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Best Movies of 1999

By Eric Beltmann

Unquestionably the movie event of 1999 was the release of the Star Wars prequel, but in terms of art, that mausoleum of rusty, antiquated storytelling was surpassed this year by dozens of films. At the top of my 10-best list is a brainy psychocomedy about our plastic Visa-and-Dockers culture that's been hanging out in my psyche for months now. Of the more than 190 movies I screened this year, it most inspires the phrase "You've got to see this."

1. American Beauty. Sam Mendes' voluptuous, trancelike satire is a rebellious comedy about materialism, emotional isolation, and empty pleasures. Lamenting a complacent society that has lost the ability to live intrinsically, the bright, psychologically-charged images express social distress. Yet what separates the film from most contemptuous entertainments is that it offers a poetic and sensitive form of awakening. It says, simply and eloquently, that beauty is everywhere, and it doesn't cost a thing. As a jaded, emasculated suburbanite who decides to lunge, kamikaze-style, toward grace, Kevin Spacey fuses deadpan mockery, brutality, and honest regret to forge the year's most sublime performance.

2. Three Kings. Each bullet carries human consequences in this jazzy Desert Storm heist film. David O. Russell directs with a razor, and his maniacal editing may seem like excess. Yet the daredevil camera effects build a sense of mirage -- of ethical blindness -- that helps justify Russell's resolve to enter deeply political and moral dimensions. It may play as a blistering attack on Bush's Gulf War policies, but it's really about how there are no easy decisions in war.

3. Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. The latest masterpiece from documentarian Errol Morris. Leuchter is a builder of execution machines, hired by a Neo-Nazi group to disprove the Holocaust. He enters Auschwitz a believer but exits a denier -- and remains one long after his science is discredited. Why? As a portrait of ego-driven vanity, of bald attention-seeking, Mr. Death is a funny, scary picture about how true evil is found in self-delusion.

4. Toy Story 2. Spiked with a sense of nostalgia -- for childhood, for favorite toys, for innocence -- this compulsively watchable daydream treats playthings as tragic figures, treasures doomed to eventual discard. John Lasseter views computer animation as a playground for the imagination, a place where ideas can explode upon command. Next to A Bug's Life and the original Toy Story, this smart, joyous roller coaster suggests that Lasseter may be some kind of crazy-mad visionary.

5. Run Lola Run. Extremely pleasing filmmaking. With the pull of a dream, crackpot director Tom Tykwer rewinds his punk fantasy three times, altering small nuances in order to arrive at three different conclusions. Spinning the narrative as if it were a top, Tykwer gets you giggling at his funky, zigzaggy cleverness. At its end you may feel battered, but also exhilarated and ready to applaud the most audacious of Tykwer's many mind-bending stratagems.

6. The Iron Giant. A gentle fable about a young boy who befriends a towering, friendly robot of mysterious origin. Set in 1957, it works as a brash satire of Cold War paranoia, but director Brad Bird is more interested in devising a nimble parable about choosing who you want to be. The modest, no-frills animation captures the enchantment of a storybook, and fashions The Iron Giant into an elegant hymn to heroism.

7. Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl. To renew her Communist values, a Chinese teen is sent to Tibet to learn horse herding. Dismissed by some as just another melodramatic rebuke of the Cultural Revolution, Joan Chen's naturalistic study of desperation has emotional clarity and striking visual power. In the way it cuts to the dead-heart of oppression, Xiu Xiu piercingly dramatizes tyranny's most immoral side, the careless and arbitrary devastation of personal lives.

8. Man on the Moon. Has Jim Carrey finally become an actor? Channeling the illusion-comedy showman Andy Kaufman, Carrey delivers an astonishing impersonation. Like Kaufman, he connects with the audience by diving obsessively into a character that messes with your head. Director Milos Forman doesn't adopt Kaufman's brand of fourth-wall-fracturing theatrics, but this savvy career sketch still celebrates his desire to redefine entertainment.

9. Being John Malkovich. Look past the dingy colors and blunt production design to find a metaphysical maze about identity, desire, existence, and -- most of all -- control. When a sadsack puppeteer discovers a portal that sucks him into the mind and body of John Malkovich (deliriously playing himself), the actor becomes a literal marionette. Director Spike Jonze feeds off of irrationality, locating sneaky, existential laughs that get wilder as the plot advances.

10. Limbo. An adventure film for boys who have grown up. The movie is about many things: geographical isolation, indeterminate futures, neglected dreams, even middle-aged romance. Despite the theme of unfulfilled expectations, its non-ending had critics, who regularly patronize writer-director John Sayles, crying foul. Did they miss the film's wisdom, which arrives long before the "action" climax must?

Honorable Mentions: All About My Mother; The Blair Witch Project; Bringing Out the Dead; The Children of Heaven; Dick; Eyes Wide Shut; The King of Masks; The Limey; The Matrix; One Day in September; Princess Mononoke; The Sixth Sense; SLC Punk!; The Straight Story; Sweet and Lowdown.

Guilty Pleasures: eXistenZ; October Sky; Office Space; Ravenous; Stir of Echoes.

***

The most maligned, misunderstood movie of 1999 was Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. If it hadn't been marketed as a big-budget sex blockbuster starring two beautiful celebrities, then perhaps audiences would have seen it for what it is: a tough, risky, layered art film about how our jealousies and fantasies affect our lives as much as reality, and how marriages have sexual dimensions as complex as emotional ones. In fact, there's not a moment that relies on eroticism, and that, I think, is what offended the public most. Viewers wanted a naughty joyride and received instead a moral lesson about the virtues of old-fashioned fidelity.

Although flawed, Eyes Wide Shut proves that sex can be handled with maturity and sophistication in the movies. By contrast, the two worst films of the year show us what truly terrible "sex" stories look like.

The Worst

1. Romance. A Parisian schoolteacher embarks on various sexual adventures, her fascination cultivated by escalating debasement. The neo-feminist idea, I believe, is that she finds pleasure in being victimized and treated as an object. But the actress, Caroline Ducey, never reveals joy or pain. She's a dour, glum robot, and the film's style is the same. In clinical, explicit detail, it records sex but has little to say about actual human relations. It is a graphic, sensational, and exploitative essay in which the basic thesis -- sex is baffling -- doesn't require such fetishistic treatment.

2. The Loss of Sexual Innocence. Like Romance, Mike Figgis' non-linear film explores the underlying violence within sex. Both films make a grave thematic error -- violence is actually found in the corruption of sex, not the act itself -- and Figgis' moody "visual logic" reduces his film to a gaudy commercial selling mediocre thought.

3. 8MM. Director Joel Schumacher says the obvious, that porn is ugly, but he's still pushy about it. Worse, the movie, which plays like leering exploitation, is hypocritical. For Schumacher, violent decadence is a turn-on.

4. The Other Sister. Recklessly feel-good. By adding slurred speech to a formulaic coming-of-age story, Garry Marshall's condescending sitcom treats mentally challenged young adults as cute circus animals.

5. The General's Daughter. A rape victim deals with her torment by recreating the event for her dad. Sound yummy? This contrived military mystery is so sensationalistic and malicious the movie curdles.

Dishonorable Mentions: The Astronaut's Wife; Cruel Intentions; Detroit Rock City; Double Jeopardy; Hideous Kinky; Instinct; Jawbreaker; The Omega Code; 20 Dates; Wild Wild West.

Most Overrated: Analyze This; Autumn Tale; The Insider; Dogma; Sleepy Hollow.

Article published 03.31.2002.


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