1999: The Year in Review

Feature article by Matt Heffernan
January 28, 2000

I know this may be a little late, but it's taken me a while to catch up with all the late releases. To be considered 1999 films, they must have premiered in the U.S. in 1999, even if they hadn't been widely distributed until 2000. So, without further ado, I'll begin this article with my top ten list for the year.

1. American Beauty VHS DVD
When I saw this back in September, I knew it would be a difficult film to surpass, even with a typical year-end frenzy. Since then, it has served as a benchmark for all the films of 1999 that I saw afterwards. In my opinion, no other has met that mark. Director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball have created a brilliant masterpiece. It turns over the idea of what is healthy and what is beautiful, making a film that stimulates the mind as it entertains. Add in brilliant performances by Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening and company, and you have the best film of the year.

2. Being John Malkovich VHS DVD
Coming awfully close to the top, and well separated from the rest of the pack, is this incredible comedy. It's the funniest film I have seen in a long time, and also the most risk-taking comedy of recent years. Thankfully, the risks paid off, at least in an artistic sense. As for the financial impact of the film, it is best described as minimal. But I don't consider box office take on this list. A film this good will eventually find an audience, and for now I must give it proper recognition.

3. Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) VHS DVD
The action genre has been somewhat lacking this year, but animation has thrived. In a year loaded with animated features, this entry from Japan is the best. It combines thrilling action with a magical story. The pro-environmental theme isn't exactly subtle, but it's still a good one to have.

4. The Blair Witch Project VHS DVD
I realize there has been a backlash against this film, but I have not forgotten its significance. Some people, including a certain disgruntled film critic on the internet, have accused it of ripping off some trashy snuff film called Cannibal Holocaust. I never heard of it before this film came out, and I'm pretty sure the makers of this film hadn't either. Anyway, this film illustrated that horror does not have to derive from gore or special effects. It gets down to a primal level and shakes the soul. That was certainly not the intent of that other film.

5. Fight Club VHS DVD
This film is just as controversial as The Blair Witch Project, and even more intense. Some have rejected it as a macho call to fascism, but that is precisely the opposite of the true intent. It reflects a generation of men -- my generation -- that has found success but lost a masculine sense. What this film shows is that violence is not the key to regaining that masculinity, but merely a path to psychosis. It doesn't attempt to contrive some moral lesson. Instead, it assaults you with a visceral impact that could only be duplicated by being shot at, and barely missed.

6. Toy Story 2 VHS DVD: 3-pack including original Toy Story and bonus disk
This is one of those rare cases of a sequel surpassing the original. Also remarkable is that literally everybody liked it. A film doesn't have to shun commerciality to be great -- a large audience should always be the goal. Disney may have distributed this film, but it was produced by Pixar, which is really the only studio that can claim a 1.000 batting average. This latest production of computer animation brings the young art to its highest level ever.

7. The End of the Affair VHS DVD
I don't know if I'm crazy, but I just loved this film. I seem to be somewhat alone in the world of film critics, who have basically dismissed this new adaptation of Graham Greene's novel. I see a masterful combination of wit and drama, with a fascinating structure provided by writer/director Neil Jordan.

8. Magnolia VHS DVD
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest epic of humanity in Southern California is one of the most amazing films of the year. His ability to direct and write such a film shows incredible creativity and analytical genius. It's also extremely bizarre and more than slightly pretentious, but still among the year's best.

9. Three Kings VHS VHS DVD
This is the first really definitive film made of the Gulf War. The visual style reflects the surreal nature of America's involvement in a war against people who were ready to surrender before it even began. It also has a deeply dark sense of humor that contrasts with a real moral dilemma.

10. South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut VHS DVD
That's right, this is the third animated film on my top ten list. Don't think this is just because of my devotion to the TV show, and the web site that I run about it. This feature film is definitely one of the best of the year, and I'm not the only one to think so. It was the only original musical that was released last year, and the most irreverent satire that has graced the silver screen in years. What more proof do you need?

Honorable Mentions

Of course, several other films deserve mentioning. I've decided to organize this list like the college rankings in U.S. News. Consider the following ten films to be the "second tier", listed in alphabetical order.

I also don't want to leave out the documentaries. The Source and American Movie both showed that truth can be just as entertaining as fiction.

