The Year in Film

1999 brought a cinematic bounty to the art house and the multiplex alike

Remember just a couple of weeks ago, back in 1999, when all eyes were fixed on The End? So it was for the movies of '99. Looking back on the year in film, I'm struck not only by the unusual volume of truly great cinema (both foreign and domestic, Hollywood and independent), but by the extraordinary number of indelible final shots in the last year of the 20th century. Just to name a few: the horrifying sight of the videographers' fate at the end of The Blair Witch Project; the nightmare/fantasy of the corporate landscape falling to dust in Fight Club; a simple view of the stars as seen by a pair of old geezers in The Straight Story; and the faint hope of nature's resilience at the beautiful close of Princess Mononoke. Even more than these, my single favorite final shot in any movie all year is the brilliantly anachronistic capper to Tim Robbins's Thirties-era period piece Cradle Will Rock--a shot that I can't really describe in full, for fear of spoiling the moment, except to say that it situates Times Square in a context that CNN's "comprehensive" millennial coverage took pains to deny.

Speaking of Cradle Will Rock (which just barely cracks my Top 40 below), the film was released in New York and L.A. last month in order to qualify for critics' awards and Oscar nominations, but it isn't due to screen publicly in the Twin Cities until next week. This I mention by way of explaining why the year-end roundup below might seem to have arrived at least a dozen days late (alas, not even eager publicists can help the critic to see every '99 release due to open here over the next three or more months), as well as why there may appear some surprising inclusions--and exclusions--on my roster. (For instance, both The Thin Red Line and Rushmore, released here last January and February, made my Top 10 of '98. And, as festival and retrospective screenings don't count as releases in my book, I'll have to wait until next year to list, say, Werner Herzog's Wings of Hope, which graced the Walker but once last spring.)

Confusing it may be, but I don't know how else to treat the fact that the likes of, say, Topsy-Turvy (opening at the Uptown on January 21) and The Lovers on the Bridge (released nationwide last fall--but made in 1991!) are competing within most every other critical assessment of 1999, and heretofore throughout film history. On the other hand, I like to think that the innovative cinema on my '99 Top 10 represents a vision of the 21st Century, too. So here's to Stanley Kubrick--and 2001.


TOP 10


1. Eyes Wide Shut. As with most Kubrick films, time will vindicate this subversively abstract sextravaganza. That the movie looks like it could be taking place in the 19th Century guarantees that it won't appear at all dated in the 21st.


2. The Lovers on the Bridge. A masterpiece of lunatic proportions, this 1991 French melodrama (a.k.a. Les amants du Pont Neuf) took a full eight years to reach the States--which wasn't inappropriate, either, since its near-apocalyptic form of rapture rather befitted the fin de siècle. (Kudos to the Parkway Theatre for taking it on.) Set in Paris during the French bicentennial summer of 1989, the film portrays the homeless title characters (Denis Lavant, Juliette Binoche) from their desperate days on the temporarily closed Pont Neuf bridge through a period of gradual gentrification, by the end of which they find the bridge remodeled and full of well-off Christmas shoppers--and themselves "new and improved" as well. Like his characters, writer-director Léos Carax follows an upwardly mobile trajectory, critiquing the art house audience's desire to see the lovers "make it" by allowing the film to become increasingly, tantalizingly artificial. (The legendary fireworks scene is at once breathtaking and almost completely implausible.) File it alongside Breaking the Waves and the "Three Colors" trilogy as a divine romance whose director plays God.


3. Topsy-Turvy. True to the heavily improvised form of Mike Leigh's narrative "documentaries," this glowing Gilbert and Sullivan biopic deconstructs the pair's legendary "magic" as the product of two gargantuan egos, much backstage bickering, the toppling weight of the team's past successes, the talents and frailties of their tireless acting troupe, and no small amount of visionary genius--plus some intuitive and invaluable contributions from their wives. Is there another movie that captures the personal politics of artmaking so perceptively? More on Topsy-Turvy and its maker in next week's issue.


4. Princess Mononoke. Rare indeed is the animated movie that makes you feel like a six-year-old and think like a grown-up. Director Hayao Miyazaki is a poetic artist of the highest caliber, with the deepest soul.


5. The Blair Witch Project. Representing the perfect synergy of inspiration, duplicity, creative financing, off-stage direction, off-screen space, and, yes, marketing, this late-Nineties nightmare vision is also as old as The Hills Have Eyes. What better compliment than to say that it hearkens back to the most bloodcurdling of Seventies-era drive-in horror?


6. Rosetta. Following a tenacious 17-year-old girl (Emilie Dequenne) through the endless struggles of her life in Belgium, the Dardenne brothers (La Promesse) bring their 15 years of documentary experience to bear on a narrative feature that possesses all the aching force of the best nonfiction films about labor. The filmmakers train their handheld camera on Rosetta's hands as she fights in every frame to fend off poverty: baiting the hook on a bottle fish trap, mixing waffle batter, peeling a hard-boiled egg, carrying a heavy canister of propane back to the trailer-park home she shares with her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux). Recalling the great tradition of neorealist classics about poor children, from Los Olvidados to Pixote, Rosetta displays an astute class consciousness that's never reducible to platitudes about the courage of the impoverished. Is it just a coincidence that the film is currently without an opening date in the Twin Cities?

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