MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest Forrest@moviecitynews.com

Frenzy Like It’s 1999

It’s basically an accepted fact at this point that 1999 was one of the absolute best years in (recent) movie history.  It was a coming-out party for a number of visionary filmmakers as well as a reminder of the talent of some veteran guys.  It was truly a year of auteurs, with new filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincherand David O. Russell emerging and filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Michael Mann contributing some of their best work.  And I was a sixteen year old budding film buff who thought the world of film was turning a corner.

I didn’t know at the time that I was witnessing a year for the ages, but I remember going to the movies twice a weekend and walking out of a lot of movies saying, “that was the best movie of the year!”  I specifically remember walking out ofFight Club, to which I had dragged my mom; she liked it and thought it was a good movie, while I remember saying to her, “that was one of the best films I’ve ever seen and I don’t know why.”  I still hold Fight Club in high esteem because it was a film that was made specifically for a certain generation; interestingly, I don’t think it was made for mine, but the one fifteen to twenty years older than me.  I’m still waiting for my generation’s Fight Club, I suppose.

The interesting thing, as I look back upon that year, is not those brilliant movies that are constantly shifting and evolving in my mind – I’ve probably revised my top ten list from that year hundreds of times – but some of the films that didn’t get as much attention at the time, that slipped through the cracks.  Fight Club, Three Kings, Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, all of those films have become either cult classics or recognized justly for their brilliance.

But what about a film like Tim Roth’s The War Zone, which deals frankly and hauntingly with a family torn apart by incest?  Or Woody Allen’s brilliant Sweet and Lowdown, featuring one of the best performances of Sean Penn’s career?  Or there’s Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon, which makes the unknowable Andy Kaufman almost human with the precision ofJim Carrey’s performance.  Or Kevin Smith’s admirable – if not entirely successful –Dogma, which deserves a million kudos just for its audacious approach at making a religious comedy.  Or The Blair Witch Project, which I remember watching a friend’s bootleg of before it was released and thinking I was seeing something real, believing that ghosts existed.  Or Cronenberg’s trippy eXistenZ, which deals with a lot of the same themes as the more widely lauded The Matrix, except with a typically Cronenbergian tone and fascination with the body.

All of those films are considered basically the “second-tier” films of 1999 and any one of them would easily be the second or third best film of this year so far – behind the The Hurt Locker, of course.  And I didn’t even mention films like Summer of Sam, The Limey, The Red Violin, Go, Julien Donkey-Boy, or Boys Don’t Cry.

I decided that since this was the ten year anniversary of this wonderful year, that I would go back and give some retrospective “Frenzies” to the films and performances of that year since the Academy did a pretty lousy job of nominating the appropriate films and performances.

Best Performance: Richard Farnsworth, The Straight Story

The Straight Story is, much like The Elephant Man, not what one would consider a “typical”David Lynch film.  The stories might be a little on the oddball side, but they are straightforward narratives that take place in a world that resembles reality.  For me, The Straight Story is the best film Lynch has ever made – aside from Blue Velvet – and it contains one of the best lead performances I have ever seen from Richard Farnsworth.  He doesn’t use a lot of words to get his point across, but he’s like that wise grandfather that comes to Thanksgiving, whose every word seems important and vital.  There is so much life in Farnsworth’s eyes and the kind of intensity that is in his gaze is not something you can just learn in some acting class.  Kevin Spacey was very good in American Beauty that year, but it is a travesty that Farnsworth didn’t win the Academy Award that year.

Second Best Performance: Matt Damon, The Talented Mr. Ripley

In a year like 1999, it is necessary to give an award to the man who gave the second best performance of the year; a performance which could be considered the best in most years.  What Damon does in The Talented Mr. Ripley is to make a sociopath human, to make us understand and even root for this man to succeed.  A lot of credit was given to Jude Law’s star-making turn, but the role of Dickie Greenleaf was a showier role and Damon has to do a lot of the heavy lifting.  By the end of the film, when Ripley winds up getting everything he wanted – except, of course, for the person he loved – we see how hollow that victory is and how tortured Ripley really is.  He has to kill the one person that he cares about, that actually knows him as Tom Ripley, just so he could pretend to be a “somebody” for a little bit longer.  And when we hear Damon crying and see the look in his eyes as he kisses Cate Blanchett on the boat, Damon makes us feel a whirlwind of emotions in a few seconds.  Just like when all those adjectives pop on the screen at the beginning of the movie – before finally settling on “talented” – Damon gives us a thousand different adjectives to describe what he has accomplished.

Most Underrated Film of 1999: Lawrence Kasdan’s Mumford

What a brilliant idea for a film; it starts out as a cutesy little film about a psychologist named Mumford who lives in the town of Mumford.  It could basically be a slice-of-life romantic comedy that you’ve seen a million times before where nice things happen to nice people. Kasdan has a twist up his sleeve and the film takes a darker turn about forty-five minutes in, but Kasdan is shrewd enough to not ever let the film get too dark, keeping it sunny and happy despite the revelation about the main character (and I’m treading lightly here because I urge you to see the film if you haven’t already).

Loren Dean gives a fantastic performance as the title character, a therapist who just listens (imagine that!) and gives honest and sometimes bracing advice.  Supporting Dean is a cast of future stars like Jason Lee, Hope Davis and Zooey Deschanel as well as some established veterans like Alfre Woodard, Mary McDonnell and Ted Danson.  The film might seem slight at first glance, but it’s really one of the finest and most re-watchable films of the year, filled with some unique and profound insights about the world we live in and how to make yourself happy.

