NOTE: For this year's list, I have included a few films from earlier years that I viewed in 1999. I will continue that approach in future lists. For more complete reviews of all of these films, please go to Robert's Picks: Brief Reviews of Films Viewed in 1999.
Top 10 Films
NR. 10: The Castle, dir. Rob Sitch (Australia, 1997). This film is a high-energy comedy with a bite. The characters are caricatures, and yet they are endearing because we can identify with them. In the film the Kerrigan family lives next to an airport and under electrical towers, and yet they consider their home a perfect place to live and enjoy life together. The father Darrell is the head of the family in more ways than one. He is optimistic, cheerful, devoted and always supportive of his wife and sons, and capable of enjoying life to the fullest. He is always involved in new projects, and life could not be better. In a strange way this is an Ozzie and Harriet household. When an inspector arrives to tell them their house is going to be torn down to expand the runway, the father refuses to cave in to pressure. He is determined to fight the government. Eventually, he finds an unusual ally, a well-bred solicitor who takes his case gratis and wins the day. NR. 9: The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella). This is an entertaining, tense, and fast-moving film--and it shows what a strong directorial hand, excellent editing, well-coordinated cinematography, and good adaptation of a fine original novel can bring to the total film experience. I was reminded of Hitchcock, because the actors' acting is not so much acting as it is hitting their marks and being in the right shot (and the right type of shot) at the right time. Amazing what a well-timed close-up can provoke in the viewer. The cinematography was lush and warmly lit and perfect for the late 1950s decadent-nouveaux riche landscapes. Rome, Venice, enchanting small-town-by-the-sea Italy. They come alive in the cinematography. Then the story--taut, unpredictable, characters perfectly consistent and revealing little of themselves. Mr. Ripley never fits in; that is plain to see. Yet those around him never see that simple truth, and they are the worse off for it. This is a strong revelation of the emptiness at the heart of loneliness, when there is no relief for one's yearning to be a different--not a better--person.
NR. 8:American Beauty (Sam Mendes). I was reminded of Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1965), Robert Redford's Ordinary People (1980) and Ang Lee's The Ice-Storm (1997) because this film, like them, was a critique of the anxiety-ridden white upper class in suburbia. Some of the ingredients included the voice-over narration by the main character, the father, played by Kevin Spacey, whose transformation was both radical and believable; the acting of Annette Bening (in many ways reminiscent of a sexier, more kinetic version of Mary Tyler Moore (from Ordinary People)--her pep talk-to-herself scenes were incredible; a creepy performance by a young actor who plays the next-door neighbor (who is obsessed with videotaping images of beauty--as he defines them); a solid performance by Chris Cooper, who plays a rough-and-tough ex-Marine and the boy's father. There were shades of Kubrick's Lolita in the relationship between the father and his daughter's high school girl friend. And yet the resolution of their relationship was unexpected and one of the most satisfying moments of the film. Fantasies were so much a part of the characterizations. When the father becomes obsessed with the young girl, the images of red rose petals falling from the ceiling were perfect--they captured the power of sexual fantasies and yet made me sympathetic and understanding of the father's conflicts. NOTE: In an earlier version of this list I placed this film as the top film of 1999. But I taught American Beauty in Fall, 2001, and I was disappointed in the film in several ways. I was frustrated at the misogynistic portrayal of Carolyn and the stereotypical and one-dimensional portrayals of the major characters. The film, in this viewing, was more cartoon that drama. I would have preferred a more sustained treatment of real characters rather than the societal critique that was the focus of the film. In this film things had to happen to characters a certain way in order to get across the idea of beauty. NR. 7: The End of the Affair (Neil Jordan). I was overwhelmed by the simplicity and directness of this film. It seemed to ring true to Graham Greene's novel. The use of extensive voice-over was an excellent means of telling the story. The use of complicated flashbacks (from two complementary points of view) also layered the film beautifully. This was a subtle work of art, suitable for adult audiences or filmgoers who are unafraid of slow-moving yet complex stories. I remember the rain, the English umbrellas, the bowler hat, the perfect sex, the obsession, the moment of clarity and faith that alters the direction of an affair. Here is a film that moves slowly, inexorably, clearly to its destination.
