With the end of the decade fast approaching, movie critics are putting out lists of the best movies of the last 10 years. I’m not doing that, though. I think it’s silly enough to compare the movies I saw last week with the ones that I’ve had 12 months to digest, but comparing the movies in theaters right now to the ones that have been floating around for eight or nine years? Forget it.
You need the perspective of time to properly judge a movie, so with that in mind, I thought I’d do a list of the best movies of 1999. It was an uncommonly rich year for movies, as people noted even at the time. Looking back only confirms this; since a Top 10 list would leave out too much, I went with a Top 20, with honorable mentions for 11 more excellent films. Hey, this is weird: American Beauty, The Matrix, and Eyes Wide Shut don’t make it anywhere near this list.
1. South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut: I can still sing all the songs 10 years later. The TV show has had its ups and downs (what ups they’ve been, too!), but Trey Parker and Matt Stone had the brainwave to turn their cartoon into a musical for the big screen. Their satire on the culture wars still holds up now.
2. Topsy-Turvy: Most dramas about artists are about how they find fame, but Mike Leigh’s period piece examines how Gilbert and Sullivan stayed on top after they became successful operetta composers. The result is a novelistic re-creation of Victorian England, a rigorous look at the work that goes into a theatrical show, and a detailed character study of two disparate artists and the people orbiting around them.
3. Princess Mononoke: Hayao Miyazaki’s anime fairy tale got a botched release in America. (Indeed, for all his devotees’ love for his work, he can’t seem to catch a break with the mass audiences here.) That doesn’t obscure the brilliance of his drawing style, the fecundity of his imagination, or the nuance with which he looks at our relationship to the environment. A complex story, beautifully told and drawn.
4. Three Kings: The last 10 years have made David O. Russell’s Desert Storm caper flick feel like something that came out last Wednesday. The American soldiers here are out to steal Saddam Hussein’s gold, but the filmmaker finds all sorts of telling observations about Iraq that the characters miss. With George Clooney just finding his groove as a movie star, Russell made his best work.
5. After Life: Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s magnificent drama imagines the afterlife as a Buddhist temple that’s also a movie studio, where the recently deceased have their favorite memories made into short films that they then take with them to heaven. An intensely beautiful meditation by this Japanese master.
6. Show Me Love: Lukas Moodysson did this radiant Swedish high-school drama about a girl who falls for the most popular girl in school. Wish they had kept the original Swedish title, Fucking Åmål, which actually isn’t a sexual reference. You may remember Robyn’s theme song, a fair-sized hit in this country.
7. Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.: Acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris finds a capital punishment efficiency expert who got co-opted by the Holocaust denial movement, and weaves an absorbing, monstrous portrait of a scientist blinded by his own desire for acceptance. You’ll never forget the sight of Leuchter frolicking at Auschwitz like he’s spending the day at the beach.
8. The Limey: Steven Soderbergh’s overlooked masterpiece about a British ex-con (Terence Stamp) roaming L.A.’s criminal underworld to find his daughter’s killer. This thing delivers all the pleasures of a generic action thriller, but it also snaps a panoramic portrait of SoCal society seen through the eyes of this fast-talking, hard-as-nails outsider.
9. The Talented Mr. Ripley: Anthony Minghella’s lush thriller introduced the world to Jude Law, proved Matt Damon wasn’t just a pretty face in the role of a psychopathic social climber, and captured the amoral ambience of Patricia Highsmith’s world faultlessly. A movie so impeccably cast that Cate Blanchett and Philip Seymour Hoffman only rated character roles.
10. Boys Don’t Cry: Kimberly Peirce’s searingly tragic story of a Nebraska girl who paid the ultimate price for trying to pass herself off as a boy. Much has changed since this seminal work of the gay-rights movement came out, but the film’s raw power, breathtaking beauty, and sensitive performances by Hilary Swank and Chloë Sevigny haven’t been diminished by time.
