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.
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?
7.The Straight Story. Some saw Forrest Gump in director David Lynch's back-to-basics (Mid)western, the gentle tale of the 20th-century cowboy's last ride into the sunset. Notwithstanding the filmmaker's characteristically dense sound design, I could have sworn it was John Ford in the saddle.
8.American Movie. Milwaukee filmmaker Chris Smith deservedly hit the big time with this funnier-than-fiction doc, although anyone who still doubts the talent of horrormeister Mark Borchardt would do well to note that, in more ways than one, he wrote it.
9.The War Zone. Named for the bloody battlefield otherwise known as the family home, actor Tim Roth's unflinching directorial debut succeeds where another English star's recent effort--Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth--mostly failed. Daring to chart a family's sexuality from the archetypal to the aberrant, and mostly from the perspective of two tragically damaged teens (Freddie Cunliffe, Lara Belmont), Roth delivers a film of powerful ideas and intense precision: His placement of both the camera and the actors--around the living-room couch, for instance, and later in a seaside pillbox for a scene befitting a POW documentary--is evocative enough to tell the story without words. Like Rosetta, The War Zone pulls no punches--and, as yet, there's no local release date for this one, either.
10.Fight Club. Blood, guts, Brad Pitt, queer subtext, kick-ass style, twists aplenty, and a bite-the-hand-that-feeds brand of anti-capitalism--all for the price of your ordinary action blowout. Director David Fincher portrays violent machismo largely by embodying it, beating the viewer into submission as surely as Pitt's bruise-covered Evil Id breaks the fourth wall by shaking the film right off its sprockets. What more do you want from a Hollywood movie?
The Rest of the Top 40
(in order of preference). Any of these gems would have made my Top 10 in a less stellar year: An American Love Story; The Dreamlife of Angels; After Life; Being John Malkovich; Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.; The End of the Affair; Photographer; Run Lola Run; The Insider; The Winslow Boy; Notting Hill; Dr. Akagi; Autumn Tale; The Matrix; I Stand Alone; Ravenous; The Hole(a.k.a. Last Dance); Show Me Love; eXistenZ; The School of Flesh; Besieged; Boys Don't Cry; Drylongso; The Iron Giant; Cremaster 2; Cabaret Balkan; Hands on a Hardbody; Summer of Sam; Wisconsin Death Trip;and Cradle Will Rock.
Better Than You Heard
These ten got a rather bum rap, critically and/or commercially: Blue Streak; Dill Scallion; Dick; A Dog of Flanders; Life; The Mod Squad; Outside Providence; The Rage: Carrie 2; The 24-Hour Woman; and A Walk on the Moon.
Musts to Avoid
(alphabetically). How on earth to pick just ten? Your SASE gets my list of 20 more--for your protection:
The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland. A cut-rate Muppet movie in which the title character goes slumming among the dirty denizens of a flea-market ghetto--run by a greedy Jewish slumlord (Mandy Patinkin) and the African-American "Queen of Trash" (Vanessa Williams). Fun for the whole family!
Arlington Road. Just what we need: a suburban-terrorist thriller that sets out to prove "Your paranoia is real." Continuing indefinitely on the 10:00 p.m. news.
8mm. Director Joel Schumacher is a rare gentleman in conversation, but that doesn't change the fact of his having perpetrated both the ill-titled Flawless and this illegal-porn shocker in the same year. Each one unconsciously evinces the A-list auteur's fear and loathing of down-and-dirty cinema: In 8mm, the Nicolas Cage character's vigilante search leads to "the Jim Jarmusch of S&M" (Peter Stormare) and his bare-bones crew, whom our well-equipped private dick succinctly disses as "small-time muthafuckas." Whereas Schumacher shoots in 35.
The General's Daughter. Named for the sexually promiscuous, raped, and murdered army captain of the title, who's in charge of "psychological operations," but apparently not her own. In other words: She asked for it.
Magnolia. Per P.T. Anderson: "Strange things happen all the time...because I say so!"
Random Hearts. Delivering as moronic a snooze-fest as their Sabrina remake, director Sidney Pollack and a super-stiff Harrison Ford reunite for a middle-aged "romance" that might have been scripted by Susan Faludi.
Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace. 'Nuff said.
Teaching Mrs. Tingle. The cinematic equivalent of a contortionist's act: High schoolers are justified for wanting to kill their teachers--sort of, although this is a Miramax film, and the Columbine incident has put Heathers ripoffs in detention, and Katie Holmes is really cute, and Kevin Williamson is her boyfriend, and...
