the end of the 20th century.

7. Election* (Alexander Payne, U.S.) Reese Witherspoon turns in the year's most savagely deranged comic performance as teen hellion Tracy Flick, who'll stoop to anything in her bid for the presidency of her high school. Although director/writer Payne's script runs out of steam toward the end, Witherspoon's turn is worthy of repeat agog viewings.

8. Existo (Coke Sams, U.S.) A seemingly noxious premise--performance artists vs. an evil future America ruled by Republicans hysterics--becomes the year's true indie find (which Baltimore audiences had their chance to enjoy at this fall's MicroCineFest). Nonstop wit, great tunes, and the year's best pogo-stick-penis dance sequence should give Existo a future as a cult favorite.

9. Light It Up (Craig Bolotin, U.S.) Dog Day Afternoon meets The Breakfast Club as multiracial misfit high schoolers take a cop hostage in New York City. What at first appears to be mundane exploitation fare turns into an insightful and affecting examination of the roots of urban malaise.

10. Notting Hill* (Roger Michell, U.K.) Playing a somewhat remote megastar not unlike herself, Julia Roberts falls for a remarkably tolerable Hugh Grant in this sweet but saccharine-free love story. The glossy romantic comedy is an endangered species that, when this well-crafted, deserves your support.

'90s favorites:Seven, Safe, The Matrix, GoodFellas, Clueless, Naked, The Rapture, Fearless, Heavenly Creatures, American Heart.

JACK PURDY

1. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, U.S.) A startlingly original, hilarious, neopsychedelic meditation on celebrity, gender, puppetry, and Charlie Sheen's fascination with "hot lesbian witches," this is the film that strives to make Cameron Diaz look frazzled and plain, and succeeds. For that alone, number one.

2. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, U.S.) Recipient of more raves than any film this year, this blackly comic film tells how one middle-aged man's decision to follow his bliss generates disaster. And the Oscar goes to . . . Kevin Spacey, certain to be named Best Actor for playing a guy who wants "absolutely no responsibility."

3. Affliction* (Paul Schrader, U.S.) James Coburn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Glen Whitehouse, father of Nick Nolte's Wade Whitehouse and possibly the meanest son of a bitch ever. A story of family violence and alcoholism, Affliction--released in Baltimore in the winter of '99--is a cold, hard film set in a cold, hard New England that tourists never see.

4. The General* (John Boorman, Ireland) Brendan Gleeson is mesmerizing as Martin Cahill, a real-life Irish criminal mastermind who goes too far when he mixes with Ulster paramilitary groups. Shot tough and quick in black and white, this is a crime film without smugness or attitude.

5. The Third Man* (Carol Reed, U.K., rerelease) And speaking of black-and-white crime films, this restored/rereleased 1949 classic uses damaged, post-World War II Vienna like a giant stage set, filled with menacing shadows and blind alleys. Everyone talks about Orson Welles' Harry Lime, but it's Joseph Cotten's naive Holly Martins who carries the film.

6. Election* (Alexander Payne, U.S.) Forget the Alamo--America's genuine mythic battleground is high school. Reese Witherspoon brings incendiary perkiness to her epic struggle for school office while Matthew Broderick, as her social-studies teacher, learns the hard way that resistance is futile.

7. Three Kings (David O. Russell, U.S.) Indie darling Russell takes the exotic, nearly forgotten setting of the Gulf War and effectively transmutes a classic narrative, wherein soldiers of fortune discover their idealism. In a role Bogart would have played 50 years ago, George Clooney bolsters his claim to stardom.

8. Man of the Century (Adam Abraham, U.S.) A breathless, brilliant performance by Gibson Frazier as wisecracking, Charleston-dancing Johnny Twennies, an old-fashioned newshound inexplicably working in present-day Gotham, drives this miniature black-and-white masterpiece. It's the bee's knees, kiddo!

9. Notting Hill* (Roger Michell, U.K.) "The screen explodes with . . . cuteness" could well have been the marketing line for the year's best blatantly commercial romantic comedy. Hugh Grant is cute. Julia Roberts is cute. They meet cute in the cute (and cool) London neighborhood that gives the film its name. In short, cute movie.

10. The Blair Witch Project* (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, U.S.) In reality, the most hyped movie of the year was scary only to people who fear twigs and stones, but the "found footage" conceit was a brilliant way to shoot a no-budget film. And the marketing effort proved that the Web is the most effective box-office sales tool since the "free-dish night" of the 1930s.

'90s favorites:Funny Bones; Breaking the Waves; Children of the Revolution; Fargo; Four Weddings and a Funeral; The Crying Game; Farewell, My Concubine; Ladybird, Ladybird; Big Night; Heavenly Creatures.

LUISA F. RIBEIRO

1. The Insider (Michael Mann, U.S.) Whoever thought something as bland as testifying against the big, bad tobacco industry could be so gut-wrenchingly suspenseful for nearly three sweaty-palmed hours? Beautifully realized.

2. Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Pierce, U.S.) Another gut-ripper. Whatever you think of cross-dressing and transgendering, what happened to Brandon Teena as she/he tripped the light fantastic in rural Nebraska is both a human tragedy and powerful cinema.

3. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, U.S.) Nutty, wacky, and truly weird. It's debatable whether this zaniness says anything substantial about identity and being, but it's a hilarious ride while you're trying to figure it out.

4. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, U.S.) Probably not as good as it thinks it is, but still a dark and droll look at modern-day middle-class and middle-aged America through the eyes of a guy who realizes that having the American Dream means having nothing at all.

5. The Straight Story (David Lynch, U.S.) A simple yet moving story of the tenacity and determination of an old man not only set on having one last adventure, but on becoming the man he always meant to be.

6. The Iron Giant* (Brad Bird, U.S.) Nothing special in the digital-animation department but a worthy threat to Disney nevertheless, this sweet tale of a kid in 1957 Maine befriending a giant amnesiac iron man has great fun lampooning the hysteria of the atomic age.

7. Tumbleweeds (Gavin O'Connor, U.S.) The best of the recent mother/daughter films, held together by the stunning and natural performances of its leads, particularly Brit Janet McTeer, playing a down-home Southerner. (Opens in Baltimore Dec. 25.)

8. Cabaret Balkan (Goran Paskaljevic, Yugoslavia) An explosive, unflinching look at the devastation wrought in Belgrade after the war, told through several interconnected characters during one long night.

9. Double Indemnity* (Billy Wilder, U.S., rerelease) The epitome of film noir, dripping with pointed wit and naked desire as a poor sap is led to commit murder by his lust for a cold, heartless dame.

10. Run Lola Run* (Tom Tykwer, Germany) A lively, fun exercise in playing with time, Run Lola Run focuses on a young woman who discovers she has 20 minutes to somehow get 100,000 marks to save her small-time-courier boyfriend's life. Jump cuts, animation, and snapshot effects take us through three attempts as Lola struggles to get it right.

'90s favorites:Heavenly Creatures; Thelma & Louise; The Sweet Hereafter; Red; Sense and Sensibility; Little Women; Ma Saison Préférée; Europa, Europa; The Piano; Breaking the Waves.

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