More than any year in recent memory, 1999 served up films that were unconventional and innovative, films that turned out winners despite having the odds stacked against them.
The low-budget, homemade-looking “Blair Witch Project” was the scariest film of the year, even though it never showed us what everybody was running from and featured no onscreen violence.
“The Sixth Sense” started out as a more conventional thriller — a little boy sees ghosts walking around — and had the burden of starring Bruce Willis. Yet it wound up being very unconventional indeed, with a touching message and by far the best ending of the year.
“Toy Story 2” was supposed to be a direct-to-video project, and it was written by committee. Plus, it was a sequel. All those signs point toward disaster, yet it nearly tops the list of the best films of 1999.
On the other side of the coin, “Wild Wild West” had everything going for it. Great stars (Will Smith, Kevin Klein, Kenneth Branagh), good director (Barry Sonnenfeld), cool special effects and a fun premise — yet it still managed to beat the odds and turn out terrible.
In short, all the conventional wisdom of filmmaking was shot to pieces this year, as movies that seemed like winners fell apart, and movies that had an uphill battle triumphed.
Here’s my highly opinionated list of the best of 1999. To be eligible, films had to be released in Utah this year. (This disqualifies some films from the end of 1998, like “Life is Beautiful,” as well as some like “Magnolia” and “Boys Don’t Cry” that are now in “select cities” but haven’t opened here yet.)
1. “The Sixth Sense” Not only is this the best film of the year for reasons to be described later, but it also indicates that the movie-going public is perhaps not as far off the deep edge as we’d thought.
Here’s a movie with almost no profanity, no sex, no nudity, and only mild violence and gore … and yet it also has a creative plot, great acting and clever cinematic tricks … and yet it still managed to become the second most-popular film of the year. Usually, the top money-makers are popcorn movies, trifling little pieces full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. Often, the most popular films are downright bad. (See “Wild Wild West” in the “Worst Movies of 1999” list.)
Haven’t seen it? You should, but I’ll summarize anyway. It’s about a young boy named Cole (Haley Joel Osment) who can see dead people, and the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who tries to help him. It’s a spooky premise, and there are some traditional “jump” moments, where ghosts pop out of nowhere and scare poor little Cole (and us).
By now, everyone knows the film has a twist at the end, and some people are able to guess what it is, since they know to look for one. But before the word got out, trust me: NO ONE guessed the ending. Even movie veterans, film critics who have seen hundreds of flicks, people who can always guess what’s going to happen — no one saw it coming.
That, in and of itself, makes the film pretty darn noteworthy, when it can pull the wool over all of America’s eyes and force audiences to go back and watch it again to see if the twist actually works with the rest of the movie. (It does, and brilliantly.) But having a shocking twist is not what makes this the best movie of the year.
What puts it at the top of the list is the fact that whatever you thought the movie was about for 100 minutes, that all gets changed in the last seven. Critics who were already mentally writing their reviews had to erase everything and start over again. Audiences had to discuss it — or go back and see it again — to take in what it was all about.
The beautiful thing is that while you think you’re watching a pretty spooky ghost story starring a heart-breakingly sympathetic young actor, it turns out you’re actually watching something far, far deeper, and much more emotionally touching. “The Sixth Sense” is about redemption, and how you can’t do anything until you love and forgive yourself.
Pretty heady stuff, coming from a movie that was billed as just another creepy ghost story.
2. “American Beauty” Kevin Spacey deserves (and just might win) the Best Actor Academy Award for his portryal of a spineless man enduring a midlife crisis in Anytown, U.S.A. (The license plates on the cars don’t even have state names on them.) He’s living a hellish suburban life with a cold, ambitious wife (played with nuance and energy by Annette Bening) and a daughter who despises him.
You can’t take your eyes off this dark, compelling comedy, so black is the humor and so evocative is the mood — dreary and optimistic at the same time. The movie works to create a mood more than a unifying theme, and you come out of it FEELING something, even if you’re not sure what.
3. “The Blair Witch Project” Everyone has always acknowledged that less is more with horror films, because the viewer’s imagination can come up with something worse than anything a director can film.