NR. 6: The War Zone (Tim Roth). This film was an emotionally wrenching experience for me. As I sat there in the theater I felt increasingly anxious and physically uncomfortable. On the one hand I wanted to flee the scene; on the other hand I was riveted to the images in the film. The first character we see is a remote house on the north Devon coast in England. The landscape is bleak, dreary, and dangerous. The first interior shot shows a family gathered around a space heater. The very pregnant mother and her teenaged daughter sit on opposite ends of a ragged sofa, their legs entwined and their backs supported by pillows. The expression on the daughter's face shows anxiety, dread, tension. Something was wrong with that picture of the "happy family." The teenaged son sits across from them. And then the father enters the scene. Where is the monster in this picture? I don't see it. But there are monstrous things going on in this household. I knew coming into the film that it was about incest, but I did not know the details of the story. The plot is sprung when the brother comes home from shopping and accidentally notices something going on between his father and his sister in the house. Finally, when the son witnesses the father's abuse, we are given that burden, just as the brother has been given that burden. NR. 5:: Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Peirce). This film is timely, tense, even unnerving. A film like this reminds me of the films from the 1970s, films that packed a visceral punch. This film will leave you thinking about it for hours afterwards, for days afterwards. I use The Crying Game in my introductory film course, and I saw Boys Don't Cry the weekend before I began showing the former film. These films get at what is important to young people today: alienation, identity, love, intimacy, sexuality, relationships, self-expression, finding oneself. The film is true to the character of Teena Brandon (or first name Brandon when she becomes a man). In Boys Don't Cry Lana, a young woman who falls in love at first sight, remains loyal to the man she loves throughout the rest of the film. It's not surprising that the film ends with unrelenting brutality and violence; the people in Brandon's world are committed to dysfunction and despair. Caught in that web is a young transgender man who constantly makes poor decisions, keeps pushing against society's will, and yet is sensitive and endearing as a character.
NR. 4: After Life (Kore-eda Hirokazu). What happens when one dies? The film depicts the first station the dead person arrives at. In what appears to be an abandoned schoolhouse, the newly dead (many old, but some young and some middle-aged) sit across a table from a young person who notifies them, officially, that they are dead. The counselor then tells the dead person he or she has two days to choose one memory from his or her life. Then at the end of the week the staff will film that one one memory, and the dead will see the short films on their last day at this station. There is much more to this film than this brief summary can suggest. Who are the counselors? Why are they chosen? Who is their sensei? Why can't an old man of 77 think of a memory? Why does a young man of 21 refuse to select a memory? Why do the memories have to be filmed by the staff? What happens when the dead person views his or her filmed memory? NR. 3: All About My Mother (Spain, Pedro Almodovar). This film immersed the audience in a mother's search for understanding after the sudden death of her teenaged son in an automobile accident. When he dies, the mother makes a physical and emotional journey that takes her full circle and leaves her healed in the most unexpected of ways. The film provides numerous insights into character, identity, and the meaning of the metaphor mother.
NR. 2: The Limey (Steven Soderbergh). This film set its sights on the redemption of one human being, lays out his story, put him in motion, and reaches its climactic, transcendent moment in which a character is healed and made whole again--right before our eyes. I loved the cutting style--incredible jump cuts, and then cuts between two scenes that stitched together dialogue (begun in one and ended in the other). The film was filled with uninflected shots--each cut to a shot that gave me an emotional jolt or visceral insight into the character's conflicts. The limey was an Englishman who arrives in Los Angeles (another planet) and strides purposefully across the landscape. "Tell Me! Tell me about Jenny!" Those words echo in my mind as I recall the experience of viewing this film. Those words begin and end the film. And we understand. We meet a new and fresh and individual human being and we understand him. The film leaves us thinking about human destiny, failed relationships, self-centered lifestyles, redemption, justice and mercy, the infinite beauty of fleeting friendships.
