The Man Who Viewed Too Much
January 2000

Medium Cool: The Best of '99

I'm not entirely sure how it happened -- perhaps my incessant use of $0.50 words like 'mise-en-scène' and 'non-diagetic' had something to do with it -- but over the five years that I've maintained this site, I seem to have inadvertently established a reputation as one o' them ultra-serious arty dudes: the sort of hardcore cinéaste who doesn't like a movie -- sorry, a film -- unless it's got subtitles and angst a-plenty and no discernible plot. Certainly that's how my family sees me; as usual, I spent most of my Christmas holiday this year sheepishly repeating the phrase "uh, didn't see it" to aunts and uncles who sought my opinion on high-profile stuff like The Green Mile and Runaway Bride and (ulp) The Phantom Menace. And only three weeks ago, I received e-mail from a fan -- in a manner of speaking -- who informed me that "even though you are the most pretentious person i've ever read i still enjoy your rambling incoherent opinions." What can one say except: thanks, I think, maybe.

This year's top ten list, I'm afraid, exposes me as a reprehensible fraud -- a film buff so relentlessly elitist, so completely out of touch with the mainstream, that his two favorite movies of the year managed a combined North American gross of only...370 million dollars. True, a couple of introspective foreign-language films made the cut as well, one of them so obscure that 95% of the folks reading this won't have had an opportunity to see it (which is a darn shame). By and large, though, comparatively shallow pleasures ruled the day; if I had to justify the inclusion of most of the titles below on analytical grounds -- which is to say, with reference to what they're actually about -- I'd be in what John Carpenter junkies like to call Little China. (Well, if they don't, they damn well oughta.)

That's not to say, I hasten to add, that this year's favorites don't aspire to explore the human condition, hold the mirror up to nature, all that worthy honorable stuff. In fact, all ten make the effort -- some more strenuously than others, to be sure, but you won't find any mere paycheck work below. Here's the thing, though: I found many of them so thoroughly entertaining, so superficially superb, that ultimately it's almost irrelevant to me whether they succeeded (see #1) or failed (see #8) in their loftier goals. Yes, some movies provide such a powerfully cathartic experience that they change the way you look at the world -- I'm thinking now of Safe, Paradise Lost, Exotica. But other movies just make you laugh your ass off or grip your armrests for two hours straight -- and sometimes that can be just as rewarding.

If I sound defensive, it's because I've spent the past few weeks poring over various relentlessly highbrow best-of lists, and wondering when exactly my peers decided that "entertainment" is a dirty word. For example -- and this is a pretty major digression, so feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph -- I'm looking now at Cinematheque Ontario's recent poll of the best films of the past decade, conducted among various curators and programmers from around the world. I've seen 34 of the 41 films listed -- the lineup is available here, for those who are curious -- and while I love some, detest others, and am fairly indifferent to the rest, what I find most striking about them as a group is that virtually every one -- particularly those in the upper half -- belongs to an imaginary world-cinema genre that I might call Somber Humanism: snail-paced, high-minded, and generally laugh- and thrill-free. They may all be enduring masterpieces -- I think very highly of several of them myself -- but it's still the glummest, most stereotypically arty assemblage imaginable; you kind of want to collectively offer the panel a beer. Picture a survey of the 1950s in which Dreyer and Bresson and Ozu and Bergman completely dominate the results, with scarcely a mention of Hitchcock or Wilder or Clouzot or Kurosawa, and you'll see how vaguely preposterous it all seems.

Which brings me -- not terribly gracefully, I know, but I'm spending way too much time on this -- to my contrarian assessment of 1999: "the year that changed movies," according to one of my employers. Last year, a chorus of like-minded voices joined me in proclaiming the previous twelve months an affront to cinemagoers everywhere; this year, I'm mostly alone in my grumpiness, shaking my head in bewilderment at those making breathless comparisons to 1939 (which doesn't strike me as an especially superlative year either, but skip it). As Skander Halim recently noted, it was a year that saw an unusual (and gratifying) quantity of ambitious and unconventional films, but, alas, few genuine masterpieces. For the second consecutive year, I had to rummage among my B+ movies to find ten worthy candidates, whereas prior to 1998 I was invariably forced to leave terrific three-and-a-half-star pictures languishing undeservedly in the now-defunct Honorable Mention category.

