THE BEST FILMS OF 1999

When I kicked off last year's Top 10 list with a long list of eagerly awaited films by name directors, I should have been more careful what I wished for. 1999 was not the best year in which to be an auteurist. Some of my favorite directors made films so bad they were depressing - although I seem to be the only person in the U.S. who dislikes Mike Leigh's TOPSY-TURVY and Claire Denis' BEAU TRAVAIL - and even many of the auteur films that I liked - Jane Campion's HOLY SMOKE, Robert Altman's COOKIE'S FORTUNE, Pedro Almodovar's ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, the Dardenne brothers' ROSETTA, Werner Herzog's MY BEST FIEND, Errol Morris' MR. DEATH, Steven Soderbergh's THE LIMEY, Emir Kusturica's BLACK CAT, WHITE CAT - amounted to little more than minor or highly flawed pleasures.

Meanwhile, the Amerindie sector, which seemed practically moribund just two years ago, offered up strong debuts from Spike Jonze (and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman), Kimberly Peirce, the BLAIR WITCH collective and documentarian Barbara Sonneborn. Although I'm far from convinced that this was the best year for American cinema since 1939, Hollywood produced a steady stream of uneven but relatively adventurous films in compensation for the Miramax-led co-option of "independent film." There were some promising debuts overseas as well: French director Philippe Grandieux's fascinating avant-garde slasher movie SOMBRE would have made my Top 10 list if not for its repulsive misogyny, while Chinese director Jia Zhang Ke's XIAO WU suggested that his country's cinema may find its way back to life after the Fifth Generation's midlife crisis. And the massive turnouts drawn by MOMA's Robert Bresson retrospective and the Walter Reade's Hou Hsaio-hsien retrospective proved that cinephilia is far from dead in New York.

1999 was certainly a more satisfying year than 1998, but I felt more and more like a contrarian as the year wore on. God only knows why so many critics got excited by the generic youth-oriented French naturalism of Erick Zonca's THE DREAM LIFE OF ANGELS. I've seen a dozen better examples of this aesthetic, and Zonca's short ALONE proves that even he can do it better. Although more tolerable than Luc Besson, Tom Tykwer's RUN LOLA RUN epitomized the MTV aesthetic of the cinema du look at its emptiest and most painfully hip; as this kind of stuff goes, I much prefer Douglas Liman's slightly less cartoonish GO.

I've got nothing against Pedro Almodovar's ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER itself, but I'm disturbed by the amount of hype it generated at Cannes, especially now that I've had a chance to see some of its competition. While a pretty good film, it's no better than Almodovar's THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET and (widely ignored) LIVE FLESH, not to mention Cannes challengers like ROSETTA and Manoel de Oliveira's THE LETTER. Depressingly, its high comfort level and obvious American influences played into the hands of VARIETY critic Todd McCarthy's quest to wipe out all cinema that doesn't play by Hollywood's rules. This level of accessibility doesn't make it any better or worse than ROSETTA or THE LETTER, of course, but it's more essential than ever to stress the value of all kinds of world cinema, not just the kind that excites McCarthy and Harvey Weinstein.

Given the love-it-or-hate-it reactions provoked by Catherine Breillat's ROMANCE, it's both overrated and underrated. While I fall somewhere in between the two extremes, I suspect that the feminist critics who make up most of the "love-it" camp are reacting largely to the novelty of a female director making such a sexually explicit film. In comparison to her other work, it shows a refreshing sense of humor and relative optimism, yet her characters' brain-dead "philosophical" reveries made it impossible for me to take their sexual journeys as seriously as Breillat does. When Charles Taylor suggests that Americans who've derided its talkiness and pretensions are reacting out of an unconscious Puritanical rejection, he'd have a much better case if Breillat were as talented a writer as Georges Bataille or Pauline Réage.

With THE INSIDER, Michael Mann once again showed that he can inflate an interesting subject and great cast to an unbearable level of pomposity. Just as tormented tobacco executive Jeffrey Wigand got screwed in real life, THE INSIDER cheats him (and Russell Crowe) when it turns the spotlight away from him to focus on Al Pacino's saintly newsman and Christopher Plummer's Mike Wallace impersonation. The preachy Middle Americana of David Lynch's THE STRAIGHT STORY left me pretty cold, but at least it proves that he can still do something other than pander to a cult audience expecting self-conscious weirdness.