NR. 1: Felicia's Journey (Atom Egoyan). Egoyan adapts a novel by William Trevor, one of the great 20th Century British novelists and short story writers, about a young Irish woman who journeys to England to find her lover and tell him she is pregnant. She becomes one of the "lost girls" who are found by a rotund, mild-mannered, squeamish control freak played by Bob Hoskins, whose acting in this film is as good as Kevin Spacey's in American Beauty. Mr. Hilditch is a killer, but the only evidence we have for it are the videotapes (taken with a hidden camera in his tiny automobile) he carefully labels and stores and then replays at sumptious dinners he prepares. The restlessness of the camera is a constant reminder of the instability at the core of the main character--as well as the young woman he draws into her web. Egoyan used exceptional symbolic images throughout the film to underscore the prevailing mood of impending violence and doom. Hilditch's oppression, at the hands of his mother, has made him a tiny man, a miniature human being (in an emotional sense), oppressed by everything around him. The use of sound in this film is remarkably creative--not just the music, but the use of ambient sounds, and also sound effects to add drama to the slightest of moments.
|1||Felicia's Journey||Canada||Atom Egoyan|
|2||The Limey||USA||Steven Soderbergh|
|3||All About My Mother||Spain||Pedro Almadovar|
|4||After Life||USA||Kore-eda Hirokazu|
|5||Boys Don't Cry||USA||Kimberly Peirce|
|6||The War Zone||UK||Tim Roth|
|7||The End of the Affair||UK||Neil Jordan|
|8||American Beauty||USA||Sam Mendes|
|9||The Talented Mr. Ripley||UK||Anthony Minghella|
|10||The Castle (1997)||Australia||Rob Sitch|
|11||Eyes Wide Shut||UK||Stanley Kubrick|
|12||Anywhere but HereThe Insider||USA||Wayne Wang|
|13||The Insider||USA||Michael Mann|
|14||The King of Masks (1996)||China||Tian-Ming Wu|
|15||Map of the World||USA||Scott Elliot|
|16||Magnolia||USA||Paul Thomas Anderson|
|18||The Winslow Boy||UK||David Mamet|
|20||Tea With Mussolini||Italy/UK||Franco Zeffirelli|
NR. 11. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick). It's amazing how much "bad press" this film has received since it opened. As I watched the first 45 minutes of the film, I kept telling myself, "Look at these images. Look at the care and loving concern about composition, lighting, movement, acting, screenplay, editing, sound." Although I did not relate to these characters or to their motives, I came away from the film moved by how the relationship between this man and woman was revealed, almost like a psychological x-ray machine at work. The wife was calculating, cruel, and even malevolent in her telling of the story of her fantasy for the young officer. At the same time, her husband was staggeringly stupid to respond as did--and as he continued toward the Fall by tumbling into a dark rabbit hole (not as friendly as in Alice in Wonderland). I kept thinking about this film for days. Little questions would pop up, bits of scenes would replay. I viewed the orgy scenes as emotionally chilling. I kept thinking of how everyone wears masks, and how seldom the masks are ever removed to reveal the essence of the person. NR. 12: Anywhere but Here. The chemistry between Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon was impressive. I felt as if I was being introduced to a new force in acting as I watched the young actor at work. Her face was a landscape of changing moods. Her expressions surprised me, delighted me, and challenged me--to think about her character's change and growth in the face of her oppressive and failed mother. Sarandon plays a dowdy middle-aged mom who is definitely fashion-challenged. She dresses like a woman in delayed adolescence. She is uncouth, undependable, mouthy, undisciplined, inconsistent, fearful of stability, and a lousy mother. Her daughter is the mother-figure in the relationship, and near the end of the film, in a perfect moment of clarity, she tells her mother, "I don't want the job anymore."
