Rewinding 1999 -- The Year in Film

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 1, 2000

Go Directly to the Top 10

Go Directly to the Bottom 10

In many ways, 1999 was an exceptional year for movies. Counting every little art house film released only in New York City and every major multiplex offering, there were close to 500 theatrical choices last year - more than in any other previous 12-month calendar period. Often, quality and quantity do not go hand-in-hand (in fact, the opposite is frequently the case), but 1999 was an exception in that regard. For true movie-lovers, it was something of a banner year. Some have called it the best since 1974, and, while I'm not prepared to make that kind of statement, it was certainly one of the most impressive years of the 1990s. And, while it's true that I have handed out more **** reviews in other years (only 1998 had fewer), the overall strength of 1999's ***1/2 films was up.

Rather than engaging in an exhaustive attempt to name and categorize every 1999 title I can remember, as I have done in past "rewinding" columns, this year I have decided to hit the high (and, in some cases, low) points. I have also merged in my "Who Should Be Nominated" essay naming the best performers in each of the major categories.


The Phantom Flop

The box-office champ for 1999 (by a wide margin) was, expectedly, George Lucas' much anticipated Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace. With a final gross at about $430 million, the film has easily slid into the #3 spot on the all-time list. Not bad for the third sequel in a series that has now spanned more than 20 years (conventional wisdom states that each sequel typically makes slightly less money than its predecessor). Yet, despite that, The Phantom Menace is being regarded as a dud in more than a few cinematic corners.

Perhaps the only ones satisfied with the movie and its box-office performance are the people who made it and the few critics (myself included) who accorded it a favorable review. Nearly everyone else is down on the film. In fact, I heard a radio poll the other day naming The Phantom Menace as the biggest disappointment of 1999. From the beginning, Lucas predicted that (a) the film would not break Titanic's box office record, and (b) it would probably end up tallying about $400 million. Of course, Fox was hoping that his numbers were low, and there are indications they were anticipating the final gross to be closer to the half-billion dollar mark.

Then there are the fans, whose voices were loudly raised in cries of horror and betrayal once the movie finally reached theaters. (Many of them then promptly went out and saw the movie another 20 times - just to be sure it was as bad as they initially supposed.) They really have no one to blame but themselves. By January 1, 1999, The Phantom Menace had already become the most anticipated movie event in the history of cinema, and the furor didn't die down until early summer. In fact, other openings were shifted to assure that nothing would be squashed by Episode One. With expectations so high, a letdown was inevitable.

What did the fans expect? Obviously something more than an entertaining, visually-stunning, fast-paced two hours of space action. Is the film flawed? Of course (Jar Jar Binks alone proves that point, but there are also problems with character development and plot simplicity), but, isolated from all those expectations, it's also a lot of fun, as some fans started to realize around the dozenth time they were seeing it. Many people condemned The Phantom Menace by comparing it to the original Star Wars, without considering that the two have a lot in common. Both are lightweight space fantasies without a single new idea from opening to close. Both feature some terrible dialogue. Both highlight wooden acting. Yet both are highly enjoyable.

The biggest The Phantom Menace detractors are those who saw Star Wars when they were kids, then came to this film as adults. Expecting the same kind of freshness this time around was unrealistic. For the most part, those who were over-30 in 1977 enjoyed Episode One more than the next generation, and I couldn't find anyone born after 1989 who was willing to say anything bad about The Phantom Menace.

For now, the furor and tumult has died down. We'll have to wait three years to see how well Episode Two will be received, and how much it will have to gross to be considered an unqualified success.


The Blair Witch Phenomenon

While The Phantom Menace may have disappointed pundits, The Blair Witch Project certainly did not. Filmed on a shoestring budget by directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick and featuring a trio of unknown actors, The Blair Witch Project went on to be 1999's single genuine cinematic phenomenon. Brilliant marketing was the key here - this became the "must see" film of the year. Anyone who considered themselves a part of the "in" crowd had to sit through Blair Witch. Marketing can be a double-edged sword, however, and the more the hypsters puffed into the movie's balloon, the easier it was to pop. In the end, the Blair Witch backlash was so vicious that the movie became synonymous with the word "overrated." Of course, by then, the gross had surpassed the $150 million mark - a remarkable achievement by any standards.

