20 years ago, Hollywood had a great 12 months. Maybe it was pre-millennial tension, or just a confluence of great talent and risk-taking producers and studios, but it was a moment that wasn’t to be repeated in the years following. I enjoy putting together lists of the best films from years gone by, and the anniversary inspired me to go back to take a look at what that stellar year delivered, plus a few honourable mentions, many of which jockeyed for a spot in the main list.
10. The 13th Warrior
One of the year’s poorest reviewed films is, IMHO, a rousing action adventure, adapting the book Eaters Of The Dead by Michael Crichton and partly directed by the author-turned-filmmaker. The credited director, John McTiernan, brings elements of his best work in Predator and Die Hard. If you are someone who appreciates the broader, bloodier sword-and-sandals picture, like Conan, or series like Vikings (which also starred The 1st Warrior, Vladmir Kulich), with an added splash of horror and gore, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. We’re introduced to poet-turned-ambassador Ahmed Ibin Fahdlan (a winning Antonio Banderas), an Arab who, with his companion Melchisidek (Omar Sharif), crosses paths with Viking raiders. Their prophet tells them that a dozen Norsemen must travel north to fight some otherworldly threat, and they must be joined by a 13th, an outsider. Guess who that is? Fahdlan first learns the Viking tongue (in a clever way that recalls the trick McTiernan pulled in The Hunt For Red October) and the Viking culture, and his smarts and bravery endears him to them. The enemy turns out to be less alien, but still genuinely weird and terrible, and the accompanying visuals and battle sequences are spectacular. An under-appreciated blast.
“You see, you can’t interfere with destiny. That’s why it’s destiny. And if you try to interfere, the same thing’s going to happen anyway, and you’ll just suffer.” That’s the white-hot ambition of Tracy Enid Flick in a nutshell. Reese Witherspoon gives one of the most composed and confident performances from a young actor I’ve ever seen. The thing is, she’s so compelling, so convincing, I’ve had a hard time with her ever since. Tracy Flick is like the prototypical Witherspoon, and there’s a bit of Flick in every role she’s chosen since. Alexander Payne’s film is still the best thing he’s done, and that’s saying something given About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska. Not only does it have plenty to say about some people’s relentless hunger for power, corruption, and the deeply fucked-up American political process, it also works as the sourest, funniest teen movie since Heathers, and the casting of Ferris Bueller himself, Matthew Broderick, as the embittered teacher Jim McAllister, is perfectly twisted. “Who knew how high she would climb in life? How many people would suffer because of her?”
8. Topsy Turvy
Mike Leigh’s lavish, gorgeous film is about how W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) came up with and executed one of their biggest creative and commercial successes, the musical The Mikado. I’ve never been a big fan of musicals, and certainly not the Victorian-era ones, but this film opened my eyes to the culture of the day, and what immense, strange beasts these productions could be. Leigh splits his film into two distinct halves, the first where Gilbert and Sullivan bicker over the form and content of their next production, and the second, the pre-production and show, where the actors get in on the action. It’s a wonderful ensemble, with extraordinary sets and costumes, and a real care to detail, with genuine drama and plenty of laughs, too. Leigh’s ability to draw realism in his cinematic world, brings it to life in a way that’s unusual for the cinematic genre.
7. Being John Malkovich
Screenwriter, and later director, Charlie Kaufman’s arrival in feature films was this indescribable comedy from filmmaker Spike Jonze. The less you know about it going in, the better, so I’m gonna stop typing and not even show you the trailer. Just see it, and be astonished it ever got made.
6. The Insider
Michael Mann has made some great thrillers, and this one’s amongst the best—the true story of whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, who worked for years for Big Tobacco before coming forward to tell his story with the help of 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman. Wigand put his reputation and his (and his family’s) safety on the line, and Mann shoots it all like he did Heat, a wire-tight suspense picture. Russell Crowe is an odd choice for Wigand, with his bulk and his meanness, but he and Al Pacino as Lowell have all sorts of chemistry, and like all of Mann’s films, it’s gorgeous to look at.
5. Toy Story 2
It’s a tough call, but the second Toy Story movie is the best of the three, with a fourth expected later this year. It’s a good time, while still offering a bucket of existential grief. The toys not only have to come to grips with life’s meaning, but also that one day it will change, that Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) will be left behind by their kid, Andy—see the third film for more on that. In some ways, Toy Story isn’t only about the fleeting passage of childhood, but the toys are also kind of stand-ins for parents. They want to devote themselves to the kid, to be there for him, for as long as he needs them.
