For 1999 week, our film writers carefully compiled and voted on a list of the 25 best films of the year. But even a list of 25 isn’t long enough to capture everyone’s favorite film from such a seminal year. So we asked our staff and contributors:
What film should’ve made our list of the best movies of 1999?
Here’s a litmus test that crops up in my life every once in a long while: If someone asks me what my favorite movie musical is, and I’m still trying to figure out if we’re on the same page, I tell them Little Shop Of Horrors. But if I think we’re simpatico, I go with my gut: South Park: Bigger, Longer, And Uncut. Anybody surprised that “the South Park guys” would someday go on to pen a hit Broadway musical need only give themselves over to BLAU’s “What Would Brian Boitano Do,” or the Les Mis-spoofing “La Resistance (Medley)”—which, I’d argue, is better, and more inspiring, than 90 percent of the songs from the musical it’s aping. I haven’t been a regular South Park watcher in years, but the movie hits a real sweet spot for me: Vulgar and funny, granting its characters basic arcs that the show often skips over, and offering up a soundtrack that’s one of my favorite cinematic singalongs of all time.
Nobody’s translated the work of Stephen King to screen like Frank Darabont, the upstart filmmaker who, after catching King’s eye with a lyrical adaptation of the author’s “The Woman In The Room,” transformed The Shawshank Redemption from little-known novella to beloved cable mainstay. Unlike so many adapters of the horror titan’s work, Darabont possesses both a keen understanding of King’s literary appeal and a shrewd instinct for how he can make it pop onscreen. He demonstrated that not just with Shawshank and his 2007 take on The Mist, but also with 1999’s The Green Mile, an aggressively faithful adaptation that leavens the suffocating sentimentality of King’s death row parable by refusing to neglect its more unsavory elements. Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan shine as the story’s beating hearts, but it’s a fresh-faced Sam Rockwell and a never-better Doug Hutchison who steal the show as a pair of sociopathic monsters on different sides of the law. Does it need to be over three hours? Of course not, but the length speaks to Darabont’s devotion to the source material, a key aspect of why he’s so adored amongst the King faithful. Our current King renaissance likely wouldn’t exist without him.
I am shocked—shocked—that my illustrious colleagues have failed to identify perfect movie Galaxy Quest in their best films of 1999 list. Both a loving send-up of the Star Trek franchise and offering an inventive take on that particular genre, Galaxy Quest tells the tale of a group of actors who play the crew of an Enterprise-like ship. They are mistaken for actual space explorers by an alien race, who then draft them to help them defeat an evil, warthog-like warrior. The aliens have crafted the ship in the exact same specifications of the TV ship, even the parts that make no sense at all. Not only is this journey a delight for TV sci-fi fans, it’s also surprisingly heart-warming to witness, as the two crews begin to bond and the long-adversarial TV co-stars finds themselves forming into an actual successful team. It’s Tim Allen’s best-ever role as the conceited Shatner character, Sigourney Weaver has never been funnier (“This episode was badly written!”, she yells when faced with the ship’s nonsensical “chompers”), Alan Rickman is typically excellent as a Shakespearean actor forever typecast as a Spock type, and Sam Rockwell plays the red shirt who knows he’s doomed because he’s the red shirt. Seriously, how is this not in the top 25?
I can’t say I’m surprised by the omission of Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace, and my thoughts on the prequels are already well-documented. But if I don’t explain why Phantom Menace is one of the best movies of 1999, who will?! One reason I love Star Wars is its combination of meticulous detail and what-the-hell whimsy, which Phantom Menace applies to nearly every scene. Its reintroduction to this universe is both stranger and more formal than the original trilogy—a wonkier, nerdier Star Wars movie than any other, where the charisma of actual humans bumps up against grotesque alien creatures, straight-faced mythology, and George Lucas’ ambivalence toward the written word. During my many rewatches in the wake of its soured reputation, I’ve half-expected it to puncture my fond memories of seeing it with my friends at 18, high on the excitement because I never did proper drugs. But its weird squareness always recaptures me, by both celebrating the possibilities of its nerdy world and critiquing its own myopia. The way that it feels alien from so many more “modern” blockbusters of the past 20 years speaks to me on a primal level.
1999 was a banner year for high school movies, and the best was 10 Things I Hate About You, Gil Junger’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew that introduced us all to the smart-aleck charm of Heath Ledger and kicked off Julia Stiles’ tenure as a teen queen. Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith’s script crackled with whip-smart feminist energy, transforming the “shrew” Katarina (Stiles) into a Feminine Mystique-reading badass and little sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) into a thirsty social climber. The sisters were ’90s archetypes, but 10 Things I Hate About You took notes from Clueless in building a layered high school ecosystem in which reciting slam poetry was just as important as securing a prom date. And if any moment in a ’90s teen comedy stands apart for its verve and joy and secures the film’s legacy, it’s Ledger’s bad boy Patrick Verona belting Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” to Kat, a serenade just corny and sincere enough to be a gesture of love.
