Friday, January 7, 2000

The Best and Worst Movies of 1999


1 - Eyes Wide Shut
When I saw Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" last summer, I knew I was witnessing not only the last film of a great director's career, but one of the greatest. Every year has its share of ups and downs cinematically, but one significant event that accommodates each is the arrival of a flawless, stirring, unique and haunting masterpiece. After the lights went up on this one, I knew instantly nothing in the remaining year could surpass it.

Kubrick was one of those directors who treated films like paintings, carefully crafting them so that any noticeable flaw could be immediately covered over. His death this early last spring was a sad time for the cinema--t signified the passing of not just a filmmaker, but of an era in moviemaking.

The last of his projects, "Eyes Wide Shut," got its release last summer to extreme anticipation. Despite it losing over two-thirds of its audience in a second week of release, however, the movie was one worth seeing twice, a film so carefully crafted and imagined that it proved Kubrick's work was unlike anybody else's. It revolved around a marriage between real-life husband and wife Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, which is steady but rocked to life when wife, a female with urges to make men jealous, tells husband of a fantasy she had involving another man. Cruise, in anger and confusion, scours the streets of his city in search of himself. Can he find it in another person? Or will this sexual underworld that he falls through forever scar his masculine ego?

Will the movie be remembered during Oscar time? Don't count on it—the award season so far has been dominated by the late-fall/early-winter projects such as Sam Mendes' "American Beauty" and Michael Mann's "The Insider." Rest assured, no one can go wrong with either of those films—still nothing, not even the closest competition "Sleepy Hollow," could withstand the significant brilliance that "Eyes Wide Shut" enthralls on its viewer.

2 - Sleepy Hollow
If Best Picture awards were warranted to movies simply because of they successfully revised classic literature, then "Sleepy Hollow" would be an immediate shoe-in. Director Tim Burton's energetic vision, which is dark and foreboding as much as it is intriguing, took a Washington Irving story and transformed it into a tense, but unpredictable, murder mystery, with performers such as Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci filling the roles.

Movies have already foretold of the clichéd legend of Sleepy Hollow's Headless Horseman, so Burton's adaptation is not about carrying on in that tradition, nor is it an attempt to make a quick buck off of people with an interest in hammer horror films. What lies beneath striking imagery (which can be compared to images in silent Germanic Expressionism) is a plot containing complex drama and lacking all the obvious formula trappings that bury most horror films nowadays. Like the Tree of the Dead displayed in one of the film's shots, "Sleepy Hollow" slices open the possibilities, and bleeds out the celluloid that has been hidden from us for far too long.

The technical specifications are the immediate standout; Emmanuele Lubezki's cinematography is stunningly done, shot with enough energy to draw its strength from set designs, an eerie mood, murky undertones, and artistic depth in almost in every single frame (there is one great shot in which fog reaches out from a marsh and kills the light within torches). All of this, piled above narrative strength and dramatic rushes, gives us the most detailed and stunning horror film in the past few years. Perhaps "Sleepy Hollow" is the reason why Tim Burton was destined to make movies.

3 - The Matrix
The Wachowski brothers' vision of virtual urban societies and computer generated cities was by far one of the most impressive displays of action and intrigue ever made. Visually charged and thematically driven, the movie centered on the tale of a chosen liberator, who was told by his peers that the Matrix had been "pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth." In order to fight back to regain their world from technology and artificial intelligence, he became involved in shoot-outs, violent confrontations, assaults and unique plot twists, most of which were savored by gigantic sci-fi fans, and were later criticized by the media for being a potential cause of the Littleton, Colorado school tragedy.

Not that any of those accusations dwarfed the movie's popularity. This is an expression of raw power and energy, focusing on the targeted plot twists with absolute fascination, and painting them with intelligent and dazzling special effects. It is much like "Dark City," but borrows all the elements from that film at a high display of potency. It may very well be the freshest and most invigorating take on science fiction since "2001: A Space Odyssey."

4 - The Insider
Russel Crowe may have been one of the greatest assets in Michael Mann's persuasive take on a "60 Minutes" scandal, but that shouldn't distract the attention from his script, which is by far one of the smartest essays on the tobacco industry ever devised. Whereas most screenplays would mull over detail after detail in the given subject, this script draws its strength from the actors by placing them into dark corners and forcing them to fight back. It is with this virtue that the realism reaches out to the audience; we know that cigarettes kill people, and seeing "The Insider" and its lifelike characterizations reminds us that the smokers tend to suffer long before fate settles in.

