Let me open with a flashback to the ‘80s, which is when I started writing movie reviews and when it seemed as if all my wrap-ups began with a variation on “This has been the suckiest year for movies in history.” We were on a downward spiral. In the wake of Jaws and Star Wars, studios had been infected with blockbuster fever. Yes, they’d always been profit-oriented, but now they were run by publicly held corporations instead of whimsical moguls, and development offices had only recently become umbilically attached to marketing departments. We were suddenly drowning in teenpix, Simpson-Bruckheimer-style Go For It movies, and mismatched-buddy cop flicks. The MTV aesthetic hadn’t enlarged the vocabulary of storytelling–it had dumbed it down. The “indie” movement was but a trickle. Spike Lee hadn’t emerged and, if you believed the conventional wisdom, never would. Movies that many in my generation regard as touchstones were freaks. Blue Velvet came about because a nutty guy named Dino wanted David Lynch to make another Star Wars: Dune. My Beautiful Laundrette was financed by and for British TV. Really interesting “mainstream” pictures–Something Wild, say–were seen by almost no one.
I flash back to those dark times because I think of this past year–the last year of cinema’s first whole century–as the most hopeful since the 1970s. It’s not that there have been so many masterpieces. It’s that movies have become expansive again. There’s an anything-goes quality to even studio pictures that suggests an impatience with old ways of telling stories–a desire to create a new syntax to capture a new kind of flickering consciousness. Narration has returned, along with novelistic, free-associational leaps in imagery. In part, this is the upshot of digital editing technologies, which permit noodling around as never before; and in part it’s an indication that the aforementioned “MTV aesthetic” is beginning to come of age. Thank God–and Godard. In mainstream film, you have to go back to the silents to find imagery this unfettered.
I’m not talking about the undiscriminating, amphetamine-soaked pyrotechnics of Oliver Stone (or even the discriminating amphetamine-soaked pyrotechnics of Martin Scorsese). It’s David O. Russell making a big-budget war movie (Three Kings) that revels in both physical and moral confusion. It’s Being John Malkovich, in which the fluid craziness turns audiences on–they love not knowing where they’re going. Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey is one of my favorites this year not because I think it’s such a great film (or even as much fun as Out of Sight) but because I’m so exhilarated by its doubling and tripling and quadrupling back. Soderbergh messes up its surface the way an artist hacks at a canvas with an X-acto blade, reshuffling footage in a way that, ultimately, dovetails with both the solution to the movie’s mystery and to its larger themes. (I’m aware of the counterexample: the dread Harmony Korinne, whose hacking at his canvas is an attempt to disguise his limitations as bold artistic choices.)
Our colleague Jonathan Rosenbaum, who shared this space last year, will doubtless make fun of my sanguinity. He has argued in the Chicago Reader that the most challenging foreign and independent films are not being bought by U.S. distributors (or worse, they’re being bought by Miramax and left unreleased in the United States). He might be right–I can’t say. But from where I sit, the medium looks damn healthy. Maybe former “indie” titan Miramax is busy churning out Brit-inflected Oscar vehicles, but Warner Bros. and Paramount are putting their stamp on such gutsy fare as Three Kings, Election, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.
Tomorrow I plan to talk about some of the amazing performances in this year’s movies–as well as responding to your comments and to those of our readers. But first, my choices for the best movies of 1999.
1. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. This breathlessly vulgar, hyperbolic, Swiftian satire of the notion that movies “warp our fragile little minds” is our generation’s Duck Soup–not to mention the most inventive movie musical in decades. My only question: Why does the TV show blow chunks this year?
2. Three Kings. One of the most audacious war movies ever made, with an original, off-kilter sensibility that captures the madness of Iraq (and the betrayal of the Kurds by the United States) in the days following the Gulf War. It might have been even better if it had been less bound by formula; the writer-director, David O. Russell, is working at such a high level of inspiration–and outrage–that the structure he has employed can’t fully contain the emotions he kicks up.
3. Being John Malkovich. Close to pure farce yet grounded in loneliness, impotence, self-loathing, envy. The action is surreal, the emotions are violently real. The screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, is a genius at finding slapstick correlatives for people’s nebulous sense–or non-sense–of themselves.
4. Election. See the entry above. Alexander Payne’s caustic comedy tells the story of a high-school election from four different perspectives–none of them remotely rational.
5. The Iron Giant. Brad Bird’s cartoon evocation of “leftist” ‘50s sci-fi is uncannily lyrical: It sums up an entire era of ideological genre moviemaking–and transcends it.
6. Boys Don’t Cry. Starkly beautiful, Kimberly Peirce’s debut film has at its core a tragicomic irony: That the cross-dressing Brandon Teena, a k a Teena Brandon (the rapturous Hillary Swank) feels most at home among the sort of roughnecks who would kill her if they knew her true gender.
7. The Buena Vista Social Club. A triumphant concert that, in the hands of director Wim Wenders, is also a triumphant act of reanimation–of a culture, a city, a way of life.
8. The Limey. See above.
9. The Straight Story. David Lynch’s implacably untwisty road movie–call it FoundHighway–with a performance by Richard Farnsworth of unbounded soul.
I’m leaving number ten symbolically blank, because I couldn’t decide among so many terrific films. Any other year it could have been Dogma, Sweet and Lowdown, Topsy-Turvy, All About My Mother, Rosetta, or even (laugh all you want, you ungrateful swine) Magnolia. It could have been A Map of the World, one of the most painful movies I’ve ever had to sit through (I couldn’t finish the novel, either), but one that ultimately pays off. It could have been A Walk on the Moon, My Son the Fanatic, The End of the Affair, Dick, Sleepy Hollow, Run Lola Run, Toy Story 2, Princess Mononoke, Cookie’s Fortune, AmericanMovie, or the barely-noticed black comedy Six Ways to Sunday. It could have been–whatever their problems–The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, The Blair Witch Project (backlash schmacklash, it scared me), October Sky, or The Matrix. It could have been a poignantly silly comic-book movie that I seem to be alone in loving: Mystery Men.
It could have been Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski, which I inexplicably missed last year but has given me–and, I suspect, many others–more pleasure in repeated cable viewings than all but two or three of the movies above. It will survive its box-office flop and become a classic.
It could have been a movie I haven’t yet seen: Tim Roth’s The War Zone, Hurricane, Any Given Sunday, Errol Morris’s Mr. Death.
It could not have been anything on my Worst list:
20 Dates, which gives obnoxious heterosexual Jewish males a worse name than we deserve.
Life is Beautiful–the English version. (Okay, I admit it, I didn’t actually see the English version. I just think it’s cool that I can put this movie on my worst list two years in a row. Maybe I should make it a permanent fixture.)
Julien Donkey-Boy. See above. See anything but Julien Donkey-Boy.
The Haunting. The antithesis of The Blair Witch Project–and everything that’s wrong with overexplicit big-budget horror.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Jar Jar Binks. Enough said.
Body Shots. A great case for date rape.
Happy Texas. How many lame homo jokes can fit into a single movie?
Playing by Heart. Just mediocre until a mother reads Goodnight Moon to a son on the verge of expiring from AIDS. Then, monstrous.