1. "Being John Malkovich."
The Telluride and Toronto festivals had already started lobbing in great new films, and by the time I saw "Being John Malkovich" and "Three Kings" early in October, it was clear that Hollywood's hounds of creativity had been set loose and were running free. The last four months of 1999 were a rich and exciting time for moviegoers--there were so many wonderful films that for the first time in a long time, it was hard to keep up. "Being John Malkovich" was the year's best, a film so endlessly inventive that I started grinning at the way it kept devising new ways to surprise me. Most movies top-load their bright ideas in the first half hour; this first feature from music video vet Spike Jonze, with screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, is a continuing cascade. And unlike many MTV refugees, Jonze doesn't crank up the volume and the visual overkill; his film unfolds slyly, with delight, like a magician showing you the trick is far from over. John Cusack stars, as a man who gets a job on floor 7 1/2 of a very strange building (the visuals inspire sustained laughter). Behind a filing case, he finds a hole in the wall that is a portal directly into the brain of the actor John Malkovich (playing himself). First Cusack and then a series of paying customers line up to take their trip inside Malkovich, and in one dizzying scene Malkovich even enters his own brain, which is like turning your consciousness inside-out. The movie is funny and very smart, metaphysical in a way, and so bountiful you feel not just admiration but gratitude.
Another film that seems set free from convention. It begins with a Ricky Jay narration about strange coincidences, and we think that's a setup for coincidences in this film, but actually it's a different kind of tip-off. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights") intercuts several stories about people in or near the LA entertainment industry, in a series of scenes about fathers and sons, about impending death, about people on the edge. You can feel the joy of the actors, sinking their teeth into showboat roles, and Tom Cruise takes a role that could be parody (a professional stud who teaches seminars on picking up women) and u-turns it into a surprising examination of the stud's painful past.
3. "Three Kings"
Another dazzling display of directorial virtuosity, by David O. Russell. On one level, it's an adventure tale about soldiers in the Gulf War who capture a map to Saddam's horde of stolen gold. On another level, it's a Catch-22 examination of the insanity of war, where every morning you find out who you are, or aren't, shooting at today. The world seems to shrink while we're watching, as a prisoner places a cellular call to his wife and a cable news reporter stands in the middle of the action. The violence and arbitrary nature of war is captured in startling photography (wounds have never seemed so real), and the movie is somehow cocky, satiric and moving, all at once. Remarkable, that this war action comedy could also be praised by President Clinton for its politics.
4. "Boys Don't Cry"
Two of the year's best performances, by Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny, in the story of a girl named Teena Brandon who declared herself a boy named Brandon Teena. Not a hip excursion along the gender divide, but a small-town story of a girl (Swank) who acted according to a nature she only murkily understood, and another girl (Sevigny) who may have suspected there was something strange about Brandon, but found "he" was infinitely preferable to the town's violent and brain-blinkered louts. Kimberly Peirce's movie helps us understand the motives behind gay-bashing and murder, crimes that feed on ignorance and low self-esteem, often fueled by drugs and booze.
A harrowing, exhilarating ride on the wild side from Martin Scorsese, who stars Nicolas Cage as a paramedic in an emergency response vehicle in New York's Hells' Kitchen. Scorsese's kinetic camera and Paul Schrader's passionate script give the movie a headlong energy; the Cage character ventures out every night into a sea of suffering, with little hope he can really make much of a difference: "I came to realize that my work was less about saving lives than about bearing witness." In an age of irony, Scorsese and Schrader refuse to stand back from their existential themes, but plunge in without compromise.
6. "Princess Mononoke"
Hayao Miyazaki is the greatest living animator, and this is his best work, set at the dawn of the Iron Age, when some men still lived in harmony with nature and others were trying to tame and defeat it. It is not a simplistic tale of good and evil, but the story of how humans, forest animals and nature gods all fight for their share of the new emerging order. One of the most visually inventive films I have ever seen, it's proof that animation is not suited only for family films, but provides the freedom to tell stories that would otherwise be impossible to visualize.
7. "The War Zone"
Tim Roth, a great actor, here proves he is a great director as well. A seemingly happy family from London has relocated to a bleak landscape in Devon, in winter. The mother is having another baby; a boy realizes his sister is being abused by their father. The film is not simply about incest (it is not simply about anything), but about how families can be built on lies and maintained by emotional blackmail. As subtle, complex, and harrowing as a film by Bergman.