The actors are superbly influenced by the material—Russel Crowe, Al Pacino and Christopher Plummer are each deserving of Academy Award nominations. In a year filled with good films but lackluster acting roles, "The Insider" presents not only well-written and directed substance, but significant casting and flawless portrayals.

5 - The Talented Mr. Ripley
This material has Oscar buzz written all over it, and with good reason—one of the first thrillers since Hitchcock's works in which the fascination of the villain wins our trust, this is an eerie and well-conceived adaptation of the classic novels by Patricia Highsmith. Anthony Minghella is a forced to be reckoned with behind the camera here, applying all the necessary touches to ensure the audience's immediate appreciation for the film's foe (not to mention all the necessary anger on his opposing forces). It's amazing how far Minghella has come between this film, and his last, "The English Patient."

The character, Ripley himself, is played by Matt Damon in one of the year's most daring male roles. He is also accompanied three great stars, too: Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge Sherwood, Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf, and Cate Blanchett as Meredith Logue, who play three acquaintances that Ripley must learn to tame with his psychological manipulation. Seldom has there been such a vibrant, ambitious cast assembled throughout the year, and their performances are carried by passionate directing, strong writing, and brilliant editing. Rest assured, the words "Academy Award" will be on everyone's lips for this film when it comes time to reveal nominations.

6 - An Ideal Husband
Oscar Wilde is considered the William Shakespeare of the 19th century, and, like his fellow bard, is still getting work in Hollywood almost a hundred years after his death. The fact that Wilde was responsible for creating stage productions that were not bound by the times seems to be the immediate cinematic hook; thus, it should come to no surprise as to why "An Ideal Husband" succeeds in a contemporary setting, or in any other chosen time period.

Rupert Everett, Minnie Driver, Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett are among the most elite actors working in Hollywood today, and when they relish in Wilde's witty parley, our feet feel the urge to leap from the floor, and our hands want to break out in thunderous applause. Rupert Everett is another one of the year's strongest Oscar contenders; unfortunately, since this brilliant and rather faithful adaptation was released in early summer, don't count on many nominations. The Academy prefers to embrace movies that are still fresh in their minds.

7 - South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
Isn't it odd how the most satirically serious film of the year comes from two filmmakers who've never taken a thing in their own lives that seriously? Oh yes, I'm referring to those two infamous men known as Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and of course, I'm referring to their movie "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," which is a brilliant, scathingly funny cartoon that will go down in history as the most brutal attack against 1999's cinematic controversies.

Why is it necessary to enjoy such a lewd piece of trash? Perhaps because, like certain trashy material, there is much to be explored beneath the flat surface of the animation. Biting fingers of the MPAA board and savoring the wounds, "South Park" challenges the very stability of the association's film rating system (which, as you may recall, broke an all-time low barrier this summer when it tried to label taunting sexual acts in "Eyes Wide Shut" with an NC-17, and gratuitous bloodcurdling violence in something like "8MM" with a simple R rating). In addition, the movie offers an arrogant slice of evidence in a case built against those who believe media and cinema violence are being intimidated by teenagers who carry guns into schools. No one can take this stuff that seriously; the movie goes so far and pushes so many buttons that, even in the most obvious coincidences, not one single image can be blamed for the decisions made by humans. Life does not intimidate art, and here is a movie that justifies those views.

8 - A Midsummer Night's Dream
Of the top ten best films of 1999, two of them belong to works by famous bards: the first being Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband," the second being William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which is a flawed play (no doubt) but taken to beautiful and surreal heights in this movie adaptation.

In a story of pluck, magic, romance and comedy, four lovers lose themselves in the woods, only to be brought together by mystical spells formed by a group of fairies. Naturally, the spells get off to a terrible start; one lover falls in love with the wrong woman, the other man does the same, and so on; but the story is not simply about one set of lovers. Instead, we are given several enchanting subplots, including one where a fairy has been forced to fall in love with a woodsman scarred by the head of a jack ass. All of these stories are perceived well by Shakespeare's immortal imagination, but unfortunately, it becomes hard to picture the sights around them.

This film remedies that with colorful landscapes, stunning cinematography and magical casting. In short, what we have is a movie that paints beautiful portraits over already-established canvases.

9 - Men Cry Bullets
Would this list be complete without mentioning one underground film? Not quite, especially considering that "Men Cry Bullets" may very well be one of the most powerful in years. Behind bizarre characters and a rather elusive style lies a story that echoes throughout time, in which men are perceived as abusers and women as the abused, when in fact there can be a time when tables have turned.

And the movie never missteps on the theme's boundaries, offering brutal images and revealing moments to accommodate the development of characters and story. "Men Cry Bullets" is the "Pulp Fiction" of underground filming; it challenges a movie formula, but manages to get away with just about anything.

