Film critics are by nature a sour lot, so it is with truly great pleasure that I suggest that 1999 has been the best year for cinema -- certainly for American cinema and even for the major studios -- in my 15 years on the beat. I'm at a loss to explain this, beyond suggesting that Hollywood's ongoing assimilation of the independent film phenomenon has reached a particularly interesting stage. Most of the titles that made this year so exciting incorporated at least some indie values. And most came from filmmakers under 30.
As always, my list is in constant flux: It has been arbitrarily frozen in this version by the paper's copy deadline. But many of the films in my "bubbling under" list have been bouncing on and off the Top 10 during the compilation process.
It also must be noted that once again it has been impossible for any mortal to see every obviously significant film released this year, let alone every film. So if I have overlooked your favorite, give me the benefit of the doubt and assume that I simply haven't caught up with it yet. I feel obliged, however, to note one exception to this rule. If your favorite is, as the odds might suggest, American Beauty, rest assured that I have not only caught up with it but consider it the foulest, most overrated film of the year. Although I am a firm subscriber to the doctrine of de gustibus non disputandum est -- or "That's what makes horse races, toots!" -- I am so baffled by the reaction to this film from normally reasonable people that I can only theorize that implanted subliminal messages created some sort of mass delusion. American Beauty is a film that clearly presents itself as profound art, while being constructed of caricatures (the characters of Annette Bening and Allison Janney), clichéd revelations (Chris Cooper and Mena Suvari), creaky plot mechanics that seem to have drifted in from a farce (the Burger King coincidence, the contrived staging that allows Chris Cooper to misunderstand his son's relationship with Kevin Spacey), distracting red herrings left over from an earlier version of the script, dime-book philosophizing, cheap irony, anti-Mom scapegoating and miscellaneous bad values (Hey, psychos! Those girls you're stalking really do want you!). In short, this movie is so entirely bogus that it's almost guaranteed to sweep the Oscars. It's this year's Ordinary People and Kramer vs. Kramer, without those films' redeeming features. Only Spacey's performance saves it from being entirely without merit. Some morning five years from now, you're all going to wake up and go: "What the hell were we thinking?"
Having gotten that off my chest, herewith my Top 10 of a great year:
1. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze): Completely original and off-the-map, without feeling forced. Hysterically funny but ultimately not really a comedy at all; rather, something in between a tragedy and a horror story.
2. The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski): Philip K. Dick meets Hong Kong action cinema: What more could one possibly ask for? The special effects are not only dazzling, they're also never gratuitous; the script is not merely clever but downright smart. The whole thing shows that loud action movies are not a played-out genre, if you're willing to take a few risks ... like trusting the audience's intelligence.
3. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (Trey Parker): OK, so the animation's crappy, but, you know, it's supposed to be. This is still the best musical comedy written directly for film in years, and it manages to stay true to the TV show while adding a little more thematic heft. It's also very, very funny.
4. The Straight Story (David Lynch): Lynch's much touted change of pace is merely the other side of the coin from his usual weirdness -- a paean to basic human decency and the strangeness of life.
5. The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan): The perfect example of a big studio production that is enriched by the indie sensibilities of its young writer/director. Not only amazingly clever but more complex each time you watch it, and with genuine emotional content.
6. Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Julio Medem, Spain): This lovely and intriguing Spanish film flickered through theaters quickly. For those who like an intricately constructed, nonlinear story -- like Toto the Hero -- it was a treat.
7. Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich and Ash Brannon): Pixar keeps up their unbroken chain of completely entertaining computer-generated features.
8. Cookie's Fortune (Robert Altman): You can never quite count Altman out. After a string of less satisfying films, he came back this year with a sweet, low-key look at a small Southern town. Every performance was spot-on.
9. Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, Germany): It may not be profound, but it's a great reminder of the sheer kineticism that no narrative medium besides cinema can reproduce.
10. The Limey (Steven Soderbergh): Soderbergh follows up Out of Sight with a very different kind of crime film -- crisp, no-nonsense action that never stops being driven by character.
Bubbling right beneath these selections were the American productions Three Kings (David O. Russell), Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Pierce), The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella), The Iron Giant (Brad Bird), The Insider (Michael Mann), Office Space (Mike Judge), Where's Marlowe? (Daniel Pyne) and Titus (Julie Taymor), along with All About My Mother (Pedro Almodovar, Spain), Leila (Dariush Mehrjui, Iran) and Bandits (Katja von Garnier, France). Best documentaries were Rabbit in the Moon (Emiko Omori, U.S.), The Brandon Teena Story (Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir, U.S.), Genghis Blues (Roko Belic, U.S.) and 42 Up (Michael Apted, U.K.).
Ask me about Eyes Wide Shut in about 10 years.