The Best & Worst of 1999
by Jon Bastian
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10. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace — okay, in the Star Wars Pantheon, I’d rate this below The Empire Strikes Back and above Return of the Jedi. But, parts of the film were visually stunning, even those that you could call digitally derivative, and the three-way light saber battle near the end was pretty amazing. Forget JarJar, and ignore the fact that some of Jake Lloyd’s performance was computer assisted. It’s Star Wars. If you were old enough when the first one came out, you’ll understand.
9. American Pie: a sweet little teen comedy that turned teen comedy on its head by making the women real characters and actually having the guys learn something. It also picks up bonus points for the un-rated version just released on DVD and, anyway, it was just plain funny.
8. Dick: this film missed its target audience because the events in it were only funny if you actually lived through them. Although I’m a bit younger than the two girls involved in the story, my first political awareness was during the Nixon administration, and I was glad to see him resign. Sure, what does a pre-teen know of politics? But there was just something about the man I never liked. He reminded me of the worst possible elementary school principal, and that’s what counted. At least, when I grew up, I found out my hunch was right. I also found out I could finally laugh at Nixon Inc., which Dick made me do (and did itself) in abundance. Besides that, the opportunity to tell a box office person, “Hi, I’d like to see ‘Dick,’” is just too good to pass up.
7. Three Kings: an excellent film totally sabotaged in its last minutes by an ubbeat ending that felt like studio executive tinkering at its worst. But, up until that fatal error, we have a war movie for the 90’s, in which peace keeping forces are as much PR Bureaucrats as soldiers, and an ill-conceived mission to steal some of the gold Sadam Hussein stole from Kuwait leads four soldiers into a taut, psychologically wrenching journey they — and we — never expected. Think of it as the cynical version of Apocalypse Now, where there is no Colonel Kurtz, and it isn’t even quite clear which Arabs are good and which are bad. If only they hadn’t mucked up the ending…
6. The Talented Mr. Ripley: I don’t know if this film will rise or fall on the list, since I’ve only just seen it, but part of the measure of a film is how it sticks with you, and I have a feeling this one will stick. It would be higher on the list if I knew for sure. Beautiful locations and an amazing cast, lead by Matt Damon, unravel a trecherous tale of a man who is constantly changing his identity, to the peril of those closest to him. Expect an Oscar nomination for Damon, and cry foul if it doesn’t happen.
5. The Matrix: just plain cool to look at, taking special effects of all kinds to a entirely new places. Just when we thought we were way over that GAP ad “frozen 3-D motion” effect, The Matrix took it to new heights, and wrapped it in a story combining a weird sort of Buddhist New Age world view with a real Philip K. Dick mindfuck reality, several dashes of “The Golden Bough” tossed in for good measure. And yes, Keanu can act, although a sock puppet could have handled his role here. Hm. “The Matrix II” with Sifl and Ollie? Nah. I do wonder how the sequel will fare in 2000.
4. Being John Malkovich: just plain weird, but in a good way. There was more imagination in any five minutes of this film than in two hours worth of most others, adding up to a funhouse ride through a world were it made perfect sense that a secret portal lead right into John Malkovich’s mind. The twists and turns of the plot were never predictable but lead to the “right” ending — and that is the true mark of a well crafted script.
3. The Cradle Will Rock: an historical drama with some pretty compelling source material. But, when you throw together Nelson Rockefeller, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst, John Houseman and a has-been vaudeville ventriloquist, then let them live through a real experience that is stranger than fiction, you can’t go wrong. Oh yeah, a phantom Bertolt Brecht can’t hurt, either. This film felt truly epic, and yet never lost sight of its very human characters, and also managed to pull off at least five separate stories that all collided by the end. And what an end. The last shot of the film was one of the biggest whacks in the face I’ve experienced in cinema in a long time.
2. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut: outrageously, hilariously, vomitoriously, gloriously, laugh your ass off until your face turns blue and you wet yourself funny. And that was just the first five minutes. The other eighty-five were even funnier. On top of all that, it’s a full-blown musical with rude, crude characters unrestrained by cable censorship — and it’s actually about something, a real issue. When you can be that funny and still score several dozen direct hits on the stupidities of censorship and passing the blame to everyone and everything but yourself, you’ve got a hit. SP:BLU will probably be considered a classic some day, but you’ll never see it on the Disney Channel. If you do, that whirring sound you hear will be Old Walt, spinning around in the ice-maker. This film is strictly for adults only, although it’s probably far too intelligent for a lot of them.