10 - eXistenZ
Like the pairing of Shakespeare and Wilde on my list for the best of 1999, one would not be complete without mention of a second virtual reality project.

In a year filled with massive upheaval for science fiction, David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ" was essentially "The Matrix" with a more toned but fascinating edge; the first is a better film, but not as willing to stretch the limits when questioning the basis of what we perceive as "reality." The movie's style and approach were all in the traditional Cronenberg trademark--bizarre but intriguing, hard-edged but spellbinding, daring but effective.

Unfortunately for the topnotch cast and crew credits, the film received little attention at the time of its release (probably because it was overshadowed by "The Matrix"s popularity). Now that it has been welcomed with solid sales on video and DVD, one has the opportunity of rushing out to purchase a copy. Haunting images, fascinating perceptions, and solid acting await...

Although the list only has ten films, this should not force one to overlook many of the year's other great achievements. The next best ten, in order of rank, are:

"Mystery Men," a zany, hilarious satire on the media obsession with radical super heroes; "American Beauty," a dramatically flawless creation in which fathers rebel, daughters fall in love, sons masquerade as good school boys, and mothers are free to explore their sexual desires; "Tarzan," Disney's ambitious retelling of the famous story; "Deep Blue Sea," the most unpredictably exciting blockbuster of the summer; "Toy Story 2," a PIXAR sequel that far surpasses the original in design and content; "Being John Malkovich," a relentlessly inventive adventure with twists and turns at every angle; "Three Kings," a nail-biting post-Desert Storm tale about people who take risks for the benefit of saving lives; "Summer Of Sam," a fascinating look at the summer of 1977 in the Bronx, and the people who lived in fear of the .44 caliber killer; "Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace," the best of the "Star Wars" films and by far the most breathtaking; and "Ravenous," a fast-paced and savory blend of horror, comedy, blood and frigid scenarios.

In a year loaded with terrific achievements, I also praise: "200 Cigarettes," "American Pie," "At First Sight," "The Blair Witch Project," "Flawless," "Home Page," "The Iron Giant," "The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc," "The Mummy," "Music Of The Heart," "Princess Mononoke," "Stigmata," and "The Thirteenth Floor."
1 - Baby Geniuses
When "Baby Geniuses" opened up to some slightly positive ticket sales, critics began questioning the existence of God. And indeed, they had every reason to do so; like an Antichrist rising from the depths of Hollywood's most warped minds, here is the true evil of all 1999 movies, the one film that manages to look us into the face and dare ask, "are you stupider than infants?"

Rather than having the decency to keep kids' mouths shut so they can talk mentally (like in the "Look Who's Talking" pictures), these filmmakers incorporated horrible facial effects into the setup, in which children stare at the adults and begin talking as if they are baby Einsteins. Judging by the ugliness and ineptitude of the setup, the babies are smarter than the people behind the camera.

Ever hear the expression "critics see the movies so you don't have to?" Perhaps that should be this travesty's tagline: films like "Baby Geniuses" are the cause of violent outbursts in theaters packed with impatient viewers waiting to laugh.

2 - Detroit Rock City
Hair band admiration surely won't permit a viewer to find much to laugh about at "Detroit Rock City," if anything at all. Supposedly a comedy, this lousy and insipid story about friends who set out for a KISS concert in Detroit moves as slow as cars on a highway during rush hour, and is sometimes so dead that not even the idiocy of the characterizations can pump it back to life. Avoid this thing like it were a fatal disease.

3 - Wild Wild West
Will Smith struck an all-time low this summer (and that's saying something, especially with two horrible movies already under his belt) with "Wild Wild West," a comedy about outlaws who ride in mechanical spiders and "cowboys" who, for some reason, fight them with almost no assets. Every detail is depressing, from overblown special effects to laughless comedy quips to wasted characters and, finally, to negative stereotypes. People who are subject to this thing best bring a barf bag along.

4 - Varsity Blues
The first movie I saw this year certainly wasn't a sign that the remaining 12 months would bring much to enjoy; "Varsity Blues" is a sports/high school/party movie that puts to rest every hatred we may have generated for others; it is a loathsome, pretentious, dumb, testosterone-driven mess with no decent writing, no decent direction, and no laughs. The film doesn't even have the courage to use clichés as an influence, and instead treats them like new ideas.