However, the most overrated American film of the year was Sam Mendes' AMERICAN BEAUTY, this year's equivalent of BOOGIE NIGHTS and THE ICE STORM: a worthwhile but highly flawed work that got hailed as a masterpiece often enough to make my stomach churn. I liked it enough to give it 3 stars initially (mostly because of the final half hour), yet it seemed flimsier the more I thought about, and at this point, it strikes me as little more than an extremely well-acted MARRIED WITH CHILDREN episode. In the context of network TV, its tepid jabs at suburban alienation, materialism, homophobia and gun culture might look daring, yet it pales next to FIGHT CLUB's Ikea smackdown and SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT's indictment of war fever, much less BLUE VELVET or SAFE. (After nearly 20 years of the War on Drugs, its decidedly pro-marijuana attitude may be its most genuinely provocative quality.) Although somewhat less mean-spirited than Todd Solondz (a visible source of inspiration, along with Lynch, Atom Egoyan and SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE), screenwriter Alan Ball still can't help ridiculing middle-aged female sexuality, even if he eventually extends a generous hand to most of his other characters. And someone really should have told him the audience doesn't need to be told how fucking poetic that image of the floating bag is.


One note: Dariush Mehrjjui's LEILA, which was released commercially this year after playing at several 1998 New York festivals, was #9 on last year's Top 10 list.


10. MAGNOLIA (Paul Thomas Anderson)

One film later, Paul Thomas Anderson has finally managed to live up to BOOGIE NIGHTS' reviews! A deliberate indulgence in emotional excess, MAGNOLIA aims for nothing less than a reinvention of the American melodrama and brings enough ambition, craft and sincerity to pull it off. Hampered by a needlessly lengthy intro and an overload of subplots, it's by far the most flawed film on this list, but Anderson's structure, based around as much around emotional links between scenes as a conventional narrative progression, allows for plenty of affecting moments, including a sublime singalong. Given MAGNOLIA's obvious debt to SHORT CUTS (although it thankfully drops Altman's mean streak), Anderson may not have found his own voice yet, but heÕs making steady progress. If he can finally crawl out from the influence of his masters and learn more about real life, I think he may become a great director.


9. BESIEGED (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy)

An exciting comeback from a director I stopped taking seriously a decade ago, BESIEGED transcends a bad screenplay and atypically weak David Thewlis performance largely because Bertolucci has reinvented his mise-en-scéne. Turning away from the Tradition of Quality sheen Vittorio Storaro often brought to his work, he relies here instead on aggressive camera movement and editing to express the emotions his characters can't talk about directly. Although BESIEGED was accused of racism by several critics, its inter-racial love story is hardly a romanticized Hallmark fantasy, given the deliberate creepiness and colonial overtones of the behavior of its "hero" and bittersweet, if not downright unhappy, conclusion.


8. SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT (Trey Parker)

After a few years of inspired but increasingly uneven SOUTH PARK episodes, I wasn't sure what to expect from the TV program's feature-length debut, apart from endless profanity. Of course, SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT delivers plenty of that (and quite creatively, too), but it also offered a biting anti-war/anti-censorship satire, which seemed especially a propos in the wake of Columbine and Kosovo, and 14 very catchy songs. ("Uncle Fucka" is my favorite.) Without deferring to "political correctness" in the slightest, Parker and co-creator Matt Stone aimed their venom at the right targets; surprisingly, their gay Satan is as fully realized and sympathetic as any other character, rather than a cheap homophobic gag. My inner 12-year-old hasn't had this much fun at the movies in years, and my outer 27-year-old was pretty satisfied too.


7. XIAO WU (Jia Zhang Ke, China)

Since the early 90s RAISE THE RED LANTERN/FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE heyday, mainland Chinese cinema, torn by the twin pressures of censorship and Western audiences' demands, has both declined and fallen out of fashion to the point where Zhang Yimou's next-to-last film, KEEP COOL, still hasn't been released in the U.S. However, the dry wit and passive "hero" - a shy, seemingly depressed pickpocket who spends his days wandering around a provincial city killing time watching his former friends make money - of XIAO WU share more with Elia Suleiman's CHRONICLE OF A DISAPPEARANCE than any other Chinese film I've seen. Rather than mourn the Cultural Revolution for the 117th time, XIAO WU, which played in March at MOMA's NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS, presents a crystal-clear vision of everyday life in an unglamorous China of beepers, karaoke clubs and grey-market capitalism, with a great deal more to say about globalization than any Western film I've seen in years.