I consider The Blair Witch Project to be a remarkable cinematic achievement, and many savvy film goers of my generation agree with this assessment. The film is not particularly frightening, but it is creepy and endlessly fascinating. However, it is not mainstream fare. It is a small, independent film, and plays best to audiences that typically enjoy that kind of non-traditional storytelling. During its first few weeks on the market, when it was playing exclusively at art houses and other specialty venues, The Blair Witch Project was a huge success. Nearly every show was sold out and the word-of-mouth was phenomenal. The negativity didn't start until the movie went wide. Multiplex audiences reacted with a mixture of confusion and hostility.

Perhaps the worst bit of news associated with The Blair Witch Project was the announcement that a sequel (or prequel) is in the works. While it's unfair to judge something that hasn't yet been produced, this sounds like a take-the-money-and-run approach that can only serve to further blacken the title of a movie that deserves a better fate. Hopefully, Sanchez and Myrick will let sleeping witches lie, and move on, as Monty Python would put it, to something completely different.


Sense and Cents

Before 1999, practically no one recognized the name of M. Night Shyamalan, even though he had directed a pair of feature films (Praying With Anger, Wide Awake). Now, twelve months later, everyone knows who Shyamalan is. Probably the biggest surprise of the year, at least in terms of box office success, was The Sixth Sense. The movie, which was initially deemed to have "modest" box office potential, went on to become Disney's highest-grossing non-animated feature. With a final take of about $275 million, it also came in as the #2 money maker of the year.

Facts are indisputable, but opinions are not. I can't argue with The Sixth Sense's mass market appeal, nor can I contest its popularity, but I will disagree with anyone who claims that the film is Oscar worthy or has a great script. Those who have read my review know that I wasn't just underwhelmed by the movie; I actively disliked it. One of the driving reasons behind my negative reaction to The Sixth Sense is that I figured out the so-called "secret" about midway through. When I realized what was going on, I was not shocked or startled, and I became keenly aware of the gyrations Shyamalan was going through to walk a difficult tightrope: keep the truth from the audience but making it so that, upon post-credits reflection, everything would still hang together. While this might have been okay for someone who didn't catch on too early, it made for an extremely awkward viewing experience for those who, like me, figured things out before the rest of the audience. The script's artificiality irritated me.

Those who have gone back to see the film a second time have argued with me, saying that wasn't their experience. But knowing the secret while re-watching the entire movie is different from recognizing it midway through a first showing. And, of course, nearly everyone who saw The Sixth Sense more than once was pre-disposed to like it; first impressions of movies (whether positive or negative) are usually enforced on subsequent viewings, not changed.

Actually, my reaction is typical. A high percentage of those who figured out the secret before its explicit revelation were unimpressed by the film. For those who got it when Shyamalan intended, the reaction was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The reason The Sixth Sense received such positive word-of-mouth is that most viewers didn't prematurely arrive at the conclusion. The Sixth Sense is undeniable proof of the power of people to get their friends to see a movie. Men and women didn't flock to this movie because it starred Bruce Willis or because of a slick marketing campaign - they went because their wife/husband/child/friend/next door neighbor told them about it. One would imagine this is a lesson Hollywood will learn from. It will be interesting to see if anyone figures out how to put it to use.


The Oscar Season

The Silence of the Lambs was released in February and it won an Oscar for Best Picture. But that was seven long years ago, and it's something that may never happen again. The Saving Private Ryan/Shakespeare in Love debacle has virtually assured that. In 1998, Private Ryan was released during early summer. From that time until the end of the year, it was the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture. Then the very effective Miramax marketing engine got underway promoting an enjoyable-but-inconsequential end-of-the-year romantic comedy by the name of Shakespeare in Love, and suddenly all of the Oscar voters forgot about Private Ryan. The lesson: if you want to win an Oscar, don't release the movie until the calendar says Autumn.

1999 became the first year in which this philosophy was seen in action. Nearly all of the "prestige" motion pictures (most of which were over two hours long) came out between the end of September and December 31 (with the usual spillover of limited releases into this year). This made the last few months of 1999 a deliriously wonderful time for movie-goers - there was seemingly a new ***1/2 or **** film available every week. It's a rare and delightful thing to know that every movie has a chance to be a work of greatness. Alas, there is a downside to all of this.

