THE LISTS: Top 10 films of 1999

Posted by · 12:48 pm · September 23rd, 2008

(from left) Joe Pantoliano, Laurence Fishburne, Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss in The MatrixRemember that Entertainment Weekly cover from November of 1999?  The headline boldly proclaimed: “The year that changed movies.”  Indeed, it has become nearly a cliche to harp on and on about those 12 months of solid product as a time not equaled since the glory year that was, 1939, but to many, the truth was the truth.  1999 was the best year for films in a long, long time.

And it wasn’t a microscopic view of “quality” either.  A broad net was cast, from genre successes aplenty to art house sensations, both finding equal play in the film awards circuit that year.  And so it is that hammering out a list of the 10 best constitutes to be a pastime of sorts for the movie lover, especially those like me who were experiencing an awakening of sorts around that time.

1999 was my first year of film school — the dark ages, as I like to call them (because I’ve come to know film school as a fool’s errand of sorts, an education not easily passed from one person to the next but better learned through trial and tribulation).  But I was still an eager, unjaded soul and took a trip to the local theater one day with a troupe of friends for our own double feature: Sam Mendes’s “American Beauty” and David O. Russell’s “Three Kings.”  It was our first real understanding of the year that had been unfolding right before our eyes.

“American Beauty” has, of course, aged quite poorly, though Russell’s Iraq war film remains a staple of sorts, a unique blip in a consistently uneven genre.  This was already the year that had seen the release of the first “Star Wars” installment in over 20 years (however disappointing), the last great exhibit from the portfolio of the cinema’s greatest artist (Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”) and a science fiction masterpiece that owed as much to William Gibson as anything else (at least those ideas were making it to the screen).

Moreover, this was a cinematic year that would see releases from more top-tier directors than any other year: Kubrick, Scorsese, Lucas, Lynch, Allen, Fincher, Burton, Leigh, Minghella, Anderson, Almodóvar, Mann, Lee, Stone, Jordan, Sayles, Soderbergh, Forman, Burton, Pollack, Darabont and Howard, while simultaneously launching the exciting careers of untold newbies.  The range of quality, as expected, was certainly wide, but that all of these guys were in neck deep in their work during the same stretch of time had plenty to do with the perception of 1999, then and now.

So with that, I felt that this week’s top 10 list (a Tuesday regularity now, if you haven’t been keeping score) would address 1999, the year that was.  Here are my picks:

(from left) Mark Wahlberg, George Clooney and Ice Cube in Three Kings10. “Three Kings” (David O. Russell)
David O. Russell is a visionary of sorts, but he seems to always be right at the surface, just about to break through with an unyielding brilliance, never fully harnessing the wicked talent he clearly has.  But for a brief moment in the fall of 1999, he discovered an outlet in this Iraq War dramedy that became more famous for its off-screen drama than what unfolded on-screen.  Pity, because I would rank “Three Kings” in a list of the 10 greatest war films ever made without flinching.  George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Spike Jonze and Ice Cube headlined a sprawling cast that probably deserved some ensemble attention.

Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut9. “Eyes Wide Shut” (Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick’s most difficult-to-qualify production is, in many ways, a perfect swan song for the director.  Perhps the most atmospheric of his efforts, save for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Eyes Wide Shut” was released four months after the director’s death, leaving no real opportunity for us to plumb his mind for the dream-like tale he left as a legacy.  Despite the lingering sense that they had no idea what was going on, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman gave two of their best performances to date, while Sydney Pollack inhabited a supporting character with the authority that came to be a trademark of such performances.

Tom Cruise in Magnolia8. “Magnolia” (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Steadily making his mark with measured films and plenty of time off in between, Paul Thomas Anderson seemed to catch more than a few off guard with this “Boogie Nights” follow-up.  Despite a vast ensemble that might have confused even Robert Altman, the frog-infested denouement was the last straw for most.  But in its own manical way, “Magnolia” (like “There Will Be Blood” will likely prove) gets better with age.  Tom Cruise received the most attention for his devilish portrayal of a macho self-help instructor, but equally deserving of praise was Julianne Moore and William H. Macy.

Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix7. “The Matrix” (Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski)
Despite a pair of sequels that nearly tarnished its legacy and the unavoidable fact that the film seems to lose something as years go by (one can’t be sure if one thing has anything to do with the other), the Wachowski brothers’ “The Matrix” was nonetheless a kick-start for 1999’s long ride to infamy as a year to remember.  And it deserves a secure place alongside the greatest of science fiction cinema.  Taking more than a few leads from the literature of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, the filmmakers took audiences on a mind-bending (and spoon-bending) trip while making Keanu Reeves cool again…if only for a moment.