5 - Bicentennial Man
Like the two years before 1999, Robin Williams rushed onto the movie screen this winter with perhaps some of the most miscalculated material ever captured on film. The first was "Flubber," a remake of "The Absent Minded Professor," and the second was the infamous "Patch Adams," which, despite bad reviews, went on to become one of the most financially successful movies of 1998. But that road has taken Williams directly to the worst stop of them all; "Bicentennial Man" is the worst movie of his career, so utterly melodramatic and stupid that not even fans of "Patch Adams" could appreciate. At least this one failed financially.

6 - Wing Commander
Cheesy is the only word to describe this would-be space epic, starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Matthew Lillard as space marines fighting a war against grotesque aliens created by special effects. Everything looks artificially cluttered; even the space backgrounds, which are plain to begin with, lack a shred of redeeming value.

7 - Life
Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence may have saw this idea on paper and found it interesting, but some things are easier said than done. A story of two men living their life out in prison, "Life" is as laughless as it is boring, stupid as it is pointless, crummy as it is bizarre. When the script has already been drained of life by the actors, it resorts to progressing in years, until we get a Lawrence and Murphy aged worse than Ray Charles. Perhaps prison is not a bad idea after all for these people.

8 - Forces Of Nature
Have you ever had the feeling that actors are doing a movie simply because they owe the director a debt? You get that kind of feeling watching Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock stumble in the romance/comedy disaster "Forces Of Nature." How in the world did anyone see this thing as a passable project when there is absolutely no chemistry between the two stars? And who thought that the surprise ending would come off as effective when the rest of the movie pushes in the other direction? This is the kind of movie in which you are permitted to ask questions and then the director dismisses them.

9 - Inspector Gadget
"Inspector Gadget" so infuriated me upon its release last year that I had difficulty trying to put together a review on it. For the sake of my own sanity, that effort was put aside; but that should not be any kind of dismissal for this horrible product, which ejects human intelligence and tries to make us fall for all of these incidents as if they are lifelike. Computer wizardry is not even here, which may be the film's saddest mystery; it was released under Disney's name, who have spent massive dollar amounts for their animated features in recent years. For any reason, shouldn't a film starring Rupert Everett at least be good to look at?

10 - Bats
This is a prime example of attempting to cash in on the success of creature features; after the genre experienced mild success in mid-July last year with "Lake Placid" and "Deep Blue Sea," the idiotic minds behind "Bats" took that dream too seriously and set out to make a movie about creatures who look like inkblots with hidden agendas from a distance (the editing of crows over school yards in Hitchcock's "The Birds" looks more realistic"). But whereas those two previous films offered new twists on old favorites, "Bats" didn't dare further that success, and instead pushes the genre back into the hole it has worked its way out of. More absurd than the "Jaws" sequels and less enthralling than most films by Ed Wood, this is a campy flick that will make people scared for all the wrong reasons.

Though 1999 was a great year for the movies, lots of bad ones still made their way into the theaters. Here are the running-up ten, in descending order:

"Teaching Mrs. Tingle," a pompous and often ridiculous horror-comedy about cruel teachers who are taught lessons by their stupid students; "The Bachelor," a comedy with a plot as absurd as costar Mariah Carey's own music talent; "Love Stinks," which deserves to be re-titled "This Stinks"; "Analyze This," a mob comedy that takes two stars and puts them into roles that are just about as funny as root canals; "Outside Providence," the most miscalculated comedy of the Farrely brothers' career; "My Favorite Martian," which adapts a television series so accurately that even the stupidity of the concept shines through; "For Love Of The Game," an inept and pointless drama which pits Kevin Costner against a script that is essentially "Field Of Dreams Part 2"; "Instinct," a wretched production that combines cliches and thinks the audience is stupid enough not to recognize them; "The King And I," a creepy animated film that lacks artistic freedom and a respectable plot; and "Office Space," which proves that director Mike Judge was better off with his "Beavis And Butthead" material.

This year, I also loathed: "Anna And The King," "Any Given Sunday," "Anywhere But Here," "Arlington Road," "Big Daddy," "Dogma," "Fight Club" (yes, you read that correctly), "Jawbreaker," "The Love Letter," "The Out-Of-Towners," "The Rage: Carrie 2," and "The Thirteenth Warrior."

A special mention goes to "Zombie! Vs. Mardi Gras" and "Inbred Rednecks," two video releases that pushed the envelope for cinematic idiocy late last year. The first film is the worst ever made, and the second falls somewhere in between "Bats" and "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" as one of 1999's most laughably bad creations.

1 comment:

N, Clark said...

Interesting to go back and read some of these to see how cinema history has received them. "Varsity Blues" is considered a cult classic (though I haven't seen it), and Office Space is one of my favorites, as well as a favorite of several others.