What's the deal here? Am I just being contrary? Am I suffering from premature nostalgia? Have my standards become ridiculously high? For a while, I was convinced that It Must Be Me; last week, however, as fate would have it, the Museum of Modern Art happened to screen Unforgiven, which I hadn't seen since sometime in early '93, and watching it again on the big screen reminded me forcefully of what a truly fucking sublime contemporary motion picture looks like. I have no doubt that a theatrical print of Heavenly Creatures or GoodFellas or Barton Fink would have had a similarly bracing effect. As Norma Desmond would insist, it's the pictures that have gotten small of late. I'm still hoping it's just a statistical hiccough.

Anyway, enough doomsaying; onward to the pointless hierarchy. I won't waste time rehashing my rules of eligibility, which are available in the preface to any of my previous lists; the only thing you really need to know is that Léos Carax's The Lovers on the Bridge (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence, released in New York this year, appear on my 1991 and 1997 lists, respectively. As usual, the pictures that did make the cut are listed in reverse order, from #10 down to #1; it's a senseless gesture, since the list has been publicly available for months and no suspense is possible, but I still prefer it that way, so feel free to do a cut-'n'paste job if you find it irritating. Let the gnashing of teeth and the rending of garments begin...

10. Autumn Tale (Eric Rohmer) Has any filmmaker in the history of the medium been more aesthetically reliable than Eric Rohmer? I've seen only nine of his roughly two dozen features to date, but every one, without exception, has been thoroughly delightful; while I don't allot grades to "old" movies, for tortured ideological reasons, I feel comfortable saying that none of the nine would receive less than a solid 'B,' and many of them have placed prominently on my retroactive top ten lists. His latest glorious gabfest, like several of the other movies on this list, suffers from an oddly anticlimactic conclusion -- yo, Eric, what the hell happened to act three? -- but his understanding of romantic folly is as acute as ever, and he coaxes an endearingly tremulous performance from the unconventionally lovely Béatrice Romand. In my initial NYFF review, written well over a year ago, I confessed that Rohmer's movies are so uniformly fine that my appreciation of each individual title depends heavily on what I might call the Babe Factor, and rather uncharitably referred to Ms. Romand and her co-star Marie Rivière as "too matronly for my taste." A recent second viewing, on the other hand, had me wondering wistfully whether either one might possibly be available.

9. The Winslow Boy (David Mamet) The title of John Heilpern's recent book of theatrical criticism asks the pointed question How Good Is David Mamet, Anyway?, and while I haven't yet read the eponymous essay, I get the distinct impression that the answer is something like "frankly, not all that." Now, I can't vouch for the quality of Mamet's recent stage work, not having seen or read anything since 1992's off-Broadway production of Oleanna (following which I spent ten minutes or so chatting with its star, William H. Macy, who for the record is as swell a guy as you probably imagine), but he's developed over the past decade or so into a remarkably fluid movie director, his crackpot neo-Eisensteinian theories of non-inflection notwithstanding. The Winslow Boy marks his third appearance on one of my lists, following House of Games in 1987 and Homicide in 1991; unlike its predecessors, however, its strengths are as much cinematic as literary -- it's the first of his movies that plays better than it reads. What's more, his unobtrusive expertise -- the camera always in just the right place; every shot held for the ideal duration -- provides the perfect context for some of the year's richest performances, particularly that of Nigel Hawthorne as the family's stubborn patriarch. My copy of the DVD arrives next week, and I'm looking forward to putting the father-son interrogation scene ("Did you steal this postal order?") on infinite replay.