8. "American Beauty"
The last year in the life of a man who is unloved by his wife, not respected by his daughter, and not needed at work. At the end of the year his life is a shambles, but in a strange way he has found happiness. Kevin Spacey's performance is one of the year's best, with Annette Bening and Thora Birch making family dinnertime a species of hell; the family next door has problems of its own, in a suburbia that seems to hum with hate, fear, resentment and lust. Sam Mendes' direction shows a world glossy on the surface, disturbing just beneath.
One of the best films ever made about life in the theater. Mike Leigh's story is about a crisis in the most famous of London theatrical partnerships, when Sullivan tells Gilbert he doesn't want to write any more silly operettas. Then Gilbert concocts the plot of "The Mikado," and they're off in a frenzy of contracts, theater leases, salaries, personnel problems, casting, rehearsals, costumes and backstage romance. A sustained rehearsal scene, when Jim Broadbent as Gilbert, shows how performances are built bit by bit and detail by detail. Lots of great music, too.
10. "The Insider"
The story of a tobacco industry scientist (Russell Crowe) who is gingerly coaxed into telling his secrets by a patient producer for "60 Minutes" (Al Pacino). Two backstage stories, one about big tobacco's cover-up of damaging facts, the other about the problems that reporter Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) and executive producer Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) has getting CBS to air the segment. A brilliant story of journalism fueled by anger, as it becomes clear the tobacco industry knew its product was deadly, and lied about it.
At major film festivals around the world, something called the Special Jury Prize is awarded to a film the jurors love, but which didn't quite win first place. In recent years I've chosen five titles, named alphabetically, for such an award. Call it a tie for 11th place.
Eric Rohmer's "Autumn Tale" was a sunny story of a 45ish French woman who owns a vineyard but (her friend thinks) needs a husband. Her daughter's girlfriend thinks the same thing, and their intersecting schemes lead to high and warm humor at someone else's wedding.
Robert Altman's "Cookie's Fortune" takes place in a small Mississippi town where a death is mistaken for a murder, leading to strange alliances and the discovery of old family skeletons. Rich comic performances by Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Charles S. Dutton and a colorful supporting cast. Norman Jewison's "The Hurricane" stars Denzel Washington in a performance of astonishing power, as a boxer framed for murder and given three life sentences. The film's emotional wallop develops after a young boy buys his first book, a used one, for a quarter. It is Carter's autobiography, and it inspires the boy and his foster family to mount a seemingly doomed appeal for the boxer's freedom. Patricia Rozema's "Mansfield Park" was an uncommonly intelligent story made from Jane Austen's novel and journals, showing a young woman (Frances O'Connor) whose matrimonial future seems to offer limited choices--until she boldly takes her life into her own hands. Anthony Minghella's "The Talented Mr. Ripley" stars Matt Damon as a poor man who wants to steal, not a rich man's wealth, but his identity. Sent under false pretenses to bring a playboy (Jude Law) back from Europe, he weaves a tissue of lies and impersonations, improvising brilliantly when on the edge of being exposed. Gwyneth Paltrow plays the rich kid's girl friend, who isn't as suspicious as she should be, because he's so unreliable anyway.
Named for the beloved author of so many of the finest moments of Bugs and Daffy, this category honors the best work in animation. In addition to "Princess Mononoke," which is in my top ten, the award goes alphabetically to: "Fantasia/2000," a new demonstration of Walt Disney's 1940 brainstorm: Why not set classical music to animated fantasies, both realistic and abstract? Seen on the big IMAX screen, it's a wondrous sound and light trip.
"The Iron Giant" tells an enchanting story about a boy who makes friends with a robot from outer space, at the height of the Sputnik era. The Giant was designed as a weapon, but, with echoes of "E.T.," becomes the boy's friend and learns he is not doomed to kill because "you are what you choose to be."
"South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut" On this one I was, and still am, conflicted. It is incredibly raunchy, testing the limits of R and the possibilities of nausea, yet at the same time bold in its social satire and fearless in the way it exposes hypocrisy. One balances between admiration and disbelief. I guess that's a compliment.
"Tarzan" was inspired not so much by the countless B movies as by the original Edgar Rice Burroughs book, transformed here into a story that embodies notions of animal rights. The Disney animation is liberating, especially in sequences where Tarzan carries Jane on a dizzying flight through the treetops.
"Toy Story 2." There's a crisis when a battered Woody, left behind by his owner, seems destined to be shipped forever to a toy museum in Japan. What's better? Immortality as an exhibit, or a short life as a child's most beloved toy? Comedy, action, brilliant computer animation -- and philosophy.