1. Eyes Wide Shut: It’s Kubrick last film. I shouldn’t have to say any more than that. Not his greatest film, but still greater than most other films. The man could do more in the spaces when “nothing” was happening on screen than any dozen action hacks could do with five tons of dynamite, three 747s and a hundred million dollar effects budget with ILM. As with most of Kubrick’s films, it’s a cautionary story hidden in a fairytale structure, as our hero journeys into the dark woods of his soul, then back out the other side. And, face it, only Stanley Kubrick could get away with making Tom Cruise play his real height onscreen. You’ll never see him this short again, and, unfortunately, we’ll never see anything from Mr. Kubrick again. Every other living director on the planet moved up a notch when he died.
And now… the Worst
10. Outside Providence: I really wanted to like this film. I’m a big fan of Shawn Hatosy, I think he’s going to be a major star some day, but this adaptation of a novel obviously written by someone who was too young to have real experiences just meanders, never building toward anything. No stakes, no risk, who cares. Alec Baldwin was a hoot, though.
9. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me: how to kill a franchise in one easy step. All of the wit and sophistication and in-jokes of the first film were thrown out the window, replaced by inconsistencies left and right, really weak jokes for jokes’s sake and a tired retread of the plot of the first film. There’s a really, really funny dick joke near the end of the film. Apparently, it was so funny, the filmmakers needed to repeat it, thereby making it not funny.
8. End of Days: end of end of the world films, hopefully. You strain credulity far enough when you have a mere mortal take on Satan and win… no, let me revise that. You strain credulity far enough when you take all this religion crap seriously in a movie. Forgetting to write rules that bind the behavior of your characters, especially in films involving less than real conceits, is a disaster.
7. Jakob the Liar: Three words. Life is Beautiful. Even though Jakob was in the works first, Life is Beautiful did it without being maudlin, making the emotional impact of its ending very powerful, and truly earned.
6. (tie) Mod Squad and My Favorite Martian: please just stop now. There aren’t any old TV shows left to adapt. Really. (Although, Gilligan’s Island with Adam Sandler, John Goodman, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Bette Midler, Nicole Kidman and Cameron Diaz (and you know who’d play who) would be interesting. No, wait… forget I ever said that. Please, forget it now.)
5. Wild Wild West: an old TV show that actually might have made a good film, but not this version. What was with making Dr. Loveless, a) not a dwarf and b) not Miguelito, anyway? And, while I don’t have problems with non-traditional casting, an African-American secret service agent at the end of the Civil War is stretching it… um… way too far for the sake of modern sensibilities. Unless you’re going to play that element like Blazing Saddles, it just distracts unless the film is damn good. This one was damn awful.
4. Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo: for the title alone, this should be on everyone’s bottom ten list. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the film. That’s another reason. Finally, no way in hell is it at all believable that Rob Schneider could actually get women, no matter how desperate, to pay him to schtup them. That’s just icky.
3. Stigmata: call it Goth-Catholic chic, MTV style. Never mind that the theology presented herein bears absolutely no resemblance to any organized religion whatsoever, and that the men in the red shoes haven’t been villified on film so unfairly since the TV version of Shogun. This one just plain sucked, and the director couldn’t shoot his way out of a wet condom.
2. Pokemon, the First Movie: it says “first” movie. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid… (Incidentally, their website says it’s Saturday, January 1st, 3900. Oops…)
1. The Blair Witch Project: the Emperor has got no clothes on. It wasn’t scary, it wasn’t suspenseful and it wasn’t even that interesting. They should have called it “a trio of not very appealing actors running around in the woods screaming for ninety minutes while the directors (it took two?) are warm and cozy in the motel because they convinced these stupid bozos that this was some kind of great art.” They also convinced far too many people of the same thing, usually a sure sign that said work of art is really a piece of crap. I do have to give props to anybody who can turn fifty grand into a hundred bazillion — but it was all in the hype, baby. This film had nothing to do with the power of storytelling, and everything to do with the power of marketing and a lot of you bit right into the hook, didn’t you? Feel ashamed.
Jon Bastian is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.
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