6. THE CLASS TRIP (Claude Miller, France)

Avant la lettre, Claude Miller beat the Gothic hysteria of Neil JordanÕs IN DREAMS to the punch. A portrait of a boy helplessly caught in a private world of hallucinatory Freudian symbols (rollercoasters, hooks, detached body parts, mysterious bags) and ill at ease in his own mind and body , it evokes a hellish childhood so vividly one can taste the bile. Even if the film falters somewhat after revealing the rationale behind its tormented visions, Miller's best moments are worthy of David Cronenberg or prime Dario Argento. Although hardly an arcane art film, it still hasn't found an American distributor after its March appearance at the Walter Reade's annual series of new French films.


5. BOYS DON'T CRY (Kimberly Peirce)

First-time filmmaker Peirce more than does justice to the real-life tragedy of Brandon Teena, treating her story, which has already inspired one documentary, in a remarkably assured style somewhere between social realism and Lynchian surrealism. Although the film has usually been perceived as a conventional docudrama, her decision to shoot most of the film at night contributes to a subtly off-kilter quality, and the opening credits and final scene could have come straight from LOST HIGHWAY. However, its heart lies in the accomplished performances, especially Chloe Sevigny's lacerating turn as Teena's lover.


4. KHROUSTALIOV, MY CAR! (Alexei German, Russia)

Making a chaotic, confusing film about a chaotic, confusing time isn't always such a good idea, but German brings the difficult task off with energy and style to burn. (German spent eight years between the completion of his 1982 MY FRIEND IVAN LAPSHIN, which was banned for several years by the Russian government, and the beginning of production of KHROUSTALIOV, which took another seven years to finish, and the pent-up rage produced by this wait is quite evident in the finished product.) Full of pitch-black humor, bodily fluids and nerve-rattling tension, it ranks alongside post-Communist Eastern European landmarks like Lucian Pintilie's THE OAK, Emir Kusturica's UNDERGROUND and Béla Tarr's SATANTANGO. As difficult as German's narrative is to follow, his style fits the menace of Stalinism's final gasp - a frantic few days in which the threat of deportation or worse lurks around every corner - like a glove. KHROUSTALIOV made its New York debut at the 1998 New York Film Festival, where I missed it at the time, and reappeared last December at 2 festivals of recent films from the former USSR.


3a. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (Daniel Myrick/Eduardo Sanchez et al.)

3b. OUTER SPACE (Peter Tcherkassky, Austria)

When I saw THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT on opening day, I never expected it to have a shot at a 140 million dollar gross, much less provoke the kind of widespread anger it subsequently generated. Six months later, I'm most impressed by the way it brings together several strands of North American independent cinema: the B-movies of Val Lewton and the later examples of regional horror directors like George Romero and Tobe Hooper, the 60s work of Shirley Clarke and John Cassavetes, and Atom Egoyan's reflexivity and fascination with video technology. (As a cautionary tale about video, it certainly trumps Michael Haneke's self-righteous tirades.) The horror of BWP ultimately has as much to do with the kind of identity breakdowns that fascinated Clarke and Cassavetes as with the Blair Witch's supernatural powers. One hopes its massive commercial success - and that of THE SIXTH SENSE, which is about as elegant as New Age claptrap gets - might lead to a resurgence of the serious American horror movie but Artisan's tidal wave of hype generated so much noise that it's hard to tell what impact the film really had. One need only read the smug CINEASTE editorial which condemned critics who think it (and/or EYES WIDE SHUT) a masterpiece or trash as clueless victims of P.R. - without offering substantial analysis of either film or a response to the intelligent defenses of BWP by Godfrey Cheshire, Michael Atkinson and J. Hoberman - to see how hard it is these days to build bridges between the arthouse and multiplex.