NR. 13: The Insider (Michael Mann). The insider is played by Russell Crowe, who made his impact as an actor in last year's L.A. Confidential. Crowe plays an uptight, nervous, and introspective scientist who betrays a confidentiality agreement with his tobacco company when he realizes he has no other recourse. We never get "inside" the "Insider." He is a private individual, and his secret self is not easily revealed. The energy of the film is fueled by the "wooing" of the Insider by the 60 Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). Pacino brings an intensity, arrogance, and single-minded intensity to this role. One theme was the omnipresence of communication aids in this digital age--a fax machine initiated Bergman's interaction with the Insider, and the film includes an unforgettable cell phone call from the Caribbean. Communications are subtle, intense, complex, and problematic in this digital age. NR. 14. The King of Masks, dir. Lu Tianming (China, 1996). An old man (a street performer and king of masks) wants a male child he can teach his art. When he finds a boy, finally, the "boy" is revealed to be a girl. He rejects her until she finally--and vividly--demonstrates her love for the old man. Then he takes her to his heart and teaches her his art--in violation of everything he has come to believe in this male-dominated culture. This film has a classic screenplay, wonderful acting (the old man's expressive face is beautiful to watch), and a supporting player (a man who plays the role of the "living bodhisattva") adds to the action. The scenes of classic Chinese opera--showing the latter character in his role as the "living bodhisattva" gave me a clearer understanding of this aspect of Mahayana Buddhism than my former reading in textbooks about Buddhism. Keep in mind that the film functions best as melodrama--the characters overcome great odds, their love for each other is tested, and eventually they survive and come to love each other fully.
NR. 15: A Map of the World, dir. Scott Elliot. Based on Jane Hamilton's novel, and with her contribution to the screenplay, this film is about a woman whose life changes overnight when a neighbor's child she is caring for drowns accidentally in a pond on their farm property. Sigourney Weaver plays the role of the mother, and she plays it only the way this actor can play such a role--with strength of character, gritty determination, and yet a reserve of warmth and tenderness. The characters are straightforward types--a shy farmer eking out a living in rural Wisconsin, his city-bred wife who has always felt an outsider to this rural area, a neighbor who has given up farming and is doing well in business, and his wife--who is the perfect traditional mother, baking perfect muffins and pies and creating perfect crafts and activities for her children. The four are best of friends, but when Weaver's character is momentarily inattentive with her children, and her neighbor's two children in her house--moments before they are all to go swimming in the pond, her life is ruined.NR. 16. Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson). This film was too long. Certain scenes and certain segments were downright brilliant, but then certain scenes and certain segments were excessive, obvious, overtly sentimentalized, and even cloying. Almost everything about every scene that Tom Cruise was in rang true to me and was first-rate social criticism, revelation of character, and confirmation of the power of this man's acting. The Tom Cruise sections were the heart of this film. I also appreciated the pairing of the cop and the male nurse--two male nurturers, who were central to the themes being explored. Anderson seems to be saying that today's generation is looking for confirmation (evidence) of faith issues. You see--the urban legends. The climactic rain of frogs was a kind of "Zen moment" when the Master cuffs the student in order to help the student "see" what is right in front of him. Or when the Master pours the cup of tea so that the cup is overflowing. "Now do you see the truth?! It's right in front of you!" Again, part of this film is sheer greatness; part of this film is pure excess.
NR. 17. Election (Alexander Payne). A surprise hit, one of those films I enjoyed from the inventive first image--of a noisy sprinkler head on a high school athletic field. Mathew Broderick was perfect for the role of a high school teacher who has begun an emotional and moral drift in early middle age. Reese Witherspoon continues to impress--this time as the quintessential social climber who is determined to win election to the high school council. She catches the perfect pitch of aspiration, a happy-smile face, and then desperation when she feels her goals slipping away from her. Payne's earlier Citizen Ruth was another fine effort, and with this film I am determined to follow his work. NR. 18: The Winslow Boy (David Mamet). A surprisingly effective drama based on an historical event--a schoolboy in Victorian England is accused of forging a postal order and is dismissed from a public school. But his family hires an attorney and sues to overturn the decision--despite the prohibition against suing the Admiralty. The film works because the screenplay is exceptional, dialogue is tightly drawn, the acting is first rate, and the director handles the shot selection with ease and reserve. I was spellbound by the tension that surfaced in numerous scenes. Jeremy Northam's performance is brilliant. He is self-confident, always smiling, and handles each crisis with aplomb. The characters speak that special brand of Mamet-ese we have come to love and admire.