11. Toy Story 2: A cuddly family film about a bunch of toys facing their own mortality. It would take Pixar to pull that off. Bonus points for one of Randy Newman’s finest and most heartbreaking songs. That third film has a lot to live up to next summer.
12. Dick: Two giddy teenage girls loitering at the Watergate Hotel inadvertently bring down the Nixon White House in this neglected, hilarious comedy that features fine, assured comedic rapport between Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams, Woodward and Bernstein portrayed as bickering clowns (by Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch), and a towering performance by Dan Hedaya as Nixon.
13. The Straight Story: David Lynch dared to flirt with the mainstream in this spare, elegant drama (produced by Disney!) about an elderly Iowa farmer who travels hundreds of miles by riding lawnmower to see his ailing brother. The piercing elegiac tone goes hand in hand with a terrific performance by Richard Farnsworth in his last role.
14. Being John Malkovich: First-time director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman pushed the envelope of how stories can be told with this wackily surreal comedy about a puppeteer who controls the mind of a self-regarding Oscar-nominated actor. Even the most jaded moviegoers couldn’t tell what would happen next.
15. The Blair Witch Project: This deeply influential horror flick invigorated a stale genre with cinema vérité techniques and forced studio executives to learn how to use websites to promote their movies. Even without all that, it still works as an examination of how a group’s dynamic falls apart under pressure. And it gets under your skin superbly.
16. Go: Doug Liman’s dark farce careens all over the place yet somehow remains firmly controlled, as a bunch of teen drug dealers find themselves in over their heads on a single night. The mood goes from hair-raising danger to sharp humor (check the mind-reading cat), while a hip young cast gives the thing its zip.
17. My Son the Fanatic: Like Three Kings, this British drama looks better viewed through the prism of how the world has changed since 1999. The great Indian actor Om Puri stars as a Muslim cabdriver in London who watches helplessly as his son becomes a terrorist. Adapted by Hanif Kureishi from one of his own stories, this now looks sadly prophetic.
18. All About My Mother: In retrospect, people overrated this movie because it showed that Pedro Almodóvar had grown up. The Spanish master has bettered this entry since then, but there’s still power in Cecilia Roth’s performance as a bereaved mother searching for closure.
19. Run Lola Run: Tom Tykwer never regained the heights of this delirious German film about a girl who runs to save her boyfriend’s life, with three different outcomes for her and the various people she meets. Despite the frenetic pace of this film, the effect is oddly soothing.
20. Dogma: Funny, when I made this list 10 years ago, I ranked this movie No. 1. Kevin Smith’s Catholic belief met his raunchy sense of humor, and the result was this profane yet genuinely religious comedy with slacker-dude fallen angels, George Carlin as a cardinal, and a great performance by Ben Affleck. A movie that’ll make you laugh your ass off, and believe.
Honorable mention: David Fincher’s Fight Club; Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes; Michael Mann’s The Insider; David Mamet’s The Winslow Boy; Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair; Alexander Payne’s Election, Frank Oz’ Bowfinger; M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense; Mike Judge’s Office Space; Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels.
As a bonus, I thought I’d compile a Top 10 list for other years, too. Here’s 1994:
1. Pulp Fiction
3. Hoop Dreams
5. Eat Drink Man Woman
6. Little Women
7. Bullets Over Broadway
8. Ed Wood
9. Heavenly Creatures
10. Chungking Express
The Shawshank Redemption doesn’t make it the cut, interestingly enough.
1. Do the Right Thing
2. Say Anything…
3. sex, lies and videotape
4. Drugstore Cowboy
5. The Little Mermaid
6. Henry V
8. When Harry Met Sally…
9. Roger & Me
10. Crimes and Misdemeanors
I wouldn’t have picked Spike Lee’s film at the time, but that one has held up very well. Wow, this was fun. Why didn’t I think of this last year? Looking forward to doing the best movies of 2000, ’95, and ’90 next December. Goodfellas would seem to have the Best Movie of 1990 locked down, but I have a feeling Metropolitan will pull the upset.