(from left) Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and Jessie (voiced by Joan Allen) in Toy Story 26. “Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter)
Following up one of the most innovative animated features of all time is difficult enough, but surpassing the original with more creativity and amplified emotion had to have been considered out of the question.  John Lasseter and company managed as much in spite of the odds.  “Toy Story 2,” however, marked the moment Pixar really grew up.  The originality of “Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life” was undeniable, but it was the deeper issues of loyalty, greed and redemption that elevated “Toy Story 2,” and the possibilities of animated feature filmmaking, to the heights it can enjoy today.

The Iron Giant (voiced by Vin Diesel) in The Iron Giant5. “The Iron Giant” (Brad Bird)
Filmmaker Brad Bird has certainly gone places since his first foray into feature animation after a successful career on the small screen.  “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” became critical favorites in their respective years and key elements of the pixar stable, but back in 1999, “The Iron Giant” was a revelation, a traditional animated endeavor that settled into a nice groove in the wake of our #6 selection’s CGI innovations.  Ushered to the screen in no small part due to the efforts of The Who guitarist Pete Townshend, the film featured solid voice work from Harry Conick Jr. and, of course, Vin Diesel as the giant himself.

Brad Pitt in Fight Club4. “Fight Club” (David Fincher)
One of the most undervalued films of the year, David Fincher’s “Fight Club” didn’t receive the praise it deserved even from critics that received it favorably.  Other than “The Matrix,” it is probably the most likely film from 1999 to live on in pop culture infamy, but moreover, it was a dynamic statement from a talented filmmaker who had lingered in the realm of solid genre filmmaking throughout the decade.  Here was a narrative pieced together with the residue of cool, another statement for the mid-age crisis and, in that manner, an interesting foil for “Office Space.”  Brad Pitt’s work was, as usual, unfairly ignored.

Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story3. “The Straight Story” (David Lynch)
I was floored by the reserve and sure-handed emotional guidance of David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” a film I expected to carry the director’s trademark oddities given the rather peculiar plot.  But in the story of Alvin Straight, Lynch found deeper issues that resonated far after the seemingly anti-climactic, but somehow perfect final scene.  Richard Farnsworth deserved every award that came to him and more, but it was sad to see Sissy Spacek’s brave performance left out of the conversation for the most part.  Angelo Badalamenti’s score ranks among his very best work, while Freddie Francis’s cinematography is incredibly intimate.

John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich2. “Being John Malkovich” (Spike Jonze)
One of two critical darlings of 1999 (both of which top this list), Spike Jonze’s first attempt at feature filmmaking was the announcement of two considerable talents: Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.  A bizarre tale that would have trouble landing a green light at any studio, “Being John Malkovich” somehow found its way into production and the marketplace with a penetrating glimpse at the downfall of a consumed artist.  As we would discover was his penchant, Kaufman wrote a lot of himself, with all the self-loathing and fantasy introspection he could muster, into the piece.

(from left) Al Pacino and Russell Crowe in The Insider1. “The Insider” (Michael Mann)
It seems today, as much as it was in 1999, that little argument can be put against Michael Mann’s blistering masterpiece that was shamefully shut out of any Oscar glory.  Forget Eric Roth’s incredibly detailed and researched script.  Leave career-best portrayals from Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer and, arguably, Al Pacino at the door.  Disavow the sleek design and visual appropriateness of the production, which would have been left to boring slumber in the hands of any other filmmaker.  Mann made the talky worlds of broadcast journalism, the court system and big tobacco more compelling than the greatest of thrillers.

No list can be without it’s list of honorable mentions, so I must give appreciation to the broken narratives of Tom Tykwer’s “Run Lola Run,” François Girard’s “The Red Violin” and Doug Liman’s “Go,” as well as the genre engenuity of M. Night Syamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” and Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow,” not to mention the exactitude of Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” and the comedic brilliance of Mike Judge’s “Office Space” and Woody Allen’s “Sweet & Lowdown,” each of them narrowly missing placement.

What about you?  Tell us your top 10 films of 1999 in the comments section below!

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62 responses so far

  • 1 9-24-2008 at 7:13 pm

    noveltyhat said...