On that principle came “The Blair Witch Project,” in which three amateur filmmakers go into the woods of Maryland to investigate an old local legend. They don’t come back. A while later, their cameras are found; “The Blair Witch Project” is the footage they left.
Which means there’s a lot of shaky camera movement, a lot of darkness, and a lot of screaming. The actors were given plot outlines and improvised their dialogue. All of this made the film seem absolutely, positively REAL. We never once saw whatever it was that stalked the three in the woods, but that just added to the horror. The last scene is one of the most terrifying of all time, and that final shot, in the basement, in the corner…. it’s been five months and it still gives me the chills.
4. “twin falls idaho” From last year’s Sundance Film Festival came this unusual and moving modern-day fairy tale, shot in muted colors and with unusually crisp sound, giving it an “anytime, anyplace” fable-like quality. Real-life twins Mark and Michael Polish play Blake and Francis Falls, conjoined (“Siamese”) twins who have come to New York City to 1) find their mother, and 2) die. A prostitute named Penny (Michele Hicks) enters the picture, and while the ailing Francis sleeps, she and Blake begin to fall in love, leading to an awkward rift between the two brothers that threatens their supernaturally close relationship.
This film — which, if we’re being honest here, has made me bawl both times I’ve seen it, though my emotional reaction to it is not what makes me consider it one of the year’s best — is a metaphor for all human relationships (making it a fairy tale, fable AND a parable). In one scene, the dying Francis says of the stronger Blake, “He is the reason my blood pumps and my heart beats. I’m alive because of Blake.” This is true not just physically, but emotionally as well, and anyone who’s ever been in a marriage or other close relationship has probably been able to say the same thing. “twin falls idaho,” alternately funny and sad, reminds us of how sweet those feelings are.
5. “Being John Malkovich” Certainly the weirdest movie of the year, video-director Spike Jonze’s feature film debut is also a funny, dark, visually interesting joy ride. Controversial puppeteer and big-time loser Craig (John Cusack, one of the most under-rated actor of his generation) discovers a portal in his office that allows him to enter the body of actor John Malkovich (playing himself like the good sport he is) for 15 minutes at a time. Soon his desire (a desire shared by all people, at some point) to be someone else can be fulfilled, causing a strain on his dingy marriage with Lotte (a highly unglamorous Cameron Diaz).
Part “Alice in Wonderland,” part Terry Gilliam movie, this is a memorably surreal film, and a rare treat: It can be enjoyed purely for the hilarity and oddness of the moment, but it also has some deep (and rather disturbing) messages about reality, fame and self-worth.
6. “Toy Story 2” Hey, Disney, it’s possible to make a sequel that actually improves upon the original and isn’t just a cheap attempt to make more money! (See all the “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “Lion King” straight-to-video sequels for background on what I’m talking about here.)
The computer animation has improved tenfold since 1995, and the characters have gotten deeper. This time, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) falls into the clutches of a toy collector, who plans to ship him and the other toys from his original set (seems Woody was quite a collector’s item back in the old days, which he didn’t know until now) off to Japan to a toy museum. He’s faced with a dilemma: Go back to his home, where his owner, Andy, will eventually outgrow him and discard him, or become part of a musuem exhibit where he’ll live forever, but never be played with or truly loved?
Quite a dilemma for a computer-animated toy, but it all works. Jokes fly fast and furious as Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and Woody’s other toy friends come to rescue him, leading to one fantastic sequence after another. Easily the most whimsical, joyful, body-and-soul-enriching movie of the year.
7. “Fight Club” Hilarious and macabre, this dark, nihilistic film follows a white-collar nobody (Edward Norton) and a free-wheeling soap salesman (Brad Pitt) as they establish an underground club for men to fight each other — which leads to more and more mayhem as the true male psyche is slowly unleashed. Director David Fincher (“Seven,” “The Game,” both excellent films) uses innovative flashbacks, narrations and eye-catching cinematography to examine the male psyche and what ’90s-repressed men have become. Undeniably primal and violent, yet highly intelligent and engaging, not to mention disturbing: If men were allowed to behave as they wanted to, I’m afraid this really IS what would happen.