A 14-minute short shown at the New York Film Festival's "Views From The Avant-Garde" sidebar, OUTER SPACE takes footage from a 70s woman-in-jeopardy thriller starring Barbara Hershey and fragments it into a cubist dynamo, turning the implicit threat of violence into an assault on film form and our ability to comprehend the evidence in front of our eyes and ears. Despite its brevity, this terrifying miniature ranks as one of the (few) great horror films of the 90s, and in a more open-minded world, it might have found an audience alongside SE7EN - which owes a massive debt to avant-garde cinema - or BWP.


2. LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF (THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE) (Léos Carax, France)

Even (or especially) in the age of globalization, real news sometimes arrives slowly. Despite receiving mountains of critical acclaim and influencing filmmakers all over the world, this 1991 masterpiece was never released in the U.S. until 1999. For once, this isn't entirely the fault of cowardly distributors: its French producers reportedly demanded a huge sum of money at first for the American rights. However, once Miramax acquired the film, they kept it on the shelf for a year before giving it a slow, cursory release. Apart from Wong Kar-wai's CHUNG KING EXPRESS and FALLEN ANGELS, no 90s film evoked the youthful romanticism of the French New Wave as passionately as Carax. This was a good year for catching up: in addition to its Hou Hsaio-hsien series, WinStar also released Takeshi Kitano's first two films theatrically and on video, while the Screening Room and Zeitgeist Films gave another aging masterpiece, Abbas Kiarostami's 1990 CLOSE-UP, a week-long run.


1.BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (Spike Jonze)

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is simultaneously 1)a hilarious surrealist comedy, the closest American equivalent I've ever seen to Jacques Rivette's CELINE & JULIE GO BOATING; 2)a moving love story and 3)a meditation on practically everything under the sun: the seduction of fame, the social construction of gender and sexuality, the absurdity of work, and the promises and perils of "escapist" technologies like virtual reality (and, by extension, the cinema). As much as I enjoyed eXistenZ and THE MATRIX, neither film had much new to say about the 1999 topic du jour - a reality growing more virtual by the day - but MALKOVICH gradually expanded out from an absurdist gag into a road map of the way we dream now. I can't think of a better way to greet the next century's threat/promise of the end of cinema as we know it.


RUNNERS-UP:

AFTER LIFE (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan), AMSTERDAM GLOBAL VILLAGE (Johan van der Keuken, the Netherlands), L'ENNUI (Cédric Kahn, France), FIGHT CLUB (David Fincher), THE HOLE (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan), THE MATRIX (the Wachowski brothers), A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran), REGRET TO INFORM (Barbara Sonneborn), SICILIA! (Jean-Marie Straub/Daniele Huillet, Italy), SOMBRE (Philippe Grandieux, France)


SHORTS:

ANOTHER WORLDY (Leslie Thornton), the first BLAIR WITCH PROJECT trailer (Myrick/Sanchez), FLAMES (Patrick Bokanowski, France), LET FOREVER BE (Chemical Brothers music video, directed by Michel Gondry), the final 20 minutes of NEW ROSE HOTEL (Abel Ferrara), PSALM II: WALKING DISTANCE (Phil Solomon), TRANSIT RIDERS! ARISE WALK DOG EAT DONUT (Ken Kobland)


BEST RETROSPECTIVES:

James Benning (Anthology Film Archives), Robert Bresson (MOMA), Alfred Hitchcock (Film Forum & MOMA), Hou Hsaio-hsien (Walter Reade), François Truffaut (Film Forum), Columbia Pictures (Film Forum)

MOST DISAPPOINTING RETROSPECTIVES:

Claude Chabrol (Walter Reade) for its run of ragged prints, MOMAÕs silent cinema series for showing so many foreign films without English intertitles or translation.


BEST BOOKS ON FILM:

L'ARGENT (Kent Jones), FILM FOLLIES (Stuart Klawans), THE FILMS OF JEAN-LUC GODARD (David Sterritt), THE FRENCH NEW WAVE (Jean Douchet), THE VOICE IN CINEMA (Michel Chion)


FIVE FILMS I HATED:

DROP DEAD GORGEOUS (Michael Patrick Jann), THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN (Chen Kaige, China), JULIEN DONKEY-BOY (Harmony Korine), TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU (Gil Junger), WELCOME BACK. MR. MCDONALD (Koki Mitani, Japan)