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Other Dashiell Writings:

Topsy-Turvy /
A Moment of Innocence

A Little Gem and a
Rotten Apple

Rosetta
The Cider House Rules

The Sorrow and the Poopie
Ghost Dog:
The Way of the Samurai
Joe Gould's Secret
and a plug for Fight Club


 

A Film Snob's Favorites of '99

Greetings from the Elitist Cabal. Well, another year is behind us. Another year in which snooty, self-appointed critics like me attempted to corrupt the morals and sensibilities of the popular mind. But to no avail. God bless Adam Sandler.

Actually I saw fewer movies on the big screen this year than ever, so my list of favorites is about as subjective and limited by circumstance as it could be. The trouble with top 10 lists is that I'm ranking apples against hand grenades. But I like to make them anyway because, of course, I am an elitist. And damn proud of it.

As always, films considered are those that played on big screens during the calendar year in my neck of the desert. That's why films that were released earlier in other parts of the world are listed here. I thought there was cause for hope this year. Some films with lower budgets and out of the ordinary ideas succeeded with audiences, while TV retreads and mindless sequels seemed on the wane.

1. THE THIN RED LINE
(Terrence Malick).
The true epic stance is a rare thing. Malick's heaven's-eye view, rich with grief and - astoundingly - devoid of anger, seems to me the most profound artistic vision of the year. The simple poetry of thought inside these soldiers - living and dying together in a hell on earth - reflects a wholly different world than that of their immediate struggle. It was this focus on the soul, the one- pointed attempt to depict the suffering observer as well as the experience he endures - over and above the terrifying beauty of the film's visual texture and its unusual design - that burned this picture into my memory.

2. THE SALTMEN OF TIBET (Ulrike Koch). This portrait of a nomadic tribe and its annual excursion to a lake in the far north to collect salt for trading, bursts the bounds of conventional documentary. There is no narration. Everything is presented through the words and actions of the participants themselves, and it is perhaps the most remarkable portrait of a traditional, pre-industrial people since Nanook of the North. It immerses us in the world of the saltmen, their songs and stories and symbols, clearly and directly without romanticizing them. I was especially struck by the way spiritual practices and beliefs are totally intertwined with work and everyday activity. The picture succeeded in creating a feeling, an experience, of what it is like to be in a culture that is as different from mine as I could imagine.

3. HILARY AND JACKIE (Anand Tucker).
The love of two sisters, and all the pain that goes with it. Based on the story of temperamental musician Jacqueline Du Pre and her more practical sister Hilary, it has passion and intelligence, beautiful photography, and very fine performances by Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths. I loved the insider's perspective on the life of artists. The film is enriched by its ability to show events from different points of view, which deepens the story's sense of humanity.

4. THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE
(Leos Carax)
This huge labor of love, which took years to make, and even more to get to the States, attempts - and largely succeeds at - a most difficult task: bringing the tradition of high romance down into the world of the realistic drama of urban poverty and despair. The results are stunning, and although sometimes prone to excess, the film has a sense of tragedy and rapture that justifies its huge scale. It also contains the most ecstatic sequence of the year - a dance of passion on the Pont-Neuf, with fireworks exploding in the sky.

5. ROMANCE (Catherine Breillat).
Anti-romantic to the extreme, Romance dares to portray a woman in the throes of a relentless sexual hunger - her sexuality, moreover, expressing the sharpest anger. Intensely serious although sometimes humorous in tone, defiant, never inflating the characters beyond their limitations, Breillat's film is committed to honesty about the ideas and images that thrive in her heroine's head. Since film narrative usually avoids facing issues of shame and confusion, not to mention the actual depiction of sex (as opposed to soft-focus wish fulfillment), I found this movie bracing and thought-provoking.

6. THE SCHOOL OF FLESH (Benoit Jacquot).
An elegant and self-assured film about the obsession of an affluent middle-aged woman for a young street hustler. Isabelle Huppert's performance is very fine. The picture is sensitive to the rhythm of conversations and silences, and the poetry of the human face. I love the way it takes its time to capture the feeling of a relationship.