8. Go (Doug Liman) Don't bother following the link -- unfortunately, I never got around to writing a review of this invigorating trifle, apart from a few brief remarks penned for Entertainment Weekly. A shame, really, because it's among the year's most underrated movies (though I was surprised, and gratified, to see it turn up on quite a few of the Film Comment year-end lists), unfairly dismissed in many quarters as yet another sad Tarantino knock-off. Yeah, okay, there are a few similarities, but they're largely superficial and ultimately irrelevant -- Go has a manic, precipitous tone that's miles away from Quentin's aggressively leisurely mise-en-scène. (See!) What it does have in common with the QT oeuvre is a welcome appreciation for the goofily discursive -- you've gotta love a movie in which the camera drifts away from what is ostensibly the scene's main action -- Ronna attempting to get her money back from Todd, putting her life in danger via pharmaceutical subterfuge -- to watch a minor character hallucinating a telepathic conversation with a tabby cat. ("You're going to die.") Two big problems: (1) the middle story, while fun, isn't nearly as sharp or as gripping as its bookends; (2) the whole thing doesn't so much conclude as simply run out of gas. A thrilling diversion nonetheless; had it even managed to create the illusion of being about something (as, for example, Pulp Fiction so skillfully does), odds are you would've found it about seven notches higher.

7. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick) The one positive aspect to Kubrick's sudden death last spring is that he wasn't around to see his first movie in more than a decade being widely and willfully misunderstood -- not merely by the viewing public (which to a certain extent had a right to feel bamboozled by the sexiest-movie-ever hype), but by the mainstream critical establishment as well. Complaints about the film's notable lack of eroticism or its patently unrealistic depiction of contemporary New York were hilariously obtuse, so much so that I was tempted to thumb through the archives to see whether certain scribes had committed similar howlers in the past. ("The film has three parts, but they're told in the wrong order; this results in blatant continuity errors, as when a character who's shot dead in the middle of the picture turns up alive and well at the end.") Personally, I think it's one of Stan's lesser works, but that's a decidedly comparative judgment; certainly there's no denying -- or there shouldn't be, at any rate -- his visual mastery, or the hypnotic spell that he casts via structural repetition, emotional discord, and borderline-incantatory dialogue. (Kidman's ultra-deliberate cadence in the first two reels is sensationally good.) Methinks a decade from now a lot of well-known critics are going to look back at their reviews of this movie, identify strongly with its title, and feel really, really embarrassed.

6. The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella) Like Eyes Wide Shut -- but inversely -- this unfaithful adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's amorality tale has proven remarkably divisive. In this case, it's the more mainstream critics who are cheering and applauding, whereas those who revere Hou and Kiarostami tend to dismiss the film as a puerile travelogue, complaining that it makes a mockery of its source. (It got exactly one citation in the aforementioned Film Comment roundup.) Granted, those seeking profundity are apt to be disappointed -- it's a bit clunky thematically, with far too much soul-searching, spell-it-out dialogue in the closing reel -- but while many Hollywood movies in 1999 were more adventurous or challenging, none was half so deeply, traditionally satisfying, just in terms of first-rate acting, sumptuous location photography, and good old-fashioned narrative drive (remember that?). Truth be told, I'd almost certainly be far less enthusiastic were I familiar with the novel (cf. my antipathy for Demme's Silence of the Lambs, Raimi's A Simple Plan, et al.); as it happens, however, I had only my rather hazy recollection of Purple Noon to distract me, and thus had no trouble rolling with the film's conception of a kinder, gentler -- or at least considerably more confused and vulnerable -- Tom Ripley. Minghella, in conjunction with Mamet, makes a strong case for the ability of playwrights to gradually reconfigure their imaginations for the screen (I adore Truly Madly Deeply, but it's homely clumsy ugly); Matt Damon, meanwhile, puts his all-American mug and mannerisms to singularly creepy use, giving his best performance to date in a part for which he seems wrong in pretty much every conceivable way. An improbable triumph.

5. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze) Anybody surprised, irked, bewildered to find this tragicomic fantasia figuring prominently in the lineup? Anybody at all? No? Thought not. Even the greatest movies tend to provoke scorn and indifference as well as admiration, but the response to Spike Jonze's debut feature comes as close to rah-rah unanimity as that of any movie I can recall -- offhand, I can't think of a single critic of note, amateur or pro, who didn't like it. (I said "offhand," folks; no need to send counterexamples.) In truth, it's hard not to feel affectionate toward something this aggressively perverse; I, for one, am so grateful for its mere existence, in a world where "product" is routinely test-marketed into aesthetic oblivion ("don't you think these characters would rather be, oh, say, Keanu Reeves?"), that I'm willing to cut it copious slack. It doesn't hurt that the film's bizarre worldview has proven oddly therapeutic: I can scarcely type 'INT.' or 'EXT.' of late, for instance, without laughing to myself about the "wintry economic climate" awaiting my work. Better still, whenever I feel a bout of self-pity coming on -- and I recently got dumped by the love of my life, so that's more days than not -- I flash on Catherine Keener gesturing to the seven-and-a-halfth-floor window, shrugging, then walking out of frame without a word, and I snort and shake my head, and the moment passes.

4. Leila (Dariush Mehrjui) Here's the arthouse obscurity to which I alluded up above: an Iranian film (strike one) directed by neither Kiarostami nor Makhmalbaf (strike two) in which there are no adorable children in sight -- indeed, in which the protagonist's inability to conceive is the plot's dramatic crux (yer outta there!). I seem to be alone in finding this Ibsenesque morality play far more compelling, both dramatically and cinematically, than last year's much-lauded Taste of Cherry; how refreshing to see characters whose motivations are genuinely ambiguous and complex, rather than merely terminally vague, and a camera and microphone used to express, rather than merely to record. (Whatever magic there is in the back-and-forth visual rhythm of Cherry's endless moving-vehicle conversations sailed right over my head.) Reproachful without being didactic, compassionate but never cloying, it's the year's most tragic love story -- its adoring couple gradually torn apart by circumstances that seem simultaneously absurd and inevitable. And I'd be remiss in my duties as a hetero male if I didn't point out that Leila Hatami -- even with her hair hidden beneath a chador -- ranks alongside Gong Li and Emmanuelle Béart among the most devastatingly beautiful women in world cinema. (She can act, too, but I didn't really notice until my second viewing, to be honest.)

3. Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh) Every critic, no matter how assiduously open-minded, is dogged by a certain number of prejudices, and perhaps the most pronounced of my own is a big-time aversion to the biopic. I tend to find movies about real people -- celebrities in particular -- both thematically woozy and dramatically shapeless; the last such film about which I truly got excited was Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, in large part because its experimental form turned the genre on its ear, fracturing its subject's life into a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of fleeting impressions. (John Boorman's more conventional portrait of Martin Cahill, The General, wound up at #6 on last year's list, but only because '98 was so egregiously blah.) It's nothing short of a minor miracle, then, that a movie about Gilbert & Sullivan should so thoroughly enthrall me...but then, Leigh is one of the medium's foremost miracle workers, repeatedly taking the equivalent of five barley loaves and two fish -- i.e., a handful of actors and no script -- and somehow successfully feeding the assembled multitudes. That his latest is getting such a ho-hum response from many of my online peers baffles me no end; I feel like grabbing some of these guys by their cyber-lapels and yelling "what, two hours and forty minutes of brilliant acting, delectable wordplay, visual elegance, and incisive observations about the nature and limitations of the creative urge isn't good enough for ya?!?" Ignore the wankers -- this is Leigh's best work since Naked, and easily among the finest (ugh) biopics ever made. Hope he's got it out of his system, though.

2. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez) I got lucky with this one -- saw it way back in March, at a long-lead press screening, well before the hype had lurched completely out of control. (When regular Sundance attendee Scott Renshaw gives a movie his highest rating, I pay attention.) As it happens, though, I suspect that my reaction would've been much the same even if I'd been deluged with the scariest-fuckin'-film-ever nonsense that followed; as creepily suggestive as the film's nighttime sequences are, it's the footage shot in broad daylight and fading dusk that's stayed with me, as the doomed trio's initial sense of goofball camaraderie gradually turns sour, then rancid, then toxic. No, it's not all that scary, ultimately, but what it is instead is better still: one of the most chilling condemnations of human nature ever captured on film (okay, and videotape), deeply cynical and dispiritingly credible. It's also, though nobody ever seems to mention it, considerably funnier than most of the year's alleged comedies, thanks mostly to Josh Leonard's surfer-dude locutions ("it was a total cackling, man") and Mike Williams' priceless expressions of deadpan frustration. Only the (necessarily) abrupt conclusion prevented me from giving it a flat 'A'; in retrospect, I wonder whether I didn't sell it short.

1. Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter) I was having trouble thinking of what I might add to my initial notes on 1999's sole flat-out masterpiece -- part rollicking adventure, part knockabout comedy, part eloquent disquisition on the inevitably ephemeral state that is happiness -- until it occurred to me to reread what I'd written about its equally terrific predecessor four years ago. As it turns out, most of those remarks still apply. To wit: When you're drawn to the unusual, the ambiguous, the disturbing, the profound, the revelatory -- as most serious cinéastes tend to be -- there's a danger of forgetting how to just have fun at the movies, the way you did when you first discovered them as a child. I've seen a lot of critics who I very much admire casually dismiss Toy Story 2, which saddens and perplexes me, because I can't remember the last time I had so much fun sitting in a darkened theater. [Actually, I can: Toy Story, Thanksgiving 1995.] For me, even given the current (and perhaps inherent) limitations of computer animation and its inferiority (in my opinion) to traditional cel animation, this hilarious, dazzling cartoon is more interesting and enjoyable than the last four or five Disney extravaganzas combined. [Make that the last eight or nine.] The plot and characterizations are simple, predictable, and thoroughly wonderful; special mention must go to Tim Allen, whose television show is [was] putrid, but whose vocal work as Buzz Lightyear constituted one of the year's best performances. [Not enough screen time to qualify for my short list this year, but he's still in fine form, as are Hanks, Shawn, Ratzenberger, the unexpectedly-late-as-of-the-day-I'm-typing-this Varney, and newcomers Joan Cusack and Kelsey Grammer.] The gender politics are a bit antiquated (the film seems to be set in the present, yet Sid's sister plays Tea Party; 99% of the toys are male, and Bo Peep's only function is to be flirtatious or concerned), but this is the only quibble I can think to offer. [No trouble with kid sister this time, as she doesn't appear; Bo-Peep's still a wash, though, and Pixar remains decidedly a boys' club, for better and worse.] A delight from beginning to end. [Word.]

I'll conclude with a few Skanderesque odds and ends:

Best leading performances: Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner, Topsy-Turvy; Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
Best supporting performances: Chloë Sevigny, Boys Don't Cry; Nigel Hawthorne, The Winslow Boy
Best performance by an actor I usually hate: Rene Russo, The Thomas Crown Affair
Worst performance by an actor I usually love: Nicolas Cage, Bringing Out the Dead
Strangest career move: Giovanni Ribisi in The Mod Squad and The Other Sister
Most overrated: The Hurricane
Most underrated: Hideous Kinky (late-breaking runner-up: Random Hearts)
Best trailer: Magnolia
Most pleasant surprise: South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
Most crushing disappointment: Felicia's Journey
Worst film salvaged by a crackerjack first act: Pushing Tin
Best film marred by a ludicrous third act: Fight Club
Most intriguing-sounding film I couldn't quite bring myself to actually see: Ravenous
Most potent lust objects: Julianne Moore in The End of the Affair; Sandrine Kiberlain in Rien sur Robert; Cate Blanchett in anything
Best exit line: "Careful? Was my mother careful when she stabbed me with a clothes hanger while I was still in ze womb?"
Best armchair psychoanalysis: "Dude, that kid is fucked up."