January through August. That's the downside. As tremendous as the end of the year has been, that's how bad the first two-thirds were. Just before going to the Toronto Film Festival (early September), I was bemoaning the state of the movie industry, remarking that 1999 was looking like it could be the worst year of the '90s. Things changed quickly, but that statement is an accurate reflection of how unpromising things were through the winter, spring, and summer of the critic's discontent. Indeed, of my Top 10, eight selections were released after September 15 (it's 15 out of 20, if you expand the list to include the runners-up). The moral is simple: endure the trash of the first half of the year and the mindless action of the third quarter, and you'll be rewarded at year's end.


Who Should Be Nominated: Best Actor

1999 was a very good year for actors. In fact, it's a shame that the Academy can't honor more than five choices, because I can compile a much longer list of worthy candidates. When it comes to picking a #1, I'm in a quandary, because it's a tough choice between Kevin Spacey (his brilliant performance as the self-aware narrator in American Beauty) and Ray Winstone (an equally brilliant job as the abusive father in The War Zone). However, since Spacey will get an Oscar nomination but Winstone will not (The War Zone being too small a picture), I'll give the nod to Winstone. There are other actors who deserve some mention here as well: Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman's Man on the Moon, Peter Mullan as the recovering alcoholic in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe, Richard Farnsworth as the title character in David Lynch's G-rated adult film, The Straight Story, Russell Crowe as whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand in Michael Mann's The Insider, Terence Stamp as a Brit out for revenge in Steven Soderbergh's The Limey, Bob Hoskins as the low-key serial killer in Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey, Denzel Washington as the wrongfully-accused title character of Norman Jewison's The Hurricane, Rupert Everett in Oliver Parker's adaptation of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, and the always-reliable Edward Norton in David Fincher's dark-but-brilliant The Fight Club. There are others, too, but I have to stop the list somewhere.


Who Should Be Nominated: Best Actress

For Best Actress, there's only one choice in my book. Actually, I could have placed her in the "Best Supporting Actress" category, but she's probably a better fit here. Regardless, she gives not only the best female performance of the year, but the best performance, period. She's Lara Belmont, the 18-year old newcomer who makes a heartbreaking, tear-inducing debut in The War Zone. Even those who have disliked the film have remarked favorably on Belmont's wonderful performance. However, as I said when discussing Ray Winstone, Belmont has no chance of actually being recognized by the Academy because The War Zone has too low of a profile. Another strong selection, and the winner if not for Belmont, is Hilary Swank for her work as Tina Brandon/Brandon Teena in Kimberly Peirce's blistering drama, Boys Don't Cry. Swank's performance came out of nowhere - there was nothing on her resume to indicate that she was capable of the kind of gut-wrenching acting she turned in here. First runner-up goes to Janet McTeer for her work in Gavin O'Connor's Tumbleweeds. It's a performance that may not seem splashy but is all the more remarkable for it. Other contenders: Emily Watson in Alan Parker's Angela's Ashes, Cameron Diaz in either Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich or Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, Reese Witherspoon in Alexander Payne's Election, Franka Potente as the kinetic title character in Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run, Heather Donahue as a heartbreakingly real girl lost in the woods in The Blair Witch Project, and Cecilia Roth in Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother.


Who Should Be Nominated: Best Supporting Actor

John Malkovich gets the nod here for playing a warped, twisted version of himself in none other than Being John Malkovich. Ask any actor, and they'll tell you that one of the hardest parts to play is themself. Add to that Malkovich's unusual interpretation, and he's in Best Supporting Actor territory. It isn't a walkway, however. Tom Cruise makes a compelling case for himself in Paul Thomas Anderson's ensemble Magnolia, where he once again affirms that he's more than a pretty boy/action star. Also worth mention. Christopher Plummer for his version of Mike Wallace in The Insider, Michael Clarke Duncan as the gentle giant in Frank Darabont's The Green Mile, and perhaps Brad Pitt for The Fight Club or Chris Cooper as the homophobe in American Beauty.