    1. Eyes Wide Shut – “best Kubrick movie evar.” – Kubrick/me
    2. Being John Malkovich – one of a kind. mind blowingly original and life-changing.
    3. Magnolia – could’ve just as well been called Magnum Opus..lia. i understand why he switched, though.
    4. The Matrix – a modern marvel. no sci-fi since has topped it in my books. Avatar: do your worst.
    5. Fight Club – poetry. relentless poetry.
    6. Talented Mr. Ripley – Mrs. Doubtfire for serious people. not one performance isn’t magnificent. can’t be stopped once it starts for sheer suspenseful progression.
    7. American Beauty – i agree it ages in some ways. but the power of its filmmaking, performances and themes can’t be denied. i have to wonder if my opinion of it now would be any different if Mendes hadn’t gone on to make such crap. still one of my favourites.
    8. Three Kings – a uniquely entertaining movie with the ability to completely shift tonally in seconds. brilliantly cast too.
    9. Election – Coenesque in its ability to make you laugh or feel pity or sadness for the exact same moments on different viewings. and like Fight Club, completely without regard for staying in one place or time for too long. or too short. basically i admire its erratic pace and fearlessness.
    10. South Park – like every tv-to-movie should, it put a wonderfully cinematic twist on itself while capturing what made the show a phenom and simultaneously dissecting the repercussions of that very phenom.

  • 2 9-24-2008 at 10:08 pm

    Zac said...

    Weirdly enough, I was Googling 1999 movies on Monday night and came across a website that listed American movies from 1999 in chronological order. I went through the list and figured out that I saw 91 movies that year.

    I agree that 1999 is a great year for movies. When I was compiling my Top 10 list, I was having difficulty filling in slots 4-10 because there were so many movies that could have went in those slots.

    Honorable Mention (alphabetical order):

    Any Given Sunday
    Bringing out the Dead
    The Blair Witch Project
    The End of the Affair
    Eyes Wide Shut
    The Limey
    Princess Mononoke
    Run Lola Run
    Sweet and Lowdown

    Here’s my Top 10 in reverse order:

    10. Office Space. Funny when I saw it for the first time and has only gotten funnier every time I’ve seen it; something that can be said for few comedies.

    9. Election – Brilliant satire of elections in general and introduced the world to Alexander Payne who went on to make the 2004 masterpiece, Sideways.

    8. Toy Story 2 – This was the movie where Pixar went to must-see and can’t do no wrong in my book. The song “When She Loved Me” moved like few songs in the movies have.

    7. The Insider – Michael Mann’s underrated masterpiece that has only gotten better. I can understand why Roger Ebert thinks that Russell Crowe’s Best Actor win for Gladiator was makeup for this role.

    6. The Iron Giant – Most people became familiar with Brad Bird with The Incredibles and Ratatouille, but I was there from the beginning with this fantastic animated film, one that I would put up there with Disney animation from the Golden Era.

    5. Being John Malkovich – Easily the most original and daring film on the list, this movie introduced Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. Nothing they did later equal this one and they probably shouldn’t try. You know a movie is good when Cameron Diaz is made to look ugly! :)

    4. Three Kings – David O’Russell’s scathing look at war and what it does to both sides and to civilians. I still remember the shock when the movie devoted time to the enemy and civilians displaced by the fighting.

    3. Fight Club – A truly great film from the beginning with the inventive credits that became a masterpiece over the final 20 minutes when the film reveals all.

    2. The Matrix – The best science fiction film since Terminator 2 when it came out and far better than a certain other sci-fi film that came out that year that shall remain nameless. :) The scene at the beginning when Trinity kicks the cop was the moment when I realized that I was watching somethng special. The Wachowski Brothers tried to deepen and widen the philosophy behind the movie in the sequels with mostly sucess, but the original is still the best.

    1. American Beauty – The best debut since Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. Great work from everyone involved from Spacey to Bening to Birch to Bentley, even Suvari. Watching it again 9 years later, it still envelops me like few movies have over the years. Another thing this movie has in common with Shawshank, beside being debuts, was that I didn’t see either in first run theater. First viewing of Shawshank was on VHS; first viewing of American Beauty was at school in the movie room. 35 mm, but the screen was about 1/3 the size of a conventional screen.

  • 3 9-28-2008 at 11:30 pm

    Troy said...

    Back to the film school discussion, hopefully some of you see this. I will likely be applying to a few of them as a transfer student later this year, and am hoping you guys might have some helpful suggestions on the process.

  • 4 10-07-2008 at 11:51 am

    Rob said...

    Election was my favourite film of the year, but 1999 was quite a year. The BP line up was largely awful.

    No-one has mentioned Minghella’s best film ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ either……

  • 5 10-07-2008 at 1:38 pm

    John Travolta said...

    I love everyone who has magnolia in their top five.