Best Ending: Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia

When Tom Cruise was working on Eyes Wide Shut, Paul Thomas Anderson famously visited Cruise on set to offer him a part in Magnolia; this time spend on the set of Eyes Wide Shut would clearly influence Anderson years later when he made his almost Kubrickian filmThere Will Be Blood.  But that year, both Kubrick and Anderson would offer two very similar last shots that would become indelible.  In Eyes Wide Shut, it’s a close-up shot of Nicole Kidman as she says, “I do love you and you know there is something very important we need to do as soon as possible.”  Then Cruise responds by asking, “What’s that?” Again we go to the close-up of Kidman as she says, “Fuck.”  Cut to black.  The word then hangs in the air, allowing the audience to ponder the full array of meanings present in that word.  Beautiful and vulgar at the same time.

In Magnolia, long after the frogs have rained down on southern California, John C. Reilly as the “policeman in love” goes to visit Melora Walters, who has been a beautiful mess the entire film.  Aimee Mann’s “Save Me” wails on the soundtrack, muffling what Reilly is saying exactly.  And finally, Walter looks at the camera and offers a coy smile, cut to black.  Gorgeous and haunting final image.

Best Opening/Best 8 Minutes of Film: the prologue of Magnolia

I don’t even think I really need to explain this astounding mélange of strange occurrences.  From using an actual Lumiere camera for the 1911 scenes to Patton Oswalt as a blackjack dealer, the first eight minutes of this film are so electrifying, such a visual and expositional tour-de-force that it completely rocked my world for days afterward.  I went to the movies several times after that and I would peak into the theater Magnolia was playing at, just so I could see that opening one more time.

Most Prescient Film: David O. Russell’s Three Kings

“Bush told the people to rise up against Saddam. They thought they’d have our support. They don’t. Now they’re getting slaughtered.”  This is what George Clooney’s character, Archie Gates, says at one point in the film.  When I first saw the movie, I thought it was brilliant, but I didn’t know that those words would come back so hauntingly or that the scenes of Mark Wahlberg being tortured would be images of reference when I heard about “torture” in the news.  Three Kings is quite simply one of the best war films ever made because it seems like a realistic impression of what it means to be a soldier in a war today with the media covering you and wanting to see some action.  Also, Russell and his team created a look to the film that inspired every desert-based action film that followed.

Most Original Film: Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich

Charlie Kaufman’s script was so batshit insane that I remember watching the film and wondering how it possibly got from script to screen.  Jonze’s realization of that script, as well as the actors chosen for the task, were key to making it more than just a gimmick about going inside John Malkovich’s head.  It’s a warped, twisted tale where some puppeteers are celebrities and there are buildings that have a 7 ½ floor, but it is grounded in some very real concerns about celebrity, love and of course, death.  The whole crew of elderly folks that is trying to find a way to live forever by jumping into someone else’s mind is so full of depth that I couldn’t possibly limit myself to ten thousand words simply talking about that aspect of the film.  It is still, in my opinion, the best film based on one of Kaufman’s zany scripts because it’s able to capture the oddball spirit while also giving us an emotional center.  Malkovich, Malkovich?  Malkovich, Malkovich.

Coolest Haircut: Franka Potente, Run Lola Run

I found the film to be a bit overrated, but Potente’s haircut – and performance, for that matter – was exceptional.  And I’m glad it gave us Tom Tykwer, who remains an exciting filmmaker (witness his remarkable Perfume, which despite its flaws is still an achievement).

Best Import: Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother

All About My Mother is an extraordinary film about womanhood and femininity with a remarkable lead performance by Cecilia Roth.  It’s a film only Almodovar could make and it’s worth revisiting for its wonderfully human contradictions (Penelope Cruz as a pregnant nun, impregnated by a transvestite).  Almodovar has truly gotten better and better as he’s gotten older and more sure of himself, but this remains his seminal work.

Most Overrated Film: Sam Mendes’ American Beauty

It’s not that this is a bad film by any means, but compared to a lot of the other films that came out in 1999¸ American Beauty has not ages as gracefully.  What seemed so original and unique at the time now seems a bit dated.  We loved the ironic tone of Alan Ball’s script, but that cynicism now seems tired.  It is still a wonderfully biting satire of suburban life, but there are some moments that ring phony (Chris Cooper’s character being a closet homosexual, in particular) and some elements that seem hokey (like the bag floating in the wind).

All in all, Fight Club has the same theme of yuppie malaise and presents it in a way that has more vitality.  Rewatching them both recently, I found American Beauty to be less accomplished than I remembered it while Fight Club seems to be just as relevant as ever. American Beauty is still a good film, an important film, but looking back on it now, I don’t see it as one of the year’s best.

Best Film of the Year: Tie: Fight Club, Eyes Wide Shut, The Straight Story, Three Kings, Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Insider

I can’t choose just one from this list.  All eight of these films are transcendent movie experiences that I enjoy revisiting often.  Kubrick and Minghella are now gone, which is more upsetting than I have the words to say, but it’s been a joy watching the other filmmakers develop.  I just wish they would all work more often.  This year we’ve got a new film fromMichael Mann (although I wish he would make another film without guns, like The Insider),Spike Jonze (here’s hoping Where the Wild Things Are is just as good as his previous two films), and hopefully David O. Russell (if Nailed makes it to theaters this year).

1999 was a banner year for film.  Even though we’ve had some good years since (2007 was pretty damn good), there has been nothing like the explosion of talent that arrived in 1999.  If you count Rushmore, which came at the end of 1998, it heralds the arrival of even more talent.  Darren Aronofsky and Sofia Coppola burst on the scene with Requiem for a Dream and The Virgin Suicides, respectively, the next year as well.  I wonder if there will ever be a period like that again.  Then again, perhaps we’re living through it now and we’ll only recognize it in ten years.

– Noah Forrest
July 20, 2009
Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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~ László Krasznahorkai

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