Who Should Be Nominated: Best Supporting Actress

When it comes to Best Supporting Actress, all the choices are close. The one with the slight edge is Thora Birch, whose multi-dimensional portrayal of the bratty teenage daughter in American Beauty earned her the notice of both critics and casual movie-goers. Her topless scene (rare for an actress under age 17) showed great courage and devotion to her craft. Birch will certainly be heard from again, possibly as soon as when the Oscar nominations are announced. Runners up include Samantha Morton as the mute-but-expressive girlfriend in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown (Morton should have previously been recognized for Under the Skin), Natalie Portman as the queen in George Lucas' The Phantom Menace (Just kidding! Although Portman deserves notice for her work in Wayne Wang's Anywhere But Here), ChloŽ Sevigny as Brandon/Tina's girlfriend in Boys Don't Cry, and Angelina Jolie as Lisa the sociopath in James Mangold's Girl, Interrupted.


The Not-So-Elite (The Bottom Ten)

(Presented in reverse order - the worst last.)

10. Lake Placid: This movie was designed as a mixture of comedy and horror, but works as neither. For a glance at what Lake Placid was intended to be, check out Deep Blue Sea.

9. Teaching Mrs. Tingle: This terribly idiotic thriller from the pen of an overexposed Kevin Williamson (who compounds matters by thinking he can direct) has only one saving grace: Helen Mirren. Without her deliciously over-the-top performance, this would have been a shoo-in for the worst film of the year.

8. Bats: A lame excuse for a Halloween movie, Bats is seriously hamstrung by its PG-13 rating, which effectively emasculates any creepiness that the film could have had. Then again, given the performances and the script, an R rating probably wouldn't have helped.

7. Doug's First Movie: People get upset when I trash kids' fare like Doug's First Movie, but this is unbearable tripe - dull, unimaginative, and puerile. Of course, I suppose if you're an undiscriminating child under age 8, those things don't matter.

6. Inspector Gadget: One of Disney's worst efforts, right alongside of Mr. Magoo. Even Rupert Everett couldn't save this one.

5. Idle Hands: Mercifully, I have forgotten nearly everything about this horrible movie, except that I looked at my watch about 3 dozen times during the screening and had to surpress the urge to put my own idle hands around the throats of the people behind this movie.

4. Breakfast of Champions: Good book, bad movie. Admittedly, that's an overused refrain, but it's entirely appropriate here. One of those rare films when I got perilously close to walking out. As satires go, this is the nadir.

3. Wing Commander: A computer game recreated for the big screen, apparently with less plot and character development than in its original incarnation. Amazing.

2. Virus: A dull, plodding rip-off of nearly every interesting science fiction movie of the last two decades, Virus shows how bad some of this stuff can look when put through the cinematic recycler then pieced together by a hack director. As for lead actress Jamie Lee Curtis - she showed 1000% more intensity in H20.

1. I Woke Up Early the Day I Died: Ed Wood lives. I wish he had stayed dead.

Special Citation: Zombie! Vs. Mardi Gras: A list of the least appealing films of the year would not be complete without a mention of this movie, which is the worst piece of cinematic crap I have ever seen. However, since it was released direct-to-video, it can't officially be listed here. (Unfortunately, my citation of Zombie! as the worst film of all time has been used as a marketing tool, and unsuspecting consumers are out there paying money for this thing.)


The Elite (The Top Ten)

(Presented in reverse order - the best last.)

Runners-Up (alphabetical): Being John Malkovich, The Dreamlife of Angels, Election, Eyes Wide Shut, Felicia's Journey, Magnolia, Open Your Eyes, Snow Falling On Cedars, The Straight Story, Toy Story 2.

10. (TIE) All About My Mother and Angela's Ashes: I'm not normally an indecisive person, but I couldn't determine which of these films was worthy of the final space on the Top 10 list, so I gave up and handed it to both of them. All About My Mother is Pedro Almodovar's most mature and thoughtful film to date. It was a rousing success at Cannes, and rightfully so - the film is a delight, and will likely appeal even to those who have previously thought of the director as too "fringe" or "strange." Angela's Ashes, on the other hand, is a more conventional motion picture that mixes wry humor with powerful drama. Based on the memoirs of Frank McCourt, the film uses strong writing and a great cast to leave a lasting impression. The incomparable Emily Watson is superb.

9. The Hurricane: Undoubtedly the feel-good movie of 1999, The Hurricane is the best of director Norman Jewison's recent efforts. This bio-pic gets deep into the soul of the main character, burrowing so far in that we see the world through Rubin Carter's eyes. And it comes complete with a rousing last act that, while a little melodramatic, stays close enough to the true facts to be satisfying. Denzel Washington, who has the chameleon-like ability to transform himself into the characters he plays (remember Malcolm X), turns in another standout performance.