The year is 1999, and theater director Julie Taymor is living the high life. Her vibrant stage adaptation of The Lion King has taken the world by storm in the two years since she premiered it, and now Hollywood’s come a-knockin’. The money men made her a deal she couldn’t refuse: They offered a $25 million dollar budget, near-total creative control, and a cast of heavyweight thespians for an adaptation of one of her favorite Shakespearean deep cuts. Titus is the kind of certifiably nutso take on the Bard that only an auteur drunk on her own brilliance could create, an ambitious yet massively flawed hunk of work that reimagines the text as a maximalist mash-up freely cherrypicking anachronisms from across all of human history. Anthony Hopkins leads as the ruthless general, while delectably Oedipal lovers Jessica Lange and Alan Cumming plot his demise, all of them festooned in wild costumes evoking both classical opera and the avant-garde. Though Taymor flopped magnificently with a paltry $2.92 million return-on-investment, you can’t say the producers didn’t get their money’s worth—packing every one of its 162 minutes with opulence and hysteria and mad beauty, it is nothing if not a lot of movie.
Audiences put off by the decidedly unerotic sex and nudity in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut would’ve done well to stay away from Catherine Breillat’s Romance, released just a couple months later. The French director gained some notoriety for this tale of a schoolteacher (Caroline Ducey) whose lover withholds sex, thus driving her to a series of infidelities. Filled with explicit, unsimulated sex, Sadean bondage scenes, and a turn from no less than Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi (who would go on to act in Breillat’s 2004 feature Anatomy Of Hell), the film has no shortage of shocking, unnerving moments. But it’s no mere provocation, and plays something like Breillat’s pornographic spin on—or perhaps answer to—one of Éric Rohmer’s Moral Tales. At times inscrutable, but always intentionally so, it’s the kind of film that refuses easy categorization and understanding. Ducey and her director succeed in creating a woman whose desires are, in a word, irreducible—which is as it should be.
Even hardcore cinephiles seem to have forgotten about French writer-director Erick Zonca, and his riveting and moving debut feature The Dreamlife Of Angels (released in France in 1998, and in the U.S. in ’99). It’s still such a wonderful movie: a throwback to ‘60s French New Wave directors like Agnès Varda and François Truffaut, who brought a lightly expressionist approach to the everyday. As Zonca follows two young women who’ve become friends and roommates while working crummy, low-paying wage jobs, the filmmaker toys with the audience’s expectations, gradually revealing that frenetic free spirit Isa (Elodie Bouchez) is more pragmatic and hard-working that the seemingly more grounded Marie (Natacha Regnier). By the end, this picture has become a vivid illustration of how people cope in different ways with a socioeconomic system that makes them feel undervalued and anxious.
On the one hand, I’m overjoyed that a relatively little-known Iranian drama (which happens to be my own No. 1) placed as high as 6th on our collective list. On the other hand, I’m dismayed that few voters have likely even seen Dariush Mehrjui’s Leila, which is nearly as great and even more obscure. Playing today like a cross between Private Life and The Handmaid’s Tale, this heartbreaking study in good intentions gone awry observes a married couple (Leila Hatami and Ali Mosaffa, future stars of Farhadi’s A Separation and The Past, respectively) whose warm, playful, loving relationship falls apart when they fail to conceive a child. Iranian society considers the solution to this problem quite simple: He should take a second wife. Neither party wants this at all, but their mutual desire to be respectful (plus pressure from his mother) keeps propelling them down that path; everyone is culpable to some degree for what happens, even though nobody is malicious. Sadly, there’s no easy or even palatable way to watch Leila at present (the trailer above offers a sense of just how awful the long-out-of-print DVD looks), so I’m not at all surprised that it failed to make the cut—you’d have to have seen at the time. But once seen, it’s not soon forgotten.
It came as quite the festival shocker when David Cronenberg’s 1999 Cannes jury passed on presumed front-runner, All About My Mother (No. 16 on our collective list), to grace Rosetta, the follow-up to the Dardenne brothers breakout film La Promesse, with the Palme d’Or in a unanimous vote. In a catalog of relentlessly devastating films, the Dardennes’ story of a young woman living in a caravan park with her mother, a hopeless alcoholic, might very well be their bleakest offering to date. So while it’s certainly not a contender for feel-good movie of the year, it is one of the rawest and most daring ones. A destitute existence is rendered with the visual energy and gravitas of a warzone; and the search for employment takes on a brutal urgency as a jarring reminder of how a simple job at a waffle stand can create the coveted conditions for a normal life. It also features one of the great performances of the late ’90s by Émilie Dequenne as the titular character, who is as cruel and prideful as she is existentially agitated in her (hopeless, or is it hopeful?) striving.