    I love that damn movie

  • 6 10-11-2008 at 2:08 pm

    Dean Treadway said...

    Kris, I largely agree with your choices:

    1. Magnolia (Rebirths and armageddons: the perfect film with which to bring in the new millinum)
    2. Election (the best movie made about the eternal two-party political schism in the last decade, and made with such flare and humor)
    3. Toy Story 2 (the heartbreaking continuation of a story about the pains of growing into adulthood while leaving the joys of childhood behind)
    4. Eyes Wide Shut (the greatest film about the need for total honesty while in the throes of intimacy, and the last film from the cinema’s greatest contributor.)
    5. The Insider (a taut thriller about corporate greed that gets better with each viewing)
    6. Topsy Turvy (Mike Leigh’s ode to the process of creating a stage extravaganza along with a crew of committed performers)
    7. The Iron Giant (The film that arguably may well prove to be the last truly great flat-animation movie ever)
    8. The Matrix (a new kind of action movie–relentless and thought-provoking)
    9. Office Space (a hilarious and truthful indictment of the predicaments 20th Century working persons find themselves in)
    10. Three Kings (the first Iraq War movie, and the best, so far: a morality tale for the new age or terror)
    11. The Straight Story (a deceptively gentle tale about a man with a dark past and his need to creep away from it, one slow mile at a time).
    12. American Movie (the documentary of the year, about an overgrown kid who wants a little fame and fortune)
    13. Fight Club (the bilious, extremely ostentacious answer to AMERICAN MOVIE–we’re not all going to be famous and rich so suck it up).
    14. All About My Mother (Almodovar comes into a new stage of genius).
    15. Being John Malkovich (another film about the new media age and the universal need to be loved by all)
    16. Titus (a stunning and violent version of Shakespeare’s most controversial work)
    17. American Beauty (yet another film about adults who’ve yet to reach adulthood–this would have to be the theme of the year; unbelieveable Conrad Hall photography)
    18. Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen’s most idiosyncratic movie since his 70s/80s heyday).
    19. The Talented Mr. Ripley (a glorious remake of Purple Noon that almost bests the original)
    20. Bringing Out The Dead (Scorsese makes the New York of TAXI DRIVER look like Candyland)
    21. The Limey (Soderburgh goes New Wave, with a searing Terrence Stamp performance)
    22. Run Lola Run (along with THE MATRIX and Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, another film that heralds the merging of the gaming culture and movies)
    23. Judy Berlin (and yes, yet another film in which someone has to grown up, but this time, she’s a woman)
    24. Galaxy Quest (brilliant spoofery of fan culture)
    25. Ratcatcher (a haunting study of poverty and loneliness)

    HONORABLE MENTION: the first season of THE SOPRANOS, and, along with TWIN PEAKS, the furtherance of the notion of TV series as cinematic experience.

  • 7 10-28-2008 at 9:06 am

    Chris said...

    1. Three Kings
    2. American Beauty
    3. The Insider
    4. Fight Club
    5. Election
    6. Toy Story 2
    7. The Sixth Sense
    8. Magnolia
    9. The Talented Mr. Ripley
    10. Ravenous

  • 8 6-14-2009 at 1:51 pm

    Davidraider88 said...

    in no order whatsoever

    American Beauty (classic, shocked at the hate)
    Eyes Wide Shut
    The Insider
    The Matrix (it has aged significantly though)
    The Sixth Sense
    Sweet and Lowdown
    Talented Mr. Ripley

  • 9 7-03-2009 at 12:43 am

    Benjamin said...

    American Beauty is a wonderful film and will always get backlash for being a best picture winner just because there are always people who blame the winners for stealing the title from their personal favorites from the year.

    If American Beauty feels like it has aged badly, its only because so many movies since then have been influenced by its style and re-watching feels redundant. It isn’t one of the best movies of all time, but it does have something special that captured everyone in a year of so many fantastic movies, so to say it aged badly and put it down is just stupid. You can decide its not your favorite, but you’re crazy if you claim that it’s not a well-done film with incredible acting, cinematography, and music. Especially brilliant for being a directorial debut.

  • 10 7-03-2009 at 1:45 am

    Ryan Hoffman said...

    Cory and Barry…
    You’ve seen Cruel Intentions right?

  • 11 10-08-2009 at 4:17 pm

    Me. said...

    My List

    1. American Beauty
    2. American Beauty
    3. American Beauty
    4. American Beauty
    5. American Beauty
    6. American Beauty
    7. American Beauty
    8. American Beauty
    9. American Beauty
    10. American Beauty


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