20 Dates. Repugnant misogyny masquerading as documentary innovation: Director Myles Berkowitz films himself shamelessly hustling 20 unfortunate women. An even greater number of (male) critics who should have known better fell for it, too.
You Must Remember These
In another strong year for local repertory and festival programming, the (many) standouts included: "Cinema Novo," "Japanese New Wave Cinema," "Women in the Director's Chair," "Harry Smith: A Re-Creation" (with M. Henry Jones and DJ Spooky), The Chelsea Girls, the Juneteenth Film Festival, the "Changing the Guard" series of new Brit cinema, the Bruce Conner and Stan Brakhage programs, and the Werner Herzog retro (including Lessons of Darkness--the film and the proclamation!) at Walker Art Center; the Mpls./St. Paul, Jewish, and LGBT fests at U Film Society; Asian Media Access's Hayao Miyazaki and Wong Kar-wai retros at Metro State University; Red Eye's movies-and-music series (including Car Wash) in Stevens Square Park, and the Walker's (including Killer's Kiss) in Loring Park; the "Multiplex" indie conclave at the Soap Factory on July 4; Z, "New Czech Cinema," the "Tibetan Film Series," the Radley Metzger retro (including Score), and the "Somewhere in Europe" series of Hungarian cinema at U Film; "Whole Lotta Lynch" and the "MN Makes Movies" series at Red Eye; "Jazz on Film," Foxy Brown, The General (with live organ), and Aliens (in 70mm!) at the Heights; Harold and Maude and Mighty Peking Man at the Uptown; and damn near everything at Oak Street, but especially the "Electric Shadows" series of vintage Chinese cinema, the Sirk, Sturges, Takeshi, and Truffaut retros, The Saragossa Manuscript, The Third Man and Grand Illusion, Eat the Document, Ed Wood, "Hindi First Fridays," "Universal Horror," and Psycho/The Birds/Marnie.
It wasn't exactly a banner year for homegrown cinema, although the following half-dozen Minnesotans (current or former) did manage to premiere worthy indie work in '99: Sayer Frey (Eileen Is a Spy); Wes Jones (Apt. 6); Joanna Kohler (Witness); Roger Nygaard (Trekkies); Pattie Rhodes (When We Play For Real); and Reilly Tillman (Madison on Tour). (Props as well to Lisa Ganser and Benno Nelson for curating the "Women in the Rejected Chair" and "Sweet Emulsion" collections of local shorts, respectively.)
Ten Disappointing Directors
They have been great, and they will be again--but they weren't in '99: Robert Altman (Cookie's Fortune); Gregg Araki (Splendor); Jane Campion (Holy Smoke); Atom Egoyan (Felicia's Journey); Abel Ferrara (New Rose Hotel); Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules); Werner Herzog (My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski); John Sayles (Limbo); Martin Scorsese (Bringing Out the Dead); and Oliver Stone (Any Given Sunday).
Best As-Yet-Unreleased Movie of the Year
Flowers of Shanghai. Featured at both the Cannes and New York film festivals in 1998, Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien's masterly study of late-19th-century brothel life in Shanghai screened last year as part of a comprehensive Hou retro at New York's Walter Reade Theater--and it would have appeared at the Walker as well, along with its maker, had he not chosen at the last minute to attend to preproduction issues with his next project. (Who could blame him?) In brief, the film is a beautiful, tantalizingly oblique, and thoroughly hypnotic portrait of four Shanghai "flower girls," with Hou subtly suggesting that their melodramatic downfall is that of imperial China in microcosm. Keep your fingers crossed that it'll show up--perhaps along with ten other Hou works--later this year.
Ten Best of the Decade
Since I recently submitted these ten modern classics to the Village Voice Film Critics' Poll, I'll endeavor to repeat them here (alphabetically): David Cronenberg's Crash; Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue; Errol Morris's Fast, Cheap & Out of Control; Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma; Werner Herzog's Lessons of Darkness; Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady; Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern; Todd Haynes's Safe; Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry; and Charles Burnett's To Sleep With Anger.
Ten Films of the Century
Again asked to compile an impossible list for the Voice poll, I imagined that an E.T. landed in my screening room and asked to see ten movies that would explain all humanity--or perhaps just myself (alphabetically): Bringing Up Baby; Citizen Kane; Histoire(s) du cinéma; Imitation of Life (1959); Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; Lessons of Darkness; The Man With a Movie Camera; Rashomon; 2001: A Space Odyssey; and Within Our Gates.