NR. 19: Limbo (John Sayles). Limbo gets off to a slow start, stumbles with plotting and characterization in the early scenes, and then takes off when the relationship between the main characters is forged. I admired the way Sayles wrote the scenes of the family trapped on the isolated Alaskan Island. He played off the young woman's crisis neatly against the anxieties of the two adults. The ending of the film was the number one topic of discussion by the audience. Are they going to be rescued? Are they going to be killed? Sayles doesn't follow the Hollywood formula--in any of his films--and I appreciate his integrity even more so because of his commitment to his characters. I could accept his ending, and yet I yearned for more information, for more closure at the same time. Upon reflection, I felt closure occurred before the film's ending because the three stranded individuals were transformed into a cohesive family unit. In fact, the last image of the three is as a unit, all gathered on the beach and linked together as a family. NR. 20: Tea With Mussolini, dir. Franco Zeffirelli. This delightful film is based on episodes in the filmmaker's youth, when he was an orphan in Florence before World War II. He creates the character of Luca, a young boy abandoned by his father, and reared by a widow who is a member of the Scorpioni, a group of expatriate women in Florence. The women become the boy's mentors and guides and substitute parents. Eventually the women survive a German occupation force and each of them comes to some resolution of their own lives. Joan Plowright, Cher, and Maggie Smith play three of the boy's mentors.
Some near misses of the top 20 include Bringing Out the Dead, dir. Martin Scorsese, a high-powered look at obsession, depravity, and redemption (following the experiences of three EMT personnel on the crowded streets of New York City); American Movie, dir. Chris Smith, an incredible documentary about Mark Borchardt, a clueless and yet inspired amateur filmmaker from Milwaukee; and Notting Hill, dir. Roger Mitchell, a perfect romantic evening spent with two beautiful people who play unlikely lovers. Another close call was Private Conversations, dir. Liv Ullman (Sweden), based on a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman, who has not directed a film since Fanny and Alexander (1982). This autobiographical film follows the experiences of Bergman's mother and father at several time periods in their marriage. Each time period is treated with a single scene between the mother and another character. As in the earlier Bergman screenplay Best Intentions (directed by Bille August), the film focuses on the inner world of the mother, played beautifully by Pernilla August.
For lighter fare, I enjoyed Robert Altman's Cookie's Fortune; the comedy between Billy Crystal and Robert DeNiro in Analyze This, dir. Harold Ramis; the recreation of Depression-Era America and a fanciful view of Orson Welles in The Cradle Will Rock, dir. Tim Robbins; and the upside-down world of Gilbert & Sullivan in Topsy-Turvy, dir. Mike Leigh (UK). I was impressed with David Lynch's deadpan telling of the story about the old man who rode his lawnmower cross-country in The Straight Story, and I was intrigued by the ghost story told in A Stir of Echoes, dir. David Koepp. I thought it was superior to the more popular The Sixth Sense. Two powerful films about the experiences of young women were Girl Interrupted, dir. James Mangold, a story about a young woman's encounter in an exclusive New England mental institution, and Rosetta, dir. Jeanne-Pierre & Luc Dardenne (Belgium), a story about how a young woman survives with her alcoholic mother.
Kind words should be added for a few films, also better than average fare. They include Being John Malkovich, Blast from the Past, Bowfinger, The Iron Giant, The Other Sister, and Three Kings.
Last Updated, January 29, 2002
The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author. The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.