8. “Run Lola Run” Cool and frenetic German movie in which a girl has 20 minutes to come up with a ton of money or her boyfriend gets killed by bad guys. Those 20 minutes are shown three times, and each time a minor delay or extra head-start as Lola leaves her apartment drastically changes all the ensuing events, including the outcome (i.e., whether she makes it in time or not). The “minor-events-influence-everything” idea has been done before, but never as stylishly as here. The rave-style modern techno music is non-stop, the camerawork is fun and engaging, and the film is a breezy treat to watch. It also happens to have a little depth, too, though it’s understated: What is reality? Do we make our own reality? “The Matrix” dealt with those questions, too, but “Run Lola Run” is so much more entertaining. (My apologies to those who took “The Matrix” as gospel.)
9. “The Iron Giant” I’ve written plenty about this film already this year, and critics have politely scolded the general public for not going to see it. (They’ve been less polite to Warner Bros., which completely botched the promotion of the film yet still managed to promote the heck out of the dreadful “Pokemon.”) Set in the Cold War 1950s, a boy finds a giant robot that has crash-landed on earth from who-knows-where. The government finds out about it and, naturally, wants to destroy it. (If America didn’t make it, it must be a dangerous weapon, is the reasoning). The anti-gun message is a bit too blatant, but the rest of the film is magical and sweet. The animation is stylized, made to look like a ’50s-era Warner Bros. short, and there is abundant gently satirical humor and “E.T.”-style boy-and-his-pal sincerity. Rent it on video and see if you don’t just fall in love with it.
10. “The Talented Mr. Ripley” Eerily affecting character study about Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), a man with a chameleon personality who falls in love with the carefree, spoiled-rich-kid life of Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law). His obsession with Dickie and his life leads to dire consequences, and since the film is told through Ripley’s eyes, we see every facet of his creepy, twisted little brain. That point of view also make us sympathetic for Ripley: Even though the facts clearly show him to be evil, I simply cannot bring myself to describe him that way. Damon gives a careful, nuanced performance, making Ripley desperate and yearning for love. You want to be his friend, even while fully aware of what that could lead to. A haunting film whose subtleties and implications stick with you long after you’ve seen it.
The Worst Movies of 1999
(Listed in alphabetical order; the prospect of choosing one as the absolute worst was too daunting.)
“Baby Geniuses” Paralyzingly unfunny comedy about a secret project to create genius babies. It’s the evil opposite of humor — anti-humor, where it actually sucks the humor out of everything around it. (My “Seinfeld” tapes lost all their funny because I accidentally left them next to “Baby Geniuses.”)
“Inspector Gadget” At 75 minutes, this loud, TV-commercial-style dud is 76 minutes too long. Some kids liked it, apparently, but I don’t know of any adult who endured the whole thing without a headache and a strong sense of disappointment in Matthew Broderick.
“Love Stinks” A thoroughly unenjoyable film, full of sit-com stars, yet worse than any sit-com this side of hell. Bridgette Wilson plays a domineering woman who takes control of French Stewart’s life — and makes her character screamingly, frustratingly hateable. I want to smack this movie, again and again.
“The Omega Code” Prominent businessman uses hidden Bible codes to make himself the fulfillment of prophecy, rising to power to become the Antichrist. Apparently, he never read the REST of Revelation, where the Antichrist gets defeated. Casper Van Dien does some of the worst acting of the year as the guy who has to stop him. Chock-full of horrible dialogue and overall ineptitude.
“Pokemon: The First Movie” Don’t get me started. Bad animation, incomprehensible plot, too much violence, and the audacity to claim an “anti-violence” message. Plus, it — wait, I said don’t get me started.
“Random Hearts” Unbearably slow and ponderous yawner about newly widowed folks who fall in love. No romance, no warm feelings, no laughs, no tears, no insights into the grieving process — why were we supposed to want to see this?
“Universal Soldier: The Return” Hilariously bad movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. That’s enough said right there, but I’ll add that every performance is bad, the script is worse, and the action, while non-stop, is dull. Even for its genre, this is dreadful.
“Wild Wild West” Will Smith proved that reigning over the July 4 weekend is not necessarily a for-life calling with this incomprehensible assemblage of tired cliches. The jokes weren’t funny, the situations weren’t exciting — it’s like a dozen screenwriters tossed their differing, even opposite, ideas into a blender and then vomited whatever came out onto the big screen.