This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. Links have been updated.
1999 was an oddly rich year for films. It seemed like Hollywood had finally taken a hint from the indie world and made films that challenged viewers to think while watching, to dream, to question, to laugh with characters not at them.
Even studios tried and true disappointers, the romantic comedy and the teen comedy, were above average. Movies like Cruel Intentions, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Notting Hill succeeded largely because they were based in strong writing and the fact that the female leads (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Julia Stiles, and Julia Roberts) turned in finely crafted, multi-layered performances.
But in my opinion, 1999 was the year of the director. The year where not only the writing was inventive and strong, but the directors did great things with new types of material and new things with old stuff. Everyone from Stanley Kubrick to Doug Liman was taking their art forward…and still managed to entertain and inform.
So without further ado…
10. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut
Like all Kubrick’s films, his real interest lies in the subtext and he is the master of it. Eyes Wide Shut is a difficult film only because the rumors surrounding its creation and content made it impossible for people to be pleased. I mean if you think that you’re gonna get to see the biggest film star in history butt a** naked and bangin’ his (then) wife on film for the first time, you might not be inclined to look for much else. But people forgot that this was a Kubrick film, not a Tom Cruise film.
As such Tom Cruise gives what I truly believe to be his best performance to date (and that includes Collateral and Magnolia which are right behind) as a man who cannot come to grips with the possibility that his wife is not totally devoted to him. In a stunning comment on patriarchal control, Kubrick uses Tom’s character to dissect the psyche of the modern man who can’t seem to let go of antiquated notions of marriage and devotion.
What Kubrick says with this film is really quite simple…that feeling doesn’t really go away, it’s natural. The film feels odd and unformed because Cruise’s character never leaves the turmoil of his odyssey because the purpose of it was for him to realize that the turmoil he’s feeling isn’t supposed to abate on its own.
9. Alexander Payne’s Election
This is one of those films that gets funnier every time you see it. It is so superbly crafted and depending on your perspective when you see it, the film still works. Films that work on many levels are few and far between, but Election proves that all you have to do is take your subject seriously enough to really skewer it a billion times. Reese Witherspoon, as usual, is tremendous, as is Matthew Broderick but Chris Klein’s performance as the dumb jock who can’t seem to realize that his whole world is a big joke on him rings so true to me, that I refuse to watch anything else he does. That’s the biggest compliment I think can be paid to him. His work is unflappable and so is the film.
8. Kimberly Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry
Hilary Swank broke my heart in this film. What a performance! I think the true strength of this film though is in how clearly we see every character in this film. From Chloe Sevigny to Brendan Sexton III to the highly overlooked and underappreciated performance of Peter Sarsgaard. Pierce’s starkly lyrical film is so mordantly and beautifully jarring in its linear and simple portrayal of Brandon Teena’s world. The final act is the second most chilling moment on screen that year because it is presented so simply. The tension comes from the coldness of the characters, the bareness of the landscape, and Swank’s Brandon Teena.
7. Andrew Fleming’s Dick
Of all the actors on Dawson’s Creek Michelle Williams has the most interesting and (in terms of sheer breadth) successful career. She manages to create such fascinating portraits and it all started here with this fine film. She has the juiciest role and she steals every scene.
Watch the precise way she and Kirsten Dunst play the ditsy Betsy and Arlene. Films like this are delicate balancing acts and the kind of comedic timing that Dunst and Williams show while simultaneously layering intelligence and heart underneath it, is astounding. The moment Williams comes to grips with who Nixon is is one of the most poignant moments of the year.
And that doesn’t even count the fact that as a political satire, Dick is the finest cinematic gem since Dave.
6. Sam Mendes’ American Beauty
Again, not a particularly original choice, but American Beauty is a rare gem, a studio film that satirizes, in an unflinchingly way, the very people it wants to plop down $8 to see it. Funny enough, the film has always been misunderstood in my opinion. The film is more about a family than it is about Lester Burnam or rather, two families incapable of adjusting to the reality of suburban living and must find beauty in different places. Featuring the year’s strongest ensemble and the sharpest satirical writing, American Beauty caps off a year that was all about satirization.
5. Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother
All About My Mother marked a turning point in Almodovar’s work. It gets everything right that was wrong with his previous films and expands upon all the aspects of his films that seemed to be so effortlessly sharp before. It could be that the story of a woman’s journey through pain after the unfortunate death of her teenage son is the most emotionally resonant one of Almodovar’s career, but that is to slight the wonderful direction, the performances, and the vibrancy of the subplots that mesh so well with the main story. His direction has a focus and a keen eye for detail it didn’t seem to have to the same degree before. To be blunt, it’s the most complete movie to come out of Spain in a very long time and one of the finest pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen.
4. Doug Liman’s GO
It needs to be stated that the so-called Tarantino style of interconnecting plotlines is done to much richer effect here. Where as Tarantino’s use of said style is purely for style reasons, in GO the style serves the plotlines themselves. Plus, it is just done with less arrogance and more restraint and whole ideas aren’t ripped off from better filmmakers.
Liman’s film works because the characters are taken seriously, especially the more eccentric and strange ones, because it has to in order to be funny (esp. in the Scott Wolf/Jay Mohr sequence) and interesting. There is not a weak link in the cast but special note for me must go to Mohr and Wolf who are a f*cking riot.
3. Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam
I’ve read a lot of reviews of this film that knock the film for not being about Son of Sam. And that is rather silly, given the title of the film. The film is about the summer that Son of Sam terrorized New York. The film shares a kinship with Lee’s masterpiece Do The Right Thing in that it is about the effects that outsiders (or the perception of an outsider) have on isolated communities. The film is riveting and features career making performances by Adrien Brody, John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, and Jennifer Esposito who turns a one-note character into a fascinating portrait of co-dependency.
2. David Fincher’s Fight Club
This isn’t a fairly imaginative choice, but the simple fact is that Fight Club is a masterpiece. It’s as intellectually arresting as it is visually arresting. Brad Pitt is flawless in a caged performance of smirking arrogance and Edward Norton, as his foil, gives yet another perfect performance. But the film is a directing triumph, from the blown-out colors to the set design to the vivid way Norton’s character’s psyche is depicted. This is yet another film that deals with men of generation x and where to place all their notions of patriarchy and male primacy in a world that is critiquing the values of those things.
1. Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley
It’s never been fully stated what a fascinating interpretation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley really is. It would be nearly unfilmable to make the protagonist a cold-hearted killer in a film unless there was something, anything redeemable about him. Highsmith’s Ripley is irredeemable and in a novel that can, and often does, work.
What Minghella did was try to get at what could make Tom Ripley do the things he did. He found the locus for Tom’s rage and it was a bottomless pit of insecurity. That kind of naked desire and passion and self-loathing is repulsive to us because we live in such a cold-hearted society where any amount of real emotion for another human being, especially a man for another man, is mistaken for co-dependency and psychological deficiency.
But Minghella saw Tom Ripley as a shell, a man so desperate for the one thing he’s never had—love. The film is so eerily and creepily disturbing that it is completely understandable why people didn’t like it. It is not, however, acceptable to dismiss the flawless craft of the movie as a result.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in order):
2. South Park: Bigger, Louder, and Uncut
3. Three Kings
4. Being John Malkovich
5. The Insider
7. An Ideal Husband
8. Cradle Will Rock
10. 10 Things I Hate About You
Best Director: Anthony Minghella, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Runners-up: Sam Mendes and Spike Jonze
Best Ensemble: Cast of American Beauty
Runner-up: Cast of GO
Best Actor: Matt Damon, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Runners-up: John Leguizamo and Tom Cruise
Best Actress: Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry
Best Supporting Actor: Adrien Brody, Summer of Sam
Runners-up: Chris Klein and Peter Sarsgaard
Best Supporting Actress: Chloe Sevigny, Boys Don’t Cry
Runners-up: Mena Suvari and Jennifer Esposito
Breakthrough Performances (in order):
1. Wes Bentley in American Beauty
2. Scott Wolf in GO
3. Michelle Williams in Dick
4. Matt Keeslar in Splendor
5. Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich
6. Ice Cube in Three Kings