Best Films of 1999

Olivier Assayas, Late August, Early September, 1998
Olivier Assayas, Late August, Early September, 1998

In Between.

Last year, in writing about my favorite films of 1998, I made some oblique comments about memory, and the idea that in putting pen to paper to recap favorite films of the year, one is in a sense “posting” a memory for later retrieval; and in so doing perhaps one is quite aware of what he or she wants to pack for the journey back. These comments were in no small part indebted to Richard Powers. This year, with the “odometric drift” into 2000 and all the hype that it has generated, these ideas seem all the more relevant as we try our best to somehow mark time’s passage, impossibly holding it still for a sentence or two. It’s become a habit.

First, the bad news.

There were several releases that disappointed this year including Egoyan’s Felicia’s Journey, Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, the long-awaited Lovers on the Bridge (save the famous, and wonderful, bicentennial fireworks sequence), Soderbergh’s The Limey, and American Beauty. Ok, maybe I’m cheating to say that American Beauty was a disappointment given that I didn’t have many expectations going in (“Isn’t he the guy that did that Nicole Kidman play on Broadway?”). It’s just that in the wake of all its critical success, among friends and foes, I’m left baffled (maybe as with my most over-rated vote for L.A. Confidential a ways back). Eyes Wide Shut (3) goes down as the most talked about and most quickly forgotten film of the year. Everyone had their take, including me, most of which found Kubrick more than a little detached and on the silly side. Despite, or (if I were to hedge my bets) because of, some of its indulgences, I found the project completely riveting, unfinished or not.

From the “but they were released last year” department:

Highest marks go to Malick’s Thin Red Line and the truly inspired Rushmore. Red Line sagged under its own weight a bit too often, but I didn’t care. It was a good piece to think about in conversation with Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, etc. but it was also fine to just experience it on its own terms. How is war best represented/translated? abstract? real? and what affords me the opportunity to even contemplate such things surrounded by stadium seating, low-sodium popcorn, and digital sound? Rushmore, in some ways equally mannered, proved to be a great, late discovery for me — an off-beat, touching story with quirky, sympathetic characters, and a rich take on loyalty, hard love, and life’s lessons. As a friend remarked, charming and smart at the same time; such a rare accomplishment in the midst of so many efforts that choose to forsake one for the other.

There were few American 1999 first runs that I can enthusiastically recommend let alone remember (if I had seen Magnolia before the end of the year, it would have easily topped my list). Blair Witch Project and The Matrix, while decent, ultimately didn’t deliver. Most of you know my feelings about Fight Club. And don’t get me started on Jar-Jar. In the face of all ironic poise, clever political readings, and “it would help if you’ve read the background” defenses, I still found Lucas’s latest contribution vacuous and mildly insulting (even more than expected). But will that stop me from seeing Episode II?

So, once again I find myself turning to the French, and their particular brand of storytelling and filmmaking, for solace and inspiration. Late August, Early September (1) sadly came and went with little notice. Following Irma Vep, Assayas is in minor key here, letting his actors bring to life what, in lesser hands, could have been a painfully trite story. I’m sure I am repeating myself when I say the good stuff is in the details and the brief glimpses — the “snapshots” embedded in a film. Often, Late August moves between a state of abstract free-fall and tempered calm; we get in close and then, just as suddenly, we take pause… watching thoughts climb an actor’s nervous smile, and contemplating too what, if anything, holds (these) things and people together. My love of Jeanne and the Perfect Guy (2), a musical about AIDS starring Virginie Ledoyen betrays perhaps a less than objective sensibility on my part (did I mention it is a musical starring Virginie Ledoyen?), but then isn’t that what these lists are about anyway?

In case you were beginning to think I don’t have much of a sense of humor, I want to point out a few so-bad-they’re-good moments as well, like watching If Lucy Fell on video with friends in upstate Michigan, or Doc’s screening of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. How can you not like the line/song: “Bless your beautiful hide”? Pixar also thrilled with both A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2. Run Lola Run (5) was cool. And the year’s “Guilty Pleasure” award goes to a very hot afternoon Biograph screening of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (4).

And finally, the Best Repertory of the year:

  1. La Dolce Vita (a long time wish list entry finally enjoyed)
  1. La Belle Noiseuse (magisterial but brilliant in the details)
  1. Body and Soul (further evidence to support Rossen’s (The Hustler) place among Hollywood’s best)
  1. Lady From Shanghai (the way I like Welles — genre-driven, on-the-run, and rough around the edges)
  1. A Day in the Country (a Renoir short that is the perfect remedy for a loss of faith in the craft)

On the horizon:

Plenty to look forward to in the coming months including the re-release of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Morris’s latest documentary, Mr. Death, a special screening of Tarr’s Satantango (7 1/2 hours!) at Doc as well as a series on Weimar German cinema. Many thanks for all of the film conversations and movie talk, and for putting up with my own ranting and raving. Cinema is most alive outside the theater.