8. The Insider: Michael Mann's absorbing, undermarketed expose of the smoking industry is a condemnation of how big business can pervert the supposedly uncorruptible news business. The Insider is a riveting film, characterized by a well-paced script and top-drawer acting by Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, and Christopher Plummer. Some "60 Minutes" insiders have called the film's veracity into question, but its strength as a movie is undeniable.

7. 42 Up: The finest entry into Michael Apted's 7 Up series is also the best documentary of 1999. Whether or not this is the last Up movie, it represents a powerful look at how human beings develop from children into adults. The boys and girls that Apted began interviewing when they were seven years old are now 42, and, through the judicious use of old footage intercut with new interviews, Apted gives us a moving portrayal of real life drama that has been 35 years in the making.

6. Run Lola Run: Although most of the films on this Top 10 list fit into the category of "serious" cinema, Run Lola Run is pure entertainment. Fast-paced fun fueled by adrenaline and amplified by a restless camera and an energetic lead performance, Run Lola Run became a film festival hit early in the year, and an instant art house favorite during its summer run. Three tales in one - the movie toys with alternate reality - Tom Tykwer's picture lets its audience have a good time without abandoning intelligence along the way.

5. American Beauty: Even though there are one or two minor things about American Beauty that I thought were a little clumsy, the film as a whole is a positive triumph of satire and social commentary. Perhaps the most scathing black comedy about marriage since The War of the Roses, American Beauty pulls no punches in pursuit of its goal. The script is simply brilliant, but the real reason for the movie's unqualified success is the level of performances turned in by everyone, especially Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, and Thora Birch.

4. The Cider House Rules: Considering how disappointing all of the previous screen adaptations of John Irving novels have been, calling The Cider House Rules the best of them isn't a ringing endorsement. But this movie isn't just a little better, it's a quantum improvement. Adapted by Irving from his novel, The Cider House Rules is a deeply moving story of one young man's search for himself. Beautifully acted and wonderfully written, this is the kind of magical, old-fashioned tale that draws the viewer in and holds him or her enraptured until the closing credits roll.

3. Xiu Xiu: Not surprisingly, this movie has been banned in China. Xiu Xiu, the directorial debut of actress Joan Chen, is a devastating and unforgettable portrait of hopeless love and the erosion of innocence set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, and its overt condemnation of the historical movement has not pleased those who are currently in power. Although it only explicitly depicts the downfall of one girl, it hints at a widespread corruption that is terrible to contemplate. The film is currently available on video, and, for those who aren't frightened by the thought of a challenging motion picture, this is more than worth the price of a rental.

2. The Fight Club: For some unknown reason, The Fight Club became a lightning rod for those who wanted evidence that Hollywood is enamored with violence. I'm not sure why. Admittedly, there are times when this movie turns violent and bloody, but it is far less grotesque than dozens of more graphic action and horror films. Perhaps the reason is that The Fight Club's violence has the power to disturb - and that's because the movie carries a message. Those who fail to recognize that David Fincher is actually bringing forth a theme of anti-violence (as well as a condemnation of the social climate in which it is almost revered) have missed the point. The Fight Club is not an easy film, but it is a masterpiece of writing, execution, and pacing. The narrative is convoluted without being obtuse, and this film's "secret" is far more rewarding than the hocus-pocus offered by The Sixth Sense. The Fight Club bombed at the box office, probably because it's too dark and smart for the majority of the public. Hopefully, it will find its audience on video, because it richly deserves to be seen.

1. The War Zone: What can I say about The War Zone that I haven't already said. This is the standout film of the year, a piece of cinema so powerful and arresting that it earned a place in the #6 position of my Top 10 of the '90s list. "Devastating" is the word I most frequently use to describe the movie; only two other pictures this decade (Schindler's List, The Sweet Hereafter) have had a similar impact. Like those films, this one is tough to sit through, but the reward of viewing something of the highest cinematic caliber is worth the sacrifice. Actor-turned-filmmaker Tim Roth may go on to have a stellar career behind the camera, but it will be difficult for him to top what he has accomplished with this feature.


© 2000 James Berardinelli


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