Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the 10 films on this list is the abundance of directing newcomers on it. 7 of the movies were made by people who made their feature film directorial debuts, and while not all of these film-makers would go on to lasting greatness, it still makes for an impressive class of 1999. The other three films are made by two well-established masters and one quickly rising star. There’s also, as usual, a lot of comedy on here. This shouldn’t surprise you with my lists any more.
So far in this series of blog posts, I have chosen to largely abstain from making honorable mentions. This has largely been due to a stubborn adherence to principles; if one sets out to make a list of 10 films, one should not name 20 films. I have now realized that this is counter-productive to the aim of these lists, which is to give people an idea of what movies I like.
With that in mind, here are some 1999 films I really like that didn’t quite make my list. Honorable mentions, if you will. In alphabetical order:
Arlington Road, Beyond the Mat, Bringing Out the Dead, Girl Interrupted, The Green Mile, In China They Eat Dogs, Magnolia, Office Space, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Toy Story 2
Now on to the list proper. As usual, I’m going by IMDB’s year of release.
10 – EYES WIDE SHUT (Stanley Kubrick)
“No dream is ever just a dream.”
Equal parts nightmare sightseeing tour through New York City and meditation on infidelity, Stanley Kubrick finished off his career in great fashion with Eyes Wide Shut. Impeccably designed and shot – as is to be expected from Kubrick – and with one of Tom Cruise‘s best performances in the lead, this film is also helped by having a strong story, one that might seem simple and straight-forward on paper but that reveals more layers with each watch.
9 – THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez)
“I’m afraid to close my eyes, I’m afraid to open them.”
While this movie didn’t invent the found footage genre of film (Cannibal Holocaust from 1980 seems to be the agreed-upon originator), The Blair Witch Project popularised it, paving the way for films like REC, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity and many others. When I first watched it at home alone one night as a teen, it had me rattled to the core. Even today, it remains a highly effective horror film by making us fear what we can’t see, rather than throwing a monster right in our faces. A picture might say more than a thousand words, but in horror, so does a sound that shouldn’t be there.
8 – THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (Sofia Coppola)
“We knew the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love, and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.”
To teenage boys, the biggest mystery in the world is teenage girls. This film, centering around five daughters to a controlling mother and the boys that desire them, does an excellent job of portraying this, keeping just enough puzzle pieces out of our hands as to fully understand the girls. And this was directed by a woman, interestingly enough, which tells me that there’s a great deliberate female conspiracy at work in the world. I knew it all along!
7 – THE BOONDOCK SAINTS (Troy Duffy)
“That’s just what we need now: some sensational story in the papers making these boys out to be superheroes, triumphing over evil.”
The Boondock Saints is very much a case of style over substance. It’s also actually pretentious in the way it tries to shoehorn in half-assed debate over vigilante justice towards the end, after having spent the entire film utterly glorifying it. So yeah, this film has some issues. Fortunately, if one looks past these, there’s a tremendously fun action comedy to be had about two brothers (Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus) believing themselves to be hand-picked by God to clean up the criminal elements of Boston. Using slick jumps back-and-forth in time to show their deeds and the police investigations thereof (conducted by a superbly scenery-chewing Willem Dafoe), The Boondock Saints rises above most of the other Tarantino-inspired “clever” crime flicks.
6 – MAN ON THE MOON (Milos Forman)
“Andy, you have to look inside and ask this question: who are you trying to entertain – the audience or yourself?”
I’m not overly familiar with provocative comedian Andy Kaufman‘s work, so I can’t say whether Jim Carrey‘s performance as him in this biopic is accurate or not. What is clear, however, is that this is a fascinating portrayal of a man torn between his artistic impulses and his desire to entertain people. For some, these could be fused together. Not for Kaufman, who always felt the need to defy everyone’s expectations and travel steps beyond into subversion. While not strictly speaking a comedy, Man on the Moon still inherently has lots of funny moments during its run-time, from Kaufman’s pro wrestling shenanigans to his lounge singer alter ego Tony Clifton. A great and sometimes overlooked biopic.
5 – THREE KINGS (David O. Russell)
“Didn’t think I’d get to see anybody get shot in this war.”
War movies is not a genre I’ve found much to love in so far in my cinematic journey, but Three Kings is a stellar exception to this, perhaps thanks to the infusion of heist film elements. Title notwithstanding, Three Kings follows four American soldiers of the Gulf War (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and a publicity-wise forgotten Spike Jonze) as they venture out in search of gold during the Iraqi uprisings of 1991. What’s interesting is how director/writer David O. Russell plays with the expectations of both the characters and the audience. The soldiers at first sees their treasure hunt as a fun adventure, but as their search goes on, they realize that the realities of war – and its aftermath – are ever-present. So the film gets increasingly more serious and poignant as it goes on, and yet there’s always a hint of satire to the proceedings. Add in some memorable stylistic choices – including a great shot of a bullet entering a human body – and you have one hell of a great film.
4 – PAYBACK (Brian Helgeland)
“Nobody likes a monkey on his back. I had three, and they were cramping my style. I was gonna have to lighten the load.”
One of the coolest movies ever. It cruises along on a general atmosphere of badassness, together with some noir sensibilities, a washed-out color scheme, and a comically grim-faced Mel Gibson in the lead. The story is simple: a Chicago crook is after some money he had rightfully stolen. What follows is a violent and funny series of events as he goes up against crime syndicates, corrupt cops, and old friends. Pure entertainment.
3 – BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (Spike Jonze)
“Here’s the thing: If you ever get me, you wouldn’t have a clue what to do with me.”
Not just the feature film directing debut of Spike Jonze, but also the first film to be penned by Charlie Kaufman. And what a unique and twisting story it is, all centering around a portal that inexplicably puts people in the head of actor John Malkovich. Then you have a bunch of people all trying to use this remarkable thing for their own selfish purposes, an off-beat kind of humor, and some delightful performances from John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, Malkovich himself, and others. Most importantly, Being John Malkovich is a film where you never know what’s going to happen next. This is a rarer quality than it should be, and thus, this film deserves all the acclaim in the world.
2 – FIGHT CLUB (David Fincher)
“You have a kind of sick desperation in your laugh.”
Too many viewers took Fight Club‘s anarchaic elements at face value rather than seeing the condemning satire beyond, so certain elements of its story could perhaps have been handled in a different way – or maybe the lesson is that at the end of the day, people will be people. Regardless, Fight Club remains a modern black comedy masterpiece, combining David Fincher‘s filthy sense of aesthetics and source novel author Chuck Palahniuk‘s unique view of the world into one stylish and biting package. Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and (especially) Helena Bonham Carter put in some of their best work on screen. Oh, and the film is really effing funny too.
1 – AMERICAN BEAUTY (Sam Mendes)
“It’s a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself.”
This one could have earned its top spot by virtue of all its amazing line readings alone. Sam Mendes‘ first look at the dark side of suburban life – a theme he’d follow up on with 2008’s Revolutionary Road – is a wonderfully funny movie that excels in most areas, from dialogue and performances to cinematography and score. Hopeful and despairing, beautiful and ugly, hilarious and tragic. There’s good reason why I for a long time called this my very favorite movie. It’s not quite up there any more, but it hasn’t dropped far.