This one starts with Buzz Lightyear fighting his arch-enemy Zurg. It turns out to be a video game, but Zurg returns later in the story. Woody accidentally gets stolen by a toy collector (voiced by Wayne Knight), who plans to include him in a classic toy set (with Jesse the Cowgirl, played by Joan Cusack, Bullseye the Horse, and Stinky Pete, the prospector, voiced by Kelsey Grammar. They’re all going to be sent to Japan to be in a toy museum. Of course, Buzz and the other toys plan to rescue Woody, but when they find him, will he want to come home to Andy? It’s an interesting question, and the story is smart enough to genuinely make it a dilemma. The toys also spend some time in a massive store, where they meet a bunch of Barbies and multiple Buzz Lightyears. It’s no end of fun.
4. The Limey
Though he played with storytelling chronology in Out of Sight, Steven Soderbergh truly fragmented it with flash-forwards and backs in The Limey, a gangster picture and revenge drama about a grieving, aging British thug (ably played by Terence Stamp) who travels to California to find the people who are responsible for his daughter’s death. Soderbergh went so far as to use footage of a much-younger Stamp from Ken Loach’s 1967 drama Poor Cow, a great technique I don’t think I’d seen before, and since only in The Old Man And The Gun. Casting legendary actors Barry Newman and Peter Fonda as greasy California assholes connects the whole film to American film of the late ’60s and early ’70s, just as Stamp connects it to the British. More melancholy and affecting than you think.
3. Eyes Wide Shut
From a novel by Arthur Schnitzler, this is Stanley Kubrick’s final feature, which premiered shortly before he died. The reviews, as with many of Kubrick’s films, were dodgy on its arrival. Critics said he was out of touch, that his film was unsatisfying, and that, perhaps most unexpectedly, the lead couple—played by RL marrieds Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman—didn’t have much chemistry. All those criticisms feel off base, 20 years later. EWS has had a remarkable post-release life and impact on the culture. It’s become a kind of shorthand for a certain kind of unease. A dreamlike experience, or a sexually frustrating one.
Loosely, the story follows a doctor, Bill Harford, through a single evening. After his wife, Alice, reveals something intimate that shocks him, he spends the entire night in a strangely heightened state of coitus interruptus, most memorably at a costume-party-orgy. At the evening’s end, you begin to get the sense that the entire night was a dream, set in a New York where the streets look very much like a studio back lot. In some ways, this feels like the place where Kubrick crosses paths with Cronenberg, taking a bite from the Naked Lunch.
The tales of the production are as legendary as the film itself. Kubrick had his leads on set as long as he needed, pushing them for dozens, sometimes hundreds, of takes of every scene. Watch Kidman’s performance—it’s like a dance. Her moves are so practiced, so choreographed, it gives her a presence she’s never quite replicated.
2. The Matrix
“You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world.” The Matrix is so entirely of the time it was made, and also a delivery system for bleeding-edge cinematic prophesy. It’s 1999 in its glossy, green, latex look, boasting a self-conscious, American kind of bluster, all overblown anxiety and individualism, despite being shot in Sydney, Australia. The hero, Thomas “Neo” Anderson (Keanu Reeves, who has matured into a much better actor than he was then), is a Cyberpunk Jesus for the 21st Century. The mecha-aliens are more than a nod to James Cameron’s Terminator and Aliens.
The film is prophetic in how it predicts the real rise of the superhero movie, which arrived in full force in 2000 with X-Men. The Wachowskis provided some template ideas for how superhero movies really shine, and Marvel took note. What really resonates still is the universe-building, the fully realized cosmos they construct, complete with a cod-hippie existential philosophy and the best VFX of the day. If the sequels were disappointments, it doesn’t diminish what they accomplished here.
1. Fight Club
In the years since Fight Club debuted, supporters of this film have flown the flag of douchey bro-ism, what we’ve come to call toxic masculinity. That doesn’t take anything away from the film itself, the fourth feature from one of the greatest American filmmakers working, David Fincher. It upset people when it came out—some even called it irresponsible. It’s actually an unparalleled, provocative feature comedy, one with a twist in its tail as sharp as The Sixth Sense—also amongst the best of ’99—and a head-scratcher of a plot that skewers the very vis masculina those confused boys think it’s celebrating. It also takes broad swipes at consumerism and self-help culture. Time Out called the screenplay “a millennial mantra of seditious agit prop,” and I can’t better that assessment.
10 Things I Hate About You, The Blair Witch Project, Dogma, eXistenZ, Galaxy Quest, Go, Iron Giant, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Magnolia, Mystery Men, Ravenous, Ride With The Devil, South Park: Bigger, Louder, and Uncut, The Sixth Sense, The Straight Story, Sweet & Lowdown, The Talented Mr Ripley, The Thomas Crown Affair, Three Kings, The Virgin Suicides.