And on the other side of the tracks...

The preceding lists may paint a rosy picture of 1999, but let us not forget the harder times for the art of film. I didn't start reviewing films until June 30, 1999, so I'm sure that I missed some real stinkers. But, there is no question as to the worst film that I have seen since then. It's the only one that has received the dubious honor of a zero star rating at FilmHead.com. The horror that I speak of is, of course...

Universal Soldier: The Return

No other film in this period sunk so low. Everything is horrible: the acting, the direction, the screenplay, name it. Oh, and did I mention the acting? I am still bewildered by the fact that this film actually made it to theatres. Not only that, but wide release! Thankfully, it's now on video (where it belonged in the first place) and no longer poisoning the silver screen.

If only they had stopped there!

Other films also deserve dubious mention. But instead of dwelling on the very worst, I'll focus on some films that were either misguided or should have never been made.

Wild Wild West - The first "blockbuster" of the summer. With Barry Sonnenfeld directing Will Smith, who also records a catchy theme some, how could this retread of Men in Black possibly go wrong? See Murphy's Law.

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc - Luc Besson manages to insult his homeland and lose his wife (star Milla Jovovich) in the process.

The 13th Warrior - Essentially doomed from the start. Not only is the plot entirely pointless, but John McTiernan jumped out of the director's chair, leaving Michael Crichton to clean up the mess.

OK, enough of the negative. What else was good about 1999?

I don't think I could have picked a better year to have become a film critic. 1999 shall be remembered as a landmark year in film. There was essentially a changing of the guard, ushering in the filmmakers of the 21st century. Established directors like Sydney Pollack and Oliver Stone offered up substandard fare. Not even Scorsese could make a big statement for the old wave, which was the new wave 25 years ago. All this, and Kubrick dies with a dreary wreck for his final legacy. At least Kurosawa managed to check out the year before, and keep the misery spread out. Luckily, balance was achieved with the introduction of new luminaries, and continued success for other recent entries to the world of film.

So, here are my choices for the most welcome additions to the art.

Best New Director: Sam Mendes. His success on the stage with such acclaimed work as The Blue Room and the revival of Cabaret helped get him access to Hollywood. His vision for American Beauty is no filmed play, with the camera neatly centered on the proscenium, but a dynamic visual feast. Certainly his collaboration with veteran cinematographer Conrad L. Hall helped achieve it, but his talent is unquestionable.

Best New Screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman. I don't know where he came from, but his screenplay for Being John Malkovich is nothing short of pure comic genius. He has a new screenplay in production right now called Human Nature, which should hopefully avoid a sophomore slump.

Best New Star: Taye Diggs. He made his debut last year in How Stella Got Her Groove Back and has shot to the top since then. His turns in Go, The Wood, and The Best Man display real talent in front of the camera. Hopefully, his future forays into "mainstream" films will be better than The House on Haunted Hill.

Best New All-Around Talent: Spike Jonze. Watchers of MTV have long been familiar with his work, including brilliant music videos such as Weezer's "Buddy Holly". In 1999, he landed a one-two punch by making his debut as both a feature film director and a film actor. He had walk-on parts in Allison Anders' Mi Vida Loca and David Fincher's The Game, but his first significant role was in David O. Russell's Three Kings. He created a wonderful character that held its ground with three established actors, proving that the film should have been called Four Kings. Three weeks later, Being John Malkovich was released, and he joined Anders, Fincher, and Russell in the new wave of revolutionary young directors.

As much as I hate to emulate Jerry Springer, I must give my Final Word

Well, that's 1999 as I saw it. There were some inspiring moments that fill me with great anticipation for the coming century of film. The studios are finally coming around, making some films that are actually worth eight bucks to see. Attempts at formulaic success were mostly shot down, and films with bolder statements were embraced. Still, some people may wonder why I failed to mention the two most successful films of the year. Frankly, the top one was fairly good, but a large disappointment after years of buzz. The other was a surprise hit, especially since I never really thought much of it. And that's about all I have to say for this year. Soon I will look back on the 1990's and review the decade in film. I'm not going to try a list of the best films ever made, but I think I can make a pretty good round-up of the last ten years. Until then, I bid you happy filmgoing.

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