Most of my favorite movies of 1999 actually made our aggregate list, and one of the few that didn’t, the Dardenne brothers’ grueling drama of poverty and perseverance Rosetta, is cited above. But as we mentioned in the intro to the feature, ’99 is such a bottomless pit of first-rate films that there’s no shortage of alternatives we could have highlighted instead. Here’s one I wouldn’t have minded seeing on the list, even if I didn’t vote for it: Run Lola Run. Tom Tykwer’s propulsive techno crime caper is like a pinball machine brought to life, firing a fire-haired Franka Potente—in her big breakout role—through the machine of fate, her character literally sprinting through three feverish variations on the same ticking-clock scenario. It’s not the deepest of sensation-junkie entertainments, but that’s part of what I found (and, honestly, still find) seductive about the movie: It’s all movement, kinetic from front to back. As a teenager, it helped open my eyes to the possibility that foreign-language movies could be as exciting (and excitedly shallow!) as American blockbusters. Now, I look at it and just think: Why can’t this be what people mean when they talk about “reboot cinema?”
It’s easy to overlook Olivier Assayas’ Late August, Early September. For one, it’s preceded by the director’s twin ’90s masterpieces: the coming-of-age film Cold Water and the meta industry satire Irma Vep. Plus, Assayas’ post-New Wave peer Arnaud Desplechin released a similar, more successful ensemble comedy-drama two years earlier, My Sex Life... Or How I Got Into An Argument, also starring Mathieu Amalric. Nevertheless, Late August, Early September pleasantly captures the headspace of an ahead-of-schedule midlife crisis, one that crystallizes all the regrets, failures, and low-burn chaos that pervades an unplanned life. As their friend’s terminal illness comes to a head, Assayas’ four subjects deal with their own impending mortality by deferring grief and throwing themselves into their professional/personal milieus. Relationships fall apart and then reform; professional obligations are met but don’t satisfy; emotions are openly discussed but aren’t handled. The substance might lie in the mundane, but Assayas’ urgent direction and the stellar performances (not just Amalric, but also Virginie Ledoyen, Jeanne Balibar, and a young Mia Hansen-Løve) elevate the material to potent existential heights.
While I understand why people consider David Cronenberg’s Existenz to be on the airier side of his oeuvre, the blackly comic nature of his foray into virtual-reality gaming has always made it an endlessly engaging exercise for me, a Rorschach test of the director’s own fascinations and fetishes. And let’s be honest, it’s one of Cronenberg’s most overtly meta and self-referential films, with the intra-film game dealing with the nature of characters, roles, bodies, and (as always) the overwhelming fascination with the border between the organic, inorganic, and what we’re willing to subject ourselves to as sentient piles of flesh and blood. One of the biggest criticisms the movie gets—that its subject matter is essentially a game no one would ever want to actually play—seems to miss the point, which is that Cronenberg is here digging at the question of why so many of us spend such large portions of our time doing things we don’t actually want to do. (For confirmation, look no further than the film’s grossest scene.) And honestly, in a world of MMORPGs that involve millions of people performing hours of tedious side-quest labor for intangible rewards, it’s looking awfully prescient. Plus, the game pods are some of the most unsettling examples of jiggling, wiggling organic matter to be shoved into bodies since The Blob.
1999 was a good year for documentaries, even though only one—American Movie—made our final list. I’m not surprised that my favorite of the bunch, Hands On A Hard Body: The Documentary, didn’t make the cut, simply because the film flew under the radar just about everywhere (except for Austin, Texas, where it played for a solid year in theaters). Filmed in 1995, the doc didn’t play in New York City until February 1999, and even today you have to go to the movie’s website to get a copy. And that’s too bad, because as an example of how to make a documentary about a quirky subject without condescension, it stands easily next to Errol Morris’ Fast, Cheap, And Out Of Control. The subject is an annual contest that was held for decades at Jack Long Nissan in Longview, Texas, whose rules are as such: Contestants gather around a new pickup truck (the “hard body”), place one gloved hand on it, and whoever can hang in there the longest without collapsing or falling asleep gets to drive it home. (Food and bathroom breaks come at one and six-hour intervals.) Director/editor S.R. Binder’s affection for his subjects is obvious, and the people attracted to this days-long exercise in endurance are as fascinating—and, sometimes, as desperate—as you might imagine. But the breakout star of the piece is Benny, a former winner who’s back to test his mettle once more and whose experience has given him a Zen attitude towards Texans’ near-religious devotion to their trucks. As Benny puts it in the opening of the film, “it’s a human drama thang.”
The problem is that Mystery Men came out too early. Superhero films had not yet so thoroughly saturated our pop culture consciousness that this bizarre, loving riff on the genre could find a sufficient foothold in the public imagination. Which is a damn shame, because though the movie is sometimes clunky and sometimes aimless, it still presents one of the most colorful and unique superhero worlds set to film. Very loosely based off of the comic by Bob Burden (creator, most famously, of the surrealist superhero Flaming Carrot) Mystery Men follows a team of struggling D-listers who have to save the city after accidentally murdering its most famous champion, the corporate logo-festooned Captain Amazing. Filled with an amazing cast of character actor weirdos, it’s not quite accurate to call the movie a parody. While it pokes fun at plenty of superhero tropes, at its essence, it’s still a movie about good people who try to do good. After all, with great power—be it with shoveling, cutlery throwing, or flatulence—comes great responsibility.