7. THE LIMEY (Steven Soderbergh).
A tale of revenge made completely fresh by Soderbergh's unusual cutting technique - by coming at the story from abrupt angles, he gives it deeper meaning and resonance. Splendid work by Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda and Barry Newman. The ending has a quiet, unexpected power.

8. AFFLICTION (Paul Schrader). Yes, the Willem Dafoe narration explains things that don't need to be. But Nick Nolte gives the performance of his career as a small-town failure who can't escape his father's abusive legacy. He completely inhabits this reckless, infuriating, strangely sympathetic character. And Schrader creates a fine sense of dread.

9. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (Spike Jonz). Despite getting too entangled in its own plot, this picture has such a fine sense of the absurd, and such a willingness to go the full length of its own mock metaphysical ideas, that it puts other comedies to shame. A true original.

10. MY NAME IS JOE (Ken Loach).
Peter Mullan is excellent as a man getting his life together in middle age, who risks it all for the sake of a young fellow in trouble. Loach returns to the tough, working class atmosphere he thrives in, and it's his best film in years. Every turn in the story leads inexorably to a devastating climax.

And honorable mention to:

THE DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS (Erick Zonca).
AUTUMN TALE (Eric Rohmer)
VELVET GOLDMINE (Todd Haynes)
THE BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (Wim Wenders)
THE LAST DAYS (James Moll)
GO (Doug Liman)
AFTER LIFE (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
RUN LOLA RUN (Tom Tykwer)
THE IRON GIANT (Brad Bird)
AN IDEAL HUSBAND (Oliver Parker)

Favorite performances
(besides those already mentioned):
Rupert Everett (AN IDEAL HUSBAND)
Natacha Regnier (THE DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS)
Brendan Gleeson (THE GENERAL)
Cate Blanchett
(AN IDEAL HUSBAND, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY)
Ewan McGregor (VELVET GOLDMINE)
Richard Farnsworth & Sissy Spacek (THE STRAIGHT STORY)
Denis Lavant (THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE)
Sean Penn (THE THIN RED LINE)
Sarah Polley (GO)
Jane Horrocks (LITTLE VOICE)
Heather Donahue (THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT)

And now for some special awards:

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOT MUCH:
The Sixth Sense
The Matrix
American Beauty

PASS ME THE EXCEDRIN:
The Green Mile
The General's Daughter
The Phantom Menace

INTERESTING FAILURE AWARD:
Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut: intense, disturbing, but wildly uneven.

HOMER NODS:
Scorsese couldn't breathe life into Bringing Out the Dead.

Runner-up: Cronenberg's comedy, eXistenZ, runs out of steam halfway through.

THE PLEASE GO AWAY AWARD:
For the 12th consecutive year, this coveted award goes to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

WORST CASTING:
That little blonde moppet in The Phantom Menace.

HEAD-SCRATCHER OF THE DECADE:
Hou Hsiao-Hsien is one of the most critically acclaimed directors in the world - so why don't his movies ever get a general release in the States?

WORST TITLE:
Tea with Mussolini

CLEVEREST PROMOTION:
The Blair Witch Project

PUNISHMENT FOR THE SINS OF MANKIND:
Another movie starring Tom Hanks & Meg Ryan.

WHY, GOD?
Movies based on Saturday Night Live skits.

A REAL SHAME:
The paucity of female directors.

SAY IT AIN'T SO:
The end of Mystery Science Theater 3000

ALRIGHT, I ADMIT IT. I'LL WATCH THEM IN ANYTHING:
Gong Li
Daniel Day-Lewis
Cate Blanchett
Emily Watson
Rupert Everett
Julie Delpy

FOND FAREWELLS
Two of the greatest film directors ever:
Stanley Kubrick and Robert Bresson

And thanks to all my fellow snobs. You know who you are.

 

 




CineScene, 2000